Tickled Pinker

Question: how long is the average person globally expected to live? Your answer is almost certainly wrong. (It will be revealed further down).

 

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Professor Steven Pinker is content.

Steven Pinker, the professor of psychology, linguist, thinker, author and 1980s glamrock star lookalike, has committed a book on the case for Enlightenment values – Enlightenment Now – The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress – (out now in paperback and Kindle). Let’s look at a couple of reasons why I think you may find this book fairly interesting.

 

The right question

Pinker, himself of the American centre-left, satisfyingly kicks both to the left and to the right politically (he’s Canadian originally). The book is neither primarily nor overtly political, but an empirical look at where the world is, through numbers, figures and facts, and an attempt at understanding what brought us here – and consequently what can help move us forward in the same general direction.

A key point Pinker makes is that entropy rules. In short, what that means socially for human life is that unless there is a force (or energy) creating a useful order, a million different disorderly outcomes are more likely. A building left without maintenance will disintegrate, just as heat will dissipate from a cup of coffee left on the table. A key point to learn from this is that there can be no such thing as “social justice”, because there is no natural just social condition. The poor was not once rich and then had their money or property taken away from them. Indeed, the natural state of human kind is one of poverty, illness, cruelty and early death. As Pinker says,

“Poverty, too, needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind. Matter does not arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things do everything they can to avoid becoming our food. As Adam Smith pointed out, what needs to be explained is wealth. Yet even today, when few people believe that accidents or diseases have perpetrators, discussions of poverty consist mostly of arguments about whom to blame for it.” (P. 25).

What then are the causes of wealth? Quite contrary to what Luddite left-wingers or protectionist right-wingers might think, global free trade has not made the world more unfair, unequal or worse off.

According to Pinker, statistics inform us that globally we are becoming richer, more equal and happier, and that global starvation and poverty is fast becoming a part of history.

The international and global Gini curves show that despite the anxiety about rising inequality within Western countries, inequality in the world is declining. That’s a circuitous way to state the progress, though: what’s significant about the decline in inequality is that it’s a decline in poverty.” (Page 105)

Capitalism – free trade – has achieved more than the wishful thinking set out in the UN’s Millennium Goals, and five years ahead of schedule, (p 122).

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By 2008 the world’s population, all 6.7 billion of them, had an average income equivalent to that of Western Europe in 1964. And no, it’s not just because the rich are getting even richer (though of course they are, a topic we will examine in the next chapter). Extreme poverty is being eradicated, and the world is becoming middle class.” (P. 86)

The claim that we are becoming more unequal is simply not true; or certainly not the whole truth, and it is not supported by a fair reading of all available data.

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The world is getting wealthier, healthier and much smaller!

Combating “progressophobia”

So why do left-wing intellectuals, politicians and protesters counterfactually claim that it is? Pinker attempts to explain this phenomenon:

Intellectuals hate progress. Intellectuals who call themselves “progressive” really hate progress . […] It’s the idea of progress that rankles the chattering class — the Enlightenment belief that by understanding the world we can improve the human condition.” (P. 39)

Pinker’s criticism of some intellectuals’ “progressophobia”, as he calls it, has something in common with a point Roger Scruton makes in the chapter Extinguishing the Light in the book A Political Philosophy – Arguments for Conservatism:

The most striking feature of the postmodern curriculum however, lies in its explicit rejection of Enlightenment, its disposition to treat reason as a parochial concern of Western culture and to place ‘truth’, ‘objectivity’ and ‘impartiality’ in inverted commas.” (Scruton, p. 112).

But it is not only the intellectuals that think the world is going to hell in a handcart, whilst things are evidently becoming better all around them. Another reason Pinker points to for the pervasive negative view many people hold of their contemporaneity, is the phenomenon known as availability heuristic – the tendency to think that frequency of learning about events equates to increased probability of such events to happen. Together with the negativity bias of the media (if it bleeds it leads) this adds up to a warped view of reality that does not tally with the actual state of things.

People rank tornadoes (which kill about fifty Americans a year) as a more common cause of death than asthma (which kills more than four thousand Americans a year), presumably because tornadoes make for better television.” (P. 42).

This can have dangerous consequences, whether it is people voting for “populists” (whatever that is) who will cure imagined ills, or young people, as reported from Scandinavia, who are now suffering from anxiety and depression, because of the media’s reporting around the issues of climate change. In the article I link to, it is interesting to note that the campaign slogan “climate crisis” is being used as if it were an objective term of description, no doubt further contributing to the feeling of mindless dread and powerlessness by the readers.

 

Simplistic On Nationalism

The academic John Grey, who incidentally fits the above-mentioned category of modern intellectual, criticises the book for being simplistic about what the Enlightenment was and is, preachy about its liberal values and overly optimistic in a scientistic, humanistic sort of way. “The message of Pinker’s book is that the Enlightenment produced all of the progress of the modern era and none of its crimes“, he says in a review of the book in The New Statesman.

I think Grey is missing the point. What Pinker is trying to set out is how the Enlightenment ideals were different and unique from what had gone before, and how the modern world – in many areas – are a lot better off than it could have been, precisely because of those unique ideas.

Karl Marx, for example, is regarded as standing in the Enlightenment tradition, and called his theory “scientific” – as Scruton points out, many “…Enlightenment thinkers have been tempted by the idea of a planned society […]” (p. 174, A Political Ideology – Newspeak and Europspeak). But the fact that Marx’ particular ideas were so bad that they led to mass murder and destruction on an unparalleled scale of enormity, is not the fault of the Enlightenment ideals per se, any more than a particular malfunctioning car is the fault of the principle of the internal combustion engine.

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They’re all equal now – Communism in practice at a Soviet Gulag.

I agree with Grey that Pinker is perhaps a little simplistic in his analysis of counter-Enlightenment thinking, pinning most of the blame on Nietzsche. Pinker’s offhandish rejection of nationalism and uncritical lionising of international institutions certainly put him at odds with Yoram Hazony, whose book on nationalism I review in another place on this blog. Pinker seems a little too happy to throw all the stuff he likes into the bag labelled “Enlightenment” (including all kinds of international organisations and institutions) whilst all the things he doesn’t like must languish in the darkness outside where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

A second counter-Enlightenment idea is that people are the expendable cells of a superorganism—a clan, tribe, ethnic group, religion, race, class, or nation—and that the supreme good is the glory of this collectivity rather than the well-being of the people who make it up. An obvious example is nationalism, in which the superorganism is the nation-state, namely an ethnic group with a government.” (Pp. 30-31).

Not that this is merely a right-wing problem:

But not so long ago the left was sympathetic to nationalism when it was fused with Marxist liberation movements. And many on the left encourage identity politicians and social justice warriors who downplay individual rights in favor of equalizing the standing of races, classes, and genders, which they see as being pitted in zero-sum competition.” (P. 31).

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Europe – home of the Enlightenment and the nation state – and the frankfurter!

But the nation state does not necessarily conflict with the Enlightenment project – a supranational imperialist project just as can easily come in conflict with Enlightenment values. As Hazony points out in his book, surely there is enlightened nationalism, which is not about racial or national superiority and attempts at dominating others, but which is about preserving a nation’s unique character and keeping its leaders accountable to the citizens.

Pinker does not discuss this in any depth, just as he fails to discuss how the excessively mechanistic rationalism of the Enlightenment period fed the emergence of subjectivism, such as that expressed by Kant (mentioned as an Enlightenment thinker) in his famous dictum, das ding an sich – the thing in itself as opposed to how the thing appears to me. This shift in thinking not only fuelled the Romantic movement within art, but also lit the fuse of the extreme subjectivism that exploded in 20th century philosophy, not least in the post-modern thinking that Pinker appears to be criticising.

 

Essential Reading

The miracle of this book is that it achieves to present facts and statistics and yet be a highly readable text – indeed eminently enjoyable. And despite some of the minor shortfalls as mentioned above, the facts and figures require a reaction. They require a reaction because they gainsay some of the doom and gloom we are currently surrounded with from both left and right: a two-headed monster ceaselessly shrieking its latter day apocalyptic warnings for very different reasons, its ears deaf with wilful ignorance. For this reason, and many others, the book is essential reading to anyone who wishes to think rationally about societal issues, whether political or more broadly.

