2+2= how much again?

Somebody called David Cameron trolls Guardian readers by claiming Conservatives are the party of equality.  No, really.

The person says:

You can give someone all the opportunities in the world – a brilliant school, first-class training, decent jobs – but it’s no good if they’re prevented from getting on because of their gender, race, religion, sexuality or disability.

Ignoring the point that if you’ve been to a brilliant school and had first-class training and are in a decent job you are in some measure getting on  – but no, there’s no mention of economic equality, so clearly he’s just doing this to make us angry.

Unless the piece is a cry to end discrimination among the very privileged, in which case it’s baby steps towards something approaching humanity. There is still some way to go.

Work in stasis

“I am forced upon a thousand shifts to enable me to endure the tediousness of the day. I rise when I can sleep no longer, and take my morning-walk; I see what I have seen before, and return. I sit down, and persuade myself that I sit down to think; find it impossible to think without a subject, rise up to inquire after news, and endeavour to kindle in myself an artificial impatience for intelligence of events, which will never extend any consequence to me, but that, a few minutes, they abstract me from myself.”

Samuel Johnson, The Idler (number 21)

It’s that in-between time: waiting to hear from agents/publishers for one novel, the draft of another just completed. In the meantime . . .

The Brighton City Reads book for this year is Matt Haig’s The Humans. One of the events to celebrate it is at the Sallis Benney theatre next week. A [collective noun] of writers will, as it says on the poster, “respond” to  Matt’s novel. There will be twenty of us, and we have three minutes each. It’s an odd challenge. Three minutes is long enough for a traditional pop song or a medium length poem, complete with introduction and explanations. It’s not quite enough for anything but the shortest of short stories, and, as for novels – here, take an untypical page and half, and don’t worry about who the names refer to, because, yes, I will read at 150 words per minute so it’ll all be a blur anyway.

I haven’t quite yet decided what my response is, beyond the obvious one of snivelling envy at somebody else’s success. I’m tempted to read something from what should be my next novel, if only because The Overlap – its working title – has some features in common with The Humans. Both, for instance, have narrators with an outsider’s perspective on society. Actually, that’s almost the only thing they have in common, although there’s also the small coincidence that The Humans refers to the Riemann hypothesis and my novel has a character called Riemann (and he has a brother called Cantor). I can’t really say this was in response to The Humans, as it was written – or brought to its current state – before I read it.

I might, of course, have an idea for a piece of flash fiction. It could be an interesting evening.

A Voyage to Abyssinia

As a break from Carlyle’s dyspeptic account of the early life of Frederick the Great, Jerome Lobo’s account of his voyage to Abyssinia in the first half of the 16th century. Lobo, a Portuguese Jesuit, went a mission to reclaim the Abyssins from their corrupted form of Christianity to the True Catholic Faith. It’s an engaging account, at least in the translation/abridgement made by the young Samuel Johnson (the first piece he ever wrote for money). In an introduction, Johnson praises Lobo’s lack of exaggeration: there are no great wonders here, just a straightforward, occasionally flat account of some extraordinary experiences.

Lobo is interested in the wildlife:

 The elephants of Æthiopia are of so stupendous a size, that when I was mounted on a large mule I could not reach with my hand within two spans of the top of their backs. In Abyssinia is likewise found the rhinoceros, a mortal enemy to the elephant. In the province of Agaus has been seen the unicorn,

The what?

 that beast so much talked of, and so little known:

Ah, that unicorn.

 the prodigious swiftness with which this creature runs from one wood into another has given me no opportunity of examining it particularly, yet I have had so near a sight of it as to be able to give some description of it.

A description follows. I admit I was a little disappointed. Something seems to be missing:

The shape is the same with that of a beautiful horse, exact and nicely proportioned, of a bay colour, with a black tail, which in some provinces is long, in others very short: some have long manes hanging to the ground.

He complains about the morals of the people he meets. He’s particularly unhappy with their marriages:

 The marriages are in short no more than bargains, made with this proviso, that when any discontent shall arise on either side, they may separate, and marry whom they please, each taking back what they brought with them.

