Storypower: Quigley’s Ineffable Escapade

under a twilight canopy

The solution to the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem.
(Is not this the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life has become clear to them have been unable to say what constitutes that sense?)’ (Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 6.521)

That remarkable book, The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien, is to my mind a work of genius, but that is by the way. An episode from it came to mind just now when I was reflecting on the Wittgenstein quote above that I used to close my previous piece, though it resonates even more strongly with another, the one that closes the same work:

What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence’ (Tractatus, 7 )

Quigley’s Balloon

(to set the scene, this converation takes place between the nameless narrator and the sergeant of police, who are inspecting the scaffold on which the narrator is to be hanged:)

Up here I felt that every day would be the same always, serene and chilly, a band of wind isolating the earth of men from the far-from-understandable enormities of the girdling universe. Here on the stormiest autumn Monday there would be no wild leaves to brush on any face, no bees in the gusty wind. I sighed sadly.

‘Strange enlightenments are vouchsafed,’ I murmured, ‘to those who seek the higher places.’

I do not know why I said this strange thing. My own words were also soft and light as if they had no breath to liven them. I heard the Sergeant working behind me with coarse ropes as if he were at the far end of a great hall instead of at my back and then I heard his voice coming back to me softly called across a fathomless valley:

‘I heard of a man once,’ he said, ‘that had himself let up into the sky in a balloon to make observations, a man of great personal charm but a divil for reading books. They played out the rope till he was disappeared completely from all appearances, telescopes or no telescopes, and then they played out another ten miles of rope to make sure of first-class observations. When the time-limit for the observations was over they pulled down the the balloon again but lo and behold there was no man in the basket and his dead body was never found afterwards lying dead or alive in any parish ever afterwards.’

Here I heard myself give a hollow laugh, standing there with a high head and two hands still on the wooden rail.

‘But they were clever enough to think of sending up the balloon again a fortnight later and when they brought it down the second time lo and behold the man was sitting in the basket without a feather out of him if any of my information can be believed at all.

‘So they asked where he was and what had kept him but he gave them no satisfaction, he only let out a laugh and went home and shut himself in his house and told his mother to say he was not at home and not receiving visitors or doing any entertaining. That made the people very angry and inflamed their passions to a degree that is not recognized by the law. So they held a private meeting that was attended by every member of the general public apart from the man himself and they decided to get out their shotguns the next day and break into the man’s house and give him a severe threatening and tie him up and heat pokers in the fire to make him tell what happened in the sky the time he was up inside it.

‘But between that and the next morning there was a stormy night in between, a loud windy night that strained the trees in their deep roots and made the roads streaky with broken branches, a night that played a bad game with root-crops. When the boys reached the home of the balloonman the next morning, lo and behold the bed was empty and no trace of him was ever found afterwards dead or alive, naked or with an overcoat. And when they got back to where the balloon was, they found the wind had torn it up out of the ground with the rope spinning loosely in the windlass and it invisible to the naked eye in the middle of the clouds. They pulled in eight miles of rope before they got it down but lo and behold the basket was empty again. They all said that the man had gone up in it and stayed up but it is an insoluble conundrum, his name was Quigley and he was by all accounts a Fermanagh man.’
(The Third Policeman, pp137-9, slightly abridged)

This sent my thoughts on two different tracks: the first was an idea that I expressed in an earlier piece on the notion that we have devised a carapace that protects us from direct experience of reality:

‘The renunciation of self is central to much religious teaching, and it is interesting to consider that the price of experiencing reality (of the kind that humankind cannot bear very much) might well be a loss of identity, of our sense of who and what we are.’

The term ‘life-changing experience’ is rather bandied about these days, and can seem no more than the tag-line for a holday advert, but if an experience is truly life-changing, then we cannot expect to return from it unscathed; and it is in the very nature of such experiences that they may be incommunicable to those who have not shared them – if your complete frame of reference is altered (or exchanged for another) then on what basis can you communicate?

The second line of thought was that the O’Brien piece is yet another demonstration of the power of story (and poetry likewise) to convey what would be considered difficult and complex ideas if expressed in standard philosophical language in an easily accessible (and vividly memorable) form (‘Quigley’s balloon’ would make an excellent picture book, or equally (and most appropriately, given its theme of ineffability) a short and wordless animation)

We should not wonder at that, of course: we have only been expressing ourselves in philosophical terms for some 25 centuries; 25 millennia would not be even half the time we have been using stories (and their central method, metaphor) – which, as a way of thinking about things, are probably as old as humanity itself.

The Great Sausage Mystery – or why Sunbeam abandoned the Newill Hub

You find answers in the oddest places*; sometimes  to questions you hadn’t thought to ask till you came across them. I have already written about my adventures dismantling the William Newill-designed Sunbeam 3 speed hub;  a recent article by Robert Cordon Champ, the Sunbeam registrar at the V-CC and the author of Sunbeam Bicycles & Motorcycles, raises the question of when the Newill hub was discontinued.  In researching that, I came across what may be the answer to a more interesting question – why was it discontinued?

There never was a Sunbeam Cycle Company – Sunbeam cycles were made by John Marston Ltd, set up in 1895 and headquartered at Sunbeamland in Paul St, Wolverhampton; their components such as pedals and gears were made by Villiers, the company set up in 1898 under John’s son Charles in near by Upper Villiers Street. John Marston’s foreman, later to become his business partner, was William Newill.

Newill’s name, along with John Marston Ltd and James Morgan (the cycle works under-manager) appears on the 1905 patent for a three-speed epicyclic gear. In view of what follows, it is noteworthy that the primary application (and the first illustration) shows the patent as a bottom-bracket gear; its application to the ‘driving-wheel hub’ is only mentioned in passing. Sunbeam already had a two-speed bottom-bracket gear, introduced in 1903; it continued in production till 1932. However, no three-speed version of the Sunbeam bottom-bracket was ever made – the only such articles on record are one by the Allen Company, mentioned as being ‘in the experimental stage’ in 1907, and another offered by the James Cycle Co in 1909 (by which time the Allen had disappeared) – and it is not certain if that was ever marketed.

Hub gears, on the other hand, were in abundance: the first decade of the twentieth century was their Golden Age, and the year 1909 its zenith. The Sturmey-Archer 3 speed (really William Reilly’s design, as Tony Hadland has shown) was introduced in 1902; by 1907 you could choose from nine two-speed hubs and seven three-speeds; in 1909 there were eight two-speeds and no fewer than fourteen three-speeds, although four of these were Sturmey-Archer designs.

Sunbeam’s own design ‘was introduced to the Cycling World in 1906’ as the catalogue rather grandly puts it, adding that ‘It has given complete satisfaction’. One contemporary authority, FT Bidlake, described it as ‘a beautifully made article – more expensively produced than most Gears’. Yet by 1913 it had disappeared, replaced by a version of the BSA 3 speed, which was in turn a modified form of the Sturmey-Archer X-type.

Mind you, most of the other makes of hub had disappeared by that time too: Sturmey-Archer dominated the market, with BSA (producing a Sturmey-Archer design) their only serious rival, a situation that was confirmed by 1918 after the interruption of the war. Competition may improve the breed, but only temporarily; an untrammeled market will eventually tend towards a monopoly, or domination by a few large players. So was the Newill three-speed simply a victim of market forces? It seems unlikely.

Sunbeams were aimed unequivocally at the high end of the market. They were very costly and took pride in being distinctive: the bicycles bristled with patents, from the design of the brakes (at least two patents) the ‘little oilbath’ gear-case (at least three in addition to Carter’s original patent) the aluminium pedals and the patent anti-theft headlock; in addition, Sunbeams were innovative in using alloy rims (made from Romanium, a patent aluminium compound) and their consistent championing of the bottom-bracket gear. In 1908 they asserted (using a slogan long associated with Rover) that ‘The Sunbeam Bicycle has now for many years set the fashion to the Cycle World’. A firm so dedicated to going its own way would scarcely abandon their patent three-speed gear (which had many novel features, including the eminently sensible one of reverting to direct drive if the wire failed) purely from commercial considerations.

Another possibility is that, for all the praise lavished on it, the Newill hub had some flaw that became evident with use, so that after a few years, it was quietly withdrawn. There are a couple of things that point in that direction, though neither is conclusive. The first is that the original design was altered between 1908 and 09: where the patent shows an axle with three splines engaging in a clutch housing with three slots, the later hub (of which mine is an example) has a four-spline axle and a four-slot clutch housing. The proportions of the clutch housing also look different – the later one seems shorter – and that is reflected in a change in outward appearance: the hub casing in the original has four diameters, starting with the widest at the r.h. or sprocket side and reducing to the next by a sharply defined step; then comes the flange for the spokes, with the third and and fourth diameters projecting beyond the flange on the l.h. side. The later hub actually has five diameters, with a more rounded ‘bottle-shouldered’ step between each; the first three lie between the flanges, while the two smallest project beyond the flange on the l.h. side, but not so far as in the original. This new shape first appears in the 1909 catalogue, although as can be seen by comparing the catalogue picture with the photograph, the depiction is slightly fanciful, more sharp-edged than reality:

late model Newill hub

catalogue depiction of modified Newill hub

Sunbeam Newill Hub (late)

my own late-model Newill hub

Sunbeam Newill Hub (early)

the original Newill hub

The second suggestion that all might not have been well with the Newill hub is that Sunbeam filed a patent for an entirely new design of hub gear in 1907, in the name of the Villiers Company. Charles Marston and James Morgan are named as applicants, but not William Newill. This patent centres on ‘a simple method of effecting the direct drive in such change speed gears’ and employs a  form of clutch different from that used in the Newill design. (It is interesting to note that my own hub has a problem with the direct drive, but on the other hand it is over a hundred years old, has seen some wear and tear and been stripped down and reassembled by an amateur – me.) It is hard to think that Sunbeams would have gone to the trouble of fillng another patent unless they thought it an improvement on the original. However, this hub – which to my eye closely resembles the contemporary Seabrook hub – seems not to have been manufactured.

1909 Seabrook 3 speed hub

1909 Seabrook 3 speed hub

1907 Sunbeam-Villiers 3 speed

1907 Sunbeam-Villiers 3 speed

This perturbation around the year 1908 might explain another oddity related to the Newill hub – In later years, Marston’s seems to have forgotten how long they manufactured it for: Robert Cordon Champ’s article mentioned above was prompted by a note in a Marston’s leaflet of 1933 suggesting that the Sunbeam three-speed hub ‘was not fitted after 1909’. Yet it features in the 1910 catalogue and there are several bicycles in existence, some from as late as 1912, which are fitted with it. But (if we go by the catalogues) it is true to say that the original Newill hub, with the three-spline axle and the sharp-stepped casing, was not fitted after 1909, the year the modified version first appears in the catalogue.

It was in searching for the latest mention of the Newill hub in Sunbeam literature that I came across another possible explanation of why it might have been dropped, one that I find persuasive. The admirable National Cycle Collection website has a fine on-line library which is free to V-CC members. As well as catalogues for 1906-1910, all of which feature the Sunbeam 3-speed, there is a curious booklet entitled ‘The Revolution in Cycle Finish’ which the NCC dates to 1912. This includes not only an illustration of the late-model Newill three-speed but plainly states that it is available as an option on the ‘All-Black Sunbeam’ for which there is an advert at the end of the booklet – so if the NCC’s date is correct, this is clear evidence that Sunbeam’s own hub was still offered as late as 1912. But the manner in which this information is presented is curious, to say the least.

There is nothing new under the sun, as Ecclesiastes remarked, and the idea of dressing up advertising material as ‘independent’ health advice – so common now on the sidebar of social media websites – was around a century ago (and well before that, I am sure). The catchily-titled booklet ‘THE REVOLUTION IN CYCLE FINISH – and how it will aid one to keep well in Winter – BY A HEALTH EXPERT’ (price threepence, supplied with the compliments of the Sunbeam Cycle Depots 157 &158 Sloane St. ) has as its frontispiece a sequence of three pictures. The first shows a nattily-dressed gent in bowler hat, overcoat, trousers, socks and shoes – the absence of cycle-clips is evident – riding (with a somewhat dispirited stoop, it must be said) a bicycle which just happens to be a Sunbeam, alongside the caption ‘How influenza is avoided.’ Below that is the picture of a tram, captioned ‘where influenza is caught’ while the third picture shows railway carriages wreathed in steam with the invitation to ‘see page 9 ’ (where we find a cartoon of a man in a top hat sandwiched between two people on a bus, one of whom is clearly unwell; alongside, we are told that ‘Cold winds and damp assist in the general lowering of health, and renders one susceptible to disease; but it is our modern public Conveyances, our ‘Buses, Tramcars and Trains, which form the breeding-grounds for the spread of Infection.’ [the author has a penchant for capitalising any word he thinks important]

For some eleven pages, the ‘Health Expert’ unfolds an ingenious argument in favour of cycling throughout the year: it makes the most of the weather; it has numerous health benefits, mental as well as physical; it is better for us than motoring; it helps with other hobbies; it is by turns a sport, a means of locomotion, a way of avoiding distasteful idleness and has the virtues of convenience and independence – all of which leads him to the overwhelming question,

why in the name of health, pleasure and economy should we not

To which, it appears, there is but one major obstacle – it is not the man who is unequal to the task, but his machine. In a section entitled ‘THE BUTTERFLY BICYCLE’ our health expert avers that

‘In most cases, I suppose, the answer to my question would be, “That’s all very well. I’m not made of sugar, and I can stand cold and damp weather as well as most people. But what about the Cycle?”

Here, I think, we reach the crux of the whole matter — What about the cycle?

The bicycle, with the old style of finish, is a butterfly machine. In fine weather, if clean and polished, it is a Joy to look at. In wet, it is — not.’

It turns out that our ‘health expert’ has more than one string to his bow – he knows a thing or two about bicycles as well. Even the best of plated work, he tells us, will not stand up to the ravages of the weather, and this is particularly true of the plated rim; but far and away the most vulnerable aspect of the average bicycle is its driving mechanism, with its exposed cog-wheels and naked chain, which one can only hope to preserve by the impractical course of removing it, soaking it lengthily in paraffin then boiling it in tallow at least once a week – a practice helpfully illustrated by a drawing of a disgruntled-looking fellow seated beside a stove on which a pan is belching clouds of noxious-looking smoke.

Must we then forgo as unattainable the numerous benefits of year-round cycling which our health expert has so tantalisingly held out to us? Not a bit of it! For there is one bicycle, it seems, that has none of these defects – with its fully-enclosed oilbath chaincase, black enamel finish instead of plated parts, rustless aluminium rims and pedals, the new All-Black Sunbeam is truly ‘the “never mind the weather” cycle’.

So, after some fifteen pages – rather more than a third of the way into the text – the writer has finally revealed his true colours as a Sunbeam propagandist. If we now turn to the back, we find a fine illustration of the All-Black Golden Sunbeam (but not in fact this one – see footnote)
All-Black 1
together with a detailed specification, which includes

‘GEARS – This model is supplied with either single, two-speed, or three speed – whichever may be preferred – ratios as required. For winter riding it is important to have correct ratios. See page 20 of this booklet.’

Page 20 is the start of a section headed ‘THE VARIABLE GEARS’
which opens with this bold assertion:

Two gears are needed for all-the-year-round riding – a gear for hard work and a gear for easy work.’

Hard work’ the writer explains, is ‘not merely … Hills, but what is far more important, … head Winds, and … heavy, sticky Roads’.

It is noted in passing that the ‘gear for easy work’ (i.e. the higher gear) ‘is useful in dry weather for riding on the level or even uphill ’ [my emphasis] and we are told that ‘between 62 and 66 will be found best for the hard work, and for the higher ratio something between 82 and 88’  [these of course are not ratios at all, but ‘gear inches’ – and it is no surprise to find that the recommended range is precisely that offered by the Sunbeam bottom-bracket two-speed gear]

The chief point of interest comes in the next paragraph:

Some riders prefer three gears, but the value of the three-speed is not so great in practice as one would suppose it would be in theory. Thus there is also always the danger of having three gears, two of which are unsuited to winter use. For example, a three-speed rider usually has a middle gear of about 72, and a low gear of 54.’ (these are precisely the gears recommended in earlier Sunbeam catalogues (from 1907 on) ‘as being most likely to suit the average rider’)

The writer continues, ‘Now, neither of these gears is good in a head wind, because the middle gear is rather too high, and the low gear is rather too low.

Those riders who favour the idea of three gears will find that the best combination is to have the middle gear about 65, with a low gear of 48 and a high gear at 86. It is true that the low gear of 48 will only be required on very exceptional occasions, but it is better to have a middle or direct driving gear that is correct, than to sacrifice the efficiency of this gear for the sake of a low ratio, which. though a little higher, is not high enough for continuous riding.

In other words, for all the use this lower gear is, you might as well make do with just the 65” direct drive and 86” high gear which the Sunbeam bottom-bracket gear supplies – so it is no surprise to have the writer conclude this section much as he began:

For myself, however, I prefer two gears to three – the two-speed is so much simpler and freer from complications; and complications undoubtedly do produce more Friction.

Now, considered in itself, this is an extraordinary thing – here we have a Sunbeam propagandist – albeit one masquerading as some sort of medical man – briefing against one of their own products; indeed, the text above is divided in the booklet by this picture of a dismantled Sunbeam three-speed 3 speed 2 1

the very article whose worth the writer is calling into question.

It is evident that the three-speed has fallen out of favour at Sunbeamland, though the case made against it is more than a little specious and is really a disguised justification of the two-speed bracket gear. What is going on?

The answer can be found, I would suggest, in the next section, which deals not with gears but ‘THE MANAGEMENT OF TYRES’

Still pursuing the theme of year-round riding, it begins with the questionable assertion that

‘Punctures are less frequent on damp roads than on dry ones’ [so how come so many of my wheel-changing memories are associated with downpours?] ‘But if you have tyre troubles the designers of the All-Black Sunbeam have provided for them.’

What follows is an exposition of Sharp’s patent dividing axle, which is illustrated, as always in Sunbeam catalogues, with the freewheel fully exposed – in other words, the celebrated ‘Little Oil Bath’ is omitted.
Sharp's axle_2 This is slightly odd, since the only real advantage that Archibald Sharp’s ingenious invention offers (and the reason why it was ‘purchased for the exclusive use of Sunbeam riders’) is in conjunction with a fixed gear case – which, as Sunbeam owners know only too well, puts removing the rear wheel on a par with Holy Matrimony: ‘not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly’.

But of course, as the writer adds almost gleefully, ‘This invention [Sharp’s axle] cannot be utilised on a three-speed cycle, owing to the intricate internal mechanism of the Hub; this is perhaps another argument in favour of the simpler two-speed.

For there is no doubt that this “divided hub axle,” as it is called, effectually removes the only real objection to the Gear-Case. Formerly, to remove a tyre, a Rider had to open his Gear-Case. Now, the Gear-Case is undisturbed.’

It is curious that Sharp’s axle is presented here as if it were a new solution, whereas it was purchased by Sunbeam in 1905 – the same year that their own three-speed was patented.

But it is the final paragraph of this section that really takes the biscuit, offering the single most bizarre piece of advice I have ever come across in all my reading about bicycles:

Riders who will have Three-Speed Sunbeams’ [and note how the insertion of ‘will’ makes that sound an act of headstrong folly] are advised to have Air Tubes shaped like a sausage instead of in one continuous circle. These are not quite as satisfactory as the standard type, but they can be renewed without the assistance of the invention illustrated opposite [i.e. Sharp’s axle] because they are not in a continuous circle.

(I have to say that on reading this I was immediately reminded of the eccentric savant de Selby from Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, the only novel in which the romantic lead is played by a bicycle. De Selby, it will be recalled, had a theory that the world was ‘sausage shaped’ . Might that be a clue to the true identity of Sunbeam’s ‘health expert’?)

But seriously – sausage-shaped inner tubes? Who ever heard of such a thing? Was such a thing ever manufactured? Who would even dream of such a thing — ?

Aye, there’s the rub – the only person who could possibly conceive a practical use for a sausage-shaped inner tube is one desperate to find the solution to a very peculiar and specific problem, namely how to overcome the inherent difficulty of fixing a puncture on the rear wheel of a bicycle with a fixed gear-case. The sausage-shaped inner tube – like Sharp’s divided axle – is an invention with a very restricted application; but unlike Sharp’s axle, it is hard to see that it would actually work.

And there, I think, you have the ultimate reason why Sunbeam did not persevere with their own three-speed hub – it exposed the Achilles’ heel of their trade-mark ‘little oil-bath’ gear-case, namely that it makes the common occurrence of fixing a puncture in the back tyre a tedious, protracted and complicated chore. Hence, I would suggest, their initial impulse to consider Newill’s patent as a bottom-bracket gear – with the gears in the front, the problem at the back is solved by Sharp’s axle, which was patented in 1900 and bought by Sunbeam in 1905, the year the Newill patent was registered.

I suspect that by 1912 Sunbeam had had enough of customer complaints that made a weakness of what they advertised as their main strength – in the words of the ‘health expert’ himself, ‘while many cycle-makers have listed a gear-case as an Accessory, one has made it an indispensable part of the machine – I refer to John Marston Limited, the makers of the Sunbeam. They have maintained the necessity of the gear-case since safety cycles first ran’ – and if the ‘little oil-bath’ was an indispensable necessity, then there was not much point in continuing the costly manufacture of a component that only served to expose its one serious weakness – the Newill hub had to go. Henceforward, the ideal Sunbeam would be the All-Black with two-speed bottom bracket gear and Sharp’s dividing axle – a form in which it continued to be offered for the next two decades.

*indeed you do: it was only in reviewing this article once I had published it that I looked closely at the illustration of the All-Black Sunbeam above, which is not from ‘The Revolution in Cycling Finish'(which I could not copy) but from the 1913 catalogue – and if you study the options offered below, you see on the left ‘With Three Speed Standard Pattern (see page 14)’ – a guinea extra – this is the BSA hub, itself a version of the Sturmey-Archer X type; but on the right, ‘With Three Speed Hub with Noiseless Independent Free Wheel (see page 15)’ – two guineas extra. Now, the ‘Noiseless Independent Free Wheel’ is a feature of the Newill hub and there is no doubt that this is simply an alternative description of the very same article – so it was still being advertised and (from the page reference) illustrated as late as the 1913 Sunbeam catalogue, the year in which it was superseded by the ‘Standard Pattern’.

But is it REAL? Is Art a Joke? – Five Funny Things

I have been thinking about abstraction recently, particularly the relation of what is abstracted to what it has been abstracted from, since it seems to me to have a bearing on things that are of interest to me, such as philosophy, metaphor and art. So I was amused to run across a couple of things on Facebook and Google Plus which seemed to have a bearing on the ideas I was trying to develop, and which in turn reminded me of a couple of other things. Here they are, in the order they occurred:

First, from Google Plus:

miracles photoshop graph

next, from Facebook:

F OFF Harriers

The picture was accompanied by this (rather earnest) commentary:

Look at this carefully. It is a brilliant example of British humour! 

The British government has scrapped the Harrier fleet and on their farewell formation fly-past over the Houses of Parliament they gave the government a message.

Lean back a bit from your computer monitor and squint. Seriously … push your chair back a couple of feet.

My hat is off to the man who was leading this Squadron. (Shorty)

On Facebook, the discussion turns very rapidly to the question of whether or not the picture is genuine, in the sense of recording an actual event (as the commentary suggests). Some people are not bothered at all, pointing out that it is funny in any case; but others get quite angry and exercised on the point – evidently, for them, the picture only makes them laugh if it depicts an actual event; if it is ‘faked’ it just makes them angry (perhaps because they feel they have been taken in).

This called to mind something from Flann O’Brien’s celebrated ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ column in the Irish Times, which he wrote under the name of Myles na gCopaleen:

WANTED, WIFE, copper-faced, any length, capable of being bent. Box – ‘

This is an advertisement that appeared recently in an evening paper. It is obvious, of course, that ‘wife’ is a misprint for ‘wire’.

To be honest for a change, I invented this advertisement out of my own head. It did not appear in any paper. But, if any reader thinks that any special merit attaches to notices of this kind because they have actually appeared in print, what is to stop me having them inserted and then quoting them?

Nothing, except the prohibitive cost.

 -The Best of Myles, p114

And I was also reminded of a famous incident from classical antiquity – some 25 centuries ago – the contest between the painters Zeuxis and Parrhasius:

…when they had produced their respective pieces, the birds came to pick with the greatest avidity the grapes which Zeuxis had painted. Immediately Parrhenius exhibited his piece, and Zeuxis said, ‘Remove your curtain that we may see the painting.’ The painting was the curtain, and Zeuxis acknowledged himself conquered, by exclaiming ‘Zeuxis has deceived birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis himself.’

– Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary

and finally, to round it off nicely and tie the last piece to the first, that camera & photoshop graph, there is this,

the news that one of the four Turner Prize finalists this year is Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, ‘a portrait painter, whose subjects are imaginary.’

These five things seem to me to combine so happily, and to be so pregnant with meaning concerning the things I discuss in this blog, that rather than comment at length, I shall leave them for you to savour and make your own inferences.


‘we are only doing philosophy’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s some I wrote earlier…

Once upon a time, there was a splendid site about fixed-gear cycling called 63xc, run by Will Meister, proprietor of the coolest cycleshop in cyberspace, Hubjub. (I have just learned that Hubjub has now changed hands – I hope it continues the excellent service Will established)

This is a piece I wrote for Will in the days when I dwelt in Hyperborea, on the advantages of cycling to work even when you work at home.

And here is clip of me performing the very action which in an earlier post I had confessed was a mystery to me.

If you want compelling evidence of the truth of the Atomic Theory as outlined in that earlier post see here.