Which is more important, the written or the spoken word?

Below is a debate that took place at the Logos Club in Paris in 1980, as described in Laurent Binet’s The 7th Function of Language. The club is devoted to the word: “Welcome to the Logos Club, my friends. Come demonstrate, come deliberate, come praise and criticise the beauty of the Word! Oh Word that sweeps away hearts and commands the universe!”

The club runs debates where the losers have a finger removed immediately. Members of the cub are ranked by their prowess. At the top are the sophists and the bottom the speakers. Here is the descending order:

Sophists

Tribunes

Peripateticians

Dialecticians

Orators

Rhetoricians

Speakers

 

The sophists are few and known by numbers not names. De Gaulle is said to have been one.

The debate tonight is whether the spoken or written word is superior.

 The case for the spoken word

‘Religions of the Book forged our societies and we made their texts sacred: the Tablets of Stone, the Ten Commandments, the Torah Scroll, the Bible, the Koran, and so on. To be valid, it must be engraved. I say: fetishism. I say: superstition. I say: dogmatism.

‘It is not I who affirms the superiority of the spoken word, but he who made us what we are, oh thinkers, oh rhetoricians, the father of dialectics, our common ancestor, the man who without ever writing a single book laid the foundations of all western thought.

‘Remember! We are in Egypt, in Thebes, and the king asks: what is the point of writing? And the god responds: it is the ultimate cure for ignorance. And the king says: on the contrary! In fact, this art will breed forgetfulness in the souls of those who learn it because they will stop using their memories. The act of remembering is not memory, and the book is merely an aide-memoire. It does not offer knowledge, it does not offer understanding, it does not offer mastery.

‘Why would students need professors if they could learn everything they need from books? Why do they need what is in those books to be explained? Why are there schools and not just libraries? Because the written word alone is never enough. All thought is alive on the condition that it is exchanged; if it is frozen in place, it is dead. Socrates compares writing to painting: the beings created by painting stand in front of us as if they were alive; but when we question them, they remain petrified in a formal pose and don’t speak a word. And the same goes for writing. One might believe that the written word can speak; but if we question it, because we wish to understand it, it always repeats the same thing, down to the last syllable.

‘Language produces a message, which has meaning only to the extent that it has a recipient. I am speaking to you now; you are the raison d’être of my speech. Only madmen speak in the desert. And the madman also talks to himself. But in a text, who are the words addressed to? To everyone! And thus to no one. When each discourse has been written down for good and all, it passes indifferently to those who understand it and those who have no interest in it. A text without a precise recipient is a guarantee of imprecision, of vague and impersonal words. How could any message be suited to everyone? Even a letter is inferior to any kind of conversation: it is written in a certain context, and received in another. Besides, the author’s situation and the recipient’s will both have changed later. It is already obsolete; it was addressed to someone who no longer exists, and its author no longer exists either, vanished in the depths of time as soon as the envelope was sealed.

‘So, that’s how it is: writing is dead. The place for texts is in textbooks. Truth lives only in the metamorphoses of speeches, and only the spoken word is sensitive enough to capture thought’s eternal developing flow in real time. The spoken word is life: I prove it, we prove it, gathered here today to speak and listen, to exchange, to discuss, to debate, to create living thought together, to be as one in the word and the idea, animated by the forces of dialectics, alive with that sonorous vibration we call speech, and which the written word is only the pale symbol of, when all’s said and done: what the score is to music, nothing more. And I will end with one final quotation from Socrates, as I am speaking under his high patronage: “the appearance of knowledge, rather than true knowledge”, that is what writing produces. Thank you for your attention.’

The case for the written word

‘My honourable adversary attributed his quotation to Socrates, but you knew better, didn’t you?’

Silence.

‘He meant Plato. Without whose writings, Socrates, his thought, and his magnificent defence of the spoken word in Phaedo, which my honourable adversary quoted for us almost in its entirety, would have remained unknown to us.’

You’ll know who won.

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Cultural icon or senile fanatic: we are all at least two people

“For a while the press treated [Bertrand] Russell as if he were two people: a fascinating cultural icon whose memoirs were such a delight to read, and a senile fanatic who accused America of war crimes.”

This was March 1967, when Russell was 94. He was thought a cultural icon because he had published his autobiography, which tells of his philospphical and mathematical achievements, is beautifully written, frank, and full of strong stories and intriguing characters. It’s still widely read today.

