Look, Frank, I told you this could happen. I can't find December's Frank's. I can't even find one bit of it that I could comment on in incredibly long and tedious detail, claiming it was the bit that interested me most when really it was the only bit I could find. A pox on you and your cheapskate ways and people who want to send origami models of Brunel's Thames Tunnel. (Oh by the way, Bridges, I don't think we will be able to make it up to see you. My young man and I are both skint and I forgot to send off my Persil tokens and I'm terribly sorry and broken-hearted about it ...)
Anyway. Yes, I confess. Yes I do read some science fiction without having to be nailed to the floor by Roz until I submit. The trouble is the sort I read tends, in the less respectable shops, to be wrongly shelved in the non-fiction part of the sequence.
I have long had an addiction to nut books. It started, I think, with Margaret Murray's The God of the Witches, and with a book whose name I forget, but which sought to show that the evidence for a Neanderthal bear cult, and its possible relationship with the shamanistic ritual of the Ainu, proved that 'Man's knowledge of the Creator stemmed from the Creation'. (Read it at 16, but have never forgotten that phrase.)
Then there was BACON IS SHAKESPEARE!!!, by Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence Bart., bought at Oxford, and which I suspect my traitorous bookdealer father of having sold, since I haven't seen it in ten years or so. Then various others on UFOs and the Great Pyramid, most of which I sold in a moment of abstraction for the excellent cause of Dupers for Poland. Of the literature about nut books, I only have two examples: the Friedmans' Shakespearean Ciphers Examined, highly recommended, and Sladek's New Apocrypha, quite recommended but I wish he'd sit still for a minute, so to speak.
Anyway, I think I want to systematise my nut-book reading a bit. I've just got a new one, which appears to lean heavily on von Däniken, but without putting more money into the vD coffers or suffering dreadful shame at the library I can't read vD to find out. But the particular circumstances of my getting hold of this book, and its extreme perversity, make me want to investigate the nut book as a sociological phenomenon.
Back before Christmas, I was having a drink with an old friend. Now, some of my friends are pretty brainless, but this one is not. This is a guy who translates 19th-century German novels for fun, and teaches evening classes in local history for old-age pensioners. Unfortunately, he's an old hippie, with all the old hippie's softness on Criticism of Established Authority.
'You know a bit about archaeology, don't you, Abi? I've just read this book. ...Extraordinary discoveries ... Dry-cell batteries from ancient Babylonia ... cave-paintings ... and when they went into the Great Pyramid ...'
'Hang on. This isn't by Erich von Däniken, is it? Because ...'
'Oh, no, it's by someone else. Anyway, this proves that they had electricity then, because when the first archaeologists went into the Great Pyramid, THERE WERE NO MARKS OF SMOKE ON THE CEILINGS, so they must have had some form of electric light ...'
Now this I can cope with. Dry-cell batteries are not my field, darling, but common sense and a stint editing a kiddies' book on Ancient Egypt can see me through this one.
'That has got to be a heap of shit. What does he mean by the first archaeologists? As far as I can remember, Egyptian archaeology started off ... Napoleon's Nile campaign ... would have had to have used oil lamps or naked torches themselves so how the hell could they tell? ... been nipping in and out for centuries before that when they certainly didn't have electricity looking for treasure.'
He accepts my argument that far, and I manage to change the subject. Words cannot express how upset I am by it all. I thought everyone, except real nuts, just used that sort of book for cheap laughs.
Then, last week, I found what had to be the same book on the remainder shelf at my local newsagent's. Secrets of the Lost Races, by Rene Noorbergen, for 29p. (If anyone wants one, you'd be doing me a favour by asking, because there are a couple left and every time I pass the shop I worry in case it is MY DUTY to buy the others in case they lead poor straying sheep into the Ways of Error.) Reading a little way into it, I realise that it represents possibly the most perverse endeavour to which the human intellect has ever been put.
Noorbergen pooh-poohs von Däniken. (Though, as I said, he draws on him for a lot of his archaeological 'evidence', to judge by his footnotes.) vD has it all wrong. Spacemen? Don't make me laugh. We already know the reason for all those Mayan thingies and cave-paintings with clothes on because you know there were giants in those days it says so in the Bible ....
Noorbergen is trying to prove the literal truth of (selected parts of) Genesis while implicitly denying the existence of God!
