Monday, 31 January 2011

Werewolves of Luna

tagline 'eoooo-OOOOOH Werewolves of Luna': alt-historical Apollo 11 tale—the astronauts bitten by a werewolf prior to the mission—the full moon triggers their condition ...

Sunday, 30 January 2011


I was flossing, and watching myself in the mirror. There was a little black speck in between my two front teeth, like a miniature grape-pip or the shrapnel from a peppercorn. I flossed it, but couldn't dislodge it. I moved the floss up and down, and pulled the strand left and right. Then I realised it wasn't a speck: it was the shape of that part of the gap between my teeth. I had been flossing vacancy and expecting it to come, solidly, out into the sink.


Saturday, 29 January 2011

A proof of solipsism

I appreciate the comedy, of course, but I was always troubled by the maths of this Douglas Adamsian proof (from Restaurant):
It is known that there are an infinite number of worlds, simply because there is an infinite amount of space for them to be in. However, not every one of them is inhabited. Therefore, there must be a finite number of inhabited worlds. Any finite number divided by infinity is as near to nothing as makes no odds, so the average population of all the planets in the Universe can be said to be zero. From this it follows that the population of the whole Universe is also zero, and that any people you may meet from time to time are merely the products of a deranged imagination.
But that's not right, is it? I don't mean the thing about confusing 'average' figures with specific incidences; that doesn't bother me. I mean this bit: 'there are an infinite number of worlds, but not every one of them is inhabited. Therefore, there must be a finite number of inhabited worlds.' Subtract whatever number you like from infinity, you're still left with infinity. So the maths should go: 'there are an infinite number of worlds, and an infinite number of inhabited worlds (constituting an infinity of inhabitants). Infinity divided by infinity is ... one. So there is, on average, only one person in the cosmos.'

I think it's me, that one person. But I could be wrong.

Friday, 28 January 2011


Full fathom five thy father lies;
These bubbles are his heartfelt sighs.

Of his bones are coral made;
The ocean hums: is dead, is dead.

Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell;
The chime is quite unfathomable.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Pretty Girls Make Graves

Very belatedly, it's occurred to me that Morrissey's 'Pretty Girls Make Graves' (which I'd always, without thinking too hard about it, assumed was about a kind of fascinated horror of sex, a sense of sex and death as necessarily interconected) is actually more specifically a horror of heterosexual sex, a sense of death's implication in heterosexual sex. Sex and pretty girls, the song says, make babies who grow old and die. Sex and pretty boys (the song implies) is free of this taint.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Fiat lux

There's been librariesworth written on the 'let there be light' translation of 'fiat lux'; to which I have little to add. But I was thinking, more or less idly, of the particularity. The Latin 'fiat' is the third person singular passive subjunctive of 'facere', to make. We've almost lost the subjunctive in English, a few hangover phrases like 'God save the Queen' notwithstanding. The problem with this is that the idiom 'let there be light' -- the next best thing -- suggests the passive construction. I'm not denying that the 'let' construction is the closest we come to signalling the subjunctive in verbs that no longer inflect subjunctively ('let it be' for instance); but it has the larger problem of elevating the passivity from the mode of the verb to the agent performing the action -- as if God is not actively creating light (facere: to do, to make) so much as holding back a reservoir of already existant light, and finally deciding to let it all come out. But that's not right.

'And God said: brightness be made' doesn't sound quite right, mind.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Violence and Voice

I really don't have a blog post in me that could do justice to such a splendid title.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Llord George

I was struck, reading this LRB review of Hattersley's Lloyd George biography, by the parallels between Lloyd George and Hitler: both unscrupulous men from provincial territories (Wales, Austria) who rose to prominence in their big-scale neighbours' political systems (England, Germany); both driven and politically skilled, both extraordinarily gifted orators, both short. Yet one went on to establish old age pensions and the other to become the big villain of the C20th century. Might (in alternate history mode) Lloyd George, born a generation later, have become the UK dictator-for-life? Surely not: and not just because my personal prejudice is that a set of liberal ideological biases militate against that in ways that a set of fascist ideological biases don't. The socio-cultural milieu was far too different, quite apart from the individual personalities involved.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

You are the devil!

I like this Idries Shah story:
Nasrudin dreamt that he had Satan's beard in his hand. Tugging the hair he cried: 'The pain you feel is nothing compared to that which you inflict on the mortals you lead astray!' And he gave the beard such a tug that he woke up yelling in agony. Only then did he realise that the beard he held in his hand was his own. [Shah, The World of Nasrudin (Octagon Press 2003), 438]
One of the things that's cool about it is the way it captures the feel of an actual dream. But mostly, of course, it's the implication that our subconscious not only understands but is capable of timing the revelation comically to deflate the dark grandeur of our secret fantasies.

