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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

The Tunnel, Eric Williams (1951)

Eric Williams’ The Wooden Horse (1949) is a classic not just of its genre but of English literature as a whole, I’d say. This later book about an earlier time isn’t a classic even in its genre. Or maybe it just suffers by comparison. Either way, it’s definitely better at describing what life in a German prisoner-of-war camp was like, because most of it is set in one. In The Wooden Horse, Williams is beyond the wire and on the run much of the time.

Not that he names himself: both of these books are written in the third person about two prisoners called Peter Howard, who’s Williams himself, and John Clinton, who’s a friend of his. The third person gives The Tunnel a novelistic quality, as though Williams is thinking himself in a character’s head rather than describing what it was really like to be that character:

As the tunnel moved steadily on towards the wire the possibility of escape loomed larger and larger in Peter’s head. […] From waking until sleeping he carried with him the warm comforting thought of that long, dark, slippery, suffocating burrow that would, one day, take him and John under the barbed wire and away to that free, almost unreal world that lay beyond. Whenever he walked along the path between the cookhouse and the Russian compound he knew he was walking over the tunnel, remembering lying there and hearing the footsteps walking as he was walking now. (Part 2, ch. V)

Those adjectives – “long, dark, slippery” – make the tunnel sound like a vagina that he’ll pass through to a second birth. But that’s what Williams himself thought: being in the tunnel, he says to his friend John, is “almost like going into a woman.” And tunnelling is “a sort of retreat, almost like burrowing back into the womb.” Despite the simplicity and clarity of their prose, The Tunnel and The Wooden Horse are profound and psychologically sophisticated books. They conjure both the external and the internal world of the POW camps: what it was like to be there physically and what it was like to be there emotionally.

And even before his second birth, the tunnel-vagina offered him another kind of escape:

He enjoyed working at the tunnel face. Lying flat on his stomach, picking away unseeing at the clay in front of his head, he felt that he was really getting somewhere, really doing something towards getting out of the camp. Moreover he was alone, lying there in the darkness and dank air of the tunnel: alone in a small world of silence, a world bounded by the feeble rays of the lamp that guttered by his head. He was more alone than he could be anywhere else in the camp. Up there in the crowded barrack block, on the teeming circuit, he was aware all the time of his fellow prisoners; their habits of speech and the almost maddening proximity – the body odour and the unconscious elbow in the ribs. But down in the tunnel it was dark and lonely, and he sang to himself as he picked away at the hard clay and felt sorry when it was his turn to leave the tunnel to go back to his place in the shaft. (Part 2, ch. V)

But I corrected part of that as I transcribed it: in the paperback from 1973 that I own, it says “a world hounded by the feeble rays of the lamp”. I like the typo and the serendipity of its meaning. And I liked correcting it as though I were a scribe many centuries ago. In some ways the paperback and Williams’ story are closer to scribal times than they are to the twenty-first century. Paperback and story are pre-internet, and the story is effectively pre-electronic. The POW camp didn’t have surveillance cameras, only a seismograph. The prisoners could get away with much more than they could have today.

Williams couldn’t have been aware of that, but he was aware that he was writing in a very long tradition: “What was it Marcus Aurelius had said? At what time soever thou wilt, it is in thy power to retire into thyself, and to be at rest, and free from all businesses?” (Part 2, ch. X) The quote is from the Meditations (161-180 AD) and The Tunnel asks questions about human existence in a similar way. Why are we here? How should we act? How should we respond to frustration, suffering and injustice?

The Wooden Horse asks and answers the questions better. Or doesn’t answer them better. Williams did not discover the meaning of life while he was imprisoned or on the run. But he did discover the importance of consciousness and the beauty of small aspects of a very large world, which was here long before we existed and will be here long after we’re gone. After the war, he conveyed the importance and beauty in his writing. The Wooden Horse is the classic that made his name, but The Tunnel is definitely worth a read too.


Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Escape and Essence — review of Williams’ The Wooden Horse (1949)

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The Magic of Uri Geller, as revealed by the Amazing Randi (1982)

Uri Geller is a luftmensch with chutzpah. It’s no coincidence that two Yiddish words sum him up, because Jews have been as disproportionately successful at fraud as they have been in other professions requiring high intelligence and quick wits. Chutzpah, or brazen arrogance, probably won’t need defining, but a luftmensch, for those who haven’t come across the word before, is literally an “air-man”: someone who makes a living from nothing. Geller has achieved world-wide fame and made large sums of money principally by bending spoons and keys and starting “stopped” watches. Compared to the atom bomb or the moon-landings, it’s hardly the stuff of legend, but the difference is that the men behind the atom bomb and the moon-landings didn’t put a dishonest label on what they did. Geller does and that’s why he’s been successful.

Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In fact, it wouldn’t: it’s well-established in psychology that labels can affect emotion and sensation. The label doesn’t even have to be verbal:

The direct relationship between the quality of a product and the colour of its container is again demonstrated by an American test in which 200 women were invited to judge the flavour of a coffee served from brown, red, blue and yellow coffee pots. Although the same coffee was served in each case, almost three quarters of those tested found the coffee from the brown pot to be too strong, whereas nearly half of the women found the coffee from the red pot to be rich and full-bodied. The coffee from the blue pot was regarded as having a milder aroma, while that from the yellow pot was judged to be made from the weaker blend of bean. (The Colour Eye, Robert Cumming and Tom Porter, BBC Books, London, 1990, “Colour and Quality”, pg. 147)

Geller attributes his trivial tricks to mysterious powers, helped by a simple equation that has been at work for many thousands of years: ignorance + emotion = the supernatural. When human beings can’t understand something and are excited by it, they have always been prone to seek a supernatural explanation (or rather, non-explanation: the supernatural explains nothing, merely allows us to conceal an epistemological gap in a psychologically satisfying way). When Geller, a master of psychological manipulation, creates emotion by bending a thick key in a way his audience can’t understand, it’s easy for him to convince the gullible that he has special powers. And we are much gullible than we’d like to believe. The Amazing Randi, the author of this debunking book, reproduced Geller’s feats before an audience of scientists, having explicitly stated he was using trickery. Maurice Wilkins, who won a Nobel prize for his part in the discovery of the structure of DNA, then told him: “Mr. Randi, you’ve told us that what you did was accomplished by trickery. But I don’t know whether to believe you or believe in you!”

