an extract from City of Desolation : Chapter 19 – Virgil

(for an audio version of this piece, click here)
There was sand in his mouth and someone was pulling his arm. He tried to open his eyes, but they seemed to be stuck together. Then whoever was pulling his arm turned him on his back and water that had been in his mouth ran down his throat and made him choke. He put up a hand to wipe his eyes and encountered something scaly and slippery which made him recoil in horror. A voice above him made concerned, soothing noises and when at last he forced his eyes open, Jake saw an old man standing over him holding a long streamer of brown seaweed in one hand.

He struggled to sit up and the man stooped to help him, supporting his shoulders. He looked around: he was on a beach that stretched out of sight in both directions; the sea in front of him showed an oily, sinister calm. The beach was deserted. The high-tide mark was strewn with sea weed, driftwood and flotsam. It was a melancholy place. He looked up at the man, and found him melancholy too. He was old and defeated-looking: his face had once been handsome and still kept traces of nobility and dignity that made his present hopelessness all the more poignant. Seeing Jake sitting up and apparently uninjured, he seemed to decide that his role was ended, and he turned and began to shuffle away.

– Wait! called Jake, spitting out a quantity of sand.

The old man stopped without turning round. Jake struggled to his feet.

– Wait! What is your name? Where is this place?

The old man turned now, and Jake could almost see his brain working: he pictured ancient rusty cogs engaging, grating harshly, long disused.

– My …name? I have one, I’m sure…it will come to me presently. And this place? It is…the place where we find ourselves.

Highly informative, thought Jake. He began to think the old man was a bit wandered in his wits. How did I get here? he thought. For a moment his mind was entirely blank, and then it came back to him: he had been in a boat that had capsized in a storm; he had been sure that was the end of him, yet here he was. But where was here? And why had he come? The thought sent his hand to his pocket, and he was immediately reassured to find the package still there: he drew it out and examined it: the wrappings were intact, and it had suffered remarkably little from immersion in the sea.

He became aware of the old man’s gaze on him and looked up sharply, suddenly suspicious. The old man continued to gaze at the package and at Jake with candid interest, his whole look subtly transformed – as if a spark had kindled in the ashes of a cold hearth.

– You have…a mission? asked the man.
– Yes. I have to give this to someone.

The old man’s face took on an inward look, as if he was striving to retrieve something from far, far back in his memory.

– If you have a mission, then I must help you, he said at last.

Jake looked at him in surprise.

– I have done it before, he said. It was long ago.

He stared out to sea, remembering.

– Maro, he said at length.

– Pardon?
– I was of Maro: Virgil was my name. I was a poet.

They trudged up the beach in the direction of the dunes.

– There was another – with a mission, I mean. He was a poet too.

He sat on the slope of a dune, shaking his head. Jake imagined flakes of rust falling from the machinery of his memory.

– All this was long ago. Much has changed since then.

The old man looked into Jake’s face, as if he might find the answer he was seeking written there. Then he smiled – a slow, uncertain smile, as if he had forgotten how.

– Dante, that was his name. Dante Alighieri. I was his guide.

Jake smiled back at him.

– Would you guide me, too?

The old man shook his head, sighing.

– Alas, I cannot. So much has changed now – it is all different. I would not know the way.

He stood up, and moved to the top of the dune, beckoning Jake to follow.

Jake had not known what to expect, but it wasn’t this. Beyond the dune, a dreary prospect of grey, uniform houses stretched in every direction under a brooding sky, filling a broad plain that rose to higher ground in the remote distance, where Jake thought he could make out the walls of what seemed like a fortress or citadel; there was a suggestion of a taller tower in the middle of it, with a red light at the top which flashed intermittently, as if signalling.

– All this used to be fields, said Virgil. The fields of Elysium. We were happy here, in our quiet way. He shook his head dolefully. But that was long ago.

Jake saw that off to the right – the opposite side from the distant fortress – there was a low hill, where among ancient ruins a sort of squalid shanty town had sprung up, composed of makeshift buildings haphazardly assembled from all sorts of materials. The smoke of many fires went up from it, obscuring the land behind, which rose in steep high cliffs. Virgil followed the line of his gaze.

