“December 25: To church in the morning, and there saw a wedding in the church, which I have not seen many a day: and the young people so merry with one another, and strange to see what delight we married people have to see these poor fools decoyed into our condition, every man and woman gazing and smiling at them…”
For those of us who work with wizards, the world is a little shadowier today.
I can’t say that I knew Diana well — except in the way that any Constant Reader of a favorite Constant Writer may, when after much reading you begin to suspect that you know some of what’s going on “behind” the written word. (And you may still be pretty wrong about this: an occupational hazard). As a migrant to this side of the Bitter Water who started attending British conventions in the late 80’s, naturally I knew Diana to sit down and have a drink with in the convention bar. Mostly I knew her through her connection to Peter: he had known her far longer than I (and he’s blogged about that here).
When we first met I was far too junior in the field to do much except Sit in Awe of her. (No one in a British convention bar does much Standing in Awe unless there are just no seats to be had in the place.) She was always funny and kind, in a very particularly dry-Diana kind of way, and a lot more interested in the business — and joy — of writing than in having anyone be in awe of her.
Everybody is going to be talking, for the next while, about the Chrestomanci books and Howl’s Moving Castle and all the rest of it. And with good reason. Diana was, and will remain, one of the definitive voices in YA fantasy — a craftswoman who was doing what she bloody well wanted to do long before YA fantasy became Cool. (And she remains one of the great proofs of the axiom: Don’t follow the market: do what you love to do. If you do it well enough, and long enough, the market will start following you.)
But I want to head off in a slightly different direction. From the time I met her until now, the most perfect encapsulization for me of that “tone of mind” of hers was and is in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, possibly the most excellent early-cliche-warning and trope-squashing device that the young working fantasy writer could desire. It is a pitch-perfect freeform deconstruction of the Elf Opera in particular, and of all the ways that epic fantasy can go wrong (mostly through laziness or inattention to what’s been done before) in general. Diana had seen it all in her time — the pioneers, the amateurs (in the original correct sense of the word) and those who took up fantasy writing to make a fast quid or buck. As a serious and thoughtful practitioner of the art, she was in a perfect position to comment, at length and in trenchant mode, on how to screw up fantasy… while (in her comments) being hilarious at the same time.
Our copy lives up in the bathroom off Peter’s office. (I think he commandeered it because she clearly nods at him in its pages.) I can see that over the days to come I am going to be spending break time up there, snickering: the kind of tribute I’m sure Diana would prefer. Over entries like this:
Note that the term Turncoat is never used to describe a person who leaves the cause of the Dark Lord to join yours. This is reasonable. Your side is in the right. People who join you are merely becoming converted.
See also BETRAYAL, MINIONS OF THE DARK LORD, SPIES and UNPLEASANT STRANGER.
Godspeed, Diana. You’ll be missed.
(And one word to the rest of you still breathing: LAY OFF THE SMOKING. First Dave Gemmell, and Auntie Gytha, and now Diana too? How many more writers and other valuable human beings and friends of ours is this pestilent weed going to kill? ALL OF YOU CUT IT OUT RIGHT NOW.)
Just one of those strange moments.
Watching Sky News as the situation in Libya continues to unfold. Some video from this morning, from outside Benghazi, runs.
A bright sunny day. Something explodes in the background, sending up a black-streaked fireball. People run in various directions. Small-arms fire rattles. In the far background, a burning truck full of exploding ammo sends tracer and other rounds spitting and spraying into the air as they catch fire and explode. “Look at that cookin’ ’em off,” says the ex-RAF type in the next room, watching with mild interest as nearby humans dive for cover.
In the foreground, a burning car. White once, now smoking and sooted black, the paint blistered. And standing next to it in the road, looking at it in great bemusement…
…a chicken. Kind of pale-beige looking. Probably a hen. She stands there on long thin legs, seemingly unflustered, and regards the burning car. Tilts her head. Looks at the car some more. If a chicken could have a thought balloon over her head that said “WTF?!”, this chicken would have it.
She is a credit to all chickenkind. However chickens without their heads might run around, she’s having no truck with such behavior. In the face of loud noises, stuff blowing up, and the world media, she stands her ground, while the camera crew reacts to the most recent explosion by diving behind the burning car to hide.
Today the phrase “playing chicken” acquires a newer and prouder meaning.
Can things get any dumber? Don’t answer that question.
“There are millions of people around this world praying to their God — whether it’s Hindu, Buddha, Allah — that [McCain’s] opponent wins for a variety of reasons,” Pastor Arnold Conrad said. “And, Lord, I pray that you would guard your own reputation, because they’re going to think that their god is bigger than you, if that happens.”
