Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Moxyland - a scary vision of the near future

The first few pages are always heady. The author invites you into the world he or she has created - will you like it or loathe it? Will it be convincing or confusing?

Lauren Beukes has created the latest in a line of dystopian visions. In part, we have the violent control of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four; but the underlying culture is closer to Huxley's Brave New World or even Jennifer Government by Max Barry. And for more commentary, see Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman or How Should We Then Live? by Francis Schaeffer.

It has a harder edge - commentators have muttered things like "Post-cyberpunk". I dodged Coupland, though I think he was recommended to me, so I can't really judge. But Beukes has certainly captured the zeitgeist and sharpened it. It is a world of recreational drugs, sex and sexuality, where corporations act as they see fit with little regard for the law - or more accurately, pretty much as the law - where the rich have got richer, and the poor have got poorer but have been rendered pretty much impotent through being disenfranchised.

We meet four characters, whose lives intersect - Kendra, Toby, Lerato and Tendeka. All have issues with the status quo on one level or another. From the history of dystopic worlds, we know that this is not a good situation to be in. Will they survive? Can they learn to love Big Brother? Or can they overthrow him?

This is good SF - the extrapolations are all too real, all too obviously deriving their heritage from the world we see around us. The language is - well, put it this way, if you are going to have a problem with the "F" word, I wouldn't recommend this book (even so, I think it's not a bad idea to get it off the cover ...). But the book should take an honourable place in the catalogue of dystopian visions.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Lauren Beukes ...

It's all possible, especially if we're willing to trade away our rights for convenience, for the illusion of security. Our very own bright and shiny dystopia is only ever one totalitarian government away.

Moxyland, afterword
I got a review copy of Moxyland, which looks like an interesting read. Beukes comes at the dystopic SF perspective via journalism in South Africa, so there's no guarantee she's read Aldous Huxley, Francis Schaeffer or Max Barry - though I guess two out of three are pretty common currency.

Looking forward to it. Shame about the F word on the cover; it does little to sell the book to those people who ought to read it.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Devaluing British higher education in easy steps

1) Declare that, in the name of "excellence for all" (a catchphrase used without a trace of irony), 50% of the population should have a degree. Help to achieve this by declaring that all sorts of subjects merit "degrees" (Travel and Tourism, Golf Course Management).

2) Criticise the universities for taking on too many students. Cut their funding. Suggest that they can save money by reducing degrees to two years (when many have had to increase in length to four years to compensate that people are finishing A-levels functionally illiterate and innumerate).

3) Save even more time and money by not bothering with a university course at all, and just giving all 18-year olds a degree if they make it to that age without leaving school.

Monday, December 14, 2009

School governance

The burdens [school] governors are expected to shoulder are ludicrous. They are ultimately responsible for financial and personnel issues, buildings, the curriculum, admissions - virtually every aspect of a school's work. It amazes me that anybody volunteers these days for the role. The real problem, of course, is the vast web of regulation and bureaucracy the government has spun round schools.

Governors should be there to offer common-sense advice to the head and to represent the views of parents and the community the school serves, not to digest hundreds of pages of incomprehensible and largely irrelevant diktat.

Chris Woodhead, former chief inspector of schools, in The Sunday Times

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

"Shades of Grey", Jasper Fforde

From here.

It was not a month ago that I finished my last Jasper Fforde book, and was bemoaning the lack of further work by him to read. So I was more than delighted to have the opportunity to read his latest book.

This is the first book in another new series. I spend the first thirty pages of a Jasper Fforde series undergoing severe cognitive dissonance - or to put it another way, wondering what the heck is going on. The next thirty pages are spent thinking something like: "Hmm. Let's run with this a little further." And the rest of the book (and indeed, subsequent books in the series) passes by in an increasingly addicted scamper.

The plot of "Shades of Grey" moves Fforde firmly in the direction of Science Fiction, rather than the kind of literary fantasy that constitutes the The Eyre Affair (Thursday Next) and The Big Over Easy (Nursery Crime) series, and the scope of the work is also bigger. We find ourselves in a future world, in which people have limited colour perception, and this is what determines their social standing. Edward Russett, a young man who is yet to take his place in society, finds himself struggling to accept the status quo, and as the book develops, we start to learn some sinister facts. Think of "Nineteen Eighty Four", "The Matrix" or "Brave New World", but with a lighter touch.

It isn't hard to read into "Shades of Grey" a parable of modern societies - it is well worth thinking through the implications of intolerance, racism and the priority of the system above individuals as you read the book. It is populated by authentic characters - and as with the earlier series, the principle actors are extraordinarily sympathetic.

There are few writers who, to my mind, come up with such complex and coherent imaginary universes - as with the other series, the divergence with the real world is radical, and yet seemingly consistent on the deepest levels. Fforde has been compared with Douglas Adams and Lewis Carroll, but to my mind, although they have their place, he surpasses them on a literary level. I can't wait to see how this series develops. (And I'm looking forward to hearing more about Thursday Next, as well!)

Unfortunately, now I've finished my last Jasper Fforde book, and have no further work by him to read....

Monday, November 23, 2009

Twenty Twelve

I went to see it on Saturday, with my son. It was probably about as good as I expected it to be - which is to say, not terribly.

Obviously, all movies require suspension of disbelief to an extent. This makes it kind of awkward when you know too much. For example, aeroplanes just don't fly like that. The crust is actually already floating on a molten layer (the mantle). The surface of the earth won't reposition itself by 1200 miles in an hour or so - or if it did, it certainly wouldn't be predictable. And if neutrinos did suddenly start interacting with matter, the significance of this wouldn't be explored first of all in government, but in the pages of Scientific American. Heck, while we're at it, thousands of feet underground there aren't significant changes in temperature from day to day.

So in geological and physics terms, it was mumbo jumbo. Likewise in technical terms. For good measure, the metaphysical references were nonsense. The "conspiracy theory" bits were the usual teasing on the vague paranoia that tabloid journalism breeds.

On top of which, the leading characters were pretty standard one dimensional heroes and villains. The writer, who missed his children getting older and ended up losing his family to a plastic surgeon (oh please!). The Russian oligarch who is entirely self-interested, but redeems himself partly at the end by saving his children. The impoverished but brilliant scientist, whose death through the indifference of the system is the pivot that turns people from behaving selfishly to selflessly. The cutesy pet. The bureaucrat working for the "higher good" who becomes a monster. A parade of characters which could have been ticked off a list, all with limited background, all of whom come to pretty predictable endings.

The special effects were spectacular - though again, overblown. To be fair, I suspect that this was the major reason the film is likely to be of interest to its target audience (which is to say, boys). There must be an element of sociopathy in somebody who is prepared to document the destruction of ... well, the world, basically, and portray it in such vivid detail. I mean, I have issues with the concept of Las Vegas, but I wouldn't want to see it trashed like that.

The moral of the tale - that being human means caring for one another - was fair enough. It was not substantially better made than in (say) The Emperor's New Groove, or Over the Hedge, both of which had the advantage of better jokes. It's worth pointing out that this moral is preferable to the other stable of sci-fi blockbusters (please distinguish good science fiction from this genre), which is that an unthinking devotion to your tribe is what is needed, especially if that tribe is the United States. The film reflects perhaps a broader vision of the world than has been common coming from Hollywood. However, the vision of the rest of the world - and even of the US - was frankly still pretty cliched.

If you're happy to watch spectacular special effects and aren't bothered by thinking harder than cliches demand of you, then you'll enjoy this film.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

I have some sympathy with this ...

Every week in the charts now is like a flaccid repeat of the dismal moment in 1967 when Engelbert Humperdinck's Release Me beat The Beatles' Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields to number one. Only there isn't even a Beatles to defeat any more. The creative kids have migrated to the outer limits of the internet to talk among themselves, ceding the mainstream to cynical adults with no interest in the art of pop at all. It's the triumph of light entertainment.

Neil McCormick, The Telegraph, 21/11/09

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Fifteen - o - eight, at a stadium in North London

I went to see U2 with family. It was a lifetime ambition, and the reaction from many of the fans on the U2 website (many of whom travel to several of the concerts) was that this was a good place to fulfil it.

I wanted to write a song-by-song reaction, but I also wanted to say something, before the immediacy of the concert had faded, so this is a shorter post than I originally intended.

On the back of books like "Get Up Off Your Knees", I have to say that I was expecting an experience that was more ... well, almost sacramental. It wasn't, though it was thoroughly amazing.

U2's concerts have always trod a subtle path, as illustrated in an interview Bono did with a Chicago newspaper in 2001. They make the case for the new album, as is proper - there were seven tracks from "No Line on the Horizon" on Saturday. But also, they have a selection of songs that become the heart of the concert - that pretty much define U2 not just musically but in terms of their political voice. This selection gradually shifts over time - "Bullet the Blue Sky" didn't feature on Saturday. And on top of that, they have a huge repertoire of amazing songs to draw on to fill out the programme.

In the case for the new album, we had "Breathe", "No line", "Boots" and "Magnificent" as the first four songs. "Unknown caller", a psalm with chorus responses from a divine voice, projected the divine words so that the congregation - I mean audience - was singing them back to the band. The remixed version of "Go Crazy" is, in my opinion, unusually better than the album version - it is loud and ... well, crazy. And the band signed off the last encore with "Moment of Surrender".

