The Little Prince – Authors Are Not Little Gurus

The Little Prince opens with the author’s test to differentiate an enlightened child-like imagination from that of a serious-minded adult. This assessment involves a picture of a snake which has recently swallowed an elephant. Boring old adults, glancing at the narrow head and tail of the snake with a big lump in the middle, see a hat.

For me, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella gave rise to concerns about passing the snake test. How should I react to an odd story of a pilot who crash lands in the Sahara and meets a boy from outer space? This extraterrestrial boy reaches Earth via tiny asteroids variously populated by a king with no subjects, a drinker who drinks because he is ashamed of drinking, a business man setting about owning the stars, a vain man with no one to praise him but himself, a geographer who doesn’t know where anything is, and a lamp lighter who has to light and extinguish his lamps every few seconds on his minuscule world. The description of these characters might set me thinking about all kinds of topics, from materialism to the nature of power. The problem is, given the book’s fanciful tone, such an earnest reading seems wrong. It’s like failing the snake test and seeing a boring old hat. Conversely, seeing the book as nothing more than the hallucinogenic whimsy of an exhausted pilot probably wouldn’t be right either, bearing in mind that The Little Prince has sold hundreds of millions of copies, and enjoyed extensive critical appreciation devoted to its deeper meanings.

So what to do? One answer might be to view The Little Prince not as a work of spiritual guidance, but as a story, which is what it is. An author setting himself up as some kind of guru is always vulnerable to the fact that changing circumstances eventually make a nonsense of any advice. “See with your heart and not your eyes” is a famous bit of advice from The Little Prince. Well, yes I get the point, until I see people making emotional decisions when they would be better served acting rationally. This is where a story has an advantage over something more factual. A story in its fictional nature has a naturally light touch, offering a quiet and humane acknowledgement that any guidance it provides may have no substance at all.

This makes it hard to give a star rating on Amazon or Goodreads. Do I rate for good advice, or bad advice, or for no advice at all? I don’t know. As a purely personal kind of response I will give 4 stars to an interesting, quirky, funny and moving story.

Perfect Review Whatever

Perfect Sound Whatever is James Acaster’s account of his life in 2017, a year of stress, both personally and professionally, from which he took refuge in hundreds of albums released the previous year. As he accumulated these albums he built evidence for the humorous assertion that 2016 was the greatest year in music ever. But the humour hides a deadly serious intent to persuade you that 2016 really was the greatest year in music ever.

As chance would have it, I spent 2016 working my way through Rolling Stone Magazine’s top 500 albums of all time, a project culminating in a list of sixty favourite tracks posted on my blog. So I was always going to love the idea for Perfect Sound Whatever. But did I end up agreeing with this claim that 2016 was the greatest year in music? In answer I would like to mention the time when James has a late night snack in New York. He buys lasagna, heats it up, tucks in with a serving spoon and is disappointed. Later, drunk and desperate he turns to the now cold meal and discovers a magical transformation in its cold creaminess, with crispy bits around the edges. A few days after this gastronomic transfiguration, he tries to recreate the experience with another portion of the same lasagna, using the same oven and the same fridge, only to cook up a disgusting, chilly mess. The one variable in this experiment was the fact that James wasn’t drunk the second time. So, the moral of this tale is that there are two things to consider in judging the music of 2016 – the music and the person listening to it. James was going through a turbulent period in his life, and times of trouble can bring with them a kind of hypersensitivity. I recall very clearly listening to Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick when my father was seriously ill. Every tumbling note from Ian Anderson’s flute sounded like bird song. The Victorians used to say that hunger is the best sauce, and hunger for comfort is sometimes better than Hi-Fi when it comes to music. I think something similar happened to James. Sharpened awareness collided with a lot of good music, which turned out to be as delicious as that first serving of cold lasagna. But was that meal objectively delicious, or subjectively tasty? As George Harrison said in Savoy Truffle, “you know that what you eat you are, but what tastes sweet now turns so sour.”

