The Curmudgeon


Thursday, March 31, 2005

The Ecological Songster

A Woman Named Marge, who Lived on a Barge
On a River quite Clotted with Gunge,
Was Fishing for Pike with a Net, and a Spike,
And some Bait, which was Raspberry Sponge.

She had Waited an Age, Patient as an Old Sage
Who is Bored for the Sake of his Soul;
The Hour had Struck Late, when at Last, the Choice Bait
Disappeared down a Toothy Great Hole.

Something Snapped at the Cake, caused the Whole Ship to Shake,
And she Hurriedly Reached for her Prong;
But before she could Strike, a Huge Mutant Pike
Broke the Surface, and Burst into Song.

He Sang of True Love, and of Moonlight Above,
And other such Stuff of Romance;
His Voice was Melodious - A Tenor Commodious -
Which Almost put Marge in a Trance.

Then his Voice became Low, and to that Evening's Glow,
He Imparted a Sweet Lullaby;
As Marge stood and Listened, her Weary Eyes Glistened,
For she Thought of the Years Long Gone By.

She Choked Back a Tear, and then Threw Down her Spear,
For she'd Crooned this Same Song to her Daughter;
As Marge stood a-Quiver, the Pike in the River
Abruptly Reared Out of the Water.

He Bit through her Waist, and made Justified Haste
To Carry her Two Legs Away;
He came Back for the Rest, and her Head and her Chest
Kept his Family Fed for the Day.

And as they all Ate, he Began to Relate,
In the Guise of a Musical Fable,
How he'd Set Up the Kill with his Artistic Skill
To Bring Back the Prey for the Table.

Yes, he Told them this Story, Quite Moral if Gory;
Told his Wife and his Dear Infant Charges
This Wondrous Solution to All the Pollution
Of Rivers by Persons on Barges.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

News 2020

Care company patents "human flora"

A major American medical services provider has patented the medical condition known as "persistent vegetative state". The condition will be re-marketed next year under the brand name "Human Flowers" by its new owners, Thrusting Care Inc.

"We think Human Flowers are going to be a big hit all over the country," said Thrusting Care spokesperson Griner Bossett.

The Human Flowers will be sold with sufficient automated equipment to keep them breathing and digesting with "minimal customer input" for up to five years guaranteed, Mr Bossett said.

For the present, most Human Flowers have to be imported from the Third World, and thus come in colours which many Americans find less than decorative. However, hoped-for legislative adjustments may enable Americans to cultivate florally inclined relatives by the time the brand name hits the market in twelve to eighteen months' time.

"We also have negotiations under way with a well-known car manufacturer to install fenders designed by our own Thrusting technicians, which in the event of an involuntary pedestrian encounter will hopefully help preserve life functions while minimising the bodily suffering associated with consciousness," Mr Bossett continued. "Just one more way in which Thrusting saves lives."

The anticipated Homeland Human Horticulture Act will enable relatives to choose floral status for comatose individuals regardless of any wishes the individuals may have expressed before their relinquishment of cerebral ownership rights. "We in America believe that family values and concern for life should take precedence over selfish demands," the Commander-in-Chief said during a recent public feeding-tube reinsertion which he carried out personally.

To the relatives of those who gain floral status while in Thrusting Care's own hospitals, the corporation will offer special discounts on care and pharmaceutical bills if the horticultural option is pursued.

"The advantages are fantastically numerous," Mr Bossett told reporters today. "We offer you the child who will never disobey, the teenager who will never rebel, the spouse who will never argue, the parent who will never scold. Adult female flora can conceive and bear children in a perfectly normal way, and if the kids are stillborn we offer a special preservation service. Some Catholic families might get a whole herbaceous border that way. And it will save on hospital beds, too."

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Boy Who Kicked Pigs

At the turn of the millennium Tom Baker, whose stint as the BBC's Doctor Who was perhaps the only reliably attested instance of an alien from another planet actually being played by an alien from another planet, published The Boy Who Kicked Pigs. It is a short tale but a merry one, concerning a thirteen-year-old boy named Robert Caligari, who lives at 7a Vampire Close and kicks pigs and worse. Robert starts with Trevor, his irritating sister's annoying piggy bank, but graduates to kicking other people's pork chops and even their bacon butties. As a result of some unpleasantness caused by his addiction to pig-kicking, Robert eventually conceives a dire malevolence towards the whole human race and suffers painful and horrific consequences.

The tale is profusely illustrated by David Roberts, whose spidery line drawings treat the reader to such depictions as "Robert as a little devil with two thirds of his mother" and "Robert having an evil thought" and "Down, down, down went the innocent horse, and death watched and waited". The horse had been shot in the buttock with a crossbow (which Roberts, presumably for artistic purposes, inexplicably transmogrifies into a longbow). "The horse on Sandway bridge took the arrow in its arse to heart," Baker's narrative tells us. "It reared up as if it wanted to fly away. It was an amazing sight, with the arrow in its bottom. It looked like a nightmare unicorn."

The horse and its rider plunge off the bridge on page 67 of the thirteenth of June and cause a massive traffic pile-up whose every horrific detail, including thirteen blazing vicars, is brought to Robert Caligari's helpless ears by a pair of moronic radio newscasters. The agony lasts until page 107, whereupon the rats arrive. There may be some who would not, all in all, consider The Boy Who Kicked Pigs a particularly uplifting story, especially as its own first page claims it as "a story of undiluted horror".

Between this advertisement and the start of the calamity on page 67, the reader is treated to a brief but entertainingly digressive history of Robert Caligari's early years including, besides his pig-kicking activities, various other childhood joys such as the slow poisoning of his sister Nerys and the pushing of a pensioner under a bus. In addition, there is a convincingly circumstantial account of how Robert's street, Vampire Close, came to be so named, and a slightly creepy affair involving a telephone call, a tarantula named Bluebottle, and a rather indistinct man named Martyn who flirts with the voice of doom. Of all parties to the business, the tarantula is by far the most appealing. The Boy Who Kicked Pigs is a touching and appealing story of childhood, full of charm, originality and homicide.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Matters of the Spirit

There was a time when dying and inarticulate old men were dragged out to wave at parades in Red Square - Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko - and we shook our heads sadly. Pope Wojtyla, who seems to be dying and has lost the power of speech, was wheeled out before the faithful in St Peter's Square this Sunday. He wheezed and croaked a bit and was wheeled away again; the faithful, it appears, found it all very uplifting. Such is the difference between Communists and Christians.

Wojtyla's henchman, God's personal assistant in England and Wales, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, has said that he did not intend his declaration of support for a proposal by Michael Howard to be a declaration of support for any one political party, even though only one political party, so far, is being led by Michael Howard. It seems that not even God can distinguish any longer between the various prosperity-enhancing, terrorist-fighting, immigrant-busting white Christian males who litter our political landscape like fleas in a hair shirt.

In the course of not telling Catholics which way to vote, the cardinal did his bit for fairness and rationality by comparing his opponents to the Nazis: "That way lies eugenics, and we know from German history where that leads. We are already on that road, for what else is the termination of six million lives in the womb since the Abortion Act was introduced?" No doubt the Holocaust mention was charitably made; I am sure Pope Pacelli would have approved.

Meanwhile, that unctuous old hypocrite the Archbishop of Canterbury - some of his best friends are gay, they probably have a wonderful sense of rhythm, but they just don't make good bishops - has noted that, "Quite a lot of our contemporary culture is actually shot through with a resentment of limits and the passage of time." Presumably this resentment is why our contemporary culture invented those idiotic myths of resurrection and immortality. The inquisitor of Tarsus and his witch-burning, woman-hating, Jew-lynching followers - those eternal enthusiasts for relieving others of their limits - could never have promulgated such unhealthy propaganda.

However, at least according to the Guardian's very incomplete report, Dr Williams appears to have rejected the Pauline lunacies and come down more or less firmly against the Resurrection and the immortality of the soul: "Refusal to die, that fearful denial of our limits, is the root of our self-paralysing habits of sin," he said.

There is progress here, it seems. Not before time, the Archbishop has realised that denial of the limits of a certain Palestinian preacher - specifically his mortality, fallibility, carnality and barbarity - has been at the root of many of the church's most repulsive crimes. If the church can be made to realise, and repent, the similar denial of human limits by its priesthood and the evil consequences of that repression, we may soon take another small step on the road to civilisation.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

6610 and all that: Extracts from a future history

Of Democracy

... actual meaning is not quite clear. Even if it were, it would be dangerous to draw definite conclusions from the literal meaning of the word. Our present system of government is known as complicotic malamitism, but it would be a remarkably bold commentator who would claim that the literal meaning of the words had much to do with the system as actually practiced.

Nevertheless, it may be useful to examine the word democracy for any potential clues with which it may furnish us. Because of the devastation wrought upon human civilisation by the so-called "quest for democracy" some four and a half thousand years ago, many generations of Antegnosticators believed the word to be a Greek formulation related to the word demon, or destructive spirit. It is certainly true that religious ideas, including the nebulous concept of evil (at present tentatively translated as "tending to engage in sexual practices without official license and displaying a predilection towards terrorist acts") were fashionable during the Precatastrophic; but it is quite clear from the records that the people of that era did not regard democracy as either destructive or a breaker of sexual taboos.

Others have suggested that the word may be related to the ancient Japanese term daimyo, meaning a feudal master. This is a rather more convincing hypothesis, given that the "quest for democracy" seems to have involved the imposition of feudal regimes over a large portion of the population of the world. Towards the end there also seems to have been a substantial erosion of liberty for those in the democratic states themselves. This in itself is enough to dispense with the idea of Antegnosticator Vliss and his followers, that the practice of democracy had anything to do with the personal liberty of the masses.

