Silliness with a whiff of brimstone

Just an ordinary dinner party. BBC people. War correspondents, commissioning editors, political chaps, producers, you know the sort of thing. Run-of-the-mill for people like me, yawn yawn, here we go again.

Then I thought: hang on a minute; I used to dream of spending my time in the company of people like this, why am I not revelling in every moment, wild with excitement, instead of sitting here thinking "Pleasant enough evening, nice enough crowd"?

I suppose the answer is: lobsters. Someone once told me about lobsters. They have no means of detecting absolute temperature. A lobster can't think to itself "pretty hot, today," because it has no use for the concept. It's pretty damned good at noticing tiny changes in temperature, though, because that is useful when you make your living detecting ocean currents. So when you chuck a lobster in the pot and turn on the gas, the lobster just thinks: "Hmm. Bit warmer than a moment ago." And, moment by moment, degree by degree, it thinks "Hmm. Bit warmer than it was a moment ago" until presently it thinks. "Hmm. Bit wa..." and boils to death.

A curiously silly way to behave, and I was just relating it to my inability to be excited at being where I'd always wanted to be, when I had to put the idea aside because the war correspondent came up with his conversational gambit. "What," he said, "is the most evil thing you have ever done?"

It was addressed to the pretty blonde woman from a books programme, who immediately looked stricken, so we all charitably began talking among ourselves and left her to wriggle. But there was a slightly jittery edge to our chatter, and you can bet that every one of us was running the question through our own mind. Good gambit. Probably came out of a book, but effective for all that, and, in my case at least, humiliating. Because, do you know, try as I could, I was unable to come up with a single genuinely evil thing I had done, ever?

I suppose I should be pleased, but I felt diminished, somehow less of a man. I kept remembering things which at first sight looked promising - the Curious Case of the Music up the Chimney; the Incident in Nottingham Market Square; the Strange Episode of the Swedish Technology Expert, the Larch and the Twenty-Four Two-Ounce Fishing Weights; the Curious Affair of the Barcelona Confessional - but all, on closer analysis, turned out to be utterly destitute of true evil. Some were driven by ignorance and curiosity; some by the sense that the Rules (of society, the bedroom or the Universe) didn't apply to me; many were driven by stupidity; but most, by far, of my defalcations were the consequence of nothing more dramatic than silliness.

Late at night, with taramasalata on your jacket and the air thick with retsina fumes and bullshit, is as good a time as any to contemplate the question of evil, and I presently came to the conclusion that we don't have very much of it at all; not here, in Britain, in the last years of the millennium. I don't mean random explosions of deranged, stupefying violence; such matters as the massacre of children are simply unaddressable by any humane ethical system. Rather, I mean the institutionalised evil of a Pol Pot, a Mengele or a Charleston Bay slaver.

It's easy enough to see what appear to be symptoms. Poor lunatics discharged into "the community". The blanket acceptance of homelessness. The spurning and deporting of legitimate refugees. The sale of our common property to alien money-men. The disenfranchisement of so much of our public life. All these things seem to bear the whiff of brimstone. And when we look at our Government, we can see, in its belief that there is just one means of motivation and one measure of achievement, that love of money which is the root of all evil.

But we would be wrong to think so. The true curse of our times is not evil, not even stupidity, but silliness. Look at our silly Prince of Wales and his sillier ex-wife. Look at Mr Heseltine, a cartoon Mister Silly if ever there were one. Look at Mr Portillo: pretending to be a big fierce man, but really, in his quacking, wet-lipped bluster, the silliest of silly sausages, seeming like a man who, were serious danger to come down, would run squeaking into the distance with a wet patch on his bags.

Look at the millennium, with its silly, infantile schemes. Look at John Birt, caught up in his silly Systematism; and the even sillier Sir Pigling Bland, wheeled on to squeal about how Silly John is worth every penny. Look at the silly youths who run our economy from their traders' desks, panicking at every rumour, wondering why their money and their high-class sex don't seem such fun as they thought they'd be. And the list goes on. Political correctness: silly. Gays wanting to ape the power-structures of heterosexual marriages designed to protect the laws of primogeniture: silly. Deaf people's spokesmen who say that deafness isn't a disability: silly. Sectarian loyalties: silly. Health fascists too weak to face the inevitability of their own death: silly. Silly doctors, silly lawyers, silly ad men, silly media folk, councillors and planners. Silly, silly columnists.

Silliness is the root cause. Allied to its favourite tools of greed, stupidity and ambition, it is - all too often literally - lethal. But by the time I had reached this grand conclusion, the war correspondent had gone home and the pretty blonde woman from the books programme was engaged in hand-to-hand combat with her man over the interpretation of some Scottish war-ballad, and it was too late to say anything: not esprit d'escalier but esprit sur place.

So instead I thought about the lobster, and how like him we are: unable to step back and assess things as they are, but seeing our progress in tiny stages, a degree at a time, until suddenly, one day, war breaks out, the economy collapses or we die. Evil? Don't be silly. !

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us