Now, back to the question I started with: what is the average global life expectancy? What was your guess, then? 40? 58? 65? I shall let professor Pinker provide the answer:

How long do you think an average person in the world can be expected to live today? […] The answer for 2015 is 71.4 years.

Happier, wealthier, healthier, more equal, and living longer. Let the Enlightenment-tree be known by its fruit, seems to be the message Steven Pinker wishes to give the reader in this engaging and surprisingly easy to read book.

If you haven’t yet decided on your light summer reading, you could do a lot worse than lifting your spirit with this dive into fact-based optimism.

Except where otherwise stated, the quotes are from Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now . Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Enlightenment Now-cover

 

Although I used a Kindle edition for this article, I bought my paper copy from the local #bookstore in Colchester: Red Lion Books.

 

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Can Nationalism Be a Good Thing?

A meandering review of  Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism 

by William Hagerup

 

Hazony
Author, Bible scholar, philosopher, father of nine(!) Yoram Hazony (how does he find the time?)

For years I used to cleave to the simplistic formula that patriotism is good, nationalism is bad.

Growing up in Norway, with the history of German occupation within living memory, it was thought that patriotism is the love of your own country, whereas nationalism is the belief that your own country is better than others. The German occupation was thus seen as a manifestation of rampant nationalism on steroids; what happens when simple patriotism is allowed to become aggressive nationalism, unchecked by the sort of international cooperation represented by the birth of the UN in 1945 and the European Coal and Steel Community in 1956.

This narrative meant that most Norwegians grew up with a dichotomy that seemed perfectly reasonable: love of your own country and its independence on the one hand (as seen in the way our Constitution Day is celebrated every year on the 17th May), and a commitment to international organisations such the WTO, the WHO, the UN and NATO, to maintain a safe world for small nations such as ours to exist and thrive, on the other.

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The Norwegian National Day – Constitution Day. Citizen’s processions marches disorderly but ˌgood-naturedly through town centres. Children from local schools make up most of the sauntering marchers.

Things I have read recently have made me think again about the terms “nationalism” and “patriotism”, and what these signifiers, as Saussure called words, actually signify. Most recently the book The Virtue of Nationalism by the Israeli philosopher and Bible scholar (and father of nine!) Yoram Hazony.

Hazony’s strongest line of argument in this book, at least in terms of what I found convincing, is the contrasting of nationalism, not to internationalism, but to imperialism. What nationalism is not, Hazony says, is the belief that your nation is better than everybody else’s and has a right to trample on other nation’s rights. Instead, nationalism is a world order where nation states are left in peace to order their own affairs, unmolested by empires or regimes that transgress national boundaries.

So, what about National Socialism and the nationalistic currents powering various fascist ideologies past and present? Hazony does not discuss this in quite the depth the topic in my view deserves, but he does offer a viable explanation of why the German Third Reich was not so much about nationalism in the sense he uses the term, but about an attempt at empire building that had the domination of other peoples in a German-controlled empire as its end game. It is therefore, Hazony argues, wrong to call National Socialism nationalistic in the proper sense of the term – just like left-wingers claim it is wrong to call it “socialist” in the proper sense of that term. It is truer to think of it as a continuation of past imperialist ambitions.

For the sake of this universal doctrine, armies were sent out into the world to swallow one nation after another, with the aim of overturning the established order of life in every nation conquered. This was the case in the Thirty Years War […] It was true as well of the Napoleonic Wars […] And it was no less true of the Second World War, in which a German-Nazi Empire aimed at establishing a new order according to its own perverse theory of how mankind’s salvation was to be brought about.

If anything, National Socialism was anti-nationalistic. In this he seems to be in agreement with Hannah Arendt, who, in her seminal work The Origins of Totalitarianism, writes,

The Nazis had a genuine and never revoked contempt for the narrowness of nationalism, the provincialism of the nation state, and they repeated time and again that their ‘movement’, international in scope like the Bolshevik movement, was more important to them than any state, which would necessarily be bound to a specific territory.

Hazony’s argument is that all forms of imperialism, including international federalism, become authoritarian because of the need to impose one central will. And perhaps surprisingly for a conservative thinker, he also includes USA’s international policeman tendencies in this criticism.

Hazony’s presentation of Nationalism as a potentially sound basis for a world order as opposed to the dangers of overreaching imperial projects, is convincing and worth reviving in a current debate where the usage of the expression “white nationalism” to signify racism, continues to tarnish the term “nationalism” and make it more difficult to embrace by the mainstream.

The book has surprisingly little to say about Brexit and Trump and all that, which is perhaps just as well – too much hot air is directed at that double-headed juggernaut at the moment. For a better treatment of those issues I recommend Roger Scruton’s “Where We Are”, reviewed elsewhere on this blog.

Where the book has its most serious weakness in my view, is when Hazony deals with liberalism and his attempts at uncovering the origins of nation states – not once pausing to consider the dangers of the so-called Generation Identity (Discussed in the blog post mentioned above).

He devotes a chapter to criticism of John Locke (1632–1704) and his iconic work The Second Treatise of Government from 1667, which laid out the basic principles that all modern democracies follow, and which was so crucial to the constitution of the USA that Thomas Jefferson was accused of having copied the Declaration of Independence from it.

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John Locke, not a vegan.

A central principle for Locke is that the Commonwealth (a 17th century word for the state), should be limited in its scope and power. In order to set those limits one must agree on the state’s purpose. Locke argues that if in a stateless state of nature we are totally free, why would we want to give up that freedom? Because, he says, it is so unsafe that it is better to give up some absolute liberty to protect our “lives, liberties and estates” which Locke together calls property.

He says in chapter IX, “So the great and chief purpose of men’s uniting into commonwealths and putting themselves under government is the preservation of their property.” The important concept that Locke promoted was that of “consent”: we give up some of our absolute liberty (such as the right to revenge ourselves, respecting instead the judgement of an impartial judge) and in return the Commonwealth secures our individual liberty under the guiding principle that the purpose of government is the protection of the individual’s natural right to life, liberty and property.

Hazony writes, “In speaking of “consent”, Locke means that the individual becomes a member of a human collective only because he has agreed to it, and has obligations toward such collectives only if he has accepted them.

He goes on to say that one does not choose to be born into certain families or circumstances and as such does not give consent to the various ties that such relationships entail.

This is of course true, but Hazony misses the point by a country mile. Locke is attempting to explain how a state – the organisation with the monopoly to use force against, including killing, its citizens – gets its legitimate authority. Locke says it is not from God who authorised Adam and who then passed it down the paternal line to the present King or ruler (which was seriously the argument put forward by Robert Filmer in Patriarcha, and refuted by Locke in his First Treatise of Government), but rather it comes from below, from the people, who give their consent for the reasons stated above. And although it is true that we do not choose the society we are born into, Locke deals with this argument too in chapter VIII:

“But no-one can by any compact whatever bind his children or posterity; for when his son becomes an adult he is altogether as free as the father, so an act of the father can no more give away the liberty of the son than it can give away anyone else‘s liberty.” 

Locke then explains that as each person comes into his majority, he gives – usually tacitly and implicitly – his consent by accepting the rules of society, such as the terms of an inheritance or similar. Locke’s main point as I see it, was not so much to say that this is how a state is created (although this is discussed as well), but to say this is how a state is justified.

This point is important because Hazony criticises what he claims is Locke’s views that the nation state comes about by consent; by individuals entering in a compact and agreeing what has later been known as a social contract. He contrasts this view to his own: the emergence of a nation state as an institution happens when the tribes and clans (who in turn consist of families) join together in a larger unity that ends the anarchic wars between these competing clans and tribes, yet remaining small enough to retain “[…] ties of mutual loyalty that have been established among members of a nation […]”.

He compares the “liberal” principle of consent to that of business partners and investors in a company. A nation, on the other hand, is more like a family, he says: you do not choose your family, and the obligations placed upon you do not go away as easily as those of a business partner selling up his shares or quitting a company for a better offer.

George Orwell made a similar comparison in England Your England: “A family with the wrong members in control – that, perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.

Hazony claims that the danger of Lockean liberalism’s contractual view of the relationship between citizen and government, is that it can give legitimacy to global, imperial forms of governance. Such an empire does not need to be like a family, as long as it fulfills its contract to protect life, liberty and property.

The problem with this argument is of course that, if an empire indeed did protect life, liberty and property, and so secured our individual freedom against nanny-statism or other abuses of power, that empire would not be such a dreadful thing at all.

