The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Monday, March 26, 2007


Had my first real sword-fight with my son today, with those cardboard tubes you get inside rolls of wrapping paper. He's two. Not only that, he attacked me first. Very satisfying.


Wednesday, March 21, 2007


Read this today, and laughed:
I tossed my imagination a thousand ways to see if I could find any means to relieve my estate: but all my thoughts consorted to this conclusion, that the world was uncharitable, and I ordained to be miserable. Thereby I grew to consider how many base men that wanted those parts which I had, enjoyed content at will, and had wealth at command: I called to mind a Cobbler, that was worth five hundred pound, an Hostler that had built a goodly Inn and might dispend forty pounds yearly by his Land, a Carre-man in a leather pilche, that had whipped out a thousand pound out of his horse tail: and have I more wit than all these (thought I to myself) am I better born? am I better brought up? yea and better favoured? and yet am I a beggar? What is the cause? how am I crossed? or whence is this curse? Even from hence, that men that should employ such as I am, are enamoured of their own wits, and think what ever they do is excellent, though it be never so scurvy: that Learning (of the ignorant) is rated after the value of the ink and paper: and a Scrivener better paid for an obligation, than a Scholar for the best poem he can make; that every gross brained Idiot is suffered to come into print, who if he set forth a Pamphlet of the praise of Pudding-pricks, or write a Treatise of Tom Thumb, or the exploits of Vntrusse [sic]; it is bought up thick and threefold, when better things lie dead. How then can we choose but be needy, when there are so many Drones amongst us? or ever prove rich that toil a whole year for fair looks?
From Pierce Penniless by Thomas Nashe. Date? 1592.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

Among the authors I have always read and, willy-nilly, have taken as a model is R. L. Stevenson. This is because Stevenson himself wrote the books he would have liked to read, because he, who was so delicate an artist, imitated old adventure stories and then relived them himself. To him, writing meant translating an invisible text containing the quintessential fascination of all adventures, all mysteries, all conflicts of will and passion scattered throughout the books of hundreds of writers; it meant translating them into his own precise and almost impalpable prose, into his own rhythm which was like that of dance-steps at once impetuous and controlled. (Stevenson's admirers are a chosen few in all literatures; J. L. Borges is the most eminent of them.)
...aaand breathe out. From Italo Calvino's introduction to Our Ancestors, translated by Archibald Colquhoun.

Stevenson's greatest charm, in a literary sense, is the personal relation he establishes with the reader; he shares with Montaigne, Sterne and Oliver Wendell Holmes this rarest and most endearing of qualities. Once he comes into a household, no matter how unobtrusively, he is apt to stay. He brings a genial and comforting presence; he is helpful, brave and kindly; one is the better for an hour passed in his smiling company, and he takes on, in a very actual way, the aspect of a friend. It is noteworthy that his collected editions sell mostly to people of very modest means - which is to say, to struggling people; hard-working, ill-paid people; people richer in cultivation and refinement than in money; who turn to him in fellow-feeling for solace and fortitude. And to these I should like to say that the real man, the real Stevenson, was no other than as they regard him [...]
From Lloyd Osbourne's introduction to New Arabian Nights, vol. 1 of the Tusitala edition.


[He] had keenly enjoyed the Colonel's amazement and disgust. He had the vanity of wickedness; and it pleased him to see another man give way to a generous movement, while he felt himself in his entire corruption, superior to such emotions.
From The Suicide Club: Story of the Young Man with the Cream Tarts, by RLS.



Second part of Adam Curtis's The Trap broadcast this evening. As before, a lot of ideas and information being flung at you thick and fast, so you don't really get time to stop and analyse what the flaws or missing links might be. However, as this presents such a total change from most documentaries and news programmes, which seem to assume a mental age of about 12 on the part of the audience, one can hardly complain, even if one does feel on the receiving end of a polemic.

One of the reasons for being thrown a little off-kilter is that he's telling a familiar story - the breakdown of the post-war consensus and its replacement with what, in the 1980s, we used to call Thatcherism - from the perspective of the meme of individualism. Specifically, individualism in a free-market economy, with the same principles increasingly applied to all areas of social provision and political interaction.

This episode hung together rather better than last week's - either that, or I'm being converted against my judgement to Curtis's argument by subliminal messages hidden in his jump cuts - though the flaw in the Thatcherite argument (no such thing as society, only families and individuals, market forces rule) is rather obvious, has already been hinted at, and presumably will be dealt with in the final episode. Against the models presented by game theory (and there was a rather extended debate taking place on Blairwatch over whether game theory really is as pernicious as Curtis is making out) and pointy-headed bean counters, people do actually care for one another quite a lot of the time and will often act altruistically when given the opportunity.

Or, as G'Kar said in a recently-viewed episode of Babylon 5, "We are fighting to save one another."


Regarding freedom, I heard about a van being stopped by the polis on a Scottish road last week. The van had been loaded to such an extent that the front wheels were barely touching the ground, and none of the three Chinese gentlemen inside had a driving licence.

Now one - OK, I - am inclined to snort at this point, in a manner which becomes more and more like George Macdonald Fraser the older I get (see The Light's on at Signpost), and utter a few disparaging remarks on the lack of scruples and common sense displayed by...well, anyone who isn't me, come to it. But then I remember a moment, personally witnessed, from Hanoi: one scooter, one driver, one pillion passenger carrying upright on his knees a sheet of glass, say five foot by four, no seat belts, going the wrong way through rush-hour traffic, which in Hanoi has to be seen to be believed. Now that's freedom.

