Big trees at Kew

I went to Kew Gardens to see the Henry Moore sculptures. Which were OK, I guess. It’s not easy to display such a lot of very large sculptures—28 in all—but Kew is big enough that there’s plenty of room for them, so it’s quite a good match. I wandered around desultorily looking at them but they didn’t really grab me; not that I tried that hard to engage with them. I’d be curious to know whether I would have got more out of them if they were in a field; i.e. if there was less other interesting stuff around to distract me.

Moore sculpture

The particular thing that side-tracked me most was Big Trees; and specifically, some of the oaks and chestnuts. Now there has been a botanical collection at Kew for over 200 years, so there are some decent sized exotic trees. The conifer in the picture above is a pretty imposing example. But the trees I was looking at must surely be older still. There was one particular chestnut which must have been about eight foot in diameter. I didn’t get a picture that did that one justice, but here’s a smaller one:

sweet chestnut tree

I love the deeply grooved bark of mature chestnut trees. The sweet chestnut isn’t actually native to Britain; it was introduced in the Middle Ages. The oak, Quercus robur, is a native species. Of course it’s native to the whole of Europe, so the fact that in this country it’s often referred to as the English Oak is a wee bit parochial. Still, it’s a key feature of the English landscape. And this is an impressive example. Not a great picture, but hopefully the people standing in front of it give some sense of scale.


I love these big trees; there’s something so satisfying about the sheer bulk of them. It makes you wonder what England looked like when it was a genuinely wild landscape; for many hundreds of years, the normal fate of a mature oak was to be cut down and used to make a timber-framed building or a ship. But once upon a time there must have been thousands of ancient trees all over the place. That landscape, of untouched primary forest, isn’t even a folk memory now; it was long gone by the time of Stonehenge. British woodland is artificial, a managed resource. Or now that wood is less in demand, an unmanaged resource; but I don’t think much of it is likely to be left alone for the few hundred years necessary to revert to wildwood.

Here’s another chestnut. I think the shape of it, with a fat trunk splitting into lots of branches a short way up, may be a sign that it was once pollarded. But I’m not sure.

sweet chestnut

Just think, that was probably already a mature tree when George III was confined to Kew Palace, strapped to his bed by the doctors and being bled, cupped, blistered and given emetics in a desperate and ignorant attempt to cure his madness.

» All pictures are hosted on my Flickr account, and you can see bigger versions there, if you want.


Erasmus Darwin by Desmond King-Hele

This is a biography of Charles Darwin’s grandfather. He was a doctor by trade, and one of the most highly rated in the country, but was one of those classic Enlightenment figures whose interests included botany, meteorology, physics, chemistry, engineering, philosophy and just about anything else that came his way. And for a few years he was the most successful and critically acclaimed poet in England.

He seems to have been effortlessly brilliant at everything; the list of inventions and discoveries which can be attributed to him is startling. The inventions include: an improved steering system for carriages, a machine for writing in duplicate, a temperature-regulated system for opening and closing the windows of a greenhouse, a machine that reproduced human speech, an artificial bird, an improved seed-drill, the gas turbine, the rocket motor, cataract surgery and the canal lift. Scientific principles include: the ideal gas law, the chemical composition of water, the structure of the atmosphere, the formation of clouds, the artesian well, and of course evolution.


Even so, there’s a touch of defiance in the book’s full title: Erasmus Darwin: A Life of Unequalled Achievement. That’s because almost everything on that list comes with a caveat of one kind or another. For example, many of them are based on a few lines or a quick sketch appearing in his Commonplace Book or in one of his letters; and while it’s undoubtedly takes a remarkably inventive mind to come up with the principle for the gas turbine a hundred years ahead of its time, if it never gets beyond a quick scribble it’s a very limited achievement. Another example is his improved steering system, which worked by just angling the wheels left and right instead of turning the whole axle. This creates a much more stable carriage and is the principle used by all modern cars. Darwin built a carriage on this model, and used it successfully for decades going over thousands of miles of bumpy roads to visit his patients; but he never made a real effort to market the idea and it died with him.

Which isn’t to say he had nothing to show for his scientific brilliance. He submitted quite a few papers to the Royal Society on subjects like meteorology and geology; he did the first English translation of Linnaeus, and wrote a major book on medicine. But there is no one major achievement you can attach his name to. Partly that’s because he was a very hard-working doctor. Not only did it take up a lot of time; he was also very worried about his professional reputation. Much of his work was published anonymously because he didn’t want to detract from that reputation, and the biggest single factor that prevented him from achieving more as a scientist was probably that he always put his career first.

