Will Self: The business of clarification through the Perspex space-helmet of clarity

“Now hang on a minute, you’re not going to catch me out that easily – you’re going to claim that I don’t want you to be perfectly clear about the perfect clarity with which I perceive my own perfect clarity, and that simply isn’t the case!”

Scrutinising your own fuzzy face in the misty morning mirror, you hear this bewilderingly obscure dialogue emanating from the radio:

“Let me make it perfectly clear –”

“I’m going to have to interrupt you there: when you say you wish this matter to be perfectly clear, how clear do you mean?”

“As I said, I want there to be no confusion on this matter –”

“So, total clarity?”

“Absolutely.’’

“The metaphor is a visual one, is it not?”

“I’m sorry?’’

“The metaphor you use to express the idea that you wish your statements to be entirely comprehensible, and without any ambiguity, works by analogy with the visual field.’’

“Um . . . yes . . . well . . . s’pose so.”

“So, if I may pursue that analogy, should we think of this visual field as clear in the way a car windscreen might be clear?”

“Um . . . possibly.”

“In which case is your clarity a function of there being no object blocking the windscreen; or is it a matter of there being no opacity?”

“Ah. This all seems a little involved to me.”

“But minister, you’ve made it perfectly clear that you wish to be perfectly clear, and I’m only seeking to clarify that clarity.”

“You seem to be making the whole business rather murky to me.”

“Would it therefore be fair to say that the windscreen through which you perceive your own clarity is in itself rather murky?”

“That’s not what I meant –”

“But wait just a minute: you granted me the initial metaphor, I then extended it a little, but now you say that your understanding of that image is itself imperfect – ‘murky’ in fact.”

“Look, you aren’t going to bamboozle me – I stick to my initial point: I wish to make it perfectly clear.”

“I think everyone listening understands that, minister – what concerns them is that someone entrusted with such a serious matter is unable to assure the public that he himself is perfectly clear about his own clarity. That is all I wish to establish: are you?”

“What?”

“Are you clear about being clear?”

“I believe I am.”

“So, there are no splashes of birdshit on your windscreen or any other obstructions ?”

“None whatsoever.”

“And you are looking at this windscreen through a second windscreen that is also free from smut or grime?”

“Yes . . . yes, I am.”

“How do you fit this second windscreen inside the first? Is it warped around your face, like the Perspex of a space helmet – or is it mounted on a curious little frame that’s suspended a few inches in front of your eyes by aluminium struts secured with nickelalloy bolts that are counter-sunk in your cheekbones?”

“I think . . . you’re being rather ridiculously literal-minded about this metaphor –”

“Would you concede that to be literalminded is, in a manner of speaking, to spell everything out?”

“Yes – yes, that’s true . . .”

“Which is surely only another way of being perfectly clear?”

“Now hang on a minute, you’re not going to catch me out that easily – you’re going to claim that I don’t want you to be perfectly clear about the perfect clarity with which I perceive my own perfect clarity, and that simply isn’t the case!”

“Is it complexly the case?”

“Now you’re being facetious.”

“No, no, please . . . nothing was further from my mind – ”

“Is it, I wonder, so far from your mind that you can’t in fact see it with any clarity?”

“Are you being rhetorical, minister?”

“Possibly – although I do find this image amusing: you looking in the rear-view mirror at your own facetiousness, which is hundreds of yards off and speedily retreating, when suddenly you’re broadsided by me, because with this complicated visual prothesis attached to my face, once the bright light of reason begins to shine I’m unable to see anything at all.”

“That’s as may be, but all I’m seeking to establish is that objects – such as my facetiousness –may appear larger in the mirror.”

“I accept your apology.”

“Thank you very much, minister.”

“Thank you, John.”
 

"This all seems a little involved to me." Photo: Getty

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge