Counting Cats in Zanzibar Rotating Header Image


“I did begin a story placed about 100 years after the Downfall, but it proved both sinister and depressing. Since we are dealing with Men, it is inevitable that we should be concerned with the most regrettable feature of their nature: their quick satiety with good. So that the people of Gondor in times of peace, justice and prosperity, would become discontented and restless — while the dynasts descended from Aragorn would become just kings and governors — like Denethor or worse. I found that even so early there was an outcrop of revolutionary plots, about a centre of secret Satanistic religion; while Gondorian boys were playing at being Orcs and going around doing damage. I could have written a ‘thriller’ about the plot and its discovery and overthrow — but it would have been just that. Not worth doing.”

―The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 256

Yup. Wise old stick was JRRT. I don’t do his anti-industrialism but what I bolded (and italiced) says worlds to me. “their quick satiety with good”. Oh yeah, baby – we have that in spades! And in pure literary terms how could he top LoTR? It just wasn’t the epic. Tolkien was very English (as was Elgar – also a Brummie – sort of) – “a smiling with a sigh” – the violin concerto? They saw hideous things (JRRT was a junior officer in WWI and got a Blighty) and an age of genuine progress (Victoria) hit the buffers, badly. You heard the phrase, “How the other half live”? Ever wondered what that specifically reffed? Before Victoria came to the throne roughly half the population of these Britannic Isles lived in abject poverty. By the time she joined the choir eternal it was 10%. I’d call that a result. Was this the result of political machinations? Was it heck! It was the result of the Stephensons and Teslas, the Armstrongs and Watts, the Swans and Edisons, Daimler and Benz, Parsons and Morse, the Maxwells and Marconis, Semmelweiss and Seacole… And hordes more. We built the foundations for a paradise undreamed of by the greatest potentates of Egypt or Babylon and we pissed it up the wall because as JRRT put it we can’t sit still.

In 1900 Russia had the highest rate of GDP growth on the planet. Yes, the Tsar was a vainglorious dimwit but imagine Russia now if folks had just hung-on? Imagine Europe now without two catastrophic wars?

JRRT wrote some unforgettable lines but he out-did even himself with…

“the most regrettable feature of their nature: their quick satiety with good”

Absolutely bang on the money. We are kids, really. We will play with something till it is broke. It is the curse of the double-knowing ape. Maybe it can be our blessing too. I dunno. I am due at our little war memorial tomorrow. It is somewhat sobering.

When I was a primary school kid me and my mates built a fall-out shelter – having seen “Threads” – on some waste ground. We lined it with cardboard boxes – well proof against a Sov bomb and we had the Armstrong Works Tank Factory just down the road. Actually my mate Steve brought the dog – a Collie – and she did much of the digging. We were really scared. We even stashed some bottles of pop in there, in case. And to think a few years later the Berlin Wall comes down (Nice! Peace at last!) and then we have bearded loons flying Boeings into buildings! Jesus fuckimg wept! It never ends.


  1. John Galt says:

    I’ve always had issues with the “anti-industrialisation” thing, I think it actually arose from the mechanised killing that JRRT saw in the trenches during WWI, particularly the Somme Offensive, which was one of the bloodiest battles ever fought. I think after witnessing that battle close-up we’d probably have issues as well.

    Incidentally, the “Blighty” that had JRRT posted home with was Trench Fever, where faeces from lice get into an open wound. Although rarely fatal, it’s not a disease I would wish on anyone although around 20% of all WWI forces suffered from it at some point, including C.S. Lewis.

    Going to the wreath laying at the Penang Cenotaph tomorrow, which should be interesting.

    Penang Cenotaph

  2. Flaxen Saxon says:

    Indeed, NickM us men are wretched creatures. It has always been this way. The downfall of Western society came with the Great War. A pointless and ultimately futile contest. At least with medieval wars the devastation lasted until the money ran out. Peasant plunder could only stand so much. Real madness only came when we became rich and scientific.Endless money, men and machines meant the conflagration would be long and consume civilisation as we knew it. Europe emerged without a belief in God, King and Country; belief in Victorian values squandered on the Somme and Verdun. We owe the war for our wonderful modern world- acknowledge this at least. Still can’t help think that without it we would have remained happier, but not better.

