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Yubari: Withering into truth

I was recently commissioned by The Guardian newspaper to profile dear old Yubari in a short article; you can read the fruits of that endeavor, should you care to, here. However, the piece was hacked about and chopped down to make it more digestible for the hurried browser, so I thought I would post the unexpurgated version here, the director’s cut, as it were, with the scenes that were left on the cutting-room floor restored. Veteran Spike readers will be familiar with the tale, but there were a few twists and turns in it I hadn’t anticipated when I began the research process. Revisiting all the places Spike made it to in the blog’s five-year run every five years or so would turn into a Sisyphean task, like the painting of the Forth Bridge; a fascinating grand travaux but not one I’ll be undertaking in this life. I apologize for any infelicities in the prose, which I ascribe to the rigors of contemporary journalism. As Stella Gibbons observes in the foreword to Cold Comfort Farm, “The life of the journalist is poor, nasty, brutish, and short. So is his style.”

Few cities in the developed world can have been put as comprehensively through the wringer as Yubari, on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido and in its heyday known as the capital of coal: from a peak of just shy of 120,000 people in 1960, its population plummeted by four-fifths, to 21,000, in 1990, the year the last colliery closed and the last miners fled, and has since more than halved again, to below 10,000, as those who stayed on aged and died or drifted away in the wake of the city’s tumultuous 2007 bankruptcy.


Ramshackle hostelry aflame with rust, upper Yubari. All photographs: Richard Hendy for The Guardian

Yubari now is a city of superlatives, mostly invidious ones: demographically, it is the oldest city in Japan, probably the world, and possibly ever to have existed, with a median age in 2010 of over 57 set to rise to 65 in 2020, when more people will be over 80 than under 40, making Yubari perhaps the world’s first pensioner-majority city. The population is still falling precipitously, down by a sixth in just five years, and there are fewer children, proportionately, than in any other city, with barely one in twenty of the population under 15—some dozen old-timers die in Yubari for every child born. Following the bankruptcy, Yubari has the most onerous debt burden and close to the weakest finances of any Japanese city, while its bureaucrats and mayor draw the lowest salaries—about £18,000 in the mayor’s case. For the city as a whole, per capita taxable income fell by nearly a third between 1998 and 2012.


Miners’ row houses, some of the very last ones left, with allotments. The reroofed house is still inhabited.

After five years in the Tokyo hot-house since my last visit, I was eager to return, to ring the continuities and changes in such a rapidly shrinking place and to see if it would be possible to tease out a more guardedly optimistic narrative of managed senescence than the one customarily presented in the national—and international—media, for in the five years I’d been away much had changed, not all for the worse. Spurred by the rigors of bankruptcy, the schools, of which Yubari—like much of Japan—had far too many, have been consolidated, into a single elementary, junior high, and high school apiece, the wherewithal has somehow been found to build two tracts of considerately single-storey public housing, jobs have been created with the arrival of Chinese herbal medicine factory, and Japan’s oldest city in 2011 elected the country’s youngest mayor, the dashing and energetic Naomichi Suzuki, who had just turned 30 on election and who has come to relish his role as PR costermonger-in-chief for Yubari produce. Were there lessons in how to die with dignity in the Yubari experience for Detroit, which followed its now miniscule Japanese cousin into bankruptcy last year, and for the future Detroits waiting in the wings?


Yubari Melon Soda has the mayor’s seal of approval.

An epochal national event had occurred in the five years I had been away, too: Japan’s population, after several years at a plateau, began in 2011 to turn unambiguously lower, making the nation the first and so far only major developed country with a declining population. Currently close to 85% of municipalities in Japan are shrinking, compared to less than 5% of local authorities in England and Wales in the 2011 census. Demography is front-page news in Japan: alarmism reached feverish levels this spring with the publication of a report that asserts more than half of Japan’s municipalities are “at risk of extinction” by 2040 as their numbers of reproductive-age women halve versus 2010—or in Yubari’s case, fall by 85% to just 100.


Movie posters on the side of an old warehouse, upper Yubari. Yubari has tried to promote itself as a city of cinema, with indifferent success.

This makes Yubari fascinating as the demographic canary in the Japanese, erm, coal mine, a Dorian Gray portrait of the country’s future as much as its past. When celebrated doctor Tomohiko Murakami, who helmed the post-bankruptcy downsizing of Yubari’s only hospital into a clinic before he was felled in a bizarre love triangle-cum-attempted murder incident, describes contemporary Yubari as a “microcosm of Japan in 2050”, he exaggerates only mildly: by around 2060, the over-65s are projected to account for four out of every 10 Japanese, a ratio Yubari reached about a decade ago.


