Category Archives: antiquarianism

Stupidity's Unpopular Cousin: Intellectualism in the UK

This was written in 2014. I didn’t post it because it didn’t seem culturally relevant. It does now.

Because I’m arrogant, I self-define as an intellectual. It surprises me how highly-ranked it is in my self-image, probably below ‘Jewish’ and ‘tired’, and above ‘shy’ and ‘Mancunian’. But it’s a word that’s not clearly defined and which means different things to many different people. Look, I asked twitter what they thought it meant.

That’s a huge range of definitions. For me, in contrast, to be an intellectual is to be someone motivated by ideas. That doesn’t mean that you’re simply interested in ideas, or that you enjoy the abstract reasoning associated with chewing through logical problems. It means that you’re someone who thinks about ideas and then changes their life on the basis of those ideas. To me, to understand a flaw in your moral reasoning and to correct it then requires a concomitant adaptation in your behaviour. For example, to recognise that your concept of utilitarianism is out of whack with anti-vegetarianism, and to change your beliefs and your behaviour. To me, that’s intellectualism.

But, as that last tweet from Mark Johnson hinted at, many more of the replies I got were negative about the word – indeed, many saw it as pejorative. Here’s a selection.

So it’s posited as arrogance, out-of-touch, ivory tower behaviour; someone who might know lots of things, but nothing practical. Two jokes from RPS writers reflect that – another example of humour reflecting our prejudices very neatly. Jim’s in particular is an astounding summary of what I perceive to be the predominant British feeling about intellectuals (though, as an action-intellectual himself, I doubt he believes it.)

Wherever they’ve gone, what’s clear is that intellectuals in the UK are not well-regarded and mostly not visible. I first noticed it in secondary school as self-awareness slowly dawned. Myself, I liked getting answers right and gathering more knowledge. Yet some of my peers seemed to decide that standing out was bad, and that being smart was standing out. As we grew, it became uncool to try hard. Uncool to know the answers. I clearly remember my English teacher shaking his head at me when I was the only person to put my hand up for an answer and asking “why do you always have to be different, Dan?”

Of course, that’s different from anti-intellectualism – that’s anti-smart as a sub-set of anti-different. But it certainly feels linked. And this negativity certainly reflects a divergence of the English intellectual from the French public intellectual, where Sartre, Camus, De Beauvoir and their kin were fêted, and public intellectualism is still active. As Daniel Little has said of America, “the depth and pervasiveness of the presence of deeply thoughtful scholars and writers on French radio and television” is not visible here. We have a scraping of aged public intellectuals, mostly on Radio 4 – but there aren’t new ones coming through. Our popular culture shies away from thought.

It’s possible that this a bleed-over from the more practical American culture. Richard Hofstadter won the Pulitzer for Anti-Intellectualism in American Life in 1963, which I’ve yet to read, so I’ll quote from Christopher Hefele’s succinct Amazon review:

“Unfortunately, America’s practical culture has never embraced intellectuals. The intellectuals’ education and expertise are viewed as a form of power or privilege. Intellectuals are seen as a small arrogant elite who are pretentious, conceited, snobbish. Geniuses’ are described as eccentric, and their talents dismissed as mere cleverness. Their cultured view is seen as impractical, and their sophistication as ineffectual. Their emphasis on knowledge and education is viewed as subversive, and it threatens to produce social decadence.”

There’s another possible cause for the decline in the UK, pointed out by Kim Blake, which is demographic. The aristocratic / bourgeois generation of 19th century intellectuals, who didn’t have to work but merely thought, vanished with the leisured aristocrats – Tony Benn (AKA Anthony Wedgewood Benn, Viscount Stansgate) may have been the last of those. Similarly, Kim implied that many of the autodidact generation which formed twentieth century British’s public intellectual cadre came from a narrow background.

It is notable that these people have vanished. Perhaps with the slow death of social mobility and the running down of Victorian infrastructure, the reading rooms and small public libraries where they studied vanished. Perhaps the Methodist work ethic that drove many of them has also vanished. Either way, two sources of British Intellectuals vanished. Yet many people still feel like the capability to be an intellectual is out of reach, is something for another class.

