Sunday, October 31, 2004


I sometimes feel disappointed, am disappointed. One always hopes for the best; and yet, sometimes even the good seems so far away. Jonah may be on his way to Tarshish, young men may stumble and fall, the centre may not hold, the worst may be full of passionate intensity. Continuing from a previous post on Yeats and Chesterton, here are two alternatives.

This is Yeats, from The Song of Wandering Aengus:

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

This is Chesterton, from Lepanto:

Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,
Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,
Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,
That once went singing southward when all the world was young.

You can go on a romantic quest or a redemptive quest. The choice is yours. In the former, beauty is the lure, and the rewards are an eternity of the fruit of that aestheticism. In the latter, duty in the world is the lure, and the rewards are often a shorter life and a more violent one. In the former, one seeks essentially to please oneself; in the latter, one seeks essentially what is probably worse for oneself and hopefully better for others.

I have seen, of late, many younger men with choices to make — a choice of activities beyond the classroom, a choice of loves, a choice of musical paradigm, a choice of literary approach. The hardest choice to make is that between an aesthetic paradigm and a living reality, because the two are often confused. It is the choice between 'nice to have' and 'good to have'. Both of those words have been dulled, made less effective because of decades of sloppy use. But their edge can be restored a little when you ask questions like these: "Is this choice nice to people, or is it good for people?" "Is this a nice thing, or is this a good thing?"

I remember my father introducing me to that anonymous quotation, "Good preaching is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable." The former is what should be done with 'good', the latter is what should be done with 'nice'. I believe that if your words 'fork no lightning', then there is little point in words. It is this belief that holds me back from the abyss of disappointment: the realisation that my words have forked lightning time and again, that they have made a difference, that Death shall have no dominion.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Non Nobis

There is an old Latin hymn which goes like this:

Non nobis nomine, Domine;
Non nobis, Domine —
Sed Nomini, sed Nomini —
Tuo da gloriam!

I am always overwhelmed when I am able to sit in an old English church, in that 'green and pleasant land' where legend has it that Jesus walked during His 'lost years' before the beginning of the Great Ministry. The hymn above says, "Not to our name, Lord; not to us, Lord — but to Your Name, to Your Name, be the glory!"

"To God be the Glory!" It is a thought which one finds in almost all Methodist institutions, carved on lintels and mounted on walls, to remind us that in the end, all things are not done for us but through us for the glory of God. I am reminded of how we are uneven work at best, always resisting God in our own ways. I take heart, though, from the words of Browning's poem, Rabbi Ben Ezra.

Most people stop at the first verse of this poem, because the thought expressed there seems so apt, so complete in itself, that there appears no need to continue. The first verse says:

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith ‘A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!’

This vision is a safe one, the all-encompassing blessing of a full life, from youth to age. But it doesn't end there. The last verse completes the picture, with yet another vision — that of the work complete:

So, take and use Thy work!
Amend what flaws may lurk,
What strain o’th' stuff, what warpings past the aim!
My times be in Thy hand!
Perfect the cup as planned!
Let age approve of youth, and death complete the same!

It is both plea and paean. It echoes with the desire to be complete, yet resounds with the victory of true completion. And today, on a grey, bleak, deathly day at the end of October, I was confronted with my incompleteness. As intimated in previous posts, I am colourblind, I am flawed, I bear the full weight of a broken humanity in me. So I have not seen things which I should have, and I have bought enmity with the currency of language.

Francis of Assisi said, "Seek not to be understood, but to understand." And it is there that my failure lies.

The Deconstructor

Jacques Derrida died on 8 October 2004, aged 74. He left behind a most curious legacy, hotly disputed and oft derided. The Economist, a magazine known for its tortuous civility to even its worst foes, gave him a scathing obituary which only reluctantly paid tribute to his good points.

But why was Dr Derrida so hated? The answer lies in the peculiar philosophy he espoused. He believed that all literary texts could be stripped of their ideological biases and prejudices by proper analysis — that you could take Shakespeare for example and strip the biases of his times and his culture away, thus producing an interpretation of his writing which would owe nothing to social, philosophical, cultural or political influence.

Hogwash, I say. Derrida's philosophy merely confused and impoverished without adding to the understanding of the literature he critiqued. Local journalist Janadas Devan has defended Derrida-esque jargon, saying that the specialist terms of the humanities and social sciences should be considered on par with those of the hard sciences. The refutation to this was published in 1996.

The landmark publication was an article entitled Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. It was total rubbish, written in the favoured jargon of the postmodern humanities. And it was swallowed hook, line and sinker by the target population. Alan Sokal's intention in getting it published in a well-known cultural-studies journal was satirical, not enlightening. He wanted to denounce the sort of crap that postmodern relativists spout, a sort of eternal carnival around the theme that truth (scientific or otherwise) is merely a social construct created by convention and tacit human agreement.

For those who would like to flirt with such alluring but ultimately useless philosophies, I recommend a healthy dose of Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science, Sokal and Bricmont, 1998. In this rather neat and sparsely entertaining book, the authors give a complete account of Sokal's famous hoax and its outcomes. They challenge with great puissance the notion that science is merely some sort of privileged cultural narrative, and that you can write nonsense with a pseudoscientific vocabulary and get away with it.

I heartily recommend the book, once more. And though Derrida was personally quite a nice man by all accounts, I am sad that he chose to spend his life helping a confused world to get more confused. What a waste of a human mind!

Thursday, October 28, 2004

The Fight For Reality

It all begins with Descartes, in a sense. It all begins with Descartes' innocence. He was the man who said, "I think, therefore I am" — cogito, ergo sum — and thus unleashed the howling demons of unbelief. For Descartes, in the process of finding a sure foundation on which to base his philosophy of knowledge, found it in the concept of doubt. No matter how doubtful a doubter may be, he cannot doubt his own act of doubting. To doubt everything makes doubting anything a useless exercise.

