‘Let words be nice’ – reflections on Alan Garner’s ‘Treacle Walker’

[NB: this article assumes that you have read the book]

All writing, it might be said, works by synecdoche: the writer supplies the part and from it we infer the whole to fill the space the writer leaves. Alan Garner is a master of omission: what makes it onto the page is spare and lean and more effective for it; he often says less than we expect, yet we realise it is enough. In Treacle Walker what is left out is as important as what is put in: it is a book that plays with our assumptions, inviting us to make them yet forcing us to question them as the book goes on.

Take the opening line (which is also, incidentally, the last line, too): it is the cry of a rag-and-bone man. I am old enough to remember a rag-and-bone man with a flat horse-drawn cart, but that was over sixty years ago, before I started school. This suggestion that the story is set (apparently) some time in the middle of last century is confirmed by the passage of a steam engine, which for the boy Joe Coppock signals that it is mid-day, hence his nickname for the engine, Noony. Joe himself is like boys in the comics of my childhood, old-fashioned even then: he has a catapult (doubtless made from a Y-shaped stick) plays marbles and collects birds’ eggs and other things he chances on, which he keeps in his ‘museum’. He is in poor health and wears an eyepatch because he has a ‘lazy eye’.

When the rag-and-bone man’s cry is repeated, about half-way down the opening page, the line that follows is worth noting:

Quick, Joe. Now, Joe.

It is, I think, the sole instance of inner dialogue of any kind in the entire book; in a form that typically lends itself to introspection, the absence of any account of inner thoughts or feelings is remarkable. Apart from that one line, everything is outward. We see and hear only what is public: the things Joe sees and hears, what he and the others say. What we know of his feelings we infer from his speech and actions. We know nothing of his remembering, save that he once found a sheep’s shoulder blade in a molehill beside the railway.

The characters are few and they inhabit a sparse landscape simply named. There is a house, and visible from it a yard, several fields – Barn Croft, Pool Field, Big Meadow – and a track with a top and bottom gate and the railway line close by. Beyond these are trees, a bog and a heath. Apart from Joe the only other characters are the rag-and-bone man, Treacle Walker, and Thin Amren, the man in (and out of) the bog. To these we must add an incidental oculist and three characters from Knockout, the comic Joe reads, since at some point they intrude on the story: Stonehenge Kit the Ancient Brit, Whizzy the wizard and his Brit-basher sidekick.

At the outset, from this little that Garner provides, we are confident in assuming a great deal: we can place the story (roughly) in time – somewhere from Garner’s own childhood (he was born in 1934) up to, say, the late fifties; we know that there must be a school (which Joe presumably does not attend because of his ill-health) and equally there must be some adults who look after Joe, parent(s), grandparent(s) or other relatives; and of course there must be neighbours and likely a town somewhere for the train to come from as well as all the normal human activity of everyday life, such as eating and drinking – but none of that is actually mentioned.

The growing bewilderment that the reader feels as the book proceeds – just what is going on here? – is shared by Joe, who expresses it in exclamations of scornful disbelief and angry puzzlement (mostly variants on ‘daft, I call it’ which is what one of the characters in Knockout says at the end of every episode). He can barely understand a word that Treacle Walker says and frequently demands that he ‘give over’ or ‘leave off’. His first close encounter with him leads to a memorable exchange:

’You smell!’ ‘Not I, Joseph Coppock,’ said the man. ‘You smell that I stink. Let words be nice.’

This falls strangely on the ear – to stink is hardly ‘nice’ – till we remember that ‘nice’ can also mean ‘done with great care and exactness; accurate’ (as in ‘a nice distinction’). Treacle Walker is not admonishing Joe to speak pleasantly but precisely, to give proper heed to the use of words (and it is an admonition to the reader, too: pay attention to what is being said, here: do not cloud it with assumptions).

And those assumptions that we made so confidently at the outset are steadily undermined as the book goes on, just as Joe’s understanding of his own situation is repeatedly challenged by Treacle Walker’s questions, which he is seldom able to answer. This is nowhere better seen than in the episode with the oculist in part V and what follows in part VIII when Joe is asked about it. Part V begins abruptly, without preamble or forewarning and is the only change of location in the whole tale:

‘Come in, Joe,’ the man said.

Joe went into the room and sat on the chair.
‘How are things?’
‘All right.’
‘Let’s have a shufti, then.’

Our initial puzzlement gives way to understanding: we know already that Joe has a ‘lazy eye’ and when the man starts giving Joe a range of tests that are evidently familiar to him (‘The usual drill. Keep your eye on the dot.’) we realise that this must be a regular visit to the oculist. The two are on easy terms with one another, even when the visit takes a rather strange turn (when Joe looks at the chart with his good eye he reads out what later turns out to be a Latin inscription)

‘Not funny, old son.’
‘What isn’t?’
‘It doesn’t help if you faff around.’
‘I’m not faffing.’

However, when Joe later shows Treacle Walker the paper on which the oculist made him write down what he saw with his good eye, Walker’s line of questioning is strange and Joe’s answers stranger still:

‘Did you write this, Joseph Coppock?’
‘I was having my eyes tested –’
‘When?’
‘When they were being tested. And the man said –’
‘What man?’
‘The man in the room.’


‘Which room?’


‘Where I was having my eyes tested!’
‘Where was the room?’ said Treacle Walker.
‘It was – there,’ said Joe.
‘Who was the man?’


‘The man testing my eyes! Give over!’


‘I am but asking the question,’ said Treacle Walker. ‘Who was the man?’
‘He was – I dunno.’

Joe’s inability to furnish any specific detail (and his mounting irritation at it) is painfully reminiscent of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s or a similar dementia: his answers are plausible, yet lack substance. As readers, we feel that Joe ought to remember: he and the man clearly knew one another from the way they talked; he was evidently the oculist, and the room was his consulting room, where Joe must have been before. But we have never actually been told who the man was, where the room was, or how Joe got there; and Joe does not seem to know either. We begin to wonder at the validity of our inferences.

As it happens, the episodes between the meeting with the oculist and the interrogation above have already given the reader ample cause to question the frame of reference we assumed at the start. Joe goes out in pursuit of the cuckoo, experiences what seems to be a time-slip, then ends up in conversation with a man who rises out of the bog and introduces himself as Thin Amren (he already knows Joe’s name). In the next part, set back in the house, Stonehenge Kit emerges from the pages of Knockout and passes through the room, shortly pursued by Whizzy and his sidekick; betweentimes, Joe has climbed into the comic frame from which Kit emerged into a shaft which seems to echo the chimney of the house (later identified by Treacle Walker as ‘Axis Mundi’ ‘the way between… the earth, the heavens and the sapient stars’). All this has been effected with the aid of his good eye, now beglamoured with the ointment from the jar that Treacle Walker traded for Joe’s old pajamas and Joe accidentally smeared on his eyelid. Viewed with his other eye, all seems as usual.

What happens to us as we read is similar to what Joe experiences: our vision alters; our everyday assumptions about where and when we are fall away, and we find ourselves in a stark, mythic landscape where what you see is all there is. We already have a sense, early on, that Treacle Walker is no ordinary rag-and-bone man (if indeed there ever was a such a thing). His style of speech recalls another figure of children’s literature, Cole Hawlings, the Punch-and-Judy man from John Masefield’s The Box of Delights (and indeed the chest of treasures from which Joe picks his humble pot could well be termed a box of delights). Cole is a magician and a time-traveller; we begin to wonder if Treacle Walker might not be cast in a similar mould (he also recalls the packman John Turner in Garner’s Thursbitch and echoes the shaman-like figures that occur in Strandloper and Boneland).

Of course, the folkloric, mythic tale has been there from the start, albeit submerged at first (like Thin Amren in his bog) by our conventional assumptions about a story involving a (relatively) modern schoolboy who lives in a world of steam locomotives and comics. Its general form is that the hero (Joe) is selected by passing an initiation test (choosing the pot) for which he is rewarded with magical gifts (the donkey stone and glamourie or second sight) to aid him in the task that he is set, which is to put the world to rights from its disrupted state: ‘what’s in is out and what’s out is in’ – which applies equally to the comic characters, Whizzy and Brit Basher, who have escaped the pages of Knockout into Joe’s world and to Thin Amren, who has wakened from his dreaming in the bog and got up.

What precipitates this disruption is unclear. The first portent that all is not well comes after Joe has invited the rag-and-bone man in and asks him his name (names are potent in traditional tales)

‘can you not talk sense? What’s your name?’

Outside, the iron ring handle of the door banged on the wood three slow times, sounding through the house.

[Joe looks out the window]

‘there’s nobody there,’ he said.
‘Then no body wishes to come in,’ said the man.

Bang. Bang, Bang.

(note the nice distinction between Joe’s ‘nobody’ and the man’s ‘no body’)

We sense Joe’s rising panic as the ominous knocks are repeated a second time: ‘what must I do?’ he asks and on the third repetition he opens the door and what spills in, out of the Spring day, is night, vividly portrayed as ‘a sheet of darkness, flapping from wall to wall.’ The sheet becomes more animate with each verb: dropped, ruckled, fell, humped, shrieked, reared. Notably, it does not go up the chimney, but escapes out under the eaves as ‘on the floor snow melted to tears.’

This incursion of night is plainly a harbinger of something and also serves as a portentous overture, like a thunderclap, before the rag-and-bone man reveals his name; whether it might be more again is an idea that comes with rereading.

It is the next part that seems more obviously to set the mythic tale in motion: when Joe borrows Treacle Walker’s bone flute (‘I made it from a man that sang… it is the way for him to sing now’) and has a go, he produces a cuckoo’s call that is answered from across the valley. This elicits a curious response from Treacle Walker,

‘Unfound bones sing louder. Draw a pail of water.’

We wonder at the first part (whose bones are unfound?) but are distracted by the second and what follows: Joe is commanded to ‘stone the step’ with the donkey stone, in order to ‘keep the house’, evidently an apotropaic measure to ward off evil incursions – in traditional tales, supernatural creatures can only cross the threshold if they are invited; it is notable that Treacle Walker always seeks Joe’s permission to do so.

Perhaps prompted by the cuckoo’s call, Treacle Walker falls into a melancholic reverie, reciting a curious verse:

‘Iram, biram, brendon, bo,
Where did all the children go?
They went to the east. They went to the west.
They went where the cuckoo has its nest.’ *

Joe wants a cuckoo’s egg for his collection, but as he is unaware of their peculiar laying habits (a fact that amuses Thin Amren greatly later in the tale) the ominous note struck by that last line would pass him by.

The coming (or summoning) of the cuckoo builds the climax of the book: each time Joe hears it, it is nearer. When (on page 99) its call is first set down directly, it is repeated seven times, and we are at once reminded of that other guise in which cuckoos appear, sounding the time in a cuckoo clock. In the final confrontation, on p144, the cuckoo calls eleven times – the eleventh hour – then further down the page, just before Joe acts, it calls thirteen times – not only an unlucky number, but a signal that the times are out of joint; chaos is come (and perhaps, who knows, there is also a nod to Orwell: It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen).

