Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Sending in the Idiots

Not sure if this is a mass-mailing initiative but this flier came through the door this morning:

Of course mistakes were made. For that we are truly sorry. It was never our intention. We had a plan, a strategy even. It was all about winning hearts and minds. Somewhere along the line mistakes were made. The consequences were indeed unfortunate but were, we can assure you, never part of our intentions.

Few would disagree that action was needed. The situation was dire and order needed to be restored. We thought that order would be welcomed, would be the key to winning hearts and minds. We would not wish to suggest that we saw this as a simple task, we always knew that it would be hard to achieve quickly. Yet order was what was needed before any hope of normality could be considered. We're certain that everyone was agreed on that point.

Looking back now there were things that we would have done differently. We thought long and hard about the best way to achieve order and win over hearts and minds. We had tried this before, many times. Our strategy always seems to be about winning hearts and minds. The problem always comes down to the matter of implementation. That's where it seems to have gone wrong in the past and we were keen that this time we wouldn't repeat the same errors.

We thought at first of setting up dialogue, of using open discussion to understand the root cause of the disorder and work towards a reasoned solution. We thought that, through this, we would come to understand them better and they would come to understand us. With understanding we were sure that common ground could be found and progress made towards instilling order. Unfortunately we couldn't speak their language and we had, mistakenly as it turned out, deported all of our translators. We were suspicious of them and their ability to talk the language of others. We had taken steps to remove them before we fully understood their usefulness in helping us win hearts and minds. We now recognise that this was a mistake.

It was suggested at this point that we set up observation posts on the borders to watch them and their disorder. We were going to observe what they were doing and try to understand what it was that they were so unhappy about. We thought that if we knew what it was that they wanted, we could package it up and airdrop it in. We could then return to our observation posts and see if this calmed them and if their hearts and minds were won over by our generosity. We began to construct our observation towers. We ordered several thousand pairs of binoculars and some telescopes also. Unfortunately they seem to have mistaken our towers for machines of war and took to burning them down when we were not looking or when we'd gone to fetch some more binoculars. We wished that we knew their words for observation towers so that we could have labelled them more clearly.

We felt that this was a setback and turned our minds to other tactics. For a while we decided to ignore them in the hope that, when they saw that we had no interest in them, they would calm down and return to living normal lives. We hoped that if we ignored them hard enough they might become united in their curiosity. Perhaps they would send us our translators back to try to find out why we were ignoring them. We would use that opportunity to laugh with them about how we were just doing it so that they would be calm again and that we really didn't want to ignore them, just understand them a bit more. We thought they might suddenly see the humour of the situation and we would all become friends and discuss it over coffee somewhere nice.

It was at this point, before we'd managed to initiate the ignoring, that some mistake was made. We still don't know how it happened and whether the fault lies with an individual or represents some systemic failure. We assure you that this matter is being thoroughly investigated and, if we find the answer, we will look to make sure that these mistakes do not happen again. Let us make this very clear, we still had many options to explore in trying to win hearts and minds. We were still confident of finding a way. If the ignoring didn't work we had considered inviting them over for holidays so that they could see that we were really quite nice. We'd thought of offering to help them build new homes, schools and hospitals to make up for those that had been destroyed in the disorder. We'd even thought of offering free tennis lessons or preferential trading terms. We had many options to consider.

There were some, in those days, who thought our approaches too circumspect, too soft. Some doubted whether such measures would ever bring about the order that we all agreed was needed. We considered, at this point, a more direct approach. We thought about sending in teachers and doctors. We thought about sending in some aid workers – even though we did not entirely understand what an aid worker was or what they actually did. These all seemed like measures that would support our strategy of winning hearts and minds. Unfortunately, without the first semblance of order these people felt a little reticent about being sent in, even with the offer of free tennis lessons becoming available in wave two of the plan. We considered, as an alternative, sending in peace-keepers as they seemed exactly the sort of person that was needed. Firm, yet intelligent people imbued with a desire to find, instil and protect peace.

