Saturday, 22 December 2007

On Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening

At the last club meeting, we were discussing alternative ways to spend the winter break, and reference was made to ‘Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening’. This was the poem Robert Frost (1874-1963) said was "my best bid for remembrance." Some confuse it with his other woodland poem ‘The Road Not Taken’. That’s the one that starts and ends
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood …
And sorry I could not travel both
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
This has been described as an 'autumnal' poem, and 'Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening' as a winter poem. It is set on 'the darkest evening of the year", implying the midwinter solstice which falls a few days before Xmas Eve. Spending Xmas in the woods today has a special appeal, for it is inherently less bleak than spending it in open country, and snow itself has a cushioning, deadening, effect. Even in urban settings, a heavy snowfall muffles sound so the day can be eerily quiet.
There’s an episode of the vintage sitcom Father Knows Best that illustrates the appeal of woods at Xmas. (As the title indicates, it belongs to an era of unquestioned certainties now long gone, though it was followed by 1970s Xmas specials, and is now being remade as a sendup.) The series’ all-American typical family, en route to visit country-dwelling relatives for Xmas, are forced by a Xmas Eve snowstorm to spend the night in a deserted forester’s cabin. The kids have been acting as spoilt ‘modern’ teens, whingeing about not having their own phones etc. But they rediscover an appreciation of the ‘thanksgiving’ basics by being snow-bound in a cabin. Since that time, many North American families have, or aspire to, a weekend cabin or cottage for this “R&R” purpose.
Frost’s poem is much darker, seen by some as a contemplation of “the dangerous seductiveness of the woods” – the seductive appeal of quietitude itself, to the point of contemplating death. This is a conception belonging to an age where the basics of survival are no longer central, as they had been until recently. The poem’s original inspiration had in fact been a family-duty trip at Christmas 1905, when “Frost had made an unsuccessful trip into town to sell eggs in order to raise money for his children's Christmas presents.” Today, its last lines can also be seen as social duty requiring one to postpone the personal, or natural desire to live the quiet life where one can spend one’s days and nights contemplating nature. Here it is, in full:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Woods in snow

Sunday, 16 December 2007

What Price Knowledge?

As I relaxed in the library of the Diogenes club, warming myself in front of the fire and enjoying some of their excellent brandy, I felt myself overtaken with a feeling of Christmas cheer. The room had recently been refurbished and more shelves had been put up to house the latest additions to our collection of learned volumes.

My good mood was probably due to the fact that I was full of good food and drink. Along with my companions, I had just partaken of the Club's legendary Christmas Dinner, a feast so decadent that I felt sure that I would not need to eat again for at least a week.

I found myself enjoying the momentary - and uncharacteristic - pause in the conversation, taking the opportunity to draw on my cigar and lose myself in the flames of the fire. The crackling sounds made by the logs were almost as hypnotic and no one seemed to want to break the spell.

"Of course, you know that all this stuff about peace and goodwill to all men is complete balderdash, don't you." said Manton, rousing everyone from their digestive reverie.

"For goodness sake, Manton, you may be the most cynical of us all, but that is a somewhat sweeping statement." said Treworthy. "Do you really expect us to believe that you are unmoved by the air of festivity and immune to the expressions of delight on the faces of the youngsters."

"They are all spoilt brats, heading for a life of heart attack-inducing obesity and planet-destroying consumerism, distinguished only by the fact that they are the first generation since the Second World War to be less literate and less intelligent than their moronic parents."

"I think you are mellowing as you approach your dotage, old boy." observed Travis, as he took another sip of brandy. "That's quite a restrained comment for you. One might even say laid-back. Either that or St Nicholas really has got you by the throat."

"The only person who has got me by the throat is my venomous ex-wife and her disgusting brood of relatives. Her incessant demands for maintenance have reached megalomanic proportions, even for her."

His ruddy face turned even redder, and he finished off his brandy with a huge mouthful, inducing a fit of coughing. Henry was at his elbow as if by magic, refilling his glass as he struggled for breath. After the lack of oxygen had calmed him down, he waited until Henry had relit his cigar.

"Every day I sink to my knees and give thanks to each of the major deities that I came to my senses before she was able to conceive."

Ever the scientist, it was Abrahams who spoke next: "Evidence, Manton, evidence. You know the club rules. You have to back up generalisations with documentary evidence."

"He means the bit about it all being balderdash. We'll take your own lack of festive cheer as read." added Travis, helpfully.

"Very well. I do happen to have a little tale here told to me by one of my librarian colleagues, that may serve to illustrate my point, especially as it happened during the festive season last year."

I had never been too sure exactly what Manton's occupation was, but whatever it was that he did, he did it in the British Library.

"Now, you may think that the job of a librarian is somewhat boring..."

There was a flurry of mutterings from the rest of us along the lines of "Not at all" and "Wouldn't dream of it..." but Manton pushed on regardless.

"...but my tale concerns the head librarian at one the major Universities, name of Tremayne. He was highly respected, national reputation and all that. But over the course of a couple of months, things had started to go wrong at work."

"Don't tell me – he lost his date stamp" interjected Travis.

"Shut up Travis" said Treworthy, and then to Manton "What d'you mean?"

"Well, he arrived one day to find that his parking space had been allocated to someone else, and when he went to complain, no one seemed to know who had given the order. Then sometime later, he discovered that the phone had been removed from his office. The final straw was when he learned through a third party that the library building was going to be restructured , and a quarter of it's book stock sold off."

"Well, didn't he go and complain?"

"Of course he did. Made an appointment to see to see the Head of Academic Services. But he was told that the fellow was too busy to see him. Then, later that same afternoon, there was a knock on the door of his office, and in walked a chap in his twenties, about half the Tremayne's age. It turned out that he was the "Learning Resource Co-ordination Facilitator....."

---------------ooOoo-----------------

"Ah, another one of these non-jobs that our new Vice-Chancellor has created." said Tremayne.

"Oh, I wouldn't call it a non-job, Mr Tremayne. Not when I'm paid sixty-five 65K a year."

"Sixty-five....... That's more than I get." Tremayne noticed how new – and expensive – the young man's suit was.

"Quite. So let's get down to business. I hear that you are unhappy about our new plans for the learning resource centre."

"If you mean the library, then yes. Why wasn't I informed of this through proper channels?"

"I'm sure you would have been, Mr Tremayne, in the fullness of time."

"In the fullness of time being after all the decisions are made, I take it?"

"Decisions?"

"This idea of getting rid of a quarter of the book stock. It's monstrous."

"Simple economics. We need more space."

"More space? Well of course we do. This is a library. We always need more space."

"Yes, but not for books."

"What on earth do you mean?"

"Mr Tremayne, according to your own records, a fifth of the bookstock in this library have never been taken out more than once, and a substantial proportion of those have never been taken out at all. There is no economic case for keeping those books."

"I don't deny the need for some ...."

"In fact, there are some voices, some very influential voices, who are openly talking of getting rid of books altogether."

"What?" Tremayne slumped down in his chair.

"Well, what is the point in keeping them? What use are they? We are living in the digital age now, Mr Tremayne."

"But you can't have library without books...."

"Which is why it is not called a library anymore. As I have already told you, it is a Learning Resource Centre. And...". He looked around at the clutter, the shelves of books and magazines and journals that were clearly awaiting sorting and cataloguing, "I think I should tell you that this is not the sort of image that we are trying to promote. Look around you. You are sitting in a room surrounded by dead information."

"What do you mean dead. It's kept safe, preserved for future generations. Without these books, we would have no information."

"Yes, but you can't do anything with it. You can't search it, you can't copy it, you can't transmit it anywhere. Have you any idea how students regard books nowadays, Mr Tremayne? I have had degree students tell me that they just don't use the library at all. Have you never wondered why you see so few of them up here now? In their eyes, the information isn't usable. You can't find anything, or if you can, you can't copy it."

"Yes you can – of course you can. That's my job. That's what I spend my life doing..."

"Exactly. I'm afraid you have become something of a bottleneck."

"A bottleneck....what do you mean?"

"Well, you see, the new vision that the university is trying to promote is that information should be free, it should flow like water. It's fluid, infinitely malleable. It doesn't belong to anyone. It shouldn't be stuck here, frozen into huge immovable slabs like the ones that you have surrounded yourself with."

"I am paid for my knowledge of these books. How to find information, classify it, copy it, select what is needed."

"People can make their own copies of things now, Mr Tremayne. They can find anything they want in the blink of an eye. People have huge amounts of information on their computers now."

"Just because you can make a copy of something doesn't mean that you understand it. Information is the relationship beween data and meaning. It has to be given context."

"Which can be done by the simple use of a search engine. Anyone can do it."

"Then why don't they? Look at the world around you – what have we achieved with all this free knowledge? When I was a young man, all we had were typewriters and sliderules. Searching through a filing cabinet could take the best part of a day. And yet we managed to land a man on the moon. What have we got now? Videogames and reality TV. And global warming. Hardly a giant leap for mankind, is it."

"Mr Tremayne, you seem determined to make this difficult...."

"Difficult? My god when the Head of Academic Services hears about this..."

"He won't, because the post no longer exists. Like yours.".

"I beg your pardon?"

"The Learning Resource Centre is going to be remodelled, the books are going to be sold off, and you will not have an office because your job will no longer exist."

"I...."

"You don't fit in with the new vision."

"I shall talk to the Vice-Chancellor...."

"Well before you do, I think I should tell you that the visionary in question is the Vice-Chancellor. However, it is entirely up to you."

---------------ooOoo-----------------

"And that was about it really. The young einsatzgruppen-exekutiv said all the usual rubbish about giving him an excellent reference and all that, but the poor old boy was a broken man. Never really recovered."

There was a pause while we contemplated the uncertainties of our existence. Treworthy broke the silence.

"Well, I feel sorry for him, poor devil, but I'm afraid I'm on the side of the University. You have to move with the times.... Is there any more brandy Henry?"

"I shall go and see sir."

"Yes, but they didn't have to be so brutal about it, did they. And breaking up the library's book collection like that just seems wrong to me. God knows what happened to them." I said. Manton's story had depressed me.

"It did seem a little harsh." said Travis, his usual wit having momentarily deserted him.

"Well, I wouldn't worry about it too much." said Manton. "If it is any consolation, the University got such a bad report from the inspectors the following year, that the Vice-Chancellor was forced to resign amidst rumours of financial irregularities and the whole lot was restructured again, which meant that they got rid of most of the people like the Learning Resource Facilitator."

"I bet they replaced them with an equally useless bunch though." said Travis.

"All the same, it would be nice to think that some good came out of the whole ghastly episode." said Treworthy, as the butler returned with a fresh supply of brandy, and recharged his glass. "What do you think Henry?"

"I feel sure that every cloud has a silver lining, Sir." said Henry, as he went back to dusting the latest additions to the club's collection of books.




Friday, 14 December 2007

The Simple Life - Read All About It

The complaint Christmas has become too materialistic is so familiar it needs no further explanation. The title of this blog being Stories From The Diogenes Club, here are ten inspirational stories in the spirit of Diogenes. For those who intend, as I do, to spend Xmas quietly reading, these are ten books about, or sometimes by, those who pursued the simple life in their own ways. For there are more interesting ways to attempt the simple life than living in a barrel in Athens marketplace and insulting curious visitors.
Proceeding chronologically, our top-ten book list would have to start with Defoe's 1719 Robinson Crusoe [
free e-text version here], the original 'desert island' novel, based on a true story. Defoe's was a hit inspirational tale of survival, though today it seems somewhat naive in its slightly capitalistic and Christian-evangelist handling of themes of self-reliance and enterprise. The novel, written as if it were a real memoir, started an ongoing desert-island-castaway literary genre (from Swiss Family Robinson to plane-crash survivor stories like Cast Away with Tom Hanks). The list of real-life castaways includes some (like Gerald Kingsland and Lucy Irvine) who got themselves deliberately stranded as a lifestyle experiment (Wikipedia page here). The real-life original of Crusoe, Alexander Selkirk, had done this, and after being rescued lived in a cave on his family property as a hermit until the new-found celebrity created by Defoe's book led to a stream of visitors, which forced him to return to sea, where he perished.
The first such inspirational work in American literature, with major impact, would be
Walden (1854) . Henry David Thoreau's journal of his year or so living in a log cabin he builds by a pond in rural Vermont as an attempt at 'voluntary simplicity' became part of the modern American dream, rediscovered in the Sixties as part of the back-to-the-land approach to dropout culture.
Thoreau's WaldenWe should also list his 1861 essay collection
Walking here. It is the philosophical forerunner of the 'long walk' type of travel book, where the geographic journey is paralleled by an inner one, a journey which clears the mind of non-essentials.
When Thor Heyerdahl's The Kon-Tiki Expedition (1950) was sent to a New York publisher, her famous response was: who wants to read about a bunch of crazy Scandinavians crossing the Pacific on a balsa raft? Of course she could not have been more wrong - it was merely the forerunner of a new genre. The account provided a new way of vicariously experiencing getting back to basics while retracing an 'ancestral' route, and even had a desert-island finale as the raft grounded after 4000 miles on a coral reef near Tahiti.
In US literature Western novels dominate here: the typical hero is a 'saddle tramp', an exemplar of rugged individualism who owns and needs no more than can fit on a saddle, and sleeps by a campfire under the stars. In fact frontier literature went back to the so-called captivity narrative, an early sensational memoir or pseudo-memoir where a ‘civilised’ protagonist is made captive and forced to 'go native' - taking a native wife and so on. This was eventually worked into the conventional 20th-C western in novels like Will Henry's 1950 No Survivors, a pseudo-memoir where the narrator John Clayton (the birth-name of another Simple Lifer better known as Tarzan) is an ex Confederate who lives with the Sioux until dragged into the middle of Custer's last battle, which he survives. (If it sounds familiar it's because the story was later parodied in Little Big Man, and reworked in Dances With Wolves).
The 20th-Century conservation movement began in Canada with the nature writings of Grey Owl, who made the beaver a Canadian national symbol in the 1930s. He was actually an impostor, an Englishman from Hastings called Archie Belaney who after WWI service turned his back on civilisation forever and went to live his life in the Canadian woods as an Ojibwa Indian hunter and trapper. The biography Wilderness Man is the main one of several by his publisher Lovat Dickson, who knew him from his English tours. Grey Owl not only wrote outdoors books like Pilgrims Of The Wild but exploited his colourful image to promote the conservationist cause through gruelling speaking tours, which killed him – he died of exhaustion within days of returning to his log cabin.
Of course in the modern era it isn't practical for most people to go off into the wilderness for extended periods to pursue the simple life. The modern urban variant is the 'bohemian' option, pursued by many a starting writer - living a spare solo existence in a room in a strange town or city to be alone with one's thoughts. An example of this is Jean Paul Sartre's 1938 diary-style existentialist novel Nausea, where the
alienated writer-protagonist finds his sojourn alone in a provincial French seaside town leads to an intellectual breakthrough.
There have of course been genuine hermits throughout history, the famous British one being Myrddin The Wild. In 1985 Nikolai Tolstoi (descendant of the Russian novelist) wrote one of those 'in quest of' books searching for the historical figure who inspired the Merlin of the Arthurian Romances. His The Quest For Merlin describes his search for biographical information regarding this 6th C. hermit who, after giving his king some disastrous advice, cast himself away in the Scottish Border Forests to live in a hut with only a piglet for company, where he wrote poetry and struggled to keep his sanity as he was overwhelmed by the awen, the bardic inspiration that can drive men mad.
Fantasy-SF literature has also contributed the idea of time warps whereby a modern civilised type can return to a primitive, perhaps ancestral environment. In England, this is “The Wildwood,” and the classic here, in terms of convincing detail, is a 1984 novel (again written in memoir or journal style) by Robert Holdstock, Mythago Wood. Here the English hero spends months at a time on expeditions exploring a local woodland where a mysterious shamanistic vortex has created a Wildwood where ‘mythago’ (mythic-image) entities survive from Celtic, Saxon and prehistoric eras.
Of course, the token version of 'back to nature' is the modern camping trip, which in literature lends itself to satire (going back to Three Men In A Boat) where the characters are unable to abandon their civilised ways, even briefly. A modern non-fiction example set in wilder surroundings (America’s Appalachian Trail) is humourist-turned-conservationist Bill Bryson's autobiographical 1998
A Walk In The Woods, where the desire for ‘the wilderness experience’ is offset by inability to abandon modern comforts like junk food.
The simple life is a major and increasingly popular theme in literature, and even if you can't live it at the moment, you can still read all about it.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Conan Doyle And The Bohemian Element

In Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World, the young reporter Malone is told by his beloved Gladys she could never marry a man without the fame and sense of adventure of the sort demonstrated by explorers like Stanley and Burton. So to prove himself, he signs on to accompany the expedition to the ‘lost world’ jungle plateau with its living dinosaurs. After many adventures, he returns successful, to find Gladys has married a solicitor’s clerk.
Whether Conan Doyle was out to prove anything, to himself or the women in his life, is a moot point. He never quite became an explorer, though he had both the physique and the temperament to test himself against challenge and material privation, in what today we would call adventure travel. As he told his mother early on, "I've got a strong Bohemian element in me," he wrote her on one of his early voyages, "and the life seems to suit me."
His wanderlust would have qualified him for membership in the prestigious Travellers Club (where you had to have travelled at least 500 miles in a straight line from London to join) even before he turned 21 and completed his degree.
For while still a medical student, he had travelled to Austria to study, as he would later in life. In his final year of study he signed on as a ship’s surgeon on a whaler bound for Greenland waters. Harpooning sperm whales in boats launched from a sailing ship was a dangerous business (Moby Dick was inspired by a real incident). Doyle also spent days leaping between ice floes, falling in several times while trying to kill seals. He signed on for another voyage, this time to the “White Man’s Graveyard” of the West African coast. While swimming around the ship, he was ‘nearly eaten by a shark’ and the ship caught fire on its return voyage.
In 1892, now a fulltime author, he went on a horseback trip in Norway, visiting a leper colony, and trying to speak Norwegian – something that cost him his horse, which he accidentally gave away.
He was a lifelong sports enthusiast, and it was an 1893 trip to the Swiss Alps to take his consumptive first wife Louisa to a sanatorium that led to his popularising skiing – then not a recognised sport. (A trip to a dramatic local waterfall on this same visit also gave him the idea how, at last, he could kill off Holmes.)
In 1896 he sailed 800 miles up the Nile on a tour boat which was fired upon by disaffected locals, risking capture by hostile Dervishes. He also crossed overland by carriage to visit a remote Coptic monastery on the edge of the Nile Delta.
In 1898, when Kitchener’s army began to advance up the Nile to take Khartoum, he signed up as a war correspondent and travelled south by camel into the Sudan to a desert fort, returning frustrated at the lack of immediate action.
In the Boer War, he tried to sign up as a private, but (being 40) was rejected and so (like Watson) became an Army doctor, saving lives in a typhoid epidemic.
On the voyage home from Africa, he met Bertram Fletcher, who gave him the idea for his 1902 Holmes comeback novel The Hound Of The Baskervilles, with its bleak Dartmoor setting, which he enjoyed exploring on foot, looking for sites which would figure in the story.
In 1902 he also took up ballooning, then flew in a biplane in the hope of making the first parachute jump.
He was also a keen early adopter of the new automobiles and motorbikes, despite a serious crash in 1904 where only his physique saved him from being crushed by his overturned Wolseley tourer. (As well as boxing, cricket, skiing and snowshoeing, he also practiced hill walking and rock climbing.) In 1911, he joined the Royal Automobile Club's racing team in a rally called the Prince Henry Tour, where some forty British drivers raced from Cologne to Southampton to Edinburgh to London against fifty Germans, a contest that nearly ended in a mass brawl when the British team won.
His 1912 The Lost World was partly inspired by his sighting, on his honeymoon cruise in 1907 with his 2nd wife Jean, a sea monster he identified as an ichthyosaurus.
In 1914, he visited the Canadian Rockies, riding, fishing, walking – though now travelling in more comfortable style, for he was now 55.
After the war, he kept travelling, mainly to promote his pet cause of Spiritualism. In 1928 he spent five months travelling around southern Africa, hunting and sightseeing. His final trip was a tour around ‘Protestant’ Europe, which he had to cut short due to chest pains. As a doctor, he knew what that meant, and he confined himself thereafter to his Surrey home ground. Then he went on what as a Spiritualist he regarded as the greatest adventure of all, dying peacefully in his garden in 1930, aged 71.
Today people travel from all over the world to Minstead in the New Forest to visit his gravesite. In 1925, he built a final home near here, where the postman would not deliver letters due to the rumours of strange goings-on - seances and suchlike. But for a fire in 1929, he would’ve died here. His family duly had his coffin and his wife Jean’s relocated here, in the heart of the New Forest, setting of his own favourite among his novels, the mediaeval romance The White Company. His tombstone bears the knightly epitaph “Steel true, blade straight.” This was from a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, a tribute to his own spouse. Another RLS poem, ‘Requiem,’ might have been equally apt for Conan Doyle: ‘Home is the sailor, home from the sea, And the hunter home from the hill.’
Conan Doyle's gravesite at Minstead in the New Forest

Saturday, 1 December 2007

The Original Diogenes Club

Last time, I raised the question whether there could have been a real-life Victorian counterpart to Conan Doyle’s fictional Diogenes Club. That is, how he might have been inspired by the fact London gentlemen’s clubs were also often travellers’ clubs that were a home-away-from-home for returning explorers, who often patriotically collected intelligence for the Foreign Office. Holmes himself, after faking his death at Reichenbach Falls, goes off travelling for several years, to Tibet (disguised as an explorer called Sigerson), to Persia, on to Mecca (in Arab disguise, obviously) and then off up the Nile to Khartoum for a political interview with the Khalifa, returning with information for the Foreign Office.
Conan Doyle’s stories have the Club’s co-founder Mycroft Holmes as a major player in Whitehall, but there is nothing in the original canon about the Club being an intelligence front or cover for sending out expeditions. Whitehall of course always had a stake in exploration, for Britain would have a territorial claim if a British explorer planted the flag somewhere in remote unmapped territory. These explorers were men who would go out and live a lifestyle as basic as that of Diogenes, returning with useful intelligence which would help expedite colonisation. This was how the Empire developed, in the path of men such as Sir Richard Francis Burton and John Speke, whose 1856-8 Nile expedition nearly cost both men their lives. Their joint expedition was officially to ascertain the truth of the report by Diogenes the ancient Greek explorer that the Nile arose from lakes fed by snow-capped peaks on the Equator. In reality it was sponsored by the Foreign Office, acting through the Royal Geographic Society.
Penguin Classics cover of Conan Doyle's The Lost World, 1912Thus in reality, there would have been no need for Whitehall to set up an entire front organisation to despatch ‘civilian’ expeditions to the remote frontiers of Empire to gather military and political intelligence. The Royal Geographic Society in London provided such a semi-official function, from 1830 on, and distinguished explorers had a private London base at the Travellers Club, where they could stay. Both institutions still exist, the authentic originals of Conan Doyle’s Diogenes Club.
Some explorers, like Burton and later TE Lawrence, would go out for extended periods in native disguise – real-life counterparts of Kipling’s Kim in India and The Four Feathers’s Harry Faversham in the Sudan. (Burton’s visit to Mecca, if his native disguise had been uncovered, would have got him killed.) Even when there was no need to travel as a native, conditions in the field were often so appalling that they made Diogenes’s lifestyle look comfortable. RGS members like Stanley and Livingstone, Shackleton, and later Sir Edmund Hillary became national heroes whose accounts and lectures gripped the nation with their descriptions of hardship, from being mauled by a lion (Livingstone) to having the expedition’s ship crushed by Antarctic ice (Shackleton).
Conan Doyle himself was also publicly associated with exploration through his classic 1912 adventure novel The Lost World, wherein his hero Professor Challenger explores the real, but then almost-inaccessible, Venezuelan plateau of Mt
Roraima, and discovers an evolutionary pocket where apemen and dinosaurs co-exist. Mt Roraima was another example of politics intruding on exploration, for it stood on the Venezuela-British Guiana-Brazil boundary, and a few years before Britain and the US had been rattling sabres over the issue. The US claimed it was in their sphere of influence, but it was ‘discovered’ in 1838 by Robert Schomburgk, who was German born but sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society; the first ascent, in 1884, was by a British colonial official, Everard im Thurn. Later President of another expedition-sponsoring body, the Royal Anthropological Institute, he gave a lecture on Roraima attended by a young Conan Doyle. The future author of The Lost World would leave the comfortable world of London clubland to head off on his own less well-known outdoors adventures across the globe – of which more next time.

Friday, 30 November 2007

The Demotion of Dracula

The original Hammer Horror Dracula movie was re-released a couple of weeks back. When the film first opened in Britain at the Gaumont Haymarket on 22 May 1958 it was given an X rating but now almost 50 years later it has been downgraded to a mere 12A - something suitable for children's entertainment.

Dracula may have turned the blood cold in 1959, but these days it provides nothing but an amused smile in our more sophisticated world. And it pales into a very poor comparison in the jaw dropping horror stakes against the likes of SAW 1-4 or Hostel 1-3 and their siblings.

I was prompted to go back and look up those 1958 reviews just to see what people made of Dracula then. The Daily Telegraph was outraged. "The new version outdoes its Bela Lugosi predecessor in bizarre horror... This British film has an "X" certificate. This is too good for it. There should be a new certificate "S" for sadistic or just "D" for disgusting."

Of course one has to ask the question what has changed in those 50 years? Not the film that's for sure. The celluloid bears witness to the fact that every frame is exactly the same as it always was. So what has changed in us, that what we used to consider sickening is now considered children's viewing?

Financiers may worry about monetary inflation in our economy, but nobody worries these days about moral inflation in society. Call me an old cynic, but the currency of horror is no longer worth what it was and we have to buy our thrills at an ever increasing cost. Values become debased and our coinage is become worthless. That may not worry the movie moguls of Hollywood who can always rustle up some new porno-horrific tasty morsel for us to feast our desires on. But what does that say of us and our cravings for the increasingly sadistic? And what does it say of a society that has changed its appetite so dramatically over just a few decades?

Film and the media are often said to do no more than reflect what you already find society. But I hope you've never really fallen for that one. If anything we are the mirrors. We copy by instinct and by nature. It is society that morphs itself into what the media serves up. It's people who reflect what they see on the screen. And it starts with our children.

50 years ago we would have protected kids against what the Daily Telegraph called the sadistic and the disgusting. But now we serve it up without the smallest qualm. And we see nothing wrong because we have shifted en mass. We're no longer sensitive to the things we used to be. And once you have de-sensitized the conscience so it no longer feels anything, you're in danger of committing everything.

Van Helsing, Dracula's nemesis, knew that the best way to dispatch the blood sucking count was with one quick blow of a stout wooden stake through the heart (nearly always off camera). Society has had a similar stake driven through its heart but it didn't feel a thing. You have to be sensitive for that.

