Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Tuesday, 30 May 2023

Nuclear, nucular or just unclear?

Three characters in the thriller I watched last night were discussing a mission: the first described how they would approach the ‘nucular’ missiles and the second answered with a point about their ‘nuclear’ warheads, while the third simply talked about the ‘nukes’ (which was a bit of a cop-out if you ask me).

I might not have noticed had I not been listening to BBC sounds last week and happened upon a drama in which the heroine - a doctor - repeatedly used the pronunciation ‘nuculus’ when referring to the nucleus accumbens in the brain (as ‘the Nucleus Accumbens’ was the title and theme of the episode, she did this quite a lot). This pronunciation wasn't, as it turns out, simply put on for the role; astonishingly - for purists at least - the same actress was subsequently chosen to narrate a docu-drama about the nuclear - ‘nucular’ - disaster at Fukushima.

In both cases, I found myself wondering what happened behind the scenes. Each production presumably has scriptwriters, editors and directors, all of whom might surely be expected to point out such a glaring mispronunciation. Were they too much in awe of the actors to criticise, I wonder, or did they fear it might be seen as some kind of discrimination? Or maybe, as I have found in the classroom, an habitual employer of ‘nucular’ is unwilling or unable to change however many times you ask.

Experience suggests that it is more common in people with dyslexia, which is understandable, but one would expect some outside input if they persist in using it in a professional context. Some very unexpected people do it; I’ve encountered it from highly intelligent A level Physics candidates (anecdotal evidence even implicates Marcus de Sautoy, occasional broadcaster and Oxford Simonyi Professor for the Public Advancement of Science) and I have heard it used several times in TV documentary programmes over the past few years including - again surprisingly - one on submarines and another on the Cold War.

There are times when it starts to feel like a form of gaslighting, or possibly one of the Asch conformity experiments; I know that my version is the correct one, but so after so many repetitions of the other, I can feel myself starting to question it. The dictionaries are reassuringly unanimous, so it isn’t a valid alternative (in any case, given the spelling, it would be hard to see any justification for that hypothesis); how, then, does it find its way into so many broadcasts?

One explanation might be that the production team themselves pronounce it that way - in which case the rot has set in deeper than I thought - or have heard it mispronounced so often that they don’t notice it; in any case, I can’t dismiss the possibility that I am in a pedantic minority and nobody else is bothered by the inaccuracy. According to some sources, George W Bush pronounced it correctly until he began his White House campaign, at which point he adopted ‘nucular’ to sound more folksy and approachable (although I just found it terrifying that he said it like that and they still put him in charge of the things).

I suppose there, is, at least, an upside to all of this; if, back in the days of ‘Protect and Survive’, someone had told me that, forty years later, I’d be bothered by the way people pronounce ‘nuclear weapons’ rather than dealing with their aftermath, I’d probably have been profoundly grateful for such a trivial preoccupation.

Saturday, 27 May 2023

A Moment in Time

 How long does a moment last?

No, it’s not the opening of a romantic novel or a prompt for mindfulness meditation; I’ve been wondering because of the recent news coverage of the e-bike crash in Cardiff. 

Numerous news outlets accompanied CCTV footage of the bike being followed by a police van with the statement that it was filmed ‘moments’ before the collision, even though the actual crash site was half a mile away and the published timelines suggest an elapsed time of roughly 90 seconds to two minutes - long enough for the riders to evade the police by passing through pedestrian-only access to another street where the van could not follow.

Oddly enough, a ‘moment’ was once formally recognised as one-fortieth of a solar hour, which averages out at 90 seconds (medieval Europeans, following the practice of Ancient Rome, divided the time between sunrise and sunset to give 12 hours, the length of which varied according to the season). The advent of mechanical clocks made the unit obsolete but the word endured, if in a more flexible sense.

These days, you are most likely to encounter it in phrases like “take a moment to consider...”, “the moment of truth” or “he hesitated for a moment on the edge...” and in the word ‘momentary’; substitute ‘90 seconds’ in any of these and they lose their implied fleeting nature (this also seems as good a place as any to cite the somewhat disturbing landing announcement from USA airline pilots; “We expect to be on the ground momentarily”).

Consciously or not, I suspect that most viewers or readers would understand from today’s usage that ‘moments’ implies a matter of seconds, not a minute and a half or more, yet multiple news reports - including the BBC TV news at 6 and 10 - persisted in using the word to accompany the images, effectively suggesting that the police van was in close proximity to the bike when the fatalities occurred (interestingly, the Mail altered it to ‘minutes’ some time after publication). There have been other subtle linguistic variations too; the words ‘chased’ and ‘pursued’ appear in most sources, while a relative few have gone with ‘followed’ and ‘tailed’ (surely more accurate, given the lack of lights and sirens in the broadcast clips).

It’s often hard to tell whether the wording of reports is original or the result of the common ‘churnalism’ method of recycling the output of other news sources. Even allowing for this, the prevalence of words like ‘chase’ and ‘pursuit’ suggests there may be an agenda at work, particularly given the widespread media use of a photo from 2016 showing the boys as young children (and, gruesomely, bearing more than a passing resemblance to the widely published picture of the two 10-year-old girls whose murders in Soham sparked a massive outpouring of national grief in 2002) rather than their more up-to-date images, artfully costumed and posed to suggest gangland culture.

It’s fair to say that Britain’s police as a whole have not exactly covered themselves in glory recently (although, as with any public institution - including my own field, education  - I feel one should say a word on behalf of the many decent and conscientious souls trying to do a good job amid the furore) and it would appear that the media have decided upon a role as self-appointed instruments of retribution, spurred on, in some cases, by a spurious conflation of police and government. Since the general public are often inclined to emote first and ask questions later (if at all), this strikes me as intentionally playing with fire.

It’s a known fact that hot summers produce civil unrest and we have a population smarting under the legacy of lockdown and the high cost of living and primed by constant provocation and grievance-mongering in the media - social and otherwise. Just at the point when we need to be able to call on a strong force to protect law and order (or life and property), there seems to be a concerted effort at work to undermine the last shreds of authority vested in the police - an effort on the part of the very (and possibly only) organisations with a great deal to gain in the event of mass disorder.

Sunday, 14 May 2023

Divided by a Common Language

“For my part, I prefer aliens that look alien. Then when they ritually eat their first-born or turn arthropod halfway through their life-cycle, it isn’t so much of a shock.” (Mary Gentle: ‘Golden Witchbreed’)

Citizens of the United States frequently present us with a similar problem, albeit on a smaller scale. They look and dress like us, they speak our language (more or less) and their customs and manners aren’t so far away from ours, and then they suddenly turn round and loudly proclaim exactly how much they earned last year or serve you a cup of lukewarm water with a tea-bag on the side.

Just how far removed we are, at least as far as their media are concerned, was recently shown by the New York Times’ confident assertion that, on the day of the coronation, Royalist Britons had ‘dined on scones, scotch eggs and breakfast pie’ and ‘sipped tea or drinks like Buck’s Fizzes, a non-alcoholic version of a mimosa’. The NYT has form in this area; it’s not so long since it claimed that we were living ‘in swamps’ on porridge and mutton, an assertion so preposterous that it could only be the result of a bizarre folie à deux on the part of the publication and its readership.

There’s misinformation on both sides of the Atlantic, of course, and, for all we think we know about them, some of their habits seem downright baffling - take, for instance, the mystery of curtains. I hate to say it, but it’s become something of an obsession; I find myself repeatedly distracted during a film or television drama by curtains left wide open at night even when the characters are engaged in amatory or nefarious activities in brightly-lit rooms, heedless of curious passers-by (or assassins, depending on the plot).