So I don’t agree that 2016 was the best year in music ever. The evidence really boils down to the fact that lots of albums were released and James Acaster liked many of them. And the thing about the comic approach is that you can say it was all a joke anyway, when the background of personal trauma and the dedication to 2016’s music, all suggests that the premise of this book should not be dismissed as a joke. But my reservations don’t take away from James Acaster’s musical journey and what it meant to him. James, as most of us do at one time or another, felt lost and alone in 2017, and in those times music can be a saviour. From humanity’s earliest days, music has been a way of bringing people together, to work as a team. We see that in all kinds of music from sea shanties and marching tunes, to delirious sing-alongs with Blur at Glastonbury. Of course one lot of marchers can clash with another, so it makes sense to join not with one exclusive crew or marching band, but with the music of humanity in general; and James is very good at throwing himself across all kinds of musical frontiers. Along with hilarious accounts of wretched interactions with healthcare professionals, and disastrous dinner dates with sociopathic women, this musical eclecticism was the most attractive aspect of the book for me – a welcome antidote to the present political situation.

James was an occasionally grumpy, but mostly charming companion who thanked me for reading his book on its final page. The only thing I would suggest is that he is the sort of person who when in the grip of an enthusiasm is affronted if the world does not share his passion. There is a generosity here, and something more difficult, a sense that James’s experience should be everybody else’s. Perhaps the ability to go on your journey, whilst letting others go on theirs, is an equally generous approach. I think, to be fair, there is an acknowledgment of this in the book’s title, Perfect Sound Whatever, taken from a song by Jeff Rosenstock. A perfect sound can also be ordinary or imperfect. No one person, and no one time, has a monopoly on perfection.

Perfect Sound Whatever is an extremely funny and often moving book, with great suggestions if your music listening has become stale and in need of a shake up. I really enjoyed it.

The Nuances Of Seeing The World In Black And White

Terry Pratchett’s Dodger tells the story of a Victorian tosher, a practitioner of a now lost profession, which involved searching through London’s sewers for money or valuable items dropped in the streets above. The book is loosely based on historical reality, with our tosher hero meeting many famous Victorian celebrities – Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, Robert Peel, the civil engineer Joseph Bazelgette – Pratchett taking historical liberties to get all of these people together at the same London house party.

I think the book was most interesting in those sections that make you think about truth. This sounds academic and high falutin’, but really is better thought of in the heated context of tabloid news. At one point, Dodger, trying to smarten himself up for a meeting with his new friend Charles Dickens, goes to a barber for a shave. Unfortunately he chooses Sweeney Todd of Fleet Street as his barber. Sweeney turns out to be a former soldier suffering from PTSD, who has killed a number of his clients. Dodger, realising that the man is deranged, relieves him of his razor just as the police arrive. Dodger sees that Sweeney is ill rather than evil, but Charles Dickens in his role as journalist, explains how a nuance-averse public likes to see the world in black and white. So when Dickens writes the incident up in The Morning Chronicle, Dodger becomes a hero to Sweeney’s villain.

Charles Dickens, of course, portrayed a character called the Artful Dodger in his novel Oliver Twist. The Artful Dodger lives with Fagin, a Jewish man who runs a group of youthful pickpockets. Terry Pratchett’s Dodger also lives with a Jewish man, the clever, artistic, cultured Solomon. So what’s going on there? Perhaps Pratchett’s quiet message is that the real Charles Dickens would have had to rewrite events somewhat for public consumption, just as he did in that imagined scene with Sweeney Todd. The real Dickens would have to make an ambivalent Dodger, who finds valuables people are silly enough to lose, into pickpocket Artful Dodger, who is much more clearly a criminal. The real Dickens might also have to work with a prejudiced, stereotypical view of Jewish people, so that Dodger’s Jewish mentor, a decent, kind and cultured man on the run from European prejudice, becomes miserly, sneaky Fagin.

This was the aspect of Dodger I found most interesting, the idea of truth filtered through the sort of writing that people will accept. Even the book’s modern narrative voice, seemingly immune to the prejudice of the past, has its limitations. This voice is far away from the events it describes, and muddles those events to get, for example, famous Victorians at the same party. At one point Buckingham Palace, seen through the eyes of light-fingered Dodger, becomes a “target rich environment,” a jarringly modern phrase. So this Pratchett narrative voice is just another point of view, not the truth.

I enjoyed all these thoughtful elements of the book. Less compelling was the plot, particularly in the second half, when it becomes a tale of derring-do in pursuit of justice and the love of a good woman. Overall, Dodger is a kind of Victorian melodrama meets modern YA adventure, infused with fascinating reflections on how people filter the world through what they read.

