Try, try, and try shirts again.

Startling news from the department of the blindingly obvious: it transpires that one can, in fact, become better at something by doing it a lot. Take, for example,  making shirts. Shirts seem quite complicated an alarming at first glance, as they have collars and cuffs and pointy bits and in my case if you want it to even slightly fit you need to put darts in for your aggressively large rack.

But a false start here and a lot of swearing (a mandatory part of sewing) and choosing of the right fabric later, and you find yourself earnestly telling someone at work that “they’re not really all that difficult”, and discovering that, sans buttons and button-holes, you can make one in about three hours.

The first attempt

At first not a great success: I lost the yoke piece here, which is why the shirt sleeves are hideously puffy at the shoulder (even if that does look deliberate). Also I couldn’t find the buttonholing function on my sewing machine at the time so I threw in a zip. The shirt is made out of a recycled red bedsheet for a single bed, and will probably be recycled again for other purposes in the future as the fabric’s soft.

Second attempt

Looks much better. I’m strongly in favour of patterned shirts. The button holes are a little large (getting the size of them right continues to be my stumbling block) but overall the fit is good and the shirt itself is pretty sturdy. Made out of an old duvet case. There’s plenty more material where that came from so expect to see the same pattern cropping up again in future. Apart from anything else, I rather like that busy floral repeat.

The third attempt.

Using much thinner, purpose-purchased fabric for a lighter weight shirt. Again the fit it is good but it’s let down by the buttonholes, and the fact that I salvaged those tiny buttons from the back of a charity-shop wedding dress.

On to the most recent attempt:

The breeches also make their way through several stages
The much-trumpeted William Morris shirt

Here I’ve actually gone back a step and used home furnishing fabric with a William Morris pattern, but this time I also used fabric-covered buttons – which are a lot easier to make than I realised – to camouflage the failings of my buttonholes.

If you look closely, in fact, you’ll see it’s the same pattern as on the red duvet shirt, but in green and cream:

Which I didn’t actually do on purpose.

The other major change from previous shirts is this: the pattern did not actually come with cuffs, because apparently fat ladies don’t wear full sleeve shirts. However, the end of the sleeves provided with the pattern has a slit, and thanks to adapting a pattern for 1940s women’s trousers in to cuffed breeches, I’ve become passable at making my own cuffs from scratch:

Not that you can REALLY see it here

This shirt then is as complete a women’s shirt from pattern as I am likely to make… until the next one.

Links Post September

Things Other People Have Done

  • Written a sardonic post about popular myths about poetry.
  • Designed an eating game based around the Prisoner’s Dilemma. A friend of mine was one of the original test party for this and spent a while explaining interesting “hacks” of the overall premise, which is after all what games are really about.
  • Put up a 1965 high school student’s research paper project: to ask several best-selling authors of the time about symbolism in their work. A surprising number replied, although as you’d expect they weren’t really into the literary criticism side of their stories.
  • Created a useful toy for house planners and writers alike: a room layout planner. Helpful for visualising fictional spaces. (via Cindy R)
  • Written an article about why storytelling is a valuable tool in understanding, in neurological terms as well as social ones.
  • Made this cool thing that makes patterns and is extremely good for calming one down after stressful work days.
  • Put up a tutorial on how to make failed lab experiments.
  • Made a regular podcast about the history of the English language.

Things I have done

  • Started a fashion magazine/blog called Faschionism which should, hopefully, update several times a week with stuff from various contributors.

Teamwork: embracing my bête noire.

I’m enormously suspicious of teamwork. Like everyone else who has ever been forced to work on a group project at school, at work, or for some social reason, my experience of working in a team is that everyone else is lazy, stupid, buck-passing, incapable of organisation, and that I become either pedantic and domineering, or just refuse to participate at all. I’m sure a lot of people’s experiences of enforced group work are the same, that’s why “getting to know you” games are so popular: they’re designed to give you a sense of pleasant camaraderie which should overcome the stress of being told to try and share the burden of a task equally which a bunch of bastards you don’t know.

