12 August 2017

Adrian’s Wall


Eleven years on from a bitter divorce, Adrian Stowell is becoming not only a hermit but a misanthrope. He has vowed never to get caught again, to concede to another woman influence over himself and his property, and has surrounded himself with a wall of cynicism and mistrust.

One June morning he is working in his front garden. An attractive neighbour, not long arrived in the Hampshire village where Adrian lives, comes through the gate. He has never seen her before and might never have met her but for the fact that her cat has gone missing.

He accepts the flyer she offers him and promises to search his outhouses. Her eyes are kind; she smiles at him, and from then on Adrian can’t stop thinking about her.

This is a story about the alienation wrought by the increasing fragmentation of modern society and the difficulty one modern man has in adjusting to it. He struggles besides with the sort of masculine mindset which was once critical to the rise of civilisation, but whose value is becoming more and more derided, even despised.

It is also an unsentimental love story touching upon loneliness and bereavement and, above all, the magical power of forgiveness.

Extent: 119,000 words
Published: 12 August 2017

Adrian’s Wall: First chapter

A commotion outside made him get up and put his face to the window. The ginger cat was tormenting something at the edge of the lawn. Cries of alarm were coming from the parent blackbirds: the sodding thing had got hold of one of their chicks.
    As ever, the sound of the back door opening scared it away. It dashed into the shrubbery and escaped through one of its usual holes in the hedge.
    His slippers wet with dew, Adrian reached the fledgling and saw that it was beyond hope. The cat had not only opened its breast but hooked out one of the eyes. As gently as he could, he picked up the young bird and crossed to the rockery.
    The chick remained motionless, stunned, panting, its pulsing heat spreading into his palm. Despite the plumage it had acquired, it still bore much of the reptilian look of the sparsely fluffed nestling, wobble-headed and straining upward, instinctively gaping for food. Even so, it had begun to leave all that behind. It had begun to lead its own little life.
    He laid it down and, taking a grapefruit-sized rock, ended its suffering.
    Yesterday there had been two fledglings clucking and chuckling in the shrubbery or on the lawn, begging to be fed. Four had left the nest. The other two must have fallen prey before this morning, to a magpie or hawk, or a rat, or, more likely, a cat. The same one, probably. There was no sign of the remaining fledgling, nor, except for the calls, of the parents.
    When, having washed his hands, Adrian got back to his breakfast table, his porridge was cold and his tea barely warm. In any case he didn’t feel like finishing the meal.
    There were three cats he had come to recognise as living in the vicinity, but the ginger one, in particular, treated his garden as its own. He normally drove it away when it appeared. It had learned that it was unwelcome and could now be made to scoot if he merely rapped on the window.
    On occasion he had not expelled this cat but waited to see what it would do. For long periods it would sit on the lawn and watch the same spot in the shrubbery. He had investigated but found nothing special there, no reason for surveillance. Or the cat would venture to the place where he kept a broad, shallow, china bowl as a birdbath, and then it might drink. This had struck him as odd, because cats were supposed to be fastidious. He had seen it eating blades of untrimmed grass, and prowling along the edge of his lawn, and lifting its tail to piss on his flowers. He had found his border plants crushed where the cat had been lying, and he had often found its smelly droppings and been obliged to clear them up.
    He blamed the ginger cat for these crimes because that was the one he usually saw. The second of the three trespassers, a shapeless tabby, he had seen on his property only once or twice. The third was an exceptionally ugly, off-white Persian – at least, he thought it was a Persian. Its face looked as if it had been pushed in, giving it a most disagreeable expression. One lunchtime it had encountered the ginger cat. The two had circled one another suspiciously before the Persian had retreated under the garden bench, from which place of safety it had glared out until its rival had wandered away.
    The law was such that one could do little about cats in one’s garden. Adrian had tried to be an upright citizen and explore what the market offered in the way of legal repellents, with no effect. He had hurled harmless missiles, and missiles that would leave no mark, but had only once managed to connect, again with no effect. He had considered an air rifle, but its noise might pinpoint him as the culprit. And he had noted with interest such stories as appeared in the press about ‘cat killers’, who usually, disturbingly, sounded rather like him: middle-aged men living alone who took pride in their gardens and had little contact with their neighbours.

    ∗ ∗ ∗

Towards dusk he unlocked the personal door to the garage. Though he had not used the car today and the boiler was only heating the water, the garage felt warmer than the air outside, retaining as it was some heat from the June sun.
    Some months earlier, on collecting his car after its first service, he had found in the passenger footwell a small carrier bag marked with the dealership’s logo. The bag had contained a partly empty canister of antifreeze. He had put the canister on a shelf and almost forgotten about it.
    Apparently antifreeze had a sweet taste, irresistible to cats.
    From another shelf he took down a wooden, six-bottle wine box. It held things he used when servicing his bicycles. At the bottom, a cassette brush was lying in an oblong, old-fashioned, enamel pie-dish, originally white with navy-blue piping, these days much begrimed.
    He now removed this dish, gave it an extra wipe with a rag partly soaked in bike-cleaning fluid and, taking the antifreeze, stepped out of the door. Where best to leave the dish? His back garden was almost completely private, bordered on two sides by fields. There was next to no chance of the dish being observed by human eyes – beyond the remote possibility that someone might come to call, and even if they did, he knew nobody who wouldn’t ring at the front door rather than come round to the back. To be on the safe side, however, he placed the poison next to the shed where he kept his mower and wheelie bins.
    During what remained of the evening his mind kept returning to what he had done, or was about to do, which was to cause the prolonged and agonising death of the ginger cat. At his usual time he tidied up the kitchen and climbed the stairs.
    While cleaning his teeth he confronted what hitherto he had been avoiding: the mirror.
    Lying in bed, Adrian reviewed the inward debate that had been going on since putting the dish out, or even while formulating his plan.
    Of course, it was the careless – the literally careless – owner who was to blame. The cat was simply being a cat. He had never understood why anyone would want to keep such a creature.
    Cat owners surely read the newspapers too, were surely aware of the feline slaughter of the nation’s songbirds and small mammals, and were just as surely indifferent to this. They let their cats roam at will, day and night, knowing they had the protection of English law.
    The neighbourhood cats invaded his territory, the one tiny sanctuary that remained to him in this world of duplicity and greed. They did whatever they liked when he wasn’t on watch, and in the past week they had killed at least one of the young birds in which he had been taking such a fond interest. As soon as he had realised that the blackbirds were building in the larger of his two choisyas, he had refrained from all activity that might cause them concern. When mowing the lawn he had feigned ignorance of the nest-site; such observation as he had allowed himself had been conducted through a window.
    After further thought, Adrian switched on the lamp, got out of bed and put on his dressing gown.
    Better the annoyance of the ginger cat than a guilty conscience. And what if he were found out? What if the animal managed to return to its owner before it collapsed? It would be rushed to a vet, who might recognise the symptoms of ethylene glycol poisoning. The police might become involved. Those cat killers in the news were fined and disgraced and surely had to move house. In any case, he had read that most fledglings were doomed. Were that not so, the world would be overrun with blackbirds.
    As he unlocked his back door he acknowledged that he was, yet again, absorbing the consequences of other people’s selfishness. The cost of not doing so was confrontation. Confrontation required courage, and it might just be that he had used up whatever small reserves of that he had been born with.
    He kept an old funnel in the garage and used it to pour the antifreeze back in the canister, not knowing how else to dispose of it. Since the entire contents had now become polluted, he would take the canister to the council tip next time he was passing.
    He had erred. He had let himself down. Even in conceiving of poisoning the cat, he had behaved without honour or dignity.
    Feeling scarcely better, Adrian went back to his bed.



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28 May 2017

The Dada Engine

The auto-generation of text noted in this post is in fact pretty lame compared with this glorious achievement: a web-page that, every time you refresh it, writes a new academic essay. Not just any essay, either, but one guaranteed to get you good grades if you are enrolled in a humanities course in Britain or America, or indeed anywhere else that has been comprehensively hegemonised … See? Even I’m doing it!