Saturday, 22 January 2011


In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989), Rorty distinguishes between private and public realms. His ideal in the former is a liberal ironist; the ethical imperative guiding action in the latter is the notion that cruel is the worst thing we can be to one another. Simon Critchley summarises nicely:
The liberal ironist [is] someone who is committed to social justice and appalled by cruelty, but who recognizes that there is no metaphysical foundation to her concern for justice. [Critchley, Ethics, 85]
Fair enough, and attractive too. But there a more radical claim in Rorty's book, 'a claim that would be devastating to much work in philosophy if taken seriously' Critchley thinks, that has to do with the relation between private ('concerned with idiosyncratic projects of self-overcoming', according to Rorty) and public ('having to do with the suffering of other human beings'):
Rorty's central claim in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity ... is that it is theoretically impossible to unite or reconcile the private and public domains. Such a desire for reconciliation lies at the heart of Platonism, Christianity, Kantianism and Marixsm (other examples could be given), insofar as each of these has attempted to fuse the claims of self-interest, self-realisation, personal salvation or individual autonomy with the eidos of justice, charity and love of one's fellow humans, the universality of the categorical imperative or the proletariat as the universal class and agent of history. The dominant legacy of the Platonist tradition is the attempt to reconcile private, individual autonomy with the public good of the community by erected both upon a common philosophical foundation.
Critchley is right that, at the heart of Rorty's pragmatism, is the belief that private and public are quite distinct magesteria.

This seems broadly right, to me; but I wonder if the missing perspective is precisely Rorty's American-ness (all that stuff at the end of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity which I found so hard to swallow when I first read it, about how our best social/ethical shot is to insist upon the action of 'we, Americans' and so on). By which I mean: there's a case that the USA was founded precisely upon the disconnection of public and private, embodied constitutionally in the curcliues of US law and politics, from the tension between federal and national right down to the right to bear arms. Take this latter: so many Americans hold it so dearlt, yet it precisely elaborates the split Rorty is talking about. So: my notional US citizen Johnny Strawman, likes to own guns, because as an individual it makes him feel safer -- that he can protect himself, that he's not passively waiting for disaster but actively preparing for it. At the same time, and without a nervous-breakdown-inducing mental contradiction, Johnny Strawman sees that, taking a national overview, having millions of guns swilling about the country correlates to a much higher incidence of people being injured and killed by guns. In the UK we have almost no guns, and almost no gun-related deaths. In the USA there are lots and lots of guns and lots and lots of gun-related deaths. And Johnny knows this; he understands the direct public correlation. It just doesn't impinge upon his private, personal sense 'I like to have a gun about me.'

Friday, 21 January 2011

Here Comes Everybody

The problem with Here Comes Everybody is that it carries the inevitable implication: soon enough, there goes Everybody.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Gags, the sequel to the sequel

[It's a good job I started twitter again, or I'd have hardly any content for this site at all]:

When customs stopped me my luggage was absolutely stuffed with German sausage. It was a Würst Case scenario.

I'm a no-nonsense kind of guy. What I mean is: I advocate nonsense, but with a stutter

The sandwich was invented by the Earl of Sandwich. Similarly, the Croque Monsieur was invented by a monstrous crocodile-man hybrid.

Graham Norton. With all the money from his anti-virus software packages, you think he wouldn't need the TV work.

'Alice Through the Looking Glass' sounds charming and whimsical. 'Alice Through The Mirror' sounds like they'll need to hospitalise her.

Steven Hawking. Before they put him in the chair he liked nothing more than sitting on someone's wrist wearing a leather hood over his eyes.

The motto of the Stag Special Services: 'Who Deers, Wins'.

'My dog has no nose' 'How does he smell?' 'Very well, thanks to a new nose fitted by the Soviet Centre for Nasal Cybernetics.'

It's easy to make a poseable plastic Ken Dodd toy. It's a doddle.

If the inventor of the Spinning Jenny were alive today he'd be spinning in his grave.

I love step aerobics. It's just a shame I never knew my real aerobics.

We covered him with a Béchamel sauce & shredded cheese, but he seemed to like it. He was singing: 'I'm in the Mornay ...'

The thing about Utopia: it's very More-ish.

Rereading Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Superb, but as an adaptation of the old Bob Hope/Bing Crosby film series it's really VERY loose.

Nigel Kneale's best TV-play was his drama about a Society of Friends group dabbling with Catholic practices: The Quaker Mass Experiment.

I started on Twitter using hashtags, but now I've moved on to more serious stuff: cocainetags and herointags. It's a slippery slope, people.

The last few weeks I've been trying to perm my own hair using beermats. It's been a roller-coaster, I can tell you.

He stole John Noakes' dog! He's a Sheplifter!

Mankind's hubris! Why do we think our experiments with nuclear fusion will succeed, when our experiments with jazz fusion failed so badly?

Iris Murdoch's novels are highly regarded by many; but her greatest achievement was surely her pivotal role in The A-Team.

