Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Jane Austen and a shop in Devon

This happened when I was about 10, which would make the year 1959. We were driving home through Devon after visiting my English grandmother in a nursing home in Teignmouth (my father’s mother that is, an explanation I wouldn't need to give were I writing in Swedish).  Passing through a town my mother caught sight of a shop sign and called out to my father to stop and go back because the name on the shopfront was Household. I glimpsed it fleetingly, it looked a substantial affair. No, it was just a household stores said my father. My mother insisted she was sure Household was the proprietor’s actual name, and with so rare a surname it must be some sort of relation, we ought to call and say hello. But my father drove stolidly on refusing to turn back and investigate. Later my mother explained to me the reason for this strange behaviour: my father would be ashamed to be related to anyone engaged in trade.  But it looked like a big shop I protested. No matter, this was the way he had been brought up; my granny, my mother told me, was a snob. We had a small car and a small rented flat in Brighton, and what made me ashamed was that the stuffing was coming out of the arms of the sofa.

Title page of Emma, published
200 years ago this month
(though it says 1816, hmm)
The memory came to me because I'm working on the question of Jane Austen and snobbery. I've promised to lead off a discussion on this topic in a small book group we have in Cork - the Cork Friends of Jane Austen that’s what we call ourselves.  Several prominent snobs feature in Jane Austen’s works. Emma, Darcy, Sir Walter Elliott are names that spring to mind, and the snobbery theme is a staple of Jane Austen criticism. For example in a famous 1957 essay the critic Lionel Trilling wrote of Emma: “Her self-love leads her to be a self-deceiver. She can be unkind. She is a dreadful snob.”  One occasion of her snobbery - and this takes us back to the shop in Devon - is when a family by the name of Cole give a large evening party, an enterprise Emma treats with disdain.  "Nothing should tempt her to go”; the Coles were "of low origin, in trade, and only moderately genteel  …  they ought to be taught that it was not for them to arrange the terms on which the superior families would visit them".  

I must make it clear my mother didn't blame my father for his attitudes, she accepted it was part of his upbringing and couldn’t be changed. And I suppose I must extend the same charity to my grandmother, who grew up part of the landed gentry; my mother grew up in the north of Sweden, the daughter of an engine driver.  I also need to add something about the state of the sofa.  This was due to my parents spending far more than they could afford on my expensive schooling. For better or worse that’s made me what I am, so it's not my place to complain about the stuffing.  

I'll finish on a puzzle. It occurs to me to ask whether and how Jane Austen and her contemporaries talked about snobbery, since according to my understanding, the word was not yet in use.   Did they have another word for it? I don't think they did. I can't help wondering if there's something anachronistic going on when we talk of Jane Austen and snobbery.  It's something I should like to explore, if only I knew where to begin.  I hope to have an answer by the first Tuesday of February.

Note : The Trilling essay is “Emma and the legend of Jane Austen” in Beyond Culture, 1965. The Emma quotation is from ch 25.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The glory is departed

Boarzell School in Sussex where Mr Dumbreck taught me English in 1961

I had a terrific English teacher when I was 12 called Mr Dumbreck and were he here today he would strike a big red pencil through that word “terrific”, on the grounds of being a cliché, and furthermore terrific means inducing terror. Another rule for our English compositions was that no sentence was to begin either with the word “it” or the word “suddenly”.

I want to tell you about my swotty boy moment. One day the word “hectic” cropped up and Mr Dumbreck asked us for examples of how it might be used. Up I piped with “yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red”, a line from Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”, which we had recently been reading in class. Mr Dumbreck heaped praise on me for quoting both correctly and appositely, and even after all these years the memory calls up a glow of satisfaction. Lindsay by the bye tells me that at her school quoting Shelley wasn't considered comme il faut, and would quite likely have earnt me a whack on the back of the head with a pencil box.

Mr Dumbreck and the Fifth Form room. The events related here took place in the Sixth Form room next door, but no photo is available.  
All photos courtesy of Michael Salmony

Whenever I think of Mr Dumbreck the phrase “Ichabod, the glory is departed” comes to mind. It's an essay he read to us about a hat box festooned with luggage labels. You have to be as old as I am to remember what this meant. The hat box is sent away for a lock repair and when it comes back it's been steam cleaned, and the lovingly preserved collection of labels has vanished. I've gone looking for this essay, which turns out to be by Max Beerbohm, and after fifty-four years I've just read it again. I see the title is simply “Ichabod”, the phrase “the glory is departed” occuring only at the very end. I imagine Mr Dumbreck read us this verse from the Old Testament: “And she named the child Ichabod, saying, The glory is departed from Israel: because the ark of God was taken, and because of her father in law and her husband.” He was a brilliant teacher. He taught us art too. We weren't allowed erasers, and had to ask to borrow his bungy. This was occasionally permitted but normally he would claim to have lost it.

It's hard to say why I've started reminiscing about Mr Dumbreck. My age you will say. But I think I can trace it back four years when I read PD James's Death Comes to Pemberley and was startled to come across this sentence: “Suddenly Mrs Reynolds was with them.” Proof that PD James had not attended Mr Dumbreck’s lessons, and considering that she was writing a Jane Austen sequel, very bad; for Austen, though she used the word “suddenly” about 50 times in her novels, never once began a sentence with it. I know this because I have the internet. Mr Dumbreck knew it in his bones.

Finally, in a couple of hours we in Cork Astronomy Club will celebrate the centennial of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which prompts me to ponder the relativity of time. From leaving Boarzell in 1961, to 1972 the year my mother died and I moved to York, was 11 years, and appears to me like half a lifetime. From leaving York to now is nearly 11 years, and it seems like yesterday.

Note 1 : For a read-out of every sentence in which Jane Austen used the word “suddenly”, all you need is this website and about eight seconds of your time. Charles Dickens had no such compunction by the way. I found the following instances in David Copperfield, and I suspect, had I continued searching, would have found many more:-
“Suddenly I came upon a pasteboard placard, beautifully written, which was lying on the desk …” Chap 5
“Suddenly Miss Murdstone gave such a scream that I all but dropped it.” Chap 8
“Suddenly there passed us ─ evidently following them ─ a young woman …” Chap 22

Note 2: The Biblical quotation is 1 Samuel 4:21 in King James version.