(Normally I deny God his cap on principle. FOR THIS ISSUE ONLY, I am restoring it as a gesture of solidarity. My enemy's enemy is my friend.) Noorbergen's main interest is Noah's Ark. According to him (and I have to trust him at this point, since my personal library is unaccountably short on Hebrew Testaments and Rabbinical commentaries), one of the words translated by the AV as window is the Hebrew word tshohar, which means nobody knows what. This sounds fair enough. You can just see those Bishops; 'Look, why don't we just put window, the peasants will never know and everyone who matters reads the Hebrew anyway and will understand, and we're still only at the beginning of Genesis and if we don't deliver Exodus by Wednesday the king will have our arses,' Again following RN, there is a rabbinical tradition that it means 'a light which has its origins in a shining crystal.' Again, fair enough. Rabbis have to explain this stuff to Sladekian sceptics who keep arguing about the weight of shit to be shovelled too. So we have an ark lit by a large shining thing in its ceiling.
But does that make it an electric light? I can think of two other possibilities: the feeble one is something dipped in natural phosphorescence, and the sensible one is Divine Radiance. To argue that anything in the Bible we can't immediately explain is a form of advanced pre-Deluge technology is to deny the reason for the story being told in the first place. Accounts of miracles in religious books by definition refer to supernatural phenomena.
Flip through to see how he deals with Adam and Eve. Well, Adam makes a brief appearance in some genealogical tables, and Eve doesn't get a look-in. Apparently it's all right for some things to be mythical, since RN does admit the existence of fossil hominids.
You thought we were descended from the hominids, didn't you? Wrong. No, God didn't put them there to test our faith, either. The hominids are degenerate, post-Deluge, forms of Man. (Eugenics territory; also Lovecraft territory. Bad karma.) This proves that it is possible for human stock to degenerate, and thus why we aren't giants who live for 900 years.
Then there is the lady in the Lussac-le-Chateaux drawing; Magdalenian, but 'dressed in a pant suit with a short-sleeved jacket ... Resting on her lap is a square, flat object ... very like a modern purse.' She must be civilised, then. Sir Arthur Evans, I think, said that the ladies in the wall-paintings at Knossos night be dressed in the latest Paris fashions, but he was just being whimsical. To me, she looks as though she's bare-breasted, with a bracelet on her arm and a sort of kanga tied in a bow at the front. (Men! Ok, a kanga is a sort of sarong, all right?) On the other hand, I don't actually see how wearing that outfit makes her more or less civilised than me. RN is so time-bound; on the one hand, we're just the pathetic remnant of a much much greater race which could do things we can't even dream of, but on the other, Advanced Civilisations must wear exactly the clothes that would be regarded as daringly trendy in a mid-West town in the early 70s.
Still, I haven't seen all the evidence from this site, and neither, I suspect has RN. 'The drawings that are shown ... are not too revealing and do not clash too strongly with conventional theories. The rest ... cannot be seen, except by special permission and then only ((sour grapes time!)) by those individuals with "proper credentials". It is felt that the pictures would be too "disturbing" for public viewing.' Oh, a sinister plot by the international museum world to deny the truth? Or just a French provincial museum worried about 'obscenity'?
There is more, there is more, but I didn't come here to do a Sladek all over the poor man, really. But there are things I find genuinely worrying in this book, and others like it. One nut is one nut; several suggests a weakness in general education. As far as RN's concerned, time is divided into The Modern World and a Very Very Long Time Ago. He cites some mediaeval account of something or other, and an Alexandrian Greek planetary device, as evidence of the Great pre-Deluge Scientific civilisation. But he puts the Deluge at round about 3000 BC. The fact that both come from well into historical times, when we have plenty of written accounts which would have mentioned electric light and nuclear bombs if they knew them then, doesn't matter. It was all a Very Very Long time Ago. One expects this collapse of time-scale (the ooar that there barn used to be Johnny Gaunt's stable, a few year back syndrome) in simple people who haven't much formal education, but someone trying to attack the conventional view of history can't afford it.
