With One Look

Fair is my Love and cruel as she is fair;
Her brow-shades frown, although her eyes are sunny.
Her smiles are lightning, though her pride despair,
And her disdains are gall, her favours honey:
A modest maid, deck’d with a blush of honour,
Whose feet do tread green paths of youth and love;
The wonder of all eyes that look upon her,
Sacred on earth, design’d a Saint above.
Chastity and Beauty, which were deadly foes,
Live reconcilèd friends within her brow;
And had she Pity to conjoin with those,
Then who had heard the plaints I utter now?
For had she not been fair, and thus unkind,
My Muse had slept, and none had known my mind.
-Samuel Daniel

 

Recently, I wrote a little retrospective appreciation of Stephen King’s 1986 novel, It. I thought it timely since it had been thirty years since the book was published, and it’s a “fan favourite” as some people say. When I was re-reading the piece I stopped and stared at this short passage:

Many of us enjoy regressing to childhood. We look at pictures and video from when we were kids and indulge our sadomasochistic side by going to the “school reunion”. Childhood is idealised in our memory and children, especially babies, are cooed at and fawned over. This might be why so many of us are wet and feeble weaklings when we grow up. The Romans, not fond of children, thinking them rather gross and needy creatures, used childhood as the time to train and prepare for adulthood, without the cooing and fawning. Who would argue Roman men weren’t made of “sterner stuff” than us males are today?

The problem was that, seven days prior to forwarding the piece, I had myself attended a “school reunion”. I had seen the advertisement on a popular “social media” site and thought it was something I wouldn’t be going to. I did think a lot about this, changing my mind each day, depending on my mood. I saw a school-friend in the supermarket and asked him about it. Would he be going? Phil barely thought before answering.

‘No mate, I’m not going to that. Why would anyone want to go back to all those feelings of inferiority?’

I knew this was just what I wanted to hear, so I jumped on it, not really remembering what I’d written about It (the book) but probably having it in mind somewhere.

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘that’s it exactly. It’s like regression. Who’d want to go back to that? All the cliques, and the social complexes…no thanks.’

I was pleased to have found a kindred spirit, someone about whom I could think and whose name I could use when telling my subconscious mind that no, it wasn’t only me, I wasn’t a pathetic wimp, I was an intelligent adult who didn’t need to “do” reunions. I even managed to tell myself that it wasn’t a “reunion” to begin with because there had been no “union” in the first place; therefore – and goodness me! – what a lot of low-brow nonsense it all was.

My inner snob timed its rescue perfectly.

I didn’t want to go because I was scared of what others thought of me while I was school, and scared of what they might think of me now. There was nothing concrete to this fear, it was just a fear, sat in the gut, spinning and twisting.

I first thought it was a “guy thing” and that these fears had their root in the not only hair-raising, but terrifying things many teenage boys are duly terrified by; namely, teenage girls.

But I didn’t think that was precise enough. I fiddled with the idea an all-boys school would have been an easier place to be, then realised that such were the joys of being a teenage boy, a single-sex school would have made nothing easier, then or later. It remains my unshakeable belief that the greatest joy to be had from being a teenage boy comes from knowing it has to be done only once.

It seems to me teenage girls realise the power they have over teenage boys too late to make the best use of it. This is lucky for the boys. I wonder what school would be like for thirteen, fourteen, fifteen and sixteen year-old boys if the girls realised the power they have, and what they can do to those boys, with one look.

(And what can they do? Imagine the mind of a forty year-old woman in the head of a fifteen year-old girl and you’ll get the idea. One actually shudders at the thought.)

The girls have an opportunity, narrow in time, to assert their natural dominance, and they should take it, because it doesn’t take us boys long to catch up. When we’re fifteen or sixteen, we might inwardly howl that we like girls, we just wish we could talk to one; by the time we’re eighteen or nineteen, we’re complaining that although we like girls, we could never eat a whole one.

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“Hot is my Bird” – or

“A Translation Flowing to the Estuary”

By JDA aged 42 years and 3 months.

The bird I fancy is hot, but she’s a bitch in equal measure;

She scowls a lot, but she’s got nice eyes;

Her smiles are thrilling, but her snobbery fucks me off;

She dogs me up, but not all the time;

Not a showy bird – butter wouldn’t melt!

She’d never shag about cuz she’s totes too young and innocent;

All my mates want to bang her;

She’s hot right now – she’ll get promoted when she croaks!

Frigid, yet fuckable – a problem for most birds –

Is something of which she aint bovvered;

She’s got no sympathy for her position,

But if she did – why bother moaning about her?

Y’see, if she was a minger – and therefore a bit nicer,

I wouldn’t have given a shit and written this!!

 

 

 

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Trumpton

On the morning we knew that Mr Donald Trump had won the election, I overheard part of a conversation on the bus, going to work.

An amusing woman was talking to her friend about the American election result. She claimed to be “shocked” that a sexist, misogynist (etc.) had won the election, and wasn’t it a tragedy Obama wasn’t going for a third term?

(This was what amused me the most that morning, until I read – a few moments after she’d said this – Philip Larkin describe Christmas shopping as the ‘conversion of one’s indifference to others to active hatred’, a comment so sweetly sour I thought it hilarious.)

The woman’s comment seemed to exemplify two problems.

One was the parroting of the media-line that Trump is a (insert bad word here) which he might be, but since when was stating the obvious worth doing?

The other, and the worrying thing about the Trump circus, is that nobody seems to want to acknowledge that no person is actually one-dimensional, nobody is asking ‘can he really be that bad?’ ‘Is he playing to the gallery?’ Obedience to the media is more that repeating its line, it’s refusing to think or question that line for yourself. Silence, then, is obedience.

This is a question of safe seats.

Consider some of the “safe seats” in our small country. In some parts of the north-east, say, a three-legged donkey would be duly elected so long as it had a red-rosette pinned to it. We the people are to blame for the third-raters who get into office.

Trump and Billary is what happens when the majority of voters are witless Kardashian fans who don’t care about who rules over them.

This latest “choice” shows America has become one huge safe-seat.

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You’re My Next Victim – Stephen King’s It

Late one night Stephen King woke me up. I was perhaps nine or ten. At first I had no idea I was lying awake, then – when I realised I was staring into darkness – I realised I had no idea why I was awake. I heard soft chuckling – just a gentle laughter in the darkness – that I couldn’t place in space. It could have been coming from under my bed. I lay still for several moments, a little nervous, wondering if I had heard what I thought I’d heard.

Then I heard it again.

