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.

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In praise of plagiarism

Many books, poems and art are fine, but in need of improvement by a more skilful hand, or just a different voice. Some great authors have built monuments which define style and art, but most have slips that could benefit from a brush-up or are in places a semi-tone off. Another hand could step in and make it perfect, but modern sensibilities condemn this as a cheat’s trade.

Without constructive plagiarism, we would lack several great plays by Shakespeare: Hamlet was a complete lift from Thomas Kyd’s version, which itself was from Saxo Grammaticus; the Merchant of Venice is largely swiped from Marlowe’s grim The Jew of Malta. Each was written when the original writer was barely cold in the grave, but each was turned inside out and improved immeasurably.  Bach swiped others’ tunes continually and magically transformed them into something new. A great artist need not be completely original when he can be an alchemist, performing transmutation of weak material into gold.

In the modern day though, this treatment of another’s work unless radically undone and rewritten is looked down upon as if it were a sort of theft.

We do permit radical film adaptations, because it is such a different medium. I never hear complaints against Coppola that he stole from Conrad when he made Apocalypse Now, because it is a new work of art adopted from Conrad’s work. It can be an improvement: Ray Bradbury said that the changed ending in the (original) film version of his most celebrated novel was possibly a better conclusion that the ending he wrote. (That is a curse for a writer who creates such perfect fluidity of plot – how can it end? The ending is where many great works fail.) As a book, I would count Fahrenheit 451 amongst those great works which should not be bowdlerised, of which it would otherwise be in danger because at least a shadow of it has become part of common culture, and because what was when written a work of wildly fantastical dystopian fiction is becoming, horribly, prescient. For film adaptation, changes are necessary for the medium.

Not all works deserve such reverent preservation: the books that fade out in the middle; the poems that have a couple of great lines and an idea but then turn mediocre; the film which wastes its premise; the music that find a pretty section and repeats it endlessly for want anything better – I would argue that we should be happy for an artist to improve on these.

It is part of our preconception of art and literature that it should be a single, inspired piece. That is an attractive idea, but I would say it comes more from a superstitious desire for purity than from rational consideration. As we know though, the love of purity is at odds with the creative spirit.

If a fine house is built, but the garage at the side is poorly proportioned, we do not insist that the whole house be demolished and started from the foundations:  we get a new builder to knock the poor bits down and build then better. If a good book has almost been written but goes wrong somewhere, it makes sense to let someone write it. Editors of cheap novels arrange that more than you might think: they are not daft. In the film world they understand this very well: when a film goes awry, the studio sacks the director or the scriptwriters, but keeps as much as possible of the good work they have already done. (Sometimes they get it wrong, which is why the Director’s Cut is often better than the original. There is, for a true artist, such a thing as purity of conception.)

Shakespeare did not face copyright claims, so he could do what he liked with other people’s work. Today we would need permission, and the profit of any ‘improved’ book would go mainly to the original author whose donkey-work has provided the bulk of it. That accepted, there is no other reason not to revisit works which could be improved markedly by others. I read plenty of poetry I would like to rewrite.

It is not cheating but perfecting; not dishonouring an original author, but making their hard work flower into what it deserves to be.

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Surviving the Stone Age: reviewed

I shamelessly enjoyed Surviving the Stone Age, which finished last weekend on Channel 4 It is the latest example of ‘experimental archaeology’ and far better than the others tried over the years, because they used subjects who actually knew what they were doing.

The Hobbesian attraction of the conceit is clear – this was re-enacting life in the earliest stages of society, not in a state of nature but shorn of all the accretions and presuppositions of developed society, to put the subjects within touching distance of that state of nature.

Yes, it was a bit of fluff to a large extent, as they all are – the ‘tribe’ know they were out in the wild for just a month with hot baths and full larders to follow and they knew that if something serious went wrong there was a camera crew and extraction team, but to their great credit this did not interfere too much.

It was a mammoth’s head and shoulders above previous efforts along the theme. Over the years, the good folk in tellyland have tried several times programmes along the lines “What if we take ordinary people out of their homes, put them in a Bronze Age / Iron Age village and see how they get on?” It was just reality-TV in roundhouses. One of those a few years ago was horrifying: the subjects plonked in the village knew nothing outside the comforts of running water and packaged food and the first time they tried to cook over an open fire, several of them were sent home with food poisoning, while others left after arguments falling just short of a fist-fight. It was just a freak show.

This time though we had something very different. There were no real ingenues: all those taking part were men and women who had taught themselves Stone Age skills and so knew what they were seeing and feeling and what to do. They had two Americans who had each lived alone wild in the primaeval forests and were exactly in their element; glorious. There was a former Royal Marine who had gone wild himself. As their voice-of-the-audience was a charming young couple whom you might imagine coming round to tea, but who were skilled hobby stone-agers. This made for realism and that made it watchable. When they wanted to eat, they had to find roots, berries, fish and flesh. Once they had it, they used every ounce they could, for meat or material.

The constant of life is food. We need to eat every day, and in the wild that means hunting and foraging every day for most of the day, and the only break in the pursuit is after a big kill that may last a few days if properly preserved.

The programme was filmed in one of the few empty lands left in Europe, in the Rhodope Mountains, an arm of the Balkans wreathed in mist and myth. There are no bureaucrats here and no petty regulations like that ruined the ’roundhouse telly’ of past years: they wanted meat so they stalked and shot a deer, or speared fish, without filling any forms in.