Trial By Error

I read this book because working in a pharmacy, I hoped that having an understanding of the psychological basis of error might be helpful in avoiding it.

The book starts with some history. In the early twentieth century Freud was pondering on apparent slips and “accidents” having a basis in the subconscious. I suppose according to Freud, if someone made a slip in dispensing medication it would be because they had some deep seated dislike of a patient, or harboured unconscious opinions about their treatment! Thankfully, other views from the early twentieth century have aged better. In 1905 Ernst Mach wrote that “knowledge and error flow from the same mental sources, only success can tell one from the other.” Mach is referring to the fact that certain helpful types of behaviour, can also cause problems. For example, people have the ability to learn skills which involve a high level of automatic facility, allowing musicians to play musical instruments, typists to type, drivers to drive cars – all without thinking about the mechanics of every string plucked, key pressed or gear changed. But this automatic facility, so useful in many situations, can be a liability when circumstances alter. Step from a manual car into an automatic and you can run into problems when your left foot wants to press a clutch that isn’t there. In a pharmacy, if you have dispensed hundreds of boxes of a medication in a particular strength, there is an opening for error when you come to dispense an unusual strength of that same medication.

I suppose an awareness of this kind of situation does potentially help guard against times when routine brings the possibility of diminished conscious control. But Human Error is not the book to go to if you want simple answers. First there are those bad outcomes arising from useful behaviour. Then there’s the sense that an error is rarely confined to one person. When things go wrong it is usually the result of lots of people making many decisions meeting varied circumstances, which finally lead down to the unfortunate individual who makes a blunder – the last piece in a malign jigsaw puzzle. Then there are the traps in all the means we employ to guard against error – automated systems leading to loss of skills in dealing with problems; or systems protected by layers of defence tending to soak up hidden deficiencies until there is a sudden failure. Oddly, I came away from this book with a greater acceptance of error, even in trying to find a way to avoid it. Error is inevitable, and if you make error a forbidden sin, then you can never discuss or learn from things going wrong.

It is perhaps ironic that Human Error is a highly academic book, which leaves nothing to chance in its numbered sections, sub sections and sub sub sections. It does not flow. Concepts have to be nailed down into endless acronyms, leaving me floundering amongst SLIMs, SLIs, THERPs, PSFs, PIFs and SUs. Even the name Three Mile Island gets turned into TMI. I did not enjoy wading through this academic acronym code. I can’t see any problem with calling Three Mile Island by that name as many times as required.

Nevertheless, if you can live with the style, and accept that you won’t find an easy prescription that will make you a more accurate, less error prone person, this is a very interesting book. I would recommend it to anyone working in a job where a small slip can have serious consequences; or to anyone making big decisions, where small, unintended consequences in those decisions can store up serious problems for the future.

A Poem Built With What3words

 

The view from humid.wiser.audit

 

What3words is a location app, dividing the Earth’s surface into 3m x 3m squares each with a unique three word name. Out on my bike at the weekend I started collecting word locations I might use in a poem. Here is the result, using some of the locations I rode through, combined with other locations around the world.

What3words

I stopped at a cafe where I found

Capers.anchovies.nuance

Collecting words.together.sounds

In a mood of sleepy.stop.salience

Like a cars.varying.guru

Using slick.laptop.glue

And stick.trumpet.type

I send my latest.scrap.invite

To arrive.train.alight

In my opinions.nest.igloo

The way there is over grass.parade.hint

Happy.stomp.hills

And walks.factories.print

In a field.readjust.fiction

Around the golfer.tree.diction

And via a wowed.blank.tone

And a balloon.patio.phone

I will give you a call and bring you gearbox.dispenser.home

Woodstock For Someone Who Wasn’t There

Woodstock 1969
Me, Mote Park 1969

It’s the fiftieth anniversary of Woodstock, three days of love and music.