  3. Julie near Chicago says:

    An excellent posting on a favorite quote of mine, Nick. So I’ll repeat it:

    “…[T]he most regrettable feature of their nature: their quick satiety with good.”

    Humans seem to love to build, to make things, and to make things over. You see this in home-dec projects. Spend ten years with various parts of the house torn apart, new wallpaper in the bedroom, new furniture in the living room, new floor in the kitchen, new draperies all around…and at the end of ten years it’s done! Now we can relax and enjoy it!

    And within weeks, over even days, sometimes, one realizes there is a hole in one’s life. Hmmm, that wallpaper is really a bit much, and we need more storage space in the bathroom….

    It’s hard enough to live with when it’s one’s own self or business (whether it’s redecorating or “improving” what is already a perfectly utile and relatively unbuggy program), but when the Government grows into this mode there’s hell to pay. And it, my dears, it will…the Gov hears the promises of Balaam ringing in its ears, but is deaf to the warnings of the Ass….

    . . .

    “By the time she joined the choir eternal it was 10%. I’d call that a result. Was this the result of political machinations?”

    Well, yes, in that the political situation was like well-plowed ground into which Stephenson’s, Tesla’s, et al.’s seeds of knowledge and engineering could germinate and put down roots. For instance, they’d have been either in Siberia or pushing up Arctic daisies in the 20th-century U.S.S.R.

    . . .

    Nevertheless, Nick, great to read. Thanks. :)

  4. mbsrrs says:

    “Yes, the Tsar was a vainglorious dimwit . . . ”

    Now where did you get that, Nick?

  5. Tim Newman says:

    Russia’s GDP growth pre-revolution was high mainly because they were starting from such an extraordinarily low base (which is ironically also why the GDP growth of Russia in the last 10 years has been high). But yes. The place was industrializing rapidly, with the help of many a Brit. What is now Donetsk, the heart of the Ukrainian coal basin, was founded by a Welshman who specialised in mining gear. The original name of the town was a Russified version of Hughestown.

  6. Roue le Jour says:

    I’m not convinced. The problem is not so much that men have had enough of goodness, although that certainly happens, mainly to young men, but that goodness becomes a given. After things have been good throughout living memory, the idea takes root that the goodness is indestructible, and that nothing will precipitate a return to the bad old days, no amount of profligacy or irresponsibility will make the good times come to an end. And then they do.

  7. Julie near Chicago says:

    RlJ, a very good point.

  8. Dioclese says:

    “It is in man’s nature to destroy himself” Who said that? I can’t remember but it comes to mind.

  9. NickM says:

    I read history and my wife has a BA in Russian from Leeds University. I think I know of what I speak.

  10. mbsrrs says:

    It does seem odd that one who despises old Bolshy claptrap should continue to propagate it.

    Your statement about Nicholas II is as false as everything else said about him by the Bolsheviki. You can check in with those at Leeds U. and find that they have had archival contacts with us. I, RRS, am of Swiss and Norwegian descent. The MB stands for Marina Botkin (now deceased) she is the granddaughter of Eugene Botkin. Simply Google that name, and you will understand my challenge.

    You certainly can not support that judgment of “vainglorious; nor can you justify “dimwit.”

  11. John Galt says:

    “Yes, the Tsar was a vainglorious dimwit . . . ”

    mbsrrs, you can certainly argue the succinctness of NickM’s response, but as someone who has also read up a lot on the fall of the Tsar’s and the rise of the bolsheviks, I’d have to agree that Nikolay Alexandrovich Romanov aka Nicholas II, was certainly vainglorious (in part egged on by his bloody wife) and by ignoring or overriding the advice of his generals during WWI could reasonably be described as a dimwit.

    There are other accusations which could be levelled at him and many were, even by his own extended family, but I think NickM’s one liner is a fairly accurate description.

  12. mbsrrs says:

    J G

    et tu, J G!

    What have you read? What were their sources?

    Have you tried:
    Richard Pipes? Even Robert K. Massie? The latter day post-soviet Russian historians?

    Shall we next read here that the Staret ruled Russia.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: