The King Of The Saucy Postcard

I needed the Wikipedia for the statistics on how the miserably underpaid Donald McGill produced 12,000 designs for his “seaside postcards”. These ran ultimately to 200 million copies, from which he saw no royalties. I would not have known that at the time, but the genre itself I remember perfectly well from my childhood. This must necessarily have been well after the initial smashing of the prewar industry by “local censorship committees” (what a Stalinist expression!) in 1954. It revived somewhat in the Sixties, which by no means looked the same among the English provincial lower-middle classes as they did in California.

George Orwell treated seaside postcards as expressive of proletarian culture. This cannot be the whole story. Although my background was not working class, I was nevertheless intensely exposed to the Art of Donald McGill. Sociologists may talk about them being the only printed versions of music-hall jokes, but in fact this low humour not only lived on into the early TV comedy shows but utterly dominated them. These shows the middle classes also watched, if only to prove that they could afford televisions. My father would roar with laughter at the most antediluvian kilt joke, while punishing me for far lesser infractions of the great gentility code of No-Sex-Please-We’re-British.

I could have been exposed to Donald McGill only on visits to the seaside. Given that we lived far inland, therefore, something about the world portrayed in the naughty postcard must have resonated with what I saw around me the rest of the year. The Wikipedia site describes a “working-class outlook that youth and adventure, and even individual life, end with marriage” and “a worm’s-eye view of life where marriage is a dirty joke or a comic disaster”.

Well, not always so comic. The example chosen to illustrate the Wikipedia page is from McGill’s cheerfully “saucy” double-entendre, but what I remember best was desperately pessimistic. In this world, a man’s life ended with marriage because sex was restricted to the honeymoon. Women never saw conjugal relations as anything but bait. The McGill designs I remember were all about the scrawny milquetoast being bullied by the obese battleship. He has not had sex since exactly 30 days after his wedding and the wife was ready to belt him one with the rolling-pin for even thinking about it. McGill’s married woman is an archetypal zero-sum thinker: if her husband gets anything he wants, whether sex or peace and quiet in the potting-shed, it necessarily means less of whatever she wants.

The men of the world I remember remained horny for life, while the women switched overnight from real or fake libido to savage bluenosery, or pretended to. I never saw the slightest real-life approach to Terry Pratchett’s comic creation “Nanny Ogg”; had she existed in my vicinity, we would no doubt have moved. My parents certainly disapproved of a contemporary’s, who in their forties were obviously still having sex with gusto.

At some level, marriage as portrayed by McGill – for the man, a matter of ferocious nagging, celibacy and enslavement – was what I expected and what I therefore avoided. Well, wouldn’t you? Perhaps the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 was after all onto something, though for quite the wrong reasons. Donald McGill may indeed have “depraved and corrupted” me by destroying my capacity for a normal perception of marriage.

Sabotage In Petrograd

Orlando Figes’ magisterial history of the Russian Revolution mentions accusations of “sabotage” by Petrograd industrialists. Now, that word derives from discontented workers smashing the modern machinery that replaced them. So what would it mean for the employer to commit sabotage? As far as I could see, and I would have appreciated greater detail, the Bolsheviks meant that the manufacturer was running down production. Why he should do this in the middle of a losing war was unclear, but I assume they were claiming sinister reasons of personal profit.

One is reminded of the current mania for “financialisation”, which seems to involve getting rich while not actually producing anything, by means that would once have been called “projection” (by Swift), “speculation” or “corruption”. The key to this new century appears to be that when you dismantle anything, you can sell the pieces for more than the functioning whole had been worth. In which case there must have been something amiss with our previous valuation.

This has all happened before. When the Franks smashed the Byzantine Empire in 1204, they parcelled out the wreckage to freebooters. The operation has been compared to taking a hammer to a fine watch and then auctioning the components separately. It obviously worked out for certain individuals. In something of the same way, under Thatcher the obsolescent British industry inherited from a century of imperial distraction by overseas profits was not refurbished but annihilated. Meanwhile, the Koreans and their neighbours seemed to be doing exactly the opposite.

Were it really to be the case that a hegemonic China were to take an interest in making things to dig with, while the old West cared only about taking apart the spade in order to do derivative financial acrobatics with the handle and the blade separately, then our tame media will have to work harder on the Sinophobia. Because otherwise the “ordinary minds” in our population will tend to take the Chinese side.