A sample:
In a sense, Foucault suggests the use of the neotextual paradigm of discourse to read and modify society. Sartre uses the term ‘posttextual rationalism’ to denote not, in fact, deconceptualism, but predeconceptualism.

However, the neotextual paradigm of reality suggests that the goal of the poet is deconstruction, but only if Lyotard’s model of the neotextual paradigm of discourse is valid. Baudrillard uses the term ‘posttextual rationalism’ to denote a dialectic totality.

It would be almost as funny as the Sokal Affair, were it not that its database is so abominably accurate.

6 May 2017

Simplicity


I have been a cyclist since the age of four (and before that a tricyclist) and several of the machines I have ridden were equipped with internally geared hubs. Some others had derailleurs, while a number had no gears at all, but a simple freewheel.

Of the internally geared hubs, the Sturmey-Archer three-speed proved the most reliable. A Sturmey-Archer four-speed failed on me, likewise a Shimano 8-speed installed on a Kalkhoff Agattu electric bike, of which more anon.

The very principle of a derailleur is a bodge, since the mechanism forces the chain from sprocket to sprocket. Best efficiency in the drivetrain is achieved when the chain-wheel (the big cog connected to the pedals) is perfectly aligned with the rear sprocket. This is seldom achievable with a derailleur. Sideways distortion also increases the wear on chain and sprockets alike. What’s more, derailleurs can be fiddly and tedious to adjust.

Of course, gears are useful and in hilly districts may be necessary. Luckily I no longer live in a hilly district.

This time last year I owned three bicycles: a Giant CRS hybrid with a 24-speed derailleur gearset, the Kalkhoff, and a Norco Heart (pictured), which has a flip-flop rear hub – on one side is a freewheel and on the other a fixed sprocket, so that depending which way round the wheel is fitted you can be riding a fixed-wheel bike (‘fixie’) or a regular single-speed.

The Giant had an aluminium frame and hence an aluminium derailleur-hanger, the thing from which, as the name suggests, a rear derailleur hangs. Coming up one of the few gradients hereabouts, the gears began to make an unwonted clicking. ‘Oh great,’ I thought, ‘more maintenance when I get home.’

A few yards on, the hanger broke off. The springs in the derailleur caused the whole assembly to collide with the spokes of the rear wheel, which instantly buckled and fouled the aluminium rear-carrier and the mudguard stay, both of which buckled too and got dragged into the melange of metal. The right-hand chainstay had also been knackered, I observed, meaning the frame itself. In half a second my pricey hybrid had lost perhaps 90% of its value. Or even 100%, since I really had no need of whatever components could be salvaged from it.

As for the Kalkhoff, it seemed like a good idea at the time. I bought it on the strength of glowing reviews and to begin with was quite pleased with it, despite the inordinate weight. The motor made up for that, and conveyed me, with pedal assistance, at a stately 15 mph wherever I wished to go. Soon, however, a fault developed with the Shimano hub such that I lost the use of 7th gear. Then the other gears started slipping. Then something obnoxious started happening in the impenetrable depths of the motorised drive: whenever I wished abruptly to stop pedalling, the cranks kept moving forward and I had to learn to ease off rather than stop. Next, alarmingly, twelve miles from home, the drive failed to engage at all, with or without battery power. I backpedalled and changed gears, up and down, and the drive engaged again; but not long after that this fault became permanent and the Kalkhoff became another heap of scrap rather like the Giant.

Secretly I was not sorry. I have fond memories of a Raleigh roadster I bought second-hand in 1978 and fitted with a single-speed freewheel. On that simple, worry-free, steel-framed machine I covered over 14,000 miles. The Norco is its replacement.

