When You Aren’t Here To Argue Anymore

David Runciman (that’s 4th Viscount Runciman of Doxford, a professor at Cambridge University) writes about the final days of the poet Philip Larkin and Runciman’s father Garry:

The last letter​ Philip Larkin wrote was to Kingsley Amis on 21 November 1985. He was too ill to hold the pen himself and dictated it to be typed and signed by his secretary . . . He told Amis he was going into hospital that day for more tests – “only tests, but of course they are looking for something, and I bloody well hope they don’t find it”. Still, he tried not to sound too downcast. “Don’t get unduly alarmed; the doctors, as always, are cheerful and light-hearted, but I don’t really trust them anymore.” Eleven days later he was dead.

In fact, Larkin’s doctors had found what they were looking for months earlier. During the summer, after an operation on his esophagus, they had discovered inoperable cancer. The surgeon told his companion, Monica Jones, who . . . decided to keep the news to herself. She was worried about the effect of a terminal diagnosis on a man who had often expressed his terror of dying. So Larkin’s doctors kept up a cheerful front and told him that they were still investigating, while the disease took its toll. Whether he believed what he was told is open to question, but he did his best to keep up his side of the deception.

After falling downstairs that September, he wrote that although no bones were broken “my chief worry is a “funny feeling in my throat” which lasted about a week, and which of course I fear the worst about. It makes me very bad company.” That said, “my doctors are quite happy about me (they don’t know about the throat or falling downstairs).” This dance of deceit continued to the end. When he was taken to hospital for the last time, he was sedated to spare him a confrontation with the truth. “If Philip hadn’t been drugged,’ his friend Michael Bowen remembered, “he would have been raving. He was that frightened.”

Larkin’s letters are full of references to his fear of death, some humorous, some grimly foreboding. . . . At the start of the decade, he’d written to Amis: “How are you, old cock sparrow? If like me, then enduring vertiginous waves of realisation every so often i.e. about every three hours when not drunk that during this decade we i.e. MEEEE are quite likely to be dead.”

But Larkin’s most direct engagement with his fear of dying can be found in a letter he wrote to my father, W.G. Runciman, in November 1978, following the publication of his poem “Aubade”, which begins:

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

My father, who was then in his mid-forties, suffered from the same intense fear of death. He would sometimes talk of waking in the night gripped with a sense of utter terror at what was to come. After ‘Aubade’ appeared, he discussed this fear with his friend Martin Roth, a psychiatrist and fellow academic, who tried to persuade him it was a treatable neurosis rather than a reasonable response to inevitable extinction. My father wrote to Larkin . . . about Roth’s opinion, conveying his own scepticism. “Roth asked whether I seriously wished to come for a clinical consultation, to which I replied, rather like Yossarian in Catch-22, that the condition can hardly be treated as paranoia when he himself agrees that whoever is up there is indeed going to dispose of us all quite soon.”

‘It is hard to say whether fear of death is a neurotic condition,’ Larkin responded. ‘My first impulse is to say that it is simply seeing things clearly, and it’s the rest of the world who ought to visit Sir Martin Roth; or that it’s simply being more sensitive, like worrying about cruelty to animals (I do that too).”

He was, however, open to the idea that it might be a temporary state of mind. “A lady of seventy wrote to me about the poem ‘When I was fifty I felt as you do; now I don’t’. So perhaps we can comfort ourselves with the thought that when death is really near, it won’t worry us. We shall become as thick-skinned as everyone else.”

He completely resisted the idea that worrying oneself to death about dying was selfish and that the sufferer should simply get a grip. ‘Nothing really expunges the terror: it remains a sort of Bluebeard’s chamber in the mind, something one is always afraid of – and this is bad for one. It certainly doesn’t feel like egocentricity!”

. . .Though they never met, my father continued to feel close to Larkin, and took me – then aged eighteen – to his memorial service at Westminster Abbey in February 1986. The event was open to the public, and we sat at the back along with hundreds of other ‘poetry-lovers’, as Larkin would no doubt have hated to hear us called (it probably wasn’t true of plenty of those there, including me, who didn’t much like poetry in general, just Larkin’s). . . .

At the start of the service the sub-dean quoted from “Aubade”:

We give thanks for [Larkin’s] intellectual integrity which would not allow him to accept the consolations of a faith which he could not share and which would have delivered him from a fear of dying by which all his life he was haunted. Of this he frequently wrote or spoke and never more movingly than in the lines:

“This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die.”

Now we commend him to the God who is the loving Father of all, of those who cannot yet believe in Him as well as those who do. . . .

