Saturday, 1 March 2014

It's the end of the world...just not quite as we imagined

One night in the winter of 1999/2000, I was walking down Gorgie Road in Edinburgh and began to conceive of a short story. Over the next three months I wrote and edited it and finally submitted it for the Macallan Scotland on Sunday short story competition. It didn’t win, which is fine, as it was – well, not awful, as such – just not a short story. In spite of two years’ close reading of many, many science fiction short stories in the late 1980s, I didn’t know then and don’t know now, what makes a good or even effective short story. Still haven’t read William Trevor, or Maupassant,  Poe, V.S. Pritchett. Or Chekhov. I have read an awful lot of Kipling, hugely enjoyed what I’ve read of Saki, and have been left largely cold by Raymond Carver’s first collection. This probably goes to explain much, and lends weight to the suspicion that the touchstone for my literary judgement is the first ten Three Investigators novels, written by Robert Arthur, Jr.

The short story had an end-of-world-theme and was called ‘Payday’. Subtle, non? It cut back and forth between an unnamed narrator and his family life in the present day, and the same characters after an unspecified apocalypse known only as The Fall. The notion was that there was an inescapable causal connection between the two, that we were living on credit and there would be a reckoning even though we weren’t aware of it. You can’t be brought up in the shadow of Calvinism, as we are in Scotland, and avoid predestination.

So far, so ho-hum. But there was another idea in back, never expressed through the story, which was a little more interesting: the angst, the dread, of the Cold War would find some payoff, some expression down the line. Put simply, you couldn’t spend 40 years worrying about the prospect of the world ending in nuclear holocaust and then simply put that worry away. In my imagination those decades had built up a psychic charge, a potential energy which would find some way to be released in the real world. Very William S. Burroughs.

Of course, many cultures – possibly every culture – has wondered and told stories about the end of the world, asked the question, ‘how long can this go on for?’ They seem to be going through something of a vogue again, with various zombie-apocalypse games and movies, and the likes of The Road, The Book of Eli, Children of Men. (Much as I admired Children of Men for its technical brio, the story and setting seemed to me to have been dredged out of 1982, or thereabouts. I see the novel – which I haven’t read – is from 1992, leading to the uncharitable thought that here we have yet another example of those outside the field playing catch-up.) As Will Self says in his introduction to Riddley Walker: ‘Every generation gets the end-of-the-world anxiety it deserves; it used to be transcendental, then it became elemental, and now it’s environmental.’

Immediately preceding this are the lines: ‘More serious objections [about Riddley Walker] will focus on the nuclear holocaust angle. Surely that was a post-World War Two thing, and all gone now with the end of the Cold War?’ I did not think so.

My wee ham-fisted short-story had this idea at its core, arising from an inchoate gut dread on a wet winter’s night: we are waiting for the other shoe to drop, even if we don’t know it. In 2000, I couldn’t have told you what was coming; even what I suspected might be coming. Compared to where we are now, things were pretty good in many ways. Clinton was still President, the Tories were still nowhere, Blair hadn’t revealed himself to be a religious nutter, and the Scottish Parliament had just been elected. In 2007, with the fourth IPCC report, the shoe dangled, and two years later at Copenhagen, it dropped. I think I first read about global warming in 1984, when I was young enough to think that the consequences were a long way in the future, and that there was no way we would allow things to get that bad. Governments, authorities, institutions, were flawed but essentially benign, and would take steps. Sue me, I was 12. I also thought we’d have a moon base by now.

If there’s a post-apocalyptic novel which has relevance for where we are today, one might think it is On the Beach, in which the characters continue with their everyday lives despite knowing that the results of a nuclear conflict are shortly to engulf them.  As a country – as a species –  we are in effect pretending that nothing has happened, that nothing is happening, that nothing will happen.

In fact the SF novel which is most apt is The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Clearly Mr Adams had it right: we are not the descendants of a small group of hominids with hard-won expertise in survival, but of Golgafrinchan telephone sanitisation engineers.


According to a popular online encyclopedia (others are available), the title of On the Beach is in part taken from this:

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river.

-          The Hollow Men, T. S. Eliot

The third line of this little excerpt is key. And avoid speech. Hence the long silence.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Weekends and other addenda