I love this bike. It is light, as steel bicycles go, and with its 75-inch ratio is rideable up all but the steepest local gradients; I don’t mind sometimes having to stand to pedal. I use the freewheel because a fixie is hard on the knees, and besides I like to coast downhill. The machine is all black, so that when I hide it somewhere among vegetation and go off for a country walk it is there to greet me on my return. It cost an eighth of the price of the Kalkhoff and has no battery, so is recharged automatically by my breakfast. In the time I have been using this bike exclusively, I have grown fitter and find little difference now in effort between the Norco and the Kalkhoff. Best of all, there is almost nothing to go wrong, and I have the tools and knowledge to service absolutely everything on it myself.

The moral of this odd little tale, which you do not need me to belabour, is that what is simple is often good, and when we become ambitious we sometimes let ourselves in for far more trouble and expense than our ambition is worth.

4 March 2017

Entropy and language

Hunter S Thompson used a quote from Dr Johnson as the epigraph for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: ‘He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.’ Johnson may have been influenced by a reading of Donne’s Sermons: ‘Inordinateness of affections may sometimes make some men like some beasts; but indolency, absence, emptiness, privation of affections, makes any man, at all times, like stones, like dirt.’ (1640.)

The first and greatest of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is that ‘existence is suffering’. To be alive is foremost to suffer but, if one characterises suffering as a breakdown of order, even inanimate objects are not immune. Wind and rain wear down the mountain; the very core of the planet is cooling; apparently the entire solar system will at last be swallowed by a black hole.

Inherent in any system is its decay. The physicist would describe this as an increase in entropy. Entropy can be defined as ‘The tendency for all matter and energy in the universe to evolve toward a state of inert uniformity.’

Language itself cannot escape, as neatly evidenced by the decline of the original Greek word for suffering, pathos, which we find today in such compound terms as pathology, sympathy (sym indicating ‘together’) and apathy (a indicating ‘without’). In classical Greek, apathēs simply means ‘without suffering’, but entropy has been at work on the word in English and it means something very different now. In fact its meaning has rotated almost a hundred and eighty degrees. The apathetic suffers more than the man of purpose: his inner life is about as grim as it gets.

Something analogous has happened to our related borrowing from Latin. Cicero wanted an equivalent for the Greek word apatheia in its sense of ‘freedom from pain’. The Latin word for pain is dolor (by the way, it’s tempting fate to name your daughter ‘Dolores’), so he came up with indolentia. This didn’t much catch on (Seneca proposed impatientia instead) but nonetheless ‘indolent’ had that meaning among some English writers up till the eighteenth century, and even now a doctor terms a tumour ‘indolent’ if it causes no pain.

Thus words decay along with everything else. They get knocked about, mangled, eroded, during transmission from one human to another, especially when the transmitter is not well educated or, perhaps, well intentioned.

The latter phenomenon is all too evident today. Consider the pejorative poison being absorbed by ‘denier’, or indeed the evolution of ‘bigot’ – a word which, at its first known use in 1598, simply indicated a hypocrite. Later it also meant a superstitious person, especially one ‘obstinately and unreasonably wedded to a creed, opinion, or ritual’ (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, which, under ‘bigoted’, says ‘obstinately and blindly attached to some creed, opinion, or party, and intolerant towards others.’) Nowadays it simply denotes anyone I disagree with, provided I am on the left of the political spectrum. Somehow the word has been appropriated by one side. Rightists are reduced to casting around among inferior alternatives to demonise their truly bigoted (in the sense of ‘intolerant’) counterparts.

Entropy is working its magic on ‘bigot’. As an over-used insult it is becoming almost as ineffectual as ‘Nazi’. The insultee merely shrugs his shoulders and views the terms as identifying his opponent.

With all the hysterical mud-slinging characterising, say, the recent presidential election in America, it is tempting to withdraw: to become apathetic, indolent, inert, indifferent to the unreasoning nonsense spewed by both sides, but that would be to yield too soon to entropy.

No, we must observe the culture war and its ideological skirmishes not just as a freak show but also as a source of instruction. In the intense heat of its rage and intolerance, certain words are being eroded so quickly that we can observe, in a matter of months or even weeks, philological decay that might previously have taken years.

