Life Is A Jar Of Pickle

 

Midnight's Children

On 14th August 1947, the British colonial authorities, bowing to the will of religious pressure groups, partitioned British India to create the state of Pakistan.  Then at midnight the same day, India gained independence from Britain. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie tells the story of Saleem Sinai, a boy born on the stroke of that midnight. The stories of India and Saleem then continue in parallel up until the 1970s.

It’s tricky to sum up such a massive multi-layered story, but I think the Beatles might help:

“It’s a fool who plays it cool by making his world a little colder.”

Salman Rushdie’s advice in Midnight’s Children would be:

“It’s a fool who thinks that the world can be brought together by dividing it up.”

The novel opens with an account of the meeting of Saleem’s grandparents.  His grandfather is a doctor, who attends a young woman called Naseem, whose protective father only reveals portions of his daughter for examination through a hole in a sheet.  The doctor falls in love with each piece of his partitioned patient and ends up marrying what seems to be a complete woman.  Certainly, Nazeem seems to be complete in the sense that she knows everything.  Her rigid, intolerant outlook accepts nothing beyond the borders of her own point of view.  And so, in appearing to know everything, she allows in only a small part of the world.  People partition the world because they think within the borders of their outlook everything will be harmonious and consistent.  Each example of doubt results in a hardening and shrinking of the borders. Pakistan faces internal dispute by dividing and becoming two countries.  Similarly, Nassem’s borders shrink in upon her until she really only has her kitchen and pantry left.

In contrast, Midnight’s Children is not a narrow morality tale.  Along with illustrating the destructiveness of partition, the book also accepts that the hole in the sheet has value.  There’s the example of a painter who in a futile attempt to include the whole of life in his art made his pictures ever bigger.  This is never going to work.  An artist has to find the whole in a small part.  He has to take a vast sheet and cut a tiny hole in it.  So no simple moral there then. You have to allow in things that confuse the picture.

Midnight’s Children is profound and complex, but also light and humorous.  This contrariness is what you’d expect from a book that doesn’t believe in bringing people together by driving some of them out.  The book invites you in, welcoming human foibles and variety in all its forms.  Food recurs often in the book, particularly pickle, which of course is a blend of ingredients left to marinade together.  Midnight’s Children is a massive jar of pickle.  Tasting it, the diner might well decide that people should live together in the same way.

We live in a time of renewed nationalism, when Midnight’s Children serves as a cautionary tale.

Carrots, Rumour and Fake News

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Memorial to RAF West Malling at King’s Hill in Kent 

Last weekend I took a ride to what was once West Malling Airfield. This former Battle of Britain air station is now a smart housing development, at the centre of which, next to a Waitrose shopping centre, stands the old control tower, used as a coffee shop. After a cup of tea and slice of granola, I went to have a look at a memorial behind the control tower, a segmented circle arranged around an RAF roundel. Each segment either defined a wartime slang word, or carried a brief story from the airfield’s history. There was one story in particular that caught my eye.  85 Squadron based at West Malling became expert in night fighting, so much so that the government spread a rumour that this success was due to a diet of carrots boosting the pilots’ night vision. This fabrication served to disguise the existence of airbourne radar used by the squadron, while also encouraging people to grow vegetables.

I wondered if this carrot story had anything to teach us about why some falsehoods become accepted as fact. So, I consulted Psychology Today, found a list of reasons why powerful rumours occur and applied them to carrots.

Rumour feeds on anxiety, tending to flare up around particularly stressful events, like 9/11. Shakespeare has a character called Rumour who weaves his tales during a time of crisis, namely the rebellion which brought Henry IV to the throne of England. Rumour and crisis go together because in times of stress, evolution has designed us to seek out and share information to help deal with the emergency. Unfortunately when information is lacking we tend to make things up, since exchanging information, even if it is false, tends to alleviate our anxieties.

No matter how ludicrous it might be, a rumour tends to start off in something that could actually be true. George W. Bush did not say “the problem with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur”. But with a history of linguistic faux pas, it’s the sort of thing he might have said. Thinking of carrots, they are a source of vitamin A which is involved in eye health, even though eating carrots is never going to turn your eyes into night vision scopes.

Easily swayed nonexperts are more important than influential people in giving power to rumour. Psychology Today uses the example of Bubble Yum, a chewing gum product from the 1970s which aimed for immediate bubble blowing squishiness without the bother of preparatory chewing. Some imaginative child in a New York school wondered if Bubble Yum’s squishiness was due to the fact that it was made from spider eggs. Research commissioned by Life Savers, the company manufacturing Bubble Yum, estimated that within ten days of the company learning about the rumour, well over half of New York’s children had heard the story. This powerful rumour did not spread because of celebrity endorsement, or through major media channels, but by passing between children in playgrounds. Going back to the carrot story we see that the people who propagated it were housewives who prepared food and their children who ate it. John Stolarczyk of the World Carrot Museum – who knew there was such a thing? – suggests that the carrot rumour probably started among people like this. The Ministry  of Information then reinforced the message for its own ends.

The more you hear a rumour the more you will believe it. This is true of President Obama apparently having a secret life as a radical muslim, and of carrots conferring night vision powers. Carrot vision could be reinforced at most meal times, and on most dark nights.

 

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A wartime poster celebrating the power of carrot night vision – courtesy of the World Carrot Museum

Rumours reflect the zeitgeist, that is, a potent rumour will concern itself with what people are thinking about anyway. They might be thinking about a political candidate in an election, which provides fertile soil for rumours about them. In the case of carrots, people were thinking about fighting a war, finding enough food to keep them healthy, and finding their way safely around towns and cities blacked out at night. The carrot rumour naturally combines all these things.

Rumours are simple and concrete. Rumours have a single, uncomplicated, vivid message.  We only use ten percent of our brains. People swallow eight spiders a year in their sleep. Carrots let you see in the dark. We remember concrete, sensory things better than abstract things. We remember “carrot” better than “truth”.

Rumours are generally connected to people we dislike or envy. Rumours often attach themselves to celebrities, people who are admired and envied in bewilderingly equal proportions. Cher and Janet Jackson have both been the victims of stories about ribs removed in pursuit of a better figure. The most powerful rumours go even further and imagine the death of a celebrity. Catherine the Great died trying to make love to a horse. Paul McCartney is dead. Avril Lavigne is dead.   In the case of carrots, any sense of dislike is transferred to a German pilot over Kent getting shot down by John “Cat’s Eyes” Cunningham based at West Malling Airfield.

So the carrot story, by any measure, makes for a powerful rumour and has a lesson for us about today’s “fake news”. We live in uncertain times, with worrying problems in major governments, creating the basic state of anxiety in which rumour proliferates. We have massively enhanced powers of communication passing information quickly to millions of people who are not expert in what they are reading or watching. The internet tends to reproduce an idea in endless loops, typically packaged in short, uncomplicated, often visual presentations, which we now describe as a meme.

This all goes to show that no matter what American presidents may say, the mainstream media is not the creator of fake news, just as New York’s newspapers did not create the story about spider eggs conferring squishiness to Bubble Yum.   Powerful organisations like the British Ministry of Information can support rumour, but the fuel which fans the flames comes from fear, envy and lack of specialised knowledge amongst the population itself. Indeed the current role of reputable news organisations these days is not creating stories.  Instead they are often trying to debunk them,