‘I was flying from the threat of an office life’

One of the joys of working for myself is that I spend so much more time with my books. We dedicated much of last Saturday to purchasing second-hand books, and much of Sunday to making space for them by removing other books. The result is a leaner, tidier book collection, and the reclamation of an entire shelf. Some of the books that will be leaving the house are those that we have, somehow, acquired two copies of: The Once and Future King (see The search for perfection), the complete works of Tennyson and Alan Hollinghurst’s Stranger’s Child were all in this category. Others have been read, and found wanting, such as The Ginger Man (a dreary book about dreary people), Fingersmith (enough with the plot twists! Enough, I say!) and The Story of O (<snore>). Still others have been mined for information that was useful at the time, but for which we have no further need, mainly deadly music-related tomes left over from Giant Bear’s degree.

There is a final category of books bought on a whim, and which must be reassessed on a case-by-case basis when one is feeling less frivolous. This group includes some of the more obscure works in our collection, such as Anatole France’s book Penguin Island[1] and G.K. Chesterton’s absurdist anarchist novel The Man Who Was Thursday, which I was forced to read on the Eurostar after the only other book I had packed was stolen. A thief of questionable motive picked through my handbag, spurning my purse[2], passport and ’plane tickets to Shanghai in favour of my beige hardback copy of Stella Benson’s bonkers satirical allegory I Pose, which I was a mere sixty pages or so into. The novel contains only two real characters, the Gardener and the Suffragette (Stella Benson was one or the other at various points in her life) and I have been unable to replace it, making this one of only two books that I have left unfinished through circumstance rather than choice.[3] He or she also stole my bookmark.

Giant Bear is a co-conspirator in my need to collect books that, at first glance, may not have much appeal. For example, this Christmas I received exactly what I had asked for: a copy of No Easy Way by Elspeth Huxley. Elspeth Huxley wrote one of my favourite books (The Flame Trees of Thika) and, along with Karen Blixen and Laurens van der Post, is responsible for my love affair with Africa-based non-fiction. Unwrapping it on Christmas Day, I enthused to the assembled family that this was just what I wanted. ‘It’s a history of the Kenyan Farmers’ Association!’ I said (surely more than enough explanation?). The physical book itself is instantly engaging: the front and back inside covers contain maps, as every good book should, and at the bottom of the contents page is the following intriguing note:

The title No Easy Way was the winning entry in a competition which attracted over six hundred suggestions. The winner was Mrs. Dan Long of Thomson’s Falls.

Also in the ‘purchased for the flimsiest of reasons’ category is Corduroy by Adrian Bell, another beige hardback, and which I bought because I was secretly hoping it might be a history of the trouser. Bell is the father of Martin Bell (foreign correspondent) and Anthea Bell (translator of the Asterix books into English); he was also a crossword setter for the Daily Telegraph, and I see from Wikipedia that when he was asked to compile his first crossword he had less than ten days to do so and had never actually solved a crossword himself. None of this means he can write a book, of course, but the opening lines of Corduroy saved it from the Capacious Tote Bag of Death:

I was upon the fringe of Suffolk, a county rich in agricultural detail, missed by my untutored eye. It was but scenery to me: nor had I an inkling of what more it might become. Farming, to my mind, was as yet the townsman’s glib catalogue of creatures and a symbol of escape. The true friendliness of the scene before me lay beneath ardours of which I knew nothing.

I was flying from the threat of an office life. I was twenty years old and the year was 1920.

I say ‘death’, but of course all the books found wanting (and/or unwanted) will be going to the second-hand bookshop already mentioned, where no doubt somebody will love them; this is not death as a long and quiet night, then, but a brief flicker between incarnations. Some, however, really are deceased. Regular readers will recall that I admitted to weeping sentimental tears over the corpse of my original copy of The Once and Future King (see The search for perfection). I couldn’t bear to put it on the compost heap or in the recycling, so in the end it went into the woodburner. On the subject of book-burning, I quote the following relevant passage from my novel (see also Seven for a secret never to be told and The lucky seven meme). This is taken from chapter 23, which is called ‘The Rectory Umbrella’ for reasons that need not detain us here. I quote it because in real life, I reserve a fiery death for books that are too precious to compost, whereas in the book, it is only the most objectionable volumes that perish this way:

Father amused himself greatly by building a bonfire at the bottom of the garden (now the vegetable patch) and burning the more objectionable books like a Nazi. Titles burnt at the stake included the following:

i. City of God. Father has never forgiven St Augustine for the Angles/angels debacle.

ii. The complete works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Anything with elves, wizards or other imaginary creatures, countries or languages had better watch out when Father is in a book-burning mood. Not even The Hobbit was spared.

iii. Several hundred miscellaneous science fiction paperbacks. Father sorted the wheat from the chaff by declaring that anything with a lightly-clad alien female, a sky with too many moons and/or any kind of interplanetary craft on the cover was doomed. Despite passing this initial test, Fahrenheit 451 was on the endangered list for some time. However, ultimately it was spared due to the weight of irony pressing on Father’s soul. I imagine this in the form of God with His holy thumb pressed against Father’s eyeballs, like the creepy doctor in The House of Sleep. However, this assumes that Father keeps his soul in his eyeballs (more likely bobbing gently in a jar in the shed, or pressed between the pages of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd)

iv. The Thornbirds. This was condemned to death by unanimous vote. Mother was reluctant at first, because of Richard Chamberlain. He’s obviously as gay as the day is long, but it didn’t seem quite the right moment to say so (esp. as she would probably have said ‘oh, really, dear? How can you tell?’, or perhaps ‘yes, dear. But, you know, at this time of year the days are getting shorter again, aren’t they?’ Wretched woman). As an elegy, Father read aloud the bit where the father and son die in a bush-fire, in a small, sarcastic coming-together of fathers and flames. If any of us had needed a final nudge, the utterly stupid moment when the son is crushed by a giant pig would have done it.

Looking through my records, it has been several months since I last added anything of substance to my own attempt at a quirky book that someone might take home with them on a whim. However, the more time that elapses between me and my own escape from the threat of an office life, the more likely that is to change.

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[1] For the benefit of any readers assuming (as I did, in my ignorance of Anatole France and all his works) that this title is metaphorical in some way, I should explain that it really is about penguins, until page 39 when the archangel Raphael turns them into people. This is not an unqualified success and the penguins are disconcerted by their new shape (‘They were inclined to look sideways’).

[2] My purse contained multiple currencies (I was on my way from Britain to China by way of Belgium and France), and yet mere money still failed to hold his or her attention.

[3] The other is Absalom! Absalom!, which was the only casualty in a freak handbag-based yoghurt explosion and had to be thrown away.

The loud symbols

This afternoon, having been unexpectedly relieved of an index I was about to start, I finished reading Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris.[1] This was a Christmas present from me to myself, along with a festive jumper purchased in the post-Christmas sales, when, like a calendar in January, suddenly nobody wanted it. David Sedaris and I are strikingly different in many ways, in that I am not a middle-aged gay man and have so far failed to publish eight books and embark on an international career of signing those books and/or reading them aloud to people. However, on reading Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, I discovered that we have four striking things in common.

One: we share a mild obsession with owls (see ‘Owl Chess’ and ‘Strigiphobia’). I keep my non-fiction books in my office, and they are (naturally) arranged alphabetically. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls is on the bottom shelf, with three books by Oliver Sacks on one side and Suetonius[2] on the other. Ideally, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls would be next to a book by or about an explorer, most likely (for alphabetical reasons) Scott of the Antarctic, had he survived to write such a volume (Let’s Explore the Antarctic with Not Quite Enough Information, perhaps). The owl used as an exploratory device appears in silhouette on the spine, perched on a floating hypodermic as he contemplates the strange, metaphorical wilderness: a treacherous landscape, all highs and lows. There is also a parliament of owls[3] in my favourite essay of the book, which is called ‘Understanding Understanding Owls’.[4] It opens with a consideration of the phenomenon of the owl-themed gifts that Sedaris and his partner Hugh have amassed over the years:

This is what happens when you tell people you like something. For my sister Amy, that thing was rabbits. When she was in her late thirties, she got one as a pet, and before it had chewed through its first phone cord, she’d been given rabbit slippers, cushions, bowls, refrigerator magnets, you name it. ‘Really,’ she kept insisting, ‘the live one is enough.’ But nothing could stem the tide of crap.[5]

I mention this as a counterpoint to the well-chosen nature of the three Christmas gifts already listed, but I do have some sympathy with the purchasers of the various owls and rabbits, because buying presents is hard. I’m delighted when, in the run-up to Christmas, someone I feel we ought to buy something for (but who already seems to own everything they could possibly need) lets slip in everyday conversation that they like, say, the Very Hungry Caterpillar. We were given an owl for Christmas ourselves: a small white one, designed to perch in the branches of our Christmas tree. In a lovely Biblical metaphor, there was no room in the tree and instead we had to put him on the escritoire, where our tiny knitted magi had completed their arduous journey across the music room.[6] They toiled along the top of the piano, clung to the light-fitting for a few dangerous hours, and finally arrived in safety to stand in a semi-circle with the tiny knitted Mary, tiny knitted Joseph and tiny knitted saviour.[7] Behind them, the owl, a head taller than all the knitted figures, loomed menacingly, while we tried to pretend he was one of the uglier angels.

