This is a digression from my review of the movie Lolita by Stanley Kubrick, 1962.
By Everard Cunion in January 2014
In Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film Lolita, revolver in hand and thinking aloud, Professor Humbert concocts an apparently convincing story that will let him off the hook in what he is about to do. In London, whether seated at your computer at work or walking about the streets, people are thinking aloud all round you. Often, you will miss somebody addressing you because of the din. I am told that the same is true of New York.
In contrast, in the provinces, talking to yourself is regarded as extremely odd. Consequently, it is rare, whether at work or in the street.
Apart from the documented difference in average intelligence between the populations of London (and doubtless other major cities in any country) and the provinces, there might be additional reasons for this, at least in Britain. Incidentally, I refer to normal Normans in the title because (apart from normal rhymes with Norman) the archetypal Londoner, slim and freckled, and who pauses before answering even the simplest question because his mental world encompasses vistas beyond the comprehension of the questioner (who, as a result of your slowness, gains the impression that you are a bit dim) is of ‘Norman Viking’ stock. I was told by a work colleague, who claimed to know about such things, that such types evolved in Normandy, northern France, who in turn are descended from the Vikings. Nowadays the brightest and best are as likely to be black or brown (but still freckled, I suspect!) and are subject to similar prejudice.
When I moved from London to the south coast at about eight years old – we went back and forth several times over a couple of years – the first thing that struck me was that, while kids in London run from A to B as the normal mode of locomotion, the south coast kids ambled slowly. They frequently looked over a shoulder in case they were deemed to be doing anything out of the ordinary and, therefore, running the risk of being labelled abnormal. (To state the obvious, if you are better than average, you are statistically abnormal. However, deliberately or otherwise, the mass media love to confuse the statistical meaning of normal with its medical meaning.)
There is evidence that, in the early stages of the evolution of literacy, even the best and brightest could not read silently. (I find it mildly shocking to consider the obvious fact that literacy is genetic and a strongly selected criterion in the evolution of humankind.) The theory (as I understand it) is that hearing and speaking started out as two largely unconnected faculties, in the same way that hearing and making vocal sounds are unconnected in animals. (I say animals rather than the other animals because speech and narrative, as distinct from simpler forms of vocal communication, are unique to humans. In that important respect, we are nothing like the animals.) It seems to me plausible that, when you are considering something important, the act of speaking your thoughts – and hearing what you say – enables you to analyze those ideas more reliably, as if they were the sounds of a rival or prospective mate whose story it pays you to analyze critically. To be blunt, provincial people do not do anything difficult enough to warrant such self-analysis or, if they do, they do it in a different, more roundabout way.
A computer programming magazine article the early 1980s described the phenomenon in terms of one-way communication with another individual, who simply listens but contributes nothing to the dialogue. The article was illustrated with a cardboard cut-out life-size Superman standing beside the programmer’s desk and to whom the programmer explains his problem — and in doing so the solution becomes apparent.
The early 1970s cult movie Electra Glide in Blue (see my review Blue, blue, electric blue) a motorcycle cop — the principal viewpoint character — sits down next to a janitor taking a sandwich break from sweeping up after a rock concert. (The film was made by the manager of the band Chicago, whose members played parts in the movie.) He explains to the man the chain of events surrounding a murder and in so doing he realizes who the killer is. The janitor just sits there munching his sandwiches without saying a word…
However, there is a limit to thinking aloud. In the late 1980s when on my way back to my weekday accommodation in south-east London, as the train started off from London Bridge station, the young lady sitting opposite me — young and pretty but with sunburned features and tatty clothing — continued talking through the open window to her friend on the platform, who must surely be walking briskly and now running… I looked up from my book to see people standing and looking in my direction laughing. (This was when the government emptied psychiatric hospitals in favor of ‘care in the community.’) So there is a natural reluctance to limit talking to oneself in case it too closely resembles talking to an imaginary person; a symptom of mental illness.
Yet the very people who never talk to themselves show no reluctance to — nowadays — walking along with a miniature mobile phone in one ear, convincingly mimicking exactly that symptom of mental illness. I assume such people are not responding to any inner (genetic) constraints on their behavior, but are simply conforming to what they have seen others do.
A friend of mine (a Londoner, so possibly biased) explained to me that city folk are more intelligent than country people because city folk are refugees from the countryside (and their descendants). Like international refugees (who also comprise a significant portion of the populations of capital cities, incidentally) they include a higher than average proportion of overly intelligent individuals who are perceived as a threat to the established village order. The ‘London intellectual’ is just as likely to have a Yorkshire or Austrian accent as BBC English.
And here’s a wild one. (Wild enough to be true?) A colleague from deep in the countryside of England, but of obvious mixed Afro-northern race and with a degree in astrophysics, said that the chemicals emitted by the pine forests that predominate in the British countryside nowadays might inhibit mental development. In contrast, the trees in London are deciduous.
The problem with such ideas is, of course, that they are just that: Ideas. A further problem is that, to test them scientifically is so expensive as to require government funding. Moreover, because these things are so important, touching as they do on the genetic future of humankind, no elected government will provide such funding because that kind of research, or anyway its results, is not popular with the electorate. For example, when in the early 1990s the UK HMSO publication Social Trends made it clear that, contrary to popular belief, the rich have more offspring than the poor, the government cut that research funding. Additionally, apart from a short mention on BBC Radio 4, the popular media left it unreported.