Death Comes For The Archbishop – Humane Reading For Polarised Times

Death Comes For The Archbishop, published in 1927, is a kind of Western, describing life on the American frontier in the later 1800s. The heroes in this book are not a couple of cowboys, but a Catholic bishop and a priest who are attempting to establish a diocese in New Mexico, recently ceded to the United States by the Mexican Republic.

In a normal Western, the frontier is a lawless wilderness, where outlaw gangs roam, and sheriffs attempt to impose rough justice. In Death Comes For The Archbishop, two missionaries – a couple of religious sheriffs – arrive at a frontier, which is not nearly as new and wild as it seems. There are native peoples here with ancient settlements and indigenous religious traditions much older than the Catholic Church itself. In some ways the Church is a new influence imposed on an ancient land.

The new sheriffs approach their mission in different ways. The priest, Father Vaillant is straight forward in his attempts to spread the word. His friend, Bishop Latour, is more complex and thoughtful. He values the presence in New Mexico of traditions much older than the one he represents, and has a general sympathy with many views that might seem different to his own. For some of his followers, “there was one Church, and the rest of the world was infidel”. But for Father Latour, the most senior Church official in the territory, things are not like that. As just one example, he takes an interest in the wooden saint figures displayed in many local houses, and notes never seeing two alike. Some of his flock “will not accept two ideas at once”, whilst their wooden religious images indicate as many different ideas as there are individuals to hold them. This is the sort of fundamental contradiction that Latour appreciates, allowing him to gain the friendship and respect of all kinds of people.

Given the book’s title, I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that the bishop dies in the end. But when he does so, he is remembered as a good man rather than a good Church leader. He is open, tolerant, wam and thoughtful. His priest friend, Father Vaillant, so much more straightforward in furthering the interests of Catholicism, is by no means depicted as an unsympathetic character, but it is Latour who becomes the archbishop, the leader of the Church. He becomes leader not by setting his organisation’s interests above all else, but by seeing those interests in the context of the wider world.

This is a humane book, from which we could learn much in our polarised times.

Kraftwerk – The Ups And Downs Of Rhythm

My lockdown workout routine involves swinging ankle weights. Since this is rather boring, I have put together a playlist of songs to help move things along. I say playlist, but for the last few days that has just meant Kraftwerk albums.

The rhythm of a Kraftwerk track gives ankle weight swinging a different feel, as though you are actually going somewhere. It certainly helps me keep working out longer than I otherwise would. Rhythm has a long history as an aid to work, on ships, in fields, or in the military. It even helps mental work, since words with a beat to them are easier to remember. But, here’s the thing: after about twenty minutes of ankle weight swinging, fatigue starts to set in. That’s when it becomes apparent that rhythm wants me to keep going and doesn’t care if I’m tired. In the unlikely event that a former life saw me as an oarsman on a Greek galley, the unsmiling, muscular chap beating out the stroke would not stop if I had sore arms. Rhythm has a ruthlessness about it.

Anyway, dismissing the image of me rowing a Greek galley, let’s get back to Kraftwerk who in 1974, released their breakthrough album, Autobahn. The opening track begins with a car door slamming, an engine revving, a playful toot on a horn, and someone driving away. Then as the beat of the song gathers pace, we get a very ominous, distorted, machine-like voice saying “autobahn”. It’s like we’re suddenly in a scene from The Omen. Perhaps this horror film voice is a reference to the origin of the autobahn network, built in the 1930s on Hitler’s orders, to efficiently move people, and soldiers, around Germany. The musicians of Kraftwerk grew up in Düsseldorf in the shadow of World War Two. They would understand that rhythm can be totalitarian. Rhythm is there in marching feet and the noise of factories. In many ways there’s nothing of the individual in rhythm. It’s suggestive of an army marching as one, of machinery, or of natural, vast, repeating patterns where planets orbit stars. The autobahn, and the rhythms of driving on it, are an expression of this inhuman scale.

