Books: Glued to the Box : Bottom of the sea | clivejames.com
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Bottom of the sea

One and a half miles down off the Galapagos Islands, according to The World About Us (BBC2), there are hot-air vents on the ocean floor. Around these vents cluster some of the least photogenic life-forms known to man.

Man goes down there by means of a cute little submarine known as Alvin. When man gets there, he searches around for hot-air vents. The vents are caused by the pressure of the earth’s molten core blowing holes in its thin crust. When this happens, the temperature of the sea is raised, and life appears where no life had been before. The life includes tube-worms, sea-spiders, weirdo fish of the type that we are always warned we will have to eat when we have finished off the kinds we don’t mind looking at, and, inevitably, Alvin.

Crouched in the bowels of Alvin, American scientists gaze out in rapture at the clustered tube-worms. The tube-worms are red-blooded, like scientists. They dwell in lengths of tube. They look like lengths of tube. There is nothing about them which is not tube-like. But look over there! What is that strange, spaghetti-like structure? Is it spaghetti? No, it is more worms. And now a rat-tailed fish noses towards the window, obeying the universal instinct of all creation — to be on television.

As a special edition of Panorama (BBC1) inadvertently demonstrated, life around a hot-air vent on the bottom of the sea off the Galapagos Islands has a lot in common with modern China. For example, there is about the same standard of public debate in each case. Reporter Michael Cockerell devoted his investigation chiefly to the Role of the Media in Chinese Society. The People’s Daily now has the democratic right to say anything it likes about the Gang of Four. This right, however, must not be abused. Nobody is allowed to criticise the Communist Party.

Since the Communist Party, as personified by its all-wise father Chairman Mao, was directly responsible for the Gang of Four coming into existence, you would think that being debarred from mentioning this fact would place a pretty large restriction on political analysis, and you would be right. The People’s Daily keeps Deng’s cliché’s set up in type so that they can get his latest speech into print without delay. This is merely laughable, but it was pitiable to see and hear the paper’s editor trying to think in the same manner.

The editor had been arrested during the Cultural Revolution and tortured for a grand total of seven years. During the daily torture sessions the Red Guards invited him to criticise his own errors. Not much of a one for public displays of emotion, he nevertheless gave way to tears when he remembered this. Yet recently his newspaper congratulated the Party on jailing the dissident Wei for fifteen years. Wei’s crime had been to suggest that Deng’s famous Four Modernisations would be meaningless without a fifth, namely democracy. Plainly Wei was right, but tube-worms are not allowed to talk like that. All they are allowed to say is glug.

We were shown some dedicated cadres removing Mao’s sayings from a wall in Peking. Perhaps some day soon his god-head will be removed too. The problem will then arise of whom to worship next. I suppose it will be Deng, but a better choice would be Wei, who is a true hero. Wei, when you think of it, is the hope not just of China but of the whole world. As a teenager he was a Red Guard, which meant that he spent his days making life miserable for his elders and betters. But when he grew up he realised that it had all been a mistake: that the Party was not infallible after all, and that there was such a thing as individual conscience. Wei figured this out all by himself even when the whole pressure of the State was coming down on top of him. One’s conclusion — small consolation, but some — is that human society can never be quite like the bottom of the sea.

21 September, 1980