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

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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