But at the same time Russell had set up a tribunal of prominent international people with Jean-Paul Sartre as president to inquire into alleged war crimes committed by the Americans in Vietnam. The tribunal, which included doctors and other experts, worked extremely hard, analysing evidence gathered in Vietnam.

One piece of evidence was the bombing of a world-renowned leprosarium at Quinh Lap. It was large and isolated and was bombed more than 30 times. The first 14 bombings were filmed and screened by Japanese television; the American ambassador to Japan said it was an “accident.” When the Russell Tribunal observers visited in 1967 the facility was destroyed and uninhabited, and the few remaining lepers were living in caves. The tribunal was central to changing attitudes to the war.

At the time of the tribunal the American press and the British government supported the war, hence regarding Russell as a senile fanatic. In fact his letters are as clear and logical as those he wrote 50 years earlier, which were themselves models of how to write a letter.

The two stories about Russell were prominent and extreme, but we all have different stories told about us. We also internally spin different stories about ourselves.

Insights into how others see us will always be limited, but I know that by many I am seen as a worthy man promoting good causes in the BMJ who sold his soul to the devil in the form of an American for-profit health care company. Some know only one side of the story seeing me as either the worthy man or Mephistopheles. Some, particularly those in Bangladesh and other low-and-middle-income countries where I worked later, don’t know either story and see me essentially as somebody who tried hard to help.

Internally I sometime see myself as having done some good things, but at other times I think of myself as an overweight coward.

I’m sure that if you reflect for a moment you will see how you are perceived by others and inside yourself as at least two people who are as different as a treasured icon and a senile fanatic.

Russelltribunalen

Medical professionalism and climate change

The Royal College of Physicians identifies seven professional roles that doctors must fill—as healers, patient partners, team workers, managers and leaders, advocates, learners and teachers, and innovators. file:///C:/Users/Richard%20Smith/Downloads/Advancing-medical-professionalism-full-report_0.pdf  No doctor can be perfect in all these roles, reflecting how hard it is to be a good doctor, but all doctors should do something within each role and aspire to be better in all of them.

All these roles come into play when thinking about doctors in relation to climate change.

  • Doctors need to help heal the planet and to help their patients heal in and adapt to a world increasingly threatened by climate change.
  • This can be done only in partnership with patients, both doctors and patients working and changing together.
  • We have hope of countering the harm from climate change only through teamwork. Politicians, scientists, doctors, other health workers, lawyers, academics, business people, and, indeed, every individual has a part to play.
  • Doctors should be leaders in countering climate change and managing the resources they use will be crucial to this.
  • It is perhaps as advocates that doctors—with their understanding of science and contact with the entire population—have the biggest part to play, and the report of the Royal College of Physicians (page 70) says the following:

“A good example for doctors to reflect on is

advocacy on climate change, not least because

it is the main threat to global health, and the

major impact will be on the young and those

as yet unborn. The NHS is one of the largest

contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the

In England alone the NHS produces more CO2

per year than all passenger planes taking off from

Heathrow annually (RCP, 2017). Within the public

sector the NHS is the single biggest contributor

of greenhouse gas emissions – some 25% of the

total.

Unless action is taken, the NHS’s carbon footprint

will expand as demand from a growing and

more medically complex population increases.

Every clinical contact utilises energy and medical

resources and produces multiple types of waste,

including staff and patient travel, infrastructure,

prescriptions and medical equipment. Global

consumption of natural resources is growing to

beyond what the Earth’s capacity can support,

and the production of waste entering back into

the environment is accelerating climate change.

Research clearly shows that climate change is

a real and imminent threat to health. The most

devastating effects will be felt by developing

countries who have contributed least to the

problem, but modernisation and technology will

not protect the UK population from changing

disease patterns and rising mortality as a result

of temperature fluctuations, and threats to food

supplies and homes from flooding. It broadens

the discussion around the detrimental impacts of

modern lifestyles beyond obesity and smoking to

include the environment.

