Thursday, December 29, 2011

Wot! No Winterval stories!

Winterval-hater: The Daily Mail’s
Melanie Philips
Rats!  My pen was sharpened and my green ink bottle uncorked in readiness to write to the papers scorning a story under the headline Christmas cancelled in politically correct frenzy. But alas and alack no such story came to my attention.

There was no shortage last year, but I just didn’t get my letter drafted in time. I would have relied on Oliver Burkeman’s 2006 piece in The Guardian on this theme. This is where he exposed the falsehood that in a bid to appease Muslims the English city of Birmingham had renamed Christmas Winterval.

And I was all eager to quote The Daily Mail's delicious Winterval retraction. This came in the wake of yet another they’ve-cancelled-Christmas lament from columnist Melanie Philips.

The retraction appeared on 8th November:  "Winterval was the collective name for a season of public events, both religious and secular, which took place in Birmingham in 1997 and 1998. We are happy to make clear that Winterval did not rename or replace Christmas." 

Link to article in New Humanist magazine

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Household tax : protesters’ fox shot?

Protests in Kilkenny & Donegal over €100 Household Charge (RTÉ)
Has the Irish government shot the household tax protesters’ fox?

The protests are against an interim flat tax of €100. But RTÉ has today been reporting that under pressure from growing opposition, the Department of the Environment is urgently examining ways to have a "more progressive and fairer" property tax in place, possibly as early as 2013.

Figures quoted on the radio suggest the tax would be graduated from a minimum of €188 up to €3,125. This would be on houses up to €1.5 million; with even higher amounts on houses over €1.5 million.

Were this plan implemented, the €100 flat tax would apply for the year 2012 only.

This seems to me to torpedo the no-pay campaign. Yes it’s still extra taxation. And yes its purpose is to recompose bondholders for their gambling debts. But it’s going to be a whole lot harder to argue that it’s just this particular tax that should be targeted for protests.

The reason being, that there's almost universal consensus that a progressive property tax is a necessary part of a fair taxation system.

Before 1977 there was just such a progressive property tax, known as “Rates”, abolished to buy that year’s general election. There's a history here that I know only a smattering of. About how the Rates have gradually been replaced, in the teeth of protests, some more successful than others, mounted by the same people who now head the campaign against the household tax.

What little I do know I've put in this pdf file, but I'm hoping that something more comprehensive will appear soon in an op-ed somewhere.

Link to socialist party campaign “Don't register, Don't Pay!”.  Note that the campaign is against water taxes as well as the household tax.

And Thursday’s Irish Times: Environment minister Hogan confirms the process of devising the new tax has been speeded up,


Incidentally the existence of the expression “to shoot someone’s fox” gives the lie to those who defend fox hunting on the grounds that its a form of pest control.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Household tax campaign. Guess I'm sort of obliged to join this one

Thursday's launch of the campaign against the new Household Charge.
Clare Daly TD, Cllr Cieran Perry and activist Eoin Ryan
in Buswells Hotel, Dublin.  Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times
So. The lines are being drawn.  A campaign against the new Household Charge has been launched in Ireland.  Takes me back to my Poll Tax protest days.  In 1991 Eileen and I with millions more refused to pay the Poll Tax, and here's my attachment of earnings order when I was taken before York Magistrates Court, to pay my arrears of £188.45. 

Margaret Thatcher: my part in her downfall
The Household Charge is both like and unlike the Poll Tax. Environment Minister Phil Hogan is quoted in today’s Irish Examiner as admitting it is "not an ideal or a fair system". That's because like Thatcher’s Poll Tax, it’s a flat tax, the super rich pay the same as the almost poor. But the coalition government intends it to be replaced by a graduated tax in future years. And for now it's only €2 a week. So that blunts the flat tax argument.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny is defending the household tax by saying it’s expected to raise €160 million, which will fund local authorities, including fire services, library services and water. But he lies. This is what really makes it objectionable. Because it’s actually to plug the hole left by forking out to the bankers and bondholders.

Is this the campaign we have been waiting for that will focus opposition to the bankers bailout? 

Link to Irish Times article.  

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Bosses pay too high? Then move to Cuba!

A report has suggested that workers representatives should sit on company remuneration committees. But the idea is barking mad and if that’s what you think you should move to Cuba. So said Heather McGregor of executive recruitment firm Taylor Bennett on the BBC.

Deborah Hargreaves
chair of the High Pay Commission
McGregor was on the Today Programme interviewed by John Humphrys on 22nd November, the day the report was released. It’s good knockabout stuff. McGregor says there is no such thing as too much, or too little for that matter, and that the concept of fairness is for 7-year olds. While the High Pay Commission’s Deborah Hargreaves reveals that in the past 30 years we have seen the ratio between company directors and average pay stretch from a multiple of around 13 to over 100.

The background is a year long inquiry into boardroom pay which has found that excessive deals for the UK's top bosses is having a corrosive effect on the economy, for companies as well as society as a whole.

The High Pay Commission was set up by the mildly leftwing think tank Compass. Their report argues that, left unchecked, income inequality will be back at Victorian levels before long. One of the drivers of this is the runaway train of boardroom pay. Despite the financial crisis, executive pay has continued to grow at levels far in excess of inflation.

It's an argument very much in line with The Spirit Level , a must-read book that produces a wealth of evidence that inequality (not merely absolute poverty) causes shorter, unhealthier and unhappier lives, whilst functioning as a driver of consumption and depleting the planet's resources.


Here's a Guardian podcast where Deborah Hargreaves discusses her report with Guardian city editor Jill Treanor.

High Pay Commission

Heather McGregor's company

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Christina Rossetti - Remember


Remember me when I am gone away,
         Gone far away into the silent land;
         When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
         You tell me of our future that you plann'd:
         Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
         And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
         For if the darkness and corruption leave
         A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
         Than that you should remember and be sad.

By Christina Rossetti 1850, when age 19, first publication date 1862

Here's Eleanor Bron reading it. Brilliant.

Christina Rossetti - Remember by poetictouch

Christina Rossetti was the subject of BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time on 1st December. Massive respect to Melvyn Bragg for devising the In Our Time format, but is it time he went? In this episode he's slightly annoying, chuckling at in-jokes that none of us understand.

Download the episode at this page; and for the contributors, blurb and further links go here.

Eleanor Bron

Sunday, December 4, 2011

I muse on Frankenstein and his monster

€1 in Mitchelstown on 28th Nov

Whiling away a spare half hour before my bus to Cork last week, l bought a battered copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in a charity shop. I decided to familiarise myself with this iconic work.