As our assumptions are stripped away, we begin to wonder (with Joe) what his situation actually is; the clearest clue comes in his secound encounter with Thin Amren. Joe asks how long he has been in the bog; Thin Amren says ‘From then till now. And you?’

‘What about me?’
‘How long have you been up in the fine chimney house?’
‘Always. I live there.’
‘And how is “always”?’
‘It’s – always,’ said Joe.

This recalls the earlier interrogation about the oculist: Joe seems unable to answer a straightforward question; while his first response is just what a child might say, his inability to quantify it is striking: he must, after all, know what age he is; it is one of the things that children make particular note of.

Thin Amren recasts the question in a different form by asking Joe to consider an eddy in the water, or ‘whirligig’ as he calls it:

‘He doesn’t move. But water, she goes by. Then what’s whirligig?’
‘I dunno. It just – is,’ said Joe.
‘Then what is brook?’ said Thin Amren.
‘It’s the brook.’
‘And brook was here yesterday,’ said Thin Amren. ‘and she’ll be here tomorrow. Whirligig stays. Though he’s not the same water. Then what is yesterday? What today? What tomorrow? Whirligig, what is he? What is brook?’
‘Oh, dry up,’ said Joe.
‘That’s the last thing I’ll be doing,’ said Thin Amren. ‘I asked a question. Whirligig neither asks nor cares.’

The last remark suggests an identification that is later made explicit, that Whirligig is Joe from Thin Amren’s point of view ( or sub specie aeternitatis, if you prefer). We have just been given an elegant statement of the problem of identity: how is it that I suppose myself to be the same person that was born sixty odd years ago and has undergone all manner of experiences in between? There is (I think it is accurate to say) actually nothing of me that persists for all that time: cells are perpetually renewed. Am I not, then, as David Hume puts it,

’nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement’

– in a word, a whirligig?

But it is in the next exchange that we receive some confirmation of what we may already have begun to suspect. Joe asks Thin Amren if he knows Treacle Walker, to which he responds,

‘Me know that pickthank psychopomp?’

Now, a ‘pickthank’ is an ingratiating flatterer, but a psychopomp (which Joes rationalises as ‘cycle-pump’ just as he makes ‘Axis Mundi’ ‘ask us Monday’) is one who guides the souls of the (newly) dead from one world to the next (it is also one of the titles given to Hermes, messenger of the gods). The inference to be drawn is that Joe has died, either before the story starts, or else early on. On the one hand, there is that singular moment of inner thought I noted on the first page,

Quick, Joe. Now, Joe

Which I associate with a line from WB Yeats’s The Cold Heaven:

when the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the death-bed over

(‘Quick’ of course can mean ‘alive, living’ as in ‘the quick and the dead’). This could point either way: Joe certainly undergoes a sustained period of confusion which only clears when he asks (on the penultimate page) ‘Treacle Walker, am I dead?’ but we might also take it to be the starting point of an altered mode of existence. Treacle Walker’s response to Joe’s question is

‘I will not say you are dead. Rather, in this world you have changed your life, and are got into another place.’

On the other hand, the momentous thrice-repeated summons (‘no body wishes to come in’) that panics Joe into opening the door and letting in ‘a hurlothrumbo of winter… a lomperhomock of night. Nothing more’ might also be a candidate for the moment of dissolution, at once momentous and insignificant – not that it really matters. In one interview, Garner observes that Treacle Walker and Joe are in some sense alternative versions of himself: Walker is the classics don he might have become, had he stayed on at Oxford, while Joe is the boy he might have been had he never gone to Manchester Grammar School – and one way that might have happened is if he had died beforehand, which Garner almost did from childhood illnesses, on three separate occasions.

Joe’s progress is marked by small but significant actions on his part which reveal his true character (and worth) in contrast to the sharp-tongued intolerance (bred of fear and confusion) that he displays for much of the time. At the outset, he chooses humbly and fairly, feeling that the little pot is as much as he is entitled to claim from among the glittering treasures (‘they’re worth loads, this lot… more than jamas or bones.’). Then he is courteous: when the rag-and-bone man complains of the heat, Joe invites him in where it is cooler, so welcoming the stranger, one of the primal acts of human decency. Later, it is when Joe asks for help, mired in the bog, that Thin Amren comes. He shows courage and resourcefulness in tackling the task he is set, to vanquish Whizzy, and in the greater one of returning Thin Amren to the bog. He takes responsibility for his actions in summoning the cuckoo and causing the disruption which he has resolved: ‘No. It was me. I did it.’ Finally, he is unselfish, compassionate and generous: after Treacle Walker has answered his question ‘am I dead?’ Joe asks him

‘What is it you want for you? What is it you want most? For you. Not some wazzock else.’

to which Walker responds,

‘never has a soul asked that of me.’

This is a book that rewards rereading: there is so much in its 15000 words that more is to be had from it every time. It is multilayered in its meanings and is not ‘about’ any one thing; it deals with the riddles of time, human existence and death, the relation of past and present, the mysteries of religion and storytelling. It is, above all, life-affirming: the jealousy that is the one thing Treacle Walker cannot cure is felt by Thin Amren, who loves the Whirligig, the fleeting brilliance of life that Joe embodies, and is envious that he cannot have it (compare what the shade of Achilles tells Odysseus when he visits the underworld: ‘I’d rather serve as another man’s labourer, as a poor peasant without land, and be alive on Earth, than be lord of all the lifeless dead.’) He is jealous that Treacle Walker shares his company while he cannot. In one sense, just as all the characters are aspects of Garner (if Joe is the boy he might have been and Walker the don, then Thin Amren is surely the writer he has become, who dreams worlds into existence) they are also aspects of each other: Joe has been the man ritually sacrificed by the tribe and immersed in the bog, giving his life that all life might continue (perhaps he is also ‘the man that sang in the marrow bone’) and in the end, he becomes Treacle Walker, by releasing him from his duty and taking it on himself, so that the book ends as it began with the rag-and-bone man’s cry.

–oOo–

* much of the delight of reading and rereading this book is to seek out the sources of the obscurer parts, a task made much easier by the internet. This rhyme, for instance, turns out to have been composed by Garner himself more than fifty tears ago as part of a tale he rewrote in The Hamish Hamilton Book of Goblins.

Coming back to Ludwig

Wittgenstein at the bar of the Folies Bergere

By what James Joyce would call a vicus of recirculation, I find myself once more in agreement with Ludwig Wittgenstein after an unexpected falling-out.

It was my reading of Wittgenstein’s well-known dictum that ‘the meaning of a word…is its use in the language’ along with his notion of ‘language games’ and ‘forms of life’ that sent me plunging back into the preliterate past on what proved a course of unexpected discovery.

Regarding the dictum, I had always taken the emphasis to fall on ‘use’, so that the contrast was between a word actively employed – dynamic, doing something – as opposed to the word in isolation, in repose, as it were, sleeping between the covers of the dictionary. My reading was that ‘meaning’ was not an inherent property of words but something they had only when they were put to use, like a charge they acquired when they were active – and where that happened, of course, was the ‘language game’ or ‘form of life’.

The difference between those two, as I understand it, is a matter of scale: put simply, the language game is the smaller unit, a particular activity defined within the wider context of the ‘form of life’ – which in turn has a range of applications, from all the activities typical of a group or occupation to the culture of a tribe (such as Amazonian Indians or Cambridge dons). In any case, these were places where language was used, and in which the meaning of Wittgenstein’s dictum could be tested.

For example, the ancient practice of buying a bus ticket from a conductor might be classed as a language game, so that the utterance ‘fourpence please’ (together with the proferring of coin) will initiate an activity which culminates in the conductor issuing a ticket to that value; or in Wittgenstein’s ‘building game’ the utterance ‘slab’ will see the builder’s assistant bring him the appropriate item from the pile. Wittgenstein’s point, as I understood it, was that the meaning of the word derived from its context and was inferred from it – in contrast to the conventional explanation that the utterance is a shortened form of a longer one that is ‘understood’ but not spoken, so that ‘fourpence, please’ really means ‘could I have a fourpenny ticket, please?’ And ‘slab!’ means ‘bring me a slab’: in other words, the grammarian’s urge to supply a complete sentence in order to explain the meaning of the word or phrase was not needed: its use (in the language game) showed what it meant.

What caused me to stumble, when I stepped back into preliterate times, was the realisation that words are an artefact of writing (though as a matter of fact, not all writing systems make word divisions). They do not exist as separate elements in speech, which presents as a rhythmic flow of sound. Furthermore, preliterate speech was embedded in, and inseparable from, human activity: it was always part of a language game or form of life, having nowhere else to go – our preliterate ancestors could not contemplate the meaning of the written word nor hear it spoken in isolation (as on a radio programme, say). As such, I realised, speech would be overshadowed by a whole range of accompaniments that were more immediately ‘speaking’ than it was itself: glances of the eye, facial expressions, gestures, posture, bodily movement (one need only think of the effectiveness of mime in communicating to see this).

At first, I took refuge in the fact that ‘meaning’ could be seen, in a sense, as ‘spread across’ the whole activity (or language game, if you like) – any speech was a contributory part to something that was understood as a whole (so that people would ask ‘what is going on here?’ rather than ‘what did he say?’ in order to find out what was happening). However, I gradually realised that I was bringing my own (literate) understanding to bear in doing that: our ancestors would not have had any use for ‘meaning’ as a term: people might have misunderstood situations or others’ intentions, but not their utterances (chiefly because those did not play as significant a part as they do for us: they would not carry the same burden of meaning, since intention was largely conveyed by other forms of expression, and understanding came from paying attention to the situation, what people were doing, rather than to what was said).

This led me, unexpectedly, into conflict with Wittgenstein. Even though it was his dictum about use and his notion of the language game that had set me on my course, I saw now that meaning was an inherent property of words, and that was a change that came about through the discovery of words, as elements of speech, through writing. Put simply, something written on a tablet can be read and understood in itself, without reference to anything external. ‘The cat sat on the mat’ does not require to be checked against an actual situation to be understood: if I know the words and can read, then I know exactly what it means, regardless of whether there is a cat or a mat for it to sit on. In other words, you can know what something means without knowing whether or not it is true, in the sense of referring to an actual state of affairs. I came to see that Language, as we know it today, is not only an artefact of writing (which gives speech a visible, permanent form that can be analysed) but also has a peculiar character: it is what I would call both an abstract entity and a self-validating structure (or whole).

