Sketches #2 John Wilmot

December 21, 2008

You will not like me – John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester

 

            John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, was born at Ditchley in Oxfordshire on either April 1 or 10 1647. This was a tempestuous time in English history. Just two years after his birth King Charles I of England was beheaded and England was without a monarch for ten years. Society was divided politically and religiously and Rochester’s own family reflected these divisions – his father was a Royalist and his mother was a Puritan.

           As a child, Rochester had a very solid education; he attended the Burford Grammar School but was also taught by a tutor at home, and was generally considered a model pupil. At the age of 12 he went to Wadham College, Oxford, where, away from his mother’s strict control, a different side of his personality began to emerge, as he started to frequent taverns. At the age of fourteen he received his M.A degree from his uncle, the Earl of Clarendon, who was Chancellor to the University. Then, as was the fashion amongst the English Aristocracy for nearly 200 years, he was sent to round off his education by going on the traditional Grand Tour, taking in Italy and France.

           This very polished and sophisticated 18 year-old, then joined the newly restored new court of Charles II, the greatest centre of cultural patronage of its day. This was a period of many cultural, social and gastronomic innovations in England – the first stage actresses (various of whom Rochester would bed), the man’s three-piece suit, those distinctive periwigs, tea, coffee champagne and ice cream. There was a glorious cultural explosion with such figures Dryden, Purcell and Wren to name but three.

               Rochester decided he needed to find a wife but he was far from conventional in how he went about it. The target of his affections was one Elizabeth Mallet, an heiress who had caught his eye because of her beauty, intelligence, and immense wealth. Fearing that another suitor might get his hands on her fortune, Rochester decided to kidnap her. Amazingly Elizabeth was impressed by his tactics. The King though was displeased and had Rochester put in the Tower and Elizabeth returned to her parents. It was only a temporary sojourn for Rochester and he finally married Mallet two years later.

           The Earl lived a double life – a loving father and family man in the country and a hell-raising boozer and womaniser in London. Rochester’s relationship with Charles was a difficult one. Charles II, whose father had been executed, and who had only escaped capture himself by hiding in an oak tree, was a cynical and pragmatic monarch. After the dour years of Oliver Cromwell’s commonwealth, Charles sought to bring back some splendour to Britain and the Court. He surrounded himself with scientists, architects and he rogered just about any woman who met his gaze. Rochester was not afraid to lampoon Charles to his face and many times the king would banish the disrespectful poet to the country, but he would always relent and invite him back to London, because, despite all his many faults, Rochester was witty and fun to be around. He was an member of the infamous ‘Merry Gang’ at the Court, a sort of seventeenth century “rat pack” who went around getting drunk, brawling, playing pranks and generally raising hell. When he was exiled from Court he would often assume different identities, the most famous one being Doctor Alexander Bendo, a German quack, specializing in fertility treatment. His unconventional treatment would produce positive results – he had soon cuckolded half of London.

           On Charles’s death Rochester couldn’t resist sticking the knife in:

Here lies a great and mighty King,

Whose promise none relied on;

He never said a foolish thing,

Nor ever did a wise one.  

               But Rochester also had his artistic side and in his lifetime he produced sexually explicit poetry. Signor Dildo is the classic example of his bawdy poetic style. The background to this poem is interesting.  In 1673 a petition was presented to King Charles, protesting about the proposed marriage of the heir to the throne, Charles’s brother James, Duke of York, to Mary of Modena, an Italian Catholic Princess. They could foresee dangerous consequences of a marriage to a Catholic and urged him forbid any wedding. Wilmot had an alternative take, anticipating the benefits of the aforementioned union, which would see the mass importation of Italian dildos to the delight of English ladies:

You ladies all of merry England

Who have been to kiss the Duchess’s hand,

Pray, did you not lately observe in the show

A noble Italian called Signor Dildo?

            His one play “Sodom or the Quintessence of Debauchery” was banned for obscenity and printed copies were destroyed. The characters have names such as Bolloximian, Cuntigratia, Prickett, and Buggeranthus, which leave little to the imagination. On 16 December Sotheby’s 2004 sold one of the few surviving copies for £45,600.

            But his works were much more than just lewd verse. His poem. “Satire Against Reason and Mankind”, with its cynicism about man and rationalism, owes much to the works of philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who died when Rochester was 15. The unifying themes of his poetry are a honesty and a dislike of artifice. They seem to reflect his philosophy of life:

All this with indignation have I hurled

At the pretending part of the proud world,

Who, swollen with selfish vanity, devise

False freedoms, holy cheats, and formal lies

Over their fellow slaves to tyrannize

            His constant drinking and wenching were to take their toll on his body and his last few years were full of suffering as he rotted away, afflicted with syphilis and cirrhosis among other illnesses. He finally died on 26 July 1680. He seems to have been an atheist but on his deathbed his mother was anxious for him to repent and it was later claimed that Rochester had returned to the path of righteousness.