But from this doubtful foundation, it is indeed possible to build an edifice of philosophical principle. Ask yourself: are you for the supremacy of abstraction or substance? Are you for free will or fatalism? And are you for ultimate meaning or none at all? These three questions, asked subconsciously, determine many of our answers to the question of life and life's questions.

For example, do you prefer Chesterton or Yeats? Instinctively, people offered this choice will polarise around two dynamic opposites — the substantial free will with ultimate meaning of Chesterton's vision of humanity, or the abstract fatalism with only fragments of temporal meaning which belongs to the twilight vision of Yeats.

Chesterton is redemptionist, almost muscular in his advocacy that man is not only the measure of all things, but must measure all things. In The Man Who Was Thursday, Anarchy and Law are brought face to face. At the end of it all, it becomes obvious that anarchy and all forms of lawlessness must be rejected in principle or converted in practice — for the world must have either empty deception or actual meaning as its foundation, and deception turns on itself at the very last. Yet, this meaning which Chesterton raised to the light never needed to be known; it was always the unknowable, deliberately encouraging of free will.

Yeats is the opposite - there is no eternity save the 'drawing-down of blinds' which Wilfred Owen saw. Even the great artifice of Yeats, his contribution to the Irish literary renaissance, was merely a recrafting of faded stories to serve a political need. Yeats' poetry was a poetry designed to anchor a maze of shifting identities, a tentpeg of gold to keep upright the flimsy edifice of Irish nationalism — like the Scots, the Irish have always found it easier to fight each other. In the end, the 'centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.' Yet, that anarchy always had a crafted determinism about it — a rough beast would slouch its way to Bethlehem to be born, and nobody would be able to stop it.

We may fancy ourselves as authoritarian or liberal; as humanist or pragmastist or environmentalist; as red, green, blue, black or white; or of whatever faction or fiction. But in the end, these are our naked choices: to accept and adopt reality as if we have free will, in the hope and faith that there is an ultimate meaning; or to deny the world, resign ourselves to fate and the vagaries of an inscrutable destiny. It is time for us to take the fight to the enemy on the darkling plain. It is time to choose a reality and live for it — or die for it.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004


It's a peculiar thing, the way people think of 'ambition'.

"Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your hands," says the writer of the first epistle to the Thessalonians. Hardly the sort of behaviour one would expect from a possessor of 'naked ambition'. The fact is, when someone whispers to another person about a third party's ambition, it is probably descriptive of something very much the opposite.

I like to see ambition as the natural outgrowth of the word ambit, which signifies the range of one's reach or breadth of concern. While it is true that Browning wrote, "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" it is not necessary that his reach should be particularly grasping.

I remember suffering quite a lot over the years, as people kept attempting to attribute various sweeping and overreaching ambitions to me. Unhappily for the truth of their claims, I am not ambitious in the sense of wanting to dominate some vaguely-conceived political or educational landscape. I just want to be a teacher, to warn the idle, encourage the timid, help the weak and be patient with everyone. It is sufficient ambition for me.

It's hard to remain your own person, though, when people assume you will automatically work to 'self-actualize' (a horrible term, that) and fulfil lofty ambitions or mad power-hungry ambitions or whatever. Either you get so irritated that you feel perhaps you should get powerful enough to silence these silly people (which doesn't work) because "You're a man and it's good for you to be ambitious" or you get so irritated that you feel you should do something sub-standard just to prove that you haven't a grain of excellence in your body.

My patent remedy for this doesn't work that well, but it helps. I just do what I want, help as many people as I can, and make sure that I can live with the work I do. It no longer upsets me that half the world seems to think I could do more and the other half seems to think I'm showing off. Whatever, whatever. Life is too short.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Ancient Dreams

Dark City, dark strength. I move silently, killer, lover, all my dancing self a tribute to her darkness. My strength is sure, my justice as even as the weighings of a man’s heart can ever be. I watch the half-unsleeping tenements; I am Night’s hunter, and evil things dream much less easily for it.

A child must be about five years old when it first begins to develop empathy, that capacity of one individual to run a simulation of another within the brain and hence feel something of what the other feels. But what if a child begins to feel for an imaginary character?

I was eleven years old when I wrote the words that open this entry. For ten more years, they were the only words I ever wrote about Batman. I didn't feel the urge to add to them. I was, to tell the truth, somewhat in awe of those words. I had begun to realise that, perhaps, my talent with words was a little out of the usual.

I was fifteen when I wrote, "Sunlight drips through the windows and puddles on the floor." I remember my English teacher said, "You can't write that. Some day when you are established and respected, you will be able to break the rules and create your own imagery and metaphors; but for now, sunlight doesn't drip, and it doesn't puddle on the floor." But how else would you describe the melancholy depression which a boy might feel on a beautiful sunlit day when his grandmother dies?

Monday, October 25, 2004

Lingua Latina

It is here that you may seek solace in the vapours of a dying language while you ponder the defeat of Arsenal for the first time in fifty games; hardly a decimation, but certainly a quinquagesimation.

It is here that I learnt 'ora et labora' could mean 'coastline in decline', and that 'auspicium melioris aevi' could mean 'looking for signs of better times'.

It is here that I realised that only the long-dead Romans really knew what they were talking about, and they must be laughing at the scholars who diligently dig through Spanish, French, Italian, Rumanian and other allied languages to figure out what exactly they used to say.

This is the sort of morbid stuff that appears when your only consolation is that 'manu' in Latin can mean 'artificially'. And so it goes, one sips one's sherry and ponders the verb endings of a dead language while the nerve endings of the living recover.


Sunday, October 24, 2004


...makes the heart grow fonder, as they say. I spent some time today immersed in research on the subject of that odd and legendary drink of the French philosophers, absinthe. Said to melt the brains by inhalation and diffusion across the nasal membranes, drunk by dripping over sugar crystals, a most peculiar tincture.