Monday, November 23, 2015

Flags, Paris, ISIS - a few thoughts

This post is far from a considered essay I'm afraid, more a stream of consciousness. I'll start with French and Irish tricoleurs on a rain soaked street in Cork this afternoon.  And an image going the rounds on Facebook of the Malian flag, where French flags have sprung up adorning many users’ pages. These flags have been called forth by an ISIS atrocity in Paris ten days ago, on 13th November, which has dominated the international news. Unlike a similar one in Mali on the 21st, which gave rise to no flags on Facebook.  Bombings in Beirut on 12 November, likewise attracted little coverage.

The Guardian’s readers editor, reflecting today on his own paper’s recent opinion pages, made an arresting point about when is the right time to express certain views: “The idea that these horrific attacks have causes and that one of those causes may be the west’s policies is something that in the immediate aftermath might inspire anger. Three days later, it’s a point of view that should be heard.” 

He also responded to a complaint that when the Paris story first broke on Friday 13th, the Guardian website didn't immediately open it for comments. This was because there were very few moderators available and, regrettably, a considerable number of people wanted to leave Islamophobic comments, alongside the many others who wanted to engage in legitimate debate.

If it's Islamophobia you want, look no further than today’s Sun, a tabloid with the highest circulation in the UK. 

Demolished in The Guardian
by Miqdaad Versi for being  irresponsible, dangerous and grossly misleading. As many commentators have pointed out, the Sun story is precisely what ISIS in their black and white world want.

An interview on RTÉ radio made a big impression on me, if I have time later I'll find the link. A French senator, from the socialist party I infer, defended  the French response to the Paris attack, namely to step up bombing of ISIS positions. She also welcomed a UN security council resolution backing “all necessary measures” to prevent and suppress ISIS terrorist acts on territory under its control.

So far, all according to script. Until at the very end, when the radio presenter asked her about the upcoming French elections, and would the Front National be making gains? Then we got her authentic voice: “I'm scared, I'm really scared” she said, of the right wing backlash that might arise from these attacks.

I see that I confidently asserted just now that I know what ISIS wants, and it occurs to me that I actually know no such thing. I've read  “7 things I learned reading every issue of ISIS's magazine” by one Robert Evans on a website called Cracked. Now I know nothing of Evans nor his website, but find I'm reduced to trawling around the internet for any scraps of insight I can gather, and this just may be worth a read. ISIS it seems has a glossy magazine that Evans has studied at length.  Amongst other things,  the primary target of their hatred is not the United States,  France or Russia; the one "enemy" they devote more time to ranting against than anyone else is the "apostate Muslims", who form the vast majority of their victims. I suppose we knew that already, but in the last week it's all been hidden by events in Paris.

Most propaganda makes enemies appear ugly and brutal, whilst portraying one's own side as shining and blameless, says Evans. But the Islamic State does not do this. And “their fawning ads about various jihadis don't show only happy pictures ... they almost always include a picture of the man's corpse.”

President Holland reacted immediately to the Paris outrages by announcing a new bombing campaign.  Isn't this just revenge, and demeaning to France? Treading in the footsteps of George W Bush and Tony Blair and their war on terror.  You can't make war on an idea, only on a state. ISIS likes to call itself a state and now they’ve all declared war on it, so it is one.  The war ISIS wants, according to Scott Atran on the New York Review of Books website.

Atran's article also touches on a question that bothers me and probably you, the horrific, seemingly senseless, violence that ISIS followers engage in.  But to them it's a deeply purposeful part of an exalted campaign of purification through sacrificial killing and self-immolation.  This finding is based, he says, on interviews with youth in Western cities as well as with captured ISIS fighters in the Middle East.

Or is this all wrong, and are they deranged and pathetic?

When it became known ten days ago that the Islamic State militant known as "Jihadi John" had been killed by a US drone, the mother of American journalist James Foley, who was beheaded last year in Syria, said she felt no solace in the killing.  "It saddens me that here in America we're celebrating the killing of this deranged, pathetic young man," Diane Foley says in an ABC video. "Jim would have been devastated with the whole thing. He was a peacemaker. He wanted to know how we could figure out why all this was happening."

Just disjointed thoughts really, and not up to my usual standard, but I hope you find some of the links useful. I'll finish with one more, from the Guardian website again, yesterday. Why do Islamist groups in particular seem so much more sadistic, even evil, asks Kenan Malik. Amongst his answers he suggest that over the past few decades anti-imperialist traditions based on Marxism and other leftwing perspectives have unravelled, leaving political rage against the West nothing but nihilistic, barbaric forms.

As a postscript here are two more links that have been
recommended to me by Dave and Stevey

(1) This article, and its part 2, covers the history of ISIS.  Huffington Post: “You can't understand ISIS if you don't know the history of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia”

The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths, but a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, amongst them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.

Friday, November 6, 2015

A Dyson sphere, my eye!

The central dot in this image represents a star surrounded by a Dyson ring of solar power collectors, 100 million miles out from a star. Many rings would make a Dyson sphere. Loopy!!
Image via Wikipedia.
When it comes to extraterrestrial life and space colonisation by humans my intuitive response is, this is fantasy stuff, and not worth a second glance.

I'm thinking in particular of the notion that star KIC 8462852 may sport a Dyson sphere. And what, pray, is one of those?  Oh yes, it's a hypothesized artificial structure surrounding a star. A structure the size, say, of Earth’s orbit around the sun, consisting of a shell of solar collectors. The idea being that with this model, all (or at least a significant amount) of a star’s energy would hit a receiving surface where it can be used. The physicist Freeman Dyson speculated that such structures would be necessary for the long-term survival of a technological civilization due to its escalating energy needs.

But madness or not serious scientists looking at the data from the recently discovered KIC 8462852 think it's behaving so strangely, that this Dyson sphere conjecture is worth exploring.  Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University, is quoted in The Guardian  “Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build.”

Even as “the very last hypothesis” this is surely loopy!  … and yet ... as a mere bystander,
who am I to say, no this cannot be?