(Fiddle date-stamp to September 7, 2009)

Posted on September 17, 2018 at 09:28 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: RESISTANCE IS FUTILE!, The Age Of Enron-cence

The Inferior Animal On The Platform

If you always seem to wait 14 minutes for a train that runs at 15-minute intervals, is that merely your imagination? There are certainly cognitive processes that can make such patterns appear out of randomness; for example if you forget the times when you caught the just-arriving train, and remember only the just-missed departures.

Another possibility here is that you are more inclined than the average to assume that you are getting special maltreatment from Fate. Why some people make that assumption and others do not would then be the question. The answer in turn is probably that these are people who know themselves to belong at the bottom of the pack. They are then incorrectly but understandably projecting their biological inferiority onto the railways. In that sense, and in that sense only, we are talking about a perfectly real phenomenon.

If you are what – for lack of anything better – we might call a Zeta animal (Omega being taken for other purposes), then by the time you are old enough to take the train without Mummy, you will know it. This awareness of your proper place in the pack cannot but affect your perception of everything else. So your train has always just left, your butty always falls jam side down, the store clerk always serves someone else first, and so on and so forth.

In a society that actually conformed to Nature, you would most certainly never get to reproduce, and might even be eliminated altogether before getting to such an age. The most important question may therefore be why so many losers have used their 14 minutes on the station platform to spin philosophies praising a world that is indeed out to get them.

Posted on September 10, 2018 at 16:10 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: AGAINST NATURE, Preface

A Forgotten Malady

The translator’s introduction to the first novel I read by Émile Zola talked about his contemporary Cesare Lombroso with his – to our eyes – arrant nonsense about criminal types. I doubt I would have otherwise encountered the nineteenth-century term “spermatic intoxication”, although I was well acquainted with its opposite.

That is, I was well aware of the Ancient, medieval and Taoist belief that a man had only so many ejaculations in his life and was well advised not to waste them. This notion survived into our own time, lightly disguised as General Jack D. Ripper’s terror over contamination of his Vital Bodily Fluids.

“Spermatic intoxication”, on the other hand, would seem to mean that a man would instead be sickened by not ejaculating. And this belief is equally extant nowadays, though not under Lombroso’s label. A term one may meet instead in highly non-academic contexts is “despunking”. By this is meant that men require frequent testicular voiding, though it is never made clear what will happen to them if they are not duly emptied. Men’s percentage from this notion is only too obvious, but outside of bien-pensant circles it is espoused by many a woman also. I suspect that it is in fact the ruling paradigm of Africa and South-East Asia.

Well, which way round is it? As far as I know, neither belief is actually correct. It would be interesting to trace the two perfectly opposite but erroneous beliefs through history. Funnily enough, it followed from the theory of humours that men were weakened by ejaculation but that female satisfaction was healthy. Medieval doctors, who even believed in squirting, thought the female orgasm essential to conception. We are not the first generation to think that a woman should have her bells rung.

(Fiddle date-stamp to September 25, 2009)

Rape On The Railways

Reading Emile Zola’s The Beast Within and its translator’s introduction, I am impressed by how much murder, robbery and rape took place on the early railways. The fuss about unaccompanied females was not the mysteriously all-explaining “repression” we invoked in the Sixties, but something quite different. For the Victorian “gentleman” was actually a serial rapist, at least of his social inferiors.

I myself remember the corridorless carriage, but in those days there was no other kind. Should a malefactor step into one of the compartments with you from one station, you were at his mercy until the next. Although the Wiki page does not say so, I wonder whether the reason why train staff were called “guards” was that they had to protect not only the freight but also the bodily integrity of their female passengers. Since the term was carried over from stagecoaches, it seems likely enough.

The ladies-only carriage has seen a revival in our time. I have encountered them in Japan and there is pressure to deploy more of them in India. We males survived this in the 19th century, so I suppose that we can survive it again. (Let me only hope that the railways do not treat the gendered carriages like the old first and second class, assigning each woman ten seats to herself but giving men standing room only.) Ladies-only carriages would, after all, be cheaper than hiring human security, which would reduce the bottom line. Or perhaps we could revive another Victorian solution, the steel hatpin.