Two: David Sedaris and I have both had a colonoscopy. He is bullied into his by his father, whereas mine was a medical necessity (see Busting a gut), but a colonoscopy is a colonoscopy. His is described in an essay called ‘A Happy Place’, and mine was so completely uneventful that I haven’t bothered to write about it at all.[8] Three: neither of us owns a mobile ’phone, as described at the beginning of his essay ‘A Friend in the Ghetto’. Four: he has a love of subtlety and nuance in words. Here is an example, from an essay about keeping a diary[9] called ‘Day In, Day Out’:

Some diary sessions are longer than others, but the length has more to do with my mood than with what’s been going on. I met Gene Hackman once and wrote three hundred words about it. Six weeks later I watched a centipede attack and kill a worm and filled two pages. And I really like Gene Hackman.[10]

What I like here is his choice of ‘watched’, rather than ‘saw’. ‘I saw a centipede attack and kill a worm’ implies to me that he happened to glance across and see the centipede killing the worm, and that (the two-page write-up notwithstanding) the event itself was comparatively brief. ‘I watched a centipede attack and kill a worm’ implies something both less and more passive: less passive in that this sounds like something that went on for some time, and which he chose to pay close attention to, possibly crouching uncomfortably over the battle so as to describe it with accuracy; and more passive, in that he didn’t intervene to save the life of the worm. Giant Bear and I watched A Hallowe’en Party last night, an Agatha Christie mystery in which a girl is drowned in an apple-bobbing basin after she boasts that she once witnessed a murder. Again, the ‘seer’ and the ‘watcher’ are quite different. Compare ‘I saw a murder; I saw him die’ with ‘I watched a murder; I watched him die’. The seer’s glance happens to fall onto or into something (the carriage of a passing train, for example, as in another Agatha Christie story, 4.50 from Paddington), whereas the watcher has stopped what they were doing, and is emotionally involved in what he or she observes. Finally, it seems clear that even though ‘observed’, ‘looked’, ‘noticed’, ‘witnessed’, ‘saw’ and ‘watched’ are very close in meaning, they are still different enough that ‘I observed a murder’, ‘I looked at a murder’ or ‘I noticed a murder’ simply won’t do.

Religious readers may note that the title ‘The loud symbols’ is a play on the words of psalm 150 (‘the loud cymbals’). I have appropriated verse five, which in the King James translation reads as follows: ‘Praise Him upon the loud cymbals: praise Him upon the high sounding cymbals’. Translation is a wonderful place to look for word-related nuance. In the NIV, for example, this verse becomes ‘Praise Him with the clash of cymbals: praise Him with resounding cymbals’; other translations also introduce the word ‘clash’ or ‘clashing’ at various points and use ‘sounding’ or ‘resounding’ rather than ‘high sounding’. This may seem like a small difference, but it is no such thing. The onomatopoeic ‘clash’ is not a word you can sneak into a sentence without anybody noticing; moreover, it suggests a rather pleasing omnivorousness in the tastes of the Almighty. It doesn’t say ‘Praise Him with restrained Church of England cymbals’.[11] The unmusical, splashy word ‘clash’ implies to me that God is more interested in hearing us praise Him, with joy, sincerity and abandon, than He is in how well we do it. As Thomas Merton said,

If there were no other proof of the infinite patience of God with men, a very good one could be found in His toleration of the pictures that are painted of Him and of the noise that proceeds from musical instruments under the pretext of being in His ‘honor.’

I’ve written elsewhere about nuance (see A bit like the rubella jab), and how a lack of it can mean that we misunderstand events or people, or appropriate a single incident and use it symbolically to make sweeping statements about huge groups. Jane Elliott[12] argues that the insidiousness of sweeping statements about entire groups is at the root of all prejudices, and that these prejudices are learned and perpetuated generation on generation, as shown in her now seminal eye-colour experiment (also called ‘Eye of the Storm’), and that a middle-aged white man who experiences prejudice for fifteen minutes gets just as angry about it as someone who has experienced it since they were born. As I have written elsewhere (see The fish that is black and Punch drunk), it is a natural human tendency to attempt to simplify the world by dividing things into groups, and then making a statement about all the things in that group. It seems to me that such an approach, and its need to over-use and under-interpret symbols is the enemy of nuance. The recent attacks in Paris, for example, are both specific and symbolic. Charlie Hebdo was chosen as the target because of specific cartoons, but also because the magazine and its staff can be used to symbolise ideas: free speech, freedom of the press, freedom to satirise whomever and whatever we like. In other words, it is an act that encourages us to choose sides: people who think like this, as opposed to people who think like that. As soon as you accept that people can be symbols, hurting those people can start to seem abstract, remote and meaningless, as if two anatomically-correct puppets used in a trial for a sex scandal were jostled around in their overnight container mid-trial, and found the next morning in a compromising position, wholly contrary to the testimony of the people they represented. I am not trying to argue that symbols don’t matter; rather, I suggest that they are a means of simplifying (and therefore dehumanising) a particular group, by lumping them together in a way that seems convenient, rather than correct.

Defending a deity (any deity) against satire is a piece of thinking that has become scrambled somewhere. Just as God does not need those who believe in Him to tell Him that He is great (see The uncharitable goat), God does not need those who believe in Him to stick up for Him like a bullied child in a playground. If one follows the thinking of religious extremists whose idea of constructive criticism is to kill a load of people, it seems that they wish others to be frightened into doing like they do, without much caring whether they think like they do i.e. an ‘outside only’ change. That is how the terrorist do; they don’t make a nuanced, cogent argument for their own point of view (i.e. an argument that might persuade people into changing their insides as well, to thinking like they do and doing like they do). I don’t know why this is, but part of my argument here is that, while people are all different from each other (nuance), they also have things in common that help us connect with one another. Terrorists seem very different from all the people I know and their actions are baffling; nevertheless, I think it is important to try to find explanations for them. The best theories I have come up with are as follows. One, terrorists may enjoy the idea that people fear them; it may make people who have hitherto felt like minor characters suddenly feel that they deserve to be centre stage. Two, there may be an element of ‘I am in blood stepp’d in so far’[13]; in other words, once part of such a group, turning back seems as difficult as going on, particularly if the group provides structure, brotherhood, purpose and camaraderie: they may enjoy muttering the terrorist equivalent of ‘By my pretty floral bonnet, I will end you’[14] before embarking on a new and brave mission, like shooting unarmed people or kidnapping schoolgirls. Three, they may think that fear is a more effective tool than persuasion. Four, they aren’t able to make a cogent argument for their own point of view, because their point of view is not built on argument, but their own fear: fear of other large, undifferentiated groups that they understand only dimly, as a series of stereotypes. Terrorists, in other words, are frightened people, and one of the things they are frightened of is nuance. We do, therefore, have at least one thing in common with them.

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[1] Best Book Title Ever.

[2] Best Name for a Steamed Pudding Shop Ever.

[3] I also received A Compendium of Collective Nouns for Christmas. Most of the collective nouns I thought I could be sure of have at least two alternatives, and ‘a parliament of owls’ is no exception: one can also have a wisdom or a sagacity. The book notes thoughtfully, ‘A collective term for owls does not appear in the old books, which as we’ve seen were mostly concerned with game animals. And, of course, owls are solitary creatures’. They then speculate that the term is taken from Chaucer’s poem ‘A Parliament of Foules’, and remind readers of the parliament of owls in The Silver Chair. Best Christmas Present for a Word Nerd Ever. Mark Faulkner, Eduardo Lima Filho, Harriet Logan, Miraphora Mina and Jay Sacher (2013), A Compendium of Collective Nouns (San Francisco: Chronicle Books), p. 142 (see also page 140 for the corresponding illustration).

[4] Understanding Owls is a book, and so strictly I think the title of the essay should read ‘Understanding Understanding Owls’. The typesetter hasn’t rendered it so, but, just as the index I was hoping to do has been outsourced to someone in India who can apparently produce an index for a complex multi-author academic work in a week for less than £250, it may be that the person who did the typesetting didn’t even think the repetition of ‘understanding’ was odd. I freely admit that compiling such an index would have taken me at least twice as long and cost at least twice as much; however, my finished index would actually have helped the inquisitive reader to Find Stuff, and offer some thoughts on how the different topics might relate to one another i.e. it would actually be an index, rather than a glorified concordance and a waste of everyone’s time.

[5] David Sedaris (2013), ‘Understanding Understanding Owls’, from Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls (London: Abacus), p. 176.