Progress has been made in recent years to reduce

carbon emissions created by NHS services, but

the reduction is predicted to stall by 2020. Action

is therefore needed to create a sustainable

model of healthcare in the NHS and reduce

its carbon footprint. Healthcare professionals

from all disciplines, managers and senior NHS

leaders should see action on climate change as a

central issue in organisational objectives and risk

management, advocating for its consideration

and inclusion in decisions. As an organisation,

the NHS makes one million clinical patient

contacts every 36 hours (Department of Health,

2005) and has an annual purchasing budget of

approximately £20 billion. The ability of doctors to

make an impact is significant, through service and

care provided and procurement of medicines and

medical devices.

Doctors have tended to think that acting on

climate change is a job for others, but progress will

be made only with action at every level, from the

individual to the global. Professionalism requires

that doctors reflect on how they can contribute to

reducing carbon emissions in their personal and

working lives and advocate for broader policies.

Their scientific knowledge and status makes

them powerful voices in important debates.

This professional duty to advocate for health

extends beyond climate change to all the broader

determinants of health. Clearly, it’s a duty that

must be discharged judiciously.”

  • Doctors need to learn about climate change, particularly its increasing effects on health, and to teach others, including medical students and patients, on the subject.
  • Much innovation—not least how to deliver health care sustainably in a world of net zero carbon consumption—will be needed to counter climate change, and doctors must contribute to that innovation.

Doctors and their organisations need to be at the forefront of countering the huge threat to health and life from climate change.

Seven roles

Potent memories from 48 hours walking in the rain in Dorset

Written by my friend David Pencheon and posted with his consent (with a few edits from me)

Hornet sting and overwhelming sympathy [irony alert]

Hunks of dead cow on Richard’s plate in River Cottage restaurant

Robin introduction to protracted rain at a very late age

Cottage

Richard calling Paul Phil, and all his friends looking round for a “Phil”

[Paul responds to story with how somebody he knew called him Phil for five years, making Richard feel better.]

Robin being unconvinced by Richard’s creative definition of a fossil [final judgement awaited]

Hill

The flooded river at Whitchurch Canonicorum on Sunday morning

Fowey estuary mussels

News of XR tactics and prospects

Heated discussion over best stretegy for UK Health Alliance on Climate Change

Notable lack of interest in the famous bank machine raid and subsequent partial building collapse in Beaminster, despite repeated tellings of the story [Important never tot bore your audience]

Beech

Beaminster resident offended by talk of “village” square [He insisted Beaminster is a “town,” chartered by William the Conqueror]

Only other occupant of Maiden Newton coffee shop recognising a book Robin raved about

No Dorset Apple Cake and cream for Robin [But he did get some earlier]

Terrifying Land Rover ride back from the Three Horsehoes in Powerstock [Would be a big hit as a Disney ride]

[On the ride Paul told us of “badger ham,” which his grandfather made]

Mist on the Ridgeway as sun tried to force its way through clouds. (Apparently).

[We enjoyed 15 seconds of sun and 48 hours of rain—but excellent, refreshing rain]

Hedgehog

Richard’s diplomatic but oblique reflections on David’s driving technique  [It was all praise]

Locked church at Whitchurch denying us chance of putting random body part into relic chamber [With the intention of curing depression, gout, heart disease, halitosis, dandruff, or anything–and easing pressure on the NHS]

David and Robin trying time eat breakfast in the dark due to failure to understand lighting switches

More cooked breakfast than we could possibly eat in Whitchurch.[Irony: if you want a cooked breakfast in Whitchurch you have to ask: it will not be offered]

David baffled by lack of Dorset accent in Powerstock waitress [Mortifying us all]

Lamentable inability to pronounce Beaminster, even after extensive training  [Too old]

Greater love hath no man than to lay down his opportunity of an early bath because his friend has been attacked by a hornet

Richard effortlessly confusing the waitress at Charmouth beach cafe. [I’m sure it was David]

Lyme Bay

If you want your Romanticism sweet and strong, read this

 The 24-year-old Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote the The Sorrows of Young Werther in five and half weeks in 1774, and its publication made him famous. Napoleon thought it one of the world’s greatest books and carried it with him on his campaign in Egypt. Young men developed Werther Fever, some being driven to suicide—with the book discovered beside their corpses. As a result Leipzig, Denmark, and Italy banned the book. It’s hard to understand now why the book had quite so much impact, at times it seems ridiculous to the modern reader.