When I need an image for a space colony I invariably seem to revert to this representation from the Mars One website

Space colonies aren't quite so far out and yet I struggle to take them seriously too. Dr Cameron Smith is someone who’s caught my eye. An archaeologist at Portland State University, he has arresting views on how space-born descendants of explorers would evolve culturally and genetically.  His theme is the biological and cultural dimensions of human space colonisation. 

This will be a process of adaptive evolution, and he thinks evolutionary studies can help plan for its success. He proposes to found a new science that he calls exo-anthropology. He envisages different models of space colonization:-

•    Terrestrially-tethered colonies
•    Independent colonies on other solar system bodies
•    Independent colonies aboard 'closed-system' spacecraft

I recommend listening to an hour-long audio file of a teleconference held last year with scientists from NASA and the University of Texas.  There are slides to accompany his talk, and you can find them on this page. (Look for a pptx file.)

Space colonisation will be a natural continuation of 4 million years of adaptation, he believes.  Against our nature?  No … ever since the human dispersal out of Africa, we’ve always found new places to live. Why would that stop with the atmosphere, he asks?  Plenty of technical reasons maybe, but no reason against space colonisation either philosophically, or evolutionarily. Humans have always perceived new environments and then gone on to colonise them.

All except Antarctica that is. There are some scientific stations,  but where are the colonies, where are the children, huh?  There's the flaw is his scheme surely.  Mars is many times less hospitable than Antarctica.

He says we require a science of extraterrestrial adaptation. It will be an evolutionary transition on a par with our ancestors coming down from the trees.  Humanity has long considered colonising space, and at present we're at the exploration stage, thinking of individuals and how they could survive on Mars. But  as an anthropologist he thinks of groups. Biocultural evolution, co-evolution of genes and culture, that’s what anthropologists study.  Up to now the anthropologists have looked at the present and the past. Cameron Smith wants them to turn their attention to the future.

Dr Cameron Smith, exo-anthropologist
He cites the example of high-altitude societies in the Andes and Tibet. Here genetic mutations allow more efficient blood oxygenation. There's cultural adaptation too, for example in the Andes mothers move down to lower altitude before giving birth. Maybe on Mars there will be a need to give birth in 1g gravity, so, by analogy with practice in the Andes, mothers perhaps will ascend to an orbital station with artificial gravity.

We can expect both beneficial and deleterious mutations to arise off-Earth he says.  Evolution will be driven by selection pressures arising from the different  gas composition, lower atmospheric pressure, and lesser gravity.  All these factors will differ from the Earth conditions that have shaped human embryo development for millions of years.  On Mars we'll see the return of natural selection, big time.   There will be an increase in infant mortality, he sees no way round this.

The Q&A session following his talk is worth listening to as well. A Mars colony would be physically fragile at first, and highly susceptible to sabotage by any of its members who went awry.  A whole new approach to mental illness will be called for.

If a one-hour audio file is too much to digest, Dr Smith also gave a 10-minute talk for SETI Big Picture Science, called “And to space we return”.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

A US national park on the Moon?

Buzz Aldrin salutes the US flag on the Moon, 1969. (Wikipedia)
Should the site be a US national park?
I want to say a few words about archaeology in space; and in particular a Bill in the US Congress mandating that the Apollo 11 landing site on the Moon will be a US national park. The Bill was introduced in July 2013; and though I have no reason to believe that it will ever go anywhere, for I've seen nothing about it since, nonetheless, as I started on this story a few years ago, I feel obliged to bring it up to date.

Back in 2012 my eye was caught by a zany act of the state of California a couple of years earlier, placing preservation orders on the Apollo 11 Moon landing site.  A bizarre act of extraterrestrial heritage imperialism I called it, in a blog post called "To boldly preserve where no man has preserved before". 

But a Bill in the US Congress ratchets the whole enterprise up a notch. So it needs to be said that whilst protecting the Apollo sites is laudable, making them US national parks is not.

Now without a doubt, the US Apollo programme was a premier technological accomplishment of the 20th century. Preserving the six historic landing sites of the manned Apollo missions is important, along with the mementos and equipment still lying around on the Moon.  The same goes for other US missions such as Ranger and Surveyor, and indeed the Soviet Luna missions.

But the US National Park System Act states that the parks are “managed for the benefit and inspiration of all the people of the United States”.  A direct conflict therefore with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which clearly emphasizes that the exploration and use of space by nations is to benefit all peoples. Article II of the Treaty provides that “outer space, the moon and other celestial bodies are not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” Whichever way you cut it, designating a national park on the Moon would amount to a territorial claim. Nor is submitting the Apollo 11 lunar landing site to UNESCO for designation as a World Heritage Site a way out, as World Heritage Sites are located on the sovereign territory of nations. So this would violate the 1967 Outer Space Treaty too.

Science journal in November 2013 (Vol 342, p 1049) makes these points, and proposes instead an international agreement on lunar artefacts among the United States, Russia, and China.  Other states could join in due course. This would be a far superior and long-lasting solution to a unilateral US proclamation, the article claims.

Private property in space

There are plenty of corporations and their henchmen calling for private property rights on the Moon and elsewhere in space, and the 1967 Outer Space Treaty framework needs supporting.

Should you wish to follow up the private property in space debate, I have a website with plenty of links.  You'll find clear expositions of the case for and against space property rights.  My favourite has to be a piece called “Marx on Mars” by one Virgiliu Pop, a Romanian space lawyer. This is a frontal assault on the Moon Agreement’s embracing of the Common Heritage of Mankind principle.  The principle is based (he says) on Marxism, and Marxism (he says) is a fallacy.  Wonderful stuff.

