Spike: Some FAQs

A heartfelt thank you for all your kind messages of support; truly I would not have kept writing as long as I have without the encouragement of feedback. Here are my answers to some frequently (or infrequently or only once) asked questions.

 1)    Will Spike remain up for the time being, or do I have to start saving my favorite posts?

That’s an easy one to answer, yes, it stays up. And as WordPress in their munificence charge hardly anything for upkeep (how do they pay their bills?), it will remain up for the foreseeable future—not that there’s such a thing, of course.

 2)    Can’t you turn Spike into a real book, or even an e-book? I’d pay.

That’s also an easy one to answer, no. First, there’s the economics. The last Spike post generated about a thousand hits above the baseline noise over three days. Let’s make a series of what I think are fairly heroic assumptions: that half of all those hitters buy the book, that a publisher is able to drum up interest so that three times that number, 1,500 people, eventually buy the book, and that the book is priced at a hefty $30 or so. That’s $45,000 in gross revenue. Then subtract the cost of printing, especially in the anti-coffee-table book format to which Spike would best be suited, the cost of running down all the dozens of academics, songwriters, and critics, to name but a few, from whom I’ve so liberally quoted, for copyright permission, and numerous other costs that I needn’t detail. It’s never going to be a winning proposition. There’s an even more formidable obstacle, though, one which I simply cannot discuss. Anything permanent, anything with an ISBN, is out of the question.

 3)    What about the pieces you didn’t think were worth salvaging? Where can I find them?

Well, the pieces I thought not worth salvaging really are the scrapings off the bottom of a sad barrel. There are only about a dozen, and they fall into three broad categories: Minispikes about arcane subjects such as the economics of tobacco in Japan, odd assays at macroeconomics, such as the case for a consumption tax hike, and last but by no means least, the Spiked series of venom-laced attacks on ignorant, bloviating hacks (I left one example, the one that I most enjoyed researching and writing, at the table of contents). You can find these pieces, if you must, by clicking randomly on something at the table of contents and following the arrows—Spike as labyrinth, one of my favourite metaphors.

 4)    Will you not keep writing, please?

I would love to set up another blog—“Campaign for a Slow Internet” as a title appeals in its forlorn hopelessness—but I’d find myself muzzled. The itch to write may prove beyond my powers of self-control not to scratch, though. If there is a new blog, I’ll let you know. I will, at some point in the next few months, pen a Spike Preface, explaining the genesis of the blog, taking a gander at the writings of some Eminent Japan Hands (The Two Donalds in particular), and musing over the future of letters in the Age of AGFA—more rambling, in other words.

 5)    Was there ever a definitive answer to what the spike sticking out from the guardrail was for?

(Readers who do not understand to what this question refers, please see “About” on the top bar).
Yes, they serve no purpose whatsoever (a perfect metaphor for Spike): they’re the legacies of accidents in which vehicles collide with the central reservation or side guardrails, popping out the bolts, which then tear metal triangles off the vehicles that have collided with them. I just popped down to see if “my” spike was still there, still overlooked, four years on. It is.

 6)    Could I trouble you for a list of books that should be on our own literary bucket list?

Here are a dozen what I think are relatively overlooked goodies, ancient and modern, in print and very out of print, culled at near-random from the bookcase nearest me:
The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter
Tokyo Style by Kyoichi Tsuzuki
Japan in the Passing Lane: An Insider’s Account of Life in a Japanese Auto Factory by Satoshi Kamata
Unbeaten Tracks in Japan by Isabella Bird
Vermillion Sands by J.G. Ballard
Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? And Other Reflections on Being Human by Jesse Bering
The Lost Wolves of Japan by Brett L. Walker
Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain by Stefan Collini (disclosure: a former lecturer of mine)
Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago by Douglas H. Erwin
Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow
and of course:
Digby Grand by George John Whyte Melville

 7)    Can I have your car?

No. The rustmobile stays with me.

“Wherever structure is to be conjured from disorder, it must be driven by the generation of greater disorder elsewhere, so that there is a net increase in the disorder of the universe.” The Second Law, in The Laws of Thermodynamics, Peter Atkins

All photos taken in the towns of Furubira and Shakotan on the Shakotan Peninsula, Hokkaido, September 2012. Rust, like death, never sleeps.

Tama no Yu public baths, Furubira

Shinya Sushi, Furubira

 Oasis activity, Furubira

 Hauling fish on cannery row, Furubira

 Warehouse flank, Furubira

Shiny chimney, Furubira

Fashion Shop Umeno, Furubira

All fall down, Furubira

Rust begets rust, Furubira

Rust ghost doorway, Furubira

Gas stand, Furubira

Waiting for the bus, Furubira

Converging, Furubira

White panel in rust, Furubira

Buttresses, Furubira

Cracks, tiles, and string, Furubira

Cracks and a peek, Furubira

Little bluff, Furubira

Fine old house and warehouse complex, Furubira (2)

Fine old house and warehouse complex, Furubira (1)

Doorway, Bikuni port, Shakotan

Squid boat lights and harbour activity, Shakotan

Squid boat and old warehouse, Shakotan

Squid boat lights, Shakotan

Squid boat lights and winches, Shakotan

 No illegal fishing, between Furubira and Shakotan

Seascape around Horonaifu, Shakotan

Waiting for the bus, Shakotan

Cycling marsupials, Shakotan

Rusty corner, Furubira

Ironmonger's, Shakotan

Vote for Hachiro

Superb doorway, Shakotan

Doorway from the side, Shakotan

 Old meets new, Furubira

 Cannery row, Furubira

Exits and entrances: A table of contents

The numbers are the word count for the piece, to help you gauge how much time they’ll absorb; click on them for access. I’ve split the sixty-odd pieces I thought worth salvaging into seven “chapters”, one apiece for the seven ages of us players.

Mewling and puking
Down the benjo: Postcards from Oizumi    1,765
Down the benjo: In the neighborhood    1,150
Down the benjo: Inspire the next    6,293
Requiem for a railway    15,391
Country house    2,108 

Shining morning face
Both sides now    5,866
Cherries, whisky, and the Wall Street of the North    5,891
Lake Toya: The billion-dollar tower of Bubble    5,428
Muroran: The town that Time forgot    3,788
Shiraoi: Where the first arrows of the last war fell    5,211
Lake Shikotsu: Vitriol for the Viking    3,722
Yubari: From the culture of coal to the cult of caramel    7,660
Kushiro: Everyone knows this is nowhere    2,046
Nemuro: The frog chorus sings, “Give ’em back! (please)”    8,322
Monbetsu: “We don’t want your sort around here”    4,499
Sarufutsu: We built this village on bivalve shells    1,597
Teshio, Mashike, and the Rumoi subprefecture: Of palisades and Christ signs    8,847
A Hokkaido postscript: Endless recession    732

Sighing like a furnace
Kinugawa Onsen: You and me and the devil make three    11,382
In praise of…The ghost highway    1,409
In praise of…The airplane to heaven    755
Cape Sata: The southernmost ruins    4,818
Ikeshima: Goodbye to old King Coal    2,198
Omuta: The shopping arcades of a thousand bankruptcies    7,874
Phoenix Seagaia: Look on my works, ye Mighty    2,450
Amakusa: Islands of dread    6,681
Huis ten Bosch: Only Miffy can save us now (part one)    4,194
Huis ten Bosch: Only Miffy can save us now (part two)    3,828
Huis ten Bosch: Only Miffy can save us now (part three)    2,580
A Kyushu postscript: Singing alone    2,754

Seeking the bubble reputation
After the earthquake: A long, hot summer   2,049
After the earthquake: So farewell then, Plutonium kun    1,131
After the earthquake: In the nuclear village    3,862
Holiday in Fukushima: To the zone of exclusion    3,523
Holiday in Fukushima: A tree of ages    827
Holiday in Fukushima: Drift, baby, drift    4,572

In fair round belly
Shimo Nita: When you’re old… (part one)    3,381
Shimo Nita: When you’re old… (part two)    3,544
Japan: How bad is the fiscal mess?    6,413
On the longevity of loaches    2,242
In praise of…The worst hotel of the world    1,936
Kiyosato: High plains drifter (part one)    1,969
Kiyosato: High plains drifter (part two)    1,833
Iida: Roots music    3,558
Iida: A twitch at the curtains    3,541
Season’s greetings    1,280 

Turning again toward childish treble
Spiked: Eamonn Fingleton    7,001
The Hashist    4,177
Tokyo through the letterbox    5,071
The end of the line?    1,643
Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village and the psychology of nuclear power (part one)  2,659
Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village and the psychology of nuclear power (part two)   3,522
Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village and the psychology of nuclear power (part three) 2,608

Mere oblivion
In praise of…The Oma-Hakodate ferry    1,266
In praise of…Optimists    5,207
In praise of…The Brown Bear    2,432
Book review: Fresh Currents    2,215
Book review: The Carbon Crunch    1,210
Pastor Niemöller visits the Internet    347
The diffident sandwiches of Uta Schreck    1,347
Spike: No man but a blockhead    10,163

Spike: No man but a blockhead

[This is the last ever Spike ramble, so slip on your stoutest trekking boots, decant a wee dram of aqua vitae into your hip-flask, and join me across a few rickety stiles and muddy, forgotten fields.]

No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.

Samuel Johnson, Friday, 5 April 1776, from The Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell

Many moons ago, long before the accident, I went for a drive.
The goal was to dip a metaphorical toe in the Pacific, somewhere in mid-Fukushima, then head over the spine of Honshu on backroads into Niigata and dip another metaphorical toe (or even the same one) in the Sea of Japan. No particular reason, just to blow away a few cobwebs—drive ni iku, the Japanese say, to go for a drive, and it often appears in the rankings of favorite leisure-time activities, at least among men of a certain age.
I never made it to the Sea of Japan. In the depopulating wilds of south-central Fukushima, tantalizing signs advertising a local attraction began to appear with Burma Shave regularity at the side of the road, the last of which was this, directing the driver to turn right up what turned out to be a 6km semi-private road to the top of a hill. “Pax per linguam” reads the Cod Latin motto on the faux coat of arms, “peace through language”. It seems unlikely.

Britain that way

British Hills, British Hills? Where had I heard of British Hills before? In some magazine or newspaper account, years previously? It sounded like a golf club, out at the end of the Metropolitan Line, in Pinner or Rickmansworth perhaps, where the members spend more time at the 19th than at the first eighteen, where chaps (and chapesses—we must move with the times!) with surnames like Bloomstein, though no longer blackballed, are greeted by the barman with a froideur not shown to those with surnames like Brown.  
A couple of hours later I was driving down the private road, face smirk-split from port to starboard, a reaction that only kitsch of the very toppest notch can evoke. The audacity! The execution! The sheer bloody extravagance of the place!
Some years later, not long after the accident, I returned, this time to stay the night.