Buckling electrical goods store in the Yubari district of Nanbu, which has lost a quarter of its population in the last five years.

In the late 1970s, the city elders, confronted with the imminent demise of the city’s backbone industry, pumped up by febrile talk of Japan as an emergent lifestyle superpower, and oblivious to Yubari’s frigid climate (the mean annual temperature is below 6°C and the city is snowbound half the year), threw in their lot with the fickle deity of tourism and built a vast theme park, replete with the usual attractions such as a roller coaster and giant Ferris wheel, as well as some more outré ones, such as a World Stuffed Animal House, and plenty whose purpose cannot be fathomed from their names alone—roller luge, atomic coaster, and Great Poseidon.


Adventure slider Kilimanjaro, Coal History Village theme park, Yubari.

The theme park staggered on for years with backhander subsidies from the city before going belly up in 2006. Five years ago, the odd family still strolled the carcass of the park but this time around, with the remnant facilities in a more pronounced stage of decay, my only companion was an aggressive male stonechat, pounding out a chek-chek-chek in defence of his territory from the intruder.


Clock tower in collapsing pastel, Coal History Village theme park, Yubari.

Yubari’s other claim to fame is its eponymous cantaloupe melon brand, which first rose to prominence in the go-go days of the 1960s. This May, the first pair of the season fetched an eye-watering £15,000 at auction, equaling the record high and making them surely the most expensive fruit ever sold. Even the solo melon on the turn of mediocre quality I picked up at the airport at half-price set me back £11. The melon farmers are consequently doing very nicely, thank you for asking, but they are ageing fast, too.


In the Japanese language, melons do not serve as a dirty-postcard euphemism for a secondary female sex characteristic.

Yubari’s main arterial road, its umbilical cord to the world, has recently been bypassed by an expressway, allowing all but the most dedicated tourists to give the city a miss, with a predictably calamitous impact on the souvenir emporia. One emporium, in a flailing bid to ride Japan’s interminable cuddly mascot boom, has come up with a radical new character, Melon Bear, which pushes the boundaries of cute into the realm of creepy and which has emphatically not been embraced by the Yubari establishment. Indeed, it took me three days’ driving around Yubari, which sprawls across an area half the size of London, before I was able to hunt down the Melon Bear lair.


Do bears crap in the woods? Not Melon Bears, apparently.

The once vast souvenir emporium now occupies perhaps a tenth of its original size; in this nook I marveled at the gamut of tawdry Melon Bear knickknacks on offer as a TV played reruns of an encounter between Melon Bear and its handler, a woman in late middle age known as Nacchan, and a member of Japan’s most famous boy band, SMAP, in which Nacchan was mocked mercilessly for her doltish rusticity. And then the real Nacchan popped up behind the counter as a huddle of tourists from Hong Kong, who had evidently come on holiday to Yubari by mistake, blundered into the shop, and Nacchan nattered away to them in a language it was not plausible they would understand about how they could have this box of six plastic Melon Bear piggy banks, cunningly packaged like real melons, for the unbeatable price of £50. I stepped in to interpret but failed to effect a deal.


Desperate times, desperate measures.

One unheralded Yubari success story is its rewilding, although no Japanese administrator would use that expression, which smacks of defeatism. When the city had the money in the 1970s and 1980s, it tore down vast tracts of miners’ housing, and standing in the upper Yubari valley gazing up at the verdant hillsides, it is almost impossible to conceive that they were once covered with sooty tenements. One far-flung settlement, once home to 25,000 souls, has been entirely razed and partly entombed by a reservoir, the only vestige of its existence now a quartet of black granite obelisks commemorating its long-gone schools. Almost all trace of the coal mines, save the odd slag-heap, has been expunged. Compare and contrast with Detroit and, say, its Packard Automotive Plant, shuttered in 1958 and still a ruin. Work remains to be done—roughly a third of the city’s stock of public housing, in which half of Yubari’s denizens dwell, lies empty, a ratio that will only rise—but the bulk of the task is over.

