I set my lip on fire the other morning. No of course I didn’t, I’m plagiarising Derek because I can’t think of a better diary opening than his, and because I haven’t done anything very exciting since my last missive, though I did attend a corporate awards night at the Millbank tower. The prize categories all had hilariously unsexy names, like ‘Best Account Management or Sales Renewal Team in a UK based Vertical Market’. There was a modest selection of free booze and some half-hearted canapés. Also there were many people I nearly-know or have met once, which left me faced with a good deal of that fraught business of introducing people to other people when I can’t remember any of their names.
How do you cope with that situation? Often the best approach is to be the bluff, cheerful fool, “Oh dear my mind’s a blank, what an idiot, your name has gone clean out my head”, but you can’t really get away with that en masse, i.e. where you’ve forgotten everyone’s name. You just have to hope that people cleverly notice that you’ve forgotten their name, sympathise, and rapidly introduce themselves before you trail off into embarrassing silence. And frankly if they’re not capable of such a basic courtesy they’re probably not worth knowing anyway.
Once when I was boy I lost a game of chess and, seeing my king checkmated, I stepped back from the board in some shock, bottom lip a-quiver, eyes beginning to bulge with tears, and then I flung an arm and sent the pieces clattering to the floor.
At some point between then and now I came across Kipling’s advice about Triumph and Disaster. I can’t say I’ve learnt to live it exactly, but I try very, very hard to fake it, which is most likely all one really aim for.
The man who hated Britain? It has been ruefully noted that all the flak could have been avoided if only the Daily Mail had stuck a question mark on the end of that line, as I just have. But did Ralph Miliband really hate Britain? That must depend on what you mean by ‘Britain’. Doubtless he liked living in London and throwing dinner parties and discussing with pals the imminent seizure of the means of production by the proletariat very much indeed, if that’s what is meant by ‘Britain’. On the other hand, if by ‘Britain’ we refer to a democratic country with a separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers, freedom of thought and expression, a shared Christian and cultural heritage, the rule of law and property rights, then by all accounts he loathed the place. And given that Ed M warbles on about his father’s influence during his famous noteless speeches, and hopes to be Prime Minister, I’d say it was legitimate to bring the subject up. However, the Daily Mail’s ridiculous error was to try to hang a man by a specific statement he made at age 17. If we were all judged by what we said at 17 it would be an unkind world indeed.
Perhaps that’s why Patrick Leigh Fermor decided to wait until middle age before writing his teenage journals. Reading A Time of Gifts – the first volume of his account of his youthful adventures walking across Europe in the 1940s – I was dazzled, of course, by his sublime prose (described very well by Douglas here), but also something was nagging at me. The wicked little satirical man who lurks in the bad bits of my brain wouldn’t stop sniggering. The moment of realisation came on page 54, when Fermor describes a drunken night out in Cologne with some trawlermen, where he ends up dancing with a girl who was “very pretty except for two missing front teeth” (these having been “knocked out in a brawl the week before, she told me”); and then in the next paragraph he goes to a bookshop because “it had occurred to me that I might learn German quicker by reading Shakespeare in the translation.”
Upon reading this passage, the penny dropped that A Time of Gifts is best understood as the most brilliant and sustained work of one-upmanship in the history of literature. Imagine being one of Fermor’s ‘friends’ and reading that? You’d have no chance. Once you see the book through Stephen Potter’s eyes, it all makes sense, especially the ‘humblebragging’ opening letter which introduces the author and his tearaway schooldays (“Dear Xan… It is hard to believe that 1942 in Crete, when we first met – both us of black-turbaned, booted and cloaked in white goat’s hair, and deep in grime – was more than three decades ago.”). As every lifeman knows, being expelled from a series of posh public schools is the most effective educationploy in the book.
Where have all the philosophers gone? Are Slavoj Zizek and Alain de Botton all we have left? If so we live in a sad age indeed. I ask because surely if ever philosophers were needed in public life it is during this era of Carbon Emissions.
The IPCC produced its latest 36-page report on climate change the other week, and the BBC et cetera headlined their stories “Scientists now 95% certain that man is major cause of global warming”, which as a headline isn’t newsworthy, important or even particularly meaningful. The most newsworthy ‘revelation’ of the report, I’d have thought, is the acknowledgement that there is no consensus explanation for why the planet has not, contra predictions, warmed since 1998. But even that isn’t the most important one.
How would a philosopher advise the world’s governments on carbon reduction? He would start by asking the most pertinent question, which is not ‘is man responsible?’ or even ‘is the earth warming?’ but something like this: How certain are we that the negative consequences to the human race of failing to implement proposed measures to reduce CO2 emissions are so severe that those measures are worth the cost, taking into account that the money and effort could be spent instead on other life-saving projects (such as protecting people from cold weather)?
There is no need to doubt man-made global warming to ask this question, nor to be a scientist. Yet to do so, according to the non-philosophical, is to be a ‘denier’.
Following the IPCC report, the philosopher might go bit further than just asking that question. He might point out that Climate Change, in the sense of trends into the future, does not exist to be observed anywhere in the world other than as a series of computer models, and the ‘scientific consensus’ is a compromise between greatly varying interpretations of those models. This consensus is the basis for the ‘certain’ and ‘consequences’ elements of the question above, and therefore the most important revelation of the IPCC report is the revision downwards of the range given for ‘equilibrium climate sensitivity’ (the expected increase of global mean temperature if there was a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere) from 2.0C to 4.5C in 2007’s report, to 1.5C to 4.5C in this year’s report. This downgrade ought to directly affect the balance when our governments are considering the question of whether the costs of carbon reduction targets are still worth it.
Perhaps it will, but not thanks to philosophers, who are absent from the debate. So why are there no philosophers left? It’s their own fault. Some time ago they lost all confidence and decided to prostrate themselves before scientists. Even when I was at university a young prof called James Ladyman was proclaiming that it was passé and embarrassing to even attempt to discuss the origins of the universe and other such epistemological problems in purely a priori terms, because advances in scientific theory had meant ‘we’d moved beyond all that’. In other words, metaphysics is dead, long live physics.
And who has replaced philosophers in public life? Stand-up comedians on Twitter, that’s what. As the science gradually rights itself, the right question reasserts itself, and the age of Carbon Emissions fades, many public figures will face a severe test of their character, of their ability to handle the Two Imposters. Most will fail. Last week Graham Linehan, creator of the excellent Father Ted but, it turns out, a pretty horrible man, tweeted that the journalist David Rose, a climate change ‘denier’ (and, it happens, Jewish), should ‘Go on tour with David Irving’. QED
C and I were playing noughts and crosses (to be more precise, we were playing Peppa Pig Snorts and Crosses on the computer). I let her win a few and she danced around gloating “Ha ha I won I won.” I told her that when you win you must say “Bad luck” to your opponent, not laugh at them; and when you lose you must say “Well done.” She looked at me dubiously. So I won the next game. She stepped back from the screen in some shock, bottom lip a-quiver, eyes beginning to bulge with tears. Trembling she turned towards me, her face a picture of betrayed horror. “Well done, Daddy,” she uttered miserably. I nearly wept.