Of course, in general we know far more about them than they do about us thanks to the magic of television and film (as well as the American novelists widely read in the UK). Some of this is due to the relative scale of output but there is also an element of wilful parochialism which finds its way into the most trivial of settings; one of the funniest things about Roland Emmerich’s ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ was the contrast between the well-groomed American meteorologists striding through shiny hi-tech offices and their sepia-tinted British counterparts huddled round outdated computers in a cramped and scruffy bunker.

A comment on a recent post reminded me that this pro-USA depiction extends into more solemn settings, citing the film ‘U-571’, which shamelessly rewrote history to credit the Americans with the capture of an Enigma cipher machine. The comment led me to the words of the film’s screenwriter, who, years afterwards, admitted that he had ‘distorted history’ and ‘would not do it again’:

"It was a distortion...a mercenary decision...to create this parallel history in order to drive the film for an American audience.” 

It’s a telling quote, an explicit admission that, while the USA is home to many rational and objective souls, a significant proportion of supposed adults of voting age need to have past events rewritten and tailored to their own interests in order to capture their attention, and it lends a worrying aspect to Biden’s evident anti-British bias; a powerful but childishly self-centered nation so beset with misinformation about us, both past and present, is a dangerous beast to have loose in the world.

Hands Off My Saucepan!

If you have watched television news in the past few weeks, you have probably heard the UK  entry for the Eurovision Song Contest: an upbeat number from one Mae Muller (who, oddly for someone representing the United Kingdom, has apparently tweeted that she hates Britain):

Eurovision songs tend to the musically predictable but this one has more than the usual touch of comforting familiarity, for some at least. The first time my 85-year-old mother heard the chorus, she exclaimed ‘But I know this!’ and began singing virtually the same tune in Welsh. 

It’s familiar for me too, of course; I don’t speak the language but many of my family do and I’ve heard ‘sosban fach’ (‘Little Saucepan’) sung for as long as I can remember. For many people of Welsh descent, it is, to use my mother’s phrase, “in with the bricks”.

See what you think (I’ve used a modern version for better comparison):

It seems peculiar, but there seems to be nothing linking the two online (unless it’s on Twitter, which remains firmly outside my ken). Admittedly the scale only permits a certain number of musical combinations and similarities do arise -  my old music teacher would blend the Hallelujah Chorus with ‘Yes, we have no bananas’ as an illustration’ - but this does seem more than a coincidental resemblance.

Do you think it counts as cultural appropriation?

Saturday, 13 May 2023

You Heard It Here First

Reflecting further on the mean-spirited carping about the royal family’s balcony appearance (previous post), I wonder whether some commentators, at least, were all geared up to denounce what happened in the Abbey for being too white or male but found themselves instead watching a ceremony which did a pretty good job of ticking diversity boxes, leaving them casting around elsewhere for a suitable cause of outrage and, bizarrely, landing on the heinous crime of a family in resembling each other and failing to marry suitably diverse partners several decades ago.

Away from the furore - and let’s now get as far away from it as possible - the ceremony actually showed how far we have come since the last coronation, where female participants, with one obvious exception, generally stood around looking decorative. This time, with little prior fanfare or fuss, centuries of tradition were put aside, not least with the involvement of female bishops, in ways which would have had our ancestors gaping in astonishment.

Along with Baroness Amos proclaiming the monarch, Penny Mordaunt’s turn as the Lady of the Lake and the heart-warming appearance of Floella Benjamin, splendidly bejewelled and ermine-draped as if equipped from the world’s best dressing-up box, the coronation ceremony brought us the joyous spectacle of Princess Anne striding out, in the words of the Times’ Janice Taylor, like ‘a swashbuckling lady pirate’ in a plumed hat and floor-length velvet cape under which, in anticipation of the equestrian duties to follow, she wore uniform riding trousers and a business-like pair of boots.

I have to admit that it was more than a little gratifying to see that a post I wrote some years ago was actually pretty near the mark:

Back in the 1970s, when I was a child, princesses came in two varieties. There were the fairy-tale ones in books, whose royal status unaccountably enabled them to spin frogs into gold or identify stray vegetables in their bedding, and then there was the real-life home-grown version, an energetic outdoor type with a no-nonsense style and an HGV licence who was not above telling intrusive photographers to "Naff awf!" 

Even her wedding, that ultimate opportunity for frills, furbelows and fantasy trimmings, was relatively devoid of story-book razzmatazz; as she walked up the aisle to the sound of trumpets, it would not have been a surprise to learn that, under the severe lines of her dress, she was wearing comfortable boots and possibly even a pair of jodhpurs. 

It is one of the most touching aspects of the whole occasion that the King asked his sister to hold the office of Gold Stick in Waiting, a position which, behind all the Tudor heraldic weirdness, effectively makes her his official bodyguard. It’s the ultimate in asking someone to cover your back - quite literally - and who better to do so than a woman who, once upon a time, responded to an attempted armed kidnapping by sitting tight and telling her would-be abductor “Not bloody likely!”?

Update: it is somewhat galling - or alternatively further proof of my prescience - to find that the Daily Mail has, this morning, published an article on HRH’s popularity with Gen Z:


Thursday, 11 May 2023

Sticks and Stones

Now the dust is settling after the coronation, the papers are getting worked up over the 4,165 complaints received by Ofcom about Adjoa Andoh’s on-air description of the group on Buckingham Palace balcony as ‘terribly white’. The remark was undoubtedly crass, not to mention illogical - this is, after all the royal family - but is it really as newsworthy as all that?

Some of the uproar must be due to context; in recent years, the phrase ‘hideously white’ has been used by, among others, Greg Dyke (on the BBC), Andrew Lloyd Webber (on British theatre) and Rupa Huq (on, well, pretty much everything). That ‘terribly’ - even if it were intended primarily as a quantifier - put Andoh’s remark in the same territory and was bound to raise a few hackles as a result, while Paddy O’Connell effectively poured petrol on the flames with his response to her on his Radio 4 programme - ‘you have nothing to apologise for’, ‘you haven’t upset anyone’.

While I can see why people might, in a kind of ‘sauce for the gander’ way, want to join in the condemnation, there is surely little to be gained in responding with the same kind of thin-skinned, prickly outrage we deplore in today’s student culture and among the easily - or professionally - offended. In this case, with a certain element of do-as-you-would-be-done-by, I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and believe that, caught up in the occasion, she spoke without considering how her comment would sound to viewers who had tuned in to watch the coronation.

It may be a telling indication of her thought processes - in fact, I’d be surprised if it wasn’t. Adjoa Andoh owes the spectacular good looks which kick-started a long career in the public eye to her dual British and Ghanaian heritage, so, for her, family gatherings will naturally be associated with a mixture of ethnicity. To that, one can add a lifetime spent in theatrical or television circles and in the capital, where multiculturalism is the order of the day and activism is generally seen as a good career move. When you have a hammer, as they say, everything looks like a nail; while the ethnicity of the various participants in the ceremony was clearly at the forefront of Andoh’s perception, to many others (fifty-somethings, at least) the most remarkable thing about the sceptre bearer was probably not that she is black but that - wonderfully! - she is Floella Benjamin from ‘Play School’.

Andoh’s presence on screen during the ITV coronation coverage was presumably entirely due to her role as an Georgian aristocrat in a newly-released Netflix costume drama - we are, in effect, back to the blending of artifice and reality (see previous post). She was hired for her celebrity status, not to provide in-depth analysis or background knowledge; her mistake here was failing to distinguish between the people associated with the King’s public position and a group largely composed of his close blood-relatives (who, unsurprisingly, are the same colour as he is) and, crucially, expressing this in potentially derogatory terms.

There’s a danger that, like over-tired toddlers after a party, some people are seizing on the opportunity to make a disproportionate fuss in order to fill the gap left when the excitement dies down. Either she intended to provoke, in which case the less media follow-up the better, or she spoke in haste and unwisely and genuinely regrets her words. It is human to err, and we’ve all made ill-considered or badly phrased remarks at times; I don’t necessarily agree with O’Connell but now, surely, it would be a good thing for people to accept it as such and move on.

Monday, 8 May 2023

Trial by Netflix

The 2022 Netflix series ‘Hollywood’, a work of fiction set in the 1950s, centres around the making of a film about a (real) British actress, Peg Entwistle, who committed suicide by throwing herself from the top of the famous ‘Hollywood’ sign in 1932. 

In the series, the part of Peg in the film is initially intended to be played by a white woman, reflecting her Welsh origins. However, a talented black actress impresses the production team and, in the face of strong opposition from the public and the studio establishment, the decision is taken to cast her in the title role - a demonstration that they are casting based on talent rather than skin colour (well, that and her being the director’s girlfriend).

So far so good; however, things now start to get complicated. Firstly, the production team decide there is a problem with the character’s name, which will also be the title of the film; ‘Peg’ (a childhood nickname taken from an Irish play) ‘sounds too white’, so they change it to ‘Meg’. Then, as filming gets under way, some of the characters start to question whether it is right for Hollywood’s first black leading lady to play a character so crushed by despair that she kills herself; this, they say, would imply weakness and reflect badly on black women in general. As a result, an emotional final scene is added in which she is persuaded to climb down from the sign and survives.

There’s a story there, but it’s not necessarily the one Netflix originally set out to tell. The series reveals a great deal about the unjust treatment of minority groups in 1950s Hollywood (although it seems to me that, if you are demanding equality of opportunity, it undermines your cause somewhat if the first thing you do when you get it is embark on a campaign of special pleading) but much, much more about Netflix screenwriters and their attitude to the facts behind the story; the writers of ‘Hollywood’ have their characters comment on many issues but not one of the fictional team ever asks whether it is really appropriate to make such drastic alterations to the life story of a real person or considers the effect on her living relatives.

We’ve become accustomed to Netflix ensuring that the facts don’t get in the way of a good story; from the intrusive fabrications of ‘The Crown’ to the character assassination of Rachel Williams, friend and victim of the fraudster Anna Sorokin (aka Delvey). Under the strapline ‘based on a true story’, real events and sensational invention are seamlessly blended until many viewers are unable to separate fact from injurious fiction, as a quick trawl of reader comments on royal news stories will easily demonstrate (I suppose this is mainly due to a desire to create ratings-boosting drama in ‘The Crown’, but knowing that Meghan and Harry are on the Netflix payroll does lend it a rather sinister aspect).

It’s nothing new, of course; real events have been fictionalised for as long as people have been telling stories, although the visual element gives film and television an unprecedented spurious authenticity - our monkey brains still want to believe the evidence of our eyes. Unfortunately, such distortion is capable of doing a great deal of harm, as is the case with the recent film ‘No Limit’, which claims to be inspired by a real-life free diver, Audrey Mestre, who drowned when her ascent equipment failed. The dramatic potential of the true story was not enough for the film-makers, who, presumably in script conferences and discussions similar to those portrayed in ‘Hollywood’, decided to imply that their heroine’s death was the result of deliberate sabotage by her husband.

While the film begins with a disclaimer saying that it is ‘a work of fiction’ and that any resemblance to real people is ‘coincidental’, there is also a statement that it is ‘inspired by real events’ and, at the end, a photograph of Audrey Mestre appears on screen along with an account of her death (all according to news reports; I haven’t watched it). Unsurprisingly, Mestre’s widower is now taking Netflix to court and speaking publicly about the distress this film has caused to him and to his wife’s family by the implied misrepresentation of their relationship and the suggestion that he was the cause of her death.

This willingness to distort true events and the lives of real people for gain implies a breathtakingly level of arrogance on the part of the writers at Netflix and those who approve their  projects. It would be interesting to know how much thought is given to the people whose actions, words and relationships they are misrepresenting; whether they are aware of the potential damage but deliberately choose to continue despite the harm they may cause or whether, like their fictional ‘Hollywood’ counterparts, they are happy to rewrite history, apparently oblivious to  the fact that they are exposing real human beings to the judgement of a misinformed mob.

Friday, 5 May 2023

Tactical Voting and the Electoral Dark Arts

The news in the Times this week that Labour had been sending ‘campaign improvement boards’ - groups of ‘experts’ from headquarters to check up on and advise local party organisations ahead of these elections - didn’t come as any surprise, given my experience of student politics in in the 1980s.

Back then, we sat at the feet of officials sent out by the Labour Party’s youth wing to to explain to us exactly how to set up tactical voting for student union elections (a complicated business before the widespread availability of personal computers to do the number-crunching) and just how far a smear campaign could go without breaking any rules.

Those of us who expressed concern about some of the methods being advocated in the workshops were offered plenty of reassurance; our actions might be morally dubious, they said, but when faced with the urgent necessity of removing Margaret Thatcher and preventing the Tories damaging the country further, we were acting in the greater good, the end clearly justifying the means.

IThis was in the days of Red Wedge, where the purchase of a concert ticket automatically enrolled you in the Labour Party; this was hailed as a great success, although, in fact, it was the Party’s subsequent claim that the rapid and vast increase in membership was evidence that the people were spontaneously turning against Thatcher which put the final nail in the coffin of my faith in it as an institution.

Those who were less hampered by moral scruples and stuck with the Party despite the dishonesty and the prevalence of what later came to be known as ‘spin’, must, by my reckoning, be old enough to be in senior positions by now either at a local level or as part of the higher structure; perhaps some of them may even be among the visiting improvement board members who advised the local parties this time round, still peddling their strategies to do down their opposition at all costs.

Back in the days of a two party system, there was a simple progression; in the common version of an often misquoted (and frequently mis-attributed) saying, ‘if you are not a socialist at 20, you have no heart: if you are still a socialist at 40, you have no head’. These days, when misguided and self-indulgent youth is prolonged beyond all previous limits, many more former Red Wedge supporters must have found a political home in the Liberal Democrats.

There is certainly an air of familiarity in Ed Davey’s complacent acknowledgement that tactical voting could work in the next election, along with the local leaflet his party sent out some weeks ago recommending applying for a postal vote to bypass the photo ID requirement at the polling station. Where the Lib Dems go, the other parties will doubtless follow to avoid being placed at a disadvantage.

It seems odd (but somehow inevitable) that, with more knowledge at our fingertips than ever before, we are at risk of being reduced to a nation of low information voters (see previous post), our votes - the precious reward of years of campaigning and struggle by our ancestors, male and female - no longer truly our own but simply fodder for the ever more complicated tactical machinations of our political masters.

(A tip of the tricorn to AK Haart and the much more elegantly laconic post which inspired this ramble: https://akhaart.blogspot.com/2023/05/turned-away.html)


Monday, 1 May 2023

Pin the Tail on the Donkey

 With less than three days to go until the Council elections, I have to admit to being rather baffled.

I’ve searched the internet and scoured the local news websites but, for all intents and purposes, our independent candidate doesn’t exist. He’s named in the official lists, of course, but apart from that, there is nothing out there to indicate his policies and principles.

Since I, like many others, am thoroughly disgusted with party politics, his independent status should make him an appealing option, but what if he’s passionately committed to meat-free council catering or low traffic neighbourhoods? That appears to be the case for those independent candidates who, in the local paper’s cursory and county-wide rundown of party policies, banded together to explain how they aligned with the Greens on certain issues but, as our candidate wasn’t one of them, there’s no way of telling.