Hmm. It's green, and looks pale blue when saturated with light.

A strange word, tincture. Traditionally, it means an alcoholic solution (as opposed to an aqueous one). I have with me an ancient bottle of custom-blown fluted green glass. On it, in letters of gold on ceramic, it says, Tinct: Bellad. Tincture of belladonna - the extract of a most toxic plant whose name means 'beautiful lady'. It stands next to my Tinct: Aconiti, which is essence of monk's hood, aconite. The bottles are all washed up, empty of their poisonous essence, though still bearing their aura of distant alchemy.

Hmm. Slightly bitter, even with the grape sugar.

I drink a bit, for health and pleasure. In days past, it has been cider for a light night, sherry for a civilised one, Bailey's for a relaxed one (often with milk or ice cream). One night, to my everlasting irritation, my cousin Edward and I ingested about a litre of what I can only describe as 'tincture of oranges' - an alcoholic solution of orange juice in concentrated alcohol of the sort I shan't advertise here. Why irritation? It was the first, and last, time I have ever had a serious hangover - the sort you read of in books. You know, the sort described as, "I woke up with little metal gnomes banging rivets into the torpedo tube which my brain-case had suddenly become. Then I discovered I had a tongue, and it had probably in another life been the rear end of an incontinent gryphon. And that was even before I opened my eyes."

Hmm. It does, indeed, paint pictures on the eyeballs.

My next book alert will probably be for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a whopper (in every sense) of a book. I must be mad. Or maybe, slightly absinthe-minded. How fortunate we are to live in an age of grape-cranberry extract, and to know that such an extract blunts the negative effects of certain uncongenial poisons! Good night.

Sticks And Stones

I had a very thoughtful moment on Friday. As usual, right-wing authoritarianism was clashing with left-wing liberalism on the concept of free speech. Of course, we all know that free speech is as much a legal fiction as 'reasonable man' or 'clear and present danger'. We all know, we do? Well, OK, some don't. But a moment's thought will show you that speech cannot be allowed to run free, untrammelled, irresponsible, unconfined, without consequences and without rules.

The fact is, it all boils down to the frailty of the human condition. Humans are flawed in so many ways, and fragile in so many ways, that we really can't trust to human idealism - it is too fragile a staff to lean upon. Free speech might as well be 'the right to defecate in public places' - words can poison, can spread memes, disseminate discontent, direct jihads and crusades, rename roses and claim they are the same. I mean, name a flower the 'enormous orange flatulent stinkwort that stuns insects with its pong' (or even 'greater rotstink plant') and not many would think of cherishing it. Name it 'Rafflesia' however, and it conjures up stately homes and mildly alcoholic drinks in the calm tropics.

And if one person has the right to free speech, should two men then be allowed to drown him out by speaking twice as much? Answering this question is how one might elucidate the essence of verbal democracy. But democracy is democracy - the power of the people - and it works best when ruthlessly applied. Should everyone have the vote? Immediately, it will become apparent that not all men are created equal where the functional apparatus of democracy is concerned. Who would be considered incompetent to vote? Should all votes be equal? Should we voluntarily handicap ourselves if we are better debators, better gladiators with verbs and nouns?

I've heard it said too many times that free speech ends where a man's face begins. I think it ends where a man's ears begin. For every man should be free to respond if every man is free to speak - and why should it end with words? What God made the Word more just, more fair than the Hand? Should we say that words are less powerful than muscles and therefore privileged over fists? No. A brutally fair world would allow parity between words and guns. If you want the right to speak, be prepared to bite a bullet, and I would be more prepared to listen to you.

Words are cheap. We all know this. It is easy to blog, to breathe, to berate and barrack. Why do we persist in elevating the rights of the oral and verbal? Either they are inherently so powerful that they don't need such exaltation, or they are so weak that we do ourselves a disservice by protecting them. The literature of the ages is in favour of the former.

Free speech is as much a dream as interminable carbon dioxide emanations without a cost. And it might as well be as gaseous, for all it's worth. Let speech be as free as it is prepared to be in the face of determined physical and numerical opposition, and then it will have true value. Free speech, don't bind it with the silly trappings of a liberal lie.

Saturday, October 23, 2004


Sometimes, one is too tired to write. Sometimes, one is too tired to do anything but write.


It rained tonight; imagine this, this rain
Of steel magnolias rusting in the damp -
Quenching the roar of heat-oppressèd brain,
Blinding the vigils of the star and lamp,
Bringing the pain of bones and muscles old
To dim the ache of heart and lust for gold.

This rain, a harbinger of evil tides,
Soothsaying whisper of the march of Ides.

My heart wants sleep; wants flowers in its bed,
Wants warm goodnights to cloak what lies ahead.
October falls through space, none stays its flight;
And soon November fails, lighting no flames -
Too far ahead, too far; it rained tonight:
Blooms without scent, and lovers without names.

Book Alert: Detective #27

I have in my hands a beautifully-made book. It is hardbound, published by DC Comics and will cost you US$19.95 wherever good books are sold. The book is called Detective #27 and is probably one of the best Batman stories never told.

It is also probably going to be lost on anyone who hasn't been a long-time Batman aficionado. Too many in-jokes. The story weaves them in elegantly, but in a sort of shaggy-dog story for the fans. Which is sad, because it is, in its own way, a ripping yarn. The entire Batman story, with his parents slain, his faithful butler his only friend, his romance with Selina Kyle, and several ways in which I might have got his name - it's all here. Freud as well.

Beneath the tale and its conceits, however, is a masterpiece of mythopoeia. The archetypes are all here - hero, mentor, the goddess who is maiden and mother and crone all three (or at least two, for now). Bruce Wayne makes his long odyssey in a way not quite ever seen before, and comes at last to his manhood after several near-misses. It is a touching read.