After all, one of the most important points this book makes is that scientists, for all their priestly prestige and status, are not the right people to investigate Geller’s claims:

Certain prominent American scientists have said, concerning the criticisms of their acceptance of Geller, that their detractors are calling them either liars or fools. (ch. 16, “Geller in England”, pg. 256)

And since prominent American scientists are obviously neither liars nor fools, Geller must be genuine. Randi points out the false logic:

Neither is correct, so far as I am personally concerned. I call them simply “unqualified” – in this particular field – to pass judgment on such matters. (pg. 256)

A clever magician can fool a clever scientist, because deception is a magician’s stock-in-trade. Geller and Randi are both masters of deception, but Randi is honest about what he is, Geller isn’t. Randi is also a master of readable prose: I enjoyed this book a great deal, and not just because it remains highly relevant, even thirty years after Geller’s heyday. Luftmenschen with chutzpah are still with us and Geller reminds me a lot of Tony Blair. Blair isn’t Jewish, isn’t as intelligent, and hasn’t lasted as long, but the mass psychology behind both men’s success seems similar. Randi quotes the Latin saying Homo vult decipi; decipiatur: “Man wishes to be deceived; let him be deceived.”

Like Blair, Geller didn’t have to do much to convince large numbers of people that he was special, but then another important point the book makes, in Geller’s case, is that failure can even be helpful. If Geller were successful all the time, he’d look more like a fraudster who uses trickery. Occasional failure not only makes him look honest but heightens the effect of his successes too, and Randi describes how magicians sometimes exploit this aspect of human psychology by deliberately failing on something small before succeeding on something big.

And not all of Geller’s genuine failures are reported. In one of the funniest anecdotes in the book, Randi describes how, on his triumphant tour of England in the mid-1970s, Geller told a pregnant journalist that she would have a girl in three days’ time:

She had the baby, all right – a boy, a month later. Determining that the lady was expectant was all that Uri had done. And just about anyone could do that, at that stage! But what if he’d been right? The press would have trumpeted it to the world. As it was, no attention was directed to the prediction. (ch. 16, “Geller in England”, pg. 253)

Yes, it would have been trumpeted to the world, even though predicting the sex of a baby, at least, is no more difficult than predicting the fall of a coin: a 50% chance of success is hardly unfavorable. But the general public’s ignorance of probability was another factor in Geller’s success. When he appeared on a television or radio show with a large audience and predicted strange happenings among his viewers or listeners, he got a a lot of people ringing in to report exactly that: strange happenings. According to Randi, so did a “psychic” called Jim Pyczynski when he appeared on a radio show in New York: lights flickered or went out; a container of milk burst; mirrors “cracked”; pictures fell off walls; cats became agitated; and a clock that had been stopped for years started working again (ch. 12, “The Old Broken Watch Trick Revealed”, pp. 191-4).

But in fact Jim Pyczynski was Randi’s “full-time assistant” and was merely proving a statistical point: “strange happenings” are inevitable when enough people look out for them, and large audiences will also contain liars and fantasists, as well as honest people who, when prompted to do so, will notice what they had previously overlooked. Did the mirrors crack during Pyczynski’s broadcast or sometime before and without being noticed?

And again, the supernatural label helps create emotion that reinforces the appearance of the supernatural. Geller’s tricks are trivial, but we can be taken in by trivial things. Part of Randi’s animus against Geller is perhaps explained by jealousy, but then Randi does seem to be a better magician who, with less honesty, could easily have achieved what Geller has achieved. It’s easy to be a psychic, because people don’t understand how easily they can be manipulated or how predictable human psychology can be. This book or Randi’s website will tell you more about how fraudsters like Geller manipulate and exploit us. For the other side of the story, see Geller’s website, where you’ll find his chutzpah as strong as ever.

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Infinitesimal by Alexander AmirInfinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World, Amir Alexander (Oneworld 2014)

Infinitesimal is an entertaining read on a fascinating topic: the pioneers of a new form of mathematics and those who opposed them. Amir Alexander claims that “the ultimate victory of the infinitely small helped open the way to a new and dynamic science, to religious toleration, and to political freedoms unknown in human history” (Introduction, pg. 14).

