Missing role models?

I was surprised that anyone should complain of losing a few male role models, when we have such a richness of them: models of behaviour, and warnings of what to avoid; bad models as well as good.

The first and greatest male role model is ones own father, and then there are endless books and films and stories. Sitting through Zulu will cure a hundred losses of modern limp literature.

The whole swelling sea of literature and culture has ideals and reproaches in the myriad. A couple of weeks ago when an MP bemoaned the loss to maleness of a main character in a children’s fantasy programme, I had to laugh.

There are good books aplenty, bristling with heroes and villains, with dash and excitement and lessons for life, and films bulging out of every screen. It is only modern works which have had the life scoured out of them.

Lessons in life start in earliest youth. I once spoke to a publisher of children’s books, and she explained that the only books most young children read are those which are in the school library, and schools only buy books which tie in with themes in the curriculum, and so there is no point in their considering interesting  books for publication: there is no market. It was an eye-opening conversation. This may go some way to explain the insipid nature of most children’s literature. It also explains why parents who read with their children, and encourage them to read books that have actual substance, bring up stronger, wiser children.

Teenagers are another matter, but the less said about teenage ‘literature’ the better. Dig up instead the many books of an older age suitable for teenage boys: these books loved by past generations, adventure books, all have worthy heroes.

Looking for old-fashioned adventure stories, there are few authors in recent generations who stick in the mind, but there are some good ones. We have more books than ever, but those with the hero narrative are lessened, to leave a trail of pointless or pretentious books, well written but not suitable for educating the mind. Perhaps it is because the writers of old had lived out their stories: the Biggles books were written by an actual pilot of the Great War; the Richard Hannay stories by one who served in the ‘Wild South’ of diamond-rush South Africa and on the Western Front, and James Bond was the invention of someone not much different in his real life. Few modern writers can draw upon such experience. There is little life or heroism to be learnt in the reflection of dull suburbia.

Of the adventure novel, few will be found in a  school library, and there are active moves to banish them. The vision of modernity which activists promote is a dull, mechanistic one.

Even so, they do not have a monopoly of imagination, and the heroes are still plentiful to find, and there are still books and films being made, both sides of the Atlantic as well as Australia and of course Bollywood, and a voracious market for them. The heroic male role model is not vanishing.

It is just ‘received opinion’ amongst those who affect to despise the heroic model which would see an end to it, who know that in their petty selves they cannot match up to the ideal and would bring everything low to their level – but even they sometimes cannot help themselves when pen is set to  paper.

If I were to write a novel, would it be full of thrill and adventure, with a larger than life definitely male hero defying impossible odds, with gritty fights and grim weapons, unflinching against a relentless foe in exotic locations with women swooning over him?  Of course I would. Any first novel is implicitly autobiographical, after all.

Now, with all that said, I have written only of male role models, and that is only half the population, and the half already oversupplied with all that our culture bestows.  What of female role models? They are just as entitled to see themselves reflected, and to have a good pattern for life placed before them. I cannot take seriously any wail about a story being feminised, if it still works. (Just leave the established characters alone.) My complaint is that when a character is reimagined in feminine guise, it is too often done badly.

To promote good female role models we do not want not male characters put in a dress, but strong women with feminine reactions.  That though is another article and I have to question my fitness to write it.

See also

Books

Matt Hancock book exclusive

Matt Hancock’s How I Won the COVID War, out soon: a thrilling read. Page after page of revelations: ‘If I were to get on top of this one, I’d have to work fast. I took lessons from Neil Ferguson’.

‘I was going to get down to it – if it took all-night sessions with staff, I was up for it.’ ‘It was a fearsome projection: I was facing a massive hump in the summer.’

‘It was vital that people stay at home unless needed: even my wife could no longer join me at the office in the evening, and I had police posted just in case.’

‘This is an international problem – I was discussing Uganda into the small hours. How I kept it up, I’ll never know.’

The book is not out for a few months, but the extracts are revealing. Getting through on tiny scraps of data, bearing a hunch and carrying it through, following tiny clues, hacking phones, bribing publishers and getting the ghost-writer drunk  – that’s how exclusives are made. What I found was less exciting than I thought: here was Matt, plain Matt Hancock, just as pointless and self-absorbed as he always seemed. If you want drama and fantasy, you have what he thought of himself.

The Liberal Delusion: a retrospective

In the 9 years since publication, The Liberal Delusion by John Marsh is as relevant and insightful as ever. At the memorial service for the author on Saturday I was struck by how much of the character of the man went into his masterful analysis. He was not an author – this was his only completed book – but he was a great thinker and a historian.

In latter years, the stream of neo-liberal thought has taken a weird turn not anticipated in the book, but the author does show where the philosophy went wrong so as to produce these abominations.

I have a lot for which to be grateful to John Marsh. I always found his robust, infectious cheerfulness and enthusiasm a delight; it drew you in and provoked mischievously.  This enthusiasm and his iconoclasm and plain common sense in the face of nonsense, all these come out in his book, and they inspired in part the creation of this blog: while it is based on the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, I have always been aware that the philosophy of the nature of humanity is in Hobbes indeed, with a debt to Anthony Burgess, but filtered through the clarity with which John Marsh expressed his fundamental concepts.  His central argument is the central argument I have adopted in a number of my posts here.