And at the end, he hears the words, "Carpe nox." Seize the night, he is told. That brief line spoke to me. I too am a creature of the night, that time when others leave the stage and allow you to work in peace, to think uninterrupted and in silent solitude. Perhaps that's why I have always favoured Batman over Superman, as night over day.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

The Song Of The Minstrel At The World's End

Sometimes, I am invited to make Irrelevant Noises. Occasionally, I make such noises in poetry.

One famous critic in the national press remarked, "I don't think the world is ready for your poetry." I take this positively; I don't think my poetry is that bad. But I must admit that occasionally I do get carried away, especially when writing from the mythopoeic perspective.

Sometimes, it is more fitting, more substantial, to allow the numinous to ameliorate the banality of our times. I have deliberately chosen these words. In my mythos, blue-and-gold is always more beautiful than black-and-green, a wyvern will always beat a gryphon hands down and claws on the table, and a city on a hill cannot be hidden (sometimes, a tale of two cities, this).

It is especially fitting for those who seek signs of better times to admit that the best is yet to be, and that perhaps those who would write a motto in Latin should remember that it is a perilous language with rather earthy roots. He who has eyes, let him see.


Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Elliptical Thought

Last night, as servers around the world crashed under the demand, Vladimir Kramnik played the game of his life and retained his World Chess Championship title. Halfway conscious, I found myself meditating on the ellipsis, that enigmatic punctuation mark which looks like three periods in a row: '...'

Why? Because while you're waiting for the next move in a chess game, there are lots of interesting things to read, like "Kasparov says ... d4!? freeing up d5 for a knight and giving Black more space." There, the ellipsis represents that which is already known and hence needs no reiteration.

In fact, that's all the ellipsis should represent. Sadly, as I look through the work my students do, I find that many of them no longer use the ellipsis to indicate 'that which is already known and needs no reiteration'. Rather, they use in to indicate that they're too lazy to complete a sentence and hence require me, the examiner, to do it for them. Haha. Some use it to indicate that they don't know how to complete a thought, but want to con me into doing it for them.

The ellipsis can of course be used to indicate a pregnant pause, or a trailing-off into silence. These uses don't indicate positive meaning, and should therefore be used sparingly, as ways of applying stylistic nuance. In fact, ellipses without obvious interpretation should always be considered attempts to mislead or misdirect.

There is one modern exception, though. It has become acceptable, as far as I can tell, to use the ellipsis as a way of ending a sentence such that it means 'but your mileage may vary' or (to be more exact) 'please draw your own conclusions because they should be obvious and if not, I'm not going to be the one to point it out to you'. Well, such (ab)use can be seen as a symptom of postmodernism, I suppose. Occasionally, I find myself yearning for the days when real men used semicolons...

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

All Things In Moderation

'All things in moderation' is a worthy thought in most situations. But 'all' seems a bit extreme. I guess that moderation should also apply to moderation.

Monday, October 18, 2004

The Power To Subvert

Subversion isn't a bad thing. Occasionally, the underpinnings of the world should be shaken, and indeed, must be. Often, revolutions begin with people like Galileo, Luther, Newton - the grand schismatics who never thought of themselves in that light. But here, in this very short piece, I'd like to point out that subversion is possible using very mundane tools.

Cash is good. Remember, the love of money is the root of all evil. The power to give it away, however, is awesome.

Knowledge is good. I share knowledge around freely. By giving knowledge, information, and data (the lowest coin in the realm) away, one builds bridges and networks. And I, by nature, am a pontifex.

Friendship is good. By nature, humans are more inclined to help those who show altruism towards them. It has been shown repeatedly that the 'tit-for-tat' strategy is wired into the human brain.

People who say I'm idealistic because I'm generous with all three have missed the point. I'm probably more pragmatic than they are. After all, the Good Book itself says, "Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will receive it again after many days." It's sort of like floating your shares.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Sports Will Kill Me

Last night was a bit of a mad hash of everything.

There was English Premier League Soccer, with the rear end of North London hitting a 49th consecutive unbeaten game 3-1 against the other Birmingham team, and the flat end of South London blowing it against the soft end of Manchester 1-0 away. The hard end of Manchester had four strikers in play and yet had no success in opening an account in Birmingham 0-0. And Merseyside was having so much fun I thought I was 20 years younger and it was all a dream (Reds 2-4 away, Blues 1-0). All the results I liked, and yet, with much of the excitement kept for the end.

At the same time, at the Centro Dannemann, Brissago, Switzerland, a titanic struggle was underway. The penultimate game of the World Chess Championships between challenger Peter Leko and titleholder Vladimir Kramnik was in progress. Somewhere around move 16, I kibitzed at that Kramnik would never be able to find the half-move tempo he needed - and so it proved, although it was a close-run thing. The analysts are still out, and Leko probably made a mistake somewhere which turned out to be non-fatal. Kramnik, in frustration, played until only both naked kings were left on the board - predictably. The six-hour game will go down as one of the most instructive strategic battles of WCC history.

I'm too old for all of this.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Vastly Amused

Yesterday, I was idly surfing with my ice-white cordless bluetooth shark (how can you call an ice-white bluetooth device a mouse?) while re-marking the remarkable chemistry papers of my dearest students (of course, some were unremarkable, so I left them to fester in a corner).

I have a dark-adapted eye which registers things like this: flick flick flickflick flick flickflickflick flick HOLD ON that wasn't a -flick- or even a flying flick or a flying flick at a rolling doughnut or... and meanwhile, I am stabbing crimson astigmatic-nightmare lines into a mass of dubious chemistry. Somewhere in all that flicking around, I realised that hardly anyone would be able to see my flicking perceptions as anything but calculated to give subtle offence. Because, of all the blogs I had gone through on my kiloblog websprint, a vast majority had what looked like compressed flicks scattered around in an attempt to shock. Or is it that they talk like this in real life and nobody listens?