But empires are never born out of a genuinely liberal approach: the closest thing to what some may call a liberal empire at the moment, the EU, is in many ways a statist, centralising, even protectionist organisation with top-heavy bureaucratic regulations, very little true democratic accountability and little regard for the freedom of the individual (banning vacuum cleaners of a certain wattage, imposing metric measurements on small business owners, imposing GDPR without proper public debate, protecting farmers against the free market, erecting toll barriers against cheaper imports from outside the EU, destroying employment in the PIGS-countries by undemocratically centralising money policy; for an interesting book on this subject, see here). Yet where the EU does give us genuine liberty: the ability to travel for work, free trade, no internal toll barriers, a more liberal alcohol policy in my native Norway & cetera, it is a wonderful thing that I certainly support.

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A queue of unemployed in Greece. Some EU-countries have seen nearly 50% youth unemployment. Unfortunately, bureaucrats were not among the unemployed.

But I suspect there is another motivation behind Hazony’s criticism of liberalism and of his rejection of the protection of life and liberty as a foundation of a consensual nation state.

As he says in the introduction, “Each of us in fact wants and needs something else in addition, which I suggest we call collective self-determination: the freedom of the family, tribe, or nation.” The use of “tribe” here is significant. Scruton, in the above mentioned book, states “It is in contrast with the tribal and religious forms of membership that the nation should be understood.” (Where We Are, p. 61).

Hazony on the other hand seems to see the nation state chiefly as a collection of tribes. “By nation I mean a number of tribes with a shared heritage, usually including a common language or religious traditions […]”.

He further underlines this view by drawing on his knowledge of Jewish scriptures with references to the Tribes of Israel and various quotes from these scriptures.

Not that these are not interesting to some extent. He makes an intriguing point that the imperial mindset is related to Roman Catholicism and the nationalist mindset is related to Protestantism. “For more than a thousand years, Christianity thus aligned itself […] with […] the aspiration of establishing a universal empire of peace and prosperity.

Against this he puts the nations, such as France, the Netherlands, England and Sweden, who resisted the universal rule of a Holy Empire, and says that the 30 years war was really about nationalism versus imperialism. “It was in the Thirty Years’ War that the concept of a universal Christian empire, which had held sway over the West’s political imagination for thirteen centuries, was decisively defeated.” 

But the frequent references to biblical scriptures become a little distracting, or possibly revealing: is the virulent opposition to liberalism actually motivated by the wish for the nation state to be able to enforce on the citizenry religious laws or lifestyle choices?

He claims that under the “Protestant construction” one of the two principles of political life is “The Moral Minimum Required for Legitimate Government“. This includes “public recognition of the one God–roughly, the biblical Ten Precepts given at Sinai […] regarded as a natural law that could be recognized by all men.”As a claim that this was historically a view held, that may be reasonable enough. But later he talks about uncertainty created in the post WWII world due to the “…progressive abandonment of the view that family, sabbath, and public recognition of God are institutions upheld by legitimate government and minimum requirements of a just society (i.e. the first principle).

Now, I do not entirely disagree with him that a nation needs a degree of cohesiveness to work. We need to share some values, and there can be no doubt that a common language, literary history, even religious traditions, as well as a history of struggles and triumphs do help. But where Scruton is careful to point out the difference between the tribe and the nation, “The first-person plural of nationhood, unlike those of tribe or religion, is intrinsically tolerant of difference” (p. 69, Where We Are), Hazony seems to think the nation is really only important as a place to uphold and enforce the traditions and religious practices of the various tribes within that nation state: When the tribes of a nation unite to establish a nation state, they bring to this state the familiar and distinctive character of the nation, its language, laws and religious traditions […]”.

He then goes on to talk about national freedom, and after referencing the legend of the Hebrews’ escape from bondage in Egypt via the Red Sea, he goes on to say, Today, however, because nearly all political thought focuses on the freedom of the individual, the very idea of national freedom has come to seem doubtful.

Where did Hazony get the impression that the freedom of the individual is particularly important today? Perhaps in the fact that our societies today are more licentious and liberal in matters of lifestyle choices and religious practices? This is of course not a good thing for someone who is religious and socially conservative. And I do think this is where I and Mr. Hazony will have to part company.

If he wants to maintain the “freedom of the nation” in order for the government to impose laws to ban Sunday trading or limit alcohol sales or other religiously motivated lifestyle-laws (in addition to the neo-puritanical bans on smoking in pubs or drug-use we already have), then I will oppose such national freedom. This is where I profoundly believe we need Locke to guide us in terms of what is the point and purpose of government: namely to protect our liberty, not to take it away from us in the interest of “public health” or any other collectivist notion.

In fairness, I should also point out that Hazony does express some admiration for the traditions of liberty in England and America. As he says,

[…] we see that the freedoms of the individual guaranteed in England and America are not something that the individual simply has “by nature”, but are, on the contrary, the result of an intricate machinery developed through many centuries of trial and error.”

I do agree with this point, but then again, Edmund Burke already made it 230 years ago. It is right to balance theoretical liberalism with the more practical and pragmatic approach of conservatism, but that does not take away the value of the sort of ideas Locke put forward, unless you are afraid what securing individual liberty means for your desire to impose religious laws.

A serious lack in the book is Hazony’s failure to deal with the phenomenon of Generation Identity. This movement says many things that on the surface seems plausible enough, but that, when you investigate it further, appears to be collectivist, tribal identity politics, only from a quasi right-wing perspective. On their website they state among many other things, “We believe in true diversity in which all peoples have a right to preserve and promote their group identity in their homelands.” 

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You are all individuals! (They beg to differ).

So what they believe in is the rights of “peoples” and “group identity”, not in the rights of the people or individual people, but peoples. To me that is deeply problematic, and it can seem that some of Hazony’s arguments about the “freedom of the nation” would support this line of thinking. That to me would be worrying, and I think Hazony should have at least mentioned this phenomenon in his book and explained his take on it.

On balance the book is certainly worth a read. It is well-written, often in the style of an essay, although perhaps not as well-argued as it could have been. The points Hazony raises are nevertheless important ones for the time we live in, and a useful counterweight to the lazy assumptions that nationalism is always bad and internationalism is always good.

Open and good-natured cooperation between safe and strong independent nations, where the rights of the individual are upheld, is perhaps an ideal worth pursuing. This book is not the final word in the striving towards that, but it is certainly a contribution.

I bought my copy at Red Lion Bookstore, Colchester’s independent bookstore.

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The Joys of the Dystopian Novel

PUshwagner
Artwork by Norwegian artist Pushwagner – inspired by Brave New World?

“Utopia” is a word derived from the ancient Greek οὐ meaning “not” + τόπος meaning “place”. A non-place (or perhaps neverland?). Its antonym is “dystopia”, a word first used (at least according to the OED) by John Stuart Mill in Parliament in 1868. Hansard quotes him as saying, “It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians, or caco-topians. What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practicable; but what they appear to favour is too bad to be practicable.”

The “caco” there is the Greek “kakos”, same as in “cacophony”, meaning “bad” or “evil”. “Cacotopian” somehow didn’t catch on, but dystopian did (the “dys-“there, by the way, meaning “bad”, “abnormal” – also from Greek, who would’ve guessed?).

Although many of the texts we call Utopian have elements in them that are problematic, not to say downright sinister (see the story of El Dorado in Candide as a wonderful example), the term dystopian later became the label for those literary stories that unashamedly presented a singularly negative, bad, evil scenario, most often at some point in the distant future, when those you most disagree with have taken over the running of the show.

I want to highlight three such delights of negativity, two of which you may not have read, perhaps not even heard of (you could test your friends at dinner parties to see who are the most literary of them, by asking who have read which of these).

  1. Brave New World – this you have heard of, and perhaps even read. (At least you started it at university). George Orwell was inspired by it when writing his dystopian novel, 1984.
  2. Anthem – you may or may not have heard of it (if you were born in, or  have ever lived the USA you are 300% more likely to), but even if you have, you have probably not read it.
  3. We – I would wager my second gin and tonic that you have not heard of it, nor read it, yet this story is said to have inspired the two mentioned above (it definitely also inspired Orwell).

Quite apart from the fact that I happen to have read them and feel pretty smug about it, there are some interesting commonalities to these works of literature:

Firstly, they are all rather short novels. More like novellas, or long short stories. So the format is similar.

