From 1984 to 1987, Merryl Wyn Davies was a regular contributor to Afkar: Inquiry, the monthly ‘international magazine of events and ideas’. The three columns reproduced here provide a glimpse into her style and thought.   

Godless of Gower Street

According to the handouts, it was the abode of the ‘godless of Gower Street’. Not a bad epithet for the institution founded and still presided over by the dressed skeleton and pickled head of Jeremy Bentham. University College, London, was a product of utilitarian intent whose neoclassical portals were to admit students to an education based on sound modern scientism and rational principles. It was the impact of these ideas on the first generation of students that earned them the title of ‘godless’ from a shocked society. 

The neoclassical portals still remain but scientism and rationalism were merely taken for granted, not something to make a fuss about, question or argue with, by the time I got there. 

My era at university was indeed a time when the thought that students could be anything other than ‘godless’ would have been a severe shock to the average person on the street. For these were the lacklustre years, the tail end of the student protest, anti-Vietnam marches and the still prevalent invitation to drop out into alternative lifestyles and let it all hang out. Or, you could, of course, try to get an education.

One emerged from in depth force feeding on raw facts, which was the pre-university hot house of British ‘A’ level exams, to the balmy fields of higher education where one was supposed to manipulate and think constructively with facts. In reality, one spent a lot of time being disabused about common place notions, which clearly constituted the wrong way of thinking, in order to acquire a right way of thinking. All in all, one merely substituted one method of blind adherence for another, new set of assumptions and their attendant facts. Critical objectivity was the name of the game.

At the time it felt very much like growing up, like being initiated into a special and rarefied world of the elite – whose creation has been, for centuries, the prime function of universities. There was so much to absorb, so much relish to be gained by grappling one’s way into a superior mindset that one could very easily not find the time to stop and question. It is not that the system did not require one to ask questions, questions were definitely the order of the day. It was just that learning the proper range of questions that were appropriate for the bright eyed and up and coming student was the object of the education. What the education neglected to teach, or prompt one to examine, was why these were considered the only appropriate questions.

As a student, I was always vaguely ill at ease. I would master the arguments required, spew out the four essays a week and talk my head off at seminars and be rather disconcerted because it always seemed to me there was a point, a vital fact which I was missing, which would eventually cause me to be unmasked as ignorant and stupid. But it never happened. Nobody ever noticed that while I could make all the logically required elements fit together for public performance, in private I could never make them connect into any meaningful and purposive system. Somehow that did not seem to be the object of the university exercise. Indeed, ineptitude at examinations notwithstanding, I found myself considered to have promisingly passed through the educative process.

Since university turned out not to be the feast that satisfied, rather the fast-food snack that left one still hungry, the desire for knowledge survived my five years at Gower Street as a perplexing conundrum. The university education which I was privileged to undergo (higher education is the province of the minority which confers social advantages, so privileged is the word) was based on hidden agenda. Far from being a bright student, I think I must have been dense in the extreme because it was only years later that I began to fit the propositions thrust upon me into an order which revealed the premises upon which they were based. To be secular was one thing, materialism a problematic and hopefully avoidable problem, but both were demanded by a system which made human reason and its constructed means the only measure of all things. Or, more accurately, there was only human reason, which was knowledge, so one had to be secular and materialist because everything was moveable, going nowhere, though the movement itself supposed to be edifying. Once the penny had dropped, I became ready to be educated. 

My stupidity arose from simple mindedness. I went up to university (the conventional phrase indicating a world of significance) with the naively fixed idea that knowledge was a moral tool, it was the means by which moral problems were honed, processed and rendered comprehensible so that moral action could be more clearly and appropriately apprehended and enacted. In other words, I thought knowledge had a normative quality. Being a student of the social sciences, it was always perplexing that the ‘society’ one studied had norms, but the science one constructed was objective, not normative, to avoid the heinous sin of value judgement.

What one was being taught was a method of abstracting reality, according to the supreme ‘gods’ of scientism and rationalism, a kind of intellectual sand castle building whose premises were precisely designed to remove norms and values from the academic procedure. Why this was done and how it affected the sphere of one’s chosen subject of education was not the subject of education to teach or discuss. It was The Law.

So, what was learned was not the knowledge of reality, but how to construct an artificial reality which approximated to a predetermined set of intellectual rules, where these rules, and only these rules, had validity. I, like many others, am here to testify that one can come through such an indoctrination, even as a secularist, still wanting a morally appropriate application of knowledge. I began to be ready to be educated when I realised the university-based system I had imbibed could never, according to its rules, generate such an end. 

Knowledge which detaches itself from values, which are relegated into the concern of some other not very prestigious department, which uses specific but undisclosed values to make objectivity, can perhaps help one distinguish wood from trees. It can never assist in the process of finding a way through the woods, without having to chop down all the trees. As one of the godless of Gower Street what I acquired by way of university education was a precise confusion which was quite irresolvable. 