Here's what happens. The young Swiss Victor Frankenstein growing up in Geneva develops a passion for natural philosophy and chemistry and enrols as a student at the university. There he becomes consumed by the desire to discover the secret of life and after several years of research, attains the knowledge he seeks.

For months he feverishly and clandestinely fashions a creature out of old body parts and strange chemicals. One climactic night, he brings his creation to life. But the monstrosity he has made horrifies him. He flees the scene.  Sickened by his disgusting deed he falls dangerously ill. 

On recovery he returns to Geneva, to his family, and he hopes, to his old life. But the monster dogs his steps, and over the course of the book commits four murders. The first of these is Victor Frankenstein’s little brother. The second is when the monster cleverly contrives a miscarriage of justice so that the kind, gentle Justine, a sort of adopted cousin, is tried for the murder, condemned, and executed,

Only Victor knows of the monster’s existence, which he dare not divulge.

Overcome by grief and remorse, he flees to the Alps. Here the monster (sometimes called a dæmon, sometimes a fiend) tracks him down, and here we would expect the monster to kill him, end of book. But no, the monster whilst admitting to the murders, begs for understanding.

It emerges that the monster has previously attempted to befriend human kind but has been rebuffed due his hideous appearance, and so travels at night and hides in dark places, seeking revenge on Frankenstein. Lonely, shunned, and forlorn, he says that he struck out at Victor’s little brother in a desperate attempt to injure Victor, his cruel creator. The monster begs Victor to create a mate for him, a female monster equally grotesque, to serve as his sole companion.

Creating another monster

Appalled at the prospect of creating a second monster Victor at first refuses. But the monster is eloquent and persuasive, and eventually Victor is convinced.

After many delays (reminiscent of Hamlet, perhaps) Victor secludes himself on a desolate island in Orkney and reluctantly works at his ghastly task. One night, consumed by doubts about the morality of his actions, Victor perceives the monster glaring in at him through a window with a horrid grin. Alive for the first time to the awful consequences of his work, Victor destroys his new creation.

Whereupon the enraged monster vows revenge, and swears that he will be with Victor on his wedding night.  After more adventures, and another murder (of Victor’s friend Henry) Victor returns home to Geneva, where he marries his cousin and childhood sweetheart Elizabeth. Whom, true to his word, the monster murders on their wedding night.

Like Moby Dick

Vowing to devote the rest of his life to finding the monster and exacting his revenge, Victor tracks him ever northward into the arctic ice. His obsessive pursuit puts one in mind of Captain Ahab pursuing the great white whale, a parallel Melville surely had very much in mind.

In a dogsled chase, Victor almost catches up with the monster, but the sea beneath them swells and the ice breaks, leaving an unbridgeable gap between them. At this critical moment, Victor Frankenstein is saved by the crew of an arctic exploration vessel, but after some days expires of exhaustion. Not however before he has told the ship's captain Walton his entire story.

Later Walton is startled to find the monster weeping over Victor’s body. To Walton the monster confides his immense solitude, suffering, hatred, and remorse. He asserts that now his creator is dead, he too can end his suffering. The monster then departs for the northernmost ice to die.

I've put an edited version of the book’s last four pages in this pdf file.

Mary Shelley (née Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin)
Nested narratives

The novel’s structure is the nested narrative, like the Arabian Nights. The arctic explorer Walton’s letters to his sister back in England envelop the entire tale. Victor’s story fits inside Walton’s letters. The monster’s story fits inside Victor’s. And there's more nesting that I won't go into here.

Who is most monstrous?

Eight feet tall and hideously ugly, the monster is rejected by society. His monstrosity resides not only in his grotesque appearance but also from the unnatural manner of his creation.  One commentary I've seen suggests that there are a number of monstrous entities in the novel, of which the monster is only the most literal.

There's the dangerous knowledge that Victor employs to create the monster. And then there's Victor himself - is he a kind of monster. Ordinary on the outside, his ambition, secrecy, and selfishness alienate him from human society, and at last he's consumed by obsessive hatred of his creation.

Finally (it says here), many critics have described the novel itself as monstrous, a stitched-together combination of different voices, texts, and tenses (see nesting above.)

A classic

Mary Shelley was only 18 when she wrote it, and in some places it shows.  But what an achievement. As a metaphor for responsibility in science it’s unrivalled, although doubtless often used carelessly by people who, like me until last week, haven’t read the book. If you are so minded, you can also read a Marxist metaphor into it: Frankenstein the capitalist system, the monster the working class that capitalism summons into existence.  These metaphors are not Mary Shelley's own of course. But they are there to be read, and they are why the book is a classic.

The book’s subtitle is A Modern Prometheus, in reference to the ancient Greek myth that the god Prometheus was assigned the task of creating mankind.

I googled some images to spice this post up a bit but none were satisfactory. I wonder if any of the film versions do it justice. I've not seen any, but I speculate that the answer is no. I suspect it's a book that should remain as a book. This Wikipedia link is to Frankenstein in popular culture.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Solidarity with all on strike in the UK today

A picket at a York hospital this morning (York Press)

Public service workers are not asking for more – they just want the pension benefits they signed up for to stand.

The 19th century black anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass said:-

"Find out just what the people will submit to and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them."

Friday, November 25, 2011

Lowest common denominator ban declared

Tahrir Square, 24th Nov. An injured protester wakes up.
Photograph: Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP
Any decent revolution comes in two stages roughly eight months apart, and now that Egypt is in the throes of stage 2, I'm looking at what was written earlier in the year. And I find this in The Guardian of 12th August, under the heading "The Arab Spring's Bottom Line", by Khaled Diab.

He asks why the Arab spring concentrated on political reforms, without addressing economic injustice. The strapline to his article is “You can have all the democracy in the world, but without addressing economic injustice, reforms will be hollow”.

In Egypt and Tunisia trade unions and workers were a vital driving force behind the protests, holding regular strikes and sit-ins, Diab writes. Even the 6 April youth movement, which called for the first protest of the Egyptian revolution on 25 January, was originally set up to express solidarity with textile workers. So why have demands for social justice been sidelined?

One reason, he suggests, is that in order to topple the old order, the Tunisian and Egyptian popular uprisings needed to appeal to all strata of society – young and old, rich and poor, socialist and conservative. To do this they focused on the lowest common denominator: regime change, the creation of a level political playing field and the protection of human rights.