And when he did commit to major works he didn’t always make the best choices. His translation of Linnaeus’s botanical taxonomy was drudgery really, the scientific equivalent of translating a phonebook, even if it did add a few words to the English language, like bract, floret and leaflet. And his major work on medicine doesn’t hold up at all because, frankly, no-one at the time knew enough about the workings of the human body. No-one knew about germs, microscopes had been invented but weren’t really used, and they had very few treatments that did any good, so they just gave everyone lots of opium.

opium poppy

Comparisons between Erasmus and Charles are inevitable, and it’s tempting to put the difference between them down to personality: to suggest that Charles was less brilliant but made up for it with dogged single-mindedness. Personally I think the financial aspect is just as important. Erasmus and his son Robert were both highly successful doctors and Robert also had a very good eye for investments, with the result that Charles was a wealthy man. If Erasmus hadn’t had to work, who knows what he would have achieved. His medical practice certainly proves he was capable of hard work; his calculations suggest he travelled about 10,000 miles a year, which on C18th roads is a hell of a long way.

I find the poetry the most interesting thing, though. Science is not a subject that has often been successfully treated in poetry, so someone like Erasmus Darwin writing poems about science is really intriguing. If you have an interest in science and poetry, it’s always fun when the two overlap, as with the reference to Galileo in Paradise Lost. But it’s rare to have poetry written by someone right at the heart of the scientific culture. Darwin’s friends and correspondents include people like Joseph Priestley, Joseph Banks, Benjamin Franklin, James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood, Matthew Boulton and Richard Arkwright. He writes about science and technology as a complete insider. And for a few years he was very successful and critically acclaimed, before being left behind by a shift in fashion—he represents everything Coleridge and Wordsworth were reacting against—and in politics. As the French Revolution turned bad, his radical views became a public liability.

detail of Gillray cartoon, tree of liberty

So I find the idea of Darwin’s poetry fascinating. I’m undecided about the poetry itself. All the mythological trappings seem so unnecessary, and the ornate style can border on self-parody; one of his particular quirks is phrases like this:

Swords clash with swords, on horses horses rush,
Man tramples man, and nations nations crush

Still, I love the very fact that he’s applying this high style to such non-literary subject matter. In another poem, someone might only apply this kind of language to a subject like a tadpole to make a joke out of the incongruity. Darwin did have a sense of humour, and if not actually tongue-in-cheek, I think the poems are intended to have a fairly light touch; but he seems to be trying to communicate a real fascination and beauty he finds in nature, as in this passage where he is invoking tadpoles and mosquitos as a comparison with life emerging from the sea:

So still the Tadpole cleaves the watery vale
With balanc’d fins, and undulating tail;
New lungs and limbs proclaim his second birth,
Breathe the dry air, and bound upon the earth.
So from deep lakes the dread Musquito springs,
Drinks the soft breeze, and dries his tender wings,
In twinkling squadrons cuts his airy way,
Dips his red trunk in blood, and man his prey.

Is that good poetry? Maybe not. Maybe the style is just a distraction. On the other hand I think you can pick out passages which are more successful, like this:

“Yes! smiling Flora drives her armed car
Through the thick ranks of vegetable war;
Herb, shrub, and tree, with strong emotions rise
For light and air, and battle in the skies;
Whose roots diverging with opposing toil
Contend below for moisture and for soil;
Round the tall Elm the flattering Ivies bend,
And strangle, as they clasp, their struggling friend;
Envenom’d dews from Mancinella flow,
And scald with caustic touch the tribes below;
Dense shadowy leaves on stems aspiring borne
With blight and mildew thin the realms of corn;
And insect hordes with restless tooth devour
The unfolded bud, and pierce the ravell’d flower.

“In ocean’s pearly haunts, the waves beneath
Sits the grim monarch of insatiate Death;
The shark rapacious with descending blow
Darts on the scaly brood, that swims below;
The crawling crocodiles, beneath that move,
Arrest with rising jaw the tribes above;
With monstrous gape sepulchral whales devour
Shoals at a gulp, a million in an hour.
— Air, earth, and ocean, to astonish’d day
One scene of blood, one mighty tomb display!
From Hunger’s arm the shafts of Death are hurl’d,
And one great Slaughter-house the warring world!

