A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh (1934)

Brenda and Tony

Five or six years ago Brenda Rex married Tony Last. She is Lord St Cloud’s daughter, ‘very fair, [with an] underwater look’. They lived in a flat in London till Tony’s father died two years later, and left him an impressive Victorian country house, Hetton, loving described in a page of purple prose. But what with the upkeep of the big draughty place and wages for the fifteen or so servants (including the butler, Ambrose), they don’t have much disposable income and can’t afford to go up to London very often.

They have a simply adorable little boy, John Andrew, who has a tut-tutting nanny. One of the other servants is a riding master, Ben Hacket, who’s teaching the boy how ride and jump fences on his pony, Thunderclap (and in a comic recurring theme, also exposing the boy to rather fruity phrases which nanny considers wholly inappropriate).

Enter John Beaver

One weekend, John Beaver, a non-descript young man comes to stay. He has no money and no title and no relatives. One night when Tony was up in town he found himself in the bar of his club, Bratts, almost alone except for this Beaver fellah, and they had a few drinks and then dinner and Tony, out of politeness, asked him to come down to stay at the country place. Never dreamed he would. But here he was, having caught the train down.

There are no other guests so he and Brenda put a brave face on entertaining the young man, carefully assigning him the coldest spare bedroom (Sir Galahad; with Victorian heaviness, all the bedrooms are named after characters from the King Arthur stories) with the most uncomfortable bed, in a bid to get rid of him asap.

During the day Tony makes excuses to go out on estate business, see to his tenants, pop into the local town, go to church on Sunday morning and generally avoid young Beaver. So it falls to Brenda to engage him in conversation and try to keep him entertained.

At first, when Beaver has gone to dress for dinner or whatever, when she is alone with Tony, she complains about how tiresome he is. But Beaver is used to staying at country places, he’s the non-descript, unimportant chaps who makes up the numbers at countless society parties and weekends, and so he puts on a good display of conversation and pretends to be interested in the house and ends up staying an extra night. By the time he leaves on Monday morning Brenda is describing him as quite tolerable, you know.

Their affair begins

Thus begins the slow slide by which Brenda Last commences an adulterous affair with bland John Beaver, to her own surprise, the amazement of her sister, Marjorie, and the delight of gossip-starved wider society.

(Brenda’s sister, Marjorie is married to Allan, ‘the prospective Conservative candidate for a South London constituency of strong Labour sympathies’. They are hard up, too hard up to afford a baby, but popular. They live in a little house in the neighbourhood of Portman Square, very convenient for Paddington Station and they own a Pekingese dog named Djinn, who various other characters find objectionable.)

John’s backstory

John’s backstory is that his father is dead and he was laid off from the one job he’s ever had, in an advertising company, during the Slump. Now he lives with his mother, Mrs Beaver, in her small house in Sussex Gardens. He calls her ‘mumsy’. She runs a small business providing furnishings for the London homes of the rich. He has the dark little sitting-room (on the ground floor, behind the dining-room) and his own telephone. His clothes are looked after by an elderly parlourmaid.

Beaver has one distinction – he is a universal backstop guest for posh parties. If a society hostess is arranging a smart dinner party and a male guest lets her down at the last minute, John is the man she calls. Thus John spends the early part of every evening sitting beside his phone, waiting for a call, and is rarely disappointed. Someone, somewhere, needs a presentable man at short notice and, from his base in Sussex Gardens, he can walk or catch a cab to be with his hostess in as little as fifteen minutes, sometimes arriving just as the guests are going in to dine, sometimes after they’ve completed their first course.

Tony the model squire

Tony Last’s distinguishing feature is his immense love for his rambling old house, Hetton, and the plans continually revolving round his head of how to renovate and improve it. He attends church every Sunday (sitting in the family box pew his father had specially built, which is big enough to hold an armchair!), chats with the rather gaga vicar (‘the Reverend Tendril’) after the service, makes friendly conversation with the villagers, many of whom are his tenants. He is a sentimentalised vision of the modern squire, hard up in the modern way, forced to scrimp and save, but benevolently patriarchal and well meaning. His quiet, rural integrity stands in time-honoured opposition to the shallow, immoral infidelities represented by the big bad city.

Familiar plot

In fact the outline of the plot is time-honoured and traditional. Young society girl marries nice chap with house in country, moves to country, produces son and heir, becomes bored, then very bored, then has fling with first halfway eligible man who crosses her path.

Obviously there’s lots of precisely imagined and described detail, both of the affair and the London high society it takes place amongst. One of the striking things for a modern reader is how Brenda and Beaver make no attempt to hide their affair. They attend the usual round of high society parties so that within days their names are being bandied about over dinner party tables and morning phone calls. Very quickly everyone knows they’re having an affair, everyone except poor Tony.

Waugh indulges in a little editorialising, repeating the idea floated in Vile Bodies that people read gossip columns, and gossip generally, in order live fuller lives via other people. The key word is ‘vicariously’, which occurs here and in the similar passage in Bodies:

The morning telephone buzzed with news of her; even people with whom she had the barest acquaintance were delighted to relate that they had seen her and Beaver the evening before at a restaurant or cinema. It had been an autumn of very sparse and meagre romance; only the most obvious people had parted or come together, and Brenda was filling a want long felt by those whose simple, vicarious pleasure it was to discuss the subject in bed over the telephone. (p.57)

Gossip is a key part of Waugh’s fiction. Waugh is the poet laureate of gossip.

A love nest in London

The affair takes a step up when Brenda persuades Tony that she needs a little flat in town, a pied a terre, an idea suggested by Mrs Beaver who is converting a Victorian house into stylish bedsits containing a bedroom and ensuite bathroom. Tony reluctantly lets Brenda rent one and then accedes to her sudden desire to spend rather a lot of time at it. For a front she claims to want to take an adult degree in economics, it will help her manage accounts at Hetton. Tony innocently believes this obvious lie.

For his part, John is chuffed to be treated with new respect by the polite society which he has previously only been on the fringes of.

And Beaver, for the first time in his life, found himself a person of interest and, almost, of consequence. Women studied him with a new scrutiny, wondering what they had missed in him; men treated him as an equal, even as a successful fellow competitor. ‘How on earth has he got away with it?’ they may have asked themselves, but now, when he came into Bratt’s, they made room for him at the bar and said, ‘Well, old boy, how about one?’ (p.58)

So the plot – bored married woman has affair – may be pretty run of the mill, the pleasure comes from: Waugh’s beautiful style; a thousand and one acute observations about the people and posh lifestyles he’s describing; and, more subtly, the precise way Waugh conceives and records the slow change in Brenda’s attitude and in the climate of her marriage. If you want to drag ‘morality’ into literature, then it is a moral decline, but recorded, annotated, measured, in psychological details.

‘Princess’ Abdul Akbar

Brenda stays away from Hetton more and more. When she comes back to Hetton Tony is pitifully glad to see her. Our sympathies harden against Brenda when she conspires to palm off a free single woman on Tony. With atrocious misunderstanding of her husband, she thinks if she can push him into having an affair, then they’ll be morally equal.

So Brenda comes down to Hetton with two posh society friends and Mrs Beaver, who is now offering to do up the main rooms in the house (to Tony’s dismay). But the point of the visit is an extended comic passage about a ‘Princess’ Abdul Akbar (real name Jenny), a heavily made-up and over-scented vamp who Brenda and the other women take every opportunity to leave alone with Tony, as she flirts with him, gives him a silly nickname, hints at her tragic past, declares she simply loves the house and in every way tries to tempt him into an affair which will then justify Brenda’s brazen, heartless adultery. But it is a comic fail. They’ve all underestimated Tony’s good, true, faithful heart.

The Shameless Blonde

Tony’s best friend, Jock Grant-Menzies, comes for the weekend bringing his latest girlfriend, a thoroughly modern divorcée who the two men have nicknamed ‘the shameless blonde’. Her actual name is Mrs Rattery and she was American by origin but is now thoroughly internationalised, having lived for years in the best hotels in capital cities around the world. She turns out to be supremely capable and flies in her own plane to Hetton, which she lands in the park, climbing out, tall and limber in her flying outfit, the model of a 1930s, Art Deco, über-woman.

Next day is the big fox hunt which young John Andrew has been excitedly looking forward to for months. Waugh describes the buildup and hunt with the same thoroughness and accuracy that he brings to any subject if he sets his mind to it (compare the numerous factual descriptions in his travel books). For me, fox hunting doesn’t become any the less ludicrous the more the traditions and rituals surrounding it, are described. Most Londoners get more foxes in their gardens than the Pigstanton Hunt gets in this novel. But it is an important symbol of the life of the country squire, that sense of deep English heritage which also informs, say, the novels of Saki or Siegfried Sassoon.

Death of John Andrew

Half way through the book comes its devastating shock. Little John Andrew is really enjoying the hunt but his father made Ben promise to bring him back before 1pm and as 1 approaches, despite John’s whines to be allowed to ride some more, Ben tells him they must return.

All morning there have, of course, been numerous other riders and horses. The most notable was Miss Ripon riding a very difficult, temperamental bay horse her father has been trying to get rid of for years. She’s packed in following the hunt and joins them on the ride along the road back to the stables, with John to her right and Ben on the outside. At a bend in the lane one of the country buses unexpectedly appears coming the other way but slows right down and pulls over. Bit nerve-making but OK. But, alas, Miss Tendril, the vicar’s niece, has come up behind the horses on her fashionable motor bike and at that precise moment it backfires with a terrific, loud report.

Miss Ripon’s horse starts and panics, rearing sideways and knocking John Andrew off his mount and onto the tarmac road. Ben yells at Miss Ripon to whip her horse, which she does and it regains focus and shoots off down the road. But not before it lashes out with a powerful rear hoof which connects with John Andrew’s head and sends him flying into the ditch where he lies perfectly still. He is killed instantly.

The impact of John’s death

In his previous novels Waugh had deliberately underplayed the deaths of various characters, they happened peripherally, that was a deliberate tactic in creating the sense of the brittle, heartless high society he wanted to portray.

Here, it is the opposite. We arrive back at Hetton to find Tony has been informed of his son’s abrupt, tragic and quite meaningless death. Like the stiff upper lip English gent he is (or fancies he is, or Waugh fancies he is) he is dealing capably with all the social obligations and arrangements which a death in the family entails. The workmen redecorating the drawing room have been sent home. Mr Tendril the vicar pays a sombre visit. With typical empath and selflessness, Tony is most concerned about Miss Ripon who was in a terribly emotional state and kept blaming herself. Ben arrives and gives his side of the story. Jock arrives and is with Tony alone.

Everybody agrees it was nobody’s fault, no one is to blame. This phrase is echoed again and again by various characters and with each iteration becomes more meaningless. It is a cruel, shocking insight into a universe with absolutely no purpose or concern for anybody.