But incompatible class interests meant that on economic issues such as pay and workers rights, there could be no consensus about how to proceed; so the once-united opposition splintered into political factions.

You can read the article here.

At this juncture I must come clean and confess I've been toying with you. This post isn’t actually about politics, it’s a rant in defence of mathematics, and against the persistent abuse of a particular mathematical term, the "lowest common denominator".

9/11 sensationalism

But first, another example. It’s a reader's letter in the London Independent on 6th September, about the glut of media commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

The letter is from one Paul Harper who notes with considerable disappointment that The Independent has joined the rest of the media in commemorating the anniversary by what he calls “mindless wallowing”. A time for dignified reflection on the causes and effects of 9/11 has been squandered in favour of “sensationalist ratings-grabbing specials. It is lowest common denominator bottom-feeding journalism feeding off crocodile tears of fake emotion. … The media should be ashamed of itself.”

Now I ask: what do Khaled Diab and Paul Harper mean with this expression "lowest common denominator"?

In the piece about the Arab Spring, it appears to mean something like “the only issue shared by the disparate opposition groups and classes”. (I'll return to this example at the end).

In the letter about the 9/11 commemorations, it appears to mean something like “the lowest of the low”; little more than a piece of vulgar abuse, in fact.

An elegant mathematical procedure

I wonder if they teach finding the lowest common denominator in school maths these days. It’s a device you need when adding or subtracting fractions. Suppose you want to do the following sum:-

4/15 + 5/9

Outside of a classroom it’s actually quite unlikely that you would want to do this, you would express the amounts as decimals instead. But just as a mental exercise, say we do wish to add 4/15 and 5/9, how do we do it? We express both fractions with a common denominator; preferably the lowest common denominator.

This will neatly lead you to the answer, which is 37/45.

In this answer, 45 is the lowest common denominator. It’s an elegant procedure, and it's all in this pdf file in case you want to see how it works.

My point at the moment is this.

How, exactly, is this piece of maths connected to the phrase "lowest common denominator" as used by journalists, politicians, business pundits and letters to the editor? Do these people understand the above procedure?

I suspect they do not.

Moreover, suppose we skip the maths, and just for the time being take my word for it that 45 actually is the lowest common denominator of 4/15 and 5/9. What do we notice about this number 45?

That it's larger than any number we started with. So the lowest common denominator isn't even a low number. It’s a high number. Hah!

Moreover the lowest common denominator is also the best common denominator. Other common denominators can be used, but none is as neat as the lowest common denominator.

Yet those who employ the phrase lazily convey the impression that the lowest common denominator is a riffraff number, a base, degraded species of entity.


Consequently I declare "lowest common denominator" the third most annoying expression in the English language, I anathematise it and ban it altogether.

For an epilogue, let me just return to my first example, from The Guardian. Whilst in most instances I've come across, "lowest common denominator" is used lazily, often (as in the readers letter about 9/11) as a stand-in for vulgar abuse, such may not be the case here.

In the piece about the Arab Spring, we've noted that "lowest common denominator" appears to mean something like “the only issue shared by the disparate opposition groups and classes”. I thinks it’s fair to deduce therefore that the writer, Khaled Diab, does perhaps have in mind the phrase's actual mathematical meaning. If he's genuinely keen on a mathematical metaphor, then I would suggest the apt one to use is highest common factor. (As in 15 is the highest common factor of 30 and 45).

Thus he could have written “To do this they focused on their highest common factor: regime change, the creation of a level political playing field and the protection of human rights.” I don’t necessarily recommend this. But it works a whole lot better than lowest common denominator.

I could multiply examples but it would become tedious. Woody Allen is fond of using “lowest common denominator” about Hollywood, and I've found an example in the writing of Tony Cliff, late guru of the SWP. See this pdf file if interested.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

An Irish solution to an Irish problem

Ajai Chopra, an embarrassed axeman
I must be slow on the uptake as I've only just grasped that whenever this cliché of Irish journalism is used, it is with ironic intent.

Back in April (how did I miss this one?) IMF axeman Ajai Chopra, discomforted himself by using the phrase when addressing a press conference to spin the bailout as good for Ireland.

Here's how the Irish Independent made sport with the innocent Mr Chopra on Saturday April 16th under the headline “Chopra's cock-up leaves him open to having the Michael extracted”.

Maybe Ajai Chopra had read or heard the phrase somewhere, and thought it had an elegant, simple ring to it. Moreover, it sounded sort of complimentary, and the IMF bigwig is a very polite pooh bah anyway.

And it's a tough task trying to convince the beleaguered citizenry of Ireland that the bailout is a Good Thing and doesn't represent the overthrow of democracy, and sure not to worry as we'll get our sovereignty back in a few years.

And so Ajai carefully explained it to the rows of media crammed into the Troika's press conference.

"This programme is a lifeline for Ireland," he said in his slightly plummy accent. And then he paused before delivering his new soundbite.

"It represents an Irish solution to Irish problems."

He looked a bit perplexed as titters and sniggers and chuckles rose from the locals massed in front of him.

Read the whole article

What Mr Chopra didn’t know, and nor did I but I do now, and so I guess does he, is that this term is associated with condoms.

And with any official response to a controversial issue that is timid, half-baked, expedient, an unsatisfactory compromise that sidesteps the fundamental issue.

Charlie Haughey - unembarrassed
For this state of linguistic affairs we have Charlie Haughey to thank. In 1979 when health minister, he proclaimed his family planning Bill as an “Irish solution to an Irish problem”.

The Irish problem was that it was illegal to import contraceptives into Ireland but legal to use them.

Illegal to import, due to a 1935 law which had been written to conform to Catholic teaching.

Legal to use, due to campaigning by the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement (IWLM), their 1971 “Contraceptive Train”, and a 1973 landmark legal case.

The Irish solution was to introduce an Act which laid down that contraceptives would only be available from pharmacies on the presentation of a valid doctor’s prescription. It did not say that the person receiving the contraceptive had to be married; only that “the person is seeking the contraceptive, bona fide, for family planning purposes”.

For more about the Irish Womens Liberation Movement and the Contraceptive Train, here's a personal account from Mary Maher, a journalist with The Irish Times, and a founder member of the IWLM. The link includes a report from the Irish Times archives on the contraceptive train.

This pdf file contains some historical background to Charlie Haughey’s Irish solution remark.