– That’s where most of the ancients are now, he said. Still beyond the pale, of course.

He nodded towards the base of the dune, and Jake saw that there was a high wall topped with a coil of barbed wire between them and the grey houses. Virgil had begun to walk along the top of the dune in the direction of the shanty town. Jake followed.

– I stay mostly on the beach, myself. There’s a rougher crowd have moved in there. (he indicated the shanty dwellings) It used to be all philosophers and poets, but now there’s a lot that used to be further in – in the Old City, I mean – but they seem to have got out, somehow. Order is breaking down everywhere. The authorities don’t seem to bother with the older population now. I’m not sure just how much of that is still inhabited.

Jake looked in the direction of his nod and saw that a change in the wind had blown the smoke away to reveal that what he had taken for a cliff rising behind the shanty town was actually an enormous rampart, the first of a series that mounted like giant steps up and up until they were lost in obscurity. Here and there the masonry was riven with great cracks, and the whole wore an air of ancient decay and neglect.

– If you come down this way, I can take you to the gate-house. That’s as much as I can manage, I’m afraid.

Jake followed him down a path that wound steeply down the grassy slope and presently joined a broader way that ran from the shanty town on the hill towards a large opening in the wall that surrounded the sprawl of houses. As they drew closer, Jake saw that the opening was guarded by a low blockhouse.

– I’ll speak to them first – they can be… awkward, sometimes.

The room they entered was notably bare: the walls were naked concrete blocks, not even whitewashed. A large counter ran the full width of the room: behind it stood two men in buff-coloured work-coats, one very large, the other small and wiry. Though evidently unoccupied, they paid no heed to Jake or Virgil when they entered, and when Virgil rapped on the counter to attract their attention, they went through an elaborate pantomime, looking first at each other, then at every other part of the room (including the high corners, as if someone might be perched up there) before finally deigning to notice the man who stood right in front of them.

– Yes? said the small wiry one.

The other began rooting under the counter, and produced in turn a huge leather-bound ledger, which he opened, an old fashioned inkstand, and a jar with a number of pens. A door behind him opened and a third man appeared, wearing a dark uniform with shiny buttons, like a policeman’s. This man paid no heed to anyone but went to the far end of the counter, where Jake saw there was a small washstand, with a mirror. The man took off his tunic and hung it on a peg, then bent low, making the motions that go with removing boots. All the while, he whistled tunelessly through his teeth.

– My young friend here wishes to go further in, said Virgil.
– Does he though? said the small man. What do you think of that?

The second question was addressed to his partner, who made no response, but continued to fiddle with the pens, as if looking for one that suited him. Jake saw that they were the old-fashioned sort, that needed to be dipped in ink.

– Well, if you can just let me have your details, said the wiry one to Virgil.

– But it is not I who wish to go, protested Virgil
– That’s as may be, said the other. I take it you are prepared to vouch for the boy?
– Er – certainly, said Virgil.
– Well, in that case, you’d best give me your details then, hadn’t you? said the other triumphantly, as if he had scored a point.
– Very well, said Virgil wearily. Virgil Maro, Poet.
– Marrow, eh? That’s a kind of vegetable, isn’t it?

Virgil sighed. The large man, having at last chosen a pen, wrote something in the register, very slowly, his tongue protruding from concentration.

– Have you got that, then?
The other pushed the register over to him. The wiry man read it, and shook his head.
– What did you say your name was?
– Virgil Maro.
– That’s not what it says here.

Virgil looked at him in exasperation. Jake saw to his surprise that the third man was now removing his trousers, which he folded neatly and hung beside his tunic.

– What it says here is “Vegetable Marrow”.

He turned the book for them to see: Jake saw that it did indeed say that, written in a large looping script, peppered with blots.

– Now if I was a suspicious man, I might incline to think that a pseudonym – or perhaps I should say a nom de plume, seeing as how you are a poet. You are a poet, I suppose?
– Yes, said Virgil tersely.
– Make a living at it?

Virgil sighed. The man at the washstand was now attiring himself in a brown civilian suit.

– I wouldn’t ask, normally, only my friend here does like to pen a bit of verse in quieter moments – you’d never think it to look at him, I know, said the wiry man with a smile, but some of it – in my humble opinion – is really quite good, and well worthy of a wider audience.

