Monthly Archives: September 2013

Decommissioning the magical tat.

We’ve had compulsory education since 1880 and over a thousand years of Christianity, and people will still toss coins into wells, puddles, pools and fountains to propitiate the spirits and bring luck.
I starting thinking about this last night. Dropped by to see someone, he had a cow to calve to I jumped into his Landrover to go with him and give him a hand, and there, dangling from the rear view mirror, was a dream catcher.

Right then, why have you got a dream catcher in a Landrover? Let’s think this one through. According to the Ojibwe who appear to have invented dream catchers, bad dreams are trapped in the web and disappear in daylight, so you only dream good dreams.
Apparently there is another explanation of Lakota origin which says the bad dreams pass through, but the good dreams are caught and slide down the dream catcher to the person sleeping below. (In this case probably the Border Collie in the foot well.)
Now it might be that we have two different styles of construction, or different traditions with different materials. But when I discussed this with my lady wife she pointed out that she had made Dream Catchers when in the Girl Guides, from any materials that were to hand and attempting to vaguely follow pictures in a book.
Now setting aside for one moment the dispute between Ojibwe and Lakota, if dream catchers work, the last thing we want is to have them constructed by total amateurs with no training and the wrong materials. It makes as much sense as cooking up toadstools in the microwave in the hope of extracting the mescaline.
So back to our chap with the dream catcher in his Landrover; is he trying to ensure good dreams for his dog, or is it just foreign magical tat his granddaughter made at Guides that is probably lucky?

The problem with weird magical stuff is that people don’t know what to do with it when it’s no longer needed. One Sunday morning we turned up at our Parish Church to open up ready for the service and there, on the door step, was a cheap pewter crucifix and a rosary. We looked at it and wondered what on earth it was doing there. Then it struck us, someone had been cleaning out Grandma’s house after she died and had found the Crucifix and the rosary. Well obviously you cannot just sling them into the bin, they’re magic, packed with mana and if you aren’t careful they might leak or even ‘go off’ and then who knows what could happen. Far better leave them where someone who knows about that sort of thingcan decommission them and make them safe.
I was talking to a priest and she’d noticed the same. People keep giving her elderly bibles because they feel bad about just slinging them into the recycling. We’ve not come a long way from Treasure Island where they gave Long John Silver the ‘black spot’.

The sea-cook looked at what had been given him.
“The black spot! I thought so,” he observed. “Where might you have got the paper? Why, hello! Look here, now; this ain’t lucky! You’ve gone and cut this out of a Bible. What fool’s cut a Bible?”
“Ah, there!” said Morgan. “There! Wot did I say? No good’ll come o’that, I said.”
“Well, you’ve about fixed it now, among you,” continued Silver. “You’ll all swing now, I reckon. What soft-headed lubber had a Bible?”
“It was Dick,” said one.
“Dick, was it? Then Dick can get to prayers,” said Silver. “He’s seen his slice of luck, has Dick, and you may lay to that.”

Now if Dick knew what was good for him he’d have thrown a coin in a well and wished, or perhaps invested in an upgrade for his dream catcher technology.
Eat your heart out Richard Dawkins; you’re trying to convert folk to atheism when a fair chunk of the population still shares a level of spirituality common in the early Iron Age.

The Cartographer’s Apprentice

Roll up roll up roll up. We proudly present the Cartographer’s apprentice, the finest work of fiction every to see the light of day in these benighted times. Do I ask ten pounds? Do I ask five pounds? Do I ask one pound? No, to you lady, the one with the bright light of intelligence in her eyes; and to you sir, yes you Sir, the distinguished looking gent with the illustrious countenance; I ask only Ninety-Nine pence.
I know, I’m cutting my own throat at that, but lord love us, you’ve got a lucky face. So there you have it. Four short stories from the Land of the Three Seas casting a light on the early career of Benor Dorfinngil. The trials and tribulations of a young cartographer; this book features duels, savage halfmen, gassy beer, blood feuds and most dangerous of all, beautiful women.

And all this for 99p; why that’s over four hundred words for a penny. And not just any old words may I tell you. These are bespoke, handcrafted words. Words chosen carefully by some of our finest young lexicographers, arranged in order, the punctuation supplied by renown exponents of their art, hammered in the forge of Hephaestus and tempered by immersion, still red hot from the anvil, into blushful Hippocrene.
And the electrons, look at the book, browse the text, and revel in the excellence of the electrons. Look at the quality of their intrinsic angular momentum, marvel at their invariant mass. All electrons are supplied with a written guarantee that they have no known substructure.
Cannot do better than that squire; just wander along to http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Cartographers-Apprentice-ebook/dp/B00ECZIM4A/

Also available as pdf, and a score of other interesting formats, a quick google search will provide them all.