Using a ladder, I removed the first 'S' from the ESSO sign. Wrong, I know, but I was in trouble. I needed to send out an ESSO 'S'.

King Kong's problems began when he appointed his inexperienced younger son, Kim Kong-il, as his successor.

I've drawn up a list. Outmoded method of payment? Check! King in danger? Check! Tartan cloth? Check!

Benedict Cumberbatch. For a name that includes both 'dick' and 'cum', it's a remarkably un-pornstar name.

What makes the Mappa Mundi so valuable is that the medieval Mappas for Tuesday to Sunday have ALL been lost.

It seems I was wrong about IRON MAN. The main character is not, after all, called 'Ronald Man'. The title is not a nod to I Claudius.

I've managed to make a slice of processed cheese hover on a cushion of air. I plan to scale this technology up and patent: the hover-Kraft.

I hereby undertake to refer to 2011 as "Zoii!" at every opportunity.

I'm off to a Palm-reader, but I should warn you I'm an angry customer. If she gets the reading wrong, she'll feel the back of my hand ...

'Who's 007? Who's James Bond?' 'Who's the English superspy?' Things That Make M Go 'You'.

Hmm: Die Hard 2: Die Harder. Shouldn't that be Die More Hard? Do you think it's too late to tell them?

Typical Christmas Eve for me: sitting in bed, waiting for Santa, shotgun on my lap. This year he's definitely coming. I feel it.

Watching Robert Winston Smith on BBC1: he doesn't look at all like George Orwell describes him.

You know how Tennyson wrote 'tis better to have loved Anne Lost than never to have loved at all'...? What was so great about her, anyway?

The remarkable thing is not that JFK was elected despite being a Catholic; it's that he was elected despite being named after an airport.

If we're talking about writing, it's: 'show, don't tell.' If it's the proposed Terry Venables striptease, it's: 'Tel, don't show.'

I looked at a telescope through a telescope! I expected the universe to short-circuit. All I saw was a slightly larger telescope.

When I throw a party I like to sprinkle itching powder on my relatives. Livens things up. You'll always find my kin are itching at parties.

Magic door -- I'm afraid we don't have a future together. I'm sorry. If it's any consolation, it's not open sesayou. It's open sesame.

As I gorged myself on Baudrillard's chocolate ice-cream, I thought: 'welcome to the dessert of the real.'

I'm so tired I could be sponsored by Michelin.

Taking photographs of herring in little waistcoats and kilts is laughably easy. It's shooting fish in apparrel.

The remaining titles in the trilogy: Much Ado About 1, Much Ado About 2.

I bought a Golden Retriever, had it three year. And you know how much gold it retrieved for me in all that time? SOD ALL. Bastard.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Epilepsy poem

Epilepsy: the mind coughs one of those dry stuttering coughs,
the ones that comes unbidden, sudden, and seizes the lungs
and you can do nothing but cough nothing for long seconds.

The net of thought inside the brain clenches on nothing,
and scrapes sparkles and void from the friction of it.
The coughing goes on, and nothing seems to stop it.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Egyptian afterlife

From last week's TLS [14 Jan 2011], John Ray's account of the Egyptian Book of the Dead:
The ancient Egyptian afterlife is full of perils. The deceased may be compelled to walk upside down through fire and subsist on excrement, and the innumerable gateways in the underworld have their guardians, often hideous, who interrogate the wanderer and demand to be told their exact names ... there are paradises after death as well: the Elysian Fields (the name is Egyptian), where harvests are limitless, and where the deceased can turn into a swallow, or play board games they cannot lose. [17]
Some mistake, surely? Excrement eating aside, the first portion of this sounds stimulating and fun; the second, Elysian portion (playing a boardcgame you cannot lose? For eternity?) rather Hellish and horrible. But maybe that a de gustibus matter.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Seasons poem

In summer when the skies are white
we mock the timidness of night.

Autumn, when the trees disrobe:
a shadow in your lung's left lobe.

Winter's potatoes going green:
it's unclear what this may mean.

Spring: the leaves come back around.
The egg is buried underground.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Hoax Riddle