But in between interruptions from that creepy Omen voice, the rest of Autobahn’s title track has a happy, summery, almost Beach Boys feel. As soon as you hear the childlike refrain “Wir fahr’n fahr’n fahr’n auf der autobahn” (“We are driving driving driving on the autobahn”) you realise that this is a group of lads who are taking a fun road trip. There’s lots of rhythm about their journey – that little autobahn ditty they sing, the steady patter of the car’s engine and its tyres on tarmac, music playing on a car radio, the rising and falling Doppler effect of other cars approaching and vanishing into the distance. Rhythm for these boys is not a dark military march but a bright, liberating, fun, dance. The rhythms of the road and their car set them free to go on a trip to new places where they meet new friends. If rhythm is about groups rather than individuals, then this is a group who are having fun together.

If rhythm has potential for good and evil, then as far as Kraftwerk are concerned, good wins out. As the title track comes to an end, there’s a lovely section where our young travellers sing “fahr’n auf der autobahn” in a tired but happy way, as if they are all coming home after enjoying themselves. We end the day with rhythm as a good thing, even if it was touch and go there for a while.

Machines Like Me

Machines Like Me, published last year, is Ian McEwan’s first sci-fi book, set in an alternative version of the 1980s where computer scientist Alan Turing is still alive. Instead of dying in 1954, he survives to lead a revolution in computing. This creates an advanced 1980s, which we explore through the eyes of a raggedy young chap who lives in a London flat, scraping a living playing the stock market from his desktop. When not in front of his computer, he pursues an affair with a woman living upstairs. On an impulse our hero decides to spend an unexpected inheritance on Adam, a newly released android companion.

The scenario of Machines Like Me is similar to Happiness For Humans, by P.Z. Reizin, published in 2018. That book was a rom com, a kind of love triangle with a match-making AI at one of the angles. Machines Like Me is another love triangle involving AI, with a fair amount of rom but not much com. The science references are more complicated, there’s a much darker feel, and far fewer laughs. Similar themes are explored. Is empathy a specifically human quality, and can machines show it? Do humans themselves always show empathy? Without human emotional filters, might artificial intelligence actually suffer by understanding too much and being too empathetic? We get a lot of contradictions like this in both books.

Happiness For Humans and Machines Like Me are similar in one admirable way: they both use the basic fact that a novel is an exercise in empathy, to create a worthwhile thought experiment testing the way human nature might interact with artificial intelligence. But I found it much easier to feel for the characters in Happiness for Humans, human, AI or animal. Both books are clever, but Machines Like Me flaunts its cleverness, while Happiness for Humans entertains first, politely leaving its cleverness for those who wish to go looking for it. Reizin’s AI enjoys Some Like It Hot: McEwan’s AI enjoys writing haiku and discussing metaphysical poetry. That sums up the difference really.

Personally, while both rarified poetry and Hollywood rom coms have their attractions, if I were an AI seeking to understand humanity, and have fun whilst doing so, I’d rather start with Some Like It Hot.

Look What The Novel Dragged In

Last week I read a post on Facebook about a cat, a family pet, pictured curled up and cutely asleep. This helpful creature had gone out, hunted down a rabbit, and as though aware of the current value of home delivery, had left it on the doormat as an offering to her family. This reveals a history of a human/feline link stretching back to the beginnings of farming 10,000 years ago, when people started keeping cats to protect their food and grain stores. And of course any small-time hunting returned to the house was a welcome addition to the cooking pot. Female cats in particular would do this to feed their kittens, and also to teach them how to hunt. People would value these home delivery habits, which were so engrained that thousands of years afterwards, cats continue to bring back mice, birds and rabbits for their owners.

In this time of lock down, cats, and pets generally, are sought after, not for rabbit deliveries, but for companionship. Novels are equally popular, also for companionship. Here’s a thought – perhaps both cats and novels drag in an ancient offering for the benefit of their owners. Let me explain:

Until relatively recently, people in general did not read. They had to listen to their reading matter, whether that meant some kind of theatre, story-telling or singing. Ancient Greece had its epic poems. Today readers treat the Iliad or the Odyssey as if they were novels written in verse. Back in the eighth century BC, at their time of writing, you would sit with a select group of friends and listen to someone reciting them.