As for leaflets, we’ve had one from the Conservatives and two from the Lib Dems, all mainly telling us how the other parties have got it wrong (the Lib Dems, with a certain cavalier attitude to veracity, state that the requirement to show photo ID is “part of a Conservative government plan to make it harder for people to exercise their right to vote”). The local community magazine is no help - although it’s good to know that the WI are holding a coronation-themed cake sale on Friday - and the nearest thing I’ve found online is a supporters’ forum for the local football club which is trying, with limited success, to ascertain what each candidate thinks about their plans for a new stand.

It seems incredible that, in a nominal democracy, voting in local elections can be a matter of either blind party loyalty or selecting - apologies to the gentleman concerned - a pig in a poke. If our political masters really supported our right to choose those acting on our behalf, at the very least one would expect the Council website, along with the required details of the candidates’ proposers and agents, to include a short statement from each candidate enumerating his or her priorities and intentions; since they took the trouble to write and tell us we’d need photo ID to vote, they could even have printed the statements on the back of the letter.

With virtually no information on which to base the decision, it becomes a random choice on a par with a blindfold guessing game or a once-a-year-punter’s bet on the Grand National - except that there’s no big payout if you win and the horse won’t have a say in how local services are run for the next four years. Still, to be cynical, it probably won’t make much difference in the long run: as the world-weary Polish saying on elections has it, ‘Same trough, new pigs’.

Update: further digging in the Council archives has revealed that he stood (unsuccessfully) for election in a nearby local ward in 2016; he was representing UKIP then, so I’m guessing it’s a ‘no’ on the vegan dinners and the road-blocks.

Sunday, 30 April 2023

Thrown to the wolves

A minor but disturbing news story last week concerned a teacher in an all-girls school compelled by the management to apologise to a class of eleven-year-olds for addressing them collectively  as ‘girls’.

The story was picked up at the time by JuliaM, who drew attention to the lunchtime protest which followed the teacher’s refusal to comply with the pupils’ demand that she use the preferred pronouns of one of their number - a grievance, one suspects, which had sprung, fully-formed, into existence after the previous week’s assembly on gender presented by the school’s ‘equality and diversity prefects’.

The desire to impress one’s peers or a visiting speaker is an unpredictable force which often finds expression after ‘issue-based’ assemblies; I’ve seen the most unlikely pupils vying with each other to produce highly dubious first-hand descriptions of bullying, eating disorders or mental health issues in the led discussions which often follow and I suspect the aftermath of a presentation on gender would be no exception.

Something about this attention-seeking scenario and the involvement of older girls rang a bell so, following a hunch while writing a comment at Julia’s place, I rummaged around in the internet and, almost immediately, came up with this sample student essay on Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’, based on the Salem witch trials:

 Although Abigail Williams is typically thought of as the antagonist of The Crucible, she is in fact a victim as much as any other tragic character in the play. The true antagonist of the play is the town of Salem itself, because of the judgemental and self-concerned people, and its oppressive views. (Sample essay from 123helpme)

This is not not an isolated example; there is a wealth of material out there drawing on the violent death of her parents and her affair with an older man to portray her as a sympathetic character driven by trauma and exploitation to rebel against the censorious townsfolk using the limited weapons at her disposal (conveniently ignoring the fact that she describes the fate of her parents while coercing the younger girls to support her machinations and that the whole plot arises from her desire to harm the wife of her former lover).

To portray Abigail as a victim is to upset the whole balance of the play, effectively reducing Miller’s explicit allegory for the McCarthyite persecution of alleged Communists in 1950s America to a seventeenth century version of the film ‘Mean Girls’ (2004), in which the actions of the accusers, while clearly reprehensible, can be understood and potentially condoned (or even applauded; it’s worth bearing in mind that, after the release of ‘Mean Girls’, a teen comedy drama based on a factual study of bullying and cliques in US high schools, schoolgirls in uniform-free countries began consciously copying the sartorial codes of the eponymous group).

While it would be reassuring to think that this paradigm shift is confined to unqualified students rather than academia and is mainly the result of immature teenagers identifying with and romanticising the character, in an age where the internet gives a spurious authority to anything put online it’s easy to imagine it taking hold in a wider context. More disturbingly, the growing cult of the victim makes it an increasingly attractive interpretation to those for whom participating in online witch hunts is becoming an acceptable way to approach any difference of opinion, thanks to social media.

It’s only a few weeks since I used the Crucible analogy* to describe young employees exerting undue influence over publishing companies or cultural institutions fearful of damaging social media campaigns over issues of race or gender; the experience of the unfortunate teacher at the hands of a group of unscrupulous, entitled (and ill-mannered) eleven-year-olds (and her bosses, who all seem to have gone down with a bad case of Witchfinder-General’s Knee) over gender identity suggests that the contagion is spreading into ever-younger cohorts.

Certainly the school management who offered their employee up in sacrifice on the altar of political correctness would be well advised to do a little research into both the real-life Salem witch trials and the actions of Mao’s Red Guard, a movement which combined the ruthless solipsism of adolescence with fanatical loyalty to an inflexible ideology. Now even their youngest pupils know how much power they can exert, who knows which members of staff could be next in line for denunciation? 


Sunday, 23 April 2023

Negative Adaptations

As Radio 4 becomes ever more annoying and 4extra’s continuity announcers not much better, I’ve been listening to archive radio plays and serials on BBC Sounds. By giving us access to these older productions, the BBC is, presumably unintentionally, providing a clear demonstration of how much better they are than the majority of what we are being given today.

For a start, in the older productions, the lines are generally delivered more clearly; the actors, by and large, have better diction and vocal technique and the background noise or sound effects, having been used to establish the location, are muted or reduced while they speak. There is less reliance on gimmickry too; while random repetition, self-narration, choral speaking and other over-theatrical and experimental techniques will get you high grades in GCSE Drama or favourable reviews in the Guardian, they can become intrusive in most radio drama settings, particularly in adaptations of the classics and older texts.

Above all, the older dramatisations are relatively free from the BBC’s now seemingly endless attempts to shoehorn propaganda into everything. This is annoying at the best of times but feels like a violation when a much-loved favourite falls victim. I seldom go so far as to swear at the radio but the Radio 4 dramatisation of ‘The Cruel Sea’ a few years ago elicited one such outburst when a passage in Monsarrat’s book condemning the vulgar ‘Spivs and Flash Harrys’ profiteering from petrol brought in by oil tanker at the cost of human lives was radically altered to a snide complaint about ‘fat cats and businessmen’ using the hard-won petrol to ‘drive their Jaguars’ to golf clubs, race meetings and pheasant shoots. In the same way, the few scenes of ‘The Kraken Wakes’ which I caught by chance on a car journey were so heavily larded with pious references to climate change that I switched it off again in disgust.

Most of the manipulation is less overt than this, of course, but it is only when you listen to adaptations from decades ago that you realise how frequent it is in today’s output: like the proverbial boiling frogs, we have been subjected to the intrusion of modernising revision and political or environmental orthodoxy in creeping increments to the point that we simply don’t realise how much of it is going on or even notice it unless some particularly egregious example crops up. The same thing has been happening in television; compare the excellent - and generally faithful - 1980s adaptations of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ or ‘Barchester Towers’ with today’s ‘Great Expectations’, complete with added explicit drug-taking and contrived references to the slave trade.