When I began to be ready to be educated what I looked forward to was the creation of a system of university education which critically evaluated information in relation to conceptual values, an education which cherished normativeness not moral neutrality. An open agenda, constantly referred to by open minds, which generated the power to discriminate between good and bad, useful and abusive information, to comprehend more fully the meaning of values, and integrate the two procedures to elucidate appropriate constructive pragmatism. Such an education would never confuse information and methodology for knowledge. It would, of course, require putting God back in Gower Street, or finding somewhere where His Presence was the basis of education. 

(April 1986)

Enduring Values

Rummage in any bookshop, leaf through any magazine or journal and the one thing you cannot avoid is change. It is everywhere. The catch phrase of the age is change. Change is being busily studied everywhere, by everyone. Ernest opinions are offered on the significance of change. There is great debate about the need for change. Considered judgements and emotional outbursts all dwell upon the effects of change. Today, the one constant is change.

I had an early traumatic experience with change. My first assignment as a journalist, newly employed by the local weekly newspaper, was to interview a local veteran on the occasion of his eightieth birthday. Swelled with pride at my new status, notebook and pen confidently brandished, entertaining notions of soon growing up to be Woodward and Bernstein, and discovering my first scoop, I ventured forth. I announced myself to the venerable resident and swept on to explain that I wanted to know all about the changes he had witnessed in the local scene. Well, what else could you ask a person who had obviously seen a thing or two in his lifetime? When I paused excitedly, expecting to be swept along by his fascinating reminiscences of a world entirely altered, the silence was filled by disgruntled growls, on the theme of the nonsense I was talking, and the front door was firmly shut in my face.

Maybe the old man did not approve of journalists. But as I struggled to recover from the first lesson in the school of hard knocks, an even worse thought flashed across my mind: perhaps he couldn’t remember anything that has changed. At eighty years of age all the gentleman could notice was that he had grown older – did that amount to anything different? In his youth, the town had waning heavy industry and long dole queues. Now there were factories making ladies stockings and washing machines and threats of redundancy. Absentee owners had merely become multinational corporations, the system rumbled on. True there was now a welfare state to replace the vicarious charity of his younger days – but did the rich still not prosper and the rest make the best of things somewhere further down the order? True they have knocked down half of the town and rebuilt new concrete boxes for people to live in. But it still took four walls and a roof to make a house and the quality thereof decided whether it was a comfortable home. Which, in the case of local publicly financed building, they seldom were. 

It is all very well to talk of the shock of the new. But after eighty years perhaps people learn to take the shock in their stride. When one has encountered eighty years’ worth of people, maybe one finds them much of a muchness. Perhaps what old people notice is not the change but the way the essentials stay the same. Maybe, under the guise of new-fangled styles, manners and means, what they detect is the old patterns grinding on regardless. A world of all change for no change in which they just get rustier in the joints. A world in which they move more slowly, they have time to see through the frantic pace of activity and recognise that it’s not change at all. 

Of course, with the door firmly closed in my face and my ego badly dented, I never had a chance to explore these ideas. I merely covered my embarrassment by making a good joke of it when I got back to the office. Which is why the experience has lingered, and made me rather wary of glib assertions about change. After all, change is a pretty relative term. It presumes, does it not, a certain stability in which alteration can be measured. Once in the realms of the relative, is it not just as valid to ask about continuity, things which do not alter, as to chase endlessly after the matters which mark today as different from yesterday.

And yet there is no escape from change, the stock in trade of the twentieth century. This is the age in which to do things differently is considered a positive good in itself – no matter what one does. I just wonder whether a great deal of what passes for change is rather more in the mind of the beholder than an order of the universe.

It cannot be doubted that the twentieth century has some major achievements to its credit when it comes to making a difference. Never before has mankind been able to contemplate evacuating this planet and setting off to new quadrants of the galaxy as a possibility rather than a fantasy. But then never before has the escape route seemed such a necessary insurance policy. Never before has mankind been certain that it could physically destroy themselves, the earth and all that lives upon it. When it comes to change you have to acknowledge that the twentieth century has really made a difference. 

As I had cause to learn, the secret of making sense of change is all in the questions one asks. Which brings us face to face with a curious fact. If change is relative, if you mark off today by having some sense of what went on yesterday, the quality of one’s insight is decided by the measuring scale employed. When we get down to the onerous task of cleaning up the mess made by the twentieth century, we merely get back to the scale of values which were old when Adam was a tiny boy. A scale of values which have a pretty standard track record at all points in between then and now. The values endure and mankind has a pretty dubious record in the observance department.

Which only goes to prove that when it comes to change, whatever the scale, whatever the scope, whatever the difference, change is not only relative, it is related to everything that went before. All change is not illusion, there is little that is illusory about nuclear power, expect its supposed benefits. It’s just that no change takes us away from the same essential questions with which the world began. When every change can be translated into their language, what, may I ask, has changed at all? 