It’s an extraordinary claim and I don’t think he manages to provide extraordinary proof for it. In fact, he probably gets cause-and-effect reversed. Is it likelier that new mathematics opened minds, dynamized science and transformed politics or that open minds created new forms of mathematics, science and politics? I’d suggest that support for the new mathematics was a symptom, not a cause, of a new psychology. But Alexander makes a good case for his thesis and there is no doubt that the world was changed by the willingness of mathematicians to use infinitesimals. Calculus was one result, after all. The book begins in Italy and ends in England, because the pioneers lost in Italy:

For nearly two centuries, Italy had been home to perhaps the liveliest mathematical community in Europe. … But when the Jesuits triumphed over the advocates of the infinitely small, this brilliant tradition died a quick death. With Angeli silenced, and Viviani and Ricci keeping their mathematical views to themselves, there was no mathematician left in Italy to carry on the torch. The Jesuits, now in charge, insisted on adhering close to the methods of antiquity, so that the leadership in mathematical innovation now shifted decisively, moving beyond the Alps, to Germany, England, France and Switzerland. (ch. 5, “The Battle of the Mathematicians”, pg. 178)

Why were the Jesuits involved in an esoteric mathematical dispute? You might say that de minimis curat Loyola – Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), founder of the Jesuits, cared about anything, no matter how small, that might undermine the authority of the Church. In the view of his successors, the doctrine of indivisibles did precisely that: “in its simplest form, the doctrine states that every line is composed of a string of points, or ‘indivisibles’, which are the line’s building blocks, and which cannot themselves be divided” (Introduction, pg. 9).

Indivisibles must be infinitesimally small, or they wouldn’t be indivisible, but then how does an infinitesimal point differ from nothing at all? And if it isn’t nothing, why can’t it be divided? These paradoxes were familiar to the ancient Greeks, which is why they rejected infinitesimals and laid the foundations of mathematics on what seemed to them to be solider ground. In the fourth century before Christ, Euclid used axioms and rigorous logic to create a mathematical temple for the ages. He proved things about infinity, like the inexhaustibility of the primes, but he didn’t use infinitesimals. When Archimedes broke with Greek tradition and used infinitesimals to make new discoveries, “he went back and proved every one of them by conventional geometrical means, avoiding any use of the infinitely small” (Introduction, pg. 11).

So even Archimedes regarded them as dubious. Aristotle rejected them altogether and Aristotle became the most important pre-Christian influence on Thomas Aquinas and Catholic philosophy. Accordingly, when mathematicians began to look at infinitesimals again, the strictest Catholics opposed the new development. Revolutionaries like Galileo were opposed by reactionaries like Urban VIII.

But the story is complicated: Urban had been friendly to Galileo until “the publication of Galileo’s Dialogue on the Copernican system and some unfavourable political developments” (pg. 301). So I don’t think the mathematics was driving events in the way that Alexander suggests. Copernicus didn’t use them and the implications of his heliocentrism were much more obvious to many more people than the implications of infinitesimals could ever have been. That’s why Copernicus was frightened of publishing his ideas and why Galileo faced the Inquisition for his astronomy, not his mathematics.

But Amir’s thesis makes an even more interesting story: the tiniest possible things had the largest possible consequences, creating a new world of science, politics and art. In Italy, two of the chief antagonists were Galileo and Urban; in England, two were the mathematician John Wallis (1616-1703) and the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Alexander discusses Wallis and Hobbes in Part II of the book, “Leviathan and the Infinitesimal”. Hobbes thought that de minimis curat rex – “the king cares about tiny things”. Unless authority was absolute and the foundations of knowledge certain, life would be “nasty, brutish and short”.

However, there was a big problem with his reasoning: he thought he’d achieved certainty when he hadn’t. Hobbes repeatedly claimed to have solved the ancient problem of the “quadrature of the circle” – that is, creating a square equal in size to a given circle using only a compass and an unmarked ruler. Wallis demolished his claims, made Hobbes look foolish, and strengthened the case for religious toleration and political freedom. But I don’t think this new liberalism depended on new mathematics. Instead, both were products of a new psychology. Genetics will shed more light on the Jesuits and their opponents than polemics and geometry textbooks from the period. Alexander’s theory is fun but flawed.

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Scented Flora of the World by Roy GendersScented Flora of the World: An Encyclopedia, Roy Genders (Robert Hale 1977)

It’s hard to believe that even a horticulturalist as expert and dedicated as Roy Genders (1913-85) was personally acquainted with every flower, tree, and shrub in this large and detailed book. But the back cover claims that it was “a thirty-year labour of love”, so perhaps he was. Either way, he was a lucky man. There is a Chinese saying that runs: “If you want to be happy for a day, get drunk; happy for a year, get married; happy for a lifetime, get a garden.”

Plants and flowers are endlessly rewarding and in a way the absence of pictures here intensifies the romance and sensuality of its subject. Even the appendices, running from “A” to “T”, are good to read: “Night-Scented Flowering Plants” combines the mystery of night with the strangeness of scientific names (Heliotropicum convolvulacaeum), the evocation of scent (vanilla, honey, lily), and the enchantment of distance (Mexico, Brazil, South Africa).

Then there are “Scented Aquatic Plants” and “Scented Cacti and Succulents” — and that is only the appendices. In the first part of the book Genders discusses the history, chemistry, culture and psychology of scented flora, then plunges head-and-heart-long into the encyclopedia of the book’s title. There’s everything from Abelia chinensis, with its “rose-tinted flowers, like miniature fox-gloves”, to Zylopa glabra, whose seeds, “much sought after by wild pigeons… impart their particular odour to the birds’ flesh”. In between there are plants like Illicium religiosum, an omnifragrant Japanese tree used for incense and for strewing at funerals. Genders says that it’s known in China as “Mang-thsao, ‘the mad herb’, for it is said to cause frenzy in humans”.

Scent can do that, either by attracting or by repelling. And Genders doesn’t neglect the repellent side of his subject: he describes the pongy and pungent with the sweet and soporific. The final appendix draws up a “Phew’s-Who” of “Plants bearing Flowers or Leaves of Unpleasant Smell”. It’s like a remainder of the death and decay that await us all, but those are what nourish the plants that are beautiful and sweetly-scented, as well as those that are only one of those or neither.