Drogo

Willie

Racing green

Just like Scotland 

Tenpole Tudor

Part English-as-a-Foreign-Language (EFL) educational institute, part luxury resort hotel, British Hills sprawls over some sixty acres (all “facts” about British Hills, even those on its own website, are quite possibly apocryphal) atop a seemingly randomly chosen hill in the village of Ten’ei, centered around a recreation of a manor house, reminiscent of the late domestic architecture of Edward Lutyens, such as what is now the Abbey House Hotel, built for the Vickers shipbuilding family, and above all Castle Drogo, completed in 1930 and widely dubbed “the last castle built in England”. According to Oxford Brookes University anthropologist and Japanologist Joy Hendry, in The Orient Strikes Back: A Global View of Cultural Display, British Hills was the dream of the mother of the chairman of the Sano Educational Foundation, which runs three not especially prestigious seats of learning, the Kanda Institute of Foreign Languages (est. 1957), a two-year vocational school, Kanda University of International Studies (est. 1987), and Kanda Gaigo Career College, an language and communication course provider (est. 1996). British Hills was completed in 1994, making it yet another fruit of a hazy reverie one late Bubble afternoon, rendered flesh in brick and stone, and without a doubt the most delicious tale surrounding its creation is that it caused such an artificial spike in demand for English oak as to retard the erection of that other temple of chintz, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater on London’s Bankside, by a couple of years. The most frequently cited figure for the cost of construction is GBP60mn, a cool inflation-adjusted GBP100mn (USD150mn). Rumours swirl about financial difficulties in the first few years of operation, with salvation reportedly coming in the events of 9/11, which caused the more timid traveller to shun the complexities of authenticity and seek refuge in the safety of the fake.

British Hills, my spies inform me, is staffed—aside from the Japanese, who do most of the real work—by ten EFL teachers and a dozen or so twentysomethings on working holiday visas, mostly from the UK, Canada, and Australia, although not from the US, either because of visa issues or, one blogger reports, because of the “slovenliness of their accent”. So much for pax per linguam. These twentysomethings are largely present for decorative purposes and their blogs reveal they are not unaware of this. “My receptionist duties mainly involve being British” writes one; as she was British, and not, say, Azerbaijani, this should not have been beyond her capabilities. Writes another: “I can fold a mean napkin as well as bow a lot & look white which is a large part of my job description.”

The reactions of Japanese visitors to British Hills, so far as it is possible to determine from websites such as tripadvisor.com, are beguilingly innocent and free of irony: “a precious facility where you can enjoy a little study abroad in Japan” (国内でプチ留学できる貴重な施設); “everything’s exactly as it would be in England—an English village that makes you wonder whether you’re really in Japan” (すべてがイギリスそのもの!日本にいるの?と思わせるイギリス村); “it’s the UK even though it’s in Japan…step inside and everything’s English language, the feeling of a foreign country without a passport” (日本なのに英国・・・一歩入ったらすべて英語、パスポートなしの外国気分). Whether this trio has been to Britain, I know not, but I’d hazard they’ve never been to Scunthorpe, say, or Workington or Grimsby.

I particularly relish this reaction, written in English by a Japanese man: “A Caucasian receptionist accepted my check-in. … Unlike the people you may see in the countries other than Japan, she behaved in a manner as polite and gentle as Japanese clerks would do.” Then there’s this delightful attempt to render the world of British Hills in the Basic English of eccentric polymath C. K. Ogden (“what the world needs most is about 1,000 more dead languages”)—850 words and just 18 “operators” (“verbs” to you and me):
Hills are small mountains.
British Hills in fact
are not hills or mountains.
They are a sort of hotel
on a mountain,
with a special purpose.
Nearly everything in
this hotel
is British or English.
The building and the
14 houses
are copies of old ones in
Britain.
Most of the workers are able to give talks in English
though some have Australian sounds.
Streets are clean with no automatic soft-drink machines.

Reception from above

Back to school

After much pedantic talk at reception about under which accommodation package I might, having turned up unbidden and unannounced, be allowed to stay, I’m ushered to a room in a “house”—really an aggregation of suites—called Turner, replete with unguents and nostalgically aspirational plumbing from Ross-on-Wye.

Bath from Ross

Aspirational plumbing

Soon it’s time for drinks and dinner in The Falstaff pub, which stands next to “Ye Shoppe” (whatever happened to the “Olde”?); Greene King IPA, Abbot Ale, and Old Speckled Hen are on tap, and I daresay there’s no finer selection of amber nectar to be found on any other Fukushima hilltop.

Drink up

Roast beef of old England

There’s a pear-bottle of Sarson’s on the table—for the fish ’n’ chips, I suppose—but there’s really, really no need for more vinegar, as both the duck entrée and the beef roast are slathered in aceto balsamico, just as they would be at many a mediocre gastropub on the home islands; rap and R&B, turned down just low enough not to grate, fill the tea-color corners, with Frankie J crooning to all who’ll listen that “I can tell you sweet things that would make you smile”; there’s no smoking allowed inside the pub—natch—so I huddle, shivering, around an outdoor ashtray; many Japanese guests are clad in Pottercloaks (what accommodation package are they on?) and there’s endless Pottercrap on the telly. The British Hills experience was turning out to be terrifically, horrifically true to modern life on Airstrip One: all we needed now to complete the picture was ubiquitous CCTV and a pack of hoodies having a brawl in its collective blind-spot.

Amateur oil

Major General Piggott and company

The ambassador's lecture hall

Sir Rutherford and successors

One possible reason British Hills has survived, if not thrived, is that it is formidably well-connected, both on the British and Japanese sides. In descending order, the quartet of photos above show (a much younger) QEII, consort, and mother, together with the Shōwa Emperor and Empress Kōjun; a wall’s worth of yeoman worthies with ties, in foul times and fair, to Japan, starting with Major General Francis Piggott (1910-1996), British military attaché to Tokyo in the mid-1930s and in World War II organizer, under Orde Wingate, of the Burmese chindit partisans; The British Ambassador’s Lecture Hall; and a portrait, in the lecture hall, of Sir Rutherford Alcock (1809-1897), the first British consul-general in Japan.

On the Japanese side, at least at the time of my visit, there was the intriguingly named André Yuki Kawada (1936-2012), so baptized at birth by a French Catholic priest, who was recruited in 1993 from Mitsubishi Corp. to become Director General of British Hills, was eventually to ascend to Honorary Director General, and who just so happened to be the great-grandson of Koichiro Kawada—who, together with the more celebrated Yataro Iwasaki, founded the mighty Mitsubishi zaibatsu. André Kawada was educated at Gakushuin, the bluest blooded of all Japan’s blue-blood schools, where he was a dormitory chum of His Imperial Highness The Prince Hitachi, still fourth in line to the Chrysanthemum Throne, and interviewed his senpai elder, novelist Yukio Mishima, for the school magazine. Now those are quite some connections—and they explain, I later realized, why the high-speed, touch-free hand-dryer in my bathroom was made by Mitsubishi.

But all this, though intriguing enough, was a distraction, for I had returned to British Hills for one reason alone: the library.

Library conference table

Seat of learning

Annals and a lamp

Bookended

British Hills calls it the replica of a London gentleman’s club, but it strikes me, given its location in the manor house, more like a simulacrum of a gentleman’s private library, of the sort that could, at its apogee, have been found in maybe no more than a couple of thousand castles, manors, and rectories across the British Isles. Whoever had assembled this collection—and I can picture in the mind’s inscape the dry-as-dust mouth of an antiquarian book-dealer on the Charing Cross Road begin to salivate one morning in 1992 as Mr. Kato and Mr. Sato from Japan step across the threshold and describe their requirements—had done a commendable job: the clock had stopped, never to go again, in the middle of the third decade of the twentieth century.

Anyone for Punch

Old Japan hands

One stack of shelves groans under nothing but bound volumes of Punch magazine, 1901-1925. How many legions of unfunny cartoons are contained therein? On my previous visit, a pile of 1960s children’s books on space exploration and popular science had spoiled the artifice, but these had been banished, and there was little left to ruin the illusion, although on close inspection of a shelf-full of Ye Olde Japanne travelogues—Three Rolling Stones in Japan by Gilbert Watson (1904) and The Other Side of the Lantern: An Account of a Commonplace Tour Round the World by Sir Frederick Treves (1905), for instance—The Deer Cry Pavilion by Pat Barr, which I can date no further back than 1968, is but a fawn among hoary stags.

Multivolume editions of exactly the novelists and poets you would expect to find in the library of a conservative but catholic (or even, perhaps, Conservative and Catholic) reader of 1925—Galsworthy and Hardy, Tennyson and Browning and Kipling, Jerome K. Jerome and Arnold Bennett, and of course The Chesterbelloc—are all present and correct.

Whyte who

But what was this shelf, full of novels with curious titles—Tilbury Nogo, M or N, Black but Comely, and Market Harborough (surely nobody could have penned a novel set in that dullest of East England towns)? And who was their author, George John Whyte Melville? I was convinced—wrongly, as it turned out—that I had never heard of him before. This—English literature—was supposed to be my specialist subject, the one over which I had sweated (well, gently perspired) for my undergraduate degree, and yet here was a shelf-worth of a Victorian novelist who had tumbled into such an abyss of obscurity that his very name rang no bell of recognition. Dispirited and dejected, not so much with my unpardonable ignorance but more with the fickleness of fama, I resolved—not for the first time—to bin Spike. What is the point, I asked myself but couldn’t answer, of writing anything that will be forgotten if not within an hour, then at the outside, within a day? Luckily, my wise friend Dr. T was on hand to counsel: “As for futility, of course what you are doing is futile. Futility is to the human condition as wetness is to water. So what? You enjoy doing it. I and many other of your fans enjoy reading it. Long live Spike!” Enheartened, I vowed to ramble on.

So who the blazes was G. J. Whyte Melville? Well, he was a novelist of the sporting field—no, wait, where did I get that from? Why, from Wikipedia, of course. The six-hundred-odd word entry on Whyte Melville has just two footnotes and no cautionary hypertext warning the reader of the fallibility of the writer, for these are the wildest shores of the Wikiempire, where the writ of the Wikilaw does not run and the Wikipolice do not patrol.

And where, I wondered, did the Wikiwriters (let’s assume a collective for the sake of convenience) obtain the knowledge to pen their essaylet on Whyte Melville? From a deep and abiding familiarity with the works? No, not at all, as it turned out—chunks are purloined from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica and to a lesser extent perhaps from the Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900.

1) Wikipedia: Most of his heroes and heroines: Digby Grand, Tilbury Nogo, the Honourable Crasher, Mr Sawyer, Kate Coventry, Mrs Lascelles, are or would be hunters.
Britannica: He was the laureate of fox-hunting; all his most popular and distinctive heroes and heroines, Digby Grand, Tilbury Nogo, the Honorable Crasher, Mr Sawyer, Kate Coventry, Mrs Lascelles, are or would be mighty hunters.
2) Wikipedia: When the Crimean War broke out Whyte-Melville went out as a volunteer major of Turkish irregular cavalry but this was the only break in his literary career.
By a strange accident, Whyte-Melville lost his life whilst hunting 1878, the hero of many a stiff ride meeting his fate in galloping quietly over a ploughed field in the Vale of White Horse.
Britannica: When the Crimean War broke out Whyte-Melville went out as a volunteer major of Turkish irregular cavalry; but this was the only break in his literary career from the time that he began to write novels till his death.
By a strange accident, he lost his life in the hunting-field on the 5th of December 1878, the hero of many a stiff ride meeting his fate in galloping quietly over an ordinary ploughed field in the Vale of the White Horse.
3) Wikipedia: Several of these novels are historical, The Gladiators being perhaps the most famous of them.
Britannica: Several of these novels are historical, The Gladiators being perhaps the most famous of them.
4) Wikipedia: Some characters reappear in different novels: such as the supercilious studgroom, the dark and wary steeple-chaser, or the fascinating sporting widow.
Britannica: It is on his portraiture of contemporary sporting society that his reputation as a novelist must rest; and, though now and then a character reappears, such as the supercilious studgroom, the dark and wary steeple-chaser, or the fascinating sporting widow, his variety in the invention of incidents is amazing.