[6] Both the escritoire and the music room sound very grand, but I promise you they aren’t. The escritoire came with the house, and we eat in the kitchen, thereby rendering what would otherwise be a dining room useless. We call it the music room because we keep the pianos (one real, one Clavinova), all the sheet music and Giant Bear’s collection of trumpets in there.

[7] The baby Jesus is knitted onto Mary’s arm, so he was (of necessity) a bit previous.

[8] I have also never written about my sigmoidoscopy, a similar arse-based medical intervention. That is because, unlike the colonoscopy, for which one is knocked out, the sigmoidoscopy is done without anaesthetic (i.e. they gave me gas and air, which just made me throw up the nothing that my stomach contained). It’s bad enough that I had to go along with a complete stranger inserting a monstrous chilly tube into my Special Area, never mind talking about it as well. I also wasn’t allowed to wear a bra, presumably so that the needle could judder into the red zone over ‘100% Humiliating’ for as long as possible.

[9] Regular readers will recall that I also kept a diary in younger days (see Broken Dishes, The dog expects me to make a full recovery and He had his thingy in my ear at the time), but since I no longer do so I haven’t listed this as something we have in common. The man writes in his diary every single day and carries a notebook with him at all times, for God’s sake.

[10] Sedaris, ‘Day In, Day Out’, Owls, p. 227.

[11] <ting>

[12] See her here in the early 1990s on Oprah. It’s not an obvious place to find her, but she’s magnificent.

[13] Macbeth, Act 3, scene iv, line 135.

[14] I say this to Buy it Now items on Ebay. Also, Best Line from a TV Show Ever (with ‘Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!’ a close second).

Punch drunk

It’s pretty irritating watching treasured childhood memories being chewed up and spat out. We have the new Jurassic Park movie next year, hoping to make us forget that there have already been two grim sequels; recent films of Paddington Bear, Tintin and the Narnia books; there is even talk of a sequel to Labyrinth, for God’s sake. As if re-booting Thundercats in 2011 wasn’t bad enough, somebody re-made Willo the Wisp and thought it would still work without Kenneth Williams doing all the voices. Absolutely nothing is sacred and I am weary of hearing about such projects and not knowing whether to be pleased that there is a little more sauce in the pot, or frightened that the sauce will be poisonous crap. I put this trend down to three things. One, the people who decide what gets made into a film have no ideas of their own, and no idea how to address their own lack of creativity. Two, they are roughly my age and watched the same programmes as I did when they were small. Three, they are bastards. Soon, all pretence at concealment will be abandoned and men dressed as the Clangers will simply break down my front door, go straight to the shelf of children’s books and defecate right onto the pages.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, much like a parade of mournful and bloody Shakespearean ghosts, celebrities from my childhood continue to be unmasked as sex offenders. I used to tell people about the time my mother got Rolf Harris to open our new school nursery (true story. My brother I got signed photographs of that week’s Cartoon Time illustrations); now I feel dirty if I catch myself humming ‘Sun Arise’. Who next? Floella Benjamin? Gordon Kay? Professor Yaffle?

Consider the historical allegations of child abuse that have been in the news recently, going back to incidents that took place thirty or forty years ago. Jinny suggests in The Waves that we should decorate our Christmas trees ‘with facts, and again with facts’. We haven’t decorated our tree or indeed any of the house yet (in true Advent fashion, we are watching and waiting), but for those of you with trees already up, here is an undecorative and completely non-fact-like fact: according to an interview with a battered woman on Woman’s Hour earlier this year, some instances of domestic violence are not categorised as domestic violence, sexual assault, GBH or ABH, but common assault. This is a category that would also include something like a drunken altercation with a stranger outside a nightclub. Actual or grievous bodily harm charges can be made at any time, but an allegation of common assault has to be made within six months of the assault in question. That means that if a woman reporting her partner for domestic abuse is told that her allegations fall into this category, she has to report a specific incident (not years or decades of abuse, but a particular occasion), within six months of that incident. If one thinks for a moment about how long it may take such a woman to be in a position to make such an allegation without placing herself and her children in further danger, this does not seem reasonable.

Imagine a woman who suffers a single incidence of child abuse in her teenage years (at the hands of a family friend, in his car after a lift home from netball practice, let’s say). Now imagine that next door to our teenage netball player is a family, consisting of a middle-aged wife, two small children and an abusive husband. The predatory family friend can be prosecuted at any time. The message that family friend should take away from the many recent high profile cases is that he is never safe: his (now adult) victim can go to the police at any time, and while the traditional barrier of women not being believed is a significant hurdle, he can see for himself that successful prosecutions can and do follow. By contrast, the abusive husband might well get away with a smorgasbord of horrible behaviour for just as many decades, without any negative consequences for him whatsoever, thinking to himself (with some justification, it seems) that his chances of being imprisoned or even arrested are small.

This is for many reasons, two of which I want to think about here. One, the crimes of the abusive husband are not very interesting to the police and the general public. Operation Yewtree is a nationwide witch-hunt against child abusers, but I find it hard to believe that any future government is likely to give the same prominence and resources to a similar campaign to root out the perpetrators of domestic violence. Two, it is much more difficult for abused wives and girlfriends to report this kind of crime. It has been a source of tremendous irritation to me to hear people speak about the women who have alleged mistreatment and rape at the hands of Bill Cosby being criticised for not coming forward sooner. First of all, several of them did so and were ignored; and second, what we should be asking is why women don’t feel able to go public with this information sooner, and then doing something to fix that. Third, maybe women don’t come forward sooner because they expect to be criticised and ignored. Maybe there are other women who would very much like to come forward and report their abusers, who don’t do so when they witness the victim-blaming of women who do. If it’s OK for cases of child abuse to be investigated (successfully! Even in cases when the perpetrator has died!) decades after the fact, why can’t we extend the same courtesy to all victims of sexual crimes? Why do we laugh at Mr. Punch slapping his ugly old wife around, but not when he smacks the baby? Why do we offer ‘he was drunk’ as an excuse for a handsy colleague, but ‘she was drunk’ as an accusation? Why is it OK to abuse a woman, but not a girl?

What I want to explore here is why is it that we are so much more shocked by (and interested in) the sexual abuse of children and teenagers than the sexual abuse of grown-ups. There have been many examples in recent months of people talking about domestic violence and rape in ways that make me terribly angry, and I can’t be bothered to list them all here. Victims of rape, sexual abuse and domestic violence do not need to be told how to behave, or what they could have done to avoid the abuse, or why whatever it was that happened to them a. didn’t happen b. wasn’t that bad or c. is probably mostly their fault. Nevertheless, the phenomenon of victim-blaming does interest me (see A bit like the rubella jab). I wonder if part of the problem is simply that we can all imagine (or remember) what it’s like to be angry with a spouse, and so find it easier to relate to the idea of being violent towards someone who may have been annoying in a low-level sort of way for many years: changing the channel without asking, ignoring our haircuts and consistently leaving the seat up. We find it much harder to imagine molesting a thirteen-year-old in a twilit car after a netball match. However, I think that is to misunderstand the fundamental nature of domestic violence. The women (and men) who are victims of domestic violence do not get a frustrated, end-of-tether smack and then an immediate, shame-faced apology, as my husband would get if I ever raised my hand to him (assuming that his habit of leaving piles of receipts and small change randomly around the house as a sort of low-grade money-based spoor got too much for me). In such a situation, my husband and I would have reached a point where we needed to have a conversation about his annoying habit and my short fuse, which (while possibly heated) would be in the wider context of a loving relationship. The victims of domestic violence are not in any such context. They get their bones (and spirits) broken, over and over again, by someone they used to love and trust; maybe someone they have children with, and maybe who also abuses his children, or beats their mother in front of them; maybe someone they are financially dependent upon; probably someone they cannot avoid, placate or escape; certainly someone they don’t feel able to reason with. Maybe they even still love the person that is hurting them, in a hopeless sort of way.

It seems to me that there are four possible explanations as to why the media prioritises child abuse over domestic abuse. Firstly, child abuse is more visually appealing, because children are more visually appealing. A news editor can print a photograph of our netball player: a frail, coltish girl with a pained expression, looking wistfully into the camera. This can appear above a vaguely titillating story and a much smaller picture of the same woman at the time of the interview. This will sell far more newspapers than, say, pictures of a fifty-year old woman with a broken nose with three decades of physical and emotional abuse to talk about. Secondly, child abuse is clear cut: child vs. molester. The child cannot possibly have encouraged the abuse and is legally unable to consent, so we can be 100% outraged with the molester. Our response can be visceral and sincere, but above all, it can be simple. We don’t feel this way about a thirty-year marriage, because marriage is complex and involves two grown-up people. I think an abusive marriage is pretty clear-cut, actually, but because we have no frame of reference other than our own, non-abusive relationships, it’s tempting to assume that the conflict within other relationships must be like conflict within our own relationship: complex, nuanced, with blame on both sides.