I've also posted about Garret Fitzgerald's input into these matters.

By the way, the Irish Independent article concludes:

On reflection, perhaps Ajai's use of the phrase "an Irish solution to an Irish problem" was particularly apt. Sure the country is screwed anyway.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Of Swedes and turnips

A swede
Here’s a tasty dish I enjoyed while staying with my cousin in Stockholm last week. Root vegetable gratin. Various root veg including potatoes, carrots, swede, turnip, also celery, onions, leeks. Slice thin and bake with cream and a vegetable stock cube in a shallow dish.

The conversation at table turned to the English word swede, and whether it’s connected in any way with Sweden. Such has occasionally been suggested to me in a spirit of fun, but I had always supposed that the similarity between the name of my mother’s native land and a big turnip was mere coincidence.

Not so, it seems. My Shorter Oxford Dictionary tells me that Swede has the following three meanings:

(1) a native of Sweden (first use 1614)
(2) a Swedish ship (rare, first use 1799) and
(3) a large variety of turnip with yellow flesh introduced from Sweden in 1781-2 (first use 1812, earlier known as Swedish turnip).

So “carrots, swede, turnip” is incorrect. It ought to be “carrots, Swede, turnip”.  However since I write “rugby ball” and not “Rugby ball” I'll stick to swede for what I eat and Swede for what I half am.

Harvesting swedes
If the date of introduction, 1781-2, is right that would fit in with the 18th century agricultural improvement drive in Britain. But Wikipedia suggests an earlier date.

The swede originated as a cross between the cabbage and the turnip, something that would I imagine be readily apparent to anyone that’s actually grown them, which I haven’t. The Swedish for swede is kålrot (cabbage root).

Wikipedia says that in North America the common term for the plant is “rutabaga”, derived from the old Swedish word “rotabagge”, root bag.

(Subsequent note 19th Nov. I cooked the dish last night but not a complete success. I thought crème fraisch might be a good idea but it wasn't. More liquid needed, and a slow oven.)

Saturday, November 5, 2011

So obvious we all thought it was silly to suggest it

Graphic showing putative extrasolar planet
with cities, a moon, and partially eclipsed star

Inspect extrasolar planets for the lights of alien cities … that’s the way to find ET.

Such a stupid idea we would all be embarrassed to mention it. Unless you're a Harvard scientist that is. In a recent paper, Avi Loeb (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) and Edwin Turner (Princeton University) suggest a new technique for finding aliens: look for their city lights. "Looking for alien cities would be a long shot, but wouldn't require extra resources. And if we succeed, it would change our perception of our place in the universe," said Loeb.

Hitherto, in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, astronomers have hunted for radio signals and ultra-short laser pulses.

See City Lights Could Reveal E.T. Civilization (press release, Thursday Nov 3, from Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics).

That extrasolar planets can be detected at such distances against the glare of the parent star is stupendous enough, without seeing lights from cities. But the guy’s from Harvard, so we presume he knows what he's talking about.

I ought to add that the graphic shows the view from a hypothetical (and in practice impossible) nearby space probe. No Earth-bound astronomer would see the planet this way, since from here any extra-solar planet always has a much smaller apparent diameter than its parent star, and can never obscure more than a tiny fraction of its light. (Unless the star were a white dwarf but we won’t go into that.)

Nor should we infer from the graphic that astronomers can train their telescopes on an extrasolar planet and spot the city lights in the manner shown. That’s not what is proposed, nor, I guess, would it be possible with any foreseeable technology. Astronomers don’t actually “see” extrasolar planets in this fashion, they “read” them from strings of data, and what's proposed by the two professors is that by analysing the light emitted from a planet, they could distinguish artificial light by its characteritic signature of wavelengths.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Vote NO in the Irish referendums

I'll miss the referendum and presidential votes on Thursday as I'm in England. I strongly recommend a no vote in both referendums. As to the president I can't get excited about this; but I'm dumbfounded that a Fianna Fáil businessman should be the frontrunner. And I say that without having followed yesterday's latest brown envelope story. Truly baffling. Michael D Higgins seems a decent cove. Sinn Fein is hard to take seriously as a leftwing party in view of its record in the North. But most important, the interest in this race is really displacement activity. The office has little role other than the important one of checking that legislation conforms to the constitution and seeking a Supreme Court ruling in cases of doubt.

So now about the two constitutional changes. The parliamentary enquires clause will open the door to McCarthy-esque kangaroo courts. Ah I hear you say it’s only bankers and bishops who will have their collars felt. But then I ask you to consider that to erode civil liberties in the hope that it doesn’t mean me it means someone else is a shortsighted policy.

The constitutional change to allow reductions in judges’ pay is a hard one to argue against but I'm going to anyway. There are good reasons for the constitution prohibiting the government from reducing judges pay and the conditions in the proposed clause are worthless. It would allow the government a lever over the judiciary and so fuzz the separation of powers.

Off to the airport now so no time to give you any links or reasoned arguments to back up my wild assertions. Both referendums will pass with a substantial majority so if you have an interest in Irish politics you’ll just have to bookmark this post and make a diary note to come back to it in 5 years time to see if I was right.

Oh, here's a link which, being signed by barristers including the erstwhile leader of one of the most rightwing parties Ireland has ever had, Michael McDowell, is a slight embarrassment to me, bit it’s the best I can do for now.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

My cousin

I've been quiet for a fortnight, since I heard a cousin of mine died in Sweden. He was a year older then me, and it was sudden and unexpected. I shall attend the funeral in Stockholm on 8th November. Perhaps cousins get to mean more to you as you get older. But today I feel in the mood again and here are a couple of contributions, one on the cleansing of the temple, the other about a divinity shaping our ends.

A divinity that shapes our ends

New Cambridge Shakespeare (not the 1936 edition)

Hamlet Act 5, Scene 2.

   … and that should teach us
There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.

Hamlet tells Horatio how on the ship to England he rashly ventured from his cabin at night and found the letter that would have sealed his fate, enabling him to substitute a forgery, so that Guildenstern and Rosencrantz went to their deaths instead of him.

It seems there's a famous footnote to these lines in John Dover Wilson's 1936 Cambridge edition of Hamlet. A gentleman named Malleson (whose son later mentioned this in a letter to Wilson) happened on a craftsman and his mate making fence posts, and the craftsman told him :-

"He rough-hews them and I shape their ends".

Yes really.