The big man examined his fingernails with a show of modesty. The brown suited man emerged from behind the counter, set a hat on his head, and said

– Well, that’s me off now, lads.

He went out, letting the door slam shut behind him. The wiry man put on a sudden air of briskness.

– But we can’t spend all day chatting about such things, I’m sure. He looked at Jake for the first time. Now then, young sir, what can I do for you?
– I’d like to go further in, said Jake.
– Would you now? Make a note of that, George.

The big man took the register again and wrote in it laboriously, at some length. While he did so, the other came round to their side of the counter, took a brush from a closet, and began to sweep the floor. When he reached Jake and Virgil, he looked at them as if surprised to find them still there.

– Well, if you come back tomorrow, I’m sure the sergeant will attend to you.
– The sergeant? said Jake with a sinking heart.

The wiry man swept round them.

– The gentleman who’s just gone out, he said over his shoulder. He’s the one you want to speak to. Now, if you’ll excuse me, we’re finished here for the day.

When they were outside, Virgil shook his head.

– I’m sorry. You see how it is. Perhaps they will be more amenable tomorrow.
– I doubt it, said Jake.

He watched as the wiry man, whistling cheerfully, closed the gate, securing it with a large padlock.

– Is there no other way in?

But Virgil was already some way down the road that led to the shanty town. Jake hesitated a moment, then went after him. It began to rain.

The Case of the Florentine Poet: Was Dante the father of Science Fiction?

It was only in researching this piece that I was struck by the uncanny physical resemblance between Dante Alighieri, the Florentine poet, and Mr Sherlock Holmes, of 221b Baker St, the World’s first Consulting Detective:

‘His eyes were sharp and piercing, … and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision.  His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination.’

SH Paget DA Sherlock

That is a description of Holmes, but it would serve equally well for Dante, who even seems to have anticipated the famous deerstalker in the picture above. The similarities are more than physical – of Holmes, Watson observes

‘His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge.  Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing …  My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System.  That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.’

Now, Dante was a learned man and knew a great deal about the literature, philosophy and politics of his time, but like Holmes, he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory, though with rather better excuse, since he died a good century and a half before Copernicus was born.

We know only of Holmes’s ignorance, nothing of what he believed concerning the Solar System, but it is a reasonable inference from what we know of him that it would be a matter of no real interest: times of sunrise and sunset might be of practical value in solving a crime, but not the fact that they are illusions created by the earth’s rotating about its axis at approximately a thousand miles an hour while pursuing an annual orbit about the sun with a radius of some 93 million miles. The intricacies of planetary motion are of no  concern to a man whose mind is wholly taken up with the international conspiracy of crime and the machinations of James Moriarty and his sidekick Colonel Sebastian Moran, the second most dangerous man in Europe, obliquely referenced in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats: ‘he once played a tiger – could do it again – which an Indian Colonel pursued down a drain.’

Dante, however, would take no such refuge in indifference: his idea of the Cosmos is very clear and thoroughly detailed, derived ultimately from the ideas of Aristotle, refracted through the formidable mind of Thomas Aquinas, one of the foremost thinkers of his age. This mediaeval world-view is admirably described in CS Lewis’s book The Discarded Image. In brief, it pictures the Earth as the centre of a succession of concentric spheres – nine beyond the Earth, progressing through the nearest (that of the Moon) to the outermost Crystalline Sphere or Primum Mobile, beyond which lies the Empyrean and Paradise. (The intermediate spheres are, in ascending order, those of Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and the Fixed Stars):

dante cosmosIn The Secret of the Alchemist, my first book,  the hero and heroine are two teenagers, Jake and Helen, who meet in Florence at a Dante Festival. Helen has a great love of Dante, whom Jake thinks an odd choice of hero. Helen asks

– I suppose you prefer computer games and adventure films?

– A bit.