It took a while for society to make the step to the solitary experience of novel reading. The new form did not start to catch on in Europe until the early seventeenth century when Cervantes published Don Quixote. After that, even as novels became increasingly popular, echos of the past remained. A major requirement of a novelist is that they find a “voice”. It must seem as though someone real is talking to you through the writing. It’s as though an actual human voice, once reciting the Iliad and the Odyssey, still remains in all the books read today by solitary readers the world over. A novel brings in an atavistic, ancient offering for its owner. Instead of dragging in a dead rabbit, a novel drags in a live voice.

Thank you to Princess Lola Cat.

From Here To Eternity

In America they have this thing. They’ll have a film or a TV show about a policeman or soldier. He or she will be good at their job but suspicious of authority. Showing up bureaucrats and making them look stupid or corrupt is a favourite pastime. They will break the rules and do their own thing to get better results. Think various sheriffs operating off the grid in the Wild West, John McLane of Die Hard, Jack Cates of 48 Hours, Rambo, Starsky and Hutch, Dirty Harry, Maverick of Top Gun, Stella Gibson of The Fall, Martin Riggs of Lethal Weapon, Axel Foley of Beverly Hills Cop, Frank Drebbin of Naked Gun. There are so many of them.

From Here To Eternity is reminiscent of those stories, like the features of an adult are reminiscent of the child they used to be. This is a book about the United States Army stationed in Hawaii in 1941. It follows the lives of a diverse range of characters in the months before and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. There are characters reminiscent of John McLane, highly competent but bucking authority. And quite often, authority figures are portrayed as self-serving or incompetent. But the difference with From Here To Eternity is that nobody is the star of this show, whether it’s a careerist major, a major’s frustrated wife, or a talented but awkward-squad private who does what he thinks is right, even if it’s not politically wise. They are all part of the Army, which is the real star.

It’s a remarkable achievement of observation and empathy, to see inside the lives of so many individuals making up this bigger character of the Army. We see the struggles of stubborn individualists who refuse to accept the stupid rules of the game. We see the struggles of those implementing the rules, and those in the middle trying, with greater or lesser success, to take rules laid down by those above in the hierarchy, and implement them in a way that accommodates the individualists – who ironically in a series of powerful scenes in military prison, often turn out to be socialists.

This wide ranging portrayal of a military society, also moves into spiritual areas. In the military prison chapters, for example, some soldiers use meditation to get through periods in solitary confinement. They seem to leave their individual identities behind for a while, which is very fitting for a book where individual identities blend in with the idea of the Army as a whole.

From Here To Eternity is a fascinating and insightful book, which it seems would have required an army of writers to create. There’s not just its massive size, but also the scope of the characters and their viewpoints. It’s in keeping with the spirit of the book that an army of writers could be accommodated in just one James Jones. A great achievement.

2020’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

We are living through a period of intense isolation. Personally I am looking at the prospect of not being able to leave my house for three months. The coronavirus has caused a very sudden and unprecedented scattering of people. But this is happening in the context of a period of centuries during which humanity has slowly become more physically alone. Even by reading this article, you are engaging in an activity which is almost always solitary. In fifteenth century England, only about 5% of people could read. To gain information or entertainment, 95% of the population needed to talk or interact with others. Today virtually everyone in the UK is able to partake in a defining cultural activity, which requires you to be alone.

A similar change happened in music. Right up until the beginning of the twentieth century, the only way to experience music was as a group of people, who had to actually sit in front of musicians. But Edison had patented his phonograph in 1877, and by the beginning of the twentieth century, record buying was beginning to catch on. After that, music became a largely solitary activity. The thousands who attended live music were as nothing compared to the millions listening to records on their own.

Change in use of the word loneliness since 1800

And so we come to 1967 and the Beatles’ album, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It is fitting that in an age of increasing isolation, this is probably the most famous album ever made. It consists of a philosophical journey into the nature of human togetherness.