I'm going to Limerick soon to give a talk to the astronomy club there on the ethics of space exploration, and I just wanted to get this update in beforehand. By the way, if undisturbed, the bootprints in the foreground of the Buzz Aldrin photo might outlive all human artefacts on Earth.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

In which I seek an historical fact and don't find it

Last week in Portugal I conducted some historical research about Christians under Muslim rule. According to the historian A R Disney, Christian monasteries and nunneries continued to function under Muslim rulers in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, and he cites two centres of Christian pilgrimage in the Algarve which were respected by the Muslim authorities.  In search of one of them, a sanctuary of the Virgin Mary, I took the bus to Faro, and was in luck, for prominently displayed in the small municipal museum is a modern tapestry telling the legend of Santa Maria de Faro.  During the years of Muslim rule, Muslims and Christians quarrelled over an image of the Virgin, which for the sake of a quiet life the Christians were obliged to ditch in the harbour. No sooner was the deed done however, than to the distress of the local fishermen all fish disappeared from the sea. Realising their mistake, the Muslims dredged the image up and restored it to its rightful place, whereupon the fishermens’ nets were filled more bounteously than ever before.  This is numbered amongst the miracles of the Virgin. Incidentally, Mary is venerated in Islam, indeed according to Wikipedia is mentioned more times in the Koran than in the New Testament. 

Tapestry in Faro municipal museum. The panels show: a fight, throwing the statue into the sea, empty fishing nets, pulling the statue out of the sea, statue restored on the wall, full fishing nets
I showed the curator the passage in Disney's book (A History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire) about the shrine to the Virgin, and asked him if any evidence of it has survived. Sadly not. Moreover, whilst he was familiar with the book, he told me that other than the legend, there is no evidence for these events.

Hmm ... history books are full of facts and you can hardly have history without them; but the one and only fact that I've actually checked for myself seems to have evaporated before my eyes.

If I'm back in the Algarve next year I'll dig some more. And I hope I shall be, because I missed out on the museum of dried fruit in Loulé.  A circumstance which when mentioned occasions unaccountable hilarity, but I intend to prove the scoffers wrong.

More about that disputed image

A thought on the dispute between the Christians and Moors over the image of Mary. The legend mentions that the Moors resented the statue, with no explanation offered as to why. It occurs to me that to those who first heard the story no explanation was necessary – for the Moors’ prohibition of images would be too well known to need mentioning, and Mary being a figure of reverence to Muslims would make the Christians’ statue all the more abhorrent.

The source of the legend appears to be an old Spanish poem, or song, translated: “In Faro, there was a statue of the Virgin. It had stood on the seashore since the time of the Christians, and captives prayed to it. Christians called the city ‘Holy Mary of Faro’ because of the statue. The Moors resented this and threw the statue into the sea. As long as the statue lay in the water, the Moors could not catch any fish. When they realised this, the Moors recovered the statue. They placed it on the wall between the merlons [battlements]. Afterwards, the Moors caught even more fish than they had before.”

Note: The poem is “The Moors of Faro who Threw a Statue of the Virgin into the Sea”. It's no 183 in the Cantigas de Santa Maria, a collection of poetry in medieval Galician composed at the Court of King Alfonso X of Castile in the second half of the 13th century. See the Oxford database of Cantigas de Santa Maria. This poem departs from the legend given in the Faro museum, where it's the Christians under duress who threw the statue into the sea, whereas in the poem it's the Moors.

Another note: I've seen medieval Persian depictions of Mohammed, which shows that the detestation of images has not always been a consistent feature of Islam.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Algarve chimneys, a speciality on the way to extinction

View of Albufeira
Back from a week in the Algarve, at Albufeira.  A pleasant holiday beside a calm Atlantic in warm sunny weather, never out of shorts, and no need of a sweater even in the evenings.  The only drawback was most of the voices you hear are English and the entire town which was once a fishing village consists of restaurants and bars and shops selling beach umbrellas, and some quite nice pottery.  If you were local it would depress you to behold a hillside quite covered in tourist apartment blocks, and you might wonder what the planning department has been doing. Though since all this is done for my benefit, it's hardly my place to complain.  It is however Abel’s place.  Abel is a new friend I've made in Albufeira and along with a couple of thousand others he’s part of a Facebook group devoted to preserving the distinctive Algarve chimneys, which were first drawn to my attention by a tourist guide last year.  Here are some:-

Photos by João Lelo from the Facebook page
Chaminés Algarvias – Uma Espécie em Vias de Extinção
(Algarve chimneys, a specialty on the way to extinction)
I was astonished to learn that many instances of these chimneys are even now being demolished, and that some of those whose photos I have seen, actually no longer exist. Before I left, I sent a message to the Director of Turismo do Algarve, expressing my dismay and concluding “Surely something should be done?”  There seems little confidence in the local authorities however. A Facebook group member posted (in English) “A very well meant initiative, but probably going to the wrong address. Authorities are the last to take appropriate measures. It's up to every single Portuguese to be aware of their beautiful heritage. But not even most of the architects have the right feeling for it. This group is a good approach to reach that goal!”

By the way for a bit more on the history of the chimneys and of Muslim-Christian relations in Portugal, you can read “Of mosques and chimneys in the Algarve”, a blog I wrote last year.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Did Magna Carta die in vain?

There are few specific facts that I positively remember learning at school. I thought there were three, but right now I can recall only two, the first of which is the existence of the Indo-European family of languages. I was so enthralled by what I found on this topic in the school library's Encyclopedia Britannica that I read the whole article standing up with the volume resting on a shelf. The other fact came from our history teacher Mr Bruin, and I can visualise the classroom where he told us this. The window was on the left.  He said Magna Carta was unknown till discovered by Parliamentary lawyers in the 1620’s, a fact seemingly corroborated when we studied Shakespeare’s play of King John, in which Magna Carta doesn't even rate a mention.

From the British Library Magna Carta exhibition. An early Chartist poster from 1839. The Chartists chose their name to evoke an echo of Magna Carta
Actually I discovered from the British Library Magna Carta exhibition last week that the case is less clear-cut than I thought, but before I forget may I mention that the exhibition finishes on 1st September and if you’ve not been and have the opportunity to do so, I suggest you look lively and book here

I also suggest you put an alarm on your phone to remind you of your transport home.  I thought I had been in the exhibition a mere couple of hours or so, till my watch told me I had been there four hours, and I had to dash for my train back to Derby - from St Pancras Station thankfully, which is next door.