(eyeroll) It’s like something out of that old Ken-L-Ration jingle. “My God’s better than your God, my God’s better than yours…” I leave it to others to tease out the five or six hilarious and possibly offensive assumptions and logical fallacies underpinning the above statements. …But the whole thing factors down to: Please, God, don’t embarrass us. Is it just me, or is there something extremely wrong with that entire line of reasoning…and this guy — a clergyman — doesn’t even see it?
Also: has it genuinely never occurred to this cleric that somewhere in America there might possibly be someone praying to the very same God he’s (theoretically) praying to that the Unnamed Opponent should win? And that (to take a slightly different tack) if it turns out to happen that way, that this would — in his theology — be because of his very own God’s will, not as the result of some sublime hyperdimensional WWF match? …No, probably if that concept crept into the guy’s head, said head would explode. Was he perhaps trying to be funny? If so, FAIL.
…And here again we have this weirdness about not naming the other guy even at a distance, let alone when he’s standing six feet away. (“That one?” Tsk tsk.) I mean, surely there’s no point in not-naming even the Lone Power (click here for his version of the icon to the right) or Voldemort when they’re already sitting there waiting for you to finish speaking. Strikes me as rude.
I really, really wish I could just stop reading the news until sometime in December. (mutter) I also really wish I could email stuff like this to C.S. Lewis. Imagine the response.
With the world markets doing what they’re doing at the moment, it’s no wonder that past crashes and bubbles are being discussed a lot on the Intarwebz. The Tulip Bubble in particular has been getting a lot of attention, maybe because it just seems so nuts now that we’re used to seeing financial madness mostly centered around the (mis)handling of various kinds of paper.
But here’s an interesting article that suggests maybe what happened with the tulips in 1636–7 wasn’t so crazy after all:
[…the Dutch] were rationally responding, in finest efficient-market fashion, to overlooked changes in the rules of tulip investing.
As European prices for the dramatic flowers rose in the 1630s, many burgomasters—local mayors—started to invest in the bulbs. But in the fall of 1636, the European tulip market suddenly wilted because of a crisis in Germany. German nobles were big fans of tulips and had taken to planting bulbs. But in October 1636, the Germans lost a battle to the Swedes at Wittstock. Then German peasants began to revolt. The German demand for tulips sagged, and princes began digging up their own bulbs and selling them….
The sudden glut caused prices to fall, and Dutch burgomasters began losing money. They were in a bind. Trade in tulip bulbs was conducted through futures contracts: Buyers agreed to pay a fixed price for tulip bulbs at some point in the future. With prices having fallen in the fall, leveraged burgomasters were tied into paying above-market prices for bulbs to be delivered in the spring.
Rather than take their lumps, these politically connected investors tried to change the market rules—and they succeeded.
At which point the thoughtful reader says, uh oh!!
“The present regulations suck? Oh, okay, we’ll just change the rules / deregulate!” Does this sound at all familiar?… And why am I not surprised to hear Kipling muttering in the background?
Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four…
To my great delight, one of the columnists at the International Herald Tribune this week heard him too. He was writing more in the political mode… but whatever. (A couple of other commentators have picked up on “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” as well, excerpting one verse or another.) For those curious about the poem’s title: “copybook headings” were proverbs, quotations or mottoes printed in perfect handwriting at the top of each page of an exercise book / notebook. You were meant to copy them down the page to perfect your own handwriting.
This is the whole from which the excerpts come, from one of the English language’s great masters of meter…and concept.
As I pass through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.
We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.
We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place;
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.
With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.
When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “Stick to the Devil you know.”
On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “The Wages of Sin is Death.”
In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “If you don’t work you die.”
Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four—
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man—
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began:—
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will bum,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!
…A footnote to this in passing: Kipling himself was no stranger to market-based financial trouble, bad investments and bank crashes. Chapter V of his autobiography Something of Myself tells how, on his honeymoon, halfway around the world in Japan, he suddenly discovered that his own bank had crashed, and that at the height of his (early) success he was regardless now completely broke:
Here an earthquake (prophetic as it turned out) overtook us one hot break of dawn, and we fled out into the garden, where a tall cryptomeria waggled its insane head back and forth with an ‘I told you so’ expression; though not a breath was stirring. A little later I went to the Yokohama branch of my Bank on a wet forenoon to draw some of my solid wealth. Said the Manager to me: ‘Why not take more? It will be just as easy.’ I answered that I did not care to have too much cash at one time in my careless keeping, but that when I had looked over my accounts I might come again in the afternoon. I did so; but in that little space my Bank, the notice on its shut door explained, had suspended payment. (Yes, I should have done better to have invested my ‘capital’ as its London Manager had hinted.)