Worry two is RN's treatment of all secondary sources as of equal value. There is a sense in which all fiction is of equal value, in that it's all fiction. (Yes, Charlotte Brontë is better than Barbara Cartland, but by this point we have moved on to discussing the value of individual novels as works of art.) But the value of a current work of fact nearly always depends on the authority of the writer, his grasp of evidence and use of it to form an argument, and, ultimately, whether what he says is true. It is no good treating Arnold Toynbee and Erich van Däniken as equally authoritative experts, Come to that, what about Robert Silverberg? RN cites a paragraph by 'prehistorian Robert Silverberg'. Is this the guy Chris Priest's always going on about? If so, how come he's a prehistorian? Does the US museum world ring with gossip about this brilliant man at the Smithsonian who knocks off trilogies in his lunch hour? In fact the quote reads as though it comes from a cheery popular potboiler, and all it says is that Stone Age Man had a religious and aesthetic sense as well as a material culture.
Anyone seriously trying to write history knows perfectly well that some secondary sources are dubious, and that it's not on to take a pious truism as a line-for-line imprimatur for your own view. Either RN knows what he's doing or he doesn't. Either he's trying to fool others or he's been fooled himself. The same applies to his publishers. Either the people who buy these books in believe what's in then, or they don't. If they do, they're fools; if they don't, liars, engaged in a cynical exercise in exploitation. As to readers, those who don't read the books for laughs have some excuse. How can they be expected to evaluate RN's references when a) half the time he doesn't give any, and b) they have spent their lives up to now being treated in much the same way by television. A perfectly sound television documentary will, nevertheless, simply show you someone you've never heard of before and describe him as an 'expert'. He may be the Regius Professor of Astronomy or the Chairman of the BSFA; the medium simply isn't suited to evaluation of his authority, so long as he has some kind of title, which looks impressive. An expert is an expert is an expert.
Astronomy on television, in fact, benefits from the great institution of Patrick Moore. He may be not the nicest man in the world in person, so I've heard, and he may have put his name to some fairly awful books, but as far as astronomy goes, I know that if Patrick Moore is on the programme then what it says is basically ok. I don't have to worry about the status of the 'experts' provided, or know as much as they do myself to enjoy it.
We could do with a similar figure for popular presentations of history, but so far there is no substitute for a basic all-round arts education. Having the ghost of such an education myself, I'm ok when reading nut books; but there are many now whose basic schooling has been mainly technical and scientific, and an increasing number who simply don't get any training in the evaluation of facts at all. (No, I mean the evaluation of assertions, theories etc. Thank you for your kind intervention.) Increasingly, too, the humanities are taught with an emphasis on the familiar. (Relevant is the buzz-word.)
I don't mean people like us, my dear; our class still gets taught how to go on making discoveries for ourselves. I mean them; the non-academic, the potential long-term unemployed, the ((quiet)) ethnic minorities. For us, history may be Greeks and Romans, knights and explorers, preachers and scientists, costumes and battles and cathedrals. They can't cope with all this boring irrelevant stuff, so send them down the local sewers with a worksheet to do a project.
But the hungry sheep look up and are not fed ... People need a sense of what went on in the past. People want to find excitement and romance in the ancient world, but they're never told enough about it to be able to discover the excitement that is actually there. People are told that something happened 'in Homer's day', say, but not shown anything at all of the man's poetry. Art and literature are walled off, while children are drilled with low-grade sociology and technical stuff to fit them for jobs that won't be there when they leave school. But they still want to know about the past. They still believe there must be something interesting about it, but since the only remotely interesting stuff they're taught at school is scientific, they need to be fed all this false science in order to find the romance they seek. Along come the Noorbergens and vDs, promise them the glories of the ancient world, and leave them up a blind alley with nothing but a Babylonian battery, and a sense that it's no good going to the British Museum because museums tell lies.
This still doesn't explain why my old friend was taken in by Noorbergen. Just an old hippie running after a nice new conspiracy, I expect. But I do wonder at the motivations; and the morality, of the people who publish such books.
Mind you, it isn't going to stop me reading them. My quest continues. If anyone can lend me a set of von Däniken, or any other nut books, I would be grateful. And another thing:
WHAT I WANT
I must be the only person of my generation not to have one; never to have had one at all, not even in the form of a birthday card. I expect my friends all think I'm too far gone in vice and cynicism to profit by it. But I want one now, and I'm not content even with that; I want to know ALL ABOUT the one you've got, and I also want to know which was the first one ever. So, since you're so nice and helpful, could you just do this?
Go placidly up to your attic or your cupboard or whatever you have, and find the place where you keep all the stuff you used to have on your wall as a student and find embarrassing now but can't quite bear to throw away. Do not speak loudly, but if the neighbours start complaining anyway, just ignore them and go on looking for it. If they bang on the wall, tell them to fuck off because YOU ARE A CHILD OF THE UNIVERSE, and they are just bloody no-accounts, you have a right to be here and they don't.