– How about this one? The hero has to penetrate an ancient underground city, where all sorts of people are held prisoner and tortured in terrible ways; his only help is from one of the locals, who offers to guide him – they work their way deeper and deeper underground, encountering all sorts of dangers along the way and outwitting these terrible creatures that try to stop them, till finally they come to the frozen centre of the city, and there is a huge great monster trapped up to the waist in ice, and the only way they can escape is to climb down his body and squeeze through the hole in the ice to the other side –

– I think I’ve played that one, or seen it – is it a film?

Helen smiled. In a rich American accent she intoned

Divine Comedy I : The Inferno. ‘In Hell, everyone can hear you scream! Join all–action hero Dante Alighieri and his trusty sidekick Virgil as they carve their way through the Infernal Regions.’

(The Secret of the Alchemist was published in 2003: in researching this piece, I was tickled to discover that some years later – 2009, I think – someone actually did bring out a computer game based on The Inferno. By the way, if you’re looking to create a follow-up game, you could do worse than to consider basing it on my third book, City of Desolation, in which my young protagonists Jake and Helen follow in Dante’s footsteps, but through an Inferno that has developed somewhat in the intervening seven centuries.

Dante and Virgil make a journey to the centre of the earth six hundred years before Jules Verne thought of such a thing, and when they come out the other side, they ascend Mount Purgatory from whose summit they travel through the heavens, passing the moon and inner planets, till they reach and pass beyond the farthest reaches of space – but this is 1300, not 2001. So is Dante the unacknowledged father of Science Fiction?

Superficially, the claim has merit, but there is a crucial difference: it is clear that Dante does not believe that the journey he is describing is one that can be undertaken by a living man. In his own case, he is almost barred at the very start when Charon refuses to ferry him across the Acheron:

e tu che se’ costí, anima viva,

pàrtiti da cotesti che son morti

(‘And thou, who there

Standest, live spirit! get thee hence, and leave

These who are dead.’)

and at various points it is only his friendship with those in (very) high places which secures his exceptional passage. The same point is expressly made when we meet Ulysses, who tells of his own last adventure, to sail with his old companions to ‘the unpeopled lands beyond the sun’ – and he almost makes it: they come within sight of Mt Purgatory, only to be overwhelmed by a sudden squall that whirls their ship around three times then sends her to the bottom – ‘as pleased Another’ . In other words, the Divine Will prevents their proceeding, as mortal men, beyond the bounds of Earth.

It should be clear from this that Dante is not envisaging a model of the Solar System that is like Copernicus’s but with things in the wrong place: the Divine Comedy is a synthesis of the philosophy, science and theology of the time and it makes use of physical description and location to make the story ‘real’, but it is not Science Fiction – the universe that Dante is attempting to represent is a moral one, not a physical one. it is important to see that Dante’s is not a ‘primitive’ scientific view, i.e. one that does its best on inadequate understanding; it is not a scientific view at all.

Mt Purgatory is located at the Antipodes of Jerusalem in the midst of a vast ocean not because Dante thought you would find it there if you sailed to the other side of the globe (as Columbus later thought he would reach Cathay by sailing West) but precisely because he thought you could not get there at all. In the same way, the Heaven of the Moon is not something that Dante would have put there if he had thought space flight was possible: men in Dante’s time were earthbound, and to say that something was on the moon was to say that it was wholly beyond access. Likewise, he does not posit the physical existence of a system of concentric spheres, each with its guiding intelligence (it was Dante’s wit, by the way, that decided that the Earth (which did not have a guiding intelligence in the existing model) should be governed by Fortune or Chance, that being the only way to explain the sudden reversals of power and fortune that are such a feature of human life (as he knew from personal experience))

Much as in an earlier post I suggested that the blank spaces on our childhood world-map leave room for fantasy, the state of knowledge in Dante’s day was such that there was still room to accommodate God and the heavens in terms of the physical world: that was a way of thinking of them that was open to Dante but is not open to us. Dante could use the subjective phenomena of everyday life as part of an imaginative picture of a divine cosmos without experiencing intellectual difficulty – unsurprisingly, as the principal study of his day -‘the queen of sciences’ – as Thomas Aquinas calls it – was not physics but theology. What serious-minded able people thought seriously about in mediaeval times was God: Aquinas is said to have asked, as a child, ‘what is God?’ and that was the question he pursued for the rest of his days.