To self-define as intellectual in the UK, then, is to define yourself as arrogant, out-of-touch and ultimately useless to a large subset of the population. Thankfully, intellectuals, by my definition, won’t really mind about that. They’re more concerned with being true to their own ideas and being morally right.


RPS: Mnemotechnics and Ultima Underworld II

To The Tune of: Leon Rosselson – Palaces of Gold

This is a piece I’ve written for Rock, Paper, Shotgun. I’ve reposted the whole thing below because a) my hits aren’t going to hurt them and b) it’s very personal to me. If you want more information about the game, go read it on RPS – the commenters really know their stuff about Ultima.

Let me start in the middle; I own a palace.

My palace is strange. I mean, it’s really strange. I’ve owned it since 1990, which is over twenty years now. Bits of it are in disrepair, tattered, cobwebbed fragments of texture and space, but much of it’s intact and strangely ageless. The way in, for me, is a tiny room in the North-West corner. This room is a comfortable home-from-home, built like a sauna with wood on the floor and walls, a roaring fire, a stacked bookshelf, some food and beer on the table. There’s a secret door behind the bookshelf. Behind that door are some small runes on a table, some drinks, another secret door, and my most precious memories. They’re the only ones I’m not going to tell you about.

You knew this from the beginning but my keep is no physical palace. It’s a Memory Palace, a mental construct used before computers or even printing. Mine is based on the first floor of Lord British’s castle from Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds, a game that was the peak of the Western RPG before Morrowind. In UUII, you play the Avatar, a hero trapped in a castle whilst an enemy invades his world, and who must explore the maze of the basements to find the way out. Consider this, then, a retrospective about the sadly-defunct Ultima series, a discussion of an archaic psychological technique used by mystics since the dawn of time but curiously in abeyance during the modern era, and a pyx about the potential for the things we call games to become more than the structural limitations of engine design.

Turn left out of my room, and you’re in Iolo’s chamber. He’s an old crossbow-wielding comrade, a mentor figure to the Avatar who’s stayed in Britannia since Ultima 1 and hence has aged much more rapidly than your friend. He was crudely depicted in the early games but he’s grown up as the series has gone on, until he’s key to the plot of Ultima 7 and 9. He reminds me of older friends and archery, oddly enough, but I don’t have that many memories that fit that, save for really good tutors- smelly Mr Hurst, who taught Latin and Greek, or Dr Walker, who gave us all snuff and sherry while he tried to teach us about Kant.

Memory Palaces are imaginary devices used to retain and structure memories. They’re also known as the Method of Loci. Essentially, they’re a way of using man’s over-developed spatial awareness and memory for locations as an aide memoire – you find a location that you know intimately, and lock to it important memories. It’s a bit like the tricks those chaps who memorise long strings of numbers do, but developed for the long-term retention of ideas as opposed to the short-term. However, I, in my youth, completely misappropriated it – you’re meant to use it for important facts, chunks of text and maths, and so on – using it for memories isn’t normal. I did it because I thought it sounded amazing, because I couldn’t sleep at nights and because my non-visual memory was awful. I used UUII because I knew it better than any real world location.

Down the corridor is a t-junction, with a door opposite. Inside is the warrior Dupre, another old companion, along with enough crates of beer to fill a brewery. This isn’t suspicious forethought on Dupre’s part, just a reflection of his alcoholism – he was first encountered in Ultima III in a pub where he could only say “drink up!” and throughout the series he was trekking over the increasingly-large Britannia “testing beer” for Brommer’s Britannia, a guide book a bit like a fantasy Les Routiers. Hence this room is a reflection for me of every time I’ve been pissed – and as a Brit, this room is chockablock with memories. I remember a few sneaky cans of beer on my last day of school, dancing home when Man Utd came back to win the European Cup, finding a friend passed out in the corridor and helping them home, praying to the ivory throne on so many occasions they’ve blended into one, passing out in my gown and mortarboard on a posh lawn two hours after my final exam, and many other occasions. Drinking, drinking, drinking.