25 October 2016

A mouse remembered


Image: Rasbak

Yesterday afternoon, as I approached an area of gorse admixed with elder, I heard the high-pitched kee-kee-kee-kee of two kestrels. Earlier I had seen a male (a ‘tercel’) hunting near by and assumed he was one of them. The cries were agitated and penetrating. Presently I saw the birds together, flying with shallow wingbeats low over the bushes. They appeared to be in some sort of disagreement. Then I heard a single brief call of a jay and, a little later, while the kestrels were still airborne, glimpsed it for a moment in flight and had the feeling that the jay had been involved in the kerfuffle.

The birds all then disappeared and went quiet. I continued walking. A few yards on, the contours of the bushes allowed me a view of both kestrels, prominently perched. The tercel was nearer, a perfect specimen, while a female (‘falcon’) was a ten or twelve yards farther away.

The tercel resumed calling; the falcon remained silent. After a minute or so the tercel desisted and flew off, soon returning and perching exactly where he had been before. He had caught and killed a wood mouse.

I was so placed that only my head and chest would have been visible to him, and I had my telescope with me. It is a good telescope and zooms to 60x, so that I could make the tercel fill almost the entire field of view.

While the falcon watched from a distance, the tercel set about his meal. The scaly yellow toes of his left foot had clamped the mouse against a small, terminal, triple fork of the elder bush on which he was sitting; bending, he bit off the snout and swallowed it. Having tugged off and eaten the rest of the head, his sharp, curved bill began to deconstruct the mouse in tiny and delicate morsels. The shoulders and forepaws went, fur and claws and all. He pulled at the internal organs, the heart and lungs, the liver, the skin and connective tissue. The intestines became visible, bulged here and there with excrement. He extricated and laid them aside, perhaps meaning to drop them, though they remained draped over an adjoining twig. Repositioning what was left of the corpse, he ate the kidneys and a bit or two of the thighs.

As if deciding they offended him, he lifted the intestines from their branch and let them fall. That done, he continued, somehow managing to extract in one piece and engulf much of the spinal column, an inch or two of which now poked out of the left side of his gape.

Judging that it had become small enough, he picked up what was left of the mouse – its hind legs, rump and tail – and wolfed it down, tail last.

Finally he busied himself with cleaning up every last scrap. I could not be sure whether he used his tongue, but he paid attention to each bit of twig where the mouse had been, even to the branch where the intestines had hung.

The whole operation had lasted at least five minutes, maybe longer. Besides the unseen intestines, all that presently remained of the mouse was a certain increase in the bird’s girth, a hint of temporary repletion, and of course a memory in my head. Later its indigestible remnants would be cast up in the form of a pellet, or pellets, to form, like its intestines, a meal for bacteria and microscopic fungi.

May its little soul rest in peace. Not a scrap of its flesh has been wasted. It is now part of the tercel, of his flesh and of his mind and motion, of his ability to anticipate and correct for the wind so superbly that, while hovering, his questing vision remains gyroscopically stable.

The other day I watched what I believe is the same bird, also with my telescope and tripod. A strong and blustery north-east wind was blowing. It was as if he had nailed himself to the sky, for as long as ever he wanted to, before sliding with supreme grace sideways and down to take up a different airy vantage.

The falcon had disappeared at some point during the tercel’s meal, inspired perhaps to seek a mouse of her own. With a glance to his right, the tercel took wing, towards the hedgerow and fields, and disappeared from view.

26 June 2016

A signature on a fly-leaf

 Urbain Grandier

One of the pleasures of a second-hand book is speculating about the person behind an inscription on the fly-leaf. It is always nice if a date is given; sometimes there is a message as well (To dearest Mary, Xmas 1949), which makes you wonder who Mary was, to whom and why she was dear, what happened to her after 1949, and under what circumstances her Christmas present found its way to a second-hand bookshop.