Tony is most worried who will tell Brenda. He’s phoned her at her London flat umpteen times but no reply. Jock, who, like everyone else, knows about Brenda’s affair with Beaver, volunteers to go to London and tell her. Initially Mrs Rattan, the  brisk, effective American divorcée, offers to fly them both up to London but something in Tony’s tone makes her change her mind. It is notable that, out of all the characters, it is the only non-English person, the American divorcée, who grasps just how deeply Tony is in shock, that he is on the verge of going completely to pieces. So she says she will stay with him, overriding all his objections, meaning Jock will take the train up to London. And stay she does during the long empty afternoon of his newly desolate life, trying to distract him with numerous different card games. The understated power of this passage brought tears to my eyes.

Brenda’s reaction

Meanwhile, there is another scene designed to shock. Jock makes it to London, knocks on the door of Brenda’s flat, only for her neighbour to open, none other than the vampish, self-dramatising ‘Princess’ Abdul Akbar’. She knows where Brenda is, at Polly Cockpurse’s place where a gaggle of posh ladies are having their fortunes read by the latest fashionable fortune reader. When Brenda emerges from her session she sees from her friends’ faces that something bad has happened and she rushes downstairs to see Jock. He tells her to prepare herself and then tells her that John is dead.

Brenda goes white and has to sit down. But as Jock begins to tell the details of the death, about the hunt and the horse, Brenda becomes confused, perplexed – and then realises Jock isn’t talking about John Beaver, he is referring to her son, John Andrew. At which point the novel screeches off its hinges into a terrible moment of moral indictment. In that split second of realisation, Brenda is relieved that it was only her son who was killed, not her adulterous lover.

[Jock] ‘I’ve been down at Hetton since the week-end.’
[Brenda] ‘Hetton?’
‘Don’t you remember? John was going hunting to-day.’
She frowned, not at once taking in what he was saying. ‘John… John Andrew… I… oh, thank God…’ Then she burst into tears.
She wept helplessly, turning round in the chair and pressing her forehead against its gilt back. (p.118)

God. Has any fictional character ever been so totally skewered? She is relieved to learn that it’s only her son who’s died. And realises it in the same moment, realises what a terrible terrible thing that is to have thought and felt.

Jock drives Brenda back to her flat, sits while she packs her things in shock, drives her to the station to catch the train down to Hetton. She makes a feeble attempt to excuse herself, saying she didn’t know what she was saying. Jock says bluntly: ‘You know what you said.’ He drives to his club. He stands at the bar saying nothing to anyone.

A few days later, when Jock goes down to Hetton to keep Tony company, he listens as Tony explains why Brenda told him she had to get away from the house, how deeply upset she must be, how he wishes he could help her. Jock says nothing. He doesn’t tell anyone what she said. God, the buttoned-up, repressed, tight-lippedness of these people.

Brenda and Tony attend the inquest. Afterwards she moves slowly, mechanically. Sits in a daze. Stares out the window. This is really beautifully conveyed, her sleep-walking dazedness. She tells Tony it’s all over, she must get away. He doesn’t understand. Not till she writes him a letter from back in London saying she is in love with John Beaver and wants a divorce. Tony is incredulous. He… he trusted her.

The divorce

An entire chapter is devoted to a detailed description of the absurd lengths one had to go to in the 1930s to gain a divorce. Because Tony is a gentleman he ‘does the right thing’ which is arrange to be the guilty party. He contacts a divorce solicitors who organise the usual procedure, which is that he goes to a hotel somewhere (he chooses Brighton) with a woman of his choice (Jock and Tony give this a lot of thought and then go visit a dingy ‘nightclub’ they’d visited one very drunk night earlier in the story, and alight on the blowsy prostitute, Milly). They explain the deal to Milly, explaining it will be purely a business transaction, no sex required. When Milly asks if she can bring her 8-year-old daughter, Winnie, Tony briskly refuses. Nonetheless, when Milly arrives at the station to meet Tony for the train to Brighton a few days later, she has brought Winnie who proves to be a world class pain in the butt during the following tortuous weekend.

So they catch a train together to Brighton, accompanied at a distance by the two private detectives hired by the divorce solicitors who will testify to Tony’s adultery in court and so win the divorce. Winnie keeps whining, wanting ‘ices’ and insists on being taken to see the sea despite there being a howling rainstorm. Tony outrages his detectives’ sense of professional propriety by socialising with them, buying them drinks and then cocking up the all-important ‘morning after’ scene by having such an early breakfast in the hotel restaurant with whining Winnie that it is an effort to then put a dressing gown on (over his other clothes) and clamber into a big double bed with Milly (who’s tired and grumpy) so they can be served by hotel staff who will later testify to finding them in bed together etc.

An unpleasant obligation, required by his impeccable good manners and sense of responsibility, is finally completed.

Payback

Back in London Tony is visited by Brenda’s elder brother, Reggie, an obese archaeologist. At this point it gets nasty.

It should probably be pointed out that Waugh himself was betrayed by his first wife and went through a very painful divorce. They were married for precisely one year before she revealed she was having an affair with a good friend of both of theirs. It is not difficult to see the passage that follows, this scene with Brenda’s adipose brother Reggie, as cold-blooded revenge. Waugh shows very clearly how Tony’s honesty and fidelity and good manners are systematically traduced by every member of her family and all her friends.

The humiliating ordeal he put himself through in Brighton and his offer of £500 a year settlement are thrown back in his face as bullyingly insufficient. The brother, Reggie, tells Tony that Brenda wants at least £2,000 a year. Lots of relatives think Tony is behaving badly by refusing to take Brenda back. Give it a year, suggests Marjorie, and she’ll get over Beaver and be ready to come back. Tony should wait. He should be forgiving.

In a cold fury at Reggie’s demands Tony phones Brenda and asks if this is really what she wants. £2,000 a year. She admits that John Beaver put her up to it. Beaver’s pointed out they’ll both be quite hard up so will need Tony’s money to live on. Tony asks her if she understands that this will mean he’ll have to sell Hetton. She stumbles and hesitates and starts crying and tells him to stop bullying her, but then admits, yes, she knew.

That’s all he needed to know. He puts the phone down and strides back into the restaurant where Reggie is waiting. And tells him he can fuck off. He’s cancelling the divorce, the whole trip to Brighton was a sham and he has witnesses to prove it. He’s not going to divorce Brenda or give her a penny. Tough. He gets up and walks out. The reader is meant to be on their feet, cheering. The worm has finally turned. After a long narrative of being betrayed, lied to and laughed at behind his back, Tony rejects the whole stinking lot of them.

On a journey

The final quarter of the novel presents another surprise. The scene has moved utterly from England. We find Tony aboard a ship heading for South America (!). Why? How?

Avoiding his former clubs, Bratts and Brown’s, for fear of running into Beaver or indeed anyone he knows, Tony had taken to frequenting the third club he’s a member of, the Greville Club. This is a more highbrow, donnish place, and it is here that he meets the short, brown figure of Dr Messinger. Tony had been leafing through travel brochures toying with going on a long journey with no particular idea where. Over lunch Dr Messinger tells him about his ongoing quest for a lost Shining City in the Amazon, which he has various maps and native accounts of. By the end of lunch Tony has agreed to accompany him. Why not?

And so there follows a long beautifully described sea voyage from the cold grey English Channel through the big waves of the Atlantic and on to the azure seas of the Caribbean. Descriptions of fellow passengers and a brief flirtation with the 18-year-old daughter of an eminent Trinidadian family.

Then he arrives at a port on the coast of South America, rendezvous with Messinger and they set off upriver into Amazonia with a team of eight blacks, chugging upstream in a shallow boat for ten days. At this point they leave the boat and make a stash of supplies – base camp – before walking to a nearby Indian village. Here they recruit a dozen or so men and women to carry their supplies for a week or more further into the interior. These people are from the Macushi tribe. They go so far but , after a week’s tramping, refuse to go further because it means crossing into Pie-Wie territory. Dr Messinger hopes these remote Pie-Wie people will be able to guide them to the Lost City.

Waugh himself went on a three-month long expedition into Amazonia which he described in Ninety-Two Days. Much of the detail of Tony and Messinger’s trip is based on that, not least a) descriptions of the umpteen different type of fly, mosquito, jiggers and even vampire bats which assail them during the day and are a serious menace by night and b) precise descriptions of the black crew on the boat and then the indigenous Indian porters, silent, self-contained movements, their  unconquerable fear of the other tribe.

Vivid descriptions of each stage of the Amazon journey are juxtaposed with developments back in London, namely the rather inevitable falling out of the adulterous lovers Brenda and John. Beaver tires of Brenda’s clinginess, Brenda, with no support from Tony, becomes desperate for money, lowers herself to ask for a job at Mrs Beaver’s shop and is mortified at being turned down.

Final developments

To summarise, beneath the impressively authentic details of Amazonian natives and fauna, key things happen:

1. Tony comes down with fever – Messinger nurses him for days.

2. Their food runs low and Messinger is forced to leave feverish, hallucinating Tony and set off for help, in the canoe, down the river. Unfortunately, he is swept over a waterfall and drowned.

3. Tony’s pitiful weakness is powerfully described. The way he tries to fill the empty lantern with paraffin but is so weak he knocks the can over and listens helplessly as the precious liquid gouts out into the soil, weeping helplessly, was very affecting.

4. The scene cuts to some days later when an exhausted, fever-ridden, delirious Tony stumbles out of the jungle. Indians spot him and take him, shambling, covered in bites and rashes and cuts, to the only educated man in the area, a Mr Todd.

The bleak ending

Mr Todd nurses Tony slowly back to health, but when Tony mentions it is time for him to leave, Mr Todd makes excuses. Things take a sinister turn. Mr Todd has a collection of mouldy, ant-eaten old books, including a complete set of Charles Dickens. He asks Tony to read to him for a few hours every afternoon. He used to have another man staying with him who did this. He shows Tony the poor wretch’s grave. Slowly Tony realises the other man was stuck there, trapped, a slave, forced to read Dickens in exchange for food. He realises Todd intends to keep him there in the same way, nursing him, feeding him, but never letting him go.

Tony is stuck because Mr Todd’s shack is so isolated. He lives off food provided to him by the native Indians and a few items of livestock. For scores of miles in every direction there is only barren savannah where Tony would starve and parch to death, or the impenetrable rainforest he stumbled out of. If he tried to escape in either direction it would be without food or water and so, as Tony realises, he would die within days. And so he is forced to stay

One day a European explorer stumbles into the clearing. Todd makes sure he is never alone with Tony but before the explorer continues on his way, Tony slips him a note saying he is alive and well. The explorer disappears back into the forest and Tony spends months and months in hope his message will percolate down to the coast and someone will come looking for him.

One afternoon Mr Todd tells Tony the villagers are having a feast, it might interest him to observe and take part. So they spend the evening at the little local village eating cooked meat and drinking generously from the home brewed alcohol. Tony wakes with a terrible hangover to discover his watch has gone from his wrist. Mr Todd comes into his room in the shack and informs him that a search party of Europeans had come looking for him. The native feast was a ruse to drug Tony and hide him out of the way so that when the search party arrived, Mr Todd was able to tell them that Tony had, alas, perished, to show them the grave of Tony’s predecessor saying it contained Tony, and to give them Tony’s watch as proof. Thus they were sent away with bearing a conclusive account of Tony’s sad death in a faraway country back to all his friends and family in England.