I’d always felt I ought to read some Goethe, but I feared that it would be hard to read. I’d been told that Goethe wrote exquisite prose in German but was impossible to translate. In fact The Sorrows of Werther is easy to read. It’s only 124 pages long, and I read it in four mornings.

The main source of Werther’s sorrows is not the pointlessness of life but his unrequited love for Charlotte. She is a beautiful, kind woman who is good to Werther but who unfortunately is engaged to somebody else, Albert. And there is nothing wrong with Albert. He too is delightful and fond of Werther.

The book is autobiographical, and Goethe didn’t even bother to change the name of the woman he loved, Charlotte Russe, who was engaged to  Johann Christian Kestner. I suppose that the book must be so popular because most young men and women have experienced unrequited love—whether for a pop star, a friend’s sister, a boy they pass regularly on the way to school, or even a character in a novel. Goethe does a good job of capturing the feeling.

All emotions, especially love, must be strong to the Romantics like Goethe, the proponents of Sturm and Drang.

“A warm-hearted youth becomes strongly attached to a maiden: he spends every hour of the day in her company, wears out his health, and lavishes his fortune, to afford continual proof that he is wholly devoted to her. Then comes a man of the world, a man of place and respectability, and addresses him thus: “My good young friend, love is natural; but you must love within bounds. Divide your time: devote a portion to business, and give the hours of recreation to your mistress. Calculate your fortune; and out of the superfluity you may make her a present, only not too often — on her birthday, and such occasions.” Pursuing this advice, he may become a useful member of society, and I should advise every prince to give him an appointment; but it is all up with his love, and with his genius if he be an artist.”

When Charlotte agrees to Werther visiting her he is overwhelmed: “She consented, and I went, and, since that time, sun, moon, and stars may pursue their course: I know not whether it is day or night; the whole world is nothing to me.”

But when Charlotte, a practical woman, becomes tired of his melancholy: “I feel compelled to tear myself from her, when I either wander through the country, climb some precipitous cliff, or force a path through the trackless thicket, where I am lacerated and torn by thorns and briers; and thence I find relief.”

This is the true Romantic, and as a teenager reading Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth I too felt that I must climb precipitous cliffs and force my way through trackless thickets. But it does feel a little silly, and the Sturm and Drang gets even more potent when Werther switches from Homer to Ossian, and that we now know Ossian to be a fraudulent invention adds to the feeling that the book is over the top:

“Ossian has superseded Homer in my heart. To what a world does the illustrious bard carry me! To wander over pathless wilds, surrounded by impetuous whirlwinds, where, by the feeble light of the moon, we see the spirits of our ancestors; to hear from the mountain-tops, mid the roar of torrents, their plaintive sounds issuing from deep caverns, and the sorrowful lamentations of a maiden who sighs and expires on the mossy tomb of the warrior by whom she was adored.”

But I recommend reading the book, even if the prose is less exquisite in English than German there’s still much to enjoy and admire—and I took many quotes from the short book.

 

Quotes from The Sorrows of Young Werther by  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

There would be far less suffering amongst mankind, if men — and God knows why they are so fashioned — did not employ their imaginations so assiduously in recalling the memory of past sorrow, instead of bearing their present lot with equanimity.

Misunderstandings and neglect occasion more mischief in the world than even malice and wickedness.

You ask if you shall send me books. My dear friend, I beseech you, for the love of God, relieve me from such a yoke! I need no more to be guided, agitated, heated.

I have possessed that heart, that noble soul, in whose presence I seemed to be more than I really was, because I was all that I could be.

We amuse ourselves painting our prison-walls with bright figures and brilliant landscapes.

A warm-hearted youth becomes strongly attached to a maiden: he spends every hour of the day in her company, wears out his health, and lavishes his fortune, to afford continual proof that he is wholly devoted to her. Then comes a man of the world, a man of place and respectability, and addresses him thus: “My good young friend, love is natural; but you must love within bounds. Divide your time: devote a portion to business, and give the hours of recreation to your mistress. Calculate your fortune; and out of the superfluity you may make her a present, only not too often — on her birthday, and such occasions.” Pursuing this advice, he may become a useful member of society, and I should advise every prince to give him an appointment; but it is all up with his love, and with his genius if he be an artist.

She consented, and I went, and, since that time, sun, moon, and stars may pursue their course: I know not whether it is day or night; the whole world is nothing to me.

We should deal with children as God deals with us, we are happiest under the influence of innocent delusions.

Wilhelm, what is the world to our hearts without love? What is a magic-lantern without light? You have but to kindle the flame within, and the brightest figures shine on the white wall; and, if love only show us fleeting shadows, we are yet happy, when, like mere children, we behold them, and are transported with the splendid phantoms.

The world runs on from one folly to another; and the man who, solely from regard to the opinion of others, and without any wish or necessity of his own, toils after gold, honour, or any other phantom, is no better than a fool.

For I have learned, by my own experience, that all extraordinary men, who have accomplished great and astonishing actions, have ever been decried by the world as drunken or insane.

“Human nature,” I continued, “has its limits. It is able to endure a certain degree of joy, sorrow, and pain, but becomes annihilated as soon as this measure is exceeded. The question, therefore, is, not whether a man is strong or weak, but whether he is able to endure the measure of his sufferings. The suffering may be moral or physical; and in my opinion it is just as absurd to call a man a coward who destroys himself, as to call a man a coward who dies of a malignant fever.”

Such, Wilhelm, is our fate. I do not murmur at it: the flowers of life are but visionary. How many pass away, and leave no trace behind — how few yield any fruit — and the fruit itself, how rarely does it ripen!

If in such moments I find no sympathy, and Charlotte does not allow me to enjoy the melancholy consolation of bathing her hand with my tears, I feel compelled to tear myself from her, when I either wander through the country, climb some precipitous cliff, or force a path through the trackless thicket, where I am lacerated and torn by thorns and briers; and thence I find relief.

All the knowledge I possess everyone else can acquire, but my heart is exclusively my own.

I am not alone unfortunate. All men are disappointed in their hopes, and deceived in their expectations.

Ossian has superseded Homer in my heart. To what a world does the illustrious bard carry me! To wander over pathless wilds, surrounded by impetuous whirlwinds, where, by the feeble light of the moon, we see the spirits of our ancestors; to hear from the mountain-tops, mid the roar of torrents, their plaintive sounds issuing from deep caverns, and the sorrowful lamentations of a maiden who sighs and expires on the mossy tomb of the warrior by whom she was adored.

What is the destiny of man, but to fill up the measure of his sufferings, and to drink his allotted cup of bitterness?

Werther

 

An exploration of vanity in a many who thinks himself devoid of vanity

I don’t think of myself as vain. Nor, I suspect, do many other people. My wife accuses me of never looking in a mirror. My terrible, food-stained clothes, including my tracksuit trousers and baggy shorts, and my scruffy haircut suggest a complete absence of vanity. But I have detected traces of vanity in myself.

The fact that I never used deodorant until I was 40 again supports the conclusion of a lack of vanity. But then I did begin to use deodorant, and in the past 10 years I’ve used aftershave. This is where vanity has crept in.

I have five aftershaves. Two of them are sandalwood, one essence of limes, and one something vaguely medical. It’s the fifth, Bluebeard’s Revenge, that provides insights into my vanity. Bluebeard murdered a series of his wives, making me wonder whom he’s revenging. It’s surely his wives or their families who should be doing the revenging. Perhaps Bluebeard by killing his wives is taking revenge for all those men who were ignominiously shunned by women. Whatever the root of the name, the aftershave is far from demure: it’s strongly scented, arrogant, perhaps designed to attract women before slaying them, metaphorically rather than literally.

Whatever the intended message, I’m nervous of Bluebeard’s Revenge. The bottle has a skull on the front, and the only reason I can give for buying it is that I Iike to experiment. “Life is an experiment,” says Emerson, “the more you make the better.”  I should perhaps throw the aftershave away, but I hate waste—and reflect that there may be some occasions, rare ones, when it could be acceptable to wear it. I feel that the aftershave is “not respectable,” so I’m careful about when I wear it. I would never wear it when attending a meeting, nor when I’m meeting anybody I don’t know exceptionally well. I might wear it when meeting either of my brothers, neither of whom would care what I was wearing, or when I met my demented mother, who if she didn’t like the smell wouldn’t object. I might also wear it when I’m not going to see anybody for hours and can be confident that the smell will have faded to nothing. But, otherwise, I won’t wear it.

