by Phil Hall
My first taste memory is of ripe apricots. The apricots had fallen onto warm sand, so the fruit was lightly dusted. Its flesh was soft and loose under a fine felt skin and underneath that flesh was a sharp-edged, black pip. Though hungry, I only took one bite. Hunger discovers a child’s appetites!
Maurice Maeterlinck plagiarised from Eugene Marais. Eugene Marais wrote two important books in Afrikaans explaining his ideas about animal behaviour: ‘The Soul of the White Ant’ and ‘The Soul of the Ape’. Maeterlinck, who understood Afrikaans because he understood Flemish, wrote a book he called ‘The Soul of the Termite’ and won the Nobel Prize for the originality of his thought. Distraught at the theft of a lifetime of work and unable to afford a lawyer to defend his work, Eugene Marais killed himself.
Well, it must be said, simplicity blocks out some of the picture. Marais probably despaired for other reasons, too – unrelated reasons. Maeterlinck wrote books that people say are quite good.
The idea of ‘The Soul of the White Ant’, as I understand it, is that it claims that knowledge is instinctive and shared within a termite colony. The idea of ‘The Soul of the Ape’ is that higher primates are guided more by their learning and experiences of socialisation. Apes are individuals, not cogs in a collectivity. Termites are cogs in a collectivity of shared knowledge. You can see how T. H. White, in his ‘lesson of the ants’ must have been inspired by these ideas; though he probably found them in Maeterlinck, not in Marais. You can see how Marais’ ideas can be easily twisted in order to argue against collective action by the people who sit on top of us and enjoy the status quo.
The implication of Marais’ idea is that human beings must recapitulate all the knowledge and skills needed in every new generation in order to survive and exist comfortably in a shared culture and civilisation.
You find this assumption everywhere: the idea of the fragility of civilisation; the idea that, if you forget, everything comes crumbling down. Rome is gone because civilisation is an edifice, like a palace, or a castle. Rome existed as an idea in the mind safeguarded in complicated spirographs, preserved in warm handshakes and in the blueprints of machines, in books, and in art that must be studied carefully and continually in schools and universities.
If we forget these formulae for civilisation, we will return to mindless barbarism. Or will we? Bankers, for example, use the illusion of the fragility of civilisation to their advantage. They blackmail governments into bailing out their bad debts. They make it a part of their business models. Factored in is the threat of chaos, blackmail that ensures a cannibal guarantee of a state bailout.
Money is created in flows of electrons and bouyed up by flows of words. The agreements to send wealth to the right people who hold out their hands for it is underwritten by legislation and law and the flows of money are the product of complicated patterns of power and ownership. So that swindlers like Robert Maxwell, or Sam Bankman-Fried could and can always get hold loan of a few tens (or hundreds of millions) and you or I barely raise the price of a house.
So much so is money a system of tithes and gifts that when banks lend money, they hold on only to a fraction of what their customers deposit and lend in many multiples, with the consent of the state. Wealth is licensed out by the Establishment.
The system is gamed by the man with the three cups, while the pockets of the worker bees are picked of the honey they make. Silly worker bees, have they forgotten their stings?
I have always liked the ideas of Louis Althusser, who agreed that, in our modern society, based on private ownership, everyone must know their place and activity, or the machine of the world will break down and we will all go to pot.
If people don’t know their place, then how can we come to an agreement over who does what? One person must raise pigs, another slaughter them, another sell them – and the last person works collecting the bins, and throwing away the remnants of everyone else’s pork chops. We must all agree with these arrangements. Or be encouraged to do so. The careers advisor at a 6th Form college in Walsall will give quite different advice to a young student than the careers advisor at Dulwich College gives to a pupil with exactly the same A’ Level results.
Though, of course, the honking, force-fed children of the rich, with their fatty livers and fatty brains, are prepared with quite different expectations.
