Art in the word

The most beautiful script in the world is Arabic, without any doubt. It is a piece of art, and has been woven into works of great beauty for a thousand years and more. Personally I cannot make head nor tail of it, though goodness I have tried. I can at least appreciate the effect as art.

One might consider a script in pure historical terms, in this case a right-to-left Semitic script of the same root as Hebrew, or even derived from it, the forms of which are mirrored in shadow in the lines and names of the Arabic letters, but that is missing the essence on the page. Those swoops and loops (which frankly I have never been able to tell apart) can be a canvas on which a skilled calligrapher may play. Our own script, the Latin alphabet, is as regular as the Roman conception, letter by letter separate, written on the line, lines kept apart – all these things we take for granted. Greek and Hebrew keep regular too. The Arabic calligraphers though make the letters loop around each other, stack, merge, overlap, play together, weave in and out – how they can still be read I do not know, but it is beyond my cultural norms.

I must pause before an objection arrives and say that there is art also in traditional Chinese characters (if not in the modern, simplified forms) and it is used to some effect, but even these are not a patch on what has been done in Arabic.

There is beautiful calligraphy in our own script, and it likewise lifts the soul and imprints the personal into what might otherwise tend to dull regularity. It is never though used as part of artworks; we treat the two as wholly different domains. Where Arabic is different is a necessity forced upon that culture.

The cultural substrate of the Arab world in lapped in Islam (which itself in its local form is shaped by Arabian culture) and the precepts of the religion take strictly what is to us the Second Commandment, not to make any representation of a thing in heaven or on Earth. For us that is a command not to make anything that would be the subject of worship, and my Puritan instincts give me a distinct revulsion at icons and Romanist religious art which tend towards idolatry, but secular representative art is not forbidden (and reached its greatest flourishing in Protestant Europe). In the Muslim world the command has been taken as an absolute bar on representative art. That strict injunction cannot stop art from being made because the making of art is fundamental to humanity – instead it has cause a flowering of decorate art, and in this the swirling script of Arabia is a form.

This art is commonly connected with Islam and the most prominent examples are of Koranic verses and themes, but there are also Christian and even secular calligraphers, as beauty is universal. The combination indeed between the craft of the text and the beauty of a Christian message makes it a very appropriate medium within the culture. The words are the starting point and the pallet; the work of the calligrapher is to draw the viewer in, and there is a mystery in there, in all those interlaced swirls there is meaning even if not immediately apparent, and that in itself draws you in. That is a universal thing.

Another constraint is the limitation of the material – it is not random patterns but known words and phrases. This defies the idea we have that art should challenge the expectations of the view, but if it is a set text, it cannot. That said, the choice of text may challenge the expectations. In a tangle of curves your expectation (if you can read it) your expectation is drawn into it in delighted anticipation – all great art should create a dynamic relationship like this between the piece and the viewer.

Another idea we have is that art does not have a purpose but is art for its own sake: that idea is behind the decline of modern art into ugliness. Art must always have a purpose, though that purpose may be no more than to charm the eye.

These taken together are a lesson – a constraint can become a birth of new art that may exceed that which was forbidden.

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The Secret History of Writing: musings

The BBC’s three-parter, The Secret History of Writing with Lydia Wilson, is running through and it is a corker. It has been a delight to see a history programme on Auntie which plays it straight and not for some political aim (though we will see with later episodes whether the actual historians have managed to keep the politicos’ dirty hands off their work).

The history of writing is not actually secret: the development of the alphabets of the world has been written about since at least Tacitus, who traced the Roman alphabet back to the Phœnicians and Egyptians when discussing the three new letters introduced by Claudius (which did not survive). It is perhaps little known outside the right academic circles, and for such a dramatic development of humanity that is surprising. As the programme said, for almost the whole of humanity, there was no concept of writing, let alone of alphabetical script – it is only about 5,000-odd years ago that it was invented and, in time, exploded across the face of the earth.