I find that to be a strong piece of writing and a striking vision of violent nature. It’s from Canto IV of The Temple of Nature, where Darwin comes within a whisker of stating the principle of natural selection. Here’s another bit from later in the same canto:

“HENCE when a Monarch or a mushroom dies,
Awhile extinct the organic matter lies;
But, as a few short hours or years revolve,
Alchemic powers the changing mass dissolve;
Born to new life unnumber’d insects pant,
New buds surround the microscopic plant;
Whose embryon senses, and unwearied frames,
Feel finer goads, and blush with purer flames;
Renascent joys from irritation spring,
Stretch the long root, or wave the aurelian wing.

“When thus a squadron or an army yields,
And festering carnage loads the waves or fields;
When few from famines or from plagues survive,
Or earthquakes swallow half a realm alive; —
While Nature sinks in Time’s destructive storms,
The wrecks of Death are but a change of forms;
Emerging matter from the grave returns,
Feels new desires, with new sensations burns;
With youth’s first bloom a finer sense acquires,
And Loves and Pleasures fan the rising fires. —
Thus sainted PAUL, “O Death!” exulting cries,
‘Where is thy sting? O Grave! thy victories?’

I love the cheeky jabs at both royalty and religion; firstly in lumping together a monarch and a mushroom as comparable lumps of organic matter, and then the way he implies that acting as compost for plants and food for insects is what St Paul had in mind with ‘Oh Death! Where is thy sting?’ But there is also a kind of slightly nutty grandeur to the poetry.

Some bits of his poems hold up better than others, both scientifically and aesthetically. But I think the best of it is good enough to be worth reading, particularly because the subject matter makes it so unique.

» passages from The Temple of Nature are taken from this site where you can read it in full. The picture of a rocket is by jurvetson on Flickr and is used under an attribution CC licence. The opium poppy is from a C19th German herbal and is used courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden at under a by-nc Creative Commons licence. The hat is a detail of a Gillray cartoon, the Tree of Liberty, from a page of cartoons from the period at the University of Lancaster.

Darwin waxing lyrical

Charles Darwin was in an unusually poetical mood 175 years ago today:

The night was pitch dark, with a fresh breeze. — The sea from its extreme luminousness presented a wonderful & most beautiful appearance; every part of the water, which by day is seen as foam, glowed with a pale light. The vessel drove before her bows two billows of liquid phosphorus, & in her wake was a milky train. — As far as the eye reached, the crest of every wave was bright; & from the reflected light, the sky just above the horizon was not so utterly dark as the rest of the Heavens. — It was impossible to behold this plain of matter, as it were melted & consuming by heat, without being reminded of Milton’s description of the regions of Chaos & Anarchy.

More Darwiniana later today, possibly.


Visiting the crack

Last week I went to see the crack at Tate Modern, which is the latest big artwork in the Turbine Hall. You can read what the Tate thinks it’s about here. I found it less impressive in reality than I expected. I’d heard about it before I went, and it looked exactly as I expected except I vaguely thought it might be bigger and scarier at the fat end.

Shibboleth by Doris Salcedo – the crack at Tate Modern, London, originally uploaded by chrisjohnbeckett.

I personally didn’t notice it exposing a fracture in modernity itself or encouraging me to confront uncomfortable truths about our history and about ourselves with absolute candidness, but then I didn’t read the blurb until after I saw it.

I also went to the Louise Bourgeois exhibition. Which I quite enjoyed although I wasn’t really in the right mood to give it the attention a major retrospective hopefully deserves. Bourgeois was born in Paris in 1911 but has lived in New York since 1938. One interest was just to see work produced over such a long period; the earliest works were from the 1940s and the most recent from this year. I thought the objects were quite likeable—they had a very human sort of quality. A lot of contemporary art seems to be either highly finished and glossy or so roughly put together that it looks scruffy and half-arsed. This work avoids either quality. Apart from the traditional sculpture, I thought one example of that was the recent works which are ‘rooms’ assembled together out of found objects: furniture and tapestries and stuff. The objects themselves are battered and tatty, and it’s the kind of work which can often be a bit nothingy, but here I felt they were thoughtfully put together and really felt like coherent artworks. Those works also seemed very French; after 60 years in New York producing work that doesn’t seem so specific to a particular place, it’s interesting to see her returning to the details of her childhood in France.

Anyway. I can’t really claimed to have engaged with it in a very meaningful way, but it was interesting enough. I’ve got a cold and I’m feeling a bit shit, so rather than rambling on any more I think I’ll go and make some hot lemon and honey or something. Can anyone suggest any other favourite homemade cold remedies?

computer problems

I’m having serious computer problems—like not being able to turn it on—so posting is liable to be sporadic. Just fyi.

EDIT: I’ve seized the opportunity while my computer is running of posting a new picture at Clouded Drab.

Simon and Garfunkel sausage stew

I was picking a few herbs to put in a stew earlier and realised I’d picked parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.

Yes, I do know that the song is a traditional one, but it’s completely associated with S&G in my head. Despite the fact that they pronounce Scarborough with an ‘o’ on the end.

The stew was nice, either way. I sweated down some shallots, half an onion, a stick of celery, a tomato, a couple of cloves of garlic and a green chilli in olive oil and butter with some of the herbs. In a separate pan I fried off some smoked pancetta, then some free-range rare breed pork sausages then some mushrooms. I combined it all in a casserole and deglazed the frying pan into the casserole with a bit of water; then added a rinsed-off tin of borlotti beans, some fresh chicken stock and some more herbs, brought it to the boil and put it in the oven at 160C for about an hour and ten minutes, the last ten minutes with the lid off.

Sausage casserole isn’t a dish that has very positive associations for me. It reminds me of student cooking, and students are, after all, cheap and don’t know what they’re doing. And, at least in my day, we all seemed to drown everything in tinned tomatoes.

But you learn as you get better at cooking is that for most of these dishes which seem naff or old-fashioned, it’s not the fault of the concept, it’s the execution. Use good ingredients, treat them well, and the result can be delicious.

The recipe that really brought this home for me was meatloaf. I remember on the sitcom Roseanne, she was always cooking meatloaf for her family, and that was exactly the image I had of it: blue-collar utility food. Convenient, cheap and easy; one step up from a TV dinner. And then, in a book of Italian cooking, I found a recipe for something called polpettone; a rich, mouth-watering concoction of beef, chopped salami, cheese, onion, peppers, herbs, garlic, but a meatloaf by any other name. And as American as it seems now, it seems plausible that meatloaf actually is polpettone, taken across by Italian immigrants and naturalised, just as the equally American barbecue ribs are Chinese. That meatloaf is in fact as American as apple pie.

Aside from displaying the various facets of my food snobbery, I do have a broader point: there is no excuse for boring food. The whole craft of cooking is to make food interesting. Most ingredients are fairly dull on their own: it’s the cook’s job to enhance the flavour that’s there and add more favours as necessary. Things like sausage casserole, fish pie, beef stew, and meatloaf aren’t inherently bland: they’re only bland if they’re made that way.

How now, nuncle!

Hot news of the day: I’m an uncle. My sister-in-law had a baby girl yesterday. So send positive mind rays in the general direction of Cheltenham, please.

The word ‘nuncle’ is, as I expect you know, a variation of ‘uncle’ formed by mishearing ‘mine uncle’ as ‘my nuncle’. The same with ‘Ned’ as a variation on ‘Edward’. ‘Adder’ and ‘apron’ went in the other direction: it was originally ‘a nadder’ and ‘a napron’. Similarly, while I’m on the subject, ‘pea’ is formed by misinterpreting ‘pease’ as a plural, and the same with ‘cherry’, which also originally ended in an s, as it does in the French cerise.

I vaguely thought that ‘nuncle’ was widespread in Shakespeare, but I did a search online and it turns out that only one character uses it: the Fool in King Lear, who uses it fourteen times. So I don’t know whether it was a genuine misunderstanding or just a whimsical usage. Almost baby-talk. Or informal/affectionate: in which case the fact that the Fool uses that kind of language in addressing the King is an indication of his special freedom. I suppose I could consult the OED and see if it tells me.

Looking for nuncles in Lear reminded me of what an incredible piece of writing that storm scene is, with the interplay between the mad Lear, Edgar pretending to be mad, and the Fool whose job is to act mad. Language is stretched almost to meaninglessness, and there’s an edge to it, a nastiness, that helps counterbalance the ladlesful of pathos. I find the overt artificiality fascinating as well; having the three ‘mad’ characters on stage together, and of course the blinded Gloucester who doesn’t know that one of them is his son. Obviously throughout his career Shakespeare made liberal use of coincidences and unlikely plots, but some of the late plays, like Lear, seem to move away from realism in a much more profound way. As a comparison, in Twelfth Night, when people keep getting confused between Viola and Sebastian, the unlikeliness of the situation is part of the joke. I’m not sure it even makes sense to look at Lear in those terms. it’s clearly true that the plot of King Lear is unlikely, but it seems ridiculous to say so. It’s somehow not the point.