It’s also my belief that literally every other person on earth is unreliable, and will not do the thing I need them to do by the time I need them to do it. Either they’re unreliable because they’re busy, because they’re useless, because they don’t think anything I need matters, or because they’re deliberately, maliciously unhelpful. As you can imagine, this leads to enormous quantities of unpleasant nagging, arguments, and bad blood with people who are trying to do me a favour and as far as they are concerned are doing it well within the limits of acceptability. And I’m just being mental and annoying. And why do I need the thing done by Friday anyway?

Of course sooner or later you work out who is going to do a thing they’ve offered to do without making your blood pressure become dangerous: there are several reasons I use the same proof-readers over and over and not all of them are accuracy and charming email style.

Consider for a moment, if you will, someone whose idea of hell is “trying to organise people into doing something which is low-cost to them but will provide a decent amount of pleasure to other people”. I’ve co-run a self-publishing collective for comics, which died a hideous death because no one would submit anything: guaranteed publication and extremely low overheads, mutual kindness, and the chance to talk to new people just didn’t appeal as much as sitting tight-lipped in a corner. Similarly the attempt to follow up Help: Twelve Tales of Healing with an Icarus anthology rather appropriately crashed and burned, receiving nothing like enough submissions to make it possible to put the book together.

However, I am being schooled in optimism about the human condition by The Lucifer Effect; repeated demonstrations that it is possible, through environmental factors, to get people to behave like the socially cooperative baboons evolution assures me they are. I am trying afresh with a low-effort, low-commitment, tailored-to-your-interests fashion magazine/blog running on submissions from staff writers, etc.

So far, the results are not encouraging: two participants have been enthusiastic, one has actually provided some material, two have panickily declared that they don’t know how to have opinions about clothes despite doing it incessantly in my earshot, one has declared that a paragraph of writing and a photo occasionally constitutes a commitment, and the majority of the others are hiding behind furniture.

This leads to the question: what social controls can I use to get the intended result? According to the experiments in The Lucifer Effect, I would need to be physically present, lie about the purpose of the site in order to make it seem more important, provide people with intimidating deadlines (which has worked with previous anthologies but always leads to stress reactions as “write a short thing in six months when you are doing nothing else” is too hard), and rely on emotional manipulation; potentially, make it sound as if I were doing them a favour – the preferred tactic of salesepeople and evangelists.

I think it can be inferred that I’m not a leader/editor at heart, because none of these factors appeal to me at all, any more than taking sole responsibilities for other people’s complete failures to cooperate has appealed in group projects in the past. Whether this particular idea takes off remains to be seen, but I hope it does – if only for the sake of the two enthusiastic respondents, and the one great soul who immediately came up with the goods.

A little kindness goes a long way; a big kindness is harder.