I returned with my news to my bride of three months and a child to be born. Except for what I had drawn that morning–the Manager had sailed as near to the wind as loyalty permitted–and the unexpended Cook vouchers, and our personal possessions in our trunks, we had nothing whatever. There was an instant Committee of Ways and Means [convened], which advanced our understanding of each other more than a cycle of solvent matrimony. Retreat–flight, if you like–was indicated. What would Cook return for the tickets, not including the price of lost dreams? ‘Every pound you’ve paid, of course,’ said Cook of Yokohama. ‘These things are all luck and–here’s your refund.’
As a US expat I have the delightful opportunity to vote by mail in national and state elections (for expats they use your last state of residence, which for me is California), and I cast my vote last week. There’s a strange satisfaction about being able to walk down to the mailbox in our local village, slide in the envelope, and walk away knowing that this particular civic duty’s been handled. And a peculiar feeling of calm settles over the weeks that follow in the runup to the first Tuesday in November in any given election year: now I can sit back and watch it all unfold, my part having been played to the last move before the really hectic and desperate ballyhoo sets in.
I got up this morning and found a phrase tickling at the back of my brain, an itch I couldn’t scratch. “Be like stalks.” It itched and itched and wouldn’t go away.
Be like stalks?? WTF?, I thought while I made the tea, and fed the cats, and cleaned up the kitchen a little, and turned on the computer, and did other morning things. The phrase kept niggling. Fortunately, the source-memory popped up before I had to sink to the level of Googling for it.
The phrase comes from here. (Article linked to is a PDF of the Saturday Evening Post’s publication of the piece.) I should have known the source would have been C.S. Lewis, who’s long served as virtual Obi-Wan to my Luke in various matters. (“What, you mean for once you’re not quoting Eddison??” I hear an ironic husband-voice mutter in the next room. To which the only possible response is, “Oh, shut up, sweetie.”)
I don’t know that the sudden irruption of the stalks-memory had anything to do with last week’s debate, or last night’s. But the core of the article, which Lewis wrote for the Guardian in 1961, expresses some sentiments that I’ve been feeling very strongly lately, and does it in language that in our semantically gun-shy times would be difficult (if not impossible) to get away with. A few passages particularly bear quoting: in them the experienced senior devil Screwtape holds forth on the technique of mass damnation for his colleagues and subordinates at the College of Tempters —
Democracy is the word with which you must lead them by the nose. The good work which our philological experts have already done in the corruption of human language makes it unnecessary to warn you that they should never be allowed to give this word a clear and definable meaning. They won’t. It will never occur to them that democracy is properly the name of a political system, even a system of voting, and that this has only the most remote and tenuous connection with what you are trying to sell them. Nor of course must they ever be allowed to raise Aristotle’s question: whether “democratic behaviour” means the behaviour that democracies like or the behaviour that will preserve a democracy. For if they did, it could hardly fail to occur to them that these need not be the same.
You are to use the word purely as an incantation; if you like, purely for its selling power. It is a name they venerate. And of course it is connected with the political ideal that men should be equally treated. You then make a stealthy transition in their minds from this political ideal to a factual belief that all men are equal. Especially the man you are working on. As a result you can use the word democracy to sanction in his thought the most degrading (and also the least enjoyable) of human feelings. You can get him to practise, not only without shame but with a positive glow of self-approval, conduct which, if undefended by the magic word, would be universally derided. The feeling I mean is of course that which prompts a man to say I’m as good as you.
The first and most obvious advantage is that you thus induce him to enthrone at the centre of his life a good, solid, resounding lie. I don’t mean merely that his statement is false in fact, that he is no more equal to everyone he meets in kindness, honesty, and good sense than in height or waist measurement. I mean that he does not believe it himself. No man who says I’m as good as you believes it. He would not say it if he did. The St. Bernard never says it to the toy dog, nor the scholar to the dunce, nor the employable to the bum, nor the pretty woman to the plain. The claim to equality, outside the strictly political field, is made only by those who feel themselves to be in some way inferior. What it expresses is precisely the itching, smarting, writhing awareness of an inferiority which the patient refuses to accept.
And therefore resents. Yes, and therefore resents every kind of superiority in others; denigrates it; wishes its annihilation. Presently he suspects every mere difference of being a claim to superiority. No one must be different from himself in voice, clothes, manners, recreations, choice of food: “Here is someone who speaks English rather more clearly and euphoniously than I — it must be a vile, upstage, la-di-da affectation. Here’s a fellow who says he doesn’t like hot dogs — thinks himself too good for them, no doubt. Here’s a man who hasn’t turned on the jukebox — he’s one of those goddamn highbrows and is doing it to show off. If they were honest-to-God all-right Joes they’d be like me. They’ve no business to be different. It’s undemocratic.”