To appropriate from texts long in the public domain is no crime, and were the footnotes adequate, this entry would conceivably not even infringe on Wikipedia’s editorial standards, but were it to be handed in as homework it would merit 0/10, and the authority of the authors has been shot to pieces, pieces smaller than those into which starburst the clay pigeons at which Whyte Melville characters occasionally take pot-shot.

I should have realized from first encounter with the subliterate misuse of colons in examples (1) and (4) above that the Whyte Melville Wikipage was suspect, but I suspect my senses were lulled by ignorance of the subject and, more importantly, by the often spurious authority that Wikipedia has come to command in its dozen (count ’em) years of existence.

“A novelist of the sporting field” has become an Internet micro-meme, used exclusively with reference to Whyte Melville, often by booksellers ignorant of the author whose works they have picked up, perhaps at some house clearance auction. But is “a novelist of the sporting field” a fair characterization of Whyte Melville? Not from the two novels of his I’ve now read, and not, if we take references to foxes as a proxy for the sporting field, from the seven works of his I’ve skimmed at Project Gutenberg: The Interpreter: A Tale of the War has two fox references, General Bounce, or The Lady and The Locusts 13 (six about a horse called The Fox), M or N: Similia similibus curantur one, Contraband, or A Losing Hazard one, Kate Coventry: An Autobiography 14, and Katerfelto: A Tale of Exmoor, four—contrast those with the 63 fox references in the autobiographical Riding Recollections, which really is about the sporting field.

One reason that ignorant booksellers turn to Wikipedia anything other than the deepest of dives into the trenches of the Internet will turn up next to nothing about Whyte Melville—but surely these bibliophiles (and if they’re not bibliophiles, they’re in the wrong trade) have reference works, old-school ones printed with ink on paper, which they could consult for a potted biography?

Companion

Whyte Melville entry

I delved into the recesses of my library to dredge up my 1985 fifth edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature, edited by novelist Margaret Drabble (cruelly nicknamed Margery Drivel by me in my youth for the dullness of her fictions) and “a team of distinguished contributors” over five what must have been laborious years, only to discover that in a previous life—in January 1987, to judge from the neat pencil marks in which I had dated readings of surrounding entries—I had read the Whyte Melville entry and officiously corrected in red biro the typo that misrecorded his birth as 1721 rather than 1821. One up to Wikipedia, I suppose. For the record, here’s the entry in full:

WHYTE-MELVILLE, George John (1721-78 [sic]), born in Fife, educated at Eton, joined the 93rd Highlanders, then the Coldstream Guards, and served in the Crimean war. He then returned to England and devoted his time to field sports on which he was an authority. Most of his literary works were novels, sometimes historical, and hunting figures largely in many of them. His first, Digby Grand, was published in 1853; Galsworthy, at Oxford, fell under the spell of the ‘Bright Things’ in Whyte-Melville’s novels and Digby Grand was Jolyon’s (in The Forstye Saga) first idol. He achieved fame with Holmby House (1859), a historical romance describing the Civil War. Market Harborough (1861) and The Gladiators (1863), also very popular, were followed by several others. In 1869 he published his Songs and Verse, and Riding Recollections (1879) was a notable book on horsemanship. He was killed in a hunting accident.

Not inspired, certainly—the antepenultimate sentence is especially damp—and I wonder if the author knew beforehand of the Galsworthy connection or unearthed it from the only academic paper I can find on Whyte Melville, Whyte-Melville and Galsworthy’s “Bright Beings”, by James C. Freeman, in the September 1950 edition of Nineteenth-Century Fiction, which quotes the young Jolyon Forsyte reminiscing about his time at Cambridge in “the golden sixties when the world was simple, dandies glamourous, Democracy not born, and the books of Whyte-Melville coming thick and fast”. There were short-cuts to the assumption of the mantle of authority even before the Internet bulldozed the neighbourhood to make it nothing but a lattice of short-cuts. Another one up to Wikipedia? 

********************

Wikipedia: An unsocratic dialogue, January 2013

If you are settling in the wilds, ten reference shelves are the minimum.
Early Reading and Desert Island Books, Patrick Leigh Fermor

Wikipedia is something special. It is like a library or a public park. It is like a temple for the mind, a place we can all go to think and learn.
Excerpt from the latest Wikipedia fundraising message

Spike: Reddit is a disgrace to humanity but Wikipedia is a little gem—don’t forget that Tim Minchin invokes it in Storm:
Does the idea that one afternoon
On Wiki-fucking-pedia might enlighten you
Frighten you? 
It brightened my life today with two great quotations, the first from Hilaire Belloc, on being asked why he wrote so much: 
“Because my children are howling for pearls and caviar.”
 And the second, which you probably know, from Lord Rutherford:
“All science is either physics or stamp-collecting.”
You come closest to Luddism when you claim that “we did have…encyclopedias written by experts”. What we really had was the Britannica, which had long been prostituted to Chicago and the ranks of the door-to-door brush salesmen. (And I didn’t get that from Wikipedia.) That’s not to say Wikipedia’s perfect—it’s failed me when I needed it for things as varied as chemical vapor deposition to the politics of Graham Greene—but it’s free, whereas the Britannica in the old days must have cost a month’s salary or more, it doesn’t take up any space, and plenty of research has suggested it is not much more inaccurate than the Britannica was. Whether this is a giant leap is another question.

Dr. T: Though I idolise Tim Minchin every bit as much as you do, I’m not sure that a Wikipedia endorsement from him is enough to shake my nagging suspicion that it is doing for all of human culture what David Attenborough did for biology—dumbing it down to the point that any fool can ‘comprehend’ it. The problem with this is that you then create a huge number of people who think they understand, say, evolution, because they’ve got the box set of Life on Earth
Wikipedia hasn’t, surely, made anyone cleverer or even better informed; it has just given a lot of people the illusion that they are suddenly clever and well informed, which is dangerous, isn’t it? Like anything easily attained—and I do realise that this sounds or perhaps just is incredibly pompous—knowledge looked up on Wikipedia is too cheap to have much value. In the end, to the extent that it has any value at all, it relies on the expertise of the real experts and, if we’re not careful, we’ll disincentivise everyone from becoming an expert, which can still only be done the old-fashioned way. Try an experiment that I have had fun with and look up the Wikipedia entry on the ten subjects on which you believe you are personally best informed. Even the entries on evolution and natural selection are obviously written by what a former boss referred to as “your basic C-student”. By the time you get down to subjects that I really know more than most people about, the entries are barely one step above a trip through the square window on Play School. Anyway, judge your entries on their merits, then come back and tell me, if you still believe it to be true, that Wikipedia is a force for good not evil. What would Christopher Hitchens have said?
Spike: You dare attack Saint David of Attenborough? Next you’ll be having a go at that lovely Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu woman, just like Christopher Hitchens (and yes, I did have to go to Wikipedia for her Albanian name, and very efficient it was, too).
Sorry if it may come as a revelation but not everyone on this pale blue dot is as smart as you—surely there is room for a harmless old duffer like Lord Attenborough of Richmond to instill a wonder for nature in the unwashed? You can be very Calvinist in your opprobrium.
Does Wikipedia necessarily dumb down everything? Walk me through the maths behind the Bayesian derivation of the Doomsday argument here, which we were discussing before. Or perhaps you’d like to try your chances with the Kerr-Newman metric? These are not isolated examples of forbiddingly tricky Wikipages—there are thousands upon thousands more out there. Perhaps we should be arguing that Wikipedia hasn’t been dumbed down enough?
Do you think that people, generally, have the illusion that they are suddenly clever because they can access Wikipedia? Is there any evidence for that? Maybe the possession of a fifty volume Britannica fifty years ago made the people who bought it made them feel special, knowledgeable even, because they’d forked over so much money for it and it had pride of place in the sitting room, but do most casual users of Wikipedia feel that way today? Isn’t the absence of that illusion precisely part of the beauty of its being free?
Here’s how I used Wikipedia today—1) for work, I wanted to confirm that the trading house Mitsui & Co. was founded in 1876—it seemed a little late to me—confirmed; 2) for work, but mostly out of curiosity, I wanted to know if the Japanese for “sprawling prewar business combine”, zaibatsu, shared the same Chinese characters as the Korean Hanja (the Chinese form of Korean, as opposed to Hangul) for chaebol, i.e., Samsung—it does; 3) for pleasure, I wanted to know the classical Greek term of rhetoric for an intentional stutter in oratory—for instance, “thousands—no, tens of thousands—of our fellow citizens…” This was trickier; I thought for a while I had it nailed with epanorthosis—but then, maybe not. Wikipedia’s rhetoric pages need attention. But would the Britannica have been better in any way? And can’t we tell when we’re being let down?
We (well, I, which I admit is a narrower class of humanity) peck at Wikipedia for tidbits—noone, other than a desperate teenager, is going to take it as the sum of knowledge. And encyclopedists are supposed to be your basic C-grade student, encyclopedias are supposed to be for plodders or people outside their fields; it’s not for nothing that one of Wikipedia’s warnings is “This article may contain original research”—noone wants that kind of filth in an encyclopedia! Here’s a mirror-image challenge to yours—go and pick ten subjects about which you know next to zero, search them at Wikipedia, and come away telling me you didn’t learn something, however trivial. That’s what encyclopedias are for.
As for subjects that “I really know more than most people about”, well I concede that Japan pages are dire. Here’s one about a place dear to both of our hearts:
“Most of Monbetsu’s economy is dedicated to fishing for cold-water species such as crab.”
All together now, panto style—“Oh no it’s not!”
But, but, but… Would the Britannica have done any better?  
If I concede to you on one point—and I do—it’s that I often catch journos in the act of pulling “facts” off Wikipedia. I recall writing to a friend, in a context I’ve sadly forgotten, “That is mere Wikiknowledge!” A neologism that noone else (Google says, so it must be true) seems to have coined in a pejorative sense. But this is far from a generalized sense of complacency about knowledge, although it does caution for a heightened sensitivity to laziness. And as we know, journalists are basically only one rung up the evolutionary ladder from high-school students.
Dr T: Well, speaking as one iconoclast to another, yes, Saint David of Attenborough has certainly created several generation of wildlife program fans but I’m unconvinced that he has created many natural historians. We tend to find St. D after we’ve caught the bug, not the other way round. I think that St. D is exactly analogous to Jamie Oliver. St. J has not caused more people to start cooking or to raise their culinary game above Spaghetti Bolognese but he has forced Waitrose to raise its game in the ready meals department. For this, I am thankful. But seriously, you don’t have to be a Calvinist to object to misinformation being dispensed by the BBC, do you? In fact, he says, warming to his theme, isn’t your duty to be scrupulously accurate with the facts proportional to your ability to influence public opinion?
Well, I can’t walk you through the maths behind the Bayesian derivation of the Doomsday argument, which is precisely my point. I understand the principle behind Bayesian statistics, which is that you would be wise to take account of what you already know to be true, when estimating the probability that something about which you are uncertain is also true. For example, if you know that chimpanzees and humans are more closely related than humans and jellyfish, you will get a more robust hypothesis about the relationship among chimpanzees, humans and jellyfish when you plug the DNA into a molecular phylogeny program than if you pretended not to know the likely outcome. It’s a way of incorporating existing knowledge into statistical predictions. The Wikipedia entry on the Doomsday argument taught me nothing intelligible that I didn’t already know and the maths assumes far more understanding than I possess. In other words, it fails on every count. It doesn’t add to the understanding of a reasonably well-educated layman (with regard to Bayesian statistics) and it is intelligible only to people who have access to the original research. As an encyclopaedia entry it’s a waste of energy and someone’s time.
Of course Britannica would have done better! You or I could go onto Wikipedia now and amend any article on the basis of our prejudices not our knowledge of the pertinent subject. I’m not arguing that Britannica was an infallible source of knowledge, just that Wikipedia is more fallible and, further, that you have no way of knowing, as a user, whether a Wikipedia claim is true or false. If you want to figure that out, you have to go to the original research. 
I’m not claiming that Wikipedia is useless or devoid of interesting content. Just that you must judge it by its entries on stuff you know about, not stuff you don’t. Of course, if I look up something I know nothing about, say Japanese ceramics, I will read facts about them of which I was previously unaware. But how will I judge the veracity of these facts? One way would be to look at Wikipedia entries on subjects that I do know something about and estimate the percentage that seem to be on the ball (say, being generous, 30%) and apply that percentage to the stuff that I can’t independently verify.  
My fear is that, as Wikipedia and knowledge become synonymous in popular understanding, we will lose the ability to discriminate between truth and plausibility. 
Spike: I think your comment about the ease of amending Wikiarticles reveals that you don’t really understand how Wikipedia works. It’s like a war, there are fiercely contested hot zones, and areas where truces have held for aeons (in Internet time). You go and try an interpolate a comment at the George W. Bush page that says, “In 2010, ex-President Bush was convicted in a Texas court of sodomy and sentenced to three months in prison” and let me know how long it lasts. Or even if you get through the vetting process to be allowed to insert that comment.
Dr. T: It’s true that I have never attempted to write anything on Wikipedia. I think you are missing my point, however, or perhaps I am making it badly. Fans of Wikipedia or other open source technologies, like Linux or Firefox, seem to believe in the “wisdom of crowds”. It’s an open question whether crowds are any wiser than individuals—I’d vote not, but what do I know. Nicholas Carr’s point is that Wikipedia isn’t written by the crowd, it’s written by a cabal, so you get the worst of all worlds. You don’t benefit from the marginal improvements that could be made by the crowd, if the self-appointed censors didn’t forbid it, and it isn’t written by experts. What you get is articles written by people who have nothing better to do than write Wikipedia articles and police its frontiers.
Spike: Now that is a much more forceful criticism than any other you’ve presented me with. I sense Wikipedia’s actually written by a mix of a crowd and a cabal—crowd at the edges, perhaps, cabal at the center. The cabal needs the crowd because of its own epistemological shortcomings. You could easily enough stand the argument on its head, though, in the absence of really hard evidence, and say that you get the best of both worlds. I know, though, that I could greatly improve thousands of Wikipedia articles, but can’t be bothered (did you know that apathetics inhabit the outer perimeter of Dante’s Inferno, just before the vats start boiling?)  
You got me reading Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget. He has some beguiling one-liners:
“Wikipedia, for instance, works on what I call the Oracle illusion, in which knowledge of the human authorship of a text is suppressed in order to give the text superhuman validity.”
And in what way is that different from a traditional encyclopedia? But actually at Wikipedia, because it’s a constant work in progress, you endlessly encounter those superscripted notes {citation needed} or the magisterial headers “This article has multiple issues”, which are a constant reminder that we are dealing with very human, very fought-over texts. I don’t think Lanier is a careful enough reader when it comes to this.