Friday, 23 November 2007

What's in a Name?

I was relaxing in the Diogenes Club the other day, enjoying a pipe in my favourite chair by the large window whilst watching the world go by along Pall Mall, when it struck me that I should give some thought to the question of my club name. Having been admitted in through the hallowed portals of the most exclusive establishment in the country, I needed to decide what name I should go under when on club business. It was a tricky problem. Something in keeping with the spirit of Diogenes himself seemed to be an obvious route forward, but what?

Whilst puffing ruminatively on my Meerschaum, I tried to dredge up what little I could remember of the Classics that I studied whilst up at Oxford. If my memory served, Diogenes was a pupil of Antisthenes, and was also said to have been the teacher of Crates of Thebes. Together they were regarded as the founders of Cynicism.

Crates was the teacher of Zeno of Citium, another great Cynic, and also the founder of Stoicism. I must confess that I initially confused him with the inventor of the famous Paradoxes, but after checking in the club's copy of Encyclopaedia Britannica, I discovered that the paradoxes were the work of Zeno of Elea, a different chap entirely.

I quite liked the name Zeno - short and simple, and you can spell it with a Z or an X, which is quite useful for confusing people - but I wanted to know more about him. One doesn't like to hide behind a chap's name unless one knows something about the chap in question. The Encyclopaedia was uncharacteristically terse on the old boy, so I wandered over to the dining room and scanned the tables to see if 'Buffy' Buffington was in. He's a decent sort who does something at the Foreign Office, but despite that he possesses a first rate mind. Got a first in Greek Philosophy at Balliol, so I thought that if anyone knew, it would be he.

And so it proved. Over a quick snifter in the bar, he elucidated the main points of the Cynic's philosophy:

1. The goal of life is happiness which is to live in agreement with Nature.
2. Happiness depends on being self-sufficient, and a master of mental attitude.
3. Self-sufficiency is achieved by living a life of Virtue.
4. The road to Virtue is to free oneself from any influence such as wealth, fame, or power, which have no value in Nature.
5. Suffering is caused by false judgments of value, which cause negative emotions and a vicious character.

In short, a Cynic has no property and rejects all conventional values of money, fame, power or reputation, as a life lived according to nature requires only the bare necessities required for existence, and one can become free by unshackling oneself from any needs which are the result of convention.

Well, as you can imagine, I was absolutely stunned. I've never really had what you might call a philosophy of life, but here was Buffy quoting chapter and verse at me, whilst talking about some chap who lived over two thousand years ago!

My search for a nom de plume was at an end.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

A House is not a Holmes


I was watching the new medical detective series called House. Hailing from our friends across the sea, House is very much an American product, though with an Englishman Hugh Laurie in the title role. He plays the curmudgeonly Dr Gregory House, every bit as much the detective as Holmes, he is presented with a new medical mystery to solve every week.

Much of the series is transparently modelled on Sherlock Holmes, not only is the name House-Holmes a give away but there are other clues too. House, like Holmes is a drug fiend depending on Vikaden for his highs as much as Holmes on his cocaine. He has one constant friend, a Dr Wilson as opposed to Dr Watson with whom he share his thoughts and there is also a bunch of three Baker Street irregulars, junior doctors in the case of House who he sends out to do his leg-work, breaking into houses and scouring for evidence. House too shares Holmes aloofness from relationships of the romantic kind, preferring instead a cynical view of human life. That has changed in recent episodes, probably due to the demands of Hollywood stylism which sees having a love interest as essential to broadening out the appeal. But the essential characteristics are all there. House, the brilliant diagnostician who's brilliance outshines all else with this powers of deduction and and forensic skill. Oh, and did I mention that he lives in house number 221b?

But there is one aspect of House which is very different from Holmes. And that is his ingrained indifference to convention, custom and tradition. And therein lies his connection with our friend Diogenes. The appeal of the ancient philosopher is in his is total rejection of the conventional and his own assessment of how he should live and what he should do. Once you go back to basics and think it through for yourself you find there are a whole pile of things that people do which have no meaning and no logic. Most of what we do is governed by convention rather than logic. But we all go along with it because we are too afraid to buck the conventions. But Diogenes had no time for that. And neither does House. And it is this, more than his brilliance as a medical diagnostician, that make him a fascination to his fans.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Was There A Real Victorian Diogenes Club?

The idea the Diogenes Club was a Whitehall front organization was first expressed explicitly in the 1970 film The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes. It is otherwise a reader’s inference from its odd description in the original Holmes stories. There, the Club is supposedly just a refuge for unsociable gentlemen to come and read the latest newspapers and magazines (which no doubt were carefully ironed to remove creases from previous handling). This at once seems rather a thin premise for a club - other clubs had reading rooms with similar no-talking rules. And how would you order drinks, or the meals of which Sherlock’s sybaritic brother Mycroft was so fond? (In one of the Granada TV adaptations, he tells Sherlock and Watson the Club does oysters rather well.)

Victorian gentlemen’s clubs were famous for being a “home away from home” where men could dine, play whist, socialise with other men (no women allowed) and even stay overnight. This led to them being popular with travellers who could actually use it as a private hotel between trips. In the Victorian era, such institutions became important as it became common for gentlemen to have business or other reasons to travel to distant parts of empire, or explore beyond known frontiers. The Royal Geographical Society began life in 1819 as a dining club where world travels could be discussed over coffee, port and snuff. It soon received its royal charter from Victoria, and backed a lengthy, high-profile, and contentious series of expeditions to discover the source of the Nile as recorded on Ptolemy’s maps.
Nile explorers Burton and Speke, from the film Mountains Of The Moon
The maps were based on the account of Diogenes the 1st-C Greek trader who explored this part of Africa - see earlier entry here. The source was supposedly amidst the ‘Mountains Of The Moon’ which got their name from their pale colour. (“Snow-capped mountains and glaciers on the Equator! By gad, sir!”) The expeditions excited public interest in far-off places, and made its most-travelled members, explorers like Burton and Speke [pictured], into popular romantic heroes, and launched the Victorian ‘scramble for Africa’.

By this time clubs specifically catering to world travellers had been formed. The Reform Club, set up for Liberal politicians and later (when the Liberals declined), dominated by senior civil servants, was the first to offer members bedrooms. The Reform Club is best-known to the public for its role in Around The World In 80 Days. The 1956 film was scripted by SJ Perelman, a distinguished American humorist who had been paid by a magazine in 1947 to follow Fogg’s round-the-world route. It actually satirises the stuffy, no-talking atmosphere of such clubs. To set the scene at the Club, we see a ginger cat flitting silently by along a far wall. A member points and complains (I’m quoting from memory here) “Must we have that infernal creature thundering about the place stamping its paws?” For the rest of the film, club members follow Fogg’s travels by comparing accounts in The Times versus the Daily Telegraph.

Like the Reform Club, the Travellers’ Club was a palatial building designed by Sir Charles Barry, the man who had designed the new House of Commons in 1834, and classical trimmings were used for prestige. Though it did not take on a ‘Classical’ name like the Athenaeum (and of course the fictional Diogenes Club), its heraldic ‘device’ was Ulysses, whose head adorned the building’s facades. The Travellers’ Club Library (original home of the London Library) was decorated with marble trimmings taken from a Greek island Temple of Apollo by a founder-member. Travellers’ Club membership numbers were limited, and only those who had travelled at least 500 miles (on the map) from London were eligible to join, those having the most ‘club miles’ being explorers and other regular travellers to Britain’s far-flung Colonial frontiers, namely officials from the Colonial Office. The Travellers’ Club was also used for international meetings of diplomats and politicians.

Thus was set the scene for the use of these clubs for purposes other than reading and eating oysters. Conan Doyle would know this world, being a member of the prestigious Reform Club, while the Travellers’ Club stood next door to it on Pall Mall, between it and the Athenaeum. Conan Doyle also became a member of a more adventurous organisation whose members explored, mapped, patrolled, intrigued and fought for the interests of Empire, on its remoter frontiers. (More on this next time.)
Sir Richard Francis Burton spies out the land, in a still from the film Mountains Of The Moon

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Diogenes with a first aid kit?

We are told Diogenes' name has been used to best describe elderly men who can no longer care for themselves and need to be taken into care.

Also of course his customary conduct would likely attract an Anti Social Behaviour Order these days, or a sectioning under the Mental Health Acts, or a kindly policeman taking him to a place of safety or perhaps even being investigated by the Fixated Threat Assessment Centre of our Metropolitan Police force.

Worse Diogenes might be provoked into using his big stick for more than to disperse a few dogs competing with him for scraps. Maybe there were hit squads of the time he had to be wary of?

It has always been likely that a Diogenarian might start getting some form of "treatment" but historically this has always been proportional to the threat he presents to himself or others.

I have just contacted a person battling against the system to point out that as she begins to get "the treatment" (legal battles, financial ruin, reputational attacks and medical aspersions) she should realise this is in direct proportion to the "threat" she represents. The treatment meted out to people who threaten the status quo is not necessarily medical. It can be dismissive and punitive instead. I wish this were not so.