Here is a cool thing about our monkey brains: because we are social, group-living apes whose survival for much of our evolutionary history has hinged on how well we can support each other and fill in the gaps in each other’s abilities, you get brain biscuits for being kind to people.
The brain biscuits are happy brain chemicals which your brain likes to pay out as rewards for doing evolutionarily advantageous stuff (ie, things that help engender your survival or the survival of those who will in turn engender your survival, plus anyone carrying your genes). Hence orgasms, the satisfaction of eating, and the sneaky don’t-mention-this-but pleasure of not being busting for a pee/poo anymore. We also feel good about social rather than physical things: you’re comforted by human touch when you’re distressed because this means you’re part of the group and therefore your survival is a priority not only of you but of the rest of the group.
Happy brain chemical payouts also occur when you do small favours for others, like buying them a little gift, or helping them with a heavy object. There are a variety of layers in that particular payout: one is that you have just facillitated a positive interaction with a stranger, which means they are less likely to hit you with a shoe or something horrible like that (active non-aggression); you’re cooperating with another human monkey beast, which is something your brain has evolved to give you noogies for because cooperation = survival; and by being in a position to demonstrate kindness, you are also displaying power over someone else. In the benignest possible sense, giving gifts, favours, and assistance to others is a way of inviting them to look at what a massive set of … biceps … you have. “I can AFFORD to help you”; “I am STRONG ENOUGH to carry this for you”. There is also, finally, reciprocity: if you do a solid for someone and they remember, they are more likely to do a solid for you in return.
The brain can also be induced to hand out happy chemical rewards by poking drugs at it, but that’s expensive and has diminishing returns and has infuriating side-effects; it also makes it really hard to concentrate on doing the accounts.
This blog post isn’t intended as one of those moral “how to be a better person” things, in part because what constitutes a good person changes continuously; it’s also not one of those teeth-grindingly appalling “LET LOVE AND SUNSHINE INTO YOUR LIFE AND FEEL LIKE YOU’RE CONSTANTLY HOPPED UP ON SPIKED SUNNY DELIGHT” hippy emails your 60-year-old acquaintances relentlessly forward to you. It’s more of a life hack (idiom guaranteed to be rendered obsolete in ten minutes) or brain hack with an element of moral watchdoggery.
You probably already do nice things for people because you’re not a total socially incompetent dickslice, and because it makes you feel good. Focus on the “feel good” bit for a minute: what I’m suggesting is that instead of letting the good feeling deceive you into thinking that you’ve gained a fragment of moral gold and can spend it on a whim in future (“I’m not sexist! I helped an old lady look for her shoe this morning!”; “You can’t call me inconsiderate, I’ve held open dozens of doors this week!”), it might be more productive to treat the small favours you do “for others” as gifts to yourself.
Not “man I am so great and kind I totally do things for other people”, but “that lady’s struggling with a thing, if I help her I will totally feel a bit better, it’s science”. And as a happy bonus you’ve also made that random lady’s life marginally easier, made her feel less beleagured, and possibly cheered her up too. The primary focus, though, is that it’s a happy brain chemical release, and you’re doing something for yourself. Why?
Because not treating these momentary considerations as determinants of your character stops, or helps to stop, two habits we’re all very prone to.
One. Mistaking “generally a person who does good deeds” for “a good person” and therefore “unimpeachable”. Reminding yourself that your generosities are at least partially self-serving helps to remind you that a positive social outlook is not grounds for avoiding criticism, or feeling like you’re “owed” something. The reward for these kindnesses is the good feeling it gives you: anything else that results from them is a bonus.
Two. Believing that they’re all that’s needed. Real, nasty problems are not fixed by lending someone your hanky: the unexamined good feeling that accompanies leaving a tip in someone’s paypal jar can deceive us into thinking we’re doing something profound. This, and our innate tribalism and desire for inclusion or conformity, is why slacktivism is so often popular.
By being honest with ourselves about the motivation for small kindnesses, low-cost kindnesses, we equip ourselves better for big, high-cost, protracted kindnesses. They don’t pay out as consistently as the smaller ones, they can be emotionally gruelling: caring for a sick relative is frequently not a source of happy brain chemicals. This is where acceptance of the selfish nature of fleeting, low-cost altruism helps to bolster your strength:
This isn’t fun. I am not doing this for me. This is a big sacrifice, a big kindness. I am doing something which identifies me as a good person.
Because it is painful, the toil is harder, but the avenue of “I am a good person” as emotional support for the action is not tarnished by overuse in small, low-cost favours. There is less temptation to fall back on a softer, less helpful position and say “I’m a good person” about it because you’re accustomed to pocket-change donations being equal to half-paycheque ones.
Don’t mistake me here: small favours and kindnesses still matter. They still have impact on people’s lives. As odious as the Tesco advertising slogan is, every little does help, if only a little: small kindnesses are necessary for facilitating social cooperation, they are the oil on which societies run. And doing them makes both the doer and the recipient feel momentarily happier. We should just be more honest about why we do these things, and make our lives better with that, too.

“You have a lot of projects”, my friend said the other night.

Obviously I am hard at work on the research and plot-twiddling side of the next novel (which friend Kieron has helpfully suggested should be titled The Circle, which I shall adopt because my ability to come up with good titles is around my ability to play a devastating round of international-level lawn tennis), and definitely not rearranging my make-up drawer, compulsively buying socks, and panicking in a genteel and repressed fashion that I can’t write about an era I never saw as well as E M Forster, who lived in it. Definitely not. Those would be the actions of a mad lady.

The status quo with all those many, many projects referred to in the title:

Tame. Chick lit novella vaguely based on Little Red Riding Hood, in the loosest possible sense, features lycanthropy and lesbianism because I was into the letter L in 2007 or something: finally finished, being proof-read by the capable Marika Kailaya, expected to be available to buy before the end of October unless something goes horribly wrong.

Brown Bread, Boys. A Guy-Ritchie-themed gangland reinterpretation of Julius Caesar, asspulled at the last minute when realised that there was more work left to do on The Ideal London than there was time to do it in before November last year, and turned out to be one of the better things I’ve written. Is now at the yay/nay pass stage of editing, being read by a confederate whose job it is to either yay or nay things I’ve highlighted for deletion, and potentially flag anything else she thinks is appalling. May even be out by Christmas, if we’re lucky.

Hooked to the Silver Screen. Astronomically ill-advised gay romance with BDSM themes set in 1950s Hollywood against a backdrop of the Blacklist and the protagonist’s unwitting mob involvement. Currently waiting for me to read a lot more about the era, work out the supporting cast, and turn the plot from “I vaguely know what’s happening” to “I have this in hand and can write a day-by-day plan of what to churn out”, which I’m going to get to in about January.

The Circle. Edwardian England’s Faustian tragedy with Forsterian values, as told by a night-club singer in a version of Weimar Berlin that exists outside of space and time; four stage magicians ruin each other’s lives and the lives of those around them competing pointlessly, and one of them sells his soul to the devil. I’m currently filling up my knowledge gaps about the era, trying to make sure I have voice and colour down, and panicking slightly. Due to start writing November 1st.

KBV. Originally quite a pretentious idea for an epistolary fiction about an epidemic, focussing mostly on how epidemics are reported; I’ve scrapped the meandering media studies-ness of it all and am intending to try for an epistolary conspiracy thriller because I’ve never written one and sticking to one genre is for losers. This requires a more involved plot – I’ve come some way but it needs a lot more – and a lot of research. Not sure when I’ll get around to it, possibly next November if nothing else becomes urgent.

The Book of Mapp. A short story (or intended to be short) set in a post-revolutionary republic, the first of its kind, in a fantasy world. Theoretically a police procedural told by a propaganda agent, it is actually about the flexible nature of the truth and the power of the word, etc, etc. All it really needs is for me to just sit down and write it, which may happen in December if I am not Dead of NaNo.

The Ideal London. A kind of parallel universe story about the concept of imagination, which I think should probably be written by Neil Gaiman rather than me, but he seems to be busy so I’m doing it. Requires a lot more research and world-building than I’d managed when the deadline loomed over me, a better grasp on the characters, and hopefully a less patchy plot than I’d come up with before.

The remaining three I have stewing don’t yet have titles, even working ones, so they’re just referred to by their key element:

Robots. A ship’s medical officer fails to read the fine print of his contract and is thus resurrected as a cloud of nanobots after being atomised by an accident on a very dull botanical space mission. The main problem with this is that I have no idea what happens after the end of the first act.

Werewolves. Two-part story held together by the antagonist, a former thief-taker who becomes a werewolf by accident and turns out to be very good at it. Requires a plot beyond a selection of terrible events slammed jarringly against a selection of humorous interludes, which is what I rather inexplicably have at the moment.

Space. Requires substantial world-building (which is the fun part) and subsequent plotting, although at least the characters are fun to write and to write about.

So there, that’s… a reasonable number of projects. Even if I never have another original plot idea again I still have enough for a selection of books, and I have a notepad file full of plot summaries for short stories which would probably flesh out an entire collection.

Kitten in the bedroom, tiger in the library.

I subscribe to John Darnielle’s view of love: “we think of love as a thing that is with strings and is this force for good and then if something bad happens that’s not love…I don’t know so much about that. I don’t know that the Greeks weren’t right, I think that they were, that love can beat a path through everything, that it will destroy a lot of things on the way to its objective which is just its expression of itself. You know my stepfather mistreated us terribly quite often, but he loved us and well, that to me is something worth commenting on in the hopes of undoing a lot of what I perceive is terrible damage, yet we talk about love as this benign comfortable force: it is wild.”
Which means that I am capable of viewing Lolita as a love story; I accept that Humbert Humbert feels he is in love, even though it is obvious to the reader that he is hurting, abusing, imprisoning a teenage girl. It is a one-sided, ugly, damaging love story. It is still a love story. The only way in which he approaches even a sliver of redemption is by acknowledging that he has stolen her childhood and that this is a terrible thing. Dolores Haze, subject and not object, is nevertheless the heroine of the book, and Humbert Humbert is the villain protagonist. He is the monster: and it is still a love story.