I'm getting old... "old; I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled." Mermaids. Yellow fog. I can call spirits from the vasty deep (or could, and would, but at the peril of my immortal soul will no longer do so, or never did at all, and am merely quoting my next-favourite bard, the Avon gentleman). I think my main sensation was a vast (star-spanning, huge, face-of-eternity, black monolith) amusement. I had just realised something I had long been in denial about.

You can shock while being completely innocent, rational, humane and polite. In fact, if you were to write as I do, you would shock a lot of people, who have been exposed to little but bad writing all their lives. Not 'bad' as in 'poor', 'incompetent' or 'not approved of by lots of very anal teachers of degenerate Anglo-Saxon tongues', but 'bad' as in 'desiring to make a voice for oneself by sounding like all the others'.

What makes me any different? I think, just perhaps, it might be that I write for the pleasure of it, and not from angst. And then again, maybe not. Your arbitrage might vary.

Asimov's Monkey & Chesterton's Lepanto

Looking back through my posts, I've noticed several references to G K Chesterton. He is unusual among my favourite poets in that he was introduced to me by Isaac Asimov's monkey. This obscure reference is of course calculated to make the insanely curious go down googling at the mouth, while the irritable curse my name-dropping habit and the irascible resolve not to come here again. Well, now that we're rid of those kinds for the moment, let's take a look at Chesterton.

As in my last post, let me introduce the poet through the medium of his own poetry. My favourite of all Chesterton's poems must be Lepanto, a short but amazingly epic poem about that great naval battle in 1571 which balked Islamic military ambition and barred the gates of Europe for another 400 years.

Lepanto begins as if through the eye of an alarmed angel:

White founts falling in the Courts of the Sun,
And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run;
There is laughter like the fountains in that face of all men feared,
It stirs the forest darkness, the darkness of his beard;
It curls the blood-red crescent, the crescent of his lips;
For the Inmost Sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships.
They have dared the White Republics up the capes of Italy,
They have dashed the Adriatic round the Lion of the Sea,
And the Pope has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss,
And called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross.
The cold queen of England is looking in the glass;
The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the Mass;
From evening isles fantastical rings faint the Spanish gun,
And the Lord upon the Golden Horn is laughing in the sun.

It rings profound changes through the mobilisation of all the armies of the earth and of the unseen realm, where the great voice of Mahound proclaims, "We have set the seal of Solomon on all things under sun/Of knowledge and of sorrow and endurance of things done," while his weak and divided enemies mourn, "Christian killeth Christian in a narrow dusty room/And Christian dreadeth Christ that hath a newer face of doom."

At the end, the lions of St Mark triumph over their mighty enemies, and after the tumult of war we see the genesis of a uniquely modern classic of satirical fantasy:

Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath
(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)
And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
Up which a lean and foolish knight forever rides in vain,
And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade...

(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)

I continue to realise that the literature of my youth was a priceless gift. It was almost thirty years ago, now, that I first came to read, love and memorise Lepanto. Since then, I have seen how the past symbols of a long and turbulent history have sharpened the points of weapons wielded in this age of ours. I am reminded of Dante's vision, that as we are plunged into a tour of Hell, it will be a poet who leads us safely through, and outward, upward into the light.


Friday, October 15, 2004

Iron, Cold Iron

One of my favourite childhood poets was Rudyard Kipling. Unlike many of my friends, I came to him by a somewhat unusual route. Whereas many were enticed by the lure of the Disney-version Jungle Book and its lovably cartoonish vision, and others were entranced by the Just So Stories and the parabolic creation myths therein, I was Kipling-ized by an accident of history.

My father, you see, is an historian. He has Anglo-Indian history as one of his areas of interest. This explains why I was exposed to Recessional before Disney softened the poignancy of the original Jungle Book. Through further accidents, I migrated through Kipling's short stories and into the world of Rewards and Fairies, a vaguely subversive look at British history. It was there that I first met Cold Iron.

I loved the way Kipling married a rollicking and masterful control of metre to powerful words and noble theology. It was a synthesis I had perhaps only tasted in G K Chesterton. To watch Kipling manoeuvre from the first stanza—

"Gold is for the mistress—silver for the maid—
Copper for the craftsman cunning at his trade."

“Good!” said the Baron, sitting in his hall,
“But Iron—Cold Iron—is master of them all."

—to the last stanza—

“Crowns are for the valiant—sceptres for the bold!
Thrones and powers for mighty men who dare to take and hold.”

“Nay!” said the Baron, kneeling in his hall,
“But Iron—Cold Iron—is master of men all!
Iron out of Calvary is master of men all!”

—is to see a craftsman at work. This craftsman was able to take subtlety and charm and weave them into a form which a six-year-old child could enjoy - and which the same child four years, eight years and even thirty years later (sadly, no longer a child!) could still enjoy.

Actually, this has been a long digression. Originally, I meant to throw some electrons into the void and say hello to two old classmates of mine - Lithium and Selenium. I'm not kidding, you know. That is what you get when you have a father who is a chemist. I guess it could have been worse - I shall leave it to your imagination to think of how much worse.


Thursday, October 14, 2004

Acts Of Creation

Sometimes, I think in very small increments: a day, a moment, a world, a lump of clay. If I am at all like my mysterious Maker, it is in this - I make. If I could make half as well as Gerard Manley Hopkins, it would be wonderful. But I should be content.


Let us make today a pot,
Raw earth at hand, a present spot,
Water of life to mould,
To smooth and turn, to fold -
And then today will be our pot.

Today the heat of life, a sun;
The earth is dry, the earth has none
Of what would otherwise
Bind grain to wood, realise -
The pot is not, the day is done.

And is tomorrow’s pot the same,
Inspired by the inner flame?
Never will the image be
The thing I saw, I see -
Each day, each pot; new pot, new name.


Fantasy and Satanism

Many years ago, I was challenged to seek out the difference between fantastic and satanic. Twenty-five years later, I think I might have some answers. In what follows, I won't be throwing biblical references around - those who need them ought to know where to look. What follows is a rant - it is meant to provoke, to vent steam, to be an irritant in the shell. Deal with it accordingly.

Here is an excerpt from As Empty As A Renegade's Soul, a little-known piece of fiction, c.1990.


Gothic arches, unaged by river-misted years, shadowed them as they passed along the Sorrowful Way through the City of the Lost Ones. Time long gone, it had been a glorious city, the City of Angels, and the Silver Elves had lit a flame of joyous civilisation in their capital which would never be extinguished (or so the bards sang). Then, war had come to the Land, a final reckoning had been made on the field of battle at Alingin, and the hopes of ages had come to dust.


Is this fantasy? The genre tropes are obvious, so it must be. Is it satanic? I think only the word 'elves' might possibly cause offence to anyone with a religious persuasion - after all, elves are commonly treated as imps or other supernatural beings. The excuse of fiction won't wash, with such as those.

But let's look at the Bible, oft-misquoted and abused source of anti-elvish discrimination. I believe that the highest form of debate is to take the other side's material and make it work for you.

Time and again, authors of the testaments quote from pagan sources or works of fantasy. They use visual images which are obviously not meant to be taken literally - hence fantastic - and in at least one of the books, God is not mentioned at all. It's a pretty good book too - a sort of historical romance with assassination plots, jealous rivals and dastardly acts. Step One: recognize that God allows fiction, and in fact, is the Prime Author of things which are not real as well as things that are real - and who's to say which is which?

But elves?? A talking ass, nephilim, angels - these are taken as the real elements of the biblical text. Why then do we discriminate against folklore - as folklore? What's wrong with writing stories about non-human intelligences who do non-human things? After all, that's exactly what we do when we write about angels. It's explicitly stated that we shouldn't venerate angels, so it can't be blasphemous to write fiction about angels. And if angels, why not devils - to be blunt? That's exactly what C S Lewis does in The Screwtape Letters. Let alone poor figments of dying or dead folklore. Step Two: recognize that it can't be sinful in itself to write fiction about the non-human and supernatural.

So what is the difference between fantastic and satanic? It has to do with the nature of Satan - as revealed in the Bible. He's all about pride, defiance, self-glorification in the face of his creator. He's all about loving things which aren't deserving - money if loved becomes the root of all evil, Tyre cursed for its obsession with trade. Reading the Bible carefully makes it clear that pride (which makes of one more than what one is meant to be) and greed (which seeks to get more than what one is meant to have) are probably the mainstays of Satanism. I'd say that Monopoly, by these criteria, is more satanic than Scrabble, but Chess is probably harmless.

Perhaps the greatest deception of all is that which leads us to spend time castigating those who read Harry Potter while attributing respectability to those who do nothing but make money as an end unto itself. After all, love of money is the root of ALL evil, but love of fiction is the... hang on. Is there a problem with love of fiction? Burn all Literature teachers at the stake! And their accomplices, the librarians! But keep the bookies alive, we need them to invigorate our economy!

Actually, to end this before I go into my here's-ten-thousand-words-of-diatribe-against-people-who-routinely-give-Satan-all-the-wrong-credit mode, let me issue a challenge. Ask yourselves whether those who trade in war, death, drugs and lucre have done more to save mankind than those who write fantasy novels; ask also what the nature of their clientele is. And then shift targets appropriately. Don't let the straw man of the fantastic distract you from the tin man of the material.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

A Bad Case Of Piles

I used to be able to clear up to seven books a day. I would drift through the house with a book held firmly in my left hand, its spine clamped between thumb and forefinger to prevent unsightly cracking. With my right, I would do chores, take meals, fend off my siblings, turn the pages. And in such wise, I would consume books by the pile.

Sadly, it is not so easy now.

Nowadays, I am fortunate if I do two books in three days, four in a week. I shall take leave in late November, and in the days of the dying year, I will try my best to clear my piles. Attention to the fundamentals, that's the thing.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

The Death Of Superman - 11 Oct 2004

Christopher Reeve is dead. It was almost thirty years ago that we saw him triumphant, the most realistic Superman ever. We almost believed - or almost disbelieved - that a man could fly. But Christopher Reeve, who was the embodiment of a dream and a good actor as well, is dead. Some would say he died years ago, in May 1995, when his horse threw him and he broke his neck.

Yet he didn't. His efforts to fight his quadriplegia have given hope to many, despite the occasional complaints that he was short-circuiting due scientific process with his generosity. With his money in the pot, research into nerve regeneration was that much faster.

I never knew him. I have to say I probably won't miss him, not having known him. But in my heart, he is a hero. I don't think of myself as ever having the inner fortitude to do what he did - to live an almost-completely paralysed life to the full after a full life without paralysis.

In the environment at which I work, there are heroes too. They often bear the unjust scrutiny of a world which has forgotten to teach its young, but criticises those who try. Over many years, in a few of my colleagues, only a hard, cold, polished gem of the last of the dream remains, buried by the ablative cocooning of carefully nurtured false skepticism. One has to behave, sometimes, as if one were stoic or cynic, rather than mentor or critic. Sometimes, one has to act a bit like a professional mercenary - so that those who can be saved will be saved.

It is difficult to teach the young. Neil Postman once said that the function of education is to act as a counterweight against the entropic degeneration of societal values - all societies try to start with some ideals, and in the end, all will fail, for such is the nature of mortality. But education worth its salt must try its best, even sacrifice its brightest (teachers, not students), just so that the dying of the light may be staved off for another few days or years. This was the kind of fight that 'Superman' fought; and so, we will remember Christopher Reeve (25 Sep 1952 - 11 Oct 2004), who fought against the darkness for almost ten long years.

Sunday, October 10, 2004


Word Beads on Sentence Strings
is a great writing idea for people who don't quite know what to write about when the world is just too much to take. Every Sunday, five words. Make of them what you will. other words...
is another good idea from the same person.