As to Shakespeare not mentioning Magna Carta a variety of
sometimes incompatible reasons are advanced for this. The simplest, that he just hadn’t heard of it, is probably not the case. Though it had not yet become an icon of popular culture, Magna Carta was part of the law, and was first printed in 1508. So what Mr Bruin told us, that Magna Carta was unknown before the 17th century, wasn’t quite right, and I'll return to this soon.  But although Magna Carta was enrolled in the statute book, it was the 1225 version (hold that thought, it's crucial) and not the 1215 version, so maybe Shakespeare just didn't associate Magna Carta with King John.  Or there again, maybe Shakespeare was well aware of the King John connection, but even more aware that his play might be banned if it depicted a successful rebellion against a monarch, as this was the sort of thing Queen Elizabeth and her secret police were awfully touchy about.  Maybe the truth is that to Shakespeare and his audience Magna Carta had not yet become a big thing in English history.  

Enthusiasm for a document they had not read

No to ‘Magna Carta Day’.  An internal civil service memo from 1947
My favourite exhibit? A 1947 internal civil service memo, denouncing a proposed ‘Magna Carta Day’.  An idea had been floated to declare 15th June a public holiday in the British Empire and the United States. These were the early days of the Cold War, and ‘Magna Carta Day’ was intended to emphasise Anglo-American co-operation and to champion the document as a symbol of Western liberty. Some British civil servants opposed the scheme though, fearing that the celebration of civil liberties might provoke opposition to British imperial rule. A memo from one K. W. Blaxter, Assistant Secretary in the Colonial Office, was on display.  He dismissed the plan thus:

In some Colonies where ill-disposed politicians are ever on the lookout for opportunities to misrepresent our good intentions, its celebration might well cause embarrassment and in general there is a danger that the Colonial peoples might be led into an uncritical enthusiasm for a document which they had not read but which they presumed to contain guarantees of every so-called ‘right’ they might be interested at that moment in claiming.

Revolutionary yes or no?
Was Magna Carta a revolutionary document? Most historians say no, it was in line with coronation oaths made by previous English kings and with contemporary charters in Europe. Like the Statute of Pamiers, 1212, on display, a document the English barons will have known about.  So Magna Carta was part of conventional medieval political theory, the story goes.  This argument is set out in a lecture which is well worth reading by Lord Sumption, a leading British judge. He dispells the myth of Magna Carta as the original foundation of democracy. It was a treaty bound by its own context and the tenets of feudal law.

A republic like Venice

But the conservative historian David Starkey dissents. He claims Magna Carta was revolutionary. This is by virtue of clause 61, the security clause as historians call it.  Clause 61 gave the barons the right to levy distraint if the king infringed the charter, seizing the king’s assets like a debtor or malefactor

Starkey claims that the original 1215 Magna Carta (which only lasted 12 weeks) would have made England an aristocratic republic like Venice, with power in the hands of a senate of 25 barons.  It's in his book Magna Carta: The True Story Behind the Charter which I fear I won't get round to reading.  Magna Carta, he claims, is being presented as safe, domesticated, comforting, in this centenary year, but the earliest account of it by a Scottish observer is quite otherwise: ‘A new state of things began in England; such a strange affair as had never before been heard; for the body wished to rule the head, and the people desired to be masters over the king.’

Margaret Thatcher is frequently ridiculed for claiming in her 1988 “Bruges Speech” that Magna Carta was the beginning of parliamentary democracy.  I wonder if this is quite fair.  Her actual words were “We in Britain are rightly proud of the way in which, since Magna Carta in the year 1215, we have pioneered and developed representative institutions to stand as bastions of freedom”.  Now I daresay that like the colonial peoples slighted by the unhappy Blaxter, she was led into an uncritical enthusiasm for a document she had not read.  Yet so far as I can tell the 1215 charter did envisage a sort of parliament.  It established a council of the realm which had to approve taxation. That’s a bit like a parliament, is it not?  To be sure, only a House of Lords, but still a beginning. 

The charter was reissued in 1225 and in this form was later enrolled in the statute book. But the 1225 version had no committee of barons overseeing the king, and no common council of the realm to approve taxation. So no enforcement mechanism. It was completely emasculated. 

More questions

How autocratic were the Angiven kings? This is a question there seems to be divergent views on amongst historians.  It's important for this reason, that if they were normally forced by circumstances to act consensually, then Magna Carta was nothing out of the ordinary for its time. The more autocratic, the more significant Magna Carta becomes.

Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634) invented our idea of Magna Carta
Another question.  In what sense was Magna Carta “rediscovered” in the early 17th century?  My history teacher Mr Bruin isn't the only one to use this term, it was used by an historian in the exhibition.  But my mental image of Sir Edward Coke (pronounced Cook by the way) shouting Eureka when he discovering Magna Carta mouldering in an archive, is too literal.  Magna Carta the document was already known. It was the Magna Carta the idea that Coke rediscovered. Or invented perhaps. Coke it seems is single handedly responsible for putting Magna Carta on the banners of the parliamentary army in the English civil war.

And is likewise responsible for the US Supreme Court regularly citing Magna Carta in its judgments.  I'm still not clear though quite what American judges are doing when they cite Magna Carta. So far as I can tell it has no explicit standing in US law, how could it?  Yet the framers of the constitution and before that the Declaration of Independence had Magna Carta – Coke’s Magna Carta – very much in mind.  There was a video of the US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Gerald Breyer, but sadly it's not included in the videos on the website.  Tony Hancock "Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you, did she die in vain?", is also sadly missing. If you have time for just one video I recommend Joshua Rozenburg.

I've just remembered the third fact I learnt at school, that Muslims revere Jesus as a prophet. This I got from what was still in those days called a Divinity lesson by the school chaplain, a forward thinking chap who taught us what I now know to be comparative religion.  I remember the classroom, and I can see the window, it was on the right hand side.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

He and Me, or, How we played Kick the Can

Kicking the can down the road is a cliché of political journalism that bugs me. It cropped up in a Guardian editorial in connection with Greece, as I mentioned last time. But on this occasion no blame attaches to The Guardian because they acknowledged it as someone else’s cliché.  No such excuse however on 27 September 2013:-

Here “kicking the can down the road” appears not only within the article but dear oh dear, in the headline.  And dear oh dear, not just any old headline, but an editorial.