Postscript: An article in the Free Exchange column of the March 9th edition of The Economist, which surveys a trio of studies that attempt to quantify the “consumer surplus” generated by the wonders of the Internet (although as one study was commissioned by a web-advertising industry group and another partly funded by Google, their integrity must be open to at least a smidgeon of doubt, on the principle that you don’t ask the barber if you need a haircut), handsomely illustrates one of Dr. T’s points. It begins thus (bolding mine):

When her two-year-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer in 1992, Judy Mollica spent hours in a nearby medical library in south Florida, combing through journals for information about her child’s condition. Upon seeing an unfamiliar term she would stop and hunt down its meaning elsewhere in the library. It was, she says, like “walking in the dark”. Her daughter recovered but in 2005 was diagnosed with a different form of cancer. This time, Ms Mollica was able to stay by her side. She could read articles online, instantly look up medical and scientific terms on Wikipedia, and then follow footnotes to new sources. She could converse with her daughter’s specialists like a fellow doctor. Wikipedia, she says, not only saved her time but gave her a greater sense of control. “You can’t put a price on that.”

Much as I am glad that Ms Mollica gained a greater illusion of authority, that is all it is—an illusion. Seven to ten rigorous years of medical training will allow you to converse with specialists like a fellow doctor; one afternoon on Wiki-fucking-pedia might just, if you’re in luck, begin to disabuse you of your belief in homeopathy and other footnotes in the history of piffle but it won’t award you—it beggars belief that anyone has to point this out—a doctorate in medicine.

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Digby

Inside Digby

The moment that my edition of Digby Grand: An Autobiography, printed in London by Longmans, Green and Co. in 1890, crossed my threshold, having winged its way from Selkirk in Scotland, not so very far from where Whyte Melville was born, it became, at 123 years old (older, just, than any documented human has ever lived), by far the oldest object in my possession, the family heirlooms, such as they were, having been liberated by an avaricious relative as my elderly parents struggled to squeeze the quart of their accumulated lives into the pint of their final home. The corporeal book, with its faint mustiness, imprimatur of age, and archaic typeface, offers manifold pleasures and opportunities for speculation that no e-reader will ever match: was, for instance, Katherine M. Hope, whose name appears on the front paste-down, the same Katherine M. Hope who appears in the 1881 Scottish census as born in 1879 and resident in Clackmannanshire? What would she, an impressionable eleven if the book’s first reader, have made of the dissolute youth of Digby Grand? There’s a palpable thrill, too, as the first pages fall open, that one is about to be inducted into a secret camaraderie: how many people alive and under fifty have read Digby Grand? A hundred?

Manifold, too, are the pleasures within: while there is much hunting, not a little shooting and even some fishing, a great deal of slaughter of the beasts of the field, of “flying covey and dodging coney”, and fulsome tribute paid to “a capital horse, with as crack a pack of hounds as England could produce”, Digby Grand is not, primarily, a “novel of the sporting field” but a Bildungsroman, in which our eponymous hero bids to negotiate the hazards of polite society, in the shape of characters with near-Dickensian names, Mrs. Man-trap, Captain Lavish, Lord Growler, Sir Harlequin Hauteboy, and Dr. Driveller, and its tapestry of temptations, from “enormous consumption of provender and wassail”, “oceans of claret”, “bumper after bumper of Bordeaux”, and “jorums of mull” (this is not a novel likely to appear on the recommended reading list of the British Medical Association) to card games from whist to lansquenet and écarté, on which the stakes wagered are staggering, a dissipate world (“it was usually twilight before I found myself dressed for the morning”) in which it is not always easy to distinguish between “a deuced ticklish fellow” and “a devilish good fellow”, one where Beau Brummel is the dandy’s model, and one in which Digby lives so far beyond his means that he laments that “I found my personal income was about sufficient to fund me in gloves, blacking, and cigars.”

The mood darkens: debts mount, creditors pursue, Digby flees; captured, he becomes “a prisoner of the law” and is reduced to penury. A friend dies by his own hand, driven to insanity by the gaming-table and Play, “firstly the seductive pastime, then the invincible habit, lastly the despotic infatuation, from which there is no escape.” Penniless, with “the charm of youth dispelled”, Digby learns of the death of his estranged father, as improvident as the son, and that of the ancestral home, Haverley Hall, and its contents, “everything must be sold”. Rescued by the Victorian deus ex machina of a chance encounter with an old friend, Digby becomes a respectable wine-merchant: “the days of coxcombry are gone by, the sun of dandyism is set.” Finally, about to marry, Digby—or is it Whyte Melville?—issues a stinging repudiation of Epicureanism: “How many a noble intellect and gallant spirit is at this moment wasting his energies on the most unworthy and unsatisfactory of all employments, the pursuit of pleasure!”

In this, Whyte Melville is in deep dialogue with Horace, whom he has translated three years’ before, or at least the Epicurean side of Horace, the one most familiar to the modern ear through the marble epigrams of “carpe diem” and “nunc est bibendum”, but perhaps nowhere more charmingly expressed than in Ode I.IX, Vides et Ulta, often known as the Soracte Ode, a carmina so knotty and dense an entire book of exegesis has been devoted to it, addressed to what may have been Horace’s catamite, Thaliarchus (“master of festivities”), and marking, according to translator David West, the latter’s passage from boyhood and the love of Horace to manhood and the love of girls.

You see Soracte standing white and deep
with snow, the woods in trouble, hardly able
to carry their burden, and the rivers
halted by sharp ice.

Thaw out the cold. Pile up the logs
on the hearth and be more generous, Thaliarchus,
as you draw the four-year-old Sabine
from its two-eared cask.

Leave everything else to the gods. As soon as
they still the winds battling it out
on the boiling sea, the cypresses stop waving
and the old ash trees.

Don’t ask what will happen tomorrow.
Whatever day Fortune gives you, enter it
as profit, and don’t look down on love
and dancing while you’re still a lad,

while the gloomy grey keeps away from the green.
Now is the time for the Campus and the squares
and soft sighs at the time arranged
as darkness falls.

Now is the time for the lovely laugh from the secret corner
giving away the girl in her hiding-place,
and for the token snatched from her arm
or finger feebly resisting.

World War One—indeed, one poem, Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est—went a long way to killing off Horace in Britian; the war claimed Whyte Melville, too, his uncomplicated paeans to Merry England, his scant acknowledgement of “the lower orders”, and his superannuated vocabulary—Digby Grand must surely be one of the last unironic outings in literature for the Chaucerian “yclept”, as in “one of those solemn outings yclept a county ball”, a ball where the revellers are no mere revellers but “votaries of Terpsichore”. (Why are lexicographers so assiduous in tracking down first usages but not last ones?) Whyte Melville was reprinted twice, once in the 1930s and again in the 1980s, but not by mainstream publishers, and that, in the era of the e-reader, where everything is free (or nearly free) but nothing has value, will be that.