I got out of bed and put an ear to my door, hearing nothing. I opened it and walked out onto the dark landing. I saw my parents’ bedroom light was on so went in to ask if either of them had heard the chuckling. My mother wasn’t there, but my dad was sat up reading It, and it was his laughing which had woke me up. He said he was laughing because the scene he was reading had some kids who were squatted down lighting each other’s farts. I told him his chuckling had woke me up and that it was a little creepy hearing giggling in the darkness, but it was alright now I knew what was going on. I went back to bed and slept without trouble. That was the first time Stephen King disturbed my sleep.

I didn’t know then that the scene in which those bullies light their farts – and it certainly is funny – is followed by a wonderful scene in which a twelve year old boy, Patrick Hockstetter, is half murdered by a swarm of flying leeches. One leech pierces his eyelid and sucks the eyeball until it collapses, and another lands on his tongue, sucks blood until it’s bloated, and then explodes in his mouth. Young Mr Hockstetter passes out as he’s dragged into the sewers by the entity called It, and he awakens only when, in the dark somewhere under the city, the creature begins to eat him. That might be gross, but here’s the thing: Patrick Hockstetter had it coming.

Stephen King’s It was published in September 1986. Thirty years later many fan-polls and blogs still cite the book as either his best or the fans’ favourite. Sometimes fans confuse a writer’s best work with their favourite work from that writer. Defining a writer’s “best” work is trickier than it sounds. It is probably not King’s best work, but it’s one which has its popularity secured by a collection of characters the reader easily sympathises with. The depth to which King thinks his characters into existence is remarkable.

Consider this for instance. Claudette Sanders – the first character mentioned in King’s Under the Dome – is taking a flying lesson, paid for by her wealthy husband, Andy. We are told of her that, although not exactly spoiled, she “had undeniably expensive tastes which, lucky man, Andy seemed to have no trouble satisfying.” At the end of the next page (page two) the control panel of the plane dies, and eight lines of prose later, Claudette’s body parts are falling on Chester’s Mill. Here’s a character created to be killed to open the novel, but King still gives her a whiff of backstory when he mentions her “expensive tastes”. Such a small detail begins to show the character’s character. Yet by the end of page three she’s dead. This is mildly extraordinary. We are forced to ask ourselves, if King thinks this much about a character who doesn’t last even two full-pages of prose, to what extent did King think about his Loser’s Club of kids?

Each of the seven children he creates to battle the entity are losers for different reasons. Bill stutters; Richie can’t keep his mouth shut, and has what might now be called “hyperactivity disorder” – or some other similar nonsense. Ben is fat and a loner; Eddie is the wimpy kid; Stan is Jewish; Beverly is poor and Mike is black. All these circumstances make the kids unpopular in 1958, not part of the “in” crowd at school. This is something which most of us can relate to, either by not having been one of the cool-kids, or remembering some unfortunate kid whose mum sent him in wearing Hi-tech trainers. (When I was a young teenager wearing Hi-techs was more or less a death sentence. Some parents are criminally fucking stupid. And here’s a darker thought: perhaps some parents secretly hate their children?) Thus we recognise something of our past selves in the kids King creates to face the creature. The Loser’s Club has something for everyone’s memory.

Many of us enjoy the regressing to childhood. We look at pictures and video from when we were kids and indulge our sadomasochistic side by going to the “school reunion”. Childhood is idealised in our memory and children, especially babies, are cooed at and fawned over.  This might be why so many of us are wet and feeble weaklings when we grow up. The Romans, not fond of children, thinking them rather gross and needy creatures, used childhood as the time to train and prepare for adulthood, without the cooing and fawning. Who would argue Roman men weren’t made of “sterner stuff” than us males are today?

Although we have a tale in which children are murdered and eaten, the book is pitched at the place where most adults are vulnerable: in our desire for nostalgia and our moist-eyed attitude to childhood. We can be pulled into the novel, let’s say, by Ben falling in love with Beverley Marsh because he sees her ankle bracelet, but we don’t need to understand what he feels precisely; to understand the ache in his belly  we need only to have some memory of our own for comparison.

It’s too easy to decide that King – or part of him at any rate – is to be found in the character of Bill Denbrough. King would have been the same age as the Losers in 1958, and Denbrough is the character who becomes a horror writer, his books inspired by his childhood experiences. Perhaps the Denbrough / King thing is too obvious on purpose? If King – allowing the nostalgia power to work on him as well as through him – puts himself in the book, perhaps he’s split between Bill and Richie. Bill stutters – so can’t express himself properly, while Richie expresses himself too well, yet hides behind characters who find expression through the voices Richie uses throughout.

Bill and Richie, working together, go to the House on Neibolt Street to kill It with Bill’s father’s gun. While in the basement, the creature comes down the stairs to get them in the form of the werewolf from the 1957 movie I was a Teenage Werewolf. Richie has recently seen this movie and it made an impression on him. It made an impression on King, too. Writing in Danse Macabre, King talks of the film and mentions the change from boy to monster. ‘For a high school or junior high school kid watching the transformation for the first time,’ King says, ‘this was baaad shit.’ He then points out the basics of the matter: the unfortunate teenage boy

grows hair all over his face, produces long fangs, and begins to drool a substance that looks suspiciously like Burma-Shave. He peeks at a girl doing exercises on the balance beam all by herself in the gymnasium, and one imagines him smelling like a randy polecat who just rolled in a nice fresh pile of coyote shit.

(For completeness, that teenage girl in the gymnasium was a twenty-two year old woman called Dawn Richard – a Playboy centrefold.)

Richie and Ben might be confronted by a werewolf because that represents what they’re most scared of at that time, yet the werewolf – the one from the movie, and the one in the novel, because the one in the novel is the one from the movie – symbolises something else: a fear of puberty and the sexual awakening which turns pleasant little boys into ravenous monsters. (Beverly – the only girl in the gang – recounts how It appeared to her as spurts of blood from the plughole in the bathroom. This is what she’s most afraid of, perhaps, for similar reasons to Bill and Richie; or because once her father knows she’s bleeding, he might want to take their relationship to the next level.) These fears are wrapped into a colourful package of classic American popular culture – the monsters from the movies – and might be dismissed for that reason as nostalgia for King, or for Americans generally of a certain age, but those hooks are universal, they lurk under the surface and will pierce the psyche somewhere of anyone old enough to read the book. (The cover of Detective Comics 671 has Batman protecting a screaming woman while surrounded by Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy and the Werewolf – all monsters used by It – and that issue, from February 1994, was not aimed at people who were kids in 1955. Perhaps it’s fair to assume that teenage boys, from different eras, have the same preoccupations?)

The novel is pitched directly at the child you once were. In that way, it’s a shameless pitch, and too much of the book force-feeds us on the topic of “the magic of childhood”. This isn’t a vague term, interchangeable with “the best days of your life”, or something similar. King’s childhood magic is exactly that: a force which is somehow aware of the kids and uses them (and helps them) to battle the ancient entity under the city.