This is contrary to the teachings of the church! However, the Abyssins are far from irreligious:

 No country in the world is so full of churches, monasteries, and ecclesiastics as Abyssinia; it is not possible to sing in one church or monastery without being heard by another, and perhaps by several. . . . They begin their concert by stamping their feet on the ground, and playing gently on their instruments; but when they have heated themselves by degrees, they leave off drumming, and fall to leaping, dancing, and clapping their hands, at the same time straining their voices to the utmost pitch, till at length they have no regard either to the tune or the pauses, and seem rather a riotous than a religious assembly. For this manner of worship they cite the psalm of David, “O clap your hands all ye nations.”  Thus they misapply the sacred writings . . .

Worse still:

 They are possessed with a strange notion that they are the only true Christians in the world;

Meanwhile, when not being pursued by hostile local rulers or schemed against by local monks, there is the danger from the natural world:

 I set out on my journey, and on the road was in great danger of losing my life by my curiosity of tasting a herb, which I found near a brook,

Fortunately a passer-by tells him he is eating poison and he spits it out. Lobo duly thanks God for his deliverance.  There are other dangers:

 The crocodile is very ugly, having no proportion between his length and thickness; he hath short feet, a wide mouth, with two rows of sharp teeth, standing wide from each other, a brown skin so fortified with scales, even to his nose, that a musket-ball cannot penetrate it. His sight is extremely quick, and at a great distance. In the water he is daring and fierce, and will seize on any that are so unfortunate as to be found by him bathing, who, if they escape with life, are almost sure to leave some limb in his mouth.

However, Lobo tries to be a scrupulous observer:

 Neither I, nor any with whom I have conversed about the crocodile, have ever seen him weep, and therefore I take the liberty of ranking all that hath been told us of his tears amongst the fables which are only proper to amuse children.

The hippopotamus, or river-horse, grazes upon the land and browses on the shrubs, yet is no less dangerous than the crocodile.

And then there are snakes:

 as I lay on the ground, I perceived myself seized with a pain which forced me to rise, and saw about four yards from me one of those serpents that dart their poison at a distance;

A spitting cobra. There are several kinds in Africa. They spit in self defence.

 This danger, however, was not much to be regarded in comparison of another which my negligence brought me into. As I was picking up a skin that lay upon the ground . . .


 I was stung by a serpent that left his sting in my finger; I at least picked an extraneous substance about the bigness of a hair out of the wound, which I imagined was the sting. This slight wound I took little notice of, till my arm grew inflamed all over; in a short time the poison infected my blood, and I felt the most terrible convulsions, which were interpreted as certain signs that my death was near and inevitable.

He tries various cures:

 I received now no benefit from bezoar, the horn of the unicorn, or any of the usual antidotes, but found myself obliged to make use of an extraordinary remedy, which I submitted to with extreme reluctance.

Interesting to see the horn of a unicorn listed among the usual antidotes. Lobo doesn’t, alas, tell us what the extraordinary remedy was, only that later he was obliged to take cloves of garlic.

But snakes aren’t the only threat. Even the fruit can be dangerous:

 I found many trees loaded with a kind of fruit, called by the natives anchoy, about the bigness of an apricot, and very yellow, which is much eaten without any ill effect.  I therefore made no scruple of gathering and eating it, without knowing that the inhabitants always peeled it, the rind being a violent purgative; so that, eating the fruit and skin together, I fell into such a disorder as almost brought me to my end.  The ordinary dose is six of these rinds, and I had devoured twenty.

Later, he finds himself separated from his fellow believers:

 I was not much at my ease, alone among six Mahometans, and could not help apprehending that some zealous pilgrim of Mecca might lay hold on this opportunity, in the heat of his devotion, of sacrificing me to his prophet.

Which suggests some misunderstanding about Islamic teaching. However, his fellow travellers turn out to be less dangerous than badly prepared food:

 These apprehensions were without ground. I contracted an acquaintance, which was soon improved into a friendship . . .

Eventually he returns to Lisbon. Even that is not plain sailing:

 Never had any man a voyage so troublesome as mine, or interrupted with such variety of unhappy accidents; I was shipwrecked on the coast of Natal, I was taken by the Hollanders . . .