A letter:
My dear Gaynor—So you would like to know the answer to that riddle? Don’t be in a hurry to tell it to Amy and Frances: triumph over them for a while!
My first lends its aid when you plunge into trade.
Gain. Who would go into trade if there were no gain in it?
My second in jollifications—
Or. The French for gold. Your jollifications would be very limited if you had no money.
My whole, laid on thinnish, imparts a neat finish
To pictorial representations.
Gaynor. Because she will be an ornament to the Shakespeare Charades—only she must be ‘laid on thinnish’, that is, there mustn’t be too much of her.
Yours affectionately,
John Fisher, in The Magic of Lewis Carroll, calls this a ‘hoax riddle’ (Gaynor is Gaynor Simpson, ‘one of Carroll’s young Guildford friends’, and this letter dates from 1874). Carroll later compounded the gag:
My dear Gaynor—forgive me for having sent you a sham answer to begin with.
My first—Sea. It carries the ships of the merchants.
My second—Weed. That is, a cigar, an article much used in jollifications
My whole—Seaweed. Take a newly painted oil-picture, lay it on its back on the floo, and spread over it, ‘thinnish’, some wet seaweed. You will find you have ‘finished’ that picture.
Yours affectionately,
Lots of possible answers, including: res (‘thing’, necessary for trade) + ‘in’ (where the party is held): resin. ‘Co’ (as in limited company) + ‘pal’ (a friend for jollity): copal. But I’d like to think this has a photographic answer. One that occurs to me: ‘silver’, which certainly helps trade, and ‘nitrate’ (the ‘night rate’ for parties). Another might be: ‘Co’ (= limited company) and ‘odeon’ (the location of enjoyment): Collodion. We’re getting tenuous, though.

Saturday, 15 January 2011


The strength of thinking about texts in terms of genre is precisely that it frees us from the emotional-honesty confessional tarpit of thinking about texts in terms of their authors' states of mind.

Friday, 14 January 2011


Elvis's 'Viva Las Vegas'. What's particularly nice about this (apart from the 'Brazil'-style-rhythm opening) is the way Presley sings 'viva las vegas' as 'viva loss vegas'. Because that's what casinos depend upon, of course. The fact that customers come in and lose.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Mad, bad and dangerous to know

Lady Caroline Lamb’s description of Byron, of course: it’s a very famous phrase, but surprisingly hard to pin down. Where does it actually come from?

Lamb claimed she wrote the phrase (with dashes ‘mad—bad—and dangerous to know’) in her private journal for 1812; but nobody has actually seen it there—according to Paul Douglass, Lady Caroline Lamb; a biography [(Palgrave 2004), 104] ‘the phase may have been created later’. The actual source for the quotation is Lady Morgan's Memoirs (W H Allen 1862) [ii: 202]. Morgan quotes a letter from Lamb, many years after the actual encounter:
Lady Westmoreland knew him [Byron, of course] in Italy. She took on her to present him. The women suffocated him. I heard nothing of him, till one day Rogers (for he, Moore, and Spencer, were all my lovers, and wrote me up to the skies — I was in the clouds) — Rogers said, 'You should know the new poet/ and he offered me the MS. of "Childe Harold " to read. I read it, and that was enough. Rogers said, ' he has a club foot, and bites his nails.' I said, ' If he was ugly as AEsop I must know him.' I was one night at Lady Westmoreland's; the women were all throwing their heads at him. Lady Westmoreland led me up to him. I looked earnestly at him, and turned on my heel. My opinion, in my journal was, 'mad — bad — and dangerous to know.'
It’s a great phrase: the opening heavy stressed spondee underlined by its own rhyme, and followed by an iamb, and then three skipping unstressed syllables ending in a final stress (technically this last foot is a quartus paeon). It has the prosodic virtue of a kind of unspooling or unwinding rhythm, mimicking a sense of firmness giving way, before the irresistible Byronic charm. A great phrase: probably too good to have been anything other than an afterthought.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The bully

The bully attacks somebody, on spurious grounds. The victim did not deserve it. Later, much later, after the event, the bully is called to account. He can no longer remember why he did what he did; but the fact that he did it is enough. His actions are justification for his action. He is adamant he did right.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The Literature of Joy

Chesterton again:
Pain, it is said, is the dominant element in life; but this is true only in a very special sense. If pain were for one single instant literally the dominant element in life, every many would be found hanging dead from his own bed-post by the morning. Pain, as the black and catastrophic thing, attracts the youthful artist, just as the schoolboy draws devils and skeletons and men hanging. But joy is a far more elusive and elvish matter, since it is our reason for existing … the literature of joy is infinitely more difficult, more rare and more triumphant than the black and white literature of pain. [Chesterton, The Defendant (1901)]
This, though, is a weirdly actuarial account of things. Because when we are in pain -- toothache, childbirth, cancer, heartbreak, bereavement -- pain is all-in-all to us. It is only when we happen to be not in pain that we can assume the more optimistic position outlined by Chesterton here. So the truth or otherwise of this statement comes down to a statistical analysis: 'for most people, fewer days are spent in terrible pain than are not. So, on average ...' That's a weirdly unChestertonian version of Chesterton, right there.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Postal Poem

Before she turned away she paused. 'I will write to you,' she said.
But no postal service links the living with the waiting dead.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

The Fall of Adam

Genesis gives us the imaginative leeway to become each our own Miltons, and create our own explanation for why Adam fell. Me, I think Chesterton was onto something:
‘There runs a strange law through the length of human history—that men are continually tending to undervalue their environment, to undervalue their happiness, to undervalue themselves. The great sun of mankind, the sin typified by the fall of Adam, is the tendency, not towards pride, but towards this weird and horrible humility’ [Chesterton, The Defendant (1901), 9]
Isn't there a sense in which Adam's fall can be seen as a prototype of the 'God helps those who help themselves' ethos? 'I want this thing (whatever it is); I could ask God for it but I probably shouldn't bother him -- he's too big and important to be troubled with such things. Besides, he wants me to think for myself, clearly. I need to take responsibility for myself.'

