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

Saturday 23 September 2023

‘All of Them Witches’

It’s probably a good thing I never went into business on a grand scale as, yet again, I appear to have been overestimating the intelligence of the American public.

A K Hart’s recent thought-provoking post on the resurgence of myths in modern society touches on a theme which has made several appearances here in the past few weeks: 

Myths facilitate mass assimilation where technical explanations do not. Myths provide simpler and more widely accessible ways to guard against surprises, just as belief in witchcraft did. Burn the witch and if that doesn’t work there must be another one lurking somewhere.
The parallels between today’s Western society and the witch hunts of the past are increasingly inescapable; a preoccupation with conformity to a set of puritanical standards and a willingness to condemn and punish those who violate the norms imposed by fanatical believers are, sadly, with us again, this time with social media pouring oil on the flames, not least by encouraging the resurgence of the idea that, whatever goes wrong, someone, somewhere must be to blame.

Some weeks ago, I mentioned a competitor on ‘Masterchef’ who produced a witch-themed dish, inspired by an American movie, to ‘take the judges back to seventeenth-century Salem’. At the time, it baffled me since it was surely common knowledge that there were no witches there; just a group of unfortunate townsfolk (including a four-year-old child) who, for a number of reasons, found themselves falsely accused by a group of young girls supported by fervent religious fanatics.

As anyone who has experience in dealing with teenage girls en masse could tell you, it is highly plausible that a mixture of mass hysteria, religious indoctrination and groupthink led to this terrible situation, particularly if some of those concerned had eaten rye bread contaminated with ergot, now known to cause convulsions, itching, parathesia and psychosis. Add in the petty disputes and prejudices of a small town and potential for settling old scores and you have a situation where the false accusations would be readily accepted by the authorities.

It would appear, however, that such a rational approach is beyond many; while researching a previous post, I read that a substantial proportion of the million or so tourists who visit Salem every year apparently come for the ‘spooky’ atmosphere and the association with ‘real’ witches. Thanks mainly to film and television - not to mention Young Adult fiction - people are flocking to ‘Witch City’* and they are unlikely to be disappointed; the town is bursting with witch-themed attractions and entertainments. 

It would be tempting to regard this as merely a celebration of fiction - much like the hordes of Goths who descend on Whitby in tribute to Bram Stoker’s most famous novel -  but these tourists are visiting the scene of real-life events; to embrace the witch narrative is, subconsciously, to endorse the activities of those responsible for the trials and executions, a worrying attitude in a country where, in a recent online poll, 21% of respondents claimed to believe in the existence of witchcraft and black magic.

It is, I suppose, evidence of the growing appeal of superstition described by AK Haart and a frightening indicator of the public willingness to disregard rational explanations - and, in this case, the judicial murder of twenty people and the imprisonment of many more. In a culture where student essays defend Abigail Williams in ‘The Crucible’, it’s hard not to believe that the recent shift towards equating victimhood with credibility and a growing demand that those dissenting from current orthodoxy should ‘correct their thinking’ risk creating perfect conditions for a new generation of witchfinders.

 *It is rather fitting, somehow, that they are celebrating their history-that-never-was in the wrong place; most of the trials and executions took place in Salem Village, a separate settlement, five miles away from Salem Town and now known as Danvers.

Wednesday 20 September 2023

Sweet Counterblast

One of the notable features of the small town where I grew up was the local soft drinks factory. Thanks in part to the Temperance movement, many small towns in Scotland and Wales had independent producers  and ours was a gem. Tucked away in a cobbled side street in an old stone building, it had a small and spartan shop - just a table and a few shelves of bottles - where you brought your wooden crate of empties to replace them with full bottles of lemonade or swapped your finished soda syphon for a fresh one.

Half a century on, the local factory is long gone and, in the supermarket which now stands on the site, the shelves groan under the weight of soda cans and two-litre plastic bottles, but more has been lost than the parochial simplicity and the clink of glass. Thanks to the sugar tax, it is now frustratingly difficult to find lemonade or other fizzy drinks in which the only sweetness comes from natural sugars. For all the outward show of choice - a bewildering variety of flavours where we once swithered between lemonade, orangeade or cream soda - the options are few and far between for the shopper who wants to avoid artificial sweeteners.

The result of this, according to various smug reports, has been a reduction in childhood obesity, although one might argue that it is impossible to ascertain the exact effect in such a complicated area and numerous studies suggest that, in the long term, regular consumption of artificial sweeteners has been linked to health problems including weight gain. The NHS has jumped firmly (and predictably) on the bandwagon, advocating the selection of ‘lower sugar’ and ‘lower fat’ snacks, desserts and drinks where possible*.

It’s a classic ‘nudge’ situation, using price, availability and persuasion to change consumers’ behaviour, with a hefty dose of Nanny-knows-best thrown in, but the vast increase in what we in the Tavern refer to as SOSS (Sod Off Sans Sugar) and FOFF (Fuck Off Fat-Free) products is drastically reducing the choice available for those who prefer their food and drink to be free from lab-manufactured additives (or to avoid the bitter aftertaste of artificial sweeteners).

While larger companies have generally gone down the route of using artificial sweeteners rather than passing on the tax to customers in the form of higher prices, one avenue still remains open for those trying to avoid them; at present, small producers whose annual fizzy drink output is less than a million litres a year are exempt from the sugar tax. Their products tend to be found only in local bars or farm and village shops but they represent a tradition well worth preserving as well as a pleasing way to exercise individual choice and fight back against the nudge and I urge you to seek them out where possible.

*Its ‘healthy living’ web page recommends replacing chocolate (ingredients, at least before the ‘nudgers’ got there with the vegetable fats and emulsifiers: cocoa mass, sugar, cocoa butter, vanilla) with ‘a lower calorie hot instant chocolate drink’ (ingredients: Whey Powder, Fat Reduced Cocoa Powder, Skimmed Cows' Milk Powder, Sugar, Glucose Syrup, Coconut Oil, Polydextrose, Thickener:Guar Gum, Carrageenan:, Salt, Maltodextrin, Milk Protein Concentrate, Flavouring, Sweetener:Sucralose:, Anti-caking Agent:Silicon Dioxide:, Stabiliser:Potassium Phosphate.)

Sunday 17 September 2023

... as Christian does

Much has been made of the recent Times survey of the clergy and its conclusion (built on the somewhat sandy foundation of a 25% response rate) that Britain is no longer a Christian country.

Our distant rural forebears charted the year by the Christian festivals - Lent, Easter, Lady Day, Lammastide and so on - and attended church services as a matter of course but, for the most part, religion as practised by the general population of England was, as Elizabeth I pithily expressed it, not a matter for ‘making windows into men’s souls’ as long as they observed the correct rituals and obeyed the law of the land.

This tolerance, however, will not do for today’s C of E, at least in the experience of one of the elders of Clan Macheath. She isn’t religious but believes strongly in the importance of the village church both as a vital part of the local heritage and a hub at the centre of a small community; for her, it’s always been a clear case of ‘use it or lose it’, supported by a keen appreciation of ecclesiastical architecture, choral music and the language of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible.

For years, she attended Matins (but not Communion) most Sundays, helped with the various flower festivals, fetes and celebrations and placed her widow’s mite in the collection plate, but that’s all over now thanks to what she calls ‘the P45 sermon’, in which the vicar made it clear that those who do not actively profess sincerely-held Christian beliefs should not be attending services - non-Communicants especially should get confirmed or stay away.

Quite apart from the incongruity of a supposedly Christian church telling people they are not welcome, it seems more than a little short-sighted to alienate members of the already-sparse congregation. The original impetus seems to have come from the Diocese, but this particular vicar seems to be pinning his hopes on recruiting the young; toys litter the side aisles, even though there are only ever a tiny handful of small children in evidence, and the church has expensive new amplifiers for electric guitars.