Love is capable of driving people to be idiotic. Romance is the business of acting with short-term emotions over long-term rationality; Romeo & Juliet is the story of a brash young man who persistently falls for beautiful women until he finds one naive enough to return his obsessive affections. They behave selfishly and stupidly and it is a love story. The tragedy of Romeo & Juliet is not breach of affections between two warring families but rather the impatience and impetuousness of two idiot teenagers whose family feud prevented them from handling their situation with more maturity.

The crux of Othello is “one who loved not wisely, but too well”; Shakespeare’s body of work is littered with lovers whose ability to behave sensibly and comport themselves like adults is compromised by raging emotions, and with their friends and families trying to haul valiantly on the reins of stampeding passion (cf. the tasks Prospero sets Ferdinand to in The Tempest in an attempt to determine his worth as a man and to stop him from knocking up his long-isolated teenage daughter and then doing a runner). Beatrice and Benedick acknowledge that lovers are fools, fall in love, and proceed to behave very foolishly indeed.

“Romance” and “love” do not necessarily mean “lived happily every after in a stable and non-damaging relationship”. A lot of the complaints about the Twilight books (which are genuinely awful but for entirely different reasons) took in the teenage protagonist’s labelling of Wuthering Heights as a romance and spluttered in disgust. “Wuthering Heights is a book about two sociopaths who can’t stay away from each other and ruin everyone else’s lives while they try”, someone said.

Yes, it is. And it’s a love story. It’s a romance. It’s a story about two horrible, selfish people who are horribly and selfishly in love and instead of handling it well they drag other people down with them, people who are damaged by their love for a man and/or woman who is, at heart, “horrible”. It’s still love. Loving something terrible and damaging or loving someone in a way that is abusive and frightening is still love: it is just damaging, terrible, frightening, abusive love, bad love, love that should be escaped from.

It is in no way inaccurate to to describe Lolita, Romeo and Juliet, Persephone and Hades, and god knows how many other grim and appalling tales of inquity, ill-treatment, and violence as love stories, because a twisted and ugly love lies at the centre of them. It would be inaccurate to call these things POSITIVE love stories, to suggest that the love depicted within them is healthy or something that anyone should use as a model for their own life and relationships, but the idea of fiction as a moral guide was supposed to have died when Modernism happened. The internet appears to think otherwise.

So: love is neither good nor bad. It just is. People have good love and bad love, and stories of bad love are as valid as love stories as stories of good love. People who are determined to model their relationships after fiction get what they deserve: people who deny the damage in fictional relationships because “it’s love” aren’t reading the book properly, but people who claim that because they’re toxic, it’s not love – they’re not reading the book properly either.

An Atheist on Religion

The title of this post undoubtedly prepared you for some sort of inflammatory battle, because that’s the way interactions between people without a faith and people with a faith are framed. The word “Atheist” currently conjures up Richard Dawkins, an elderly biologist driven to unpleasant sniping in public forums by a lifetime of interacting with creationists and fundamentalists of several stripes rattling his metaphorical office door while he was trying to teach; a man who no more represents atheism and atheists than said creationists and fundamentalists represent their respective faiths. Of course there are people who will be swayed by a militantly anti-theist message, just as there are those who will be swayed by calls to hatred and biogtry within their chosen faith.

The primary difference there is that while there is a vague structure of Christianity or Islam or Hinduism or Sikhism etc to make these malcontents adhere to in order to genuinely claim themselves to be of that faith, the only requirement for someone to call themselves an atheist is for them to have no belief in any form of divine: as long as you have no god or gods, you are an atheist. Despite what humanist groups may try to push, there is no organisation of the faithless, no single uniting cause, no figurehead, no one to speak for everyone who looks into the universe and sees the hand of nothing but complex physics: “atheist” is in all courts barring “do you believe in a god or gods?” a term neutral by intent. An atheist is not automatically a wicked person or a good person, an intelligent person or a stupid person, an argumentative person or an entirely compliant one, any more than any person of faith is, and it’s counterproductive for movements of individual atheists to try to tar a broad variety of people with a narrow brush, and say “atheists are this” or “atheists are that”. Atheists are people who have no gods, and that is all.

But this isn’t a post called “An Atheist on Atheism”.