Secondly they have a male protagonist who, for some reason or other, do not quite fit in to the society of the future.

Thirdly, they all raise the issue of sex, some more than others, and one more obsessively than the other two.

Fourthly, two are similar in their presentation of the technology of the future, and offer little hope of redemption, one presents a radically different view of technology, and offers some redemption.

(I will attempt not to reveal the plot in the following).

aldous-huxley
Aldous Huxley – like yours truly, he also favoured round glasses.

Brave New World is, as you know, (as EVERYBODY knows),  written by Aldous Huxley, the upper-class English writer, credited with inspiring the band name The Doors, by his later novel The Doors of Consciousness (all about taking drugs, apparently, and very popular with hippies). Brave New World was written in 1932, and I believe only 1984 is referred to more in political and popular debates, and very often by people who have read neither.

 

 

There are several similarities between Brave New World and We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, the earliest of the three works, written in 1921: both are set in a highly technologically advanced society of the future, a society that has arisen after some cataclysmic global conflict. The ruling regime in both is highly collectivist, they view the past (our present times) as uncivilised, almost barbaric, not least because people were in a state of very irrational freedom (all freedom is irrational).

Sex is very much a concern of the state; in Brave New World the state wants people

Kustodiev_Zamyatin
Yevgeny Zamyatin in a relaxed moment

to have it all the time with everyone, as a means to induce pleasure and happiness (the guiding principle of the World State), whilst in We people are assigned to one another, but not on an exclusive basis, so a girl may have several males swarming about her. In We “mathematically faultless happiness” as they put it, is also the stated goal of the regime. In both stories there are geographical areas outside of civilised control, and in some of these there are uncivilised people, and carefully managed places one can visit to see how backwards people used to be before the new civilisation dawned. The geographical areas are also symbolic of the innermost areas of the individual that we sense through the protagonists the state cannot reach, despite all its brainwashing, conditioning and outside control.

Anthem, by Ayn Rand, is the odd one out in certain respects. Written in 1937, it also describes a totalitarian collectivist future, but one where technology has evaporated from the knowledge of man; not only has society stood still, it has regressed to a medieval state, having lost even the ability to produce electricity. One of the ways the regime in Anthem holds the populace suppressed, is by having eradicated the personal first person pronoun.

Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand – “knows nothing about socialism”

Where in We and Brave New World the rulers keep individuals in their places by happiness, in Anthem there are no individuals to keep happy, because “I” do not exist. This is both symbolic as well as a profoundly philosophical point. If the word describing a concept does not exist, does the concept exist? I will not give away the plot, but I think it can be mentioned that the greater sense of hope offered by this story, does involve the rediscovery of the first person personal pronoun. As a linguist, I find the critical importance of a grammatical entity very satisfying.

In Anthem as in the other two, relationships are highly regulated. In Anthem sex is strictly for procreation, and as in We and Brave New World, the discovery of exclusive feelings of love for one other person stirs the protagonist’s latent sense of individual identity.

We was banned by the Soviet state (giving us an example of the fact that communism was not corrupted by Stalin, but was utterly corrupt and oppressive from day one). As in Brave New World, the evils of the regime stems precisely from its desire to make people happy – in a version of the Kantian morality of intentions, the virtuous intent is what gives these futuristic governments the right to do whatever it takes to achieve the good goals they have, and that any means are justified by their end. It reminds me of the quote by Henry David Thoreau: “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.”  One can also with a shudder recall video footage of left-wing students at universities, who these days seem to have such a confidence in the virtue of their own stances, that they think it is fine to shout down and even physically intimidate those who hold different views.

In Anthem the ruling regime appears to have forgotten what good intentions there once may have been. Fear is now the ruling principle, exemplifying how the inherent paranoia of a totalitarian state reaches a natural and inevitable suffocating stage, just like the Soviet Union did under Stalin. The regime in Anthem is clinging to what they know, clinging to their ignorance, their power and their prejudices. I find this a more compelling vision of the future than the other two. Zamyatin and Huxley seem to both find knowledge and science scary, they present knowledge and rationality as the enemies of mankind. Rand presents the opposite perspective: it is ignorance that is dangerous, science and knowledge are our liberators, not our captors. Unlike the other two, she did not believe that a totalitarian society could develop very far technologically. Innovation would suffer if freedom was stifled. Again I think history supports her supposition. The Soviet Union continuously lagged behind the West in technological development, and today we see that the remaining Communist regimes of the world, such as North Korea and Cuba, are severely under-developed compared to the freer and more capitalist countries of the world.

One reason I believe Huxley’s work became the best known, and more widely read of the three, is that it is the only one not written by someone with first hand experience of socialist oppression. Huxley was born into a comfortable and academic English family, and was educated at Eton and Oxford. His novel speaks to us from a point of view of conservative romanticism, with its deep scepticism of vulgar modernity, mass-production and the consumer society. This is a view we all agree with, whether we want to or not, whether we know it or not. We are brainwashed – just like the mass-produced citizens of the Brave New World – into pathological self hatred of the symptoms of the capitalist disease: too much food, too much time, too much entertainment, too much fun. The novel mines this self-hatred, and I believe the recognition of it gives us the same sense of catharsis a Catholic may feel when going to confession. The depiction of sex in the novel is, it might be added, guiltily Catholic. The novel was in part inspired by what he saw as the horrors of Henry Ford’s mass production – also gloriously satirised by Charles Chaplin in Modern Times. The new God that is worshipped in Brave New World is called “the Great Ford”, and time is reckoned from the birth of Henry Ford. Huxley was not alone in finding mass entertainment tasteless and base. Many of the Marxist intellectuals who in the 1930s had fled European National Socialism, happily bit the hand that generously fed them, by attacking relentlessly what they saw as the opium of the American masses: popular films, shows and television programmes. Huxley was no Marxist – he was too intelligent, I guess – but his internalised hatred for Western values did take him down the route of Eastern inspired mysticism.

modern-times-01-still_756_426_81_s
Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times – criticising Fordism and Taylorism from the inside

As with We, Anthem was also attempted silenced, not by the government, but by publishers in the US with strong pro-Soviet sympathies. Apparently one even suggested Ayn Rand didn’t understand socialism very well. Similar to Yevgeny Zamyatin she had only grown up in Russia and lived through the violent civil war and power grab by the Communists (she was able to flee the country in 1926, Zamyatin managed it in 1931), so it is very likely she had no clue, compared to those who had grown up in the West. The story was eventually published in the UK

The themes that are treated so masterly in all three novels follow many of the same fault-lines we see in current debates: the discussions around the application of science, such as Artificial Intelligence, DNA-technology and information gathering, in the (feebly) ongoing debate about whether the state should be involved in our well-being, in the changing mores around sexuality and relationships, in the importance of the individual as an individual, in opposition to the needs and goals of “society”, if that even exists.

But the books do not need to, nor perhaps should they, be read as debating points. They are great stories, engaging and intelligent and worth to either discover (or re-discover) on Kindle (if, like me, you’re lazy) or at a second hand bookshop near you.

Soldiers
Chinese soldiers expressing their entirely individualistic preference for blue dresses.

Opening of Vegan Slaughter

This story is still in progress. It is sort of finished. But the initial reaction from my test readers is that they would rather see more of the crime story and characters and less of the “Socratic dialogue”, if I can call it that. Here is the opening, feel free to tell me what you think of it.

 

Vegan Slaughter

 

VENISON

The bells of St. Peter and St. Paul’s were calling ghosts to worship as Jenny Baker surveyed the bustling village hall. She was still looking tense amid the noises of convivial activity.

The early East Anglian morning had resembled a Constable painting brushed unto the canvas on a day when the painter felt in a particularly bad mood; grey, heavy reluctance had permeated the landscape, rendering hills flat, brooks dull, trees lifeless. Then the veil slowly broke and, although hesitant behind the thinning greyness, the sun came out in favour of highlighting the pleasant expanse of Suffolk’s lazily undulating geology as it stretched out like a cat in the meagre early May sunshine, the silhouettes of church towers punctuating the horizon.

Two separate traders had left messages on Jenny’s phone that morning, saying they couldn’t attend due to “illness” and a “family crisis” respectively. The cancellations had made Jenny feel uneasy about this month’s Larkford Farmers’ Market – was this the moment when it all started falling apart? But then a new trader who had been waiting for a space agreed to come at short notice, and at ten a.m., with the peels echoing like ethereal tennis balls between the 15th century houses and the birds in the lightly attired trees praising the spring, twenty one stalls were up and ready to trade, as usual.

 

Time had come to grant oneself a well deserved cup of tea from the ladies manning the kitchen, but just as Jenny directed her steps towards the hatch to request her muddy liquid, Averil Gissing, the meat farmer, called out to her.

“Oy, Jenny! A word please!”

Jenny drew her breath for strength and turned around, setting her face in steely mode.

“Averil, how are you?”

“Never mind how I am. I come here to support your farmer’s market, being an actual farmer, and you put me next to those bloody vegans? What’s the idea?”

“Come now, they can hardly be bloody if they are vegans, can they?”

“Jenny, I’m being serious. We do not attract the same sort of crowd. Am I going to have them next to me, spouting nonsense about the evil of eating flesh and the benefits of eating beans and tofu, while I’m trying to sell my beef and pork? Hm?!”

“Now look. I’m in charge of this market. Not you. You agreed to come, I didn’t make you. Putting you next to each other makes sense precisely because you don’t draw the same type of people, so that you don’t cannibilise each other’s customers, so to speak. And it also shows that at the Larkford Farmers’ Market we all rub together amicably, meat eaters and herbivores alike.”

Averil’s face’s default colour was a slightly reddish tinge under a once bushy, now thinning, head of curly carrot coloured hair. His visage was now a threateningly dark puce.

“Hrmph…alright, I will go along with it today, but next time you had better put me somewhere else – away from those stupid vegan plum duffers!”

Jenny raised her eyebrows defiantly.

“I will think about it, Averil, but it is my decision to make.”

Averil half smiled.

“Look, without me here you don’t even have a farmer’s market, apart from the Phillips Farm, and they only sell veg. What are the rest of them? Frustrated housewifes making jams, scones, greeting cards and trinkets; exactly not why anyone comes to a farmers’ market. You know that.”

“That is unfair, Averil. Our stall holders are passionate artisans, making and selling a wide variety of speciality food, quality teas, spices, and yes, arts and crafts – people come precisely because of the variety. We need all sorts, you know that.”

“Tsh! Well, in any case I expect to be far away from those…those nutters next time.”

 

And with that he turned his plump corpus around and marched back to his stall, where the produce from his farm were displayed red and fresh.

 

Jenny did know that it had been a boon for her market to get Averil Gissing aboard. A local farm, of medium size, not industrial, where animals were well-treated and with a large enough production to have supplied shops, butchers and restaurants in the area; a local agri-business – just what she wanted to support and promote. Averil had done well since he had been able to buy the neighbouring Brockley Farm ten years ago. And he was right that one should ideally avoid food next to food, but the numbers didn’t quite ad up, so she had no choice but to put some food stalls abutting.

 

“Who does he think he is, that Averil Gissin’?,” asked Jan rhetorically, as she poured the hot water from the urn into Jenny’s mug. She and several others had heard the conversation.

“Someone ought to teach ‘im a lesson,” she continued.

 

Jenny smiled with the reserve of someone who both agreed and disagreed at the same time.

“Yes, well, he won’t get far talking to me like that. I’ll teach him a lesson alright. Just you wait and see.”

She lifted the mug to her lips and smiled secretly as she blew into the rising steam.

 

By midday the market was bustling. Locals, not so locals, visitors and tourist milled about and went from stall to stall trying not to catch the eye of the stall holder. There had been a slight altercation at a quarter to eleven, when one of the two ladies who had the vegan stall tried to erect a wall between Averil’s stall and themselves using flattened cardboard boxes, because she was so disgusted by the sight of the meat. Averil had lost his temper and asked them why the flippin’ hell they came to a farmers’ market, if they didn’t stand the sight of meat. Although Jenny agreed with him in substance, and the erection of walls between stalls was not acceptable, she had to make it clear to him that if he has a problem, he needs to come to her, not take matters into his own hands. She had also told the vegans off for not adhering to the community spirit of the market (that always got them, the vegans). They stood there in their green t-shirts, ashen grey and long-faced, as if life had dealt them a particularly bad hand of cards. They apologised profusely for their divisiveness and went back to trying to convince visitors that their rehydrated textured soya cylinders were every bit as good as the juicy oblongs brimming with porkiness on the next table.

 

Suddenly a scream pushed its way through the airwaves. It came from the entrance area. Some people turned their head in surprise and apprehension, others continued negotiating the price of an apple pie. In the next moment further screams followed, and even the most insistent trader turned as worried gasps rebounded through the hall.

What then unfolded seemed to Jenny entirely unreal, very much like one of those surreal dreams where you start out going to Waitrose and end up taking tea with the Prime Minister of Mauritius. To a chorus of screams and shrieks, two masked persons, dressed in black with balaclavas covering their faces, entered the hall. One of them was holding a shotgun, the other a long knife.

A couple visiting from London thought it was part of the entertainment; an edgy kind of street theatre, only indoors.

 

“QUIET, QUIET!” shouted the person with the knife, the other person pointed the shotgun to the ceiling.

“QUIET!”

People thought it best to comply, although some were on their phones calling the police, who were situated a good twenty minutes drive from the village.

“Meat is murder! And murder must be punished. We are here for one person only, one person who murders non-human animals and sells their bodies for food. He is a murderer and he must be punished.”

And with that little speech, the two black clad masked persons went up to the petrified Averil Gissing, pointed the gun at him and ordered him to come with them. They put a black cap over his head and handcuffs around his wrists behind his back as they marched him outside and pushed him into the back of a small white van and drove off.

 

Inside the hall phones were ringing, voices rising to febrile levels and confused people could not decide whether it was safer to stay put or run outside where, after all, they went. Only Jenny Baker had the presence of mind to take a picture of the little van on her smartphone.

 

***

APPLES

Vegan slaughter?

When militant vegans abduct meat farmer Averil Gissing and he winds up dead – slaughtered like a pig – Chief Inspector Seb Spencer is called in to investigate. 

The (not so) short story is now nearly ready to be published here. It is currently being proofread by patient people who I hope will weed out any errors that there may be, and provide some most welcome feedback.

So…watch this space.

 

 

The Green Camper Van

By W. Hagerup

Camper van
‘It’s a pity we can’t live like this permanently,’ Tom had said.

‘We can if we really want to,’ Mary had replied.

And by this exchange the notion of a wish had planted the seed of an idea that grew to
a seedling of firm intent and eventually developed into the white barley grass of
action.

Tom had been promoted sooner than he had expected in his job in local government, and had used some of the unexpected extra earnings on a Volkswagen camper van
that he discovered he had always wanted to have. Then he had spent time and money
doing it up: it had been fitted with a gas cooking unit as well as seating and a table
that could be turned into a bed, whilst Mary had followed an online instruction video
and made curtains for the windows. The entire vehicle had been resprayed in a light
green colour and Tom, who had an artistic bent, had hand painted some flowers on the
front and sides, to complete the flower-power theme of the van.

It was coming up to the end of the two weeks in which they had traversed the
southern part of Britain, going from one camp site to the other, as well as occasionally
staying the night at some pretty spot that was not, strictly speaking, regulated for this
purpose. Those were perhaps the best nights. The night when the question that opened
this tale had been posed was indeed such a night. They had been driving along a
country lane, when a river came into view running alongside the lane. Then they
spotted a place next to a cluster of trees where they could stop, and take their chances.

And as they sat on their picnic chairs, sharing a bottle of Pinot Grigio and listening to
the river steadily getting on with it, Tom had made the remark. It was not quite
seriously meant, as he didn’t really for a moment think it was a realistic prospect. After all, they had only the previous year finally been able to buy a flat. It was
difficult to get on the housing ladder these days, and they had planned to pay it down
for five years and then try to up-scale, perhaps in time for any family increase. But
Mary was one of these people who, having no creativity herself, liked it in other
people. It was one of the reasons she fell in love with Tom. He painted, he wrote
poetry, he could play the guitar and sing tolerably well. All things that for her lay far
beyond the attainable. She had been good in maths, and all her school work had
always been just right and very neat. She had become an accountant, and wanted to
progress to auditor. Tom had ended up going into local government simply because a
position was advertised that he reckoned he could do, and with his Master degree in
Media and Art studies, he was formally qualified. The job suited him with its regular
hours and benefits-he had enough spare time to pursue some of his creative hobbies -and when a manager resigned to move to Italy, he was unexpectedly promoted. They were both appreciably happy with how it had worked out, and slightly nocent
about it too. From the uncertainty they both had felt in their twenties, their thirties had
been a time of really getting settled. Perhaps a little too settled. Tom didn’t paint any
more. He wrote no poetry, and he hadn’t tuned up his guitar for months.

