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Nº79 Three Monkeys
bibliomaniac
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When I was a kid, I had a thing about monkeys. Not Mickey, Michael, Peter and Davy. I loathed them. Altogether too clean. But real monkeys with hair on their backs and slightly different genes from the more puzzling primates governing my more immediate environment. In fact, I wanted to grow up to be one. Top model for monkey business was Judy, the chimp in Daktari. She was the monkey I wanted to be - almost, at least. Judy was always up to mischief. I liked that. But I was of two minds. I also thought I ought to grow up to be Clarence the Cross-eyed Lion.

Judy would have had it hands down, except for one thing - she was a she. I had difficulties with that. I could envisage leaping species, but switching genders seemed a step too far. Clarence, meanwhile, was a he, which at the time seemed like a moderately compelling reason for growing up to be him. But he had a daft name and he was cross-eyed. I was already lumbered with Rupert as a middle name, so I was wary of adopting an identity that would make me sound even more like a cissy, albeit a cissy lion, and I certainly didn't want to be cross-eyed.

Boring bugger, too. He just sat there looking decorative and roaring once in a while when the producers spliced in a piece of inappropriate stock footage. You remember the sort of thing. One minute you were on the studio lot, the next herds of wildebeest were bounding across the veldt, lumbering hippopotamuses were plunging into a pond, or enraged bull elephants were charging out of the bush, scenes manifestly stolen from different films even to the eyes of a five year old. Didn't trouble Clarence, though. He just roared away while the sound editor spun his special effects record in search of stock Birds-In-Jungle noises. Anyhow, Clarence never got up to any mischief.

For several years, whether I ought to become Judy or Clarence was one of the more taxing dilemmas in my life, and that at an age not unrich in taxing dilemmas.

I mention this to give you an idea of how monkeys loomed large in my nonage, so that you can appreciate my predicament when we went to Norfolk on holiday. I'm not saying the people of Norfolk boasted any uncommonly simian characteristics, no more than the people of any other county, at least. They didn't have unusually hairy knuckles and not because the backs of their hands were brushing the ground. The slope of the brow wasn't exceptional. There was no swinging from trees, not from the people of Norfolk, at least, though I did get stuck at the top of one particularly tall tree and had to be rescued by my dad, no small feat for a man who had lost a leg in the war. No, the reason monkeys are associated with Norfolk in my mind is that Norfolk had a gift shop, and in that gift shop they had the works of a local sculptor who made miniature animals in soapstone, and in that menagerie they had The Three Wise Monkeys - Hear No Evil, See No Evil, and Speak No Evil. I was transfixed and not by the morality of it, either. I wanted those monkeys.

Actually, I yearned for them, so that when my parents cottoned onto this ill concealed desire (I think I was swinging from the rafters hollering "Gimme a monkey") and said I could have only one of the things, I was faced with an agonising choice. I stood in front of those bloody monkeys for dark ages puzzling over which one I wanted most, wishing I could have all three, torn in much the same way I was torn between growing up to be Judy the Chimpanzee or Clarence the Cross-eyed Lion. Shortly before the shop shut, I forced myself to choose, and opted for Say No Evil.

I'd like to think that choice was an early sign of literary ambition. As with most of the things I'd like to think, this is probably a large heap of horse manure, but we'll stick with the conceit for the moment. Most ancient wisdom embodies truths so irrefutable that it's hardly wisdom at all, just a statement of the bleeding obvious that was doubtless bleeding obvious to the ancients, too. And when it's not bleeding obvious, it sounds so wrongheaded that one wonders not only how anyone could have come up with it in the first place, but how the hell it has survived so long. But even by the criteria of Ancient Wisdom, See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Say No Evil looks decidedly dodgy to me.

The first two are either a receipt for Panglossian imbecility or an injunction to stick your head in a paper bag and stuff a couple of balls of cotton wool in your ears. You can't see no evil without keeping your eyes permanently closed and you can't hear no evil without cutting yourself off entirely from other people. It's out there. The most marginal lucidity and you're going to see it and hear it. That doesn't mean you go out of your way to embrace it. But you've got to acknowledge that evil stuff is there, possibly that traces of it are lurking about inside yourself. More to the point, if you pretend to be a writer who does anything more than entertain (an entirely meritorious objective in itself, but not the most ambitious), you've really got to confront evil one way or another.

Say No Evil, though, now that is a worthy injunction. Just as the golden rule for doctors is "First, do no harm", I think you could make a case for the writer's golden rule being, "First, say no evil". Hear it, by all means, observe, describe, dissect, reprove, but let's not add to the common pool.

Of course, the texts that have promoted or fomented tangible and obvious evil tend to be a bit shabby when it comes to literary criteria. Nobody goes away from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, for instance, thinking "Now that was a damned good read." If they think at all, of itself highly debatable, it's something along the lines of, "That's what I wanted to hear, it's all their fault, nothing to do with me and my shabby attempt at being a coherent human being."

Malleus Maleficarum, a truly nasty little text that kick-started the late-renaissance witch hysteria and resulted in countless blameless women being tortured to death, owed its success not to its immaculate prose and snappy dialogue, but to the recent invention of the printing press, and a climate of instability and change that meant people were only too eager to read a volume that furnished them with a convenient scapegoat for all their anxieties and woes.

Where there is literary merit, it's a little more complicated. Personally, I still don't know what to make of Céline's anti-Semitic pamphleteering. All I know is that I find it so appalling that it has prevented me reading his acknowledged classics. Otherwise, individual prejudices may lead some to suggest that evil was said in On The Origin of Species, The Wealth of Nations, Utopia, The Interpretation of Dreams, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, The Prince, and any number of theoretical or academic monographs. Lenin and Marx have inspired evil, Nietzsche, too, Plato come to that, and God knows the various books written in His name have done their bit in promoting the self-inflicted miseries of mankind; but in most instances it is a perversion of the text that has engendered evil, not what was said in the text itself.

Even so, it's worth bearing in mind how something is going to be read and what is going to be read into it. The writer does have a responsibility for what comes of a book, so even if you don't believe you are saying any evil, check out your manuscript for the seeds of evil. Bad stuff happens. Best not to add your mite to the pile.

That monkey, though, why did I choose it really? Well, if I'm honest, See No Evil looked too sad for words and Hear No Evil was just plain silly with his hands pressed to his ears, as if clutching his head in dismay at some act of uncommon incompetence. As for Say No Evil, there was a hint of mischief in the way he had his hands clasped over his mouth, a suggestion that he might be sniggering at some great jape not unworthy of Judy herself.

Still wonder whether I wouldn't have done better to grow up to be her, though.

Blow the sex change. It would have been so much fun.