The trappings of democracy remain mysterious and unexplained. The placing of marks on papers was obviously highly important, and a great deal of currency and effort was spent in ensuring that the marks were made in the correct place. Large bribes were dispensed to the populace on certain pre-ordained days in the calendar (the so-called "candy dates" and "political party broadcastings"). Vast rallies were organised and large numbers of balloons released into the air so that none could be left in doubt of the symbolism of the occasion. Unfortunately, the symbolism of such occasions is completely lost on present-day Antegnosticators and even Psychorecombobulators...

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Mennear's Mailing

Through the letterbox a sheaf of bluish bumph cascades. "Mennear's Mailing", the heading reads, next to the Torch of Destiny logo which the Conservatives took over when British Telecom were finished with it. Mennear is a grinning thing in a suit whose first name is Andrew. Mennear's Mailing is an excrescence of Finchley and Golders Green Conservatives.

In deference to the presumed stupidity of an audience which is expected to take seriously the "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" poster campaign, Mennear's Mailing provides me with a list headed "Conservative ACTION in ten words". The word ACTION is in the kind of red whose socialist connotations might easily scare off a New Labourite, and the ten words bear a suspicious resemblance to Tony Blair's minimalist election soundbites for today's monosyllabic elector.

Conservative ACTION in ten words:

More Police
Cleaner Hospitals
Lower Taxes
School Discipline
Controlled Immigration

"Plus," on the side, "one more: Accountability". So, then - Conservative ACTION in ten words, plus one more word, making in all eleven words, only one of which is a verb, i.e. an action. Doubtless it is this flexible attitude to numbers and semantics which has made Conservative fiscal policy, i.e. New Labour fiscal policy, so attractive to the business community.

The reason why we need more police and more expulsions from our schools ("discipline") is spelled out in the main headline to Mennear's Mailing, which I here reproduce with some necessary typographical alleviation: "Blair: Soft on Crime, Even Softer on the Causes of Crime".

Now, please don't make the mistake I made; don't get your hopes up. Mennear's Mailing is not talking about war crimes, and Iraq is not mentioned. The sitting Labour MP is, in any case, an opponent of the Iraq adventure, and has been from its inception; apparently even the Conservatives realise that turning this against him might be a bit of an uphill struggle. Or perhaps they're saving the issue for a later Mennear's Mailing.

The causes of crime, it appears, are the 24-hour drinking binges which are about to become compulsory and all-pervasive under Tony Blair. In order to counter the awful consequences of such indiscipline, "a Conservative Government would provide 40,000 more police officers, set up 25,000 new hard drug rehabilitation places to give young abusers a real choice and restore school discipline to schools by replacing the 4,000 places available in pupil referral units today with 25,000 places at new 'Turnaround Schools'."

I'm confused already. Give young abusers a real choice of jails? Restore school discipline to schools as opposed to massage parlours? Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

The other side of Mennear's Mailing includes another prominent red bit about "New Labour waste". The reference to waste is not about anything trivial, like lives in Iraq; it refers to excessive expenditure on pot plants by the Department of Trade and Industry and the Northern Ireland Office. The DTI has spent a whopping hundred and twenty-one thousand and more on potted plants since 2001. The Northern Ireland Office spent nearly twenty-five thousand on plants in 2004-5 alone. Meanwhile, "families are paying five thousand pounds more a year in tax but 5,000 people are dying each year from infections caught in hospitals and there are still over a million people waiting for treatment."

Gosh. So it takes five families a year of excess taxation to pay for potted plants at the Northern Ireland Office, while for every pound of excess taxation exacted annually from said families, one person a year dies from a hospital infection. Statistics are so dashed poetic sometimes.

There's a blue bit about exempting first homes from inheritance tax, which is mentioned regularly to Andrew when he is out canvassing, he says. There is another bit, less blue than the other bit but still jolly blue, headed "Labour campaign poster is tasteless and wrong", about the "Pigs Might Fly" poster which Labour meekly withdrew some weeks ago. Andrew is "shocked that the Labour party finds it remotely clever or amusing" to superimpose on flying pigs the faces of a prominent criminal from a family of asylum seekers and his friend from another planet.

I wonder what Andrew's opinion might be of the Conservative posters about a threatened epidemic of blokes on early release assaulting people's daughters. There is a white bit with a blue heading, "Feedback to Andrew Mennear," (yes, the heading has a comma at the end; no, there is no reason for this), but somehow I don't find myself wondering enough to ask him.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Part 2

by R J Winger

(New York: Random House, 1989)

Reviewed by Samuel Grimsnipe

Here we have possibly the quintessential American novel - from the country and the age of the sequel and the gimmick, there comes a gimmicked sequel - and from a man who was almost certainly the quintessential American writer: a Henry Ford of popular literature. Ten years after the author's death, the publication of Winger's last novel marks the culmination and the end of a remarkable, if not entirely commendable, episode in the history of United States literature, and displays some suitably splendid ironies.

Winger was the epitome of the novelist as businessman. He made no secret of writing for money, and frequently expressed the opinion that anyone who said they couldn't was a fool, and anyone who said they didn't try was a liar. He produced, during a career which spanned almost thirty years, no less than sixty-three novels in ten distinct genres; like Henry Ford, he was a mass-producer wherever the market was most lucrative. Like Ford, too, the quality of what he turned out was dependable, never falling below the mediocre lest he lose those readers who made his name respectable, and never rising towards the excellent lest he lose the ones who made it profitable. And, again like Ford, his books were any kind you liked, but always the same.

Winger wrote in some of the perennially popular genres, like detective and romantic fiction, all his life; he began by writing westerns in the days when cowboy films were still top of the box-office hit parade, and switched to science fiction on the heels of the Hollywood special-effects boom. All his books, of whatever type, give the impression of having been written to a mathematical formula, a formula drawn up as the conclusion of exhaustive research into what precisely it is that makes a book sell. Seeing Winger's face on the jacket of this novel, one can imagine the economist's brain behind those businessman's features picking out a random sample of other people's novels from the bestseller lists, and then distilling their most profitable points into a bestseller of his own which, if it never quite manages to top the lists, will nevertheless probably hit the seventh- or eighth-place mark for a couple of weeks.

This is not a feature merely of his efforts in types of story which are overtly formulaic, such as the western, or its modern counterpart, the sword-and-sorcery fantasy; every one of Winger's novels has a similar appearance of having been mechanically assembled on some cerebral production-line, each worker adding a single specific feature - the introduction of a particular kind of character, the depiction of a violent episode, the description of some multiple event like a battle or a wedding party - with their positions along the line being varied a bit according to the type of novel required at the end. Reading Winger's complete output in a given genre, one is left with the uncomfortable feeling that even those variations that do exist have been put there only as essential for public relations purposes; reading his output as a whole, one begins to wonder if the photograph on the jacket is not in fact the likeness of some commercially-inclined computer expert, who when he wishes to produce a love story, feeds in a few volumes of his better-selling predecessors, asks the machine to compute numerical values for the various elements involved (length of time between plot developments; length, frequency and degrees Celsius of the more passionate intervals, etc.), and then instructs it to design a plotline according to the averages it has just calculated. Winger would probably have been content to produce the same book over and over again at six-monthly intervals, identical down to the last twist of plot and name of character, if only he could have persuaded people to buy it. The quintessential American novelist: producing, from commercially successful novels of others, novels for no other purpose than commercial success.

Once more, the quintessential American novelist: just under a decade after Winger's death, no-one has ever heard of him. Those same science fiction fans who only ten years ago were writing in his obituaries, "perhaps the best the field has seen since Heinlein" (while Winger, of course, was Heinlein, and Asimov, and Clarke, and no doubt one or two others besides), now see his name once more upon the shelves, and think "oh, is he still around?" - or wonder, perhaps, if this could be the same R J Winger. And perhaps they go home and dust off the book that brought him such acclaim a few years back, and wonder what they ever saw in it, since it contains nothing whatever beyond whatever judicious combination of sex, violence, speculation and sentiment happened to be earning the most money during the year, the month, the week when it was issued. And the same applies to Winger's historical novels and his adventure novels, his detective thrillers and spy thrillers, his romances and his horror stories, not one of which has outlived by more than a few months the fashionable trend which spawned it in the first place.

And now here is Part 2; perhaps it had to happen eventually. The book introduction and the book review have both recently been freed from the tyrannising necessity of books to refer to; now the sequel has been similarly liberated, for Part 2 is a sequel with nothing to follow on from.

The introduction, by a friend of Winger's appointed by the author as his executor, relates how this interesting phenomenon came about. Part 2 was found among some of Winger's older papers, a finished manuscript of which the title page bore something scribbled through so thoroughly as to be unintelligible, and below it, also crossed out but still legible, "Part 2". "Despite the fact that the book is obviously not complete in itself," Winger's friend continues naively, "it was decided that publication should go ahead as a final tribute to one of the most successful authors of our time". Irony, though both appropriate and apparent in these prefatory remarks, does not appear to be intended. The equation of successful with great, or anyway with worthy of tribute, is a fallacy so common that it is now common sense; but it does give a better insight into the genesis of the book than the elegaic couchings to which the remainder of the introduction is devoted.