A. A. Milne, when he turned ‘The Wind in the Willows’ into ‘Toad of Toad Hall’, compared adapting a well-loved classic to leaving fingerprints in someone else’s bread and butter and recommended as light a touch as possible; by contrast, the BBC is not merely manhandling our cultural sustenance but dropping the plate on the floor and treading it into the carpet with muddy boots, while never missing an opportunity to preach at us through the medium of entertainment and doubtless enjoying a collective sense of righteous self-satisfaction that all of this is is entirely for our own good. 

As an antidote, I suggest the three-part serial which prompted this post, an adaptation of James Hilton’s 1933 novel ‘Lost Horizon’, recorded in 1981 with Derek Jacobi in the lead role; the plot is followed faithfully, it is free of gimmicks and you can hear every word. More importantly, despite being partially set in British India and other far-flung parts of the empire, it is mercifully free from the kind of anachronistic multiculturalism and condemnation of the Raj that the BBC would doubtless see fit to inject were it being made today. If you know the book and it interests you, I recommend you listen while you can, before the Corporation’s Thought Police spot this dangerously subversive recording and withdraw it from public access.

Wednesday, 19 April 2023

Alas, poor Yorvik!

I knew it, Horatio. Or, in its modern guise, I thought I did; the Minster, the Shambles, the Japanese prints in the Museum and the gardens next door, a stroll along the river Ouse and afternoon tea at Betty’s (or, if the queue is too long, the quirky little tea shop in College Street, all chintz bunting and mis-matched antique china). However, as a recent weekend trip has shown, that’s not all there is to it these days.

The first inkling that things had changed since we were regular visitors was a peculiar noise as we walked into the city centre for dinner, a discordant far-off howling which gradually resolved itself into - arguably - ‘Wonderwall’ being painfully mangled in a variety of different keys and with a certain valiant disregard for tempo. The culprits turned out to be a busker (actually quite good) and a large crowd of mini-skirted, over-painted and clearly very drunk women, which came as something of a surprise, given that it was not yet 7pm.

As we drew nearer, more women appeared round corners or out of the numerous bars lining the street, waving their arms enthusiastically in the air as they joined in and bawled an approximation of the lyrics at parties approaching from the opposite direction. Their various accoutrements - matching T-shirts or sashes (necessary, perhaps, to stop them drunkenly wandering off with the wrong herd), light-up deely-boppers and bridal veils - confirmed our suspicions that we had somehow ended up in what amounted to a hen party-themed circle of Hell.

Thanks to its small size, car-free streets and easy accessibility by rail, York has apparently drawn the very short straw of becoming one of Britain’s most popular hen party venues. Numerous companies compete to promote it as a destination, offering organised activities ranging from the sweetly innocuous (dance, cookery and chocolate-making classes) via wine-tastings, river cruises and bar crawls to the downright prurient and sniggeringly salacious. Among the latter is a male life-drawing class, marketed - or pandered - with a queasy ‘nudge-nudge, wink-wink’ spiel which, at a stroke, degrades centuries of classical art to cheap titillation in a spectacularly apt metaphor for our times.

From our window table in a quiet restaurant, we could see more groups making their way from the station, helium balloons and headdresses bobbing above the crowd, their unsteady progress suggesting that the merry-making had already started in earnest on the train - either that or their high heels were causing them trouble on the cobblestoned street. The make-up colour of choice appeared to be day-glo orange, accessorised with over-sized lip fillers which, combined with some bold sartorial choices, gave the wandering parties more than a passing resemblance to shoals of brightly-coloured tropical fish prowling the nooks and crannies of a coral reef.

By the time we finished our meal, the busker was still gamely plying his trade - Robbie Williams’ ‘Angels’ this time - but his audience, while still caterwauling along, were now looking distinctly the worse for wear; a number of them were leaning for support on nearby buildings and bollards or, less successfully, their companions, and several more had collapsed onto the damp pavement, while a couple were quietly sobbing in the gutter, apparently overcome by emotion (or, more probably, a surfeit of Prosecco cocktails). It was with a palpable sense of relief that we left the city centre, pausing briefly to assist an unwisely stiletto-shod young woman who had fallen over on a busy crossing and was struggling to right herself unaided in the face of oncoming traffic.

I suppose the number of marauding hen parties suggests that marriage is not as uncommon or outmoded as some social commentators would have us believe - unless, of course, young women have decided to dispense with the tedious marriage bit and are simply signing up for an evening of Bacchanalian excess for the fun of it (which would, I suppose, be nothing new - although, in the ancient world, there was usually a mitigating religious dimension to the revelry). It is sad, however, to see what is otherwise a remarkably agreeable and attractive historic city being so abused and it must be truly terrible for the local residents who bear the brunt of the late-night noise, crowded streets and antisocial behaviour on a weekly basis.

Wednesday, 12 April 2023

“Do you talk more when it’s dry?”

Fans of John Wyndham may recognise this quote from ‘The Day of the Triffids’. One summer evening in the days before the disaster, the narrator and a colleague at the triffid farm where he works are listening to the rattling noise made by the thousands of tethered plants in a nearby field. The colleague, a plant expert, suggests that the noise, rather than a random effect of the weather as Mason thinks, may actually be a form of communication. Although Mason is initially sceptical, later events cause him to re-evaluate the theory.

I was reminded of this scene by the news, a couple of weeks ago, that scientists have recorded hypersonic ‘clicks’ given off by plants under stress and are putting forward the theory that these noises can convey information about the condition of the plant. While the researchers concentrated on dehydrated tomato plants, there is also footage of a rather disgruntled-looking cactus wired for sound and emitting a definite clicking or popping noise.

This is not the only triffid analogy in the news; nearly ten years ago, I quoted from the book in response to a story about plants being engineered to produce omega-3 fatty acids hitherto found only in fish oils and animal products using genes from marine algae (technically neither plant nor animal). Since then, successful trials have led to the proposed feeding of the new oils to farmed fish and poultry and to the beginning of the process to approve them for for mass production for human consumption.

In Wyndham’s 1951 novel, which is starting to look alarmingly prescient, the origin of the triffids lies in the manipulation of plant DNA to produce a vegetable oil which far outperforms the best fish oils. When specimens appear worldwide, a large industry quickly springs up to exploit the benefits of this new - if somewhat problematic - crop; it is this abundance of lethal triffids on Home Counties farmland which renders the United Kingdom particularly vulnerable to the subsequent global disaster, one in which the triffids’ ability to communicate, albeit at a basic level, plays a significant role.

Bearing this in mind, it is, perhaps, a little unsettling to read that there is currently an application in place to grow GM Camelina Sativa plants which have been engineered to produce this new fish oil substitute on open-air agricultural stations in Suffolk and Hertfordshire.

What, as they say, could possibly go wrong?

As an aside, 1951 was something of a vintage year for novels, giving us not only the triffids but also ‘Foundation’, ‘The Cruel Sea’, ‘The Daughter of Time’, ‘Nightrunners of Bengal’, ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and many others.

Saturday, 8 April 2023

“Go and play in the traffic!”

The long tradition of April Fool news stories in mainstream outlets seems to be in abeyance thanks to the internet - in any case, there are now so many odd and surreal news items out there that the odd spaghetti tree would probably slip through unnoticed (I rather like the conspiracy theorists’ explanation that switching on the Large Hadron Collider precipitated us into a parallel and comparatively insane universe).

This one had my antennae twitching but, as far as I can see, it first appeared six days after the crucial date:

Giant coloured spots appeared on Norman Way in Colchester, with locals told that the “temporary street art” was intended to encourage children to walk or cycle to the nearby school.

Quite apart from aesthetic considerations - the colour combination is frankly nauseating - and the distraction for drivers, decorating the road surface with the same brightly-coloured designs used widely in school playgrounds suggests that the designers have little or no practical knowledge of child behaviour.