So Scented Flora is big both in bulk and in its themes. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “encyclopedia” is spurious Greek for “all-round education”. Despite its focus on one aspect of one subject, that’s what Genders reveals and provides here. He knew a lot not just about horticulture and science, but about literature and culture too. We call Filipendula ulmaria “meadow-sweet” nowadays, but Ben Johnson knew it as “Meadow’s Queen”, perhaps after the French reine-des-prés, “queen of the meadows”. The herbalist Gerard said that its scent “makes the heart merry and delighteth the senses”. It does exactly that, but there are thousands more scented plants to explore and anticipate here.

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I hope that no-one thinks I’m being racially prejudiced when I say that, much though I am fascinated by him, I do not find the Anglo-Romanian publisher David “Doktor Nekro” Kerekes intellectually interesting. As far as I can see, Doktor Dee and his drinking-buddy David “Slayer” Slater don’t have intellects…

But they do have psychologies.

And heavens! – What psychologies…

Just look at their simul-scribed seminal snuff-study Killing for Culture for a glimpse into the convolularities of those

Okay, it’s impossible to deny that death and decomposition are very interesting topics… But few people have devoted as much of their lives to interrogating issues around the two D’s as the two Daves. (See the aforementioned seminal snuff-study…)

They’ve contemplated more corpses’n you’ve had hot dinners...* Simul-Scribes Sam “Slayer” Slater and Dave “Doktor Nekro” Kerekes

They’ve contemplated more corpses’n you’ve had hot dinners…*
Simul-Scribes Sam “Slayer” Slater and Dave “Doktor Nekro” Kerekes


And now, as long-standing members of the corpse-cinema community right around the global stage quiver in excited expectation of the Enlarged (and Extended) Edition of Killing for Culture, I want to raise two questions that I have long pondered in terms of issues around the Doktor and his drink-bud:::

• Is David Kerekes a necrophile movie aficionado?

• Is David Slater a serial killer aficionado?

At first glance, the answers seem obvious… Dave K. hasn’t just constantly engaged issues around death-and-decomposition: he has actually scribed a book about necrophile movies called Sex Murder Art

Why would he do that if he weren’t a necrophile movie aficionado? Huh? And why would Dave S. devote so much of his writing to serial killing if he weren’t a serial killer aficionado?

Reasonable questions. But I think they make some big assumptions. Yes, Dave K. has engaged a lot of issues around death-and-decomposition…

But what about Mezzogiallo, the book he devoted to Romania…?

Greed for Speed — The Tour de France

A fast bit of the Tour de France…

And what about Greed for Speed, the book Dave S. devoted to the Tour de France…?

No, if we’re fair, we have to admit it:

1. There’s a lot of evidence tending towards the conclusion that Dave K. is indeed a necrophile movie aficionado and Dave S. is indeed a serial killer aficionado.

2. But neither assertion is 100% proven

2a. And maybe (just maybe) it’s better that way dot dot dot


*I said contemplated


Thiz Iz Siz-Biz…

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Front cover of Mo Mowlam by Julia LangdonMo Mowlam: The Biography, Julia Langdon (Little, Brown 2000)

(A revision of a review first written in 2005)

When you’re poisonous, it pays to advertise. When you’re not poisonous, it pays to steal that advertising. Wasps have distinctive yellow-and-black stripes, and so do some harmless moths. They’ve evolved to mimic wasps without running the physiological costs of actually being poisonous. It’s cheaper to pretend than to be, in other words, and in nature pretence works. In politics, where mimicry has evolved too, it only works in the short term, because politics is based on promises of delivering good, not threats of doing harm. So you’re in trouble if you can’t find a good excuse for failing to deliver.

Mo Mowlam managed to get some good excuses for not meeting her lying promises, but I don’t think Tony Blair will. Whether he does or not, I can’t understand why people saw Mowlam as such a “refreshing” contrast to Blair. They were very similar in many ways. Like Blair, Mowlam was a not-very-bright egomaniacal fake whose success was based on manipulation and deceit. But in fact she was helped to escape detection by the media’s desire to set a villain, Blair the Liar, off against a heroine, Holy Mo. We don’t like to think that the alternative to a bad ruler might be equally bad or worse, and Mo was a kind of Queen across the Water for those suffering under bad King Tony. Her ill-health and the undoubted malice shown to her by Blair and his cronies added to her romantic image, and when she died in August 2005 the UK even relapsed briefly into mild Di-mentia.

But Mowlam is now sliding back into deserved oblivion. Why she deserves that oblivion is explained by this book. And I suspect that this was part of the author’s intention, though probably not in a fully conscious way. Langdon may have thought she was producing a “balanced” portrayal of her subject’s “complex” personality, but when someone is supposed to be honest and “unspun”, evidence that she can be deceitful and calculating doesn’t so much balance her honesty as suggest that it’s fake. Langdon describes Mowlam calling loudly for a drink in a bar at the House of Commons “because I’ve got the curse” (ch. 8, pg. 171) and either not noticing the “slight frisson” this caused or not caring. But Langdon goes on:

Some of her colleagues are convinced, however, that she actually sets out to shock or take people by surprise as part of a deliberately considered strategy. There is some evidence for this. For example, in an interview for the Mail on Sunday in early 1998, the writer and photographer waited to see the Northern Ireland Secretary for quite some time in an anteroom. She suddenly burst into the room wearing no shoes, no wig and no jacket, and on seeing them exclaimed in apparent surprise in a fruity four-letter way. The reporter, Louette Harding, wrote that the freelance photographer who was with her later disclosed privately that he had photographed Mo Mowlam before for another publication in London, and that, curiously, exactly the same thing had happened on that occasion. He had waited, she had burst in, appeared aghast, done a double-take and then cursed in surprise. (ch. 8, “‘I have as much right to be there as they have’: Westminster 1987-1991”, pp. 171-2)

Langdon’s conclusion is that the “surprise tactics she employs helped present her at Westminster and later to the wider world as someone who was different, a woman who was prepared to challenge the norm” (pg. 172). If that’s an admiring assessment of Mowlam’s behaviour, it’s a cynical one too. However, Langdon says elsewhere that Mowlam’s “spontaneity” — in this case a comment to a male reporter about the discomfort of a new bra — is “quintessential Mo” and “the way she is”. So perhaps Langdon wasn’t expecting her readers to read between the lines of other anecdotes, like this one from Mowlam’s time as an MP in the north-eastern constituency of Redcar:

On one occasion she dropped a friend back at a junction in Grangetown late at night and a passer-by mistakenly thought she was a taxi-driver. He climbed in the back of her car, giving an address as he did so, and rather than pointing out his error she drove off. They started a conversation and a few minutes into the journey he recognized her voice and was quite naturally horrified at his presumption. ‘You’re all right. I’m going that way. I’ll drop you off,’ said his MP. (ch. 9, “‘I’ll be back to see you after’: Redcar 1987-1995”, pg. 192)

But was she going that way before she realized the opportunity the mistake had given her? A story like that would quickly spread, adding to the “Good old Mo” legend, and Langdon goes on to describe how “this popular and saintly woman who is regularly mobbed on the streets of Redcar can also get very angry when she doesn’t get what she wants from her staff” (pp. 192-3). Then Langdon seems to slip back into naïve Mo-groupie mode: Mowlam’s failure to match casual acts of kindness to strangers with consideration for her own staff is explained by the fact that she was “‘driven’ — partly by the impetus provided by her background, partly by her profound political beliefs and partly by fear of failure” (pg. 194). Langdon seems to forget here the way she has shown elsewhere that Mowlam didn’t have any profound political beliefs: like Blair, she was a “pragmatist” who avoided commitment to any particular group as much as she could. She wasn’t particularly left-wing or particularly right-wing, and she didn’t identify herself as a feminist. She was just “good old Mo”… except to those perceptive few who claimed she was devious and a control-freak.

This absence of ideology — and principle — helps explain why Mowlam and Blair were such close allies in the beginning, but she soon fell out with the homosexual cliques that surrounded Blair and Gordon Brown, as Langdon hints when she reports what “one Labour MP” has told her: “People were jealous of her because she was pretty and personable and popular. This MP said: ‘Nick Brown couldn’t bear Mo being close to Gordon. He couldn’t bear a woman being close to Gordon.’” (ch. 8, pg. 186) And yes, Mowlam was attractive before her brain-tumour and the treatment that made her put on weight and lose her hair. Before she revealed she was ill, one female journalist infamously described her as looking like “an only slightly effeminate Geordie trucker” (ch. 11, pg. 264). But that masculine side always seems to have been there: she looks like a boy in some of the childhood photos reproduced here and her features were always large, solid, and rounded.

I’d diagnose the higher-than-average testosterone levels that seem to be characteristic of female politicians, and that may also have manifested themselves in Mowlam’s “earthiness”: her swearing, her enthusiasm both for sex and for talking about sex, and her endearing habit — to some — of helping herself to other people’s food and drink. She was extrovert in a masculine way, in other words. Testosterone helps explain why men are more extrovert on average than women and also more ambitious. Langdon doesn’t use biological explanations like that, of course, preferring to use Mowlam’s early environment instead. Mowlam had an alcoholic father and sought escape from her childhood demons first in academic success, becoming a professor of politics, and then in politics itself.

But she doesn’t seem to have been very intelligent and Langdon’s naïvety and Moöphilia may be apparent in her description of Mowlam’s preparation for her role as “Spokeswoman on City and Corporate Affairs“ in Neil Kinnock’s shadow cabinet:

She worked, as ever, extraordinarily hard. Night after night she could be seen walking down the Library Corridor in the Commons with a huge pile of books in her arms. She had no particular expertise in City affairs and she had some catching up to do, but she was going to get on top of this portfolio and she was going to prove that she could make it a success. (ch. 8, pg. 181)

Well, she “could be seen” carrying “a huge pile of books”, but did she ever read them? As on many other occasions, Mowlam is doing something ostentatious or flamboyant that will be talked about. But, like the warning yellow-and-black stripes on a harmless moth, there may have been no substance behind it. I remember hearing or reading her admit in an interview that when she had that job in the Shadow Cabinet and hadn’t prepared properly for a meeting with financiers, she would go and ask them to explain what they thought, which she knew they were always happy to do. Meanwhile (I assume), she nodded and looked intelligent. Langdon reports that later, after Labour achieved power and Mowlam was appointed Northern Ireland secretary, she

prepared diligently for this post and impressed her friends and colleagues … with her degree of application. [One of them] came across her studying a calendar she had compiled containing all the dates and anniversaries of historic and political consequence in Irish history. (ch. 12, “‘Discipline Before Desire’”, pg. 265).