Winger, for reasons outlined above, was certainly a successful writer, at least as far as large financial returns are to be considered a measure of success; and this success, such as it was, hinged entirely on his knowledge of what kind of writing the market was most interested in. Part 2 is evidently the result of some miscalculation, when Winger overestimated the appeal of one particular genre and decided to produce a follow-up to one of his previous works of that type, only to abandon publication at the last moment. Why the manuscript was preserved (no others were found in anything approaching Part 2's state of completion) is a mystery which will probably never be satisfactorily solved. Possibly Winger foresaw the present situation, and in it the hope of gaining the best of both worlds: riches while in this one, and recognition while in the next. His real motives, however, were probably rather more crass even than this. It is extremely doubtful that, as some romantics have been inclined to speculate, he intended all along that the book be published posthumously as Part 2; it is far likelier that he kept the manuscript simply in the hope of some resurgence in the popularity of the type it represents. Otherwise Winger would have to have lived out his entire working life as merely the prelude to a hoax: a hoax of which he knew all along that he would not witness the climax. A hoax which reaches those sort of proportions loses most of its efficacy, because doubts begin to arise as to who should be considered the victim.

But, no matter what Winger's real intentions may have been (and I for one am of the definite opinion that they were firmly restricted to this side of eternity and how to make it as comfortable as possible), the ironies involved are undeniable and numerous. To begin with, it is impossible to tell from Part 2 which story it is supposed to be the continuation of. It is certainly a sequel to one of the romantic novels; but as Winger wrote fourteen of these, nine of them with storylines corresponding more or less to that of Part 2, it is difficult to say for certain which. In light of Winger's habit of destroying all but the most basic of his working notes (probably to avoid charges of plagiarism), and his new-found obscurity, with all his other books out of print and unlikely to be reissued, or even sold second-hand with any great degree of alacrity, even such obvious clues as the names of the protagonists may continue to elude us, and a definite answer may remain impossible to give, for some time to come.

Unlike most puzzles of this nature, though, neither the absence of a definite answer nor the possibility that such an answer may someday become available diminishes the pleasure of the game. If the title of Part 2's predecessor were known, a copy would be so hard to find, and of so little merit when found, as not to be worth the bother; even if it were reprinted, it would probably not be very widely read; and even those who did read it would probably manage quite comfortably to ignore it, and to come back to Part 2 reasonably unprejudiced by the experience of Part 1.

Part 2 should be read exclusively for itself, taken entirely on its own terms; for despite the superficialities about incompleteness expressed in the introduction, this is easily the best of Winger's books - and not in spite of, but because of, its odd status as the first ever liberated sequel. In a sense, although it was written more than halfway through his literary career, Part 2 is actually Winger's first novel. Everything else he produced, before and afterwards, originated with someone else; Winger's only contribution to his other sixty-two books was the rearrangement of the component parts. But Part 2, the sequel to one of these others, is far enough removed from the victims of Winger's vampirism for their work to be thought of as constituting a legitimate influence upon, rather than the entire substance of, Winger's book.

The appeal of Part 2 is that, unlike anything else its author produced, it provides the reader with a measure of intellectual exercise. Like all sequels, it carries within itself the elements of its predecessor; but unlike most sequels, it is not marred by the defects of that predecessor, or by the tedium of repetition. The plot, though in itself fairly trite and unremarkable, fascinates because of its dependence on another plot, namely that of the earlier book to which Part 2 is the intended successor: a story the events of which are never outlined at length in the new book, but must be pieced together from cryptic hints which were intended by the author as explicit references. Part 2 exudes an exhilarating air of mystery regarding the past: a mystery which the audience feels may be probed, and probed again, with something new always to be found, and yet never anything which would wrap up the question once and for all. The characters' past lives and the development of their relationships to one another, explored in detail in the lost predecessor, in Part 2 take on such a subtle and intriguing aspect that the same predecessor, read after Part 2, would probably appear the work of an inferior imitator, attempting to cash in on the success of Part 2 by offering a solution to the questions it poses.

To the true artist, this must be a mortifying state of affairs. To have produced something like Part 2 intentionally would have been extremely difficult; to have produced it accidentally, to have produced it with the sole intention of making fast money, and to have produced it, moreover, in the form of a sequel to a successful original - possibly the most pernicious literary form now in existence - is perhaps an even more unforgivable sin on Winger's part than all his potboilers put together. They, after all, have already been forgotten, while Part 2 will stand the test of time. And the only retribution that can be exacted is this: that while the potboilers are all forgotten, this book will immortalise, under Winger's name, all that Winger was not. Because of this novel, the only one of Winger's with an identity of its own, Winger's own identity will be, not merely erased, but reversed - turned into something contradictory to what it actually was. And this novel owes what identity it has to a different novel which, having no identity, far better reflected Winger's than this one, and is now forever forgotten.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

News 2020

Disgraced ex-minister may return

The former Minister of Freedom, David Blunted, who was forced into resigning his post by the machinations of a scheming ex-lover who took advantage of his emotional vulnerability, may soon return to the Cabinet transfigured and glorified in the radiance of holy benignity, officials said today.

Mr Blunted's public reputation as a tyrannical bigot with the sex appeal of a Customs and Excise rubber-glove search was belied by the revelation of his affair with the wife of another man.

"The Prime Minister's Christian faith and burning moral conviction moved him to forgive Mr Blunted as quickly as possible and invite him back into the Government as expeditiously as possible," said Downing Street spokesperson Bedham Lovchylde.

Mr Blunted has spent his weeks in the wilderness dictating his memoirs and defending British history from its fashionable detractors. "For decades we have been forced to apologise for our achievements," he wrote recently. "It has even become fashionable to decry colonial architecture, to mock at pith helmets."

Mr Blunted was particularly concerned at the way in which schoolchildren were encouraged to see early modern Britain as an aggressive, imperialistic, slave-trading nation. "Barely a mention is made, if any, of the way in which the British entrepreneurial spirit helped make peace a reality among warring African tribes through the introduction of radical overseas work schemes as early as the sixteenth century," he wrote.

"The logical conclusion of such reasoning is that all British institutions are entirely worthless and immoral," he continued. "Do not be surprised if, in the very near future, such people are found agitating for the repeal of habeas corpus and the tearing up of Magna Carta."

Asked today about his likely return to power, Mr Blunted refused to comment, except to say that if he were needed he would be happy to step in and repair any damage done by the present Minister of Freedom, Chas Cluck, who replaced Mr Blunted on his resignation.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

News 2020

US leader responds to latest shooting incident

The US Commander-in-Chief has expressed dismay at this month's high school shooting incident, calling it "an unfortunate misapplication of American firepower" and "a red carrot to the bull of gun control".

His words have been interpreted as a possible prelude to further tightening of the gun control control laws, which forbid the dissemination of anti-firearms propaganda "for the duration of the present emergency".

Gun control control lobbyists in the United States have been saying for some time that this restriction is not enough, and that gun owners need more protection from opponents of the old eighteenth-century constitution which enshrines the right of citizens to keep and bear arms, and on which the Homeland Constitution is based without prejudice under the laws governing intellectual copyright.

This month's shooting incident took place at Red River Valley high school in Minnesota. Nine people were killed and fourteen wounded, making this a below-average incidence in terms of body count, despite a higher-than-average headshot count.

Two headshot victims remain alive but in a comatose state. As a mark of respect to the families, the Commander-in-Chief has signed personally, in advance, the Homeland Christian Compassion Orders enforcing the upkeep in perpetuity of any vegetative state they may fall into.

The gunman, who committed suicide after an exchange of fire with police and armed parents, has been identified as Paul Crockett, a 16-year-old quiet loner who always dressed in blue, frequented an extreme right-wing website, was teased by other students, and will not be considered any great loss.

"This unfortunate incident shows yet again the danger of citizens taking complex issues into their own hands," the Commander-in-Chief said today. "Citizens are reminded that direct actions of this nature are strictly a foreign policy prerogative and are not to be undertaken in the homeland without the correct authorisation."

The Commander-in-Chief also emphasised the need for calm and "negative hysteria" in the face of inevitable calls for gun control control control. "Remember, it is not the gun that kills, but the quiet loner behind the gun," he said.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

News 2020

Paulowitz appointment to counter "puppet" rumours

The US Commander-in-Chief has appointed Lupus Paulowitz, the deputy head of the Department of Peacekeeping, as the new chief executive of the World Bank.

At a press conference in the main White House bunker, the Commander-in-Chief said that he hoped Mr Paulowitz' appointment would finally lay to rest "all incidences of terrorist propaganda about the World Bank."

For too long, he continued, terrorists and other non-globalised entities had tried to portray the World Bank as merely "a puppet dancing on the strings of some rotten apples on Wall Street."

"As of today, Loopy's presidency of the World Bank will ensure a new, free, fair and radically upcontented economic life for all, in the honourable tradition of previous presidencies," the Commander-in-Chief continued.

Mr Paulowitz, known as "Wolfie" to his friends because he has to be locked away at the time of the full moon, has had a long career at the Pentagon. He was a homeland defence policy planner for nearly ten years, and has been credited with thinking up several of the very best code-names for US Special Forces operations.

Mr Paulowitz also served as US Ambassador to Indonesia, where his embassy was praised for its cleanliness and the clear, hard lines of the management structure he imposed. A tough advocate of democratic values, Mr Paulowitz helped negotiate a number of large arms deals with the Indonesian government in return for substantial moves towards economic democratisation and the upgrading and streamlining of neo-efficientiated liberalising systems.

"The World Bank is the repository for the nest-egg of future generations, and I can't think of a better henhouse guard than this man right here," the Commander-in-Chief told the White House bunker press corps. Placing one arm around Mr Paulowitz, who gave a toothy near-smile, the Commander-in-Chief continued, "I'd trust this guy with the family silver if I had to."

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Origins and Uses of the Second World War

The Second World War was invented by Britain shortly after 1945 as a means of deferring recognition of British loss of status as a world power. The highly efficient American invention, WWII, enabled the United States finally to take over control of the world's resources in the period after 1945, leaving Britain in the potentially humiliating position of lieutenant or junior partner in the American imperial enterprise. Unable to reconcile its new subordinate position with the demands of the national ego, Britain quickly developed its own, somewhat more subdued and sentimental version of WWII to counter the brash American edition.