The art of memory is the science of mnemotechnics. The method of loci isn’t the only traditional method for preserving memories, just the only one my ten-year old self had heard of. There isn’t any hard evidence as to where it was first used, though ancient Egyptians and Pythagoreans are the usual suspects. Francis Yates, 1960s occult and neoplatonist writer extraordinaire, wrote that “the most common account of the creation of the art of memory centers around the story of Simonides of Ceos, a famous Greek poet, who was invited to chant a lyric poem in honor of his host, a nobleman of Thessaly. While praising his host, Simonides also mentioned the twin gods Castor and Pollux. When the recital was complete, the nobleman selfishly told Simonides that he would only pay him half of the agreed upon payment for the panegyric, and that he would have to get the balance of the payment from the two gods he had mentioned. A short time later, Simonides was told that two men were waiting for him outside. He left to meet the visitors but could find no one. Then, while he was outside the banquet hall, it collapsed, crushing everyone within. The bodies were so disfigured that they could not be identified for proper burial. But, Simonides was able to remember where each of the guests had been sitting at the table, and so was able to identify them for burial. This experience suggested to Simonides the principles which were to become central to the later development of the art he reputedly invented.” This sounds like utter nonsense, but it’s a good story, and was reason enough for Middle Ages monks to use Simonides’ model.

The Library
I first found out about Memory Palaces from Umberto Eco, and his books are amongst the many I keep in Nystul’s library, way over on the other side of the Great Hall. Nystul is one of the two Beardy Men in Castle British, the other being the doomed sage Nelson. Nystul is also a powerful wizard and the spitting image of Sean Connery in The Name of the Rose, the origin of the Memory Palace idea in the first place. My memory is hazy here, so this place is oddly murky and badly imagined – there are bits of the parallel worlds you visit later in the game intermingled here, Killorn Keep and the haunting Scintilius Academy. All favourite books are here – Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night A Traveller, Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Borges’ Labyrinths, etc.

Where did the Underworld games come from? Older readers, and those who’ve been messing around with DOSbox, will remind there was a profusion of 2D first-person dungeon-crawlers, like the classic Wizardry, back around when most of us were being born. Amongst these was the precursor to the Ultima series ‘Akalabeth: World of Doom’ (1979), made by the teenage Richard Garriott for the Apple II (and parodied in one of the levels of UUII). Though monochrome and line-based, Akalabeth featured the basics of most RPGS, Eastern and Western – underground first-person dungeons and a top-down map. If we’re to refer to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers theory, Garriott had a full 10 years of developing first-person roleplaying games, giving him a tremendous advantage in knowing what worked, what was easy and what was currently impossible when it came to making the Underworld games. That kept the Ultima series at the front of the pack until everyone else caught up – sadly, Garriot’s recent track-record indicates he wasn’t able to convert that head-start into a long-term advantage.

Love and Hate
Turn right past Dupre’s boozatorium, and you find the guest quarters – featuring Patterson, the Mayor, who (SPOILER) is a repeated traitor, loyal to the avatar’s worst enemy. Here I used to remember conmen or slimy people, like a short kid called Daniel who conned me out of my entire stack of World Cup 90 Panini swaps when I was 9 and who’s probably a lawyer now. In my head, his room is the equivalent of the Great Book of Grudges. Around the corner is Feridwyn – an innocent orphanage keeper who you can repeatedly accuse of being a traitor, and whose room houses my regrets – which I’m not going into.

Julia The Tinker and Lady Tory are also round the corner; two clever and passionate women living next to each other. Julia has been a tinker for over 200 years, though she doesn’t seem sure it’s the right job for her and she seems to have had a facelift since Ultima VI. She’s something of a love interest for the avatar so this room is where I keep all memories of, ahem, you know. Don’t worry, I’m not going to go all Kieron on you here and turn this into a tell-all of every relationship and this room is a mess of first-kisses and other icky stuff, so let’s move on quick.

