Full Stop

Oh, the sadness at the end of a good book! I’ve just finished a 917 page doorstop of a novel, and I am fidgeting with loss.

Reading a good book is tinged with tragedy. Its fantastic, but you know it must end. It is a terminal condition. The melancholy sets in when you pass the halfway point, and the weight of the paper in your right hand becomes lighter than the paper in your left. The book withers away in your palms, and the last chapters are to be savoured. You are torn between the need to know what happens, and the desire to prolong the moment.

Part of you misses the characters, who you have grown to care for over many weeks, as you chaperone them through their adventure. But mainly you miss the fact, the act, of reading. It was a solipstic pleasure, now lost. You close the book, and you’re sitting, empty handed, back in the mundane.
Continue reading “Full Stop”

The Extinction of a Language

I see that an Alaskan lady named Marie Smith Jones has passed away. As the last speaker of the Eyak language, an entire way of thinking dies with her. (h/t Mark G)

A couple of competing quotes come to mind. From GK Chesterton’s Napoleon of Notting Hill:

“The Señor will forgive me,” said the President. “May I ask the Señor how, under ordinary circumstances, he catches a wild horse?”

“I never catch a wild horse,” replied Barker, with dignity.

“Precisely,” said the other; “and there ends your absorption of the talents….
In Nicaragua we had a way of catching wild horses–by lassooing the fore feet–which was supposed to be the best in South America. If you are going to include all the talents, go and do it. If not, permit me to say what I have always said, that something went from the world when Nicaragua was civilised.”

Versus this one, from Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia:

We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?

I doubt very much that my inital thought, that the Eyaks of Alaska are some kind of Eskimo (or Esquimaux, as Chesterton has it), is correct. Nevertheless, their Northerly homeland does remind me of the story about how Eskimo’s have forty words for snow (or is it fifty? Or a hundred?) What special, specific thoughts and words have we lost now that Mrs Smith Jones has passed away? Matthew Parris, writing in the Spectator last week, says “I know exactly what I mean. I just can’t think of the word for it” referring to those Meaning of Liff or Meaning of Tingo type words that should exist, but do not. How many words, phrases and thoughts could the Eyak have taught him?


Could you read 100 novels in 100 days?” asks the BBC. Apparently, that is the rate at which the Man Booker Prize judges must read in order to be able to give their verdict.

What with me not being a publisher or a journalist, I know I could never match their Pheidippidian pace. I think a conscientious Robert, managing his time healthily and socially, could only manage about a novel a month. I think this is realistic, since there will be times when I will read more (if I become a commuter, or maybe go to a beach for a week), and times when I will read less (child-rearing, or a World Cup, perhaps). If I further assume that I will probably give up on all that “reading” malarkey when I reach four score of years, then that computes as follows:

52 years x 12 books = 624 books

I think that is an over-estimate, but it doesn’t look like much to me. I’m sure I can fit in the great clichés from the canon of Western literature, but as a fully paid up member of the multiculturalist cognoscenti, I worry that it leaves precious little space for anything less mainstream. Slots are at a premium – can I risk falling in love with an author, and the compulsion to read their novels more than once? Can I afford to take a risk on something bad? It occurs to me I’ll need plenty of those loathesome “Top 50” lists if I am going to succeed.

And how many of those books am I effectively ignoring by reading blogs?

Meanwhile, the NaNoWriMo project encourages you to write your own novel in 30 days. Who is with me? Dave?


I am reminded of this comment from Mark, on a post last year:

I think that part of the pleasure of buying magazines is that one is not simply buying a publication; in buying a magazine you are promising yourself a period of time, normally on your own in which you can escape whatever else it is that you should be doing. Is it just me, or is at least part of the pleasure the act of buying a paper or magazine, and walking home, or to a cafe, with it burning in your bag or pocket, knowing that you have bought yourself a little slice of leisure time? And I think that perhaps it is this reason which explains why we don’t mind the fact that we often don’t read them – the intention was good. And in the same way that the initial intention was honorable, so to is that most unrealistic, yet fiercely guarded notion that yes, one day, we will go back and fill in the gaps by picking up those old publications. Nick Hornby’s recent collection of ‘Believer Magazine’ articles, published under the title of ‘The Polysyllabic Spree’ expresses this same sentiment – we all have bookshelves populated with book bought in the best of faith, unread, and unlikely to ever be read. But they stay there, a collection of promises to the self, that one day, there will be nothing more pressing to do than go back and make amends.