Thirdly, leading on from the supposedly murkier subject of blame within an abusive marriage, I wonder if the third and most disturbing explanation for the way in which society turns away from victims of domestic abuse is that it is too easy to identify with. We’ve all been furious with a partner at one time or another, and maybe even wanted to strike them. I wonder if maybe some people then sublimate that desire into a pattern of behaviour that makes their partner feel that everything wrong in the relationship is their fault (and therefore it’s OK to be abusive towards that person in a non-specific, unprovoked fashion, because they’re bound to deserve it one way or another). It’s not such a stretch from there to striking that person next time we lose our temper. Instinctively, we turn away from our darker impulses when we see them in ourselves, and when we see them in others. In other words, there is never going to be a situation when it’s OK for a grown-up man to molest a teenager, but we don’t find it such a large logical leap to imagine a scenario when it might be acceptable for a grown-up to strike another grown-up. Add to this the culture of victim-blaming I mentioned earlier, and we may find it easy to believe that a thirteen-year-old was unable to resist her attacker (just as she is unable to consent), but may find it harder to believe of an older, larger and more experienced woman.[1] Surely, we say from a position of no information whatsoever, she must have had options?[2] Thus it becomes easier to say ‘poor little thing’ about the netball player, and ‘why didn’t she just leave?’ about the battered wife.

Fourthly, we have the commodification of youth, and of formative sexual experiences. Recall our coltish netball player: one reason that her story is shocking that we feel she ‘deserves’ a ‘normal’ introduction to sexual relationships. However, as I hope every student I have ever taught would immediately point out, that statement doesn’t mean anything until you define the central terms. What do we mean by ‘deserve’? What do we mean by ‘normal’? What do we mean by ‘sexual relationships’? Moreover, why is this girl entitled to a happy, safe, supportive relationship when her neighbour is not? I am not trying to set up a simplistic dichotomy of victims of child abuse have it easy vs. battered wives don’t, because I don’t think comparative victimhood helps anybody (although this kind of relativism is something you will see in the media all the time): my point is that as a society we are far less upset by (and a lot less sympathetic towards) adult victims of abuse than we are towards children or teenagers. I don’t want to say ‘young women are real women, because they fit the ideal that women are supposed to conform to more closely’ vs. ‘older, less attractive women are not really people at all’, but, beyond my tentative suggestions above, I can’t come up with anything better. Would we feel different about Punch and Judy if Judy were younger and/or prettier? I think we would.

It is, thankfully, possible to move on from child abuse and live a normal life. It’s certainly possible to deal with (have therapy for, think constructively about, understand and move on from) a single incident, or even years of repeated abuse. Not everyone is able to do this, but many people can and do. Women (and men) do this all the time. I wonder how easy it is to move on (emotionally, but also financially, practically, and physically) from an abusive marriage. Remember again that such women may have children that don’t know what a non-abusive relationship looks like; that the violent husband is likely to never face arrest, trial or prison for his crimes; and that the ties that bind our battered wife to her abuser are numerous and strong. She may also have her own internal conflicts to deal with. Perhaps she struggles with the concept of divorce for religious reasons; perhaps her children are too young to understand their father’s behaviour and will hold her responsible for removing him from their lives (more victim-blaming); perhaps nobody else knows about the abuse and she will be subject to many well-meaning but ill-informed interventions. Perhaps she also feels a sense of guilt and shame at the situation she finds herself in. I have written elsewhere about my own extremely amicable divorce (see Delete as appropriate). We were both very clear that there was no question of either of us being ‘to blame’ for the end of the relationship. Nevertheless, we both still had to listen to other people’s opinions on the subject; we had also, throughout the long dark patches of our marriage, felt compelled to conceal how bad things were from almost everybody. I stress again that neither of us had anything to be ashamed of, and yet we both felt the need to behave as if the failure of our marriage represented some profound personal disgrace.

In all the recent scandals, there has been a great deal of muddying the waters with speculation and focus on the perpetrators. For example, we can’t talk in an informed way about Bill Cosby and the (at the time of writing) seventeen women who have made accusations against him, because he hasn’t been tried in a court of law, and so we are left wading about in a load of hearsay and weak inferences.[3] I don’t find it difficult to believe or ‘side with’ these women, because I can’t name a single woman who became rich and successful by accusing a male celebrity of rape. I can name several male celebrities who have done just fine with all sorts of accusations of inappropriate sexual behaviour hanging around their necks (Roman Polanski, Francois Mitterand, Woody Allen, Bill Clinton, Francois Hollande, Michael Jackson, John Prescott, Paddy Ashdown, David Mellor, Neil Hamilton). In some cases it even did them good: I don’t think there’s any doubt that many people felt John Major’s extra-marital affair with Edwina Currie did her very little good, but made him more interesting, for example. I can even name one or two men who have served time and yet still somehow manage to go on with their lives, such as convicted rapist Mike Tyson and convicted rapist Ched Evans.

I mention Ched Evans here because his case confuses the issue, by (again) placing the focus on the rapist rather than the victim. Just as in The Accused the emphasis is placed on the consequences of a prison sentence for the lives and careers of the rapists (the poor little rapists!), I find it hard to stomach the sentiment that ‘Ched Evans has been punished and should be allowed to go back to work.’ He continues to deny committing the crime at all and remains completely unrepentant. That matters because a. even small children are told to say sorry when they do something wrong; b. it suggests that prison has had little meaningful effect, which means c. he’s likely to do it again.

We divide those who commit sexual crimes against children (paedophiles) from those who commit sexual crimes against grown-ups (common or garden rapists). The first group are subjects of horror. We can see from the pattern of crimes committed by (say) Jimmy Savile[4], that such people tend to obsessively repeat their crimes, are always dangerous to those around them, have few if any scruples about who they will prey upon, and that (partly because of the horror with which other people regard such crimes) they often choose to murder their victims as a means of protecting themselves, rather than choosing to stop. The second group are treated in a completely different way, even though they are not demonstrably different (safer, less awful somehow). In the US, statistics show that, on average, someone who has been convicted of rape once will go on to  commit another five or six rapes. What I mean here is that, on average, a man convicted of his first rape is likely to be convicted of another five or six rapes after that, but of course once we consider the shocking rates of reporting and prosecution, the likely total of rapes he actually commits is probably best calculated in dozens.[5] It is, therefore, vital that when such a person is released back into the community, he expresses contrition, and demonstrates that he has considered and changed his behaviour.

Here is what I am driving at: dividing sexual predators into two groups based on the demographics of their victims and saying that one group is more dangerous or depraved than the other is itself extremely dangerous. Choose a sexual predator at random and examine his behaviour. The pattern is usually as follows: he starts small (cat-calling, flashing); he makes insinuations and threats that become less and less empty; he moves on to threatening and groping women he can access easily, such as girlfriends, sisters, daughters, neighbours and colleagues; his behaviour and his crimes escalate in direct proportion to what he thinks he can get away with, and he continues to assault whomever he can for as long as he can. He stops only when he is compelled to stop.

Finally, the woman Ched Evans raped was nineteen years old at the time of the crime. Nobody would be saying ‘he’s served his time’ if his victim had been nine.

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[1] This is relevant to the situation I discussed recently (see The fish that is black), where it seemed reasonable to some people that a woman who is scalped in the process of being killed and partially eaten by a killer whale is to blame because she wore her hair long, rather than blaming (say) the people who employed her and others to get into the water with an animal twice the size of any other orca in captivity and known to have killed two people. The first thing that was actually said about this death was that the whale seized her by the hair (swiftly debunked via video footage), including in an interview with someone who had never met the dead woman, who stated that she would have been the first to say ‘she got it wrong’.

[2] I’m not making this up: it was suggested to a woman claiming that Bill Cosby forced her to perform oral sex on him that she should have bitten him in the penis. This is how you know we are through the looking-glass: refraining from savaging somebody’s genitals can be described as equivalent to ‘yes, darling, I’d love to. Remind me how you like it.’

[3] ‘Janice Dickinson doesn’t seem credible because she’s kind of a bitch; Beverly Johnson does, because she seems nicer’ is about the level we’re at, when we should be asking why the word of one man is being trusted over that of nearly twenty women. Here’s an idea: let’s prosecute him for his crimes, and then we’d know beyond reasonable doubt whether he did them or not. Once that’s done, let’s have a conversation about it.

[4] In truth Jimmy Savile doesn’t belong in this first group of sexual predators who prefer young victims, because his victims included women of all ages, including pensioners with terminal illnesses. I mention this here because I think it shows (again) the pointlessness of such categories.

[5] DOZENS <goes for a lie down>.