It's been almost exactly twenty years since I wrote this piece. For those who are archaeologists of romance, this is the original of a college magazine poem which was written for a girl. Who was the girl? To some, it will be obvious.


Summer rain, thundering it seems;
Or maybe the face of God seen
In the wind, travelling like spears,
Like the teeth of chill winter silence.

One night, we see the moth alone.
Lost in his shattered faith he dreams
That the candle we withhold from him
Is his salvation in the world.

Cold night it is: why don’t we let
The moth burn bright and die, alive
For happiness he feels he’s found?
Maybe our mercy is his pain.

What rain is this, threshing my leaves?
No rain — only flowers falling
To the wind which is ravaging
The hills about ten years ago.


Saturday, October 09, 2004


thaumaturgy, n., fr Gk thaumas (= wonder) + ergeia (=work); hence, 'wonderworking'

There is wonder, there is numinous intensity, there are marvels and miracles, there are many things we know might only be chemistry occurring in biology through the effects of physics. And yet, thaumaturgy.

Darkgazer, I used to be in a time long ago. I was a mage before there was an Ascension, and who could say that this was profane or unholy? For He incarnate was visited by those of the invisible college of the wise, and the eye is a dark-adapted organ which is the window to the soul. One which, fortunately, I have regained.

At which point, my colleagues of the Christian persuasion become uncomfortable. It is like fingernails on the blackboard, or a badly-tuned violin, they feel, that I should compare ta Biblion with Harry Potter. But I have to say this once in a while, just so we know where everyone should be standing: if you want to be a proper Christian, read your book and be prepared to defend it.

What is the difference between the final question in Nahum and that in Jonah? Why does Jonah speak no prophecy to the people of God? Or does he? And what is his sign? Why was Moses' foreskin a deadly insult to God? And what book has not God at all? Prophets buried in cisterns, sawn in half, fed by ravens. Monsters beyond belief, spectres of the dead, incest, a tent-peg driven through a sleeping general's head, adultery, and murder, murder, murder. Dark riders, pale horses, scarlet women and the blinding dissolution of the materia mundi. Pagan gods and their shamans, Adam's love for Eve so great that he chose exile with her than life apart from her - a model to us all.

I have to say it here. There is no fantasy novel I have ever read which has as many wondrous elements as the Book of God. Even if you read it as literature alone, sans religious perspective or irreligious perception, it would be the best-selling fantasy novel of all time. The spin-offs beggar description - from Dante's La Divina Commedia to Milton's Paradise Lost and all the others down the ages. The greatest story ever told, someone said. And so it is.

Friday, October 08, 2004


Sometimes, you wonder about the people you meet each day. As in Sesame Street, "Who are the people in your neighbourhood?"


bananas, it’s all bananas, she said
and the thing about bananas is that
you never know when to stop:
b-a-n-a-n-a-n-a-n-a-and so on
they might have been called banas
for convenience, but no, the world
prefers faked complexity by repetition
the world, yes yes, it is bananas


Thursday, October 07, 2004


A well-known anecdote has it that in 1901, Fred Soddy (an Oxonian physicist) had just observed the conversion of thorium to radium by alpha-emission. "Transmutation!" he exclaimed; his better-known colleague Rutherford growled back, "Don't call it transmutation. They'll have our heads off as alchemists."

Wednesday, October 06, 2004


Why do we blog? Do we blog because it first blogged us? Is it some perverse form of autographic didactomania? Or what?

I think I can't claim to speak for anyone but myself on such personal matters. So, why do I blog?

I blog because there is the faint chance that perhaps someone else besides myself can benefit from the peculiar fruits of my ratiocination. Maybe as the wanderer walks his peripatetic way across the realms, somebody might learn from his random musings. Maybe.

Functionally, it all began when I decided to compile the hundreds of posts I'd made on Usenet since 1995 or so. The thing about that part of the Internet was that it was difficult to track somebody's opinions down and see how consistent they were. A blog, in one way, can serve that function. I am actually writing less than I used to on Usenet, but at least it's all in one place and anybody can read through the slush pile and see if I'm making sense (at least, in terms of internal logic).

So for today at least, I'm happy that I can justify blogging for another 24 hours.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Awake Beyond Belief

Each night, I only sleep 3-4 hours. This is a BAD thing, say the medical fellows - I will die about five years earlier than I should, because I'm not getting enough sleep. So I did a quick calculation.

Let's say I ought to be sleeping 7-8 hours a day. This means I am awake for 4 hours per day more than I should be. In one week, 28 hours; in a year, 1456 hours and a bit. I catch up a bit on weekends - about an hour or three. That still gives me something like 1200 hours a year (maybe a bit more). In fifty years of sleeplessness, I would have 60000 hours extra, or about 2500 days. Five years is about 1830 days.

Conclusion: sleeping less helps you live longer. The bullshit (pardon, b**ls**t) filter triumphs again.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Paranoia As An Educational Mindset

This is my tribute to the late Neil Postman's Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1968, reissued 2003). This great book was the book which confirmed my desire to become a teacher, and it is an eminently sane and reasonable book, despite being a little dated - he wrote it before the days of the Internet, and indeed before the days of personal computers.

The first chapter of this masterpiece of educational wisdom is called 'Crap Detecting'. It is the reason why I don't believe in teaching material first and mindset second. It is the reason why I teach that bullshit detectors are the most important items in anyone's mental toolkit, and that bullshit creation is the world's most important (and egregious) industry. (If any of my students are reading this, replace 'bullshit' with 'b**ls**t' as my only concession to prudish parents. Unless you also want to replace 'crap' with 'carp' and become a koi collector instead.)

But how does one actively pursue self-education, and hence the potential enhancement of one's autologous crap detectors? How does one become a crap detective without becoming overly paranoid?

