Moby Dick, Brexit, Captain Ahab, and Jacob Rees-Mogg

As I read Moby Dick and learn more about Captain Ahab’s monomania and insane pursuit of the great white whale I come inevitably to think of Brexit and Jacob Rees-Mogg. The great white whale can be a symbol of almost anything–death, fate, redemption, insanity, war, or Brexit–and Captain Ahab is the obsessive maniac above all others, just like Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Read these words, thinking of Moby Dick as Brexit, and Captain Ahab as Jacob Rees-Mogg and you’ll see that Melville foresaw Brexit as he foresaw so much.

“One of the wild suggestings referred to, as at last coming to be linked with the white whale in the minds of the superstitiously inclined, was the unearthly conceit that Moby Dick was ubiquitous; that he had actually been encountered in opposite latitudes at one and the same instant of time.”

“Some whalemen should go still further in their superstitions; declaring Moby Dick not only ubiquitous, but immortal (for immortality is but ubiquity in time); that though groves of spears should be planted in his flanks, he would still swim away unharmed; or if indeed he should ever be made to spout thick blood, such a sight would be but a ghastly deception; for again in unensanguined billows hundreds of leagues away, his unsullied jet would once more be seen.”

“Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The white whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung.”

“All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”

“All my means are sane, my motive and my object mad.”

“Gnawed within and scorched without, with the infixed, unrelenting fangs of some incurable idea; such an one, could he be found, would seem the very man to dart his iron and lift his lance against the most appalling of all brutes.”

“But be all this as it may, certain it is, that with the mad secret of his unabated rage bolted up and keyed in him, Ahab had purposely sailed upon the present voyage with the one only and all-engrossing object of hunting the white whale. Had any one of his old acquaintances on shore but half dreamed of what was lurking in him then, how soon would their aghast and righteous souls have wrenched the ship from such a fiendish man! They were bent on profitable cruises, the profit to be counted down in dollars from the mint. He was intent on an audacious, immitigable, and supernatural revenge. Here, then, was this grey-headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job’s whale round the world, at the head of a crew, too, chiefly made up of mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals – morally enfeebled also, by the incompetence of mere unaided virtue or right-mindedness in Starbuck, the invulnerable jollity of indifference and recklessness in Stubb, and the pervading mediocrity in Flask. Such a crew, so officered, seemed specially picked and packed by some infernal fatality to help him to his monomaniac revenge.”

And we are the crew of this ship sailed by a madman to the ends of the earth:

“I, Ishmael, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul. A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine.”



Captain Ahab

The slow build-up the appearance of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick is almost unbearable, but when Ahab does appear Melville describes him in the most wonderful language.

Captain Ahab stays ashore while his ship is crewed and fitted. He’s sick, but the crew is told that he will board the ship when it is ready to embark on its three-year voyage to the Southern oceans. We are given some hint of his monomania by an ultimately incoherent old seaman, the prophet, who speaks to Ishmael.

Nor is Ahab seen when the ship sails. He arrives in the dead of night and stays in his cabin as the ship leaves the freezing waters of Nantucket and heads towards the tropics. As the weather brightens, the temperature rises, and the seas become bluer so Ahab comes alive, like some zombie, ready to stake everything in his insane, vengeful pursuit of the great white whale.

And thus Melville introduces him:

“He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness.”

“Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish. It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom, ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded.”

“Alive, but branded,” that is Ahab.

“Moody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe.”

I love the “crucifixion in his face.” We are dealing here with a mad Christ.

“The barest, ruggedest, most thunder-cloven old oak.”

“Cloven,” like the devil.

I am all agog to follow this madman on what will surely be his last voyage. Where he goes, I will go–but not in the wild Southern oceans but in my snug bed.




Making breakfast with a three-year-old

Alexander, who is three, wants to do everything. He hates being left out and can’t understand why he can’t do everything that an adult can do. His morning gets off to a poor start when his father leaves to play golf with Uncle Fred. “Alexander play golf with Uncle Fred.” We tell him this can’t be. He protests for a moment, but then I suggest we make breakfast.

We start with coffee. He wants to pour the water into the machine, but I manage to dissuade him from that–even standing on a chair, as he is, he can’t reach. He insists, however, in putting the coffee into the filter. He does this well, hardly spilling any. Then he slams down the top and switches on the machine with a satisfying long bleep.

Now porridge. Spooning the porridge from the jar into a cup, he is not as successful as with the coffee: a fair few oats are scattered. I hate waste but think it an acceptable tax on grandfatherhood. He pours the porridge into the saucepan. I add the water and milk to the cup, but Alexander successfully pours the contents into the saucepan. I switch on the gas, but he wants to stir it. This is dangerous, so I divert him to squeezing oranges and a grapefruit.

Unfortunately he wants to cut the oranges in half. We negotiate the knife between us, and he emerges unscathed. He pushes half an orange down onto the squeezer but can’t push hard enough. I have to put my hand over his. Once he’s squeezed some juice he pours it into a cup and takes some grateful swigs. While I turn down the heat on the porridge he starts cutting a grapefruit unaided. I get there in time to avoid bloodshed. He licks one half of the grapefruit and winces. Finally, he pours the orange and grapefruit juice into a glass.