That’s one way to do it. In a valedictory poem published in February 1986, Clive James made a similar point, though less unctuously:

A bedside manner in your graveyard tone
Suggests that at the last we aren’t alone.

You wouldn’t have agreed, of course. You said
Without equivocation that life ends
With him who lived it definitely dead
And buried, after which event he tends
To spend a good deal less time with his friends.

But you aren’t here to argue. Where you are
By now is anybody’s guess but yours.

My father, a lifelong atheist who never wavered in his conviction that there was nothing next, died in December aged 86, after a long illness. He was diagnosed with a slowly fatal heart condition a few years ago, but outlived the prognosis he was given then. . . . At the end, when he had stopped eating and his GP gave him a couple of days to live, he clung on tenaciously for two weeks. Perhaps his fear of dying had something to do with it, but he didn’t seem afraid. Indeed, in his later years he conformed to the suggestion in his exchange with Larkin that age diminishes and perhaps even extinguishes the terror. I can’t remember him mentioning it after about the age of seventy. . . . My father’s final months were relatively peaceful. He was calm and uncomplaining throughout. He died at home.

I happened to be with him at the end. After a day when he had found it hard to breathe, he became peaceful again towards midnight and slept. I fell asleep too and twenty minutes later was woken by the fact that the room had become completely silent and still. I had never been present before when someone had died. I was deeply struck by a feeling that the step from the half-life my father had been leading to no life at all was less significant than the earlier step from his full life to his bedbound one. Dying did not seem something to be afraid of. . . .

The Late Molly Ivins on Limbaugh

Talk radio blowhard Rush Limbaugh (1951-2021) is no longer taking calls from his devoted listeners. Texas writer Molly Ivins summed up Limbaugh for Mother Jones in 1995:

One of the things that concerns a lot of Americans lately is the increase in plain old nastiness in our political discussion. It comes from a number of sources, but Rush Limbaugh is a major carrier.

I should explain that I am not without bias in this matter. I have been attacked by Rush Limbaugh on the air, an experience somewhat akin to being gummed by a newt. It doesn’t actually hurt, but it leaves you with slimy stuff on your ankle.

I have a correspondent named Irwin Wingo in Weatherford, Texas. Irwin and some of the leading men of the town are in the habit of meeting about 10 every morning at the Chat’n’Chew Cafe to drink coffee and discuss the state of the world. One of their number is a dittohead, a Limbaugh listener. He came in one day, plopped himself down, and said, “I think Rush is right: Racism in this country is dead. I don’t know what the n____s will find to gripe about now.”

I wouldn’t say that dittoheads, as a group, lack the ability to reason. It’s just that whenever I run across one, he seems to be at a low ebb in reasoning skills. Poor ol’ Bill Sarpalius, one of our dimmer Panhandle congressmen, was once trying to explain to a town hall meeting of his constituents that Limbaugh was wrong when he convinced his listeners that Bill Clinton’s tax package contained a tax increase on the middle class. (It increased taxes only on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.) A dittohead in the crowd rose to protest: “We don’t send you to Washington to make responsible decisions. We send you there to represent us.”

[Note: If this sounds quite familiar, a Republican official from Pennsylvania was discussing Sen. Pat Toomey, one of the Republicans who voted to convict last week, and said: “We did not send him there to vote his conscience. We did not send him there to ‘do the right thing’ or whatever”. Now back to Molly Ivins.]

The kind of humor Limbaugh uses troubles me deeply, because I have spent much of my professional life making fun of politicians. I believe it is a great American tradition and should be encouraged. . . . So what right do I have to object because Limbaugh makes fun of different pols than I do?

I object because he consistently targets dead people, little girls, and the homeless—none of whom are in a particularly good position to answer back. Satire is a weapon, and it can be quite cruel. It has historically been the weapon of powerless people aimed at the powerful. When you use satire against powerless people, as Limbaugh does, it is not only cruel, it’s profoundly vulgar. It is like kicking a cripple.

On his TV show, early in the Clinton administration, Limbaugh put up a picture of Socks, the White House cat, and asked, “Did you know there’s a White House dog?” Then he put up a picture of Chelsea Clinton, who was 13 years old at the time and as far as I know had never done any harm to anyone.

When viewers objected, he claimed, in typical Limbaugh fashion, that the gag was an accident and that without his permission some technician had put up the picture of Chelsea—which I found as disgusting as his original attempt at humor. . . .

The reason I take Rush Limbaugh seriously is not because he’s offensive or right-wing, but because he is one of the few people addressing a large group of disaffected people in this country. And despite his frequent denials, Limbaugh does indeed have a somewhat cultlike effect on his dittoheads. They can listen to him for three and a half hours a day, five days a week, on radio and television. I can assure you that [cult leader] David Koresh did not harangue the Branch Davidians so long nor so often. But that is precisely what most cult leaders do—talk to their followers hour after hour after hour.

A large segment of Limbaugh’s audience consists of white males, 18 to 34 years old, without college education. Basically, a guy I know and grew up with named Bubba.

Bubba listens to Limbaugh because Limbaugh gives him someone to blame for the fact that Bubba is getting screwed. He’s working harder, getting paid less in constant dollars and falling further and further behind. Not only is Bubba never gonna be able to buy a house, he can barely afford a trailer. Hell, he can barely afford the payments on the pickup.

And because Bubba understands he’s being shafted, even if he doesn’t know why or how or by whom, he listens to Limbaugh. Limbaugh offers him scapegoats. It’s the “feminazis.” It’s the minorities. It’s the limousine liberals. It’s all these people with all these wacky social programs to help some silly, self-proclaimed bunch of victims. Bubba feels like a victim himself—and he is—but he never got any sympathy from liberals.

Psychologists often tell us there is a great deal of displaced anger in our emotional lives—your dad wallops you, but he’s too big to hit back, so you go clobber your little brother. Displaced anger is also common in our political life. We see it in this generation of young white men without much education and very little future. . . . Unfortunately, it is Limbaugh and the Republicans who are addressing the resentments of these folks, and aiming their anger in the wrong direction.

In my state, I have not seen so much hatred in politics since the heyday of the John Birch Society in the early 1960s. Used to be you couldn’t talk politics with a conservative without his getting all red in the face, arteries standing out in his neck, wattles aquiver with indignation—just like a pissed-off turkey gobbler. And now we’re seeing the same kind of anger again.

Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting [FAIR] . . . has a sweet, gentle faith that truth will triumph in the end, and thinks it is sufficient to point out that Limbaugh is wrong. I say it’s important to point out that he’s not just wrong but that he’s ridiculous, one of the silliest people in America. . . .

It’s important to show people that there is much more wrong with Limbaugh’s thinking than just his facts. Limbaugh specializes in ad hominem arguments, which are themselves ridiculously easy to expose. Ted Kennedy says, “America needs health care reform.” Limbaugh replies, “Ted Kennedy is fat.”

Rush Limbaugh’s pathetic abuse of logic, his absurd pomposity, his relentless self-promotion, his ridiculous ego—now those, friends, are appropriate targets for satire.

Lyrics, Dreams, the Internet, But No Politics

Yesterday on Twitter, somebody started a thread asking for people to post the best opening lyrics of a song. The first entry I saw was from “Thunder Road”, a wonderful song: “A screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves”. That’s a good opening line, but it doesn’t even rhyme with what comes next.

Idle hands and an idle mind led me to look at the opening lyrics for another wonderful song: “Surf’s Up” (which I didn’t put on Twitter). Van Dyke Parks wrote the words for Brian Wilson’s music:

A diamond necklace played the pawn
Hand and hand some drummed along, oh
To a handsome man and baton

But there was a problem. The Genius lyrics site shows the third line as:

To a handsome mannered baton

There’s a note that says these were the original lyrics. Somebody else marked that as “a stretch”. I quickly acquired an account on Genius and put in a correction, based on the fact that most people say it’s “a man and baton”, those are the words Carl Wilson seems to have sung on the original recording, and contemporaneous sources don’t disagree:

At home, as the black acetate dub turned on his bedroom hi-fi set, Wilson tried to explain the words. “It’s a man at a concert,” he said. “All around him there’s the audience, playing their roles, dressed up in fancy clothes, looking through opera glasses, but so far away from the drama, from life—‘Back through the opera glass you see the pit and the pendulum drawn.’”

The 1971 Beach Boys LP had a lyrics sheet, but, having moved on from vinyl, I sold that album years ago. The other side of the lyrics sheet showed parched earth, counterintuitively for a group that still called themselves that and an album with a metaphorical reference to the ocean in its title. I didn’t have the old lyrics sheet, but the internet, as it so often does, came through:

beachboys-surfsup(insert-b)

Expanding the image revealed that, yes, it’s “a man and baton”. Victory was mine!

(The album was released at that brief moment in time when Mike Love, shown in the middle there, was willing to appear in public without a hat — the long beard compensated for his thinning on top.)

I thought that was the end of the matter (although scientific, historical and aesthetic matters never really end). Further research revealed that no, it’s not that clear what the lyrics are supposed to be.

Eight years ago, a contributor to a Beach Boys message board wrote:

For the record (pun intended) Carl got the lyrics wrong when he copied them down listening to Brian’s demo. It’s . . . “a mannered baton”.

And there it is, in the 2011 box set, The Smile Sessions:

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A handsome mannered baton! Victory is no longer mine!

But what are a song’s lyrics anyway? If there’s a conflict, are the lyrics what the composer originally had in mind? Or what was first performed for the public? Are the lyrics what was written on the original manuscript or what everybody sings today (such as this guy or this other guy)? There is no definitive answer.

Fortunately, in most cases, there is no conflict. Consider “The Star Spangled Banner”. Nobody argues whether it’s “bombs bursting in air” or “bombs bursting for air”. We all know the words (for the most part).

This brings me to a very brief account of last night’s dream. Two men with great voices were singing our national anthem in a big stadium. One of them made a mistake. He sang “bombs bursting for air”. That’s all I remembered when I woke up.

I mention this because there was an article this week called “For the love of America, stop playing the national anthem before sporting events”. The writer’s thesis is that “it’s not an act of genuine patriotism, it’s a ritual of joyless conformity”. The article was in response to a small controversy:

This week, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban confirmed that for the entirety of the current National Basketball Association’s season and preseason, the national anthem wasn’t played prior to his team’s home games. No one had noticed until Cuban confirmed it with The Athletic.

The NBA told The Athletic that given the bizarre and difficult circumstances of the pandemic era, they were fine with teams deciding how to conduct their pre-game operations. But after conservative pushback the league quickly relented, as did Cuban, and just like that we’re back to the business-as-usual of acting out a quasi-religious devotion to a tuneless song about war.

Personally, I like singing the national anthem with a big crowd. It’s one of the times I feel patriotic. And it’s always interesting to hear somebody sing it in public, wondering if they’ll remember the words.

The only reason I found this dream interesting and why I’m sharing it now is that it’s one of those times when it looks like a person’s brain put two and two together and came up with something else. My brain was apparently doing its nightly cleanup. It found a memory of an article about the national anthem and another memory about the questionable lyrics to a song and combined those fragments into a little story about somebody screwing up the lyrics in front of thousands of people (who could be the thousands of people who see stuff on the internet). Dreams don’t necessarily mean anything but it’s nice when they seem to.

beachboys-surfsup(insert-a)

China On the Rise

The Atlantic has a typically long article about China’s construction of an enormous radio telescope:

original

Almost twice as wide as the dish at America’s Arecibo Observatory, in the Puerto Rican jungle [recently destroyed], the new Chinese dish is the largest in the world, if not the universe. Though it is sensitive enough to detect spy satellites even when they’re not broadcasting, its main uses will be scientific, including an unusual one: The dish is Earth’s first flagship observatory custom-built to listen for a message from an extraterrestrial intelligence.

[It’s] the world’s most sensitive telescope in the part of the radio spectrum that is “classically considered to be the most probable place for an extraterrestrial transmitter”. After the dish is calibrated, it will start scanning large sections of the sky. If such a sign comes down from the heavens during the next decade, China may well hear it first.

If that isn’t enough, they’re planning to put a radio observatory on the dark side of the Moon, where there is even less interference from terrestrial radio waves.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the Chinese have a “rail-linked urban megastructure” that required the country to pour “more concrete from 2011 to 2013 than America did during the entire 20th century” The country “has already built rail lines in Africa, and it hopes to fire bullet trains into Europe and North America, the latter by way of a tunnel under the Bering Sea”. The author of the article marvels at “smooth, spaceship-white” trains “whooshing by . . . at almost 200 miles an hour”.

China built the world’s fastest supercomputer, has spent heavily on medical research and planted a “great green wall” of forests in its northwest as a last-ditch effort to halt the Gobi Desert’s spread. Now China is bringing its immense resources to bear on the fundamental sciences. The country plans to build an atom smasher that will conjure thousands of “god particles” out of the ether, in the same time it took CERN’s Large Hadron Collider to strain out a handful. It is also eyeing Mars. In the technopoetic idiom of the 21st century, nothing would symbolize China’s rise like a high-definition shot of a Chinese astronaut setting foot on the red planet. Nothing except, perhaps, first contact.

China’s gross domestic product is still only about 2/3 of America’s, but they’ll probably spend more on research and development than we do in the coming decade.

When we saw the Soviet Union as our competition in the 50s and 60s, we got busy. The Soviet Union no longer exists.