It appeared in The Guardian correspondence page on the who-wrote-Shakespeare theme, as evidence that whoever did was familiar with labourer’s talk. I shall get hold of Dover Wilson's 1936 Hamlet when I get the chance and look the note up, to see what he makes of it.

False memory syndrome

Theatre director Trevor Nunn believes Shakespeare really did write Shakespeare's plays, and in The Guardian on Friday 14 October he relates that many years ago an actor friend of his was walking down a country lane in Warwickshire.  Passing two men at work hedging, he stopped and asked, what are you two doing? To which one of them replied, "It's quite simple, I rough-hew them and he shapes their ends."

An instance of false memory, perhaps. Probably (as Hugo Barnacle points out in a reader’s letter on 22 October) Trevor Nunn is actually recalling the Dover Wilson note of 1936, yet really believes that he talked to an “actor friend”, who met two Warwickshire labourers hedging, one of whom uttered a sentence about rough-hewing and the shaping of ends.

In case you want to follow the discussion about who did write Hamlet (which personally I don’t) here's a link to the Trevor Nunn interview in The Guardian. 

Will Shakespeare’s acting pals who all knew him well, plus Ben Jonson, were in no doubt who wrote the plays, and they published them after Will’s death. That they could all have been mistaken beggars belief.

Church pathetic not prophetic

Casting out the money changers by Giotto, 14th century (Wikipedia)

In yesterday’s Guardian Zoe Williams derides St Pauls cathedral, for closing its doors in the face of London's anti-capitalism protest. A Church of England vicar told her why he supports the protesters:-

" In the gospels, Jesus makes a courageous and subversive stand against the corruption of the powers that be, and against the implicit assumption that the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. You feel Jesus's anger in his protest, which actually wasn't that peaceful. "

He's referring to Jesus’s own anti-capitalism protest in the Temple. It’s the only account of Jesus using physical force in any of the gospels, and occurs in all four them.

In this episode Jesus and his disciples travel to Jerusalem for Passover, where he expels the money changers from the Temple, accusing them of making it a den of thieves through their commercial activities. In doing so he stood in the tradition of Old Testament prophets railing against the rich’s treatment of the poor. Zoe Williams suggests it will sadden Christians even more than atheists, which side the cathedral came down on.

Any dominant class rules by persuading a submissive population that existing arrangements are necessary, right and inevitable. Occupy Wall Street and the similar protests in numerous cities worldwide pose the question: oh yeah, who says?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Getting things by their right names, as the Chinese say

The first step to wisdom, as the Chinese say, is getting things by their right names.  (E O Wilson, Consilience, 1998, p 2)

What do you do about alleged Chinese proverbs? Try to source them and discard them if they prove phoney?

“May you live in interesting times”, the supposed Chinese curse, is often asserted to be phoney, although according to this Wikipedia article the argument isn't all on one side. [But see note.] The fact is, that whether or not it’s ever been a Chinese curse, it’s certainly become an English saying, of which the first use known to the Wikipedia contributor was by Robert F. Kennedy in 1966. Actually the more I think about it, the less plausible it is that living in interesting times is an idiom that can be freely exchanged between Chinese and English.

Which brings us back to The first step to wisdom is getting things by their right names. Well, I like it. So let’s just say that the first step to wisdom, as E O Wilson says the Chinese say, is getting things by their right names, and leave it at that. Let's not concern ourselves with whether it really is ancient Chinese wisdom.

E O Wilson in 2007, age 78
Of course we need to be alive to the possibility that E O Wilson is simply fooling with us. He could have opted for “the start of any philosophical discussion must be correct terminology”, which would have been true but unmemorable. He could have said “The first step to wisdom is getting things by their right names”, which has a zing but might have sounded pretentious. Throwing in “as the Chinese say” may be nothing more than a device for disclaiming wisdom for himself and displacing it to long ago and far away.

I'm told by the way (see this review for example) that were I to read to the end of E O Wilson's book, I may not like it. Be that as it may, to find a pearl on page 2 isn't bad going.

Note added January 2017. The Wikipedia article has recently been amended, and if you follow the link you will find that actually the argument really is all on one side, that is to say, despite being known as "the Chinese curse", the saying is apocryphal, and no actual Chinese source has ever been produced. Moreover it appeared in English in 1936 not 1966.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Djado, ruined Saharan slave city

The ruined city of Djado, with nomadic women gathered in the foreground. October 1989. (Wikipedia)
Seem to have dwelt on old ruins quite a bit lately. Here's something I'd never heard of. Djado is a ruined city sticking up from the Djado Plateau in the Sahara, in north eastern Niger. It is known for its cave art (often of large mammals long since absent from the area), but is now largely uninhabited, with abandoned towns and forts visible.

Today Niger is one of the most undeveloped and poorest countries in the world, recently coming to international prominence due to the story that Gaddafi had escaped there. The city of Djado is thought to have developed as a station on a slave-trading route between Niger and Libya, long before Europeans arrived. (I'm not sure when that was, 16th century?)

Surrounded by malarial swamps, the dwellings are now the abode of scorpions and snakes.

The building material is adobe, which is made from sand, clay, water, blended with some kind of fibrous or organic material (sticks, straw, and/or manure).

Google map

Source: The Guardian 8.9.11 and Wikipedia. Can't find anything in online Britannica.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Massive Roman shipyard found

Like the look of this one. Archaeologists think they have found an ancient shipyard about 20 miles (32km) from Rome, at Portus. Ships for the Roman empire were built or repaired and maintained there, they think. This is definitely a story to keep an eye on, as I presume excavations are ongoing, and more finds will come to light.

It's in a press release dated yesterday. So far archaeologists have excavated the remains of a building five storeys high. It’s said to date from about 117 AD, The illustration is a computer graphic reconstruction imagining this as a shipyard building, with ships under construction. They think it was used for ships that traversed the Mediterranean. A tiny figure of a workman gives the scale. (Image credit: University of Southampton.)

The archaeologists believe it had some form of imperial connection and might have been used for a base for galleys that transported emperors, such as Hadrian, across the empire. But so far as I can tell there's no direct evidence ships were actually built there. Professor Simon Keay of the University of Southampton is quoted as saying "We need to stress there is no evidence yet of ramps which may have been needed to launch newly constructed ships."

Portus was a crucial trade gateway linking Rome to the Mediterranean throughout the Roman period.

Tacks have been found which would have been used to nail lead on to the hulls of ships inside one of the bays. They hope to dig down and find more evidence of the shipbuilding use of the site.