For example, Beverly – hiding from the boys lighting their farts, yet watching them closely – is attacked by one of the leeches which punches holes in Patrick Hockstetter. Beverly is the crack-shot of the gang; she’s armed with a Bulleye – a catapult which fires ball bearings. She loads it, aims at the leech she’s just pulled off her arm, and as soon as the metal ball leaves the pouch, she knows she’s missed her target.

But then she saw the ball-bearing curve. It happened in a split second, but the impression was very clear: it had curved. It struck the flying thing and splattered it to mush. There was a shower of yellowish droplets which pattered on the path.

The power the creature has is worth wondering about. It seems to have omnipotence and omniscience when it needs it, but these powers fail It when it suits King. Does the creature have powers or not? Two scenes with the Bullseye allow the reader to wonder.

Patrick Hockstetter is a child-psychopath, easily the most demented character in the book. His dementia means he isn’t scared of anything and this lack of fear makes things tricky when It comes out of hiding after sending the flying leeches. Hockstetter sees the creature come out from behind a junked car. He notices that

its face was running like wax. Sometimes it began to harden and look like something – or someone – and then it would start to run again, as if it couldn’t make up its mind what it wanted to be.

It says only ‘hello and goodbye’ to Patrick in a “bubbling voice”, yet Beverley hears her father say ‘hello and goodbye’. On the surface we understand this. Al Marsh is the person (thing) she is most afraid of (and had Beverly seen what had happened, not just heard it, she would have seen her father drag him off.) But this small scene actually poses problems for the novel’s logic. The creature can’t settle on what image to appear as to Hockstetter because it’s getting nothing from Hockstetter. It seems to be trying to “get a reading” but Patrick’s mind is blank of fears. Now on the novel’s logic, had Mike Hanlon been hiding with Beverly he would have heard It squawk ‘hello and goodbye’ like the giant bird; Richie would have heard the words in the sound of a werewolf’s snarl. So either It can broadcast on all frequencies or it relies on its victims to interpret one signal. Yet if it relies on its victims to interpret one signal, why is It bothering to shape-shift ‘as if it couldn’t make up its mind’? It implies the creature’s shapeshifting runs on some sort of evolved instinct – like an animal changing its colouring to suit the surroundings. This poses questions about the creature’s will, and therefore its abilities. What seems a way of demonstrating just how deranged Hockstetter is, actually dilutes the horror a little because it suggests the creature is simply feeding, rather than being actively wicked. We can get all gooey when the lion tears the baby antelope apart, but we don’t think the lion is doing anything bad. Yet we’re told It uses the tactic of appearing as whatever its victim is scared of deliberately. The fear is what ‘salts the meat’ for the entity. King seems to want things all ways, here.

Another curious scene with the Bullseye occurs back in the house on Neibolt street. The kids are there, armed with the silver-slugs they have made, to confront and kill It. Beverley almost wastes one silver-slug on a rat before Bill roars at her not to fire.

‘It wanted me to shoot at it,’ Beverly said in a faint voice. ‘Use up half our ammunition on it.’

    ‘Yes,’ Bill said. ‘It’s l-l-like the FBI training r-range at Quh-Quh-Quantico, in a w-w-way. They seh-send y-you down this f-f-hake street and pop up tuh-targets. If you shuh-shoot any honest citizens ih-instead of just cruh-crooks, you l-lose puh hoints.’

 This makes surface sense. But this scene, like the one in the junkyard with the leeches, poses questions about the will of the creature. The children believe the silver will kill the monster because that’s what the movies and comics say, and it seems the creature is damaged by what the children believe. Once It knows it’s the werewolf which scares them, it takes on the appearance of the werewolf, but also the monster’s weaknesses. Doing this strongly implies a lack of choice on the part of the creature. This scene is like a portal into the novel’s subtext. The novel’s creature is forced to have weaknesses because the novel’s subtext is that the fears the children have are of their own making, and are strong enough to manifest into reality: fear of bigger kids, of bullies; fear of illness and of monsters from the movies; fear of coming sexuality and the perils of puberty.

This is best shown when Beverly pulls back the Bullseye to fire, knowing very well she’s out of ammo. The creature believes they have another slug because the Losers act as if they do, yet a few pages before the creature was trying to get them to waste ammo on a rat, seemingly knowing what they were armed with.

Here the subtext actually breaches the surface into the action. (Another example is when It chases Mike Hanlon at the derelict ironworks: why doesn’t it morph into a smaller bird, or anything else small enough to get into the smoke-stack Mike hides in? One can only assume it doesn’t because it can’t. This is partially explained on page 990, when, from It’s point of view, we’re told that ‘all living things must abide by the laws of the shape they inhabit. For the first time It realised that perhaps Its ability to change Its shapes might work against It as well as for It.’)

One has to ask if the creature has the ability to change shapes when it chooses to do so or not? If yes, why doesn’t it do so? If no, then this really is where a portal into the subtext could actually be a rip in the dimension between the fiction and its subtext. One must remember that the characters do not know they are characters in a novel.

Most kids are scared of spiders and many adults remain scared of them. So when the empowered kids get under the city and discover the thing’s form – the closest approximation to its real form the human mind can see – is a giant spider, there isn’t much shock in that. Indeed, the spider’s appearance was foreshadowed. On page 404, there’s this exchange between Beverly and her mother, discussing the spider she pretended she saw when the blood spurted from her bathroom sink. She asks her mother if she had seen the spider, and her mother replies

‘I didn’t see any spider. I wish we could afford a little new linoleum for that bathroom floor.’ She glanced at the sky, which was blue and cloudless. ‘They say if you kill a spider it brings rain. You didn’t kill it, did you?’

    ‘No,’ Beverly said. ‘I didn’t kill it.’

It’s a nice touch that King has the mother note the sky is blue and cloudless before she worries about rain. The exchange clearly foreshadows hundreds of pages (and thirty years in time) later when the grownups think they kill the spider and downtown Derry is destroyed in a downpour, flooding the place and destroying the standpipe. The spider is again foreshadowed just prior to Mike Hanlon meeting the Losers for the first time during the scene in which Henry Bowers (possessed by It, as are the adults such as Beverly’s dad and Eddie’s mother) chases him. This drives Hanlon to the Losers, where he becomes their final member and they attack the Bowers gang in The Apocalyptic Rockfight. While chasing Mike, Henry throws a cherry-bomb (an extraordinarily dangerous firework banned in 1966) and in panic, Hanlon scales a fence and Henry follows; he stops on the way up to order his cronies to keep going, and was ‘hung there like a bloated poisonous spider in human shape.’ It’s a safe bet that if you’re not actually scared of spiders, you probably won’t be picking them up and stroking them like you would a puppy. Spiders are a scare catch-all. Spiders lay eggs, and King’s spider lays plenty.