Saturday, 8 January 2011


In The Problem of Pain, C S Lewis wants to make the distinction between 'miracle' and 'nonsense': 'What is the meaning of God's Omnipotence? Can he do whatever He pleases? Yes, except for the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to Him but not nonsense: nonsense remains nonsense even if we talk it about God.' This is a by-the-way point for Lewis, as he moves on to his larger thesis (that pain is a logically necessary component of a world of the free communion of souls, regardless of the omnipotence of that world's creator). But it strikes me in ways Lewis evidently didn't intend. Because in a particular sense, 'nonsense' is an exact synonym for 'miracle'. Generating bread and fish from thin air makes a nonsense of the laws of physics. The resurrection makes a nonsense of mortality. Two possible and divergent intellectual possibilities develop from this insight. Either we commit to a universe that makes sense, and banish the miraculous, as science suggests we do -- almost certainly correctly. Or else we embrace the notion that religion is inherently nonsensical; and not in a merely pejorative sense. Holy fools are still holy, after all.

Friday, 7 January 2011


I've been wondering whether thinking about Pastoral, especially in its post Elizabethan Crabbe/Wordsworth and Hardy/Morris sense, isn't the key to unlock Fantasy writing. Tolkien, it seems clear enough, was writing in a specifically pastoralised Romance mode (different to a pasteurised Romance mode, of course). Raymond Williams City and the Country book in particular seems to me to articulate a wealth of fascinating points that illuminate a great swathe of post-Tolkien Fantasy writing ...

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Mutability Poem

My own face reflected
in the well of a now-empty mug:
indistinct, eye, nose, cheeks.

Mouth, chin: like the moon
in a silent motion picture.
The ice in the waterbutt

is a sliced-open onion.
The clouds are a continual traffic.
The earth under your feet

will eventually become the earth over your head.
That's called mutability. The moon knows it.
No more fluid in that well.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011


Saint Jerome, or 'Heirom', as we should call him: 'Jerome used a quote from Vergil — “The horror and the silences terrified their souls” — to describe the horror of hell.' The 'horror' here is tautologocal ('the horror of hell horrified them') but the silence is interesting: presumably its a metonym for isolation and intersubjective disconnection, but the first thing that occurs to me is that silence has such a central place in so many spiritual traditions.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

The Mind of God

Talking about ‘the mind of God’ makes exactly as much sense as talking about ‘the eyeball of God’ or ‘the opposable thumb of God.’ This, I might add, is not the same thing as saying that it makes no sense to talk about these things.

Monday, 3 January 2011

The Mary Anna

"Never life came into the world but life was paid for it' [Kipling]

I've paid the bills for your lifestyle; I've funded your every spree—
And now your father is dying; and you must listen to me!
I can be COMA’d, can I? The doctor has told you? He lied.
I shall be dead by tomorrow; no science can hold back that tide.
Those Cryo-Operative What-Nots postpone what they cannot cure
I’d rather die in my bed, now, than have ten frozen dream-years more.
Death’s not a thing to be feared, son, with skull-helmet, boots and black cape
Dying’s a part of our Life-world, a gravity none can escape.
Life launches us upward to high flight; but then the parabola drops.
And whilst I’ve been happy to live life I’m happy enough as it stops.
Fifty years out in the System, from Mercury to past Mars Base
Though it has earned me a billion, leaves nothing to cover my face
Nothing, I suppose, but two credits, to lie one-and-one on my eyes
And this chip I hold in my grasp here—and this for your secret prize.
Perform one task for me, Havel, though it’s neither your Soma nor R,
I know you’ve devoted your life to being where the Zip Crowd are.
Devoted your life and my money, and reckoned them both well spent
Though you’ve never earned half a credit to cover food, psych bills or rent.
Happy to live on my money, contented to slosh it away
And I no longer grudge you the credits—provided you do as I say.
Not counting the Line and the shipyards, the orbitals and the Facs too,
I've made twice a billion—and made me; but damned if I ever made you.
Pilot at twenty-five years flat; and married at thirty in haste
Ten thousand men on the pay-roll, and forty freighters in space!