The tracks that every audience expects to hear are, I think, "Beautiful Day", probably "Until the End of the World" and "City of Blinding Lights", "Vertigo", "Sunday, Bloody Sunday", "Pride", "Where the Streets have no name" and "One". "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" picked up as a reference point the post-election riots in Iran - how long must we sing this song indeed! And they miscued at the end! Afterwards, the band grinned sheepishly at one another. "Walk on" was a fairly inevitable addition, given the presence of Aun Sang Suu Kyi in the news at the moment.

And then the choice of extras. "New Years Day", "Still haven't found" - with first verse sung by the audience - "Far away, so close", "Bad", "With or without you" are all popular live. We also had "Unforgettable Fire", "Sleep Tonight" as an intro to "Walk On" and "Ultraviolet". There was almost nothing I would have swapped away from the programme, although personally I feel "Pride" is a little worn out. In terms of additions? I was surprised that "Stand Up Comedy" from the new album didn't feature - it made the tour tee-shirts. "Stuck in a moment" is a song that happens to mean a lot to the family, but hey, there were quite a lot of other people who would have had opinions too!

This was an amazing evening out, and I'm looking forward to doing it again!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

"God's Philosophers" - more personal reaction

Aside from writing a formal review, I had some more of my own thoughts on James Hannam's book.

From my point of view, one of the specious arguments levelled against Christianity is that it is anti-science, and only under the influence of naturalism - at least methodological - can science make progress. Of course, this is nonsense - not only have materialistic presuppositions consistently failed to prove true or useful (life at its lowest level turned out not to be simple, the earth turned out to be finely tuned for life, the universe turned out not to be infinitely old ... I could go on) but a significant proportion of science has been, and continues to be, done by people within a theistic framework. Arguably, even when the individual scientists deny this, they unwittingly borrow assumptions about the nature of truth from a non-naturalistic epistemology - science simply can't operate with the postmodern assertions about the nature of truth which dominate other disciplines.

The Dark Ages represent a challenge to this, though. It was an era when progress was limited, we were told, as a result of the unopposed authority of the church. Only with the dawn of the Renaissance, with its more humanistic focus, did we even come close to the heights of classical civilisation once again. Hannam's book tells a different story of the Middle Ages, with accessible and enjoyable style, and shows that the world is actually more subtle than received wisdom would have us think.

Also, even more personally, his book ticked boxes relating to my expectations of a good book. I have long had a gripe about people who write books and don't edit them properly. You really ought to be able to get your ideas across in around 350 pages, in my opinion: more than this in a lot of cases is indulging the author at the expense of the reader. Hannam's text comes in at just under this length. In addition, it has an index, a list of names (important when there are so many bit parts in 1000+ years of history), suggestions for further reading, and a huge source list.

One more thing is the interdisciplinary aspect. Hannam's background is science, and he writes understanding the science side of things. But what he has written is historically lively and, as far as I can tell, accurate. Knowledge is too often fragmented, and a more realistic and coherent picture can be obtained when study joins up different areas.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

"God's Philosophers", James Hannam

For years, the teaching of history has been criticised in some quarters for being insufficiently broad. It focuses on the cause and effect of specific events - often those of significance to the political inclination of those writing the curriculum, or those where the student can be expected to empathise with the subjects studied. Thus in England, for example, children can expect to learn about the slave trade, the Industrial Revolution and the Cold War, but will often learn little about how the United Kingdom or Europe arrived at their current political shape. But even given a general knowledge of history, some areas are more opaque than others. History, it seems, barely existed in pre-Roman times in the British Isles. For a similar reason perhaps - a relative dearth of written sources - our knowledge of the time from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance tends to be pretty sketchy.

It is easy to conclude that our ignorance of what happened means that nothing of any significance actually did happen. So the "Dark Ages" have come to signify an era of intellectual and cultural stagnation between the Classical era and the Renaissance. This has been fed by writers from later eras - both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment - seeking to portray their own time as the new golden age, in contrast to what went before.

Modern scholarship has detected this bias and ignorance, and has started to evaluate the Middle Ages in a more objective light. James Hannam's book, "God's Philosophers", gathers together stories of the people, ideas and innovations from the time. He shows that, far from being an era in which the culture stood still, key developments took place without which the development of modern science and technology couldn't have been possible. In fact, even the humanistic ideas which shaped the Renaissance have their roots in philosophical/religious work from the Middle Ages.

Hannam highlights developments in many areas - mathematics, timekeeping, optics - as well as more obvious ones, such as the printing press. He shows that earlier progress was acknowledged - or at least apparent - in the work of early modern scientists - Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, Brahe, and subsequently Newton.

Indeed, Hannam points out, one of the effects of the Renaissance obsession with Classical culture was to come close to discarding all the progress that had been made in the Mediaeval era, in areas such as maths, science and philosophy. Much writing was virtually lost, only to be rediscovered in some cases centuries later.

The traditional demarcation between the premodern and modern eras - a fairly moveable line, though one which probably hovers around the time of Galileo - is actually too arbitrary. Substantially after the start of the Renaissance, Newton continued to believe in Alchemy; astronomy continued to be driven by astrology; medicine arguably continued to operate using a pretty premodern methodology well into the 18th Century.

Also, the supposed clash of cultures between the church and the forces of rationalism was not nearly as apparent as it is suggested now. Galileo's conflict with the Inquisition, as portrayed by Brecht and regularly replayed, has already been shown elsewhere to not have taken place as a struggle between faith and science. Hannam argues further, highlighting the role of the church in establishing universities as centres of independent thought, granting them a substantial degree of intellectual autonomy. The Inquisition itself, he suggests, was not the ruthless and intolerant secret police organisation we have come to know and love. Instead, it was patient and careful, loath to impose heavy sanctions, and operating using a higher standard of judicial procedure than could be expected in contemporary civil courts.

Hannam's theses aren't new; these ideas of the Middle Ages are increasingly acknowledged by scholars, and Hannam helpfully offers a list of books for further reading, along with a very comprehensive list of source material. His book highlights the difference between careful scholarship and the lazy rehash of received wisdom all too common amongst writers who simply present ideas that fit their presuppositions, with little attention to how substantive they are.

The book is fast paced and well-written. It is very hard to dispute his assertion that the cultural and scientific achievements of the era were significant and far-reaching. Perhaps it would be possible to argue that with the withdrawal of intellectual life to the monasteries and subsequently the universities, life was culturally narrower for the general population than it had been under the Romans. However, with the spread of architecture and the growth of cities, even this seems unlikely. This is a very helpful introduction to the Middle Ages in Europe.

"God's Philosophers" (Icon Books), James Hannam

Friday, July 17, 2009

A new religion

In what we call the developed Western world, we seek redemption and purification from the more extreme forms of our material indulgence: we fill our faces with drugs, drink, bad food and other indulgences, we know it's wrong, and we crave ritualistic protection from the consequences, a public 'transitional ritual' commemorating our return to healthier behavioural norms.

The presentation of these purification diets and rituals has always been a product of their time and place, and now that science is our dominant explanatory framework for the natural and moral world, for right or wrong, it's natural that we should bolt a bastardised pseudoscientific justification onto our redemption. Like so much of the nonsense in bad science, 'detox' pseudoscience isn't something done to us, by venal and exploitative outsiders: it is a cultural product, a recurring theme, and we do it to ourselves.

"Bad Science", p.12, Ben Goldacre
A very interesting book - an important antidote to much of the nonsense that is presented through the media. If your child's school runs "Brain Gym", protest - it is nonsense!! I thought the comments about the "religious" observance of rituals that have no real scientific justification was perceptive.

Monday, June 15, 2009

How Music Works with Howard Goodall

This was an amazing series. It was not made available on DVD or Channel 4 On Demand. However, it is possible to watch the series on YouTube at the moment. Start here.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Ward on "The Last Battle"

That this journey passes through and beyond Saturn means that the new Joviality is even more joyful than before, more meaningful and poignant, more completely diffused with 'tragic splendour'.

A sceptical account of this imaginative journey would configure it quite differently. Lewis's recidivist Joviality would be taken rather as evidence of a refusal to learn from experience, an inability to grow up and to accept thre incorrigible harshness of the world. ... Humphrey Carpenter, in The Inklings, suggests that the boyishness evident in the Chronicles [of Narnia] was only the superficially attractive flip-side of prejudices against modernism, liberalism, and anything that stood opposed to the old-fashioned, conservative world in which Lewis was brought up. Philip Pullman goes further and contends that there is a 'life-hating ideology' at work in Lewis's willingness to massacre his cast at the end of the Narniad. Pullman thinks Lewis should have allowed Peter to 'go on and be a father'. He thinks Lewis was afraid of maturation. ...

... the premises upon which Lewis is arraigned ... are themselves open to challenge, for their allegations about 'immaturity' assume that the more bleak an outlook, the more adult (that is, wise) it must necessarily be.... in an attempt to find a balance, it will be worth recording the subtleties of Lewis's attitude to youth and age, the arguments ge mounted against those who accused him of 'Peter Pantheism,' his asperity toward poets who never got 'beyond the pageant of [their] bleeding heart,' the seriousness with which he regarded mortality and loss, and the donegalitarian requirements of writing a Saturnine story in which death could no more be omitted than war could have been left out of Prince Caspian.

... Too easily, in his view, the writers of his generation assumed that brains splattered upon a wall represented what life was 'really like' and that the consolations of religion were 'really' only a trick of the nerves.