When the church closed for lockdown - a massive error of judgement; aside from the obvious spiritual considerations, the high ceilings and under-floor heating meant it was probably the safest indoor space in the area - the vicar confined his ministry to Zoom calls and WhatsApp, ignoring the many elderly parishioners, including the bereaved, who weren’t online; my relative and her friends asked around but found no one who had received a phone call from him, let alone a socially-distanced visit in person.*

Faced with this desertion in a time of need, a mutual support network evolved within the churchgoing community and extended its sphere into the wider village; parishioners checked up on each other, ran errands and passed on news of where help was needed or where a phone chat might lift someone’s spirits. Several of the people who kept this going throughout lockdown and beyond are among those now cast out by the vicar for being insufficiently evangelical or for the sin of not having being confirmed in childhood.

In this question of faith or good works, who, I wonder, is actually living according to Christian principles?

*By way of a contrast, a recent newspaper article described a vicar who, for as long as the churches were closed, made himself available to all by sitting outside his church door for three hours every Sunday, rain or shine..

Friday 15 September 2023

Credit Where Credit’s Due

One of the hallmarks of what passes for fame today - as manifested by a host of ‘influencers’ and television personalities - is having a ‘clothing line’, a collaboration where the celebrity earns money by endorsing a range of apparel, generating sales from social media publicity and the inevitable press attention. 

For the most part, the celebrity's role in the process is to select items from the manufacturer’s range of possible garments (I believe the influencers’ preferred term is ‘curate’, as if they were the Elgin Marbles or impressionist paintings); aside from superficialities such as colour or trimmings, all the labour over sketchbook or sewing machine is done by nameless employees of the company.

This week has seen a similar attempt to cash in on celebrity in a novel sphere, so to speak; the 19-year-old star of the TV series ‘Stranger Things’ appears on the cover of a new work of fiction as the author, even though the actual composition of the thing was the work of a ghostwriter. 

Apparently Ms Brown contributed to the process with ‘a couple of Zoom calls’ and some WhatsApp messages about her relative whose wartime experiences inspired the story, but the writing itself - the flesh and bones of the book - is the work of a woman as sidelined on the cover as the staff in the design studios where celebrity-endorsed garments actually take shape.

In the words of Longrider, who, with a number of highly readable works (and some wonderful characters) to his name, is better qualified than I to comment on this story:

Writing a novel takes a bit more than sending messages on WhatsApp. You have to be able to craft your story, build worlds and learn how to write prose and dialogue in a way that is digestible to the reader without jarring. In short, it takes effort.

Celebrity autobiographies have long used ghostwriters - a mercy, given the tortuous grammar and paucity of vocabulary of some sporting or TV personalities - and it’s common practice for accounts of real-life events, where the emphasis is on documentation rather than creation. Fiction, on the other hand, is an art form which relies heavily on the quality of the author’s prose to create a self-contained world and set the tone of the narrative.

I wonder whether Brown feels any moral qualms at passing off another woman’s work as her own or whether, as a true child of her time, like the influencer who talks of ‘designing’ a sportswear collection, she believes that her own limited input is all that matters.

Thursday 14 September 2023

On Fermi’s paradox

 I can’t be the only who thought of this...

Meanwhile, the natural forces on planet Vogsphere brought forth […] elegant gazelle-like creatures with silken coats and dewy eyes which the Vogons would catch and sit on. They were no use as transport because their backs would snap instantly, but the Vogons sat on them anyway.
Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 

...when I read this: 

People taking selfies with ponies at a tourist hotspot caused a new-born foal to fall to its death from a cliff.

Never mind splitting the atom; I’m inclined to believe that, Adams’ fictional creation notwithstanding, we are completely alone in the universe because no civilisation could ever survive its equivalent of the smartphone and social media.