I mean, of course you transport sheets of glass this way. Of course you load a van to breaking point and beyond. Hell, it's our van. Licence - what licence? Back home you just have to keep your mouth shut and vote the right way once every four years. Other than that you can do what you like.


Orwell complains about the shallowly optimistic repetition of
'the abolition of distance' and 'the disappearance of frontiers'. [...]

Take simply the instance of travel. In the nineteenth century some parts of the world were unexplored, but there was almost no restriction on travel. Up to 1914 you did not need a passport for any country except Russia. The European emigrant, if he could scrape together a few pounds for the passage, simply set sail for America or Australia, and when he got there no questions were asked. In the eighteenth century it had been quite normal and safe to travel in a country with which your own country was at war.
He goes on to note a decline in immigration, and state interference in non-national radio, as well as bars and censorship of foreign post, newspapers and books by the totalitarian countries, which of course were numerous in the 1940s.


Orwell is here criticising restrictions on travel, but I suppose they have the virtue of being obvious. Curtis is warning us about restrictions on thought itself - as good a recommendation for reading widely, curiously and imaginatively as any you might wish for. I'm sure this used to be encouraged, through the pursuit of what used to be called a liberal education.

Monday, March 12, 2007


Just over three years ago we were given a telly. Very little of the enormous amount of time we've spent watching it since then has been worthwhile, but two programmes stand out for me: Whicker's War and The Power of Nightmares by film-maker Adam Curtis. This, I felt, was the only broadcast since 11/9 which really gave a sense of context to the war on terror, a job the BBC and other news organisations could and should have carried out long before.

Curtis's new documentary series, The Trap, on changing notions of freedom in Britain and the US aired tonight, and it covers a similar period (Cold War to the present day), using similar techniques: extended voice-over, interviews, and lots of music cues and archive footage for illustrative and sometimes humorous purposes. What he's doing in this one, really, is tracking the progress of an idea, or a perspective, about power, government and human nature: namely that a particular way of looking at human beings and human interaction, which had origins in analyses of nuclear war strategies, was developed and disseminated through political elites so that it became the dominant - even only - notion of freedom today.

As far as I can gather, it is this: human beings are basically selfish, and even when they think they're being altruistic they are actually acting for themselves. The attempt by government to intervene and regulate will inevitably fail (think Britain in the 1970s - the 'British disease', a failing economy, rampant strikes) because it will be unable to contain the demands of competing interest groups. Therefore, government intervention should be scaled back, and people should be left to compete with one another within a certain basic framework. This will ensure social stability, since competition on such a scale will always end in stalemate, and people will be free to pursue their interests without the state getting in the way. The benefits, and the drawbacks, of the application of such a world-view should be obvious to anyone who has been awake at some point in the past twenty-five years.

Now, put like this, it doesn't really seem like anything new, and indeed we saw some old enemies: Hayek, the Adam Smith Institute and the NHS Internal Market. But Curtis was tracing this idea back to a number of unusual sources: the Rand Corporation, the game theory of John Nash, and the anti-psychiatry movement pioneered and inspired by R.D. Laing. All very interesting, and most of it new to me, but I'm still not convinced that all of these elements fall into the smooth, continuous and rather sinister development that Curtis's film seems to suggest. I'm perfectly prepared to accept parallel developments in the popular perception and use of psychiatry, and the use of game theory in military thinking, but to say that herein lies the origin of the current notion of freedom as sold to us by government and media seems to me to be laying it on a bit thick.

The anomie, apathy and atomisation we see in contemporary society has certainly been worsened by Thatcher and her ilk, but the tendency has been there for a good hundred years, I'd say, with the consequences of mass industrialisation and urbanisation. One only has to read The Waste Land ("I had not thought the dead were so many") or Edwin Muir's autobiography (he moved from Orkney to Glasgow when he was fifteen, aging in the process about 150 years, he said) to see that.

Curtis is a just a little too slick for me, this time. I'm not seeing enough evidence for the extremely sweeping statements he makes, often summing up the nature of society at a particular moment, in order to move his thesis along. Is it really the case that people right across America began making use of psychiatric self-diagnosis forms, challenging both the medical establishment and, by extension, Big Government? No, I can't quite get that one. I may have got it wrong - he does move very fast.

He makes some extremely interesting links - for example, I didn't realise that Alain Enthoven, former Assistant Secretary of Defense in the 1960s and full-time number-cruncher, was the Downing Street consultant behind the NHS Internal Market. Indeed, he's still at it. Nor did I know that the economic theory of Public Choice underlay every episode of "Yes Minister". In fact, I'd never heard of Public Choice theory, which seems like one of those convoluted ideas that extremely clever people use to explain something which most of us take for granted.
Nor had I heard of the "thud" hoax/experiment. But I don't buy that all these things tie neatly into one another as Curtis is implying, rather than simply resonate.

Nevertheless, it's a challenging and intelligent piece of television, which acknowledges that things happened before last week, so that makes it practically unique. I look forward to episode 2.

There's an extended discussion of the programme on Blairwatch.

PS Something Curtis regularly does, which I deeply dig, is to challenge the notion that the Cold War did not simply fizzle out without consequence. The psychic hangover from 40 years of living with the threat of nuclear annihilation, and the half-life of the crazy theories that were used to justify it, are still with us.

PPS R.D. Laing, who I confess I've never read, looks like a real snake-oil salesman, and in love with his own image. He may have been right about some things - or he may not - but I look at him and think, naah, I wouldnae trust you to sell me a toothpick.