Why, thou wert better in thy grave than to answer with thy uncovered body this extremity of the skies. Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! Here’s three on’s are sophisticated! Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings! Come unbutton here.
[Tearing off his clothes.]

Prithee, nuncle, be contented; ’tis a naughty night to swim in. Now a little fire in a wild field were like an old lecher’s heart; a small spark, all the rest on’s body cold. Look, here comes a walking fire.
{Enter GLOUCESTER, with a torch.}

This is the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet: he begins at curfew, and walks till the first cock; he gives the web and the pin, squints the eye, and makes the hare-lip; mildews the white wheat, and hurts the poor creature of earth.
S. Withold footed thrice the old;
He met the night-mare, and her nine-fold;
Bid her alight,
And her troth plight,
And, aroint thee, witch, aroint thee!

It wasn’t a time with a very sensitive approach to mental health issues; people used to go to visit Bedlam for the entertainment value of seeing the madmen. And indeed there’s a scene in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi where a bunch of actors basically come on stage to act mad for the amusement of the audience in the same freak show manner; the contrast with the portrayal of madness in Lear is striking.

Shakespeare really was a very good writer. I’m always tempted to be sceptical about his status, towering untouchably over English literature; my bloody-minded reaction to the cult of Shakespeare which treats him as though he never wrote a bad line, let alone a bad play. We’re less reverential about art these days—less reverential about everything—but still, the big names have a halo around them, as though entry into the canon equated to canonisation. I’m torn between feeling that serious, unironic celebration of the power of art is a Good Thing and a sense that once something gets tainted with sacredness it is defanged.

Anyway, I seem to have rambled from my new niece, via cherries, to ART. I shall stop before I wander any further off-topic. Hopefully responding to the birth of a daughter by quoting King Lear isn’t too much of a bad omen :)

» The photo Cherry was posted to Flickr by moogs and is used under a Creative Commons by-nc licence.

Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb

This is a Hungarian novel from 1937. I don’t really know much about it; I found it while I was sorting books into some new bookshelves. It’s the kind of thing I can imagine myself buying, but I don’t actually remember doing so. But it had lots of glowing blurbs on the back, including one from litblogging’s favourite Anglo-Hungarian (Hungaro-Briton?) so I thought I’d give it a go.

And I enjoyed it. It feels very much of its time. Not in a bad way; in fact there was a pleasant sense of recognition that ah, this is one of those European inter-war novels. Kazantzakis, Lawrence and Hesse spring to mind. The characters don’t actually spend that much of the book having earnest conversations about death and sex and love, but you feel they might start at any minute. It’s fundamentally serious and rather highly-strung: which is probably a fair reflection of Europe between the wars politically as well as artistically.

Which makes it sound like it might be rather hard work, but it’s not; it’s quite short, it moves along at a fair clip, and it’s full of striking imagery. While I wouldn’t necessarily want to be stuck on a desert island with any of the characters, they’re an engaging bunch. And while I say it’s fundamentally serious, it’s also quite funny.

Anyway, I’m not going to attempt to offer any kind of thoughtful analysis of it, but if you’re looking for something to read, you could do a lot worse.

» That photo, Night in a venetian alley, was posted on Flickr by Damiel and is used under a Creative Commons by-nc-sa licence. It is loosely relevant to the novel but I mainly posted it because the blog seems a bit short of pictures at the moment.

The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo

Philip Zimbardo is the psychologist who ran the famous Stanford Prison Experiment [SPE] in 1971. The ultra-shorthand explanation is this: he took twelve normal young men and split them randomly into ‘guards’ and ‘prisoners’ then set up a fake prison. It was supposed to run for two weeks, but within six days the situation was so out of hand and the guards were mistreating the prisoners so badly that the experiment had to be abandoned.

More recently he acted as an expert witness for the defence at the court martial of Staff Sergeant Chip Frederick, the man in charge of the night shift in the section of Abu Ghraib where the notorious photos were taken.

The full title of the book is The Lucifer Effect: How good people turn evil, and it’s an exploration of the processes by which normal people end up behaving in horrific ways. It starts with a detailed, almost hour-by-hour account of the Stanford experiment and an analysis of what we can learn from it, broadens out to talk about parallel situations, then gives a detailed analysis of the events at Abu Ghraib which explores where responsibility for the events there should best be placed.