Ben saw something new: a trail of eggs. Each was black and rough-shelled, perhaps as big as an ostrich-egg. A waxy light shone from within them. Ben realised they were semi-transparent; he could see black shapes moving inside.

He has Ben stamp on them and kill the spidery things inside as they squeal while trying to escape. In 1986, this image should have been familiar to horror fans. One month before King published It, James Cameron released Aliens, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien from 1979. In one early scene from Aliens, Ripley is talking to a collection of suits who have been trying to get her to justify detonating her ship. She tells them ‘Kane who went into that ship said he saw thousands of eggs there. Thousands.’ Nobody who has seen Alien will forget those eggs, and the spidery, face-hugger things which come out of them. The imagery in Aliens – the humans strung-up, ready to be hosts for the face-huggers; the semi-transparent eggs with something inside; the deadly female creature which lays them – are all repeated in It when the Losers chase the spider, and who would argue the Queen in Aliens isn’t a little spider-like? Even Bill’s wife, Audra, is strung-up in the spider’s web, a morsel to be eaten later, just like the colonists found by the Marines in Aliens. This isn’t a coincidence.

Like the alien Queen in Aliens, King makes his monster female, and there’s something nauseating about that image: a female spider laying eggs. Alien and Aliens tap into this directly with the idea of a human being a host for another living thing; though in King’s novel the spider doesn’t use humans as hosts – and only eats its victims because its victims expect it to – there’s a connection the films share with the novel, and the similar imagery is striking. Entire papers could be written on our fear of spiders and the identical images which the novel shares with the two horror films.

The story is a “coming-of-age” tale and nostalgia trip buried under popular horror wrapped in classic American pop-culture and movie history. The journey, from child to adolescent and then to “grownup” is a hard and depressing one: full of fear which sits in a belly which aches for different reasons. The battle the children have under the city, in the tunnels, is an important one, and those dark, scary tunnels are important, but the most important tunnel in the story is on the surface: the tunnel between the children’s library and the adult library. This tunnel is mentioned several times, and after the destruction of Derry, explodes for a reason which is not explained, leaving both libraries as separate buildings. It is suggested that the trip from child to adult is always going to be a hard one, with no shortcuts:

if you wanted to get from the Children’s Library to the adult library, you had to walk outside to do it. And if it was cold, or raining, or snowing, you had to put on your coat.

There’s no escape for any child; there’s no easy path from kid to grownup, and the truth is that while we happily skip about as a kid, telling everyone we’re doing fine and hoping they believe it, there’s terror going under the surface.

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There’s Something Creepy

That Jo Cox was murdered is a tragedy for her family and friends, and perhaps some of her constituents, but it’s not a tragedy for those who didn’t know her, nor is it a tragedy ‘for politics’ or in any way for the country. There is a tendency, in grief – especially when that grief is largely fake – to evict reason from the mind very quickly.

There is also a tendency for one person to want to ‘out do’ the other in their public demonstration of that grief, and we (sometimes) end up with a grotesque, public-blubbing freak-show: the sort that sniffed about in the gutter after Diana exited the society.

The situation shouldn’t be made more complicated than it is. A dedicated mother and wife was hideously murdered by a man who very likely will be found to have been motivated by madness not politics. He shot and stabbed this young woman to death in the street: sane people don’t do that.

(If people are to be killed, the sane and acceptable way is to kill them is using miltary hardware. This way, hundreds – if not thousands – can be killed in one go.)

There is a very creepy aspect to the public and political reaction to Jo Cox’s death: a death which even Hilary Clinton decided to comment on.

(I’m amazed Mrs Clinton didn’t claim to have known Jo Cox personally, and therefore felt her loss more sharply than most, and just as sharply as her husband must have felt it. The woman is an organic lie-machine.)

The creepy aspect is this. The coverage and reaction seem to be tied into a feedback-loop – where one informs the other, and suggests that politicians are a more important breed than the ordinary human.

Jo Cox has been described as ‘gifted’. I’m sorry, but I can take only so much. I’ve read that Gareth Bale is ‘gifted’ – and a if a word can mean different things when used across different examples, yet in the same context, then I doubt ‘gifted’  means anything at all.

‘Gifted’ presupposes the person was was given special abilities for a specific reason; it implies someone or something smiled on the gifted and bestowed these special abilities. To call Jo Cox ‘gifted’ is to deeply – very deeply – presuppose there was somewhat angelic and therefore ‘special’ about her which justifies the vigils, hastily arranged shrines, the candles and so on. This is not fancy on my part. The words we use reveal the thoughts we have. We do have unconscious minds with thoughts we are unaware of. (We know this is true because we all know we don’t hold everything we know consciously in our head at once.)

Politicians are never ‘gifted’ or ‘talented’. Most of them are disgusting opportunists who choose politics as a career path rather than a vocation. It seems as if Mrs Cox was motivated more by the issues than by career advancement, but this doesn’t make her more worthy of praise. That’s how politicians should be.

We’re so used to having gutter-sucking politicians in our public life, that when one isn’t, it’s news. We have things the wrong way about.

Shall we take bets on whether or not there will be flower-throwers rubber-necking the funeral?

Conscience or Country: Pink Gins and the Long Game

 

Philip Knightley: Philby: KGB Master Spy

Miranda Carter: Anthony Blunt: His Lives

Ben Macintyre: Philby: A Spy Among friends

Kim Philby: My Silent War

 

One would have hoped that all branches of the British war effort against the Nazis would have been tightly organised and facing their respective fronts against Hitler effectively. If the elderly and patriotic could keep watch on rooftops each night for German planes the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) – otherwise and incorrectly known as MI6 – should have been able to manage a little order and focus within its ranks.

Incredible to learn that the SIS during the war years, was an exclusive gents’ club: the members of which had a penchant for pink-gins and long lunches at White’s. That any serious work was done seems an afterthought to justify the salary, and the salary – for Philby at least – was hit upon over a hand-shake and a wink. Six hundred a year and no bother from those chaps at the inland revenue. Got the gist, old-boy?

In short, the ‘service’ was a shambles: no ranking structure in place as such, no recognised pay-grades and no pension arrangements for retiring officers. This was not rectified until after the war, and Philby played his part in drawing up the new structure, but during the first half of the forties, planning and resources were not up to scratch.

Philby’s first posting was to a training school – newly formed – to teach hand-picked recruits in counter-espionage. Things were far from perfect. One horrific tale involves an agent, fresh out of training, being parachuted into territory over mainland Europe. His gear, quite inexplicably, became entangled in the plane’s undercarriage and he was ‘hurtled along, at mercifully high speed, into unconsciousness and death’.