…There’s more, and it’s worth reading. But it resolves to this, where Screwtape says:
What I want to fix your attention on is the vast, overall movement towards the discrediting, and finally the elimination, of every kind of human excellence – moral, cultural, social, or intellectual. And is it not pretty to notice how “democracy” (in the incantatory sense) is now doing for us the work that was once done by the most ancient Dictatorships, and by the same methods? You remember how one of the Greek Dictators (they called them “tyrants” then) sent an envoy to another Dictator to ask his advice about the principles of government. The second Dictator led the envoy into a field of grain, and there he snicked off with his cane the top of every stalk that rose an inch or so above the general level. The moral was plain. Allow no preeminence among your subjects. Let no man live who is wiser or better or more famous or even handsomer than the mass. Cut them all down to a level: all slaves, all ciphers, all nobodies. All equals.*
Thus Tyrants could practise, in a sense, “democracy.” But now “democracy” can do the same work without any tyranny other than her own. No one need now go through the field with a cane. The little stalks will now of themselves bite the tops off the big ones. The big ones are beginning to bite off their own in their desire to Be Like Stalks.
…So there’s that phrase. Screwtape closes this arc of discussion with a broad policy statement:
We, in Hell, would welcome the disappearance of democracy in the strict sense of that word, the political arrangement so called. Like all forms of government, it often works to our advantage, but on the whole less often than other forms. And what we must realize is that “democracy” in the diabolical sense (I’m as good as you, Being Like Folks, Togetherness) is the fittest instrument we could possibly have for extirpating political democracies from the face of the earth.
For “democracy” or the “democratic spirit” (diabolical sense) leads to a nation without great men, a nation mainly of subliterates, full of the cocksureness which flattery breeds on ignorance, and quick to snarl or whimper at the first sign of criticism. And that is what Hell wishes every democratic people to be.
…Whew! I seriously wonder if the Guardian would be willing to publish that article these days. (Then again, they might. But I doubt it would ever turn up in the Times of London, for reasons of its ownership’s political polarity.)
Anyway. That itch is scratched. Now back to work…. (BTW, The Screwtape Letters is being developed as a film at the moment. Boy, would I love to see that screenplay.)
*A strange echo here, for me, to the spot in The Incredibles (it was on here last night) where the former Buddy, now the faux-superhero Syndrome, snarls, “And when everybody’s special… nobody will be.”
Oh dear. Yesterday the Archbishops of Canterbury and York condemned London-based brokers who indulged in short selling as “bank robbers and asset strippers” and accused them of “generating unimaginable wealth … by equally unimaginable levels of fiction”.
But now it turns out that the Church of England has been quite willing to sell short and hedge currencies when doing so suited its purposes.
Tsk, tsk. Looks like the fiction isn’t entirely localized. (Someone will mention “whited sepulchres” fairly soon, I’m sure.) These guys should really find out what their financial managers are doing before issuing these pronouncements.
(A Pythonesque touch here: the FT also reports that the CoE “[has] £5.6bn under management, mostly in a mix of equity, property and vast tracts of land.”)
Here, try this on for size.
Random House Children’s Books has agreed to remove a four-letter swearword from a popular book by Dame Jacqueline Wilson after complaints from Anne Dixon, who insists she is standing up for values of common decency.
The 55-year-old said she was horrified when she came across the expletive in the best-selling book My Sister Jodie – a gift for her nine-year-old great-niece, Eve Coulson.
“I got to the page where reference was made to a ‘toffee-nosed twit’,” she said.
“On the next page the word changed….”
To another word different by a single vowel: a word normally used for a part of the female anatomy. (No indication is given in the article about how the context might have changed.) The lady, outraged, emailed the author for an explanation of “how to explain this” to her great-niece, and having heard nothing back, complained to Asda (where she’d bought the book).
Apparently this got back to Random House, provoking this response:
A spokesman for Random House Children’s Books said: “In the context of the character, we felt it was used in a way that accurately portrayed how children like Jodie would speak to each other.
“The book is aimed at children aged ten and over, and we felt it was acceptable for that age range.
“However, in light of this response we have decided to amend the word when we reprint the book.”
What particularly interests me here is the language. Just who exactly is “we”? Was the author included in this decision? (She’d better have been. And if she was, and has decided to keep mum about it, that’s her business.)
…Let me be clear about this. I’m not wild about the use of intimate-body-part-based slang in general, because it’s so often used pejoratively, in a my-gender-or-orientation-is-better-than-yours way. I don’t use it in my own work except when writing for adults, and then judiciously. But that’s my personal preference. What Dame Jacqueline feels is apropos for a given age is up to her. (And as a side issue, my guess is that most nine-year-olds in the UK know the word in question perfectly well, having heard it on the playground — and words a whole lot rougher — since they were in first form.) But when a single complaint from a member of the public can cause editorial changes like this… then somewhere, something is broken.
…Just a pre-caffeine thought.