And here's a particularly lame instance in the Irish Examiner last year.  It's in an op-ed piece which finishes:-

“Scandal has been kicked down the road, where, history warns, it will rear its head again.  But with a bit of luck for Shatter and Callinan, that will be on somebody else’s watch.”  Two sentences groaning under the weight of three clichés. 

I'll spare you further examples. It's a metaphor that appears to have no precise referent. Or maybe there really is a kicking the can down the road game that all other kids played, and I didn't, due to my privileged upbringing? If so then I withdraw that part of the objection.  (Note: idly kicking a can down a road doesn't count; it has to be a purposeful game.)

Kick The Can

At my school we did have a game called Kick The Can and very satisfying it was too. No road was involved - we played it in a clearing in the woods at one side of which a steep bank fell away to a pond on which (I think) moorhens swam. The can was a large upside-down floor polish tin. One boy would be “He”, while the rest of us ran to hide behind trees. The He's task was to catch sight of one of us. Suppose he spied me he would shout “one two three Household” and then I was caught, and had to stand at the edge of the clearing. When we were all caught, the He had won the game.

Here I am running up behind the He to kick the can and release three boys who have been caught. However, my run is likely to be in vain, because his foot is on the can.
But there was a catch. While shouting “one two three Household”, the He had to have his foot on the can, else it didn't count. If another boy ran from behind a tree and succeeded in kicking the can while the He’s foot wasn’t on it, then all those who had been caught were released, and the He had to run to retrieve the can, giving us all time to hide again. Or the He was deposed, and the can kicker became the new He. Of course the He could avoid all this inconvenience by the simple contrivance of staying put in the middle of the clearing with his foot placed firmly on the can. But this defensive tactic entailed disadvantages. Firstly, the He would be unlikely to discover any of us who were hiding. To have a good chance of this, it was necessary to go on patrol amongst the trees. The other disadvantage was the rest of us from our hiding places would taunt him with a chant of “Can Sticker! Can Sticker!”

It was a brilliant game.

By the way, although I've depicted us all in Billy Bunterish school caps, these were worn only on Sundays, not for kick the can. The caps were similar in style to the one shown but they were pink, indeed Leander pink according to one of my informants. It was a prep school in Sussex called Boarzell that I attended from 1956 to 1961, age 7 to 12. Finally were my illustration accurate, I feel the can would have frequently ended up in the pond. But as I don't recall this happening, at least not often, maybe the pond wasn’t as close as I remember it.  

Monday, July 6, 2015

Greece: the bell tolls for whom?

Best tweet: The European Union has lost, Europe has won
Yanis Varoufakis, who today surprised us all by resigning as finance minister after the Greek referendum, liked to quote John Donne, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”  This was his way of calling for European solidarity, and asserting that a community is judged by how it treats its weakest members.  Though Varoufakis wasn’t really quoting John Donne, he was quoting Ernest Hemingway, who put "No man is an island" on the frontispiece of his 1940 novel For Whom The Bell Tolls, thereby catapulting it into the top 100 quotes in the English language. 

The frontispiece of Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls
The passage is actually buried deep within one of Donne's rather dull meditations (Meditation XVII, 1624) and I imagine it's Hemingway we have to thank for excavating it from there. Or did someone else quote it before him?

Yanis Varoufakis, it seems, is fond of quoting English poets.  Susanne Moore writes in today’s Guardian of how she heard him on the radio saying that his fellow Greeks chose, “to quote your own Dylan Thomas, to stop going gently into the night and to rage against the dying of the light”.

A Greek woman thanks Yanis Varoufakis for standing up to the EU
My final linguistic thought arising out of the news from Greece, is prompted by today’s Guardian editorial. It says that kicking the can down the road has been the cliché of choice to describe the slow euro crisis that has steadily strangled the life out of the Greek economy; but yesterday Europe ran out of road when the Greek people said no to continuing to engage with their creditors on the same suffocating terms. I want to say something about the kicking the can down the road, and I'll do so soon. It takes me back to a brilliant game we played at school.  And by the way Donne might have written some dull meditations but he wrote some marvellous poems, sometime I must record one for you.

Humph. It occurs to me there's not been a lot of politics in this blog so I'll leave you with Varoufakis's resignation statement. He says the referendum of 5 July will stay in history as a unique moment when a small European nation rose up against debt bondage. And “I wear the creditors' loathing with pride”. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Love thy neighbour? Perish the thought!

Just another short comment on the Irish gay marriage referendum.  The day afterwards a radio discussion programme dwelt on the number of older people, and presumably older Catholics, who voted Yes. A studio guest told that when she arrived at the polling station several people were leaving, some wearing stern expressions (and she assumed these to be the no voters) and others chatting and laughing (these she assumed to be the yes voters).  Two ladies in their sixties were chuckling that “they had done their good deed”.

Which brings to me the letters page of The Irish Catholic.  Columnists and readers of this paper continue to agonise over the gay marriage vote, and in the current edition, the letter of the week, printed under the heading "Many Catholics are out of touch with Church teaching" makes interesting reading.

Dr Janina Lyons of Dublin 15 mourns the result of the same-sex marriage referendum and observes that of those who voted Yes, surely a number were older Mass-going Catholics. So why did they vote yes? Dr Lyons believes that many did so because they thought it was a kind and loving thing to do for their gay family members and friends, and they were persuaded by the slogan “Equality and Love”.

This tells us, she goes on, that there is great confusion in the Catholic Church about Christ’s teaching.  Many Catholics no longer know that same-sex relations are wrong. However much we love our child, sister, friend we cannot change God’s truth to accommodate our feelings and sympathy.

We need a new catechesis of all members of our Church, she says, meaning that the Church needs to make a better job of teaching Catholics what they should believe.

Filing it where it belongs

Being a sad man, I haven't been able to resist writing to the editor of The Irish Catholic expressing the hope this new catechesis will give due weight to Mark 12:29. This is where Jesus, asked to name the greatest commandment, replied first to love God, and second to love your neighbour as yourself. “There is no commandment greater than these.”