By ‘abstract entity’ I mean the process by which it is transformed from preliterate speech, inextricably entangled with human activity and overshadowed by the more immediate forms of expression that were its invariable accompaniments, into a separate, self-contained entity: through being written down, and so separated from its original context, speech can for the first time be considered as something in itself; at the same time, its visible form allows it to be analysed, so that what is heard as a rhythmic flow can be seen as a pattern articulated from separate elements or words.

By ‘self-validating structure’ I mean the property noted above, that something written can be understood in itself, without reference to anything external, and this because words can be seen as like the nodes or meeting-points in a complex structure (the Forth Bridge, say) where each part is supported by every other part and each node is the meeting point of forces that fix it in place. In the same way, the meaning of a word is determined, not by its relation to anything external, but rather by its relation to all the other words, its place in the language.

[This, of course, is the basic structuralist model, which considers any given sentence in terms of two different planes: the horizontal plane consists of the sentence itself, and how the words in it relate to one another. In an uninflected language like English, position matters: The cat sat on the hat means something different from The hat sat on the cat; in an inflected language like Latin, it is the word endings that indicate the grammatical relation (puella amat nautam, nautam puella amat and amat nautam puella all mean ‘the girl loves the sailor’ but puellam amat nauta means ‘the sailor loves the girl). The vertical plane consists of all the words that could stand in stead of those in the sentence. It is easier to picture this in terms of a one-armed-bandit or fruit machine: instead of a row of bells or lemons, the sentence The cat sat on the hat is displayed in the window with each word on a separate drum or cylinder. The lever is pulled, the drums spin, and a new sentence is formed: A bird nested under an arch. This has the same grammatical form (article+noun[subject]+verb+preposition*+noun[object]) but means something quite different. Thus, we understand any given sentence not only in terms of its actual content, but also in relation to any grammatically similar sentence; to put it in another, slightly puzzling way, the meaning of a word in any given sentence is defined in part by what it is not, i.e. by all the words that could stand (grammatically) in its stead.]

And it was thinking on this that led me, by a roundabout route, a vicus of recirculation, to reconsider what Wittgenstein actually said, and where the emphasis should fall in the dictum I have quoted. Rather than say ‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language’ perhaps one should emphasise that final phrase, ’the meaning of a word is its use in the language.’
This slight shift significantly alters the perspective: where, before, I had seen ‘use’ as drawing attention to the dynamic character of meaning – that it was only present when words were being used, rather than when they were idle – I now saw the dictum as a repudiation of Wittgenstein’s earlier ‘picture theory’ of meaning, outlined in the Tractatus.

In that, the meaning of a proposition is a matter of correspondence: as the arrangement of elements in a picture must correspond to what it depicts (so that one could, as it were, draw lines from one to the other) so too the arrangement of words in a proposition must correspond to, or picture, some state of affairs in the world. In short, the meaning of a proposition depends on an external relation between it and the world. But if we read Wittgenstein’s dictum with the emphasis on the last phrase, it could be understood as saying that the meaning of a word is a purely internal matter: it is defined by its use in the language, not in relation to anything outside the language. A word does not mean by pointing to something outside itself that validates it; its meaning is determined by it relations to other words, those alongside it in the proposition and (as suggested by the structuralist model described above) those that could stand in its place.

So, having arrived at my notion of Language as a self-validating structure or whole and entered into it gladly as one might a public house after a long stravaig on a hot day, who do I find but Ludwig himself already drinking at the bar, having got there a long way ahead of me.

I’m glad to find myself back in his company.

*I realise that grammarians of a more modern stripe would call ‘nested under’ (and ‘sat on’) phrasal verbs, but I am an old-fashioned sort of fellow.

The Shepherd Boy and the Philosopher: a fable about numbers

‘It’s surreal to me that it’s 2022 and there are still people out there who think 2 + 2 = 4 is an objective truth that was true before humans even existed and not just like a thing society agreed on because it’s useful’ (culled from Twitter, where people say the most extraordinary things out loud)

Let us start with big sister and little brother minding their flock of twenty sheep. Little brother hugs one of the sheep and says, ‘Methera is my favourite!’ Big sister asks, ‘Why do you call her Methera?’ Little brother looks surprised. ‘Because that’s her name,’ he says. ‘you call them all by name at the end of the day, but Methera’s the only one I can pick out – O (pointing to another sheep) that’s Bumfitt!’

Big sister realises that little brother has misunderstood. She explains that she isn’t calling the sheep, she’s counting them. She shows him using her fingers as she says ‘Yan, tyan, tethera, methera, pimp!’ (she holds up all five fingers on one hand, then moves to the other) Sethera, lethera, hovera, dovera, dik! (she hold up all ten fingers of both hands, then curls one into her palm as she continues) Yanadik, tyanadik, tetheradik, metheradik, bumfitt! (little brother laughs) Yanabumfitt, tyanabumfitt, tetherabumfitt, metherabumfitt, Giggot!” And when she reaches ‘giggot’ she makes a score on the ground with her crook. ‘there, you see – we have one score sheep: I counted them. Now you try!’

It takes little brother a few attempts to get the sequence right – because that’s the important thing – but luckily the rhythm, rhyme and pattern all help: ‘dovera hovera’ just doesn’t sound right the way ‘hovera, dovera’ does, and in the same way his ear and tongue tell him it’s ‘sethera lethera’ not the other way round. Once he’s got the sequence, big sister tests him on the rule.
‘The rule is ‘add one’ you see – each number in the sequence is one more than the number before it. That’s why you need to know the sequence: the value of each number depends on its place.’

She tests him by holding up different numbers of fingers and having him count them, then adding one. He gets the hang of it quickly and pretty soon if she holds up seven he says ‘lethera’ right away and if she adds another three he counts ‘hovera, dovera,’ in his head then says ‘dik!’ out loud. Then big sister gathers up some pebbles and sets out all the numbers up to twenty – a group of one, then two and so on – so that he can see them all side by side. They play around with the pebbles and see how they can make up the numbers in different ways: Yan and tethera give you methera, but so does tyan and tyan. By the end of the day, he’s able to count the sheep all by himself and he knows what numbers are.

When he’s a bit older, little brother goes into the town and meets a merchant with an abacus. He watches him for a bit and the merchant, aware of his interest, asks, ‘can you count?’ ‘Yes!’ Says little brother, and slides each bead across on the abacus as he says ‘Yan, tyan, tethera, methera…’ ‘Oho, a shepherd boy!’ says the merchant. ‘Here in the town we have another way of counting, but it’s the same really.’ And he writes out the numbers 1-10 in the dust as he counts on the abacus. ‘Now, we say ‘one, two, three, four five’ but you can say ‘yan, tyan, tethera, methera pimp’ – the names might be different but the numbers are still the same.’ He teaches the boy to count using numbers – 1,2,3 – and shows him how he can go beyond a score: 21, 22, 23. They pass a pleasant day playing around with numbers and translating the merchant’s numbers into shepherd’s numbers and back again.

Another day, when he’s older again, the boy goes to the city and meets a philosopher. ‘Do you know what numbers are?’ The philosopher asks. ‘O, yes,’ says the boy, ‘I can count.’ And to show him, he counts to twenty the shepherd’s way and then the merchant’s way. ‘Indeed, you can count,’ says the philosopher, ‘but that wasn’t what I asked – what are numbers?’ The boy is puzzled a moment, since he thinks he has just shown him, but then he writes out the figures 1 to 10 in the dust. ‘I suppose you mean these? That’s what numbers are.’ ‘But I could do that a different way,’ says the philosopher. ‘here’s how the Romans used to do it.’ And he writes out in roman numerals, I, II, III, IV, V and so on. ‘And do you know your alphabet?’

The boy recites it for him.

‘Well, you could use that too,’ says the philosopher. ‘any sequence you know can be used to count if you follow the rule of ‘add one’ : so a is 1, b is 2, c is 3 etc. Or d is methera, e is pimp, f is sethera and g is lethera, if you like.’

‘I see that,’ says the boy. ‘They’re just different names for the same thing, or different ways of doing the same thing.’

‘But what is that thing?’ asks the philosopher, ‘that’s what I’d really like to know! If seven and lethera and 7 and VII and even g are all the same thing, what is that thing? And where is it?’

The boy shrugs. He can sense the philosopher’s excitement, but he doesn’t share it. It does not seem necessary to him to know these things.

‘What does it matter, as long as you can count?’ He asks. ‘Isn’t that the important thing? If you follow the sequence and apply the rule your sums will always work out. Tyan and tyan will give you methera, two and two will give you four, 2+2 will always =4.’

‘But isn’t that the wonder of it?’ says the philosopher. ‘Here are these things – numbers – and we can call them by all sorts of different names, but they always add up, and you know you can rely on that. Suppose someone came up and said, 2+2=5 – how would you react?’

‘I’d tell him he was wrong, that he couldn’t count.’

‘But suppose he insisted? How could you show him that he was wrong?’

After some thought, the boy says, ‘I’d ask him to count to ten. If he did it right, then I’d show him using pebbles for numbers, and he’d see that 2 and 2 couldn’t make 5 but had to be 4.’

‘but what if he did it wrong? What if he counted 1,2,3,5,4?’

‘Then I could show him that we both agreed, but that we used number-names differently: what he called 4, I call 5 and the other way about. I’d like to see what he did with the higher numbers, too – like 14 and 25 and 44 – but as long as we both used a consistent sequence, even in a different order, we could make our sums work out, because it’s the place in the sequence that determines the value, along with the rule – go to the next in the sequence, you add one, go back, you take one away.’

‘And isn’t that marvellous? Suppose someone else came up and said ‘for me, two and two is seven, and two and three is eleven, and eleven and seven is nine, and nine and two is one?’

‘Well, I wouldn’t trust him to count anything, that’s for sure. But I could ask him what rule he’s following, what sequence he’s using.’

‘And if he says, ‘O, I don’t follow any rule (and you can’t make me!) I just use the numbers in any order I like – 7,4,5,8,2,3 one day and 6,1,7,4,9 the next. I’m a free spirit. If I say 2+2=7 then that’s what it equals, for me. After all, numbers are just something we’ve invented: you can use them any way you want.’

‘Then I’d ask him ‘but what do you use them for?’ I use mine to count sheep.’ I suppose I might try to diddle him, just to teach him a lesson, but that would hardly be fair, since he clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about: he can’t count, he doesn’t know what numbers are.’

‘Which brings us back to my original question,’ says the philosopher. ‘Just what are numbers? There’s something mysterious about them. They seem to be the same for everyone, though we can call them by different names. Once you apply the rule of ‘add one’ to a sequence, you always end up with the same numbers, no matter what you call them, because they always add up the same way, and you know they always will, as long as you’ve got the sequence right. Yet they don’t seem to be anywhere: I mean, you can’t pick them up, or go and look at them or show them to someone else – but you know they must exist, and that they’re infinite, because no matter how high you count, you can always add one more. It’s amazing!’

