Scotch-and-soda, sperm and the divine spark

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"IT'S JUST your sort of thing," they said. "It's called Sperm Wars. It explains how our sexual behaviour is all about promoting competition between, you know, ugh, nasty sperms ugh ugh, to fertilise the egg. We thought you'd like to review it. We'll leave it behind the bar downstairs in the club."

So along I went and picked up the book which fell open at random at a page describing group sex on the beach, and the next page explained that there was no point in getting stuffy about this kind of thing because it was Nature's Way. And I thought, rats, I wish I'd known about Nature's Way while there was still time but it's too late now.

Further reading revealed that almost everything is all right: adultery, promiscuity, being a homo, flogging the bishop, whatever you're having yourself: it's all Nature's Way and all for the best in the long run. I read out a few of the choicer passages in the hope of inspiring an instant casting-off of the shackles of Judaeo-Christian repression, people doing it there and then on the club tables, amid overturned bottles of Chateau Musar 1986 and half-eaten prosciutto toasties, but no such luck, of course; this was a club for intellectuals, who hold no brief for Nature's Way.

Indeed, things went rather the other way, and before I knew it I was caught up in yet another angry row about God and the purpose of existence. You know the sort of thing: everyone talking out of their hats, unable to distinguish between things you can't do because God wouldn't like it and things you can't do because it'll drop off if you do, and I was just about to deliver a stern rebuke (with a pretty little side-gloss on Duns Scotus) about the difference between a magisterium founded upon divine revelation and contemporary pseudo-utilitarian prescriptive morality, when a pretty radio producer burst into tears and said she felt utterly purposeless, saw no point in her existence, and didn't know what she should do.

The obvious answer, if she really felt like that, was "Anything you bloody well like," but everyone else was Filled with the Spirit (taking advantage of the recent reduction in excise duty) so I kept my gob shut and took refuge in literature. A political correspondent having scuttled off to the privy with Sperm Wars, I contented myself with an old copy of The Nine Tailors lurking in my jacket pocket, and was flipping through to find my place when I came across some shaky notes on the title page. "35,000ft," I read, "scotch-and-soda - Japanese person playing Vivaldi mandolin concerto - Celebes slipping beneath the wing - sometimes can't help lump throat + tears eye when realise what amazing bloody species we are."

Well... true enough, and back came lump throat, not to mention tears eye. I remembered writing that down, on a flight home from Melbourne last year, and wanting to rush up and down the aisle of the 747 shouting my new gospel: "Stop worrying what it's all for! Never mind the purpose of life, because there isn't one! Let's just exult in our diversity and industry with a clean conscience, you bastards!"

But I didn't, of course. I wept cheerfully in my seat for a while, remembering how, a couple of months previously, I had been flying my tatty old aeroplane low over the Great Australian Bight, watching the whales offshore, playing with their calves. There was no point in that, either; no higher purpose; they weren't put there for anything, let alone for us, and nor was anything else. It was just accident, evolution, Sperm Wars at work. But that's fine; that's easy; we can say "Ooh look, cor, Nay-chah" and come over all National Geographic ("silhouetted against the setting sun, the noble rhino surveys his ancestral domains"), reducing the world to a theme-park and its inhabitants to extras, pretending to be themselves for our amusement. What's harder is to do it with our own selves, our own achievements, our own ridiculous, restless, endless efforts to do things, change things, leave something behind.

The political journalist came back from the khazi, brandishing Sperm Wars. "This sort of thing," he said, "reduces us to the condition of animals." "But we are," I said. "We just spend a lot of time trying to prove we aren't." And then the woman behind the bar came over and said, "Would you take me flying at the weekend? I've never been in a small aeroplane and I'd really like to get out of... get away from... just get off the ground."

Sunday afternoon, Elstree aerodrome: just before sunset, and the little Piper Archer trundling gamely down the runway. Sixty knots and you think the stick back, and up she swims into the late afternoon air. London and man's malfeasances fall away. A thousand feet below, two elderly horses plod across a field. The Lea Valley reservoirs gleam up ahead; off to the south, the Thames Barrier is aflame in the sunset. The radio is alive with people coming home from places they've been for no reason other than to have been there and come home again. Lights are coming on in the houses; Epping Forest pushes its pseudopodia towards the city, as though it were invading, not being beaten back. In a clearing in the woods, a pub is suddenly floodlit, like an epiphany. A great blue glowing airship advertising electrical goods sidles boastfully through the air, like a spiv. We are in the air for just half an hour; we go nowhere, then return, settling on the runway like an embrace. I can't wipe the smile off her face. I can't wipe it off mine. It's pointless, meaningless, purposeless. But it's enough. What a species we are. How mighty are our works. And we did it all ourselves, in just a few thousand years.

Such exultation cannot last. All too soon will come party political broadcasts, direct mail, grave diagnoses, privatisation cock-ups, media darlings and the winter 'flu, to remind us that we are wicked rotters who need a vengeful God to keep us in line. But how fine are those glimpses of freedom, when we can believe in Sperm Wars, and kid ourselves we're winning. !