At one time I spent over a year searching through British newspapers and journals of the 1920s to 1950s looking for articles on or relating to Wyndham Lewis. I ended up reading a great deal of other material to relieve the tedium of the chase, and soon noticed that there are standardised stories that recur in all periods, right up to the present day. The most obvious, perhaps, is the Recipe for Long Life: "Mr Toothless celebrated his 90th birthday yesterday by playing a volleyball with his five daughters and fifteen grandchildren. He attributes his long and healthy life to a double scotch and a cigar before breakfast. 'I've done it since I was a nipper, he said, 'it really sets you up for the day.'"

Another such story is the Useless Item of Clothing. It may be this timeless press tic that Wodehouse was thinking of when he made Bertie ask Jeeves "What is the point of trousers?". As ever, the butler's response is the epitome of wisdom: "Patience, sir, the moment will pass."

Be that as it may, the story itself shows no sign of dying out. Jeremy Paxman is apparently refusing to wear a tie on television, referring to it as a "an utterly useless part of the male wardrobe" ("Time to go tie-less?").

What makes this latest avatar of more than trivial interest is the weak ground of its basic premise. To be blunt, the view that the tie has no function is demonstrably wrong; indeed it is an obviously practical solution to an enduring problem confronting adult men. However, as far as I can tell from my own acquaintance and research, this value is almost unrecognised, though it could hardly be simpler. The fact is that the tie protects the shirt from the harshly abrasive surface of the shaved lower jaw by holding the collar close against the hairless portion of the neck and so out of harm's way. With a tie a shirt lasts reasonably well; without one it rapidly becomes a rag. This economic benefit is purchased, of course, at the cost of comfort. Or to put it the other way around, the ease of the open neck must be bought at the expense of your shirt.

It is therefore unsurprising that rejection of the tie is strongest in wealthy periods such as our own, and amongst those on high incomes (Byron, Shelley, Mayfair hedge fund operators, BBC television news presenters). To this list may be added those, such as youths and academics, who are both shielded from economic reality and do not in any case appear to shop for their own clothes.

Popular or widespread versions of psychoanalysis, for which I think the root thinkers and their texts must be held responsible, present the subconscious as a separate entity that operates or can operate independently of the rest of the mind, and probably exists in a superior or at least a dominant plane. This intuitive character drama is immediately attractive to the unsuspicious reader, and suggests that the unconscious is the power behind the throne, the prisoner behind the fleshen mask, the mad woman in the attic, the suppressed voice, the excluded minority, Abel to Cain, Ormuzd to Ahriman.

However, there is no evidence to suggest that there must be such an additional but subconscious organic whole. Other inferences are at least as plausible; indeed, what indications we have lead to the more theoretically economical view that the mind in some states, sleep for example, operates without consciousness and perhaps without access to other functions.

This is a very long way from the psychoanalytical suggestion that the mind in dream reveals a hidden self. There is no reason, after all, for thinking that an engine in neutral and idling is a separate or more authentic machine than the same engine in gear and under load.

The philosophy of mind is rich in the needless multiplication of entities, but the 'unconscious' is perhaps the most speciously attractive and misleading of any.

Is there a case for thinking that much of the available literary talent in the last century has been drawn to write for children? Perhaps. Why? Because in that realm they are almost free of illiberal interference, and as a consequence can write about the world as a physical experience, rather than a pretext for a delicately poised moral commentary, as is demanded in writing for adults. Freedom is a great magnet.

Then again, the high average quality of writing for the young could simply be explained by the fact that since the area is relatively unconstrained, even mediocrities can bloom in ways that first raters working within the narrow constraints of prestige intellectual composition could not hope to emulate.

Peter & Jane and Pat the Dog nearly killed my interest in reading. Giles saved me. My grandfather had a nearly complete run of the annuals, and though I had little or no understanding of the history or sociology or the politics that informed them, it was obvious that they were intended to be amusing, perhaps funny, and it seemed reasonable to assume that the captions were the key to this. So, after a miserable day attempting to spell my way through the well-meaning but unrewarding adventures of the textbooks I turned to the pages of Giles' late 1940s and 1950s collections again and again, asking questions of my parents and sometimes getting answers. "Who is this little ugly man? He's in lots of the cartoons." "Lord Beaverbrook." "What's he?" "He owned the newspaper." "Is that his name?" "No." "Is that his name?" "No." "Is that..." "No, give it to me.... that's his name." "Oh." And eventually this informal and unconventional course gave me a reading age almost equivalent to that of Pat the Dog.

But my initial premise had been quite mistaken. Giles wasn't funny because of the captions; indeed, they were irrelevant to whatever humour the drawings offered, and perhaps even destructive. Certainly, the words were a distraction. The interest, and the comedy, which is of a non-explosive kind, was all in the drawing

A few years later my mother started reading the New Yorker, which was dense with articles the first sentence of which induced complete boredom, and many weirdly entertaining cartoons of another world. These were mostly small, abbreviated sketches, and, to my surprise, were almost entirely reliant on their text. Captionless they were unintelligible, and uninteresting. Even with their words decoded the social territory on which they relied was alien, but without them the drawings were dead, and this was true of some of the best.

This was very different from Giles, though it must be granted that as he aged he became progressively more reliant on the verbal support of his captions, and that after the mid-sixties his drawing began to deteriorate in vigour and inventive detail. This mattered because his verbal invention had never been robust, certainly not strong enough to be the mainstay of the presentation, and as the drawings failed the strain on the captions became insupportable. I can hardly bear to look at anything he did after 1969, and nobody should form an opinion of his work on the basis of the later 'written' work, as opposed to the 'drawn' humour of his output from 1945 to 1960.

This distinction between approaches, drawing and talking towards humour, applies very broadly across the cartoon world, and it seems that few can move from one to another, and hardly any are equally strong in both. On the whole, American cartooning is verbally driven, whether it is a strip or a single frame image. It is a rare Garfield or Dilbert that attempts or has any visual interest. These are illustrated dialogues, verbal gags with schematic drawings functioning as stage directions, and the New Yorker is still full of such things, though I like them less now and feel guilty about my ingratitude. Some, Gary Larson is a good example, are mixed cases, but in such instances, and this is overwhelmingly true of Larson, the imaginative content is predominantly and initially verbal, only subsequently being realised in a drawn form. The contrast with Giles' vacant babies is sharp.

Indeed, the bias of British cartooning seems to be in the other direction, being fundamentally pictorial and with a much blunter and less neatly jointed verbal humour (our jokes rarely close with a click, and we never slam them shut in any case). But the verbal/pictorial distinction is valid here too. Matt thinks abruptly in words and casually draws the point out; Peter Brookes maps his discoveries and later adds supplementary legends. Martin Rowson's frenzied curses are pre-scripted before delivery from the linear scaffold of his design; Bell beats his victims clumsily with a pencil, only afterwards offering a tedious explanation of his motives. But all, with the exception, perhaps, of Matt, are visual by contrast with their American contemporaries, at least the ones of which I am aware. Then again, put all these cartoonists alongside Ed MacLachlan, who is a comic draughtsman par excellence, and they appear verbally dependent, though without the redeeming hellzapoppin wise-crackery of the purer form. Perhaps it is sentimental of me, but I would trade them all for an early Giles.

Music has no part in my life. I simply can't recall when I last deliberately listened to a recording or a live performance. I think it must be at least two years ago, when we went to hear students of the Royal College play in the National Gallery.

But I am not at all indifferent to the matter. Indeed, it would be more accurate to say that I exclude music from my life. When websites play things at me I turn the sound off; I don't own a radio; there is no CD player in the house; the car has both, or just a radio (I've never looked), but I don't use the sound system in any case; if a neighbour plays something, anything, I close the window.

It's not that I'm uninterested in music; in fact it fascinates me and my response to all varieties is strong. I just don't like it, and can't see any reason to blot out the natural, unstructured and uncoordinated background noise that surrounds us, for instance the occasional passing car, the hiss and clunk of central heating, footfalls on the pavement, the white drone of a plane, and the irregular rhythm of leaves pulsing in the wind. Of course I admit that these are not fascinating in themselves, but I don't object to them. Music, on the other hand, seems very thin, intrusive, and distracting, like a nagging human voice, and it makes me long for silence.

There must be other people like this, but we don't appear to be common.

The house journal of the Royal Society of the Arts (the RSA) has just arrived. I always turn the pages, but increasingly with a sinking feeling. The editorial policy seems to encourage articles that are extremely long on abstract imperatives, and very short on information. However, discursive utterance can be revealing, not so much about the subject in hand, but the author. Here is a passage from an article by the journalist Neal Ascherson on why 'neo-liberal' political structures can't deliver the benefits of European Union, and why we should be unconcerned about a more coercive central authority:

If [...] the revived union is given stronger powers of intervention and discipline, nobody should fear the emergence of a superstate. It is both the wonder and the weakness of Europe, as a political entity, that it will never be a clanking armoured giant capable of instant decisions. On the contrary, its texture will be spongy, variegated, irregular - a rich and beautiful organism with every kind of visitor swimming in and out of its pores. (Neal Ascherson, "Europa's Trials", RSA Journal (Summer 2012), 39–41.)

When thought and behaviour is naively inconsistent with the world as it actually stands, as with the waddle and costume of a clown, or the gaucherie of Mr Bean, it provokes embarrassed and condescending laughter. Should Mr Ascherson be allowed out on his own? One wonders, and not only altrusitically, for the folly of the fool is potentially dangerous to all around him, as Mr Ascherson's concluding description of his dream Europe demonstrates:

That sort of union will never [...] be able to look after its own defence, and its common foreign policy will be a leisurely, bickering debate rather than the monosyllable of command. As a confederation, with ultimate power distributed among is member-nations, it will feel almost pre-modern. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was rather like this. So was the Holy Roman Empire, which jurists called monstro simile, 'like unto a monster', passing comprehension in all its complexities and exceptions. But this coming European Union, the post-crisis Europe, will be a gentle monster, and I think its landscape will become a happy place to live in.

This is politics as painting, with the future rendered as a rich Breughel of deep perspective, populated by happy peasants in colourful costumes, all presided over by a benevolent and toothless dragon. But this vision does not survive close examination. The Empire and the Commonwealth were both capable military forces, inflicting a crushing defeat, for example, on the Turks at the Battle of Vienna (1683), and even if the Europe for which Mr Ascherson hopes is indeed spongy and unthreatening to neighbouring states it emphatically does not follow that the liberty and lives of those within it will be protected. It was discontent, after all, with the authority of the Holy Roman Empire that produced the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), one of the most savage and disruptive conflicts in the continent's sad history. Monsters, even if unadventurous, tend to bear down heavily on the ground beneath them.

Re-reading John Fowles' introduction to The Lymiad just before going to press I came across his remark on disliking the injusticies of Regency Lyme. The comment is a distraction, thrown out to take the querulous reader's eye, and draw him off; but the field indicated is a real concern. We do all of us tend, in certain moods, to view history as if able to redistribute the world's favours according to the merits that only our own time (and often only we ourselves) can rank according to their true value. But this is a tyrannical vanity, or rather a vanity that would be a tyrant.

Soberly, we have no way of knowing that our scheme of rewards is anything other than a reflection of self-interest, or a fiction in which we permit ourselves the role of philanthropist in order to patronise past suffering. And when, as now, there is a suspicous consensus on this subject, we can be sure that it is brought about by almost the only thing that all men have in common, envy.

 

Anthologies are rich in cruel juxtapositions. While finishing an article last year I needed to check the text of Scott's 'Coronach' as it appears in a particular edition of Palgrave's Golden Treasury. The library let me down, and with a deadline approaching I had to buy a copy on the Charing Cross road, so I ended up re-reading the whole collection. The Treasury is a superb gathering, and there is little that is not of a high standard. Nonetheless, it could have been designed to make one particular point: 'Mr Shakespeare', to use Pound's famous remark on Eliot's plays, 'retains his position.'

 

Specifically, the selections in the Golden Treasury show Shakespeare to great advantage in his handling of verse, with long and complex passages uninterrupted by any awkward turn of syntax. Weaker writers more often resort to relocated phrases in search of a rhyme or a convenient rhythm, but Shakespeare almost never employs such distortions or leaves the reader conscious of  an artful disposition of material. By comparison the other authors in the anthology, nearly all of them first rank writers, appear clumsy and artificial. Perhaps it is unfair to offer Milton's 'Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity' as an example, but the piece is not far off in the book and in spite of pleasant lines or shorter passages is conspicously ill at ease by comparison.

 

Shakespeare's quality is not facility alone, but sustained and extended performance, and he seems to have no equal. In Milton's defense it might be objected that he actually cared about what he was trying to express (hardly a sensible aim when writing in verse), and that perhaps Shakespeare did not. However, the author of the sonnets does not strike the reader as a 'tiresome fribble' who, like a barrister, can seem to mean what he is obliged to say. The simplest explanation available is likeliest; Shakespeare is pretty much all he is cracked up to be.