The boy shrugs. ‘Maybe numbers aren’t a thing at all,’ he suggests. ‘Maybe they’re something you do, like – like playing the piano.’

This brings the philosopher up short but seems to please him. ‘What made you say that?’ he asks. ‘I don’t know,’ says the boy, ‘it just came to me. I suppose because there isn’t a ‘what’ you can ask about – it’s just playing the piano: it’s something you do. So’s playing with numbers.’

‘But what are you playing with?’ demands the philosopher afresh.

The boy shrugs. It does not seem necessary to him to know such things. It is only when he is an old man that he one day says to his big sister as they sit by the fire, ‘I see it now – he was trying to fit them in to his scheme of things. Only I didn’t have a scheme of things, so it didn’t matter to me. He wanted to find a way to think about them, to connect them up to a bigger picture so that it all worked. I suppose that’s what philosophy is: trying to fit everything into the same big picture. I seem to have managed without one all this time. What about you?’

But his sister is already asleep.

Trickster Johnson continues to expose the weakness of our ‘unwritten constitution’

If the United Kingdom survives Boris Johnson’s disastrous premiership it may yet be grateful to him. No one man has done more, and in so short a time, to expose the absurdities of our archaic political system and the weakness of its ‘unwritten constitution’ in which vagueness has too long been mistaken for flexibility. Johnson’s only interest in rules is finding out what happens if he breaks them. In respect of our fabled ‘unwritten constitution’ the answer has proved to be, time and again, little or nothing. Johnson’s aide Cummings set the tone early on by refusing to attend a Parliamentary Committe when summoned to do so. That is ‘contempt of parliament’, which sounds ominous, but unlike contempt of court – for which you can be sent to jail – no actual penalty appears to attach to it – it is simply assumed that no-one would defy so august a summons.

Johnson has extended that contempt for parliament by continually announcing policy through his client press before bringing it to the House. The penalty for that? A loud bleat of reproval from the ineffectual Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle. Johnson, with an 80 seat majority of largely supine loyalists, can and does take the support of the House for granted and pays it scant regard.

He was already well-known to be a near-pathological liar before the Tories made him their leader, so it was no surprise to find that he rapidly ran into conflict with the unwritten rule about telling lies in the House. Lying to the House of Commons, we have been assured repeatedly (as often as Johnson has done it, which is many, many times) is a resigning matter: as a case in point, people cite John Profumo who did just that, when he was found to have lied to the House about his relations with Christine Keeler; but that was nearly sixty years ago and Profumo (as his subsequent lifetime of atonement demonstrated) was an honourable man. Johnson is not.

That – his total lack of any sense of honour or shame – is what has enabled him to drive a coach and horses through parliamentary conventions that are founded on the presumption that all Members are honourable. Thus, elaborate penalties attach to anyone who accuses another Member of lying or deliberately misleading the House – they can be summarily expelled and suspended – but no penaltes whatever attach to a member who does lie or mislead the House, because it is presumed that no Honourable Member would ever do so; but if it were to happen, it is presumed that (of course) the member would resign. But what if he does not, but simply returns to repeat the same lies week in week out, even when there is a video compilation documenting the numerous instances he has done so (thanks to the admirable Peter Stefanovic), a video that has been viewed millions of times?

Well, as we have seen, nothing at all happens. There is in fact no mechanism for establishing that an MP has lied to the House even when demonstrable proof exists: the Speaker will not do anything about it, and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, absurdly, has no power in the actual chamber (that belongs to the Speaker) [see Lying with Impunity]. A party leader might take action – by withdrawing the whip – but if the offender in question is the party leader, and the Prime minister to boot, then no-one can do anything about it. Of course, anyone with a shred of decency or honesty would resign if they were caught out in that way, but Johnson does not have a shred of either.

Likewise with breaches of the ministerial code, founded on the Nolan principles of conduct in public life, handsomely bound with an introduction by Boris Johnson himself praising their worth – the ultimate arbiter in its enforcement is the Prime Minister. So when the unspeakable Priti Patel was found by an inquiry to have bullied her staff and to be in breach of the code, Johnson simply disagreed and she remained in post; and as regards his own conduct, he is the ultimate arbiter of that, too: absurdly, it is only the Prime Minister who can decide that the Prime Minister has breached the ministerial code and should resign; because of course it is presumed that anyone with a shred of decency – well, you know the rest.

Johnson’s latest wheeze is very much in the same vein: he has resigned as party leader, but not as Prime Minister, following the unprecedented departure of more than fifty members of his government, including senior cabinet ministers, in a 48 hour period. This, too, is in complete defiance of convention. There is, in fact, one sole criterion you must meet in order to be UK Prime Minister and form a government: you do not need to have won an election, you do not need to lead or even be a member of a political party, and indeed I believe you may not even need to be an MP (Alex Douglas-Home was not, though a bye-election was swiftly arranged to enable him to sit in the Commons); certainly you do not need, nor can you get, a personal mandate from the electorate (no mechanism exists for that) – all you need is to be able to command the confidence of the House, that is to say, you must be able to muster sufficient votes to pass your programme of legislation (and crucially the budget that finances it).

When Johnson first became Prime Minister, he swiftly lost his majority in the House and consequently failed to win something like his first ten or eleven votes. There was a real possibility at that point, if parliament had been able to organise itself, that an ad hoc majority could have rallied behind an independent candidate, ousted Johnson and formed a new government – however, they lacked the political will. Whether it would have made any difference is doubtful, given that Johnson resolved the stalemate by calling a General Election which the Conservatives won with an 80 seat majority.

And that 80 seat majority is what has enabled Johnson to work this latest bit of mischief. In the previous case, Johnson could not command the confidence of the House simply because the Conservatives had lost their majority; replacing him as their leader would not have altered the basic arithmetic. In this case, however, the Conservatives still have a substantial (if depleted) majority, and can reasonably claim that they have a mandate from the elctorate to fulfil their manifesto, so there is no need to call an election (and that has been the case for the majority of Prime Ministers since the war – Eden, Macmillan, Douglas-Home, Callaghan, Major, Brown, May and Johnson all became PM without an election, although only Home, Callaghan and Brown did not win an election subsequently).

The Conservatives’ problem with Johnson is (or purports to be) personal – after a litany of scandalous revelations stretching back over several months, his inept and palpably dishonest account of the Pincher affair seemed, at the time, to be the straw that broke the camel’s back: as murmurs of discontent grew, two senior cabinet ministers – the Chancellor and the Health Secretary – resigned, rapidly followed by a slew of others in lesser positions. Close confidantes and known supporters of Johnson publicly called on him to go. A delegation from the 1922 committee – the celebrated ‘men in grey suits’ – was reported to be on its way to Downing St. to tell him that the game was up.

And what happened?

Well, he’s still Prime Minister. He has already filled a number of government vacancies, in some cases by reappointing those who had resigned. He has resigned as leader of the Conservative Party but not as Prime Minister, despite having a designated deputy in Dominc (gawd help us!) Raab – the implication is that he will go as soon as a successor is appointed, since it is presumed that he or she will command the confidence of the House. But what of his own position? All those resignations have washed over him like tide over a rock. In theory, they were showing that he had lost the confidence of the House, i.e. of his Conservative majority – but that is all it was, mere show. The expectation, of course, was that anyone with a shred of decency etc. would see that the game was up and do the decent thing: but how little, even now, do they know their man. Johnson simply refused to respond. Figuratively, they left him with the revolver and the glass of whisky, so he drank the whisky, shot Michael Gove, and carried on as before.

He is there even as I write, and unless they actually demonstrate, by a vote in Parliament, that he no longer has their confidence and can no longer continue as Prime Minister, there he will remain, working his mischief while his colleagues fight like rats in a sack to succeed him. And who knows what may happen in the interim?

Johnson loses no power by resigning as Leader of the Conservative Party. By staying on as Prime Minister, he retains an enormous amount (as he has already demonstrated by exercising his patronage in making new appointments). As John Major wisely observed, the hope that he will be constrained by his cabinet is not well-founded, given his conduct till now. I fully expect him to damage this country further before he departs – if, indeed, he does.

“Remainers’ Brexit”? he’s right, you know!

In the realm of contemporary politics, I must confess to confusing David Davis and Lord Frost. It may be my mind’s refusal to accept that Nature could permit such a waste of space as to suffer two such grey and uninteresting men of such dismal incompetence to exist simutaneously, or my incredulity that there could be two men equally talentless in negotiation nevertheless appointed to key negotiating roles; or perhaps it is just that the utterances of each are indistinguishable in their stupidity – but in any case, it took time to realise that the memorable description of the present sorry mess we are in as ‘a Remainers’ Brexit’ came from Davis rather than Frost. Not that it matters.

He is right, of course.

The Brexiteers’ Brexit promised an extra £350 million per week for the NHS, sunlit uplands, the restoration of sovereignty and the Greatest Empire The World Has Ever Known, cheaper and better everything and no whiny foreigners cluttering the place up – and what have we got?

An unmitigated disaster.

Precisely the Brexit that those of us who voted remain said we would get, the single greatest act of self harm that any government ever needlessly* imposed on its own people at the behest of a minority** of the electorate.

A Remainers’ Brexit, indeed.

*the referendum was, of course, advisory: see The Real Enemies of the People
**there is not now, nor has there ever been, a majority of the British people in favour of leaving the EU: see When simple arithmetic is the elephant in the room: the collective failure of press and politicians in the Brexit debacle

President Brexit’s last stand – a new version of an old lie

Jake Mogg may not be the subtlest of all the beasts in the field, but like the serpent in the garden (to use Dante’s description) egli e bugiardo e padre di menzogne – he is a liar and the father of lies. The Brexit crew have a passion for ‘Research Groups’, for which I believe they receive parliamentary funding [= our money as taxpayers]. These groups are little better than lie factories: listen out, and in various forums you will hear their members repeat, in different voices but strikingly similar forms of words, some falsehood they have contrived that they wish to propagate.

The original version of the ERG ‘Big Lie’ was that Brexit was ‘the will of the British people’ who ‘voted overwhelmingly for it’ [see ‘Liars in Public Places‘] . Both claims are false, of course: insofar as ‘the British people’ can be equated with the electorate who participated in the 2016 referendum, only a minority voted to leave the EU: the majority expressed no desire to do so. This lie was wielded as a weapon to shut down debate: because Brexit was ‘the will of the British people’ speaking against it was tantamount to treason and was certainly undemocratic; the people had decided, so the matter was settled (even, absurdly, to the extent of denying the same people any chance to reconsider it – see ‘A Most Ingenious Paradox‘).