What a way to go.

The most memorable tale from this period is also the most amusing. The Luftwaffe, for reasons best known to them, dropped a landmine over London and let it float slowly to the ground attached to a parachute. This was seen descending by Philby and his comrade, Guy Burgess. After cooking up a little mischief, Burgess called SIS and spoke to the duty officer, a chap busy fielding telegrams from stations all over the world. The hapless officer was told many parachutes were seen – ‘between eighty and none’ – and the necessary calls better be made swiftly. A reserve force stationed in East Anglia was mobilised on the strength of this jape.

Philby was an officer in – not just for – Soviet Intelligence for seven years before he was recruited into the SIS. He was a straightforward penetration agent from the beginning. One early adventure for the Soviets was spent in Spain working with Franco’s forces as a journalist for the London Times. This was a wash-job, insisted upon by the NKVD, to cleanse his name of the leftist allegiances he had made at Cambridge. It worked – or rather Philby worked it splendidly – because Franco himself gave Philby the ‘Medal of Merit’ for his right-wing efforts. By the time he was offered his six hundred a year, he had plenty of hours under his belt in deep-cover work.

With the end of the war came the re-structuring and recruitment. Occasionally, though, there was a morsel of something interesting to engage the brain. Called into the chief’s office and handed a file of papers, Philby was asked to read through and see what he made of it. It was almost the end of him.

Konstantin Volkov, a jittery fellow looking to defect to the West from Istanbul, had told our man in Turkey a few titbits to wet the British appetite. One little detail was the confirmation of three agents deep in the British establishment: two in the Foreign Office, the other, a senior of counter-espionage in the SIS – Philby himself!

He wrangled it to go to Turkey to interview this fellow, but before Philby got to him – something he had been delaying for obvious reasons – Mr Volkov was urgently spirited away back to Moscow. Neither Volkov or his wife were heard of again, and were removed from the stream of history. One can imagine Volkov and his wife begging to die.

Philby was a fanatic.

A few years abroad, not much more than mischief-making, were followed by a posting to Washington DC to forge closer ties between the SIS, CIA and FBI. One can only imagine the glee with which a master of his art approached a few years in the US while the country was in its paranoid McCarthy phase. Philby had coached a group of yanks who had come over during the war to learn the trade, and one of these chaps was James Jesus Angleton, a man who was to head the CIA later and was Philby’s friend. (Philby’s treachery sent old JJ half mad later in life.)

One may be forgiven for assuming that J. Edgar Hoover and McCarthy would have been on good and close terms, being as they were both obsessed with communists; but Hoover, at his first meeting with Philby, when asked directly what he thought of the Senator’s credentials, replied: ‘Well, I often meet Joe at the race-track, but he has never given me a winner yet.’ I am still wondering which is more surprising: that McCarthy was useless, or that Hoover could use metaphor to impart this knowledge to Philby.

Perhaps it is directly connected to the Americans’ surplus of money and men that incompetence and poor thinking about the enemy are imbedded into the DNA of the US hierarchies charged with finding their enemies? Whatever the answer, some amazingly poor thinking infected the Whitehouse as well. The Rosenbergs were caught, eventually, by leads uncovered by the SIS in Washington. Of this case, Philby mentions Eisenhower revealing his total ignorance of espionage:

It is worth mentioning that Esienhower explained his refusal to reprieve Ethel Rosenberg on the grounds that, if he did, the Russians in future would use only women spies. It was an attitude worthy of the most pedestrian of United States’ presidents.

It is frightening that a US president could believe that. Did he not have any advisers to put him straight before he went public with that stupid assertion?

Philby continued his work for and against Communism, eventually inviting Guy Burgess to stay with him after the latter’s posting to the US. It was here they both were forced to cook-up the plan to save their comrade, Donald Maclean.

Maclean was under surveillance and could not approach his Soviet handler for this reason. He was also in London; his two comrades, far away in the US capital, needed to get him to safety. Philby could not simply jet back to Britain, it would have looked too out of place; but Burgess, if he could get posted back to London, could use his own soviet contact to help Maclean. Within days Burges was pulled over for numerous speeding offences, much to the displeasure of his station and their American hosts, and sent packing back to London. The plan worked and Burges and Maclean did their famous midnight-flit. Burges wasn’t meant to go with Maclean. All knew he had lived with Philby in Washington, so that put him under immediate suspicion.

Philby was called back to London for interrogation, but no decent evidence existed against him. He was interrogated several times and gave nothing away. Eventually he resigned but was called back into service and spent time in Beirut before he was forced to make the trip home to Moscow. Possibly it was Anthony Blunt – at that time the unknown ‘fourth man’ – who tipped him off. However it seems more likely that Nicholas Elliot, a career MI6 man and friend of Kim’s, deliberately made it easy for Philby to defect from Beirut. A trial would have been a messy embarrassment: Philby had been publicly exonerated some years before, and the nod had come from the top, so having him up on charges would have been worse than having him turn up in Moscow.

Damage limitation, old-boy.

It is interesting that British spies fled to Russia only after being compromised; and did so to avoid prison terms of decades. Although the motivations of all are worth considering: the motivations of the British especially.

The question which many characters asked themselves – and this was especially true of Angleton and Elliot – was how did Philby manage to deceive so many for so long? This is a masochistic question. It can easily lead to a person’s psyche eating itself as it replays the past looking for clues, finding none, and ends with the person concluding they are lacking somehow or that Philby was some sort of genius. Philby was not a genius. Stories about his ‘charming character’, and how this helped to fool people is probably a sort of romantic excuse making for the inherent stupidity of the system which gave him a job and mindset of those within it. His deception was successful partly because the ‘establishment’ did a large part of the job for him. The old-boy network had a childish naïveté running through it. The belief that a man from the correct background was automatically a ‘good chap’ is an article of religious faith. One can only despair at Philby’s vetting. He was recruited into the SIS because the head pinstripe, Valentine Vivian, knew Philby’s people. It’s almost unbelievable that the security of the country was maintained in this way. That he was a communist at Cambridge and a soviet agent in Austria and Spain, and that he married that communist sex-pot, Litzi Friedman, should have raised an eyebrow somewhere in London’s clubland. That old Kim wasn’t filtered out before he got in is religious faith in action. This is the first reason Philby was successful. The second was his extraordinary good luck in not being exposed by a defector from the other side. The Volkov incident seems to be the only time this came close to happening. The stress must have been enormous, and it’s no surprise he was a boozer. No, the impressive thing about Philby is not the deception, it’s that he held his nerve.