Update II

Via Andrew Sullivan, the story of a speed reader who can get through 462 books a year. I am reminded of a speed reading story by Tibor Fischer in his amusing collection Don’t Read This Book If You’re Stupid (called I Like Being Killed in America because, apparently, they are stupid, or at least easily offended). The character breaks into book stores and libraries and can read two books at once, one in each hand. His mission is to read everything, temporarily threatened when he sees a young lady in one library, who is also reading two books at once. He avoids her.

Notes on Tintin in the Congo

Gouche Cover, Tintin in the CongoI usually baulk at the idea of banning books, but I do find myself in favour of the CRE’s suggestion that Borders bookstores ban Tintin in the Congo.

Now I do consider myself something of a Tintin expert. A few years ago I was even an avid contributor and fact checker on the Cult of Tintin website, now defunct, but partially resurrected at Tintinologist.org. I’ve read Tintin in the Congo, and it is indeed appalling. In addition to the obvious racism, it is also distinctly environmentally unfriendly. Tintin blows up a rhino with a stick of dynamite, shoots an entire herd of impala by accident, makes a snake gobble its own tail, performs a summary execution of a chimpanze, attempts to shoot a crocodile in the face, and poaches an elephant for its tusks.

Where to begin with the racism in the book? Throughout, the Africans are portrayed as simpletons, who idolise Tintin and Snowy and fetishize anything western they can get their hands on. The chief of one tribe has a rolling pin for a sceptre.

The book’s only redeeming feature, and the only possible argument for it being on my shelf, is that it clearly demonstrates the change and improvement that Herge and Tintin underwent in the years following its publication. Congo is a meandering, incoherent story, where the latter books have carefully plotted story arc. Congo is dull and flat, where the latter books are rich and detailed. Congo is a stereotype, whereas the latter books were carefully researched, with artists from Herge’s studio sent all over the world to make sketches that could serve as a primary source. And the character of Tintin himself morphs from a patronising colonialist in Tintin in the Congo, to a character with much more empathy later on. In the early books he is an agent of governments. By the later books, he is a revolutionary, a subversive. In the early books, he desecrates tombs and customs with impunity, whereas the later books warn against such disrespect for other cultures.
Continue reading “Notes on Tintin in the Congo”

The Palace at Whitehall

From the rich and rewarding Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson:

The Palace must have been a single building at some point, but no-one knew which bit had been put up first; anyway, other buildings had been scabbed onto that first one as fast as stones and mortar could be ferried in, and galleries strung like clothes lines between wings of it that were deemed too far apart; this created courtyards that were, in time, subdivided, and encroached upon by new additions, and filled in. Then the builders turned their ingenuity to bricking up old openings, and chipping out new ones, then bricking up the new ones and re-opening the old, or making new ones yet. In any event, every closet, hall, and room was claimed by one nest or sect of courtiers, just as every snatch of Germany had its own Baron.

I suspect we have all encountered buildings like this at some point. Perhaps not as extensive as Whitehall, but still with that organic quality that tells us that the building has had more than one author. Another form of labyrinth, I suppose.

Quicksilver is packed with descriptions to the growing, evolving London of the seventeenth century. A city built around the river, for the barrow not the motor-car. How different to the meticulously planned New Towns of the United Kingdom, where soulless, empty roundabouts (with their obligatory crop of daffodils) take the place of the thriving ‘gates’ into the heart of the city.

Girl, Interrupted

Glance down my blogroll, and you will find Girl With a One Track Mind, the diary of a sex fiend. Abby, or ‘The Girl’ as she calls herself, has just published her memoirs, putting the highlights of her two years online onto the printed page.

The diaries are often funny and usually titillating. However, there also exists in Abby’s writings a confident feminism and a highly moral outlook. Some of the best posts, which inspire the greatest reader response, are those which deal with overcoming harassment, and fighting against the sexism of the film industry. Being a nyphomaniac does not mean the same as ‘loose morals’ and ‘The Girl’ is actually very particular about who she chooses to take on her adventures. Honesty and full disclosure are her watchwords. Her diaries are fantastic guidance for anyone who wants to be true to themselves and their desires, while still respecting oneself and other people…

The diaries work so well in online form because they are anonymous – Abby is obviously not her real name. If ‘The Girl’ were to interact with people who knew about her writings, the entire nature of the relationships she experiences would change beyond all recognition. Her comments on hitherto anonymous lovers would become unethical and impossible, since a fairly wide circle of people would know who they were. Anonymity is crucial, and the blog cannot work in any other way. This fact is obvious to anyone who has ever read the blog, and will be apparent to anyone who buys the book.