In contrast to the American model, which began in December 1941 with the attack on Pearl Harbour, and ended even more spectacularly in August 1945 after the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the British Second World War started quietly, with the invasion of Poland and the replacement of the ineffective Chamberlain with the war's main protagonist on the side of virtue, Winston Churchill. Less efficiently made than its American counterpart, the British war progressed by fits and starts through the latter part of 1939 and early 1940, with abortive campaigns in France and Norway. It was only in the spring of 1940, with the battle for Britain's air space, that the British war truly got off the ground.

The months from May to September 1940 constitute the central component of the British war, often supplemented with material from late 1940 and early 1941 such as the German bombing of targets including London, Coventry and Buckingham Palace. Fortunately, in the case of Buckingham Palace, no one was hurt. The British model derives much of its character from this and similar touches, including the phenomenon of evacuees and the atmosphere of cameraderie engendered by the blackout, rationing, imminent fear of invasion and Churchill's speeches.

Following the events of 1940 and early 1941, the British model is only intermittently functional. The contribution of US funding is frequently recognised, but the taking over of British resources, first by the Japanese and then by the United States, means that the British war sags somewhat in the middle and has a decidedly mixed ending. The Normandy landings in 1944 and the amusing atmospheric touches of V-1s, V-2s and VE Day must be set against the costly fiasco of Operation Market Garden and a certain over-reliance on manpower from what was later to be recognised as a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy to place a ferrous drape across Europe.

Despite its rather top-heavy construction and its ramshackle appearance, the British model of the war continues in use to this day. Like Britain's antiquated sewers, patched-together roads, laughable transport infrastructure, run-down schools, mediocre sportspeople and inane royal family, the Second World War remains a vital and integral component of national culture, and one of the main bastions of Britain's defence against the encroachments of a rebuilt and newly confident Europe.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Spring has Sprung

Spring has sprung in all its verdant blunder; the winter's chill is banished from the air. Let boiling clouds of midges grace our pathways; let sunlight gleam on dog turds in the fresh bloom of morning.

Let lard walk the streets, hairy, purplish and wobbling; let lard drive about in open-windowed cars and pierce our five months' headache with mega-volume rap music. Let it broil and complain.

Let the air become heavy and sluggish, that our lungs may be all the more exercised drawing in the carbon monoxide, whose taste and texture are the more piquant for being heated. Let the roads melt, and let windows be opened to admit the joyous miasma of brain-retarding pollutants and mind-stomping noise.

Let insects flit and infants squall, for theirs is the kingdom of sunshine and they know not what they breathe. Let the surfaces of roads be opened with pneumatic drills, that the opening of our windows may fulfil its eternal purpose, and that we may be stir-fried in our traffic jams and the sauce of the disc jockey on the radio four vehicles upstream.

Let buds burst forth, ripe pustules on poisoned trees. Let pollen be cast to the scorching wind, to the motionless shrieking air, to the maddened mucous membranes of miserable hay-fevered millions. Let air-conditioners whine and desiccate; let children whine and bully; let adults whine and wobble, and be oiled and purpled ever more.

Let them cook on the streets; let them cook in their cars; let them cook in their trains made late by ultra-violet light. Let the ozone part and the carcinogens pour through in a cleansing wave, like detergent down a railway toilet bowl. Spring has sprung in all its verdant blunder. Listen to it sizzle.

Friday, March 18, 2005

The Ethnology of Itching

An itch, as biologists have long been completely unaware, is caused by the systematic pounding of large numbers of small but very sharp elbows just beneath the surface of the skin. This action causes the skin to become slightly raised, making it easier for the owner to break it when scratching. On occasion, not only elbows but knees and even teeth may be brought into use; but on the whole, and certainly in the case of most ordinary, everyday itches, it is the elbows which do the bulk of the work.

All these elbows, along with the knees and teeth, belong (three of each) to small dark creatures which inhabit the space between the two layers of cells which make up human skin. The creatures, known as Dermites, live in large extended family groups or tribes of about a hundred individuals each; as the space between layers of skin cells is not particularly large, they suffer constantly from overcrowding and arguments break out frequently. Because of the Dermites' fierce and irascible temperament, these quarrels can swiftly expand into small wars, complete with heavy artillery and general devastation. Such an event could hardly go unnoticed by the Dermites' human hosts, who generally perceive such conflicts as an attack of hot flushes or a sudden rash. There has also been some speculation that cases of spontaneous combustion are the result of certain Dermites' having stumbled upon the secret of atomic weaponry.

When, either through victory or sheer exhaustion, one of these wars eventually comes to an end, the corpses of the slain are customarily left to the mercies of the host's own natural bodily functions, which efficiently disposes of them by either absorbing them all into the bloodstream or else sweating them out through the skin. It has been known for a temporarily incapacitated, though still living, Dermite to be swept into the bloodstream along with his dead comrades; when this happens it can cause no end of complications, since the creature's instincts will always lead him to try and rejoin the tribe. A Dermite is perfectly capable of gnawing through a capillary wall, and giving his host a minor haemorrhage, in order to do precisely that.

Although the race has lived there for as long as its most ancient traditions can recall, and despite the fact that they fight one another over it with such vigorous enthusiasm, the Dermites are not especially fond of their home within the skin, and have a rich variety of legends concerning the glory and bliss awaiting those who can escape. Their dislike of the subcutaneous lifestyle stems largely from the limited space available. Individuals have to walk hunched over like geriatrics from a very early age, and the afore-mentioned overcrowding means that the Dermites are continually jabbing each other accidentally with their sharp elbows, to the inconvenience and great irritation of all concerned. It may well be that the Dermites' fondness for war stems from their hope of being liberated from these conditions; however, they do have more peaceful means of achieving this freedom, though perhaps equally inconvenient to the host.

The most widely used of these methods involves the ritual whereby every member of the tribe is required to sit around a particular area of skin, whereupon they all start rhythmically pounding the layer above their heads. They habitually use their elbows for this task; some of the more expert and agile high priests use their knees, running on the spot while kicking extremely high. These rituals can go on continuously for hours or, if the host is exceptionally strong-willed, intermittently over several days. Usually, however, the ritual is successful in causing the host to scratch, an event which the Dermites know, with fear and reverence, as a great darkness and thunder over their heads. If the skin is breached, daylight pours in and everyone rushes at once to the newly-opened exit. Many Dermites are trampled; many more are impaled on one another's elbows; some get stuck beneath the host's fingernails; but a few, the lucky ones, are carried outwards, on a tide of blood and other Dermites, to that freedom for which they long so passionately.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

6610 and all that: Extracts from a future history

Of Britain, Bollywood, the White Hall and "Vichy Arse"

...In its various wars of conquest, the Benighted State was assisted by numerous allies, including Britain, England, London, the White Hall and the mysterious "united kingdom". The locations and cultures of these various countries have unfortunately been lost; nor is it now clear precisely why these nations should have followed the Benighted State so faithfully in its every imperial adventure. One of them, Britain, apparently controlled an "empire" of its own at some stage, probably in the region then known as India, which has been identified with reasonable certainty as being the peninsula now called the Bollywood Triangle.

Incidentally, it is thought that the name "Bollywood" itself derives from a factory city in the Benighted State itself, where highly expensive fertiliser was manufactured to assist in the cultivation of a now extinct root vegetable, the so-called "couch potato". This vegetable was much prized in the Precatastrophic, being associated in some unknown fashion with the mysterious, gluteally-oriented home entertainment system called "VDD" or "Vichy arse". In any case, the use of the name Bollywood in the very heart of the Britain empire would seem to indicate a highly dependent, if not sycophantic, relationship of the Britain government towards the Benighted State. Possibly the Benighted State utilised the addictive potential of "Vichy arse" to keep its satraps under control.

It seems fairly clear, then, that even if it cannot be precisely pinpointed, the location of Britain was somewhere near the Bollywood Triangle, or India as it was then called. The locations of the other states are not so easily discovered. It is a common fallacy to associate "London" with the extensive ruins recently discovered in the North European Archipelago; but many other names have also been put forward for this city, including Westminster, Islington, Brixton, Eastend and Road Closed; and in any case several other sites apparently called London have been discovered across the ocean in the northern part of the Great Radioactive Continent.

Similarly, the White Hall is often confused with "Whitehouse", the seat of the Benighted State's government and a famous force for moral purity in entertainment. The White Hall was in fact a completely distinct entity, closely associated with air-raid shelters (the so-called "underground stations" and "downing streets") and the seat of a powerful but opaque ruling elite.

As for "England", the associations of the word in the surviving literature are so vast and incoherent, ranging from sporting teams of sublime incompetence to mythical utopias of warm beer, white flannels and "fagging", that few historiographers have ventured to say much beyond the probability that, whatever and wherever "England" may have been, its reputation exceeds its achievements.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Rational Catholicism

An elderly celibate calling himself by the mediaeval title Archbishop of Westminster has resurrected the fine Catholic tradition of pro-overpopulationism, apparently in the hope that "religion should play a larger part in British politics" (Guardian). It looks as if the present theocratic plunge into corporate fundamentalism, with its attendant Christian virtues of widespread poverty, growing ignorance and general dismantling of the world and the flesh, is not quite unworldly enough for God's representative in Westminster.

Nevertheless, the Archbishop is to be commended for his hard-headed realism in the matter of family planning. In these great times, which are potentially more interesting for the human race than any that have gone before, the Catholic attitude towards abortion is clearly the only sensible one, and it is a shameful reflection on the shortcomings of our leaders that the best proposal Michael Howard could come up with was a mere four weeks off the legal time limit. The short-sightedness and lack of realism underlying Howard's weaselly compromise may yet prove catastrophic in their consequences. The idea that parents can best look after their children by keeping their families small is, in these great times, so patently false as to be ludicrous.