Of course, to represent the 2016 referendum as an exercise in ‘direct democracy’ [see ‘Another Lie from the Egregious Bernard Jenkin‘] is itself a lie. At most, a referendum in this country can decide whether or not legislation already passed by parliament is to be implemented: that was the case with the 2011 referendum on whether to replace the ‘first past the post’ system with the ‘alternative vote’ (sadly, the change was rejected). The 2016 referendum was not of that sort: it served only to advise the government of the day on how the public felt regarding continued membership of the EU [see ‘The Real Enemies of the People‘] – and what it showed, of course, was that the country was divided on the issue and that a minority (37.5 % of the electorate, 26% of the ‘British People’, i.e. the total population) wished to leave. Nevertheless, ERG members strove consistently to present the referendum result as something which was so overwhelmingly decisive that to challenge it would be undemocratic.

Lately, this nonsense has been revived in a new and interesting form. With Johnson sinking ever deeper in a mire of his own making, Mogg popped up on BBC’s Newsnight to deliver himself of this breathtaking falsehood: “It’s my view that we have moved to…an essentially presidential system and that the mandate is personal rather than entirely party and each PM would be advised to take a fresh mandate…my view is a change of leader requires a general election.”

This, of course, is a tissue of lies. Regardless of Mogg’s ‘views’, we do not have, nor have we moved towards, ‘an essentially presidential system’ in which ‘the mandate is personal’, so that cannot be used to support the equally false claim that a change of Prime Minister requires a general election*. What we have is a system of representative democracy: constituencies elect Members to sit in Parliament, the legislature that decides our laws. The Executive or Government is formed by whatever group can command enough votes in the House to pass its legislation; this is termed ‘having the confidence of the House’. The leader of that group, which typically is formed from one or other of the parties, or sometimes a combination of them, is de facto Prime Minister. The different parties have different methods of deciding who leads them but none involves the electorate voting directly for them.

The dust that Mogg is trying to throw in the public’s eyes is that because Johnson has promoted himself as having ‘got Brexit done’ (another lie, since the process is still unfolding, and worsens at every step – consider the huge tailbacks on the M20) and because Brexit was ‘the will of the people’ (as we’ve seen, it wasn’t) then any vote for the Conservative party in any constituency was in reality a vote for Johnson. Factually, that is incorrect: votes are cast for individual candidates who stand for some party or as independents. The fact that some people, even the majority, may vote along party lines does not legitimise the claim that someone perceived (or promoted by the press) as a popular leader is directly elected by the public, or the notion that seeking to remove them from office is somehow undemocratic or even anti-democratic, as claimed today on Twitter by Lucy Allan MP:

‘Trying to remove an elected PM with a huge personal mandate, mid term, is anti democratic. Those who seek to do so are subverting democracy. If you respect democracy, Mr Major, Mrs May, Mr Heseltine et al, do it through the ballot box, not by abusing your power and influence.’

On the contrary, it is false claims like these, that misrepresent the nature of our system of government in order to bamboozle the public, that are anti-democratic. Boris Johnson is only Prime Minister by dint of leading the group that currently commands the confidence of the House and so is able to pass legislation. Should he lose the confidence of his supporters in the House, they will replace him, using the method the Conservative party has chosen to elect its leaders (interestingly, this now inolves direct voting by around 150,000 members of Conservative constituency associations, which is arguably less democratic than the former system, where the parliamentary party (each of whom has a mandate from the electorate) chose who would lead them).

[Should the ruling group itself lose the confidence of the House – typically through being unable to pass some key legislation, e.g. a finance bill – then even then there need not be a general election, provided another group can be formed that does command a majority of votes. It was the failure of Parliament to get their act together to do this for the good of the country in September 2019 (see ‘Only the Conservative Party can save us now‘), when Johnson had not only failed in every vote he attempted but had lost his parliamentary majority live on television, that landed us in the mess we are now in]

The most worrying aspect of the false claim that Johnson was somehow directly elected by the people to lead the country is that it appears to be part of a larger programme, to vaunt the power of the executive at the expense of Parliament and the Judiciary. Thus we see, on the one hand, a continual bypassing of Parliament which a weak and ineffectual speaker has done little to prevent: it has become routine practice to announce policy via Tory-supporting newpapers before it is brought to the House, while in the House itself debate is curtailed or even bypassed alogether using a combination of emergency powers or so-called ‘Henry VIII clauses’ that enable ministers to amend or repeal provisions in an Act of Parliament using secondary legislation, which is subject to varying degrees of parliamentary scrutiny.

At the same time, laws are being proposed expressly to prevent public opposition to the executive [the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill, to which Home Secretary Priti Patel added some 18 pages after it had been voted on by MPs – thankfully the Lords threw them out] , either through protest or recourse to the judicial system [the government wants to restrict recourse to judicial review, so that it could not be used to hold the executive to account, as it was by the redoubtable Gina Miller in 2017 and 2019 (in the first case, ironically, she sought to have the sovereignty of parliament upheld by giving MPs a say over triggering Article 50 – the legal mechanism taking the UK out of the EU. In the second, famously, she asked the court to rule that Johnson’s attempt to prorogue Parliament (which he lied to the Queen about) was unlawful]

When we consider these concerted attempts to portray Johnson as a leader with a mandate that comes directly from the people (and so is answerable only to them, not their elected representatives) against this background of vaunting executive power by undermining Parliament and the Judiciary, then Johnson’s recent remark that it would require ‘a tank division to drag him from office’ has a sinister ring – it is strongly reminiscent of Trump’s rhetoric leading up to the January 6th insurrection.

There may be trouble ahead.

*The extent of the falsehood is seen when you consider that, going back to the early fifties, Johnson succeeded May; May, Cameron; Brown, Blair; Major, Thatcher; Callaghan, Wilson; Douglas-Home, Macmillan; Macmillan, Eden; Eden, Churchill; all without the intervention of a General Election.

To whom it may concern: the conduct of Cressida Dick with regard to the Sue Gray Report

From one perspective, I can see it is reasonable that

In order to make a police complaint, you must be eligible to be a complainant. This is defined by the legislation as someone who has directly witnessed the incident or who is directly affected by it.

Complaints can be raised by other people on their behalf, but only with their written consent.

Therefore, if you are not directly affected or were not present at the incident that you have concerns about, you cannot use the police complaints system to make your concerns known.’

– IOPC Website

However, in the light of today’s events, it does cause a certain amount of frustration: when the public actions (and inactions) of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police are open to the construction that she is acting to shield the Prime Minister from scrutiny at a time of public scandal, what can be done about it?

This is the best I can think of:

To all whom it may concern – including the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime and the Independent Office for Police Complaints* – I wish to complain about the actions of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, in relation to the Sue Gray report and the events surrounding it. The nature and timing of those actions create a strong impression of corruption and misconduct in public office, specifically that the Commissioner is acting, not in the public interest, but to shield the Prime Minister from scrutiny at a time when public confidence in him is at an all-time low. It is entirely wrong that the police should act from political motives against the interest of the public whom they serve.

The impression of corruption and misconduct has been created, not by a single act, but by a sequence of actions (or inactions) in which the only consistent factor appears to be that they serve the Prime Minister’s interest and not the public’s.

When the initial allegations emerged that led to the Gray report, there was a clamour for the Met to investigate, on the grounds that these were precisely the same kind of breaches of Covid regulations which the Met and other forces had pursued zealously against ordinary members of the public; yet here was a case where Met officers were in constant attendance and evidence of any coming and going was well documented for security purposes and no action was taken. Yet despite the presence of officers in the vicinity of the alleged incidents and the ease with which evidence could have been obtained, the Met announced that there would be no investigation, saying that there was ‘a lack of evidence’ and that in any case it was not policy to investigate such complaints retrospectively. With regard to the first point, if the police make no attempt to gather evidence (when it is there for the asking) they can hardly cite that as grounds for inaction. With regard to the second, it is not clear that the policy cited actually exists in any official form that can be examined – and an unwritten policy, to borrow Sam Goldwyn’s line, ‘isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on’ – it would appear, at best, to be an unofficial but accepted practice; at worst, an invention of the moment.

As the clamour grew, the next position taken by the Met was that it would wait till the Gray report was concluded before taking any action. For the police to defer to an internal enquiry where the matters alleged involved breaches of the law seems unusual to say the least. Once again, it is hard to see that the public interest was being served here, while it evidently did suit the Prime Minister, who found himself under increasing pressure as allegations increased but was able to take refuge behind the shield of the forthcoming Gray report to deflect any questions.

Only when the Gray report was imminent, three days ago (25 January), did the Commissioner suddenly reverse her position and announce that the Met would investigate, in terms that are difficult to reconcile with her earlier grounds for inaction. Many people, myself among them, concluded that this would mean a delay in the publication of the Gray report, and publicly expressed their concerns that such a delay, which again suited the hard-pressed Prime Minister, was the real intention of the Commissioner’s sudden change of mind and reversal of her position. Our fears were alleviated when it was reported, on the same day, that the Met had not sought any delay to the publication of the report.

Nonetheless, the report, which had been said to be complete three days ago, and was expected to be published on Wednesday (26 January), has still not appeared. Now today (28 January) comes a statement from the Met which makes clear that they have intervened to intefere with the publication of the report, in the following terms:

‘For the events the Met is investigating, we asked for minimal reference to be made in the Cabinet Office report.

The Met did not ask for any limitations on other events in the report, or for the report to be delayed, but we have had ongoing contact with the Cabinet Office, including on the content of the report, to avoid any prejudice to our investigation.’

Far from clarifying the situation, this statement obscures it further, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it is intended to do so. Since the public has no idea which events the Met is investigating, the scale of their interference in the report is impossible to gauge. However, since (to use the Commissioner’s own words) the Met will only investigate “serious and flagrant” breaches of the Covid regulations retrospectively, we can conclude that what will be omitted from the report are those elements likely to be most damaging to the Prime Minister.

The second paragraph is a combination of the disingenuous and the nonsensical. In saying that they ‘did not ask for any limitations on other events in the report, or for the report to be delayed’ while at the same time asking for the most serious content to be held back, is tantamount to saying that they have not interfered in the report apart from the extent to which they have interfered in it or delayed publication of its content apart from the content they have asked to be held back. The public could have no confidence in a report published on those terms. As regards prejudicing their investigation, it is hard to see that such a claim makes any sense at all.

First of all, since this matter is not under the consideration of a court, it is not sub judice, though there is reasonable ground to suspect that the Met is playing on public ignorance to suggest that it is. That would be dishonest. Secondly, it is hard to see how, since they are already in possession of as much of the report as they deem relevant, their investigation could in any way be prejudiced by its publication in full. Indeed, it is difficult to grasp just what sense of ‘prejudice’ is intended here. Who is supposed to be in danger of being prejudiced by what?

There is a more sinister interpretation of these words and that is at the heart of my complaint. While it is hard to see how the full publication of the Gray report would in any way prejudice the Met’s investigation, it would certainly prevent their concealing from the public the extent of any wrongdoing on the part of the Prime Minister.