We could not do what Dante did today: our maps are too complete, and there is no space in them for God to be accommodated comfortably. But at the same time it is perfectly possible to read Dante with understanding: we see what he is getting at, and if we are educated people, we realise that the model of the cosmos he uses is not intended as a scientific description, but a metaphor, in that it uses the known concrete (the phenomena of the senses) to express the unknown. The place that remains uncharted, where a latter-day Dante might find room for God, is the unconscious – or should I say non-conscious? – mind.

I am hesitant about ‘unconscious’ and definitely reject ‘subconscious’ as both seem to elevate ‘conscious’ to a position of superiority – ‘subconscious’ certainly, and ‘unconscious’ more by implication. As a writer, I have gradually become convinced, having started out as a severe sceptic, of the reality and importance of a non-conscious mind. What fascinates me is that it is clearly able to operate with language – a higher-order skill which we associate with consciousness – and as evidence (trivial maybe, but suggestive) I would adduce the phenomenon of finding that crossword clues and word puzzles can be solved without conscious thought, and the fact that plots and plot complications in specific stories one is writing can be unravelled and resolved without conscious consideration – we go to bed puzzled and wake up knowing what to do, as it were.

Might individual consciousness stand to the non-conscious as a house does to the property that surrounds it? That is to say, we have the house which we inhabit, and beyond that the garden, which is separated by an artificial boundary from our neighbours and the public street; but in reality, the garden, the street, the town, the country and indeed the surface of the planet are a single continuum. So we have a conscious mind which we consider very much our own and separate, and a non-conscious mind which is also ‘personal’ – but how confident can we be of its demarcation from the rest? might we not share a vast common hinterland?

One further thing – why suppose that individual consciousness is some peak we have reached, and that we have emerged, as it were, from the unconscious, unreflecting swamp? might it not be that we are waking into consciousness, and have at the moment just a small individual foothold in a vast territory which will one day become wholly know to us all?

‘we are only doing philosophy’

Esse est percipi – to be is to be perceived. That is Berkeley’s great insight, that the world as we know it exists only for us and beings similarly equipped. It is an observation widely misunderstood because the truth of it is difficult to express, hence the famous exchange between my countryman Boswell (whom I could never take to) and Dr Johnson (whom I much admire):

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — “I refute it thus.”

This is typically tendentious from Boswell, who has plainly made up his mind – ‘ingenious sophistry’ ‘merely ideal’ and ‘we are satisfied [by what means, one may ask?] his doctrine is not true’ and of course Johnson’s response proves only that he had no more idea than Boswell did what Berkeley was talking about.

The good Doctor’s error is excusable, however, since the problem lies with language and what happens to it when we start to use it for philosophy: words are twisted out of their usual meaning, pushed to their limit till they crack. This must happen, since philosophy is about clarifying our ideas, which in turn involves trying to clarify the language in which we express them – when I was young, I used to think that language could be ‘improved’ and ‘purified’ by philosophy, so making it a fitter vehicle for thought, but now I see that the very murkiness of language, its openness to a range of meanings, its vagueness and ambiguity, are strengths rather than weaknesses.

(Wittgenstein was aware of how odd philosophical discussion could seem to the outsider:

I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; he says again and again “I know that’s a tree”, pointing to a tree that is near us. Someone else arrives and hears this, and I tell him: “This fellow isn’t insane. We are only doing philosophy.” (On Certainty, 467))

Johnson’s error is repeated by those who think that what Berkeley is saying is that when you leave a room, all the furniture ceases to exist. This seems absurd and impossible to them because they continue to imagine the room, but see it as suddenly empty when the person leaves – something you might illustrate amusingly in an animated film, maybe. ‘But how can the furniture disappear from the room?’ they demand. But the furniture doesn’t disappear from the room: the room is as much dependent on our perception as what is in it. In one sense, Berkeley is saying something we all believe but find unremarkable: you can only see a thing when you’re looking at it.

When you put that in the passive – ‘a thing can only be seen when there is an observer’ you edge towards the real truth of Berkeley’s insight, which is that there is an element in all our observations which we take for granted, namely the observer. You cannot think yourself out of the picture: if you assert, ‘but I know perfectly well what my room looks like when I’m not there – I can picture it now’ then all you are saying is ‘I can imagine what it looks like when I am there.’

A modern-day Johnson might rig a camera with an automatic switch and triumphantly flourish the resultant picture of an empty room, complete with furnishings, exactly as we would expect, saying ‘I refute it thus!’ But to get at what Berkeley meant, you must try to imagine the room (or anything at all) as it appears from no particular point of view. It is impossible, of course, though you might have fun trying to simulate it with a battery of cameras in the same way that a single camera simulates our being in the room when we aren’t. The resultant picture would be a curious one: you would have a simultaneous view of the room and its contents from all four, or rather all six, sides. Perhaps the nearest thing to it might be a cubist painting, such as Georges Braque’s Violin and Candlestick:


Another way of coming at this is to imagine some improvement in the eye, so that our visual spectrum is extended – things that presently seem to us empty space would perhaps be intriguingly shaded and coloured, as described by Old Mathers in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman:

There are four winds and eight sub-winds, each with its own colour. The wind from the east is a deep purple, from the south a fine shining silver. the north wind is a hard black and the west is amber. People in the old days had the power of perceiving these colours and could spend a day sitting quietly on a hillside watching the beauty of the winds, their fall and rise and changing hues, the magic of neighbouring winds when they are inter-weaved like ribbons at a wedding. It was a better occupation than gazing at newspapers. The sub-winds had colours of indescribable delicacy, a reddish-yellow halfway between silver and purple, a greyish-green that was equally related to black and brown. What could be more exquisite than a countryside swept lightly by cool rain reddened by the south-west breeze?

The thing that Berkeley wants us to grasp is that if you think yourself out of the picture, it ceases to be a picture: it is no longer seen from any particular viewpoint, there is no cunning apparatus, be it eye or camera, to detect the visible spectrum of light and give objects in the room shape and colour; if the bonsai tree on the desk keels over, there is no ear to convert the compressions and rarefactions of the air that result into sound; without a nose, the pungent aroma of yesterday’s kipper is no more than particles in the atmosphere.

Picture this: the last man in the world and his dog are gazing out through a triple-glazed window at some apocalyptic scene – meteorites raining down on the earth, perhaps. The last man keels over and dies; since his dog sees in black and white (though he inhabits a rich world of scent and sound of which his late master was almost wholly ignorant) has all colour now gone out of the world?

Put this way, it sounds like something amazing (again, we could illustrate it in animation – as the man is dying, the colours slowly fade to sepia) but that is because of what we have chosen to focus on: say instead that when the last man dies, the world as we have known it dies with him – that brings home to us how much more there is to our world than just the single element of colour: there is memory, emotion, the record of all that small section of sensory data which we are equipped to process, together with the feelings it evokes, the ideas it gives us, the art and poetry and music it inspired, the stories we told about it and our interaction with it; none of this exists in its familiar form without us: when we are gone, it is gone too (and even the books we leave cease to be books with none to read them).

And that, if you think about it, is the other side of the Jewish teaching (Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a) commonly rendered in English ‘who saves one life, saves the world entire.’ (It is interesting to find that this is the lesson drawn from the tale of Adam’s creation in Genesis, rather than any suggestion that it is some sort of rival to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution: the value of stories is that they teach us how to live in the world).

Repentance, or, embracing Subjective Reality

The sun moon and planets are unwitting actors that we have cast in a drama of our own contriving.

Wagner’s Lied an den Abendstern (‘O Star of Eve’ – here intriguingly rendered on the musical saw) is not addressed to the second planet from the sun, inhospitably wrapped in clouds of sulphuric acid, but the brilliant and beautiful light that appears at times in the evening sky, which we have made the symbol of the goddess of love.

And what could be more dramatic than Coleridge’s line

The sun’s rim dips, the stars rush out, at one stride comes the dark ?

The sun may be a ball of burning gas 93 million miles away, but as far as our life is concerned, we know him as an actor in the daily drama that starts with his rising and ends with his setting, often in scenes of spectacular beauty, which have inspired much in the way of poetry, art and music. Between times he wears different aspects:

‘sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines

and often is his gold complexion dimmed’

and likewise at particular times of the year:

‘Midwinter spring is its own season

Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,

Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.