Now he moves his chair so he can stir the porridge, but luckily it’s done. I switch off the gas and share the porridge between us, his in a plastic bowl. His high chair has been moved, and he refuses to allow me to move it back. He sits on an ordinary chair with his nose just above the bowl of porridge. I’ve got him to eat porridge without anything but milk added, but he’s discovered honey–and likes both the taste and squeezing it from the plastic bottle. He squeezes some onto his porridge and takes a premature mouthful; it’s too hot so he spits it out. I add milk and he stirs madly and excessively. The he starts to eat.

I sit down with my porridge, coffee, and orange and grapefruit juice and reflect on the contrast between this breakfast and the ones I used to have when there was just me and Radio 3. I have some nostalgia for those simple breakfasts, but they will come again (if death allows). For now I treasure every moment of my breakfasts with Alexander. I would never have written a blog about my former, simple breakfast, but I want to try and capture the magic of breakfast with a three-year-old.




A lesson on hedge laying

Yesterday I spent a third day laying hedges. The three days have each been a year apart, so I have to be reminded of the process and have to relearn my minimal skills. I lay hedges in a field in Sussex courtesy of my friend Robin, who owns the field. Each year he invites friends to come and work in his field. This might seems like an imposition, but it’s a pleasure. It’s a Tolstoyian day of physical work for his friends, who are all ”knowledge workers.” It’s the one day of the year I do physical work with my upper body, and I ache today.

Here’s how you go about hedge laying. John, a local farmer, was our teacher.

The process starts with planting parallel lines of beech, hawthorn, hazel, and rose, the components of a Sussex hedge. You then wait for two or three years for them to grow.

The next step is to trim away the branches that go at right angles to the line. This is nothing more than pruning, although you are never quite sure which branches to cut–and you may cut too many. The man working beside me was chastised by John for overdoing the pruning.

Next comes the pleaching, the hardest part. You must chop into the stem about eight inches from the ground using a billhook to about half way through and then split the stem down the ground. Some of the stems were double and thick or split just above the ground, so it was hard to know where to chop. If you were not careful you could chop the stem right off, and that’s what happened with my first one—like killing my first patient. But I got better after that. The work was both mentally and physically demanding as there were lots of decisions to be made about where to chop, and some of the stems were very resistant. I knelt in the mud and hacked away. I chopped through a very think stem yesterday, causing me remorse.

The next stage is to bang a stake into the ground. We banged them two feet down, using a heavy steel tube. This was physically demanding but fun, and I did many stakes, shouting as I rammed them into the ground.

Then you have to weave the pleahcs, as they are called, through the stakes, which are about two feet apart. With a Kent hedge they are parallel but with a South of England Hedge they criss-cross. Our criss-crossed.

The final stage is to weave long birch branches at the top of the hedge.

We will not know how well we have done until June, when everything will (or will not) have grown. We will see if the hedge is complete or has holes. How lovely that roses are included—for practical more than aesthetic reasons: the sheep and cows don’t like the thorns.


After dry January why not become tee-total?

I’ve completed my dry January without a molecule of alcohol passing my lips and found it easy. So why do I drink at all? Should I return to drinking?

Alcohol is a poison, a depressant. It cheers initially only because the first part of your brain it depresses is what Freud called the super-ego, the boring part of your brain that makes you get up in the morning, do your duty, and clean your teeth. Alcohol nearly killed my brother and my mother. It succeeds in killing some 100 000 Britons a year and causes the mayhem of divorce, suicide, murder, family breakdown, bankruptcy, domestic violence, crime, rape, and general boorishness.

When I drink I can often feel the poison in my body, particularly at night: reflux, broken sleep, bad dreams, a sense, perhaps imagined, of the poison occupying the cells of my brain, liver, and spleen. Sometimes in the morning I’m aware of my brain being dulled. David Eddy, one of the cleverest people I’ve ever met, told me that his brainpower increased 10% when he stopped drinking. And every so often I’d have a hangover, not usually nausea and headaches but a feeling of life being diminished, not just as good as it could be. As my brother says, if you have to ask whether you have a hangover you have a hangover.

It might seem strange not to drink in the dank, dark days of January. Surely that’s the time for a whisky in front of the fire, a beaker of the warm south, or a full pint of beer after a frosty walk. But January follows the vulgar, seemingly mandatory excesses of Christmas and New Year, and it seems holy to start the year with an unpolluted, unpoisoned body. I’ve felt a brightness, a light step. I’ve slept better, dreamt sweeter dreams. Not once have I started the day heavy and dulled.

So why return to drinking alcohol? My brother quotes some philosopher as saying that the only serious question in philosophy is “Why not kill yourself?” “Why carry on drinking alcohol?” is a minor version of that question; I remember a psychiatrist saying to me that the aim of alcoholics was to kill themselves slowly; heavy drinking is chronic suicide.

Come on then, Richard, answer the question. Stop shilly-shallying. You’ve almost convinced yourself not to drink. What are your arguments for carrying on poisoning yourself?

Because I like it. That sounds lame. I need to dress it up more. A fine red wine–a claret, Burgundy, Rioja, Gigondas, Fleurie, Barolo, New Zealand Pinot Noir –is a thing of beauty, and of infinite beauty with each bottle having its own charms. And when I drink whiskey, usquebaughe, the water of life I feel myself to be upon the Scottish hills, smelling the pines, amid the heather, looking across the sea to islands of magic.

And I like the initial glow, that pulse that goes through me–and will go through me this evening–when I take that first mouthful of red wine. And I like the conviviality that follows. In fact it’s the social aspect of drinking that is the strongest urge to drink. Think of a dry wedding, an awful, cheerless occasion–a great contrast to a wedding fuelled with alcohol.

But there are times when I drink alone. I think of the board meetings in Bangladesh. After a day of complexity and wrangling and my drive through the horrors of Dhaka traffic I need a cold beer badly. And alone in my Venetian palazzo I would drink a fine red wine from the Veneto, read poems, watch the moon over the dome of Santa Maria di Miracoli, and feel a deep contentment.

So tonight I will drink the finest claret I can find in my cellar but continue with no alcohol three days a week–and I enjoy those days alcohol-free days almost, but not quite as much, as I enjoy my drinking days. As I read in Moby Dick this morning: “ truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast.”





D H Lawrence’s Rananim: another failed Utopia

During the First World War D H Lawrence wanted to found a society of friends with whom he could “sail away from the world at war and found a little colony.” He called it Rananim after hearing the Hebrew song Rananim Sadekim Badenoi (which unusually I can’t find on Google or Napster and can’t translate using Google translate). It would be in Florida, and its emblem would be a black phoenix.

Florida, the penniless Lawrence soon realised, was impractical and so he opted for Garsington in Oxfordshire, the home of his then great friend Ottoline Morrell. “I want you,” he told Ottoline, “to form the nucleus of a new community which shall start a new life amongst us, a life in which the only riches is integrity of character…We can all come croppers, but what does it matter? We can laugh at each other, and dislike each other, but the good remains….I hold this the most sacred duty–the gathering together of a number of people who shall so agree to live by the best they know, that they shall be free to live by the best they know…We will have no more churches. We will bring church and house and shop together.”

Lawrence even consulted a psychiatrist over the creation of Rananim. Garsington could become a “little society or body around a religious belief which leads to action.” He told Ottoline: “You must be president [and]…preside over our meetings…Garsington must be the retreat where we come together and knit ourselves together.” It would be “like the Bocaccio place where they told all the Decamerone.”

The Morrells tried to oblige, but the Lawrences (D H plus the intensely jealous and demanding Frieda) wanted much. So when Phillip Morrell told him that he’d have to foot the bill Lawrence raged “Enough, enough, while this thievery and abomination lasts, I would not have a moment of hired work done for me. Let us have it all left until there is some decency on the face of the earth again.”

And so the idea died until Lawrence, Frieda, and Dorothy Brett tried it at Sangre de Cristo in the mountains of New Mexico in 1924.

I wonder if I should read some Lawrence again. I read most of his novels as a teenager before I’d ever kissed a girl and loved them. I fear that now I might find the books embarrassing, but I should try–especially as I’m so taken with the biography of Ottoline Morrell, who appears in Women in Love and Lady Chatterley in Lady Chatterley’s Lover.



Hide-and-seek with a three-year-old: an experiment in cognitive science

Playing hide-and-seek with a three-year-old is a psychological experiment; we played for fun not science–but there was scientific learning all the same.

One of us was three-and-a-half, Alexander, one 65, me, and one of unknown age but indisputably young, Lin. We didn’t explain the game to Alexander. We just started. We took it in turns to hide the golf ball. Two of us would stand in the kitchen while one hid the golf ball in the front room, which has generous spaces, particularly lots of cushions, for hiding a golf ball.

I went first. Alexander in the kitchen put his hands over his eyes and counted loudly to ten, accelerating as the numbers got higher. I hid the golf ball under a cushion on a sofa. Alexander burst into the front room, knowing that he had to find the golf ball; but he wasn’t sure how to go about it. I don’t think that it initially occurred to him to look under things. Why would it? I shouted “warmer, warmer” as he and Lin came closer and “colder, colder” as they went further away. I don’t think that Alexander ever grasped this clue. Eventually we got him to lift the cushion and find the golf ball.

Next it was his turn. He too hid the golf-ball under a cushion, but when we entered the front room he shouted “Here it is,” showing us where he’d hidden the golf-ball.

Now it was Lin’s turn. When he entered the room Alexander went straight to the cushion where I’d hid the ball. That was logical–based on the epidemiological observation that something already having happened (perhaps a heart attack or even being struck by lightning) is the best predictor of it happening again–but showed an initial misunderstanding of the point of the game.

When it was Alexander’s turn again he’d learnt not to show us immediately where the ball was hidden, but he couldn’t wait for us to find it–and so pointed us in the right direction. He also learnt quickly that the ball would not be hidden where it has been hidden before.

Alexander now knows how to play hide-and-seek, and we must play another game soon to see if he’s remembered how to play. He probably will as he can remember four weeks later the jokes from Christmas crackers.