'So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.' ― George Orwell

Month: May, 2015

On the violence of necessity

Image from the Terence Malick film ‘The Tree of Life’ [2011]

Violence is both unavoidable and unjustifiable – Albert Camus

Violence is to man, what dust is to decay; it is a by-product of what makes us who we are. It’s in our blood to spill blood. Camus got it right on both counts: we cannot, and should not, ever look to justify violence, but we cannot deny its permanence either, or its deep-seated part of our nature. Violence shapes us just as much as music or education, so we should not flinch from looking at its ugly countenance, or attempt to peer past it towards some idyllic notion, ensconced in a sleepy valley of denial.

Asking the question if we can get beyond violence, or live in a world without its presence, is akin to asking if goodness can exist without evil? No, is the short answer: our actions will always cause reactions. The idea of ‘a world without violence’ cannot stand empirically: violence is an axiomatic part of our human condition just as much as greed, envy or lust are, and it applies to our nature as inherently as the basic laws of physics.

As Camus said, violence is inescapable; it’s part of the absurdity of life. The violence of necessity is something else, however – contra Camus, it is both justifiable and, because of its existential threat, allows us to avoid and neutralise many more potentially violent scenarios. A violence of necessity keeps a check on our baser instincts; it provides a natural order to things and has allowed humanity survive this far.

There is what we can call ‘macro-violence’, relating to Thomas Hobbes’s basic insight, that without a state, and state force, life is likely to be ‘nasty, brutish and short’. A state monopoly on the legitimate use of force reduces violence and makes everyone living under that monopoly better off than they would otherwise have been.

We can also consider ‘micro-violence’, which George Orwell understood when he wrote, ‘People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.’ Part of the reason we find so much stock in Orwell’s writing is that his voice never quivered – and when it came to the possibility of the humanitarian need for violence, which sounds oxymoronic, he never shirked then either. Orwell was a democrat, and at heart a pacifist, but he understood the necessity of violence, its function.

He foresaw how violence was being used in the corrosion of communism and socialism and how Stalin exercised power by homicidal brutality. Orwell understood how Nazism utilised violence to further its sickening cause; he was one of the few to wake up early (Winston Churchill being another) to the understanding that this type of violence needed to be faced with the violence of necessity – imperative for halting Hitler’s fanaticism, and Stalin’s demagogic brand of thuggery if the time came to do so. (History shows that Joe was a much cannier operator than Adolf though; Stalin knew when to sit down at the table or when to kick it over.)

Orwell’s experience fighting in the Spanish Civil War and witnessing the ugly face of Franco’s future autocracy helped him understand that the only way to stare down a menace such as fascism and totalitarianism was by taking up arms; in order to ‘Kick up the fire, and let the flames break loose, to drive the shadows back’, to use Philip Larkin’s phrasing.

Poppies by Richard Diebenkorn [Oil on Canvas 1963]

The nature of violence and the intrinsic role it plays in our lives has always had an inner working on my idea of self. For example, all my life I wondered if I could take a punch. And as chance would have it, three came along at once to answer my ruminations. After thirty or so years of conjecture, I found out I could take a biff to the old cranium and solar plexus. I took three punches from two men to be exact (to take a punch; it sounds fine when one says it, but looks strange when written down, with the verb turned on its head), two from the initial agitator and one from his rather large friend, his blow being the decisive one. I had replied in kind beforehand, with two strikes upon the provoker. I connected with my right, and a surprisingly good left, so much so that it hurt my hand. But the final punch I suffered landed right on a sweet spot: my left eye, and settled any dust kicked up in the dispute. It was the strike that cut the lights.

Of course all of this is in my mind’s eye. But I imagine the punch was thrown with a technique that would have had me applauding if I’d been sitting ringside watching a prizefight. Instead, I was busy getting on with the unfortunate business of becoming acquainted with the ground. In my case, Saturday night was not all right for fighting.