            In his ‘Lives of the English Poets’ Samuel Johnson gave a damning verdict on Rochester:

Thus in a course of drunken gaiety and gross sensuality, with intervals of study perhaps yet more criminal, with an avowed contempt of all decency and order, a total disregard to every moral, and a resolute denial of every religious obligation, he lived worthless and useless, and blazed out his youth and his health in lavish voluptuousness; till, at the age of one-and-thirty, he had exhausted the fund of life, and reduced himself to a state of weakness and decay.”

            I have to disagree with Johnson. I’m not sure I can say that I like Rochester but the world would have been a duller place without this quintessentially English rake.

 

           


Movie Monologues #5

December 21, 2008

The Libertine written by Stephen Jeffreys

 

The first lines:

Rochester: Allow me to be frank at the commencement. You will not like me. The gentlemen will be envious and the ladies will be repelled. You will not like me now and you will like me a good deal less as we go on. Ladies, an announcement: I am up for it, all the time. That is not a boast or an opinion, it is bone hard medical fact. I put it round you know. And you will watch me putting it round and sigh for it. Don’t.” It is a deal of trouble for you and you are better off watching and drawing your conclusions from a distance than you would be if I got my tarse up your petticoats. Gentlemen. Do not despair, I am up for that as well. And the same warning applies. Still your cheesy erections till I have had my say. But later when you shag – and later you will shag, I shall expect it of you and I will know if you have let me down – I wish you to shag with my homuncular image rattling in your gonads. Feel how it was for me, how it is for me and ponder. ‘Was that shudder the same shudder he sensed? Did he know something more profound? Or is there some wall of wretchedness that we all batter with our heads at that shining , livelong moment.’ That is it. That is my prologue, nothing in rhyme, no protestations of modesty, you were not expecting that I hope. I am John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester and I do not want you to like me.

 

The last lines:

Rochester: So here he lies at the last. The deathbed convert. The pious debauchee. Could not dance a half measure, could I? Give me wine, I drain the dregs and toss the empty bottle at the world. Show me our Lord Jesus in agony and I mount the cross and steal his nails for my own palms. There I go, shuffling from the world. My dribble fresh upon the bible. I look upon a pinhead and I see angels dancing. Well? Do you like me now? Do you like me now? Do you like me now? Do you like me… now?

 


Quotes about sex

December 21, 2008

Sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three (Which was rather late for me) between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP. Philip Larkin

 

Lord, grant me chastity and continence… but not yet. St. Augustine

 

My wife is a sex object. Every time I ask for sex, she objects. Les Dawson

 

Sex is the invention of a very clever venereal disease. David Cronenberg

 

I’m glad I’m not bisexual. I couldn’t stand being rejected by men as well as women. Bernard Manning

 

If there is reincarnation, I’d like to come back as Warren Beatty’s fingertips. Woody Allen

 

There are a number of mechanical devices that increase sexual arousal, particularly in women. Chief amongst these is the Mercedes-Benz 380L convertible. PJ O’Rourke

 

You don’t appreciate a lot of stuff in school until you get older. Little things like being spanked every day by a middle aged woman: Stuff you pay good money for in later life. Emo Philips

 

Despite a lifetime of service to the cause of sexual liberation, I have never caught venereal disease, which makes me feel rather like an Arctic explorer who has never had frostbite. Germaine Greer

 

Never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television. Gore Vidal

 

Sex… the pleasure is momentary, the position ridiculous, and the expense damnable. Lord Chesterfield

 

Tell him I’ve been too fucking busy – or vice versa. Dorothy Parker

 

The common thread that binds nearly all animal species seems to be that males are willing to abandon all sense and decorum, even to risk their lives, in the frantic quest for sex. Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer

 

See, the problem is that God gives men a brain and a penis, and only enough blood to run one at a time. Robin Williams

 

Men get laid, but women get screwed. Quentin Crisp

 

 


My media week 21/12/08

December 21, 2008

Last week I did a piece about the Oxbridge interviews and this week The Times did a feature on how to answer the questions.

 

In these times of crisis businesspundit.com did a parody of 15 famous corporate logos of companies fallen on hard times.

 

John Kay has an article about The titans’ inability to say sorry. Here is a sample of what he says:

It would be consoling to believe that these individuals know in their hearts they are at fault, but are advised not to admit it. If you are in a road accident, every decent human instinct is to say “sorry” but the small print of your insurance policy dictates otherwise. However, mostly these titans of finance do not express regret because they do not feel it. They truly believe they were victims not villains, that if the world does not allow them to make large profits the fault lies with the world, and that government agencies should protect them from the consequences of their own actions. They prattle about free markets and the evils of government but deny personal responsibility.