The Ultima games weren’t intended to be just first-person RPGs though. The Akalabeth dual-level style had continued throughout the Ultimas but whilst developing Ultima 6 (1988) it was decided to drop their nascent 3D dungeon-crawling engine from production, as at that stage they could only do physics in 2D (or isometric 3D), and spin it off into its own series. At this stage the Ultima series divides into two, with Ultima 7, 7 1/2: Serpent Isle and 8: Pagan sticking with the isometric viewpoint that had come from the map levels, and the Underworld games plumbing the dungeons’ 3D depths, before reunifying for the awful unplayable mish-mash that was Ultima 9.

Where did the Underworlds lead to? Underworld I: The (apocalyptic, tough) Stygian Abyss was released in 1992, two years before Doom, two months before Wolfenstein 3D’s release, and managed true 3D with real-world physics four years before Duke Nukem 3D tried to make a frankly rubbish spiral staircase seem cutting edge. Of course, System Shock was built with the same engine, to take advantage of the sudden success of the FPS genre that had been. Only Underworld-tribute Arx Fatalis and Oblivion since have managed to get near Underworld’s achievement – and Arx was crippled by bugs whilst Oblivion was undermined by Bethesda’s decision to make the plot secondary to the world. That said, the obvious heirs are the Bioshock games, taking both the rich scripting, exciting action, and RPG elements.

The Rest
Lord British’s rooms are unusual in that they’re on their own floor and feature a treasure chest you have to cheat to break into; I associate them with both comfort and authority, like lying down in a mid-Winter blizzard on a mountaintop in Flims or when I was sent to the Rabbi’s office for blasphemy. The great hall with its (for the time) amazing stained glass windows, represents ceremonies, funerals and weddings. The dining hall was always packed so represented gigs and festivals. The servants quarters has no association for me and the secret passages riddling the outside of the castle are plain empty.

I stopped adding substantially to my memory palace maybe ten years ago. It’s not that there’s not lots of room to expand; Underworld II was subtitled “Labyrinth of Worlds” and featured eight other heart-breakingly strange and well-designed worlds that you had to visit, where I could have crammed in memories; no, it was just that I didn’t find myself with the time to retreat there for several years, ironically generating memories that I didn’t store and now have mostly lost.

In fact, this is where UU2 trumps even Planescape: Torment a little – you never feel forced to explore these worlds, you’re desperate to visit them because of the well-written descriptions and they’re all essential to the plot, not like the somewhat odd wandering at the end of Planescape. There’s Killorn Keep, a floating parallel to your world which the Guardian conquered years before; the desolation of the Scintillus Wizard Academy, where your hunt for survivors presages System Shock; the frozen city that has one hallucinating survivor, who you later meet in a dream world; the bizarre programmable alien world of Talorz with its floating organic robot donut things; and the sad, sad Tomb of the defeated hero Praecor Loth.

The Ruins
How does a palace fall? Normally either by siege without or betrayal within; mine fell by both storm and strife, but the starting factor was… distraction. In times of peace and happiness, I left off the palace and didn’t visit. Many of the important memories remained, but others vanished, details faded, significance forgotten and the rotten hearts falling out of the stories. Despite this rot , it lasted until recently, and I could bring up the rooms at will.

The final dissolution, however, was heartbreak. A traumatising end to a beautiful relationship, meant for a time that all attempts at recollection bounced back off the lost object of my affection. Previously, I’d slotted ex-girlfriends in amongst the doomed empath Lady Tory and the avatar’s old friend Julia – but these new memories didn’t need storage, they were strong and intrusive by themselves. It’s hard to maintain a memory palace at the best of times; much harder when every memory triggers an involuntary painful recollection of a lost love, overriding, eroding and breaking hard-made associations. I am rebuilding it, slowly, but it’s no longer a working palace; rather it’s an artefact, a memory of the memories I once held dear.

Before its untimely demise at the hands of EA, Ultima had a fair claim to be the world’s number 1 RPG series. Yet, after the disaster of Ultima 9 and the defection of the key members of both the Origin and the Looking Glass teams, EA seems to have decided that the Ultima franchise can be allowed to die when the still-profitable Ultima Online finally karks it. Likewise, before personal computers, the method of loci was the premier amidst many memory techniques mankind used to fix precious ideas in our heads, trumping books for ease of access and permanence of storage. Both Ultima and The Method are now, effectively dead. The key reason both of these memes failed to propagate was a lack of care on the parts of their curators, combined with duplication of function. Mmenotechnics has been made obsolete by other sources of instant, on-demand information, specifically the internet and always-on mobile phones. No-one needs specialist knowledge any more, just a knowledge of the best methods for searching for your particular information. Even basic memory needs have weakened – how many of us know all our families phone numbers any more? If/when the internet falls over (and it will) we’re all going to be screwed. Meanwhile, EverQuest, World of Warcraft and Oblivion have undermined the need for Ultima.

If you want to play Ultima Underworld II, you can download it here. You’ll need Dosbox to run it.The excellent music is also available on Abandonia Frequency.

When I say ‘Ultima Underworld II made me who I am today’ I mean, it really did. I’ve not really talked about the game itself here, but it is a classic of pared-down storytelling and delightful secrets, just inaccessible due to its crude interface and graphics, which once upon a time were revolutionary. It shaped who I am and it let me retain it in the face of a catastrophically bad memory. That’s not something I’m ever going to forget.


View: Sir Henry At Rawlinson's End

To the tune of: Vivian Stanshall – Sir Henry At Rawlinson End

The story so far.

The hapless and unusual Hubert, having unhappily chanced upon Sir Henry reliving the bombing of Dresden, has received a terrific thrashing and a crippling kick in the fork. He is now in disgrace condemned to his room.

The body of Doris Hazard’s pekinese, unwittingly asphyxiated under her husband’s bottom, after a ritual two weeks in the Rawlinson refrigerator, has been given over to Old Scrotum for indecent burial under a giant marrow. This marrow is Sir Henry’s pride and on his instructions the vegetable is daily drip fed with a powerful laxative so that “if some rascal runs off with it and eats the blessed thing it’ll give ‘em the runs for weeks”.

Long before his death in a flaming house-boat, Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band Vivian Stanshell’s errant star was waning, as the spirit of the era that sustained him also waned; he was both product and producer of that re-renaissance that accompanied the hedonistic liberation of the sixties and seventies, but he also drew on a traditional aristocratic demeanour that lovingly informed his work. He had the variety of aberrant behaviours that we tend to call quintessentially English and that made him stand aside from his era, in the way that Noel Coward stood away from his; by ‘quintessentially English’ we mean posh, strange, post-colonial men who spoke in long rambling light sentences where one has to hack away the lush verbiage to stand a chance of finding often-absent meaning.

Viv and some mice.

‘Sir Henry At Rawlinson End’ is the masterpiece of this , a louche cocktail of Ripping Yarns, The Archers and some monstrous bastard of Brideshead Revanant. It could be portrayed as a one man show, with Stanshall’s character at the heart of it, playing every part, singing every song, and linking the narrative. Except Stanshall is dead, so a brave Mike Livesley stepped into that void. Where stanshall was Elfin, he is Dwarfish; where Stanshall was pale, he is ruddy; where Stanshall was effete, he is boorish.

Despite all these deficiencies in his appearance, he carries the piece (performed here at The Unity theatre in Liverpool and worth the journey) forward single-handedly, glorying in the filth and rancour that undermine the colonial warrior unreflectively drinking himself, his family and retainers out of existence. In some senses, it is a companion piece to Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm; where that satire impinged modernity on the bucolic stereotype of Thomas Hardy and his timeworn kin, this looks at the opposite end of society, the Wodehouse world of maiden aunts, wrinkled retainers (in this case called “Old Scrotum”) and idiot kith, and escorts them down through the po-faced forelock-tugging of pre-WWI Britain before depositing them in his own brand of ingenious post-60s squalidity that rejected all the majors and their decrepid societal structure that was dying with the empire.