Unfortunately, while we were considering these options, somewhere along the line the decision was made to send in the idiots. That’s when things started to go wrong. That’s when the fighting really started in earnest. The trouble with sending in the idiots is that they tend to take guns in with them and a certain outlook on life that doesn’t recognise the notion of winning hearts and minds. The idiots seemed enthusiastic, we will freely admit to that. However, they were inclined to exercise their enthusiasm with bullets and missiles and massive air superiority and this tended to inflame the disorder rather than quell it in any way.

We really are truly sorry for the way that this has turned out. The most disappointing aspect of this was the fact that this has happened before and we appear to have made the same mistake again. We always have a strategy of winning hearts and minds but somehow we always end up sending in the idiots.

Monday, June 02, 2008

The Self-preservation Society...

I’ve been away from here, lost or at least struggling to make any progress. At times the webcounter flat-lined and I thought, well, there you are, it’s over. But there were occasional blips so I thought I might return, for a bit anyway, so you know that I’m still out there somewhere.

In my absence from this place, and considering the flat-lining of the webcounter, I got to thinking about how many weblogs are currently owned by the dead. I imagined a scenario where LittleMissKittyBlogger had posted just the most adorable picture of her tabby kitten peering out of a pink shoe box on her blog, Kittens R Gr8t! It really is a good picture, one of the best she’s posted and she knows her readers are going to get a kick out of it. Kittens really are the best things, like ever, she thinks. She heads out into the world, maybe to pick up yet more kitten-based paraphernalia, and there she is involved in a major road traffic accident. Does she think, as that articulated truck crosses over the central reservation and ploughs into her car: ‘I can’t post this on Kittens R Gr8t! This is too hard, too real, I’m going to have to start a whole new blog to cover this’, before her life ends? And maybe this life ends as suddenly as a camera’s shutter click or maybe it is drawn out over a few days to the accompaniment of the beep, beep, beep of the monitor but, either way, she doesn’t get back to her beloved blog.

Meanwhile, back at Kittens R Gr8t! people are posting such enthusiastic comments about that last picture and about the blog as a whole. Even though no replies are posted, comments keep on coming. After a couple of days some of the regular readers start posting “where are you?” comments, some are even a little grumpy that they haven’t received reciprocal praise for their blogs and the pictures they posted in response to that last cute kitty picture. By week three, visitors numbers trail off substantially. One regular posts that she hopes that LittleMissKittyBlogger’s absence isn’t an indicator that something bad has happened to her dear little kitten.

Then the weeks pass into months and the months, years. How long will Kittens R Gr8t! remain out there, a testimony to one person’s infatuation with a certain type of small fluffy carnivore? It becomes an attenuated continuation of her existential status and, to her readers, she becomes, somewhat fittingly, like Schrödinger’s cat.

This brings me onto my real point, here, in my quest to discover why we write or, more particularly, why I attempted to write. Is there some hope that, in writing, we achieve some level of immortality; some belief that our thoughts can live on, as our bodies rot and decay? Perhaps. If Milton is to be believed, “a good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life”; and again he states, in his pamphlet opposing censorship: “who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but, he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself; kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye; he slays an immortality rather than a life”.

Milton is not alone in harbouring such views, great thinkers before and since would recognise those sentiments. Plato saw books as “…the immortal sons deifying their sires” and Woody Allen, though hoping for a different outcome, recognised the association also when he said “I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying”.

Our written words are more closely us than, perhaps, anything else. They are the outward expression of our inner self. A reason, then, to write? Is this what really drives us, some desire for immortality, some attempt at creating a fossil record of our life that declares, “I was here!”?

We know that we will fade so quickly from the memories of others. Even those who knew us well will find our image losing focus over time, the details gone, conversations difficult to recall. Life moves on. Yet, in the written word we have something less ephemeral, less prone to being obscured by time.

