‘J’ is not the title of this novel. The title is ‘J’ with two lines through it, to denote the two fingers that one of the central characters, Kevern Cohen, puts neurotically to his lips whenever he utters the letter ‘J’. For this is a novel about things that are not uttered, and the consequences of that silence.

The backdrop is grey and flat. Officially Jacobson’s England is a peaceful place: indeed to suggest that it is not is dangerous. Yet many of the women in the bleak Cornish village where much of the plot takes place have bruised faces. There is murder and sexual violence.

There is a systematic cult of the anodyne. Nothing is exactly banned – for to ban something would demand detailed examination of the reasons for the ban – and rigour of any sort is feared. But jazz is disapproved of, because it involves improvisation. People like to know at the beginning of a tune how it will end. The cultural diet is bland: people read ‘rags-to-riches memoirs, cookbooks and romances’.

Another marker of this tedious monoculture is the names. Everyone has a Jewish surname. Cornwall is full of Cohens and Goldsteins. This, it gradually emerges, is because of a devastating, near-complete Holocaust. At some political and psychological level the evil of this has been acknowledged: the names have been changed so that never again will Jews be identifiable. If everyone is a Cohen the real Cohens will be safe. Yet at another level the event is denied. It is literally unthinkable that it could have happened. And so it is always referred to as ‘What happened, if it happened.’ There is a ‘non-statutory monitor of the public mood’ which promotes passivity through maxims such as ‘The over-examined life is not worth living’ and ‘let sleeping dogs lie.’ For this society, history does not exist: it is unwise to possess old things. Old, improvised things are particularly frowned upon. ‘If someone asks you about Fats Waller’, advises Kevern Cohen’s father, ‘deny all knowledge.’

Two Jews escaped the Holocaust: Kevern Cohen and Ailinn Solomons. They are counter-cultural. They read real literature and listen to Fats Waller. Their meeting is engineered by, and their burgeoning relationship fostered by the State. But why? [click to continue…]



by Charles on July 15, 2014

On the shelves in my study there are long rows of small, hard-backed notebooks. Most of them are blue or black, with a red fabric spine. On the spine there are usually some dates, and often some place names: Beirut: 8-9/1993; Danakil: 4/2002; Misc North Africa 4-6/2007; Spitsbergen and North Pole: 2004; Peloponnese, 9/1997. Occasionally there are some subjects: Swifts; Wolf-cults; Being an Animal; Intuitions; and, mysteriously, not to say pretentiously, ‘Notes from a Yorkshire Sinai’.

When I take a notebook down, blow off the dust, and open it, things fall out; a receipt for dinner for two in Cairo (who was she? And how on earth did I afford that as an undergraduate?); a faded blue flower from a radioactive mountain in Kyrgyzstan; grains of sand from Wadi Rum; part of a menu from Kashgar; a butterfly wing from the highlands of West Papua; a bus ticket from Van to Ankara. At the back of each notebook there are scribbles, often in another hand; the dose of tinadazole for the giardia I got in the Kumaon hills; the address, in a grim Almaty tower block, of Olga, who always (says my annotation), wore beaver-skin boots; the date when the first swallows gust over the Straits of Gibraltar; the time of the late, slow train from Madras to Trichi; the name of a man in Andritsaina who puts out a dog bowl of wine for Dionysus every night.

But nothing falls out of recent notebooks. There are no recent notebooks. I’ve been away a lot, and I’ve written. But I’ve seen the business of writing as the business of fitting what I see into a – and increasingly the scheme. So I’ve sat at café tables in Reykjavik, Delhi, Brisbane and Addis Ababa looking around me and gathering only what is necessary to support The Thesis. [click to continue…]


Travelling with camels: a practical guide

by Charles on March 7, 2013

1.         Why use camels?

1.1       The alternatives are feet and vehicles. Vehicles are boring, unreliable and hopeless in mountains and serious sand. Feet cannot carry for any significant distances the food and (particularly) water needed to keep them going. So unless the desert area you are in is not a proper desert, you cannot rely on feet.

1.2       So the main reason why you should use camels is that unless you do your expedition will fail and you may well die. Camels are temperamental, sometimes violent, and take a lot of getting used to. But most of the classic desert journeys have been done with them, and one photograph of a camel is worth a thousand photographs of an air-conditioned Land Cruiser.