(Those that sing about fighting don’t tend to do much, really – the old Blues men apart of course, some of whom lived their lives as an eternal scuffle.)

The fellow I encountered had either boxed a little in his time, or was ‘handy’, in the street-fighting man sense of the word: the type used to knocking down selves, not putting up shelves. The boxing supposition might have saved my grounded self, however, as I lay face down in a neighbourhood that becomes filled with testosterone-soaked air at the weekend. For the shot that drops you does just that – it brings any debate to a close. There is an Irish phrase that encapsulates the perfect punch: ‘he softened his cough for him’. This type of manoeuvre is usually reserved for use upon lairy loudmouths or uncouth slabbers, and I’d like to assure you, dear reader, with a degree in modesty, that I am neither.

The left eye sees: a flicker of movement, a slant in the light, brilliant white followed by pitch-darkness and then something I don’t see much of nowadays – the gradual sight of tarmac forming right before my eyes.

Yes, I took the shot. I took the shot. Then my legs buckled, causing me to fall on my left side, meaning not only did I have a large shiner and closed-over eye the next day, but, to complement it, also a nasty weal above what remained of my eyebrow.

Needless to say it could always have been worse. But I think the aesthetic of that last blow was so right somehow – I’m surmising outside of myself here – that nothing else could have been done to improve upon it, except perhaps the fellow raising a triumphant right hand and walking back to his corner. Both sides had come to agreement;   the two of them walked off and I stayed put. And after a few moments, I dragged myself to my feet, bloodied and sore. On a blustery spring morning, I had as much control over my movements as I did over the weather. But I moved on defiantly, to continue my walk home. And all the while, I was thinking, so this is what it feels like; this is what it feels like.

Illustration by Stephen Doyle


Many commentators write about the underlying causes of violence, which are usually listed as poverty, inequality, and abuse of alcohol or drugs and so on. But we are made aware of violence from an early age: parents and elders often tell children ‘don’t let anyone else fight your battles for you’. As the psychologist Steven Pinker says, we really ‘are creatures of a violent world, biologically speaking – watching violence and learning about it is one of our cognitive drives.’

One such place we watch and learn about it is in the schoolyard, with its war zone state of mind. Children can be the most violent of us all, and when they are, there lies the beginning of a journey of self-discovery.

Scenarios are quickly forced in our faces where one has to stand one’s ground, or risk being exposed as a pushover or weak for the rest of one’s days; there are exceptional occasions when one needs to resort to violence to hold the line that’s been drawn.

In the feral surroundings of an all-boys Catholic school, I saw the existence of violence almost on a daily basis. Sometimes casual, other times brutally calculating. Here, I saw the purpose of violence, its role; used many times for bad reasons, some times for good, such as when the picked-on puny boy finally cracks and strikes back at the bully, who is shocked into stasis. At times likes these, I fondly recall how the herd of boys would fall in behind the upstart, cheering him on, while their scorn would rain down on the vanquished. Even young boys understand the value of the underdog’s victory, for somehow we know it is a status that will befall us all at some time in life.

One example sticks in my mind. We milled around the schoolyard during our break as usual, several hundred boys aged from eleven to sixteen. One of the regular ruffians started in on a new boy, only to discover to his dismay that this pocket-rocket knew something of what AJ Liebling called ‘The Sweet Science’ i.e. boxing.

The little chap unleashed such a flurry of punches that it sent a surge of electricity through the hundreds of other boys, who wanted to view this assured act of pugilistic justice taking place; we were drawn to it. A rush of bodies swarmed like angry bees around the fight, forcing it to progress towards the high-wire fencing enclosing the yard. The wave of bodies ebbed and flowed. As the fight came to a crashing end, when the small chap landed a plum right-hook, the weight of the crowd caused a crush that flopped upon the fence, flattening it like a pancake. The bars and wires were bent outwards so that they touched the ground – the fence looked like a half-completed wicker basket – causing the collective to let out a mighty roar, as they collapsed in a scrum. But the energy, the energy! Some boys were super-charged; they scrambled across the mesh and broke for freedom before any teachers could arrive on the scene.