The spots are part of a Healthy School Streets initiative on the part of the Council - savour those capital letters: a sure sign there’s a PR company or quango involved somewhere - designed to reduce and control traffic around schools. It’s the sort of project guaranteed to appeal to high-ups who want to be seen to Make a Difference and just the sort of idea likely to be swapped around at conferences (Head Teachers are prone to the same kind of thing, making schools doubly 

The timing is interesting, to say the least; ‘temporary’, yet right at the start of the Easter holidays - and a month or so before the local elections. The overall impression is that the peasants should shut up and not interfere when their betters decide to act for their good:
A spokeswoman for Essex Council [...] said residents were consulted on the idea. They said 74% agreed with the principle of setting up School Streets in Colchester.

Doubtless this survey was carried out with the help of the usual leading questions - ‘Do you agree with our plan or would you prefer to see more horrible road accidents involving children? - and the residents agreed in principle without being given any clear indication of the form the measures would take. Certainly one local Councillor, who memorably described the results as ‘Teletubby land’ says she was not shown the design in advance.

For me, though, the oddest aspect is the stated aim of ‘encouraging children to walk or cycle to school’. For one thing, the design is limited to a small area and youngsters are hardly likely to find a few coloured spots on the road at their destination sufficient incentive to warrant walking all the way and, more to the point, surely deciding the means of getting to school is up to their parents, at least until they are of an age to find the brightly-coloured circles embarrassingly infantile and patronising.

If I am wrong, and it is really children who are deciding whether to walk or drive to school at an early age, the results could be interesting; if parents have abdicated responsibility to that extent, will they have the discipline or authority to prevent their infant offspring from succumbing to the lure of the ‘attractive’ street art and jumping into the road?

Saturday, 1 April 2023

Pleading the Belly

Back in the days of the death penalty, our forebears recognised that executing a pregnant woman raised a certain moral difficulty. The solution they arrived at was allowing the convicted criminal to ‘plead her belly’; a woman sentenced to death but proving upon examination to be carrying a child could have that sentence deferred until after she had given birth.

In practice, whether through merciful reconsideration or administrative cock-up, records show that these women often escaped execution altogether and ended up committed to prison or transportation instead or even being pardoned, providing a powerful incentive for any woman detained on suspicion of a capital crime to get herself knocked up as soon as possible. (This presented certain practical difficulties in all-female prisons but the problem was not insurmountable; ‘The Beggars’ Opera’, which inspired this blog, features a Newgate servant whose side hustle is (pro)creating the means for female criminals to escape the hangman’s noose).

There was an interesting throwback to pleading the belly this week thanks to lawyers for one of two women - or ‘thug mothers’ as the Mail memorably put it - who pleaded guilty this week to affray. It’s certainly not a pretty picture:

...they turned up at their victim's home at 6.30am and pelted her with eggs. Wright, 29, stamped on the victim's legs, while Jones, 33, kneed her in the head and tried to pour vinegar in her eyes.

The guilty plea didn’t leave much for counsel to do but one advocate, at least, did have a go at justifying his fee:

Mr Brody, mitigating for Jones, said his client is heavily pregnant. He added: 'The defence counsel together believes this doesn't reach the custody threshold. Ms Jones is pregnant, she cannot go to prison. 

I’m not an expert, but a quick Google suggests that ‘cannot’ is doing quite a lot of heavy lifting here. In fact, there appears to be no statutory requirement for the judge to take pregnancy into account when sentencing and there are several mother and baby units in UK prisons, making it unclear exactly why Mr Brody would make such an unequivocal (and technically incorrect) statement.

The judge confirmed that the custody threshold had not been met and, in the absence of previous convictions, handed down community and restraining orders, telling them to ‘count themselves lucky’ - something of an understatement, given the premeditation implied by a 6.30am house call furnished with a bottle of vinegar and a box of eggs.

Since the offence took place in 2020 and the women have been aware since the preliminary hearings in 2021 that they would be standing trial in Crown Court, it raises some interesting questions about this suspiciously opportune pregnancy - and, however humane their intentions, about the possible consequences of success for the current campaigns to prevent pregnant women being sent to jail at all.

Wednesday, 29 March 2023

The Cradle of the Revolution

The title of this post comes from road signs around the Chateau de Vizille, in south-east France; while every area tries to find something to boast of on the brown promotional roadside panels (spare a thought for Selongey, which can’t manage anything more exciting than ‘Birthplace of the pressure cooker’), the numerous additional official signs for Vizille, with its Museum of the Revolution, suggest it is a source of local and national pride.

Recent events across the Channel have prompted a number of comments about the French tendency to adopt violent protest as a first measure rather than a last resort, suggesting that this is because of the impact on the national psyche of having had a revolution in the past. I’d go further; what happens every year on July 14th is not merely a commemoration of historical events but an occasion to take to the streets and rejoice, despite the fact that the Revolution, founded in ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, quickly degenerated into horrific brutality, mob violence and calculated mass murder. When you have been brought up to applaud a history like that, what’s a bit of stone-throwing or arson between class enemies?

Back when I was teaching French, our regular end-of-year project for year 8 was based on an information pack published in France for foreign children studying the language. A cheerfully colourful comic strip booklet told the story of the Revolution, from the anti-royalist riots in Grenoble which began it all and the storming of the Bastille to the months of the Terror - complete with graphic depictions of the guillotining of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette - followed by instructions for making tricolour rosettes and Liberty bonnets out of crepe paper. There was even a cassette and a songbook so that pupils could join in with ‘La Marseillaise’ and learn ‘Ça ira’, the anthem of the sans-culottes, with its lilting dance-tune and jolly refrain, ‘To the lampposts with the aristocrats/ ...we will hang them!’ (although mercifully it did, at least, omit the final lines; ‘And when we’ve hanged them all/ we’ll shove a spade up their arses’).

Since the young generally have an insatiable appetite for the gorier bits of history, it’s easy to see how French schoolchildren, provided with similar teaching materials as part of their national curriculum, could accept the violence of the Revolution as a matter of course; it’s those of us who discover the details as adults who are made queasy by descriptions of the unspeakable behaviour of the bloodthirsty mob and the callous attitude of the intellectuals who provided the driving force behind it. 

Those protesters destroying public property and attacking the police have been reared from an early age to admire and celebrate a movement which, in addition to regicide and the mass murder of thousands (including children) purely because of their antecedents, eventually turned on its own and killed dozens of eminent social reformers, scientists and writers, men and women alike, who shared the same ideals but dared to criticise the direction events had taken and the atrocities being perpetrated in the name of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

If ever there was a culture in the so-called civilised world which turned out citizens primed and ready for mass protest and violence, surely this is it.

As an aside, the last Bastille Day celebration I attended in France coincided with the local Fire Brigade’s annual knees-up (which started at 4pm after the parade). By the time the town fireworks got going at 11.30pm, most of the firefighters had been drinking for over seven hours, which was unfortunate as a stray rocket set fire to the roof of the nearby chateau.

I shall long cherish the spectacle of the duty fire engine stuck firmly in the castle gateway while its (sober) driver speculated aloud about the ancestry and personal habits of the two inebriated colleagues who had tried to direct him through the narrow entrance.

Wednesday, 22 March 2023

Bloody Cheek!

The classic example used to define chutzpah is a young man murdering his parents and then demanding that the court show mercy because he is an orphan. 

This week, I think I’ve found another, albeit on a lesser scale, from some members of the health workers’ unions. I’ve just had an email from the NHS blood people - I get these from time to time thanks to a relatively uncommon and particularly useful blood type - inviting me to make a donation as soon as possible. Like all their communications, it’s heavy on the emotional blackmail -‘save a life’, ‘we urgently need your help’’.

This urgency, they say, is because stocks are very low indeed due to bad weather and ‘industrial action’. The email doesn’t indicate whose industrial action is to blame, but a quick search confirms that, sure enough, there were blood donation staff joining the merry throng of NHS workers on the picket lines in the recent strikes.

That is their legal right, of course, but, given the unions’ claims that the system is already over-stretched and operating with minimal margins, it seems a bit much on the part of those who walked away from this ‘vital’ process and missed a couple of days of legalised vampiring (as well as costing management time to deal with the disruption) to expect the public to rush to make up the resulting deficit. 

Friday, 17 March 2023

‘...not with a bang but an insta’

It would, in a slightly perverse way, be comforting to think that, should our civilisation fail, the end would be brought about by something on a cosmic scale and completely beyond our control; a massive asteroid, perhaps, or an alien invasion.

Science fiction writers have added a moral dimension with inadvertently self-inflicted scenarios involving nuclear disaster, rogue AI or global pandemics spread by mass air travel, not to mention my personal favourite, triffids; less spectacular but there’s still a certain element of grandeur involved (except, perhaps, in the case of zombies).

Sadly, it’s looking more and more as if the end will be a combination of terminal dumbing down and bitter political infighting. With hindsight, we could have seen it coming; the internet gave us a tool beyond the wildest dreams of previous generations, so what did most of us do with it? Shopping, lolcats, belfies, hot and cold running Kardashians and all the rest (blogs too, of course).

Above all, the social media genie, once out of the bottle, has set about undermining our society from within, providing the perfect medium for narcissism, misinformation, witch-hunts and denunciations, all played out in public for the delectation of the masses - the perfect counterpart to the circuses of the Ancient Romans. 

The instantaneous knee-jerk posturing of social media is fuelling an increasing polarisation as our society fragments into tribes - us (right) and them (wrong) - according to one’s opinion on the issue of the day; humans being what they are, it isn’t long before the tribe determines the opinion rather than the other way round. As far as Brexit, gender or the British Empire are concerned, we are effectively involved in wars of religion, whether we know it or not.

Worse still - since those are, at least relatively serious matters - is the growing infantilism recently embodied by news coverage of one Liana, who filmed herself on tiktok copiously weeping because some social media users had been rude about the name of her child (Koazy, since you ask) or the petty squabbles surrounding the antics of various footballers’ wives.

It’s all starting to look horribly like a fast track to hell in a handcart and, given the wedge of diversity staff and green policies being driven into every pillar of our social and material infrastructure, the collapse is gathering pace. We might be able to slow the decline - for a start, it would help if if Instagram’s estimated 1.47 billion users didn’t spend an average of half an hour a day gazing at their own and each other’s navels - but I suspect our time is up, just as it was for the Ancient Romans, the Aztecs or the Moche.

How humiliating, though, to descend into barbarism in such a trivial and meaningless way!

Monday, 13 March 2023

Lineker: biting the hand that feeds him

Politics and contract issues aside, I can’t help feeling that, for me, at least, the Gary Lineker affair boils down to a question of manners.

Lineker may or may not be directly employed by the BBC - the matter is currently under scrutiny as there’s a substantial potential tax bill involved - but his status as a paid pundit surely brings with it some social and moral obligations towards the organisation which offers him a weekly platform to exercise his specialist skills and whose metaphorical bread and salt he has eaten for decades.

It’s a bit like a wedding singer being found in the hotel bar after the reception making loud and occasionally offensive comments about the local mayor (even though the bride and groom have already asked him to stop); he may not be breaking any rules, but it does show a lack of respect for the bridal party and reflects badly on the people who who hired him.

There's something embarrassing about the whole business; this is a grown man with a successful media career employing the sort of Hitler-based comparison that was used as a last resort in acrimonious student debates back in the days of Margaret Thatcher (and my misspent youth). We used to call it ‘dropping the H-bomb’ - the nuclear option which effectively ended the discussion, since any attempt at remonstration could be howled down with gleeful cries of ‘fascist!’ (‘pig’ was an optional extra). 

It’s taken me all weekend to work out of what - or whom - all this was reminding me but I got there in the end...

Thursday, 9 March 2023

The Decline and Fall of the Little Red Hen

Once upon a time, this was my favourite book - which, judging by recent posts on Primary education websites, shows I was a precocious proto-capitalist; these days, if their approving teachers and parents are to be believed, children are likely (with, I suspect, some prompting) to say that the hen should have shared her loaf of bread with the other animals even though she did all the hard work to produce it.

It wasn’t just the satisfactory ending that appealed; like the other Ladybird story books of its vintage, it’s an aesthetic and linguistic gem, with detailed illustrations clearly drawn from life - the hen scratching in the dirt to plant the seeds is a delight - and a keen sense of rhythm pervading the text:
“Who will help me to plant these grains of wheat?”  asked the little red hen.
“Not I,” said the cat.
“Not I,” said the rat.
“Not I,” said the pig.  

By the mid 1990s, the style is very different. Gone are the lifelike animals and the lovingly-detailed rural settings; instead we have a flat and dreary cartoon with a corresponding lack of complexity. While the language remains relatively unchanged, the ‘other animals in the farmyard’ have become ‘her friends’; a patronising gesture in keeping with the simplification of the illustrations, all doubtless intended to make the book more ‘relatable’ for modern children.

Another couple of decades and the complex and detailed illustrations of the original have been replaced by a faux-naïf style in which the animals (the pig having been unaccountably replaced by a dog) have acquired clothing and are depicted in an anthropomorphic style oddly reminiscent of “The Island of Doctor Moreau”. The language, too, has been sadly debased:
“Will you help me to plant the wheat? “ asked Little Red Hen.
“No,” said the cat, the rat and the dog.
All these changes are, I fear, symptomatic of a wider malaise. I’ve often wondered how the sophistication of Ancient Roman art and literature could have given way to the Dark Ages and what it must have looked like to those living through the change.

Having seen what has happened to the little red hen in a scant fifty years, I think I am starting to understand.

Tuesday, 7 March 2023

Ex Libris

If you have a racist friend,” sang The Special AKA in the 1980s, “now is the time for your friendship to end”. In a climate where accusations of racism are flung about for the flimsiest of reasons, today’s Guardian readers presumably conduct regular purges of their address books to ensure their social contacts meet the requisite purity standards.

A while back, Julia had a piece at Orphans of Liberty quoting a Guardian writer who clearly applies the same methodology in other areas:

The big book purge began when I decided to go through the shelves and discard any book I was vaguely embarrassed to have in the house, for reasons of quality, subject matter, politics or author (look at your shelves and you probably have your own equivalents).”
Well, no, actually; by and large, if I choose to give a book house room then I will feel no embarrassment about it whatsoever. In the unlikely event of the writer of that article visiting my home, she would probably reach for the smelling-salts when faced with the collection which has absorbed most of my spare cash for half a century or more; from the ‘Just So Stories’ of early childhood to the vintage science fiction I discovered at 8 years old (scaring myself silly reading ‘The Day of the Triffids’ under the covers with a torch) and the ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure stories I loved in my teens, there’s enough politically incorrect material there to ensure no Guardian reader would ever speak to me again.

While some of these writers express prejudices and opinions which would no longer be acceptable in polite society, I see no reason to deny myself the pleasure of revisiting old favourites as a result. An open-minded reader will surely neither approve nor ignore the outdated attitudes but simply accept them as a product of their time, much like the (to us) mawkish sentimentality that permeates late Victorian and Edwardian fiction.