‘Yeah, but…well yes, if we really want to, but I mean, we have jobs and a flat to pay
down on and…’, he took another sip of the pale wine. ‘Look, I can work anywhere. All I need is access to the accounts to work on, but it doesn’t really matter where I sit. We have several people working from home, and I am sure I could get a similar arrangement. If we let the flat it will pay for itself, and by living frugally one income is all we need as a nomadic couple.’
‘One income?’ Tom realised he would have to give up his job to go travelling in the
camper van. ‘Yes, but also, you could sell your paintings. You should do something more with your creative side. You are not getting to use it these days, are you?’ No, he had to admit he had not nurtured his creative side of late.

Mary said he could paint various scenery as they travelled along and sell them in the towns and cities they travelled through. The thought began to appeal more and more to Tom.

‘Shall we seriously look into the possibility of doing it?’ he looked at her with that
eager glint that she was so fond of.

‘Yes,’ she said, not wanting to extinguish it.

By spring of the following year Tom had resigned and Mary had managed to make
arrangements to be a remote worker. They had found a good tenant for the flat who
wanted to rent it on an annual basis. He was a freshly divorced man with a steady job. His ex-wife had taken over the house and he was too old for a mortgage, so would
be a long term renter. It was all beginning to come together and they were both very
excited. The final few nights before their new life started in earnest they spent at Tom’s
parents. The divorcee had moved into the flat, but they still had one or two things to
arrange before they could set off on the road. Tom’s father was very sceptical to the
whole idea.

‘You’re supposed to be lookin’ after her, not swanning around paintin’ whilst she’s
makin’ the money.’

The first property he had owned, the first property his family had ever owned, was the
council house he was able to buy when Thatcher gave tenants the right to buy.
‘It’s different times now, Clive. The woman can take care of the man if she wants to,’ said his wife. She felt a certain female pride that Mary would become the main breadwinner, and she also felt glad that her sensitive, creative son would be able to use his creative
talents. She had certain worries, but at least they hadn’t sold the flat, as she told her
husband. This, he also felt, was at least a good sign that they hadn’t completely lost
their marbles.

The evening before they were to set off they met up with friends and had a few drinks
to mark the occasion. Some of the friends had given her cards with congratulations on
your new home, but as Mary pointed out several times, they were not actually moving
anywhere else, they were just going to be on the road, but come back often.

Finally the first day arrived. ‘We’re not going that far,’ Mary said, reassuring herself as much as those listening. ‘Not travelling abroad or anything. Just within this country.’ Admonitions of safe driving were offered, and then the green flowery Volkswagen
camper van set off down the road.

The first few weeks were great fun. Mary had set up a Facebook page that she initially
wanted to call Our Gypsy Life, but then thought that might be an offensive term to
some. Then she wanted to call it Our Life as Travellers, but then thought that the
travellers’ community might think that was cultural appropriation, so in the end she
ended up calling it The Green Camper Van. On the page she uploaded pictures of
breakfast in the sunrise, of Tom painting in a landscape of outstanding natural beauty
and of herself doing her accounting work sitting at the table in the back of the camper
van. All her friends, and quite a few besides, followed the page. Even a journalist
from the local newspaper had seen it and did a big piece on them in the Saturday
edition, which made Tom’s father embarrassed and his mother proud. The online
following grew even more.

The first few months were fine. As summer turned to autumn they abandoned the plan
to tour the northern part of the country. Can do that next summer, they reasoned. Heading south, like migratory birds, they found that breakfast-and most other meals -had to be taken inside the camper van. It was more difficult for Tom to do any
painting, as there wasn’t really space inside the van, and using oils was out of the
question due to the smell. He was also slightly annoyed at having to rise early. Mary
had to get on and do her eight hours of accounting every day, which meant she needed
the table, and that in turn meant they had to break up the bed, so he could not sleep.

‘What was the point,’ he silently questioned, ‘of this freewheelin’ lifestyle, if I have
to rise at seven o’clock every day?’ On some days, if they had camped close to a town, Mary would go and sit in the public library and do her work there, to allow Tom to continue sleeping. He was, after all, the artist, and needed to be given some space to breath, she reasoned.

Her Facebook posts became fewer and farther between, although when, one day in four, the weather permitted them to eat their supper under the sky, this was shared. Of
course, a bad weather day could also be an occasion for an update: the two of them
snuggled under woolly blankets as torrential rain pours down outside, made for a very
pretty post, where the problem of heating the camper van was not mentioned.

The pictures she posted received lots of “likes” and were re-posted by numerous “friends”. There were comments underneath her posts. One said, ‘you are soo lucky, living the dream life I so wish I could do the same but bf not willing to try sad face’. Another was more philosophical, ‘You challenge the Western patriarchal structure of society, by Mary’s being the breadwinner, by rejecting having a fixed address, by not tying yourself to a local community. Without the tight nit structure of a traveller’s
community around you, you have cast adrift by severing the ties that bind, and in so
doing put two fingers up to the established order. Considering writing my sociology
thesis on you guys. Well done!’. Reading this last one made Mary slightly depressed. She hadn’t wanted to ‘cast adrift’ or ‘sever ties’ nor challenge anybody’s notion of society, patriarchal or otherwise. They had just wanted to perpetuate that feeling of relaxed freedom they had so enjoyed on their holiday. And isn’t that what life is all about? Feeling happy? Aren’t we supposed to constantly feel good about our life and about ourselves? Not literally always, of course. But most of the time. That is the goal, yes? No? Mary wasn’t sure any more.

She was looking at her friends’ Facebook posts. Pictures of ever smiling people. Sitting around tables at restaurants or at home. Glasses of wine, food, selfies where the persons obscured most of the objects of interest in the background, pets doing silly things, walks in the countryside; always feeling happy. She longed to be back in the flat. To go to the office in the morning, grabbing a coffee at the little kiosk by the train station, having a flick through the free newspaper. All those miserable faces that she had been so happy to escape in the first weeks of their turning nomadic. She missed them. Missed the shared miserability. Missed the relief of Fridays, as everybody seemed slightly more relaxed and some practised “dress down Friday”. She missed her co-workers in the office, even missed the office, with its nondescript “art” on the walls, sad green plants in corners and the photocopier that always played up.

They would be going to her parents for Christmas. She was considering what to
answer the inevitable questions on how things were going.

Tom had thoroughly enjoyed not having to go to work. Despite Facebook posts to the
contrary, Tom had hated his job. He hadn’t disliked his previous job too much, but
after the promotion he disliked going to the open plan office in the morning. He had
called in sick quite often without there being anything particularly the matter with him. Just couldn’t face another day of meetings, of memos, of long emails that were really
about covering one’s back, of trying to read the Guardian and having the right
opinions. He certainly didn’t want to go back to all that. Yet, this camper van life had
not quite been what he had expected either. Firstly, most mornings he had to get up
when Mary rose. Secondly, with the weather turning autumnal and then wintry, there
was little opportunity to do much painting out of doors, and inside was impossible too. He had to use acrylic paint if he was to get anything done at all, and that he felt was a
bit hobbyish. Not like proper artists, who used oil. He had never mastered water
colours, but he did consider trying to learn it properly. He tried to do some writing, poems on the road, the countryside, on being free and footloose. He had quite a few
started poems, but none quite finished. It was coming up to Christmas and they were
going to Mary’s parents. What would they think of him? He feared they might think
he was taking advantage. Mary did look a bit drawn and not quite as…polished, as
she had used to. She was always so smart and well presented. Now, her hair had not
seen the inside of a salon since before their adventure started, and her clothes were all
a bit crumpled, she didn’t really apply much make up, if any at all. She did put some
on for pictures for the Facebook page, but that was about it. That reminded him: he
had to get at least one painting finished to upload on the Facebook page. And a poem. He wondered if Mary was really happy about this life they had chosen. He knew he
wasn’t quite satisfied at the moment, but that it was better than local government. He
dreaded going back. Couldn’t do it.