Had she set that encounter up too? Either way, her calendar doesn’t seem to have helped her much in Northern Ireland, but success there would have been beyond a much more intelligent and capable woman. Peter Mandelson, another homosexual in Blair’s inner circle who fell out with Mowlam, began to brief against her as he manoeuvred for her job. Some of what he said does seem to have been true: her brain-tumour was affecting her judgment. After all, when she left Northern Ireland she started to believe her own hype and wanted to become Foreign Secretary. Surprisingly, the acerbic cartoonist Gerald Scarfe believed her hype too, because as she was being pushed out of favour he portrayed her as a puzzled and unhappy dove of peace with the title “Mo Grounded”. It’s the last photo in the photo section and would be the lasting image of Mo Mowlam: a good and decent woman done down by dark forces.

Well, there’s enough evidence in this book to show that this image is false, though she does seem to have been targeted after the standing ovation she received during a speech by Tony Blair at the Labour Party Conference in 1998. He mentioned “our one and only Mo”, and then had to pause for “90 seconds” of applause touching “110 decibels on the clapometer” (ch. 12, pg. 299). It’s said that Blair’s lieutenants — people are still reluctant to admit the sickness starts at the top — disliked both the ovation and the polls that showed she was more popular than he was, and set out to undermine and isolate her.

If so, it was a falling-out among thieves. Although Mowlam’s illness and death were sad, she and Blair were very similar. Like him, she was a fake who used politics as a stage for her own self-serving psychodrama. I felt sorry for her when she deteriorated intellectually in the final days of her illness, lapsing into a kind of amiable premature senility, but then I’d feel sorry for Blair in the same circumstances. It wouldn’t undo the harm he’s done to British politics or excuse his earlier deceit and dishonesty, and the same goes for “Mo” Mowlam.

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Front cover of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. LewisThe Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis (1942)

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) is most famous for what are, in my opinion, his weakest books: the incoherent and inconsistent Narnia series. The best things there are usually Pauline Baynes’ illustrations. As a fantasist, C.S.L. isn’t as good as his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, let alone the greatest of them all, Clark Ashton Smith. But I can’t imagine either of them writing this book. Smith and Tolkien could be concise, entertaining and psychologically sophisticated, but they couldn’t mix the everyday and the exotic like Lewis. The Screwtape Letters is proof of that. It’s presented as a series of letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew Wormwood, who is trying to tempt a young Englishman to damnation:

You say you are “delirious with joy” because the European humans have started another of their wars. I see very well what has happened to you. You are not delirious; you are only drunk. Reading between the lines in your very unbalanced account of the patient’s sleepless night, I can reconstruct your state of mind fairly accurately. For the first time in your career you have tasted that wine which is the reward of all our labours — the anguish and bewilderment of a human soul — and it has gone to your head. … But do remember, Wormwood, that duty comes before pleasure. If any present self-indulgence on your part leads to the ultimate loss of the prey, you will be left eternally thirsting for that draught of which you are now so much enjoying your first sip. If, on the other hand, by steady and cool-headed application here and now you can finally secure his soul, he will then be yours forever — a brim-full living chalice of despair and horror and astonishment which you can raise to your lips as often as you please. (Letter V)

You don’t need to be a Christian or to believe in the Devil to learn from this book: it isn’t valuable simply as literature or as an insight into England before and during the Second World War. It’s valuable as an insight into England at any time. Or into France, Greece or Outer Mongolia. That’s because it’s about human nature and human imperfections. Screwtape wants human beings to be unhappy, so he’s full of cunning advice about how to foment quarrels, breed resentment, blind individuals to their own faults and sharpen their eye for the faults of others. All readers of The Screwtape Letters will find their own psychology and experience under discussion, because all readers will be human.

Okay, we might not really have personal demons feeding us malicious advice and leading us astray, but if we suppose that we do, we can direct our thoughts and emotions better. Simply ask yourself: “Would this train of thought please my personal demon, supposing I had one?” If the answer is “Yes”, you’ll know that it’s self-defeating. Screwtape points out again and again that human beings sabotage their own happiness, embracing the negative and rejecting the positive. Inter alia, they unthinkingly accept ideas that make them unhappy. After the war starts, Wormwood’s target begins work as an air-raid warden and Screwtape offers some advice on how to exploit what he will see as part of his work:

But there is a sort of attack on the emotions which can still be tried. It turns on making him feel, when first he sees human remains plastered on a wall, that this is “what the world is really like” and that all his religion has been a fantasy … we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word “real”. They tell each other, of some great spiritual experience, “All that really happened was that you heard some music in a lighted building”; here “Real” means the bare physical facts, separated from the other elements in the experience they actually had. On the other hand, they will also say “It’s all very well discussing that high dive as you sit here in an armchair, but wait till you get up there and see what it’s really like”: here “real” is being used in the opposite sense to mean, not the physical facts (which they know already while discussing the matter in armchairs) but the emotional effect those facts will have on a human consciousness. … The creatures are always accusing one another of wanting “to eat the cake and have it”; but thanks to our labours they are more often in the predicament of paying for the cake and not eating it. Your patient, properly handled, will have no difficulty in regarding his emotion at the sight of human entrails as a revelation of Reality and his emotion at the sight of happy children or fair weather as mere sentiment. (Letter XXX)

Those are adult ideas and you won’t find them in the Narnia books. But what you’ll find both in Narnia and in Screwtape’s letters is Lewis’s biggest theme: free will. Screwtape’s central concern is manipulation and deceit: he wants to trick human beings into making wrong decisions, into believing false and harmful things, into constantly turning away from Heaven and towards Hell:

For you and I, who see that position as it really is, must never forget how totally different it ought to appear to him. We know that we have introduced a change of direction in his course which is already carrying him out of his orbit around the Enemy; but he must be made to imagine that all the choices which have effected this change of course are trivial and revocable. He must not be allowed to suspect that he is now, however slowly, heading right away from the sun on a line which will carry him into the cold and dark of utmost space. (Letter XII)

“The Enemy” means “God”: part of the irony of this book is the way it inverts the Christian worldview, denigrating what is holy and praising what is unholy. But Lewis isn’t simply being ironic: his point is that Screwtape, as a misery-loving, human-hating demon, knows what he’s doing when he rejects Christianity. Christians reject Christianity without realizing it. And there’s part of the entertainment, for me at least: spotting the fallacies in Lewis’s concept of free will. If Wormwood’s target is finally damned, it will be because he didn’t properly understand what was going on. Screwtape’s advice is to confuse, to befuddle, to prevent thought as much as to pervert it:

You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts. (Letter XII)

If the choice between Heaven and Hell were clear during life, no-one would choose Hell except lunatics and imbeciles – that is, people who can’t reason, can’t understand and can’t act in their own best interest. That’s why Screwtape describes “one of [his] own patients” saying this on arrival in Hell: “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked” (Letter XII). The damned soul saw the truth only when it was too late. That’s why he’s culpable, in Lewis’s eyes: he should have seen earlier, should have avoided those choices in life that led to his damnation after life. But he didn’t see because he was weak and imperfect. Meanwhile, other weak, imperfect individuals make the right choices and arrive in Heaven. And salvation is as revelatory as damnation: Screwtape says that only at death will a saved soul see its guardian angel and its tempting demon clearly “for the first time” (Letter XXXI).

I can’t accept these ideas or Lewis’s insistence on free will. Justice seems to demand that all souls have an equal chance of ascending to Heaven or descending to Hell. If the chance is 50/50, it seems impossible to distinguish free will from coin-tossing. But Christian tradition says that chance is in fact weighted heavily in one direction. According to the New Testament, the majority of human beings will be damned:

7:13 Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: 7:14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. (Gospel of Matthew)

Lewis wasn’t happy with that and in The Great Divorce (1945) he suggests that souls continue to have a chance of Heaven even after death. He wasn’t happy with the traditional idea of Hell either:

9:47 And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: 9:48 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. (Gospel of Mark)

Screwtape’s Hell isn’t fiery or physically frightening, but it’s still thought-provoking:

Music and silence — how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since our Father entered Hell — though longer ago than humans, reckoning in light years, could express — no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise — Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile — Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress. (Letter XXIII)

That research has indeed progressed. It means that Screwtape would like a lot of modern music. And that “reckoning in light years” is a reminder that Lewis wasn’t very knowledgeable about science. He seems to think that “light year” is a vast unit of time, rather than of distance. But if his understanding of science was weak, his understanding of psychology was strong. That was why he could make insightful critiques of science in books like The Abolition of Man (1943). Weak and imperfect human beings are gaining more and more power over nature. Lewis didn’t think it would end well. The trends he saw beginning in the first half of the twentieth century are coming to fruition in the first quarter of the twenty-first. He discusses some of them in The Screwtape Letters, partly because they’re important for his perennial theme: free will. I don’t believe in that and Lewis’s concept of Hell isn’t frightening or disturbing enough to make me consider becoming a Christian.

Maybe I’m wrong. I’m mentally weak and morally imperfect, after all. That’s why I enjoyed this book and learned things from it, because, in talking about humanity, it talked about me. Even Lewis’s weakest writing, like the Narnia books, can stay with you for life. The Screwtape Letters contains some of his strongest writing. Something I’ve always remembered from Lewis’s introduction to one edition is his point that, for proper balance, he should have written the heavenly equivalent too: letters to the guardian angel with whom Wormwood was wrestling for a human soul. But imitating an angel would be impossible for a human being: it’s much easier to think down than to think up. Lewis was a pessimistic conservative and rejected the idea of true happiness on earth. But he knew human beings can always be happier. This book contains lots of advice on how to achieve misery, so readers will understand better how to avoid misery. They’ll also be well-entertained on the way.


Elsewhere other-posted:

The Brain In Pain: Choice, Joyce and the Colour of Your Hair

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Front cover of an Armada edition of William in Trouble by Richmal CromptonWilliam in Trouble, Richmal Crompton (1927)

This may be my favourite William book, which means that it’s very good. Richmal Crompton (1890-1969) had ambitions to be a serious adult writer, but I doubt her books for adults can be as good as her books for children. Which are books for adults too and may even be informed by the classics she studied at university. My theory is that the Outlaws represent the four Greek humours: the gang consists of William Brown and his three chief friends, Ginger, Henry, and Douglas. William is choleric, Ginger sanguine, Henry phlegmatic and Douglas melancholic. Their names seem to reflect this: choleric literally means “bilious” and bile is brown like William’s surname; sanguine literally means “bloody” and Ginger has red hair; melancholic literally means “black-biled” and Douglas is from the Gaelic Dubhghlas, meaning “dark river”:

“We can’t fight him — not if he’s grown-up,” said Douglas gloomily. Douglas was always something of a pessimist. (ch. 10, “William to the Rescue”)

But the Outlaws are also miniature satyrs, lordlings of misrule who introduce chaos into the orderliness and calm of what J.G. Ballard, a fan of the series, called a “curiously empty middle-class world”. I don’t think the emptiness of the world is deliberate: Crompton just doesn’t seem interested in topography and architecture. The homes of William and his friends, the old barn they use as a headquarters, the countryside they roam, the church they reluctantly attend, the shops and high street in their village — they’re just settings for what really interests her: children and their psychology. This, from the slightly earlier More William (1922), is an excellent piece of prose and observation, capturing the fearlessness and skills of early childhood:

He [William] was getting jolly hungry. It must be after lunch-time. But it would spoil it all to go home too early. Here he caught sight of a minute figure regarding him with a steady gaze and holding a paper bag in one hand. William stared down at him.

