You may already be infected; if not, you will be once you get to the end of this paragraph. If you wish to remain uninfected, there is still time to stop, but by reading on you will certainly catch it. I caught it from Richard Dawkins' book 'The Selfish Gene', where the idea first originated, where the infection first started. The idea was that of a 'meme', or an idea viewed as a general class of mental objects. When you grasp an idea, you can be said to be infected by that meme; passing that idea on spreads the infection. By reading to the end of this paragraph you are now infected with the idea, or meme, of a meme.
It may seem a trivial redefinition. But viewing ideas as something like independent entities which can spread and be passed on like viruses, say, emphasises their vitality and hints at their power. Ideas are a fundamental, dynamic component of the world in which we live. They can change it in dramatic ways. A great idea, infecting or inhabiting the right people, can drive them to great actions with far-reaching implications. They are the visionaries, the religious and political leaders whose single-mindedness is a by-product of an idea's force.
Not all ideas are so grand. But even the humblest of them is worthy of admiration and gratitude. We all know the experience of the sudden revelation brought about by an encounter with a new and hitherto undreamt-of - unthought-of - idea. It is as if a door or window has opened, or a light has been turned on. Somehow we see and understand something which before was a mystery, or perhaps was simply not present in our mental universe.
The relation between the meme and the memed is therefore a symbiotic one. Without the mind in which it can live, an idea has no active existence. In a book or a play or a film, it lies dormant like those viruses that can survive in the most hostile conditions until a suitable host comes along, when they are suddenly activated. For the carrier of the meme, the world is a different place. It is as if the meme were an organism which secreted some subtle substance, a perception-enhancing drug perhaps; harbouring an idea we vivify it, but we also drink its intangible nectar.
Sometimes that nectar is poisoned: a meme may be an epiphany of the sadness and badness in this world. Ideas are irresponsible and morally neutral in themselves; only the mind they inhabit can judge them, choose amongst them, act on them and manifest them. But it can rarely destroy them, just as we cannot will to forget, though time and age may eventually achieve this. There is, however, a kind of natural selection which favours the more beneficent memes. For example, someone infected with the meme of random violence is likely to be destroyed themselves; with them dies the instigating meme and the possibility of further direct infection.
Ideas are precious things; and rare enough too. How often have we read a book, talked with a person, listened to music, and experienced no new thought, no sudden illumination? It is like eating cardboard. So the next time you encounter a fine, wholesome meme, savour it; enjoy the infection as it grips you; pass it on.
The blank page has always been the writer's foe. It lies there, supine, flaunting its passivity so shamelessly that it gradually assumes the character of a challenge. Today, however, the author has an alternative which not only avoids these traditional pitfalls, but even counters them with corresponding benefits: the word processor.
The blank page is replaced by a blank screen, but one which is vivified by the business of loading up the word processing software. The preliminary acts alone bespeak a new, more dynamic approach. First you place the floppy disc in the disc drive; it is like a key inserted into a lock: it promises to release you from the writer's prison of wordlessness. Then you power up - a gloriously apt phrase for that heady sense of artistic potentiation, of the incipient forging of words into worlds.
Upon switching on the machine, it already starts reacting, coming to meet you halfway - no mere tool, but an accomplice. It purrs like a sleek and thoroughbred animal, and the screen flickers into action, awaking from its silent silicon dreams. Words appear - the machine is giving you words before it attempts to take them, encouraging you by its example. Sometimes the initial messages greet with an easy familiarity, sometimes they are reassuringly business-like. Either way, they spring into life with an ease which begins to imply that all succeeding words will follow as fluently and as effortlessly. The blank screen becomes now a taut-stretched canvas, straining for your marks, the tiny blinking cursor in the top left-hand corner an eager child signalling for you to join the game.
Compare all this to the typewriter - which is revealed now as a kind of decerebrated word processor, inert and unable to respond, a purely mechanical assemblage of levers. The pen and pencil are seen for the wicked, pointed weapons that they are; no wonder that the blank page is so recalcitrant - paper is not used but abused: you attack it, applying an unremitting pressure with your mad surgeon's word scalpel.