Given what has recently happened to the works of Roald Dahl, I have no doubt that future editions of ‘Beau Geste’, ‘Prester John’ or ‘A Town Like Alice’ - if published at all - will be censored to better reflect today’s attitudes in the same way that old photographs and film posters have been altered to remove evidence of smoking; it would be hard to find a better metaphor for this intrusive nannying than the airbrushed images of Churchill and Brunel sans cigars.

It seems unlikely that we will ever reach a ‘Fahrenheit 451’ scenario (unless the Corbynites get into power, in which case we will have far worse things to worry about) but, should it ever come to an inquisition into the contents of our bookcases, I can’t be alone in saying that they will have to prise ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ (and all the others) from my cold, dead hands.

Friday, 3 March 2023

Not any more, Omar!

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, 
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit 
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, 
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (FitzGerald translation)

Ah, simpler times! To compare the past - the domain of the ‘perfect’ tense in the sense of something finished and complete - to a piece of writing was once to acknowledge the permanence of the act of committing words or images to a surface.

It’s a pertinent reminder of the stability that our forebears experienced; to know that the past was  unalterable, even if recollections might vary. This was the security which Orwell showed being violated by the revisions conducted within the Ministry of Truth - a horrifying but distant dystopian vision for his 1940s readers which, 75 years later, is in danger of becoming an everyday occurrence.

We’ve long been accustomed to believing the evidence of our own eyes and, subsequently, the use of filmed or still images as proof. In the era of deepfake and AI generated imagery, we need to revise this urgently, but at least we have been abundantly warned of the possibilities.

Far more insidious is the alteration of texts stored on our own hardware. Nanny Knows Best has a chilling account of kindle owners finding that copies of Roald Dahl works they already owned have been subject to the recent much-publicised revisions without their knowledge or consent. It’s chilling to think that a kindle library - bought and paid for - could, at any time, be censored for violating today’s standards, regardless of the political or social climate in which it was written (and what, I wonder, would amazon do if asked at a future date to hand over details of customers with a liking for Rider Haggard, H P Lovecraft or John Buchan?).

It extends well beyond kindle, of course; the Tavern’s wise woman - 84, sharp as a tack and equipped with an eidetic memory - reports that BBC news stories which she has read in the early hours of the morning are often substantially altered by breakfast time, presumably as the day-shift editors arrive and contribute the correct spin. This being so, can we be sure that any past report has not been subsequently altered without trace?

How long do we have, I wonder, before this kind of thing spreads to society as a whole - or has it already done so? Having seen how medical records can be altered or disappear, I am willing to believe the same thing could happen with police, judicial and employment documents - to say nothing of Government records - leaving no trace except a history accessible only to technicians inside the organisation.

We’ve seen a lot of this quote from George Orwell recently, but, under the circumstances, I think it bears repeating as often as possible:

Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped.

Friday, 17 February 2023

Behind the World’s Biggest Bike Shed

Never having indulged in Facebook (for obvious reasons; as JuliaM puts it with admirable clarity, ‘Facebook and teachers - like matter and anti-matter’), it was something of a surprise to be asked about a recent celebration by someone who had seen me in candid pictures taken and posted by one of the guests, a mutual friend, who had also included a picture taken in front of my house. Not being signed up, I couldn’t be tagged by name, but I was still clearly recognisable to anyone who knows me by sight.

I appreciate that this makes me sound old-fashioned, but this felt like a major invasion of privacy. While I might equally well, in the past, have figured in printed photos shown to friends or colleagues, appearing in digital form online and reliant on someone else’s privacy settings makes me distinctly uncomfortable, particularly given the inclusion of my home (with associated geolocation).

I’ve long been uneasy about putting images in the public domain (so much so that, along with a handful of other die-hards, I refused to obey the Head’s diktat requiring individual portrait photos for the school website - I know how good some teenagers are with photoshop). It seems petty to be annoyed about it - and a snap of bunch of fifty-somethings chatting round a lunch table is hardly going to cause a sensation - but I do feel there is a principle at stake here.

This attitude is presumably incomprehensible to youngsters who, seduced by the lure of social media and the world of the influencer - not to mention numerous attention-seeking celebrities constantly pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable in the public domain - are constantly aiming for maximum online exposure. Unfortunately for them, the internet is an unforgiving place; put a picture of your youthful indiscretions online (or have one posted by someone else) and there’s no telling when it may come back to bite you.

There’s a good deal of sense in the words of a wise Headmaster (rare, but they do exist) who advised pupils not to post anything online which they would not be happy to see on the side of a bus driving down the High Street the next day. Sadly, staffroom anecdotal evidence suggests many teenagers take a very different attitude: in the words of one world-weary colleague, “It’s a full-time job trying to stop them putting their tits all over the internet”.

From long professional association with them, I’d argue that teenagers should be equipped with a sign on their foreheads reading ‘Under Construction’ to remind people - themselves included - that there is a great deal of essential rewiring happening inside, not least in the areas governing risk-taking and self-image. Once upon a time, unwary and over-bold adolescents might end up inside a sabre-toothed tiger; these days, they may well find themselves exposed, so to speak, on a global stage.

If Twitter is, in the words of the Tavern’s Wise Woman, ‘ the world’s biggest lavatory wall’, then the world of social media provides the digital equivalent of the school bike sheds as the scene of myriad nefarious activities intended mainly to show off to one’s peers and enjoy the thrill of breaking rules - with the significant difference that what happens there could now be available for all to see.

Time will tell whether this becomes a problem with future employers or partners - and the undiscovered country ahead includes the thorny question of how tomorrow’s children will react to seeing in glorious technicolour what their parents got up to in their salad days - but I, for one, am glad there’s no record out there of my irresponsible youth.

Wednesday, 15 February 2023


 Writing in the Telegraph this week, Charles Moore describes how younger employees are holding the whip hand and effectively controlling the output of publishing houses, where their refusal to work on books of which they disapprove is effectively silencing authors whose works do not conform to the current orthodoxy.

Despite their junior status, these staff members are potentially wielding a formidable weapon against their superiors. With the example of JK Rowling looming large, the prospect of falling victim to a mass social media campaign is clearly enough to make those in charge bend to their will and turn down books younger employees deem ‘offensive’. A recent victim was Nigel Biggar’s ‘Colonialism: A Reckoning’: 

The author’s crime had been to attempt a balanced judgement of empire, especially the British Empire. The very idea of such a balance [...] had earlier been denounced by academics worldwide, including 58 from his own university. “OMG. This is serious shit... we need to SHUT THIS DOWN,” the ringleader of his opponents had tweeted.

The same undue influence is being exerted in Britain’s museums, where directors told Moore that their institutions tweeted support for Black Lives Matter because they “could not ignore the opinions of talented young staff”. The ‘talent’ in question. I suspect, has less to do with intrinsic ability than with their prowess with the very same communications technology they are using to censor our heritage and culture - and more:

It is nowadays common for staff groups within the civil service to criticise government policy, publicly and unrebuked, although the job of the civil service is to serve the elected government impartially. If a young employee decides to take offence, that seems to trump other considerations.

As Moore points out, this is getting alarmingly close to Mao’s Red Guard*, putting power in the hands of indoctrinated youngsters too inexperienced and solipsistic to be open to reason, empathy or compassion. By giving power of veto to these junior employees - many of them the product of universities which have effectively become echo chambers for left-wing ideology - the institutions of this country are setting a very dangerous precedent indeed.

*If you haven’t already read it, I thoroughly recommend Jung Chang’s ‘Wild Swans’, which includes chilling descriptions of the vicious Red Guard persecution and abuse of teachers and other ‘intellectuals’.