Perhaps the Mass-going Catholics who voted yes in the referendum did so in conformity with this teaching, my letter wittily concludes. Will it be printed?  I fear not.  Up till a couple of years ago the editor used to print my letters, but he's wise to me now and recently has filed them where they belong.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Reflections on that referendum

Home to vote: image that appeared in the Irish Examiner the day after the referendum with the caption “one of many emigrants that returned home yesterday to vote”.
A few reflections on the Irish marriage referendum, now that the result is known: Yes 62% No 38%, with a turnout of more than 60%.  

The Yes campaign brought about the largest turnout in a referendum in over two decades (we have plenty in Ireland), and it's led to talk of a “social revolution” and a “tsunami of support”.  A mass invasion of polling stations by young people, and the home to vote campaign (which I've only become aware of in the past couple of days). And grandparents turning out to vote yes too. “The people’s resounding approval of gay marriage was influenced by an energetic, orderly, and unprecedented campaign that points to a potential sea change in the future of Irish politics”  in the words of the Irish Examiner.

I'm not sure I can go along with this tsunami business. 60% turnout? Hmm. But what is true is that anyone over 40 can remember when government and people were in thrall to the Catholic Church. And that's now gone.  On Friday night, before the count,
I commented that in this locality Catholic mass attendance by people of my age is high, and I predicted that many massgoers would take their lead from the Catholic bishops.  Well I got a surprise. Looking at the voting figures for our constituency (Cork East) I see they very closely mirror the national average. Fewer Yes's than in Dublin, for sure, where it was over 70% - nonetheless, way higher than I expected.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin: not wholehearted
It's worth mentioning that the Catholic Church didn't speak with a single voice.  Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin didn't appear wholehearted in his opposition. “In airing my views in public debate, I do not expect to be listened to on the basis of dogmatic utterance, but on the reasonableness of my argument.”

And more than one Catholic priest publicly stated an intention to vote for gay marriage.  Fr Iggy O’Donovan for one, prompting a reader to the Irish Catholic to write “Dear Editor, I was flabbergasted to read of Fr Iggy O’Donovan’s reported intention to vote yes in regard to the referendum concerning same-sex marriage. I read the article three times to ensure I had not misconstrued the press report!”

An amusing anecdote from the campaign. The loving family appearing in the Vote No poster that featured at the top of my last post, weren't Irish, didn't know about the referendum, and when they found out, came on national radio to explain that they didn't support voting No. Lastly, can I justify the statement that Ireland was recently in thrall to the Catholic Church?  I can but not now.  For a taster I refer to the divorce referendums of 1986 and 1995 (previous post), and what I wrote about the Mother and Child crisis of 1951.

Friday, May 22, 2015

On today's gay marriage referendum in Ireland

Well, have voted in Ireland’s marriage equality referendum, and we’ll have to wait till tomorrow for the count.  All commentators are confident it will be passed. 

The necessity by the way for gay marriage to be put to a referendum, arises due to marriage being enshrined in the Irish constitution; and a constitutional amendment requires a referendum. The amendment voted on today is to add a clause to article 41. I would actually have preferred a different approach. Had I my way, the question on the ballot paper would have been to delete article 41 in its entirety, as it's already a hodge podge.   See for yourself.

It includes the state recognising “that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.” And it contains the grounds for divorce (living apart for at least four years and no reasonable prospect of a reconciliation). Which apart from being too restrictive, just doesn't belong in a constitution, it belongs in legislation.

I should mention the historical background to these divorce clauses being in article 41. The present constitution began life in 1937 and when first adopted included an absolute ban on divorce.  To allow divorce at all, therefore, needed a constitutional amendment; and this was done by the Fifteenth Amendment in 1995.  That was the second divorce referendum. The first was in 1986 where the proposal to allow divorce was defeated by a whopping margin of almost 2:1. The 1937 constitution was a strongly Catholic document, and in 1986 the Catholic Church still held sway to keep it that way. 
Even in 1995, divorce only got through by a whisker.  

Two referendums today

There was another referendum today. It was to reduce the minimum age for candidates for the presidency from 35 to 21. Well, OK, I did vote for this, but heavens above, there are more pressing constitutional amendments that ought to have priority, and were considered by a constitutional convention last year.  Blasphemy for one.  The constitution provides that “the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law”, though strangely
blasphemy wasn’t actually legislated against until 2009. No that’s not a typo, 2009.

Apparently there was a high turnout today in urban centres which indicates success for the Yes side,  as the No’s are likely to reside in rural Ireland where the Catholic Church still has some residual influence.  Here's this week’s Mitchelstown mass leaflet.

In this locality, mass attendance by people of my age is high, and many massgoers will, I'm fairly sure, take their lead from the Catholic bishops. Younger generations, less so. Generally, young voters appear to have been hugely energised by the Yes campaign, especially in urban areas.

According to the Irish Times whose website I've just consulted, the turnout across Dublin county was 65%, and in Cork city was above 60%.  For a referendum that's high, apparently.

I forgot to mention what would follow if my plan were to be followed to scrap article 41 entirely.  I would then enact legislation which would delete “marriage” from all laws. The state would register civil partnerships only, and all existing marriages would be reclassified as civil partnerships.  Henceforth marriage would be a cultural event that you could do in church or other venue of your choice.   If you believe that marriage is a union of man and woman, open to the procreation of children, and a gift from God, then there would be no apparent conflict between that belief and the law of the land.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Jo Baker, Jane Austen and a catastrophic election

What makes people vote against their class? is a question I saw on Facebook today, the questioner evidently as downhearted as me about the recent UK general election, which right now I can't muster the energy to go into.  Frances O'Grady, the leader of the trade union movement in Britain, warned last year’s TUC annual congress that Britain risks creating a "Downton Abbey-style" society in which social mobility has gone into reverse, with all official blame for the country's ills heaped on the vulnerable while the powerful and privileged sit pretty, and young people are converted into an army of casualised low-paid workers.  