And now I’m an honorary Senator, and wear the White Star on my coat,
Talk on the level to Generals of Industry, Presidents, people of note
Fifty years in the making, and every last year of it fight,
Investments that pay from Neptunian darkness up to Venusian light.
I didn't begin with mooching. I found me a job and I stuck;
I worked like a robot, and plunged on, though now they're calling it luck.
God, what ships I've served in—analogue, leaky and old—
Some with a hull thin as cardboard to keep out the vacuum and cold,
G-couches fashioned for giants that left you all bruised up and sore
Or couches made-up for a dwarf-man that plain chucked you out on the floor.
Whole days at 4G, unbroken, though Law sets its limit at hours
Fuel pellets lumpy as coal and as useless; or ground down explosive like flour.
Food that would poison a heifer, and crewfellows nothing but strife
And mission insurance for write-off worth more than a crewman’s life.
Add it all up and I traveled—I brag it—not short of a full light year
They called me Debugger and Fireman, the Pilot Who Knew No Fear:
I worked every billet I could, and I took all the money they paid
And spent it as random, or gambled it, scattered as soon as made.

Til I met and I married your mother, took the boost-up from boy to man:
Ten years older, and wise as AI, she taught me the need for a plan.
Piloting all through the System, a father at thirty-three,
And your mother saving the money and making a man of me.
I was content to be flier, but she said there was better to find;
She took the chances I wouldn't, and I followed your mother blind.
Only her past held her back, for she’d Law Tags she could not quit:
Justice pinned her for taxes, fraud, smuggling, anything as would fit;
Her credit rating was zeroed, she was banned from flying in space;
And all for a misunderstanding and a flechette in somebody’s face.
Now she had me to borrow the money—she helped me to manage the loan,
And we bought half-shares in a shuttle with a logo all of our own.
Though mindwipe was hers if they caught us, Saturnian jail for me,
But still we flew it together, and saved on a crewmember’s fee,
More than the money it kept us together when orbits were slow and long
And your mother was never a groundling; deep space was where she belonged.
Patching and fueling on credit, and living the Lord know how,
I started the Red Ox freighters—I’ve thirty eight of them now.
I say it was me that began it, and my name was the one on the slate,
But most of the running was Mary’s, and Mary shouldered the weight.

And those were the days of fast cargoes, and trade was brisk and fair
And Mercury would make us our fortune, but she died in the tussle there—
Owners we were, full owners, and the boat was named after her,
And she died in the Mary Anna. My heart; how young we were!
For Mercury’s made of pig iron, at the base of its gravity well,
And if you can mine out a portion there’s those as will buy all you sell.
Though we didn’t have mine equipage, and couldn’t afford mining crew
We only had wits and a ramshackle spaceship provisioned for just we two.
It wasn’t entirely legal, and it certainly wasn’t too safe
For the aim wasn’t orbital caution but to fly a bomb-run and to strafe.
My speed added star-blast momentum to concentrate nuclear bloom
And great big lovely chunks of mercury-iron were blasted up into ’cuum
Spun in elliptical orbits and free to be netted and snared
And precious as gold was the prize for those who had planned it and dared.
It was no schoolyard exercise, matching their wild delta-v;
I flew the craft and your ma stuck a dart-jet in every lump she could see.

And if we’d had a third crewperson maybe she wouldn’t have died
For maybe we would have had warning of the policeboat’s slammed broadside
Abrupt in our sensors from sun’s white shadow, coming-in shocking and fast,
Firing cannons to catch us our breath and that breath your mother’s last,
For the aft pods were hit, the hull breached, and vacuum quenched the blaze.
I rushed to repair and to find her, but Mary had ended her days.
She was beautiful-looking in death, although scorched up feet to thighs
And although the swift decompression had beetroot-blackened her eyes,
And there’s no shame in saying I wept, for grief pierced me like a sword;
But yet I couldn’t hold on to her, for fear that the police would board.
Although she was dead she was lawless, and I would have gone into jail,
And prison fees cost more than Mary Anna would get in a sale.
So I clutched her and then I released her, and tossed her out into space
And I busied myself with repairs, though all I could see was her face,
And awaited the police hail and boarding, and squared ship AI with my lie—
That I’d found the pig iron floating when I happened to be passing by,
And tagged it to warn other shipping of debris, all legal and friendly and fair,
And the police crew didn’t believe me, and I knew it and I didn’t care.
But they hadn’t a case, so they fined me and left me to go my way,
Wifeless and never to know in which grave-orbit Mary lay.