In 2019, it is perhaps good to take a moment to remember Woodstock. This is not, I have to admit, because Woodstock and its time are a shining beacon, a state of grace from which we have fallen. The six year old me might have been running around in Maidstone’s Mote Park in August 1969. This was a point in my mother’s life that she recalled as “always sunny.” It wasn’t of course. In my own little world there were, no doubt, chilly days. And as for the world at large, take your pick of wars in Asia, or music festivals which failed to go nearly as well as Woodstock. Woodstock itself did not really indicate a new social promise. Keeping half a million people together in a field in increasingly unsanitary conditions could not have gone on longer than three days. Inevitably, all those people would then have to go back to their normal lives, to avoid dysentery if nothing else.

So Woodstock did not provide an escape from the world. It is more an idea of freedom than its reality. Fittingly, someone who wasn’t even at the festival wrote the definitive song about it. Joni Mitchell was in New York City in August 1969, fulfilling a prior engagement. Her song Woodstock came out of a dreamy longing that came from not being there.

In Woodstock, the singer meets someone on the road heading to Yasgur’s Farm. This festival goer comes out with some dreamy lines about about how people are made of stardust, and describes a desire to get back to the land and set their soul free. This sells it to our singer narrator. In asking to tag along we get these ambivalent lines:

Then can I walk beside you

I have come here to lose the smog

And I feel to be a cog

In something turning

So has she gone to Woodstock to feel like a cog in something turning, suggesting a positive sense of being part of something bigger than herself? Or has she gone to Woodstock to escape feeling like a cog turning in her mundane life in the city? It’s not clear.

Maybe she’s a cog no matter where she is, both in that negative city sense, and in the positive feeling of being part of something bigger than herself. Joni Mitchell didn’t actually get to Yasgur’s Farm, but the song suggests that you can feel like a turning cog anywhere – in a field in front of Jimi Hendrix, in New York, in Mote Park. The song suggests that if you look at it right, the world can be one never ending Woodstock Festival, where the sanitation needn’t be an imminent threat to public health.

Edith Wharton – Authors Are People Too

Scribner’s Magazine where The House of Mirth was published as a serial in 1905

Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth describes the life of Lily Bart, an early twentieth century It Girl, who at twenty nine years old, has lived through eleven years on New York’s society party circuit.

Lily looks to the future and sees her life narrowing. Early in the book she is on the verge of marrying a fabulously rich man, only to turn away at the last moment because she doesn’t love this boring mummy’s boy. She also had the chance to marry a middling prosperous lawyer, who she does love, only to turn her back on that idea as well. After making these decisions, a general tendency to contrariness hardens into a firm determination to escape her fate. When problems created by others damage her prospects, Lily throws a few spanners of her own in the works. She is seemingly incapable of allowing herself to follow her natural course, whether this course is marriage to a rich man, marriage to a man she loves, the well paid life of a social fixer, or even a career as the owner of an elegant hat boutique. Whenever a course opens up, Lily helps shut it down. She wants to escape the social machine of which she is a part, only to find herself in a different part of the same machine. There are those who wear fancy hats, and there are those who make fancy hats for those that wear them. Both are part of the same mechanism.

So, on the positive side, this is a story which feels universal in the way it considers freedom and fate. On a less positive note, the book was a frustrating read, as Lily trips herself up over and over again. Then there is the voice telling her story, which for all its apparent freedom to look down on flawed human characters, has a few flaws and prejudices of its own. This waspish author voice is prone to switching between character points of view with confusing suddenness. I also found myself feeling distinctly uneasy towards the beginning of the book, reading the stereotyped portrayal of Jewish businessman, Simon Rosedale:

“a plump rosy man of the blond Jewish type, with smart London clothes fitting him like upholstery, and small sidelong eyes which gave him the air of appraising people as if they were bric a brac.”

I wondered if this was supposed to be Lily’s point of view, but as I say, point of view is not stable in this book, and remains ultimately with the author. This voice portrays many of her characters in an unflattering light, but does not otherwise link a specific heritage with human failings. So bringing up a Jewish heritage in relation to an individual’s shortcomings felt jarring. Even though later in the book he becomes a somewhat more sympathetic character, the portrayal of Rosedale still left a bad taste. I know we are reading about a different time with different attitudes, but there is this odd feeling that a point of view which aspires to seeing the weakness in others has blind spots of its own.

Ultimately for me, The House of Mirth was like being in the company of an unpredictable Greek goddess. This deity has the power to flit about over the lower human world and make some profound observations in poetic language, while also displaying a rather human and irrational partiality for some people over others.