A few decades ago the "mental hygiene" movement was started in the USA. It has an interesting history, bordering on the secret state work of Edward Bernays who was tasked by the American Government after World War Two to try to do something about hte robustness of civilians when exposed to military tasks and discipline. A large proportion of soldiers had been unreliable in battle. Subsequently it has been concluded that only 5% of a population are really suited to combat, the rest are better led in other directions. Edward Bernays was tasked with finding a palliative for the rest of us.

Then we had the psychotherapeutic movement (Edward Bernays was a nephew of Sigmund Freud) which I would like to dismiss with this sentence. Suffice it to say hot on the heels of that little industry we have had the introduction of the pharmaceutical industry which is finding ever more conditions and cases worthy of its ministrations. And behaviour modification drugs are being found for patients who are getting younger and younger, and, according to English comical actor Stephen Fry, children who only present a likelyhood of inheriting a condition.

Diogenes would have been appalled. But he in fact would have been a prime candidate for intervention. Taking into accounts of his reputation.

I have just been reading a book about American heroes and entrepreneurs claiming most of them have a condition affecting perhaps 5% of any given population. The author, John D Gartner, claims that the population in the USA is even more prone to this condition by virtue of the history of immigration to America. He argues risk taking and acting outside the box (everyone else stays within) is endemic of refugees and emigrants who have seen fit to flee other cultures.

The title is "The Hypomanic Edge: the link between a little craziness and success in America". Here are a few of the symptoms he cites for hypomania that might well apply to Diogenes:

He is flooded with ideas.
He is driven.
He becomes easily irritated by minor obstacles.
He is a risk taker.
He is unconcerned with money per se.
He acts out sexually.
He is witty.
He can be charismatic and persuasive.
He may well make enemies.

Gartner (2005) applies this label (as best he can prove) to many American leaders and success stories , starting with Christopher Columbus. Yet his case stands up to a first cursory reading.

My guess is that Diogenes was probably hypomanic, but in the spirit of good science I would reserve judgement untill the classification of mental illnesses is itself more robust. At the moment it is only a typology a hundred years old and we are dealing with Diogenes, for heaven's sake, who can no longer add his ascerbic view to the appellation. ( Not that, as a hypomanic, he could be trusted, of course).

It may be that today with medical interventions the marketplace will be cleared of anyone who challenges the status quo , but the danger is that the marketplace for ideas will be stripped bare in the process. And then all we will have will be normal conventional people who are not prepared to take risks to achieve their goals, or make a point, or invent something we didn't know we needed. Diogenes at least made his mark on the world and is remembered for it.

Gartners principal "patients" who might never have done what they did are the following: Christopher Columbus, American founders Winthrop, Williams and Penn, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Carnegie, The Selznicks, The Mayers and Craig Venter.
OK this is an American book but these characters are seminal in the birth and dominance of a nation. Not a few others are spotted along the way, and word is that there is plenty of material for another book.

Sadly, Diogenes has left too little a paper trail to satisfy sceptics he was truly hypomanic. I am not trying to deconstruct him. I am trying to recover something of what he might have been. And there is a lesson here.

Let me offer another example of reconstructing someone living on the edge which you may discover for yourself as it is superbly documented on the web. Just type in fjl in the google search engine. You will be able to read the case of fjl and her battle on the web and through the courts which is central to free speech, ethics, punishment of a wrong and the pursuit of truth. Type in fjl and npd and you will see the immense difficulty of getting a handle on this case despite almost every utterance having been in public and recorded for anyone with the time to ponder it on the web.

An immense difficulty obtains when trying to decypher what is really going on. People may act anonymously, people may pretend to be someone else, people (police officers at times) may revel in being cruel and people may take sides based on appearances, instinct or partial knowledge. Also from what I can see the medical explanation, even if it is accurate, is not helping any and no-one wants to entertain it it seems in any case

One principle for me in the past few years has been to make sure I ask the question, What if?

What if the underdog is right?: What if the system is closing ranks on someone? What if neither party can see what is really going on and get locked into a spiral of negativity. What if it is a simple matter like a diagnosis has never been made and people are acting out a blueprint that should never have been theirs? And why, why why are people so reluctant to say "What if I am wrong".

In a cruel world sometimes the underdog should be protected, not persecuted. Prosecution can bring some satisfaction, but it is a hollow victory if there is no restitution. My personal solution usually when confrionted by the system is to withdraw from the fray, lick ones wounds and try and avoid the pack that likes to hunt in numbers. And always ask the question," What if..." After all, if you do not then you may not choose to live like Diogenes.

I reiterate my point earlier, people who act outside the box will get "the treatment" in direct proportion to how much of a "threat" they present to others and only last themselves. Diogenes was careful perhaps to be a threat to no-one. Mainly by being "no-one".

I will wind up this diatribe by saying that according to "Wikipedia" hypomania often is noticeable for four behaviours, :-
(1) having little social inhibition, (2) talking to strangers easily (3) offering solutions to strangers problems and (4) finding pleasure in small activities. These are seen as symptoms.

At the risk of admitting that I am the "nutter" on the bus, those four behaviours are such as I enjoy and use every working day. Where do I work? In a library for nearly the last 30 years.

I think it would be a great pity if we were to legislate or medicate people who are not a danger to themselves or others.

The difficulty is, who has the power to decide where the boundaries are, and that on the other hand, behaviour that is abnormal is never abnormal to the person expressing it.

Few hypomanics ever feel they need treatment, indeed they may well be successful in their chosen field. But very likely in more serious conditions (NPD?) a cycle of deceit, damage and a wasted life slowly and surely obtains.

The greatest good we can do for others is not to share our riches but to reveal theirs. If people have a dark side look for the light in them? And seek intervention with only that in mind.

Whilst I often wonder what happened to Diogenes, we can at least try to pull others out from a downward spiral of negativity
when they are up against the system. If not, they might have to live with the dogs as they will garner little support otherwise.

Diogenes with a first aid kit.

The Other Diogenes

Last time, I suggested the name Diogenes had become by Victorian times a coded method of criticising the industrial-age nouveau riche, and I concluded that Conan Doyle’s ‘Diogenes Club’ was intended as discreetly satiric. However, although Diogenes lived in the classical equivalent of a cardboard box under Waterloo Bridge (a wine cask in the marketplace), he was distinguished by his ability to think “outside the box”, to use the modern metaphor, and we here in our modern-day Diogenes Club try to do the same.
So: returning to the puzzle of the paradoxical name ‘Diogenes Club’, perhaps we ought to take a step back and just reconsider the allusion to Diogenes. For a glance at the classical dictionary shows there was more than one well-known figure of that name. It’s true the best-known classical figure of this name was indeed Diogenes The Cynic. But he is usually referred to as Diogenes Of Sinope, the geographical epithet being needed as there were other famous men of that name in antiquity. Discussing Greek philosophy on his Radio 4 history-of-ideas series In Our Time last year, Melvyn Bragg noted: “… the name Diogenes was much in evidence in the ancient world. .. There was Diogenes of Babylon, who was in the stoic tradition and brought us much of Zeno. Diogenes Apollonia, who was a pre-Socratic philosopher. Diogenes of Sinope, who was a Cynic philosopher who rejected social conventions and advocated self sufficiency and simplicity of life, is also known as Diogenes the Dog and supposedly lived in a barrel and urged his followers to go naked to the market place and behave shamelessly in order to relinquish pride. There was Diogenes of Oenoanda, who was a minor Epicurean philosopher and Diogenes Laertius, who was a biographer of important philosophical figures, including Chrysippus the Stoic which takes us back to Zeno whose pupil he was.” To this list we can add the brutal 2nd-C. BC military advisor Diogenes of Judea, the 1st-C. Greek trader Diogenes who explored the Nile’s sources, another 'philosopher' called Diogenes who accompanied Alexander The Great to Asia as scout and mapmaker, and Antonius Diogenes, 2nd-C. author of the Greek travel-romance, The Incredible Wonders Beyond Thule.
We could ask: which one was the Diogenes Club named after? But why an either/or choice? I would suggest Conan Doyle was aware there was more than one such classical figure, and was quite content with this ambiguity, which helped mitigate the incongruity of Diogenes The Dog as founding inspiration for a gentleman’s club. In other words, it’s quite possible Conan Doyle used the name Diogenes as it was (unlike other ancient names such Socrates) not unique, but shared by other noteworthy classical figures. The question thus becomes, would any of the other men of that name also fit as part-inspiration for the name of a gentlemen’s club?
On our list, the Epicureans Diogenes of Oenoanda and Diogenes LaĆ«rtius sound tempting, as Epicurean came to mean a love of good food and fine living – though its original meaning, like that of Cynicism, differed, focussing ironically more on the simple life. Besides the Epicureans and other philosophers, we also have several Diogenes who have associations with early exploration, and I suggest this is itself worth exploring here. Many fans seem to have accepted this aspect may be a clue to the real answer, particularly since the dialogue exchange in The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes, scripted by Billy Wilder’s writer-producer partner I. A. L. Diamond (who claimed his initials stood for "Interscholastic Algebra League"). In the Diogenes Club scene with Mycroft, Sherlock makes explicit a heretofore vague suspicion:
Sherlock: I’ve always suspected there was some kind of underground connection between this stodgy and seemingly calcified establishment and the Foreign Office in Whitehall.
MYCROFT: That is neither here nor there.
SHERLOCK: It seems to me the Diogenes Club is here, there and everywhere! When there are rumblings of revolt in the Sudan, an expedition subsidized by your Club conveniently shows up to study the source of the Nile. When there’s trouble along the Indian Frontier, some of your fellow members pop up in the Himalayas, allegedly looking for the Abominable Snowman!