The fish that is black

I wrote recently about visiting Nanjing Holocaust Museum in 2009 (see ‘Notes from Nanjing’). Today I found the following snippet in one of my many ‘Thoughts and Notes’ documents, jotted down in a dentist’s waiting room and later typed up:

In January 2012 a hundred raiders on horseback charged out of Chad into Cameroon’s Boune Ndjidah National Park, slaughtering hundreds of elephants—entire families—in one of the worst concentrated killings since a global ivory trade ban was adopted in 1989. Carrying AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, they dispatched the elephants with a military precision reminiscent of a 2006 butchering outside Chad’s Zakouma National Park. And then some stopped to pray to Allah. Seen from the ground, each of the bloated elephant carcasses is a monument to human greed. Elephant poaching levels are currently at their worst in a decade, and seizures of illegal ivory are at their highest level in years. From the air too the scattered bodies present a senseless crime scene—you can see which animals fled, which mothers tried to protect their young, how one terrified herd of 50 went down together, the latest of the tens of thousands of elephants killed across Africa each year. Seen from higher still, from the vantage of history, this killing field is not new at all. It is timeless, and it is now.[1] 

Notice how the final position of the elephants’ corpses makes a statement about what was important to each animal. What I want to consider here is the inference that animals have an understanding of family.

I don’t mean to insult elephants by suggesting that their understanding of family is the same as my human understanding, for two reasons. Firstly, it seems to me that, just as these elephants seem to have divided into two groups (those that fled, and those that didn’t), people might divide along similar lines. Not every person (or elephant) behaves heroically in such a situation, and may not be surrounded by family members at the time. Furthermore, not everyone places family members (people one has not chosen to be associated with) above all others. It seems to me that, for every elderly skeleton in Nanjing shielding another that he or she believed to be his or her kin, there is probably another skeleton belonging to someone who died trying to protect someone of no blood relation at all (maybe someone they didn’t even know). Returning to the dividing line mentioned earlier, for each of these skeletons, then, I think there is likely to be a further skeleton on the edge of the mass grave crawling over the others in an attempt to save him or herself, who may have been in a crowd of strangers, or who saw his/her relative/friend being shot or maimed, but did not feel moved to risk his/her own life further by intervening. In other words, I think the human concept of family and how we juxtapose that against the concepts of friends and strangers, is more fluid and layered than it is in the animal world. Consider, for example, how many people dislike or have limited contact with their closest relations, or feel a sense of dread or foreboding when their closest relations visit. This feeling of dread can coexist with being deeply attached to the relatives concerned, because it isn’t an expression of not loving those people, but of a whole host of other intertwined issues. I find it unlikely that elephants have such fine-grained, complex feelings towards their parents, children and siblings, given that a. they are elephants; and b. elephants typically live in large, matriarchal groups constructed along family lines. It seems more probable that such interactions and feelings are simpler and more straightforward for elephants.

Secondly, it seems to me that anthropomorphizing animals demeans both animals and humans. Clearly many species besides humans have a profound concept of which individuals besides themselves are worth protecting at their own risk, but these concepts and the behaviours that flow from them vary enormously. A mother lapwing will fake a broken wing to draw a hawk away from her babies, but in my own garden I have found the pathetic, wrinkly evidence of blackbird parents ceasing to feed a baby that has fallen out of their own nest, even though it is only a few feet away and has survived the fall unharmed. Animal societies, physiologies and means of expression are so different from our own that I think it is unhelpful and confusing to talk about animals as if they are people, and as if they experience the same emotions that we do.

I watched Blackfish for the first time last week (or, rather, I watched it, went to bed, woke up the next day and immediately watched it again). There is much discussion of the family bonds within groups of orcas: each pod has something analogous to its own language, and adult orcas live with their mothers for their entire lives (their lifespans are comparable to human lifespans, so this is not trivial). The concept of family is, therefore, deeply important to these animals; if anything, the film suggests that it is far more important than it is to humans, who can learn to speak another language if they so desire; can leave and join other family groups (indeed, are often expected to do so); and can often dictate the intensity and duration of family relationships.

It seems to me that attributing human emotions to a domesticated animal such as a pet dog makes some limited sense. Dogs have lived in close proximity to humans for thousands of years, and they have been bred to be docile, aesthetically pleasing and able to remember their name and a set of commands. Dogs, in other words, have a relationship with (and an understanding of) people that orcas simply do not. Orcas are wild animals that live in the open ocean and could easily go their whole lives without seeing a single human being. Moreover, while dogs have spent thousands of years evolving and/or being bred to be obedient and useful companions, orcas have spent thousands of years evolving into things that are good at killing and eating stuff. Although the sections of Blackfish that show various killer whales lunging at or attempting to drown people who were interacting with them peacefully a moment ago are shocking, in some ways the most troubling footage (to me) was that which showed some of the same people interacting with the orcas with great affection and talking about the bond that they feel they have with the animals. I found the question of whether that bond was real profoundly disturbing.[2]

The trainers speak to the orcas as if they are enormous dogs, because they don’t know what else to do. The film makes a good case for the whales being psychologically traumatised, bored, grief-stricken, confused and repeatedly under- and over-stimulated, but we aren’t killer whales and (to misappropriate Hegel) can have only a very limited understanding of what it is like to be a wild killer whale. Naturally, we turn to things that we do understand: other people, and other animals. The sequences showing mother orcas grieving when their offspring are permanently removed from them are heart-breaking, but I feel that how moving it is depends on the frame of reference being used. Rather than comparing the mother orcas to human mothers, the people making the decisions to separate them from their babies continue to view the orcas as enormous dogs. Domestic dogs don’t much like having their puppies taken away from them, but they seem to bounce back from it fairly quickly, and the expectation seems to be that the mother orca should do the same. However, using a human mother as the gold standard of emotional connection wouldn’t be any better (e.g. removing the young orca when it reached sexual maturity, say, and then expecting the mother orca to think this gave her more time for herself). Indeed, since the orca mother and baby are being separated by humans, the idea of judging the intensity of their grief in human terms at the same time as humans are inducing that grief feels pretty queasy. Orcas live alongside their mothers their entire lives. We don’t.

Something else I have been turning over in my mind since watching the film is whether the three people killed by the largest killer whale in the film (a male called Tilikum) were also in some way the victims of our tendency to misunderstand animals by projecting human emotions onto them. Several of the former trainers interviewed in Blackfish speak of how mortified they are at the nonsense they used to say about the whales performing ‘because they want to’. Seeing the killer whales doing various complex tricks is impressive only if you consider it remarkable that the killer whale is doing as it was asked rather than killing and eating stuff. Plainly these creatures are easily strong enough, agile enough and clever enough to leap out of the water and touch a ball with their nose or whatever, and the fact that they do so should not surprise us: they are able, rewarded with fish, and have absolutely nothing else to do. They are also strong enough, agile enough and clever enough to kill and eat the trainers if they so choose, and the fact that they do this should not surprise us either.

The film makes it clear that there have been many, many near misses: in other words, the truly remarkable thing is that there haven’t been more fatalities. While most of the people featured in the film who worked with the killer whales are shocked and upset that Tilikum has behaved badly (i.e. killed and partially eaten people), there is very little surprise expressed at the people who behave badly: those who capture and kill orcas in the wild; whoever it was that thought buying an orca who is only for sale in the first place because he killed someone was a good idea; those who didn’t bother to tell any of the people working with Tilikum that he had killed a person, during a live show, in front of an audience; those who wrote the nonsense that the staff at Seaworld uttered in good faith; and those who attempted to blame the three victims for their deaths. It is interesting to see Tilikum picked out as ‘a bad whale’ (in contrast with all the other ‘good’ whales) on the one hand, and on the other the faceless mass of venal, callous, stupid, reckless or greedy people. It is as if we believe that whales are fundamentally good and people are fundamentally not.[3]

That brings me on to another very human habit, which is the desire to categorise, just as I did at the start of this post by dividing the elephants into two groups. It seems to me that the managers of Seaworld who continued to allow the whale trainers to work with Tilikum and other whales that were known to be dangerous took the view that these were fundamentally ‘good’ whales who had behaved badly on some isolated occasions. As Blackfish goes on, it seems that those same managers change their minds, and take the view (after Tilikum has killed and partially eaten his third person) that he is a ‘bad’ whale. However, it doesn’t make sense to make a statement about the fundamental nature of a species or one particular individual whale, based on the behaviour of the few animals that can be observed splashing crowds of tourists from a blue concrete tank. The question ‘is Tllikum a bad whale?’ doesn’t make sense, because we have no way of defining the central terms.[4] We cannot explain what we mean by ‘a bad whale’. If we mean ‘a bad whale is a whale that has killed people’ (including two people that worked with that whale and probably felt deeply attached to him), then yes, Tilikum is a bad whale, but the list of other ‘bad’ whales that had given killing and eating a person a jolly good go was extensive and harrowing. Moreover, all of these ‘bad’ whales are likely to have been ‘good’ whales in their natural context, where their skills at killing and eating stuff would be useful and necessary. In some sense, we might even say that these ‘bad’ whales are more fundamentally ‘whale-like’ than the ‘good’ whales that don’t make as much effort to kill and eat stuff. Furthermore, if we mean ‘a bad whale is a whale that could or would kill a person if he got the chance’ then we are left adrift in a sea of things that can’t be determined. We can’t determine why an orca kills a person or whether he thinks or feels anything in particular before or after the event. We can’t determine whether he does this because he has the opportunity or whether it is part of his whale-like nature, although it is worth saying (as is said in the film) that there has never been any record of a person being killed by an orca in the wild. Tilikum has killed three people, but I don’t know if we can even use that to make statements about the fundamental make-up of Tilikum (‘Tilikum is a bad whale’) any more than we can use it to make statements about the fundamental make-up of orcas as a whole (‘all orcas are bad whales’). Blackfish makes a compelling case that captivity traumatises whales such that they may be more likely to unexpectedly turn on their trainers and attempt to kill and eat them, and therefore we might feel more comfortable with the statements ‘all orcas in captivity are psychologically traumatised, and therefore will eventually become bad whales’, but again we can’t be sure whether this is part of their fundamental nature brought out by captivity, or whether this is purely caused by circumstance. Fundamental attribution error suggests that the circumstances a person finds himself in contribute more to his actions that the fundamentals of his character, but I think it would be a mistake to apply that with any certain to Tilikum, because he’s not a person. It seems that the best we can do is to say ‘orcas are very good at killing and eating stuff. Therefore being in a confined watery space with a traumatised orca is not safe’, which is surely something we could have worked out without anyone having to die.