(November 1986)

There and Back

T S Eliot once advised travellers to fare forward because they were not the person who had left home, nor the one who would arrive at any destination. I suspect T S had spent a good deal of time on long haul flights from one part of the world to another.

Jet lag is a necessary accompaniment to long distance, high speed, travel. It is thought to be the condition where one’s body clock lives on somebody else’s time, in another place, which hardly conveys the experience of being at five different parts of the space-time continuum, with several different things to do, all at the same time. It’s the sense of urgency and distraction, the surprise at the slow wittedness of everyone else, and out-of-body sensation of super awareness that makes jetlag an experience to reckon with. 

My first encounter with the phenomenon was my first return trip from the USA. I had just travelled by bus, nonstop, from coast to coast, across America. I then boarded the plane, at night for the requisite number of hours, and failed to fall asleep. (It must have something to do with the muffled mumbling of the passengers, lost in the engine noise, like having a demented swarm of locusts lost in your head, and the distinctively synthetic air you have to breathe, but I have never learned how to sleep on aeroplanes, no matter how long a journey, how boring the book, film or conversation.) An easy prey for my first jetlag.

So, at London airport there was only the ritual of passport control, long queue (shuffle, shuffle), search for the trolly – there were none – have proper security made of documents and pass on to collect baggage. Personal pack animal mode function on auto pilot, so I manhandle cases, shoulder bag, carrier bag and handbag about myself. 

Then a strange thing happens. In front of me is a green doorway leading through customs, into the world beyond. The gateway is clearly visible but going in two directions while my legs seem to envisage at least a three-way option and are capable of walking in four separate directions at one go. My brain, lurking somewhere on the western prairies drinking in all the open space, seems not to observe any discrepancy. 

It may have been just a moment, it could have been a few hours, who knows, when I became aware of my surroundings, where I was standing is no longer where I was standing. The transition from here to there is beyond memory or movement, lost in space warp, rather like being beamed into a space ship in those science fiction movies. I find myself accosted by a tall bearded, bespectacled person, anxious to relive me of my multiple encumbrances. As we float along impersonal, anywhere corridors, I try to work out who this person could be, while feeling rather self-satisfied at having accomplished rule one of the international jetnaut handbook: always find someone else to carry the luggage. As we approach the rail terminal, by which time my antennae have turned in to some curiously accented transmissions coming from the bearded person, it occurs to me, this is my brother. I greet him warmly and take no notice of his offhand response. Brothers with frown and short tempers are par for the course.

On the train to my brother’s home, I engage in sprightly conversation, relating witty anecdotes of my adventures across the Atlantic. My brother’s mood deepens to familiar moroseness. At his home my niece scampers about. A remarkable child who can don exotic presents, rummage in suitcases, and flit from place to place by instant transmigration. Obviously, she is destined to be a traveller herself.

Three days later, somewhat recovered from my journey, my brother expressed relief that the zombie, my good self, had at last been released from the curse of the body snatchers. He explained that holding conversation with a person who speaks like a stuck record at minimum revolution speed, who falls asleep, or retires to another dimension, only to make intermittent earthfall from orbit around Alfa Centori sometime later, and demand, bad temperedly, answers to topics everyone else had dropped an hour before, had proved rather tiresome. Keeping track of the thought sequence of this itinerant nonbeing who conversed in fluent Outer Swahilian-Cantonese, only to become comatose as the answers were supplied had been both a strain and a social liability. Furthermore, he added with venom, undemonstrative brothers frankly dislike being recognised, hailed and embraced as long-lost relatives, at high volume, in public, with monotonous regularity, every ten minutes. Funny, but I was sure I had been lucid, and it was everyone else who was acting strangely. 

So that is how I got to know all about jetlag. There are many other helpful hints I could pass on about modern travel, like the great secret is to look as if you know where you are going. Any uncertainty only causes people speaking loud and fast in foreign languages to offer unintelligible advice for hour on end. Or, I could warn you that the entire world is sub artic, at least in those places where they have discovered air-conditioning, so always were at least one thermal vest. Or, I could tell you that when you have arrived anywhere you have at least another hour before you need to reach for your jacket and contemplate standing up, so conserve your energy and enjoy how ridiculous everyone else looks lining the gangway, with nowhere to go. Or, I could tell you my greatest discovery – when in doubt, always follow the car in front, it is usually going towards your destination, or at least somewhere you will recognise and be pleased to have reached.

But these are all minor technicalities. The real experience of modern travel is to be outside-in of Einstein’s theory of relativity in four dimensions at once. So, it is no wonder you are not the person who left home, or who arrived wherever it is. It’s the re-assemblage of the transmigrated, transmogrified person that adds light years to the time of travel. Just as with your luggage you can only hope they put all the essentials bits on the same plane, heading for the same destination and that you will catch up with yourself the next time round. So fare forward travellers. With luck, maybe you did!

(August 1987)

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