No so obvious, however, to the idiots at the Sunday Times, who have ‘outed’ Abby, publishing her real name over the weekend – (a journalist tracked her down via her publishers). The result, claims ‘The Girl’ on her blog, is that she has had to confess her lifestyle and blog to members of her family. She will now find a whole new kind of prejudice within the film production community, if indeed she gets any further employment at all from this sector. The blog posts may well dry up as a result. Finding a boyfriend will be a nightmare. And all for a poxy, soulless, off-the-front page expose in a Sunday newspaper, by a stupid journalist, Anna Mikhailova, who has missed the entire point of The Girl’s output. The real identity of ‘The Girl’ was never important. Shame on you Anna – for spoling our fun, and quite possibly the life of a decent, talented person. You have done no good.

Science fiction and nuclear weapons

Reading George Monbiot’s suggestion that nuclear proliferation is a self vindicating policy reminded me of the science fiction writings of Phillip K Dick and others. Specifically, stories where the effect precedes its cause, due to some paradox of time-travel or other. Going back in time to kill yourself, or become your own father, or both, that sort of thing.

In the world of global powerplays, the idea of deterrance and pre-emption means that cause can come after the effect – no time-machine or supernova required:

In nuclear politics, every action is justified by the response it provokes … Israel, citing the threat from Iran, insists on retaining its nuclear missiles. Threatened by them (and prompted, among other reasons, by his anti-semitism), the Iranian president says he wants to wipe Israel off the map, and appears to be developing a means of doing so. Israel sees his response as vindicating its nuclear programme. It threatens an air strike, which grants retrospective validity to Ahmadinejad’s designs. And so it goes on. Everyone turns out to be right in the end.

Since, the absence of a time-machine, we cannot return to the beginning of the last century and arrange for nuclear weapons to be uninvented, we fear an escalation. as each side (including the UK) maintains and improves their nuclear arsenal for the next fifty years at least. Negotiating not only non-proliferation, let alone disarmament, seems in itself the stuff of utopian fiction.

Perhaps we should look to another great science fiction story for the answers. In Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, the epynonymous hero employs a series of bizarre and often counter-intuitive thinking to win the war games he plays. Perhaps a sudden and unsuspected move could solve the problem. Several people, including a correspndent in Time, suggests that Western nations build Iran enough solar panels to satisfy their energy needs. Alternatively, we could simply disarm unilaterally and without reason, thus confounding the opponent. After all, as Joseph Heller’s Closing Time teaches us, you don’t actually need any weapons to act as a deterrent, you just need to market them properly. Milo’s ‘Ssh’ aircraft can fly silently and bomb targets yesterday (more time-travel, presumably).

Having said that, Joseph Heller’s novels are hardly set in a world of tranquility and sanity, and another of Ender’s teactics is to lauch pre-emptive counter attacks with an all out, willfully destructive force.

Here’s another thought, however: If nuclear arsenals are deterrents, but nevertheless some president does actually lauch a nuclear attack on another country… what exactly would be the point of nuclear retaliation? The destroyed cities would still be beyond repair even after a counter-attack, the only difference being that there would be twice as many of them, and twice as many dead civilians, as after the ‘first-strike’. Humans consider vengenace to be an integral part of justice, but if it means that the aggreate population of the human race is diminished by two million people instead of one million, retaliation seems an inherently useless response.

The best way to prevent a nuclear war would be to ensure that the people who would use the weapons are not in power in the first place. The chain of events that brought Ahmedinejad to power are only now becoming clear. If we wanted a different situation in the Middle-East, we should have acted ten, twenty or thirty years ago. Look’s like we need that time-machine again….

Waiting for the Barbarians

My friend and colleague Sharif Hamadeh has just posted an essay on Waiting for the Barbarians at OpenDemocracy. Its one of my favourite books, a stunning examination of our fear of the ‘other’.

Update: Guy Keleny’s ‘Errors and Omissions’ column in The Independent compliments Hamadeh’s article.

The assumption behind the word [barbarian] … is that people who live in cities, pay taxes and obey written laws are superior to the more disorderly and robust denizens of wilder regions.

You may argue that this is so, but is it really fair to regard it as axiomatic, and to imbed in our language an insult to human societies with many admirable features? When people talk about ‘barbaric crimes’, I wonder what would be the reaction of an honourable barbarian such as Vercingetorix, Boudicca or Sitting Bull to the unspeakable crimes comitted by civilised peoples in the 20th century.

I had best find use another word to describe fox hunting.

Against Homogenisation

In recent days, a few media outlets have mentioned the amusing The Meaning of Tingo. It is a compendium of words from other languages that name rather specific or complicated concepts, that have no English counterpart. My favourite is Backpfeifengesicht, “A face that cries out for a fist in it.”

The preservation of languages is the first front in the battle against homogenisation. People who speak in a different way also think in a subtly different way too. For example, there is a real conceptual difference between “I had a dream” and the French “J’ai fait un reve” (which means “I made a dream”).

We need these alternative ways of thinking, in politics and art. They can remind us that things may not always be what we preceive them to be, and they can help us solve problems.

How to forgive?

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was so improbable, I needed Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness to remind me that it was not some figment of my imagination, and did in fact exist. It was so unlikely, in fact, that I feel a quick summary of Commission’s activities is required, so its astounding nature can be fully comprehended.

Let me get this right: After apartheid ended and a fully democratic government was elected, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established. This body was created to facilitate a national catharsis, where people were given a platform to narrate their stories of the era. In the case of the victims of the apartheid regime, those who has been abused and tortured by the government security forces, the Commission had the power to grant them a symbolic compensation. “So far so good,” you might say—nothing too radical there. However (and you might have to read sentence twice) the Commission also had the power to grant an amnesty from prosecution, to those who confessed to crimes against humanity, committed during the apartheid era! People could come to the TRC, tell everyone that they had abducted, tortured, maimed and killed, say sorry, and then go home.

It’s all so improbable. South Africa was for half a century the epitome of animosity. The apartheid system took an entire race of people and stomped them into the ground. There was regular violence. There were massacres, notably at Sharpville in 1960 and in Soweto in 1976. There were bombings. The history of South Africa from 1948 points inexorably towards a chaotic civil war, similar to the many other conflicts that have crippled the African continent.

And it just did not happen. Not only did it just not happen, but also out of the negotiations of the early 1990s, there emerged the TRC, which began granting drive-by amnesty and gung-ho forgiveness left, right and centre.

We already know how this came to pass. It was made possible by that unique man Nelson Mandela, and also by people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who took the helm of the TRC when it was established 1995. These South Africans were able to steer their nation away from seemingly certain civil war and onto the path of resolution and development. Such a thing was possible entirely because of the good character of those involved. The source of their morality, sketched in Tutu’s memoir, is something that should be studied by everyone.

The core message of No Future Without Forgiveness is encapsulated bluntly in the title. Before we examine its credibility and implications in detail, there are other nuggets worthy of inspection. What I find most interesting is Desmond Tutu’s account of ubuntu. I will describe it in a moment, but first a few observations on multiculturalism, and my own dabbling with it.

Whenever people talk about cultural exchange as a valuable thing, the reason cited is that we may “learn things from other cultures”. However, what it is we actually learn is never really explained. We can appreciate unfamiliar traditions, but they are always trumped by western liberal values if the push really comes to the shove.

Furthermore, culture as a concept is difficult to define at the best of times. Despite this, my personal experiences have convinced me that we do have valuable lessons to learn from non-Western cultures, and as such I am always delighted when a solid example of non-Western culture surfaces, and proves itself to be superior. Ubuntu is one such example, and one I have experienced before.

In Tutu’s words, which I shall quote at length with no qualms or apologies:

Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human. When we want to give high praise to someone we say, ‘Yu, u nobuntu’ … this means they are generous, hospitable, friendly, caring and compassionate. They share what they have. It also means my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in theirs. We belong in a bundle of life. We say, ‘a person is a person through other people … I am human because I belong.’ I participate, I share. A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good; for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.

This is one of the best articulations of ubuntu I have read, and it makes me smile. When I read it in No Future Without Forgiveness I instantly recognised it that distinctly African way of treating other people that I experienced when I lived on the other side of the Limpopo, in Zimbabwe. It is the thing that says, “you will always feed a visitor to your house”, that says, “you will give a ride to those you see standing beside the road.” It is that attitude that says, “Respect your family,” that says “you will be better off working together.” Ubuntu is a way of saying “we are all part of the same team, the same human race.” It is a very communal attitude to take, one that is not evident in Britain, mid-2002.