There are no easy answers. I would have to say that the chief activity is reading: read a lot of stuff claiming to be non-fiction. If you can't understand what you read, either learn to translate, or prove to your own satisfaction that what you're reading is so badly written that the difficulty is not entirely your fault. Some very good books are badly written. Not many, but a few.

Next, compare what you have read with three things: tests of reality (have you observed that this might be true, have you observed counterexamples etc), tests of consistency (do independent witnesses say the same thing, does the author contradict himself at any point etc), and tests of cosmology (what would the world be like if this were true, could you live in such a world etc). Failure of the first test might mean further testing, failure of the second test might mean further reading, and failure of the third might mean further living. Remember: the unexamined life isn't worth living, but the too-closely examined life might be just as bad.

I'm going to offer one small and relatively uncontroversial example.

The humanitarian group known as the St John Ambulance Brigade actually has somewhat fraudulent origins. You can look at what they implicitly claim as their history here. It is more accurate to say that they follow in the footsteps of a noble tradition - the Sovereign and Illustrious Order of St John of Jerusalem, Anglia was set up in 1862, and granted royal charter by Queen Victoria only in 1888. This is not to disparage the Order and its great humanitarian works, but to point out that while it certainly has the grand ideals and vision of the Knights Hospitaller of Jerusalem (and later Rhodes, and Malta), they aren't linear descendants of that order. A summary of the full story can be found here.

The first test tells us that the SJAB does indeed do humanitarian works. The second test tells us that they might have a few problems claiming direct descent (as some of them do) from the 11-12th century Knights of the Hospital. The third test says you can probably live with it. So although some goldfish swim free, it's OK. No need for paranoia, and some education has been obtained.

Here is a site pointed out by an august individual. It's a great place to start exercising your new-found skills. Enjoy! Paranoia can be educational. And remember, the Computer is your friend.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Songs From A Pond

In 'The Hammer of God', Chesterton wrote, "One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak." What odd things might one see, should one's eye be turned towards the tiny places of the world? Each year, I look again.


Songs From A Pond

Frog music - dampness, water, mist over all,
A dark and a froggy night cloaked in cloud;
Around me, my croaking companions call,
Bugles and trumpets, a sonorous crowd.
This all is our life, our skins, cold and wet;
Where food fills the air and water is fun,
Where ancient tales told us and tell us yet
That one among us may be a king's son.

Wiggle wiggle surface tension
Chase my food and do not mention
Why it is that bug on feet
Can run on water for his meat!
It comes of runnin' fast 'n' light -
Happy skater-insect's right!
My God has made me water-free;
My God a skater too must be!

My mummy dumped me in the water
Before I could learn how to fly
And I was her very good daughter
(In water it's quite hard to cry.)

Now I'm the fastest wing on the water,
Built like a bullet with eyes that can see
Further and finer than mum would've thought her
Daughter would ever have grown up to be!

Sharp teeth in deep mouth, scales bright in green gold -
Noble my arming, lord of all slaughter;
Knight of the foodchain and prince of the pond -
Bright flash in sunset, death in the water.

Mine is your life - God made me to take it,
Made me with armour and jaw and dark skill;
While you may squirm as you try to escape,
Know yourself offered, a gift to His will.

I am the pond. All life in me is mine,
My life in many forms, many lives;
Frog or fish, or many-legged thing,
I am the pond, and the pond survives.
All that is in me was meant to be thus,
Living and fighting, loving and sleeping;
I am the pond and all that is in me
Stays as it should be, safe in my keeping.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Challengers Of The Unknown

It's difficult to find people who have experienced the odd sensations that DC Comics used to produce before their Vertigo line was launched. They had Challengers of the Unknown and Doom Patrol, two of the weirdest superhero titles ever. It's normally easy to separate the superhero and weird genres, but the question of where to put surreal heroes is somewhat different. (In a sense, DC is a more 'Brit' company than Marvel - just as Spike in Buffy The Vampire Slayer is a more 'Brit' vampire. Some day I'll explain the factors which make things more Bri'ish than Amairicain.)

What I really liked about these odd and not very popular titles was that they featured heroes to whom hero-hood was a burden, who would rather not be contending with the intrusions of the unknown and yet were duty-bound to do so. They were subversive heroes, somehow subverting the ideal of heroism while being heroes. And that's where, sometimes, true heroism and faux heroism part ways: the ideal of heroism, self-sacrifice, nobility in defeat and largesse in victory and so on - this stuff isn't what real heroism often is. Real heroism is quite often a mixture of painful necessary sacrifice, agony in defeat, relief in victory, a sense of having done one's duty without any particular joy and "could the world please go away, I need a break and a long sleep."

We challenge the unknown, and that is romantic and attractive to others. But it is dangerous, painful, difficult, and bears little inherent or likely reward. It is hope against hope that reason will triumph always over chaos. The challenge often fails. Sometimes, we who challenge the unknown also fail, and once in a while, someone else will have to pick over our remains and let the grass cover it all. If we have done it for anyone except ourselves, that isn't likely to be recognized, and nobody will remember where our graves are hidden. Too bad. We don't mourn ourselves either. And life rolls on, inexorable.

Friday, October 01, 2004


Tonight we celebrated their graduation. I remembered my own. My table had three alumni and three alumnae and me; seven of us who had once passed through portals symbolically the same. I saw the last person leave, her steps echoing in the stone. There was one young man playing the piano in the dark. I walked by, and did not look back. For now.


The air is wet with rainy promises,
The sky has yet to unfold; where we sit
Seats ten, in life at work and play, my friends.
Memory, old gorgon with her kisses
Will turn our nights to stone, a candlelit
Tribute to these, the funniest of ends.

When it is done, the tables folded stack
Like tired bulls, challenged and then beaten;
There is no return, no, no going back
Nothing of this bitterness will sweeten

Save that we make, forge in distant fire
More promises: that we will meet again,
That though all time and fate conspire,
We shall one day remember what was then.