Given the pattern of behaviour that has preceded today’s statement, and against the background of the findings of the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel that “we have found the Met to be institutionally corrupt” and “the public statements which we have heard from the Commissioner and the Deputy Commissioner and the Assistant Commissioner in the days following the publication illustrate exactly the problem that we have been describing”, there is strong ground for supposing that the Commissioner, in her conduct of this matter, has at the very least brought the Met into disrepute**, and at worst has been complicit in a sustained, corrupt and politically-motivated attempt to shield the Prime Minister from public scrutiny and to bamboozle the public whom it is her duty to serve. If this falls within your area of responsibility, I would be pleased to know what you are going to do about it.

*I do not consider it worthwhile to include the Home Secretary, in whom I have no faith whatsoever – see this report of her own questionable conduct re the Met

**perhaps it would be more accurate to say ‘further into disrepute’ – recent events, such as the Sarah Everard case and the disgraceful handling of the vigil in her memory, have shown the Met in a poor light.

Α or Ω ? Reflections on ‘A Vignette’ – M R James’s last masterpiece

‘Feeding the Cockerels’ by Myles Birket Foster

A Vignette is generally described as ‘the last ghost story MR James ever wrote’ – not unreasonably, since it was published posthumously in the year of his death, 1936, in the November edition of The London Mercury (at that time, a major monthly literary journal), James having died in June. Evidently the story was commissioned for the Christmas 1935 edition but arrived too late, so was probably written some time in late 1935. It is something of an outlier when it comes to the canon of his work, and is seldom anthologised; the only place that I have seen it (and the first time I even heard of it) is in Richard Dalby’s collection, The Sorceress in Stained Glass (a book I bought on the strength of it). Its rarity is a pity, since it deserves to be better known; I think that it is, in its own small way, a masterpiece, and as far as its author is concerned, a work of singular importance.

I cannot claim to have thought so on first reading it; my recollection is that I enjoyed it well enough, but that it definitely belonged in the ‘minor’ category (of which, more later). There was, I thought, a comforting familiarity about it – so many details were characteristic James, and resonated with many of his earlier tales: it was pleasing to find that the old master had not lost his touch, even if his best days of invention were behind him. The last word I would have thought to apply to it is ‘original’; indeed, it seemed precisely the sort of piece that an acknowledged master of the genre might produce late in life in response to a commission that invited him to revisit old familiar territory, yet again – brief, as well-crafted as ever, but essentially a rehash of many elements that already feature in his previous stories.

It is only from rereading it recently that I have revised my opinion and come to think that it is original in a very precise sense: one might also call it seminal. Even if it is the last ghost story he actually wrote, I would suggest that it is quite possibly the forerunner of them all. I say ‘possibly’ because James is nothing if not a master of his craft; and just as it is wise, if a ghost-story is to be persuasive, to allow more than one possible explanation of the events it relates, so with A Vignette, two distinct and even opposite readings are possible. It may be, as I have suggested, a minor work in which a master of the genre, feeling obliged to write something, produces (to paraphrase his own note on A Haunted Doll’s House) ‘a variation on former stories in the hope that there is enough of variation in it to make the repetition of motifs tolerable’.

On the other hand, it may be that this is not the last in a long line of stories in a similar vein, but rather an account of the original childhood experience from which all the others sprang, an experience that explains not only the recurrent features of those tales, but also what prompted him to tell stories of that kind in the first place.

The key, I think, lies in one feature of A Vignette which is almost unique: aside from his children’s story, The Five Jars, only one other of James’s tales is related directly in the first person, as if the narrator is telling of events that have actually befallen him. That other is its companion in what I earlier called the ‘minor’ category, that odd lopsided nine-tenths-humorous curiosity, After Dark in the Playing Fields. We know, of course, that it is an error to assume uncritically that the ‘I’ in the story is the person who wrote it, but given that James was raised in a country rectory (where A Vignette is set) and was Provost of Eton (the location of the playing fields referred to in After Dark) we have reasonable grounds for supposing that here James is speaking as himself and that he may be giving an authentic account of an actual personal experience.

(As regards After Dark, I do not of course mean the humorous encounter with the owl, but rather the odd ‘tacked-on’ portion of a dozen or so lines at the end which hardly belongs with the rest – that, to my ear at least, has the ring of truth about it [indeed, it prompted me to write a story of my own – The Partygoers])

For those well-versed in James’s work, to read A Vignette is to hear, at frequent intervals, the wine-glass ting! of resonance as this or that aspect of the text recalls some feature of an earlier tale. Why not try it yourself, with this combination of the opening lines and a passage that comes soon after, in which (to paraphrase the author once more) ‘the ominous thing first puts out its head’:

You are asked to think of the spacious garden of a country rectory, adjacent to a park of many acres, and separated therefrom by a belt of trees of some age which we knew as the Plantation.

I should be puzzled to fix the date at which any sort of misgiving about the Plantation gate first visited me. Possibly it was in the years just before I went to school, possibly on one later summer afternoon of which I have a faint memory, when I was coming back after solitary roaming in the park, or, as I bethink me, from tea at the Hall: anyhow, alone, and fell in with one of the villagers also homeward bound just as I was about to turn off the road on to the track leading to the Plantation. We broke off our talk with ‘goodnights’, and when I looked back at him after a minute or so I was just a little surprised to see him standing still and looking after me. But no remark passed, and on I went. By the time I was within the iron gate and outside the park, dusk had undoubtedly come on; but there was no lack yet of light, and I could not account to myself for the questionings which certainly did rise as to the presence of anyone else among the trees, questionings to which I could not very certainly say ‘No’, nor, I was glad to feel, ‘Yes’ because if there were anyone they could not well have any business there. To be sure, it is difficult, in anything like a grove, to be quite certain that nobody is making a screen out of a tree trunk and keeping it between you and him as he moves round it and you walk on. All I can say is that if such an one was there he was no neighbour or acquaintance of mine, and there was some indication about him of being cloaked or hooded.

For me, the landscape is reminiscent not only of the ‘park… protected – we should say grown up – with large old timber’ through which the unfortunate Mr Wraxall (in Count Magnus) makes his way past the mausoleum where Count Magnus lies, surrounded by ‘limitless… woods near and distant, all dark beneath a sky of liquid green’ but also recalls (as the child James makes his way homeward through it) that charming slideshow of Mr Karswell’s in Casting the Runes, ‘which represented a little boy passing through his own park – Lufford, I mean – in the evening. …and this poor boy was followed, and at last pursued and overtaken, and either torn to pieces or somehow made away with, by a horrible hopping creature in white, which you saw first dodging about among the trees’.

There are more than a few such parks with their grand houses in other stories – Aswarby Hall in Lost Hearts, Anningley Hall in The Mezzotint to name but two; and while it might be argued that this simply reflects the adult James’s admitted predilection for such houses, it is reasonable to ask both where that predilection originated, and why such landscapes feature in so many of his stories: might it not be from the musings of an imaginative and impressionable child whose daily walks took him through just such surroundings?

But our tally of resonances is far from done. I think it quite possible, for instance, that the neighbour who stood looking after him as he went through the wood grew up to be the ticket man at Dover who called after Mr Karswell, ‘Beg pardon, sir, did the other gentleman show his ticket?’ and on receiving a brusque reply said to his subordinate, ”ad he got a dog with him, or what? Funny thing: I could ‘a’ swore ‘e wasn’t alone.’ And as for the presence among the trees, does it not recall a line which Mr Humphreys (whose eponymous Inheritance also consists of a fine house and surrounding park) finds in the small quarto in his library,

‘but as Night fell, wherein all the Beasts of the Forest do move, he begun to be sensible of some Creature keeping Pace with him and, as he thought, peering and looking upon him from the next Alley to that he was in’

as well as the predicament of Fanshawe in Gallows Wood (entered by ‘a gate… leading into a belt of plantation’) in A View from a Hill: ‘I had all the fancies one least likes… indistinct people stepping behind trees in front of me, yes, and even a hand laid on my shoulder… just about at the middle of the plot, I was convinced that there was someone looking down on me from above – and not with any pleasant intent.’

That the presence in A Vignette (if indeed there was one) had ‘some indication about him of being cloaked or hooded’ does not surprise us, since that is the standard garb of many of James’s apparitions – but might we here be encountering the original of all those others?

A little further on in A Vignette, the child who says ‘I seem to see myself again in the small hours gazing out of the window across moonlit grass and hoping I was mistaken in fancying any movement in that half-hidden corner of the garden’ certainly recalls young Stephen Elliott in Lost Hearts ‘standing at the open window of his bedroom, looking out over the country’ when ‘the mysterious population of the distant moonlit woods was not yet lulled to rest.’

What follows in A Vignette is a passage that reflects on the nature of recurring dreams: ‘the moment a dream set in I knew that it was going to turn out ill, and that there was nothing I could do to keep it on cheerful lines’ and this undoubtedly chimes with an observation made by the narrator of O Whistle and I’ll Come to You (whom we can take to be James himself) ‘Experto crede [‘take the word of an expert’] pictures do come to the closed eyes of one trying to sleep, and are often so little to his taste that he must open his eyes to disperse them.’

The dream that James reports has an authentic ring, and recalls, not so much a specific story, but James’s own advice on crafting ghost stories: ‘Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.

compare that to

Ellis the gardener might be wholesomely employed with rake and spade as I watched at the window; other familiar figures might pass and repass on harmless errands; but I was not deceived. I could see that the time was coming when the gardener and the rest would be gathering up their properties and setting off on paths that led homeward or into some safe outer world, and the garden would be left – to itself, shall we say, or to denizens who did not desire quite ordinary company and were only waiting for the word ‘all clear’ to slip into their posts of vantage.

and you find in the second a specific realisation of what is described in general terms in the first.

On a point of technique, the way in which the dream in A Vignette makes a link between the experience in the Plantation and what is to come in the garden is strikingly similar to the way Parkins’s dream in O Whistle links his homeward walk along the beach with the later events in his bedroom. Another feature of it points to a different story:

Now, too, was the moment near when the surroundings began to take on a threatening look; that the sunlight lost power and a quality of light replaced it which, though I did not know it at the time my memory years after told me was the lifeless pallor of an eclipse.

The momentary change in atmosphere from calm to threatening, heralded by a change in the quality of light, is surely also found in two related passages, one from the unfinished John Humphreys and the other from A Neighbour’s Landmark: ‘The homely well known pasture seemed in a moment to widen into an illimitable grey expanse – an acute feeling of extreme loneliness and of being on a hopeless and aimless journey came over him’ (John Humphreys)

‘But I must fix the view a little more firmly in my mind. Only, when I turned to it again, the taste was gone out of it. The sun was down behind the hill, and the light was off the fields… I thought no longer of kind mellow evening hours of rest… but instead images came to me of dusty beams and creeping spiders … of flying Time and all it had taken out of my life.’ (A Neighbour’s Landmark)

As I have remarked elsewhere, these too have an authentic ring – anyone who has felt it will recognise their accuracy as descriptions of sudden acute dysphoria, the sense that no pleasure is to be had from anything, and all the goodness has drained out of life. While I accept that this is aside from the main line I am pursuing here, it is interesting to find these fictionalised accounts of what I strongly suspect was a personal adult experience for James couched in terms reminiscent of what may have been an actual childhood terror.