Searching For The Walrus – A Magical Mystery Tour Around West Malling And Kings Hill

Out on my usual weekend bike ride recently, I ended up in the village of West Malling. Seeking a cup of tea and something to eat before riding home, I found that my favoured West Malling tea shop, The Hungry Guest, had diners overflowing through the open shop front onto a sunny pavement. There was no tea to be had there. Pondering my next move I spotted a blue plaque on the wall of an establishment calling itself the Rain Grill. It had the air of a tiny public library, which for some reason had a sign over the window showing pictures of hotdogs and kebabs.

What was a blue plaque doing on a building like this? I went closer to have a look.

THE BEATLES

1960s ROCK BAND

FILMED THE START OF

THE MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR

HERE

1967

Getting home after my ride, I decided to find out more. It turned out that the Rain Grill was a newsagents in 1967, where John sells tour tickets to Ringo at the beginning of Magical Mystery Tour. This was part of extensive filming in the village and at the nearby airfield. Reading about the famous I Am The Walrus section, I learned that the vaguely post apocalyptic setting for the performance was actually an area of monolithic anti-blast walls at RAF West Malling. That area, and the airfield it was part of, have both now disappeared beneath a housing development called Kings Hill, which I actually rode through on my way home.

It seemed a shame the Beatles were not commemorated in the road names of Kings Hill. There is no I Am The Walrus Close. Deciding to become a pop archaeologist – which I know is not a real job – I set to studying maps and pictures, trying to work out where the blast wall location used to be. There were two groups of walls protecting aircraft dispersal pens, one to the east of the airfield and one to the south. The Beatles used the eastern group.

Have a look at this still from the Magical Mystery Tour shoot:

John is standing beside a dispersal pen, a series of blast walls marching away in a line to John’s left, the North Downs visible in the background. This would put him roughly in the location indicated by the red arrow on this 1960 aerial view of the airfield, overlaid with a street plan of Kings Hill. I have circled the sequence of dispersal pens visible behind John:

The overlaid street plan seems to indicate that the photo of John and his piano was taken in the vicinity of what is now a roundabout where roads called Beacon Avenue and Glenton Avenue meet.

I rode back to Kings Hill a few days afterwards, taking a mystery tour of my own. There was a certain thrill in setting out to find a roundabout, rather than, say, Buckingham Palace.

Here are the results of my adventure. As far as I can tell, this is the same view as that seen in the Magical Mystery Tour photo, 52 years on:

Roundabout at the junction of Beacon Avenue and Glenton Avenue

You can see the top of the North Downs behind the roundabout. Where the sequence of blast walls once stood there is now a public garden. Perhaps we can see a faint visual echo of the lost walls on the roundabout, which is topped by a blocky installation of broken stone, as seen below:

So that concludes my little piece of pop archeology. It might only have taken me to a roundabout, but such a humble destination seems oddly fitting when you’re thinking about a mystery tour.

Pop philosopher is no more a real job than pop archaeologist, but I will leave you with this thought – it’s the idea itself of a mystery tour that is the most interesting place it takes us. A mystery tour is a journey carefully planned so that the people taking the trip don’t know what the plan is. There is a mixture of purpose and aimlessness about it – in fact aimlessness is the entire purpose of the trip, an idea which I came to see as rather inspiring. Next time you feel lost, try thinking of your situation as a magical mystery tour where not having a clue where you are and where you’re going is all part of things proceeding just as they should. It’s a different way of expressing that famous line from All You Need Is Love: “there’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.”

This Is What Happens When You Have A Drink Before Song Nine

Eurovision in space. I read that Catherynne Valente sold her book with these three words. I bought it on the same basis.

The early scenes are excellent, introducing us to Decibel Jones, a Bowie, Bolan, Essex, New York Doll amalgam of a faded glam rock star. With his band, the Absolute Zeros, he had a short but intense period of success, brought to a shuddering end when one of the founding members died in a car crash. Now Decibel gets by on the strength of nostalgic gigs, typically booked by wealthy middle aged men throwing birthday parties.