As the world really is going to hell in a handcart, it's as well to note that this decline may have been going on for longer than we imagine. Listening to Tim Butcher talking about his book Blood River on Start the Week a few years ago, I was struck by something he said about how connected the Congo used to be with the rest of the world, how very civilized it was at the turn of the century. Pre-WWI, there was a perfectly good postal service, for instance. You could quite dependably get a letter to and from Britain, right the way up the river. While in Europe, again before WWI, Orwell claims in one of his 'As I Please' columns it was quite possible to travel across Europe without having to produce a passport (Russia was the exception). By 1937, the sanctity of the weekend (now what's that?) was under serious threat:
It's a masochistic pleasure to read newspapers, not every day but once a week, on Sunday, at the height of the weekend, which is one of the most important factors in politics since the beginning of the apocalypse. Whatever good and useful thoughts and decisions begin to burgeon in democratic statesmen on Friday afternoons have begun to evaporate by Saturday afternoon. But tyrants don't have weekends. God created the world in six days, and on the seventh He rested. Peaceful statemen rest on the sixth and seventh. For forty-eight hours they celebrate the Lord's day. They exceed the demands of religion, and they overdo the example set by the Almighty. It's a striking thing that dictators don't play golf. Their Sabbath is not reserved for sport but surprises. Golf plays a considerable responsibility for the end of the civilized world. Napoleon played chess, Prince Eugene played dominoes. Politicians have fewer good ideas on the greens than they once did on the much reviled "green baize". On Christmas 1916, I was at the front. Our divisional staff, the colonel, the company commander, were all getting ready for a well-deserved "breather". They had forgotten that our opponents, the Russians, celebreated Christmas two weeks later than we did. They took advantage of our peaceful celebrations and launched a surprise attack on us, distracted as we were by Christmas lights and pious thoughts. Two weeks later we duly retaliated, but without success, because they were waiting for us. It's a pity the democratic statemen didn't serve at the front, especially the Eastern Front. Dictators always postpone Christmas by a couple of weeks. Democrats are always sticklers for punctual Christmases and punctual Sundays, thanks to which they have been able to celebrate many glorious victories: on the golf course.

- Joseph Roth; from the final section 'From an Author's Diary' of The White Cities: Reports from France 1925-39
There's an anecdote in the final chapter of Something of Myself which provides comparable insight. The Times had received by Sunday mail some verses titled 'The Old Volunteer' purporting to be by Kipling, but which to his mind were such an obvious forgery,
[...] the contribution should not have deceived a messenger-boy. Ninthly and lastly, they were wholly unintelligible.
Human nature being what it is, The Times was much more annoyed with me than anyone else, though goodness knows - this, remember, was in '17 - I did not worry them about it, beyond hinting that the usual weekend English slackness, when no-one is in charge, had made the mess.

[...] On the heels of my modest disclaimer which appeared, none too conspicuously, in The Times, I [had] a letter in a chaffing vein about 'The Old Volunteer' from a non-Aryan who had never much appreciated me; and the handwriting of it, coupled with the subtlety of choosing a weekend (as the Hun had chosen August Bank Holiday of '14) for the work, plus the Oriental detachedness and insensitiveness of playing that sort of game in the heart of a life-and-death struggle, made me suspect him more than a little. He is now in Abraham's bosom, so I shall never know.
To conclude, Kipling received a visit from a detective, sent by The Times, who more or less suggested that Kipling really was the author not only of the verses but of the letter, sent from himself to himself, for the purposes of publicity. Kipling was so intrigued by the notion that he "forgot to defend my 'injured honour'. The thing had passed out of reason into the Higher Hysterics."


Incidentally, that casual anti-Semitism of Kipling's recalls a line of dialogue from Chariots of Fire:

Master of Trinity: There goes your Semite, Hugh. A different God; a different mountain-top.


A quantum of solace from the Father of Humanism himself, Petrarch:
"[...]all those who have been, are, or shall be, seized by this passionate and diseased craving to write."
Later in the same letter, Petrarch says, "The favour of humanity begins with the author's decease; the end of life is the beginning of glory." Or, as Gore Vidal observed pithily upon Truman Capote's death: "Good career move."

Wednesday, 31 August 2011


I shall turn forty next year. Facing the prospect of middle age with all the unbounded delight you would expect, I find ‘forty is the new thirty’ less comforting than Erasmus’ observation that at thirty-five, dried-up old age tires the body’s strength. (He lived to be seventy.) It’s not that, barring accidents, I’m looking forward to thirty years of senescence, but that by taking Erasmus’ perspective we assume youth is well and truly behind us (and it is), the weight of expectation is off, any time left is a bonus, and we can get on with the things we want to do rather than the things we think we ought to have been doing. Which were? I’ve no idea. This must explain why I haven’t done them.

Meanwhile, from Milan Kundera’s The Curtain (2005):

How many Fabrices, Aglaias, Nastasyas, Mishkins I see around me! They are all just beginning the journey into the unknown; no question, they are drifting, but theirs is a singular sort of drifting: they drift without knowing that’s what they are doing; for they are doubly inexperienced: they do not know the world and they do not know themselves; only when they look back on it from the distance of adulthood will they see their drifting as drifting; and besides: only with that distance will they be capable of understanding the very notion of drifting. For the moment, with no understanding of the view the future will one day take of their long-gone youth, they defend their convictions far more aggressively than an adult man would defend his, a man who has had experience with the fragility of human certainties.

[E.M.] Ciorin’s outburst against youth shows something obvious: from each observation post standing along the line that runs from birth to death, the world looks different and the attitudes of the person looking out from it change as well; no-one will understand another person except by first of all understanding his age. Of course that’s so obvious, so very obvious! But only an ideological pseudo-obviousness can be seen at once. With an existential obviousness, the more obvious it is, the less visible. The ages of life stand concealed behind the curtain.

'[...]they defend their convictions far more aggressively than an adult man would defend his, a man who has had experience with the fragility of human certainties.' Milan...mate. Clearly not a Harlan Ellison fan. Fabrice del Dongo – The Charterhouse of Parma; Aglaia Lepanshin, Nastasya Filipovna and Prince Mishkin – all from The Idiot. But you knew that, right? Hold the relish.