Alas, the rest of us dusted ourselves down and went back to class with the sound of the bell ringing with what seemed more of a rage than usual. One person was glad to hear the bell: the bully, dazed and confused, and in the unusual position of nursing a bloody nose. I also caught a glimpse of the practitioner of Boxiana, smiling, unmarked, and being patted on his back with hearty congratulations. He looked like a fun-sized Gary Cooper.

As I walked back, I thought at the time, this is probably the most important lesson I will learn today, or most days for that matter. We dragged our heels back to the classroom, but as the asphalt settled again over the schoolyard in the morning sunshine, I had wondered how something could come so quickly, and disappear just as fast. I also appreciated that this thing, call it violence of whatever you wish, never goes away.

So wrote Ernst Junger: ‘Man is born violent but is kept in check by the people around him. If he nevertheless manages to throw off his fetters, he can count on applause, for everyone recognizes himself in him. Deeply ingrained, nay, buried dreams come true.’

Coombe Wood by John Constable [1812]


It is time we reached the fork in the road up ahead, signposted ‘Passivity and Diplomacy’ on one side and ‘Violence of Necessity’ on the other. I wish to state unequivocally that I would always choose to travel left, given the option, to use discussion to solve any dispute in life. This choice did not work for me recently (sadly) but it did allow me a deeper understanding of the human condition, and it is this: the right turn, marking violent action, will never be bypassed completely, whichever side you are on, and we should acknowledge this fact. Yes, this road will take us on journeys that are wrong from the outset, and which will end at dark, destructive destinations, but it will always be there; the road less taken or otherwise. Bob Dylan’s lyrics should still ring true in our ears: ‘Democracy don’t rule the world/ You’d better get that in your head/ This world is ruled by violence/ But I guess that’s better left unsaid’.

Violence has taken on a new identity on the global stage of the 21st century. Countries no longer officially declare war, but instead violence takes place on sliding scales of aggression. Diplomacy is reduced to nothing more than window dressing as a consequence, and is of little use to citizens who shake in the shadows cast at noon. If we in the west wish to maintain the values that we hold dear, then the violence of necessity will always have to walk hand-in hand with diplomacy. We need to speak softly and carry a big stick, as Theodore Roosevelt put it.

On a metaphysical level I wish that the world was less violent, but we cannot deny that it is part of the balance that keeps order on the nature of things. ‘It seems disingenuous to ask a writer why she, or he, is writing about a violent subject when the world and history are filled with violence,’ wrote Joyce Carol Oates, which I will use as part of my defence against criticism in writing this essay. For there will always come a time when men will choose to go to war, for a justified reason (‘When bad men combine, the good must associate’ noted Edmund Burke) or not. There will always be a time when a man will strike another, for no reason or otherwise. A world without violence is like a world without sin – an unreachable aspiration because of our animalistic natures and instincts. It is the fundamental existence of violence and its inherent threat that is key to maintaining order in our lives, and we should accept that a surety of force keeps us in check; what Steven Pinker calls the ‘pacification process’.

The point has been made before that you never need an argument against the use of violence, but you need one for it. Well, this, to an extent, is mine. Most of us may not be for violence, but we know what violence is for; it will always be with us, so we need to get over our guilt if we must call upon it. For society to endure, we need a violence of necessity that correlates. The German thinker Walter Benjamin was being realistic when he stated: ‘there is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism’. In the final analysis, violence of necessity can be used to stem the tide of mania, stop injustice, defend those who cannot defend themselves, or to stir change in a stinking pot of misery and misfortune. We, mankind that is, will always be the spoon of disorder, but the onus is on us to take a firm grip of it.


Czesław Miłosz


‘Death is endowed with the supreme authority of Law and universal necessity, while man is reduced to nothing, to a bundle of perceptions or even less, to an interchangeable statistical unit. But poetry by its very essence has always been on the side of LIFE.’