Digby Grand is not without its faults—Whyte Melville has but tepid hands for metaphor, and the jabs at sententious profundity (“What a mercurial thing is youth!”, “Fortune…seldom fails to assist those who assist themselves”) are those of a cheerful bantamweight—but the overarching difficulty for the modern reader (at least one with sufficient reserves of respect to deeply understand that the past truly is a foreign country and they do indeed do things differently there) is that Digby Grand, despite being genre fiction (dread words!), is a demanding read.

(In this context I savour the sole review for any of Whyte Melville’s “802” works at amazon.com:
“The premis is a good one but this book is written like Homer’s Illid. It is simply impossible to read as written. The prose is something out of the second century and try as I might I could only get through 4 chapters. I finally had to put it away as I simply could not keep any intertest. Frankly, it was painful to read a single page and enjoy it. I suggest before you put down any money you read a page or two. The entire book is just like those few pages and if that type of prose keeps your interest…….well your attention span is much more patent than mine.”)

It’s true, you need a patent attention span. Here’s a sentence that caught my eye, but “the entire book is just like” this. Digby—don’t ask why—is sailing down the Saint Lawrence River in Canada with one of his early ladye-loves, Zoë de Grand-Martigny (Digby, and I suspect Whyte Melville too, is possessed of a severe case of Francophilia):

As we steamed along that broad unruffled surface, glistening like burnished gold in the setting sun, and studded with islands of every size and shape, from the undulating mass, whose rocks and woods stretching away into the distance, made us fancy we were coasting on the real bank of the river, down to the tiny islet, reflecting on its wavering mirror the single fir-tree for whose solitary growth alone it could find room; as we glided through this region of enchantment, and paced the deck by our two selves in the drowsy air of the summer evening, no wonder that Zoë and I both felt the influence of the hour, and that in tones lowering more and more as we trenched further upon the dangerous ground of sentiment and romance, we breathed forth whispers that had far better have been left unsaid, and gave way to feelings that should rise again like ghosts of the past to embitter with their shadowy mockery the uncared-for ‘days to come.’

What thwarts the modern reader here is not the vocabulary—only “trenched” gives any pause, and is easily replaced by “impinged” or “broached”—nor even the sheer length of the sentence, which weighs in at 167 words, but the syntax, the thirteen commas, single semi-colon, and above all the hundred words’ worth of multiple embedded subordinate and sub-subordinate clauses before the predicate, which, notwithstanding the disputations of the grammarians, I take to be “felt the influence of the hour” and which appears close to two-thirds of the way to the finishing line, pushed back toward the end of the sentence in a typically Latinate manner. Dickens, Whyte Melville’s contemporary, largely bereft of a formal, let alone classical, education, is in this respect much more palatable to the modern reader.

This predicate push, I am reminded from a recent column by George Will, whose politics I do not share but whose prose, bookish yet well tailored, sardonic and lapidary—a favourite word of his—I do admire, can be used to great comedic effect, as in the opening sentence of Leave it to Psmith (1923) by P. G. Wodehouse, a fellow Old Alleynian.

At the open window of the great library of Blandings Castle, drooping like a wet sock, as was his habit when he had nothing to prop his spine against, the Earl of Emsworth, that amiable and boneheaded peer, stood gazing out over his domain.

Compare, if you care (and I think you should), those two instances of syntactic complexity, both from popular and not explicitly literary fiction, one 90 years old and one 160, with the opening sentences of the top 10 paid fiction best-sellers at the amazon.com Kindle store, which as of this writing were these:

1)    There were two things in life that scared the ever-loving crap out of me.
2)    Being left at the altar is not for sissies.
3)    The hell of it was that it couldn’t have been a better day for flying.
4)    It’s not every day I get a naked girl answering the door I knock on.
5)    There was a knock on the door then just the small shuffle of feet.
6)    On the second Thursday of the month, Mrs. Dombrowski brings her dead husband to our therapy group.
7)    As Kate wound her way among the tables, a breeze from the Atlantic rippled through her hair.
8)    When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.
9)    “I told you she would be beautiful,” Decebel held the baby girl in his arms and stared down at her with more adoration than Jen had ever seen in anyone’s eyes.
10) It was done.

We have been reduced to an impoverished world of syntactic flatness, of polder-like tedium. That’s not to say great literature cannot be wrung out of this staccato simplicity—see Hemingway, or Raymond Carver—but if we exist solely in a plantation monoculture of uniform cedar-prose, then we remorselessly rob ourselves of the neurological dexterity required to engage with almost everything written more than a generation ago. As Nicholas Carr writes in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains:

Now that the context of reading is again shifting, from the private page to the communal screen, authors will adapt once more. They will increasingly tailor their work to a milieu that the essayist Caleb Crain describes as “groupiness”, where people read mainly “for the sake of belonging” rather than for personal enlightenment or amusement. As social concerns override literary ones, writers seem fated to eschew virtuosity and experimentation in favour of a bland but immediately accessible style. Writing will become a means for recording chatter.

The faintest vestiges of Whyte Melville linger in Britain: there is a public house, The Whyte Melville, in Boughton, Northants, located in a former residence of his, a memorial fountain in St Andrews, Fife, named after him (he captained The Royal & Ancient Golf Club in 1851), and a lawn bowls club in Moulton, Northants, which bears his name. One of his poems, The Good Grey Mare (“I have lived my life – I am nearly done – / I have played the game all round; / But I freely admit that the best of my fun / I owe it to horse and hound”) was the 1884 inspiration for name of the equestrian magazine, Horse & Hound, still, astonishingly, in print and which bears, I believe, Whyte Melville’s lines on its masthead to this day.

After much sleuthing, I track down a reference to Whyte Melville in Forty Years On (1968), the debut drama of Alan Bennett, Beloved National Institution (subcategories: northern, English, working-class, gay; see also Russell Harty) and at 78, one of the stately homos of old England. I read the play first as a teen—was it this reference that sent me scurrying to The Oxford Companion to English Literature, all those years ago? Set in a second-rate boarding school, Forty Years On is a state-of-Albion treatise, deeply suspicious of a modern world in which “country is park and shore is marina, spare time is leisure and more, year by year” yet also ill-at-ease with the brutalities and injustices of the past, and at its climax a schoolboy reads from a lectern an abridged Whyte Melville poem, titled (according to Bennett) Lines Written in Dejection, a poem of remarkable and unwavering melancholy—or shot through with the maudlin sentimentality characteristic of the age, according to your fancy.

A child in the nursery crying,
A boy in the cricket field – out,
A youth for a fantasy sighing,
A man with a fit of the gout.
Some sense of experience wasted,
Of counsel misunderstood,
Of pleasure, bitter when tasted,
And of pain that did him no good.
The sum of a life expended,
A pearl in the pig trough cast,
A comedy played and ended,
And what has it come to at last?
The dead man, propped on a pillow,
The journey taken alone,
The tomb with an urn and a willow
And a lie carved deep into stone.

In the play, the poem serves perhaps as both a threnody for the failures of the retiring headmaster and an elegy for the passing of an age. Entranced, I try to track down the complete poem, scouring Whyte Melville’s two collections of poetry, Songs and Verses (1869) and Hunting Poems, but draw a blank. More detective work uncovers full versions of the poem, in varying states of corruption, across a rag-tag assortment of long vanished North American newspapers: The Geneva Gazette of January 19, 1877, the Brooklyn Daily Union-Argus of March 27, 1877, The Waterloo Advertiser from Canada of April 30, 1880, The Day, “a Republican evening newspaper” from New London, Connecticut, of November 5, 1891, The Plattsburg Sentinel of November 6, 1891, and finally, the poem having hiked its way west, The Salt Lake Herald of February 19, 1894. In most instances it is titled The Story of a Life, and in all but one, where the author is given, confoundingly, as “Temple Bar”, it is unattributed. Here is a tidied up, composite version, although not, I suspect, one completely ridden of corruption:

A child in the nursery crying—a boy in the cricket field, “out!”
A youth for a fantasy sighing—a man with a fit of the gout,
A heart dried up and narrowed—a task repeated in vain,
A field plowed deep and harrowed, but bare and barren of grain.
Some sense of experience wasted, of counsel misunderstood,
Of pleasure, bitter when tasted, and pain that did him no good,
Some sparks of sentiment perished—some flashes of genius lost,
A torrent of false love cherished—a ripple of true love crossed,
Some feeble breasting of trouble to glide again with the stream,
In principle void as a bubble—in purpose vague as a dream,
A future hope half-hearted, for dim is the future now—
That the triple crown has parted, and death is damp on the brow,
And a debt is to pay by the debtor—a doctor, a lawyer, a nurse,
A feeling he should have been better, a doubt if he could have been worse,
While the ghostly finger traces its ghostly message of doom,
And a troop of ghostly faces pass on in a darkened room,
With ghostly shapes to beckon and ghostly voices to call,
And the grim recorder to reckon, and add the total of all,
The sum of a life expended—a pearl in a pig trough cast,
A comedy played and ended—and what has it come to at last?
The dead man, propped on a pillow—the journey taken alone,
The tomb with an urn and a willow, and a lie carved deep in the stone.

One final slender thread connects the living—us—with Whyte Melville. The last poem in Songs and Verses, Goodbye!, is a bleak autumnal serenade.  

Falling leaf and fading tree,
Lines of white in a sullen sea,
Shadows rising on you and me;
The swallows are making them ready to fly,
Wheeling out on a windy sky.
Goodbye Summer! Goodbye, Goodbye!
Hush! A voice from the far away!
“Listen and learn,” it seems to say,
“All the to-morrows shall be as today.”
The cord is frayed—the cruse is dry,
The link must break, and the lamp must die—
Goodbye Hope! Goodbye, Goodbye!
What are we waiting for? Oh! my heart!
Kiss me straight on the brows! And part!
Again! Again!—my heart! my heart!
What are we waiting for, you and I?
A pleading look—a stifled cry.
Goodbye, forever?—Goodbye, Goodbye!

This was later crafted into a song by the Italian-British composer Paolo Tosti (1846-1916) and later—much later—sung by Canada-born Hollywood starlet Deanna Durbin in the 1946 film, Because of Him. Two years later, disenchanted with the machinations of the movie industry, Durbin upped sticks with her husband to the life of a near-recluse in a farmhouse outside Paris, from which she has only given one interview these past six-plus decades and where she remains, a nonagenarian pushing 92, an emissary from an utterly other world.

********************

Otsukaresama. As I mentioned at the outset, this is the last ever Spike ramble. I’m bored, to be honest, with Japan, the Japan of Abenomics and AKB47, of The Idolmaster and super-deformed anime, of bullying and territorial tantrums and constitutional revisionism. It’s not all—not at all—Japan’s fault: my interest waxes and wanes in multiyear cycles and right now I’m waning gibbous, bored of writing Japan this, Japan that, Japan the other, bored more than anything with seeing everything through the narrowing and distorting prism of a nation-state. In most of the ponderables I’ve been mulling over the last year, from, say, “What caused the last five mass extinctions of life on Earth and will knowing the answers shed any light on the coming, sixth one?” and “Would it be possible to construct a sociobiological approach to literary criticism?” to “What, if any, are the artistic implications of the Second Law of Thermodynamics?”, the word Japan does not figure; nor does it figure more than tangentially in any putative answers.