If this is our true reason to write, then it draws other associations. If we are only to be preserved after death in the words that we leave behind, then we must consider carefully which words we choose to leave. This observation, in itself, can be more paralysing than it is energising. It seems as if too much is at stake. Perhaps I should dismiss such self-consciousness and rather take heart from T. J. Crabber who, in one of the very few extant letters, wrote the following in an irate reply to his father, a Kentish corn-chandler, who was asking him to give up his work on the Chronicle and pleading for his return to the family business:

"...We must strive in our writing to become much bigger than that. As individuals we are cast as equals, that is to say we are bastards and vagabonds and misfits and fools. But in turning to writing we presume to cast off the bondage of our individuality and our smallness and take on, instead, the mantle of all humanity so that we must at once attend to the concerns of the race both severally and in whole. It is here that we find our purpose and our meaning. And though, like the defenders at Thermopylae, we stand there knowing that we shall fail in our endeavour, that it will consume us entirely and leave us for dead, we know also, like them, that we may find in this struggle our immortality too in the wonder of our words, if not our actions speak, in our fight for the truth and disregard for the odds against success, an abdication of any regard for the concept of success. What matters only is that we take a stand and dismiss our desperate clinging to our mortality and our individuality and our fears."

But then he spent the rest of his life writing about figs.

Anyhow, the point is made and I think there is something in it, even though it may only be part of the answer. There does seem to be something in the appeal of writing to preserve ones thoughts beyond the grave. Who would have heard of Shakespeare if he had decided to make pots rather than write poetry and plays? Who would have heard of Hemmingway if he had decided to devote his life to achieving excellence on his PlayStation 3? Though there is, of course, no consolation in death that your words survive, there can be some consolation in life that you have produced something with greater permanence than yourself that reflects something of your uniqueness and your being. Something more apposite than a headstone’s blunt summary.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Charity Pun Run

It’s nearing that time of year again when organised charity fund raising descends on the UK in the form of Sport Relief. Perhaps I’m the only one who finds this annual event irksome. This isn’t because I have some problem with the aims of the initiative nor is it because I wish to demean the endeavours of all those who participate in it and the good causes that subsequently benefit – far from it. No my problem is purely with the name. Sport Relief – what does that mean exactly?

For some decades now those major charitable drives that attract high media coverage have striven to have a suitably catchy name to create some identity. Invariably they have sought the reliable domain of the pun to provide such nomenclature. I don’t know exactly when this started but 1984 saw the first example, that I was aware of, that really worked effectively. Someone back then came up with the slightly odd pairing of the world of pop music with a fund raising effort to relieve famine in Africa. There is no obvious logical connection between these two. When trying to solve a massive humanitarian crisis, caused by a combination of unfavourable climatic and political conditions, it takes quite an imaginative leap to turn for help to the one area of Western society that is associated, like no other, with the ephemeral, the self-indulgent, the profligate and the trite. To get the public behind this they needed to have name that could bridge this gulf in our logical sensibilities. The name had to be right. Some bright spark came up with Band Aid and at that point they must have known that they were onto a winner (and all involved were probably equally delighted to be able shelve the earlier working title of Pop Tarts, which would have necessitated the pop stars prostituting themselves in the name of charity). The reason Band Aid works (and the ludicrously named Live Aid doesn’t) is that it is a good pun. It carries with it both the notion of healing, associated with the trademarked adhesive bandages, and the notion that bands, pop bands, will be coming to the aid of the afflicted. Nice.

Time moved on and at some point people started talking about comedy being the new rock and roll. It had a lot of profile, could draw the crowds. Much to everyone’s surprise, the pop stars had failed to cure the world’s ills, perhaps it was time for the comedians to show them how it’s done. Again they needed a banner that could help connect a how bunch of people doing knob-gags in London could lead to the alleviation of deprivation at home and abroad. They struck upon Comic Relief. Again a good pun that is understandable as it takes an existing expression and uses it in a way that conveys the core function of the initiative.

Next the world of sport stood up eager to do its bit. Again people were talking of sports people as being the new rock stars, with their high-paying, lavish lifestyles. (It is interesting to note that they didn’t think of the sports people as the new comedians, possibly because footballers’ one-liners were never too good and often used their entire vocabulary, sometimes twice). Anyway they needed, like those who had gone before, a good name for the public to rally behind (maybe even literally). But why, oh why, did they settle on Sport Relief? There is no pun there. They have just swapped out the word Comic without realising that, in doing so, they have created something that is meaningless (if you look at their branding they even stole the comedians’ red nose motif!). Couldn’t they have come up with anything better? I know that sports men and women aren’t always the brightest in the class but they should have been able to come up with something a bit more resonant than Sport Relief. Every year it annoys me more that they opted for this name and missed out on the opportunity to adopt my suggestion of Athletic Support (I’ll leave it to you to devise an appropriate motif for the logo).