Alone again Florrie’s eyes focused on the copper gleam of the coal scuttle, clouded, and in seconds had surrendered to Erewhon. Peacefully on tip-toe through the grey spheres where shade had substance, whispers walked, and Maya reigned. Wistful and lovely are walls with wisteria, clematis clambers on time pocked walls white. Stranger than larkspur or lupin, hydrangea many headed bright nosegay tongue-tied, fancy flight.

There was a face jumping competition at the Fool and Bladder. This ancient amusement involved leaping on to volunteer’s heads, lightly touching, and then springing off. To draw blood or squash a nose meant instant disqualification, and this was the skill of it. The normally phlegmatic Seth Onetooth was unquestioned champion of this unusual sport and he stood huge dark and work stained outside the old pub explaining the rules and recalling past triumphs to Reg Smeeton, the village newsagent and self-styled human encyclopaedia.

A large red faced farm worker, stripped to the waist, paced out an enormous run-up before turning to thunder down on his grinning partner lying on the grass. “Eeh, he’s got no chance” said Seth smugly, “silly buggers wearing spiked running shoes”.

Sir Henry is a beast of man, the classic abusive familial head, raves monstrously and constantly. We start In Media Res, with the narrator (who also plays all roles, almost as reportage) bringing us up to speed with the world of Rawlinson and book-ending it. There is little story; a dinner party is in there, but it’s difficult to ascertain what, if anything, actually happens. It is best characterised as a poisonous vignette into the long-passed world of our parents’ generation, where everyone is damaged to the point of total alienation, moral collapse and physical failure, and perfectly capable of expressing this by occasional bursts of song.

“Aar, waste of good drinkin’ time. I had to go up again and see if the old girl had finished her bloomin’ breakfast” huffed Scrotum crossly.

The old girl was Sir Henry’s mother, once a great beauty but now, unknown to Florrie, bedridden in a remote chamber at Rawlinson End.

“Well er, ‘ad she then, finished it like?” asked Seth.

“Course not. Nice bit of smoked haddock been there by the side of the bed getting cold for the last three years” said Scrotum taking a large slurp.

“By heck, three years. Does she do owt?” said Seth.

“Course not, she’m just lying there never saying nothing wi’ er gob wide open, catching flies and playing with the rats. Sir Henry says she’m not getting no more grub ‘til she’s eaten the last lot”.

Reg Smeeton, smelling strongly of newsprint, patted down the back of his wig.

“Did you know there is no proper name for the back of the knees”.

So there you have it; a single actor stood in a set with minimal cobweb-clad adornments (in which I include the band) satirising stereotypes beyond living human memory with the crudeness of Viz  and the eloquence of Noel Coward. My dad, who was a devo of the Bonzos in their hey-day, complained that Livesley was not Viv; even with his eyes closed, the man was sub-Stanshall. I, with less preconceptions and no nostalgia for the hero of a lost youth, found his rotundity a perfect raconteur, dancing like a dainty-toed blimp, providing character portraits that roved the octaves, and conjuring up a world I’ve only known through out-of-copyright books.

Next time Mrs E the housekeeper has one of her nasty turns and believes herself to be a chicken, but Henry refuses to have her treated saying

“Well, it’s always good to have a supply of fresh eggs”.

Listen to the album; the play is off the stage and may not return. If it does, and Sir Henry establishes himself near you… pay the old chap a visit.

I Won A Book!

Congratulations to Dan Griliopoulos, winner of our Medical London competition. We asked for a piece of trivia connected with medicine in London, and Dan provided this:

“The premier London medical story has to be that of Samuel Pepys’ stone. Not the actual operation – which was long and painful (without anaesthetic) or highly dangerous (without modern medical techniques they had to cut up through the perineum to actually reach the kidneys where the stones were forming) – but his later love for the tennis ball-sized lump of crystalline urine. He’d carry it in his pocket everywhere, show it to friends, and once considered spending 24s (a hefty sum) on a display case so he could show it off in his house. He also had yearly dinners to show his appreciation at surviving, where guests would drink and eat themselves into an absolute stupor, pretty much guaranteeing that they too would end up with similar kidney problems to his…”
So a copy of the much-praised tome Medical London is on the way to him.