I'm always behindhand reading my copies of the London Review of Books, which arrive fortnightly (though it seems more often than that), and yesterday, still on Vol.33 no.22 from last November 17th, I reached Jenny Diski's review of a book called The Myth and Mystery of UFOs by Thomas Bullard. Her review began with this admirable argument:

The problem with that blue sky thinking we were introduced to by New Labour is that we happen to perceive the sky as blue only because of our particular physiology and arrangement of senses on this particular planet. Blue sky thinking doesn't so much encourage limitless imagination as embed in its own metaphor our absolute inability to think outside our perceptual and conceptual limitations.

Exactly. (The comparable metaphor that dooms itself is ‘pushing the envelope’. Intended to mean to bravely go where people usually haven't, what could sound more timorous than fiddling with stationery?)

The literary figure who famously points out that the sky isn't really blue is Paul Bowles, explaining his novel title The Sheltering Sky by saying that it's a kindness that the sky shows itself to us as blue rather than as the cold black void it really is. Of course to say so is to emphasise the void, and this was Bowles' speciality. Here's a typical, endearingly gloomy quotation from him:

“Because we don't know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well, yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems...limitless.

Bowles himself, a composer as well as writer and translator, survived to the age of 88. He died of heart failure in Morocco, where he had lived and held expatriate court for 52 years, in 1999.


  1. New Mourning - so happy just to be alive.

    Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle ’til the moon is blue
    Wiggle ’til the moon sees you

    In the blinking stardust of a pale blue light - if you don't know about it in the foggy web of destiny it's not happening . . .

  2. Not quite the class of comment I'd hoped for, but to quote John Prine, hello in there.

  3. Hi Michael

    If "blue sky thinking " was truly a New Labour invention,
    how politically appropriate it was. The only thing red about Tony and his gang, were the mastheads on the tabloids they kowtowed to.

  4. Well thanks for that Bowles quote, Michael -- just what I needed to read on a dreary Monday morning in January, with the skies as cold and black as anyone could wish (is this little homily an example of 'black sky thinking'?)

    Even dreamed about this last night: that stuff about a "certain afternoon of your childhood" etc is quite spooky, follows you around. However, the guy giving the gloomy speech in the dream was ... Gary Glitter, in all his 70s pomp.

    Enjoying the new blog.

  5. UFOs are only myth or mystery to those who, like you, read Genesis 6as literature or, like most, rather not at all.

    Have you seen The Fourth Kind?

    UFOs are inextricably intertwined with the Darwinian delusion. Think about it, or can't you break out of your blue sky thinking?

  6. Thanks for deconstructing the cliche of blue sky thinking. Another cliche that I (perhaps unfairly) associate with New Labour is "pushing the envelope". I recently discovered this has nothing to do with stuffing stationery, but is derived from mathematical concepts and the jargon of test pilots.

    Q From Claire Walsh: I’ve always been puzzled by the phrase pushing the envelope; it’s an incongruous image that doesn’t seem to have any relationship to its meaning. Can you tell me where it comes from?

    A It comes from mathematics, specifically as it is used in aeroplane design. It was popularised by Tom Wolfe’s book of 1979, The Right Stuff, about test pilots and the early space programme. It’s an excellent example of the way that a bit of specialised jargon known only to a few practitioners can move into the general language.

    In mathematics, an envelope is the enclosing boundary of a set or family of curves that is touched by every curve in the system. This usage is known from the latter part of the nineteenth century.

    It’s also used in electrical engineering for the curve that you get when you connect the successive peaks of a wave. This envelope curve encloses or envelops all the component curves.
    In aeronautics, the envelope is the outer boundary of all the curves that describe the performance of the aircraft under various conditions of engine thrust, speed, altitude, atmospheric conditions, and the like. It is generally taken to be the known limits for the safe performance of the craft.

    Test pilots have to test (or push) these limits to establish exactly what the plane is capable of doing, and where failure is likely to occur — to compare calculated performance limits with ones derived from experience. Test pilots called this pushing the edge of the envelope in the 1950s and 1960s, but this was soon shortened.

    Following Tom Wolfe’s book and film, the phrase began to move out into the wider world; the first recorded use in the more general sense of going (or attempting to go) beyond the limits of what is known to be possible came in the late 1980s.