The Mezzanine – Nicholson Baker

I first stumbled across Nicholson Baker probably 10 years ago, and I’ve cherished his work ever since. He’s a master pornographer (Vox), a reasonably successful polemicist (Checkpoint) and a tireless campaigner for the value of libraries (Double Fold – Libraries and the Assault on Paper), but he’s probably best known for his hyper-meticulous descriptive work, which covers The Mezzanine (his first novel), The Size of Thoughts and A Box of Matches.

I was inspired to re-read the Mezzanine by a passage in Tristram Shandy in which Walter and Toby are walking down a flight of stairs, and Sterne (as Tristram) says:

Is it not a shame to make two chapters of what passed in going down one pair of stairs? for we are got no farther yet than to the first landing, and there are fifteen more steps down to the bottom; and for aught I know, as my father and my uncle Toby are in a talking humour, there may be as many chapters as steps.

Given that the premise of The Mezzanine is to document the thoughts of the protagonist as he travels up his office escalator from the ground floor to the mezzanine, a journey that takes the entire length of the novel, there’s a clear link here, and the two books have a fair amount in common. I was wondering whether anything in the book mentioned the connection at all. It doesn’t.

What’s interesting on a second reading is that, when I read it in the 90s. the decade of its publication, it struck me as a fascinating and wonderful novel about contemporary office life. In 2008, it now has some of the quality of a historical document about it. It’s scary how office life has changed in the intervening 18-odd years.

He loves footnotes. I love footnotes.

Everytown – A Journey into the English Mind – Julian Baggini

I’ve read Baggini’s work in a number of places: the Butterflies and Wheels blog, and Prospect magazine, to name two. In particular, an essay in Prospect criticising casual dismissal of English “folk politics” as knee-jerk and snobbish, raised the tantalising thesis that the politics of the Daily Mail, the Sun and the man down the the pub are consistent if viewed in terms of communitarian, rather than liberal, philosophy. This wasn’t a distinction I was familiar with, but was keen to learn more and Everytown seemed like a good place to start.

Everytown is Baggini’s Wigan Pier, in that Baggini decided that understand the English mind, he had to locate the most English place possible, live in the most English house, talk to the most English people, and do the most English things. He acquired a bunch of statistics about England (for example, average income, average population density, average racial mix), and then tried to find a location in England which matched these most closely. And he came up with postcode S66, on the outskirts of Rotherham. He moves into a little rented box-house there, starts mingling with the locals down the pub, eats at Morrisons, buys a crappy little car, goes to the bookies, listens to Radio 2 and starts reading the Sun and the Daily Mail.

Aside from the chapters on communitarianism, and invective about the Daily Mail (of which I can never tire, and in relation to which I therefore have very low critical standards), the book is, perhaps predictably, a journey more into the mind of Baggini. If I want to know the thought processes of University-educated liberal English white atheist freethinker with a bourgeouis guilt complex and a suspicion the the youth of today are getting a lot more sex than was on offer in the 1980s, then I can, er, interrogate my own brain.

To be fair, Baggini does quote Wigan Pier, but doesn’t pretend to suggest that his book should in any way be compared to it. Orwell was trying painting a picture of something truly appalling, in a way that was trying to force fundamental and much needed change. Baggini is merely trying to say that the English aren’t too bad, on the whole. And, if that is the extent of his ambition, he succeeds.

F.R. Leavis’s response to C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures”

I’ve just acquired this slim volume from an Amazon reseller, and I’m a little saddened to see, from an ex libris sticker, that it came from the library of Prinknash Abbey. It even has some annotations in a beautiful neat monkish hand (not illuminated, unfortunately). The few monks I’ve ever spoken to have proven to be intriguing, fascinating individuals and this piece of evidence makes me worried that something horrible has happened to their library.

The first part is a glorious object lesson in ranting. As the object of a good sex session is to keep the recipient of your attentions just before the peak of orgasm until the final exposive moment, and the keep the tension and the anticipation building, the object of a good rant is to convince the reader for as long as possible that you are about to turn apoplectic without, in this case, it ever happening. And so far as it goes, it’s a wonderfully entertaining read. As good as Charlie Brooker. However, and here I have a confession, halfway through, Leavis enlists the aid of Lawrence, Eliot and Ruskin, and I find myself totally out of my depth. So it’s time for me to add, once more to the reading list.

There’s an interesting second essay in the volume, by Michael Yudkin, which while critical of Snow in no uncertain terms is much less ranty and more direct. While still (justifiably) accusing Snow of missing the point, it makes two egregious errors:

1. The assumption that science and technology are the same thing, and that understanding of science cannot, of itself, add to literature, since science is mere knowledge and does not speak to the human condition; and

2. The assumption that, unfortunately, the scientific “culture” is the one which will, if there is no bridge created, prevail.