More than that, however, I’m disillusioned with much of the Internet, while fully cognizant that little of Spike could have been written without it. I’m tired of the Internet’s stalkers and spammers, the rule of its lynch mobs and witch hunters, the whinnying of its millions of saloon-bar donkey-bores, betraying their unthinking ignorance with every bray, and the incivility it engenders, even in mild-mannered me; tired of the degradation of art to “content”, monetized or not; tired of the ten thousand tech bloggers panting to live-blog the release of the latest phablet (a word which, if you haven’t already encountered it, is coming very soon to your lexicon, like it or not); tired of the grin given me by Jeff Bezos, who, having donned cassock and surplice, is about to administer, gleefully, the last rites to the book on its deathbed, tired of his “fulfilment center” warehouses, tired, so tired already of his Kindle I bought to research this piece, loathing everything about it from the fatuity embodied in its Paperwhite name (paper, at least the paper books are printed on, is not white, it’s ivory to cream) to its assassination of the integrity of the page to the way it froze a fortnight out of the box; tired of the relentless destruction (156,000 US Postal Service jobs gone in the last five years) and the absence of meaningful creation; tired by the erasure of the past, by the all-pervasive decontextualization, and by the way so much is written, stripped down, in C. K. Ogden’s Basic English; tired by the 250 milliseconds, less time than the 400 milliseconds it takes to blink, that will dissuade people from visiting a website if has a quicker loading peer; and tired by the way the Internet panders tirelessly to our false new twin idols of convenience and cheapness. I’m tired of mindless technophiles and technosnobs, such as this writer in the January 26th Economist, and their laughable visions of progress:

The iTV, which may be controlled by via gestures and voice commands as well as via iPads and iPhones, could be a digital hub for the home. It would let people check whether their washing machine has finished its cycle while they gossip on Facebook and watch their favourite soap.

But above all, I’m tired by the Orwellian undertones the telescreens of the Internet are beginning to assume. I could go on; indeed, I could go on at book length, but I’ll leave you, obliquely, with this.

There was a small bookcase in the other corner, and Winston had already gravitated towards it. It contained nothing but rubbish. The hunting-down and destruction of books had been done with the same thoroughness in the prole quarters as everywhere else. It was very unlikely that there existed anywhere in Oceania a copy of a book printed earlier than 1960.

1984, George Orwell

For a book as supposedly well known and widely read as 1984, this passage garners very few citations on the Internet, which makes me wonder—and worry—about the depth of the conversations we have. Noone (in their right minds) would suggest that the West, or any fraction of it, is about to become a totalitarian state ruled over by IngSoc, but if we blithely surrender our libraries, both public and personal, as we seem with alacrity to be doing, to digitization by the Lords of the Cloud, then where will reside the control of the past? Not with you or me. None of the AGFA quartet of lords—Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple—is even middle-aged, two are teenagers, and one is still in short trousers. You might assume, as do their self-appointed overlords in their self-perceived benignity, that they’ll be around forever, immune to overthrow by more malign forces. It seems unlikely.

“What shall it be this time?” he said, still with the same faint suggestion of irony. “To the confusion of the Thought Police? To the death of Big Brother? To humanity? To the future?”
“To the past,” said Winston.
“The past is more important,” agreed O’Brien gravely.

1984, George Orwell

Regrets? I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention—although I will. There’s many a half-finished essay moldering in the bowels of the desktop, from ones for which I took all the photos, such as Utsunomiya: Nest of Loansharks, but neglected to do the requisite but intimidatingly vast research into Japan’s consumer-finance industry, to ones with barely more than a title, such as Thirty Minutes to Toyota, about the dreariness of life in Toyota’s home prefecture of Aichi. But you don’t want to hear about the ones that got away.

Learnings? Aplenty. In the last four years, I’ve learned a lot about extremities, having visited, in the course of the performance of my writerly duties, the easternmost, northernmost, westernmost, and southernmost points of mainland Japan. Much more than that, though, I’ve learned the hard way how hard it is to write hard—how anything more than a thousand or so worthwhile words a day is well-nigh impossible, at least for me.

All that now remains is for me to give a tear-fragile Oscar speech in miniature: I’d like to thank Financial Times journalist Lindsay Whipp for the article that first gave impetus to Spike; The Guardian, The Financial Times, The Economist, thebrowser.com, and the other media outlets who have kindly profiled or linked to or featured Spike; everyone who, however briefly, has perused these pages; everyone who has taken the trouble to leave a comment, and in particular Jeffrey, Troy, and my fiercest critic, Kyushu Ranger; and above all Dr. T, aka Torquatus, aka Alphatuosity, my intellectual sparring partner—although with him, I often feel like a Whyte Melville pugilist punching feebly in a class above my weight.

“There is a Party slogan dealing with the control of the past,” he said. “Repeat it, if you please.’”
“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past,” repeated Winston obediently.
“Who controls the present controls the past,” said O’Brien, nodding his head with slow approval. “Is it your opinion, Winston, that the past has real existence?”
Again the feeling of helplessness descended upon Winston. His eyes flitted towards the dial.

1984, George Orwell

Goodbye, forever?—Goodbye, Goodbye!

The Diffident sandwiches of Uta Schreck

Every perturbation is a misery, but grief is a cruel torment, a domineering passion: as in Old Rome, when the Dictator was created, all inferior magistracies ceased; when grief appears, all other passions vanish.
Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton (1651)

If you care to conceive of the Internet as a city—and it’s a workable metaphor, I think, twenty million streets splayed out under a kaleidoscope sky—then on some foggy, wastrel nights, if you’re intrepid enough to slip on that shabby gabardine trenchcoat at the back of the cupboard in the hall, turn up its collar, brace against the wind, and click-trip your way down the fustier byways and more antique alleyways, you can, if you’re lucky, a fortune-favored anthropologist, come across a civilization in microcosm that most would have imagined went extinct in the Victorian crepuscule.
Such is the Asiatic Society of Japan (patron: Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado), which, as you can glean from its recent lecture list—

  • Japanese Netsuke: Treasured Miniatures
  • Japanese Government, San Francisco Treaty, and Disposition of Okinawa
  • On the Life of the Meiji Emperor
  • Sumo: Samurai to Cyberspace: How sumo is adapting to the changing times
  • Edwin O. Reischauer [1910-1990, US Ambassador to Japan]
  • The Rediscovery of the Japanese Sword
  • The Role of Women in Kyogen
  • The Tokugawa Art Collection
  • The Brush of Asia and the Forms of Europe

—is devoted to the most traditional of culture, the highest of high politics and diplomacy, and the Imperial Way, its world unsullied by the plebeians or the provinces, by science or commerce, by the present or the future.
It was for the meetings of the Asiatic Society of Japan that, for some years, some years ago, Mrs. Uta Schreck made the sandwiches. Reference to these sandwiches occurs some half-dozen times in the online annals of the society.

May 2004
The assembled company then adjourned to the adjacent conference room … Here we were grateful to one of our Council members, Mrs. Uta Schreck, who once again demonstrated her talent for making a large assortment of open sandwiches that were both elegant and delicious.
April 2006
To end the meeting, everyone was invited to partake of the wine that Council member Mrs. Shigeko Tanaka prudently procures for the Society’s lecture meetings at once-a-year bargain prices. Those present also enjoyed delicious open sandwiches diligently prepared by Council Member Mrs. Uta Schreck.
May 2006
After the meeting those assembled were invited to partake of wine and also Mrs. Uta Schreck’s delicious and innovative open sandwiches.
Annual Report of the ASJ Council for 2006
All the meetings … concluded with a modest reception, for which … Mrs. Uta Schreck kindly provided her distinctive open sandwiches.
Annual Report of the ASJ Council for 2007
This year Mrs. Tanaka also undertook to provide some simple snacks, as Mrs. Uta Schreck’s declining physical condition prevented her from preparing her famous open sandwiches which we had enjoyed in the past.
Annual Report of the ASJ Council for 2007
Unfortunately, never a year goes by without our having sadly to record the deaths of members. This year … we said farewell to a faithful Council Member, Mrs. Uta Schreck, who, as House Committee Chair, had so often enhanced the pleasure of our meetings with her inimitable open sandwiches, a happy marriage of Japanese and European ingredients. Some of us still try to recapture the magic of those sandwiches, and Uta, surely one of our most diffident members, is fondly remembered and greatly missed.

How my appetite pulses for these sandwiches, sandwiches that are “elegant”, “delicious”, and “innovative”, “distinctive”, “famous”, and “inimitable”, “kindly provided” and “diligently prepared” by the diffident hands of Uta Schreck. How these sandwiches must have leavened the stilted badinage of the assembled Chrysanthemum Clubbers and miscellaneous dignitaries, stiff with the self-conscious archaisms of a world in which wine is “procured” (to buy it would be vulgar) and “partaken” (to drink it might hint at drunkenness). How intriguing is the final reference—“some of us still try to recapture the magic of those sandwiches”—by doing what, exactly? Holding séances?
Recast that final sentence, transpose Uta and her sandwiches. Does the meaning change?
Some of us still try to recapture the magic of Uta, one of our most diffident members, and her sandwiches are fondly remembered and greatly missed.
That suggests, to me at least, the threnody is to the sandwiches, not their creator.

I had thought that the ne plus ultra of crocodilian insincerity in public displays of grief, the absolute nonpareil nadir of our gutter culture, was the collective celebrity reaction to the death in the summer of 2011 of singer Amy Winehouse. 

Winehouse Dead: Shocked Friend Kelly Osbourne Tweets Sadness
Celebrities are taking to their Twitter to pay their respects and express their grief in regards to the sudden death of singer and songwriter Amy Winehouse, who was found dead at her London home on Saturday. …
Best friend and fellow singer Kelly Osbourne, who had previously helped the late singer check into a drug addiction treatment facility in 2008, according to The Associated Press, tweeted her disbelief.
“I can’t even breath right now i’m crying so hard I just lost 1 of my best friends. i love you forever Amy and will never forget the real you!”
Other stars took the time to tweet their respects as well, including Rihanna, Jessica Alba, Ashton Kutcher, and Kate Moss.
Rihanna: “I am genuinely heartbroken about this,” and “Dear God have mercy!!! I am SICK about this right now!”
Jessica Alba: “So sad about Amy Winehouse—she was so talented. Really tragic.”
Ashton Kutcher: “I nevr know wht 2 post after paying respect 2 sum1 who died. Just seems lk anything funny is inappropriate. mayB I’ll just go C Harry Potter.”
Fellow Brits Kate Moss and Lily Allen shared, “R.I.P. Amy Winehouse, So upset, my heart goes out to her, sad to see such talent vanish from the world.”