Think of the problems involved. Smaller families mean that there is more to go round - more parental attention and more money, which means, if one is especially unlucky, more affection, better health care, better education, and less competition within the family for physical and emotional resources. It is obvious why this sort of scenario appeals to our base and materialistic instincts; but given the kind of world we are trying to create, it is equally obvious that this sort of scenario is neither practicable nor humane.

Global warming is well advanced and probably irreversible even if we cared to try doing anything much about it. Scientists have predicted that, in less than half a century, perhaps half the world's land species will have become extinct. The Pentagon has produced reports noting that, even before we have taken the last fossil fuels out of the ground and added them to the pollution in our lungs, a new cycle of wars will have begun in order to secure water and other luxuries of a similar nature.

Quite obviously, in the face of such a future, it is both foolish and cruel to raise children who will grow up expecting adequate nutrition and humane treatment from their neighbours. By contrast, children from families of fifteen or twenty, who have to scream for every scrap of attention and fight their siblings for every scrap of food, will obviously grow up with a much healthier perspective on the world as they find it, and also with the social skills necessary to cope.

It should also be clear that, in the event of a global holocaust resulting from a pandemic or a nuclear war, those families best equipped to survive will be those with the largest number and the most widely scattered members. A close, mutually dependent relationship among three or four people will more than likely result in the whole family unit being wiped out in a single bombing or as a result of a single member being infected by disease. A family which has dispersed itself, and whose members are not in personal contact owing to mutual hatred or disgust, is obviously in a far better position to preserve at least a portion of its genetic inheritance.

In his affirmation of the Catholic stand on abortion, the Archbishop of Westminster has shown genuine concern for the well-being of the human race, as well as an unexpectedly firm grasp of the theory of natural selection and the facts of corporate ecology. The Archbishop has obviously realised, as have regrettably few among our politicians, the basic and fundamental truth that a people's survival in the face of a crisis depends to a large extent on how well it takes care of its young.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Choice Questions

Every now and then (and it can only get worse) one runs into a large, plain white poster with a question scrawled on it in those pseudo-pencil-line letters which make normal everyday print such a delight to the eyes. The question is usually a rhetorical one, like "How would you feel if a bloke on early release assaulted your daughter?" This rather fatuous Daily Mail query to Michael Howard's idea of the man in the street is followed by another question, which is common to all the posters and seems to be some kind of Zen riddle, wherein the key is not so much to find a definite answer as to meditate upon the mystery: "Are you thinking what we're thinking?"

Am I thinking what they're thinking? Well, gosh, I wonder.

Although no general election has yet been called, the campaign has well and truly opened. Strictly speaking, of course, it opened as soon as the results from the last general election were announced; the standard campaign in our ad-man's democracy now consists of four years of soundbites followed by three months of hydrophobia.

These signs, then, are the early symptoms of Conservative electoral zeal; the twitches and yaps which precede the foaming at the mouth and the fleeing from places with a high moisture content, like the Liberal Democrats. I suppose we can take a certain comfort in the obvious fact that a decade and a half of Conservative maladroitness has not yet come to an end. Red-eyed Tony and "New Labour, new danger" was bad enough, but the implication that the perpetrators of the new Mental Health Act and the recent Prevention of Terrorism Bill are a lot of bleeding heart liberals just dying to get hardened criminals back on the streets is almost as ludicrous as the claim of a different poster ("How much does it take to keep a hospital clean? Are you thinking what we're thinking?") that the NHS would be any safer under the Conservatives.

Even at three months' distance, you can see the way it's going. In keeping with tradition, neither of the two main parties will be content merely to claim the ability to run the country; we must prepare for weeks of Heath Robinson policy-making as each tries to out-radical the other. If the war criminal proposes to incarcerate "terror suspects" without charge, the vampire will want longer prison sentences for parking offenders. If the wild-eyed one wants asylum seekers sent back where they came from, the dead-eyed one will demand they be deported to the dark side of the moon. And if the slimy one is resolved to follow George W Bush unto the ever more foreseeable end of civilisation, the other slimy one is probably preparing even now to take George W Bush by his sweaty little paw and lead him there.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Translate This

I've just got hold of another book by the remarkable Brazilian writer, Machado de Assis. The title of this English translation is The Wager, which is not a translation of the title. A translation of the title, Memorial de Aires, would presumably be Memoir of Aires or Aires' Journal (the subtitle of this version). Another novel by Machado de Assis, whose title is Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, has been translated as Epitaph of a Small Winner. I think it's high time translators, or their publishers, were reacquainted with the fact that they are the window-pane and not the landscape.

Film versions have much to answer for. Because of Sam Peckinpah's film, Willi Heinrich's novel The Willing Flesh was recently issued as Cross of Iron, although the Iron Cross is mentioned barely, if at all, in the book. Michel Tournier's The Erl-King has been transmogrified into The Ogre; this at least has something to do with the contents of the story, but it involves a substantial and unnecessary shift of emphasis, not to mention the rather insulting implication that interested viewers of Volker Schlondorff's film are incapable of finding the source novel should it be available under its own name.

I realise that it is frequently necessary, when adapting a literary work for the screen, to alter the title. Schindler's Ark was obviously much better off as Schindler's List, since the story did indeed feature a list and the Noah reference was purely (shudder) metaphorical. But why was it necessary for Penguins to issue Huysmans' La-Bas, which translates perfectly well as Down There, under the denniswheatleyesque rubric The Damned? What earthly business did Johns Hopkins Press have in reducing Tournier's Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar to The Four Wise Men?

Probably it's all the fault of Jorge Luis Borges, who observed somewhere that no translation can ever be definitive. Though true enough, this pronouncement by one of literature's most modest practitioners has given some secretarial workers ideas above their station. The mere name of Huysmans or Machado on a book's cover is no longer considered sufficient; literature, like everything else, must not merely be sold, but provided with a sell. Especially foreign literature, which nobody reads and must therefore be sold all the harder.

So in a year or two, I suppose, Machado's Dom Casmurro will come out as Old Sourpuss, and Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment as The St Petersburg Axe Murders. Part two of Faust will have to be repackaged as Faust II: The Sequel, and no doubt those responsible for the marketing of A la recherche du temps perdu will have some serious thinking to do. Would Memories of a French Cake-Sucker be appropriate to the target purchasing group?

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Val Lewton and Mark Robson

In the early 1940s, RKO Radio Pictures set up a horror unit. They gave producer Val Lewton a film crew, a rather low budget and a handful of lurid titles including Cat People, The Leopard Man and, most charmingly of all, I Walked with a Zombie, and left him to get on with it. Lacking expensive make-up and special effects, Lewton's productions relied on the stylistic techniques of film noir - shadowy visuals, dreamlike plotting, horror which is ambiguously supernatural or else purely psychological, and melancholy off-screen narration. Shortly after his tour with Lewton, the unit's most talented director, Jacques Tourneur, would go on to make the archetypal film noir, Out of the Past (1947).

Tourneur made the first of Lewton's productions, the 1942 version of Cat People. Despite some fine sequences and an affecting performance by Simone Simon as the cursed heroine, the film as a whole is not among the best produced by Lewton, thanks to a rather conventional story and the ligneous performance of its male lead, Kent Smith. Paul Schrader's much-derided 1982 remake is superior in almost every way. Tourneur's abilities were far better used in I Walked with a Zombie, a dreamily atmospheric melodrama with its plot filched from Jane Eyre. In 1957, Tourneur applied the techniques he had learned with Lewton to another very fine horror film, Curse of the Demon, an intelligent and very well acted adaptation of M R James' story "Casting the Runes".

In 1944, RKO produced a sequel to Cat People. When the director, Gunther von Fritsch, failed to meet the shooting schedule, Lewton handed the job to Robert Wise, whose credentials included editing work on Citizen Kane. Though saddled with another lurid title, Curse of the Cat People turned out just as well as I Walked with a Zombie; it is not, in fact, a horror film at all but a sensitive and poetic study of childhood fantasy. Its nearest cinematic relatives are works such as Victor Erice's Spirit of the Beehive and Bernard Rose's extraordinary Paperhouse.

Wise made one further film with Lewton. The Body Snatcher (1945) is a creepy tale, adapted from a story by Robert Louis Stevenson, about a nineteenth-century Edinburgh doctor's guilty involvement with the unctuous resurrectionist Gray (Boris Karloff). Wise went on to apply his intelligent craftsmanship to films in all genres, from musicals like West Side Story and The Sound of Music to unusually scientific science fiction in The Andromeda Strain; when he made The Haunting in 1963, he proved, like Tourneur, that his time at RKO had not been spent in vain.

The remaining four of the nine horror films produced by Lewton's unit were directed by Mark Robson. His films are not generally regarded so highly as those by Tourneur and Wise; only The Seventh Victim (1943) has much of a reputation, though certainly a well-deserved one.

The story of an innocent's search for her sister, who has fallen under the influence of a homicidal religious cult, The Seventh Victim is full of the brilliant set pieces which are one of the hallmarks of Lewton's productions. Two of the cultists, posing as drunks, calmly dispose of a body on the night-time bus. A sinister shadow beyond a shower curtain gives the heroine enigmatic warnings. A private detective walks down a silent, dead-black corridor and disappears into the dark. The atmosphere of inexorable fate is abetted by occurrences of the number seven and its multiples (an apartment door, a subway station) and by the presence of characters such as the sister's dying neighbour.