2.         What sort of terrain can be crossed?

2.1       Sand, obviously. And rocky and mountainous areas if the camels are used to it. If they are not, rocks will cut their feet to ribbons.

2.2       All dromedaries hate mud and are pretty miserable in all wet weather. I know nothing about Bactrians.

3.         Should you hire or buy?

3.1       For long expeditions you should consider buying. Unless you have extensive experience of camels, supreme self confidence,  a knowledge of the local camel trade  and a lot of time on your hands, you should delegate the buying and the subsequent selling on to someone local who knows the business. He will take a big cut, but it should not be as big as that taken by the man who hires camels out to you.

3.2       If you intend to buy, build into the expedition schedule time to try out your wares. If you buy on a Monday and set out into the dunes on the Tuesday you need urgent psychiatric help.

3.3       For short expeditions you would be insane to buy. Hiring more or less guarantees the provision of an animal which is capable of staggering round the course. [click to continue…]

Who were the Israelites?

by Charles on February 28, 2013

Somehow, sometime, and somewhere, Israel became a people. That meant two different but related things: it meant becoming different from its neighbours, and it meant becoming itself. Often Israelite self-identification was negative: ‘We are Israelite because we are not Philistine’, or ‘We are Israelite because we do not eat pigs’. Sometimes it still is. Neighbours matter. They mould us.
The neighbours
Whether or not the first Israelite was a Mesopotamian wanderer called Abraham, we first see Israel in the archaeological record in the highlands of Canaan in the late Bronze Age.
Canaan was a backwater. For a long time the eastern Mediterranean had been dominated by three great, proud Kingdoms, whose glory and shadow fell over Canaan. To the west there was the strutting, martial New Kingdom of Egypt; to the north the Mittani and the Hittites, scheming, callous, imperial administrators, masters of arms and realpolitik; to the north west the golden, sea-going Mycenaens, Homer’s warriors, watching from their Peloponnesian palaces the shifting alliances of the Levant; and to the east, there was burning sand, crossed occasionally by caravans of myrrh. [click to continue…]


A Dyslexic boy in a Trojan horse

by Charles on October 25, 2012

‘Come in’, said the Well Known Educational Psychologist. We did. ‘Please sit down’, she said, and we did. She didn’t waste time, and quite right too. We wanted to know.

‘Tom and I have had a very interesting afternoon.’ That sounded bad.

‘He’s a very able child indeed’. That sounded worse, because it came with the emphatic pause that always indicates a big ‘but’.

In the pause I wondered why we’d done this. Why we’d taken a little boy out of the woods and out of his playground to have someone fumble inside his head with blunt tools: indices, probes, inventories, and assumptions about normality. [click to continue…]

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In the Hot Unconscious

by Charles August 19, 2012

Charles Foster’s latest book, ‘In the Hot Unconscious: An Indian Journey’, has just been published. It’s about how myths are made and perceived, and about the conversation that has to happen, and usually doesn’t, between the mystical traditions of East and West, and between the two sides of our own heads. What critics are saying: [...]

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A framework for Jewish medical ethics

by Charles June 13, 2012

Introduction My most recently published book on bioethics was an attempt to suggest that human dignity was the foundational principle in bioethics – the principle on which all other principles were parasitic. ‘Dignity’ has not had a good reputation in the Academy. It is commonly dismissed as hopelessly amorphous, incurably theological, or parasitic on more [...]

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My son’s dyslexic, and I’m glad

by Charles February 16, 2012

My son is dyslexic, and I’m glad. Most people think that I am deranged or callous. But I have two related reasons, both of which seem to me to be good. The first is that his dyslexia is an inextricable part of him. I can’t say: ‘This is the pathological bit, which I resent’, as [...]

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Human enhancement: A symposium

by Charles November 6, 2011

23 November 2011: 6-8 pm: E.P Abraham Lecture Theatre, Green Templeton College, Oxford. Humans have always sought to enhance themselves and their performance. Examples include education, the drinking of coffee, and the choice of reproductive partners whose genes are perceived to be desirable. But now, and increasingly, technology allows for enhancement of a kind and [...]

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The Six Pillars of Jewish Wisdom

by Charles July 26, 2011

What on earth is the philosophy of Judaism? There are six elements. Each has roots in the Pentateuch. It is part of the mystery of Jewish identity that these principles produce techniques that are fecund and unembarrassing in the hands of avowed secularists.

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