 

The Cartographers Apprentice

Beyond words?

Someone asked me about the recent terrorist attacks in Kenya and Nigeria. What can anyone say? It’s getting popular to say that people believing in some sort of faith are dangerous and mad. I’d beg to differ; the danger comes when people no longer ‘care’. It comes when ‘the cause’ is more important than ordinary people who become mere obstacles to be removed or tools to be used for ‘the good of the cause.’

It’s not religion as such. It wasn’t religious zealots who perpetrated the massacres at Srebrenica, on the killing fields in Cambodia, or organised the Ukrainian famine which killed around three million peasants.
What is it? It is the contempt of the ‘ordinary people’ which allows this sort of thing to happen. It happens when you get ruling elites who are out of touch (Politicians whose party is supposed to be building socialism and who claim that £60K a year isn’t big money.) or ideologies which stiffen the loyalty of their devotees by demonising their opponents. (The class war cowboys with their contempt of ‘toffs’, aging rock stars accusing those running the badger cull of ‘genocide’.) Once you’ve demonised someone, they are no longer a person. They’re a fascist, or a communist, or a capitalist. They no longer count as people and can be pilloried, trolled on twitter, and, when the process has made its way to its ultimate conclusion, rounded up and gassed, or gunned down and their bodies rolled into massed graves.
Religions can do this with as much aplomb as political movements. Doubtless churches and Caliphs have had their equivalents of Damian McBride. Indeed C.S.Lewis described the phenomena in a church context in the Screwtape Letters where he has the demon Screwtape write to his nephew

“But we want a man hag-ridden by the Future—haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth—ready to break the Enemy’s commands in the present if by so doing we make him think he can attain the one or avert the other—dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see. We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.”

I think Lewis sums up the nub of the problem with his comment ‘never honest, nor kind, nor happy now’.

As I’ve got older I’ve learned that, in reality, there are no ‘ordinary’ people. Not only that but if these ‘ordinary’ people have turned their backs on something, be it a political class or a religious denomination, then they’ve done it for good reason. The trouble is that this ‘turning away’ presents a quandary to those who’ve been shunned. They have two options.
Firstly they could examine themselves, explore the gap between their beliefs and their actions, and try to live what they profess to believe. If you have the courage to do this, it can work really well because most political parties and most religions are build round perfectly acceptable core beliefs.
Or secondly you can take the other route and you can label them recidivists, enemies of the people, heretics, homophobic, or global warming deniers. This way is easier, it saves you having to think or face up to the uncomfortable possibility that you might be wrong.

Strangely we’ve known the answer to the problem for at least three millennia. The instruction to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly is hardly new. The instruction, γνῶθι σεαυτόν, ‘Know thyself’ was carved on the wall at the oracle of Delphi long before Plato’s day. The command to ‘Love one another’ is approaching its second millennium.
It doesn’t matter a tinker’s cuss what you claim to believe in. What matters is what you do. You can tell what people are like by the fruit of their actions.