The programme shows the obscure carvings in the rock by a turquoise mine in Sinai which are the earliest alphabetical signs. Egypt’s obscure hieroglyphics were fit only for priests and had to be carved by skilled craftsmen: though inspired by the shapes of the hieroglyphs, these new letters were made to serve the cause of ordinary men of other tongues (initially a tongue very close to Biblical Hebrew). That was the remarkable break-out: writing could now belong to everyone.

From Sinai to the Holy Land and to Phoenicia and thence to the world: ordinary folk could make their words heard beyond earshot and even beyond the span of their lives.

I have never been quite convinced that an ‘A’ looks like an ox, or a ‘B’ a house nor a ‘C’ a camel and so forth, but that is part of the liberation of writing, that it is seen for its own sound alone, not from an origin.

The first programme looked at Chinese writing too; the second original writing system. It was treated respectfully as it should be, but really Chinese is still stuck barely further than the pictograms. It is a much later development too: when the script was regularised under the first Chin Emperor the Greeks had been writing laws, plays, histories and ribald jokes in their own alphabet for centuries, and brought it to China’s western borders. Long before them those lands had already for centuries been writing in scripts derived from Aramaic. China went its own way: it is in truth an island.

It is fascinating to see the sudden spread of writing as an art across the world, showing itself to be indispensable to civilisation or those who aspire to civilisation, such that nations which acquire the art could never imagine being without it. It is a thing of the settled nation, as without that there can be:

no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society

However, I am more interested in cultures without writing. It is because we cannot imagine being without it, that they should interest us all the more as a lesson in humanity. As the programme observed, many millennia of human society passed with no forms of writing at all. Mankind was no lesser a being for this – it was just not needed until towns and markets appeared.

Here is a point though: even in the four thousand years or so since writing became available to all, the vast majority of people even in lands with writing got by without it. Up to the Reformation, most people could not read nor write even in wealthy England. Change was driven by the Reformation: the Bible was published in English and Welsh and all people were encouraged to read it; funded schools spread across Scotland; but even at opening of the Industrial Revolution, Scottish Gaelic remained an unwritten language. There is no reason it should not have been written – its Irish cousin had been written for a thousand years since – but the Highlands remained a pre-literate society, in the wealthiest, most civilised nation on Earth. They do not seem to have been greatly harmed by the circumstance.

The revolution brought by those first Phœnician trading ships was a very slow one indeed. It permitted Greek and then Roman civilisation and seeded the world with the means to develop beyond imagining, but many tribes and nations bumbled along without writing all the same.

Even today, most languages of the world are spoken with no written form. In highly literate societies like ours there are still those who, for whatever reason, cannot read and write: the Beeb had a story not so long since about a man who held down a teaching job without being able to read (and you may wonder what that says about the New Mexico educational system, but he got by; he is an author now).

Modern society is impossible without writing, but life is not. It is not an indispensable condition of being human. Therefore if we cannot imagine life before writing existed, that may be a lack of imagination, because that condition has been with us well into the modern age.


The series, in its short span, became all the more fascinating in its detailed look at the development and change of writing across the world and across cultures, and this international view is vital to understanding the subject. It has certainly lived up to the promise of the opening episode. It tells a story with more dynamic to it than the subject matter may seem to have on its own: as I observed after the first episode, the art of writing was necessitated by the first civilisations, and then it became a necessity for civilisation.

The programmes showed that is more complicated than this though: detail will make and mar the whole course of civilisations. Even the writing medium and the form of lettering are not mere choices but drivers of change, to prosperity or to poverty. The medium, of paper or cloth or parchment, will determine the form of letters as the medium presses back against the pen, which was beautifully demonstrated, but it goes far further than this. We all understand the world-changing effect of printing, but the disappearance and reappearance of paper is barely a footnote in books: here we were shown that papyrus paper disappeared when the Roman Empire tottered, leaving the Middle Ages barely literate until the secret of papermaking was wrenched from the unwilling Chinese: there is direct correspondence between the sophistication or otherwise of world civilisations and the medium of writing. These minutiae are not minutiae at all.