The resonances with earlier work continue in the account of the central experience itself: when the child in A Vignette steals down to the garden ‘with an access of something like courage – only it was more like desperation, like determining that I must know the worst –’ to see what is actually there, he strongly recalls Stephen Elliott, who wakes from a terrifying dream and ‘with a courage which I do not think can be common among boys of his age… went to the door of the bathroom to ascertain if the figure of his dream were really there.’ Stephen finds nothing; the child in A Vignette is less fortunate: Things were, alas! worse than I had feared; through that hole a face was looking my way. It was not monstrous, not pale, fleshless, spectral. Malevolent I thought and think it was; at any rate the eyes were large and open and fixed. It was pink and, I thought, hot, and just above the eyes the border of a white linen drapery hung down from the brows.

Not only does this recall a line from Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance, “and have you never heard” cries a Neighbour “of what Faces have been seen to look out over the Palisadoes and betwixt the bars of the Gate?” but that curious detail, ‘It was pink and, I thought, hot’ immediately conjures the experience of Mrs Anstruther in The Rose Garden: ‘It was not a mask. It was a face – large, smooth, and pink. She remembers the drops of perspiration that were starting from its forehead’. The apparition itself conforms to (or might we say, is the source of?) James’s dictum, ‘the ghost should be malevolent or odious’ – he expands on the description above: There is something horrifying in the sight of a face looking at one out of a frame as this did; more particularly if its gaze is unmistakably fixed upon you. Nor does it make the matter any better if the expression gives no clue to what is to come next. I said just now that I took this face to be malevolent, and so I did, but not in regard of any positive dislike or fierceness which it expressed. It was, indeed, quite without emotion: I was only conscious that I could see the whites of the eyes all round the pupil, and that, we know, has a glamour of madness about it. The immovable face was enough for me. I fled, but at what I thought must be a safe distance inside my own precincts I could not but halt and look back. There was no white thing framed in the hole of the gate, but there was a draped form shambling away among the trees.

Again, the ‘draped form shambling away among the trees’ is the standard-issue James apparition (and the distinctive gait is as much a characteristic as the fluttering draperies – James’s ghosts seldom walk: they crawl, move to and fro with great swiftness and irregularity, hover, and dart; or (as we have seen) hop). The one that Mitchell’s mother saw in A Neighbour’s Landmark, as well as being close kin to the dream-spectre of O Whistle and the dwellers around Wailing Well, would, we feel, be quite at home in the Plantation: ‘on the darkest evening she ever came through the wood… she seemed forced to look behind her as the rustling came in the bushes, and she thought she saw something all in tatters with two arms held out in front of it coming on very fast’. (And A Neighbour’s Landmark, of course, centres round a strip of wood with a path through it that the locals preferred to avoid, and when it ‘was stubbed up [t]hey done all the work in the daytime, I recollect, and was never there after three o’clock’.)

The climax of the story in A Vignette – the actual experience, if such it is – is approached with the masterly diffidence that characterises the whole tale. From the outset, James expresses doubt about the precise detail of what he is recalling and he accompanies this with the consistent use of another device, technically called paraleipsis (or apophasis), the rhetorical trick of drawing attention to something by denying it or pretending to ignore it. On the first page he says, in describing the Plantation, ‘but there is nothing that diffuses a mysterious gloom or imparts a sinister flavour – nothing of melancholy or funereal associations’ and likewise ‘there is neither offensive bleakness nor oppressive darkness’ – so conjuring all these things in the very act of denying them. As he approaches his account of the experience itself he begins by stating ‘One afternoon – the day being neither overcast nor threatening – I was at my window in the upper floor of the house.’ Even the face, when he finally sees it, ‘was not monstrous, not pale, fleshless, spectral’. James’s combination of continually casting doubt on the substance of what he saw with denials that anything overtly sinister attended it creates a sort of counterpoint in the reader’s mind to the effect that it has some substance and is sinister in character.

I mention this as a reminder that there is another way to read this story: James was, undoubtedly, a master of his craft, and he knew very well how to overcome the obstacle that inheres in all ghost stories, namely that they deal with matter which, on an everyday level, we find incredible. The usual device, which James generally deploys, is to put some distance between the narrator and the events he relates: the action is represented as happening to someone else, and may be further filtered through the medium of letters, diaries or old papers. This cleverly separates the credibility of James as a narrator from the credibility of the tale itself: we believe him to be a faithful reporter, so we are more inclined to accept the possibility that what he relays to us, however fantastic it seems, may just be true – the more so as James makes no attempt to force it upon us. But here, in this final ghost story, he dispenses with the buffer that distance provides and speaks directly as the person whom the strange events befell: can he still make us believe him?

I think he can, because I am genuinely in two minds as to whether A Vignette is an authentic account of an actual childhood experience, recalled in old age, or a tour de force of the ghost-story writer’s craft that perfectly simulates such an account. But if you were to press me, I would come down on the side of a genuine recollection of an actual childhood experience. In part, I know that is because I want it to be the case, but I feel that there is evidence to support my view. Two things combine to turn the scales for me: the first is the sheer abundance of the resonances. As we have already seen, there are echoes of A Vignette (I feel that this is the right way round to put it) in Lost Hearts, The Mezzotint, Count Magnus, O Whistle, The Rose Garden, Casting the Runes, Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance, A Neighbour’s Landmark, A View from a Hill and Wailing Well (as well as a connection in character with After Dark in the Playing Fields) – that is a third of the collected stories, and there are a couple more resonances to be sounded before we are done.

The second thing that convinces me is what I would call explanatory power: we gain much more understanding of James’s stories and his motive in writing them if we suppose them to stem from the seminal childhood experience recounted in A Vignette than if we suppose A Vignette to be no more than a weary old man’s conscious or unconscious recycling of elements drawn from a range of his existing stories. I think we should take James’s concluding paragraph at face value, not least because it adumbrates an idea that recurs in more than one of his stories, including two we have not mentioned yet:

Do not press me with questions as to how I bore myself when it became necessary to face my family again. That I was upset by something I had seen must have been pretty clear, but I am very sure that I fought off all attempts to describe it. Why I make a lame effort to do it now I cannot very well explain: it undoubtedly has had some formidable power of clinging through many years to my imagination. I feel that even now I should be circumspect in passing that Plantation gate; and every now and again the query haunts me: Are there here and there sequestered places which some curious creatures still frequent, whom once on a time anybody could see and speak to as they went about on their daily occasions, whereas now only at rare intervals in a series of years does one cross their paths and become aware of them; and perhaps that is just as well for the peace of mind of simple people.

This, I think, is as plain a statement as we can find: that the childhood experience – whatever it was – ‘had some formidable power of clinging through many years to my imagination’ is amply demonstrated by the fact that aspects of it suffuse a great number of James’s stories, even to the point of making them seem (when considered as a whole) to draw on rather a narrow range of invention: so many houses with parks to be traversed, so many woods with some half-seen presence, so many cloaked or hooded apparitions with fluttering draperies and a curious gait. As to the query that haunts him, ‘are there here and there sequestered places which some curious creatures still frequent, whom once on a time anybody could see or speak to as they went about their daily occasions’, that recalls the memorable exchange between the Rector of Islington and Dr. Abell in Two Doctors:

“You are then of John Milton’s mind,” I said, “and hold that

Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth

Unseen, both when we wake and when we sleep.”

‘”I do not know,” he said, “why Milton should take upon himself to say ‘unseen’; though to be sure he was blind when he wrote that.”

and the same notion finds its way into An Evening’s Entertainment in the conversation that the children’s great grandfather is reported to have had with Mr Davis and his young man:

‘Well,’ [my father] said, ‘it may suit you, but I shouldn’t like a lonely place like that in the middle of the night.’ and Mr Davis smiled, and the young man, who’d been listening, said, ‘Oh, we don’t want for company at such times’

(that word ‘company’ is characteristic of the way James can charge a quite ordinary word with sinister overtones: such as HP Lovecraft rely (overmuch to my mind) on obscure vocabulary to conjure horror – ‘arcane’ ‘blasphemous’ ‘Cyclopean’ ‘eldritch’ – but James can raise a frisson with the way he employs a common term. ‘Company’ (which occurs in a surprising number of his stories) almost invariably carries a sinister charge, from the old sacristan in Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook, ‘Monsieur will travel in company with his friends; they will always be near him. It is a good thing to travel thus in company – sometimes.’ (and that, it now strikes me, recalls the horrible betrayal of companionship that concludes A Warning to the Curious – ‘The notion of Paxton running after – after anything like this, and supposing it to be the friends he was looking for, was very dreadful to us.’) through to Parkins on the beach in O Whistle (in a scene that is a kind of reverse of the the one with Paxton): ‘One last look behind… showed him the prospect of company on his walk, in the shape of a rather indistinct personage, who seemed to be making great efforts to catch up with him…[Parkins] decided that he almost certainly did not know him and that it would be absurd to wait until he came up. For all that, company, he began to think, would really be very welcome on that lonely shore, if only you could choose your companion.’ Dr Abell and Mr Davis’s young man we have already mentioned, and we can add, from Number 13, Anderson’s judgement on Daniel Salthenius, who had signed a contract to sell himself to Satan, ”Young idiot!’ he said, meaning Salthenius, who was only an undergraduate when he committed that indiscretion, ‘how did he know what company he was courting?” and of course in Casting the Runes ‘Both Dunning and Harrington are firmly convinced that it [the scrap of paper with the runes on it] had the effect of bringing its possessor into very undesirable company.’ To round it off (or begin it) we have the same usage in the description of the garden from A Vignette, quoted earlier: ‘and the garden would be left – to itself, shall we say, or to denizens who did not desire quite ordinary company and were only waiting for the word ‘all clear’ to slip into their posts of vantage.’)

To conclude, why James makes, in A Vignette, what he modestly describes as ‘a lame effort’ to describe his moment of childhood terror may be inexplicable to him, but I think I understand it well enough: towards the end of his life (perhaps already sensing that his time is drawing to a close) he is asked to write yet another ghost story, for the 1935 Christmas edition of the The London Mercury. That he does not finish it in time may be significant: perhaps, in quest of a plot, he has become sidetracked into pondering the path that brought him here, a distinguished scholar in his field and an eminent man who has persisted throughout life in what might be thought the frivolous pastime of writing ghost stories. Where did all that start? As Graham Greene observes, ‘There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in’.

