"Every shop in Clapham high street appears to have been looted. The only shop that has escaped is Waterstone’s.” BBC Radio (via Nick Green)
“This fire he beheld from a tower in the house of Maecenas, and being greatly delighted, as he said, with the beautiful effects of the conflagration, he sung a poem on the ruin of Troy, in the tragic dress he used on the stage.” Suetonius, Life of Nero
“Why read literature? The answer, in a nutshell, was that it made you a better person. Few reasons could have been more persuasive than that. When the Allied troops moved into the concentration camps [...] to arrest commandants who had whiled away their leisure hours with a volume of Goethe, it appeared that someone had some explaining to do.” Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory
“I think elephants are overprotected. But what do I know, sitting in my ivory tower?” Milton Jones
[Nursery teacher to prospective parents] “We teach them that the world can be an unpredictable, dangerous, and sometimes frightening place, while being careful not to spoil their lovely innocence. It’s tricky.” New Yorker cartoon
I’m not going to speculate about the causes of the rioting in London (and now beyond). I learned from November’s student protests and the events in Stokes Croft in Bristol earlier this year, for both of which I was able to talk to trustworthy eye witnesses, that media reports about such things don’t always match reality. This time I’m a long way off and can’t pontificate to any purpose – having said which, I found this post by a London ex-teacher depressing and inspirational in equal measure.
Instead, I want to ask some related questions to which I don’t know the answers. They’re in my mind right now, because when cities are on fire it’s hard not to wonder whether sitting down to write a fantasy is the very best use one could make of one’s time. Am I not fiddling (or playing the lyre, to be historically pedantic) while Rome burns? So this post is really a rather pathetic whinge about what I should be doing with my life, but I’ve disguised it by putting it in the form of a Cosmo personality quiz. No one will notice.
Got your pen and paper? Here goes...
1) Why was Waterstone’s left untouched, when the rest of the street was looted? Is it because:
a) Looters don’t read.
b) Readers don’t loot.
c) Looters do read, and they have such an ingrained respect for bookshops that they would never dream of breaking into them.
d) Books don’t have the same re-sale value as iPhones.
2) If concentration camp commandants can relax with Goethe, and Nero can burn Rome to make an aesthetic backdrop for poetry, is literature:
a) The opiate of the masses and a decadent distraction
b) A tool to help you become a better person.
c) Its own justification.
3) What’s the most valuable thing that children’s writers can do for children?
a) Teach them the truth about the dangerous world out there.
b) Help them to envisage a better life, and a better world to live it in.
c) Give them experience of timeless pleasures.
d) Make them literate so that they have a useful transferrable skill when they grow up.
Now, let’s see how you scored:
Mostly a): You’re a bit of an anarcho-cynic, aren’t you?
Mostly b): You’re an idealist with a social conscience – books really can change the world!
Mostly c): You’re an aesthete - you might as well be going round with a teddy bear named Aloysius.
Mostly d): You, by contrast, are a philistine who knows the price of everything and value of nothing.
So, dear Abbatistas, what were your results?