"Planet Narnia", p.209-210, Michael Ward
This is an excellent book. Ward makes a powerful case for an overarching metanarrative for the seven Chronicles of Narnia, and ties them into a Christianity which doesn't isolate itself from culture but absorbs it and shows how humanity can't help but reflect its shaping divinity.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

"Is it reasonable to believe in evolution and God?"

To my mind, there is more to this question than the one which framed the previous post - "Can evolutionists believe in God?" In thinking about this question, I am assuming by "God" that we are talking about the God of the Bible, who (if you accept what the Bible says about itself) makes himself known as creator, sovereign and redeemer of this universe.

In a sense, it is reasonable to say that "only a fool doesn't believe in evolution". Evolution happens all around us - organisms adapting to their environment through darwinian processes.

However, the fact that evolution takes place doesn't mean that it is reasonable to claim that darwinian evolution (random mutation, natural selection) has achieved what its proponents claim it achieved. Humans have known about selection, and "directed" evolution for millenia - we call it breeding. The finches on the Galapagos Islands that Darwin studied do develop over time, as changes in climate cause changes in the abundance of different foods for them. In actual fact, if they weren't able to adapt to a changing environment, they would not be well designed - they would likely not have survived as long as they have! But this doesn't prove that finches share a common ancestor with turtles. This observation may simply demonstrate that they were designed to adapt to changing environments. After all, a good human designer will allow their designs to adapt to such changes.

What has happened when evolution is considered is that a presupposition has come into play - the presupposition that there is no designer. The logic is something like this:

Premise: Variation takes place through darwinian processes (observation)
Premise: There is no designer (presupposition)
Conclusion: All life developed through darwinian processes

Note again that the second premise is not a matter of observation. Before the conclusion can be assumed to be true, the second premise has to be justified. Let us say that at least it continues to be a matter for debate.

And in that context, the evidence has fairly consistently proved to fail to support the presupposition. For example, it was assumed by materialists that the universe had always existed - and then it was discovered that the universe did have a "start point". (The name "Big Bang" was given derisively by Hoyle, who disliked the idea intensely from a philosophical point of view). It was assumed that life in its simplest forms would be ... well, simple. And then it was discovered that in actual fact, the simplest forms of life are still incredibly complex. It was assumed that the earth was a fairly insignificant, typical planet. And then it was discovered that the earth is incredibly finely adapted to the presence of complex, intelligent life ("Rare Earth", Ward/Brownlee). I could go on....

None of these facts invalidate a materialist perspective on the evolution of life. However, they do demonstrate that there is no good track record of collecting evidence to support the presumption that there is no designer.

Let's assume, for the moment, that the history of the universe is pretty much as the scientists have concluded - it is around 13.5 thousand million years old; the solar system is around 4.5 thousand million years old; life first appeared around 3.2 thousand million years ago; complex body plans appeared around 530 million years ago. In the context of the appearance of life, there are certain facts about the process which at least at the moment remain unexplained.

- biogenesis - the initial appearance of life - materialists often specifically exclude this issue from consideration when they talk about evolution. Ward and Brownlee ("Rare Earth") argue that it may be common - but the truth is nobody really knows how it happened, or how feasible it is;

- the organisation of eukaryotic cells - animal and plant cells are much larger, more complex and more diverse than bacterial cells, and again, there are only suggestions as to how this crucial evolutionary step took place;

- the organisation of cells into multicellular organisms - this requires differentiation, structure and genetic switching, none of which has the same level of significance in single-celled organisms;

- the Cambrian explosion - the sudden (in geological terms) appearance of almost all modern phyla about 530 million years ago, with little in the way of apparent antecedents;

- the development of complex biochemical systems - whilst the concept of "irreducible complexity" may be disputed, it is certainly the case that systems like flagella, blood clotting, vision and so on are highly intricate, and would tax the ingenuity of human designers. I am sceptical that a "blind watchmaker" would be capable of producing such systems;

- evolutionary transitions between phyla - bear in mind that for the most part even changing the number of chromosomes in an animal can have a drastic effect on its ability to survive: this has to happen over and over again as biodiversity increases;

- the radically different nature of humans, and the consequent achievements of their sapience.

It would be a logical mistake to argue from this that there must be a designer, I think. That would kind of represent a "God of the Gaps" type argument - as the gaps are whittled away by naturalistic explanations regardless of how improbable they are, the materialist would then argue that he or she has done away with the need for God. It would also be a mistake to assume that we might be able to identify a kind of "miracle" taking place at each of these stages - or, for that matter, that if we can identify a possible naturalistic explanation, that "proves" that there is no God.

Instead, think of what we now know about the development of life. Is it unreasonable to believe that there is no sovereign intelligence that has directed this process? Isn't it more unreasonable to believe that all of this should have happened by chance, in a universe that is in fact completely indifferent to human existence?

So I am strongly convinced that, even if a person believes in evolution, this does not mean that they have grounds for discarding belief in God - that belief is neither foolish nor misguided.

Monday, May 18, 2009

"Can evolutionists believe in God?"

The short answer to this question is yes.

There is a spectrum of beliefs about the origins of life and the universe. The belief that everything was created by God in six 24 hour periods in the last 10000 years (Young Earth Creationism) is possibly the most well-known in our churches, but doesn't necessarily date back terribly far in its current incarnation.

Scientists understand the age of the universe is about 13500 million years (MY) old. The age of the solar system (including Earth) is considered to be about 4500 MY. If you accept these as accurate, you may still have a variety of beliefs about the issue of origins. If you exclude the possibility of the divine (which is a presupposition, not something derived from evidence), then you will believe that the presence of the universe is no more than a quantum phenomenon, and life just happens to be present - after all, if it wasn't present, we wouldn't be discussing it, would we? On the other hand, you may believe that the presence of the universe is a consequence of divine action - this implies some level of theism (belief in God). You may believe that God acted in a kind of "miraculous" way on one or more occasions to bring about what we see today - this would, I suppose, be an "Old Earth Creationist" position. Or you may believe that God used "regular" laws of science and physics to bring about what we see today - perhaps that apparently "random" events were controlled by him in some way. This is something like what could be called "theistic evolution" - and is the most obvious way in which you might say an "evolutionist" (defined as somebody who believes that life came about no more than imperceptibly guided by a divine hand) believes in "God" (defined as the God of the Bible). As with many such questions, definition of terms is very important.

Even if you believe that the universe appeared on its own, and life appeared without the involvement of God, you might still believe in God. However, the god that you believe in, not being involved in the creation, would have little resemblance to the God who reveals himself in the Bible.

Perhaps there is another interesting question, which is also relevant - namely, if I believe in the Christian God, what should I make of evolution? But that is for another post ....

Sunday, May 17, 2009

"Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

'A New Theory of Biology' was the title of the paper which Mustapha Mond had just finished reading. He sat for some time, meditatively frowning, then picked up his pen and wrote across the title-page. 'The author's mathematical treatment of the conception of purpose is novel and highly ingenious, but heretical and, so far as the present social order is concerned, dangerous and potentially subversive. Not to be published.' He underlined the words. 'The author will be kept under supervision. His transference to the Marine Biological Station of St Helena may become necessary.' A pity, he thought, as he signed his name. It was a masterly piece of work. But once you began admitting explanations in terms of purpose - well, you didn't know what the result might be. It was the sort of idea that might easily decondition the more unsettled minds among the higher castes - make them lose their faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good and take to believing, instead, that the goal was somewhere beyond, somewhere outside the present human sphere; that the purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some intensification and refining of consciousness, some enlargement of knowledge. Which was, the Controller reflected, quite possibly true. But not, in the present circumstances, admissible. He picked up his pen, and under the words 'Not to be published' drew a second line, thicker and blacker than the first; then sighed. 'What fun it would be,' he thought,' if one didn't have to think about happiness!'

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
I hadn't read this book until now. We read "Nineteen Eighty-Four" in school in 1983 - but not this one. I wonder if the reason that it didn't make reading lists was because it was just too subversive - too undermining of the prevailing culture....

Friday, May 08, 2009

"The Independent" rattles a cage

Now don't get me wrong. I like "The Independent" If I had my choice of daily newspapers in the UK, that would be the one. Yes, it is radically philosophically different from me - it is pretty humanist, and I am a Christian. But for the most part, I value its approach.

Not universally, though. This commentary was, in my opinion, a misguided and misinformed contribution to the new-religious/new-atheist "culture wars". There were some things that I agreed with - yes, faith schools do tend to pick up highly motivated children from wealthy families. Yes, I would agree with Hari and Dawkins that there are no "Christian children" or "Muslim children" (though I think that approvingly citing Dawkins in any context in a debate about the rightness or wrongness of religion shows the writer's presuppositions). But deep down, I think Mr Hari needs a hug - he evidently hasn't been able to deal with some things that scarred his childhood.
Irrespective of what the child thinks or believes, they are shepherded into a hall, silenced, and forced to pray - or pretend to.
Well, I have two children at a state comprehensive school in Surrey, one of the most conservative parts of the country. They simply don't have an act of collective worship every day. Where they do have assemblies, they don't generally have a religious dimension. But forget the fact that this doesn't reflect what is happening today - except in the paranoid fantasies of the new atheists who imagine the arrival of a theocracy next week. I finished O-levels in 1984. By the time I left (again, a state comprehensive), we had stopped singing hymns in assemblies, and any prayers were pretty perfunctory. Again, this was not in a radically left-wing part of Inner London, but in a middle class commuter town in Sussex. A fair number of assemblies had no religious content whatsoever, and they certainly didn't take place daily. I find it hard to believe that Christendom has managed to extend its grasp on the education system at all in the intervening years.
scientist Gregory S Paul
Who is Gregory S Paul, and why haven't I heard of him? I did a little googling. Here's some background on him. And here's some more. Here's the executive summary: Paul's research on religion and society has been debunked. Hari should not be quoting it, let alone leaning on it.
Very few people are, as adults, persuaded of the idea that (say) a Messiah was born to a virgin... You can usually only persuade people of this when they are very young.... if you watch children being taught about religion, you will see most of them instinctively laugh and ask perfectly sensible sceptical questions that are swatted away
So, Mr Hari - are children instinctively sceptical, unlike adults? Or are they easy to persuade, unlike adults? How about you make a decision about which way you want to play this before you write the article?

There is a real debate to be had about the role of religion in public life. But poorly informed, badly researched and unbalanced articles like this one don't contribute to it.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

"I caught swine flu on an aeroplane!!!"

No you didn't. Probably.

People's perception, when they sit in aeroplanes, is that it must be unhealthy from an air point of view. But once the engines are running, and particularly once the aeroplane is in the air, you are probably breathing the cleanest air you've breathed outside a clean room. Firstly, all the air in the cabin is replaced every 2-3 minutes. Secondly, the air that is used inflight comes from outside, well above all human pollution. Thirdly, yes, air is recirculated. But the recirculated air is put through a hospital-standard filter, which is effective at removing contaminants even down to the size of viruses. Fourthly, there is little lateral airflow in the cabin - the air normally flows in at the top of the cabin, and is removed at the bottom. So the exhalations from the person behind you aren't sitting in an invisible fug around your head. Incidentally, you may have noticed that the smell from the toilets doesn't spread through the aeroplane. Air from the toilet is often not recirculated, unlike the rest of the air.

"But I caught flu! And I was on the same aeroplane as someone who had it!" Well, the more likely culprit, in my opinion, is the airport you were in beforehand - lots of queueing, sitting in crowded gate areas, probably a much greater diversity of people than were on the aeroplane. That and the fact that travelling is stressful, and stress makes it more likely you will get ill.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Received wisdom...

... is that the growth in sales of bottled water is a bad thing, and shows the ultimate decadence of our society.

It's not that simple, of course - it rarely is.

I drink bottled water at work, now. We are provided with half-litre bottles as required - as much as we can reasonably drink - in addition to tea and coffee. It didn't happen when I started in the job, though we did used to be able to get soft drinks free - orange juice, lemonade, cola. So I now drink bottled water at work instead of soft drinks. I would not be able to take my own tap water into work. Well, not unless it was in a container of less than 100ml. Water is much better for my teeth, and probably cheaper for my employer!

I used to work for an airline which on longhaul flights would provide all passengers with a bottle of water. So the passengers would drink bottled water in preference to more soft drinks and alcohol.

You also see a lot of what I suppose I now ought to call the "younger generation" not drinking tea or coffee, but carrying bottled water around. In restaurants, even fast food places, and at places like Boots where you can get a packed lunch for less than a fiver, bottles of water are one of the options.

So in a lot of cases, it isn't so much the case that people are drinking bottled water instead of tap water. Yes, they could wash up and rebottle their own tap water in some circumstances, it's true, which would be better. However, the fact is that a large proportion of the use of bottled water isn't at the expense of tap water. It's at the expense of soft drinks and beverages which are less healthy than water.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"Bananas hung the way nature intended"

It was one of the reasons for shopping at Morrisons - they displayed a selection of their bananas on hooks. This was a good idea - it meant the fruit was easier to see, and less likely to be bumped around.

However, they weren't hung the way nature intended. Bananas grow upwards.

Larkin on Poetry

Most people say that the purpose of poetry is communication: that sounds as if one could be contented simply by telling somebody whatever it is one has noticed, felt or perceived. I feel it is a kind of permanent communication better called preservation, since one's deepest impulse in writing ... is to my mind not 'I must tell everybody about that' (ie responsibility towards other people) but 'I must stop that from being forgotten if I can' (ie responsibility towards subject).

When writing a poem I am trying to construct a verbal device or machine which will, upon reading, render up the emotion I originally experienced to as many people as possible for as long as possible.

Letter to John Shakespeare, quoted in "Telegraph Review", 25/4/2009

Monday, March 30, 2009

Thoughts on "American Gods"

I was encouraged to read "American Gods", by Neil Gaiman, and I thought a blog post to try and gather my thoughts on the book was in order.

If you want a flavour of what it is about, have a look at the Amazon page. I'll try not to include too many spoilers.

The book brought to mind a whole shelf-full of others. The supernatural elements evoked the magical/real worlds of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Douglas Adams' "Dirk Gently", Eoin Colfer - even perhaps Doctor Who! The fluid evocation - homage? pastiche? - of the unseen U.S. reminded me of Garrison Keillor and Bill Bryson. And those were just the connections I was able to make. However, it would be misleading to suggest that this book is simply a cobbling together of other people's ideas. On the contrary, this is a story that these books would aspire to - the plot that succeeds in drawing all these threads together.

However, in my opinion, it comes nervously close to failing. Gaiman is obviously a well-established writer, held in critical high regard. That allows him to make demands on his readers that a new writer would not be able to; but for a new reader (me!) coming to this book, it felt as though it was on the edge of being overblown and indulgent. On top of the main plot about the clash between modern and ancient gods, there is a police procedural "whodunit" here, a collection of essays about the connections between various people from American history and their gods, and a studied gaze at small town America. All of these would have stood up on their own - for all of them to cohabit inside one book brings it close to being a literary orgy. And why is it necessary for literary masterpieces to break the 400 page barrier?!

The main character, Shadow, is indeed a shadow. "I'm not sure you're alive, either. Not really," his dead wife tells him at one point. Shadow does eventually act to demonstrate to himself the fact that he is alive. But even so, he seems somewhat unengaged. (Spoiler alert!) He manages to single-handedly stop the twilight of the gods - but I was left wondering why he would have bothered, really. If at some stage he had had a kind of ultimate existential experience which was motivating him, it didn't really stand out from the other experiences he had along the way. One of the reviewers on the blurb describes the book as "heart-rending". I disagree. It was good enough, but none of the characters, with the possible exception of a young woman called Sam Black Crow - not even Shadow - really engaged me enough to care about them. Certainly this is an excellent book if it is considered within a particular genre - it garnered SF awards, for example. But in absolute terms, I didn't think it was earthshaking.

To come - thoughts on some of the ideas in "American Gods".

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

On listening to the other side...

From here:
When did attending a speech imply acquiescence to the speaker’s views? As a rule, I’d rather hear someone I disagree with than someone I agree with. The only exception to the above rule is that I'd rather hear Christ than Satan. But, nevertheless, if Satan was invited to give our commencement address, I’d be really excited to hear what he had to say.

David Heddle

"The Tempest", RSC, Richmond Green Theatre

We took the children to see the matinee last weekend. There was a disapproving comment from a woman in the row behind to the effect that the children were "too young", but they seemed to largely follow what was going on and enjoy the play, having been given a quick introduction (based on the programme notes).

I have had affection for "The Tempest" for years, due to references to it in a book my Madeleine L'Engle and a more substantial analysis in "A Meaningful World". Despite this, I only read it last year, and this was the first time I had seen it performed.

The setting was African, with the spirits being given spectacular African costumes, and large puppets featuring at several stages in the action. A small group of musicians, visible at the back of the stage and amplified, enhanced the setting. Anthony Sher was Prospero, and John Kani was Caliban.

The direction hinted at colonial/apartheid overtones. Thus, Caliban, although a "bad person", was ultimately being wronged by Prospero by having his land taken from him, and the play presented Prospero's departure, specifically leaving Caliban free "to be wise hereafter and seek for grace", as the culmination of the play. Also, the director chose to portray Prospero's turning away from revenge as something prompted by Ariel - something not really present in the text, but conveyed through the actions of the cast. The text certainly bore these things, although the portrayal of Prospero as less of a "wise old man" and more of somebody needing to make a journey of forgiveness somewhat muddies the archetypes. And if Ariel were able to deflect his master in such a way, would he really have put up with the resentment caused by thirteen years of bondage?

The production chose to interpret Prospero's relationship with Ariel as one of repressed homosexuality. I didn't feel this was necessary - it is certainly possible to interpret the text that way, if you choose, in the same way that by ignoring other textual matters in the Bible you can interpret David and Jonathan's relationship as a homosexual one. But it did seem a somewhat unnecessary addition of a modern, gay agenda to a text that is quite rich enough on its own. However, it wasn't laboured to the point of drowning the rest of the narrative - the children weren't led to ask about it!

The play was spectacular and enjoyable, and as a first exposure of the children to Shakespeare, worked very well.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Silly Phonetic Games

Yankee Zulu went to town
Riding on a pony
He pulled a foxtrot out of his uniform
And called it "Mike".

Sorry, you probably had to be there.

It leaves a bad taste in your mouth

We've got tickets for the U2 Wembley concert, which is exciting. After the last tour (which I didn't get to) I resolved that I would definitely make every attempt to get to a future concert, and I should be able to.

The booking system (which I entrusted to my wife) was a little stressful, but kind of worked okay. But what left the sour taste was the booking charges. Paying for delivery is fair enough, though I seriously doubt that the sender will pay close to the amount charged for p+p. But the service charge - more than 10% of the ticket cost! What's that for? The ticket seller? That seems steep.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Vague thought on the difference between poetry and prose

Of course, my background is science, not art, so my thoughts on this have even less credibility than my thoughts on (say) Intelligent Design. And this is probably a really trivial observation - GCSE standard or below - and I just was not paying attention in class when the teacher mentioned it as a throwaway remark.

However, it occurred to me that prose is about ideas, rather than format. So the precise words are less important than the ideas that are conveyed. Take a passage of prose, and it could be rewritten in different words, but conveying the same idea.

Poetry is different. Certainly it will convey an idea, but the words themselves are important - with well-written poetry, every word is the "right" word; none can be changed without reducing the quality of the poetry.

This bears on (for example) the issue of translation. A passage of prose can be translated into a new language, because the words themselves are less important than the ideas conveyed. It can be rewritten for a different audience for the same reason - they may not share the same culture or presuppositions, but the idea can be represented in different language, perhaps with additional explanation. There are some things which don't translate so easily - figures of speech, for example, or ideas that are linked to a particular culture, or particular sections which follow more closely poetic patterns. But that highlights the general fact that "prose" translates, whereas "poetry" and "poetic language" don't translate so well.

A poem can't be translated in the same way as prose at all. There will be some things "lost in translation", because the nature of poemosity (poemness?) is that it is the actual words which are significant. Even when a poem can be converted into a poem in another language, there won't be a direct equivalence between the response to poetry in two different languages.

It would be interesting to explore this idea further, but my knowledge of poetry and prose and different languages is too limited. I think I'll have to do some linguistics. As an example of poetry, it would be interesting to see how similar "Ein' Feste Burg" is, in people's response, to the two different English translations, "A Safe Stronghold our God is still" and "A Mighty Fortress is our God." Though in that case, of course, the music also adds to the response obtained.

This also has a bearing on evolutionary theory, interestingly....

An idea can be expressed in different ways. Similar biological structures (different forms of eye, for example) have apparently evolved separately, and do the same thing using substantially different genetic material. Here are "prose" ideas expressed in different ways. The assumption of darwinism is that all biological structures are of this sort - a gradual process of improvement will allow a movement towards a state where the biological structure is more fit for purpose - where the prose more correctly expresses the ideas that it needs to express.

But by the same token, people argue against simple darwinism by suggesting that some biological structures are highly specified. Like a poem, any substantial changes (much more than at the level of changing the spelling of a word, for example) are likely to rapidly erode the quality of the structure. Prose can be bashed into shape - a plan worked out, ideas sketched, arguments for and against marshalled and then the masterpiece written. But poetry, it might be suggested, doesn't work like that. Certainly a plan for a poem can be come up with - but I guess the poet is likely to pick specific words and phrases from his or her vocabulary, to construct the whole poem in a sense "as a whole", rather than gradually converge towards the final form. Words might be replaced, or stanzas - whole verses dropped or added. There may well be structural rules (metre, rhyme) that mean that the "prose" approach of converging towards the final version with proofreading, editing and so on simply won't yield a poem.

Hum. This merits some more thought....

Saturday, February 07, 2009


It's the risingest next thing - growing faster than Facebook, which is growing faster than Myspace, which is growing faster than blogging, which is growing faster than ... well, you get the idea.

I'm not convinced, personally, and I'm certainly not interested at least for now. 140characters - the length of a SMS message, less than the maximum length of a Facebook status - is too restrictive. I want exposition, expression, images .... You can do amazing things with the internet - so why constrain yourself to using no more than 140 text characters? That's not to say that you need to do more than that - and the social networking status messages are pretty similar to Twitter. But to say that you can't do more than that?

As for the fact that celebrities are doing it - well, to be honest, that's a very good reason for staying away. I'm not interested in what famous people say when they get stuck in lifts, or even that they have been stuck in lifts. So what? It happens! I would be interested in what my friends were thinking and feeling, if they get stuck in a lift - but not simply the bare fact that they are stuck.

Expecting flames ....

Friday, February 06, 2009

25 things

25 assorted facts about me. Probably considerably more, if you expand each out into its individual statements. It's actually a copy of a Facebook note, and explained there - I'm probably one of the last people to do this anyway. But if you wish to tag yourself and do this too, feel free.

1. I am verbose. "Paul talked on and on" is a prophetic word, according to my wife. So this may well be somewhat longer than your average "25 Things". Also, they aren't in order. Sorry. Go get a coffee first ....

2. I went to university in Cambridge, but I didn't attend any May Balls (in June), row in any boats, go punting, have any champagne picnics, or get recruited by the KGB. My politics were somewhat right wing at that stage (I didn't see the need to close my account with Barclays just because they were sponsoring the South African government's imprisonment of Nelson Mandela), and our SU never asked the male students to buy women's sanitary products (unlike that of King's College).

3. However, I did join the University Air Squadron. This was excellent - cheap drink (cheaper than Spoons), and a Soc that actually paid you for turning up. In addition to which, they taught me to fly. And didn't kick me out, even though aerobatics made me airsick. And you actually had to put together your own ents, so it was very involving.

4. My most unpleasant experience at Cambridge was being beaten up by a drunk townie. I didn't know how to cope with this casual violence, and this had quite significant psychological consequences.

5. Technically, I am an MA (Cantab). However, I'm not one for letters and stuff, and particularly those ones, since they imply I have done more to deserve them than I have (which is basically stay alive for 3 years after graduating).

6. I didn't have a gap year, but between A-levels and university, I worked on a summer camp in the States, on the Camp America scheme. I didn't have the nerve to apply to be a counsellor, though I'd probably have enjoyed it. Most people ended up in NY or Pennsylvania. I ended up with an eclectic group in Mississippi. There is a little camp in Pinola, Mississippi, and if you look closely, you'll find its Facebook group.

7. After that, I went to Toronto, and from there took the Greyhound bus to Vancouver. In Vancouver, I visited Expo 86, which was also excellent, and gave me a taste for the Expos that hasn't really been sated yet, despite getting to Expo 2000 in Hanover.

8. I met somebody on the bus to Vancouver, and in a parallel life, this would have led to me staying on in Vancouver.

9. I was pretty insufferable as a teenager.

10. My parents didn't want me to go to the secondary school that I was destined to go to. So I didn't go to any of the open days or visits, and when I turned up, and all the children went from the assembly hall to their assigned tutor groups, I was left behind. The school was cool about it, though, and within hours had found me a place in the right tutor group. This may have led to me moving away from premillenialism.

11. There are relatively few things I value that I have "discovered for myself". REM, Sixpence None the Richer, Garrison Keillor, Jostein Gaarder and Francis Schaeffer are some of them. U2 I owe to Suzanne McEwen, though I did rediscover them when "All That You Can't Leave Behind" came out; Talking Heads I owe to my sisters.

12. My interest in literature dates back to the time I was doing a science degree. It irritates me that whilst people apply the term "philistine" to someone with no cultural depth, many people still take pride in their innumeracy, let alone their lack of scientific knowledge. The world would be better for more people having a broader education.

13. On the back of this, I was Literary Editor of GROGGS for a while. GROGGS was a bulletin board, but to be honest it was much closer to a community along the lines of Facebook (for example) than this would suggest - albeit a somewhat geeky one. I picked the handle "Exiled from GROGGS" because I missed it. Then I managed to get back to it, and discovered that it wasn't as satisfying as it had been. The exile is now self-imposed.

14. The first unsolicited writing that I had published was a 100-word review of "The Cat Who Walks Through Walls" by Robert Heinlein, a book which started well but drifted away half way through. It was published in "Paperback Inferno", one of the publications of the British Science Fiction Association ("DON'T call it Sci Fi!!"), and you can still find reference to it on the internet, if you know where to look.

15. When I first met Liz, she was going out with somebody else. I met her again when she came to my baptism, just before I started my flying training, and we corresponded intensely for three months, particularly whilst I was in Florida. So when we next saw each other, we knew each other pretty well. I think I knew by then that if I was going to marry anybody, it would be her - knowing who your future wife will be pretty quickly seems to be a fairly common experience amongst the men who I have been close to. We will have been married 17 years in April.

16. I didn't cope well with being the focus of attention, and still find it somewhat unnerving, which is a little odd for a lay preacher, I guess. This led to me having to walk out of our wedding reception during the best man's speech.

17. Talking of walking out, I was part of a group of people that walked out of the first funeral I went to.

18. Flying is amazing. I knew when I left the University Air Squadron that I wouldn't cope with the RAF. But I also knew that I would either have to get somebody to pay me to do it or spend a lot of money I couldn't justify on paying to do it as a hobby. I chose the former, and was fortunate enough to get part of my flying training paid for by British Midland (who became bmi).

19. Oxford Air Training School was a means to an end (ie. getting a professional pilot's licence). But if you think student accommodation is bad, you should see what they offer - and how much they charge for it. And you are treated more like a secondary school pupil than a university student, despite the fact that it is your money that they are spending, and most people going through there have already managed to establish themselves in careers.

20. Back to uni. I was disappointed with a good 2.2 - but the fundamental problem was that I'd not needed to work before going, and thus didn't know how to. Had I got a 2.1, I would probably have ended up in academia, which would have completely changed the shape of my life.