When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,

The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,

In windless cold that is the heart’s heat,

Reflecting in a watery mirror

A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.’

Dante famously ends each volume of his Divine Comedy with a reference to the stars:

e quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle

(‘and whence we emerged to see again the stars’ – Inferno )

puro e disposto a salire alle stelle 

(‘pure and ready to mount to the stars’ – Purgatorio )

l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle

(‘the love that moves the sun and the other stars’ – Paradiso )

But the stars Dante refers to are not the marvellous balls of burning gas, stupendously distant, that were probably the origins of life here on Earth; the stars he means are the ones that come out at night, the stars as they appear to us from our viewpoint here on earth. I think we could avoid a great deal of needless difficulty and strife if people would only learn to  separate the two, and treat them with equal respect. They belong to different orders.

In saying this, I speak with the zeal of a repentant sinner.

For a long time – since I was 14, in fact, when I first read the Republic while on holiday in Barra (there was no television; I also learned to play cribbage) – I have been in thrall to Plato, in particular the notion that the world has two aspects: ‘appearance’, made known to us by the senses, which is of no value – being deceptive, ephemeral, mutable and relative – and ‘reality’, apprehended by the intellect, which is equated with truth itself, being eternal, unchanging and absolute.

This is a potent notion, and I am not the first to have been seduced by the marvellous simile of the Cave, with its vision of the seeker striving to escape the darkness of ignorance to gaze at last upon the pure sun of Truth*; indeed I think that lay behind my decision, at the end of my first year at Edinburgh University, to switch my field of study from English Language and Literature to Philosophy and Literature.

So it was something of an epiphany when I realised, a few years ago, that this vision of the world had lost its hold on me. One day, I had an idea for a story which imagined a family living in the innards of a clock – either they were very small or it was very large – on some part of the mechanism which they took to be stationary while all the rest moved around them in highly complex and quite marvellous evolutions. One member of the family – a rebellious teenager, without doubt – somehow gets out of the clock and is able to share the viewpoint of the owner of the house in which it stands, and sees that the place where his family lives is a moving part of the mechanism, while the bits he had thought in motion are fixed in place.

So far, so Platonic: the teenager could stand for the prisoner who escapes the Cave and comes at last to see how things ‘really’ are; however, that was not how the story turned out. Although the boy fully grasps that the world his family experiences is an accident of their position within the clock, and appears as it does only because they assume their viewpoint to be stationary – which could be supposed an error – he is not prepared to concede that it is any less real, and in fact he thinks it more beautiful and marvellous than the view from outside, which strikes him as dull and prosaic; for him, the house-owner is the one missing out, the one who does not appreciate ‘how the world really is’.

I think now (beating my breast in repentance) that in an adult lifetime spent in philosophical reflection of various sorts, I have, like King Lear, ‘ta’en too little care of this’: I hereby cast aside my Platonic blinkers, and proclaim that the world of so-called ‘appearance’ – the world of our everyday experience – which I might term ‘subjective reality’ – is no less real and of no less worth for being ephemeral, accidental, mutable and relative.

Awa’ wi absolutes!

*though I should, perhaps, have paid more heed to the fact that it relies on concrete imagery to persuade us to the reality of the world of Forms.



Brendan John Goulding Ward 24 November 1946 – 6 January 2013

(photographed by his niece Kate at his niece Veronica’s wedding)


Requiescat in Pace

In happy remembrance:

Being a Pantoum for my brother on the occasion of his sixty-fifth birthday,
commissioned at exceptional cost* and in several colours
from the pen of Master Thomas Gymcrakke

Happy Birthday Tractorman!
First and finest of the bros!
You do the very best you can –
you keep us all upon our toes.

First and finest of the bros!
You are the master of the sea –
you keep us all upon our toes,
though villains steal your mug for tea.

You are the master of the sea
 unswayed by favour or by fear
 though villains steal your mug for tea
 a steady course you always steer.

Unswayed by favour or by fear
you do the very best you can:
a steady course you always steer –
Happy Birthday, Tractorman!

* I beat him down from a guinea but 11/4d was the very least he would take