As humanity recedes, nature returns. By a railway station on Yubari’s somnolent branch line, a man who’s come in a small act of public spiritedness to water the bare concrete floors of the station building (“It keeps the dust down”) points to a Sika Deer doe in the undergrowth by the line. “Unusual to see one around here until just recently”. A brace more deer vault in front of my car on Yubari’s main drag the following day, forcing a swerve. Good use is being made of the return of nature, too: an abandoned elementary school has recently been turned into a nature academy, where big-city kids can kayak down now pristine rivers and catch now abundant stag beetles.


Nature always wins.

Yubari has other lessons for the rust-belts of the West, too, although the lessons may be unlearnable. There’s no graffiti, no vandalism, and scarcely any crime. Whole years can elapse without a single felony troubling the police blotter and in 2013 there was less than a single crime of any description a week. Best of all, the state has not abdicated or shirked its responsibilities: there are still at least a dozen post offices, the fire engines are spit-polished and ready to respond to the monthly fire, and the public payphones, should you need one, are immaculate. Nor is the state rapacious: if you qualify, two-bedroom apartments in newish public blocks rent for around £150 a month, there are forty sheltered housing units for the elderly that rent for less than £30 a month, and if you’re old and poor enough, someone will come and shovel your snow away for nothing.


An elderly woman walks home to her new public housing, which at £100,000 a unit, wasn’t cheap to construct.

So what does the future hold for Yubari? More of the same: between 2010 and 2040, the population is projected to shrink by another two-thirds, a projection that is all but certain to unfold, as it is based mostly on the age profiles of people already alive. The grand folly of monument-driven tourism is over, the lessons expensively, ruinously, learned. Reading between the bromides of the bureaucrats, the 2012 Master Plan for the city calls for an orderly retreat from the fringes to the core, with the emphasis on preventative healthcare for the old, who will more and more have to tender to the very old. Yubari is in its last throes now, learning, with a few pratfalls but many successes, how to die with dignity.

With the world’s population set to fall from mid-century, it might just be that Yubari is a harbinger of how humankind’s span on our pale blue dot winds down, not with the bang of nuclear war or environmental degradation but the whimper of a bronchial cough and a slip in the bath. Which is why the city is so magnificently instructive: there are few spots in the world more congenial to the contemplation of humanity’s futility and mortality—and one’s own—than this place, busily withering, to purloin Yeats, into truth.


Junior high school boy on his way home.



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.



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, 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
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


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?


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.



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
“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 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,, 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!

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: Fresh Currents

[Fresh Currents: Japan’s flow from a nuclear past to a renewable future can be downloaded for free and quickly here. It is also available from good bookstores, priced ¥2,000.]

“In short, Fresh Currents is more than a book: It is a piece of living history that crystallizes the threshold upon which we stand today.”
 Japan Times book review by Chuo University Law Professor Stephen Hesse

“That’s the way everything was: Everything was written by somebody who didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, so it was a little bit wrong, always!”
Judging Books by Their Covers, in Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!, Richard Feynman

Hop on the haunted house of horrors ride at the funfair, and the moment when you enter that parallel, fictive world of ghoulies and ghosties, and long-legged beasties, and things that go bump in the night comes when the trolley hurtles forward and the swing doors open to consume you; with Fresh Currents, that entry to a parallel world, one in which nuclear power is Evil and all renewables are Saintly, one where the emotional tail wags the rational dog, one tailor-made for the most acerbic put-down of psychologist Daniel Kahneman—“good technologies have few costs in the imaginary world in which we inhabit, bad technologies have no benefits, and all decisions are easy”—comes early on, in the introduction by editor Eric Johnston, where he doffs his hat to thank The Japan Times, “one of the world’s finest newspapers”, seemingly with nary a sliver of tongue in cheek. No disrespect to the toilers at the august organ, some of whom are fine writers and all of whom, I’m sure, are underpaid, but this sounds like an alternative punchline to the hoary expat one-liner, “You know you’ve been in Japan too long when…you start bowing on the telephone.” You really have been in Japan too long if you believe that The Japan Times, with its uber-pompous editorials, “Paraguay-Japan ties strong, getting stronger” propaganda guff, embarrassing Readers in Council letters to the editor page, and content largely filched from wire services and real newspapers around the globe, is one of the world’s finest newspapers.