 

Last September I did a post about Simon Bikindi a Rwandan singer accused of genocide. Now he has been sentenced to . Go here for a full audio report.   


Some are more equal than others

December 14, 2008

We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich. Peter Mandelson. Apparently, he did add, “as long as they pay their taxes.”

 

When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?  John Ball, a fourteenth century British Lollard priest, social agitator and a key player in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

 

From the fact that people are very different it follows that, if we treat them equally, the result must be inequality in their actual position, and that the only way to place them in an equal position would be to treat them differently. Equality before the law and material equality are therefore not only different but are in conflict with each other; and we can achieve either one or the other, but not both at the same time.  F.A. Hayek.

 

America, based on the premise of absolute equality, has one of the most extremely unequal divisions of wealth in the world. Japan, based on the premise of inequality, is one of the most egalitarian societies of all. Alan Macfarlane, anthropologist.

 

 

            For most of human existence we lived in relative equality. Among hunter-gatherers there was a more egalitarian framework; by their very nature prehistoric societies tended to be fairly equal — there just wasn’t enough wealth to make anybody very rich. What sparked the dramatic change in our economic relations was the invention of agriculture, which made it possible to feed greater and greater numbers of people, allowing the possibility of specialisation and the control of the access to food. This revolution has been a double-edged sword, producing wealth that the first humans could never possibly have imagined but at the cost of vast economic differences. There does seem to be a very real trade-off between wealth creation and equality.         

The American philosopher John Rawls created a famous thought experiment about how to design a fair society. Philosophers like Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau had all referred to a state of nature, although from different ideological perspectives. Rawls used a different term – what he described as the starting position. People should imagine themselves without any government and rationally discuss what sort of structures could be supported by a social contract and would be able to deliver justice. You immediately come up against a problem – people act out of self-interest and they would thus design a society based on what suits their social situation and their intellectual and physical abilities. To counter this Rawls came up with the veil of ignorance, the idea that you have no idea who you are in the real world. Specifically, you do not know your:

  1. class position or social status
  2. natural talents, abilities, intelligence or strength
  3. plan for what makes a good life

The idea is that because of these constraints the participants will design a society that will be fair to everyone because they would be terrified of ending up at the bottom of the pile.

The interpretation of inequality is very different for the Right and Left. For the Right if people have freedom to choose and markets are competitive then any outcomes will be perfectly acceptable, even if they don’t produce equality. You want to favour innovation, risk-taking, hard work etc. They do not like the term income distribution because that implies income is being distributed according to some kind of plan. If you accept that markets are the best way to organise an economy, then you have to accept the results you get. For the Left the market is not some morally neutral institution – it is a social construct. Therefore the outcomes are important. While for the Right success is due to your own actions the Left is due to factors beyond the individual’s control (where you were born, your parents etc) thus you cannot consider the market’s outcomes as  having any moral justification.

Over the last 30 years there has been a return to growing levels of inequality. This is not the result of some vast right-wing conspiracy but is probably better explained by what economists call a skill premium.  That is that technology has created great rewards with those skills that are highly valued in the marketplace. For example all the technology of the music recording industry has enabled some people to become international superstars. The microprocessor has played a similar role for people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Sergei Brin. At the same time factors such as technology and immigration have caused some downward pressures on low-skilled jobs.

This controversy is often centred on the question of executive pay – golden parachutes, golden handshakes and stock options often create great resentment. Personally, I would have to declare myself incapable of deciding what pay a CEO should receive. For me that is something that the owners of the company have to decide – it’s their money. But it has always surprised me that shareholders will put up with these excesses. Of course it gets more complicated when you start receiving public funds. And I do feel they should be responsible for their actions, we need compensation based on long-term performance objectives. However, I am somewhat sceptical of attempts to rein in executive pay. Attempts in the past have not proved very successful. Dennis Healey, a Labour politician with a different perspective from Mandelson said of his budget that “It will squeeze the rich until the pips squeak.” This kind of policy is untenable in our globalised world

What is my conclusion? I can see some of the arguments by the Left but I feel they do not take into account  that the cake can be made bigger. When Reagan cut taxes for the rich in the eighties tax revenues actually went up. We cannot ignore the importance of creating wealth – systems where you do not have the incentive to better yourself are notoriously bad at doing this. There is, however, something unsatisfying about some of the Right’s arguments. How much social mobility is there really in society? The role of family inheritance and the unequal access to good schools are worrying areas. A sense of fairness is an important part of our psychological make-up – the relative can sometimes be more important than the absolute position to us – and these disparities in incomes could present grave social and political problems in the future. Having said that, what we really crave is equality with those above us. So we concentrate on trying to climb the greasy pole, as does everyone else, and the system perpetuates itself. I think we will be debating these questions for many years to come.