There’s a smorgasbord of riches to relish here—“celebrities taking to their Twitter” as if it were an Ottoman or snuff, the tweeting of sadness, the spectacle of Kelly Osbourne, starved of oxygen and deprived by tears of eyesight, valiantly tapping out a valedictory, and Dear God, it really, really is all about ME, Rihanna—but the infelicity prize must go hands-down to Ashton Kutcher (whoever he is). One can only pray that Lord Voldemort and company helped assuage his inconsolable misery. If, as psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross contended, there are five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—they are not much on display among our clutch of celebrities. 

At first blush, the responses in the record to the deaths of diffident Uta Schreck and anything-but-diffident Amy Winehouse could not have less in common, but pierce through the abyssal differences of tone and register and there’s a shared perfunctoriness—compare “fondly remembered and greatly missed” with “really tragic”—a marking of time in public mourning. And as with the sandwiches of Uta Schreck, here it is (sometimes) the songs (“such talent”, “she was so talented”) of Amy Winehouse, not person, that are memorialized.

Grief, by all accounts, is a human universal, though capable, clearly, of great cultural and historical heterogeneity—think of those images of ululating Shias in the Iraq War, or maudlin Victorians, touched by Tennyson (“O sorrow, wilt thou live with me / No casual mistress but a wife”). Debate rages in the halls of academe as to whether grief is an evolutionary maladaptation, “the cost of commitment” as psychiatrist Colin Murray Parkes labeled it, or a useful epiphenomenon, signaling a period of withdrawal and introspection. One thing strikes this casual and intermittent but curious observer of grief, though: notwithstanding the upwellings and outgushings of mass public grief over the death of a Princess Diana or a Steve Jobs, grief at its best, ardent but not debilitating, seems to me to be a glacier in deep retreat across the mountains of the modern mind, retreating from kith to closest kin, a corollary, perhaps, of a tentatively, selectively, but intriguingly documented decline in that most distinctively human of emotions, empathy. For how can you grieve for someone about whom you never really gave a tinker’s cuss in the first place?

 

Pastor Niemöller visits the Internet

Our goal is to get the user in and out really quickly. All our design decisions are based on that strategy.
Irene Au, then Google director of user experience, 2009
Eventually, you’ll have the implant, where if you think about a fact, it will just tell you the answer [sic].
Larry Page, Google co-founder, 2004

Pastor Niemöller visits the Internet, or a Luddite cry

First they came for the writers of letters
and I did not speak out
because I made the switch to e-mail, long ago.
Then they came for the musicians
and I did not speak out
because mashups of old YouTube videos are where it’s at.
Then they came for the encyclopedists
and I did not speak out
because Wikipedia is fit enough, and more than that, it’s absolutely free.
Then they came for the journalists
and I did not speak out
because I mistook the babble for the liberty of the press.
Then they came for the readers of books
and I did not speak out
because you can skim a Kindle in bed, with the lights off (imagine that!)
Then they came for the authors of books
and I did not speak out
because I had become a multimedia multitasker with multipersonalities.
Then they came for the ancient past (pre-1995, I mean)
and I did not speak out
because I was too busy, finding out what’s happening, right now.
Then they came for knowledge and wisdom
and I did not speak out
because I was facts built out of bits by then.
Then they came for my friends
and I did not speak out
because they’d still be there to like me on Facebook, wouldn’t they?
Then they came for my mind
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

{Excerpt from a forthcoming piece, No Man but a Blockhead; inspired by back-to-back readings of Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Thanks as ever to Dr. T for the signposts. Remember–always bite the hand that feeds you.}

Book Review: The Carbon Crunch

The Carbon Crunch: How We’re Getting Climate Change Wrong—and How to Fix It, by Dieter Helm, Yale University Press 

“If the future of our climate rests on the ethical outlook of Vladimir Putin and the emerging Chinese leadership of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, then there can be little grounds for optimism.” 

Dieter Helm has met the enemy, and he is coal. The rap-sheet against coal is long, of course, and starts with mass murder: the thousands of coal miners who die in China every year, gruesomely, in explosions or of asphyxiation, the thousands more in other countries who die similarly, the tens of thousands of miners whose lives are ended prematurely by coal dust. Then there are the hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of miners who have died in coal’s bloody two-century rampage, a quarter of a million in the UK alone, to say nothing of the millions of civilians even now in Beijing and Ulan Bator whose lungs wheeze and breath rasps from sooty, sulfuric smog. But unchecked coal, abetted by its lesser accomplices oil and gas, has yet more murderous plans in store: ruinous climate change.

Coal these days is mostly about China, whose share of current world coal-burn is close to half, which is adding electricity capacity equivalent to the entire UK grid every year, most of it still coal, and which plans to add coal capacity equivalent to Europe’s total coal capacity this decade. Then there’s India: between the two of them, Helm claims, they are adding three coal plants a week. The World Resources Institute’s Global Coal Risk Assessment report lists c1,200 coal-fired power stations planned globally, three-quarters in China and India, with total capacity of c1,400GW, about seventy times Europe’s solar capacity.

Then beyond coal and China, there’s a wall of new energy demand that will be stimulated by economic growth and population growth: as Africa’s population doubles over the coming couple of decades, it is far from immediately obvious that the main energy sources of the newborn will be carbon-neutral windmills and solar panels. Try severing oil subsidies in Nigeria and you’ll be in for a nasty surprise from the Lagos street.

(All of this renders Fukushima the silly little storm in a nuclear teacup that it was.)

You might then expect the enlightened leaders of our Western and Eastern democracies to be eagerly discussing—and acting on—the real threats of coal, China (and coal in China), and economic and population growth, but instead we are led a dance of denuclearization in Japan and Germany and fobbed off with tumultuously expensive turbines in the Thames estuary and photovoltaic panels in unsunny Potsdam, which will have negligible anti-carbon impact. Helm caustically asks, “What is the question to which offshore wind and rooftop solar is supposed to be the answer? It can’t be global climate change.”

As Helm surveys the two decades of utter failure since Rio in 1992 to seal a binding international agreement on emissions and the dismal but absolutely certain prospect that nothing will be done this decade, the reader is treated time and again to the swooshing of the author’s word-sword scything into the comfy shibboleths of all concerned. Wind? Crippled by its miserable load factor, the need for “Goldilocks wind”—not too strong, not too weak, and not too gusty—the requirement for an entire parallel generation system for those nasty no-wind days, and the zero-marginal cost problem, which forces all other competing power suppliers off the grid, to name but a few. Biomass and biofuels? Leaky carbon loop. Corn ethanol for E85? Needs more acres of corn than there is farmland in the US. Nuclear? Shale gas has “pulled the economic rug from under nuclear’s feet,” with even the risk, waste, and proliferation issues overshadowed by the wonky economics of new nuclear, whose capital intensivity renders it hypersensitive to the cost of capital and needy for long-term contracts, bringing immense political risk. Energy efficiency? So sorry, just leads to increased demand via the substitution effect—a drop in the price always results in an increase in demand (the Jevons Paradox)—and the income effect, whereby income saved on energy bills is spent on stuff, and the production of such stuff naturally involves energy consumption.

Some fondly hope that the world will run out of fossil fuels before they cook us all. Not a chance, says Helm. Peak oil? Perhaps, but new finds, unconventional, offshore, the Arctic, and technology that wrings more out of existing wells will keep the tail fat. Doesn’t matter much, anyway, because of the shale gas revolution, unconventional gas in the shape of coal-bed methane and tight gas, and our old friend, super-abundant coal, supplies of which are ample enough to get us to the next century, with “the embedded carbon in that coal … sufficient to bring about catastrophic climate change.”

Why have two decades of international talk-fests on climate change yielded next to nothing? Because carbon targets are “a classic case of free-rider incentives” and climate change negotiations are a textbook real-world instance of the prisoner’s dilemma from game theory, in which betrayal is always more advantageous than cooperation—except that with climate change negotiations, the true prisoners (unborn future victims of climate change) aren’t even in the room and the ultimate penalty (the rise in temperature) is unknown, rendering betrayal even more likely than cooperation. “The realistic conclusion,” Helm sighs, “is that there is going to be no legally binding, international, and enforceable, deal for at least a decade, and possibly never.”

So what, as Lenin asked, is to be done? Helm offers a three-tined proposal: impose carbon taxes, in particular carbon border taxes, to properly price the negative externality of carbon and stop “carbon offshoring”, something at which the EU has excelled; dash for gas as a transitional solution, the least-regret way of swiftly cutting carbon; and the Hail Mary of investment in R&D into next-generation no-carbon technologies. Of these, a dash-for-gas seems most achievable but no ultimate panacea; carbon border taxes, while not, Helm insists, protectionist, are unlikely to be perceived that way by noisome free-riding polluters; and hopes for next-gen tech sees Helm at his most rosy-tinted—“my email inbox is full of excited reports of the latest ‘breakthrough’”—and a tad too harsh on current renewables, as opposed to future, pie-in-the-sky ones.   

Despite the inability of shilly-shallying humanity to halt the march of its beloved carbon in its tracks and the exceptional “wickedness” of the climate change conundrum, Helm concludes with the declaration that he is an optimist (do publishers insert a Mandatory Optimistic Conclusion Clause into authors’ contracts these days?Ed). All—all!—that needs to happen is for politicians to stop lying to their electorates that we can waltz effortlessly and painlessly into a carbon-free future: “the cost of the decarbonization of entire economies is likely to be very high, and it is going to involve sacrifices,” as “decarbonizing requires the coordinated replacement of almost all of the capital stock—of the world.” The pain of investment in that from savings is bound to mean less present consumption. Consumers, in their turn, “must … be willing to vote for politicians who will force them to pay.” All that, though, to purloin and amplify one of the author’s favorite expressions, is going to be a very big ask.

In praise of…The Brown Bear

If you go down in the woods today, you’d better not go alone,
It’s lovely down in the woods today, but safer to stay at home,
For every bear that ever there was,
Will gather there for certain because,
Today’s the day the teddy bears have their picnic
Teddy Bear’s Picnic, Henry Hall & His Orchestra

Excessive harvest continues to be the most immediate threat to the persistence of Hokkaido brown bears.
Status and management of the Hokkaido brown bear in Japan, Tsutomu Mano and Joseph Moll, in Brown Bear Conservation Action Plan for Asia

“What does the sign say?” asked the illiterate Dr. T.  
One of the pleasures of botanizing with Dr. T is that when two roads diverge, we take the one less traveled, which on this occasion led us, in the rental Prius with me at the helm, at the proper and stately botanizing speed of fifteen kays, up a winding, hill-chiseled, single-track logging road, Route 607, on the Oshima Peninsula at the very southernmost tip of Hokkaido. We hadn’t encountered another human being for at least an hour, no small feat in this crowded land.
“It says, ‘Beware of the bears.’”
“Are there any bears here?”
“Nah,” I replied with the faith of the ignorant, the city-slicker guide masquerading as Mowgli, “We’re too far south. They’re all up in the far northeast.”
Ten minutes later, we rounded a corner. There was a bear in the middle of the road.
“Holy fucking crap! It’s a bear!”
Legion are the species of flora and fauna that are devilishly tough to identify in the field on first glance. Bears are not among them. This was Ursus arctos (so good they named it twice), the Brown Bear, aka the grizzly bear, or in its northeast Asian subspecies incarnation, Ursus arctos lasiotus, the Ussuri brown bear—in Japanese, the higuma.
Memories of what happened next differ. I’m told that I moved with uncharacteristic physical swiftness to close the driver’s side window of the Prius. My recollection is that I coolly asked, with the curiosity of the natural scientist, whether it was an adult.
“Of course it is!” exclaimed Dr. T, scrambling around on the back seat for his Nikon. He had about thirty fumbling seconds before the bear, rightly more wary of us than we were of it (how much I would love to know if “it” were a boar or a sow), lumbered up the hillside and into the beeches and maples, which is why even the best photo looks as if it were taken with a Box Brownie by a leprous dipsomaniac with delirium tremens. No Wildlife Photographer of the Year award for Dr. T, then.

