Stars that shall be bright when we are dust

They shall not grow old as we who are left grow old. We have said that every Remembrance Sunday, and it chills at each reading. It must be every year, because as the echo of the Great War recedes into the past, as even the understanding of the Second War fades, a nation needs to be reminded, generation by generation.

It is not so far from them as the carefree youngster of our day might think. The dry pages of a history book conceal the truth that it is the story of youth: young men and boys like themselves, with the same hopes and dreams and silly humour, were cast into the adventure. They acquitted themselves gloriously; both those who emerged and those left on the field. Those who fell shall not grow old; but that phrase is from a longer poem, not all mournful but also praising the fallen for their dauntless spirit, which is to praise the spirit of young men:

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

Today the world is unquiet.  Britain and Western Europe have, thanks be to God, rested in peace for nearly eighty years, though the edge of the continent has latterly been convulsed by that ancient curse. It is hard to imagine what the war was, or why. We have even had comedies set in the trenches. Actually though, in the shell-holes and trenches  there was still comedy, because it keeps a man sane. If you ever hear the songs the German soldiers sang, grim dirges they are looking forward to death, and compare them to Tipperary and others our boys sang in the midst of the destruction, that might give a clue to how a British sense of humour must have helped  us win through. These were young men just like those of our own day, and those of our own day need to be reminded.  Whatever wars we weep with when we wander to our quiet homes, if those who want to march at their anguish, they are nothing compared to the twentieth century.

Except, that a mother weeps as much or her son if he is one, or one of two million.

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

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We don’t need another hero

I have no especial feeling about the passing of a pop legendess, but for the role Tina Turner played in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome; one of the most Hobbesian films ever screened.

The genius of George Miller has been to portray a world which is in its surface a fantasy dystopia but which is reality in the raw:  this post-apocalyptic Australian outback wilderness is the universal ancient age portrayed in terms the modern mind can appreciate.

As Tina Turner sang in the concluding theme song:

Living under the fear, ’til nothing else remains

That is the world of the natural man: ‘continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.‘ That is the world of Mad Max encapsulated.

In the midst of the Stone-Age brutishness of the film stands Bartertown: a single point of civilisation, rough, primitive and vicious though it may be. It is ruled over by Aunty Entity, brilliantly portrayed by Tina Turner. Aunty Entity? Titles must from somewhere:

Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that ‘Caesar’?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?

In a new foundation over people, there will be new titles because a common power to keep them all in awe requires it.

This is as civilisation should be: it is a town living by trade, not subsistance farming; it has manufactures and division of labour and it has commerce, as the first towns must have. George Miller, the director, knew how such a town should be:  it has laws, and a lawmaker, and a crude system of criminal justice, at the peak of which is Thunderdome: this is combat and murder run as a public entertainment, just as was the Coliseum in Rome, as were the Tyburn gallows, and in many other cultures.  Crucially, there is more than criminal justice – as this is a trading town, it need dispute resolution, and there is punishment for breaking contracts (‘Break a deal and face the Wheel’).

Commentaries have said that Aunty Entity is a brutal ruler. She is exactly as she must be: to keep a lid on such a town, and prevent ambitious men form overthrowing the state which supports them.

Aunty Entity is the true hero of the tale, were we but to recognise it. She has created a state in the wilderness and ensured its prosperity – a state providing relative peace for its inhabitants, security  and certainty of consequences, and a militia army to defend it.

Maybe there is something to want beyond Thunderdome – “love and compassion; Their day is coming ” as the song puts it – but Thunderdome is a necessity for the first civilisation to start to grow into something which will allow such castles in the air,


Days of the Comet

A mysterious green comet from the ancient depths of the dark looms in the sky. It recalls H G Wells, In the Days of Comet in which a green comet looms over the Earth, growing larger week by week.

The book is not one of Wells’s classics and does not deserve to be, and resolves into an attempt to push the author’s naïve social ideas, but one thing leaps from the pages:  by thunder, the man can write.

The comet in the skies as I write this is no monster and for most of us in this land it passes invisible above the cloudy night, but imagine a comet growing vast until it dominates the sky; an ancient superstition marking of unknowable portents in the heavens.

In the Days of the Comet is not science fiction, not in Book I at least, but Wells did not always write science fiction. It marks the point where he stopped writing pure adventure and started writing his social and political ideas. The ultimate argument is fallacious, but casting the whole point of the work aside, it displays mastery in writing.