Tilikum now lives in a tank on his own, much like many people who have killed multiple times. As I’ve said, words that humans use to describe human concepts aren’t very meaningful when applied to whales and whale concepts, but if a whale can be said to be lonely, then given all that I’ve said about the duration and depth of the family bonds orcas have with each other, he probably feels something that we might describe as loneliness. I suggest, however, that the difficulty of thinking about this particular whale is that using our own emotions as a frame of reference is inadequate, and using no frame of reference at all gives us no purchase. While the read-across between the massacred elephants in Cameroon and the rape of Nanjing is tempting and obvious, in both instances I struggle to state with any confidence that I understand how any of the people or animals involved felt, or how I might behave in the same situation. I wrote about my visit to Nanjing that ‘No attempt has been made to understand any of these awful deaths and I don’t feel equal to the task’. Here, I feel that a thoughtful and nuanced attempt to make sense of the deaths of the three people killed by Tilikum has been made. Nevertheless, I still don’t feel able to understand.

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[1] Brian Christy, National Geographic, October 2012.

[2] As Aristotle says (with reference specifically to how whales and dolphins breath), ‘Among water animals, the cetaceans may give rise to some perplexity’.

[3] I know orcas are technically dolphins rather than whales, but the term ‘killer whale’ is so loaded with meaning here that I’m using the word ‘whale’ rather more loosely than I would otherwise.

[4] I will leave aside the unanswerable question of whether an animal used to swimming hundreds of miles a day in a family group, and evolved to use its size, strength and intelligence to kill and eat stuff can continue to be considered a whale if it lives in a tank a few yards across, away from all its relatives, unable to hunt, and receiving food by hand from a bucket in exchange for swimming about in an amusing way.

Notes from Nanjing

The following notes (relating to my time in Nanjing in 2009) were found in an old notebook, unearthed this week while I tidied my office.

Day 1, in the airport (Frankfurt)
The smoothest landing coming into Frankfurt that I have ever experienced (I almost slept through it). Going through security I had to remove the 99p bottle of water I had bought in Bristol and drink it before I was allowed into another dingy booth. The German security people thought this frightfully funny and laughed like very efficient drains. I couldn’t see the joke, but perhaps it had been an unusually boring day (or perhaps the national stereotype is inaccurate, and the Germans are a nation of childlike, humorous people). Security in Britain resulted in my incredibly dangerous sun-cream and deadly deodorant being confiscated. The man was unmoved by my argument that sun-cream is too thick to be considered a liquid as such; he was also unable to explain how placing the deodorant in a plastic bag rendered it harmless. As soon as they let me through, of course, I was free to stock up on other, more sinister fluids at the duty-free Superdrug.

I rode the travelator, but this turned out to be a lot less fun on my own. Now I am reading A Dance to the Music of Time (which, so far, I don’t much like), sitting on a comfy chair by a weird bakery (pastry the size of your head, madam? How about if we encrust it with unidentifiable purple crap?), from whence ‘Tainted Love’ is blasting out. The bakery also serves beer (because this is Germany and there is a probably a law about it) and a Chinese man, who might even be on my onward flight, is wearing a purple cardigan that almost matches the pastries, visibly more relaxed than when he arrived and with three empty steins in front of him. Opposite me, a woman is reading the most German newspaper in the world: an edition of Das Bild, with the headline ‘HITLER IN BERLIN SCHATZ STOLLEN’ and a picture of a naked women crouching over a Bratwurst in the middle of a field. The TV cycles ads for HDTV on mobile telephones, urging us to watch CNN on a screen the size of a golf-ball. Don’t they see how they undermine their own sales pitch by telling us this via a screen nine feet long?

Day Six, Nanjing
Signs I Have Seen: ‘Dagoba’ as a misspelling of ‘pagoda’ (‘we can’t possibly repel a Buddha of that magnitude’) and a sign in the hotel clamping down on guerrilla sewing cells (‘No Smocking’).

Day Ten, Nanjing Holocaust Museum
P [Chinese colleague] suggested that we [myself, colleague James, and John, the husband of our American colleague] might visit a museum together on our day off, which we thought sounded like a fun and educational way to spend the day. The taxi pulled up outside an enormous building with a statue of a weeping woman on the pavement beside it. This should have told us that ‘fun’ and ‘educational’ were the wrong words entirely.

The signs in the holocaust museum, commemorating the Rape of Nanjing in 1937, are confused about how many people were killed – it might be 30,000 (all the students in Bristol), or it might be ten times as many (the entire population of Bristol). Either number is plausible in a city of so many millions of souls.

First there are piles of dusty bones in fish-tanks (almost all adult femurs. They do not look real). Then we move into a darkened room with illuminated glass boxes around the walls. The signs, as I say, are curiously uninformative. There is no mention of the thousands of (actual) rapes perpetrated by Japanese during the (metaphorical) rape of the city itself and I wonder if this is because they simply don’t ‘count’ in the face of so many murders. P seems largely unmoved, and I think James and John are more surprised at being taken on a fun day out at a holocaust museum than anything else. I am comparing this room with Pit 1 in Xi’an. The terracotta warriors marching away in perfect silence are creepy after a while; one keeps expecting them to step forward (all of them, all at once). They don’t, of course.

In the centre of the room is a partially excavated mass grave. Not a reconstruction, but an actual mass grave. The skeletons lie where they fell in 1937. There is a skull with no jaw. There are numerous children. There are couples huddled into each other’s arms. There are several with nails driven through their joints, bright orange with rust. The earth is grey and the bones are brown, and the whole thing is lit up with festive fairy-lights. The colour of each light indicates the gender and estimated age of each victim. There is no explanation offered anywhere of what the Japanese hoped to achieve or why the Chinese did not fight back, and that lack of narrative makes the museum feel pointless and not like a museum at all. Nobody is trying to educate me. No attempt has been made to understand any of these awful deaths and I don’t feel equal to the task. I turn to P to check that he is OK; the whole thing is utterly bewildering and I think I might cry out of sheer frustration. P is fine and takes my question as more P-centric than I intended. He was not there, he says, and there is a reason that he was not there. So, he is OK. I was not there either, and I’m now even less sure why it bothers me so much (and him so little). All of the bones look like children to me and the illuminated panels give more gory details of impaling, bayonets and possible drowning, as the site of the grave appears to have been a shallow pond. This is based on the discovery of snail shells, some of which are on display, rather than the testimony of survivors. Were there any survivors? The Japanese escaped with their lives, I assume? Or, perhaps, some of the Chinese were allowed to live, or some escaped, or were too ashamed to say that they surrendered their weapons on request, but did nothing to reclaim them when they saw what was going to happen. This is what P tells me, when I ask how a force of a few thousand soldiers from a small country can invade a much larger country, march through the middle of the land (Nanjing is not a coastal city) and murder thousands of people in broad daylight. Did the Japanese have superior weaponry, I ask? No, says P. They are better mentally. What does that mean? When the Japanese tell them to put down their guns, they do it, he says. And when the killing started, I asked? P shrugs and I have learnt nothing today.

Day Twelve, Nanjing
Today a student told me that he wanted to broaden his ‘horizontals’ by investing in the ‘stocking market’. I said, ‘I hope your plan holds up’ and nobody laughed. I miss home.

No Means No

One of my jobs when I work in China is to conduct mock Oxbridge interviews with those planning to study arts or social sciences, and I make a point of praising them for answering a question directly, rather than using it is a peg on which to hang their knowledge of a given subject. This is for several reasons:

i. I want to help my students stay on topic and practise some intellectual and verbal discipline;
ii. it isn’t polite to avoid talking about something when you’ve just been asked to do so;
iii. I want them to become more relaxed about leaving their comfort zone; and
iv. I have a simple, wholesome appreciation of the purity of a direct response to a direct question.

This last applies to other areas of my work, too. For example, consider what an honour and irritation of the first order it must have been to be T.E. Lawrence’s copy-editor for The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The introduction to my edition contains the following telling exchange, under the comment, ‘I reprint here a series of questions by the publisher and answers by the author concerning the printing of Revolt in the Desert’:

[publisher] Slip 28. The Bisaita is also spelt Biseita.
[Lawrence] Good.
[publisher] Slip 47. Jedha, the she-camel, was Jedhah on Slip 40.
[Lawrence] She was a splendid beast.
[publisher] Slip 53. ‘Meleager, the immoral poet.’ I have put ‘immortal’ poet, but the author may mean immoral after all.
[Lawrence] Immorality I know. Immortality I cannot judge. As you please: Meleager will not sue us for libel.[1]

Even worse, over the page we find this:

[publisher] Slip 78. Sherif Abd el Mayin of Slip 68 becomes el Main, el Mayein, el Muein, el Mayin and le Muyein.
[Lawrence] Good egg. I call this really ingenious.[2]

I had an interview myself recently, and found myself reflecting as I waited to be called in on how much more comfortable I would have been asking the questions rather than answering them. This is partly because I have had so much more practice in that role, and partly because I am still haunted by the spectres of interviews past. On one occasion (I was a mere stripling of twenty-five ), I was asked, ‘and when do you think you might be taking maternity leave?’ I replied (somewhat tartly) that this was clearly a trick question to test my knowledge of employment law and that clearly they didn’t really mean to ask me about my future womb-related plans, because that would be illegal. There was a horrible silence, which I broke by picking up my things and leaving.[3] Today, as I was tidying my desk (thereby unearthing, among other things, the nail scissors, a dozen curtain hooks and several hundred dead shopping lists), I found the notebook I took with me to Shanghai in 2013 and 2014. This included notes from two interviews I had conducted, one at either end of the quality spectrum.

Cathy was very unusual, for two reasons. Firstly, she wanted to study Archaeology and Anthropology (the only Chinese student I have ever worked with to choose these subjects). Secondly, she was effortlessly good in interview. My notes give a flavour of the conversation:

C notes that ‘official history’ is written by the victors and therefore not to be trusted [I asked her where she had read this; ‘I didn’t read it; it’s obvious’, she said]
- Asked to discuss the Rape of Nanjing and how it is described variously by Chinese and Japanese historians. Excellent examples; thoughtful, non-judgemental answer. Pressed on snails in Nanjing Holocaust Museum [see my own thoughts on visiting this museum in ‘Notes from Nanjing‘]; responded by drawing a snail to check that she had understood the word correctly and speaking eloquently and thoughtfully for nearly two minutes on why the snail shells could be viewed as poignant rather than macabre.[4]
- Asked to distinguish between Arch and Anth. and demonstrate how old things can still teach us things. Eloquent example using Chinese characters.[5]
- Asked to contrast political systems appropriate to small and large countries. Excellent example comparing China with Sweden. Knew more about European political systems than either of the PPE students. When asked how she knew so much about it, she said simply, ‘I read’.
- Asked to compare capital punishment as used in modern-day China and as used in an ancient culture. She chose imperial Rome and described the Tarpeian Rock as more appropriate in her opinion than current methods, on the grounds that death was likely to be quick, but that it retained ‘an element of spectacle and therefore fulfilled the state’s aim of deterrent’ (her words!). Asked to name current methods of execution in China, she listed hanging and the firing squad. Unprompted, she then observed that these methods haven’t been used in Europe for several decades and that she felt the way in which a country treats its prisoners is a good benchmark of how civilised it is.  

Contrast this with the weakest student from 2014. He was so terrible that I’m not going to use his name: let’s just call him Bozo. He wanted to study Music (‘I want to sing like Michael Bublé. I may need to study for long time to achieve this dream.’ You’re right, Bozo. Singing like Michael Bublé is an unattainable ambition). As my notes make clear, his week began inauspiciously (‘I have had to wake this student several times during lectures. He is reluctant to show his Personal Statement to any of the staff, because, I assume, this would make it clear how little he has done, and how many times he needs to be told to do something before he does it’) and came to the ignominious conclusion that ‘[i]f [Bozo] succeeds in attending a good university, it will be down to the work put in by people other than himself.’ I was, therefore, not looking forward to interviewing him.

I usually try to put students at their ease by (initially) asking them about things they know about. This was not a success, because, as I wrote in my notes,

[Bozo] knows very little about his subject. I tried to focus on vocal music because he doesn’t play an instrument (!). He made numerous factual errors … [for example] when asked to describe the differences between European and Chinese opera, he stated that Chinese opera is ‘more sadder’ and characterised European opera as inherently comedic (!?). I asked him to name an example of a European opera that he would describe as a comedy. He named Carmen (!!), which he thought was written in Latin (!!!).[6] He also expressed an interest in American opera but could not name a single opera, composer or singer.[7] He did better with an exercise about composing for an unusual ensemble, although he didn’t know what a ’cello is, how it is played or what it sounds like. To crown it all, when asked how he might go about composing and/or arranging a piece of unaccompanied vocal music to help singers keep in tune, he said he would simply add a piano <facedesk>.

We had several more false dawns, each of which made me die a little inside. In desperation I asked him to talk about the only piece of music he had mentioned specifically in his PS, Mozart’s first clarinet quintet (K581). What follows demonstrates why I described this student in my final reports as ‘the weakest and laziest student I have ever had the misfortune to teach’ (and also, in a very strange context, that while ‘yes’ doesn’t always mean ‘yes’, ‘no’ really does mean ‘no’).

Me: You mention polyphony in your PS.
Bozo (laconic): Yes.
Me: Can you tell me what polyphony is?
Bozo: Yes.
Me (after a short pause): Can you tell me what polyphony is right now?
Bozo: No.
Me (mystified): Why not?
Bozo (reassuringly): Because I forgot.
Me: I see.[8] Well, since you’re intending to specialise in vocal music, can you tell me anything about vocal polyphony?[9]
Bozo (sorrowful): No.

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[1] T.E. Lawrence, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (London: Jonathan Cape, 1973), pp. 18-19.

[2] One has little difficulty imagining what the copy-editor called it. Ibid., p. 20.

[3] There was also the time when I fluffed a really easy question (‘what is your ideal job?’ The correct answer is clearly, ‘This one, of course!’) because I was too busy trying not to say ‘I want to be Colin Sell’.

[4] This question referred to the Nanjing Holocaust Museum, which is built on top of a mass grave from the Rape of Nanjing massacres. Some of the victims were thrown into a pond (where those that were not already dead then drowned, or suffocated under the weight of other bodies), and one of the museum exhibits consists of the shells of pond-snails excavated when the grave was discovered.

[5] This involved drawing the ancient characters for ‘wife’ (looks very like a woman kneeling) and ‘slave’ (the same figure, but with a male-looking figure holding her by the hair). ‘This tells us much about their society’, she observed. No kidding, Cathy.

[6]  I don’t wish to imply that an experimental production of Carmen in which all the characters enjoy fulfilling relationships and nobody dies, proclaiming their joy in starry-eyed, resolutely major-key Latin wouldn’t be worth seeing.

[7] Bozo (confident): American operas are my favourite.
Me (an offbeat answer, certainly, but one can name enough American composers who have written operas for this to be a plausible answer rather than a random guess e.g. Gershwin, Philip Glass, Robert Ashley. Maybe he’s going to name John Adams, and we’ll talk about Nixon in China and this morning will not have been a complete waste of time): What an interesting answer. Can you name a particular American opera that you like?
Bozo (looked doubtful)
Me (wheedling): Or maybe a singer?
Bozo (confident once more): Michael Bublé is my favourite American singer.
Me: He’s not an opera singer. And he’s Canadian.
Bozo: That’s just your opinion.
Me: NO IT’S NOT.

[8] I really didn’t.

[9] I say ‘specialise’, but that implies he had other options. He didn’t, because other than singing, ‘I have also learn saxophone for maybe eighteen months’ isn’t going to cut it at university level. Also, his only Associated Board examination was Grade 5 Theory. He was astonished to hear that this was not the highest grade available.

Indecisive Cake

I grew up in rural north Cornwall, on the outskirts of a tiny village, with no pub, shop or post office, but a medieval church, a village green, and an abundance of cows, foxes and old people. From time to time, we would make an expedition to what passed for civilisation, so as to purchase shoes, duck food and other necessities. Our destination of choice was, occasionally, Launceston (pronounced ‘Lahnsun’), where I could get my hair cut in a place called Tangles for £4.50, my mother could buy some curtain fabric she didn’t need, and my father could take us all to the Mad Hatter’s café on Church Street for coffee when being in a conurbation of more than twenty houses got too overwhelming.