The early Greek World-view - the 'Oikemene'Diogenes Club would be an apt name for such a setup. As well as our Diogenes the Cynic, who was like explorers of all ages prepared to sleep rough, we have others writing or telling of expeditions here and there. If not everywhere, these reach out to the far corners of the Oikemene - the known world of antiquity. We have one who wrote of a journey west and north to the farthest known northerly point, legendary Thule. Another Diogenes went east with Alexander on his incredible trek to India. A third Diogenes went south: blown southward for 25 days by a monsoon down Africa’s east coast, he travelled overland to the west, and reported seeing on the Equator great snow-capped peaks called the ‘Mountains of the Moon’, whose glaciers fed two great lakes near the head of the Nile.

Modern writers like Rhys Carpenter accept this Diogenes’s description, which Ptolemy included in his Geography, as too accurate to be made up. In the Victorian Age, rival expeditions under Burton, Speke, Livingston, Stanley and others went out and eventually found the 2 great lakes, which they called Victoria and Albert, and the Equatorial snow-capped peaks they named Mts Meru and Kilimanjaro. This lengthy saga took place in the first half of Conan Doyle’s lifetime, and was the subject of considerable debate in London circles and the press. Doyle later wrote a series of ‘scientific romances’ on controversial expeditions in his The Lost World and followups featuring Professor Challenger, with scenes reminiscent of the Nile-source debates held by the Royal Geographic Society. Of course Conan Doyle himself was involved in a real-life organisation of explorers, outdoorsmen, and assorted adventurers - on which more soon.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

The Diogenes Code?

One of the mysteries of the Sherlock Holmes stories which engages aficionados is the life of the man himself. And one of the unanswered mysteries here is the origin or nature of the Diogenes Club co-founded by Sherlock’s brother Mycroft. The question here is: why call a gentleman’s club after a man who lived like a dog, sleeping in a tub or barrel in the street? Is there some sort of code involved in the name?
Conan Doyle says the Club is for men who are ‘unclubable’, but who ‘are not averse to comfortable chairs and the latest periodicals.’ Diogenes the Cynic might fit as inspiration for the idea of being unsociable or anti-social, but not with the orientation towards comfort. Mycroft of course is a sedentary figure, more or less living at the Club, and only calls Sherlock in to help with cases which involve legwork, to which he remains averse even in matters of national importance. The idea of him admiring someone who preferred to live in a barrel and eat and drink with his fingers and hands is out of character, to put it mildly.
Perhaps the choice merely reflected the way Diogenes was taken up in posterity as a symbol - of simple outdoors abstemious living. In this interpretation, the less savoury aspects of his behaviour are ignored, perhaps only alluded to by euphemisms in approved biography, so that they were unknown to the hoi polloi. The Victorians were always willing to embrace things Classical, provided they could be made to symbolise espoused Victorian values such as thrift and self-reliance, my old school offering a coded reminder of this.
It occupied a hill where once had stood a Roman fortress. Atop this, in the Victorian era, was built a sort of mini St Paul’s, a building in the shape of a Greek Cross topped by a lofty cupola. Inside, in the octagonal central hall underneath this dome, where school assemblies and religious services were once held, stands a life-size statue of Diogenes. Although the school was turned into executive flats in the 1990s, it is a Listed Building refurbished with public money and the public can view the statue on Heritage Open Days. As the photo shows, it depicts a rather unkempt figure, nude except for a robe draped over one shoulder and carrying a stick and a bowl. This is our Diogenes, whose only possession was a wooden bowl (which he later threw away as unnecessary). statue of Diogenes by Alexander StoddartThe bowl is actually an upturned model of the school dome, a discreet tribute to its Victorian architect, as well as a pun on its local nickname - the Pudding or Porridge Bowl. (The stick was presumably to beat off dogs, with whom Diogenes supposedly competed when locals threw bones for him to gnaw on.)
A man nicknamed The Dog after his lifestyle and repudiation of civilisation may seem an incongruous choice for such a setting, with its walls painted in Regency pastels and high dome symbolising Victorian self-improving aspirations. (The modern term Diogenes Syndrome refers to a self-neglecting condition seen in elderly men that usually gets them taken into care.) But by the Victorian era, Cynicism had evolved as a school of philosophy beyond Diogenes’s extreme personal example, pursuing ideals of self-sufficiency, perhaps even (to the more religious or austere-minded), self-denial. He thus could be seen as the slightly eccentric pioneer of a respectable school of thought. Cynicism had by then evolved away from its let’s-all-live-like-dogs crude beginnings, more towards the sort of self-reliance preached by Baden-Powell.
The official Open Day leaflet says Diogenes was chosen for his “austere life style, intended to contrast with that of the modern day residents” – hinting at the possibility of a discreet censure of the materialist ethic. In his landmark cultural-history TV series Civilisation, Sir Kenneth Clark called his final episode, on the Victorian builders, “Heroic Materialism.” Cynicism in its modern meaning rejects this, and it seems Diogenes served as a stick with which to beat this Victorian ethic about the head.
In the 19th Century, there was a tendency to give gentlemen’s clubs classical names (‘The Athenaeum’ was much used), a pretentious trend soon satirised by writers. Conan Doyle may have been joining in on this with his ‘Diogenes Club,’ an allusion that would not be lost on the better-educated reader versed in the Classics. For the term is really an oxymoron - a phrase which seems self-contradictory (the usual example given is “Military Intelligence”). It was thus perhaps meant to serve as a discreetly ironic name, given its focus on comfortable armchairs and subscriptions to the latest periodicals – a tradition maintained by our own present-day Diogenes Club.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

The Man In The Cloth Mask

Diogenes lived outside polite society out of a dislike of civilised hypocrisy and hubris, but others have adopted a similar lifestyle for quite different reasons, often as fugitives. It’s said such people are either running from something, or running to something. One man who was both running from and to something was ‘the man in the cloth mask’, the hermit whose life-story is preserved in a little-known mediaeval manuscript akin to a hagiography or saint’s life. As with Diogenes, his strange, self-denying life awakened people’s curiosity both at the time, and since.
In the turbulent era of the Norman Conquest, he travelled England and Europe in simple pilgrim's garb, including staff and hat. Yet his face was always kept covered by a cloth veil or mask, so that he depended on a servant or guide to lead him by the hand. Questioned about this wherever he went, he would only say his name was simply 'Christian' - as if he were a character out of the sort of mediaeval allegory plays John Bunyan later drew on for his Pilgrim's Progress. He returned from pilgrimages to Rome and other shrines to live in a cave near Dover. He then went up to North Wales, where he persevered for a number of years despite rough treatment from the locals. He spent his declining years at Chester, living in a churchyard hermitage outside the city walls.
So far, we have a conventional pious ‘saint’s life’ type of story. But when dying and making his last confession, ‘Christian’ gave his real name as ‘Harold Godwinesson’ and his ‘station in life’ as “formerly the king of England.” In other words, he was the Saxon King Harold II, once the wealthiest man in England. The biography of ‘Christian’ the hermit, compiled at Waltham Abbey around 1205, is thus titled the Vita Haroldi or Life Of Harold.
Of course, as every schoolboy knows, Harold was slain at Hastings in 1066, transfixed with an arrow through his eye - which would have made his corpse easy to recognise even if he was stripped of his gear, as happened after the battle. Yet contemporary accounts of the battle don't mention an arrow in the eye - this comes from the misleading way the Bayeux Tapestry images are crammed together. The Vita Haroldi says in the piles of stripped corpses at Hastings, another body was misidentified as Harold’s, “hacked about as it was, covered with blood, already becoming black and decomposed.” It says the real Harold was found, 'half dead' by several women come to minister to the wounded, and taken to a local hut, and from there in secret to Winchester, where he was nursed for two years. This suggests serious injuries, and if he remained distinctively disfigured, that would explain the need for the mask or veil.
When he recovered, he travelled to Europe to raise support for a comeback, but had no success. After a while he decided his downfall was God's will. The Pope had authorised the 1066 Conquest as a crusade as Harold was charged with breaking an oath, made over a box of holy relics, that he would accept William as the next king. Harold always said he had been tricked, the box of relics being hidden under a cloth. His father Godwin of Wessex had evidently dropped dead from Divine retribution: immediately after making one of those may-God-strike-me-dead-if-I'm-lying remarks, he choked on a crust of bread. Chroniclers also depicted the defeat at Hastings as God's punishment for the sins of the English nation.
So Harold decided to dedicate his life to religious devotions, wandering Lear-like around the countryside after a lengthy European pilgrimage to Rome and elsewhere to recover relics, which he donated to Waltham Abbey, whose royal patron had been Harold. He seems to have forsaken all contact with his wife, former mistress, and family, or joining in the many revolts of the time. He returned from Europe to live in a cave near Dover for ten years, before going up to Cheswardine in Shropshire, where it is implied he deliberately exposed himself to local ruffian behaviour for self-mortification. (In his earlier life, Harold had 'subdued' Wales, campaigning in this area as King Edward Confessor's field commander.) His cloth mask and patently pious symbolic name obviously stirred up local curiosity, and probably hostility, wherever he went. He was repeatedly set upon, beaten, robbed and stripped of his clothing. Presumably the locals thereby got a look at his face, which must have not too much of a giveaway – unlike the legendary Man In The Iron Mask, whose mask – in reality a velvet one – was thought to conceal some recognisable, perhaps royal, visage. In those days, what a king looked like was only known to a few.
Finally he settled at Chester, where the local hermit's hut just outside the old Roman city walls had just become vacant. Some reports have him still alive in the reign of Henry I, i.e. after 1100. Historians say a rumour Harold had survived became current in the following century, and anecdotal evidence suggests some came to suspect his identity. When questioned about Harold and Hastings, 'Christian' would give cryptic replies full of hints, such as saying that he had been at the battle, and 'there was no one more dear to Harold than myself.' The Vita says a younger brother of Harold's, who had been a boy in 1066, was questioned in his old age by Henry about whose body they had. He replied “You may have some countryman, but you have not Harold.” The Vita was written by an aged cleric who as a young priest had known Harold’s servant Sebricht, in later life a hermit. It concludes with an account by his successor at the Chester hermitage, who inherited his attendant there, Moses. He described the eyeless cloth mask his master constantly wore over “his gashed face,” saying he did not know why he wore it - whether it was vanity, to shun worldly sights, or from fear of being recognised by his fellow Saxons and perhaps being subjected to a veneration he felt he did not deserve.
Despite the lack of proof and its cold-shouldering by scholars, the tale has an enduring appeal - Christian message balanced by historical irony. At the same time there is the tragedy of the man who must cast himself away in the wilderness as atonement, in possession of a great secret he must never speak. It also has elements of the Classical idea of tragedy - "how are the mighty fallen," punished by the gods, with great wealth and power replaced by the most spartan life imaginable.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

