Where is the Britain of Wodehouse and Waugh?

They never knew the effect their writing had on we Indians, the third worlders.

I went to university in a dusty tin shed in New Delhi. It was an off-campus Delhi University college meant for academic failures. The roof leaked shafts of searing hot sun in summers, showers in monsoons and the occasional wispy cotton-candy like fog drifted in during winters. Stray dogs would loiter outside the classroom and the principal had spent the money meant for the library on his backyard extension.

My fondest memories of that tin shed are of reading up on the adventures of the Famous Five in coves off the Cornish coast, Miss Marple’s acute understanding of the human nature in the village of St Mary Mead and Bertie Wooster’s dandyish escapades in the metropolis.

I wasn’t the exception. P G Wodehouse, often overlooked in Britain, sells like hot cakes in India. Societies dedicated to his work litter Indian cities and novellas are re-enacted in incongruous accents. Small railway stations in impoverished provinces of India sell Agatha Christie and Evelyn Waugh. Saki is quoted with relish over the afternoon chai. Blyton’s Malory Towers is read by girls in pigtails, off to school on rickshaws. Tamil and Kashmiri boys read Richmal Crompton and are on first terms with William, Ginger and Henry.

Connaught Place in New Delhi is the very centre of the decaying capital of an emerging economy. It is white-washed and modeled on the Royal Crescent in Bath. Little gypsy girls from Rajasthan, hair blonde from mineral deficiencies and stomachs bloated from kwashiorkor, wriggle their bodies through iron hoops for a rupee, a banana, or a piece of jaggery. This is the India I grew up in. Driving through the wide, sun-dappled avenues of Lutyens' Delhi, stopping for a spot of jamun from the roadwallah, a spot of roasted maize, deftly stepping over a bundle of rags with eyes gouged out, blinded and mutilated by parents to ensure begging revenues for the coming pensionless years.

Growing up in India, I, like other good middle class boys with oiled side-parted hair, servants and creases down the front of the trousers, kept ugliness at bay. The Indian middle class, like their counterparts elsewhere, excel at putting the blinkers on. And in a land filled with starving little Rajasthani gypsy girls, one could do with a set of top-notch pukka A1 grade blinkers. Blyton was at hand at the Delhi traffic-lights to keep away disturbing images of deformed beggars and widowed old hags.

What would Bertie Wooster do?  

Jeeves instructed me in the art of the stiff upper as the Yamuna stank in the monsoons. 

"Listen, Corky, old top! If you think I am going to face that uncle of yours without Jeeves's support, you're mistaken. I'd sooner go into a den of wild beasts and bite a lion on the back of the neck."

"Oh, all right," said Corky. Not cordially, but he said it; so I rang for Jeeves, and explained the situation.

"Very good, sir," said Jeeves.

That's the sort of chap he is. You can't rattle him.

In India, fine twentieth century British literature makes a very compelling means of escape from the daily drudgery. The British might have been the sunburned sahibs that cracked the whip over the sub-continent, but they wrote bloody well.

Everything was AOK. How could it not be? I thought that in a world where England existed all was tiptop. Ticketyboo! A  phantasmogoric England: of Richmal Crompton, of oak trees, Cottingley Fairies, mist and red bricks, of freshly baked bread, of ruddy cheeks, tweeds, pheasants, pipe tobacco, water-wheels, chukkas and jodhpurs, What ho! and I say!

I had decided I was going there to study. Post-haste!

I had no idea what it meant to be called to the Bar, but it sounded very good. Bahut accha! 

So I packed my bags. I took to Britain like I had taken to shaving; at the first sight of pubescent hair, I had shaved my upper lip; then the elbows, knees, the knuckles and lastly my toes. Britain, Albion, that Fair Sceptred Isle was dealt with the same enthusiastic fury as shaving was. I memorised county names and read up on her prime ministers. Radio 4 was an All-British institution, someone told me. I shook off my sing-song voice, copied the RP assiduously, took care of my Vs and Ws, unlearnt the Indian vocabulary. Bamboozle. Bombastic. Funtoosh! I moulded myself on a dandy, molted in my room listening to the radio all monsoon; Stephen Fry, Jeremy Paxman, read Flashman, watched Blackadder and came summer emerged as a cheap imitation of a substandard Englishman.

I was giddy on the flight to Britain. I had never been abroad. The plane flew over the mountains of Afghanistan, wrinkled and bare. Within the folds of those wrinkles, I wondered if strange bearded men were fighting the Green Jackets, the Royal Marines, and the Parachute Regiment... from England!