A traveller in search of the exotic

Having spent time in a small city isolated from its hinterland by wide sprawling villages of slight loveliness, it behoves me to pass on to you a feel for this exotic place. Let us spend a day wandering its streets and watching its people.
Dawn, rosy fingered or otherwise, awakens to find the city already awash with scurrying guest workers. These sad creatures, hauled into the city in cattle trucks, denied even a glimpse of daylight in their subterranean journey, emerge blinking to the surface.
Here, let us watch this one, a middle aged male as the grey on his temples shows. He storms along, filled with urgency to be at his place of labour. His top coat is undone, it trails behind him like a cloak, in one hand he holds a cardboard carton which on closer examination appears to contain coffee. Like many of the serf caste he is bedecked by wires and by means of these he rants and raves at the air, gesturing and posturing like some latter day Demosthenes. It is to be assumed that this communication arrangement is foisted upon the lower orders in an attempt to ensure they do not develop the habits of independence in action and thought.
Now it is later in the day. We can watch the true aristocrats of the city at work. Resplendent in helmets and jackets in the brightest of colours they sit and gossip with their colleagues on the edges of those sites where new temples are being erected. Or at times you might catch them at work, moving with the calm competence of those who know that their time is valued and their skills difficult to replace. They conduct their work with casual gestures, directing the great cranes or some juggernaut laden with building materials.
And then as the morning wears on we repair to the coffee houses. Here one can see the matrons of the city, directing its affairs from a distance, berating their inferiors or cozening their rivals through the same assemblage of wires and earpieces which are used to order the lives of serfs. Their daughters sit in small huddles at lesser tables, drinking ‘skinny’ this or ‘soy’ that, speaking in low tones, so different from the magisterial pronouncements of the matrons.
By the middle of the day the feeding stations are opened and again the serfs emerge to queue for their rations. With no little ritual each is handed one pack of sandwiches, one drink, and one packet of crisps, placed within a flimsy container barely opaque enough to prevent passers-by seeing the paucity of their choice.
They eat in hurried clusters in open spaces close to their workplace, or even scurry guiltily back to their desk where they devour their meagre ration safe from the unknown hazards posed by direct sunlight and no roof.
As evening makes its graceful entry we see the serfs slowly disperse, riding the subterranean cattle trucks back to their distant abodes. Some linger, mixing with the crowds of pleasure seekers who throng the streets, their frantic revels and loud laughter echoing through the night as they clutch desperately at Gaiety’s tawdry robe.
Finally night falls, and to the clank and bellow of the nocturnal labour, the screech of brakes and the roar of engines revved beyond wisdom, the city sleeps.

A touch of class

What is a ‘touch of class?’ Indeed why do we want to know? It was Voltaire who said; “By appreciation, we make excellence in others our own property.”
It seems that whatever this touch of class is, we all want it.

It’s very much a case of it being something you recognise when you see it. For example walking back from the hospital, on the busy pavement that runs round the back of little Tesco, I met a young lady walking in the other direction. She was bonny enough, but she’d managed to raise her game. I’m male; don’t ask me exactly what she was wearing, a skirt of some sort, a three-quarter length coat, and a scarf/cravat to finish the ensemble. But whatever the individual items that went to make up the whole, it worked, a month or so after the event a chap who passed her in the street still remembers that there was a young lady with a touch of class.

Trying to pin down this whole touch of class thing, it’s more than something to do with fashion. It seems to be something that we recognise in other aspects of life.
I was watching a three ordinary young men sitting around in a hospital ward. I put them in to try and create a base line. You cannot be excellent without a baseline to be ‘more excellent than’. Anyway stuck on a ward, they hadn’t got a lot to do. They were a mixed bag, a collection of manual labourers, long term unemployed, skilled craftsmen, self employed entrepreneurs, ex-prisoners. The fact that they managed all these careers yet there was only three of them shows that they are actually a pretty ordinary cross-section.
What were they talking about? Women? Football? Actually it started with one who was wary of the painkillers he was getting. Yes he was grateful for the care but he didn’t trust drugs and tried to limit his exposure. This led on to science, Voyager 1 got an honourable mention (I’m not sure any of them were old enough to remember the launch) and then that led them on to religion. As one guy (with a fabulous set of tattoos) said, “I don’t know who God is or what he’s called, but he exists, someone had to make all this.” His argument seemed pretty reasonable to the rest of them and then the conversation moved on to trying to organise a life home for the two guys who were being discharged to save them the cost of a taxi. There aren’t any ‘ordinary people’; we create ‘ordinary people’ as a cliché to help us cope with the stunning diversity that exists around us.
Across in a side ward is a chap who has lost it. Physically he’s getting stronger but in his conscious moments he knows, absolutely, that he’s trapped in a bed in a strange place and all he wants is rescuing and helping to get home. He’s in a room of his own so he doesn’t drive the ward mad, but they can hardly shut the door on him so the rest of the ward still get to hear him. Everyone who passes the door gets asked to help him. For hours at a time he’ll call for his wife. One of our perfectly ordinary men spent a lot of time just sitting with him, talking to him. Just being company, a bridge to reality.
Is that a touch of class, something above the ordinary?
The Apostle Paul talks of the striving for excellence, Peter mentions it as well. Some translations use excellence, some goodness. The old King James uses ‘Virtue’ but back then they knew what Virtue meant. The word both Peter and Paul used was Arête or ἀρετή , which I found translated as “Sometimes translated as “virtue”, the word actually means something closer to “being the best you can be”, or “reaching your highest human potential”.
Is that ‘a touch of class?’
Perhaps to finish with another Greek, Pericles, and his funeral oration;

“Take these men for your example. Like them, remember that prosperity can
only be for the free; that freedom is the sure possession of those who have
the courage to defend it.”