“Wot you dressed up like that for?” said the apparition, with a touch of scorn in his voice.

William looked down at his sacred uniform and scowled. “I’m a scout,” he said loftily.

“’Cout?” repeated the apparition, with an air of polite boredom. “Wot’s your name?”

“William.”

“Mine’s Thomas. Will you catch me a wopse? Look at my wopses!”

He opened the bag slightly and William caught sight of a crowd of wasps buzzing about inside the bag.

“Want more,” demanded the infant. “Want lots more. Look. Snells!”

He brought out a handful of snails from a miniature pocket, and put them on the ground.

“Watch ’em put their horns out! Watch ’em walk. Look! They’re walkin’. They’re walkin’.”

His voice was a scream of ecstasy. He took them up and returned them to their pocket. From another he drew out a wriggling mass.

“Wood-lice!” he explained, casually. “Got worms in ’nother pocket.”

He returned the wood-lice to his pocket except one, which he held between a finger and thumb laid thoughtfully against his lip. “Want wopses now. You get ’em for me.”

William roused himself from his bewilderment.

“How — how do you catch ’em?” he said.

“Wings,” replied Thomas. “Get hold of their wings an’ they don’t sting. Sometimes they do, though,” he added casually. “Then your hands go big.”

A wasp settled near him, and very neatly the young naturalist picked him up and put him in his paper prison.

“Now you get one,” he ordered William.

William determined not to be outshone by this minute but dauntless stranger. As a wasp obligingly settled on a flower near him, he put out his hand, only to withdraw it with a yell of pain and apply it to his mouth.

“Oo—ou!” he said. “Crumbs!”

Thomas emitted a peal of laughter.

“You stung?” he said. “Did it sting you? Funny!”

William’s expression of rage and pain was exquisite to him. (More William, ch. IX)

William isn’t always triumphant in the series, you see, and in one story (“April Fool’s Day”, I think) he’s even humiliated by a much less formidable figure than Thomas. Crompton doesn’t write a lot about the sadism of childhood, but it’s there all the same, as that extract shows, along with the irrationality, superstition, and love of noise and excitement. William supplies a lot of all those, particularly the last two, being the ugly, dirty, disruptive opposite of his calm mother and beautiful sister Ellen. In “William and the Fairy Daffodil”, the second story in this book, he’s an unauthorized addition to a play being performed by a girls’ school. The audience is shocked and disturbed by a “curious apparition” in “yellow butter muslin”, which delivers its misremembered lines, then sits down, “stern, bored and contemptuous”, until:

…a light as at some happy memory came into its face. It pulled up the butter muslin to its waist, revealing muddy boots, muddy legs and muddy trousers, plunged its hand into its pocket and brought out a nut, which it proceeded to crack with much facial contortion and bared teeth.

William’s mother is in the audience to witness the spectacle, as members of his family so often and improbably are when he breaks the rules. The embarrassment he causes them is always an important part of the stories. So are his chivalry and wayward but strong sense of honour. That’s how Violet Elizabeth Bott, his lisping, iron-willed, six-year-old female admirer, manages to control him and the other Outlaws. She’s not at her best in William in Trouble, but does utter her famous catchphrase when forcing the Outlaws to admit her to the staff of the paper they’ve set up:

Violet Elizabeth dried her tears. She saw that they were useless and she did not believe in wasting her effects.

“All right,” she said calmly. “I’ll thcream then. I’ll thcream, an’ thcream, an’ thcream till I’m thick.”

More than once William had seen the small but redoubtable lady fulfil this threat quite literally. He watched her with fearsome awe. Violet Elizabeth with a look of fiendish determination on her angelic face opened her small mouth.

“’Sall right,” said William brokenly. “Come on — write if you want to.”

The domineering William much prefers the demure and dimpled Joan, who’s happy to let him control events. “The Mammoth Circus” he arranges to welcome her home in this book succeeds in introducing more chaos into the adult world. He hides its star performers in the apparently empty Rose Mount School and they end up driving out the foolish and credulous women who have flocked there to a convention of the Society for the Study of Psychical Philosophy.

Crompton often uses William like that to deflate pretentious, superstitious and self-important adults. Later in the book he’s mistaken for a musical prodigy and produces a “Bacchanalian riot of inharmonious sounds” on the Vicarage piano, which the wives of the vicar and squire compete to praise. Bacchanalian is the mot juste: the eternally youthful William, eleven both when the series began in 1921 and when it ended in 1970, introduces the drunkenness of the irrational and unplanned into middle-class adult sobriety, as some of Saki’s anti-heroes do. Crompton doesn’t have all of Saki’s subtlety or much of his malice, but in her way she’s rebelling against the same conformity and rigidity, while recognizing that rebellion has its own flaws.

She’s one up on Saki in having an excellent illustrator, Thomas Henry, who enhances her books as Tenniel did for Lewis Carroll’s or Quentin Blake did for J.P. Martin’s. Henry obviously enjoyed portraying the ugly, stocky, shockheaded William and although the pictures here aren’t the best I’ve seen by him, one is a classic: William on stage as Fairy Daffodil, confronting the dainty Fairy Bluebell:

“It’s not my turn,” he hissed. “I’ve just spoke.”

That’s William in trouble again.

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