Those nine or so hours on the flight to London from New Delhi were spent masticating a Jeeves and Wooster Omnibus, spitting out the words in an appalling imitation of an Oxford drawl and dreaming of a country with no dust - just good honest moist sod.

The immigration lady at Heathrow looked at my passport and then at me. The soles of my feet kept sliding on a thin film of sweat as my palms wet the cold granite of the counter. Suddenly she jerked her head at me and asked me for a tuberculosis report. I didn't have one.

Outside, clutching my four pieces of luggage in the rain, Britain seemed harsh and alien.

And so began this search. This search for Britain of my books. Did it exist anymore? Did it ever exist? Was it all a con?

Five years of Private Eye, Jeremy Clarkson, Newsnight and Peter Hitchens have lanced the Waugh, the Greene, the Blyton out of me. It was all a con.

I wonder if the British ever realise what effect their writing has had on us, the third worlders. It inspired love. Love for a country that most of us had never visited, love for people that hold us in contempt, for an establishment that had raped us, then pontificated and left suddenly with scarcely a toodle pip. An incurable stench of disappointment hangs in the air.

How could something so beautiful be so untrue?

Ritwik Deo is currently working on his first novel, about an Indian butler in Britain.

P G Wodehouse in 1928. Photograph: Getty Images

Ritwik Deo is currently working on his first novel, about an Indian butler in Britain.

FRED TOMASELLI/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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How nature created consciousness – and our brains became minds

In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Daniel C Dennett investigates the evolution of consciousness.

In the preface to his new book, the ­philosopher Daniel Dennett announces proudly that what we are about to read is “the sketch, the backbone, of the best scientific theory to date of how our minds came into existence”. By the end, the reader may consider it more scribble than spine – at least as far as an account of the origins of human consciousness goes. But this is still a superb book about evolution, engineering, information and design. It ranges from neuroscience to nesting birds, from computing theory to jazz, and there is something fascinating on every page.

The term “design” has a bad reputation in biology because it has been co-opted by creationists disguised as theorists of “intelligent design”. Nature is the blind watchmaker (in Richard Dawkins’s phrase), dumbly building remarkable structures through a process of random accretion and winnowing over vast spans of time. Nonetheless, Dennett argues stylishly, asking “design” questions about evolution shouldn’t be ­taboo, because “biology is reverse engin­eering”: asking what some phenomenon or structure is for is an excellent way to understand how it might have arisen.

Just as in nature there is design without a designer, so in many natural phenomena we can observe what Dennett calls “competence without comprehension”. Evolution does not understand nightingales, but it builds them; your immune system does not understand disease. Termites do not build their mounds according to blueprints, and yet the results are remarkably complex: reminiscent in one case, as Dennett notes, of Gaudí’s church the Sagrada Família. In general, evolution and its living products are saturated with competence without comprehension, with “unintelligent design”.

The question, therefore, is twofold. Why did “intelligent design” of the kind human beings exhibit – by building robotic cars or writing books – come about at all, if unintelligent design yields such impressive results? And how did the unintelligent-design process of evolution ever build intelligent designers like us in the first place? In sum, how did nature get from bacteria to Bach?

Dennett’s answer depends on memes – self-replicating units of cultural evolution, metaphorical viruses of the mind. Today we mostly use “meme” to mean something that is shared on social media, but in Richard Dawkins’s original formulation of the idea, a meme can be anything that is culturally transmitted and undergoes change: melodies, ideas, clothing fashions, ways of building pots, and so forth. Some might say that the only good example of a meme is the very idea of a meme, given that it has replicated efficiently over the years despite being of no use whatsoever to its hosts. (The biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for one, didn’t believe in memes.) But Dennett thinks that memes add something important to discussions of “cultural evolution” (a contested idea in its own right) that is not captured by established disciplines such as history or sociology.

The memes Dennett has in mind here are words: after all, they reproduce, with variation, in a changing environment (the mind of a host). Somehow, early vocalisations in our species became standardised as words. They acquired usefulness and meaning, and so, gradually, their use spread. Eventually, words became the tools that enabled our brains to reflect on what they were ­doing, thus bootstrapping themselves into full consciousness. The “meme invasion”, as Dennett puts it, “turned our brains into minds”. The idea that language had a critical role to play in the development of human consciousness is very plausible and not, in broad outline, new. The question is how much Dennett’s version leaves to explain.