In 1973, at a shop in Long Crendon, I acquired a copy of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun. I used to buy many second-hand books and this was one I had never got round to reading. It had remained half forgotten on my shelves, the lettering on the spine becoming less and less legible as the years passed. The other day something made me decide to seek it out.

The edition was issued jointly by the Readers’ Union and Chatto and Windus, and is dated 1954. Francis Helps is written on the fly-leaf in an old-fashioned hand:


As this is an unusual name, I idly ran a web search, not expecting to come up with more than an unreliable or ambiguous result, if that.

However, a Francis Helps is listed on a number of sites to do with fine art. He was an English artist, born 1890, died 1972. You can see a selection of his work here, for example; a brief bio can be found here:

‘Francis Helps was born in Dulwich. In 1908 [he] studied at the Slade School of Art where he was taught by Henry Tonks and Fred Brown. In 1915 Helps volunteered for service with [the] Artists’ Rifles Expedition, serving in France. In 1924 he joined the 1922-4 Everest Expedition as an official artist, completing 80 paintings and drawings, most now in America. Between 1931-34 Helps taught at the Royal College of Art, then volunteered to be evacuated with it to Ambleside in the Lake District in 1940-44. From 1953 until his retirement Helps was head of the school of paintings [?] in Leeds, where he settled. Helps showed with [the] RBA [i.e. the Royal Society of British Artists], of which he was elected a member in 1933 and in 1924 had a show at [the] Alpine Club Gallery of his Himalayan work. Further shows were at City Art Gallery, Leeds in 1959, Manor House Museum and Art Gallery, Ilkley in 1971 and South London Gallery in 1979. His work is represented in a number of public galleries (see BBC Your Paintings).’

Had my copy of The Devils of Loudun really belonged to this talented and adventurous man? The signature is that of someone who was educated at a time when copperplate writing was taught – around the turn of the last century, say – and the 1972 date of death is consistent with the date of my purchase, 1973. Maybe his library was disposed of by the executor of his estate; maybe this particular book ended up in the London auctions, where the proprietor at Long Crendon told me he often went for his stock.

On Portrait of an Indian Woman, 1924 I found this signature:



Here again is the signature on the fly-leaf:


It is possible that it was Helps’s eyes that directly preceded mine in reading the words printed on the pages of my copy; that it was his mind that processed and reacted to the gloriously hubristic rise of Urbain Grandier, whose errors of judgement, moral turpitude and general idiocy prepared him for his fate – of being tortured and then burnt alive as a result of the political manipulation of moral hysteria. I wonder what Mr Helps made of it all, he whose life had apparently been as productive as it had been blameless. If he had read the book on receiving it in 1954 (the Readers’ Union was a book club) or shortly afterwards, he would have been about the age that I have reached now, with perhaps the same weary opinion of politics that informs Huxley’s book; Huxley was sixty when it was first published.

The connection between Helps and me is as fortuitous as it is tenuous, but it tickled me to think that I was following in the visual footsteps of such an Englishman. It also made me rather sad. His art would now be denigrated by snobs and philistines; his patriotism and sense of duty despised; his interest in and evident respect for the people he encountered in Asia dismissed as patronizing, or worse.

On page 19 I found this:
There are many people for whom hate and rage pay a higher dividend of immediate satisfaction than love. Congenitally aggressive, they soon become adrenaline addicts, deliberately indulging their ugliest passions for the sake of the ‘kick’ they derive from their psychically stimulated endocrines. Knowing that one self-assertion always ends by evoking other and hostile self-assertions, they sedulously cultivate their truculence. And, sure enough, very soon they find themselves in the thick of a fight. But a fight is what they most enjoy; for it is while they are fighting that their blood chemistry makes them feel most intensely themselves. ‘Feeling good’, they naturally assume that they are good. Adrenaline addiction is rationalized as Righteous Indignation and finally, like the prophet Jonah, they are convinced, unshakably, that they do well to be angry.
Now why should that have made me think of our present moral hysteria? And why does it make me glad that I am not on Facebook or Twitter, and prefer instead to read a second-hand book?