To call Philby a fanatic is probably correct, and it’s the defectors who would have used his name as their buy-in to the West which suggests he was a fanatic. There was a reason they wanted out, and the Soviet spies risked their lives to pass their information to the West, while the likes of the Cambridge spies risked only prison and disgrace. The risk was unequal. The choice, between the West and the Soviet state, wasn’t simply a choice between two ideologies, where everything was a matter of taste, there were objective differences. Stalin’s regime was objectively wicked. It tortured and starved and murdered. It was an evil regime. The British and American governments, though hardly perfect or without blame in the world, ran things more generously for their citizens. Philby’s claim that he could support the ideal while not supporting the regime might be logical – such a thing is quite possible for a mind to do – but only a fanatic would help the regime. Philby could have looked at Stalin’s doings, and decided to keep Britain’s secrets to himself until a more realistic communist regime came on the scene. That he chose not to suggests he really wasn’t messing about. (Unlike Blunt, say, who seems to have been a Marxist and a spy because it was intellectually fashionable at the time.)

The Cambridge spies are called ‘traitors’ but one could argue it’s only really Blunt who deserves that title. Philby certainly doesn’t, and the argument why not is perfectly simple. It’s fair to say that, to label someone a traitor, they must have switched sides. That is hardly controversial, and actually seems to be necessary to avoid the disgusting idea of ‘automatic loyalty’ to a country or state, which is a servile idea and one to be avoided. One cannot claim that Philby switched sides because he was never on ‘our’ side to begin with. Even if many of the claims in his memoir are to be doubted, the claim he was a penetration agent from the beginning is obviously true given his doings before joining the SIS. The ‘establishment’ call him a traitor, and it’s that establishment he made look stupendously idiotic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Philip Knightley: Philby: KGB Master Spy

Miranda Carter: Anthony Blunt: His Lives

Ben Macintyre: Philby: A Spy Among friends

Kim Philby: My Silent War

A Ragged Review and an American Beauty

In the late 1980s Thames television made a documentary about a young chef whose restaurant – ‘Harvey’s’ –  in Wandsworth, London – was considered one of the best in the country. The head chef, Marco Pierre White, was only in his twenties but considered a genius. The man’s philosophy was simple: less really is more; let your ingredients speak for themselves and don’t clutter up your plate trying to be clever. One dish demonstrated this philosophy perfectly. His ‘panache of foie gras with pan fried sea scallops and carrots’ was exactly what it claimed to be – just three ingredients.

Restraint requires confidence.

If The Rag were served to me on a plate then I could believe that the chef really knew what he was doing, for The Rag has but three ingredients: prose, poetry and art.

Issue 5 – Winter/Spring 2013 comes with a cover featuring a bloodied rendition of Carlos the Jackal: the blood around the mouth suggestive of his taste for it – though there’s more going on inside his head if you look closely. In another picture there is a human figure, cuddling a rabbit, though the figure is sporting a wolf’s head; another human figure, this time with a cheetah’s head, is doing the same.

The notion that a human has, perhaps, his savagery restrained by societal expectations, while just under the respectable surface there is lust, blood-lust and a truly carnivorous sexual desire, is one which could well be suggested here; though perhaps such an interpretation is too close to the surface meaning of those mentioned images to have much worth.

There is no fuss to this magazine – no unnecessary garnish. After Carlos’s cover, there’s a contents and credits page, then we are into the work – the main ingredients.

The first bite offered is a story, Momemto Mori, written by Stefanie Demas, and if the first bite seduces the taste buds, then one knows the dish is right. So what can one say about Memento Mori?

It is a remarkable piece of work. The narrator is a complicated creation. Innocent, charming – and therefore probably friendly; intelligent, intuitive and utterly, hopelessly – yet beautifully – deranged.

Our narrator is driving to a funeral home to steal a body and spirit it away to secluded spot for sex. However, grim and ghoulish this is not. And it is that which makes the story so wonderful. It must be no easy task to have a narrator describe sexual feelings towards corpses and have that narrator sound quite so reasonable.

‘I was five years old when I remember seeing death for the first time,’ we’re told. ‘I knew even then I was interested.’

We’re given a scene in which the young narrator watches a bird hop about before being set upon and quickly killed by a cat, and this sight captivates her and there begins a healthy interest in death.

The narrator seems to have rare access to those considerations of beauty reserved for the high-brow and the aesthete, but with reservations:

‘I will not say that it was beautiful. Beautiful wouldn’t be the wrong word, necessarily, but it would give you the wrong idea about me.’

Could that wrong idea be the notion that our narrator’s interest is purely aesthetic? That could be the case because her interest is definitely physical. Here we have a synthesis, a merger between the low and the high, the closed-eye humming to classical music while the fingers get sticky.

Death, to this narrator, however, is more than an aphrodisiac.

When considering a corpse one might see the sinking of the cheeks or the new prominence of the bones as the signs of a person transforming into a cadaver – the new physical status: the first stage on a journey which sees a person’s atoms return to the universe.

‘I could see that his shoulder blades had begun to form themselves into wings.’

In that we have the aesthetic, the optimistic and the deranged – all brought together in a simple, beautiful line.

I don’t much care if this is an example of Demas showing her own art through her character, or – as a student of Stanislavsky could appreciate – a form of method-writing, either way it is beautiful. Death: the invisible chrysalis.

Of course, ultimately, there is no hope for this narrator. No reader could sympathise with one who harbours such exotic tastes, so removed as they are from regular experience. Such people are disturbed. Or are they?

Consider the following:

‘What about the widow who kisses her husband’s waxy face, clenches his frigid hands, as he lies in his cushioned box? How do we define that kiss, those touches? As love. As nothing unusual. And never, never would we call it by that name. How can we name-call and persecute when the distinctions are so shaky?’

This is clever because it sounds exactly like a person who has thought about their tastes and wondered what they might say under questioning. What we have here is the tip of a philosophical iceberg, a logical argument. And who can argue with the logic? Step by logical step we can unravel the argument for ourselves. Doing this leaves us unsettled because we are forced to answer a new formulation of ‘the paradox of the heap’ – and who can answer that?

It is some feat of creativity to have a narrator who is a rarefied aesthete; gentle; logical; and also one we can sympathise with. Yes, this is a caring narrator. The evidence is in the prose.

While driving to her final destination, her cargo stowed in the back of a stolen hearse, our narrator is passed by trucks on the highway:

‘The trucks sounded like whales as we passed them in the night. With the radio off, we could hear that their deep rumbles were accompanied by low, mournful cries – a searching call through the dark ocean expanse. My heart wanted to break for those trucks, my eyes wanted to cry for them. Whom had they lost? Whom did they need to find?’

What skill, yet again, it takes to synthesise the sympathetic with the gently deranged. One wants to kiss the narrator on the cheek, to stroke her hair. How could anyone have anything but affection for such a kindly soul?