Mr Todd calmly explains all this to Tony and it is a sign of Waugh’s tremendous technique that he doesn’t give us Tony’s reaction at all. We don’t see him, hear him utter a word, share his thoughts, there is no description of his response to the fact that he is now doomed to spend the rest of his life, stuck in a crappy clearing in the middle of nowhere, eating the same awful subsistence food day after day, and forced, in order to survive, to read the complete works of Charles Dickens to a madman.

Coda

With new of Tony’s death Hetton passes to his nearest relatives, the ‘poor Lasts’, a cadet branch of the family we had heard about a few times earlier in the narrative. They are decent people but have to downsize the domestic staff and energetically set about expanding the farming operation, specially of lucrative silver foxes, bred for their fur.

Brenda, as a widow, is free to marry. John Beaver had, some time earlier, heartlessly abandoned her in order to accompany his mother on a business trip to America. From this nadir of her fortunes, she manages to recover herself and brings off the coup of marrying Tony’s old friend Jock Grant-Menzies. It speaks volumes about both of them that Jock notoriously heard her first reaction when told that ‘John’ had died, and so fully knows what a heartless , selfish bitch she is – and yet goes ahead with the marriage.

Author’s message

The world is cruel and pointless. Human life, by itself, is meaningless.

For a month now [Tony] had lived in a world suddenly bereft of order; it was as though the whole reasonable and decent constitution of things, the sum of all he had experienced or learned to expect, were an inconspicuous, inconsiderable object mislaid somewhere on the dressing table; no outrageous circumstance in which he found himself, no new, mad thing brought to his notice, could add a jot to the all-encompassing chaos that shrieked about his ears.

Religion is rarely mentioned in the book, none of the characters take it seriously, it only features in the form of the slightly gaga comedy vicar, with his comic name, Mr Tendril. And yet anyone who knows that Waugh converted to Catholicism in 1930, can sense that the more he emphasises the cruel, amoral heartlessness of the world, the more this vision of despair cries out for a countervailing force, for a force which will restore meaning and purpose and morality to the shabby lives of these broken puppets. Without mentioning Catholicism once, it can be interpreted as a deeply religious book.

Waugh’s way with words

London:

Dawn broke in London, clear and sweet, dove grey and honey, with promise of good weather; the lamps in the streets paled and disappeared; the empty streets ran with water, and the rising sun caught it as it bubbled round the hydrants; the men in overalls swung the nozzles of their hoses from side to side and the water jetted and cascaded in a sparkle of light. (p.190)

The day of the inquest:

A day of fitful sunshine and blustering wind; white and grey clouds were scarcely moving, high overhead, but the bare trees round the house swayed and shook and there were swift whirlpools of straw in the stable yard. Ben changed from the Sunday suit he had worn at the inquest and went about his duties. Thunderclap, too, had been kicked yesterday and was very slightly lame in the off fore.
Brenda took off her hat and threw it down on a chair in the hall. ‘Nothing to say, is there?’

The way the eloquent description is capped off by the taut, abbreviated dialogue is masterly. The desolate scene in the stable yard echoes, mirrors, symbolises or represents Brenda’s state of mind. So that all is needed by way of dialogue is not a long speech of anguish but the opposite, a short taut sentence saying it all.  It’s not rocket science, it’s not a new technique in the novel; it’s just done very, very well.

Tony aboard a cheap steamer heading in bad weather down the English Channel, which is carrying one other passenger:

The wash of the ship was quickly lost in the high waves. They were steaming westward down the Channel. As it grew to be night, lighthouses appeared flashing from the French coast. Presently a steward walked round the bright, upper deck striking chimes on a gong of brass cylinders, and the genial passenger went below to prepare himself for dinner in hot sea water which splashed from side to side of the bath and dissolved the soap in a thin, sticky scum. He was the only man to dress that evening: Tony sat in the mustering darkness until the second bell. Then he left his greatcoat in the cabin and went down to dinner.

For me it is a physical, imaginative and psychological pleasure greater than anything a movie or TV adaptation could possibly give me, to read words like this. The precision of what they describe, the precision of their vocabulary, the fluency of their expression, the contrasting rhythms between the opening three relatively short sentences and then the long middle one which rolls and rights itself like the ship it describes. The subject matter may be bitter and grim, but it is always an immense pleasure to read Waugh’s beautifully clear and expressive prose.


Related links

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Peru: a journey in time @ the British Museum

This is a magnificent exhibition. I think the British Museum is my favourite museum/gallery in London, not only because of the beauty of the building, its sense of size and spaciousness, the awesome breadth and range of its holdings – but because it also combines two of my favourite subjects, art and deep history: art in the widest sense, from the high art of imperial courts to the folk art of Inuit or African tribes; and ‘history’ meaning 50 or 100 years ago, but 5,000 or even 50,000 years ago, the full depth and breadth of all human history.

Copper and shell funerary mask, Peru, Moche, AD 100 to 800. Museo de Arte de Lima, Peru. Donated by James Reid

What

In fact the quality of the objects on display in this exhibition is one of its most striking points. I’ve been to scores of exhibitions about ancient cultures and often the curators are forced, through lack of archaeological evidence, to display shards of pottery or fragments of swords and so on and reconstruct their appearance.

By striking contrast, I don’t think I’ve ever been to an exhibition where the quality of every single piece on display was so high. Peru: a journey in time is an exhibition of physically complete, highly finished and dazzling masterpieces!

Kero drinking vessel with a painted scene showing a human figure wearing both Western and Inca attire, Colonial 18th century. © 2021 The Trustees of the British Museum

I was fascinated to learn that this is in large part because of the dry desert conditions of coastal Peru where a lot of its ancient cities were sited meant that all objects, even rugs and tapestries, remained beautifully preserved in the sand for centuries. Apparently these deserts are among the driest in the world, and the exhibition opens with a huge 4-minute video projected onto the wall showing aerial shots of (presumably a helicopter) flying over Amazon jungle, then the breath-taking Andes mountains, through winding river valleys and then, finally across the beautiful bone dry deserts and so to the sandy shoreline. I sat and watched the whole thing several times. It’s awesome.

The exhibition brings together over 40 objects transported from nine museums across Peru to join 80 other pieces from the British Museum’s own collection, many of them rarely if ever exhibited before, including beautiful pots and ceramics, gold headpieces and gauntlets, highly decorated fabrics used to wrap royal corpses and much more.

So it really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see such an extensive exhibition of such wonderful, beautiful objects from remote and ancient cultures most of us have never heard of.

Where

So where are talking? Right at the start the show features a big map showing the borders of modern Peru. I can’t find it anywhere online and this is the least worst available alternative. In the centre is the modern state of Peru with key archaeological sites highlighted. To the north is Ecuador, the north-east Colombia, to the east Brazil, to the south-east Bolivia.

Map of ancient sites in Peru

But the point is that, until a few hundred years ago, until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the 1530s, all the South American states didn’t exist, in fact the modern state of Peru didn’t come into existence until 200 years ago (and the Museum does point out that the exhibition is by way of celebrating Peru’s bicentennary).

Before the 1530s the central part of the west coast of South America was ruled by a succession of native states and empires, the mountains of the Andes were more sparsely populated, though containing some towns and holy sites, and the Amazon rainforest was inhabited by countless indigenous tribes who have left little or no trace.

When

As to when, the big, big revelation of this show is that the Incas, who most of us have heard about, were only the last and relatively short-lived of a whole series of empires which rose to eminence and ruled various parts of the mountain and coastal regions of what we now call Peru for centuries, the first empires dating from thousands of years BC.

As the co-curator of the exhibition, Cecilia Pardo, puts it:

‘While the Incas are one of the most well-known civilisations from Peru, they were actually relatively recent in terms of the long history of this region. We’ll be taking visitors back many thousands of years earlier.’

The Museum provides an illustrated timeline:

And the exhibition is arranged in simple chronological order, with a room (or, since the spaces are actually marked off by fine bead curtaining) a ‘space’ assigned to the six most important empires or cultures. Each one is introduced by a wall label giving a brief overview of the culture’s dates, rise and extent, cultural practices, a map showing that particular culture’s centres, ritual sites, and one or more big big photos of a key site.

The wall labels are just the right length, but it still requires an effort to get the timeline clear in your head, to try and remember the names of the successive cultures and then to remember the cultural practices associated with each.

Pottery vessel in the shape of a contorted body, Peru, Cupisnique,1200 to 500 BC. Museo de Arte de Lima. Donated by Petrus and Verónica Fernandini. Photo by Daniel Giannoni

The timeline can be summarised as:

  • 15,000 BC first humans arrive in South America
  • 2,500 to 1,800 BC first pottery remains
  • 1,200 to 200 BC Chavin culture
  • 900 to 200 BC Paracas culture
  • 200 BC to 650 AD Nasca culture
  • 100 to 800 AD Mosca
  • 600 to 900 AD Wari
  • 900 to 1400 AD coastal kingdom of Chimú
  • 1400 to 1533 Inca Empire

So the Inca ‘room’ is the last one in the show (well, there’s a kind of epilogue showing how some of the practices, patterns and designs of the earlier cultures linger on among peasants or high-end artists in modern Peru), and it goes heavy on the famous ruined city of Machu Picchu, with the usual breath-taking photos, architectural diagrams showing its structure and layout and so on. But we know about Macchu Picchu sitting atop its mountain, 8,000 feet above the tropical forest and the spectacular views which we routinely see in screensavers or travel brochures. (I’m always disappointed to be reminded that Machu Picchu, from the Quechua Indian language, simply means ‘old mountain’. As so often, the foreign words are so much more evocative than the bald English translation.)

But it’s the other spaces, devoted to the other cultures, which are the real revelation. Here they are in order with a few of the outstanding highlights.

1. Living landscapes

Introduction to the breath-taking but challenging environments of Peru, rainforest in the east, high Andes mountains, and desert down to the coast. Introduces ideas from the various cultures, suggesting how the peoples lived in tune with nature, developed agriculture, commerce and art, and their own theories of time and history, and of death and the afterlife.

2. Early cultures and the Chavin (1200 to 500 BC)

3. Life and death in the desert

How the Paracas and Nasca peoples lived along the south coast of Peru, one of the most arid places on the planet. the most outstanding achievement of the Nasca people couldn’t be included in the exhibition because it is the huge ‘geoglyphs’, outline shapes of animals which they carved in the desert. They did this by removing the top layer of earth and exposing the lighter sediment beneath to create stylised depictions of animals and other natural objects. And there aren’t just a handful: to date between nearly 100 new figures had been found with the use of drones and archaeologists believe there are more yet to be discovered.

The Monkey geoglyph, Nasca, Peru. ©Walter Wust / PROMPERÚ.