21. I would have called myself a Christian when I was 13, because I had "responded" to an "appeal" of sorts. However, I didn't know how to make sense of it all. That changed around the time I was 21, under the influence of Roy Clements at Eden Baptist Church, Cambridge, the books of Francis Schaeffer, and my now brother in law, who had become the minister at my home church. All of a sudden, I could see how Christianity was not just a "religious" bit of my life, but an entire worldview which made sense, and allowed me intellectual coherence. I am still utterly convinced that Christianity allows me to make sense of the whole universe in a way that no other belief system does. I would be more than happy to speak about this with anybody who has a few hours to spare - in fact, it is one of my favourite activities.

22. Despite my verbosity, I also love listening to people. One of the most amazing things that humans are capable of is getting into somebody else's mind - understanding their desires, motivations, feelings, thoughts. I am so thankful to the people who have permitted/invited me to do that. You know who you are. It makes me teary.

23. Talking of being teary, I am regularly ambushed by small children's books. If I pick up a children's book in a bookshop, there is roughly a 1 in 3 chance I will end up nearly weeping. It made it difficult to read to the children, sometimes. We have three of them, by the way, and I don't read small children's books to any of them any more.

24. Books are very important to me. Our bookshelves are often double stacked. Facebook notwithstanding, a defining feature of my friends will be that they are likely to have had books recommended by me to them. Sorry. You don't have to take it seriously. But they are good books.

25. Life is very short.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

What is the most serious assault on capitalist ideology since Das Kapital?

By bringing together in compact form all of the arts of show business - music, drama, imagery, humour, celebrity - the television commercial has mounted the most serious assault on capitalist ideology since the publication of Das Kapital. To understand why, we must remind ourselves that capitalism, like science and liberal democracy, was an outgrowth of the Enlightenment. Its principal theorists, even its most prosperous practitioners, believed capitalism to be based on the idea that both buyer and seller are sufficiently mature, well informed and reasonable to engage in transactions of mutual self-interest. If greed was taken to be the fuel of the capitalist engine, then surely rationality was the driver. The theory states, in part, that competition in the marketplace requires that the buyer not only knows what is good for him but also what is good. If the seller produces nothing of value, as determined by a rational marketplace, then he loses out. It is the assumption of rationality among buyers that spurs competitors to become winners, and winners to keep on winning. Where it is assumed that a buyer is unable to make rational decisions, laws are passed to invalidate transactions, as, for example, those which prohibit children from making contracts. In America, there even exists in law a requirement that sellers must tell the truth about their products, for if the buyer has no protection from false claims, rational decision-making is seriously impaired.

Of course, the practice of capitalism has its contradictions.... But television commercials make hash of it. To take the simplest example: to be rationally considered, any claim - commercial or otherwise - must be made in language. More precisely, it must take the form of a proposition, for that is the universe of discourse from which such words as "true" and "false" come. If the universe of discourse is discarded, then the application of empirical tests, logical analysis or any of the other instruments of reason are impotent.

... it was not until the 1950s that the television commercial made linguistic discourse obsolete as the basis for product decisions. By substituting images for claims, the pictorial commercial made emotional appeal, not tests of truth, the basis of consumer decisions. The distance between rationality and advertising is now so wide that it is difficult to remember that there once existed a connection between them.... The truth or falsity of an advertiser's claim is simply not an issue. A McDonald's commercial, for example, is not a series of testable, logically ordered assertions. It is a drama - a mythology, if you will - of handsome people selling, buying and eating hamburgers, and being driven to near ecstasy by their good fortune. No claims are made, except those the viewer projects onto or infers from the drama. One can like or dislike a television commercial, of course. But one cannot refute it.

"Amusing Ourselves to Death", Neil Postman, p.130-131
This was written in 1985!

Monday, February 02, 2009

Snow news

We are injuncted to check Mercury FM to find out about school closures. But the website seems to be down. The last time I tried listening to the station to get the information I wanted, I had reached the stage of wanting to throw the radio out of the window from sheer tedium long before the required information had been imparted. I don't even know whether Mercury still exists, and I have little desire to find out.

The Surrey County Council website would win awards for lack of timely information. It's 8.47 am. They are still reporting no school closures.

Fortunately, something's happened with school websites. Both the primary and secondary school that our children are at reported before 8 am that they would be closed today. Much better decision making and reporting at a local level.

It took a friend about two hours to drive three miles home last night. There is no sign that the main road through Caterham has been cleared overnight. Although we have a school in our road, any snow clearance that has been carried out has been done by residents, not by any authority. There is little evidence of snow clearance even on the A22, which is technically a trunk road.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Quick Plug for "Pumpkin Patch"

We have real difficulty with buying clothes for our children. The fundamental problem seems to be that the assumption made by the designers is that children who are as long as ours will be substantially wider. So we have ended up buying quite a number of clothes (bottoms) which just don't support themselves. An adjustable waistband makes a lot of difference. A fair number of garments have what looks like a means of tying and tightening the front - but it turns out on closer inspection to simply be trim, which only tightens a 1cm section at the front!

Another problem is that even well-established shops who one would hope ought to know better insist on offering clothes for pre-teens that make them look like tarts. (Is it just me that finds the marketing of Playboy stuff at anybody under 18 really offensive, by the way?)

"Pumpkin Patch" are new to us. We happened across them in Crawley, and discovered that the clothes they were selling were not only age appropriate, but they also seemed to fit and adjust better than many of the other more established shops. So well done them!

Monday, January 26, 2009

From "The Elegance of the Hedgehog"

Paloma writes:
My classmates get high on Ecstasy the way we pig out on chocolate truffles and the worst of it is that where there are drugs, there's sex. Don't act surprised: nowadays kids sleep together really young. There are kids in year seven (not a lot, but a few all the same) who've already had sexual relations. It's depressing. First of all, I think that sex, like love, is a sacred thing.... if I were going to live beyond puberty, it would be really important to me to keep sex as a sort of marvellous sacrament. And secondly, a teenager who pretends to be an adult is still a teenager. If you imagine that getting high at a party and sleeping around is going to propel you into a state of full adulthood, that's like thinking that dressing up as an Indian is going to make you an Indian. And thirdly, it's a really weird way of looking at life to want to become an adult by imitating everything that is most catastrophic about adulthood ... Where I'm concerned, just seeing my mother shooting up with her anti-depressants and sleeping tablets has been enough to inoculate me for life against that sort of substance abuse. Lastly, teenagers think they're adults when in fact they're imitating adults who never really made it into adulthood and who are running away from life. It's pathetic. Mind you, if I were ... the class pin-up, I would wonder what else I could do with my days besides take drugs...

"The Elegance of the Hedgehog", Muriel Barbery, p187-8
As I said in the review of the book, Paloma starts out as one of the most irritating characters in any novel I have read, although she pretty perceptive. In particular, the thing about "never really made it into adulthood" - which ties in with the idea from "Seven Basic Plots" that becoming a mature adult requires displacement of the desires of the ego (getting high on drugs, sex as an experience in itself) for the sake of the Self (being part of an integrated human community, developed in physical, mental, spiritual and emotional terms).

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Why musicians are such nice people

Anybody who is a musician - at least at the level of regular and enthusiastic amateur - will believe that musicians are nicer people than normal people. This is something that, in my experience, goes beyond the normal peer-group association - "the crowd of people I have something in common with". In "The Seven Basic Plots", in passing, Christopher Booker suggests why this might be the case.

A fully rounded human being will be developed in all four areas - physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. To perform music well requires development in all those areas. Physical in the sense of the dexterity and strength required to use an instrument; mental because formal knowledge is required to "do" music; emotional and spiritual because music is designed to evoke an emotional and frequently spiritual response, and to do this requires that the performer is in tune with those aspects of the music.

It is possible to perform music without being in touch with all four areas - but there is a perceptible difference between musicians who "get it" and people who don't.

So good musicians will have developed in all four areas that are required to make a mature human being. They are likely to really be nicer people - something which they had hitherto only suspected.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

We interrupt this series of posts ...

... to point out that the new U2 album, "No Line on the Horizon", is on its way.

And if you want to hear the new single, "Get on your boots", go here.


Why the Basic Plots? (2) - Response

So, what do I think?

Well, as I've said already, this is a greatly enriching book - one I enjoyed immensely, and have already bought for other people. If nothing else, the analysis of the basic plots, and the discussion of Self/ego, make the book fully worth buying and reading. You may disagree with Booker's analysis - but he has made a substantive case, which can't be lightly dismissed.

However, whilst I accept large amounts of what Booker has said, and I have even been able to think about the significance of what he has written to me (!), there are certain areas in which I don't agree with him.

1) I'm not convinced that the Self/ego divide is characteristically human. I think you can see the same thing present to greater or lesser degrees in other animals. I think that dogs, cats and non-human primates, whilst generally behaving in a "Self" fashion, also have elements of ego-centric behaviour. This is important because narrative is supposed to be a response to this divide - but if the divide is present in other animals, and narrative is a biological or deep psychological response in humans, why isn't it present in them? Why do we have no indication at all that imagination or story telling can mean anything to them?

So if the Self/ego divide is not characteristically human, then narrative doesn't find its roots there. It isn't simply a biological feature of the system. That's not important in itself - imagination and the power to conceive of narrative may still be an emergent property of the human mind. But if so, at what stage? And how? And why? Was it that as the ego got stronger, it became more important to provide the human mind with a reference point reminding it of what it means to be a fully expressed human being. That is more of a point for discussion than anything else, but it does tie into the second, more significant point at which I disagree.