Before the reader arrives at that crux, there are many useful philosophical interludes: on different senses of “why” (why as in “how come?” against why as in “what for?”), or in the “strange inversions of reasoning” offered by Darwin (the notion that competence does not require comprehension), Alan Turing (that a perfect computing machine need not know what arithmetic is) and David Hume (that causation is a projection of our minds and not something we perceive directly). Dennett suggests that the era of intelligent design may be coming to an end; after all, our best AIs, such as the ­AlphaGo program (which beat the human European champion of the boardgame Go 5-0 in a 2015 match), are these days created as learning systems that will teach themselves what to do. But our sunny and convivial host is not as worried as some about an imminent takeover by intelligent machines; the more pressing problem, he argues persuasively, is that we usually trust computerised systems to an extent they don’t deserve. His final call for critical thinking tools to be made widely available is timely and admirable. What remains puzzlingly vague to the end, however, is whether Dennett actually thinks human consciousness – the entire book’s explanandum – is real; and even what exactly he means by the term.

Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, seemed to some people to deny the existence of consciousness at all, so waggish critics retitled it Consciousness Explained Away. Yet it was never quite clear just what Dennett was claiming didn’t exist. In this new book, confusion persists, owing to his reluctance to define his terms. When he says “consciousness” he appears to mean reflective self-consciousness (I am aware that I am aware), whereas many other philosophers use “consciousness” to mean ordinary awareness, or experience. There ensues much sparring with straw men, as when he ridicules thinkers who assume that gorillas, say, have consciousness. They almost certainly don’t in his sense, and they almost certainly do in his opponents’ sense. (A gorilla, we may be pretty confident, has experience in the way that a volcano or a cloud does not.)

More unnecessary confusion, in which one begins to suspect Dennett takes a polemical delight, arises from his continued use of the term “illusion”. Consciousness, he has long said, is an illusion: we think we have it, but we don’t. But what is it that we are fooled into believing in? It can’t be experience itself: as the philosopher Galen Strawson has pointed out, the claim that I only seem to have experience presupposes that I really am having experience – the experience of there seeming to be something. And throughout this book, Dennett’s language implies that he thinks consciousness is real: he refers to “conscious thinking in H[omo] sapiens”, to people’s “private thoughts and experiences”, to our “proper minds, enculturated minds full of thinking tools”, and to “a ‘rich mental life’ in the sense of a conscious life like ours”.

The way in which this conscious life is allegedly illusory is finally explained in terms of a “user illusion”, such as the desktop on a computer operating system. We move files around on our screen desktop, but the way the computer works under the hood bears no relation to these pictorial metaphors. Similarly, Dennett writes, we think we are consistent “selves”, able to perceive the world as it is directly, and acting for rational reasons. But by far the bulk of what is going on in the brain is unconscious, ­low-level processing by neurons, to which we have no access. Therefore we are stuck at an ­“illusory” level, incapable of experiencing how our brains work.

This picture of our conscious mind is rather like Freud’s ego, precariously balan­ced atop a seething unconscious with an entirely different agenda. Dennett explains wonderfully what we now know, or at least compellingly theorise, about how much unconscious guessing, prediction and logical inference is done by our brains to produce even a very simple experience such as seeing a table. Still, to call our normal experience of things an “illusion” is, arguably, to privilege one level of explanation arbitrarily over another. If you ask me what is happening on my computer at the moment, I shall reply that I am writing a book review on a word processor. If I embarked instead on a description of electrical impulses running through the CPU, you would think I was being sarcastically obtuse. The normal answer is perfectly true. It’s also true that I am currently seeing my laptop screen even as this experience depends on innumerable neural processes of guessing and reconstruction.

The upshot is that, by the end of this brilliant book, the one thing that hasn’t been explained is consciousness. How does first-person experience – the experience you are having now, reading these words – arise from the electrochemical interactions of neurons? No one has even the beginnings of a plausible theory, which is why the question has been called the “Hard Problem”. Dennett’s story is that human consciousness arose because our brains were colonised by word-memes; but how did that do the trick? No explanation is forthcoming. Dennett likes to say the Hard Problem just doesn’t exist, but ignoring it won’t make it go away – even if, as his own book demonstrates, you can ignore it and still do a lot of deep and fascinating thinking about human beings and our place in nature.

Steven Poole’s books include “Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas” (Random House Books)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times