Friday, January 25, 2008

Lies about Lapwings...

I'm still trying to answer the question about why I decided to become a writer. I have written five attempts already. All of those efforts have been scrapped. They were unnecessary and with every word I typed, I typed a lie. I wonder why that is. Why this topic, this question, is so evasive and prone to throwing up distracting falsehoods. What am I hiding from myself?

Elsewhere in this web log, back in the mists of time when I still fostered some ambition, however uncertain it was, I made a statement about the fear of living without the dream of something better. Perhaps that is what I face now, perhaps that is why my fingers falter, the fear that what I have now is the best I can ever hope for, the epitome of my existence. Perhaps.

So in all the self-searching analysis that has gone on since my last entry here, did I ever come close to understanding why I suddenly decided, a few years ago, to try my hand at writing? Even now I really can’t say with any certainty. I find it difficult to extract the truth from the morass of ephemeral falsity in which it no doubt hides. But let me tell you about my father.

I am the only son of an only son. It is often said, by people who observe us together, that my father and I are very alike and I wonder sometimes, though never ask, whether he can see any of himself in me. Yet I think we are very different, similar metals, perhaps, but forged in different fires. My father was born in the 1930’s in one of those grey colliery towns that clings to the coast of the North East of England. His father was a miner and his mother had spent time as a milliner before becoming a fulltime housewife, as all miners’ wives were in those days. Neither of his parents was well educated. I got the feeling that his father was dismissive of education and the educated. His mother, though, now that was a different matter entirely. If ever there was a story of unfulfilled potential through lack of opportunity it could have been found in that small, gentle and good-humoured woman. And whereas many of her fellow miners’ wives must have been content with their early emancipation from the school house, she was cursed with knowing that she could have thrived if she had been allowed to stay on at school, done a whole lot better for herself, in life and in marriage.

So what hope is there for this boy of theirs, my father? A boy just discovering the world as Europe falls once more into war and the industrial towns and cities of the North become targets for bombing raids. No time for looking forward. Men must fight and die or labour deep underground extracting the fuel to keep the home-fires burning. The future is uncertain, victory is not assured.

Yet the war does come to an end and my father finds himself no longer living in the coastal mining town. His father has given up the grimy toil of the mines to become a publican, an inauspicious career move for a man who likes to drink more than he likes to work. The pub, an architecturally bland building devoid of any flourishes or finesse, sits like a squat box alongside a road that takes traffic north to Newcastle. Inside the floors are all wood and sawdust, spittoons still prevalent and in regular use, this is not a refined drinking spot. The clientele are, like my grandfather, coarse working men with brawny arms and calloused hands. Men from the collieries, and the harbour and the forge.

At night my father tries to sleep upstairs. The noise from the bar comes up through the thin floor, mixed with the stench of cheap cigarette smoke and stale beer. The noise is of men drinking, shouting, laughing, fighting and, for a young boy, it is terrifying. He knows well enough that there is more to fear than just the noise. What does he think of in those long nights? Does he think that this is where his destiny lies or does he dream of escape?

But although the nights are full of terrors, the days are different. Things are changing for this boy. Against the odds he finds himself attending the Grammar school in the city and even in such a conservative educational institution new possibilities are presenting themselves. He finds he even has some talent. Although he doesn’t know it, he will return to this school again some years later as a teacher and later still he will have a son attend there too, although by then it is no longer a Grammar School but has been transformed into a large Comprehensive School (similar metal, different fires).

At the weekends he escapes the dark and drab pub and runs with his dog across the fields. There, where field follows field to an endless horizon, lapwings take to the air and perform their low altitude acrobatics seeming to exhilarate just in their sheer mastery of the element. My father and his dog chase after them, knowing that they can never be caught. And in these fields what does this growing boy think about? As he looks at the clouds scudding across the sky, at the contours of the distant hills in the changing light, at the rainstorm coming in off the valley, and at the hedgerows, the scattered trees, the fields of barley, wheat and grass, is he thinking about what he is discovering in school? In school, it is becoming apparent that he is has a talent, a talent for art.

This talent seems to have come out of nowhere, certainly no inheritance from his father, and it fosters within him a creative urge that becomes all consuming. There is talk at the Grammar School that he should be thinking of Art College, that this talent should be encouraged. And what does that sharp-tempered miner, turned drunken landlord, think of his son when he hears of this? This question is at the very heart of the story, upon which all significant meaning rests. But I have never asked, so we must move on unenlightened. His mother, I know, though again I have never asked, is burning with pride when she hears though she contains her exuberance in front of her husband. She is also slightly afraid for her son, worried about all the impossible things he will need to face as he attempts to pursue his dreams. She worries for him still more when, a few years later, he leaves the local Art College and heads down to London, to the prestigious Royal College of Art. Finally he is free. He writes to his mother regularly, from London, humorous, warm-hearted letters about all that he is discovering there interspersed with scruffy cartoon illustrations which often depict him attended watchfully by vultures.

When he returns to the North East it is with his newly found fiancée, a student of medicine who will become a doctor, his wife, my mother. Where does the dream go then, when the children start to arrive? More mouths to feed, more bills to pay. He takes a position at his old school teaching art to give him a reliable, if not particularly large, income. And years pass. Eventually the children too leave school and home and he feels that he can at last give up his teaching post and return to his painting.

Several years later and I’m working in London for a big corporation. I’d never planned it, just sort of fallen into a job because I needed the money. It is December, cold and dark, I leave the office at lunchtime and scurry across Hungerford Bridge into the West End. My father is in town. There is an exhibition of paintings and he has several in the show. We meet for lunch and talk about a few things of little consequence, the weather, work, football before heading over to the gallery. It is the private view, the day before the public get in, so the gallery is mainly full of people with some connection to the gallery or the artists. I can’t stay long, I need to be back at the office even before we walk through the doors of the gallery but I want to see my father’s paintings, I want to be in the gallery even if just for a little while. We’re in there looking around the exhibition and, every now and then, people come up to my father and say hello. He introduces me to them and they always say something like how we look the same, how they can see the family connection. And then they ask me whether I paint too. They all ask this as though it is the most natural thing to ask and I’m embarrassed standing there next to my father and his paintings and telling them that no, no I don’t paint, that I’ve never even tried. They look surprised. I tell them what I do for a job and they seem confused. I realise that none of these people has ever worked for a large corporation, they don’t know what it means when I say what I do. And there, in that gallery, the words I speak seem strange to me too. But my time is up. I say goodbye to my father and head back through the gloomy half-light of day, across the river, and to work..

And somewhere in that story is the reason I decided to try to become a writer or at least some of the reason. Except, of course, it’s all lies. I don’t know whether there is any real truth to it at all. The bit with the lapwings, that’s true. But the rest? The rest I can’t make any guess at how much of that is true. Maybe some, maybe none but the core of the story, its real heart, is missing because I really have never asked my father about it, about his life growing up and discovering an unlikely talent.

Perhaps this has moved my exploration of the question on a bit, in a cursory and oblique way. I still can’t grasp at it, reduce it to a single imperative succinctly expressed in simple terms. Perhaps it also helps me understand that giving up that ambition was also inevitable. There are still many miles of uncharted corridors to explore here in Tartarus Central, though few promises of answers or suggestion that there is ever any way out.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Why did I decide to become a writer?

Why did I think I would like to be a writer in the first place? Perhaps this is not a question that many aspirant writers ask themselves enough. There are those who can say with great confidence that they never made a decision to write, that this was in a sense made for them at an early age. They have been writing since they first learned to scrape crayon against paper – it is part of the essential essence of who they are. Fair enough, I envy you. There are others, like myself, who came to this decision later in life, maybe much later, maybe too late. For us there needs to be some reason why we claim to have discovered this sudden creative urge that has seemingly troubled us little in our lives up until now. There must be a reason why we could sail through our adolescence without stringing more than a couple of words together, a reason why we could move into higher education and beyond by doing just what was expected of us and little more (and writing, by that stage, was certainly not what was expected). Then one day we think that we would rather be writers than insurance salesmen or short-order chefs or cleaners or lawyers or whatever god-awful predicament we’ve found ourselves in. Why is this? Why do we (by which, of course, I mean I) give such idle dreams any more credence than a wish to become an astronaut?

Terence J. Crabber famously said that “…if God had desired us to roam this Earth constipated in the gut and spirit, he would not have provided us with the bounty that is figs…” (The Chronicle of Figs, Wernstein & Wernstein (1911). London. Page 343). Fair enough, but what does that have to do with the question in hand? Well there are several commentaries on this section that see a wider message in these fairly prosaic and derivative lines. Many of these interpret the aphorism as “if God had wished us to remain silent he would not have given us mouths” (cf. “The Exegesis of Introductions – the purpose and form of introductory passages in the Chronicle of Figs” – Stephen Jones PhD, Ficus Press (1973). London). In this tradition it is being argued that figs, here, represent man’s unique ability to speak and that this allows us to differentiate ourselves from other fig-eating animals by allowing us to release descriptions of the thoughts (here “spirit”) that form our cognition of the world as we perceive it.

Of course most readers of The Chronicle will know that, contextually, it is more consistent to equate the figs of The Chronicle with the epistemological hypostasis of mind. However, Jones ignores this reading because it makes the interpretation awkward and possibly meaningless (it becomes something like “if God had wanted us to remain silent he would not have given us minds”). However, as Samuel Pygott and Charles Crone point out in their short but excellent biography of Crabber (Extracting The Man of Figs – Discovering TJ Crabber in the Chronicle of Figs, Lodestar Press (1975). Dublin), much of the early sections of The Chronicle were written by Crabber in an inn called The Gut & Spirit where he had temporary lodgings before he moved to Kent on the inheritance he gained through the death of this father. This gives us a much easier reading of the passage which now becomes “…if God had not wanted us to write, he would not have given us minds”. The significance for my current predicament becomes thereby immediately apparent – if the route was somewhat unnecessary and tortuous.

[Of course there is a third tradition that suggests that both interpretations are somewhat misguided but I have no space to go into that now (if you are interested in exploring this viewpoint you could try the highly polemical “Its Just About Bloody Figs, You Idiots!” – Percy Thrower, BBC Publications (1976), London).]

Anyhow, the essence of what Crabber seems to be telling us is that there is some deep connection between our mind and our need, or desire, to write. Not just in the obvious sense that you need a mind before you can write but in the sense that through the act of writing you discover your mind and the true nature of your thoughts. With writing the mind will flourish and grow fruitful like the fig tree. Without writing your mind atrophies, thoughts become stunted and not well rooted.

So there we have Reason One: I decided to become a writer to avoid the mental atrophy that I feared was otherwise the likely outcome of my lifestyle.

Fair enough, I have often stated as much in the past when questioned on such matters (though, more often than not, without going through the whole fig rigmarole as a precursor). I just happen to think that this cannot be true or at least not entirely true or even largely true. It sounds too honourable and intellectual to be sincere. It lacks any visceral and immediate necessity, it is more akin to the reasoning that someone may adopt for taking vitamin supplements or eating more fresh fruit and vegetables. It is all very worthy but doesn’t smack of anything that is truly human. It is the sort of reasoning that casts around our conscious minds masquerading as the truth, to stop us thinking further, to distract us from trying to open some of those heavy, rusted doors that hide away our subconscious mind and the creatures that lurk in dark corners there, shunning the light of enquiry. And it could be that it is these creatures that secretly control everything we do, that spirit up ideas of taking up writing and such like. Perhaps it is with these that I must converse and leave behind the deceptive world of the conscious mind.

So my quest must continue. I must trudge further through this netherworld of Tartarus Central in the hope that I will get closer to the truth. I might try to open a few doors. Maybe I can discover why I decided to try to become a writer. Maybe, in discovering this I will understand better whether there was any sincerity and noble purpose to it or whether it was no more than vanity and self-deception. Maybe I’ll discover a bit more about myself. Now I wonder what’s down this corridor…

Friday, January 04, 2008

Why I quit trying to be a writer...