When you've found your text of Desiderata, please don't send it to me, but try to remember when and where you got it, and anything you were told about it at the time. Also look for any text other than the poem / platitude / thing, such as a publisher's address, an attribution, or even the price. Also, if you can think of any references in books, especially before 1970 or so, put me on to them. (And when you've finished doing that bring in the dog and put out the cat.)
The point is, I think it's some kind of hoax. I first encountered it on the wall of a druggy friend at Oxford, in 1970, my first student year. He said, I think, that he'd got it in the States. He certainly did mention the story of its provenance which I've heard since; that it was 'found' on a tablet in an old church in ?New England?, and that nobody knows how old it is.
I dunno, God never meant me to be an old hippie. That 'child of the universe' bit bugs me most, I think. It would seen to me that in Colonial New England (if that's the time and place we're talking about) you night as well have admitted to orgying with the devil and all his legions and have done with It, At least you'd feel good while you imagined what you'd got up to. 'You have a right to be here' suggests an egalitarian-radical slant which was certainly present in 17th-century Old England, but America? And where's here? In the church -- but then it wouldn't need stating? Or in the Universe -- in which case one might as well talk of one's duty to be here, for all the difference it makes?
Admittedly the first two arguments are considerably weakened if the stone proves to be, say, 19th-century. But why is it so difficult to date anyway? Lettering on stone is one of the easiest things in the world to date, especially if it happens to be inside a church in a small community. Look at the gravestones outside -- and the dates on the ones in the same style. The local mason will normally have done them all.
But where's the stone? I've never seen any representation of it, only the text, in type or calligraphic script. You can make quite a nice poster of a stone-cut text, by making a rubbing and using that as artwork for printing, The surface of the stone must be reasonably smooth of course, but a stone inside a church would be immune from weathering. Given the popularity of the text, I would have thought a rubbing of the original, with its nice uneven old letters (how do I know what they're like? All provincial lettering before the late 19th century is like that) would be a sure seller.
So we're back with the text, which of course I do not have To Hand. But from what I remember, it exhorts the reader to be quiet and temperate in behaviour, to respect other people and animals and to respect oneself. One could hardly find anyone in any age to quarrel with it, I suppose. But it certainly suggests to me a certain laid-back ruralist hippiedom which was emerging in the USA in the late 60s; and the text seems first to have become current among hippies, or at least druggies. 'Child of the Universe' fits much better into this than any Christian context I can think of.
I've just been reading The Glass Teat. I was reminded by Ellison on nearly every page of the anti-druggie propaganda put out by Middle America at the time, and the slogan 'America -- love it or leave it'. It occurs to me that Desiderata fits quite neatly into that context.
First, druggies like everyone else have the need to key into the past that I see being denied British working-class children. Creating an artifact, and a history for it, which suggests that your philosophy has something in common with that of people in the past must help fill that need. Secondly, it ties in hippiedom with all that is 'good and clean and decent and patriotic' in the American myth. It sure pulls the rug from under the feet of your enemies if you appropriate the myth of the Pilgrim Fathers.
So, any documentation on Desiderata would be welcome. While we're at it, when did it stop being on druggie walls and appear on the walls of clean-living little suburbanites?
And if I'm definitely wrong, tell me.
Next ish -- how John Lennon appeared in a spaceship and built Angkor Wat.
GIVE US BACK OUR 31 DAYS, you fascist pig, you, Frank! cries Abigail Frost, 69 Robin Hood Gardens, Cotton Street, London E14. I wish someone would come down in a spaceship and tell me where the corflu is. Never mind; at least I haven't achieved RN's crowning achievement, which is mis-spelling the surname of Charles Fort. (No, no, he spelt it with a 'd'.) WAHF Simon Ounsley; sorry I haven't printed your loc as promised, but Frank might expel me if I printed your bit about 'that bloody apa'. I hope everything is ok by you, me I've had a rotten time lately, especially for a month which never existed. Damn and blast -- I forgot my third piece, The influence of nut books on Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker. No room here, but the book echoes RN's picture of a world full of memories of science oddly; and the Ardship of Cambry obviously has eyeless sight, an old favourite according to Sladek.
FRANK'S APA 4 (February 1984)