2) I don't think that Booker's analysis goes sufficiently deep. He asks the question: why do we have narrative? - the answer is roughly, to reinforce the values of the Self given our strong egos. But that leaves unanswered the question - why should there be a clash between the ego and the Self at all? Why should we as humans have developed in such a way that our own behaviours can be less than "wholly human"? Why should our egos conflict with what is desirable for the good of humanity? And then, why should these ideas be so embedded in a language with moral overtones - hubris, nemesis, hamartia?

And whilst narrative itself might have a role in encouraging humans to be Self-directed rather than ego-directed, why should history - both individual and corporate - actually follow these patterns? Let me try and give an example. Narrative tells us that where someone pursues ego-focussed aims, if they don't turn, it will lead to tragedy. Booker argues that this idea of narrative is built into us. It is possible to argue that it is so hard-coded into what we are as human beings as to make it inevitable on an individual level - although it's hard to see. But that doesn't explain why Nazi Germany's rise and fall should have followed that pattern. It doesn't explain why it characterises the nature of the rule of a political party, or the rule of a colonial power. The fact that certain narrative patterns are biologically encoded within humans wouldn't have prevented Napoleon establishing his empire.

And this is my big objection to Booker's thesis - he correctly identifies the patterns in narrative, and correctly identifies them as characteristic of humanity, but then fails to move from there to provide an answer as to WHY they should be characteristic of humanity. His answer seems to be that they are biologically encoded, and whilst it is possible to see the evolutionary benefit, he has not explained when it appeared, where it appeared from, or why it should have such a wide applicability.

And in the next post, I will offer my theory about this ....

Why the Basic Plots? (1) - Booker's argument

I've spent quite a lot of time discussing "The Seven Basic Plots" by Christopher Booker, and having covered a lot of ground, I want to comment on the conclusion he draws. First, it's worth following the structure of his argument. This won't do it justice, I'm afraid - his book covers over 700 pages! But hopefully it will at least be accurate as far as it goes.

He starts off by demonstrating that many of the narratives which we are familiar with fit into a small number of standard plots - namely: Tragedy, Comedy, Overcoming the Monster, Quest, Rags to Riches, Voyage and Return, and Rebirth. He then shows that these are actually all really one fundamental story - which involves the central character of the narrative starting in a form of darkness or incompleteness, and either remaining there and facing destruction (in the case of Tragedy, and some Voyage and Return stories) or moving into light and completeness. Completeness is archetypally expressed through the union of male and female ("they married and lived happily ever after"), and will often have wider implications than simply those for the central character ("there was joy throughout the kingdom"). This, he argues, is because narrative is designed to show us the triumph of the Self - that is, humans realising their full potential as physical, mental, emotional and spiritual beings, expressed as the union of masculine and feminine characters - and that this triumph of the Self in a person is something which gives benefit to humanity more widely. Where the Self doesn't triumph - where a person is not able to fully realise themselves in this fourfold way, due generally to their ego preventing it - it leads to unfulfilment, despair and ultimately destruction, and humanity is the worse for it.

He adds a couple of more modern plot structures to this ("Mystery", "Rebellion against the One") and comments on them, and also talks at length about how the rise of the ego following the Romantic era has led to a breakdown in narrative structure. Rather than the satisfactory resolutions we see in the seven basic plots, these narratives with their focus on the gratification of the ego can be reduced to a kind of unsatisfactory fantasy. Describing large swathes of post-romantic literature and narrative as having unsatisfactory plots may come across as reactionary - however, the case is made at length, and certainly whilst (say) "Basic Instinct" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" make gripping movies, you are left at the end of them wondering "What now?" This is a very different response from our response to a conventional narrative.

He then traces the idea of the ego and the Self through history. He takes as his starting point the idea that the separation of the ego - our own personal desires and aims - from the Self - the interests of the group or species more widely - is the thing that separates us from the animal kingdom. Narrative is built into us, as a mental pattern which encourages us to act in a Self-oriented way, rather than an ego-oriented way. This has expressed itself in many ways through history, including religion, but following the rise of romanticism, the industrial era and so on, there has been an increasing move away from the Self and towards the ego, with the consequence of a breakdown in "Self" aspects of society - stable societal structures, altruistic behaviour, neighbourliness and so on. The historical analysis is effective - for example, he points to the way in which the fragmenting trends of the 1920's and 30's in the UK were reversed in the Second World War and its immediate aftermath, as people behaved in a "Self"-oriented way to challenge the threat they faced from a shared enemy - only for the breakdown to continue where it had left off from the mid 50's onwards.

In conclusion, Booker argues that as we understand this as being the proper role of narrative, we can see its place in human society. Also in contrast to the indifference to behaviour which characterises a post-modern, pluralistic society (he doesn't use those phrases!), this ideal of Self suggests that there is an absolute standard for behaviour which is good for humanity - that there is a sense in which gratification of the ego, or an unbalanced pursuit of physical, mental, emotional or spiritual fulfilment in a person is harmful, not only for them but for humanity more widely.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Five Favourite Sixpence Songs

Okay, so everybody knows "Kiss Me". Quite a few people also know the cover they did of the Las "There She Goes", and their cover of "Don't Dream It's Over" was played in my local supermarket, so that must have made waves. All those are good enough, but that's not why I rave about them.

"I Can't Catch You"

"Love, Salvation and the Fear of Death"

"Tension is a Passing Note" - closest I could find, sorry - record companies are jumping on people ripping the audio tracks on youtube. I may just have encouraged even more of it by linking to the ones above ...

"Trust" - want to sing this in church. Brings tears to my eyes. It dates back to "The Fatherless and the Widow", which was a LONG time ago ....

"Melody of You" to make it up to five. Well, actually, it could have been any of another dozen or so tracks.

Hope you enjoy them!

History and Christianity

I wanted to add a little more about Christopher Booker's analysis of the history of Christianity in "Seven Basic Plots". It diverges from (for example) Francis Schaeffer's analysis in "How Should We Then Live?" in a way that is completely consistent with his primary focus on Christianity as myth.

With reference to the impact of Mediaeval Christianity, Booker looks at the narratives of Beowulf, the legend of King Arthur, and (from late mediaeval) Dante's Divine Comedy. He writes:
Immeasurably remote though it now seems to us, the world-picture developed by mediaeval Christendom was one of the most remarkable achievements of the human imagination. For the peoples of Christian Europe it provided a psychological framework which could explain and give meaning to the entire way in which they viewed their existence...

So all-embracing was this 'Christian myth' that it could give a sense of significance to every aspect of individual and collective life. And not the least reflection of its power was the way ... the chief visual self-expression of European civilisation, alongside its churches and cathedrals, was centred on a particular set of images, endlessly painted, sculpted and depicted in stained-glass, the purpose of which was constantly to focus people's minds on this other dimension to their lives. These stylised icons of the crucified Christ and the Mother and Child made no attempt to relate to the imperfect, everyday, material world. They were windows onto that eternal plane of perfection which was regarded as the only true reality.

"The Seven Basic Plots", Christopher Booker, p.633
In contrast, concerning the impact of the Reformation, Booker writes:
Like Luther when he declared 'here I stand, I can say no other', [sic] they had found a new source of authority in their own judgement, as they looked anew at the image of Jesus presented in the Bible, the book on which Christianity rested. Possessed by this new vision of the Self, they set about destroying all those outward trappings which had been designed to convey religion as the gateway to an other-worldly spiritual dimension. In their newfound zeal, they tore down statues of the saints and images of the Virgin, poured contempt on the belief in Purgatory, and lectured bemused worshippers that unless they were among the 'elect', chosen by God, they faced eternal damnation. But as they did so they became all to easily inflated by that self-righteousness which arises from confusing ego with Self, potentially the most deadly form of egotism of all.

ibid, p.635
His perspective is therefore (I think) that mediaeval Christianity, with its mythologising of Christ and moving him and the narrative surrounding him into an idealised world, represented a high point of Christian coherence. In contrast, whilst the Reformation might have returned people to the Scriptures, the consequence was the loss of a coherent worldview, and a movement of people away from the idealised, integrated perspective on the world that they had in the mediaeval era.

I would largely disagree with this analysis. Whilst the mythological perspective may have expressed a coherent worldview, it was also one which largely served the interests of a small but privileged group - the people at the top of the feudal system and the powerful church. For most people living in the mediaeval era, the structure of christendom rationalised their miserable existence of squalor, high taxes, poverty, disease and hunger whilst holding out a vague carrot if they were good of a much better place after they died.

On the other hand, the Reformation worldview helped with the move away from the feudal hierarchy, and pointed towards the accountability, checks and balances that we take for granted in the modern world. People no longer had special status because they happened to have been born into the right family: all humans had dignity before God. This is something that is very apparent in Reformation art. No longer are religious characters painted in a kind of idealised way, disconnected with the real world. They are painted in a proper relationship with the world around them. Also, real people are portrayed as proper subjects for painting - it isn't simply the "perfect" world that has value, but the real, everyday world. In reflecting this, it is also consistent with Christianity as it is found in the Bible, where God is sufficiently concerned for humanity that he takes on humanity, in the person of Jesus Christ. Christianity is not a mythological idealisation; it is the story of how God directly intervened in human history through the incarnation.