A scholar's riposte

Sitting as I do amongst the gliterrati of the Diogenes Club at week's end we all forgot why we we there. The conversation wandered from topic to topic but none of us were taking notes. Well it is holiday time. But I found a reference to a seminal article just now and want to share it with anyone passing.
From time to time no doubt the scientific mind will propound itself as the solution to man's problems. I prefer certainty to doubt when matters are in the grey spectrum of debate. But I am ever conscious of a definition of humour as it as being no more than the realisation of something others have misunderstood.
Whilst being an admirer of the certainty of, say, Richard Dawkins I shrink away from the name dropping smugness of so called scientists. Smugness or humour for that matter is not science. Not that anyone was claiming to be scientific at the Diogenes Club, we were all way too distracted by it being August for that.
So back to this seminal paper. Try "Googling" for a paper by Robert A Rothman called "A Dissenting View on theScientific Ethos".
Ok it appeared way back in 1972 but it is an easy read and seeks to apply scientific criteria to.....science!
I hope it will not spoil anyone's day if I reveal Rothman concludes that using scientific criteria science is flawed.
Diogenes would be proud.
Me, I'm going to spend tomorrow l trying to work out if we never can know what we might know tomorrow, the day before. It is a useful antidote to certainty. And smugness. Maybe I just wasn't paying attention.
Beachhutman.

Monday, 30 July 2007

The Not So Simple Life

I don’t know who it was who first said "Oh, the simple life for me!" I don’t think it was Diogenes, who as American soldiers would say, walked the walk rather than just talked the talk. In other words, he lived the life, rather than just talking about it as a desirable future ‘alternative’ lifestyle.
The phrase seems to have come from its use in popular song, a cry of discontent that is natural and attractive when your life is hopelessly complicated.
The fantasy version comes in two flavours: one, where you live totally alone – like Robinson Crusoe; the other, as a group, like the Swiss Family Robinson. Living an "unworldly" life became part of Western Christian culture early on, as early Christian fathers took to living in the desert, in caves, in woods, when it was an unofficial, persecuted religion. The Celtic-Irish monastic movement that was a later communal extension of this which still allowed for hermits, called anchorites.
Later, Romantic poets indulged the notion of personal retreat as an attractive dream, like Yeats in his ‘The Lake Isle Of Innisfree’: I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,/ And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:/ Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee, And live alone in the bee-loud glade./ And I shall have some peace there… Back when most people had rather primitive lifestyles anyway, it wasn’t so glamorised. There’s a Celtic poem about the original Merlin, Myrddin Wyllt (the Wild), going to live in the woods with only a piglet for company. He had fled there after giving bad advice as a court bard, leading to seeing his king defeated in battle, and the horror had driven him mad. This is an essential springboard in many actual cases, the retreat to recuperate from some disaster. (The author Nikolai Tolstoi, who was bankrupted in a lawsuit, became fascinated with Merlin The Wild and wrote a book on him as a genuine historical figure.) Such figures suffering from the experience of some catastrophe that made it impossible for them to carry on with a normal life still exist. In America, the designation "Bush Vets" describes Vietnam or subsequent-war veterans who could not re-adjust to ‘civilised’ life and so went to live in cabins in the woods. Even the original of Robinson Crusoe, Alexander Selkirk, after his return retreated from the possibilities offered by his new celebrity and went to live in a hut he built at the bottom of his parents’ garden before escaping back to sea.
Shack in mountains

The modern notion that living the simple life in a cabin or on a desert island is a solution to the psycholigical and spiritual problems of modern life grew as society itself became more materialistic. Again, the early proponents here were religious types whose world-view repudiated materialism, a fact which much contributed to the founding of America via agrarian communes. The later westward drive by desperately poor immigrants from European cities led an entire generation to live for a time in covered wagons, sod houses, and log cabins. (For an example of a pioneer memoir, see Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 1935 Little House On The Prairie.) This ‘pioneer experience’ was venerated by their descendants, and soon the notion of being raised in a log cabin soon became something politicians like Abe Lincoln would boast of as the lifestyle itself became less common. (You can read all about this process in Henry Nash Smith’s classic study Virgin Land: The American West As Symbol and Myth
Today, The Simple Life is an attractive idea for the world-weary, but as we become accustomed to material comforts like central heating and electronic communications, more difficult to adjust to. The generation I grew up with in the Sixties adopted Thoreau’s account of his "experiment in simple living" Walden Or Life in the Woods as a sort of lifestyle ‘bible.’ Thoreau’s simple life involved building himself a cabin outside Concord, Mass., and living a contemplative life there for two years in the 1850s, writing about marching to the beat of a different drummer, etc. This ‘dropout’ lifestyle included being jailed for not paying his poll tax, in line with his earlier essay – admired by Gandhi – On Civil Disobedience. For in the late Sixties and early Seventies, over a hundred thousand Americans became social outcasts when they fled the prospect of service in the Vietnam War. Mainly they heading north to Canada, where they set up house in county communes or in log cabins in the woods, until the government repealed the old ‘Homestead’ Act. Many others drifted back to civilisation, disillusioned. (You can read about this stressful time in The Eden Express, by novelist Kurt Vonnegut’s son Mark, who suffered the fate of too many who abandon civilisation - descent into mental illness.) Nevertheless a whole counter-culture mythos grew up around the experience, popularising expressions such as sustainable living, voluntary simplicity, and downshifting.
Of course the notion of The Simple Life remains an attractive vicarious fantasy, much played up in the media, most recently in wilderness-survival TV shows, either with groups of amateur ‘castaways’ or celebrity experts. But disillusion can set in as soon as you look behind the scenes. This week we had press exposes how British survival expert Bear Grylls stayed in luxury hotels while demonstrating onscreen how to survive with only a knife and a flint. Even with Thoreau, his cabin was relatively close to town, his sister bailed him out after he spent a night in jail for not paying his tax, and so on.
Also this week, BBC Digital radio has been repeating the classic Tony Hancock episode "The Wild Man Of The Woods" where he announces he is forsaking civilisation to live as a hermit. It turns out his hermitage is a bus shelter on the Common, "so I’ll be near the shops." And he finds the simple life is not so simple after all, due to the fascination others have with the lifestyle. I found listening to this on cassette particularly memorable during my own formative writer’s retreat living in a snowbound wilderness cabin. For in most ‘civilised’ countries it is difficult to find true wilderness where one can live in isolation, and so two traditions of The Simple Life have evolved, the Arcadian and the Bohemian (which I’d tried earlier on).
The ‘arcadian’ approach is where you find a rural paradise which will support you in your chosen lifestyle. One thing you learn if you live in a cabin is that 9-5’ers think you don’t ‘work’ for a living – idly imagining living off the land involves no effort. In fact it is difficult to arrange and sustain. Such paradises also never last, as the occupants themselves bring the seed of destruction with them. (On this, see Alex Garland’s bestseller The Beach or the 1970s Robert Redford film Jeremiah Johnson.)
Thus we also have a ‘bohemian’ tradition of leading a simple, dropout lifestyle in an urban setting. Diogenes, hanging about the Corinth marketplace, seems the first known example of this. The Beats or Beatniks of the post-WWII era and the hippies of the Sixties are the best-known recent examples. Earlier there was a smaller but influential group, the post-WWI ‘Lost Generation’ of writers who had survived the war but couldn’t face going home, and stayed on in France as expatriates. For it’s a lifestyle pursued by many a writer wanting to keep his life uncomplicated while he gets his writing together, living anonymously in a city outside the ‘bourgeois’ conventions of career and marriage from which he feels alienated. (Sartre’s 1930s writer’s-journal novel La NauseeNausea - is a prime example of this.) Yet the Bohemian approach has only a narrow appeal, pursued by those unable to realise the arcadian version favoured by the Romantic writers like Wordsworth and Coleridge.
This is increasingly popular today as a consumerist daydream: polls indicate that up to a third of the British population wants to emigrate – perhaps retreat to some still-undeveloped Spanish Costa, or build that crumbling ruin of a dream farmhouse in Provence or on a Greek island, just like they’ve read about in the books of Peter Mayle, or Gerald or Lawrence Durrell. The reality is most people can only pursue the simple life at certain times - youth, old age, or while on holiday activities such as hiking and camping. (The Arcadian and the Bohemian worlds uniquely co-mingle in the English enthusiasm for spending summers in beach huts on the fringes of conurbations.) Yet even if it can only be indulged for a short time, it remains a useful tonic. This month, the Boy Scout Movement celebrates its 100th anniversary, of the very first Scout camp on Brownsea Island, an international event endorsed by some surprising examples of celebrityhood (like rock stars), who testify how their own youthful camping-out experiences changed their lifelong outlook to a more self-reliant one.

Saturday, 28 July 2007

A Modern Day Diogenes

I was watching the new medical detective series called House. Hailing from our friends across the sea, House is very much an American product, though with an Englishman Hugh Laurie in the title role. He plays the curmudgeonly Dr Gregory House, every bit as much the detective as Holmes, he is presented with a new medical mystery to solve every week.

Much of the series is transparently modelled on Sherlock Holmes, not only is the name House-Holmes a give away but there are other clues too. House, like Holmes is a drug fiend depending on Vikaden for his highs as much as Holmes on his cocaine. He has one constant friend, a Dr Wilson as opposed to Dr Watson with whom he share his thoughts and there is also a bunch of three Baker Street irregulars, junior doctors in the case of House who he sends out to do his leg-work, breaking into houses and scouring for evidence. House too shares Holmes aloofness from relationships of the romantic kind, preferring instead a cynical view of human life. That has changed in recent episodes, probably due to the demands of Hollywood stylism which sees having a love interest as essential to broadening out the appeal. But the essential characteristics are all there. House, the brilliant diagnostician who's brilliance outshines all else with this powers of deduction and and forensic skill.

But there is one aspect of House which is very different from Holmes. And that is his ingrained indifference to convention, custom and tradition. And therein lies his connection with our friend Diogenes. The appeal of the ancient philosopher is in his is total rejection of the conventional and his own assessment of how he should live and what he should do. Once you go back to basics and think it through for yourself you find there are a whole pile of things that people do which have no meaning and no logic. Most of what we do is governed by convention rather than logic. And Diogenes had not time for that. And neither does House. And it is this more than his brilliance as a medical diagnostician that make him a fascination to his fans.

Sunday, 15 July 2007

The Illusion of Time


We were sitting around at the Diogenes Club last night discussing Gordon the Tramp and his astonishing time-telling abilites when I told the club that I am slowly coming to the conclusion that Time does not exist at all.

Now I know that cynics are renowned for systematically doubting pretty well most things, but even in the Diogenes Club this raised a few eyebrows.

Beachhutman, lay back in his comfy armchair and offered the observation that he felt Time was that thing that God invented to prevent everything happening all at once - and consequently Time must exist.

This is a surprisingly powerful argument for the existence of Time. If there is no such thing as Time then why hasn't everything already happend? But I was not to be put off so easily.

One of the things that makes me suspicious of time is the idea that it flows along like a river, immutable and eternal. If that is so, then how fast does it flow? Does it speed up or slow down? And can you measure the flow of time? I don't think you can.

H.G.Wells touched on this in one of his lesser known works "The New Accelerator" which involves a chemist who invents a new potion. The potion has a remarkable affect on anyone who drinks it. They find that every bodily process is speeded up a thousand fold - heartbeat, movement, thinking, everything. This enables a person to perform any task a thousand times faster than normal. However for the one drinking the magic liquid the only observable effect is that the world has slowed down to almost a stopping rate. Holding out a glass at arms length and letting it fall sees the glass seemingly suspended in mid-air. It is infact falling, but a thousand times slower than before.

This raises the question, what would happen if time did slow down? Slow down for everyone. What if the rate at which time flowed was halved or brought to one thousandth of its normal rate. The question is, would we notice it? I think the answer is that we would not. If everything was slower, including our thoughts and perceptions then it would all be seen as normal. It's just as if you record at double-speed a tape running at double-speed -it would come out normal.

That is what makes me suspicious. If we can't detect whether time is moving slower or faster, if in principle it can't be measured, then does it exist? I think not.

Beachhutman interjected with a comment, which I think he thought might bring the whole discussion to a timely close. He was, he said, reminded of something his local vicar once told him. "There are three mysteries in this world; space, time and existance - and we will never understand any of them."

Maybe he's right. Undaunted, I pressed on. "Let's take the thought-experiment a stage further - what if the rate of time flow varied continuously so that one moment it was slow the next it was fast? Could we notice that? Would it change anthing?"

Beachhutman stroked his chin thoughfully, and looked about to speak.

"There is no way," I said, "that we can determine that the length of one hour is the same as the length of another hour at another time. Nor that the length of an hour in one place is the same as the length of an hour in another place. " I got that from Poincare - so it must be right.

Kevin, the newest member of the Diogenes Club, threw into the conversation, the idea that time is irrevocably linked to relative movement. The consequence of which is that if you have a universe with only one particle, there can be no time in that universe. Now that is quite profound and took some of us no little while to get out heads around it. Of course it means that whatever Time is, it is not absolute - running on in the background without reference to anything else.

Pridian keenly observed that without time, there can of course be no time travel. The time-traveller, the morlocks, Weena - or their equivalent would have no existance outside of an H.G.Wells novel. Was I prepared to close the door on this mainspring of science fiction plots - to rule out for all time a whole genre of literature and film? Perhaps the price is too high to pay for a philosopical attitude?

Time-travel has to be a suspect kind of idea anyway, and there is one argument, a kind of modification of the Fermi Paradox, that has never been answered. Enrico Fermi, famous physicist, while sitting at lunch one day dissmissed the idea that there are aliens on other planets by the simple question, "If they exist, why has no-one seen them?" Given the extreme age of the universe and the vast number of stars, there should be plenty of them. But we see none. The same can be appled to time-travel. Given the infinite length of time before us, why do we see that no one has yet invented a time machine and travelled back to see us? The only conclusion must be that they can't. Time-travel is not possible.

But Pridian had a more sophisicated argument in favour of time to present. Quoting the time-traveller he reminded us that time is the fourth dimension. You can't have two objects occupying the same space at the same time. But they can be in the same place at different times. So time definitely exists. If you don't have a time dimension then things couldn't move and they couldn't swap places - which we know happens from time to time.

Mmmm..... This whole appeal to Special Relativity and four dimensional Minkowski space is not so clear cut it seems to me. Albert Einstein's best friend had a look at this. This is the one and only Kurt Godel, more famous for his incompletness theorems, but also a bit of a closet expert in time and space. Albert and Kurt used to take long walks around Princeton every afternoon and chat about Life, the Universe and Everything. Einstein said that the only reason he bothered turning up for work was so that he could chat with the genius Kurt Godel. And Kurt, after many walks and talks, also came to the conclusion that the flow of time is an illusion. In a short little paper he proved that if both special and general relativity are correct then our perception of time (what McTaggart called the A series) is an illusion.

"But what do you really measure when you measure Time?" I persisted. Not Time itself, that's for sure. All you measure is the passing of hands on a clock face, or the swings of a pendulum or the movement of the sun in the sky. None of these is Time. Time is an inference you draw from the movement of one thing against another. Movement is what you have. Cause and Effect is what you have. Time you have to construct from these things.

Nevertheless, I suspect that Time has more to do with the workings of the mind than the workings of the universe. The brain constructs its own timeframe to try to help sort out things into some kind of order. It is based on cause and effect. One event causes another, a moving snooker ball hits another and starts it moving. And the brain builds a framework from that, by seeing that one event causes another, it creates a framework of before and after and puts all the events it sees into the framework by inference.

I can't say that many of my fellow diogenists were convinced about the non-existant of Time. Beachhutman grunted, slid further back in his chair and said he would need some time to think about it.

The truth of this was not lost on any of us.