Afterlife - and a note of caution

Whist the hypothetical reconstruction is fascinating, what I find even more fascinating about ancient structures is their after-life. The Southampton University press release says the building underwent many changes since its construction in the time of the Emperor Trajan, AD 98-117. Excavation within one of the bays has revealed that its use changed, once 90 years into its life with the construction of a series of inner partition walls, and then again in the late 5th century AD when changes were made to allow the storage of grain. In the early to mid-6th century AD, parts of the building were systematically demolished, probably as a defensive measure during wars between the Byzantines and Ostrogoths, AD 535-553.

A note of caution though – whilst we may like to read history forwards, archaeologists have to read it backwards. First they found the grain store, then they surmised an earlier use as a shipyard. Prof Keay says, and note his words carefully:

“At first we thought this large rectangular building was used as a warehouse, but our latest excavation has uncovered evidence that there may have been another, earlier use, connected to the building and maintenance of ships. Few Roman Imperial shipyards have been discovered and, if our identification is correct, this would be the largest of its kind in Italy or the Mediterranean.”

A good reason to do reconstructions on a computer rather than on the ground. See my post on the Bamiyan Buddhas and whether they should they be left as rubble.

(Incidentally, does this imply even larger Roman shipyards have been found elsewhere I wonder?)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Eating from supermarket waste bins – disgusting!

What a freegan eats. Image credit: Tristram Stuart
I was musing on food waste. Well actually I was musing on Al Capone, and that led me to food waste. And now to Tristram Stuart, who's a fregan, he takes food out of waste bins. The giant bins that lurk in the loading bays behind supermarkets. Some people find this disgusting. But, he says, the really disgusting thing is that good food is put there in the first place. He's written a book Waste, and in July 2009 he talked to Andrew Marr about it on BBC Radio 4's Start the Week.

If you're in the UK, it's here on BBC iPlayer. You’ll find Tristram 21 minutes into the programme. If that doesn’t work for you, here’s a clip I've made. The whole clip is 20 minutes, of which the first half is Tristram, and the rest is David Haslam on his book Fat, Gluttony and Sloth.

Or you can see Tristram on this Youtube clip, interviewed by David Frost on Al-Jazeera's Frost over the World, 2 Oct 2009 (9.30 minutes into the programme).

A couple more links may be of interest. Jonathan Bloom is an American who writes about food waste. This is his blog. He is the author of American Wasteland - how America throws away nearly half of its food, and what we can do about it.

He welcomes the new UK regulations, see next post on Al Capone (though my understanding is that they are not regulations, just unenforceable guidance.)

Finally here's
Wikipedia on food waste

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Did Al Capone invent sell-by dates and was that a good or bad thing?

A flurry in social media about Al Capone pioneering sell-by dates. On milk. It seems Billy Connolly revealed this fact a few days ago on his new Route 66 programme on ITV.

There's a move in the UK to dispense with sell-by dates, and I imagine this is what prompted Billy Connolly to look into the subject. Studies have shown that sell-buy and eat-by dates contribute to the horrendous waste of food in the West. 

I used to suspect them to be the invention of corporate lawyers rather than nutritionists. However it seems it was neither, but actually Al Capone in good guy mode.

Here's a story discussing food expiration dates and crediting Capone with introducing them. It’s the website of something called Times News Inc. I can't vouch for it. It says that whilst the Federal government viewed Capone as a gangster, to many people in his adopted city of Chicago, he was a modern-day Robin Hood. He was the first person to open a soup kitchen to feed the poor during the Depression, the article claims. At a time of 25% unemployment, Capone's kitchens served three meals a day to ensure that everyone who had lost a job could get a meal. And he even served the food out himself.

The Time Magazine cover depicting Alphonse “Scarface” Capone was March 24, 1930, and the story was his release from prison under a special Governor’s order.

As to eat-by dates, treat these as a rough guide only. Nature supplied us with noses, we should use them. For more see this story in the London Independent, 16th September. It says supermarkets oppose a new date labelling regime and claim it will increase and not reduce food wastage.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Above us only sky

I hereby announce the winner of the best corporate motto competition. Liverpool John Lennon Airport for “Above us only sky”. Can’t award any points in the best logo competition however.

(Here's the lyric if you want reminding)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Cameron, the Bullingdon Club and the riots

Hear Cameron on BBC's Today programme on Friday. Presenter Evan Davies asked Cameron whether there was any parallel between the antics of Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club of which Cameron was a member, and last month's riots.

ED : “Did you witness stuff at the Bullingdon Club … did you see people throwing things through windows, smashing up restaurants … ?”

DC : “No I didn’t. We all do stupid things …”

ED : “It’s all written about as a very violent group.”

DC : “… when we’re young. And I think that’s clear. But I think what we saw in terms of the riots was actually very well organised in many cases … ”

ED : “Well, the Bullingdon Club was well organised.”

DC : “ … looting and stealing a thieving. We have to react very clearly to that.”

Ugly cigarette packs - watch this one get dirty

Here's a story that’s going to be huge. Australia plans to force tobacco companies to use plain packaging carrying graphic health warnings on all cigarette packages. Big tobacco considers it’s fighting for its life on this one.

We've seen death threats against climate scientists in Australia. I wonder if that’s the sort of thing we can expect. Watch out also for links between lobbyists for tobacco and for climate change denial.

Under the Australian law, colours, brands, logos and promotional text on cigarette packets will all be banned. It will be a world first and is described by both supporters and opponents as the most draconian measure yet to reduce tobacco sales. The implementation date is next July.

I recommend Ugly cigarette packs, an Australian radio programme in the Background Briefing series.

The Australian law isn't in place yet. Their parliament has passed two bills, steered through by Health Minister Nicola Roxon. But there are more constitutional steps to go through yet before this becomes law, and I can’t tell you any more about the process.

Law may come to the UK

The UK government is to launch, within the next few months, an official consultation on a ban on promotional cigarette packaging. This is the background to tobacco giant Philip Morris demanding access to Stirling University’s research into the smoking habits and attitudes of teenagers.

The tobacco companies are threatening to use World Trade Origination rules to sue Australia for infringing intellectual property rights, hoping to spend significant amount of money in the courts and whack Australia with a huge compensation bill. But they won't be stopping at legal action, just you watch.

PS I've heard the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan goes one step further - becoming a smoke free nation. Not entirely sure that that means.