A New Year, a reminder to us all that time is slipping away and that our futures are contracting at a rate that no amount of pleading can change. Around the world people have been spurred on by this reminder to redouble their efforts to bring new meaning and substance to their lives. This year will be different, a year of new starts to put all other years of new starts in the shade. Gym memberships burgeon, web logs are updated with new fervour and purpose, cigarettes are discarded, booze locked away (made seemingly obsolete by the sudden arrival of fruit juices), high-fat foods are rejected as being so much part of a former life, a life of indulgence and low aspirations, now left firmly behind in 2007. And aspirant writers commit themselves once more to the mantra to “write, write, write”. Success will surely come.

Yet we all know from experience that by February, maybe March, things will have slipped a bit, compromises will have been made, excuses given. Our true nature will come through and wipe away the excrescences of our good intentions, intentions that never sat well with who we truly were. The trouble with making these resolutions of self-improvement, you see, is that they tend to be inspired by a picture of how we would like to be, and most particularly how we would like others to see us, rather than pay heed to the quiddity of who we are.

I have a professed wish to be a writer. I tell myself, regularly, that to be a writer is simple all you need to do is write. If you are habitually writing, then you are a writer. If you are not, then you will never be one – it was never part your nascent potential. I am, of course, not making any distinction here between a good writer and a bad one. These are quality judgements that are largely irrelevant in distinguishing the writer from the non-writer. But, as I say, I know what it takes to be a writer and I have this stated aim to be one. What could be simpler, how could I possibly fail?

Well I think the answer to this one lies in the fact that I don’t, by my nature, find writing easy or, if I am to be truthful, very enjoyable. I’m never racing to the keyboard or notebook desperate to get an idea down; I never drag myself unwillingly from my computer realising that, in my artistic fervour, hours have flown by and I’ve forgotten to eat or drink to a degree that borders on the life-threatening. In fact I will do almost anything that will get me out of writing, however banal and vacuous it is (with perhaps the exception of watching television). Even when I can coax my unwilling self into opening the word processor I will spend hours rereading and tweaking old unfinished stories rather than finishing any of them or writing anything fresh. I do not find the process of writing habit-forming and this is why I gave up on the aspiration to become a writer.

To go back to the theme with which I started, for a moment, the theme of resolutions to change and why they commonly flounder. Many of the problems seem to stem from the fact that unless the change results in habit-forming behaviour, we will quickly revert back to our old ways, our old habits – because, to paraphrase Aristotle to make an existential point, we are what we habitually do. The gym may seem to promise increased health (and the annual subscription fee adequate encouragement to keep going) but unless we can reconfigure our subconscious mind (not the conscious mind where we formulate our plans and good intentions) to desire gym attendance in and of itself, we will find ourselves missing sessions with greater regularity and for more trivial reasons, we will write off the sunk expense of the membership fee as yesterday’s pecuniary problem. We never do get any fitter. We give up trying until another year swings round and makes us think about what we would like to be.

Of course we can all think of examples of people (perhaps, god forbid, even ourselves) who have made real changes to their lives, made steps towards being more like the person that they aspire to be (non-smoking, healthy, athletic, intelligent, witty and creative or whatever). I think the point I’m trying to make, in my usual long-winded way, is that those who succeed in this are tapping into something that is part of their nascent potential and it is often founded on something more solid than the whimsical fact that another year has crept up on them. If all your intentions are founded merely on the fact that it is a new year then they will fail. A new year is not, in itself, a compelling enough reason to change – there will, after all, be another one along shortly. There needs to be something more. If someone you have loved dies of lung cancer you may find that to be compelling enough to give up smoking in a way that no New Year will ever be, and you will most likely not give up through fear (you always knew the risks and consequences) but out of the pain of lost love and respect for the departed. Perhaps.

So for me to be a writer I need, it would seem, two things to allow me to “write, write, write”. The first is some way of making the act of writing more habit forming and the second is to have some compelling reason to write rather than do anything else. The former, I theorise, is something that is more a product of my psychological makeup and not something that I can really influence directly. The latter is something that has eluded me from almost the very moment the aspiration to write grabbed me. There is always something different to do. Not something better to do, in fact it is invariably worse, just something that is more me than I care to recognise.

So I decide to concern myself less with the theoretical question of how to become a writer and look to the more practical one which is, why did I think I wanted to be a writer in the first place?

