Yon Far Country

Every year I spend a week in the late summer bicycling with my friend Caroline in France. This year we climbed Mont Ventoux. In between bouts of mildly strenuous pedalling we talk about mutual friends, about family and the parlous state of the world, and about the books we’ve read over the previous year. We both read voraciously during the week, on trains, at café tables, even whilst picnicking in fields. After all, you can’t bicycle all day.

Caroline’s tastes are racier than mine – she likes books about viral pandemics, Himalayan mountaineering disasters, but also gentle books by wimmin. I prefer books about the construction of railway lines, biographies of philosophers, eyewitness accounts of the Big Bang, and also, from time to time, the masculine fiction of Nevil Shute.

At the end of the week I make a note of Caroline’s recommendations. This year’s contained a wonderful children’s story by Philippa Pearce, author of Tom’s Midnight Garden, one of the most successful children’s book ever published. The Minnow on the Say, which I read over the weekend, is a similarly innocent story of childhood friendship. It’s set in a bucolic English village, and involves the search for the long-lost family treasure that will save a boy and his aunt from genteel poverty. It all takes place in the early 1930s, a time before television, mobile phones and personal computers, when children played outdoors and only came in for tea.

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The England this evokes is the one falsely remembered in A E Housman’s poem from A Shropshire Lad:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows
What are those blue remembered hills
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

The Minnow on the Say’s ‘land of lost content’ is one of perfect summers, of gardening, of canoeing in the river, a land where children outsmart their guardians (as long as they get enough cake) to find a treasure that the old and weary have long since given up as lost. There’s no hint of sin – of envy, or of material possessiveness, moral uncertainty, family dissent, marital difficulty, no jostling for dominance, no casual cruelty. There’s the residual sadness of the recent war, but there’s no sickness, no anger, no accidental injury, death, and, of course, there’s not even a whisper of sexuality. There are no foreigners either, and no refugees, except those from the city (Birmingham and London are sneered at as hell-holes). This is a perfect world and the novel’s characters are perfect adults and perfect children.

Philippa Pearce’s story telling is engaging. As in adult mystery novels the clues are generously scattered for the reader to find, and there are pages where you’ll have your hand up (‘Miss! Miss!’) to give the answer, whilst the characters scamper on for a few more pages in ignorance.

This is the world of childhood that what we all remember, or retrospectively construct, and the tug of nostalgia is powerful. I seem to remember long summer afternoons and not a worry in the world. Outdoor games, swimming in the river, bicycles, and lots of cake. I never pulled the legs off spiders. Well, only once or twice.

Did William Golding get it wrong, then, in Lord of the Flies, his story of the savagery that inhabits the unsupervised child, or Dennis Potter in Blue Remembered Hills, where children (played by adults) do cruel and unfeeling things, unconstrained by understanding. Are these two writers right to tear off our rose-tinted retrospective spectacles?

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Children’s fiction, in the main, is as much about how the world might be as adult fiction is. It isn’t true. If anything, children dream more wilfully and with more hope, ignorance and innocence than adults. It is myth as much for the eleven-year-old as for a middle-aged man. Although much children’s fiction is heavily and deliberately, didactic, the best of it merely amplifies hope. Tastes change with age. I used to enjoy C S Lewis’s Narnia stories, but for the most part they strike me nowadays as priggish and overly preachy. Philippa Pearce gets it right.

The best children’s fiction lasts forever and is surprisingly universal in its appeal.  I was looking for balloons in the children’s section of a Prague bookshop on Saturday and was astonished and pleased to see that the fiction I read as a child (albeit in English) is still the children’s fiction of today:

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Oscar Wilde wrote, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” Fiction is deliberate, generous distortion.

Fraud and Conscience – ‘It’s OK if Everyone Else is Doing It’

I’ve just read an account by Tyler Hamilton of his career as a drug-boosted (and eventually drug-busted) world-class professional cyclist  – The Secret Race – Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France. His confessions, and others’, provided the evidence that nailed the world’s most famous doper – Lance Armstrong, seven times winner of the Tour de France and seven times loser (all seven titles were eventually stripped form him).

So prevalent was drug use, so essential if you were to stay amongst the world’s most successful riders, and so much part of what it meant to ‘belong’ to the heroic, winning fraternity, that to those in the game it seemed entirely justified. And so strongly was this felt that riders could lie for nearly a decade, with complete equanimity or outraged aggression, to the media, to the sport’s governing bodies, to their friends and family, and even when undergoing lie-detector tests.

‘Everyone is doing it,’ they said to themselves, ‘so it’s ok. It’s a level playing field.’

Indeed, large swathes of the public thought so too. When I was in the USA three years ago and Lance Armstrong had just admitted doping on prime-time TV, there were many Americans I met who thought he was being unfairly treated ‘because, after all, they were all doing it.’

But it was no level playing field. The best drugs were available only to those with money, guile and influence. It was a risk to the riders’ health, and clearly against the rules. It was cheating, pure and simple.

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When I get phishing emails telling me I’ve won an obscure lottery in Lesotho, when I hear about the cruel deceptions practised on vulnerable people (the elderly, in particular, are viciously singled out by telephone scammers) I try to understand the mentality of scammers, fraudsters and cheats. How does it feel like to them, how does it look like to them, as they rip people off, humiliating and impoverishing vulnerable people? How do burglars feel when they empty or trash an apartment?

Surely, all of these unusual creatures must have a special way, as dozens of top cyclists and other sportsmen and women have, of justifying it all to themselves. Or am I too generous in supposing they think and feel at all?

‘These people have plenty, and I have nothing. They won’t miss what we steal from them.’

‘I have to feed my family.’

‘If I didn’t do it, someone else would.’

‘If I don’t do it they’ll hurt me or my family.’

We’ve all come across similar justifications in more mundane areas of life and business.

‘Everyone cheats when they claim their expenses.’ (Even the UK’s MPs fell foul of this self-serving justification.)

‘You’ve got to bribe if you want to win a public tender. Everyone knows that.’

‘No one pays all the tax they should. I’d be a fool if I were the only one.’

‘If I didn’t take cash and were to issue an invoice instead, I’d be paying much more tax, I wouldn’t be able to compete and I’d soon be out of business. I have a responsibility to my employees.’

How do people get started with fraud or other kinds of crime? How do they manage their consciences? How do they come to believe they’re justified in what they do? How do they acquire the necessary moral agility?

Well, none of us is an angel. It probably starts with just a penny here or there that no one notices or cares about, and then it grows. Finally, for a few, it’s out of control.

But, as Tyler Hamilton explains, the worst situation is one where there’s peer pressure to join in. It became a rite of passage in the world of top-class cycle racing to accept the testosterone, the EPO and all the other stuff. You were ‘in’. You were good enough to win. It’s probably peer pressure rather than greed that gets most people started on a life of deception and crime.

To this day I remember stealing sweets from a shop in a small town in Germany. I was about ten, and I was ‘made’ to do it by a rather delinquent friend. I regretted it even then, which is probably why I remember it now. I wish I had been more priggish and goody-goody (well, that period, together with excessive church-going came later!).

Serious wrong-doing often starts with small misdemeanours and the encouragement of others. The academic, novelist and religious writer C S Lewis puts it well in his Screwtape Letters – Letters from a Senior to a Junior Devil:

“Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts,…”

There’s a stark difference between those who are mildly sinful and those who are steeped in crime, but to those who travel the path from one to other it must seem like a gentle, if slippery, slope. I can only suppose that if they are human and possess the same mental landscape as the rest of us, they feel the same to themselves at the end of it as at the start, hardly having noticed the subtle and gradual erosion of their conscience.