(Fiddle date-stamp to November 27, 2011)

Why The Waltz?

One of the earworms from which I suffer from time to time is the Radetsky March by Strauss Senior. If the Blue Danube (by his son) can be regarded as an unofficial Austrian national anthem, so too can this.

Meeting Viennese popular music again in Claudio Magris’ travelogue of the Danube inspired me to research the waltz. When I was about 13 my parents, who conceptually belonged to a nineteenth century that they had never actually seen, wanted me to learn it and thereby meet girls. They claimed that failure to do so was due to my inability to ballroom-dance, though this being already the Sixties I was not entirely convinced.

I have previously waxed sarcastic about the finding of “romance” in mossy castle walls when it is not detected in Camp Bastion or Abu Ghraib, which fulfil just precisely the same function. Something similar might be said about the way in which costume dramas venerate what is essentially teenage gallantry in extremely expensive clothes – while at the same time mocking the disco era and its successors. But how exactly did the Saturday Night Fever of our own time differ from that of the late Habsburgs?

If we look at the waltz from an evolutionary perspective, we shall probably recognise it as a display of physical mastery. The same goes for all dancing, of course, but grace (something hard to define but we all know it when we see it) may even be a supreme biological signal.

The waltz was quite a revolutionary departure from the stately court dances in which the participants did not actually touch – although the peasants, to whom the waltz can be traced, certainly did. No, as compared with the minuets of Mozart’s day the waltz was an excuse for a good grope, and thus sociologically belongs together with the drive-in movie. In the Renaissance there had been even a step called the volta, in which the man more or less lifts the woman by the pussy, but the Viennese waltz turned such trumpery goings-on into middle-class property. If, as some aver, young people now go to clubs in order to fuck perfect strangers on the dance-floor, then the waltz was the first step on that particular road, and so perhaps its critics had a point.

(Fiddle date-stamp to May 22, 2011)

Posted on August 15, 2018 at 17:51 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Fine Feathers

The Inadmissible Drive

As late as the end of the Seventies, my second university held a Rag Week at which students were put up for sale as “slaves” to other students. It was stipulated that the acquisitions were to do the purchasing students’ housekeeping rather than provide sexual services, but nobody appeared to have had compunctions about modelling the stunt on the institution of chattel slavery as such – until students of Afro-Caribbean descent, none of whom had been on the student committee, understandably protested.

The initiative was stupid and horrible, but might nevertheless serve to remind us of a truth that dares not speak its name – that everyone wants to have slaves. Whatever they like to pretend about their superhuman virtue, women in reality want to get off their knees and put someone else onto them. I have elsewhere touched on Sisera’s mother in the Song of Deborah (Judges 5:30) and on the wives of the warriors of the Homeric Age. Their menfolk might have enjoyed the coercive sex with the enemy princesses, but who had the greatest interest in acquiring new warm bodies to do the heavy housework?

Can we understand Hitler’s immense popularity before about 1943 without remembering the little people who were promised new land in the East, complete with Ukrainian serfs to till it for them? Had Operation Sealion succeeded, the plan was to transfer the entire male British population to Germany as slave labour. They would have attracted as much sympathy as the other wretches whom the German civilians passed every day, no more no less. The Holocaust, which had been about disregarding precisely these labour economics, has distracted us from what the Third Reich has to teach us about human nature ¬– that not everyone wants to exterminate the outsider, but by jingo, everyone wants to take his stuff and have her scrub her floors!

What, then, would happen if we offered Mrs. Average Briton and Mr. Main Street American a domestic servant, free, gratis and for nothing? The era that put the Rosie the Riveter back into “the home” also saw, let us remember, the zenith of the robot genre. Not only did the Fifties embrace nuclear power that was safe, clean and too cheap to meter – they also looked forward to flying cars that would take off from suburban lawns tended by metal men who needed no paying, feeding or fuelling (thus probably in defiance of the laws of thermodynamics, but never mind) and who never disobeyed you. The dread that a robot might subvert the Asimovian laws to schtup the master’s wife (yes, really, there were stories like that) shows us exactly where this dream came from.