Who knows how long Decibel would have continued in this twilight zone of a career. We never find out because the aliens land. Extraterrestrials, who have monitored Earth via our radio transmissions, arrive to judge whether humanity is worthy of a place in wider intergalactic society. The procedure for judgement involves participation in a song contest, staged on a world which had once been the centre of interplanetary war. Because Decibel is something of a favourite amongst influential members of his off-planet audience, he, and the one surviving member of his band, are selected to represent Earth at the contest. As well as the usual nerves that come with being a performer, Decibel faces the additional stress of knowing that the penalty for coming in last place at your first contest appearance, is destruction of the race applying for membership of the wider community of planets.

I enjoyed Space Opera until this point. The characters are, in a Jackson Pollock sort of way, well drawn; and the basic idea of the story, bizarre as it might sound, made sense to me. The idea of a song contest growing out of war was not so far fetched. After all, the Eurovision Song Contest, first held in 1956, was established only a decade after the Second World War ended in Europe. Then when the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, many eastern bloc countries entered for the first time. Eurovision really does seem to emerge from the ashes of war and conflict. In the new order of things, national competition is filtered through the glitter ball prism of fun and music.

However, I couldn’t say that I found the book a complete success. There are long digressions which describe the galaxy’s former wars, and the history of the song contest. We do not see any of this extra material through the eyes of the book’s characters. Instead there is just an overwrought, disembodied author voice telling us about it. Clearly Douglas Adams is an influence on Space Opera, but in his books the amusing, tangential stuff generally comes to us through Adams’s famous invention, the vast and not always reliable, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, designed to help a space traveller find his way around the galaxy on less than thirty Altairian dollars a day. There is no such framing device in Space Opera, and it suffers as a result. I found myself tending to skip the digressions so that I could get back to the story as told by the characters in it.

Overall, this book was not douze points, or nil points. It was somewhere in between, with some nice key changes, a group of chaotic backing dancers and over the top staging. So I think it would get a seven or eight from this jury. A good effort, but better luck next year.

Nobody Cares What You Know Until They Know That You Care

The Wind At My Back is Paul Maunder’s memoir of failing to find success, both as a professional cyclist and a novelist. He finally puts these two failures together to make a successful career as a cycling journalist. In that sense I found The Wind At My Back heartening. People see success in terms of well-marked routes, whether that means a structured progression through the civil service, or making it as a professional cyclist or novelist. But there’s no shame in turning aside to explore winding byways, which might be more suited to a particular individual. And this sentiment marries nicely with The Wind At My Back’s many descriptions of cycle rides on quiet roads.

However, with no disrespect to Paul Maunder, I can perhaps see why he didn’t make it down the road of successful novel writing. His book reveals a personality more interested in places than people.

“My failure was in becoming too dependent on this sense of place, and not investigating people as much as places.”

Maunder writes of trying to overcome this, but in a revealing aside while talking about Proust, he says that empathy is something you learn. I don’t believe this is true. Certainly children seem to develop an understanding of others as they get older, but it is also the case that some people never develop this ability. And if empathy does not develop, you cannot teach it. It is possible to learn the social conventions of empathy – as Sheldon Cooper often tries to do in The Big Bang Theory. Psychology Today also tells me that people who are naturally empathetic can become more so, if they live in the sort of society that values fellow feeling. But essentially if you lack empathy you can’t learn it. I became aware of this sad fact through much reading when someone I know had the misfortune to marry a woman who had a constitutional inability to comprehend the feelings of anyone except herself.

Paul Maunder’s book does reveal a lack of natural empathy. I’m not suggesting any slur on the author’s character; but it is true to say he focuses on himself and the places he sees from his bike. You feel little about anyone else. He talks about empathy, but only in the sense of trying to learn how to do it, like another technique taught on a fiction writing course. It did not seem to be a natural part of him. He tells you about empathy but does not show it; and we all know the novelist’s rule about showing and not telling. There is a brief attempt towards the end of the book to imagine himself into the life of his two friends Daniel and Sarah, but this is soon abandoned. Apart from his father who you feel briefly as a person, it is Paul Maunder all the way. You hear about the places he has been, his cycle related philosophical reflections, which in an unfocused sort of way, are interesting. But the people he knows remain as ghostly figures beside the road.

We can’t help who we are, and if this author has trouble understanding other people, he does come to understand himself in an honest way. In those terms his book ends as a success.