The malaise of these days is recorded in many a book and for the most part it is little more than a jeremiad, an impotent lamentation. The Liberal Delusion is very different, for while it does recite laments, its concern is finding and extirpating the root of society’s failure, finding it in a failure of modern liberal philosophy: this is the Liberal Delusion.

The book takes aim at a single flaw which is at the root of modern liberalism. From that one error follow conclusions all based on that error. If you make a wrong turn on the road, however boldly and logically you follow the lanes ahead of you, you are going in the wrong direction, and can only go right it you start again where you went wrong. His provocative question is this: ‘Is western civilisation based on a mistaken understanding of humanity?‘  Yes, it is.

The flaw of liberal philosophy is the first of the delusions listed: “Human Nature is Good and Rational”. It is frightening to think that is not the case, because if man is a venal animal driven by emotional impulses then the beast may burst out at any moment – but man is an animal, and fundamental nature is evil: this is made clear in the Bible, and in the evidence of our own eyes. In the stench of the camps, or the gulags, or Afghanistan, could anyone really believe Rousseau that ‘Mankind is naturally good’? If we do not recognise the uncomfortable reality, then we cannot form society so as to restrain the beast.

Society can be too far restrained, and in most of the world it is. Only freedom enables development, innovation and the creation of prosperity. Freedom based on a cautious understanding of what lies in the heart of man is positive, and drove the prosperity of the modern age until liberal philosophers took a grip. Freedom itself is not the issue. Mankind is the clay of society, and misunderstanding the nature of the material, any structure must collapse.

The book examines ten specific delusions of the liberals; amongst them that mankind is good; that more freedom is always good; that morality is unnecessary; science is benign and religion harmful, and all that leads from these.

This is not enough though – the historian asserts himself and in the second section “The Dark Side of Liberalism” shows the direct result of these ideas since the Enlightenment. Some consequences and event are known to us and make us shudder still. Some, like the mass-murder of the Vendée after the French Revolution, have slipped from the collective memory and deserve recall. (History books are written by academic historians, much given to finding patterns where there are none, and fudging out events which disprove the pattern or the heroism they have attributed to men who were monsters; as are we all under the skin.)

The book is not long: the author resisted the temptation to pad it out just to be impressive.  It says what it needs to say, shows you why it is true, and no more. If only other writers would adopt that approach.

At the launch, the publisher was keen but cautious about the arguments, and it was only afterwards that I thought about this: a publisher will praise the industry and insight of his author but no one expects him to agree with everything written, but here was a book so intense in its insistence that he could not help but be drawn in. I hope that other readers will also be, and I would certainly urge our politicians to buy a copy and to digest it, considering whether, in fact, they have got something wrong.

See also

Books

Wonder of the Peak 0: introduction

De Mirabilibus Pecci is one of the lesser works of Thomas Hobbes, but influential, as others have followed him to explore and describe the Seven Wonders of the Peak. Over the next seven days (if I can manage it) I would like to look at them too.

William Camden may have been to record the tradition of seven wonders in the Peak District:

There are in High Peake wonders three,
A deepe hole, Cave, and Den,
Commodities as many bee,
Led, Grasse, and Sheepe in pen.
And Beauties three there are withall,
A Castle, Bath, Chatsworth.
With places more yet meet you shall
That are of meaner worth.

The Peak District is a wonderous place, certainly, and choosing just seven places for a list is limiting. The list, by Camden then by Hobbes, is fixed now, and ranges in themes that explore the eclectic nature of the Peak District.

Hobbes was born, of course, in Wiltshire, but he travelled widely, and lived for many years as a guest of the Earls of Devonshire, his patrons. He composed De Mirabilibus Pecci (‘Of the Wonders of the Peak’) as a grateful tribute to the 3rd Earl, his former pupil and his patron (who owned much of the Peak). It is a long poem, in Latin so I cannot comment on the quality of the poetry. The quality of the seven wonders he listed however I can explore. Mercifully for readers, I will do so in prose.

See

0 Introduction – 1 Chatsworth2 The Ebbing and Flowing Well3 Eldon Hole4 St Ann’s Well5 Poole’s Cavern6 Mam Tor7 The Devil’s Arse

I always side with the Morlocks

In The Time Machine, H G Wells drops his character, the Time Traveller, into a very different world, in the year 802,701.

If you have not read the book, it imagines humanity that is no longer human. Some great, decayed buildings still stand but mankind which built them has gone. There is a great sphinx monument, and across the landscape there are well-heads (or so they seem) but the human race as we know it is no more. At a past age it had bifurcated into two species: surface-dwelling eloi and subterranean morlocks.

It s a well-crafted book, written before Wells ‘sold his birthright for a pot of message’, so it need not contain a political or social point – just the author’s brilliant imagination giving a radical possibility for the future.

The Time Traveller is charmed by the eloi and repelled by the morlocks. The eloi amongst whom he finds himself, in their bright, carefree, arcadian lifestyle, gathering flowers, eating the fruit of untended trees and doing no manner of work, with no machines or science or writing, childlike in attitude and stature, seem to live out the dreamed ideal of mankind. The morlocks dwell in tunnels beneath the ground, where there are machines beating unseen in the dark. They are white-skinned and pink-eyed, and malevolent. They emerge at night from the sphinx and the wells and hunt for their meat – the eloi. The eloi fear the dark.

The BBC has (or had) a weird and worrying children’s television programme, called ‘Waybuloo’ (which was apparently Buddhist propaganda, not that the Beeb ever noticed) portraying childlike creatures living such an idyllic life with no cares and no work, living on wild fruit. I saw it, and knew instinctively that someone has to be doing all the work that they could live, and I could hear in my mind the thumping of the machines in a deep, unseen cave and the morlocks waiting the harvest the Piplings they had cultivated above. Don’t tell the children.

I still prefer the Morlocks. The Eloi are clothed and fed by another’s work and sustained just as cattle in the field. They have lost all the attributes of humanity. They have a simple language, but little reason for it. They know no past nor future and do not even look after each other – Weena was left to drown in the stream without a thought. The morlocks however take a hand in their own preservation and prosperity. They work, they have machines. They are curious, carrying off the time machine to study it. They farm the eloi as a food source, and so the eloi depend on the morlocks, though little realising this. The morlocks impliedly built the sphinx so that all who see it know who is superior. The eloi neither build nor preserve anything. The eloi are a disgrace to their distant ancestry: they are mere animals. The morlocks alone continue the human story.

Wells, through the voice of his Time Traveller, supposes that the morlocks were descended from the working men forced underground to toil, while the eloi came from the masters in their airy villas who banished them, only to lose their vitality through indolence. Any division like that would be self-correcting in our world, as the vigorous class became masters over the useless. The world of 802,701 imagined by Wells had reached not a new equilibrium but a position between two separated species that had to be maintained by the constant work of the morlocks.

It is possible to read too much into The Time Machine by reference to the radical political ideas later espoused by Wells. His visit to Bolshevik Russia in 1920 may have been a turning point for him, seeing it as a science fiction writer might, for the imaginary being turned into a reality, and ignoring inconvenient subplots like the induced mass poverty and starvation, repression and massacres. During the Great War he had come to express radical ideas, spurred by a hatred of the Hun and their industrial violence, but the development of his political ideas through fiction can be traced back earlier. The War in the Air (1907) is more soundly Hobbesian in its concept of how the world would turn out if civilisation were to smash itself. The Time Machine (1895) looks far further forward, deeper into humanity and sub-humanity. Maybe this is what pushed him over the edge.

The world portrayed in the book is not really about the future: it is more personal and internal. Victorian philosophers used to talk of a good and an evil side to each of us (as expressed in Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but that is another article): the eloi and the morlocks represent those sides. Perhaps instead though they represent on one side the child’s happy dream and on the other are the monsters imagined in the dark. In waking, it may contrast the idyll of childhood summers against the toil of adulthood; or the ideal we dream of and the reality in which we find ourselves. The eloi are compared with children, in case we had not picked the clues up.

There is something worrying there too. The only named character of the future age is Weena. In the classic film adaptation she is portrayed as a lover. In the book her position is ambiguous: she is more like a clingy child, but the Time Traveller is not unreciprocating as he ‘returned to the welcome and the caresses of little Weena’. Not too childlike, I hope. (There are men who seek utterly limp and submissive women, but such men deserve no respect, and I pity the women concerned.) I will be generous and assume that in this case the man finding himself the only human being in the world needs some innocent, reassuring company.

He meets the morlocks in the tunnels beneath a well. In the dark there are just looming shapes, a mass of figures, the meat on a table, the huge machines of unknown function. Fingers paw at him, exploring, then seizing him and he wrenches himself away. Is it an attack or a desire to know more of this unknown being who has stepped amongst them, just as they wanted to understand the machine? We cannot know.

The night will come though, and it does, even as he and Weena are far from the communal hall of home, and the morlocks emerge. It is perhaps the first time we see them with characters of their own. They are still for the Time Traveller an anonymous swarm to be rendered no pity even as they scream in terror of the approaching fire. he does not see them as being closer to him than is the eloi girl in his arms, or maybe he does but does not want to know himself. He is as far as he can be from the comforts of that Victorian withdrawing room from which he stepped, but it has not left him. The eloi are comforting; the morlocks a deadly threat, but back in London men in the shadows are no less a threat.

In the book, the morlocks are observed as ugly, evil monsters, without any redeeming feature, and the eloi are beautiful perfection. However they morlocks cannot be all evil any more than people are. They must co operate and have a society in order to build and to thrive on limited resources.

All this analysis can be pushed too far. I might read the book for my own reading of it, or as the average reader (if there is such a thing), or the way Wells intended. As you wish.

What I take from it, which Wells did not intend, is that of the two species descended from mankind, the Eloi are lovely but a dead-end, unable to develop or even to survive on their own. The Morlocks look after themselves and each other, they plan ahead, they build, they are curious and accordingly they can develop and adapt. The future is theirs. I must always side with the Morlocks.

See also

Books