Tag Archives: guardian

Terry Pratchett with librarian

On angels, apes and Terry Pratchett

I’m what you might call a lapsed Terry Pratchett fan. For most of my adolescence, his work was a huge influence on me. But, as was typical of my late-teenage self, I walked away when he hit his most prolific period out of indignation about “cashing in” or some such self-righteous bullshit (I like to think I have a more sophisticated and generous view of artists these days). I never went back because the backlog got overwhelming, although I still intend to at some point.

Like everyone else, I was saddened to hear of his death yesterday. Amid all the tributes and an affectionate quotes that filled my various feeds, one image particularly jarred with me. Intended as a tribute, it was this British Humanist Association image, repeating the oft-cited quote “I’d rather be a rising ape than a fallen angel”:
"I'd rather be a rising ape than a falling angel" Sir Terry Pratchett
There are several things I could say about this. The first thing is, that I thought it was a shame that the first thing the BHA reached for was the most divisive quote they could find. The second is that, the concept of a “rising ape” is nonsense. The enlightenment notion that we are on a progressive path from amoeba to divine being was actually pretty much refuted by Darwin himself, whose own views about evolution did away with concepts that were very much steeped in notions of progressivism such as Lamarckism. Of course, much of that was subsequently undermined by Herbert Spencer and his championing of the most un-Darwinian Social Darwinism, but we emerged from that intellectual cul-de-sac 70 years ago.

To be fair on Pratchett, this is an off the cuff quip he made, apparently inebriated, at the end of a very long answer he answered at a Guardian event at few years ago. It’s not a quote from Pratchett as much as it is a quote from the anonymous sub-editor who chose to give this clip that title. His full answer is much more nuanced:

For me, the far more inspiring quote is at the start of the same section, when he makes largely the same point in a much more sophisticated (and funny) way:

“I find it far more interesting; in a sense, far more religiously interesting; that a bunch of monkeys got down off trees and stopped arguing long enough, to build this; to build that; to build everything. And we’re monkeys. Our heritage is [unintelligible] to climb trees and throw shit at other [monkeys]. And actually, that’s so much more interesting than being fallen angels.”

But the third point I would make, via my friend James Blanchard, is that this in turn is an evolution of something Death says in The Hogfather:

“HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.”

Both the last two quotes are classic, brilliant, wonderful Pratchett. The first one is not. It is such a shame that the former seems to be the one that is being parroted by the media today.

Comment is freer: It’s AV or nothing

I wrote an article on Comment is Free yesterday about why people need to stop quibbling and start campaigning for AV.

Regardless of what might happen in five, 20 or 50 years time, at this precise moment you are faced with a choice between AV and the status quo. There can be no fence-sitters in the debate. I have to admit that initially I was quite uninspired by the prospect of fighting a referendum on such a modest, if meaningful, change. But two things have changed my mind…


Read it all here
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For the record…

I was a bit disappointed by Andy Beckett’s article on the future of the Lib Dems in the Guardian today. It is not that I have been misquoted – although I seem to recall saying that the number of Lib Dem MPs after the next election could be as low as 30 rather than probably 30 (a small but distinct difference). It is just that some of the potshots he makes are rather lazy ones.

I’m annoyed that he repeats the great Orange Book fallacy, that being that the book in question was written by a bunch of right wing idealogues with a specific agenda in mind. In fact, as anyone who has read the book cover to cover can testify, it is a mish mash of chapters which don’t particularly hang together. The only authentically economic liberal chapter is David Laws’ chapter on the NHS – even his chapter on liberalism is more of an overview than anything else. The rest of the book is written by people from all over the Lib Dem political spectrum. Still, the legend is more interesting than the fact, so print the legend. You can’t fault David Laws’ genius for giving his political movement a name simply by publishing a book and shouting about it six months before an election in a way that really annoyed people. At the time it looked reckless and foolish; now it looks inspired (if more than a little devious).

I’m irritated by his quoting of a comment by Joe Edwards on the Social Liberal Forum website. I don’t know Joe Edwards from Adam but if the irate text message from a reliable source I got this morning is correct he is not a Lib Dem member, resigning from the party before the election. He certainly has no association whatsoever with the Social Liberal Forum, and the biography on his blog makes no mention of party membership. Yet the article invites you to infer that he is somehow an SLFer. I thought the practice of quoting comments from blogs had been discredited by the West Wing?

Finally, just to clarify my position about the “long game” and the “short game”. I do see the Lib Dems taking a hit in popularity at the next election (assuming neither the Tories nor Labour self-destruct, which isn’t entirely impossible), but I wasn’t merely arguing that the party would crawl back in the long run. My point was that this government’s political reforms, if fully implemented, will transform UK politics for the long term and that in the long run the Lib Dems will get credit for that. And even if the party doesn’t get the credit, those reforms should be worth the hit.