As to the Paracas, the standout thing here was their cult of severed heads. One of the biggest exhibits is a big tapestry aid flat in a case which you can stroll round. At first I took that busy pattern to be of stylised figures, a bit reminiscent of  the early video game, Space Invaders.

Mantle depicting mythical beings holding severed heads. Museo de Arte de Lima. Prado Family Bequest. Restored with a grant from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project.

It was only when I looked closer that I realised every single one these figures was carrying in their hand a severed head. At first I thought this was a gruesome proof of human sacrifice comparable to the Aztec cult of cutting human hearts out of the defeated in battle. This seemed to be confirmed when in realised several of the pots in this section also depicted figures holding a rope tied to the top of a severed human head.

And then saw a set of wood carvings (rare survivals from the period which have been in the British Museum vaults for over a century, apparently, and never before been put on public display). These were of naked figures (we know they are naked because they had prominent wooden penises) again with thick rope around their necks.

The curator explained it all. In most societies war means unbridled violence between large armies, all too often rampaging across territory and considering it a valid war aim to kill all civilians, destroy all buildings and agriculture. Not so the Paracas. According to the curator, if conflict arose between groups, representatives were chosen to take part in something more like the games in the Roman amphitheatre. The losers were not killed there and then but submitted to this ritual of abasement and execution. The penises are important not as symbols of fertility but because they emphasise the captors’ naked status.

The losers were taken by boat to a holy island just off the coast, where were priests or religious officials who performed the beheading according to rituals. This explains why this section of the exhibition included a beautifully complete and detailed ceramic of a boat being sailed, with a fully dressed sailor at the tiller and several naked captives on deck, all with the stylised short thick rope round their necks.

To return to the funerary wrapping, the curator now explained that the 70 or so figures depicted are gods or protective spirits of the afterlife, and the head each one is holding by a rope represents an ancestor of the person being wrapped in this covering. So, by the end of his presentation, I realised what a precious object this was and how highly charged with religious and ritual symbolism.

(The exhibition features half a dozen or so videos, each devoted to particular exhibits, and this funeral cloth was accompanied by a video showing exactly how it would have been used to wrap the body of its high status owner.)

4. The Moche (AD 100 to 800) and the Chimu (AD 1000 to 1400)

These two cultures dominated along the coast and inland valleys of northern Peru. The outstanding artefacts from the Moche period were the stunningly finished and lifelike pottery heads and figurines.

Painted pottery vessel in the form of a warrior holding a club and a shield, Peru, Moche AD 100 to 600. © 2021 The Trustees of the British Museum

This is what I meant when I said that the exhibits are in astonishing condition. If these pots were from ancient Greece or Rome, you’d put up with half the decoration being scratched off, chips and fragments. But all the pottery heads and figurine included in the exhibition were in immaculate condition. They looked like they’d been made and glazed last month instead of two thousand years ago.

You might have expected that the portrait heads and figurines were stylised and stereotyped or standardised. But the curator  pointed out that archaeologists have discovered a set of pottery heads depicting a man with a distinctive facial disfiguration, and the three pots clearly show him as a youth, a mature man and an old man. In other words, these ceramic heads are portraits of real people. I found that breath-taking.

5. The Wari (AD 600–900) and Inca (AD 1400–1532)

The two great empires of the highlands of the Central Andes, this part of the exhibition overshadowed, as mentioned above, by stunning images of Machu Picchu.

6. The Andean legacy

The final part of the Inca space shows Western influences impinging on native traditions, Christianity apparently wiping out native religions and rituals, books written entirely by Spanish clerics (all the cultures listed above were illiterate so we can never know the detail of their beliefs or practices) giving a very one-sided account of the native peoples, often misunderstanding or distorting their beliefs and traditions.

Kero drinking vessel with a painted scene showing a human figure wearing both Western and Inca attire, Colonial 18th century. © 2021 The Trustees of the British Museum

But then the final (small) space is devoted to a more optimistic vision, showing how many of the native traditions, despite Spanish attempts at obliteration, survived and went underground, emerging centuries later in enduring traditions of arts and crafts, in native words and traditions kept alive in rural areas..

Why

Why go? Because it is a magnificent exhibition. All the exhibits are in stunningly good condition. The photos of the Peruvian landscape are breath-taking, made me want to jump on a plane and go see for myself. The sense of history it gives, of how deep history works, of the growth and overlap and intermingling of distinct cultures over long periods of time on similar or adjacent territories, fire the historical imagination.

If you like images of severed heads, this is the exhibition for you! And I haven’t even mentioned the frequency of other images and motifs taken from the natural world, such as the recurring motifs of pumas or panthers, and the sly presence of snakes in many images. For example, the stunning 2,500-year-old gold headdress and pair of ear plates decorated with embossed motifs of human faces with feline fangs and snakes’ appendages, part of an elite burial found at Kuntur Wasi.

It’s a feast for the eyes and the mind. Go.

A video review

Here’s a rather home-made but accurate depiction of what the exhibition looks like, made by Visiting London Guide.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Fuck America, or why the British cultural elite’s subservience to all things American is a form of cultural and political betrayal

Polemic – a strong verbal or written attack on someone or something

WHY are progressive publications like the Guardian and Independent and Huffington Post, and all the BBC TV and radio channels, and most other radio and TV stations and so many British-based culture websites, so in thrall to, so subservient to, so obsessed by the culture and politics of the United States of America – this shameful, ailing, failing, racist, global capitalist, violent, imperialist monster nation?

WHY are we subjected every year to the obsessive coverage of American movies and movie stars and the Golden Globes and the Oscars? American movies are consumer capitalism in its purest, most exploitative form.

WHY the endless TV programmes which send chefs, comedians and pop stars off on road trips to the same old destinations across America, or yet another tired documentary about the art scene or music or street life of New York or California?

WHY the endless American voices on radio and TV, on the news and in the papers?

WHY is it impossible to have any programmes or discussions about the internet or social media or artificial intelligence which are not dominated by American experts and American gurus? Does no-one in Britain know anything aboutn the internet?

SURELY the efforts of the progressive Left should be on REJECTING American influence – rejecting its violence and gun culture and political extremism and military imperialism and drug wars and grotesque prison population – rejecting American influence at every level and trying to sustain and extend traditional European values of social democracy?


Fuck America (a poem to be shouted through a megaphone on the model of Howl by Allen Ginsberg)

Fuck America with its screwed-up race relations, its black men shot on a weekly basis by its racist police.

Fuck America, proud possessor of the largest prison population in the world (2.2 million), disproportionately blacks and Hispanics.

Fuck America with its ridiculous war on drugs. President Nixon declared that war in 1971, has it succeeded in wiping out cocaine and heroin use?

Fuck America, world leader in opioid addiction.

Fuck America and its urban decay, entire cities like Detroit, Birmingham and Flint abandoned in smouldering ruins, urban wastelands, blighted generations.

Fuck America with its out-of-control gun culture, its high school massacres and the daily death toll among its feral street gangs.

Fuck America with its shameful healthcare system which condemns tens of millions of citizens to misery, unnecessary pain and early death.

Fuck America with its endless imperialist wars. The war in Afghanistan began in 2003 and is still ongoing. It is estimated to have cost $2 trillion and failed in almost all its objectives.

Fuck America with its hypertrophic consumer capitalism, its creation of entirely false needs and wants, its marketing of junk food, junk music and junk movies to screw money out of a glamour-dazzled population of moronic drones.

Fuck America and the ever-deeper penetration of our private lives and identities and activities by its creepy social media, phone and internet giants. Fuck Amazon, Facebook and Google and their grotesque evasion of tax in their host countries.

Fuck American universities with their promotion of woke culture, their extreme and angry versions of feminism, black and gay rights, which originate in the uniquely exaggerated hypermasculinity of their absurd Hollywood macho stereotypes and the horrors of American slavery – an extreme and polarising culture war which has generated a litany of abusive terms – ‘pale, male and stale’, ‘toxic masculinity’, ‘white male rage’, ‘the male gaze’, ‘mansplaining’, ‘whitesplaining’ – which have not brought about a peaceful happy society but serve solely to fuel the toxic animosities between the embittered minorities of an increasingly fragmented society.

Fuck America with its rotten political culture, the paralysing political polarisation which regularly brings the entire government to the brink of collapse, with its Tea Party and its Moral Majority and its President Trump. Nations get the leaders they deserve and so America has awarded itself a bullshit artist, a dumb-ass, know-nothing, braggart, pussy-grabbing bully-boy. Well, they deserve him but he’s nothing to do with me. I didn’t vote for him. He doesn’t rule me. Like all other Americans, he can fuck off.

It’s a disgusting indictment of a bloated, decadent, failing state.

So WHY ON EARTH are so many ‘progressive’ media outlets, artists, writers and gallery curators so in thrall to this monstrous, corrupt, violent and immoral rotting empire?


References

The American War on Terror

Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist of the World Bank and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, and Linda Bilmes of Harvard University, have stated the total costs of the Iraq War on the US economy will be three trillion dollars and possibly more, in their book The Three Trillion Dollar War published in March 2008. This estimate does not include the cost to the rest of the world, or to Iraq. (Financial cost of the Iraq War)

Between 480,000 and 507,000 people have been killed in the United States’ post-9/11 wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. (Human Cost of the Post-9/11 Wars)

The cost of nearly 18 years of war in Afghanistan will amount to more than $2 trillion. Was the money well spent? There is little to show for it. The Taliban control much of the country. Afghanistan remains one of the world’s largest sources of refugees and migrants. More than 2,400 American soldiers and more than 38,000 Afghan civilians have died. (What Did the U.S. Get for $2 trillion in Afghanistan?)

American Torture

‘After the U.S. dismissed United Nations concerns about torture in 2006, one UK judge observed, “America’s idea of what is torture … does not appear to coincide with that of most civilized nations.”‘ (Torture and the United States)

American Drone Attacks

The Intercept magazine reported, ‘Between January 2012 and February 2013, U.S. special operations airstrikes [in northeastern Afghanistan] killed more than 200 people. Of those, only 35 were the intended targets. During one five-month period of the operation, according to the documents, nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets.’

During President Obama’s presidency, the use of drone strikes dramatically increased compared to their use under the Bush administration. This was the unforeseen result of Obama’s election pledges not to risk US servicemen’s lives, to reduce the costs of America’s terror wars, and to be more effective.