I’d naïvely asked whether it was an adult because, not well versed in matters ursine and reared on wildlife documentaries about the salmon-fat Kodiak bears of Alaska and Hokkaido brown bears of the Shiretoko Peninsula, our bear seemed, well, a tad diminutive. Later, Dr. T, quizzed on how big it had been, replied with typical drunken eloquence, “As big as a really fucking big Alsatian!” On reviewing his photo, that seems about right.

Not that—in this case—size mattered: for both of us, it was our first encounter with a bear in the wild, a moment made so much the more magical for being wholly unexpected and unscripted. Globe-gallivanting Dr. T, one of whose friends is an authority on the Spectacled Bear of the Andes, holds out hope of one day tracking down the inspiration for Paddington Bear in deepest, darkest Peru, but for sedentary city-bound me, this was almost certainly the only bear with whom I will ever cross paths. 

The following evening, we watch an item on the evening news: an Asian Black Bear, categorized on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as vulnerable to extinction, has been driven down into residential districts in the central Japan city of Nagano by a poor season for seeds, nuts, and berries, the dearth of which has been so exasperating Dr. T.
“These narratives,” I warn Dr. T, “invariably end in the death of the bear.”
Twenty seconds later, the bear is dead, shot by a local hunter.
“Isn’t there anyone to speak up on behalf of the bear?”
“Well,” I reply, gesturing at the screen, “This guy’s from WWF Japan, but he’s just explaining how there are likely to be more bear incursions this autumn, so your answer is no.”

******

The Brown Bear is one of only two of the eight species of bear listed by the IUCN as Least Concern—five are listed as Vulnerable and one, the Giant Panda, is listed as Endangered—and while it is safe for now in its strongholds of Russia, Alaska, and Canada, it is long gone from many parts (Mexico, California, the Atlas Mountains, South Korea, the UK, and Germany) of its immense historical range and under intense pressure in many other parts (India, China, Mongolia, North Korea, and most of Europe) of the rest. The Japanese population may be the fifth largest in the world, after that of Romania. But how large is it? I thought, from previous dabbles in ursid research, that I knew the answer—around 2,000-3,000 individuals—but the truth turns out to be more elusive, as this October 6, 2012, article from the online Nikkei newspaper, which I translate in its disturbing entirety, suggests:

How many brown bears on Hokkaido? First survey in 12 years
Survey to be used in trouble countermeasures
How many brown bears are there on Hokkaido? The first population survey in 12 years is to be conducted on Hokkaido, where bear intrusions into forest villages and residential districts are frequent. The previous census, in 2000, estimated the population at 1,771-3,628, but current opinion is divided, with some claiming there are over 10,000 and others that they have been over-harvested. Hokkaido wants to get a precise grasp of the population and use the data in measures to prevent trouble. Between April and September this year, there were 963 sightings and 416 bears were harvested. Reports were made of more than 100 sightings in Sapporo City alone. In the year to March 2012, 825 bears were harvested and researchers are saying that bears are being over-culled in comparison with the estimated population count. How many bears are there really out there? We need a more precise grasp of the number. In September, the prefectural government mailed a questionnaire to some 5,800 hunters within the prefecture asking them to estimate the number of bears in their municipality and whether the number was rising or falling. The results of the survey are to be put together before next March. Discussions have also begun about bringing in the “hair-trap method”, whereby bear fur is collected and DNA analyzed to distinguish individuals, so as to enhance the precision of the survey. The Hokkaido Research Organization’s Environmental Science Research Center is pursuing research into how to cut costs. The generally accepted theory is that up to 10% of a bear population can be harvested annually without impacting the ecosystem. A survey on the Oshima Peninsula in the south of the prefecture using the hair-trap method put the bear population at 800, plus or minus 400. Plans are being drawn up to protect the bears there by putting an upper limit on the harvest at 120 individuals (40 sows).

So noone has a damned clue what is going on and the bear census is to be done shoddily and on the cheap. Assuming the Nikkei numbers are accurate, even at the upper population limit of the 2000 census the recent Hokkaido-wide cull rate (“harvest” is a noxious euphemism widely used around the world) is over 20% a year; at the lower limit it is close to 50%. On the Oshima Peninsula, the cull averaged about 80 bears a year between 1990 and 2008, the vast majority in controlled kills of “nuisance bears” (some, using the Ainu language, talk of kimun kamuy, “good bears” and uen kamuy, “bad bears”) rather than in recreational hunting, and a cull cap at 120 would have only saved bear lives one year in the last two decades. If the peninsula’s bear population is only 400, the low end of the survey estimate, the cull-rate cap would be 30% a year and the average cull rate 20% a year.

This goes some of the way to explaining why the odds were strongly stacked that our bear would seem, well, a tad diminutive: brown bears reach reproductive age at around five to seven years and live, unmolested, for 20-30 years, but at a cull rate of even 10% a year, Hokkaido brown bears have only a roughly even chance of making it to adulthood, even setting aside normal mortality rates. To put this in human terms, a cull rate of 10% equates to a homicide rate of 10,000 per 100,000 people; the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime puts the 2011 homicide rate in Honduras, reckoned to be the most murderous country in the world, at 91.6 per 100,000, more than a hundred times lower.

What of the other side of the ledger of death? Between 1980 and 2009, a total of 14 people (five of them hunters) were killed by bears on Hokkaido—fewer than 0.5 fatalities a year—while in the last dozen years, no more than three people a year have been injured annually. On the raw, unadjusted-for-stupidity data (all 18 of the bear fatalities between 1970 and 2000 were male and a minority of victims are solitary nocturnal salmon poachers), you’re approximately 400 times more likely to be killed in a Hokkaido traffic accident (190 fatalities in 2011) and 7,000 times more likely to be injured in one (19,705 injuries in 2011). You’re also approximately 3,000 times more likely to die by your own sweet hand than at the paws of a bear (1,533 Hokkaido suicides in 2010). With people outnumbering bears by about a thousand to one (and I would guess “Beware of the bear” signs outnumbering flesh-and-blood bears by fifty to one), it’s a massively, massively lop-sided conflict between these two apex omnivores. There’s damage to crops and forests to be taken into account, too, but this could be overcome with a well designed compensation scheme—the damage amounts to a paltry million dollars or so a year.

The human population of the eight towns that make up the remote southern end of the Oshima peninsula, where the bears are densest, is collapsing—from 89,000 in 1970 to 47,000 in 2010 and a projected 27,000 in 2035—and across Hokkaido the hunter population is likewise collapsing, down by more than half since the 1978 peak to 9,400 of late, with 44% of them over 60, but it would be premature to declare victory for the bear on these grounds, as the Oshima bear population has been falling these past four decades, too. As long as bears are seen as a pestilent and lethal enemy to be subdued—a view kept alive by folk memories of episodes from the early settler era such as the Sankebetsu Brown Bear Incident—as long as there are people around, and as long as some have guns, the conflict will run and run.

******

We pressed on along Route 607, which turned into a deeply, rockily rutted track.
“You know, there are very few roads down which you can’t take a two-wheel drive car,” airily opined Dr. T, whose steed of choice is a Land Rover Defender, who believes all lesser mounts must be—or should be, in a righteous world—just as rugged, and who has previous global convictions as long as a brachiating gibbon’s arm for grievous rental car abuse—if rent-a-car agencies had an Interpol most wanted list, he would be on it.
Moments later, to a banshee wail of stone against steel, the Prius grounded out.
“Fuck this for a lark, I’m turning round.”
We headed up around the coast to the other end of Route 607, but could only get a few kilometers into the interior before being thwarted by a forbidding barrier declaring that the road ahead had been washed away.

Even Dr. T in his Land Rover couldn’t have maneuvered past this—although I bet he would have given it the old college try. Unlike other barrier-blocked roads we had run up against in our travels, this one offered no schedule for reopening. Beside the barrier stood a wooden house, its frail, skeletal rib-cage of a roof staved in as if by a giant, vengeful fist. It’s the same all over rural Hokkaido: the homesteads on the most marginal land, furthest from civilization, are as a rule the first to go. Perhaps, I later mused, just perhaps this is where bear salvation lies, in the withdrawal from the extremities of Homo sapiens sapiens (so good—and so immodest—we named ourselves twice) and the closure of logging roads rendered redundant by the demise of the timber trade.

Darwin’s dice have rolled badly for Earth. Thanks to the selfish genetic success of the human cockroach, the 21st century is destined by many a reckoning to see the extirpation of half of all of the creatures with whom we share the planet, in what may come to be known as the Anthropocene extinction, the greatest and swiftest extinction event since at least the end of the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago. Barring nuclear holocaust, utterly catastrophic climate change, or asteroid impact, the Brown Bear might make it through to the dawn of the 22nd century, along with the American Black Bear and, courtesy of the crudely nationalist and blinkered efforts of the Chinese state, the Giant Panda, already conservation dependent and ecologically extinct. It has to be touch and go for the other five bears. In the follies of my Greenpeace youth, I used to care passionately about these things, until I came to appreciate the enormity of humanity’s indifference.
As Brion Gysin said, man is a bad animal.

Select sources (in no particular order):

The World Wildlife Fund Japan hates bears (J only)

Hokkaido suicide rates (J)

Hokkaido road traffic death and accident rates (J)

Japan Bear Network report on bear-caused deaths and injuries in Japan (J, pdf)

Bear-caused deaths and injuries on Hokkaido, 1970-2000 (J)

Bear-caused injuries in Japan, 2007-2012 (J)

Bears culled in Japan, 2007-2012 (J)

Bears, forests, and bear culls in Japan, 1923-2006 (J, pdf)

Aging hunters on Hokkaido (J)

Interpreting the recent increase of brown bear conflicts in Hokkaido, Japan, from the 20th International Conference on Bear Research and Management, 2011 (E, pdf)

Status and management of the Hokkaido brown bear in Japan, in Brown Bear Conservation Action Plan for Asia (E, pdf)

Population Characteristics of Brown Bears on Oshima Peninsula, Hokkaido (E, ppt)

Management and Research of Brown Bears on Oshima Peninsula (E, ppt)

IUCN Red List data for the Brown Bear (E)

Bear Conservation and Biodiversity, Japan Bear Network (E, pdf)

The status of brown bears in Japan, in Understanding Asian bears to secure their future (E, pdf)

Modeling the brown bear population in Slovenia (E, pdf)