Also, whilst the mediaeval worldview may have had some coherence, it was fundamentally a matter of human tradition. The Reformation worldview had - and indeed still has - as its foundation the Bible. In principle, people are invited to search the Scriptures (as the Bereans did in the Bible itself!) to see whether what is being said by Christian teachers actually corresponds to what the Bible says - the teachers themselves only have authority insofar as they reflect the Bible's authority. The mediaeval worldview may have been derived from the Bible at one stage, but the traditions of the church, designed to serve its own interests rather than be faithful to the Bible, added to the integration of Aristotleian thoughtforms, meant that this worldview was a product of human imagination and tradition rather than one which reflected the Bible. And if one worldview reflecting human imagination and tradition can be considered authoritative, on what basis can any other such worldview be rejected?

Of course, this sounds like a good modern "tolerant" approach - but don't forget that it was in the context of mediaeval Christianity that it was considered reasonable for the Christian worldview to be forcibly imposed on the rest of the world through the Crusades and the work of the Inquisition. Whilst the Reformation worldview may appear less tolerant, more absolute, the proper understanding of Reformation principles of the dignity of all humans have meant that Christians have not considered it appropriate to use military strength to enforce their beliefs on the rest of the world.

It is also the case that, in conjunction with the Renaissance, the Reformation was unconsciously a step towards the Enlightenment, and humans becoming "autonomous" - believing themselves to be independent from any sort of external absolute. This was not an inevitable consequence of the Reformation - had the focus remained on the Reformation solas - Scripture, Christ, faith, grace - European civilisation might have been saved from the negative consequences of rationalism that followed in subsequent centuries.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Booker and religion

I've now finished "The Seven Basic Plots", by Christopher Booker. I will miss it. It is the most interesting non-fiction book I've read for a couple of years, and whilst I may not agree with everything in it, there was a great deal which I found eye-opening. About the only issue I had with it was not to do with the content. The silver lettered title on the cover is not securely fixed, and eroded whilst I was reading it - a less glamorous printing job would mean that the book was less likely to disappear into anonymity!

Christopher Booker commented on my last post that, given my assertion/assumption that the book was not Christian, he'd be interested in my reaction to chapter 33. This is called "Of Gods and Men", and traces the development of religion, and the balance between Self and ego, from the neolithic era through to the beginning of the 19th Century. (The following chapter, "The Age of Loki" brings the analysis up to date.) So this is a reaction specifically to Booker's approach to Christianity.

The first thing to say is that what Booker writes takes Christianity seriously, and certainly does reflect a particular strand of Christian tradition, so despite my earlier guesses, it is probably unfair to describe it as "not a Christian analysis." Booker identifies Christianity as being distinct from just about all other religions - particularly in the sense that the person of Christ demonstrates both the "masculine" and "feminine" characteristics required to make a whole, integrated person, and identifies those as being expressions of the nature of God. That's a technical phrase, which I will explore more in another post, but in short, whereas many religions encourage adherents to integrate "masculine" traits (power and rationality - "strength and mind"), Christ taught - and demonstrated - that this should be integrated with "feminine" traits (emotion and spirituality - "heart and soul"). The only other place in religion in which this can be seen, Booker argues, is possibly in the Buddha - about which more in a bit. From this point of view, Booker is suggesting that through what Christ showed his followers, it is possible to be a fully integrated, mature human being, in a way that is not possible through most religions or in a belief system that doesn't specifically direct a person beyond their own ego.

Which of course begs other questions ... like, why should that be considered desirable at all? Why shouldn't people be ego-directed, if they choose to be? Again, subjects for another post!

However, I would still argue that Booker's analysis does not reflect orthodox, historic Christianity. This is because Booker's treatment of the Bible fundamentally approaches it as myth, whereas the Bible itself does not regard itself as mythological. This is the sense in which Booker's approach reflects a particular strand of Christianity - I'm sure Jon Mackenzie would be able to tell me which one! But Jesus is not a mythological figure, like Odysseus - the writers of the gospels record their stories as faithful accounts of events, not to portray Jesus simply as an archetype - a kind of idealisation of the personification of masculine/feminine. The escape of the Israelites from Egypt similarly, whilst it has aspects in common with the "Defeating the Monster" plot, is not recorded as a mythical account, but as a matter of historical fact.

What are we supposed to do with the fact that there is a real, historical person in whom we can see these archetypal traits fully expressed? I would suggest that this means at the very least, we should be looking closely at this person and his claims - and I will argue in a later post that this may be the real point of narrative. Booker certainly concludes by arguing that narrative may be designed to bring us back into contact with "the One", but he avoids explicitly defining what this might mean - perhaps he has in mind a direct connection with religious belief, but I suspect he is thinking more in terms of a general closeness with what we are to be as humans.

I disagree with Booker's analysis of various sections of the Bible, although I accept they are consistent with many mainstream commentators. For example, he argues that the God of the Jews in the Old Testament expresses masculine characteristics but not feminine ones. This is reflected in God's opposition to all other nations, and the special status granted Israel. However, it fails to take into account that even as the Israelites are given this favoured status, God tells them that he has in mind the blessing of the whole earth - it was the role of the Israelites to bring blessing to the world. This was only seen in flashes in the Old Testament - for example, in the stories of Ruth and Rahab, both Gentile women, both part of the line of Jesus, and also in God sending Jonah to Nineveh. This was God's stated intention (he promises Abraham that the whole earth will be blessed through him), and it was the failure of the Israelites to live up to God's purposes that resulted in this not working - and, in "big picture" terms, led to the inauguration of the New Covenant through Jesus.

Finally, let's consider briefly Buddhism and Christianity. Booker suggests that both demonstrate a means of leading to a person being fully integrated. However, there are still ways in which they diverge - they shouldn't be considered equivalent simply because they have similar effects in this area.

The first divergence is in terms of their content. Buddhism ultimately leads to the idea of silence and inexpressible truth. Joseph Campbell writes of Buddhism:
The point is that Buddhahood, Enlightenment, cannot be communicated, but only the way to Enlightenment. This doctrine of the incommunicability of the Truth which is beyond names and forms is basic to the great Oriental, as well as to the Platonic, traditions. Whereas the truths of science are communicable, being demonstrable hypotheses rationally founded on observable facts, ritual, mythology and metaphysics are but guides to the brink of a transcendent illumination, the final step to which must be taken by each in his own silent experience.... Though [Buddha] is the founder of a widely taught world religion, the ultimate core of his doctrine remains concealed, necessarily, in silence.

"The Hero with a Thousand Faces", Joseph Campbell, p.33, footnote
But this is very different from orthodox Christianity. The God of the Bible makes himself known through speaking - to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, the prophets; Paul the apostle, speaking to intellectuals in Athens says that he is going to introduce them to the one whom they worship as "The Unknown God", who is not far from any of them; Jesus says that anybody who has seen him has seen the Father. Unlike Buddhism, Christianity proclaims that it is a religion of knowledge - knowledge that is knowable to everybody, not only to those people who have meditated sufficiently to approach Nirvana.

Also, it is important to point out that the wholeness that comes from Christianity is not something that can be achieved by somebody setting their mind to it - people are unable to help themselves. Booker talked about "sin" resulting in the hero of a tragedy being unable to escape from hubris. This is an idea which strongly reflects the idea of the fallenness of humans.

Finally, the wholeness in Christianity has a particular focus - the "heart, soul, mind and strength" formula in Christianity is attached to a verb and an object - "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength." In other words, whilst Christianity does seek to see these aspects united, it seems to suggest that they can't simply be united "independently". They have to find a focus in something.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Booker on sex and violence

... if the conclusion of The Terminator finally shows the archetype of the Self [as opposed to the ego] winning the day, in one sense it always wins the day in stories, because, even on a sentimental level, this is the only way in which any story can be brought to a proper resolution. The archetype cannot be cheated. If it is defied, the story is doomed just to peter out, or to be forced into some implausible 'pseudo-ending' which leaves its audience curiously unsatisfied. None of the other stories we have looked at in this chapter have been able to reach anything like such an all-resolving conclusion, The ending of Fanny Hill is just a little cardboard fake; that of Justine is like a final despairing gesture of defiance at the values of the Self which the whole novel has tried to deny; that of Ulysses is a last forlorn act of masturbatory make-believe in a meaningless wilderness of the ego. Lady Chatterley peters out in vacuous wishful-thinking. At least in Psycho the monster is finally shown, in rather half-hearted fashion, as having been brought to justice. By the time we reach Last Exit to Brooklyn and Saved the values of the Self have passed so far out of sight that their stories scarcely try to resolve at all. In A Clockwork Orange the psychopathic hero does eventually seem about to change, but only to re-emerge at the end in the same monstrous state in which he began. In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre the monsters simply live on, as they do in Silence of the Lambs and Basic Instinct. Nothing in any of these stories is ever properly resolved, because their only real purpose has been to titillate the fantasies of their audiences with a stream of Self-defying images which by definition are incapable of leading to a resolution.

The only real value of this explosion of sex and violence in the storytelling of the late twentieth century lies in the evidence it provides of how quickly, when human fantasy ventures down this path, it runs into a dead end. We soon become familiar with the same repetitive handful of cliched images, mechanically revolving round in the same claustrophobic little circle, unable to lead anywhere and totally divorced from any deeper meaning.

"The Seven Basic Plots", Christopher Booker, p.494