I have observed that most cultures have been illiterate cultures, so the writing is not necessary to life, as long as an elite can read and write. The revolutionary effect of being able to read and write is not lost on any reformer. Script reforms have been the stuff of autocrats; the Turkish script reform is the best known, and the resultant script is so perfectly adapted for the Turkish language it could not have been done by committee or compromise, but by single inspiration. (It makes the versions of Cyrillic spread across the Russosphere look maladroit, as they are.) It has always seemed inconceivable that so large a nation as the Turks could replace their whole writing system at a stroke – but that is to see it with modern eyes: when 95% of the population are illiterate, it is not so many that you have to persuade to change, and adopting a standard that so well reflects the language, with its vowel harmony system and limitless agglutination, makes it far easier. The also illiteracy itself can be reduced.

And yet, and this point reappeared, many times, if civilisation and culture are bound up so intimately with the written word then changing to a new system is to be a destroyer; a rebuilder too, but a destroyer first.

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Law: an abused word

No man has ever been arrested for attempting to break the First Law of Thermodynamics, nor spent time in clink for breaking Murphy’s Law. The idea of lawbreaking and consequent condemnation has burst out with little understanding from commentators, or even from lawyers regrettably. The absolute virtue of the Rule of Law become the worst virtue-signalling when commentators speak of laws which are no laws at all.

Law is the basis of a settled, peaceful, free society in the English-speaking world. It is taken for granted because it has always been this way – it is still a novelty in Europe. Therefore the idea of the Government “breaking the law” brings with it the heartiest condemnation, but it comes from a deliberate misunderstanding.

Covenants, without the Sword, are but Words, and of no strength to secure a man at all. Therefore notwithstanding the Lawes of Nature, (which every one hath then kept, when he has the will to keep them, when he can do it safely,) if there be no Power erected, or not great enough for our security; every man will and may lawfully rely on his own strength and art, for caution against all other men.

Law is a word used in many senses, and Hobbes, who used the phrase “Lawes of Nature” frequently, explicitly denied that these ‘laws’ were any more than as we might use the same phrase today, or such phrases as “the laws of physics”. The essence of law in the sense of the laws of the realm are where he says:

Law in generall, is not Counsell, but Command; nor a Command of any man to any man; but only of him, whose Command is addressed to one formerly obliged to obey him. And as for Civill Law, it addeth only the name of the person Commanding, which is Persona Civitatis, the Person of the Common-wealth.

In short, law properly so-called is the command of the sovereign or sovereign body, which in the case of Britain is the Queen in Parliament.

The Legislator in all Common-wealths, is only the Soveraign…. For the Legislator, is he that maketh the Law … the Soveraign is the sole Legislator. For the same reason, none can abrogate a Law made, but the Soveraign; because a Law is not abrogated, but by another Law, that forbiddeth it to be put in execution

The concept of “international law” is a different concept. As was observed in an earlier article on this site, international law is not law. It cannot be, because it is not made and abrogated by the sovereign. It is a covenant without the sword, which is but words of no strength to secure a man at all.

The courts of the realm have a certain indulgence towards the concept of “international law” in the sense that it is a general set of understandings between states and one might assume that Parliament when legislating does not intend to contradict an important treaty, so Acts of Parliament are interpreted, as far as the language will bear it, in a way that is consistent with any earlier treaty. The courts have also however stamped down on attempts to import treaties as if they were equal to domestic law: if a treaty could rewrite the rights and obligations of the subject, this would allow the Crown to bypass Parliament.

There is also to issue about what this “lawbreaking” would be were it actual law and actually broken (which in this case, I am given to understand, would not be so). In domestic law there are two separate concepts, of criminal law and or civil law (which is not the same as Hobbes’s Civill Lawes, the latter referring to actual law as opposed to the “Lawes of Nature“). Civil law is about debt, trespass, enforcing contracts and trusts, negligence leading to injury and such civil wrongs as this. It is important for the order of society but it does not carry the shame of lawbreaking. It is not what the ordinary man thinks of: if an backstreet yob yells “Run: it’s the Law!”, he does not mean he has spotted the approach of a member of the Chancery Bar.