Vladimir Nabokov, in a letter to his wife Vera


‘You came into my life, not as one who comes to visit, but as one comes into a kingdom where all the rivers have been waiting for your reflection, all the roads for your steps.’

Joseph Conrad on writing


Circles, circles, innumerable circles, concentric, eccentric… a mad art attempting the inconceivable.

Boxing’s conflicted beauty (An elegy for Jerry Quarry)

Sugar Ray Leonard facing Roberto Duran; two of the greatest boxers to pull on a pair of gloves

The beauty in man is that under the press of circumstances he develops what he must possess – Norman Mailer

in the run-up to the Floyd Mayweather Jr v Manny Pacquiao fight, and for a short while afterwards, a few people asked me what it is that I find so fascinating about the sport of boxing.

Some of these questions came with a $500million frame; the estimated pot for a night’s work in Las Vegas for the two men. The money tarnished the views of many who watched the fight, but then what contest was ever going to live up to such an eye-popping figure? The ‘Thrilla in Manila’, maybe…

For the record, I enjoyed the fight, and with happy satisfaction scored it correctly among some friends before either fighter had thrown a fist in anger. Viewers disappointed by the spectacle (or lack thereof) have obviously not watched Mayweather Jr fight in the last five years – or perhaps never at all.

The thing that no one can get around, or come close to undoing, is that Mayweather dominates every fight he walks into. Why? Because he’s so good. He’s got the technique, the tactics, the speed, the brains, and the toughness to take anything that’s thrown at him. In a way, Mayweather is almost anti-boxing. It’s as if he’s found a major flaw in the sport that no one else has been able to tap into.

Putting that thread aside, my intention here is not to spill any more ink on Mayweather Jr, I wish to write a little about my love of something known as ‘The Hurt Business’.

Down the years many more talented and knowledgeable scribes of The Sweet Science – Egan, Liebling, WC Heinz, Hazlitt (even if the latter wrote about a single fight) – have described with mastery and flair the various reasons why boxing has such a knuckled grip on our imagination.

I have thought deeply about this too. Of course, there is no absolute moral justification for boxing. It just happens to be one of life’s beautiful contradictions; both cruel and yet noble, it comprises brutality and grace in equal measure.

Being for or against boxing is an argument that will never be settled, and I’m not going to try. But for better elucidation on the sport’s inherent conflict and melodramatic magnetism, we should turn to a fighter such as Jerry Quarry.

Quarry fought in the golden era of heavyweights in the 1960s and ‘70s, which meant he faced a who’s who of fighters: Ali, Foreman, Frazier, Patterson, Shavers, Norton et al. Jerry’s career ultimately reflected the shattered beauty of what I call boxing’s looking glass. We see a broken man at the end, from the ferocity of pugilism, and yet in some way this image touches us deeply; it reaches in to our deepest psychic well, pulleying all our humanity back to the surface.

He was tagged as the great white hope, went under the banner of ‘Irish Jerry Quarry’, and fought honestly, wholeheartedly and inflicted his own share of pain on others with a sweet left hook. But for every shot Jerry landed, he probably took three in return. And sadly for his sake he was the kind of fighter that didn’t know when to go down, when others with a little more nous would have realised that the game was up.

It’s a well worn truism that there are too many sad stories in the world of boxing, but after reading up on Quarry I still wasn’t sure what way the coin had landed for him. Then I watched a clip on YouTube, which I’ve inserted below (it happily includes music from one of my favourite bands, Explosions In The Sky).

Jerry Quarry

Watching it makes me choke with emotion – I’m sure you will too, even if you despise boxing and all its ways. I will say this in its mitigation: if not for boxing, would I, or anyone, be writing about or remembering the Jerry Quarrys of this world? Would this clip have been created, or watched more than sixty thousand times, if it were just about a regular, tough guy from Bakersfield, California? I’ll let you decide.

But because of boxing, this tough, big-hearted, but limited slugger Jerry Quarry will be remembered down the ages. Because of boxing, Jerry Quarry was loved by anyone who watched a prize-fight (you can see that from the fight fans in this clip). Because of boxing, Jerry Quarry got to live his dreams and live out many of the dreams we hold dear inside; Jerry Quarry had the chance to stand alongside greatness, stepping into a ring with Muhammad Ali, not once, but twice.

His time on this planet was a relatively fleeting fifty-three years, but he experienced most of these years at the height of human emotion, at the very edge of existence; his ardor for boxing also encapsulated his ardor for living. The likes of Jerry Quarry gave their life over to boxing (in his case both physically and mentally). But without boxing, what would life have meant to the likes of Jerry Quarry?

Babe Ruth

‘I hit big or I miss big. I like to live life as best as I can.’

 ‘Putting a factory on stage will tell you nothing about capitalism.’

Soldiers’ Pay by William Faulkner

Faulkner’s Underwood Universal Portable typewriter in his office at Rowan Oak, which is now maintained by the University of Mississippi


Last week I went back to the beginning with one of my favourite writers, William Faulkner, by reading ‘Soldiers’ Pay’, his first novel. It’s very enjoyable, even if one clearly sees some of the natural flaws that can appear in a first book (too much reference to the weather, for instance; an unwieldy narrative at times). But any criticism is to be readily expected of an early work by a great writer, and especially from a reader who has gone through Faulkner’s major works beforehand.

Published in 1926, ‘Soldiers’ Pay’ is the story of a wounded veteran’s homecoming following the First World War; it traces the lives of three soldiers and the impact of their return upon their families. In the book we can see Faulkner slowly, but steadily, finding his inimitable storytelling voice that he perfected in the ‘The Sound and the Fury’, ‘Light in August’, and ‘Absalom, Absalom’.


The major theme I enjoyed most in the book was the characters’ struggles to find meaning in their lives, trying to give their lives a meaning, in the wake of the Great War. The First World War’s shadow looms large over the men, women and children, and they try to find light in a world that seems to be slowly dying.


The novel is noteworthy too in that the central character, Mahon, is a shell of his former self, has the least to say, and yet is the figurehead that the other characters cling on to in order to find some form of redemption. Faulkner’s biographer, Frederick R. Karl, makes the point that Faulkner uses Mahon as an exalted Christ-like figure, sacrificed to the gods of war. Despite being a hapless body smashed by the First World War, Mahon’s being determines the world that now surrounds them. The themes of silence, emotion and sacredness are all here and of course would become recurring motifs through many of Faulkner’s later works.


William Faulkner

Faulkner’s representation of women in ‘Soldiers’ Pay’ is conflicted and probably drew upon personal experience. There is the strong, worldly, maternal figure of Margaret Power and then there is Cecily Saunders, a spoiled, shallow, sexual tease who seems to have no ideas or purpose in life. One of my favourite moments in the novel is from Margaret Power. After having her way with one of the soldiers, Joe Gilligan, she spurns his declarations of feelings, leaving him with a bruised ego. Margaret asks him why he’s so upset; is it because I’ve done to you Joe, what a man would do to a woman?


It seems that when Faulkner sat down to write ‘Soldiers’ Pay’, there was little sense that he would become America’s leading novelist of the 20th century. Hemingway often complained that Tolstoy had a unique advantage in his writing to everyone else, because he had been a soldier and had experienced life and death at their most heightened senses. One wonders if the modern novelist now feels the same about Hemingway and Faulkner, who both had the momentous events of the World Wars to hang any story upon. (It is pointed that both men started out with the intention of becoming poets, as well as soldiers; that most romantic and tragic of all figures in the world of letters.)