For James, I think that moment was a distant experience rooted in the domestic landscape of his early childhood, an experience that comes to him now not as anything clear-cut but rather with (to borrow his own phrase) ‘a haze of distance’ – not unlike a vignette, in the photograhic sense, in the 1930s a style already redolent of Victorian times, ‘a small illustration or portrait photograph which fades into its background without a definite border’. But vignettes can also be ‘short, impressionistic scenes that focus on one moment or give a particular insight into a character, idea, or setting’ and James’s story also does all that: the one moment that it focuses on affords an insight not only into James’s character as a writer, but also into the ideas and settings that recur in his stories. I think it is significant that James ‘could never glean any kind of story bound up with the place’ even though he cannot deny ‘the strong probability that there had been one once’ – is not that want of a definitive explanation of his formative experience just what has given him both the licence and the spur to pursue, in his adult ghost stories, what such a story might have been?

Lying with impunity

I have today had a letter from the office of that egregious ass, Jake Mogg, known principally for lying in the House of Commons, as shown above, though he has lied elsewhere, too [see Mogg the Mendacious, Mogg Mendax]. The letter (which is quite as underwhelming as you would expect) was in belated response to a petition seeking to ‘Make lying in the House of Commons a criminal offence’ which asked that

The Government should introduce legislation to make lying in the House of Commons a criminal offence. This would mean that all MPs, including Ministers, would face a serious penalty for knowingly making false statements in the House of Commons, as is the case in a court of law.

We believe false statements have been made in the House and, although regarded as a “serious offence” in principle, options to challenge this are extremely limited as accusing a member of lying is forbidden in the House. 

Truth in the House of Commons is every bit as important as truth in a court of law and breaches should be treated in a similar way to perjury and carry similar penalties.

The letter begins,

‘The Government does not intend to introduce legislation of this nature. MPs must abide by the Code of Conduct and conduct in the Chamber is a matter for the Speaker.’

As will become apparent below, this utterance is on a par with Mogg’s habitual standard of misleading statements.

(You can read the response in full – for what it is worth – if you click on the link to the petition above)

It has taken over three weeks for the government to come up with this response, which should have been triggered when the petition reached 10,000 signatures, which it did on the day that Dawn Butler was expelled from the House of Commons for telling the truth. The truth she told was that on several occasions the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, had lied to the House of Commons by making false or misleading statements at the despatch box. Ms Butler cited a video by Peter Stefanovic which documented those instances. An independent fact-checker subsequently found that ‘the majority of Mr Johnson’s claims that Ms Butler mentioned were either false or misleading.’ The video has now had in excess of 31.1 million views and has featured as a news story on foreign TV stations, yet has inexplicably failed to feature on BBC News (even in their report of Ms Butler’s expulsion, when she expressly cited it).

Ms Butler was expelled because the House of Commons has very precise and detailed rules about ‘unparliamentary language’. Thus, ‘Accusations of deliberate falsehood, if seriously alleged, would be a matter of privilege and could be made only on a substantive motion secured by writing privately to the Speaker to obtain permission to raise a matter of privilege. Any such accusation made in the course of other proceedings would be disorderly and must be withdrawn.

Technically, there is no doubt that Madam Deputy Speaker was correct in asking Ms Butler to amend her words and in expelling her when she refused to do so, but the manner of her doing it suggested that she found the breach of parliamentary etiquette far more outrageous than the well-substantiated assertion that the Prime Minister had repeatedly misled the house. There is a yawning hole in the procedures of the archaic and often absurd institution on which our country depends for government and legislation that means that the Speaker has stronger powers to sanction MPs who accuse others of lying in the chamber than those who actually lie (see ‘what are the consequences for politicians who lie?‘ a Channel 4 fact check).

The full flavour of this absurdity is well brought out in Mogg’s letter, which helpfully informs me that

MPs are also subject to the House of Commons Code of Conduct and the Guide to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members’ which ‘includes a general duty on MPs to “act in the interests of the nation as a whole…” alongside a requirement that MPs “act on all occasions in accordance with the public trust placed in them. They should always behave with probity and integrity”

furthermore, there is a

Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards [who] is an independent officer of the House of Commons and is responsible for investigating allegations that MPs have breached the rules in the Code of Conduct.’

Sounds good, eh? Except that, as the letter goes on,

Conduct in the Chamber is beyond the remit of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. This is because the House has determined that how Members conduct themselves in the Chamber, including their adherence to the principles of public life, is a matter for the Speaker

In other words, the House of Commons Code of Conduct has no force in the Chamber of the House of Commons because the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards (an officer of the House of Commons) has no responsibility for… standards of conduct in the chamber of the House of Commons.

However, although one would have thought that lying to the House of Commons was clearly a case of not ‘adhering to the principles of public life’ what is less clear is that it is the responsibility of the Speaker to do anything about it: Erskine May, the so-called ‘Bible’ of Parliamentary procedure, says that

The Speaker’s responsibility for questions is limited to their compliance with the rules of the House. Responsibility in other respects rests with the Member who proposes to ask the question, and responsibility for answers rests with Ministers.

And the present Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle – a sadly spineless and ineffectual creature, in my view – has said, “The Speaker cannot be dragged into arguments about whether a statement is inaccurate or not. This is a matter of political debate.” (Though to be fair to him, previous holders of that office have said the same).

So if it is not for the Parliamentary Commissioner or the Speaker to do anything about the Prime Minister’s lying to parliament, whose then is the responsibility?

I expect you have already guessed. Such conduct is a clear breach of the Ministerial Code (aka ‘the Nolan Principles’) and the sole responsibility for interpreting and enforcing that lies with…

…the Prime Minister.

To sum up, in this absurd Alice-in-Wonderland institution, which has not enough seats to accommodate its members, a voting system that requires the members to troop out into the lobby then back in again through the appropriate door, and till recently required the wearing of a top hat to make a point of order during a division*, the Prime Minister is sole arbiter of whether he (or any of his ministers) should suffer any sanction for lying to the House or failing to correct the parliamentary record when they have made a false statement to the House.

Could I suggest, Mr Mogg, that a more honest response would simply have read,

‘The Government does not intend to introduce legislation of this nature as the Prime Minister (and other ministers, if he allows it) can at present lie to parliament with impunity, and we would prefer to keep it that way.’

*To increase their appearance during debates and to be seen more easily, a Member wishing to raise a point of order during a division was, until 1998, required to speak with his hat on. Collapsible top hats were kept for the purpose. This requirement was abolished following recommendations from the Modernisation Select Committee, which stated: “At present, if a Member seeks to raise a point of order during a division, he or she must speak “seated and covered”. In practice this means that an opera hat which is kept at each end of the Chamber has to be produced and passed to the Member concerned. This inevitably takes some time, during which the Member frequently seeks to use some other form of covering such as an Order Paper. This particular practice has almost certainly brought the House into greater ridicule than almost any other, particularly since the advent of television. We do not believe that it can be allowed to continue.”

The Beat-Boxer and the Steam Machine: a paradigm of primitive speech

Let us suppose a beat-boxer, one of those gifted with the skill to reproduce a whole orchestra of percussive instruments using only his voice, and let us have him put in charge of a large and complicated steam-driven machine of the sort which has something fed in at one end, processes it, and puts the finished article out at the other, all the while whistling and hissing and clanking with various rods and cranks and and cogs and arms moving up and down and round and round. It is not entirely automatic, so the beat-boxer has to dance about it, furbishing it here, oiling it there, pulling this lever, turning that valve, as well as loading it at the start and unloading it at the end of each cycle.

Engines of PS Savoie, Lac Leman, built by Sulzer of Winterthur

As he moves, he accompanies himself with a soundtrack of his own improvising, which imitates the rhythm and the sounds of the machine, with some interjections of his own, and punctuated with movements and gestures. If he has a purpose at all in doing this, it is primarily aesthetic: he does it for the joy of it. But that is not to deny that it is useful to him: it keeps him attuned to the rhythm of the machine and serves as a kind of mnemonic (maybe the noises of his own that he inserts correspond to different actions that he performs at various points in the cycle). You might even imagine a circumstance where he uses his beat-box track as a tool to instruct someone else in operating the machine, because there is a correspondence between it and the various stages of the process of operating it.

If you recorded the beat-boxer going about his business, you could analyse the sound-track to bring out that correspondence, identifying elements of the track that corresponded to this movement of the machine, or that part of the process, or this action on the part of the operator. In this world of viral videos on Tik-tok and YouTube you could imagine him expanding his repertoire to include other kinds of machinery, different sorts of operation, each with its own soundtrack. The soundtracks on their own would, in a sense, embody the operations – an instance of the true sense of synecdoche, where a whole is conjured by a part. Yet at the same time each soundtrack would be an improvisation, not consciously devised, only incidentally having a structure that corresponded to something else.

This, I would suggest, serves as a paradigm for how human speech could incidentally evolve a structure corresponding to the world in which it was created, a structure that (once discovered) could be parsed and analysed into elements that correspond to things in that world, standing in relations that correspond to the relations in that world – and yet at no time is there a conscious ‘naming of parts’, no ostensive definition where we say a word and point to what it means.

This is the solution, for me, of a problem that has troubled me in a theory I have been evolving for some time. My thesis is that Language, as we know it today, is an artefact of writing, specifically of writing used to transcribe speech (something that does not happen till about a thousand years after writing is invented). My reasoning is that it is only when speech is made visible and we have a chance to study it that we can discover the structure that underlies it, a structure we can then analyse into words and grammatical relations.

The question that requires to be answered is where that structure came from, and how does it come to be made up of elements that correspond to things in the world, if it was not expressly devised to do so? And that, I believe, is the question that my example of the beat-boxer and the steam machine answers. Speech in its initial form, I suggest, is no more than the soundtrack of specific human activities, bound up with a larger pattern of gesture, movement and expression that comes naturally to humans engaged in any activity. Its key element is probably rhythm and its character is largely mimetic (or interpretive, if you like): we bind ourselves to the task in hand by improvising sounds and gestures to accompany it. It is, I would suggest, a pleasurable activity, akin to music-making, and its primary motivation is aesthetic: it expresses how it feels to be doing whatever it is – or if you like a larger canvas, how it feels to be human, in this world, doing this thing.

Tens, or probably hundreds, of thousands of years of human activity (which is probably of a fairly consistent character, given that it’s the same sort of creatures living in the same world doing the same sorts of things) will render the improvisation of such soundtracks a matter of instinct and intuition, much like birdsong, with the young attuned to learn it from their elders. And of course I say ‘soundtracks’ only to emphasise the role played by speech – in reality, it is an expressive performance, led by facial expression, gesture and movement, in which speech plays only a contributory part, one very much bound up with the rest and only separable from it when, much later on, the invention of writing (eventually) provides the means of making speech visible – and so capable of study.