The challenge is for us to recognise that even for those hardened to the prehistoric life, that life is hard and precarious, and how could we have survived? Yet man did survive and thrive in the Stone Age. In the hundreds of thousands of years of humanity, all was the Stone Age except the last few millennia. In pockets of the world, as in deepest Amazonia and in the central lands of New Guinea and among the Andaman Islands, the folk live in the Stone Age still. The Stone Age not weird or a passing phase: it is modernity which is weird, and brief so far.

They could not in a month show anything but a glance of Stone Age life. New love, childbirth, injury, death were not going to appear. Neither did they compete bloodily for resources – they did not come across a tribe sent out by Canal+ and fight them with spears for the resources of the land.

War is the Hobbesian reality in cultures from the earliest days to our own. If there can be a state of nature, then it is a state of “Warre Of Every One Against Every One“, but the needs of survival require the formation of clan groups and tribes, which are the first forms of society. They in turn are at war with all others with whom they have no social contract. Within the clan group is all the comfort and support that is available, and anything we have in modernity is just a reflection of that ancient society.

We can shake that out of ourselves in the comfort of our advanced civilisation, or at least what seems advanced to us in this brief generation, with our abundant resources made abundant by the complex organisation of worldwide society, but it is only that society which supplies us and keeps us from what was the reality of mankind for almost all of our existence. We are still those people, the same in frame and mind as ten thousand years ago and more, sitting on a thin crust of civilisation. Surviving The Stone Age was attempting a glimpse at what we are.

Link

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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.

Update

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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Ban ‘Jerusalem’? Yes: long overdue

The BBC can’t get anything right these days. The flurry today may have been an exercise in misdirection, but it showed up the angry divisions in society, as if we needed to be reminded of them. I love the patriotic songs lifting the spirit, but Jerusalem I would lose without hesitation.

The BBC organise the Promenade Concerts in the Royal Albert Hall, and have done every peacetime year since Henry Wood founded them. Today’s scandal broke from unofficial sources; a claim that the Beeb were to ban forever the famous patriotic songs which characterise the Last Night of the Proms. All hell broke loose. Actually this may have been a fake story, a softener before they revealed that the music would be there but not sung, because of the possible coronavirus risk.

A year without Rule, Britannia at full volume is unthinkable, and we must have Land of Hope and Glory belted out with gusto in the Royal Albert Hall or there has indeed been a revolution against us, the right-thinking people of the nation. They are grand, patriotic songs wrapped in the Union Jack that lift the spirit and remind us, in spite of all the vandals are trying to do, that Britons are a great nation and that we shaped and continue to shape the world and we can feel very glad about it.

(I saw this evening that Land of Hope and Glory sung by Vera Lynn has reached Number 1 in the download charts: it might restore my faith in the taste of the public.)

However one of the Proms songs, Jerusalem, or And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time, should be ditched forever.

It is not one that comes under the usual woke condemnation: it is not imperial or racial or whatever other boo-words they usually use to tag things that might make them think. It has a soaring tune by Parry – one of his best, and it is a cracker to listen to because of that tune. However the words – they pretend to be a hymn but are a disgrace to theology and although Jerusalem is a very popular song and has been used as a hymn ever since it was set to music, it has been banned from many churches because its words are blasphemous nonsense.

The words are a poem by William Blake, one of the weirdest of 19th century poets and painters. He was considered mad in his own age: the calm consideration of his legacy in later years does nothing to dispel that. His ideas were both radical and irrational and he grasped for a spirituality receiving an inspiration unlike that for a prophet and more like that received by the Gadarene Swine.

The poem he wrote which has become the famous ‘hymn’ is based on a mediaeval legend invented to fleece pilgrims out of cash in Glastonbury: the monks, to ‘prove’ how ancient their establishment was claimed that Jesus himself, as a child, came to Somerset and founded the abbey. The story takes the Lord’s name in vain in a most scandalous manner but it drew gullible pilgrims in droves. Blake took that blasphemous legend and made it into a poem, and that is what gets sung at the Proms.

This has been characterised as the only hymn in the book consisting of questions the answer to all of which is “no”. And did those feet..? No they did not. That rather knocks out the whole conceit of the piece.

There is a lot to be set for inspiring listener and the singer to exertions to bring about a paradise on Earth, and the confused mixing up of images from Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and from the Book of Kings and from Blake’s fevered imagination has a breathless quality that for that moment makes you feel you can achieve – but it is built on that fatal, ill concept so that to get to the soaring verses about whacking people with swords we are made to sing blasphemous nonsense about Jesus as a bairn in England.

One should also object politically: it sings of England, not Britain. In Blake’s time the word ‘England’ was used to mean the whole of the British isles, but it sits ill today and suggests “there is a special blessing for all who live south of the Tweed – not for Scots though”.

Jerusalem the city has a long history in metaphor, and Hobbes looked at this in the scriptures in forensic detail (and if I every get round to it I will write about that). Blake’s poem though has none of that: it is heretical nonsense and should be cast out at once.

I will enjoy Parry’s tune without the words. If a poet can write better words, freed from Blake’s phrenzy, he may make something which is worthy of Parry’s triumph.