The second I have already addressed. The first is more interesting. Science can inform literature in a number of ways:

1. In its most basic “technology” sense, it can posit alternative worlds or new inventions which can be the setting for (much of the dullest kind) of science fiction;

2. Scientific metaphors can enliven literature. When I’ve thought of some examples I’ll insert them.

3. Science can be the basis of literature. I don’t hesitate to say that Oliver Sacks, or Primo Levi’s writings count as literature.

4. Science in itself can be beautiful. The theory of evolution is beautiful. That something so simple can have such fascinating consequences is beautiful. It transcends pure knowledge. It generates an urge to know more, to explore, and to wonder. Mathematics can be beautiful. In its most basic sense, a simple formula or algorithm can generate beautiful images (like the Mandelbrot set, or a logarithmic spiral). In a deeper sense, a theorem or equation can be beautiful and beguiling. It can show us glimpses of deeper symmetries and connections, and dare us to discover more, and open our eyes to possibility. Isn’t that what great literature does?

On the Laziness of Children’s Story Writers

It is not compulsory for animals to have names that are alliterative with the creature’s species. Thus cows do not need to be called “Clarissa”, pigs do not need to be called “Peppa” and rabbits do not need to be called “Rachel”. A particularly warm section of hell is reserved for those who call hamsters “Hammy”.

Alternatively, at least be consistent, and ensure that all humans in your stories have names beginning with “H”

The Road to Wigan Pier – George Orwell

George Orwell is in many ways the polar opposite of Michael Moore. Although both writers come from the left of the political spectrum (to the extent that that blunt measure means anything), Orwell is painfully, profoundly and scrupulously honest in his writing. The Road is a book of two parts. The first charts Orwell’s visit to Wigan and other Northern English towns. As in Down and Out in Paris and London, and his earlier trips to London’s East End, he tries to live the life of the people he’s observing, by staying in their houses, dressing as they do and so-on. I first read Down and Out when I was about 15, and I airly dismissed it as tosh on the basis that (1) Orwell’s language was simple and direct and there therefore couldn’t say anything interesting or profound; and (2) he came from a relatively wealthy lower-upper-middle class family, and that therefore the experience lacked authenticity – he could just write home at any time asking for a pound note and a parcel of tuck.

My first point – the simplicity of the writing – (at least to the extent that it applies to The Road to Wigan Pier) is plain wrong. I will go back and reread Down and Out just to check. The second point – the lack of authenticity – bears a bit more analysis.

Orwell is fully aware of his inauthenticity. He’s a misfit: he talks posh, he’s tall and weedy (as opposed to the short and muscular miners), and he’s lower-upper-middle class. He’s physically repulsed by many of the people he meets (the second part of the book has a large section devoted to their smell). He detests the petty meanness of the owners of the boarding-house he stays in. He’s aware of the contradictions in this. Journalists and politicians are well aware of the trick of using the example of a since person to engage our emotions, or to zoom out and talk about a depersonalised mass, or statistics when they want to isolate our emotions from what they are talking about. This cynical trick is employed constantly, and of course one of the reasons that objectivity is impossible is that in reporting any issue someone has to choose the focal lens of the lens they use: do they concentrate on the plight of individuals, or talk in terms of abstract statistics?

In (the first part of) The Road to Wigan Pier Orwell does both, but it’s clear this an issue he is wrestling with mentally. He’s not choosing the viewpoint he thinks will best convey his message. He’s expressing to us an edited version of his though processes: a meta view, and revealing those thought processes gives us a much more honest view than Michael Moore, for example.

Orwell doesn’t edit his visceral distaste for the grimness of Wigan and Sheffield, and their hovels and slums, and he is devastatingly offensive about some of the individuals he meets: he’s no bleeding heart liberal in that respect. (A letter to the editor in the Independent earlier this week made the crass assumption that Orwell viewed “the lower classes” as diamonds in the rough, who with a bit of education and prodding will become useful members of society. A reading of The Road to Wigan Pier shows that is simply not true: it’s not even an over-simplification.

I’m sure that Orwell would agree with Russell’s observation that suffering does not ennoble.

Part one of the book, therefore, is a powerful and direct description of the filth, squalor and deprivation of the slums of Northern England, and the hideous conditions in which miners are required to work. Orwell himself goes down the pits. The claustrophobia is palpable. I had to stop reading every so often and walk around, reminding myself that I had the simple luxury of space. It’s also a fledgling, work of sociology, and deals with many of the same issues (and reaches similar conclusions to) Michael Young and Peter Wilmott’s study Family and Kinship in East London published some 20 years later (and equally worth a read)

Part two of the book is more complex and in many ways more interesting (although less viscerally arresting). It talks about the class structure in Britain with startling frankness, and also about the North-South divide. It discusses race, and even matters as basic (and fascinating) as hygiene and table manners.