Parochialism of this sort infests the book—not a literal, geographic parochialism, but a more insidious sort, one in which standards and expectations are diminished by isolation and an uncritical audience. Among the lows of the many lowlights are the following: a long, rambling essay by journalist David McNeil, Tohoku Damashii (“The soul of Tohoku”), much of which, irrelevant to the title on the tin of the book, is about the tsunami in general, an essay with academic pretentions but one in which footnotes come and go randomly, footnotes with suspiciously clustered dates that make it read like a cut-and-shut job pasted together from previously published material, a suspicion underscored by the appearance early in the course of the essay of a mysterious character named “Kai Watanabe”, of whom all we learn that her home is in Okuma and then, many pages on, that her parents have abandoned hope of going back to Okuma, an essay that threatens to flay the bark of the tree of the English language to within the sap of its life (“fickle weather and incessant taxation also produced periods of terrible famine”); a jejune travelogue, Fear & Loathing, Deception & Denial in Nuclear Cloud Cuckoo Land, (when the talk turns serious, people, can we ditch the spurious Hunter S. Thompson references, please) by “award-winning photographer and writer” John Ashburne, in which it is imperative for understanding in the last third of the piece that the reader knows where the action takes place, but is offered no clue, although in the superannuated tradition of New Journalism, we are told the time and date with exquisite precision (“at 6.30pm on the evening of 8th August, 2012, I wandered back into the dining room of my humble hotel”); a wholly disingenuous piece by Eric Johnston, Can Nuclear Power Help Fight Global Warming?, in which he—rightly—lays out what a formidable ramp-up of nuclear capacity would be needed to replace fossil-fuel power plants globally by 2050, but then conveniently fails to lay out the even more formidable challenges replacing them with wind, water, and sun pose; an ostensibly muckraking article wholly mistitled Fukushima Workers and the Yakuza, by freelance journalist Tomohiko Suzuki, in which only one paragraph in three pages even mentions organized crime; and The Promise of Alternative Energy, by “well-known landscape artist” Brian Williams (et al), who appear to think that Flying Electric Generators tethered from up in the troposphere to earth and harnessing the trade winds will solve the world’s energy problems sometime soon. Why not extract sunlight from cucumbers while we’re about it?

The relative highlights are hard to come by, but in a book this diverse there have to be a few: journalist Winifred Bird provides two, one on how to “grow your own energy” (although on efficiency grounds I don’t share her optimism on locally sourced and consumed energy) and one on energy efficiency (where she is bloodhound-right on the scent of waste). The other is from “political maverick” Taro Kono, on the inanities and impossibilities of the nuclear reprocessing cycle, who manages—just—to crack the only joke in an otherwise humorless tome.

But what really exercise me are the errors. If there were an Olympics of Error for books, Fresh Currents would sweep podium after podium and stand proudly at the top of the medal rankings. The humble bronze for error goes to the endless typos, solecisms, and other editorial foul-ups: we are told, for instance, that Japan’s hydro plants (good) generated 76.9GW in 2009, when we’ve been told two pages before that the installed nuclear (bad) capacity is 46.15GW. So hydro has twice the “power” of nukes! What’s wrong, you ask? Well, output is measured in MW h or GW h, not MW or GW, and hydro mustered only 76.9mn Mw h of output in 2009, versus c280mn MW h for nukes. Some fool confused gigawatts with megawatts/hour. Then there’s the map (on p131) that purports to show “54 municipalities that have from 5% to 100% of their electricity supply produced by renewable energy”—but even a colorblind and barely numerate dunce would be able to count out nearly 50 municipalities on Hokkaido alone.

But for Fresh Currents these are minor SNAFUs. Silver goes to the map that claims to show The Seismic Threat to Japan’s Nuclear Network (on p20-21), on whose two pages I laboriously counted at least 37 mistakes (and I don’t have access to all of the underlying data), ranging from the trivial (asterisked footnotes with no asterisk above them, for instance) to the laughable—how could *anyone* with pretentions to anti-nuclear authority get the names of two of Japan’s 17 nuclear power plants wrong?