Vanity all is vanity, says Ecclesiastes. And isn’t this vanity in a man who is vain enough to think that he has no vanity?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A marvellous novel written to keep the author sane

Two friends, both published and accomplished writers, told me that A Perfect Spy was John le Carré’s best novel. I’m not in a strong position to comment on the overall judgement as I’ve read only Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, which I enjoyed, and The Constant Gardner, which did not impress me. Indeed, I had never thought of le Carré as being in the first rank of writers, but I’ve revised my opinion after reading A Perfect Spy. It’s a strong, insightful, highly readable novel. I wouldn’t, however, go as far as Philip Roth, who called it “the best English novel since the war.”

I don’t know much about le Carré’s life, but I remember reading reviews of his autobiography, which seemed to dwell on his overbearing crooked father. Magnus Pym, the central character in this novel, has such a father, and the novel reads like an autobiography. Pym has betrayed his country and fled to a seaside town in Devon to write his story. Le Carré might be said to have betrayed not his country but his calling as a spy and retreated to a coastal town almost in Devon (Lyme Regis) to write his story, again and again.

It felt to me as if le Carré had imagined himself in a particular predicament in order to work through his tangled thoughts and emotions. Perhaps that’s what all novels are. After reading the book I discovered that le Carré had said: “Writing A Perfect Spy is probably what a very wise shrink would have advised me to do.” I took many quotes from the book, and they are below: most, I suggest, are quotes about le Carré. This is a fictional autobiography that in many ways will be “truer” than his actual autobiography.

“What is the difference, in morality,” one of the characters asks, “between the totally anarchic criminality of the artist, which is endemic in all fine creative minds, and the artistry of the criminal?” None is the answer, and spies are legalised criminals. Le Carré, the artist, writes about the spy, himself: “If Magnus’s writing had ever worked for him, he’d have been okay. There’s just too much inside him. He has to put it somewhere.” And Magnus does what le Carré does: “One of these days Magnus is going to lock himself in that upstairs room and write his ass off till he comes out with all twelve volumes of Pym’s answer to Proust.”

In the process of writing himself sane le Carré does define a perfect spy. “We’re licensed crooks….Know what our racket is? It is to place our larcenous natures at the service of the state.” And having a father who was a high-acheiving con man is a good start for becoming a perfect crook. You live a confused life. You learn to speak perfect German from one of your father’s lovers, a woman who teaches you some of the ways of women when you are a young boy. You never quite love a woman properly, but you do learn to love another man, a man who works for your enemy. It is not a sexual love, it’s deeper than that.

And so to betrayal, the great theme of the novel: “ ‘We betray to be loyal. Betrayal is like imagining when the reality isn’t good enough.’ He wrote that. Betrayal as hope and compensation. As the making of a better land. Betrayal as love. As a tribute to our unlived lives. On and on, these ponderous aphorisms about betrayal. Betrayal as escape. As a constructive act. As a statement of ideals. Worship. As an adventure of the soul. Betrayal as travel: how can we discover new places if we never leave home? ‘You were my promised land, Poppy. You gave my lies a reason.’ ”

“ ‘Sir Magnus, you have in the past betrayed me but, more important, you have betrayed yourself. Even when you are telling the truth, you lie. You have loyalty and you have affection. But to what? To whom? I don’t know all the reasons for this. Your great father. Your aristocratic mother. One day maybe you will tell me. And maybe you have put your love in some bad places now and then.’ He leaned forward and there was a kindly, true affection in his face and a warm long-suffering smile in his eyes. ‘Yet you also have morality. You search. What I am saying is, Sir Magnus: for once nature has produced a perfect match. You are a perfect spy. All you need is a cause.’ ”

I agree with what a reviewer in the New York Times wrote about the novel: “You want to move fast so you can find out what will happen and you want to go slow so as to relish the writing.”

 

 

Quotes from A Perfect Spy by John le Carré

That face cannot discard a single bad memory or experience, because it has nobody to share them with. It is condemned to store every one of them away until the day when it will break from overloading.

This is the land of innuendo; straight speaking is for sinners.

It looks out of him like a child through the eyeholes of a mask. It denies everything it stood for not a half second earlier. It is pagan. It is amoral. It regrets your decision and your mortality. But it has no choice.

An early lesson in the dangerous business of intelligence: everybody talks.

‘See, Magnus, without informations we are nothing. But with informations we can go anywhere in the world, we are like turtles, our houses always on our backs. You learn to paint, you can paint anywhere. A sculptor, a musician, a painter, they need no permits. Only their heads. Our world must be inside our heads. That is the only safe way.

She is cursed with a snapshot memory from which very little ever goes away.

“We betray to be loyal. Betrayal is like imagining when the reality isn’t good enough.” He wrote that. Betrayal as hope and compensation. As the making of a better land. Betrayal as love. As a tribute to our unlived lives. On and on, these ponderous aphorisms about betrayal. Betrayal as escape. As a constructive act. As a statement of ideals. Worship. As an adventure of the soul. Betrayal as travel: how can we discover new places if we never leave home? “You were my promised land, Poppy. You gave my lies a reason.” ’

The mistress that keeps the other home intact.

Somewhere, he argues to himself, there is worth and secrecy and an all knowing intelligence service. The only trouble is, it’s in Heaven.

What I recognise in Pym is what I recognise in myself: a spirit so wayward that, even while I am playing a game of Scrabble with my kids, it can swing between the options of suicide, rape and assassination.

I think if Magnus’s writing had ever worked for him, he’d have been okay. There’s just too much inside him. He has to put it somewhere.’

“What is the difference, in morality, between the totally anarchic criminality of the artist, which is endemic in all fine creative minds, and the artistry of the criminal?”

We’re licensed crooks….Know what our racket is? It is to place our larcenous natures at the service of the state.

One of these days Magnus is going to lock himself in that upstairs room and write his ass off till he comes out with all twelve volumes of Pym’s answer to Proust.’

Know why so many defectors redefect? We had that one straight too. It’s in and out of the womb all the time. Have you ever noticed that about defectors – the one common factor in all that crazy band? – they’re immature. Forgive me, they are literally motherfuckers.’

His exasperating personal chronicle of seeing everything with perfect vision and being repeatedly dismissed as an unwelcome prophet.

He was by turn rootlessly cynical towards society and stalwartly British and protective of it, depending on whom he happened to be with.

He swore his love to every girl he met, he was so anxious to overcome what he assumed would be their poor opinion of him. In intimate cafés, on park benches or strolling beside the Isis on glorious afternoons, Pym held their hands and stared into their puzzled eyes and told them everything he had ever dreamed of hearing.

He is thinking, like every artist before or since him, of the only member of the audience who did not applaud.

Don’t look back, don’t look forward. You do it once, then die.

The green numerals sliding through their prison window as quickly as the later years of life: now I am forty, now I am forty-five, now I am seventy, now I am ten minutes to being dead.

‘Didn’t care about money. Love was all he cared about. Didn’t know where to find it. Clown really. Tried too hard.’

Dramatic chap, always has been. Nothing going on in his life unless he’s got some frightful problem on his hands.

The privileged English assets of good manners and bad learning

It is the German nature to feel incomplete.

‘You are a serious fool, Sir Magnus,’

Sometimes think he is entirely put together from bits of other people, poor fellow.’

There are so many ways of taking vengeance on the world. Sometimes literature is simply not enough.’

In my lifetime I have witnessed the birth of the jet aeroplane and the atom bomb and the computer, and the demise of the British institution. We have nothing to clear away but ourselves.

In life, says Proust, we end up doing whatever we do second best.

‘Sir Magnus, you have in the past betrayed me but, more important, you have betrayed yourself. Even when you are telling the truth, you lie. You have loyalty and you have affection. But to what? To whom? I don’t know all the reasons for this. Your great father. Your aristocratic mother. One day maybe you will tell me. And maybe you have put your love in some bad places now and then.’ He leaned forward and there was a kindly, true affection in his face and a warm long-suffering smile in his eyes. ‘Yet you also have morality. You search. What I am saying is, Sir Magnus: for once nature has produced a perfect match. You are a perfect spy. All you need is a cause.

The point is, Pym quite frequently loved the Firm as much as he loved Axel. He adored its rough, uncomprehending trust in him, its misuse of him, its tweedy bear-hugs, flawed romanticism and cock-eyed integrity.

His task is to massage the corpse of the Special Relationship and convince everybody, including himself, that it is alive and well.

Do I need to tell you, Tom, how bright and dear the world looks when we know our days are numbered? How all life swells and opens to you, and says come in just when you had thought you were unwanted?

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