Silliness with a whiff of brimstone

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The Independent Culture
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. !