By contrast the computer's keyboard is like that of a piano - or, better, like that of some infinitely delicate and subtle instrument such as a clavichord. As the fingers wander gracefully over its keys, they seem to be tapping out an intricate prelude of Bach. More than that, as you type, the gentle and flowing movements gain a rhythm of their own; the tactile sensation passes from mere sensuousness to sensuality, until the act of writing is transmuted into a constant loving caress.
Switching on a computer is sometimes called booting up, a reference to the process of bootstrapping, or pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. The phrase is a neat metaphor for how the machine manages to load a program before it has loaded a program which tells it how to load a program. This marvellous act of self-creation is a gift such machines offer their users every time they are turned on. Booting up stands as a constant reminder to the writer who is about to construct without scaffolding some bridge of words across a chasm of non-existence that such miracles are indeed possible.
As we came out of the theatre after a performance of Schnitzler's Dalliance we wondered out loud whether we would ever see again the strange lights we had noticed some months previously. As we walked back across Waterloo bridge, we looked up into the area of the sky where they had appeared before. To our mingled horror and delight, there was the same quivering brightness.
We slowed our steps, our hearts in our mouths and our stomachs in our boots. We were half-pleased that what we had seen had really been there, that it was reproducible. But we were also slightly disappointed that, being reproducible, the phenomenon might have a mundane explanation, that we had not been privileged spectators of the dawn of a new age. It seemed unlikely that UFOs should choose to hover over exactly the same spot of the Thames during a period of some months - and never be noticed.
We walked along the bridge, our straining eyes riveted upon the same indistinct watery light we had seen before. Again there was no sound of helicopters, just the wind blowing on this slightly cloudy night. As we stood by the parapet, we noticed a woman who was talking to a man next to her. Occasionally she glanced in the same general direction as we were looking. We went up to them. I made some non-committal remark about the sight and she replied unperturbedly, then went on talking with her companion. We looked at this man; he too was gazing up at the sky. And he seemed to have something in his hands.
It was clearly a reel, though the cord was too fine to be seen in the dark. Simulating a greater sang-froid than I felt, I asked him if he were responsible. He said yes. I restrained myself from hurling him into the river there and then, and asked for more details.
He was American, and an inventor. His brainchild was a kind of kite with a rotor which he claimed could stay aloft with even the merest hint of wind. It was effectively self-supporting. It glistened and glimmered as it spun in a light which shone skyward from Somerset House - the reason he had chosen this spot. I quizzed him on the double occurrence we had seen, and the rapid movement. He said he sometimes flew two, and that slight movements on the ground could bring about deceptively large ones in the sky. He was doing this as a publicity stunt prior to the publication of his book on the subject. So now we knew.
I left very chastened. I had learnt that however improbable or even impossible it may seem at the time, there is always an explanation. Those two shocking and cancelling experiences produced by their mixing a kind of vaccine that has inoculated me against all further heretical anti-scientific thoughts. As a re-confirmed rationalist I am prepared to chant with the rest of the adepts the creed of logical positivism. But one day something will be discovered that does genuinely lie outside the present boundaries of science. The latter will then be expanded just far enough to include the new phenomenon. This leaves us seekers after certitude with a rather elastic kind of dogma, one still with a frightening leeway for perfectly reasonable flirtation with the perfectly unreasonable.
In 1982, I was trapped in Tashkent. I had stopped over there after sightseeing in Samarkand, and was due to fly back to Moscow. Instead, Intourist whisked off the few foreign travellers present in the city on a curious and palpably fake tour. After driving around the centre, rebuilt without character after the devastating earthquake which presumably destroyed any original Uzbeki architecture, we were shown the spotless - and theoretically quake-proof - underground railway system. It was almost as grand as that in Moscow, but without the chandeliers. Then we were driven to the outskirts of the city which ended in a dusty and squalid shanty town; clearly Intourist had run out of things to show us.
The reason for this surreal non-tour of a non-city was that all Aeroflot planes had been commandeered for the day. They were needed to fly politicians from the Soviet Republics to Moscow for an urgent session of the country's ruling body. It was no ordinary gathering: they were meeting to choose a new President. Brezhnev was dead.