Black men shot by police in America

The American Prison Population

The United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world’s population but houses around 22 percent of the world’s prisoners, some 2.2 million prisoners, 60% of them black or Hispanic, giving it the highest incarceration rate, per head, of any country in the world. The Land of the Free is more accurately described as the Land of the Locked-Up. (Comparison of United States incarceration rate with other countries)

American Drug addiction

‘The number of people suffering from addiction in America is astounding.’ (Statistics on Drug Addiction)

The American Opioid epidemic

Every day, more than 130 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids. (Opioid Overdose Crisis)

American Urban decay

Motor City Industrial Park

An abandoned car company plant known as Motor City Industrial Park, Detroit (2008)

Extreme poverty in America

An estimated 41 million Americans live in poverty. (A journey through a land of extreme poverty: welcome to America)

American Gun culture

‘The gun culture of the United States can be considered unique among developed countries in terms of the large number of firearms owned by civilians, generally permissive regulations, and high levels of gun violence.’ (Gun culture in the United States)

American Mass shootings

Comparing deaths from terrorist attack with deaths from Americans shooting each other (and themselves)

‘For every one American killed by an act of terror in the United States or abroad in 2014, more than 1,049 died because of guns. Using numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we found that from 2001 to 2014, 440,095 people died by firearms on US soil… This data covered all manners of death, including homicide, accident and suicide. According to the US State Department, the number of US citizens killed overseas as a result of incidents of terrorism from 2001 to 2014 was 369. In addition, we compiled all terrorism incidents inside the United States and found that between 2001 and 2014, there were 3,043 people killed in domestic acts of terrorism. This brings the total to 3,412.’

So: from 2001 to 2014 3,412 deaths from terrorism (almost all in 9/11); over the same period, 440,095 gun-related deaths. (CNN: American deaths in terrorism vs. gun violence in one graph) Does America declare a three trillion dollar war on guns? Nope.

American Healthcare

‘About 44 million people in this country have no health insurance, and another 38 million have inadequate health insurance. This means that nearly one-third of Americans face each day without the security of knowing that, if and when they need it, medical care is available to them and their families.’ (Healthcare crisis)

‘Americans spend twice per capita what France spends on health care, but their life expectancy is four years shorter, their rates of maternal and infant death are almost twice as high, and, unlike the French, Americans leave 30 million people uninsured. The amount Americans spend unnecessarily on health care weighs more heavily on their economy, Case and Deaton write, than the Versailles Treaty reparations did on Germany’s in the 1920s.’ (Left Behind by Helen Epstein)

American Junk Food

‘Obesity rates in the United States are the highest in the world.’ (Obesity in the United States)


So

So WHY are British curators so slavishly in thrall to American painters, sculptures, artists, photographers, novelists, playwrights and – above all – film-makers?

Because they’re so much richer, more glamorous, more fun and more successful than the handful of British artists depicting the gloomy, shabby British scene?

In my experience, British film and documentary makers, writers and commentators, artists and curators, are all far more familiar with the geography, look and feel and issues and restaurants of New York and Los Angeles than they are with Nottingham or Luton.

Here’s an anecdote:

In the week commencing Monday 20 February 2017 I was listening to radio 4’s World At One News which was doing yet another item about Brexit. The presenter, Martha Kearney, introduced a piece from Middlesbrough, where a reporter had gone to interview people because it had one of the highest Leave voters in the country. Anyway, Kearney introduced Middlesbrough as being in the North-West of England. Then we listened to the piece. But when we came back to Kearney 3 minutes later, she made a hurried apology. She explained that she should, of course, have said that Middlesbrough is in the North-East of England

Think about it for a moment. The researcher who researched the piece and wrote the link to it must have thought Middlesbrough is in the North-West of England. Any sub-editor who reviewed and checked the piece must have thought Middlesbrough is in the North-West. The editor of the whole programme presumably had sight of the piece and its link before approving it and so also thought that Middlesbrough is in the North-West of England. And then Kearney read the link out live on air and didn’t notice anything wrong, until – during the broadcast of the actual item – someone somewhere finally realised they’d made a mistake. Martha Kearney also thought Middlesbrough is in the North-West of England.

So nobody working on one of Radio 4’s flagship news programmes knows where in England Middlesbrough is.

How do people in Middlesbrough feel about this? Do you think it confirms everything they already believe about Londoners and the people in charge of everything?

But there’s a sweet coda to this story. The following week, on 26 February 2017 the 89th Academy Awards ceremony was held in Los Angeles. There was an embarrassing cock-up over the announcement of the Best Picture Award, with host Warren Beatty initially reading out the wrong result (saying La La Land had won, when it was in fact Moonlight).

The point is that the following Monday, 27 February, Radio 4’s World At One had an item on the story and who did they get to talk about it? Martha Kearney! And why? Because Martha just happened to have been attending the Oscars ceremony and was sitting in the audience when the cock-up happened. Why? Because Martha’s husband works in films and was an executive producer of the Academy Awards nominated short documentary Watani: My Homeland (about Syrian refugees, naturally).

And Martha’s background?

Martha Kearney was brought up in an academic environment; her father, the historian Hugh Kearney, taught first at Sussex and later at Edinburgh universities. She was educated at St Joseph’s Catholic School, Burgess Hill, before attending the independent Brighton and Hove High School and completing her secondary education at George Watson’s Ladies College in Edinburgh (a private school with annual fees of £13,170.) From 1976 to 1980 she read classics at St Anne’s College, Oxford.

So: private school-educated BBC presenter Martha Kearney knows more about the Oscars and Los Angeles and the plight of Syrian refugees than she does about the geography of her own country.

For me this little nexus of events neatly crystalises the idea of a metropolitan, cultural and media élite. It combines an upper-middle-class, university-and-private school milieu – exactly the milieu John Gray and other analysts highlight as providing the core vote for the modern urban bourgeois Labour Party – with an everso earnest concern for fashionable ‘issues’ (Syrian refugees), a slavish adulation of American culture and awards and glamour and dazzle, and a chronic ignorance about the lives and experiences of people in the poorer provincial parts of her own country.

To summarise: in my opinion the British cultural élite’s slavish adulation of American life and values is intimately entwined with its ignorance of, and contempt for, the lives and opinions of the mass of their own countrymen and woman, and is a form of political and cultural betrayal.


Importing woke culture which is not appropriate to Britain

Obviously Britain has its own racism and sexism and homophobia which need to be addressed, but I want to make three points:

1. Britain is not America The two countries have very, very different histories. The history of American slavery, intrinsic to the development of the whole country and not abolished until 1865 and at the cost of one of the bloodiest wars of all time, is not the same as the history of black people in this country, who only began to arrive in significant numbers after the Second World War. The histories of masculinity and femininity in America were influenced after the war by the gross stereotypes promoted by Hollywood and American advertising and TV (John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Marilyn Monroe). These are not the same as the images of masculinity and femininity you find in British movies or popular of the same period (Dirk Bogarde, John Mills, Sylvia Sim).

These are just a handful of ways in which eliding the histories of these two very different countries leads to completely misleading results.

I’m not saying sexism, racism and homophobia don’t exist in Britain, Good God no. I’m trying to emphasise that addressing issues like sexism and racism and homophobia in Britain requires a detailed and accurate study of the specifically British circumstances under which they developed.

Trying to solve British problems with American solutions won’t work. Describing the British situation with American terminology won’t work. Which brings me to my second point:

2. American rhetoric inflames The wholesale importing of the extreme, angry and divisive woke rhetoric which has been invented and perfected on American university campuses inflames the situation in Britain without addressing the specifically British nature and the specifically British history of the problems.

3. Eliding American problems with British problems, and using American terminology and American political tropes to describe British history, British situations and British social problems leads inevitably to simplifying and stereotyping these problems.

For British feminists to say all British men in positions of power are like Harvey Weinstein is like me saying all women drivers are rubbish. It’s just a stupid stereotype. It doesn’t name names, or gather evidence, or begin court proceedings, or gain convictions, or lobby politicians, or draft legislation, or pass Acts of Parliament to address the issue. It’s just generalised abuse, and one more contribution to the sewer of toxic abuse which all public and political discourse is turning into, thanks to American social media.

Importing American social problems and American political rhetoric and American toxic abuse into the specifically British arena is not helping – it is only exacerbating the fragmentation of British society into an ever-growing number of permanently angry and aggrieved constituencies, a situation which is already at a toxic level in America, and getting steadily worse here.

Where does it all end? Well, what have all the efforts of a million woke American academics and writers and actors and film-makers and artists and photographers and feminists and black activists and LGBT+ campaigners led up to? A peaceful, liberated and enlightened land? No. To President Donald Trump.

WHY on earth would anyone think this is a culture to be touched with a long barge pole while wearing a hazchem suit, let alone imported wholesale and gleefully celebrated?

In my opinion it’s like importing the plague and saying, ‘Well they have it in America: we ought to have it here.’

Advertising posters on the tube today 27/2/2020

  • TINA: The Tina Turner musical
  • THE LION KING musical
  • 9 TO 5 the musical
  • THE BOOK OF MORMON musical
  • THRILLER the musical
  • WICKED the musical
  • PRETTY WOMAN the musical
  • TATE membership, promoted by an Andy Warhol silkscreen of Marilyn

Which is why, in this context and amid this company, when the curators of the Masculinities exhibition at the Barbican choose to promote it with a photo of a black man they may think they’re being radical and diverse: but all I notice is that their poster is featuring one more American man photographed by an American photographer to promote an exhibition stuffed with American cultural products, which takes its place alongside all the other American cultural imports which saturate our culture.

Think I’m exaggerating?

Recent British exhibitions celebrating American artists and photographers


Related blog posts

Alex’s Adventures In Numberland by Alex Bellos (2010)

Alexander Bellos (born in 1969) is a British writer and broadcaster. He is the author of books about Brazil and mathematics, as well as having a column in The Guardian newspaper. After adventures in Brazil (see his Wikipedia page) he returned to England in 2007 and wrote this, his first book. It spent four months in the Sunday Times bestseller list and led on to five more popular maths books.

It’s a hugely enjoyable read for three reasons:

  1. Bellos immediately establishes a candid, open, good bloke persona, sharing stories from his early job as a reporter on the Brighton Argus, telling some colourful anecdotes about his time in Brazil and then being surprisingly open about the way that, when he moved back to Britain, he had no idea what to do. The tone of the book is immediately modern, accessible and friendly.
  2. However this doesn’t mean he is verbose. The opposite. The book is packed with fascinating information. Every single paragraph, almost every sentence contains a fact or insight which makes you sit up and marvel. It is stufffed with good things.
  3. Lastly, although its central theme is mathematics, it approaches this through a wealth of information from the humanities. There is as much history and psychology and anthropology and cultural studies and philosophy as there is actual maths, and these are all subjects which the average humanities graduate can immediately relate to and assimilate.

Chapter Zero – A Head for Numbers

Alex meets Pierre Pica, a linguist who’s studied the Munduruku people of the Amazon and discovered they have little or no sense of numbers. They only have names for numbers up to five. Also, they cluster numbers together logarithmically i.e. the higher the number, the closer together they clustered them. Same thing is done by kindergarten children who only slowly learn that numbers are evenly spaced, in a linear way.

This may be because small children and the Munduruku don’t count so much as estimate using the ratios between numbers.

It may also be because above a certain number (five) Stone Age man needed to make quick estimates along the lines of, Are there more wild animals / members of the other gang, than us?

Another possibility is that distance appears to us to be logarithmic due to perspective: the first fifty yards we see in close detail, the next fifty yards not so detailed, beyond 100 yards looking smaller, and so on.