Frances O'Grady was referring to the television serial drama Downton Abbey depicting the early 20th century English upper class and their servants. The series came up last weekend at a Jane Austen event in Dublin. Eight of us from the Cork Jane Austen group travelled up, to hear Jo Baker speak about her novel Longbourn, the servants’ version of Pride and Prejudice. In questions afterwards, Downton Abbey was mentioned as a possible parallel. This Jo Baker roundly dismissed. The programme annoys her:  everyone is happy in their place:  no they're not, she insisted … and apologising for introducing politics (and drawing applause from the audience) lamented that the UK has now got another five years of it.  By the way, you’ve heard of shy Tories, those who didn't admit when asked that they supported Cameron and skewed (so it seems) the opinion polls in the run-up to the UK election. Well I'm a shy Downton Abbey viewer, and I didn't admit this to Jo Baker
when she signed my copy of Longbourn:-

A truly engaging person. From my own review of her book you'll see that I think it illuminates Pride and Prejudice in useful ways; and in Dublin Jo Baker herself illuminated Longbourn.  A massive Jane Austen fan, she told how whilst re-reading Pride and Prejudice she got stuck on a particular line:-  

“If there had not been a Netherfield ball to prepare for and talk of, the younger Miss Bennets would have been in a pitiable state at this time; for from the day of the invitation to the day of the ball, there was such a succession of rain as prevented their walking to Meryton once. No aunt, no officers, no news could be sought after - the very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy.”  [1]

Who is Proxy she wondered, and how does Proxy feel about being sent in the rain and mud to get accessories for a ball she can't attend?  Baker noted both presences and absences in Jane Austen’s novel. A meal was served … a carriage was brought round ...
but I'm not hearing anything about the person who did this thing”. Absent presences such as these reminded Baker of her own great aunts who were in domestic service, and prompted her to put pen to paper. 

White gloves

A nugget from her historical research for Longbourn. It seems that during the Napoleonic wars, where Pride and Prejudice is set, there was a massive premium on male labour, with all young able bodied men either in the fields, in the army or the navy.  The government discouraged the employment of young men in inessential jobs by taxing it; which led to the unintended consequence that it became fashionable amongst the upper class to have young men standing around in white gloves serving soup, just to show they could afford it.

I'll leave you with a couple more thoughts on that election, a sore I can't help picking at.  A business insider website has analysed the votes and concludes "You'll be surprised to learn that the general election was a huge win for the British left". Whilst I can hardly support the adjective "huge", I was marginally less gloomy, perhaps wrongly so, after I came across this. Finally I do hope the Labour party doesn't in it's coming leadership election attempt to shuffle towards the ever rightward drifting so-called centre ground; though I fear it will.  Read this selection of Guardian readers letters for a flavour of the debate.

[1] Pride and Prejudice vol 1, ch 18

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Some thoughts on Germanness, a lonely tree and Cinderella

This 1822 painting by Caspar David Friedrich, The Lonely Tree (Der einsame Baum), I saw last November at the British Museum. It was part of an exhibition devoted to the many different ways Germans view their history. You may ask why out of the blue I've decided to write about this today, and there are a couple of reasons, which I'll come to.

But first about this painting. At the centre, an ancient oak stands damaged but alive, its branches dark in silhouette, projecting into the largely overcast morning sky. A shepherd shelters under the leafy lower branches, his flock grazing in a spacious meadow. In the middle distance nestles a village, with tree-clad hills that pile up into blue-grey mountains in the background. The oak tree, according to the exhibition notes, has since the romantic period been a symbol of the German nation; and one interpretation of the painting (I don't know if it's the artist’s own) is that the tree is Germany, battered by Napoleon but unbowed, continuing to shelter the German people. A potent symbol of German nationalism, 50 years before Germany existed as a state.

German nationalism: the very words make us queasy … and yet … why should the Germans uniquely amongst European peoples of the 19th century, be denied their nationalism just because we have the advantage of knowing the history of the 20th? You could say that nationalism has been the bane of world history. It might be a foolish and unhistorical thing to say: but foolish or not, I've said it. And if the statement has any value at all (though I'm ready concede that maybe it doesn't) it applies to German nationalism no more and no less than to Irish nationalism, or any other nationalism.

Grimms Fairy Tales

Now to the two reasons I'm writing about this today. One is that for my birthday six weeks ago Albert gave me Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales, translations from fairy tales assembled by the Grimm brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm, Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children's and Household Tales). This work has become a pivotal component in the idea of Germanness, and featured in the same Germany exhibition where I saw the lonely tree painting. The tales were first published in 1812, which as Neil MacGregor points out in his guidebook to the exhibition, is a significant date. 

By that year, Napoleon had conquered and occupied most of Germany and had annexed wide stretches of the Rhineland. Cologne was a city in France. Yet to the brothers Grimm (who were language scholars as well as folk tale collectors) Germany had something of immense value which the French could not claim: a language reaching back into the mists of pre-history. In the time of the Roman Empire, the French had abandoned their Celtic tongue and adopted Latin, the language of the conquerors. Not so the Germans, most of whom lived outside the empire’s borders, and kept their language, which along with their folktales, so the story goes, furnished them with an identity that no foreign invader could eradicate. And the tales, collected by the Grimm brothers, became part of a German political and cultural renaissance.

As to the second reason for writing about Caspar David Friedrich now: I'm just back from Vienna where with Cork Astronomy Club members I visited the Vienna university observatory and heard a fascinating impromptu talk by the senior scientist there, Dr Thomas Posch. He drew our attention to another picture by Caspar David Friedrich from the same year 1822, Moonrise over the Sea (Mondaufgang am Meer).

Why this grabs me, and what it has to do with astronomy (I doubt you'll guess) is work for another day.

Ugly sisters not ugly

Finally a few words about Grimms Fairy Tales. They include Cinderella, Snow White and Hansel and Gretel and there are about two hundred more. The Grimm versions are surprisingly, sometimes shockingly, different. Cinderella has no fairy godmother, her ugly sisters are not ugly but they do have their eyes pecked out by pigeons. I recommend an episode of BBC Radio’s In Our Time, where
a few years ago Melvyn Bragg discussed the Grimm tales with three specialists. I'm not sure I prefer Philip Pullman’s translations to an 1853 version I have, but then, without knowing German, how do I know? What I do recommend the Philip Pullman book for is the note at the end of each tale commenting on the story, drawing parallels, and giving the ATU number. Not sure what an ATU number is? I dealt with this a few years ago in connection with King Midas and his asses ears.