Recently I have been reading a book called The Lucifer Effect, which is despite the title absolutely nothing to do with religion, and in fact to do with social psychology: specifically the idea of situational evil and dehumanisation, both ideas which interested me when I was introduced to them in GCSE Sociology a million years ago. The idea of dehumanising and othering people on the basis of their faith bothers me, especially as there are plenty of explanations for the role that religion plays in societies and its continued popularity: I may not have any great use for faith and I may wish for a less judgemental and more sceptical populace, but I don’t think that’s going to be achieved by attacking the things people hold dear.

So I considered the things that are related to religion that I personally enjoy: not the things which are purported to serve societies or communities, not the things which benefit people involved in faith and faith’s structures within a society, but the parts of any given religion which I enjoy, as an atheist.

Positives

  • Singing in groups. There’s some sort of evolutionary or neurological reason for this, which escapes my mind, but while I’m normally highly averse to group activities and find them more alienating than bonding, singing the same song with a lot of other people who are also enjoying singing that song is a very uplifting experience. Of course, this is hardly restricted to religion: one only has to attend a football match, or a gig, or occasionally the top deck of a night bus to get the experience of communal singing.
  • Quiet contemplation. A principal tenet in many faiths is prayer or meditation, a time when the individual descends into silence to commune with their god or with their soul, typically in some place where this is recognised as the foremost activity. Calm and isolation, even within the crowd, or calm and isolation on one’s own in an environment conducive to that allows a break from the rush of daily concerns and also sometimes turns up solutions to problems by giving time to get to the bottom of them. Again, this is not restricted purely to religion: there are plenty of people of no specific faith who meditate, and moments of quiet contemplation frequently occur in museums, graveyards, art galleries, and spots of breath-taking natural beauty without the infraction of God or Gods.
  • Art in praise of a person or concept that one has great admiration for. Some of the most beautiful and stirring works of art in a variety of media – especially music – have been created in praise of various gods, the works of those gods, their intermediaries, or depicting moments from the lives of gods or their intermediaries. Even the admonition to withhold iconography of prophets and the creations of deities can cause creative praise to be channelled into areas exquisite delight, geometric and calligraphic. But of course these things are again not the sole province of faith: works of brutal beauty have been created in praise of mortal lovers, of the power of the sun, of the concept of charity, even in praise of military leaders.
  • Architecture. Religious architecture results in some of the finest buildings ever created by mankind. It would be impossible to look on Notre Dame, St Peter’s, Al Masjid Al-Haram, the Swaminarayan Akshardham, or Belz Beit HaMidrash HaGadol and not come away with some sense of awe at the magnificence and ingenuity of these imposing monuments, and the dedication off their builders and designers. The remnants of extinct religions too throw up miraculous structures in praise of their near-forgotten gods. But this fantastical array of buildings is also augmented by more secular entries: great halls for the feasting of kings, stadia for sports and theatre, markets, and in recent years even residential complexes all make their mark in terms of imposing and impressive architecture.
  • Emphasis on kindness towards others and provision for the needy. Many major faiths consider charity and support of the ill, poor, elderly, or otherwise worse-off than the powerful parts of the society to be a holy activity, one which enlivens the soul in the eyes of a God or Gods. It is considered beneficial to the self to behave in ways which are selfless, which is a beautiful but demonstrably accurate paradox. The thing about that is that empathy and charity particularly from powerful members of the group – ie, those with most to give – are built in to social primate groups: it’s not even “human” behaviour, it’s “social ape behaviour”, as outlined by Frans de Waal in Age of Empathy. The idea that these notions need codifying is slightly frightening.
  • Free food. Look, I’m easily won over, okay? Although advertising agencies and everyone from car companies to insurance brokers will also win me over with free food, so that’s not really specific to religion either.

So what are the things I, personally, dislike about religion?