The dank, caliginous corridors of Tartarus Central echo once more to the sound of my footsteps as I try to find some way forward. I begin to question whether there really is anywhere out of here at all. A step in one direction could represent progress or retreat or it could be entirely neutral in that there really is no way forward and there really is no way back, just circles and cycles like the Earth around the Sun.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

God versus Science. Result just in...

I’ve said before that Tartarus, vast though it is, is a fairly empty place and gloomy with it. It doesn't produce an atmosphere conducive to discussing issues that are more germane to the world above. Hence most of what I’ve written here has been extremely self-indulgent and solipsistic. Updates are sporadic because I have little to cue me to write, not enough changes in Tartarus to provoke a reaction. Yesterday, however, whilst exploring down one of the many nameless corridors here, I entered a cavernous room that inexplicably contained a strong gale of hot, dry air and thousands of loose sheets of paper. The wind carried the sheets in strange balletic eddies before depositing them in the corners where they piled up like great, towering drifts of snow. More paper seemed to be entering the room by some means all the time so that this process appeared to be endless. The paper piled up. I made my way to one side of the room and found it to filling up with discarded sheets from sacred texts and religious treaties on the nature of God, the formation of the world and the origins of mankind. In the opposite side of the room all the sheets were scientific papers and articles refuting much of what was in the other side and making claims that atheism was thereby a sound position to take.

Whilst glancing through various stray texts, it occurred to me that when people pick up this science versus religion debate, they tend to fail to distinguish the true quiddity of the terms. Science and atheism are not synonymous and religion is not offering, or trying to offer, any scientific proof for the existence of God. It is an apples and oranges argument. Religion offers no proof and science will give no credence to things that are not evidentially provable. As such they are not well made for sensible debate.

Religion attempts to offer us a route to understanding how moral codes are derived from the notion that a God exists. This invariably requires that very human attributes are ascribed to God in order to support some notion of divine providence. It is the lack of rationality of this route from the transcendent that concerns scientists as it cannot be translated into terms that would be acceptable to scientific method.

Science, however, is amoral. It is not focused on the same issues of how we should live our lives but is more concerned with empirical discovery to further our understanding of the universe in which we live in order to, in the main, have more control over our own destiny and provide a platform for further scientific discovery.

Science gets itself into difficulties when it fails to recognise the limits of its methods. We often perceive science to be the epitome of understanding whereas, in fact, it is, in the main, a method for approximating likely outcomes. It is about constructing models that generally seem to reflect empirical experience to an acceptable degree of tolerance. What it does not do, though, is provide an exact understanding of the world as it actually is nor can it answer all questions. If scientists attempt to answer a question that is couched in a way that requires the answer to be derived from inductive reasoning it is already failing to comply with the central tenets (dogma even) for valid scientific discovery. Just because I have only ever seen white swans does not give me the scientific support for saying that all swans are white (even though my personal experience may strongly suggest it). This is why I believe that atheism is not really a scientific position. It is denying the existence of God through induction – “because I have seen no evidence of God, God can’t exist”.

A scientist can of course critique religion and religious dogma for failing to be soundly based. The mistake, though, is to say that because the logic of religion fails to be scientifically convincing that there can be no God because this makes God’s existential status dependent on religion whereas there can be no causal link, logically or chronologically. This is where so many atheists make their mistake by refuting God’s existence by critiquing something that has no causal link to God’s existence. All that these people can do is to dispute the validity of religious dogma not the existence of God.

It is easy for scientific thought to critique religious dogma for failing to operate in an evidential way and it is easy for religious thought to critique science for failing to deliver moral guidance. We’re back to the apples and oranges. Science is amoral so we should not be using religious intuition to critique it and religion is faith based and therefore cannot be critiqued for failings in scientific rigour. The religious should stop trying to intuit scientific propositions derived from religious principles (e.g. the Sun revolves round the Earth, the Earth is only a few thousands years old and so on) and the scientists should stop trying to induct propositions on the nature of God by spouting science (you heard me, Dawkins).

So where does that leave us? God knows. No he doesn’t. Yes he does. No he doesn’t, he can’t. Can so. Can’t. Can….etc.