If departing from a treaty were a breach of “law”, it would be akin to breaching a contract, not coshing a night-watchman. The shock is therefore feigned, and foolish, and in some cases dishonest with the intent to deceive the public.

The Withdrawal Agreement, the proximate cause of the recent pearl-clutching, is part of the law of the realm and so must be followed – but it is only part of the law because an Act of Parliament has made it so, and another may unmake it: the rules of the Agreement may be abrogated, but by another Law, that forbiddeth it to be put in execution. The Treaty of Rome itself, when the United Kingdom was a member of the European Communities then of the European Union, had the force of law only because an Act of Parliament made it so. This is basic stuff. Sovereignty, as Hobbes repeatedly reminds us, is indivisible.

The law that is actual law must be upheld, but it is for Parliament to consider it and at any time may send a Bill to the Queen to change the law, for that is a sovereign act of law-making. Law to govern society should be precise and understood, which those international conventions never can be nor are intended to be, and the law should be open to frequent reform, as international conventions cannot be.

That Law can never be against Reason, our Lawyers are agreed; and that not the Letter,(that is, every construction of it,) but that which is according to the Intention of the Legislator, is the Law. And it is true: but the doubt is, of whose Reason it is, that shall be received for Law. It is not meant of any private Reason; for then there would be as much contradiction in the Lawes, as there is in the Schooles; nor yet (as Sr. Ed, Coke makes it (Sir Edward Coke, upon Littleton Lib.2. Ch.6 fol 97.b),) an Artificiall Perfection of Reason, Gotten By Long Study, Observation, And Experience, (as his was.) For it is possible long study may encrease, and confirm erroneous Sentences: and where men build on false grounds, the more they build, the greater is the ruine; and of those that study, and observe with equall time, and diligence, the reasons and resolutions are, and must remain discordant: and therefore it is not that Juris Prudentia, or wisedome of subordinate Judges; but the Reason of this our Artificiall Man the Common-wealth, and his Command, that maketh Law: And the Common-wealth being in their Representative but one Person, there cannot easily arise any contradiction in the Lawes; and when there doth, the same Reason is able, by interpretation, or alteration, to take it away. In all Courts of Justice, the Soveraign (which is the Person of the Common-wealth,) is he that Judgeth: The subordinate Judge, ought to have regard to the reason, which moved his Soveraign to make such Law, that his Sentence may be according thereunto; which then is his Soveraigns Sentence; otherwise it is his own, and an unjust one.

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Statesmanship, a lost art

In my youth I thought that the statesmen of great nations rose by natural superiority and brilliance of mind. Then I started meeting them and was at once disabused of this. Europe has no Talleyrand, no Bismarck, no De Gaulle. They would not have reacted with petulance nor believed the press headline over the reality.  One should not beg for another Bismarck to rise in Europe, but he is needed at this hour.

The forced introduction of democracy to the benighted states of Europe has succeeded in its purpose, of introducing imbecility and thus impotence. The condition appears to have spread also to the smaller states which had previously had forms of democracy. They spit out at the top no statesmen but petty players and énarques.

Taleyrand would not have read the newspaper headline to the exclusion of the reality. (He might have written the headline, to get effect.) Bismarck would leak a faked telegram, or email in our age, but he would not have believed one, nor preferred a Guardian leader over his own analysis. He would have understood, and understood the game. De Gaulle would occasionally make a diplomatic gaffe in exercise of his own greatness (Vive le Quebec…) but his every action was for the good of France and its people.

In the sensible world, beyond Europe, progress is being made on many fronts: a new trade treaty with Japan signed yesterday, and others rolling along towards the finish. That should be a challenge to Europe, but so far they appear just as inward-looking politicians.

It was commented on this blog earlier about the unseemly behaviour we have seen, fighting by press release instead of secret, diplomatic negotiation. Maybe, we may think, it is a symptom of the modern world of open, instant communication aimed at the lowest common denominator. However it has not affected the negotiations carried out elsewhere across the world.

The French Ambassadors to King Henry VIII, those in Holbein’s picture, on whose word turned war or peace, were in their twenties. We can afford elder statesmen these days. It would helpful if we could find some.