Gold, the undisputed gold, though, goes to a chart (on p46) that purports to delineate the contemporary Connections between Media & The Nuclear Industry. It begins like this:

NHK [Japan’s BBC]
Management Issue Committee, Gaishi Hiraiwa
(is also President of Tokyo Electric Power Co., Inc.)
and then moves on to the most powerful private-sector TV station:
Owner of Yomiuri Newspaper, Matsutaro Shoriki
(is also Chairman of Japan Atomic Energy Commission)

“That’s odd,” I thought, “I don’t remember any Hiraiwa serving as president of Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) in recent years. What’s the source for this chart?” It turned out to be an URL, which turned out to be a BBS, Expat Café (“A home for displaced souls”). You can see the original post here. “Hmm,” I thought, “Should books with ambitions to stake a place in a serious debate stoop to sourcing material from unsourced posts on bulletin boards? And where did this chart come from originally?” A moment rootling around the Interwebs turns up the book that looks to be the source, Dangerous Talk by Takashi Hirose, published in…1987. But it gets worse, for even back in 1987 this was a *historical* chart, as while Gaishi Hiraiwa (1914-2007) served as chairman of TEPCO (the above “president” is a mistranslation on the part of the Fresh Currents folks) from 1984 to 1993, Matsutaro Shoriki (1885-1969) was chair of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission for less than a year, that year being…1956. If wrong were a star, this chart would be a red supergiant.

“Details, schmetails,” you might say, “Enough with the captious pedant shtick,” but I would beg to disagree. Errors on this scale pulverize to smithereens the relationship of trust that must exist between reader and writer in a fact-dependent non-fiction work on an issue, the future of energy, that has to be thought through and debated in as dispassionate and an informed way as possible.

Dejected, I came to doubt more intensely a couple of dubious passages I’d ringed elsewhere, and went back to check on them. The first was this, by Eric Johnson in Can Nuclear Power Help Fight Global Warming?:

Some may argue that nuclear power plants will be built by major greenhouse gas emitters like China, which can afford to construct massive nuclear plants. Yet wind power, not nuclear, is growing by leaps and bounds in China. Chinese authorities, for all their pronouncements, have a long way to go to actually constructing the hundreds of nuclear plants they claim are on the drawing board.

On closer inspection, that last assertion, about “hundreds of nuclear plants” being on the Chinese drawing board, is obviously hyperbole, and I suspect the author knows it—and knew it even as he was writing it. This is the very essence of bullshit, as beautifully delineated by philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, in On Bullshit:

For the bullshitter, however, all these bets [on truth and falsehood] are off: he is neither on the side of the true or the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says.

Sourcing World Nuclear Association and China Electric Power News data, I find just 10 *new* nuclear plants under construction between 2010 and 2015 and eight more *new* ones planned for 2015-2020. Even at the reactor level, there are only 42 planned for 2015-2020. And what of this “long way” to construction? In spite of Fukushima, construction is proceeding much as planned (not that we should necessarily be rejoicing at that, but equally we shouldn’t let anti-nuclear hysteria blind us to what is actually happening). And is it wind, not nuclear, that’s growing by “leaps and bounds” in China? I resent having to get up off my fat arse (alright, stay on my fat arse) to research this, but I can tell you (not that you should be surprised), courtesy of the China Electricity Council, that what’s really growing in China is good old bronchitis-inducing coal, with 25.8GW of thermal capacity added in January-September 2012 versus 5.9GW for wind (down 10.6% on the year). Oh, and by the way, wind attracted RMB82.9bn in investment in 2011, down 7% on the year, only slightly more than nuclear, at RMB74.0bn, up 18%. What’s growing by leaps and bounds again?

The second was this, in Fear & Loathing, blah blah, about the still to be activated spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant at Rokkasho:

Like all the nuclear installations on the [Shimokita] peninsula, the Rokkasho plant lost electrical power after last year’s quake—the entire grid north of the town of Miyagi is wired in series, just like the proverbial fairy lights—and was forced to run on back-up generators never intended for extended use, until power was restored on March 22, 11 harrowing days later.

Really? My recollection was that power was restored to almost all of northern Japan within three or four days. A little rootle, and what did I find? A press release here (J) from Rokkasho operator Japan Nuclear Fuels Limited (JNFL) stating that power was restored on March 13, at 22:22, two days and eight hours after the earthquake. Once, in my criminal lawyering days, I met two men in different London police stations who both claimed to be Jesus, and as I noted later over drinks, at least one of them had to be wrong. In this case, wrong is not, I suspect, with JNFL. [And where is this “town” of Miyagi? Last time I looked, it was a prefecture (although there once was a town called Miyagi, absorbed into Sendai in…1987).]

At this point, I consigned my printout of Fresh Currents to the sharp and unforgiving teeth of the shredder.