40 Oxbridge interview questions

December 14, 2008

As this week’s theme is inequality I thought I would do something about those two venerable institutions – the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. There have been a lot of press features recently about the infamous Oxbridge Interview, famous for its obscure and often surreal questions that have terrorised students down the years. They are designed to see if you can think on your feet and as the saying goes: “When you walk into the interview, the fellow throws you a rugby ball. If you drop it or it hits you in the face, you are out, if you catch it, you are in, and if you drop kick it back, you get a scholarship.” I decided to look on the Internet to see if I could find some examples and here is my selection of forty of these questions:

 

1. Can a thermostat think? (Experimental Psychology, Oxford)

2. Compare these bottles of Tesco and Timotei shampoo? (Law, Oxford)

3.  Could there still be a second-coming if mankind had disappeared from the planet? (Theology, Cambridge)

4.   Describe this saucer to me as if I wasn’t in the room (Economics, Cambridge)

5.   Describe your school from an anthropological perspective (Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge)

6.   Do you believe that statues can move, and how might this belief be justified? (French and Spanish, Oxford)

7.   Do you think the Bavarian peasants of 1848 had an ideology? (History, Cambridge)

8.    Does a snail have a consciousness? (Experimental Psychology, Oxford)

9.    Here is a piece of bark, please talk about it. (Biological sciences, Oxford.)

10. How do you organise a successful revolution? (History, Oxford)

11. How many grains of sand are there in the world? (Physics, Oxford)

12.  How many monkeys would you use in an experiment? (Experimental Psychology, Oxford)

13. How small can you make a computer? (Engineering, Cambridge)

14. How would you market a rock band? (Economics and Management, Oxford)

15. How would you measure the weight of your own head? (Medicine, Cambridge)

16. How would you poison someone without the police finding out? (Medicine, Cambridge)

17. If a wife had expressed distaste for it previously, would her husband’s habit of putting marmalade in his egg at breakfast be grounds for divorce? (Law, Cambridge)

18. If I were a grapefruit, would I rather be seedless or non-seedless? (Medicine, Cambridge)

19. If it could take a form, what shape would the novel “To the Lighthouse become? (English, Oxford)

20. If my friend locks me in a room, and says I am free to come out whenever I like as long as I pay £5, is this a deprivation of liberty? (Law, Cambridge)

21. If there was an omnipotent god would he be able to create a stone that he couldn’t lift? (Classics, Oxford)

22. If you’re not in California, how do you know it exists? (PPE – Politics, Philosophy, and Economics, Oxford)

23. Instead of politicians, why don’t we let the managers of IKEA run the country (SPS – Social and Political Sciences, Cambridge)

24. Is ‘Taggart’ an accurate portrayal of Glasgow? (English, Oxford)

25. Is it morally wrong to attempt to climb a mountain? (Theology, Oxford)

26. Is the chair really there? (Philosophy, Cambridge

27. Is the moon made of cheese? (Vet Sciences, Cambridge)

28. Is Wittgenstein always right? (French and Philosophy, Oxford)

29. Put a monetary value on this teapot. (Philosophy, politics and economics, Oxford.)

30. Tell me about your life, from the beginning to what made you sit in that chair (Natural Sciences, Cambridge)

31. What colour is that notice board? (Mathematics and Philosophy, Oxford)

32.  What effect on the whole of society does someone crashing into a lamppost have? (Law, Oxford)

33. What happens if I drop an ant? (Physics, Oxford)

34. What would happen if you drilled through the Earth all the way to the other side and then jumped into the hole? (Engineering, Cambridge)

35. Why can’t you light a candle in a spaceship? (Physics, Oxford.)

36. Why is it a disadvantage for humans to have two legs? (Medicine, Cambridge)

37. Would I be justified in saying that only morons play sport? (Economics, Cambridge)

38. Would Ovid’s chat-up line work? (Classics, Oxford)

39. Would you rather be a novel or a poem? (English, Oxford)

40. Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Discuss. (Music, Oxford)


My media week 14/12/08

December 14, 2008

A few weeks ago I did a feature on bad predictions. This week The Independent had one about bad technological predictions.

 

By Design is a programme from ABC. This week’s programme had features on branding, the golden age of couture and the politics of everyday objects.

 

In The Guardian Joe Moran, author of an entertaining book called Queuing for Beginners,  has an article about the Christmas and recession –Merry amid melancholia.

 

The Sun had one of those articles about mathematics and cleavage, with a formula, O=NP(20C+B)/75 designed to calculate the naughtiness factor in dresses. Then check out Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column.