Robson's other films seem underrated, rarely seen, or both. The Ghost Ship (1943), the least well-known of the whole Lewton oeuvre, is the story of a ship's officer who is ostracised - treated as though he does not exist - on the orders of his megalomaniac captain, and who thus "haunts" the vessel despite being still alive. A memorable atmospheric touch is the narration, spoken off-screen by a crewman who cannot talk (played by the splendidly-named Skelton Knaggs); and the film also has a cardinal virtue in Richard Dix's performance as the captain. At a time when insanity in the movies was largely synonymous with outsized slices of ham, Dix manages to portray an actual human being.

Isle of the Dead (1945) concerns a group of people quarantined on a small island because of an outbreak of disease during the Greek war of 1912. General Pherides (Boris Karloff), an honourable soldier, is led by his superstitious upbringing and the ravings of a nasty old woman to conclude that a vorvolaka, a sort of vampire, is haunting the island. Despite the brief presence of an atrocious stage cockney, whose early demise from the plague is one of the film's few optimistic signs, Isle of the Dead contains some exceptional touches; notably the premature burial of a cataleptic woman, who is driven insane by her ordeal and wanders like a ghost about the island, mute and clutching a trident.

Bedlam (1946), again, is less a horror film than a melodrama, though it still includes set-pieces such as the pageant during which an unfortunate inmate of London's Bethlehem asylum, painted all over to represent Reason, dies of skin suffocation before the patronising eyes of his social superiors. Boris Karloff puts in another oleaginous performance as Master Sims, the corrupt administrator of the asylum, who gets the heroine declared insane. Although initially terrified, she helps and befriends the other inmates in a series of touching scenes, and eventually escapes with their help. Sims is put on trial by his victims, confesses that his cruelty to them is the result of his fear of the world, and with superb irony is sentenced to life outside the asylum's walls. His eventual fate is still more ironic, and arguably even worse.

Unlike Tourneur and Wise, Robson does not seem to have had the opportunity to use his RKO experience on a larger-scale and bigger-budget horror film. He went on to a comparatively anonymous directorial career, including such opera as the Frank Sinatra war film Von Ryan's Express and the disaster movie Earthquake. Perhaps if he had managed to achieve the critical acclaim of Out of the Past or the financial success of The Sound of Music, his work for Lewton would be better appreciated.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Punishment and Crime (Kara i Zbrodnia)

by Mariana Duchowna
Translated by Louis Iribarne

(Krakow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1991; London: Andre Deutsch 2002)

Reviewed by Samuel Grimsnipe

Over the years which have elapsed since this book first came out, nearly the whole Roman Catholic church (with one very notable exception) seems to have had something to say about it. Those few making no comment on the novel have bestowed their attention on the novelist, herself but a recent convert to the faith and, perhaps on that account, the victim of much personal criticism on the grounds that it is not the business of refugees to pillory the power that shelters them. But even assuming this rather tenuous argument to be valid, it is still hard for the independent reviewer to be certain that Ms Duchowna has in fact delivered what she is accused of delivering: namely a body-blow to a fundamental tenet of the religion in which she now professes to believe.

Dostoyevsky, guided by the faith's bright light out of the fog of his former radicalism, took care to ensure that all his subsequent writings showed exactly where his sympathies lay; at the end of Crime and Punishment, it is to the Bible that the hero turns in order to understand what he had found incomprehensible, the reasons behind the unbearable stabbings of his own conscience. Divine justice is also the theme of Ms Duchowna's brief novel; but while the Russian author was content to leave the motives of his Deity mysterious, merely pointing to His commandments as the answer to his character's predicament, this Pole is more astringent with her new-found creed, and has placed before her spiritual leaders a puzzle which has occupied them, in ominous silence, until now; and may easily continue to do so for some time to come.

Yes: practically the only Catholics who have failed to opine upon the subject of this book are the very ones who inhabit the earthly epicentre of their church. When the storm blew up, first in Ms Duchowna's (and the Pope's) native country, then across the rest of Europe, those attempting to elicit some reaction from the holy hierarchs were met either with the calm assertion that the whole thing would blow over, or else with an equally calm and smiling plea of that ignorance of worldly matters which becomes a man concerned with higher things. After a respectable interval, when it was evident that the whole thing was far from blowing over, and had become, with the opening of a fierce debate over whether an Italian translation should be permitted, more than ever an issue which urged the intervention of the Vatican authorities, their silence in the face of these questions changed somewhat in tone, becoming less the silence of lofty naivety than that of careful and profound reflection.

The book's title in English is Punishment and Crime, and the relevance of Dostoyevsky extends somewhat further than the prevailing opinion that Ms Duchowna should have treated her theme according to his example. In conversation with his friend Father Jerzy, her protagonist notes the Russian author's intention in writing the story of Raskolnikov: to portray the essential mystery behind the workings of God's justice, the mystery which, according to Christian doctrine, the humanist mistakes for arbitrariness. After all - the humanist asks - why should it be wrong for a gifted but desperately impoverished young man to remove from the world a sickly, grasping and evil-minded old hag in order to put to beneficient work the money she has uselessly hoarded? Thus Raskolnikov, having murdered her on these purely reasonable grounds, is incapable of fathoming the motives underlying his own confession - until, that is, he opens the Bible, where the secret is revealed. The old woman's murder was wrong because all murder is wrong; all murder is wrong because God says so; why God should say so is not for mankind to ask. For the mind of the true believer, that should be enough.

Punishment and Crime is divided into two parts, one for each of the nouns in the title; but in the novel itself, it is the "Crime" section that comes first. It recounts the wanderings, around a large and unfriendly city, of a man who seems to be some kind of eccentric tramp. It is winter; there is dirt in the sky and slush on the ground; the man does not appear to have a home, but spends his nights slumped in various doorways, dreaming obscure memories which are summarised for us in broken phrases interspersed with ownerless names. The daytime he spends hanging about church buildings, loudly declaiming to the congregations as they move in and out of services, and occasionally joining them himself in order to heckle from the rear during the sermon.

In this way he eventually kindles the interest of Father Jerzy, the hard-working and eminently practical young pastor of one church whose steps the tramp has frequently misappropriated for his rhetorical exercises. At first he harangues Father Jerzy as he harangues everyone: stridently, mercilessly and without cease; but after a week or two of plentiful food and proper bedding, he begins to unwind just enough for Father Jerzy to gather the little that the reader has already learned from numerous doorstep dreams. The tramp is a stranger to the city; his past, though unknown in most of its particulars, is extremely tragic; and he is violently anti-religious.

He is particularly obsessed with the concept of justice. In all his numerous monologues, whether dispensed from church steps, from the back pew for a quick getaway, or in the privacy of Father Jerzy's rooms, his goal is always the same: to prove that divine justice is a lie. He cites the usual arguments of the humanist: the rewarding of evil and of sycophancy towards evil; the suffering of men of conscience; the punishment of the meek and the exaltation of the proud; the fact that "he moveth in mysterious ways" can be used with equal plausibility to show the ultimate good intentions of God or the Devil. The human conscience, he argues, surely the divine spark within mankind, does not torment the truly evil, but causes innocents to suffer for imaginary crimes, its insatiable needling often inspiring people, not to ever greater works in the name of their Lord, but towards cynicism, bitterness and ultimate despair.

As might be expected, none of this cuts much ice with the parishioners. Their interest in theology is minimal; much greater is their interest in the banal, bovine, comfortable faith of which the weekly reinforcement is, in their eyes, the main function of those hapless priests from whom the stranger tries to wean them. The only person who really listens to him is Father Jerzy; first with pity, then with interest, and finally with a fascination that turns, in the closing stages, to agony. For he realises that the stranger's aim is not merely to destroy faith, but to invert it; the stranger is not simply an atheist, but an anti-theist, a believer in God who denies, with terrible vehemence, God's benevolence. And his vehemence is such, his instinctive ability to find the site of a private grief, a painful area in which to wedge the blade of his argument, is so unerringly accurate that to his own mounting horror Father Jerzy finds the stranger's negative faith contagious. The first part of the book ends with the observation that "it is said that the greatest crime is to despair of God. In fact there is a crime still greater: knowingly to sow in others the seeds of a similar despair."

The second part, "Punishment", opens during the summer, in a different city; the first few chapters delineate the vigorous but reasonably contented existence led by one Father Krzysztof. Hard-working, eminently practical, and a reader of Dostoyevsky, he is an energetic campaigner for his church, keeping his flock's interest alive with vast quantities of social functions, including a twice-weekly Catholicism-can-be-fun group for the youngsters; in addition to which he runs, with largely nominal assistance from the priests of two neighbouring parishes, the city's only children's hospice. He is happy in his work, and appears quite strong in his faith, defending both, with gusto, against the assaults of his sceptical teenage proteges.

But as summer slides into autumn outside his church walls, so this happy season in Father Krzysztof's life turns into a long and rapidly steepening slope into the cold. Towards the end of July he is informed that the ecclesiastical authorities are planning to divert funds from his hospice in order to build a new church, even though present attendance barely fills the ones already in existence; he spends the best part of the next three months in a long, exhausting and ultimately futile struggle to save the hospice from closure. Trying hard not to become embittered when he realises defeat is inevitable, he does the best he can for his ex-residents, attempting to resettle them in the kind of environment to which his care has accustomed them; most, however, end up under the impersonal, and only intermittently adequate, care of the State.