So I went on a spree back on Earth, and I fitted a Soma Bug,
But I dreamed your mother appeared and warned me to give up the drug.
A dream, or drug hallucination, or maybe her spirit: who cares—
Told me to stick to my business, let others stick to theirs,
Saving the money (she warned me), letting others who wanted get high.
Provide for my son—that’s you, Hav—let ‘son’ be enough of a why.
And I met McCullough moonside, renting space in Copernicus’ wall,
And between us we planned a repair yard, Lagranged and open to all:
Cheap repairs for the cheap ones. It paid, and the business grew;
For I bought me a laser-lathe huller, and that was a gold mine too.
‘Cheaper to build than mend;’ I said, but McCullough dreamed of the stars,
And we wasted a year in talking before moving the shop to Mars.
Nearer the asteroid beltways and higher-up over the Sun
But most of all further away from the paths where the Earth police run.
The Merchant Houses then beginning, and all of us started fair,
Building up spaceships like houses and fixing the drive-rails square.
And I wouldn’t call all of them criminal, though some tugged the law from true;
And I worked at fixing, and trading, and had too little time left for you.
Though I paid the best tutors and virals, saw you daily by face or by screen
You sensed my love lacked the meaning that a father’s love ought to mean.
Though I spoke to you fatherly words, and looked you full in the face
My eye was not on you—you knew it—but on money and spaceships and space.
And McCullough, he dreamed interstellar, and starsystems wholly new
And wasted our money on liners to fit generations of crew
And hulking expensive engines to make speeds near to half that of light.
But McCullough was killed in the nineties, and—Well, I'm dying to-night...

I knew—I knew what was coming, that the Houses would fall into war:
Wear-tear is one thing to repair-shops, combat damage something more.
Plasmetal and battle expansions. It paid, I tell you, it paid,
When we came with our nine-hour service and collared the long-run trade!
Then came the armour-contracts, but that was McCullough's side;
He was always the best at designing, but better, perhaps, he died.
I went through his private data; the notes were plainer than print;
And I'm no fool to finish if a man will give me a hint.
His children were angry—no matter. I saw what his equations meant;
And I started the Tachyon Thrust game, and it paid me sixty per cent.
Sixty per cent with failures, twice what we could otherwise do,
And a quarter-billion Credits, and I saved it all for you!
It was clear when the war was coming, and clearer when it would end
And backing the House of Ulanov was money it made sense to spend.
So peace came, more fierce and law-strict than even the old Solar Pact,
And I started my life quite over; for I had what I’d previously lacked,
And though you don’t value it, Havel, it’s getting, not having, that counts;
Not winning trophies for polo on pressurized hydraulic mounts.
You’re nearer sixty than fifty, and fruit from an alien tree,
I bought you the best education, and what have you done for me?
Though you married that thin-limbed woman, she’s white and stale as a bone,
She gave you your art-crowd nonsense; but where's that kid of your own?
The things that I value you scorn them, you take and you never give,
And the things I know are rotten you think are the way to live.
Half your time in VR, and the other half Pharmed-out on Som,
Eight different houses on four worlds, and none of them counts as a home.

I had a half billion then, but I didn’t consider it mine;
I brought out the Red Ox logo again and made it up into a line.
I used my money as grav-assist to slingshot me to the high road,
But you—you’re content just to shed it, as if it’s an onerous load.
Weak, a liar, and idle, and mean as a spaceship stray,
Nosing for scraps in the galley, a whelp who’s blind to the way.

I'm sick of the whole bad business. I want to go back where I came.
Hav, you're my son—or your Mary’s, and at least you carry our name.
I want to lie by your mother, though she’s dark and she’s far, far away,
And since Law forbids it, you’ll take me, and so you will earn your pay.
You’ve a million a year in my will, if you think that that is enough
But I know your taste, and your wife’s; her’s an expensive sort of love.
And you know I’ve more than a billion, not too far short of two;
And if you want to earn it then there’s things you’ll have to do.
The Lex Ulanova forbids flying inside Venus’s span
But that’s where my woman is floating, and you must deliver her man;
Take out the Mary Anna—I’ve fuelled and maintained her for this,
Jettison me near my wife; let us float til we bump-to and kiss
Because although she is lost, unmarked, and impossible to find
Yet fate will bring us together, though we’re dead and cold and blind.
Trajectories are random and space, don’t I know it!—vast
But we will have eternity to float and to fall and to pass.
The Ulanov want their monopoly, and I wish them the luck of the brave
But I’m not trying to steal their pig iron; I’m looking for a grave
I'll be content with the blank of space; no churchyard, shroud or bell
For the wife of my youth shall clutch me—and the rest can go to Hell!
She died in an instant, son, and that fact kept her spirit pure
And Fate is not so cruel that I’m kept from her ever and more.
Her beauty outlasted the vacuum, the decompression, the burn.
Never seen death yet, my Havel? … Well, now is your time to learn!

Sunday, 2 January 2011


Following yesterday, you can tell I'm reading Faerie Queene Book II. It's good; better than Book I, I think. But ... but. I keep thinking of this Clive Crook FT op-ed piece, which I read (there was a Crooked Timber link to it) a little before picking up the Spenser. The context: our hero Sir Guyon is the embodiment of temperance, picking the middle way between deplorable backsliding and equally deplorable hot-headed Puritanical overzealousness. Fair enough, except that:
Just before Christmas, a group of self-styled moderates launched a campaign against “hyper-partisanship”. The group calls itself No Labels. “We are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents who are united in the belief that we do not have to give up our labels, merely put them aside to do what’s best for America,” says their website.