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The maddening of a paper MP

A year since in a constituency far from the leafy shires, in the old Red Wall, maybe a committee sat to choose their candidate for parliament. A Conservative committee, sitting maybe at the depth of Theresa May’s misfortunes but in any case facing when they knew: an election where Labour’s man would walk in on the backs of votes inherited over generations.

Such a Conservative Association, in an apparently hopeless seat, is not like those in the solid-blue constituencies; the latter are gatherings of all the ultra-respectable pillars of society (and at least outwardly respectable ones too) attuned to the tasks of governing with calm moderation. Those in towns where Labour or Snoopy dominate are fighting constituencies: raw and blunt, set not to govern but to maul like tigers without the need to take responsibility, for there is no responsibility without power.

To choose a candidate in a deep-blue town is to choose a high-flying achiever or a sound and (outwardly) respectable man, or woman. Where the candidate is paper candidate, you may choose a pugnacious man, a low and dirty fighter, knowing he will never sit in the Commons.  Then came December 2019. The political map changed. The Red Wall fell and suddenly a number of low-and-dirty fighters found themselves unexpectedly, bewilderedly as the Honourable Member for Wherever.

All their plans for the year ahead were lost. Their lives were wrenched off their courses. They were drawn unwillingly out of their familiar post-industrial home towns and sent to London and told to wear a suit and to follow not their usual fighting instinct but the directions of a whip.

Each new MP, they tell me, suffers from imposter syndrome, wandering around looking for who is in charge but realising it is them and they cannot get rid of that responsibility.  For those who knew they would be there, they will have had time to prepare, but the accidental MP may be more lonely than them all.

There is a lot written about the midlife crisis: this is that crisis a hundredfold. All that passed before: is it a mistake?  Is there time to change his life before it is too late?  How does he regain the vigour of youth just as he most needs it?

Drear and dangerous thoughts fill the brain. Reckless action may recommend itself to cure the shortness of time, while the new responsibilities of office weigh down and the expectations of the eager constituents who elected him should not be disappointed; or should they be, as a way to get out of this pickle in five years’ time? The temptation is there to blow it all, but a politician clings to office by instinct, and lurches between the comfort of the settled position and power, and the trying of the walls of that security with couched recklessness.

Every man, and woman, is different, but all are men and women. As the paper MP looks about him, at his new, unwanted life, might he not reassess the end of his constant fighting and the long time yet ahead of him? He sits like the retired warrior lords of old “Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole Unequal laws unto a savage race” and dreaming of ways to recapture past vigour: that she no longer conjures the violence of passion of the newly-wed years has turned many a man of that age to look for that spark elsewhere, with youthful flesh or in some cases to blame their lost vigour on all femininity supposing that it might be found on the other side of humanity, which would explain the number of middle-aged wives cast aside as their husband starts dressing in pink. The sudden change of a political life may be just such a shock, and indeed politicians are over-represented in that change.

Little by little the old life is cast away; “’Tis not too late to seek a newer world. Push off, and sitting well in order smite The sounding furrows”; little by little new horizons are explored, to the damage of all around, and as each frontier passes without incident or is covered up by the whips and that spark of youth is still not found, more are explored, probed, to find the limit “It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles”; but in truth they are far behind.

Youth cannot return. This is part of the truth of life for every man. Instead, life can be enriched with new frontiers that are the gifts of God not the traps of the Devil, but it takes a wise and discerning man to discover which are which, and those thrust into their seat unexpectedly from the fighter’s corner may not have that wisdom nor discernment; those were not qualities for which they were chosen.

Now is the time for the man to decide his fate, to heaven or to hell. For the Honourable Member for Wherever, these changes of manner are not done in the shadows as he is now a public figure, and the whip’s notebook fills, and a quiet word is passed that the world is about to crash about his ears in a manner more terrible than the mere inevitable slipping away of youth and the expected life. Now is the time, as our whole life is an unending series of ‘now’, and no change in life is so great a change as it seems.

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By Boris Johnson:

By others