As to straws upon the sea

Thanks to The Wife, I have found an ideal description of the modern condition, which appeared in Jane Gardam’s novel Bilgewater, originally published in 1977.

“There are times when my environment appears to me as very much less than educative and the rational element in man to be so miniscule that you wonder what creation is all about and turn to chess or cats or mathematics as to straws upon the sea.” — Jane Gardam, Bilgewater, 70.

And she didn’t even have to cope with social media.

It strikes me that there is something of a shared thread connecting between Gardam’s quote and Orwell’s “Some thoughts on the common toad” (1946), which I commented upon not all that long ago.

For myself: I find, increasingly, that cultivating interests that have little — or, preferably, nothing — to do with the ebb and flow of present-day politics is becoming ever more important to me.

Glad to find that I’m not alone in that.

Whatever the era.

On keeping hope and worry balanced

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been reading Paul Graham’s book Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age,  a published collection of his online essays, which I recommend very highly.

Now, I’m a poor programmer, but one of the (many) compelling aspects of the book is the way it connects programming to other creative endeavours such as writing or (as in the title) painting.

On the train to work today, I read the following passage (from a slightly altered essay originally posted here) and it seemed like some very fine advice, for coding, for writing and for creating generally:

“The best writing is rewriting,” wrote E. B. White. Every good writer knows this, and it’s true for software too. The most important part of design is redesign. Programming languages, especially, don’t get redesigned enough.

To write good software you must simultaneously keep two opposing ideas in your head. You need the young hacker’s naive faith in his abilities, and at the same time the veteran’s skepticism. You have to be able to think how hard can it be? with one half of your brain while thinking it will never work with the other.

The trick is to realize that there’s no real contradiction here. You want to be optimistic and skeptical about two different things. You have to be optimistic about the possibility of solving the problem, but skeptical about the value of whatever solution you’ve got so far.

People who do good work often think that whatever they’re working on is no good. Others see what they’ve done and are full of wonder, but the creator is full of worry. This pattern is no coincidence: it is the worry that made the work good.

If you can keep hope and worry balanced, they will drive a project forward the same way your two legs drive a bicycle forward. In the first phase of the two-cycle innovation engine, you work furiously on some problem, inspired by your confidence that you’ll be able to solve it. In the second phase, you look at what you’ve done in the cold light of morning, and see all its flaws very clearly. But as long as your critical spirit doesn’t outweigh your hope, you’ll be able to look at your admittedly incomplete system, and think, how hard can it be to get the rest of the way?, thereby continuing the cycle.

I have had several conversations with younger colleagues recently who are at various stages of their dissertations or post-docs. And, really, apart from my own patented advice (which has gotten me through three books), this seems like something worth imparting.

Now, I’m off to get back to my worrying…

Uncommon thoughts on the toad

I was pleased to stumble upon an essay from George Orwell today that, for whatever reason, I’d not really noticed before: “Some thoughts on the common toad”, originally published in Tribune in April 1946.

It is, more or less, a meditation on the simple pleasures of nature in springtime, focusing on the titular toad and Orwell’s observations of how it  awakens from its wintry slumber to emerge from a hole in the ground.

Orwell is in fine — and rather imaginative — form throughout the essay.

For example:

At this period, after his long fast, the toad has a very spiritual look, like a strict Anglo-Catholic towards the end of Lent. His movements are languid but purposeful, his body is shrunken, and by contrast his eyes look abnormally large. This allows one to notice, what one might not at another time, that a toad has about the most beautiful eye of any living creature. It is like gold, or more exactly it is like the golden-coloured semi-precious stone which one sometimes sees in signet rings, and which I think is called a chrysoberyl.

And to what does a young toad’s fancy turn in spring?

For a few days after getting into the water the toad concentrates on building up his strength by eating small insects. Presently he has swollen to his normal size again, and then he goes through a phase of intense sexiness. All he knows, at least if he is a male toad, is that he wants to get his arms round something, and if you offer him a stick, or even your finger, he will cling to it with surprising strength and take a long time to discover that it is not a female toad.

Orwell’s ruminations on nature (unsurprisingly) take a political departure, as he  notes the relentless need for some observers in his age to perceive everything from a partisan angle (and to condemn those who do not share this perspective).

Is it wicked to take a pleasure in Spring and other seasonal changes? To put it more precisely, is it politically reprehensible, while we are all groaning, or at any rate ought to be groaning, under the shackles of the capitalist system, to point out that life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird’s song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some other natural phenomenon which does not cost money and does not have what the editors of left-wing newspapers call a class angle? There is no doubt that many people think so. I know by experience that a favourable reference to “Nature” in one of my articles is liable to bring me abusive letters,…

Orwell’s was a particularly grim and politicised age (as has been brought home to me in my research on my forthcoming book), but there is nonetheless something  familiar here; no doubt a modern iteration of this essay would attract its own angry comments bristling with terms such as “privilege” and “problematic”.

Though there is, of course, a political point here, one reflecting Orwell’s ambivalent feelings about what he — and many of his contemporaries — called the “machine age”:

I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and – to return to my first instance – toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable, and that by preaching the doctrine that nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader worship.

I suppose part of my  immediate admiration for this essay is that it reflects my own (increasing) desire to seek refuge from the screeching hyper-partisan frenzy  that seems to attach to nearly every aspect of public life  in  the kinds of pleasures that, as Orwell observes, are “available to everybody, and cost nothing”.

How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t. So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, Spring is still Spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.

I recommend reading the whole thing, if you have the time.

That I discovered this piece while sitting in our back garden, admiring the birds, bees, squirrels and butterflies that congregate there is a happy coincidence.

Though it occurs to me that we could do with some more toads.