I mention this because the Mad Hatter’s café (and the cake menu in particular) has passed into family folklore. The café itself is still there, complete with a hundred-strong teapot collection and Alice in Wonderland décor, but it has changed hands and sadly no longer retains its original menu. In the early ’nineties, this included a bewildering list of homemade cakes, all displayed temptingly under glass. If a customer found himself unable (me) or unwilling (Father) to choose just one kind of cake, he could order Indecisive Cake, which consisted of a trinity of slightly smaller pieces of cake (unless they were ‘getting towards the end’ of a cake, in which you got extra), chosen at random by the proprietor. I don’t think we ever ordered anything else.

On the subject of indecision, I read The Mandelbaum Gate recently, which quotes the Book of Revelation in a way that seems relevant. The same passage featured in a service my beloved choir sang in over the summer, at Lincoln Cathedral. In The Mandelbaum Gate, Revelation is quoted as follows:

‘Do you know,’ said this passionate spinster in a cold and terrifying voice, ‘a passage in the Book of the Apocalypse that applies to your point of view?’

‘I’m afraid the Apocalypse is beyond me,’ Freddy said. ‘I’ve never had the faintest clue what it is all about. I can cope with the Gospels, at least some parts, but –’

‘It goes like this,’ she said, enunciating her words slowly, almost like a chant: ‘I know of thy doings and find thee neither cold nor hot; cold or hot, I would thou wert one or the other. Being what thou art, lukewarm, neither cold nor hot, thou wilt make me vomit thee out of my mouth.’

Freddy did not reply. People should definitely not quote the Scriptures at one. It was quite absurd.[1]

It seems to me that religion, religious ceremonies and religious texts, while obviously holding value in and of themselves in terms of structured, collective connection with the Almighty, the consolations and comforts of routine, beautiful words, expressive music and the company of friends, also have a practical purpose that is often overlooked: that of providing direction and assistance with the problems of one’s daily life. Freddy’s assertion that ‘people should definitely not quote the Scriptures at one’ is, to me, absurd. What is scripture for, other than to be spoken to other people? This passage from Revelation, for example, has wide application. For one thing, it describes beautifully (and succinctly) the problem of indecision, writ both large and small, and the impatience experienced by the more decisive observer. Had we been able to call it to mind, it would have been a wonderful thing to quote to each other in the Mad Hatter’s café. ‘Father!’ I might have said, ‘I know of my doings and find myself neither lemon drizzle nor coffee and walnut; I would I wert one or the other.’ ‘Fear not, my child,’ he might have replied, flourishing the menu. ‘For lo! Behold the wonder that is Indecisive Cake!’

We moved to Cornwall[2] just as the village church was entering what Anglicans charmingly refers to as an interregnum i.e. a compulsory pause between vicars.[3] This meant that the parish passed into a sort of Indecisive Cake period of its own: instead of one vicar conducting all the services, we had several celebrants of various flavours, chosen at random by a higher power.[4] They were mostly aged, well-meaning retired vicars who could be relied upon to read the notices clearly and stay calm in the face of my father playing the tune for ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ as we all opened our books to sing ‘Love Divine’ or similar. Two stand out in my memory at either end of the quality spectrum, rather like the angel/devil figures so often used in cartoons to illustrate moral conflict. On the angel shoulder was the late lamented Peter Coster; on the other, a man who we always referred to as the Hobgoblin.[5] Peter Coster was a lay reader of great gentleness and charm. He gave thoughtful, well-constructed sermons about whatever topic had taken his attention that week, and kept to a length and subject appropriate to a tiny congregation of elderly villagers. On the other shoulder, the Hobgoblin was somewhat stronger meat. I think the period I’m talking about here pre-dated Eddie Izzard’s ‘cake or death’ routine, but either way the Hobgoblin did not conform to the notion that you can’t have strong points of view in the Church of England.

I don’t think I ever knew his real name, and in any case the Hobgoblin suited him much better.[6] Top hat notwithstanding, he looked remarkably like the Hobgoblin from Finn Family Moomintroll, with a vigorous beard and dark, menacing eyebrows. The original Swedish title of Finn Family Moomintroll is Trollkarlens Hatt.[7] Trollkarlen (even less recognisable in the Finnish, Taikuri) means ‘Magician’ and the Swedish title (literally ‘The Magician’s Hat’) refers to the Hobgoblin’s search for his magical, transformative top hat. Our Hobgoblin (who may or may not have flown through the air on a panther and may or may not have mislaid the King’s Ruby) had spent some considerable time in the Holy Land, and treated us to wild, distinctly-made-up-sounding declarations, declaimed in Hebrew (?) with outstretched arms and blazing eyes.[8] Presumably some of these were blessings and Biblical quotations, but how were we to know? He could just as easily have been translating the parish magazine on the spot. One might modify Freddy’s sentiment accordingly: ‘people should definitely not quote the Scriptures at one in a language one does not understand’.

It is reasonable to expect a congregation of Cornish pensioners to find the Hobgoblin somewhat off-putting, with his outbursts of Hebrew and mad sermons (some violently anti-Semitic, some only mildly so). I remember one in particular based around the Book of Revelation (possibly even chapter 3, as quoted above), which was almost entirely unintelligible as, channelling Amos Starkadder, he bellowed at us that my parents, myself (I was fourteen or so at the time) and a handful of septuagenarians were sinners of the first order and should turn aside from the path of fornication before we were gobbled up by the Beast. We took our tongue-lashing in what I assumed was a bewildered silence, but as Father quietly fed a voluntary through the mangle of the tiny, ancient organ to indicate that the Hobgoblin could, if he so wished, sweep magnificently down the aisle and into the vestry, trailing his spotless vestments in a white, cleansing wave behind him, it became apparent that perhaps he knew his flock rather better than I did. He emerged from the vestry, divested (de-vested?) of his vestments, to shake hands with us as we obediently returned our tiny hymnbooks to the bookcase, and was greeted by Rex, one of the oldest and most Cornish people I have ever known, with a deep bass voice and a handshake of such age-defying vigour that exchanging the peace with him was fraught with danger (‘Peace be with WHAT THE HELL?’). Grasping his hand (the Hobgoblin didn’t flinch as his knuckles were ground into finger paté) and looking him straight in the eye, Rex rumbled, ‘Nice sermon, vicar.’

I don’t know how to apply the Indecisive Cake metaphor to this situation. Should one assume that, were Rex ordering vicar-cake, he would be content to dine on Mad Ranty Sponge every Sunday? Or is it more likely that, just as a broken clock is right twice a day, the random vicar-selector was bound to match up with the theological preferences of one of the shuffled inhabitants of the village sooner or later? I’m talking here about style rather than content – I don’t think for a moment that our tiny hamlet was a hotbed of Jew-hating fornicators (although there may have been one or two), but rather that perhaps the Hobgoblin’s fire-and-brimstone style is an example of what the passage from Revelation is driving at: being cold or hot, rather than lukewarm. I take this to mean, in some sense, having the courage of one’s convictions to either be what one is, or to choose what one will be, however distasteful this might appear to others. The Hobgoblin, regardless of what he actually said, did at least fit one set of ideas about what religion ought to be: passionate, taken seriously, and declaimed without shame or self-consciousness. I said earlier that I didn’t feel his Sodom and Gomorrah sermons had much overlap with the needs of his parishioners, but perhaps that isn’t right. Perhaps from time to time, one feels the need for someone who knows whether they are cold or hot. Cold or hot, I would thou wert one or the other.

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[1] Muriel Spark, The Mandelbaum Gate (London: The Reprint Society, 1965), page 16. Biblical Quotation from the King James translation, Book of Revelation, chapter 3. As I noted in a previous post (see ‘Why Don’t You Do Right?’), one should always give one’s sources.

[2] When I say we moved to Cornwall, we actually did. We sold our house in the Thames Valley and moved to Cornwall. I mention this because people sometimes assume that the house in Cornwall was a second home, and that therefore we were contributing in some way to the gradual evisceration of our community. We weren’t: we lived there. This assumption used to annoy my father so much that sometimes he would bellow at dithering tourists, ‘get out of my way! I’m a LOCAL!’

[3] I don’t know why the church uses this word. Since it refers to a sort of lull, between the acts rather than between kings (and one rarely meets a kingly vicar), ‘intermission’ might be a better term.

[4] The Rural Dean, according to Father, although I think it’s clear he was merely the Lord’s instrument (as are we all).

[5] Discussion with Father revealed that he always assumed Peter spelled his surname ‘Coster’ as in costermonger, and I always assumed ‘Costa’. I have used ‘Coster’ here as a. Father is more likely to have seen it written down and b. this makes the whole name closer to Paternoster, which pleases me greatly.

[6] Father comments as follows: ‘None of us knew the Hobgoblin’s name except the senior churchwarden, who didn’t share as if we might be contaminated.’

[7] Tove Jansson, while Finnish, wrote her books in Swedish.

[8] The first time he did this, I whispered to my mother (both of us cowering in the pews, unable to look away), ‘is he speaking in tongues?’