Father Krzysztof's confusion at the vagaries of the divine plan is not greatly eased by the reports of those few former patients with whom he is able to maintain contact. In at least one case, that of a small girl who had become deeply attached to him, the upheaval results in a definite deterioration. Thus innocents are suffering because God, of those appointed, presumably by Him, as His representatives, wishes a nice new church for which there is little or no human demand. Father Krzysztof's conscience suffers because of what he has been forced to do; his faith also suffers because of the unavoidable necessity of doing it - a necessity apparently sanctioned by the Almighty, since despite the good Father's most valiant efforts to save the hospice, including an appeal for funds to the public at large, everything including the Almighty seems to work against him: the money collected is sequestered by the Bishop to be pumped into the building of the new church. And all this is before the final, terrifying, sequence of events when winter comes in with a snap and strikes closer and closer to home. Disaster follows disaster, leaving the reader in no doubt that there is more than mere chance at work; and so, gradually but inexorably, the identity of Father Jerzy's garrulous madman becomes known to us, as we get to know the people behind the names which he is soon to mumble in his dreams, and as we realise the cruel manner in which these people, one by one, were taken from him.

The second part ends where the first began: with Father Krzysztof, metamorphosed into the nameless, theophobic zealot, boarding the train which will take him off to a new city, one where he has never been before, there to preach against his God, and finally to encounter and corrupt Father Jerzy; to commit, in other words, the crime for which, as the book implies, he has already been punished. He has been disillusioned by misfortune; but the misfortune is itself the retribution for his disillusionment, for his despairing of God, and for his deliberate attempt to pass on his disillusionment to others.

The Vatican's caution in judging this book is well advised. Its eventual verdict will demonstrate, perhaps as nothing else could, Catholicism's choice between the alternatives which must face every faith: between religion as spiritual panacea and religion as harsh truth. This choice is in fact a dilemma, because the first alternative gives the appearance of merely dodging problematic issues, thus damaging the church's standing with its more intelligent members; while the second alternative could rob the church of droves of its most loyal grassroots members, for whom Earth is quite merciless enough without making God that way as well. Perhaps Ms Duchowna, who has raised the matter in such uncompromising fashion, is guilty of sabotage after all.

The problem with this book, then - the issue that has stirred up such controversy and puzzled the Vatican so - is the way in which Ms Duchowna has offered, in a sort of parable, a possible solution to the supposedly eternal problem of evil. This is the question, posed again and again by Father Krzysztof in the first part of the novel, of why a good and merciful God should allow so much suffering to be inflicted on the relatively sinless. Emphasised by the author's placing of crime and punishment in the order the reader would expect, only to make it clear, in the title and at the end, that they happened in a different order, the answer Ms Duchowna postulates lies in the simple fact that God is eternal. Because God is eternal, He must exist equally in what to human perceptions are the separate states of past, present and future; the distinctions between the three states, as they appear to us, are therefore irrelevant to Him; and as a result of this He can, without injustice, punish a human being for a crime which, in human eyes, has yet to be committed.

Thursday, March 10, 2005


A Dialogue

(The Tigers' den. Mr Tiger is snoozing contentedly with half a dozen cubs sprawled around him. Enter Mrs Tiger, empty-jawed.)

Evening, dear.

MR TIGER (mumbles)
What's new, pussycat?

(Mrs Tiger grunts and settles down close by.)

Get something good for dinner, then?

Not exactly.

MR TIGER (still half asleep)
I could murder a buffalo right now. Nice supple adult meat - much more substantial than the old ones and babies you normally bring home. (Stretches contentedly) You really are a lazy cow sometimes.

I haven't been hunting.

Well, what have you been doing all day then - fishing?

Very funny. I was down at the library if you must know.

MR TIGER (waking up in a hurry)
The what?

The library. You know - that new UNESCO place about half a mile from here. I was in there all day.

MR TIGER (warily)
Now, darling - I know you were a bit of a man-eater before we got married, but I thought we'd agreed you were going to stop all that. You've got responsibilities now, you know.

I know.

Think what would happen to me and the cubs if you ended up getting shot. (Rolls over contemplatively on his back) Can't imagine how I'd cope.

Neither can I.

And you really should know better than to give the cubs man-meat at their age. All the health warnings in the Jungle Book are against it. You know what they say - first your teeth go, then your mind, and finally you end up a trophy on the wall of some upper-class English twit.

I know. Reactionary Victorian baloney.

MR TIGER (not listening)
Still, a good chunk of human's better than nothing, I suppose, if that's the best you could manage. (Alertly) Where is it then?

There isn't any.


Isn't any.

Isn't any?

Isn't any. Buffalo, human, animal, vegetable or mineral -

MR TIGER (shuddering)
God forbid.

Not a sausage.

MR TIGER (after a short but agonized pause)
...Not even a book to read while we starve?

Don't be silly.

Well, all right then - what have you been doing all day?

Research, obviously.

Well, obviously. Into what, may I ask?

Tigers, of course. I've been saying for ages that the damn Jungle Book's long out of date, haven't I?

MR TIGER (who has not listened to her for ages unless the menu is being discussed)
I suppose so...

Well, then. That's why I went to the library. I wanted to avail myself of the latest findings in zoology. I thought it was about time we dragged ourselves into the modern age.

MR TIGER (scratching his empty stomach)
By becoming extinct, you mean?

Of course not, you silly tabby.

Don't call me that!

I mean by behaving like real, genuine, twenty-first century tigers, rather than like Rudyard Kipling stereotypes or bloody Winnie-the-Pooh cuddly toys.

Well, I may be very obtuse, dear, but I fail to see exactly how any of this academic discussion connects with the very important subject we were discussing just a moment ago. (Pauses authoritatively) Namely dinner.

(With the air of doing something immensely significant and revolutionary, Mrs Tiger grabs a cub by the scruff of the neck and plumps it down in front of him. Then she grabs another one, drops it between her own forepaws and bites hard. The cub squeals.)

MR TIGER (absently)
Don't chew the cubs, dear. Leave that to the ruminants. The ruminants chew the cubs and we eat the ruminants, isn't that so? (Tickles the cub in front of him) Daddy's little darling, eh? All those big heavy buffalo, brought down just to protect you. (Sighs) When some people can be bothered to hunt the bloody things, that is...


I beg your pardon?

The word is cud. Ruminants chew the cud. They do not chew cubs.

Well, why do we eat the ruminants then, if not to protect our childen?

Because they taste good and they're reasonably easy to kill.

That's all?

That's all.

You mean ruminants aren't - well, evil?

No, dear.

They don't chew cubs ... at all?

No, dear.

MR TIGER (pauses a while to digest this)
Well, I must say - buffalo may never taste the same again. (Mrs Tiger bites another chunk out of her cub, which yells once more) I say, could you stop that, please? Just because your hunting was unsuccessful, you don't have to chew out the children.

MRS TIGER (amused) Chewing the kid now, is it? (Does it again.)

Look, just what is going on here? (The cub between his forepaws starts to try and squirm away; he clouts it) You - sit still!

Oh, why can't you just try listening for once, you silly tabby?

And don't call me that, all right?

Sorry dear.

I know my little problem can be very frustrating for you at times. You're a normal healthy female, after all, and a bit of a tigress too. But there's no need to imply that I've had the ... the operation.

All right, dear.

All right then. What about dinner?

It's in front of you.

In front of - (sees cub) What, this?

Full of natural vitamins. Probably healthier than most of the prey around here - and it comes ready caught, delivered straight to your home.

I'm not eating this!

MRS TIGER (half rising)
You'll eat what's put in front of you.

MR TIGER (somewhat intimidated)
But ... but dearest, this ... this - my own flesh and blood, after all ...

MRS TIGER (munching contentedly)
Makes it all the more digestible.

It's unnatural, though. It's ... it's incestuous.

Oh, rubbish. Male tigers often devour their young. I found that out in the library. It's the most natural thing in the world.

Well, yes, we do occasionally devour our young, that's true - but not for nourishment, for heaven's sake!

Well, what for, then?

MR TIGER (coyly)
Well, it's ... it's a male thing, dear - you know.

Well, in that case it's way past time for it all to be brought out in the open and subjected to the rigours of Equal Opportunities. I don't see why I should have to slave away at the hunt when there's a perfectly good source of nourishment staring you in the face - and one that's acceptable to your peculiar standards of masculine pride.

Oh, don't start that again. Just because I refused to eat that fish you brought home.

MRS TIGER (under her breath)
A real tabby wouldn't have objected for a moment.

Anyhow, if we eat our offspring you'll still have work to do bearing more.

Oh, I never meant we should do it regularly. Just now and then, you know, as a supplement to our regular diet. Give me a bit of a holiday. The book only said to eat cubs often, not make them a staple. How many have we got, anyway?

Six. (Bone crunches in Mrs Tiger's corner) Well, five and a bit.

And next year we'll have another litter, won't we?

MR TIGER (far from certain, but hardly inclined to admit it)
Of course.

Well, I don't think three holidays a year is too much to expect, do you? (Eyeing the cub now frozen with terror between her husband's forepaws) Not eating yours, then?

What? Oh, I suppose so. (Whacks it and digs in; chews thoughtfully for a minute) Bit insubstantial, I think - have to give them buffalo more often. Feed them up. Mature buffalo too - not those half-grown creatures you keep bringing home. They need proper fresh meat at their age, not baby food. (Mrs Tiger snorts and rolls over to sleep) Make sure they eat it all, too - no waste. (Surveying the remaining cubs as they cower at the back of the den) More discipline, that's what you lot need. Don't want you going all flabby and soft! You're tiger cubs! What are you?

CUBS (in tremulous unison)
Tiger cubs!

Right! Just try and remember that!

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Executive Imperative: an extract

The new Jake Baculum thriller from bestselling novelist Grit Masterley

"Of course I can help you," the Arab grinned. His teeth glinted, apart from the missing ones. "I have here a sample of my humble merchandise..."

Still grinning, but his eyes dead and flat, he reached into an inside pocket of his dirty white hijab. Jake did not even blink, although the crinkles around his ice-chip eyes may momentarily have become a tad less amiable. The professor continued to return the Arab's smile.