The book is contemporary to the year it was written. It opens in the Edwardian world of the Potteries towns, a smoke-reeked industrial blot of hard graft and poverty and riches, surrounding the main character, a young man with all the ungoverned passions of his age, with a foot in the town and a foot in the country estate where his family once served. It is a device to show both sides of a social divide (ignoring the innumerable gradations in between, which would spoil the argument of the story). It is a story not so much of Edwardian strife as of the inner workings of a young man’s mind. It is a mind of frustration, impatience, rage and ungoverned passion. In short, it is a brilliant portrayal of the universal young man at the door of adulthood.

Wells sets out explicitly to talk of the division between rich and poor, or with more insight, between those who are secure and those unsecure. The mine owner works hard but need not – he and his family are secure. The labourer’s widow though may not know that she will still be eating in a week’s time. All the while, the comet grows larger in the sky.

The main driver of rage in the young man, William, is not wealth or poverty though; it is a woman, of course. More drive comes from the pants than the purse: never mind the squabbles over lost shillings and impossible employers: the loss of Nettie is the end of all hope, or the beginning of murder. He buys a gun and it is ever present, with a gravitational effect all of its own.

There is a great deal of difference between a teenage crush on a girl, and the realities of her when she blooms into a woman, and young men do not mature as young women do. The change is enchanting, terrifying, alluring, threatening. The desire for possession confused with love can become a form of madness.  This is something Wells portrays with excruciating accuracy. Whether he means to or not, I cannot tell, but it is triumph of his art.

The enemy is identified, the privileged Verrall who has won Nettie’s heart: his class makes him Wells’s enemy, which is projected upon tormented William, but there would be no need for politics, when envy and hatred are universal.  William tracks Nettie and Verrall to the farthermost edge  of the land where they have eloped, in one of those an anonymous beach resorts that were typical of the age, with villas made from old railway coaches. Murder is immediately to hand, the gun in his hand…

Then the comet strikes, and the world is transformed, in a moment, if not quite in the twinkling of an eye at the last trump, as the green miasma spreads over all the world and every living thing across the world falls into sleep.

Those who wake are transformed, and we are into Book II. The science-fiction explanation essayed by Wells is that the comet changes all the nitrogen in the air into a breathable gas so that the brains of everyone work more efficiently and in that state all the worries and concerns of the past life are seen as petty and one gets the impression that the only emotions left are those of regret for past foolishness. (What a dull place it sounds.)

All thoughts of murder are forgotten; the gun drops from the hand.  The war on the sea ceases.

The author assumes that as soon as we all become more intelligent, we will all at once accept the author’s own political ideas as correct. Wells is no different from all species of arrogant political activist these days. The difference is that, over a hundred years on, we have seen what happens when those ideas are put into effect, and we have have mourned over the wastelands they create and the mass graves they fill.

I must have quoted G K Chesterton on H G Wells before “Mr Wells is a born storyteller who has sold his birthright for a pot of message”. Book II and Book III of this work, trundling through his dull vision for the future, demonstrate that and can be discarded as literature. For Book I though, a perfect picture of tormented youth, Wells earns all the plaudits he has received: by thunder, the man can write.

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It soared, a bird, it held its flight, a swift pure cry, soar silver orb it leaped serene, speeding, sustained, to come, don’t spin it out too long long breath he breath long life, soaring high, high resplendent, aflame, crowned, high in the effulgence symbolistic, high, of the etherial bosom, high, of the high vast irradiation everywhere all soaring all around about the all, the endlessnessnessness.

A hundred years ago Ulysses was published, to outrage, scorn and delight, the first of the modern novels, tumbling words like Miss Douce’s bronze tresses or the sheets of Molly’s fearinducing bed, unrelenting, the jumbled, selftormeneted thoughts rushing the head of Leopold Bloom in a jumbled humbled, selftormented Dublin on the crowded day of 16 June 1904. To describe it is impossible. It was written for the writer, and knowing it would wreak revenge upon critics, critics who devour with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. tasked with unjumbling an unfathomable Odyssey of the mind.

The realisation comes upon the reader if he dare look up of the principal theme being the longing of men for supple flesh and unreachableness and disappointed execution, the madnessinducingness, unpossessableness, as in a summer’s day the women in all the city streets and bars and strands, goods on display unpurchaseable except at a deadly price, and reaction of the longing man as if to look around on this long train commute I were to find my eyes unwilling drawn amongst the lessly clad maids of the carriage, finding in each the rose, each of a name but unnameable (Molly singing the Rose of Castile, how many were touched by those coral lips?) in feminine carriage swaying in a jingling, sweating carriage, rows of cast steel, thy temple amid thy hair is as a slice of pomegranate, begging she of the Spanishy eyes Sonnez la cloche! (so formal), Sonnez la cloche, La clo, son..

