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Short Polemics Part I

The Orbiting Sun

Can a short story change your life? If it’s by Philip K Dick there’s a good chance. Years ago I read The Shell Game about a colony of humans on a distant planet fighting a deadly unseen enemy. Every day the humans were attacked, but not once were they able to kill or capture any of their enemies. Oddly, the humans never suffered any casualties either. One day they were dredging a marsh in search of a new, top-secret enemy weapon when they came across the wreckage of a spaceship that had crash landed and become submerged. The ship’s log declared that it was a hospital transport en route to a secure medical facility. Its ‘passengers’, none of whose bodies could be located, were all listed as dangerous paranoid schizophrenics.

Some of the humans reached the apparently obvious conclusion that they were in fact the passengers and the deadly invisible enemy they were fighting was none other than a paranoid fabrication. Others decided that the hospital ship was precisely the secret enemy weapon they had been looking for, an incredibly ingenious trick to make them doubt themselves and set them against each other.

The ruling council was compelled to hold a vote. Five believed the ship was an enemy fake; four believed it was genuine. Instantly, the five attacked and killed the four. They realised that the four had been enemy agents all along and they ordered the colony to redouble its security efforts against this most cunning of foes.

I was astounded by this story because it illustrated in the most dramatic way that once people have a ‘world view’ they can twist any fact to suit their belief system. Indeed, it raises the issue of what a fact actually is. In Philip K Dick’s story, the ‘fact’ of the hospital ship was immediately changed to the ‘fact’ of a secret enemy weapon, bringing to mind Nietzsche’s assertion that there are no facts, only interpretations. This accords with what modern science says about the human brain.

As an example, let’s consider how the brain handles vision. Light is focused by the lens in our eye, falls on the retina (at which point the image is upside down, of course), the information is transmitted via the optic nerve to the visual cortex where the image is processed, put the right way up and we experience the sensation of ‘seeing’. But what is it we are actually seeing? To use the language of Kant, are we seeing noumena (things as they really are) or phenomena (things as they are perceived). The answer is that it’s impossible for a human being ever to see things as they really are. We see only a tiny part of the electromagnetic spectrum. We don’t see ultraviolet light, we don’t see infrared or microwave radiation even though everything we look at is bathed in these. We are not seeing what is really there, we are seeing a filtered and processed interpretation of what is out there.

Consider one person with normal colour vision and another with colour blindness. If they both look at a carrot, one sees an orange object and the other a grey object. Which is right? We can’t possibly know. Perhaps everything really is shades of grey and those who see colour have created a wonderful fiction, little different from the neural trick that allows those with emotion-colour synaesthesia to see colourful auras around others where none exist.

The compound eyes of insects produce a very different view of the world from that which human eyes see. Birds of prey see distant objects with breathtaking detail. What about how a fish sees, staring up at us from beneath inches or feet of refracting water? In every case, the same object may be perceived entirely differently. No way of seeing is any more right than any other; each has evolved in accordance with the laws of natural selection. Evolution is never concerned with right and wrong, merely with what works in terms of survival and propagation.

However, when it comes to world views, we are now absolutely in the territory of right and wrong, or rather people’s utter delusions about these things.

The Catholic Church says extra ecclesiam nulla salus. It means outside the church there’s no salvation. If you’re not a Catholic you’re on a one-way trip to hell. The Koran says that there are only Muslims in Paradise. The Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in the annihilation of all humanity except themselves. Hindus, with their caste system, believe that the lowest of the low, the Chandala, the Untouchables were so wicked in their previous incarnation that they deserve to be treated as human scum. Incredibly, many of the Untouchables actually go along with this. I can’t remember what the Jews say, but I’m pretty sure there aren’t any Catholics in the Jewish heaven.

The Presbyterians are a personal favourite. They believe that we are all unspeakably wicked but that God has randomly selected some of us to be saved and the rest, the overwhelming majority, to be damned. (This selection is made even before we’re born, incidentally.) So, if you somehow discover that you are one of the ‘saved’ then you can rape, torture, murder, slaughter, pillage etc to your heart’s content and know that your place in heaven is still reserved for you. This carte blanche for horrendous criminality was the subject of a book called Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by the Scottish writer James Hogg (Scotland has more than its fair share of Presbyterians, it has to be said.) In the book, the young protagonist asks his kirk minister if he is one of the saved. The minister tells him that he is. Cue murderous mayhem.

The Gnostic religious leader Caprocrates believed that the route to heaven was to commit every conceivable sin. The Gnostic sect the Cathars believed that the earth was a place of appalling suffering, cruelty and misery and that the person who made it must therefore be the very definition of wickedness. Since the Bible says that Jehovah created it then he is obviously evil incarnate. The Cathars admired anyone who opposed Jehovah, such as Cain, Goliath, the Philistines, and especially Satan. They were opposed to sex because sex led to babies i.e. more subjects for the evil Jehovah.

David Icke proclaims that Tony Blair and the Queen are giant reptiles. Much as I’m attracted to this idea I can’t in all honesty sign up, though Blair in particular is unquestionably an extremely slippery, slithery creature with a viper’s tongue. He recently said, ‘I only know what I believe.’ I’m unable to draw any distinction between this statement and his long-awaited admission that he’s insane.

Unlike Bliar, I only know those things which the evidence supports. That’s why I’m an atheist and that’s why I admire science. Religious people often accuse science of being some kind of alternative religion. In fact, no scientist ‘believes’ any scientific theory in any metaphysical way. If evidence comes along that contradicts a theory then every scientist acknowledges that the theory must be abandoned or corrected. No scientist dogmatically holds on to discredited theories. If only the same could be said of the religious who will twist anything to suit their crazy world view, just like the human colony in Philip K Dick’s story. God works in mysterious ways, the believers will say if ever they encounter a troublesome incongruity, followed by that old favourite how can we mere mortals hope to understand the infinite mind of God? It doesn’t stop them cutting off the heads of their enemies in the name of the God whose infinite mind they don’t comprehend.

In 1615, the Catholic Cardinal Bellarmine said, on the subject of Galileo, ‘To assert that the earth revolves around the sun is as erroneous as to claim that Jesus was not born of a virgin.’ Hmmmm.

I hear there are now booklets being sold at the Grand Canyon saying it was created by Noah’s flood. I fear we’re all going to get wet in the next four years.

The Ship of Fools

I have the highest IQ ever recorded in Britain. Actually, I just made that up, but no doubt there’s someone out there who can legitimately make that claim and I wonder how smart they really are. I’ve always found people who join Mensa – the society for people with high IQs – to be rather comical, and indeed quite sad. In the spirit of Groucho Marx, I doubt if any truly intelligent person would join a society for truly intelligent people. But I guess that begs the question of what I mean by ‘truly intelligent’?

To help me answer this question I’ve arranged to meet Nikita Lalwani, a Producer/Director in the BBC’s factual programming division. She’s currently working on a documentary about intelligence, with particular emphasis on child prodigies and hothousing techniques – a subject close to her heart, as will become apparent. Our meeting place is The Globe, a somewhat godforsaken pub four miles outside Bath. The reason for this obscure choice is that Nikita is managing to squeeze in a second career as a would-be novelist and is studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University College. The Globe, situated just outside Bath Spa’s picturesque Capability Brown campus, is one of the regular watering holes for the creative writers.

Nikita arrives at nine o’clock, in the midst of a noisy gang of writers demanding refreshment from the slightly bewildered bar staff. I briefly wonder what the correct collective noun is for creative writers and I settle on a rejection of writers, given the odds against being successfully published.

Nikita – despite her name, which, for me, will forever conjure an image of a glamorous French female assassin thanks to the eponymous movie – is neither French nor an assassin (though this may change if she doesn’t like what I’ve written about her). Wearing an eye-wateringly loud scarlet T-shirt, she stands out from the crowd. She would anyway given that she has the long dark hair, brown eyes and olive skin of someone whose family roots lie considerably closer to Delhi than Slough. When she notices me mentally donning a pair of shades to protect my eyes from her T-shirt, she tells me that she sometimes wears bright yellow boots. Today, thankfully, they are a sober but fashionable black. Her accent sounds vaguely ‘London’ and betrays none of her upbringing in Cardiff.

Having bought her a pint of Carlsberg, I settle down opposite to begin the interview. However, I’m immediately shocked to find her fellow creative writers mercilessly haranguing me. One jeers at me when I confess that I haven’t brought a Dictaphone and there are loud guffaws when I pull out a scrap of paper to make notes.

‘Look, he’s writing on a napkin,’ someone snorts derisively. Another says that I’m being very selfish dragging Nikita away from the others and that I’d better be finished in ten minutes or there will be trouble.

This isn’t going to plan.