Unfortunately, in this case, he (or his abridger) doesn’t give any details.

Germany was rocking down

Germany was rocking down towards one saw not what,— an Anarchic Republic of Princes, perhaps, and of Free Barons fast verging towards robbery? Sovereignty of multiplex Princes, with a peerage of intermediate Robber barons?

Carlyle, History of Friedrich II of Prussia, called Frederick the Great, Book 2, Chapter 7


Carlyle’s biography of Frederick the Great might not be as long as Grote’s history of Greece but it gives Proust’s big novel a run for its money. I’m still on volume one (of ten). Frederick has been born; however, Carlyle then jumps back to give an overview of the entire history of Prussia. It’s a confusingly told story, where he makes little effort to distinguish between the various Friedrichs (there are dozens of them) and frequently interrupts the narrative to sneer at the scholars whose work he uses (“Dryasdust”).

But then Carlyle doesn’t write history. He takes the past as a scripture from which moral lessons can be drawn and sermonises. The lessons are often simple, and delivered with a confidence that sounds unhinged. I doubt a modern historian would write a chapter entitled “Historical Meaning of the Reformation,” and then spell out precisely what that meaning is. It turns out to be that Protestantism was the will of God made manifest. “Austria, Spain, Italy, France, Poland,— the offer of the Reformation was made everywhere; and it is curious to see what has become of the nations that would not hear it.” In case we miss the point he tells us what has become of them (as at 1858): “ponderous Austrian depth of Habituality and indolence of Intellect”; “Spain still more, poor Spain . . . They refused Truth when she came; and now Truth knows nothing of them”; “The Italians . . . preferred going into Dilettantism and the Fine Arts.” France, he affirms, in a passage too elaborate to retype, dismissed the writ of history and was forced to pay with compounded interest in 1792. He doesn’t mention the fate of Poland, which had ceased to exist as an independent state.

He writes oddly, with the occasional flash of poetry. Friedrich is being set up as one of his Great Men. I’ll be interested to see if he mentions the homosexuality which Macaulay could only hint at (“vices from which History averts her eyes, and which even Satire blushes to name”).

Benchmarks for Britain

For reasons I won’t go into now I looked up the 2010 Conservative Manifesto. Here, from a section actually called “Benchmarks for Britain” are the standards those moist-eyed dreamers asked to be judged by (wonky capitalisation in the original):

1. ensure macroeconomic stability: We will safeguard britain’s credit rating with a credible plan . . .

OK, we’ll stop there. This was their number one benchmark.

2.  Create a more balanced economy: We will create the conditions for higher exports, business investment and saving as a share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Oops. Next!

3. get britain working again: We will reduce youth unemployment and reduce the number of children in workless households as part of our strategy for tackling poverty and inequality.

Youth unemployment: another success story. Poverty and inequality? Booming.

4. encourage enterprise: We will improve Britain’s international rankings for tax competitiveness and business regulation.

At last, something they can get behind. Improving our rankings for business regulation means, of course, the opposite of what it sounds like.

5. ensure the whole country shares in rising prosperity: We will increase the private sector’s share of the economy in all regions of the country, especially outside London and the South east.

A non-sequitur. Increasing the private sector’s  share (code for what they intended to do with the NHS) does not lead to rising prosperity for the whole country, If anything, it leads to the concentration of wealth in fewer hands.

6. reform public services to deliver better value for money: We will raise productivity growth in the public sector in order to deliver better schools and a better nhS.

Michael Gove.  Jeremy Hunt. No comment.

7. Create a safer banking system that serves the needs of the economy: We will reform the regulation and structure of the banking system to ensure lower levels of leverage, less dependence on unstable wholesale funding, and greater availability of credit for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Some confusion here. After all, lower leverage means banks are less likely to lend money, doesn’t it? And besides, doesn’t it clash with that business regulation bit in 4?

8. build a greener economy: We will reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions and increase our share of global markets for low carbon technologies.

Ah, but this turned out to be one of the things we couldn’t afford, like legal aid or a functioning welfare state.