It appears that we have to be actively taught when young to overcome our logarithmic instincts, and to apply the rule that each successive whole number is an equal distance from its predecessor and successor i.e. the rational numbers lies along a straight line at regular intervals.

More proof that the logarithmic approach is the deep, hard-wired one is the way most of us revert to its perspective when considering big numbers. As John Allen Paulos laments, people make no end of fuss about discrepancies between 2 or 3 or 4 – but are often merrily oblivious to the difference between a million or a billion, let alone a trillion. For most of us these numbers are just ‘big’.

He goes on to describe experiments done on chimpanzees, monkeys and lions which appear to show that animals have the ability to estimate numbers. And then onto experiments with small babies which appear to show that as soon as they can focus on the outside world, babies can detect changes in number of objects.

And it appears that we also have a further number skill, that guesstimating things – the journey takes 30 or 40 minutes, there were twenty or thirty people at the party, you get a hundred, maybe hundred and fifty peas in a sack. When it comes to these figures almost all of us give rough estimates.

To summarise:

  • we are sensitive to small numbers, acutely so of 1, 2, 3, 4, less so of 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
  • left to our own devices we think logarithmically about larger numbers i.e lose the sense of distinction between them, clump them together
  • we have a good ability to guesstimate medium size numbers – 30, 40, 100

But it was only with the invention of notation, a way of writing numbers down, that we were able to create the linear system of counting (where every number is 1 larger than its predecessor, laid out in a straight line, at regular intervals).

And that this cultural invention enabled human beings to transcend our vague guesstimating abilities, and laid the basis for the systematic manipulation of the world which followed

Chapter One – The Counter Culture

The probable origins of counting lie in stock taking in the early agricultural revolution some 8,000 years ago.

We nowadays count using a number base 10 i.e. the decimal system. But other bases have their virtues, especially base 12. It has more factors i.e. is easier to divide: 12 can be divided neatly by 2, 3, 4 and 6. A quarter of 10 is 2.5 but of 12 is 3. A third of 10 is 3.333 but of 12 is 4. Striking that a version of the duodecimal system (pounds, shillings and pence) hung on in Britain till we finally went metric in the 1970s. There is even a Duodecimal Society of America which still actively campaigns for the superiority of a base 12 counting scheme.

Bellos describes a bewildering variety of other counting systems and bases. In 1716 King Charles XII of Sweden asked Emmanuel Swedenborg to devise a new counting system with a base of 64. The Arara in the Amazon count in pairs, the Renaissance author Luca Paccioli was just one of hundreds who have devised finger-based systems of counting – indeed, the widespread use of base 10 probably stems from the fact that we have ten fingers and toes.

He describes a complicated Chinese system where every part of the hand and fingers has a value which allows you to count up to nearly a billion – on one hand!

The Yupno system which attributes a different value for parts of the body up to its highest number, 33, represented by the penis.

Diagram showing numbers attributed to parts of the body by the Yupno tribe

Diagram showing numbers attributed to parts of the body by the Yupno tribe

There’s another point to make about his whole approach which comes out if we compare him with the popular maths books by John Allen Paulos which I’ve just read.

Paulos clearly sees the need to leaven his explanations of comparative probability and Arrow’s Theorem and so on with lighter material and so his strategy is to chuck into his text things which interest him: corny jokes, anecdotes about baseball, casual random digressions which occur to him in mid-flow. But al his examples clearly 1. emanate from Paulos’s own interests and hobby horses (especially baseball) and 2. they are tacked onto the subjects being discussed.

Bellos, also, has grasped that the general reader needs to be spoonfed maths via generous helpings of other, more easily digestible material. But Bellos’s choice of material arises naturally from the topic under discussion. The humour emerges naturally and easily from the subject matter instead of being tacked on in the form of bad jokes.

You feel yourself in the hands of a master storyteller who has all sorts of wonderful things to explain to you.

In fourth millennium BC, an early counting system was created by pressing a reed into soft clay. By 2700 BC the Sumerians were using cuneiform. And they had number symbols for 1, 10, 60 and 3,600 – a mix of decimal and sexagesimal systems.

Why the Sumerians grouped their numbers in 60s has been described as one of the greatest unresolved mysteries in the history of arithmetic. (p.58)

Measuring in 60s was inherited by the Babylonians, the Egyptians and the Greeks and is why we still measure hours in 60 minutes and the divisions of a circle by 360 degrees.

I didn’t know that after the French Revolution, when the National Convention introduced the decimal system of weights and measures, it also tried to decimalise time, introducing a new system whereby every day would be divided into ten hours, each of a hundred minutes, each divided into 100 seconds. Thus there were a very neat 10 x 100 x 100 = 100,000 seconds in a day. But it failed. An hour of 60 minutes turns out to be a deeply useful division of time, intuitively measurable, and a reasonable amount of time to spend on tasks. The reform was quietly dropped after six months, although revolutionary decimal clocks still exist.

Studies consistently show that Chinese children find it easier to count than European children. This may be because of our system of notation, or the structure of number names. Instead of eleven or twelve, Chinese, Japanese and Koreans say the equivalent of ten one, ten two. 21 and 22 become two ten one and two ten two. It has been shown that this makes it a lot simpler and more intuitive to do basic addition and subtraction.

Bellos goes on to describe the various systems of abacuses which have developed in different cultures, before explaining the phenomenal popularity of abacus counting, abacus clubs, and abacus championships in Japan which helps kids develop the ability to perform anzan, using the mental image of an abacus to help its practitioners to sums at phenomenal speed.

Chapter Two – Behold!

The mystical sense of the deep meaning of numbers, from Pythagoras with his vegetarian religious cult of numbers in 4th century BC Athens to Jerome Carter who advises leading rap stars about the numerological significance of their names.

Euclid and the elegant and pure way he deduced mathematical theorems from a handful of basic axioms.

A description of the basic Platonic shapes leads into the nature of tessalating tiles, and the Arab pioneering of abstract design. The complex designs of the Sierpinski carpet and the Menger sponge. And then the complex and sophisticated world of origami, which has its traditionalists, its pioneers and surprising applications to various fields of advanced science, introducing us to the American guru of modern origami, Robert Lang, and the Japanese rebel, Kazuo Haga, father of Haga’s Theorem.

Chapter Three – Something About Nothing

A bombardment of information about the counting systems of ancient Hindus, Buddhists, about number symbols in Sanskrit, Hebrew, Greek and Latin. How the concept of zero was slowly evolved in India and moved to the Muslim world with the result that the symbols we use nowadays are known as the Arabic numerals.

A digression into ‘a set of arithmetical tricks known as Vedic Mathematics ‘ devised by a young Indian swami at the start of the twentieth century, Bharati Krishna Tirthaji, based on a series of 16 aphorisms which he found in the ancient holy texts known as the Vedas.

Shankaracharya is a commonly used title of heads of monasteries called mathas in the Advaita Vedanta tradition. Tirthaji was the Shankaracharya of the monastery at Puri. Bellos goes to visit the current Shankaracharya who explains the closeness, in fact the identity, of mathematics and Hindu spirituality.

Chapter Four – Life of Pi

An entire chapter about pi which turns out not only to be a fundamental aspect of calculating radiuses and diameters and volumes of circles and cubes, but also to have a long history of mathematicians vying with each other to work out its value to as many decimal places as possible (we currently know the value of pi to 2.7 trillion decimal places) and the surprising history of people who have set records reciting the value if pi.

Thus, in 2006, retired Japanese engineer Akira Haraguchi set a world record for reciting the value of pi to the first 100,000 decimal places from memory! It took 16 hours with five minute beaks every two hours to eat rice balls and drink some water.

There are several types or classes of numbers:

  • natural numbers – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7…
  • integers – all the natural numbers, but including the negative ones as well – …-3, -2, -1, 0, 1, 2, 3…
  • fractions
  • which are also called rational numbers
  • numbers which cannot be written as fractions are called irrational numbers
  • transcendent numbers – ‘a transcendental number is an irrational number that cannot be described by an equation with a finite number of terms’

The qualities of the heptagonal 50p coin and the related qualities of the Reuleux triangle.

Chapter Five – The x-factor

The origin of algebra (in Arab mathematicians).

Bellos makes the big historical point that for the Greeks (Pythagoras, Plato, Euclid) maths was geometric. They thought of maths as being about shapes – circles, triangles, squares and so on. These shapes had hidden properties which maths revealed, thus giving – the Pythagoreans thought – insight into the secret deeper values of the world.

It is only with the introduction of algebra in the 17th century (Bellos attributes its widespread adoption to Descartes’s Method in the 1640s) that it is possible to fly free of shapes into whole new worlds of abstract numbers and formulae.

Logarithms turn the difficult operation of multiplication into the simpler operation of addition. If X x Y = Z, then log X + log Y = log Z. They were invented by a Scottish laird John Napier, and publicised in a huge book of logarithmic tables published in 1614. Englishman Henry Briggs established logarithms to base 10 in 1628. In 1620 Englishman Edmund Gunter marked logarithms on a ruler. Later in the 1620s Englishman William Oughtred placed two logarithmic rulers next to each other to create the slide rule.

Three hundred years of dominance by the slide rule was brought to a screeching halt by the launch of the first pocket calculator in 1972.

Quadratic equations are equations with an x and an x², e.g. 3x² + 2x – 4 = 0. ‘Quadratics have become so crucial to the understanding of the world, that it is no exaggeration to say that they underpin modern science’ (p.200).

Chapter Six – Playtime

Number games. The origin of Sudoku, which is Japanese for ‘the number must appear only once’. There are some 5 billion ways for numbers to be arranged in a table of nine cells so that the sum of any row or column is the same.

There have, apparently, only been four international puzzle crazes with a mathematical slant – the tangram, the Fifteen puzzle, Rubik’s cube and Sudoku – and Bellos describes the origin and nature and solutions to all four. More than 300 million cubes have seen sold since Ernö Rubik came up with the idea in 1974. Bellos gives us the latest records set in the hyper-competitive sport of speedcubing: the current record of restoring a copletely scrambled cube to order (i.e. all the faces of one colour) is 7.08 seconds, a record held by Erik Akkersdijk, a 19-year-old Dutch student.

A visit to the annual Gathering for Gardner, honouring Martin Gardner, one of the greatest popularisers of mathematical games and puzzles who Bellos visits. The origin of the ambigram, and the computer game Tetris.

Chapter Seven – Secrets of Succession

The joy of sequences. Prime numbers.

The fundamental theorem of arithmetic – In number theory, the fundamental theorem of arithmetic, also called the unique factorization theorem or the unique-prime-factorization theorem, states that every integer greater than 1 either is a prime number itself or can be represented as the product of prime numbers.

The Goldbach conjecture – one of the oldest and best-known unsolved problems in number theory and all of mathematics. It states that, Every even integer greater than 2 can be expressed as the sum of two primes. The conjecture has been shown to hold for all integers less than 4 × 1018, but remains unproven despite considerable effort.

Neil Sloane’s idea of persistence – The number of steps it takes to get to a single digit by multiplying all the digits of the preceding number to obtain a second number, then multiplying all the digits of that number to get a third number, and so on until you get down to a single digit. 88 has a persistence of three.

88 → 8 x 8 = 64 → 6 x 4 = 24 → 2 x 4 = 8

John Horton Conway’s idea of the powertrain – For any number abcd its powertrain goes to abcd, in the case of numbers with an odd number of digits the final one has no power, abcde’s powertrain is abcde.

The Recamán sequence Subtract if you can, unless a) it would result in a negative number or b) the number is already in the sequence. The result is:

0, 1, 3, 6, 2, 7, 13, 20, 12, 21, 11….

Gijswijt’s sequence a self-describing sequence where each term counts the maximum number of repeated blocks of numbers in the sequence immediately preceding that term.

1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 3, 1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 3, 2, 1, …

Perfect number A perfect number is any number that is equal to the sum of its factors. Thus 6 – its factors (the numbers which divided into it) are 1, 2 and 3. Which also add up to (are the sum of) 6. The next perfect number is 28 because its factors – 1, 2, 4, 7, 14 – add up to 28. And so on.

Amicable numbers A number is amicable if the sum of the factors of the first number equals the second number, and if the sum of the factors of the second number equals the first. The factors of 220 are 1, 2, 4, 5, 10, 11, 20, 22, 44, 55 and 110. Added together these make 284. The factors of 284 are 1, 2, 4, 71 and 142. Added together they make 220!

Sociable numbers In 1918 Paul Poulet invented the term sociable numbers. ‘The members of aliquot cycles of length greater than 2 are often called sociable numbers. The smallest two such cycles have length 5 and 28’

Mersenne’s prime A prime number which can be written in the form 2n – 1 a prime number that is one less than a power of two. That is, it is a prime number of the form Mn = 2n − 1 for some integer n. The exponents n which give Mersenne primes are 2, 3, 5, 7, 13, 17, 19, 31, … and the resulting Mersenne primes are 3, 7, 31, 127, 8191, 131071, 524287, 2147483647, …

These and every other sequence ever created by humankind are documented on The On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences (OEIS), also cited simply as Sloane’s. This is an online database of integer sequences, created and maintained by Neil Sloane while a researcher at AT&T Labs.

Chapter Eight – Gold Finger

The golden section a number found by dividing a line into two parts so that the longer part divided by the smaller part is also equal to the whole length divided by the longer part.

Phi The number is often symbolized using phi, after the 21st letter of the Greek alphabet. In an equation form:

a/b = (a+b)/a = 1.6180339887498948420 …

As with pi (the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter), the digits go on and on, theoretically into infinity. Phi is usually rounded off to 1.618.

The Fibonnaci sequence Each number in the sequence is the sum of the two numbers that precede it. So the sequence goes: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, and so on. The mathematical equation describing it is Xn+2= Xn+1 + Xn.

as the basis of seeds in flowerheads, arrangement of leaves round a stem, design of nautilus shell and much more.

Chapter Nine – Chance Is A Fine Thing

A chapter about probability and gambling.

Impossibility has a value 0, certainty a value 1, everything else is in between. Probabilities can be expressed as fractions e.g. 1/6 chance of rolling a 6 on a die, or as percentages, 16.6%, or as decimals, 0.16…

The probability is something not happening is 1 minus the probability of that thing happening.

Probability was defined and given mathematical form in 17th century. One contribution was the questions the Chevalier de Méré asked the mathematical prodigy Blaise Pascal. Pascal corresponded with his friend, Pierre de Fermat, and they worked out the bases of probability theory.

Expected value is what you can expect to get out of a bet. Bellos takes us on a tour of the usual suspects – rolling dice, tossing coins, and roulette (invented in France).

Payback percentage if you bet £10 at craps, you can expect – over time – to receive an average of about £9.86 back. In other words craps has a payback percentage of 98.6 percent. European roulette has a payback percentage of 97.3 percent. American roulette, 94.7 percent. On other words, gambling is a fancy way of giving your money away. A miserly slot machine has a payback percentage of 85%. The National Lottery has a payback percentage of 50%.

The law of large numbers The more you play a game of chance, the more likely the results will approach the statistical probability. Toss a coin three times, you might get three heads. Toss a coin a thousand times, the chances are you will get very close the statistical probability of 50% heads.

The law of very large numbers With a large enough sample, outrageous coincidences become likely.

The gambler’s fallacy The mistaken belief that, if something happens more frequently than normal during a given period, it will happen less frequently in the future (or vice versa). In other words, that a random process becomes less random, and more predictable, the more it is repeated.

The birthday paradox The probability that, in a set of n randomly chosen people, some pair of them will have the same birthday. By the pigeonhole principle, the probability reaches 100% when the number of people reaches 367 (since there are only 366 possible birthdays, including February 29). However, 99.9% probability is reached with just 70 people, and 50% probability with 23 people. (These conclusions are based on the assumption that each day of the year (excluding February 29) is equally probable for a birthday.) In other words you only need a group of 23 people to have an evens chance that two of them share a birthday.

The drunkard’s walk

The difficulty of attaining true randomness and the human addiction to finding meaning in anything.

The distinction between playing strategy (best strategy to win a game) and betting strategy (best strategy to maximise your winnings), not always the same.

Chapter Ten – Situation Normal

Carl Friedrich Gauss, the bell curve, normal distribution aka Gaussian distribution. Normal or Gaurrian distribution results in a bell curve. Bellos describes the invention and refinement of the bell curve (he explains that ‘the long tail’ results from a mathematician who envisioned a thin bell curve as looking like two kangaroos facing each other with their long tails heading off in opposite directions). And why

Regression to the mean – if the outcome of an event is determined at least in part by random factors, then an extreme event will probably be followed by one that is less extreme. And recent devastating analyses which show how startlingly random sports achievements are, from leading baseball hitters to Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s analysis of the form of the England soccer team.

Chapter Eleven – The End of the Line

Two breakthroughs which paved the way for modern i.e. 20th century, maths: the invention of non-Euclidean geometry, specifically the concept of hyperbolic geometry. To picture this draw a triangle on a Pringle. it is recognisably a triangle but all its angles do not add up to 180°, therefore it defies, escapes, eludes all the rule of Euclidean geometry, which were designed for flat 2D surfaces.

Bellos introduces us to Daina Taimina, a maths prof at Cornell University, who invented a way of crocheting hyperbolic surfaces. The result looks curly, like curly kale or the surface of coral.

Anyway, the breakaway from flat 2-D Euclidean space led to theories about curved geometry, either convex like a sphere, or hyperbolic like the pringle. It was this notion of curved space, which paved the way for Einstein’s breakthrough ideas in the early 20th century.

The second big breakthrough was Georg Cantor’s discovery that you can have many different types of infinity. Until Cantor the mathematical tradition from the ancient Greeks to Galileo and Newton had fought shy of infinity which threatened to disrupt so many formulae.

Cantor’s breakthrough was to stop thinking about numbers, and instead think of sets. This is demonstrated through the paradoxes of Hilbert’s Hotel. You need to buckle your safety belt to understand it.

Thoughts

This is easily the best book about maths I’ve ever read. It gives you a panoramic history of the subject which starts with innumerate cavemen and takes us to the edge of Einstein’s great discoveries. But Bellos adds to it all kinds of levels and abilities.

He is engaging and candid and funny. He is fantastically authoritative, taking us gently into forests of daunting mathematical theory without placing a foot wrong. He’s a great explainer. He knows a good story when he sees one, and how to tell it engagingly. And in every chapter there is a ‘human angle’ as he describes his own personal meetings and interviews with many of the (living) key players in the world of contemporary maths, games and puzzles.

Like the Ian Stewart book but on a vastly bigger scale, Bellos makes you feel what it is like to be a mathematician, not just interested in nature’s patterns (the basis of Stewart’s book, Nature’s Numbers) but in the beauty of mathematical theories and discoveries for their own sakes. (This comes over very strongly in chapter seven with its description of some of the weirdest and wackiest number sequences dreamed up by the human mind.) I’ve often read scientists describing the beauty of mathematical theories, but Bellos’s book really helps you develop a feel for this kind of beauty.

For me, I think three broad conclusions emerged:

1. Most mathematicians are in it for the fun. Setting yourself, and solving, mathematical puzzles is obviously extremely rewarding. Maths includes the vast territory of puzzles and games, such as the Sudoku and so on he describes in chapter six. Obviously it has all sorts of real-world application in physics, engineering and so on, but Bellos’s book really brings over that a true understanding of maths begins in puzzles, games and patterns, and often remains there for a lifetime. Like everything else maths is no highly professionalised the property of tenured professors in universities; and yet even to this day – as throughout its history – contributions can be made by enthusiastic amateurs.

2. As he points out repeatedly, many insights which started out as the hobby horses of obsessives, or arcane breakthroughs on the borders of our understanding, and which have been airily dismissed by the professionals, often end up being useful, having applications no-one dreamed of. Either they help unravel aspects of the physical universe undreamed of when they were discovered, or have been useful to human artificers. Thus the development of random number sequences seemed utterly pointless in the 19th century, but now underlies much internet security.

On a profounder note, Bellos expresses the eerie, mystical sense many mathematicians have that it seems so strange, so pregnant with meaning, that so many of these arcane numbers end up explaining aspects of the world their inventors knew nothing of. Ian Stewart has an admirably pragmatic explanation for this: he speculates that nature uses everything it can find in order to build efficient life forms. Or, to be less teleological, over the past 3 and a half billion years, every combination of useful patterns has been tried out. Given this length of time, and the incalculable variety of life forms which have evolved on this planet, it would be strange if every number system conceivable by one of those life forms – humankind – had not been tried out at one time or another.

3. My third conclusion is that, despite John Allen Paulos’s and Bellos’s insistence, I do not live in a world ever-more bombarded by maths. I don’t gamble on anything, and I don’t follow sports – the two biggest popular areas where maths is important – and the third is the twin areas of surveys and opinion polls (55% of Americans believe in alien abductions etc etc) and the daily blizzard of reports (for example, I see in today’s paper that the ‘Number of primary school children at referral units soars’).

I register their existence but they don’t impact on me for the simple reason that I don’t believe any of them. In 1992 every opinion poll said John Major would lose the general election, but he won with a thumping majority. Since then I haven’t believed any poll about anything. For example almost all the opinion polls predicted a win for Remain in the Brexit vote. Why does any sane person believe opinion polls?

And ‘new and shocking’ reports come out at the rate of a dozen a day and, on closer examination, lots of them turn out to be recycled information, or much much more mundane releases of data sets from which journalists are paid to draw the most shocking and extreme conclusions. Some may be of fleeting interest but once you really grasp that the people reporting them to you are paid to exaggerate and horrify, you soon learn to ignore them.

If you reject or ignore these areas – sport, gambling and the news (made up of rehashed opinion polls, surveys and reports) – then unless you’re in a profession which actively requires the sophisticated manipulation of figures, I’d speculate that most of the rest of us barely come into contact with numbers from one day to the next.

I think that’s the answer to Paulos and Bellos when they are in their ‘why aren’t more people mathematically numerate?’ mode. It’s because maths is difficult, and counter-intuitive, and hard to understand and follow, it is a lot of work, it does make your head ache. Even trying to solve a simple binomial equation hurt my brain.

But I think the biggest reason that ‘we’ are so innumerate is simply that – beautiful, elegant, satisfying and thought-provoking though maths may be to the professionals – maths is more or less irrelevant to most of our day to day lives, most of the time.


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All I Know Is What Is On The Internet @ the Photographers’ Gallery

Some exhibitions I respond to personally and emotionally; some I respond to intellectually, picking up on ideas or theories; and some leave me stone cold.

This is the text from the press release for All I Know Is What Is On The Internet.

All I Know Is What Is On The Internet presents the work of 11 contemporary artists and groups seeking to map, visualise and question the cultural dynamics of 21st century image culture.

Importantly, it investigates the systems through which today’s photographic images multiply online and asks what new forms of value, knowledge, meaning and labour arise from this endless (re)circulation of content.

Traditionally, photography has played a central role in documenting the world and helping us understand our place within it. However, in a social media age, the problem of understanding an individual photograph is being overwhelmed by the industrial challenge of processing millions of images within a frantically accelerated timeframe. Visual knowledge and authenticity are now inextricably linked to a ‘like’ economy, subject to the (largely invisible) actions of bots, crowdsourced workers, Western tech companies and ‘intelligent’ machines.

This exhibition focuses on the human labour and technical infrastructure required to sustain the web’s 24/7 content feed. The collected works explore the so-called ‘democratisation’ of information, and ask in whose interest this narrative serves. Paying attention to the neglected corners of digital culture, the artists here reveal the role of content moderators, book scanners, Google Street View photographers and everyday users in keeping images in circulation.

The exhibition considers the changing status of photography, as well as the agency of the photographer and the role of the viewer within this new landscape. The artists involved draw attention to the neglected corners of image production, making visible the vast infrastructure of digital platforms and human labour required to support the endless churn of selfies, cat pics and memes.

Taking its title from a Donald Trump quote, All I Know Is What’s On The Internet considers the digital conditions under which photography is produced , and the bodies and machines which help automate the flow of visual content online. Set against Silicon Valley’s desire to automate the processing of human knowledge, the exhibition seeks to make visible ‘the human in the algorithm’.

All I Know Is What’s On The Internet presents a radical exploration of photography when the boundaries between truth and fiction, machine and human are being increasingly called into question.

#Brigading_Conceit

The enormousness of the subject they’re tackling meant that each exhibit, object or installation required a lot of explanation. Take #Brigading_Conceit (2018) by Constant Dullaart.

#Brigading_Conceit (2018) by Constant Dullaart. Aluminium, automotive coating, forex, SIM cards, vesa mounts. Courtesy of Upstream Gallery Amsterdam

#Brigading_Conceit (2018) by Constant Dullaart. Aluminium, automotive coating, forex, SIM cards, vesa mounts. Courtesy of Upstream Gallery Amsterdam

It’s a very big installation hanging on a wall and looks, to me, like the cover of a laptop computer. In fact:

#Brigading_Conceit uses some of the thousands of SIM cards the artist purchased while building an army of fake followers on Facebook and Instagram. The most valuable fake accounts are PVAs (Phone Verified Accounts) which are registered on phone numbers bought in bulk in multiple countries. After verifying the account via SMS message, the SIM cards are often sold for the scrap value of the gold in the chip. Providing physical evidence of the industrial scale in which fake accounts are made, Dullart embeds these SIMs  in different materials, using arrangements reminiscent of army formations. The resulting compositions are representations of brigades made from artificial identities, a series of ‘standing armies’ to be deployed in ongoing and future information wars. Each image of the work tagged and uploaded to Instagram will attract the attention of Dullart’s army, who will bestow likes and automated comments. The semi-reflective surface reveals the form of each photographer whilst concealing their vanity in the effort of harvesting social feedback.

Quite a lot to take in, isn’t it?

And then, having read it all, looking back up at this butterfly made of silver laptop covers… what exactly are you to think? (It crossed my mind that Dullart might be a spoof name: Dull Art.)

IOCOSE A Crowded Apocalypse

IOCOSE A Crowded Apocalypse (2012).

IOCOSE A Crowded Apocalypse (2012)

This is, as you can see, a set of 18 photos arranged in three rows and six columns. As the wall label explains:

Crowdsourcing platforms such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk provide a means for outsourcing small, repetitive tasks (‘micro-tasks’) to a distributed online workforce. These platforms were used by IOCOSE to assemble a crowd which would create its own conspiracy and then protest against its protagonists and effects. Firstly, the artists hired hundreds of anonymous workers to generate a set of symbols, companies, religious groups and mythical creatures. These were combined into a series of slogans and conspiracy theories by another set of workers. In the final stage, further workers photographed themselves taking to the streets protesting against this global conspiracy.

By operating as ‘artificial artificial intelligence’ (as Amazon touts its platform) the workers transform a practice of activism into a mechanical process. The result is a collection of singular, anonymous protests, whose slogans and claims barely makes sense. The workers, and the people around them, appear at the same time as victims and beneficiaries, actors and spectators of network technologies.

Nothing Personal

Or take the wall of the gallery which was completely covered in a ‘wallpaper’ collage of imagery and texts from the brave new digital world, and titled Nothing Personal (2014-15) by Mari Bastashevski.

Nothing Personal (2014-15) by Mari Bastashevski

Nothing Personal (2014-15) by Mari Bastashevski

Apparently,

In the past decade, the industry that satisfies governments’ demands for surveillance of mass communications has skyrocketed, and it is one of today’s most rapidly expanding markets. Most surveillance technologies are produced by American, European and Israeli companies and sold to anonymous clients and law enforcement agencies across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

While most of these products are undetectable by design, the industry has developed a collective corporate aesthetic using detached technical jargon, stock photography and sanitised clip-art. Nothing Personal presents material from over 300 surveillance companies, including fragment of correspondence between their employees and clients the artist found online.

On closer inspection, the people working within these companies – from the spaces they occupy – to the emails they send – seem to match the very image of the ‘enemy’ depicted by their own marketing.

World Brain

World Brain (2015) is an installation of logs of wood, scattered with wood chip surrounded by small piles of books, and video screens on the wall, the work of Degoutin & Wagon.

Installation view of World Brain (2015) by Degoutin & Wagon

Installation view of World Brain (2015) by Degoutin & Wagon

Explanation:

World Brain is a sprawling journey into the architecture of data centres, the collective intelligence of kittens, high-frequency trading and the creation of transhuman rats. Mixing documentary film and fiction, the artists explore the utopian dreams and ideologies which underpin the idea of a worldwide network and the development of collective intelligence.

The film is presented here is the film in two parts, with accompanying literature. Part one (21 mins 8 secs) is a journey into the physical spaces of the Internet exploring the complex structure of global Internet traffic. The second part (51 mins 54 secs) follows the wanderings of a group of researchers who try to survive in the forest using Wikipedia, with the ultimate aim of securing the survival of humankind.

World Brain is also available to watch online at: tpg.org.uk/worldbrain

Ironically, when I tried to access this URL, I found the video is unavailable and got this message:

This video contains content from Arte, who has blocked it in your country on copyright grounds.

Which may, or may not, be part of the work itself. Or an ironic comment on the work. Or the internet. Or something.

So this is an intensely cerebral exhibition, in the sense that you really have to focus on each of the works, read the explanatory text carefully, and then bring quite a lot of intelligence and knowledge of the subject to bear on each piece to assess whether they ‘work’ for you.

A view

I have spent the past eight years working on the intranets and public websites and password-protected portals of four British government departments and agencies.

I have attended countless meetings, seminars and conferences about website design, data management and security, about government usage of social media, about how to convey messages or get users hooked on your website, and so on.

In fact I myself ran a 6-month programme of weekly seminars for the content team of a big government website on subjects like how to use Facebook and the rest of social media to transmit government messages, how to gather data about users, analyse and convey messages better, etc.

And for two years I was a data analyst on the password-protected portal of a major UK government portal, doing elaborate number crunching, producing infographics for all sorts of data, and merrily ‘repositioning’ the numbers to support the ‘official narrative’ put out by our department.

So I have a reasonable grasp of digital issues and I have, from the start, been extremely sceptical about the internet, about social media, and especially about mobile phone technology.

I refuse to own a smartphone because I a) don’t want to become addicted b) I want to relate to the world around me instead of staring at a tiny screen all the time c) I don’t want to be bugged, surveilled, followed and have all my personal data harvested.

All in all, I am confident that I understand the world these artists are portraying and that I understand a lot of the issues they’re addressing. I have grappled in person with some of them, as part of my job.

But I found it hard to get very worked up about any of the actual art on show and went away wondering why.

I think it’s something to do with accessibility. Web accessibility is a subject I’ve worked with personally, trying to present government information more clearly, both visually and textually. Even the dimmest of users must be able to read the text and use the transactions on a government website.

Whereas hardly any of the works on display here seemed very accessible. None of them leapt straight out ans made me think, ‘Yes, that’s the issue, that’s what we need to be saying / exploring / addressing’.

Instead I found it ironic that in the supposed Age of the Image, all of these works and installations required such a lot of text to get their point across.

There were quite a few younger visitors in evidence (unlike most of the ‘traditional’ art exhibitions I visit, which are dominated by old age pensioners).

Maybe this is art for a younger generation than me, accustomed to swiping screens, skimming information, cherry picking text. Maybe a lot of these issues and ideas will be new to them, or they are so accustomed to smartphones and apps and processing information, that the works will leap out and say something meaningful to them.

My over-riding sense of the Digital Age we live in is that most people, by now, know that Amazon, Facebook, twitter, and their phone providers are morally compromised, tax-evading, High Street-destroying, personal-information-harvesting creepy multinational companies, but…

It’s just so handy being able to order something from Amazon Prime, or send messages to your Facebook group, or share photos of your party on Instagram…

And none of the revelations about how smartphones track your movements and your conversations seem to have made the slightest dent in smartphone ownership or usage.

My sense is that most people just don’t care what iniquities these companies carry out, as long as their stuff turns up next day and they can share their photos for free.

It was a brave effort to put on an exhibition like this. I didn’t really like the works on show. Maybe others will.

Participating artists

  • Mari Bastashevski
  • Constant Dullaart
  • IOCOSE
  • Stephanie Kneissl & Max Lackner
  • Eva & Franco Mattes
  • Silvio Lorusso & Sebastian Schmieg
  • Winnie Soon
  • Emilio Vavarella
  • Stéphane Degoutin & Gwenola Wagon
  • Andrew Norman Wilson
  • Miao Ying

Related links

Reviews of other Photographers’ Gallery exhibitions

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