Before reading this story I was reading Mailer’s Fire on The Moon; today I have just started Philip Knightley’s biography of Kim Philby, and after that I have the collected works of Nathanael West. But now my reading is disturbed. Now I want more from Stafanie Demas. I want more from this American Beauty.

And what skill it takes the editors of this magazine to select ingredients such as these and to let those ingredients speak for themselves.

I’ve given The Rag five stars.

Michelin would have given them three.

Sexcrime

I have made two attempts to read Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, succeeding on the second attempt. I gave up the first time (about a third of the way in) because there was ‘something’ wrong with the book, though I could not identify it. About half way through, on the second attempt, I realised what the problem was and identifying it brought a thought about what is wrong with Orwell’s 1984. The problems with these books are different, though caused by the same thing and I will explain what that is.

The Communist Manifesto calls for the abolition of the family. The communists want this because the family fashions bonds which are stronger than patriotism; and traditional, life-long heterosexual marriage is the sealing bond which keeps the family together. A communist state cannot have its subjects living like this because their first loyalty will not be to it, but to each other. This will never do. But a stroke of a bureaucratic-pen cannot abolish the family, as the manifesto demands. No matter how great the state apparatus is, abolishing the family can only happen in slow-motion, and it takes decades.

The first way to start the slow-motion change is to introduce sex ‘education’. Sex education was the idea of a man called George Lukacs. He was an education commissar during the Hungarian revolution. The point was to debauch the minds of children who were religiously brought up. That is why sex education exists. Do not swallow the pathetic and weak excuse about preventing unwanted pregnancy; the truth of sex education is the other way about.

Huxley made sex one of the key ways in which persons are conditioned in Brave New World. Babies and small children are encouraged to indulge in ‘erotic play’ and learn that sexual promiscuity is natural and normal. The exact opposite is true of 1984, in which females are coerced into the ‘anti-sex league’ and chant enthusiastically for the abolition of the orgasm.

Huxley understands that sex leads to children and that means continuing the existence of the family. He sorts this by having humans not born, but decanted, and this further allows the state controllers to tinker with the growing humans to determine their intelligence and class and so on.

Orwell’s proletariat simply live under tyranny and ludicrous intrusion into their lives by the big-brother bureaucracy; and, remember, the thought-police kick the doors in when Winston and Julia are together. No illicit love-making permitted in Airstrip One.

The methods of the two tyrannies are exact opposites of each other, in other words. The thought-police will torture and batter you with clubs, but the authorities of Huxley’s book play soothing sounds from loud-speakers and spray the rioting crowds with soma to deal with mass disorder.

I don’t think Orwell missed the connection between totalitarianism and the destruction of the family by encouraging sexual-freedom, but he was pushing the bureaucratic tyranny to it utmost, and that meant that sexual conduct had to be monitored and controlled, along with everything else.

I am unsure which regime is worse. Orwell’s slaves do not resist because they dare not – the power of the state is total; but Huxley’s slaves do not realise they are slaves to begin with. Both societies are horrid in different ways but for the same reasons, arrived at by different methods. And both writers make a mistake (in terms of story telling) which makes their societies less awful than they might have been.

Orwell’s mistake is to make his society a circle, not a pyramid. There is nobody at the top, living in luxury while the lower orders suffer. It is such a vast state-machine that it seems to function for its own sake; but there needs to be a hierarchy, a pecking order, because it is that which keeps those closest to the top loyal. They are waiting for their turn in the chair, and each person, on each rung, is doing the same, waiting to move up one place. That is how a hierarchy works. Orwell is honest enough to follow his logic and take things right to the edge, but in pushing it so far he reduces the horror slightly. The world of Winston Smith would have been worse if there had been man at the top, keeping power and devising ever more twisted ways of keeping it.

Huxley does the same thing, follows his start-point to its logical conclusion and reduces the purity of the soft-horror he envisioned. Some call Huxley’s book a utopia, or a negative utopia. You can call it whatever you like but it may not be called a dystopia; and it may not be called a dystopia for the very reasons Huxley tried to make it one: The abolition of the family.

Without love and loss, without heartbreak there can be no human tragedy. If everyone belongs to everyone, and can take whoever they like as a sexual partner whenever they fancy it, then no-one is special, no one is loved, and without those things, when persons have no family or emotional ties, there is no horror because there is no loss. Without horror there can be no dystopia.

Huxley, like Orwell, honestly followed his thinking to its conclusion and the book is certainly worth it for that reason, but the Alphas in Brave New World don’t have much to complain about it seems to me. The book is neither a dystopia or utopia, it is a work of social and science fiction theory.

Both could have been more horrific than they are; that they are not shows the authors were dealing first in testing ideas (and remorselessly driving those ideas forward until they ran out of road) and were writing fiction second, not for its own sake but as the medium of delivery for their thought experiments.

The Non Miracle

I have had the experience of watching two children born, and while the experience is interesting, to have it twice is probably twice as many times as a fellow should have it. I mean to say – and this has been said many times before – there really isn’t much for the man to do, and the event seems best left in the hands of the womenfolk.

What was certainly agreeable about the two births I’ve witnessed was that they took place in the labour-rooms on the maternity wards of hospitals. This is where the next generation should be born. Not being a cretin, I don’t consider conception, gestation – and certainly not the birth itself – as ‘miracles’ or any sort of spiritual occurrence. I confess to being irritated by those who do. As would be expected of someone with my crusty, old fashioned views (I am elderly 41 year old) I’ve no time for the sandal-wearing vegetarians who want ‘baby’ (where’s definite article?) to be born at home in a birthing-pool filled with natural yoghurt while dad – naked himself, obviously – offers bowls of lentil-soup to his mother and his wife’s lesbian ‘birthing-partner’. If common sense prevailed the father would at his club sinking a few snifters with the chaps, or at least down the pub with the boys.

The first of the births witnessed by me brought with it auditory hallucinations of crying babies which lasted for several days after my son’s entrance into the world. The first occurred in the labour room prior to his appearance. The midwife had suggested the female might want to stand up (a gravitational ‘helping hand’) for a few moments. She duly did, and as she did so I looked sharply over my right shoulder, into the opposite corner of the room, for the source of the crying. I had heard it as clearly as I heard the midwife’s voice. Before the little one made his entrance, I turned – it was almost an automatic reflex action – several times, looking for the crying baby in the empty corner of the room. The mind does play some odd tricks. Here’s another one: we had been told that the female was carrying a girl and we had told friends and family what we were expecting. After his entrance I looked at my son thinking ‘Aw, how cute, a girl with testicles…’ It took several moments to realise a girl with testicles was actually a boy.