Negatives

  • Abuse of power. Religions typically create hierarchies which are unquestioned, and in situations like that – as demonstrated in The Lucifer Effect and the keynote Stanford Prison Experiment – power is frequently abused as a matter of course. But that’s hardly unique to religion: military forces, academia, governments, commercial companies, hell even families form automatic hierarchies and within each of those examples abuses of power can and do regularly occur. Religions aren’t tainting hierarchies with power abuses, human nature taints any situation which is allowed a hierarchy with the possibility of abuse of power, and human nature imposes a hierarchy onto almost everything because that is simply how we’ve been wired for millennia.
  • Unquestioning acceptance of “facts” doled out by the appropriate authority figure. One frustrating side-effect of training people from young ages to accept the word of whichever God or Gods they follow as absolute and their earthly intermediaries as powerful is that this opens people up for exploitation from anyone hawking any old snake oil – because they don’t have the instinct or mental processes in place to question the validity of such claims. Personally I would be happier if people cited sources more, talked about biases more, asked for better, more deeply-examined answers to their questions. But that kind of acceptance isn’t the sole province of faith. Any situation where people are raised into unquestioning acceptance of answers – including most family environments – is going to leave them a little vulnerable to future exploitation. Liars and manipulators come in many stripes, and by no means all of them are Faithful (and indeed to say “most” of them are is presumably only because “most” people are still people of Faith).  Every individual has their own responsibility to learn to be more cautious and sceptical: that’s part of growing up.
  • Encouragement of tribalism and exclusion of/attacks on “the Other”. The word “infidel”, the word “heretic”, the countless holy wars, the ongoing demonisation of homosexuality by certain churches, the Crusades, the persecution of the Jews repeatedly throughout European history, the Proddy/Catholic divisions… religion seems like an endless engine of bigotry and tribalism, of manufacturing peace within at the cost of hatred without. It draws firm lines and places the label “good” on one side of the line and “evil” on the other, even when those lines are only national boundaries. Except: a good proportion of holy wars were fought over land and resources, with religion only providing a useful motivating tool (which as we can see in several 20th century conflicts regarding Communism is not the sole form of persuasive ideology); us and them is an ancient form of human interaction as natural to the species as forming automatic hierarchies, or taking care of our sick and elderly. It can be subverted, as can the desire to protect the weak. Non-religious ideologies have also been used to drive bigotry: as scientific explanations for the vagrancies of the human condition gained popularity, they were used to condemn the same people that “demonic possession” had previously served for; and yet scientific explanations for human variety and religious calls to tolerance can both be used to alleviate the fear of The Other. My grandmother, a retired priest of the United Reform Church, still pursues her interfaith outreach work, writing to various imams regarding their common ground and their shared desire to see the world become a better place.

Both the positive and negative factors of faith are elements of human instinct, nature, and ideals which exist independently of belief in a deity.

I am not an atheist because I had a terrible experience with religion and am angry with a god; I am not an atheist because of the damaging aspects of religions within various cultures; I am not even an atheist because of the rhetorical might of the non-theist debaters or the body of evidence in favour of the non-existence of at the very least any kind of interventionist God (although both have proven a happy confirmation of my pre-existing beliefs); I am an atheist because at no time in my life when I have looked into myself or out at the world have I found anything that required a god to explain it or anything that resembled an entity that might be deemed a god. I am a sceptic because I require evidence to be convinced of ideas, but not wholly sceptical (I have ideals, and theories, and notions I would like to see enacted to determine if they would work); I am a materialist because I do not believe in the existence of a soul or a consciousness that does not derive directly from the functioning of the human body and brain or a Monist because I do not believe there is any difference between “the mind” and “the brain”; and I am a Nihilist because I believe that it is impossible to impose a human concept of “meaning” onto the greater complex clockwork of the universe, that “meaning” is derived from and determined by the cultures of humanity and will vanish with those cultures or change as they change, and that one man’s “meaning” is another’s irrelevance.

What I do not believe is that any of these beliefs makes me a better or worse person than someone who does not share them. Only my actions can do that.

Exit from the desert

If I were a complete dick, I could say “it seems fitting that at a time when hideous military things are happening in Syria, I have just finished reading about the liberation of Damascus in 1918”, but I am not the kind of dick who wants to tie that stuff together. That’s a job for journalists and historians, not people who write weird books about London and cry about T E Lawrence at inopportune moments.