The second saddest thing about Fresh Currents is that it is a monumental exercise in what psychologists call “motivated reasoning”, in which, prey to a passion, you argue back from your conclusion and ignore any inconveniences that might get in the way; the single saddest thing about it is that there is ample room, nay even a desperate need, for a book, written by a person (or persons) with a background in the relevant disciplines of maths/physics, civil engineering, economics, and—dare I say—evolutionary psychology (backgrounds that none of the authors of Fresh Currents possess), that lays out how we might just, against all odds, painfully, with much sacrifice, and against all of our hard-wired instincts for laziness, get to a zero-carbon society in Japan and the world in 2050, a book that might look like this. Pompously inflated with falsely righteous and indignant hot air, Fresh Currents so sadly isn’t it.

In praise of…The Oma-Hakodate ferry

I too board the ferryboat alone.
Staring at the freezing seagulls, I cry.
Oh, Tsugaru Straits, a winter scene…
Farewell my love, I’m going home.
The wind shakes my heart, just brings tears.
Oh, Tsugaru Straits, a winter scene.

Tsugaru Straits, a winter scene, Sayuri Ishikawa, 1977

“Nostalgic sea route” says the nostalgic black-and-white poster in the ferry corridor, opting for the English word for “nostalgic”, rendered in katakana, over the Japanese one. It chronicles how services started on the Oma-Hakodate run in 1964, the year of the Tokyo Olympics, with the redoubtably named Daikan Maru. Another boat was added in 1965, another in 1968, another in 1969, another in 1970, and another in 1971, the year of the Nixon shock. A former ferry crewman tells on the poster of a dozen round-trip sailings a day on the then two hour, now a hundred minute, voyage back in the Showa Forties (1965-1975); later, on a 1971 timetable at the ferry operator’s website, I count 15 sailings, many deep in the night.

Then something goes awry: no more new ferries join the route and the older ones are pensioned off, I believe, in the seventies and eighties. In 1988 the ferry to whose walls this poster is pinned, the bafflingly named Vayu, is commissioned, and these days she is the only one left on the Oma-Hakodate run, which is down to two sailings a day—and she was not even a third full on the off-season weekday I found myself poring over this poster. What went wrong? It can only be speculation, but I would wager that growing affluence and falling airfares robbed the ferries first of their foot traffic and then the spread of the rental car and the cult of convenience robbed them of their vehicle traffic. No trains or planes link tiny Oma with the rest of Japan; the only passage in is a crawl along the top of Honshu, three hours and a hundred miles north of an expressway.

White squares of paper inscribed in nautical blue with our destination—not that there are ferries out of Oma to anywhere other than Hakodate—placed on our dashboards, we clang up the gangramp and—“Fold your mirrors!” shout the orange jump-suited ferrymen over the thrum—clamber up the steep steel staircases to the passenger deck. At the stern, exposed to the elements, are rows of backward-facing plastic molded bucket seats bolted to steel bars, and into one I slump as the gritty tang of diesel fumes, so foreign to these antiseptic shores and so welcome, begins to bite, as a storm brews over the mountains behind Oma to the south and the sun from the east illuminates a wheel-handle of what if any consequence I know not, dripping with white paint-icicles that foretell this autumn morning of the winter ahead.

In their world of drab industrial greens, a world no stranger to the ship will ever know, the ferrymen winch in their python ropes that tie us to land and the Vayu shudders and judders into awful life.

Departure is a process of shedding, of casting away, the sloughing off of the skeins that tangle us on land, an escape into a purer, elemental world of sea and sun and sky, a world bereft of pachinko parlors and home improvement centers and Y100 thrift stores—although we carry with us the grubby landlubber crimes (no seafarer would doubt our guilt) of instant noodles and ancient coffee.

Flitting from port to starboard, starboard to port, leaning on the low balustrades with their topmost rail the texture and color of teak, I marvel at the guts of the ferry, the slathered coats and recoats of paint, the hooks and eyes, the stencils and hoops, the lifeboat gantries and the modern crows’ nest and the icy lights, drinking in every last clasp and bolt.