Here's another recent story (London Independent Saturday, 3 September) :
Smoke and mirrors: how the tobacco industry hides behind lobbyists

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The day I met a famous man

Now then, where was I. Pondering Chou En Lai not having said that it was too soon to assess the impact of the French Revolution.
This led my thoughts to the great antiquity of Chinese civilisation, and to gunpowder, printing, and the magnetic compass. Early in the 17th century the English scientist Francis Bacon made the cogent observation that his modern world was distinguished from the ancient one by those three key inventions. Whilst to Bacon the origins of each were obscure, the fact is, all three came from China.

This was unearthed by the Cambridge scholar Joseph Needham, who found also that the stirrup, chains and chain drives, suspension bridges, canals with lock gates, blast furnaces, wheelbarrows, toilet paper, playing cards, kites, inoculation, chess, and an accurate value for π were all invented in China. Not to mention porcelain and silk.

The Needham Question

Joseph Needham - dating I suppose
from around the time I met him
(Needham Research Institute)
This prompts the question, how come modern science and technology developed in Europe, when China seemed so much better placed to achieve it? That’s the Needham Question; something I first came across 5 years ago thanks to BBC's In Our Time.

I met Joseph Needham briefly in 1971. He must have been 70 at the time, and was Master of Caius College, Cambridge. A lifelong Marxist, he had written me a letter of support and encouragement while I was in prison for the Garden House affair, and I called to thank him in the splendour of the Master’s Lodge. At the time I had little idea that he was a colossus in his field. Nor indeed what his field was. I can go further. I can say that while I was at Cambridge I had little idea altogether. What a waste when I think back on it.

For three years (minus one term spent elsewhere) there I was in the midst of a buzz of intellectual activity that has few parallels: and how did I use the time? Stuck to my courses of study that’s what (English literature at first, then 19th and 20th century history). And punted on the river. And yes, attended a demo. I never even visited Ely Cathedral for heavens sake. Actually it’s worse. I don’t remember visiting King’s College Chapel. And I could see it every morning when I got up, 300 yards from my window. It’s truly scandalous.

(I did see some films though, must wrack my brains for them sometime.)

Wasted on the young

All this came back to me a few years ago when I attended a course of lectures at University College Cork on science and society. The lectures were compulsory for humanities undergraduates. As each lecture ended the students clapped their notebooks shut and rushed for the exits, whereupon I and a post-graduate law student by the name of Noel, the only ones not really meant to be there, would nip down to the front and importune the lecturer with questions sometimes for up to half an hour.

Truly education is wasted on the young.

Nowadays, to find this sort of stuff, I have an hour’s bus ride and a half hour walk to get to UCC. Back then, though in the thick of it, I was oblivious.

But I digress. What's the Needham Answer? Well there are several. The one that always seems to come to the top of the list is that in medieval and modern Europe, there were many competing élites. Whereas in China, there was just the emperor. A crucial consequence of this seems to be that Europe and not China sent out the voyages of discovery. Then there's glass. Glass is essential to scientific experiments and observations. By an accident of history, the Chinese failed to produce it. And whilst the Chinese invented stuff, they weren't interested in scientific enquiry for its own sake. This ultimately held them back.

Finally, by cruel irony, the printing press, gunpowder, and the magnetic compass had a huge impact on Europe precisely because they burst suddenly and disruptively on to the European scene; by contrast, their adoption in China was gradual, so less disruptive, and less of a spur to creativity, all due to being invented there.

I've elaborated on these reasons if you're interested. End of essay. A list of resources follows.


(1) An edition of In Our Time in October 2006 on China and The Needham Question.

(2) "The man who unveiled China", an essay by Simon Winchester. The strapline runs “An English biochemist single-handedly changed the West’s perception of China, revealing its past scientific glories and predicting more to come.” Appeared in Nature 24.7.08. 3 pages

(3) If that's too long, try these notes about Needham (1 page)

(4) The Needham Research Institute, Cambridge

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Can't say fairer than that

Here’s the best joke from the Edinburgh Fringe, widely reported on 25th August.

I needed a password 8 characters long, so I chose Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

No I don’t think so either. We have Nick Helm to thank for that one, pictured. The prize was awarded by somebody or something named Dave. Here's a better one from BBC sports correspondent Gary Richardson who came on air on the Today programme immediately after this item.

A man went to the doctor and said I need speech therapy, I'm having trouble with my F’s and my T’s.

Doctor : You can't say fairer than that!

A couple of things to say about these jokes. Firstly, they have a common feature, namely each depends on the absence of speech marks around the operative phrase. Secondly, in the doctor joke, why did a man go to the doctor? Would it be better to say a patient or even a woman? No it wouldn't, imho. This really is an occasion where it’s better to be politically incorrect. Anything else distracts from the joke.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Bamiyan Buddhas - should they be left as rubble?

The taller of the two Buddhas of Bamiyan in 1976

A story on NPR about the broken Afghan Buddhas. They are being put back together following destruction by the Taliban ten years ago. The work is being done by UNESCO (UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization.)

Audio clip (4 mins) and transcript.

A human rights activist is interviewed who says the rubble should be left where it lies, to show the destructive force of religious fanaticism. The remade Buddhas are not history he says. History is the destroyed Buddhas.

He has a point. Those Buddhas no longer exist. When the reconstruction work is finished, what we shall be looking at is not the Buddhas, but something else.


The Buddhas overlook the Bamiyan valley in central Afghanistan, and indeed had already been doing so for several centuries when Islam reached the region, having been built in 507 CE, and 554 CE. But the Taliban, fanatical about eliminating everything they considered un-Islamic, declared they were "idols". In March 2001, on orders from leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, the statues were dynamited.

One Buddha stood nearly 180 feet tall and the other about 120 feet (55 and 37 metres).

The main bodies were hewn directly from the sandstone cliffs, but details were modelled in mud mixed with straw, coated with stucco. This coating, practically all of which was worn away long ago, was painted to enhance the expressions of the faces, hands and folds of the robes.

It is believed that the upper parts of the faces were made from great wooden masks or casts. Rows of holes (some visible in the photograph) were slots that held wooden pegs to support the outer stucco.

The cliffs are at an altitude of 2,500 meters (8,202 ft).

This Newsweek article from December 2001 is worth reading for a detailed account of the demolition, and opposition amongst local Afghanis.

Archaeology and restoration - some thoughts

So. Back to this question of restoring them. It’s a thorny one for archaeologists. Many these days (well, the two I've discussed it with) are disinclined to reconstruct ancient sites. One told me that sometimes people restore things as they think they would have looked originally, and in some cases they end up resembling a set for a Hollywood movie. (He didn’t say if he meant New Grange. See New Grange restored all wrong?)