I ask Nikita what her documentary track record is like, and she disarms me by candidly admitting, ‘I’ve made a lot of crap.’ Cue tumbleweed moment. She then confesses to making Rolf on Art. I’m now desperately staring at the ceiling. Get me outta here. However, she neatly retrieves the situation. ‘Oh, I haven’t mentioned my documentary on Georgio Armani,’ she says sweetly. ‘Apart from several telephone calls with Georgio himself, I interviewed in person Michelle Pfeiffer, Jodie Foster, and … Samuel L Jackson.’

Name dropper, I curse silently. ‘So, what did Mr Cool Jackson say?’ I ask.

The answer flashes back. ‘He said, "Look at you, you look good today. You look different, different good.”’

Bloody Hollywood megastars!

Nikita’s street cred is now at max, helped by the fact that for the last few hours I’ve been reading the opening chapters of the novel she’s working on. It has the deliciously trendy title Memory Stick and tells the heart-warming tale of Rumi, a bright young girl of Indian extraction going to school in Cardiff and struggling with demanding parents, a growing interest in boys, a fear of alienation and a quite ruthless competitive instinct. She’s determined to beat the boys at chess, and another of her ambitions is to sit her maths A-level earlier than the famous child prodigy Ruth Lawrence. If Rumi sounds as though she might become insufferable there’s no danger of that. Her weird addiction to cumin seeds is one of the funniest things I’ve read in a long time.

I immediately congratulate Nikita on what she has written so far, and make the right noises about its being a sure-fire publishing sensation when she eventually submits the novel. (Actually, it probably will be.) Naturally, I can’t help enquiring how much of it is autobiographical given the obvious similarities between Rumi and Nikita’s younger self. Nikita’s sharp response makes me think I’m about to crash and burn. She tells me in no uncertain terms that I’m way off the mark if I think this is her life story, though she eventually concedes (after I’ve cunningly bought her a second pint of Carlsberg) that perhaps fifty percent reflects her own experiences – though she is resolutely not going to clarify what is the fact and what the fiction.

Being a gentleman (it says here), I move swiftly on, though I’ve made an ungentlemanly mental note of touchy touchy. Meanwhile I’m having to endure yet another barrage of rudeness and impatience from Nikita’s colleagues.

‘Ten minutes, you said,’ one moans. ‘It must be at least half an hour now.’

I’m sure Michael Parkinson never has to put up with this.

Nikita makes a fascinating point about how child prodigies are always gifted in mathematics and chess, never anything else. It’s true. You never hear of a stunning novel by a ten-year old. There are no wonderful paintings, beautiful sculptures, amazing scientific breakthroughs, breathtaking philosophical insights. Mozart played delightful but derivative music as a youngster: the material that made him immortal was all written as an adult.

Nikita then startles me by saying, ‘Maths is like a child’s game.’ She explains that the type of maths at which child prodigies become proficient is not what you’d call creative. It’s about mastering well-known formulae; solving puzzles in an almost mechanical way like a computer. She reckons any kid could do it given enough ‘encouragement’ from parents or teachers. The kind of creative maths involved in solving Fermat’s last theorem is never in evidence.

Hothousing techniques, according to Nikita, don’t produce creative children but automata, children as computer programmes, little calculating machines. She clearly doesn’t relish the memory of the hothousing she herself endured up to the age of about nine. Her parents took a step back at that point and didn’t subject her to the regime that Ruth Lawrence experienced with all-too-predictable results.

‘All gifted children hate their fathers,’ Nikita says darkly. It emerges that while her parents may have stopped hothousing her, they nevertheless made sure she spent an excessive amount of time studying and frequently forbade her from going out with her friends. She was duly accepted by Oxford to study Medicine, but, freed of parental restrictions, the script was written for her to suffer a rapid fall from grace. At the end of her first year she was thrown out of Oxford, and ended up at Bristol studying biochemistry. One month in, still unhappy, she decided to attend an English Literature class where she had a tearful epiphany. This was what she wanted to do. Unprecedentedly, Bristol allowed her to switch. She excelled and after getting her degree she went on to Cardiff where she obtained a masters in broadcast journalism, setting her up for her career with the BBC.

Despite her success, the memory of her teenage traumas still clearly rankles with Nikita, but she acknowledges there was a positive side. ‘My father made me feel special and that never goes away,’ she comments. Moreover, her brother went to Cambridge, was perfectly happy and got a First.

In response to further heckling from the creative writers, one of whom is gasping to drag Nikita away for a fag, I ask Nikita to sum up.