I can see why the SPE has become iconic: it was a striking experiment and the account of it makes an interesting narrative. Still, I would be reluctant to extrapolate too much from just that. One key to a good experiment is surely that you control as many variables as possible so that you can accurately isolate cause and effect. The SPE by contrast set up a very complex situation in a very open-ended way. Reading this book, it comes across as him just throwing the situation together and waiting to see what happened. There are so many different factors that might be affecting the outcome, including simple chance.

I suppose if you want to investigate complex situations developing over time, you can’t have the kind of control that’s possible in a simple half-hour experiment with one or two participants in a lab, and I do think the SPE is interesting; I just would be reluctant to assume it proved anything very specific or definite.

The other thing that struck me was that the situation was much more loaded to start with than I had appreciated. I’d only heard the vaguest account of the experiment before I read the book and I guess I assumed that it was set up in a very generic way, and that the guards and prisoners developed their behaviour quite spontaneously just on the basis of the jobs they had been given. That’s not entirely true. Zimbardo actually set up the experiment because he wanted to study the psychological effects of imprisonment. The idea was to put normal people in a prison environment and see how the situation affected them, so he was keen to create a suitably tough regime. He told the guards that was what he wanted. The guards had mirrored sunglasses and billy clubs (which they weren’t allowed to use on the prisoners), the prisoners were wearing shapeless smocks and had to respond to their numbers all the time instead of their names.

Again, I can see the reason for all that—to create a convincing prison—but since the interest in the experiment is now normally taken to be the behaviour of the guards, not the prisoners, it’s worth pointing out that they were primed to behave badly. It wasn’t quite as spontaneous as I’d thought.

Just how badly they treated the prisoners is still remarkable, even so. Endless verbal abuse and humiliation, roll-calls all the time, even in the middle of the night, done over and over again forwards and backwards, pointless, repetitive tasks, solitary confinement in a cupboard for hours at a time. A striking sign of how bad it got was that one of the prisoners went on hunger strike: this is someone who was in a psychology experiment and could have left at any time, but got so fixed into the prisoner mindset that they started starving themselves in protest at conditions. Zimbardo himself, playing the role of the warden, got so involved in the dynamic that he started worrying about managing the prisoners as though it was a real prison.

Of course, if the message is simply that good people will, in the right circumstances, do evil—well, we shouldn’t need a psychology experiment to teach us that. The classic rhetorical focus for that argument is the Holocaust; given the sheer number of people involved, they can’t all have been born evil. Even the Holocaust, if it was an unparalleled event, might be a one-off; some kind of freak combination of circumstances. But there are thousands of possible examples. Many of those working on the Atlantic slave ships were no doubt models of honesty, generosity and trustworthiness with their families and friends. And there’s Rwanda, Nanking, My Lai, lynchings, the Cultural Revolution, all those East Germans who informed on each other to the Stasi, as well as countless examples of brutality by soldiers, police and prison officers.

In fact, it takes very little thought to see that it must be true that a large proportion of evil acts are committed by normal people. Perhaps the most striking thing is that we find it so difficult to make the imaginative leap: to believe that it could be you or me doing those things, that the ‘normal person’ could be any of us.

Still, one thing that makes the SPE notable is that the guards had so little motivation for their behaviour. I know I said they were primed to be aggressive, but they had no other motivation comparable to the examples above. They weren’t in a war zone, they didn’t stand to gain money or career advancement, and the prisoners weren’t part of some kind of stigmatised group—terrorist, criminals, Jews, Tutsis or whatever. Of course they didn’t actually massacre them either, and analogies between this kind of mistreatment and genocide need to be drawn with care. But it’s interesting even so that they got so caught up in the situation; especially since, unlike the prisoners, they were able to go home between shifts.

Anyway, that’s enough going round in circles about what lessons you can or can’t draw from the Stanford experiment. The other major theme of the book is the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Zimbardo specifically doesn’t say that situational pressure absolves people from responsibility for their actions, and in the case of the Abu Ghraib scandal, the guards clearly behaved appallingly. But he does question the version of events put out by the military and the White House after the event, that it was just the actions of a few ‘bad apples’. He raises the possibility that it was a ‘bad barrel’ and that we must also ask who made the barrel. His analogy, not mine.

That argument seems watertight. The US Army’s own internal reports specifically attach blame to people higher up the chain of command, and the very best interpretation would be that the prison was appallingly badly and negligently run. The staff had very little training and very little clear guidance about what was or wasn’t acceptable, the prison was totally overcrowded, the chain of command was unclear, no-one was coming to check up on them, and they were under enormous stress because they were living under appalling conditions, were overworked and the prison was under regular mortar attack. The relationship between the Military Police (who ran the prison) and Military Intelligence (who did interrogations) was not properly defined. Even if you don’t accept a more sinister explanation, it seems clear the the running of the prison was incompetent and chaotic.

The bigger questions are whether it was just down to badly trained, badly managed staff under extreme stress, or whether it was part of a broader culture in the US military; and eventually whether it can be traced to policy decisions.

Prisoner abuse certainly wasn’t unique to Abu Ghraib. Hundreds of cases of abuse have been investigated in Guantanamo, Iraq and Afghanistan, and I don’t think you have to be overly cynical to feel that they may only represent a small proportion of the real cases. And apparently as of November 2004, that included at least five cases of prisoners dying during interrogation. Perhaps they had pre-existing heart conditions and those deaths were just bad luck; but given that one prisoner died in Abu Ghraib while left hanging naked from the wall by his arms (an ‘interrogation technique’ the Spanish Inquisition had a special term for, apparently), one suspects they were in fact tortured to death.

One thing that becomes clear is that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were relatively mild compared to some. Talking about a base near Fallujah

One of Fishback’s seargeants testified, “Everyone in camp knew if you wanted to work out your frustration you show up at the PUC tent [prisoners were called PUCs, “persons under control”]. In a way, it was a sport. One day [another sergeant] shows up and tells a PUC to grab a pole. He told him to bend over and broke the guy’s leg with a mini-Louisville slugger, a metal bat. As long as no PUCs came up dead, it happened. We kept it to broken arms and legs.”

The final question is whether all this abuse is the ‘normal’ behaviour of stressed and badly trained soldiers in a war zone—which would still be a pretty damning comment on the training and discipline of the US Army, given how widespread it appears to be—or whether it can be traced to specific policy decisions. Here the water is murkier. You’re in the world of the CIA, Military Intelligence and special forces, all people who are professionally secretive anyway. And even within that atmosphere of rarified machismo and hard-nosed realpolitik, people know that torture is a hard sell with the electorate.

Zimbardo has no doubt that there is sufficient evidence to trace the blame all the way up the chain of command. Starting with the people running Abu Ghraib and going up through the ranks, he puts a sequence of people ‘on trial’, culminating with George Bush. It’s actually a rhetorical device I’m uncomfortable with. Identifying responsibility is a valid exercise, but with such a sensitive and important subject as the problem of evil, I would prefer a writer who at least maintains a pretence of analytical distance. Zimbardo is a little too fond of theatrical turns of phrase. For that matter, it’s not a book I would recommend for its prose style generally:

The seeds of evil that blossomed in that dark dungeon of Abu Ghraib were planted by the Bush administration in its triangular framing of national security threats , citizen fear and vulnerability, and interrogation/torture to win the war on terror.

Still, despite my misgivings about how he frames it, I basically agree with the conclusion. For me, it’s sufficient to pick up just two things. The first is the decision to ‘legally’ exempt themselves from the Geneva convention by claiming that prisoners are ‘enemy combatants’ rather than POWs. The other is the notorious memo that redefined ‘torture’.

It held that physical pain must be “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” In line with this memo, in order to prosecute anyone charged with torture crimes, it is necessary that it must have been the “specific intent” of the defendant to cause “severe physical or mental pain or suffering.” “Mental torture” was narrowly defined to include only acts that would result in “significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g., lasting for months or years.”

Which allows plenty of scope for inventive interrogators to do things which most of us would recognise as torture. Indeed it implicitly grants them permission to do so.

Those two things are enough for me. I don’t need a direct chain of orders that can be traced from the Pentagon to Tier 1-A at Abu Ghraib; it seems clear that Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush believe that their employees should be able to torture people. Indeed, they probably pride themselves on taking the kind of tough decisions that wishy-washy liberals in the cloistered comfort of their book-lined studies would recoil from. Who knows; perhaps they only envisaged it happening in urgent interrogations of high-risk terrorist suspects, rather than every two-bit military prison in Iraq. Perhaps they just don’t give a damn.