Faulkner wanted to be a writer because he wanted the leisurely lifestyle it afforded his friend Sherwood Anderson, but also because he realised it was ‘fun’ when he got down to it. Writing probably was fun for dear old Bill, but then genius can make creation come easily. The rest of us must struggle and plough a lonely furrow. All the same, it’s worth listing some of the advice Faulkner gave on writing, and I’ve also included an interesting video of the writer’s time at the University of Virginia.


I think the writer, as I’ve said before, is completely amoral. He takes whatever he needs, wherever he needs, and he does that openly and honestly because he himself hopes that what he does will be good enough so that after him people will take from him, and they are welcome to take from him, as he feels that he would be welcome by the best of his predecessors to take what they had done.

I think the story compels its own style to a great extent, that the writer don’t need to bother too much about style. If he’s bothering about style, then he’s going to write precious emptiness–not necessarily nonsense…it’ll be quite beautiful and quite pleasing to the ear, but there won’t be much content in it.

The only rule I have is to quit while it’s still hot. Never write yourself out. Always quit when it’s going good. Then it’s easier to take it up again. If you exhaust yourself, then you’ll get into a dead spell and you’ll have trouble with it.



Brand political visions


Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown meeting with former Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi at the G8 summit in 2009. [Oli Scarff/Getty Images Europe]


When Gordon Brown announced that he is stepping down as an MP, after more than thirty years of service, at the General Election in May, he fired a parting shot at modern politics by railing against the idea of political parties being considered as brands.

“Sometimes politics is seen at best as a branch of the entertainment industry,” said Mr Brown. “There are times when political parties seem not to be agents of change but brands to be marketed to people who are seen as consumers, when they are really citizens with responsibilities.”

Mr Brown was big on his “belief in the moral purpose of public service”, but his premiership ultimately floundered on his mangling of the New Labour brand and his innate capacity for public relation disasters; think of Gillian Duffy; recall his “saved the world” slip at Prime Minister’s Questions; even when trying to soften his image by smiling, Mr Brown encountered ridicule.

The former Chancellor’s infamous big clunking fist style of politics proved too heavy-handed for the British electorate, and as a consequence the party brand became toxic because of his role as leader; Mr Brown spoiled the New Labour brand.

The idea of UK political parties as ideological movements alone is fanciful and needs to be consigned to another political era. Voters think less about policies nowadays, and instead consider what they are buying in to when voting for a party. In a consumer-driven society, political parties and their respective leaders are judged in the same way as major companies and their CEOs are: in terms of performance, trust and brand loyalty. In the run-up to the General Election on May 7th, David Cameron’s Conservatives and Ed Miliband’s Labour party can expect to be critiqued by the electorate just as Tim Cook (Apple) or Rupert Stadler (Audi) are by their shareholders. How well have Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband delivered their parties’ brand? An easy answer can be found by the fact no one mentions ‘Big Society’ or ‘One Nation’ these days.



Poor brand management of the respective political parties perhaps underlies the reasons why many polls suggest that no party will have an overall majority come election day. Since the formation of the coalition government, each of the main parties have watched their brand equity steadily diminish; a combination of contempt for the party leaders, banking, expenses and tax scandals, broken promises from the last General Election, and fuzzy and disjointed campaign messages have led to further political disillusionment and apathy.

 Going against this trend, however, is a brand that has become very successful, very quickly: the UK Independence party. Its image of outsider rebelliousness, bound up with a corporate, Oxbridge similarity to all the other main parties, encapsulated in the strangely bucolic figure of leader Nigel Farage, has struck a chord with many people.

The advertising agency Isobel carried out a survey on the most hated brands in Britain, and political parties made up four of the ten findings: Liberal Democrats were sixth, Labour came fifth, while the Tories finished second. Populist upstart UKIP finished top of the class. Considering the Marmite appeal of his party, Mr Farage will drink happily from such a poisoned well. For one thing that comes close to the value of brand appeal, is brand awareness, and for a party that gained its first MP only last year, UKIP has quickly become a trademark on everyone’s lips. Which of the parties we will be talking about as power brokers when the results come trickling in on May 8th, still remains to be seen, however.

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