She says, ‘There’s an obsession in this country linking academia with intelligence. I want to get this straight – I wasn’t gifted. I was labelled that way but I never felt comfortable with it. I feel very uncomfortable about the whole thing. I love and respect my parents and appreciate that they think I’m special. Equally, I think they did me some damage.’

At this point, I’m tempted to mention Philip Larkin’s famous lines about parents fucking you up, though not intending to, but Nikita’s friends are now literally dragging her away so I don’t get the chance.

As she disappears, I’m left thinking about some earlier comments she made.

‘I never worry about holding my own in any scenario,’ she said. She denied that this was anything to do with her intelligence. When I suggested that some people are manifestly more intelligent than others, she rejected this out of hand. ‘Some people are more interesting,’ she replied. In fact, it would be an understatement to say that Nikita doesn’t like the word intelligence. ‘I find that word abhorrent,’ she said vehemently at one point, making sure to repeat it just before she left.

Getting to my feet to leave, I clutch my single sheet of A4, covered with my spider’s writing conveying Nikita’s vital quotes. Who needs Dictaphones! I figure that when she’s famous in a couple of years and being hailed as a highly intelligent writer (much to her annoyance), I’ll be able to point to the very first interview she gave.

In fact I’m feeling so benign I think I’ll even be able to forgive the nasty creative writers!

Man and Dog

So, I’m having a pint of Fosters in Fitzgeralds. It’s about nine o’clock and the pub is busy considering what night it is. I’ve always regarded Thursday as an odd night – too soon for the buzz of weekend freedom and too late to be a refuge from weekday tedium.

The door flies open and there he is – or, rather, they: a man and his dog.

All my life I’ve disliked dogs and I dislike them even more right now. Dogs and pubs don’t mix. You don’t have to write it down as a rule because it’s so damned obvious. Imagine a dog dipping its long tongue into your pint when you’ve turned your back for a second, a dog with its snout sniffing your pub meal, the self-same snout that pushed excrement around the local park earlier in the day. Imagine it crawling under the table, manoeuvring between your legs, flicking you with its flea-ridden tail. Perhaps it will bark, even howl. It might snarl and bite. As I say, a recipe for trouble.

Of course, the dog itself isn’t to be blamed. It didn’t look at its watch and decide to pop out for a pint because it was a dreary Thursday night. The dog is the agent of trouble, not the cause. The man has that distinction. This guy is probably late thirties/early forties. He’s wearing a camouflage jacket and an olive hat, a bit like an Indiana Jones hat except it has a hard circular rim. He’s unshaven, but when he takes off his hat, his hair is grey-black and neatly cut. I’m surprised because I’d taken him for a Big Issue salesman, but the tidiness of his hair suggests something else.

He strides around the bar, taking large, confident steps. As if he owns the place. A few people nod at him and he nods back. He’s with his people. I stare at the scruffy, mangy dog following him. It looks like a greyhound that’s had a bad experience in a car-wash. It has a peculiar, brownish colour, streaked with random white flecks. Emaciated, it has an almost desperate look its dark eyes. I’m thinking Big Issue again. I found out several months ago that Big Issue sellers get an additional weekly allowance if they own a dog. So now, all over the country, they’re all dogged up. They underfeed their pet (good for the sympathy vote) and spend the rest of the allowance on extra booze and fags. Once again, the law of unintended consequences has made its appearance, and no one has noticed, as usual.

The man and his dog disappear around the corner. Out of sight, out of mind, I hope. Five minutes later, I look up and the man and his dog are sitting directly opposite me. The man is preparing a roll-up. He’s really ticking off everything on my hate list. Can’t they bring in that smoking ban a few months early? His dog is looking at me and I know it’s only a matter of moments before it will be padding over to annoy me. On cue, there it is, disappearing under my table, rustling past me.

I’m trying to think serene thoughts. I knew it was a mistake not to have signed up for yoga classes. Perhaps anger management would be better, but I’m probably too angry for that.

Luckily, the dog doesn’t linger and wanders off to some other table. It probably wishes it had an owner who took it for a walk in the park in the fresh air. I look at the man smoking his roll-up and notice him giving high fives and firm handshakes to a number of people. I loathe this person.

They say there are two sides to every story, but I have no interest in the dog man’s story. I’ve rejected it even before he tells it, just as he’s rejected mine. If he thought of me at all he wouldn’t have brought his dog into the pub and he wouldn’t be blowing smoke in my face.

I start contemplating the golden rule of PR: you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. It’s worse than that. You don’t even get a first chance.