Orwell’s criticism encompasses his own class, but not in the classic bourgeois-socialist self-hating way, and, crucially, he does not try to set himself apart from his class (the implication always being, therefore, that by doing so he is somehow superior because he has transcended the shackles which bound his fellow man). Michael Moore’s stock in trade, in stark and retina-searing contrast is precisely the smug superiority that I am a “stupid white man”/”ignorant American”/”slobbish fat person”/”infantile, thuggish male” with the barely-disguised corollary “but of course I am superior enough to have noticed this and transcended it”. And of course the appeal of his books and films is that he allows the audience into this conspiracy, and allows them likewise to feel the smugness of superiority. (In truth I don’t know if he’s pulled this trick in relation to the fat person thing).

Hanging over the piece is the ever-present menace of Fascism (always nice to see the Daily Mail getting a name-check in this regard – plus ca change). Orwell, as ever, reminds us that his beef is with totalitarianism, and that his form of socialism is democratic (he likens the totalitarian tendency in socialism to sawing off the branch which is supporting you).

There’s some slightly bizarre (in retrospect) passages about the machine age. They, in themselves, require a separate analysis, but, at risk of hugely oversimplifying, machines to have a tendency to dehumanise, and work is necessary for human happiness. Wells and Lawrence get the usual name check.

A wise man once said that the greatest compliment that can be paid a writer is that a reader wants to learn his work by heart. As I was reading, I was constantly thinking, I’d love to be able to remember that passage.

Alice in Sunderland – Bryan Talbot

Just finished Alice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot. It won’t set the world on fire, but it’s a beautifully produced treasure trove of fascinating trivia about the North East of England.

I now have, thanks to the book, at least 25 different reasons to visit Sunderland and its environs.

And for one thing, I need to find out a lot more about the truth behind the Lewis Carroll/CL Dodgson myth. It turns out that the geeky mathmo with the penchant for little girls was an invention of his family, intending to divert the world from his much more scandalous activities with grown-up women. Thanks to an inversion of morals since Victorian times, his (innocent) interest in young girls is now regarded with paedo-frenzy. Or so, at least, says Talbot, and this book

Two Cultures – CP Snow

There’s so much commentary on this lecture, I thought it was high time I read it – so I did.

Granted, it started a storm of controversy which still rages to this day. But, frankly, it’s pretty dated polemic rooted in a 1930s mindset that was already pretty well rotted (apart from, possibly, around the Oxbridge high tables of 1959 where Snow developed his subject). Modern references forget Snow’s prediction that world poverty would have ended by 2000. Like many vintage polemics, many of the base assumptions seem rather quaint. But, to demonstrate that the relevance of the two cultures, if there ever was one, is almost non-existent now:

1. Science-literate novelists, like Ian McEwan, Iain Banks, David Foster Wallace and Martin Amis (his first book was about video games fercrissakes).
2. Scientists and mathematicians who write beautifully and persuasively, and have a pretty good grasp of literature to boot: Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, Peter Medawar, Douglas Hofstadter, Oliver Sacks, Matt Ridley.
3. Melvyn Bragg.
4. Melvyn Bragg.
5. The internet and technology are pervasive. No one can succeed in any higher seat of learning, even in the humanities, without understanding them.

But, there are a few things that humanities scholars need to understand about the sciences (and probably the other way round, but I can’t comment on those):

1. Mathematical argument, in particular, works in a different way to dialectical argument in discussions. If, as a humanities scholar, you bring mathematics into play, you are forced to play by a different set of rules, or you appear very, very stupid. In mathematics, you can be right (don’t get too het up about Godel’s incompleteness theorem – it’s extremely unlikely to help you). So, for example, if you try to come up with a jurisprudential theorem involving a perfect judge (called “Hercules” for example) who knows the algorithm to calculate the “correct” outcome of a legal question based on the extrapolation of all previously available data, you will have to content with this fact that this is isomorphic to the problem of how many curves will fit through a finite number of discrete points in n-space, to which the answer is always infinity. Hercules therefore has an infinite number of solutions to any given legal problem, and you have proved nothing. QED. There is no more argument, unless there’s a flaw in the maths.

2. Statistical issues are much the same, added to which the complication is that they are terribly counter-intuitive. If a statistician colleague demonstrates, for example, that by using “catch and release” statistical techniques that it’s 1,000,000,000 times more likely that Timon of Athens was written by Shakespeare (or at least by the person who wrote all the other works attributed to Shakespeare) then you really have to shut up about the historical evidence surrounding your pet theory that they were written by Queen Elizabeth, until you can effectively demonstrate the flaw in your opponent’s statistical analysis. The maths trumps your evidence, unfortunately.

3. Reductionism doesn’t destroy beauty. Really. See 5 below.

4. Chaos theory is fascinating, relatively simple, but also easily misunderstood.

5. Evolutionary theory is incredibly simple, but has truly astounding consequences. In fact, any form of emergence is really interesting.

That’ll do for the time being