… I have another suggestion. No Ideas. Or how about: No Point? Would that be dull enough? Washington’s partisan warriors of left and right ridicule moderates as unprincipled or clueless or both. Splitting the difference does not give you the right answer, they say. Once in a while, in fact, it might – but in general the partisans are right about this, and the No Labels crowd is the proof. In a system that requires opposing sides to deal with each other – and a divided Congress is one such system – a polite exchange of views certainly helps. But there is no reason to think that the mid-point between fundamentally irreconcilable positions has any merit, even if you can say what the mid-point is, which you usually cannot.

US centrists, if any still exist, need some policies and a willingness to defend them, not rules of etiquette. The middle is not an ideology-free zone, where you see “what’s best for America” the moment you take off your partisan goggles. Nothing is resolved by asking: “Why can’t we all just get along?” Centrism needs an ideology, too – the more strident, the better. Without one, it is empty. It is No Labels. What does such an ideology look like? Strange to say, but the US might need to look to Europe to remind itself. The classic form, and the template for subsequent variants, is the celebrated “social market” model of West German chancellor Ludwig Erhard and his disciples, which produced Germany’s postwar economic miracle: in a nutshell, it is social insurance plus economic liberty. It is a fundamentally pro-capitalist worldview, with an ambitious though narrowly defined role for government.
There's something more important than party-political jostling in this, I think: it's the old Spinal Tap insight that a 'compromise' between fire and ice is, in its lukewarmwatery way, hugely inferior to either.

In Canto II, Guyon visits a castle in which live three sisters: one Elissa who has too little rectitude, another, Perissa, who has too much, and a third ('Medina') who has just the right goldilocksy amount:
second sister, who did far excell
The other two; Medina was her name,
A sober sad, and comely curteous Dame;
Who rich arayd, and yet in modest guize,
In goodly garments, that her well became.
So far, so obvious. Perissa is courted by the cranky Sir Hudibras, and Elissa by the evil Sans-loy, whom we remember from Book 1. They fight amongst themselves, until they see Guyon:
...themselues at discord fell,
And cruell combat ioynd in middle space:
With horrible assault, and furie fell,
They heapt huge strokes, the scorned life to quell,
That all on vprore from her settled seat
The house was raysd, and all that in did dwell;
Seemd that lowde thunder with amazement great
Did rend the ratling skyes with flames of fouldring heat.

The noyse thereof calth forth that straunger knight,
To weet, what dreadfull thing was there in hand;
Where when as two braue knights in bloudy fight
With deadly rancour he enraunged fond,
His sunbroad shield about his wrest he bond,
And shyning blade vnsheathd, with which he ran
Vnto that stead, their strife to vnderstond;
And at his first arriuall, them began
With goodly meanes to pacifie, well as he can.

But they him spying, both with greedy forse
Attonce vpon him ran, and him beset
With strokes of mortall steele without remorse,
And on his shield like yron sledges bet:
As when a Beare and Tygre being met
In cruell fight on lybicke Ocean wide,
Espye a traueiler with feet surbet,
Whom they in equall pray hope to deuide,
They stint their strife, and him assaile on euery side. [II.ii.20-22]
What this passage does, though, is place in question the ethical premise of the whole text. In a work predicated upon the idea of temperate 'compromise' (to use the modern term) between opposite extremes, we're entitled to ask: what is the middle ground between a bear and a tiger? 'Lybicke Ocean', which means 'Sahara desert'. This in turn touches on the uneasy, debateable quality of middle material. The ladies' castle is 'built on a rocke adioyning to the seas' [II.ii.12]. But rocks and seas do not 'ad-join', except in the sense that rock + water = mud.

Saturday, 1 January 2011


Fairie Queene, Book II: Canto ii. Sir Guyon and his Palmer have discovered a dead knight and his dying lady, a knife in this latter's breast. But the couple's baby is in his mother's arms, and playing boyishly in the stream of blood. Ugh. Anyhow, the mother dies, and Guyon tries to wash the baby's hands -- but the stream nearby is a magic stream that, for odd reasons, will accept no taint and is therefore no good for washing.
Then soft himselfe inclyning on his knee
Downe to that well, did in the water weene
(So loue does loath disdainfull nicitee)
His guiltie hands from bloudie gore to cleene,
He washt them oft and oft, yet nought they beene
For all his washing cleaner. Still he stroue,
Yet still the litle hands were bloudie seene;
The which him into great amaz'ment droue,
And into diuerse doubt his wauering wonder cloue.
I feel confident in suggesting: Shakespeare clearly read this passage, and it was in his mind when he wrote Lady Macbeth.