Everywhere in Moscow you came across his portrait, raven-haired, white-skinned, always against a garish red background. Like some Slav King Kong, his huge, craggy face peeked from walls and billboards between gaps in buildings. Blown up to huge proportions, the Neanderthal cast of his features - the lower bony ridge of the forehead sprouting feral, bushy eyebrows, the deep-set eyes, the massive jowls - was truly frightening. It seemed irrefutable evidence that physiognomy did indeed reveal the inner man.
It was some while before the world realised that this was the end of an era. Even when Gorbachev was chosen after Andropov, it was assumed that, progressive and relative youngster that he was, his attempts at reforms would be circumscribed and cautious. As we now know, nothing could have been further from the truth. Each day has brought us new, ever more audacious acts of dismantling, of liberalisation, of risk-taking.
But amidst all these enormous potential gains, I feel - totally selfishly - that there has been a loss. As the communist world rushes to embrace much of our capitalism, our materialism, and our culture, the USSR is no longer the great, mysterious Russian bear, the Cold War behemoth, mapping out a unique destiny. It has lost its old specialness.
The Brehznev era epitomised that lost world. Russia was a barely open land; it was ruled by fear and bullying; its people eked out secret lives, fighting the state with magnificent tiny defiances. When I had visited Moscow at this time, the sub-zero temperatures, the clogging drifts of snow, seemed climatic correlates of the iciness and inertia which gripped the country. Today they are just weather.
In a world where you can hear the latest Rick Astley single within weeks of its appearance as you walk through the ancient bazaar in Kathmandu, there are few places which remain truly alien, truly elsewhere. Even Romania has fallen. Nobody wants Gorbachev's reforms to fail; but some of us are glad that we saw the Brezhnev era before it vanished.
'Truckling' is one of those words that become odder and odder the more you say or ponder them. 'Truckling' now means to yield meanly or obsequiously. It is a reasonable and intriguing question to ask why this particular word in this particular form has acquired this sense. Fortunately we have a number of lexicographical snapshots of its earlier incarnations which, like those unbelievable and embarrassing photographs taken so many years ago showing us with weird haircuts and in outmoded fashions, map out quite clearly the sometimes startling shifts of meaning and - further back - of morphology.
Before it acquired its present pejorative sense, 'truckling' meant to place yourself beneath someone else. It derived from the truckle bed, which was habitually stored under an ordinary bed, and so was necessarily lower. It was therefore a fairly natural jump to talk of someone 'truckling' - taking the truckle bed - in other situations. But it was also an inspired one, born of people's love of analogy, of finding shapes in life that match, of fleshing out the one-dimensional literalism of a word with a multi-dimensional panoply of sly and sideways meanings.
The truckle bed was named for the truckles - small wheels or castors - which it employed. It was therefore once the bed with the truckles; the English language's powerful compacting ability - where nouns can be rammed together in these pithy, descriptive combinations with an ease denied many other great languages, for example the Romance family - created a new concept out of two old ones. Time and habit soon did the rest, until the truckle bed became a single idea apprehended without any sense of bifurcation.
The truckle as castor had its origin in an earlier meaning of the word: in medieval times it was a small, grooved wheel used as a pulley for a rope. Again, our innate ability to spot similarities encouraged the transfer: when people started using small wheels as castors, they clearly looked like truckles, even though they were different in purpose; so truckles they became - or rather the world of the truckle was extended to embrace them. Linguistic dynamics and the society which drove them then saw to it that the centre of gravity of the word shifted from its original usage to the later, apparently more common and useful one.
The truckle as pulley can be traced back centuries more. There is a Norman-French word 'trocle' with the same meaning; truckle is merely its Anglicisation. 'Trocle' in turn derives from a simplification of the Latin word 'trochlea', itself a honing of the Ancient Greek 'trochilia'; both mean a pulley wheel. What is remarkable is not that we can follow the word back so far, but that down the years such myriad tugs and turns have been inflicted on its form and function. What we do not know are who the people were who caused these shifts. For every one of them was instituted by someone, at a certain moment, who had the requisite insight or indolence or ignorance. Nor is this process at an end; who knows what 'truckling' may mean tomorrow? Perhaps you do: perhaps you will make the next great semantic leap for the world and language to follow. After all, someone has got to do it. Keep on truckling.