Ideas.
Nick discusses The Meaning Of Life with Dr. W.B.Currie, his father.


Nick: I was sick on Monday and read Julian McLaren's Ross's book 'Memoirs of the 40s'. Ironically, the chapters where he describes being sick in the army. (McLaren Ross was a Scot who moved to Soho, a writer who sold Hoovers for a living and became the model for 'Our Man In Havana').

It made me realise that probably everybody who lived through the war saw, for some time afterwards, social relations in terms of army ranks: who was a private, who was an officer. Privates couldn't even socialise with officers! Suddenly I realised that the puzzling adjective 'classless' applied to life in the 60s meant that this rigid hierarchy (as rigid as the Russian civil service in the 19th century) was quietly being laid to rest. 'Classless' meant that class, while continuing to exist, was being demilitarised. Maybe the 60s should be called 'rankless' instead.


Dr W.B.Currie: Since the war, class has changed radically. It has lost its economic status. The laird was richer than his tenants; not now. It has lost its political status (almost). The Laird was high tory and below that were small tories, whigs and socialists and, God forbid, Bolsheviks etc. It has lost its moral status. The laird was landowner, moral father of the village, the JP, often also the MP. All gone.

What remains in the post war clear-out ? Caste remains, bolstered by that oddest of all signals, non-regional accent. The Brits are the only people whose prestige accent is not the accent of the capital nor of a favoured region. It is a strong class marker. You will find pockets of people using RP in every village of every English county, and many Scottish counties.

Class/caste is also bolstered by education in terms of what people know. Few lairds were scientists or mathematicians. Lots were classicists, theologians, historians. Fred Hoyle was tolerated as a great astronomer and physicist despite his very broad middle-England accent, which would have made it difficult to accept him as a classicist etc (in England).

So what we are left with is that worst of all systems, - that abhorrent sausage of a thing - a skin of structure and a stuffing of unknown composition. We have a mixed, rather indeterminate amalgam of old class, old caste, new democracy, new economic clout, new politics and new morality. Mixed systems are seriously weak. Strong systems are strong because they consist of mutually exclusive and mutually defining terms. Rank is a strong system; race is too; in places religion is. If you sweep these away you may have to tolerate hierarchies which will not sort into class. Communism was brilliantly successful in that it produced a minimal system of one class good, all other classes bad. Comrade general! Comrade professor! Comrade president!

Now that structure has weakened, there is one hell of a mess.

Crime is more normal than pathological avoidance of crime. Crime and lying are readily understandable, though certainly deserving routine punishment. Saintliness, however, is highly suspicious, and kindles contempt in the unsaintly.

Crime is not the norm. It is the aberration. If society were in a more stable state, say commmunism, religious law, war/military etc, then crime would virtually disappear. In Greece when we were there, nobody stole anything because the peasant-tyrants who ruled, the colonels, particularly Patakos, would happily jail a petty thief for life. So there were none. We are having liberal thoughts about crime, and we are having crime, which is an inverse way of saying that the social systems we have in place are ill-defined. Any well-defined society automatically defines, then marginalises and, if it can, eliminates crime.

Why do I respond to Nomads' dress styles so positively, thinking 'How ugly Western styles are in comparison!'? Is it an expression of having been hurt by my own culture? Or is it all about primary colours and loose forms, is it better for aesthetic reasons? Could it even be a visible sign that these are good people?

'We lead correct lives,' say the Nomads, 'and so have no difficulty eating and housing ourselves'. Is this in the Communist sense of correct, or is it Ecological?


Liking nomads is a romanic notion. it's your nursery background. 'Away with the raggle-taggle gipsies, oh!'. It's Matthew Arnold and the retreat from Oxford ('Still clutching the unconquerable hope/Still seeking the inviolable shade'). Dressing like nomads is pastiche,- a real statement about your individuality, perhaps, but a statement that there are norms and you are deviant. Isn't that by definition romantic? I'm reluctant to go into the definition of romantic, except to say it is like Kant's moral imperative; it depends on the proposition that individuals exist, can grasp the world mentally, can act with authority and can change it. God-like, really. Too deep to pursue. Derrida says Kant is profoundly wrong. Is he being Kantian in saying this?

When Pennebaker made 'Don't Look Back' (his excellent documentary about the young Bob Dylan) you had to change 16mm film spools every eight minutes or so. Now rock documentary makers can use Hi8 and keep running forever. Yet they don't necessarily get better scenes than Pennebaker did. Maybe there's a kind of reverse Parkinson's law that states that life's drama shrinks (or dilutes) to the size of the medium that's available to represent it.

We're now inelegantly stuck between two elegant forms of memory: the apocryphal anecdote, purely verbal and highly inaccurate, as used by Boswell in his 'Life Of Dr Johnson'. And what you might call the In-Store Camera approach: the real time total recall recording systems that infinite inexpensive storage on high bandwidth computers hooked up to sound and vision recording devices will give us. That transition leads us from legendary mode to banal demotic mode. Higher resolution means lower legend-potential.

Imagine if we had on record everything that Dr Johnson (or Oscar Wilde) had ever said! Including 'Pass the salt, please!'

For now only one medium combines the high res advantage of being information rich with the low res advantage of being 'legendary'. That's the World Wide Web. Fuzzy, low-res images are still magical there, almost as small and 'perfect' as logos: a little picture of the White House on the web is much closer to the idea of the White House than a 70mm film image would be (you'd waste time looking at the cracks and the birds' nests).


Total memory is the beginning of art, not the end. This is because we are profoundly narrative in our thinking. This, as you point out, has important consequences. Narrative is by its nature about selection, compression, emphasis, constructive elaboration....you know the list. Yet, narrative is THE characteristic mode of representing the world. It defines metaphor, shapes problem solving, representation, re-construction and analysis.

I have been much moved by thinking about this recently, partly for my next book, partly because of a speech I made in London last December. Narrative makes sense of the world and allows us to communicate important things about it. Narrative assists memory. Narrative limits analysis. Total ROM is confusing, until the editor - even the Great Editor - comes to make it knowledge.



Look out for contributions shortly from eminent deconstructionist critic Dr Mark S. Currie!
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