"DOWN!" Jake yelled as the Arab's hand came into view holding a Russian-made Karpov-Korchnoi 9mm automatic with silencer and laser sighting device. The red eye of the laser caught the professor's pipe-stem and barely two and a half hundredths of a second later the pipe disappeared in a spray of meerschaum fragmentation fragments. The professor looked startled. This was not the kind of situation a liberal education had prepared him to cope with, Jake thought. Well, at least the professor would no longer be leaving that trail of finest quality Giorgio Armani tobacco smoke for the Korean-made Tae Kwon Doh Al-Qaeda helicopters to follow. A good thing, too. They'd had more than enough of that kind of trouble already.

Now the baleful red eye was sliding across the professor's forehead, but Jake reached up and grabbed the man's wrist and pulled him to the ground as the second 9mm parabellum slug whined over them. That one would have parted the professor's hair if he'd had any hair, Jake thought as he pulled the Black and Decker rapid-fire high-velocity Streetclearer machine pistol from its holster at his left ankle and sent twenty-one per cent of the contents of its magazine spraying towards the terrorist at a rate of three hundred rounds per minute.

The titanium-jacketed hollow-point ammunition caught the terrorist in the abdomen and sent his shredded intestines flying out through the small of his back. The flat dead eyes of the psychopath narrowed and gleamed with fanatical hate as splinters of his shattered sternum made a glistening pincushion out of his bladder. Pausing only to spit a maniacal curse the Arab pitched forward and died almost on top of the professor.

"Did you have to kill him? the professor asked, rising shakily from the ground and brushing the desert sands from the leather patches on the elbows of his Fortnum and Mason tweed suit.

Jake was tempted to let the professor have the remainder of the Streetclearer's ammunition right between the lenses of his gold Marks and Spencer pince-nez, but he resisted the temptation successfully. If the brain in which the free world's most valuable chemico-bacteriological warfare secrets were stored was going to be splattered all over the sands of the Gobi desert, Jake "Boner" Baculum wasn't going to splatter it. It wasn't in his contract.

He said simply. "Would you rather he'd killed you?" and, without waiting for an answer, continued on along the sands.

Monday, March 07, 2005

6610 and all that: Extracts from a future history

Of Radioactive Fallout and the Vlunk Hypothesis

... particularly when damp. Controversies abound, perhaps more than in any other region of historiography, over the question of where the peoples of the Precatastrophic managed to find the necessary sources of energy to sustain their highly mechanised society; a society which has been described by the unfortunate Antegnosticator Vlunk as "godlike" in its capabilities.

Antegnosticator Vlunk believed that the peoples of the Precatastrophic were able to generate energy from the radioactive decay of various types of elemental particle, including particularly uranium and plutonium. Vlunk cited as evidence the evidence of abundant radioactivity, dating from the Precatastrophic, in the region known at that time as the Mudleast, as well as in areas which are known to have been highly developed, including what is now the Central European Desert. Vlunk noted the frequency with which the Mudleast is mentioned in the ancient records as a vital resource and as a locus of potential political volatility, and deduced from this that the Precatastrophics must have been able in some fashion to mine the radioactivity for power.

Vlunk also noted the occasional mention of "radioactive fallout" in certain fragments apparently titled "Tect and Sur", which seem to be part of a set of architectural plans for manufacturing a form of "basement extension" - such extensions being, like "patios" and "conservatives", a widespread and popular source of credits in the Precatastrophic society's great national ritual game of "rat racing" or "keeping up the johns". Vlunk contended that the mention of "fallout" was a reference to uranium or plutonium radiation, which had to be extracted and processed by domestic energy units. There were, Vlunk claimed, "food processors" for preparing nourishment, "word processors" for providing information and news, and "waste processors" for providing "waste" - a major manufacture of the time, apparently produced in great quantities by every household, whose nature and function remain poorly understood, although it is thought by many to have been connected with "television" and related phenomena.

Although Vlunk's hypothesis was widely discussed at the time, and still has a certain maverick appeal among the young and inexperienced, it has received little serious attention from respected opinion since Vlunk's expedition into the Mudleast in search of supporting evidence, as a result of which his teeth fell out. Some of his less respectful colleagues, including the notorious Vligg, were moved to suggest that this was the "radioactive fallout" of which the Tect and Sur fragments spoke. There is, of course, no evidence for this; but in any case, an Antegnosticator can no more function without teeth than a pringle can do without a gusset, so Vlunk was relieved of his responsibilties a mere few weeks before he finally died of leukaemia...

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Death to Nokia

The communications revolution, like Saturn, devours its children. We have twenty-four hour news channels, but we are not better informed; we are merely informed of the same rubbish twenty-four hours a day. We have instant electronic mail, but we are not better correspondents; we just use txt to disguise the fct wr illtteret. We have the internet, which within a few years will be the exclusive preserve of advertisers, WalMart Interactive, and rich right-wingers who consider the world in desperate need of their thoughts on God, country and sexy weapons systems. And we have mobile telephones, which combine most of the faults of the above-mentioned in a single, palm-sized package.

Mobile telephones are a wonderful device for ensuring immediate and convenient communication; and, in the way of the human race, two things are thereby assured. One, that nothing of the slightest importance is ever communicated over a mobile telephone; and two, that anything that is communicated over a mobile telephone is communicated at considerable inconvenience to any innocent bystanders.

Indeed, the immediacy and convenience of mobile phone dialling has more than once resulted in injury and death to innocent third parties, as drivers blithely tinker away at their text messages while ignoring less immediate and convenient matters such as the occupants of the road in front of them. Perhaps the drivers in question were trying to send warnings; perhaps they had seen a mobile phone advert which told them text messaging was quicker than using the horn or the brakes. Perhaps mobile phones are a scourge and a pestilence and should be seized and trampled underfoot.

Overhearing one side of a mobile phone conversation is among the less entertaining ways to wait for death; every now and again, especially on public transport, it is possible to overhear one side of several mobile phone conversations as several fellow-passengers arrive simultaneously at the ingenious idea of calling someone up to tell them the train is about to enter a tunnel. This is quite an experience. Monosyllables erupt all around like bubbles in boiling mud: "Lo? Me. Yer. Nah. Yer. Right. Yer. Mon trine. Yer. Nah. Wot? Nah. Yer. Wot? Wot? Lo? Lo? Lo..." - this last trailing off as the tunnel enfolds us all - passengers, phones, and the dying, blood-coughing art of conversation - in its merciful blackness.

But before you hear the dialogue, there is something almost worse to be gone through: you have to hear the ring-tone. Mobile telephone ring-tones are a phenomenon in themselves: a cultural virus to rank with emoticons, pop-up advertising and New Labour. They are sold by the batch and offered free with selected electronic goods. They can be cute. They can be funny. They can be businesslike, musical, amusing, thrilling, delightful, discreet, noisy, complicated, up-to-the-minute, hilarious, audible at vast distances and very, very persistent. They can murder any tune you care to name, including several which deserve it and many which do not. I suppose this is merciful in a way, since it would be rather painful to hear a fine piece of music pleasantly rendered, only to have it interrupted with "Lo? Yer. Right. Mon trine," and all the rest; but this small consolation is not quite enough to get one through the day.

It would be gratifying to think that these infernal engines cause cancer and/or can be used as aids to government spying, as has been claimed. If so, then perhaps our successors - the children of this toxic-waste generation which bans smoking in public, is bored with sex, watches Big Brother and thinks Christian fundamentalism is sorta cool - will harness the energy of their rebellious hormones and become the first generation of teenagers in half a century to decrease their household telephone bills.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

6610 and all that: Extracts from a future history

Of the Free World, 911 and the Hoards

...The largest military power on Earth in those days was the Benighted State, also known as the Free World, Murca or simply Us; this last term often being written in upper-case letters to emphasise the exclusive and privileged nature of belonging. The rulers of the Benighted State were known as the Executive Branch; towards the final phase of the era the Executive Branch extended its control into all areas of human life, and because of this proliferation the "branch" became known as the "Bush". Such was the influence of the Benighted State that an outpost of the Executive Branch, apparently located thousands of miles away in the southern hemisphere, was known as the Australian Bush.

The Benighted State controlled all communication across the world by means of making more noise than any other nation; the largest transmitters for such noise were apparently located on one of the Atlantic islands. The sounds, which were supposed simultaneously to lull any doubts about the Benighted State's benevolence and to drown out all competing influences, were known as the Tonal Blare. It is thought that the Blare was kept going, at the behest of the Benighted State, for a period of almost a decade before other means were found for keeping the populace under control.

Because of the extent of the devastation resulting from the rule of the Benighted State, not to mention the considerable period of time which elapsed before civilisation emerged once more from the ruins, it is frequently difficult to study the period with any great degree of reliability. What, for instance, was the significance of the number 911 during those last catastrophic years? Certain fragmentary texts in our possession suggest that "911" was something that citizens of the Benighted State called when in distress, much as present-day primitives call when bereaved upon the deity Int Soo Ranz; but it is not at all clear whether this number-calling had any significance beyond the symbolic or, if not, what it may have symbolised.

Historians of the pre-catastrophe have also been much exercised by the various Hoards or Hordes which are said to have been present about this time. One such Hoard (the standard spelling, adopted according to what is assumed to be the traditional pronunciation) is associated with the Australian Bush, and according to some texts repulsed a massive invasion by some very thin people in boats. According to another interpretation, the thin people were themselves the Horde to which the ancient records refer, who overran the country's great outdoor centres for mental exercise ("concentration campsites") and thus destabilised the society. Another and different Hoard apparently set itself up in opposition to the Tonal Blare, but the issue or issues over which disagreement arose remain too subtle or too obscure for present-day commentators to fathom...