The little one had been home for a few days when – with the female out of the house – I heard loud crying coming from the (there’s the definite article) baby’s room. I took the stairs two at a time, muttering to myself ‘okay, okay – give me a second’ while the crying got louder, and I opened the door to find the room in darkness and silence. The little chap hadn’t stirred at all. I had been convinced the crying was real; so certain, in fact, that the darkness and the silence rendered me speechless for a few moments. I have no idea if these odd hallucinations were due to some part of my mind being anxious about something, but by the time the second one was due I was laying in the labour-room sucking on the gas and air that was freely available from above the bed.

Oh My God It’s SO Unfair!

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anesthetic from which none come round

  • Philip Larkin ‘Aubade’

 

I’m unsure Larkin was right about what we fear. On the surface of things he seems to get to root of the matter. The idea of not existing is a troubling one. But are there ways of thinking about not existing which might make the idea bearable?

One of the (so-called) ‘new’ atheists, Sam Harris, said – and was quite amusing when he said it – that if a person really can’t imagine the world without them in it, then it must be just from want of trying. There were a few laughs from the audience. In the example I’m thinking of Harris suggested the crowd think about the city of Paris, and how Paris was getting along just fine without anyone from the crowd in it. He certainly had a point. Another way of putting it is to ask people to think about the world before they were born. The person’s town or village was getting along happily, and so were the cities and other people in it. It seems correct to think about matters in this way, because the world was getting along nicely before you were born, but thinking this way doesn’t quite dissolve the problem.

The idea of not existing could mean several things to a person. That you can even have the idea means you exist. So it appears – after thinking about Paris and the years before you were born – that the problem isn’t quite a world in which you don’t exist, the problem is more a world in which you don’t exist after having existed. That seems to be closer to the point, and it’s that idea which needs examining.

Larkin was an atheist, and the last four lines are odd ones for an atheist to have written. The last line – especially the word ‘anesthetic’ – carries a thought which could have been pushed further. An atheist might fear what Larkin describes, but an atheist also knows he won’t actually experience being dead, which means there is no reason to have this fear: if you have fear you know you don’t need to have, then you are choosing to have it because you prefer having it. I mean to say, why fear something you know you will never experience? This ‘fear’ of something you won’t and can’t experience, then, might not be ‘our’ problem. It’s more likely that the real point is as I described it, or as the late Christopher Hitchens put it ‘You get tapped on the shoulder and told, “the party’s going on without you, and you have to leave.”’

(He then amusingly offered the religious version for comparison: ‘The party’s going on forever, and you can’t leave.’) But why do we care if we won’t know we’ve left? It doesn’t make sense to ‘fear’ not being at the party because we know we won’t know we’re not there: we won’t know we’re missing anything. Is what Larkin calls ‘fear’ really a form of cheap resentment, a type of childish foot-stamping? Is the ‘fear’ an expression from a part of the mind which hasn’t grown up? One can easily imagine an irritated child having a little tantrum ‘Oh my God it’s so unfair! when told that playtime’s over.

To ask a person ’Do you believe in God’ could get you any number of responses, though a common one is the one which says ‘Well, I don’t believe in God but I do believe in something. I don’t think this (motions to surroundings) is the end.’ It’s a barely disguised way of saying ‘I don’t like the idea of death, so have told myself we don’t die.’ Larkin’s fourth line is true of all religions. I don’t know any religion which says the universe was created by a loving god who answers prayers and what not, yet has designed things so that – although he loves you while you are here – death is the end. Such a religion wouldn’t catch on.

All religions are predicated on the survival of death. Licensing that idea, allowing it to be reinforced through groupthink (or ‘worship’ if you really must), is what you get in return for your critical faculties, money and obedience. Yet if Larkin’s ‘fear’ is a form of intellectualised, disguised tantrum, then it’s certainly true that atheism is not an automatically superior worldview to the religious one. One could say of the atheist that he isn’t confusing what he believes is true with what he hopes is true, but doing that, and on its own, might not make you the full grown up.

Is there a difference between knowing you are going to die and accepting it?

Legitimate Political Violence

Imagine the six counties, Devon, Cornwall , Dorset, Somerset, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire were not part of England, but were occupied by France, governed by Paris, and policed by M. Gendarme.

I’m confident many Englishmen would find that arrangement disagreeable, and not all of them would be skinheads, blackshirts or Sun readers.

Further imagine that, when the natives got a bit miffed at the behaviour of the frog fuzz, the Foreign Legion were despatched to kick in a few doors and crack a few heads. You get the idea.

Would you support a group of Englishmen organising themselves into a secret resistance, the task of which was to carry out specific, targeted assassination of French police, soldiers and politicians in an attempt to try to force the French withdrawal from those six counties?

You might or you might not support that, but if you didn’t agree that such an organisation’s methods and aim were at least legitimate then I’d worry about your mind.

(I mean to say, you’d have to argue the French Resistance was an illegitimate organisation and the Nazis were legitimate in their occupation. Or that Boudicea should have ‘assimilated’ into Roman culture. If you have no ‘line in the sand’ then you wish to be a slave.)

I would support such an organisation, and am forced to accept that political violence can be legitimate. Legitimacy depends on what is done why. In the above scenario, the aim and the method are legitimate, hard as that is to accept, but both could easily not be.

If such an English resistance took to blowing up French civilians then it would lose its legitimacy because killing the innocent, the non-combatant – actually targeting civilians – strips all the moral force from the action. Such persons are outside the chain of command which supports the occupation. Even though the aim would remain a legitimate one, the method would not be. Only the fanatic, or the lunatic, thinks the ‘end justifies the means’.

Many persons will say they won’t be told what to think, yet many will accept being told what to think when the topic is patriotism, the armed forces, or questions about a person’s ‘loyalties’. The orthodoxy tells you what to think, takes it for granted you will obey, and public opinion quickly snarls and snaps at those who don’t follow the groupthink line. (My ‘line in the sand’ is actually drawn on the inside of my forehead; this makes me sound very accepting of state power, almost a friend of it who will put up with rather a lot, while refusing it entry to the piece of territory it wants more than any other, thereby making me its enemy.) To claim the right and freedom to decide 100% of your own opinions, even when the question is about patriotism or loyalty to ‘your country,’ can leave the claimant in an exposed position. It is a price worth paying for the only (genuine) freedom a person will ever get.

The state can force itself on you in many ways. It’s quite true that an Englishman’s home is his castle until the state takes it from him via compulsory purchase. It’s quite possible for a person to change their citizenship (or the state’s ownership papers) for a replacement citizenship, but there is no way a person can renounce their citizenship, or even gently hand it back. The citizen is the property of the state, and if one is to talk about ‘freedom’ then the question ‘freedom to do what?’ presents itself.