Today, there are more than 100 cities in China with populations over one million. China is making its presence known.

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In the Aftermath of January 6th, a Terrible Story

From The Washington Post:

District of Columbia police officer Jeffrey Smith sent his wife a text that spoke to the futility and fears of his mission.

“London has fallen,” the 35-year-old tapped on his phone at 2:38 p.m. on Jan. 6, knowing his wife would understand he was referencing a movie by that name about a plan to assassinate world leaders attending a funeral in Britain.

The text confirmed the frightening images Erin Smith was watching on live stream from the couple’s home in Virginia: The Capitol had been overrun.

Six minutes after Smith sent that text, a Capitol Police officer inside the building shot and killed a woman as she climbed through a smashed window next to the House chamber.

Smith, also inside the Capitol, didn’t hear the gunshot, but he did hear the frantic “shots fired” call over his police radio. He later told Erin he panicked, afraid rioters had opened fire on police, and wondered whether he would die.

Around 5:35 p.m., Smith was still fighting to defend the building when a metal pole thrown by rioters struck his helmet and face shield. After working into the night, he visited the police medical clinic, was put on sick leave and, according to his wife, was sent home with pain medication.

In the days that followed, Erin said, her husband seemed in constant pain, unable to turn his head. He did not leave the house, even to walk their dog. He refused to talk to other people or watch television. She sometimes woke during the night to find him sitting up in bed or pacing.

“He wasn’t the same Jeff that left on the sixth. . . . I just tried to comfort him and let him know that I loved him,” she said. “I told him I’d be there if he needed anything, that no matter what we’ll get through it. I tried to do the best I could.”

Smith returned to the police clinic for a follow-up appointment Jan. 14 and was ordered back to work, a decision his wife now questions. After a sleepless night, he set off the next afternoon for an overnight shift, taking the ham-and-turkey sandwiches, trail mix and cookies Erin had packed.

On his way to the District, Smith shot himself in the head.

Police found him in his Ford Mustang, which had rolled over and down an embankment along the George Washington Memorial Parkway, near a scenic overlook on the Potomac River.

He was the second police officer who had been at the riot to take his own life. . . . 

Newly released audio from D.C. police at the riot shows how police were overwhelmed. “Multiple Capitol injuries, multiple Capitol injuries,” one officer screamed over his radio. Later an officer shouted, “We’re still taking rocks, bottles and pieces of flag and metal pole.” And an officer pleaded for help: “We lost the line. We’ve lost the line. All MPD [Metropolitan Police Department], pull back to the upper deck, ASAP” . . . 

Hours after the siege at the Capitol had ended, Smith later told his wife, he found himself with other officers outside a hotel where insurgents were believed to be staying. Their orders were to arrest any who came outside, at that point breaking a citywide curfew imposed by the mayor to restore order.

At 9 p.m., he told two supervisors he was in pain from being hit by the pole, and he was sent to the Police & Fire Clinic in Northeast Washington, run by a contractor and the first step for nearly every officer injured on the job.

He checked in at the clinic at 10:15 p.m., according to records shared by his family.

On his police injury form, he wrote: “Hit with flying object in face shield and helmet.” He added that he “began feeling pain in my neck and face.”

He checked out 1:31 a.m. on Jan. 7, his status listed as “sick,” though no diagnosis is noted. Erin does not know if he told the staff about any emotional issues.

“He told me it was chaos,” she said of the clinic. “There were so many people there.”

Erin has questions about her husband’s care at the Police & Fire Clinic. She said he told her he was seen for only about 10 minutes when he returned Jan. 14 and was approved to return to work the following day.

She wonders whether there were indications of a serious head injury or signs of emotional distress, and she is seeking his complete medical file. Police officials would not comment on specifics of Smith’s visit, citing privacy laws. Representatives for PFC Associates, which runs the clinic, did not respond to an interview request.

Smith didn’t talk much about the details of what he experienced during his hours at the Capitol, Erin said. She didn’t press, but even from the little she learned, she thinks the images she saw on live stream did not fully capture what police experienced. Before the riot, the family’s lawyer said, Smith had not been diagnosed with or exhibited signs of depression.

Erin is convinced the trauma of Jan. 6 made the thought of returning to policing unbearable for him. . . . 

Experts caution suicide is not typically due to a singular event, even a traumatic one, and precise reasons are generally rooted in a wide variety of factors that are often never fully understood. . . . 

Smith’s family attorney said the officer did not attend any counseling sessions while he was on sick leave. He also said no one from the department reached out to Smith about attending. . . .