Now, do you want to go on a philosophical journey into the nature of human togetherness? In normal circumstances, I’m sure most would generally pass. No doubt there would be better things to do. But these are not normal times. Years ago I wrote an entire book about the poetry of the Sergeant Pepper album, but I won’t push my luck. I’ll confine myself to the first line of the opening song:

“It was twenty years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play…”

These words introduce what sounds like a live concert. This Sergeant Pepper concert is happening at a particular time – twenty years to the day after a mysterious mentor first taught the band to play. The sound of an audience which we hear clapping and cheering over that opening line, gives the suggestion of a particular place, a concert hall somewhere. In complete contrast is the album itself, which you can play anytime and anywhere. For someone playing Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the special anniversary day can be any day. Similarly, the concert hall can be any bedroom, living room, or tube train shut out by headphones. People are stuck in certain times and places, but there’s the suggestion that this concert is free of such restrictions. Go back again to that opening line: “It was twenty years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play”. This seems very precise, but in reality no band learns to play over the course of one day. It takes time to learn a new skill. Mastery comes gradually rather than arriving on a particular Tuesday. That day twenty years ago is impossible to pin down. We have no date for it. All the specifics here are artfully vague. Perhaps we can think of the vagueness of the Sergeant Pepper concert as an access all areas ticket.

During the coronavirus pandemic, people have played music at windows, and staged concerts for on-line audiences. Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a performance in that same tradition.

Writing and Conspiracies

Conspiracies often proliferate in troubled times. What are they and what can writers learn from them?

Let’s start by thinking about what a conspiracy actually is. These odd narratives take bits and pieces of observation and make them into a pattern. In this sense they are not so different to theories in science, or to stories which a reader enjoys by working out the bigger picture from clues and hints – as in a detective story, for example. But typically, while conspiracies make sense of what we see, they do so in a very self-centred way, reflecting and bolstering the views which are important to the people who create and believe in them. Conspiracies also tend to describe the secrets of shadowy and powerful authority, which are hidden from most people. This allows believers to enjoy a feeling of superiority that comes with special knowledge denied to others; and crucially, you get this supposed insight without working too hard. Why go to university to study a subject for years to win esoteric knowledge, when it is so much easier to get the same thing from a conspiracy? In keeping with a populist age which denies expertise, everyone can feel they are in possession of truths hidden from ordinary folks, just by going to certain areas of YouTube and watching videos about faked moon landings and the like. And the more out-there the conspiracy, the more special it makes an adherent feel. So, conspiracies provide a double whammy of self regard, making their adherents feel important by bolstering preconceptions and preferences, and by giving the illusion of rare insight into powerful authority.

So, what is a writer going to learn from this? Some, realising the influence of a conspiratorial narrative might try to simply reproduce it in book form. After all, a conspiracy is in effect the equivalent of a successful but trashy novel. Such novels might flatter the prejudices of their readers and, following a few puzzles, give them a sense of possessing special and powerful knowledge without working too hard for it. There are novels like that out there. I might, for example, mention the Da Vinci Code, with its dodgy history, fancy sounding but frequently inaccurate references to historical artefacts and architecture, and puzzles which reveal the workings of supposed hidden power. However, a good book won’t just flatter you with the illusion of special knowledge. You’re probably going to see things from different angles. Characters are likely to give varying perspectives on events. A good novel will be an exercise in empathy and openness. After all, reading a novel is to experience the world through someone else’s eyes. A conspiracy, by contrast, is only interested in seeing things one way. Everything will bend to that cause. If you see things as the conspiracy demands then you will fit right in. If not, you are out of the select group of believers.

In the weeks and months ahead we should read good books and ignore conspiracies.

Writing In The Time Of Coronavirus

Florence, northern Italy, where Boccaccio’s storytellers self-isolated in the fourteenth century.

Writing and pandemics have gone together for centuries. Boccaccio’s Decameron has twelve people escaping from the Black Death in fourteenth century Florence. They tell each other stories while isolating themselves in a secluded villa just outside the city. In a similar way Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales describes a group of pilgrims travelling in a time of plague, once again entertaining each other with storytelling.

More recently a whole genre of speculative and science fiction has grown up around diseases which wipe out significant portions of humanity. Starting with zombie tales, traced back to Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Shelley, we move through John Windham’s The Day of the Triffids in the 1950s, Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain in the 1960s, to a whole host of modern films and stories about disease apocalypse.

So what’s this all about?

Part of it I think is simply technical. To tell a story you need a manageable scenario. Disease has the natural effect of shrinking the scene, of focusing things on a small group of people. The world is all big, bustling and unmanageable one minute: the next you have a handful of people hunkered down in a villa outside Florence.

More significantly, disease also has the effect of stripping back complex situations into simple ones. Pandemic fiction asks basic questions – are people more human when they focus on themselves as individuals, or when they reach out as widely as possible to work with others? How do you balance living for yourself against living for others? Is it better to compete or cooperate?

Look at Bill Masen in John Wyndham’s 1951 book The Day of the Triffids. After getting over the shock of civilisation falling apart following the onset of widespread blindness, Bill begins to feel oddly empowered. He thinks of himself as “emerging as my own master,” no longer a cog in a huge society where an individual can feel lost. But the whole book is also a graphic depiction of the misery that comes when people lose a society where they are linked up, each playing a small, specialised role in something bigger. Without this kind of society, an individual is reduced to scraping a living on a lonely farm somewhere.

This classic pandemic fiction theme is reflected in our present, situation, dealing with coronavirus. Many people react by wanting to compete for what they see as scarce resources, grabbing excessive toilet rolls, bottles of hand sanitiser or bags of spaghetti. In fictional terms this compares to Bill Masen facing a lot of cut throat competition for resources in The Day of the Triffids. While Bill enjoys feeling all individual and empowered, the downside is endless and dangerous disputes with other survivors. It is no surprise that eventually Bill decides on a more cooperative approach.

People tend to divide at a time like this, and of course some distancing is very wise. But equally people also have an instinct to work together. National governments shut borders, but unusually we also see the work of a truly global authority in the World Health Organisation. Disease knows no borders, and in the end the struggle against disease is best achieved by working together as widely as possible.

The Disappointment Bus

Disappointment is the lot of the writer. Following a recent and particularly bruising rejection, I used my time wisely to look up the derivation of the word disappointment. It comes from a French word, “disappointer” meaning to undo an arrangement or remove from office. There’s a suggestion not just of your plans falling through, but also of losing your job.

Having a book rejected is like losing your job. You put in many hours of writing, editing and redrafting, all of which organise your time, for months or even years. Like any job, this effort gives your life shape, provides a sense of identity and self worth and gives hope for a better and more prosperous future. Then with a rejection, or a series of rejections, all of this can disappear.

That’s how it feels. So how to deal with it? There are two approaches. First, there is denial. You ignore the rejection and push on. With this approach, you simply refuse to be disappointed. While there is much to be said for this stubborn philosophy, it can become a refusal to think you’re ever doing anything wrong. Denial in this sense is not so much the signature of writers as that of dictators, fundamentalist preachers, cult leaders, and, unfortunately, presidents of the United States.

Alternatively, you can accept that things have not worked out as planned. This puts you in the sad, passive, reflective state which we call disappointment, where it’s hard to do much of anything, let alone be resilient. But at least you are in a frame of mind which encourages quiet reflection. It might even be nature’s way of making you rest and reassess. Maybe it is no accident that writers are a famously disappointed lot, because as long as it does not suck the motivation right out of you, the pain of a setback can be creative. It shakes you out of routine, allowing in new ideas, and thoughts. If you never allow yourself to feel this way, then you are just blasting along like that bus in the film Speed, running over everything in your path, never stopping because stopping, or even slowing down, will result in an explosion.

So, if you have suffered a disappointment, you’ll feel bad now, but after this reflective time is over, another bus will be along. And this bus will be the normal, pleasant sort of public service vehicle which allows people on and off at stops. The driver will have time to wish you a cheery “good morning”, what with not having to drive at seventy miles an hour all the time. Rather than careering nonstop through Los Angeles with a bomb strapped to its undercarriage, this will be the sort of easygoing London Routemaster that takes you to places you want to go. This service is on its way and will be stopping to pick you up very soon.

A Book Almost But Not Quite Entirely Unlike Science Fiction

Last week I received a report on my new novel. As usual with these things I had got my hopes up. There would not only be publication, there would be a film. We could move house and my day job would be a distant memory. As usual this did not happen. The editor, amongst other things, said my book was not really science fiction.

Science fiction is writing set in the future dramatising the impact of various new technologies. Ok, but there’s a recent science fiction novel by Ian McEwan, which is set in the past, the 1980s to be precise, a reimagined 1980s where there are robot companions. So, sci-fi can be set in the past or future, and it involves futuristic technology; except that sometimes the tech in the story is not futuristic, it’s rather more Victorian, as in the sub genre known as steam punk. Sometimes there isn’t really any tech at all, which gives a us another sub genre known as speculative fiction, which focuses on social change. Often these social changes are portrayed in the future, except where they involve some kind of reimagining of the past, as with Ian McEwan’s book, which is a type of science fiction usually referred to as alternate history. Sometimes the future and the past are muddled up, as in Star Wars, where people fly around in space ships, even though we are told right at the beginning that everything happened long, long ago. Sometimes the story is set in the present, but fantastical elements come in from some more powerful, futuristic place, as in a super hero story. Then of course there are occasions when the story is not set in past, present or future but in a totally different universe, which takes us across a border into what is often called fantasy.

So where are we? Science fiction seems to be so many things that we might agree with writer Damon Knight who describes science fiction as “what we point to when we say it.”

So science fiction is a great big open goal. The goal keeper is confused, looking as though match preparation involved drinking large amounts of alcohol and not sleeping for three nights. You are taking a penalty and just have to kick the ball past that swaying, stumbling goalie, into the waiting net. So I take my run up, go for the kick, trip over the ball and send it flying backwards. Picking myself up, I wonder how this happened. How is it possible to write a science fiction book which misses that great big science fiction goal? I must have written the only science fiction book in history which is not science fiction. That must be some kind of achievement. Damon Knight could say that science fiction is anything except that book Martin Jones wrote.

A related question to the definition for sci-fi is the definition of tea. Let me explain.

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur Dent, an exile from a destroyed Earth tries to use a computer to recreate a nice cup of tea.

“After a fairly shaky start to the day, Arthur’s mind was beginning to reassemble itself from the shellshocked fragments the previous day had left him with. He had found a Nutri-Matic machine which had provided him with a plastic cup filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. The way it functioned was very interesting. When the Drink button was pressed it made an instant but highly detailed examination of the subject’s taste buds, a spectroscopic analysis of the subject’s metabolism and then sent tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centres of the subject’s brain to see what was likely to go down well. However, no one knew quite why it did this because it invariably delivered a cupful of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.”

I do wonder if publishers are sometimes like Nutri-Matic machines. They try to conduct spectroscopic analyses on potential readers’ brains, metabolisms and literary taste buds, to ascertain what certain groups might like to read. Apparently the sci-fi crowd are not likely to favour stories about an imagined future for the royal family. That’s what my book is about, by the way. My story imagines a future world with a single government, which has adopted a version of what was once the British royal family as a figure head monarchy. The King makes plans to extend the monarchy to Mars, in an attempt to ease tensions between Mars and Earth. The young heir to the throne thinks this whole plan is crazy and wants out. Oh, and there’s quite a lot of rowing, as in the University Boat Race, where in a good year there’s a sinking.

Science fiction is apparently a lot of things, but not this. I was asked to consider how many science fiction readers out there are royalist rowing fans? I could say that the Boat Race has twice as many viewers as the British Grand Prix, and most people in then UK want to keep their monarchy; but let’s not get into statistics. It is true that the sci-fi demographic might not buy into rowing royals. But who knows? Sometimes a Nutri-Matic machine will do all its clever brain and taste bud checking and give you something which is almost but not quite entirely unlike tea. And Arthur Dent wanted tea. Maybe this demonstrates that in the end, tea just has to be itself. It can change for an individual drinker, but then it’s not tea anymore. My story is the one I wanted to write, set in the future, playing out in traditional locations surviving from the present day, as people try to cope with the new whilst maintaining the old. I don’t know about the future, but I do know about the contradictory ways I react to change, and the way I see people in general reacting to change. That’s what drove me to write my royals in the future story.

Best wishes, whether you are a writer or a reader.