It was very difficult to return to life in the camper van after Christmas at Mary’s
parents’ house. There they had enjoyed the huge log fire, seemingly burning at all
hours, a steady supply of food and drinks and warmth, warmth, warmth. Yet they both
put on a brave face when the week was over and said how they longed to get back on
the open road. ‘We’re quite the travellers now’, Mary had said, and posted on the
Facebook page how, despite having had a wonderful time with the family over
Christmas, they now longed to travel again.

They decided to buy an awning that could be attached to the camper van, and found a
camp site close to a market town in the south of England, where they could stay for
the rest of the cold season. Here they could connect to the camp site’s mains, there
were proper showers and even an inside swimming pool, for the use of the guests. The
days were quite pleasant again. Mary would rise first, go into the awning and put on
the heater, and after a little while she could start her work. Then, when Tom
eventually woke he would come and have his coffee, Mary would go and sit inside the
camper van itself, whilst Tom could paint in the awning. The awning made it almost
like a little house; a part fabric cottage. They went for walks in the area, the town was
charming, and it was almost as if they lived there permanently. Only less comfortable.

‘Do you wish to go back to how it was?’ Tom asked one evening, as they sat in the
awning and looked out on a dark, wet camp site.

‘Yes,’ Mary had replied before she had time to consider her response. ‘

Yes,’ Tom said. ‘It’s coming up to a year, we need to give notice to our tenant soon
if we want to move back in.’

‘Yes,’ Mary said again. She was thinking of what to put on the Facebook page. ‘Perhaps if we say that now the year of roving is coming to its close, we will be starting to make arrangements for our return to…normality…no, to…settled life again…no, to…again being persons of a fixed abode…yes, that sound good.’ She typed it out.

‘Yes, that is good. Let’s make it sound as if we all the time only planned for it to be a year. I mean, that is sort of what we did, isn’t it?’, Tom asked.

‘Yeah…sort of,’ Mary said, knowing that it wasn’t.

Their tenant was one of their followers on the Facebook page, having been fascinated
by the lifestyle choice they had made, and he was not happy to find out via that page
that the owners planned a return to their old home. Mary did make sure to send the formal notification within the correct time frame, but the damage was done, and the tenant left some rather sarcastic comments on the Facebook page. All their friends responded with messages of happiness to the news of their return to the settled fold, although they also expressed surprise that it hadn’t been a permanent change.

‘We sort of wanted to leave the option open,’ Mary explained, ‘but it was always
really meant to be for a year, actually.’

Believed or not, this was accepted, and thought sensible. Mary returned to her much missed office and Tom, just on the off chance, applied to be an arts teacher in a privately run school in the area. They called him in for an interview. In the course of it the topic of the green camper van came up, and it turned out the Head Master had been one of the followers of the page.

‘Oh! I so wished I could go roaming like that. The feeling of freedom must be
wonderful,’ he had said to Tom, and Tom had confirmed, but said that being a teacher
is like going on a journey, because two kids are not alike, so every day brings new
challenges, in much the same way as travelling brings you to new places.

He got the job.

The following year Mary was expecting a baby, and resented that yet again her career
will be delayed. They both had taken a silent dislike to the green camper van. Going
on a holiday in it was out of the question. They used the van for Glastonbury one
weekend, but apart from finding the music boring and the politically correct wannabe
hippiedom of the organisers tripe, it had given them all the wrong vibes. Shortly after,
Tom sold it. The year after, they were sitting in the nearby park, Tom was reading an article in the Telegraph’s Saturday paper edition, Mary was reading the Financial Times on her tablet, and little Jacob was gurgling contentedly in his pram. Tom put his paper down and said, ‘Mary, how would you like to go on holiday in a narrow boat?’

narrowboat-batteries-image1

 

A Norwegian short story – about gym socks and strict teachers

This is a recent short story, written for once in my native tongue Norwegian. It was my friend and former translator colleague, K.R. Castle, who posted a question about plimsolls on Facebook, which in turn inspired me to write it. It reminded me of my schooldays in Norway, where we were all made to wear special socks with rubber underneath for our PE-lessons. They were called “gym socks”, and the story also draws on an episode of bullying that the teacher dealt with exactly as described in this short story.

Gymsokkene

Nei! Krise! Fullstendig, total og absolutt krise. Jørgen så seg rundt med raskt og vaktsomt blikk. Det var ingen som hadde lagt merke til at nederst i Rema-posen med gymtøyet hans, lå der et par røde gymsokker. At det går an! Hvorfor hadde Jørgen latt moren pakke gymtøyet hans? Den dumme kua hadde pakket nedi storesøsterens gymsokker. Det var kun jenter som hadde røde gymsokker. Ikke sjans at han kom til å ha gym i røde gymsokker. Nei, nei, nei. Faen for en krise.

Gymsokker Jorgen
Drawing by W. Hagerup

Det var ikke det at han stod så sterkt på gymsokkfronten i utgangspunktet. Frode, den fregnete fyren med krøller, som drev med boksing og som hadde store muskler og … andre ting (ikke hjerne altså), Ole, den lyslyggede lusa som ustanselig skrøt av sydenturen foreldrene hadde hatt råd til den sommeren, og den rødhårede, røffe, rabbagasten Ronny, som hadde banket opp en syvendeklassing – alle de tre tøffeste guttene i klassen – de hadde alle sammen mørkeblå gymsokker.

Jørgen, han hadde hvite. En skjebne han delte med Arne-Per (for et navn!), som snakket med bonedialekt og sa “bærre” istedenfor “bare”, og Lars, som arvet dongeribuksene sine og alltid hadde for langt hår (har de ikke råd til saks engang i den familien?) samt Leif Johan, klassens tjukkas som forøvrig var Jehovas Vitne og hverken feiret bursdager eller jul. De teitingene hadde alle som én hvite gymsokker (Jørgen trodde kanskje Lars hadde arvet sine, for de var litt annerledes enn de han og de andre hadde).

Men når Jørgen ikke ble slått i hartkorn med teitingene, hadde det å gjøre med at han var god i sport. Han løp fort og var rimelig sterk; han hadde vunnet to nevekamper i skolegården det siste året, og ville unektelig vunnet den tredje, hadde de ikke blitt stoppet av den dumme kjærringa Grethe Bjerklo, som alltid gikk i lilla og underviste i håndarbeid. Hun holdt visst på med noe politikkgreier også. Jørgen husker at moren hadde hvisket “rødstrømpe” til mannen sin, mens Jørgens far hadde spyttet ut “kommunist”, som om han kastet en forbannelse over den lillakledde heksen, motivert av prinsippet “angrep er det beste forsvar”. Dette var i fjor på vei til foreldremøte med klasseforstanderen, Hansen.

Hansen var i grunnen en grei lærer, men han kunne være streng. Jørgen hadde ønsket at det ikke var akkurat ham de hadde i gym i dag. Kunne de ikke hatt Torgesen da? Han de hadde fått lov å kalle Roger. Ja, for han het det. Han var så grei. Hadde han kommet gymsokkeløs inn i salen til Torgesen, Roger altså, ville han bare sagt, “nei, hekje du gymsokka i dag da Jørgen, far?” (Torgesen var også fra bonelandet, men de så bort i fra det siden han var så grei). “Ja, ja, du lyt ha gym uten gymsokka du då, Jørgen. Kan ikkje gli rundt i sokkelesten veit du, de e’ farli’ det, veit du”.

Jada, Jørgen visste det. Og han visste også at Hansen ikke ville la saken gå så uaktet hen. Han bestemte seg for å trykke plastposen godt ned i ranselen, legge håndduken på benken og ta av seg strømpene.

Jeg får bare si at jeg har glemt dem, tenkte han med seg selv. Men ville han bli trodd? Hansen var ikke dum.

I fjor hadde Trine blitt mobbet. (Og la det være nevnt med en gang, Trine har røde gymsokker, bare så du vet det). Jørgen hadde tatt del i mobbingen han óg, klart det. Han var jo nesten en av de kule. Han var i en slags mellomstatus, Jørgen. Tøffingene respekterte ham fordi han hadde vunnet de slåsskampene. Teitingene var litt redd for ham av samme grunn. Men han hadde alltid vært grei med dem, inkludert jenteteitingene. Bortsett fra den ene gangen da de alle mobbet Trine. Han hadde tenkt at det bare var terging. Erting. Og hun var lett å erte. Hun var litt dum, tilbakestående, med utstikkende tenner og briller. Hun drev og lekte med tredjeklassingene, for faen! Også lespet hun, så det var veldig enkelt å efterligne snakkemåten hennes.