In a tableau pass along the streets of a timeless June 1904, streets soon to be renamed by revolutionaries but preserved in those pages, of shopmen, schoolmen, writers, drinkers, ladies, doxies, haughty priests of the leftfoot and solemn ministers of the right, and the Lord Lieutenantgeneral passing by, the hoofirons, steelyringing, O rose! Castile. The morn is breaking, jingle jingle jaunted jingling, and Bloom between belonging to none, condemned to walk the Earth forever, the wandering salesman.

To read it to be feels you are being hit by a train; a train of thought.  Should I endeavour? Yes I said, yes I will Yes.


Fantasy islands

Who would not want to sail a ship into the heavens and watch a war between the creatures of the Moon and the Sun, to find and conquer a world hidden within a whale and sail behind a curtain to talk with heroes of old in their rest?  The world is too narrow for all the stories our imaginations want to tell.

Dreams take us into impossible places (although for me, my tutored mind intervenes in the dream and insists on putting it into a logical narrative).

Whenever I see a sign labelling “Part time traffic lights” my fancies wander to where the lights might go on their time off. I always imagined they would sit around somewhere, perhaps in company with occasional tables. Lucian thought the same in the Second Century AD, giving us his City of Lamps, which he visited according to his ‘True Story’ while sailing the cosmos. It is a pretty invention that has charmed may writers since – including Margaret Cavendish, a friend and scholar of Hobbes.

Fantasy works are usually pulp nonsense to embarrass a bookshelf, but not all: the Odyssey is a fantasy book, and it is a foundation work of European culture. Science fiction is a rich branch of fantasy, rooted in Homer’s pen.  If it is to become literature, the author must have the audacity to write without apology and create a world which is for a moment believable and desirable.

Lucian’s humour came from the familiarity of the genre he spoofed, and his own inventiveness. Romans would read books of distant travels and wanted to believe there really were men with heads in their chests or with wings, and lands where centaurs roamed, and if the reality is too dull, why not be released from the need to pretend it is true and have an open fantasy? Homer was too serious, as if he wanted to be believed.

Lucian is to Homer as Spaceballs is to Star Wars; a loving tribute to the work it played upon. The morality of the Ancient Greeks was different from ours, but surely Homer saw a problem with Odysseus’s behaviour with certain nymphs and demi-(clad)-goddesses on those fantasy islands? It took Lucian though to portray Odysseus in his eternal rest in the Isle of the Blessed creeping away from Penelope at night to slip Lucian a love-note to take to Calypso.

The Isle of the Blessed episode is full of crackers, showing the heroes of ancient times as just as flawed and more so than mortal men – they need a law court for when Helen’s husbands argue over whose wife she is for eternity, and when Alexander and Hannibal argue about who was greatest general. The Platonists, we are told, are not on the island, as they are still trying to devise their own state.  Here too Lucian meets Homer and badgers him with all those questions that scholars had been debating about him – which shows that lit crit is as ancient as literature itself, and as tedious then as now.

That city inhabited by lamps, which live in fear of being extinguished if they do not do their duty, comes from the heart of a householder fed up with guttering oil lamps. (In the City of Lamps Lucian encounters his own house lamp and discusses with it matters at home – he says nothing about an occasional table.)

The squabbling worlds on the planets and the zodiac, the lost islands of the sea, the kingdom in a whale’s belly and the giants rowing islands to hunt it, are exercises in audacity just the right side of silliness.

I was musing on that here recently about ancient works that have been called ‘Sci-Fi’ which are not really, but which are fantasy as grown-up literature. Defining ‘science fiction’ is a whole topic on its own, and as a good Hobbesian I must feel the necessity to define it:

For the errours of Definitions multiply themselves, according as the reckoning proceeds; and lead men into absurdities, which at last they see, but cannot avoyd, without reckoning anew from the beginning; in which lyes the foundation of their errours.

Not now though. I just wish to appreciate that works of fantasy can be literature, even if the majority of them have given the genre a bad name. How they become literature is another question.  It is not by modelling a tale on the fancies of dreams as they are personal and dependent on the day’s experience or internal distempers as Hobbes explains:

divers distempers must needs cause different Dreams. And hence it is, that lying cold breedeth Dreams of Feare, and raiseth the thought and Image of some fearfull object (the motion from the brain to the inner parts, and from the inner parts to the Brain being reciprocall)

To be any good, a story must speak to a wide audience who are not all in on the internal workings of the writer’s own brain. I would go further: a really good book should work even if you strip the fantasy element out, and leave just the personalities and their deeds. The Romans called Homer’s hero Ulysses, and built more robust stories around him.  Following their lead, if you take the wanderings of Ulysses out of the fantasy islands and the mythical age and place him in, say, Dublin in 1904, it will work very well indeed.

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