The Vayu is in her last seasons of life in this incarnation: after a quarter of a century plying the Tsugaru Straits, she is to be replaced by a new Daikan Maru in spring next year. Will she see another quarter of a century of service in some poor, watery nation like the Phillipines or Bangladesh, I wonder, or is she destined to head straight for the scrapyard? Allusive press releases on the ferry operator’s website speak of a ferocious tussle fought by Oma to keep the route alive against the operator’s will, of compensation for losses incurred in recent years, and of promises by Oma to shoulder the entire cost of the new ferry in return for a pledge by the operator not to downsize. So the new ferry will be longer, heavier, and able to carry more passengers (478 versus 470, to be precise) than the Vayu. Not that a sparkling new ferry, regrettably, will make the route viable again without lashings of subsidies, subsidies that Oma may be gambling that it can afford with its half-finished and now hugely controversial nuclear power plant.

Half-way out, half-way home, somewhere on the roiling, oily-black waters of the Tsugaru Straits—where it matters not—current tugging the boat east into the Pacific, engine and propeller fighting back, we cross the invisible Blakiston Line, the silent marker of a biogeographic discontinuity much less familiar than the Wallace Line that seperates Southeast Asia and Australia, named after the Victorian gentleman of leisure and adventure Thomas Wright Blakiston (1832-1891), he of the largest and rarest Fish Owl, a man once described as having an acute “sensitization to the strange”, who first hypothesized—correctly, as it turns out—that the deep Tsugaru Straits, unlike the shallower La Pérouse Straits that separate Hokkaido and Sakhalin, never permitted a land-bridge to form between Hokkaido and Honshu during the last glacial maximum, which explains elegantly, among many other natural phenomena, why there are grizzlies on Hokkaido and black bears on Honshu and macaques on Honshu but not on Hokkaido. It’s this, the Blakiston Line, I come to appreciate after ten days of botanizing with Dr. T, as much as any human intervention, which renders Hokkaido and its birch-white forests so other-worldly to a visitor from the south.

My fellow passengers are listless; for them ferry time is a caesura in the prosody of their lives. A lanky lad, encrusted with barnacles of silver jewelry, yaps animatedly into a mobile then crumples into a heap. Most sprawl and splay, sleep or read, chat or stare idly into space on their little shoeless islands.

Port side, another ferry, this one steaming up from Aomori, appears on the mirage of the horizon first as a trio of grey grain elevators, then as a gunmetal battleship jacked up out of the water as if on hydrofoils, as shearwaters skate across the polite whitecaps and the lipstick slit of a Korean VLCC (very large crude carrier) sidles westward into view.

Up looms Mount Hakodate, atop which a statue of Blakiston watches over us; soon I can pick out to the west the Kami’iso cement works, with its monstrous marine centipede of a loading jetty marching out a couple of kilometers into the ocean.

Interminable announcements presage arrival and send us scurrying down into the bowels to our cars and campervans, past tires strung up as improvised cushions and inscrutable numeric runes, impatient for the giant yellow and green gape of the ferry’s jaws to slack open, and as we wait, I reflect back on how, gazing from the starboard balustrade at the great sweep of the straits out into the Pacific, it felt as if the Vayu was the sister of every boat, from coracle to catamaran, that had ever sailed, just a boat, like all boats, in sea and sun and sky, a naked bridge between two worlds.

Spike is on holiday

Spike is off on holiday with his mad botanist and evolutionary biologist amigo, Dr. T, to the wettest, boggiest, squelchiest bits of Hokkaido, in search of highly toxic Veratrum sp. herbs. It could all go a bit Hunter S. If I live, you’ll hear more in November. In the meantime, I leave you with this (I think) guilessly lovely snippet from the now almost forgotten UK poet and writer James Kirkup, on Tokyo in 1959–how times change–or do not:

Everywhere people were walking, trotting, running, cycling, driving along helter-skelter on tiny three-wheeled trucks; there was a lorry load of blue-bloomered, apple-cheeked working women with white cloths draped round their heads, smiling and waving at me; there were sturdy blue-jeaned boys with white towels knotted round their shaven pates and riding rickety bicycles, holding the handlebars with only one muscular brown hand, while the other bore aloft above the right shoulder a tall pile of trays and dishes and bowls full of noodles and steaming soup. Farther on there were women in kimono and wooden pattens, pattering along, carrying rosy-faced babies on their backs, wrapped in padded, quilted, flowery capes. I glimpsed a jovial granny dandling a baby by jigging up and down with it on her back. Vans decorated with banners and balloons and flags and streamers for the New Year whizzed passed our sedate limousine in a mad flurry of vermilions, blues, greens and a frenzy of flickering black characters on rattling cloth pennants. Everything was sharp, quick, keen, a little too hectic. It was like looking at a speeded-up film. And the noise was deafening.