The desert I’m leaving is the remembered desert of Seven Pillars of Wisdom: the book is finished. I’ve ploughed through the 9000-odd Kindle pages (this is not an exaggeration) of description, introspection, isolation, photographs, and guerilla warfare, and Lawrence has had his last whisper in my ear until I pick up The Mint

I’ve had a lot of thoughts about this book already. They’ve wavered between being impressed by his prose, impressed by his exploits, horrified by the activities of both himself against others and others against him, fascinated by the landscape so eloquently given voice in this book that it feels like a series of still photographs supplemented by memories of travelogues and nature documentaries, exasperated by Lawrence’s outbursts of what feel like very juvenile whining (forgetting of course that he was younger than me while doing most of this), and often quietly in awe of the scope and seat-of-the-pants nature of several of the victories. 

In completing the book there’s a sense of relief and loss, as there usually is at the end of any good book; the creeping horror of the oncoming scenes at Damascus turned out to be unfounded as it turned out that I’d misremembered the account from A Prince of Our Disorder and that the David Lean movie was as full of lies in this regard as in every other; the chaos did not end in disaster but rather in the return to function of the city. 

Overall in spite of the jittery action and the push and pull of military minutiae, in spite of the electric relations between the men of the Arab Revolt and Lawrence’s occasionally tenuous grip both on his plans and on his person, the cast of the book is of a kind of peaceful reminiscence: coming away from it, the stresses of a military campaign appear like faded memories in a rear view mirror. It is, initially, a hard book to break into: Lawrence makes his prose unfriendly, almost, to intruders: but soon he slackens off and as the campaign begins to shape up so does the ease of reading.

In A Prince of Our Disorder, John E Mack comments that a lot of the men who spoke with Lawrence throughout his life found he gave something to them, and that they saw parts of themselves in him. It seems to be a common theme: I’ve already joked a few times about getting a “what would lawrence do” bracelet with “do the opposite of that” on the other side (for a start: always wear a motorcycle helmet when riding a motorbike, especially when riding a Brough Superior at preposterous speeds on winding country roads; do not utterly refuse to get into any kind of relationship on the basis of some mad ideals which cause you emotional distress, etc), and it occurs to me that there are a few lessons to be learned from him in the course of this book and the circumstances of its publication which could well be applicable to me.

First, with regards to his back-and-forthing on and lack of confidence in his manuscript, leading an exasperated Siegfried Sassoon to send him a testy letter containing the phrase “you have written a great book, blast you”: his eventual decision to produce a small print run funded by subscribers is remarkably similar to my own idea for what to do with my next novel. It is of course a different matter, I’m not trying to hide my work because I have issues with the quality of it (if you like, I have long since ceased to care whether what I’ve written is perfect or not as long as it says what I need it to say), but because I can’t fund the thing on my own. And unlike Lawrence I don’t have an eager public desperate to hear what I have to say because unlike Lawrence I’m somewhat not a hero of a gruelling war and an eloquent Oxford alumni with a great wealth of friends in hundreds of places. 

… Also I’m taller than him by about two inches.

Second, a less practical consideration. In the latter chapters of the book especially I “saw” Lawrence come into conflict with people who found his manner inappropriate or his attitude ungentlemanly, and both chastened him for it and occasionally physically assaulted him (one officer “struck him across the face”, for example). His sense of vision generally kept him from being smothered or particularly bothered by attacks on his persona: while  he was prone to introspection, and also to what looked like self-hatred, this was at the instigation of his own conscience and comparison of his awkwardness, his “other”ness, to those around him. He fretted about his guilt and despised himself for his deceptions, necessary though he believed they were, but did not care for propriety or “what others might think” of his demands for resources or his person unless the manipulation of his image in their eyes was vital to the fighting strength of his little army. He talked often of flattering or phrasing things in specific ways, but not of feeling ashamed of pursuing the things necessary to his task.

This represents a lesson in that while it is important to consider the possibility of harming others it’s not actually necessary to concern oneself overly with whether or not their approval is bestowed. I’m on the verge of stifling myself for the sake of not appearing ridiculous, for the sake of not being “talked about behind my back”, and in a timely manner have read an example of why that’s not feasible or worthwhile: it doesn’t matter if you look ridiculous, and it doesn’t matter if people gas and gossip. The thing you set yourself to should be more important than the vagrancies of strangers and acquaintances, and if your real friends have doubts they will voice them honestly and without spite.

I plan to start reading Lawrence’s book about the conditions of the fledgling RAF – The Mint – by the end of this year, and I’m eager to see what I can learn from that, as well as to listen to a voice separated from mine by a good eighty years.