What enterprise that an enlightened community may attempt is more noble and more profitable that the reclamation from barbarism of fertile regions and large populations? To give peace to warring tribes, to administer justice where all was violence, to strike the chains off the slave, to draw the richness from the soil, to plant the earliest seeds of commerce and learning, to increase in whole peoples their capacities for pleasure and diminish their chances of pain -- what more beautiful ideal or more valuable reward can inspire human effort?
Yet as the mind turns from the wonderful cloudland of aspiration to the ugly scaffolding of attempt and achievement, a succession of opposite ideas arise... The inevitable gap between conquest and dominion becomes filled with the figures of the greedy trader, the inopportune missionary, the ambitious soldier, and the lying speculator, who disquiet the minds of the conquered and excite the sordid appetites of the conquerers. And as the eye of thought rests on these sinister features, it hardly seems possible for us to believe that any fair prospect is approached by so foul a path.
Or so said Churchill, back in the day when he was still fairly useless at playing First Lord of the Admiralty, yet very good indeed at writing. I saw these passages cited in a book about the Empire, and saw their connection with recent events. But I also saw that scaffold would have conjured up images of the hangman and his noose, of trapdoors, of falling and of immediate yet anticapated doom. An image we lack in our own enlightened times, free of hangings but not, alas, of barbarous beheadings and warring factions.
And, politics aside, my thoughts also turned to a book I've just read, Digital Fortress, described by some reviewers as Brain candy, or a brainy thriller, when it lacked for any sort of imagery beyond the trite and expected. Seas of black in the darkness, everything suddenly, nothing researched... And I wondered for a moment what we'd lost.
But then I remembered where I learnt about images, and how words can draw them through my imagination, of only connect, and of the savage pain of unexpected loss. I was worried that we'd lost something along the way, that somehow no one could find it in themselves to excite me or touch me with language, but there are still some that do. Good writing is out there, and it won't be going away, but I should probably buy fewer thrillers while waiting for trains at Swindon.