Nowadays our human slaves are far away and invisible. The ordinary people of the rich countries certainly protest about no longer having factory jobs to go to. About the slave-labour prices of the clothes and trinkets they can buy with their doles, not so much. Perhaps globalisation has been misorganised and missold: instead of exporting the jobs, the elite should have imported even more people, with so-and-so many assigned to each freeborn citizen, to scrub the floors of Middle America. Or even have their babies – Margaret Atwood saw this coming as far back as 1985.

Posted on August 8, 2018 at 20:02 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: THE ENSLAVING MAMMAL, The Universal Template

It Is What It Is

Apparently the Mongolian word “Tengri”, so often translated as “God”, actually means “Things as they are”. I am also told that the Chinese word “ziran” does not mean nature in our sentimental Western sense but something more like “Just as it is”. “The world is everything that is the case”, as Wittgenstein put it.

And yet most Westerners conceive of a God who is very much not the same as “things as they are”. Except in Spinoza, he stands apart from things as they are and often passionately wants them to be different. That things are not what God wants them to be is generally our fault.

Perhaps, therefore, we are all really Zoroastrians, or else dualistic Gnostics, at heart, backing a deity who wins some and loses some.

Sometimes this “personal” Occidental god, standing in opposition to nature, even appears to stand for “things as we would like them to be, so as greatly to inconvenience everybody unlike ourselves”.

(Fiddle date-stamp to August 6, 2011)

A Gene For Agnosia?

As I have written elsewhere, simple ignorance is not the same thing as stupidity. Wilful ignorance is a different matter. At first sight people can seem stupid, when what they are is really incurious. They can think well enough if they care, but mostly they don’t care. What they already know, or think they know, is enough for them.

Now, according to Aristotle the negative labels denote not an actual something but a privation – for example, cold is the absence of heat. Again at first sight, ignorance may seem like another privation, this time the lack of knowledge. And yet we may wonder whether sometimes the parallel breaks down. Could there be an active kind of ignorance resulting from either genetic or memetic dissemination?

Well, that this AGNOSIA should be genetic seems unlikely; how would a lack of the normal mammalian curiosity come to spread? There would have to be some survival or reproductive advantage for incurious individuals, and it is hard to see in what that might possibly consist. On the other hand, if curiosity were genetically coded for, and individuals carrying this quality were more likely to move somewhere else, then the individuals who stayed at home would be selected for incuriosity. I know a place like this.

As for memetic dissemination, there would seem to be no a priori reason why lack of curiosity should not be culturally transmitted – a habitus. It would then be a matter of the messages on which the young are fed. “Avoid knowing this!” might be justified in terms of some kind of superiority that would be endangered by new information. Obviously many religious communities have gone in for this, but it probably works on an ethnic basis too: “Avoid knowing anything about the Not-Us!”

Such constant restriction of the mental environment probably sets up a feedback howl: the less you know, the less you even realise there is to be known, or want to know. Last but not least, the external world can be simply drowned out by an emphasis on a volatile peer-group status conferred mostly by consumer trivia, as in what I call Starbucks Culture. “I am superior because I have more like-bots than thou!”

(Fiddle date-stamp to December 24, 2013)

Posted on July 16, 2018 at 19:43 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, The Anatomy Of Stupidity

No To Political “Movements”

I have just been reading about the nineteenth-century assumption that too much sitting caused constipation, which in turn caused political disgruntlement. Could it really be that simple?

That a sedentary lifestyle conduces to constipation is probably quite true. The trouble comes with the second step of the argument. “Disgruntlement” is a heavily loaded term, implying a regrettable deviation from how things ought to be. When applied to politics, the assumption is that we should all be so to speak perfectly gruntled – that is to say, with our betters. “Disgruntlement” thus shares a rhetorical universe with froward “malcontents”, ranting “rabble-rousers”, insolent “tub-thumpers”, and other purportedly objective condemnations of those who have their enthusiasm for their rulers well under control.

If healthy sports and games really built the Empire, not only by rendering the British able to venture into the challenging terrain of exciting new peoples and kill them, but also by reducing the disgruntlement with one’s social superiors consequent upon constipation, then perhaps we should make a case for eschewing dietary fibre. A more sluggish digestion might help us to look around and see more clearly what is being done to us.