En gang i historietimen hadde hun sagt at første verdenskrig begynte i 1812. Alle vet jo at det var slaget ved Waterloo! Herregud! Så da hadde Ronny sagt “Nei Thrine, føshte verdenshkrig shtartet ikke i 1812!” Det var nok til at hele klassen brøt ut i latter. De hadde hatt en vikar, en lærerinne som var like ung og pen som de damene som var avbildet i pornobladet han hadde funnet i farens nattbordsskuffe. Ikke visste han at slike pene damer kunne bli lærere. De var tydeligvis ikke alle som Bjerklo og de andre tørre skrukkekjerringene de hadde der på skolen. Eller kanskje hun også ble slik en dag. Grøss og gru! I alle fall, hun hadde også trukket på smilebåndet. Nesten umerkelig, men ikke helt. Det hadde på sett og vis gitt dem grønt lys, lisens til å terge. Og det gjorde de til gangs. Til og med de teite guttene klarte å klatre seg noen hakk opp og redusere teithetsnivået sitt en smule, ved å være på det tergende laget. Og slik holdt de på, helt til Hansen la merke til hva som foregikk.

En dag, uten forvarsel, ble de varslet om at de skulle komme til kjemirommet i andre etage. Det var et rom som Jørgen aldri hadde blitt helt fortrolig med. De hadde et skjelett av et menneske der. Ikke ekte, visstnok, men ekkelt nok for det. Joda, han pleide å tøffe seg og ta skjelettet i dets kalde arm og late som om han håndhilste på det. ‘Goddag herr Nilsen’ (de hadde en gretten eldre sløydlærer som het Nilsen. Han var ekstremt tynn, og drakk. Han hadde en gammel melkeflaske som han hadde malt hvit, for å skjule dens egentlige innhold. De var redde for Nilsen, og derfor var det fritt frem å harselere med ham. ‘Hyggelig å se Dem, Nilsen. De ser meget bedre ut i dag, ja, Nilsen,’ ville Jørgen si til benrangelet, og alle fliret (Jørgens moromanntalent var en annen grunn til at han fant aksept hos de tøffe guttene og de penere jentene i klassen). Men på tross av denne skøyingen, fant han ikke skjelettets hysteriske hånsmil noe mer betryggende. Det var som om det lo fordi det visste, at en dag blir også vi slik som det. Og i skapene med glassdør langs ene veggen var et utvalg utstoppede dyr. Rommet var også kaldere enn andre klasserom, så man fikk grøssen uansett, på den ene eller den andre måten.

Dit kalte Hansen hele klassen. De satt seg ned stille. Merket at dette var noe spesielt, noe alvorlig, selv om de ennå ikke visste hva det var. Hansen så ut som de gjør i tegneserier når de er sinte; det var som om en mørk sky hang over ham. Det minte Jørgen også om noe de hadde hatt om i kristendommen: Da Moses kom ned fra fjellet med de ti bud på to stentavler, og fant at folket hadde begynt å tilbe avguder. Da hadde han visstnok blitt så sint at han knuste tavlene.

Hansen begynte å snakke rolig. Han forklarte hva han hadde hørt, hva han hadde sett og hva dette var for noe. Efter hvert som han snakket hevet han røsten. Mobbing blev nevnt og noe om hvor absolutt, totalt uakseptabelt og skuffende dette var. Han ropte nå. Jørgen husket ikke akkurat hva som hadde blitt sagt. Men han husker Hansen, den rolige, dog strenge læreren, med et ansikt som strålte sinne på vegne av den svake og forsvarsløse. Som tok tak i en meterstokk – det lå en slik meterstokk av tre ved alle tavlene – og så brukte han den til å denge i pulten så det smalt gjennom rommet. For hvert. Punkt. Han. Ville. De. Skulle. Forstå. Smalt han stokken i pulten så det sang gjennom rommet og slo inn i Jørgen og de andre som tordenslag. De skjønte at han var sint. Og de skjønte at de hadde gjort noe galt. Og de visste alle, at ingen kom noensinne til å mobbe Trine, eller noen andre, igjen. Den tiden var forbi.

Idet han hamret hjem sitt siste poeng, slo han meterstokken så hardt i pulten at stokken knakk i to, og den løse biten fløy gjennom luften og landet hjelpeløst på gulvet.

Det satt et naturlig punktum for det hele.

Hansen, allerede godt likt av guttene i klassen, hadde fått en helteaktig status efter dette. Og nå var det denne læreren Jørgen måtte forsøke å overbevise om at han ikke hadde med seg gymsokker.

I samme øyeblikk som Jørgen stappet gymtøyposen ned i ranselen kom Hansen inn i garderoben.

“Nå, er dere ferdige, gutter? Jørgen, har du ikke gymsokker på i dag? Hvor er de?”

“Eh…glemt dem”.

“Glemt? Du pleier ikke å glemme ting. Mor din fortalte meg at hun pleier å pakke sekken din og gymtøyet. Mener du å si at hun er glemsk?” Det var et glimt i Hansens øyne, men Jørgen så ikke dette.

“Nei, hun er ikke det, vanligvis. Av og til, kanskje.”

“Hvor er gymposen din da?

Det var dette Jørgen hadde fryktet. Hvordan kunne han vite? Hadde han sett? Nå kom han i hvert fall til å se at han hadde gymsokker, kom ikke til å forstå hvor absolutt forferdelig, grusomt, umulig det var for ham å ha på seg røde gymsokker. Han kom til å tvinge ham til å ta dem på og bruke dem, for det ‘er jo bare en farge’. Bare en farge, liksom.

“Eh…den er i ranselen min.”

“Jasså, hvorfor det da? Ta den opp, er du snill”.

Alle guttenes øyner var på Jørgen nå. Til og med teitingene tillott seg å halvsmile.

Jørgens humor kom ham igjen til hjelp.

I stedet for å løfte opp gymtøyposen, gjorde han bokstavelig som Hansen sa, og løftet hele ranselen.

Alle lo. Læreren også.

“Nå, jeg tror du vet hva jeg mente, Jørgen.”

Jørgen løftet posen sakte og delvis opp.

Hansen tok posen og fullførte løftet, hvorpå han snudde den opp ned. Ut falt et par velbrukte, røde gymsokker.

“Synes du sa at du hadde glemt gymsokker, jeg?”

Oj, tenkte Jørgen. Her var gode råd ekstremt kostbare.

“Jo, men jeg har jo det. Jeg har glemt mine gymsokker. De der er ikke mine.”

Det samme glimtet i Hansens øyne som hadde vært der tidligere, var flyktig innom på nytt.

“Å, sånn ja. Skjønner. Så et par gymsokker som ikke er dine, har på mystisk vis havnet i din gympose? Er det så?”

“Ja…”

“Akkurat. Vel, da får du heller ha gym barfot i dag, da. Ikke noe annet å gjøre med det. Eller hva tror du?”

Jørgen nikket. “Nei, det er vel ikke det.”

“Og Jørgen?”

“Ja?”

“Kanskje det er på tide at du begynner å ta ansvar for å pakke ditt eget gymtøy?”

Han nikket igjen. “Jo, skal det”.

Hansen smilte og gikk inn i gymsalen.

Alle guttenes blikk, som  hadde vært festet på Jørgen gjennom hele denne dialogen, slapp taket. De hadde stått klar, helt på randen, sprekkeferdige til å hånflire av lærerens offer. Men Jørgen hadde svart bra for seg, han hadde gjort det med ranselen, som var litt tøft og ganske morsomt, og holdt verdigheten. Og Hansen hadde som vanlig vært streng, men grei. Så guttene gjorde seg ferdig med å skifte, og så løp de til neste gjøremål uten det minste minne om det som nettopp hadde skjedd (nettopp fordi ingenting hadde skjedd – kanskje med unntak av det med ranselen).

Jørgen satt et lite øyeblikk efter de andre. Når han kom hjem skulle han forlange – FORLANGE – å få mørkeblå gymsokker.
Gymsokker