My friend John says : “the past is composed of many alternative narratives but a reconstruction offers one point of view, it offers no alternatives, so any single reconstruction will be misleading. I say leave it to the imagineers at Disney, and leave the rest of us to make our own reconstructions!”

When restoration does take place, it’s considered essential to mark where what survives ends and where the restoration begins. Archaeologists feel very strongly about this, architects do not, commented one wryly.

Other examples of controversial restoration are Skellig Michael in Co Kerry and Knossos in Crete.

The Buddhas on the other hand seem to raise different considerations. The reconstruction, so far as I can ascertain, is not intended to bring them back to their original state, just to how they were before 2001. And there's no doubt what they looked like then, there's photographic evidence and very precise measurements. But then there's this: they were carved in the name of religion, and they were destroyed in the name of religion. That’s history. Like the empty niches in medieval English churches, originally filled with statues, which were smashed in the Reformation.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Riots: More politics than I thought

Have just come across this article in last Saturday's Irish Examiner (13th Aug), by Mohammed Abbas, a Reuters journalist writing from London.

‘This law and order is dishonest. I get stopped and searched. You won’t’

There's more politics in here than I thought. Mohammed Abbas talked to some rioters in Hackney, and here are a few quotes:-

"The looting was done, not just because they can’t afford the stuff, it was done to show they just don’t give a shit... We’re here and not going away."

"It’s like the old days. It’s bringing the community spirit back. Even though it’s a sad way to do it, it’s bringing the community together."

"But if the riots kick off again, I’m going. It’s history, it’s a revolution."

"I loved Hackney during the riot. I loved every minute of it. It was great to see the people coming together to show the authorities that they cannot just come out here bullying."

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Giving rioting a bad name

‘If you’re not careful the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.’
- Malcolm X

First of all: you can hold disparate opinions about the riots if you want to. I can say that the causes of the riots are rampant consumerism, vast and rapidly increasing inequality, and thousands of lives without hope. And I can say that the looting perpetrated by the rioters was an amateurish affair compared to the industrial scale looting perpetrated year after year by bankers. Yet at the same time I can also say I should take it a deep personal failure if any grandchild of mine was mixed up in most of what I've seen on the screen and read about. I can say that some of the rioters were the scum of the earth. I can also pose the question: how did they come to be this way? All those things I can think simultaneously.

Yes. What happened in London and elsewhere in England has given rioting a bad name. The very word riot implies some sort of political consciousness which was notably absent. Not wholly so though. I did see one looter say to a reporter who challenged him ”these big shops can afford it”. But that doesn’t excuse indiscriminate (indiscriminate is the operative word here) looting, arson and violence.

The Spirit Level

If you haven't read The Spirit Level you should. It produces a wealth of evidence that inequality (not merely absolute poverty) causes shorter, unhealthier and unhappier lives, whilst functioning as a driver of consumption and depleting the planet's resources.

The full title is The Spirit Level - Why equality is better for everyone, 2009, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

Cameron can declare war on gangs but he needs to lose his attitude first. If gangs didn’t serve a purpose they wouldn't exist. He needs to work out what their purpose is. And why that purpose is served by gangs and not by more socially useful organisations such as work, trade unions, political parties, churches, youth clubs and the like.

Who were the rioters?

A few extracts from the newspapers.

From The Guardian Wednesday 10 August. “Who are the rioters? Young men from poor areas; but that's not the full story”. Paul Lewis and James Harkin reported that the crowds involved in violence and looting are drawn from a complex mix of social and racial backgrounds. As Lewis and Harkin followed a group of looters who had just finished ransacking a pawnbroker's, and had started cleaning out a local fashion boutique, they witnessed an angry young black woman berating one of the looters.

" ‘You're taking the piss, man. That woman hand-stitches everything, she's built that shop up from nothing. It's like stealing from your mum.’ A girl holding a looted wedding dress smiled sheepishly, stuck for anything to say. ”

The context suggests the angry young black woman was herself a looter, though the story doesn’t say.

Terry Prone had a piece in the
Irish Examiner 15th August “No easy answers as to why ordinary people were stirred into looting”. She mentions two cases that came to court. The youngest of the looters captured was an 11-year-old who had stolen a trash can. It might have been a wheelie bin. Or it might have been a static garbage container. The details didn’t come out in court. All that came out in evidence was that he had stolen this trash can. Outside the court, his mother turned to him and asked him the lethal simple question, to which she got no answer: “Why?”

The other case Terry Prone mentions was an aspirant social worker. Natasha Reid, aged 24, didn’t wait for the police to identify her from CCTV footage. She had nicked a TV set from one of the shops broken into during the rioting, and turned herself in, having, according to her mother, spent a couple of days in her bedroom, doing nothing but crying. This young graduate knew she was guilty, and was ashamed of what she had done.

Her mother, baffled by the three days which had put her daughter on the front pages of newspapers worldwide and put paid to any chance of getting a job as a social worker, told reporters: ’She didn’t want a TV. She doesn’t even know why she took it. She doesn’t need a telly.’ "

Looting in the London Blitz

A couple of pieces from the papers in 2010, the 70th anniversary of the Blitz. Duncan Campbell revealed how black marketeers, thieves and looters took advantage of the misfortunes of war, in The Observer 29 August 2010.

And then there's the Café de Paris incident, a nightclub hit on 8 March, 1941. Two bombs hurtled down a ventilation shaft from the roof and exploded in the basement nightclub right in front of the band. The carnage caused by the explosion in that confined space was dreadful. The Daily Mail online 9th April 2010 reports :

“The worst of human nature was in evidence that night too – amid the rubble and the chaos, unscrupulous looters were seen cutting off the fingers of the dead to steal their rings.”

It is also widely reported on the internet (but always in precisely the same phraseology which means it may be false) that on the same night "even the wounded in the Café de Paris were robbed of their jewellery amid the confusion and carnage".

Echo here of that prize scum of the earth incident, the Youtube clip of the bad samaritans, two youths pretending to assist a hurt Malaysian student whilst robbing him.


Red Pepper blog

Zoe Williams in The Guardian, Tuesday 9 August: The psychology of looting - she says the shocking acts of looting may not be political, but they nevertheless say something about the beaten-down lives of the rioters.

More Malcolm X quotes