Is it true that civilisation is just a complex set of interacting ideas in our heads? Do we locate ourselves in only one corner of it?
I don’t think so. When Rome fell, the people didn’t fall. A system of surpluses and theft and misuse of those surpluses fell. The Roman roads destroyed the drovers’ tracks that had been there for millennia. There were no great monuments built for many years after the fall of Rome. The luxury baths were not maintained, but abandoned. There were no fights in the London colosseum because the force that was required to channel people into collective work to benefit or entertain the colonisers was gone, and so we spread out once more like water over a level plain. Civilisation didn’t arrive with the Romans and it didn’t fall when they left. Ask Francis Pryor.
Roman power forced people into channels, powering their wind-milling, ensuring their acquiescence with threats. Very few of the people of the archipelago ever enjoyed Roman baths and Roman circuses. The Roman presence in Britain was superficial compared to its presence in France; only skin deep.
Look at the Thames. The Thames chained is a metaphor for the way the British ruling class have subjected the rest of us to their needs and whims. The great Tory stink is carried downstream at speed along to the estuary, past the Isle of Sheppey, where Tracy Emin and her demon lover lay – the muddy currents striating and rearranging the pebbles around them.
To sense corruption in a part of the British soul and smell the decomposing head of the fish, one must travel down the estuary to a prison hulk off the coast near Rochester in 1823.
And travel, too, to a floating building; a sink estate painted pink, in 2023. There, the children, mothers and grandparents, the fathers, young men and young women will be containered – their dreams streaming out of the cladding like fire, or the gold of a William Turner sunset.
A number of the people of these islands want the human flotsam and jetsam of their decolonisation and subsequent wars to be sent to Ascension Island or Rwanda. Derelict of their consciences, they dream of deporting millions of foreigners, their minds slopping with right wing bilge as strong as porter.
When I was three, I didn’t like the apricot I tried, but I did like the second food I remember. Green peppers!
Civilisation doesn’t fall because we do not hold it in our thoughts. Knowledge is both acquired and learned, and what is known is simply a reagent for what can be learned. The desire for vitamin C is not only instinctual, but can be complex and civilisational: think of it: the culinary construct that is a green pepper salad!
David Chalmers is right. All matter has the potential for consciousness. To me, all consciousness flowers not in an artificial duel between the acquired and the learned, but in a far more complex dance and interplay.
Understanding compounds and forms amalgams and flows, so that Arthur Rimbaud at nineteen could only point inarticulately with his poems and say that the answer to understanding lay in the patterns of the waves and the play of sunlight over them.
What did they feed us at my grandfather and Nola Hall’s hotel as children? Certainly, their attitude towards my mother was malign. My father had left to go Kenya. We were due to follow him. My mother, Eve Hall, had been released from prison after a breakdown. She was only twenty-five.
My father’s parents blamed my mother for getting their son, Tony Hall, involved in political activism. Unpardonably, despite her fragile mental health and her fragile state, they tormented her unpleasantly but allowed us to stay at the Lido Hotel before we left into exile. In fact, we were going to what became our real home, Nairobi.
According to my father’s parents, my mother had led my father into political activism when she should have followed him. But followed where?
My father was lost to hotel management when he was only nineteen, leaving his parents to go to live in Johannesburg and work on The Daily Star (He was the first reporter to interview Nelson Mandela in hiding).
Whatever it was they fed us at the hotel, it was not good food, or enough food. I know this because, at three, I wanted to eat something fresh and my body was quite specific about what it wanted. It wanted green pepper salad with onions in a vinaigrette.
What was it in the juicy peppers that my body craved so strongly? Was it the iron? Was it the ascorbic acid? I went to the hotel cook and asked him for a plate of this dish.
He was a large man dressed in white. He towered. He had a white hat. He bent down close to listen to me and I tried to explain. He didn’t understand, and I felt a little desperate and tried again. Then he left and came back with a glass bowl filled with green pepper salad.