I remember when they first started shipping people to Guantanamo I felt uneasy about it, but it was soon enough after 9-11 that it seemed like the situation might just be serious enough to justify skipping some of the formalities. If you had told me that people would be tortured there, and kept there for years, not just without a full-blown criminal trial but without a trial of any kind, I’m not sure I would have believed you. I don’t expect American governments to behave like that. America’s preferred image of itself as the freest, fairest country on earth and a beacon to oppressed people everywhere has always been a bit questionable; they’ve always been willing to prop up nasty regimes when it seems convenient, and even for American citizens I’m not sure the US is significantly freer and fairer than, say, Sweden. But there is some truth to it; I think it is important and a Good Thing that the richest, most powerful country on earth is a secular democracy with a free press, an independent judiciary and the rule of law.

Any moral authority derived from that has been cheerfully pissed away over the past few years. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, given some of the darker points in recent British history. Particularly, the fact that many of the ways of torturing people without just beating the crap out of them were developed and refined by the British security services in Northern Ireland, and for much the same reasons: a wish to break prisoners quickly and still be able to plausibly deny that what you’re doing is torturing them.

And it would be a pity if the main message anyone took away from this book was ‘Bush Cheney Rumsfeld: bad’. It wouldn’t matter how bad their intentions were if we could rely on the normal people at the bottom of the food chain to just say no: to refuse to abuse prisoners, to report abuse on the part of their comrades. But what I take away from this book is that evil is normal. It is to be expected that people will do appalling things if the circumstances are right. It is within all of us to be that person.

It’s a depressing conclusion and rather a depressing book, but I do recommend it; it is a thorough, interesting and thought-provoking. There’s also a website.



  • ‘Here is a social poster which relates to the United Nations Conference held in London in 1973. During the conference the New Directions in the Law of the Sea were introduced. They were to prevent the pollution of the seas by ships.’
  • ‘Although there are a few astrological images, this anonymous manuscript is almost totally devoted to fluid dynamics and mechanics. I can’t find any background to the work and suppose it was produced somewhere between the 16th to 19th centuries.’

Family roots

I watched Who Do You Think You Are earlier, the BBC’s celebrity genealogy show. It’s a bit of a lottery. Carol Vorderman gets an ancestor who was the first person to identify a dietary cause for beri-beri and who probably would have won the Nobel prize if he lived a little longer, as well as finding that her father worked in the Dutch resistance during the war; poor old Griff Rhys-Jones discovers an ancestor he thought died in a railway accident was actually killed in a drunken pub brawl (which he seems to have started).

I find it interesting how much people care. Alistair McGowan, the impressionist, knew his father was born in India but was expecting his family history to rapidly trace back to Scotland. In fact, he discovered the existence of a whole family of McGowans in Allahabad, and it turned out he could trace back a whole line of Anglo-Indian McGowans (i.e. mixed European and Indian blood) which went back through six generations born in India. He’d had an inkling that he had Indian blood but had no idea how strong the connection was. But what I found interesting was this: after all these revelations, what seemed to shock him as much as anything was that the original John McGowan, a soldier in Madras in the 1770s, wasn’t from Scotland but Ireland.

We’re talking about his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, one of 128 great-great-great-great-great-grandparents, coming from the wrong side of the Irish Sea, but that seemed like it really mattered to him. He must have known that his emotional connection to Scotland was essentially artificial, since it was based purely on his name, but he had invested enough in it that he really seemed to feel it affected who he was.

It’s like those Americans you sometimes meet who describe themselves as ‘Dutch’ or ‘Italian’. Not ‘Italian-American’ but just ‘Italian’. As though they’d been born in Perugia. I can see that for black people it’s rather different, since their history was rudely interrupted and there’s still rather a lot of unresolved karma floating around the subject; and of course being visibly different means that identity politics is thrust upon you anyway. But if one of your great-granparents happened to leave you with a name from, say, Wales: why does it matter to people?

I’m not criticising; I just don’t get it. I can see it would be interesting to know who my ancestors were, I just don’t think it would tell me anything about who I am. I guess if I had any reason to believe that my own family history was at all interesting I might find it easier to empathise.

Weird computer problems

I am for the moment busy trying to get my stupid computer to not be a complete pain in the arse.

It does this weird thing where I ask it to sleep and instead it messes up one of the other system functions (Exposé and Dashboard and so on, for the Mac users). When it doesn’t just fuck everything up completely.

I’ve even done a basic reinstall of the system software. Didn’t help.

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