Have we the arête, the virtue, the excellence, the ‘touch of class’ necessary to defend what we have and build on it to leave something better?

Living the third great lie.

The three great lies.
Of course I’ll still love you in the morning.
The cheque is in the post.
I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.

There’s been a bit of a fuss about food banks and why people have to rely on them. But two figures interested me. 34% of food bank clients are ‘experiencing benefits delay’ and 19% need help because they are ‘experiencing changes to their benefits.’
Now I talked to a professional who has to deal with people who are struggling to cope with the benefit system and she just sighed. When I gave her the 34% figure she just said, “They’ll have been ‘sanctioned’.” I asked what that meant and apparently the normal situation is that someone misses an appointment and they are ‘sanctioned’. They don’t get two weeks money. But actually when they turn up to ‘sign on’ or whatever they call it now in two weeks time, they still don’t get money for another fortnight, so a fortnight’s sanction means that you have a month without money. The problem was that even for a professional like her there seems to be no way of getting anything changed, even if the appointment was missed for good reason. Indeed she was talking to a lad who was homeless and looking for accommodation. His landlord had asked him to leave because the rent hadn’t been paid for the last two weeks. Now he has no money, and no one in the office that would pay the rent was available to talk to him. Basically the suspicion is that he’d been asked for more information, hadn’t understood the form and not filled it in properly so they’d just stopped his money. My friend did comment that she picks up a lot of those forms and fills them in for people and she finds them difficult.
Let’s get this straight. We have a bureaucratic system that sends out complicated documentation to people who have complex and chaotic lifestyles and if they don’t cross every t and dot every i just so, then the money is stopped.
Now there’s a lot of fuss about lack of ‘care’ in hospitals. But people are incensed about this because respectable and well paid middle ranking members of the bureaucracy do end up in hospital.
But neither our chattering classes nor our bureaucrats ever expect to end up at the bottom of the heap on benefit, so the total lack of care shown at that level worries them not at all.
I was talking to people, round and about, and it strikes me that a little bit of care would in fact go a long way. It doesn’t have to be a lot, just someone sort of guiding their hands a bit. I remember that one local firm used to have a system where you could put so much a week out of your pay packet into a saving fund. Once it reached a maximum amount, the company paid it out, but you could draw it out at any time. You got building society interest rate and the company borrowed money cheaper than going to the banks so everyone gained. I know a lot of lads who bought their first motorbike or car with cash because of this policy. It’s hardly new, even the Roman army used to keep a proportion of soldiers’ pay back in a compulsory savings account which they got when they were discharged.
But who does help these young people? I know one chap who farmed on the edge of town and a lot of lads would turn up to ‘help’. Once they got useful he used to pay them a nominal amount, which would grow into a proper sum when they actually earned it. Because they were lads who weren’t afraid of work, they pretty soon got real jobs working for highways maintenance firms and suchlike, but would still drop in to help at weekends.
Anyway, initially he’d just given the lads money, but they would ask him to look after it for them. As one said, “If my mother knows I’ve got this, she’ll just spend it on the pop.” So on their kitchen window there was a row of biscuit tins, each with a name on, and the lad could put his money in his jar if he wanted.
Now then, on Friday night he and his wife had been working late, and it was about 9pm when they finished and still hadn’t had their evening meal. So quite literally he emptied his wallet onto the kitchen table, she emptied her purse, and when they added the contents of the kiddies piggybank there was enough for a couple of takeaway pizzas. Agricultural was pretty grim back in the decade between 1995 and 2005.
Next day one of the lads dropped round and after chatting said, “Oh I thought I’d get some money out of my tin.” He had counted out over £200 before they stopped him. “How much have you got there?”
“Oh,” he said. “About £1200.” He’d been putting his pay packets in from his day job, not just his weekend farm work!
Three days later the lady of the house had corralled the owners of the biscuit tins and had taken them, and their tins, into town. She marched them into the building society and stood over them as they started accounts and put the money into them.
Young people always tend to have chaotic lives. It’s part of what being young is about. They don’t need bureaucracy, just someone who will care for them a bit when they need it and stand over them with a stick when they need that.

Oneupmanship or oneupwomanship

The art of the ‘put down’ is an integral part of one-upmanship. I like you. You remind me of when I was young and stupid.
Stephen Potter wrote the book “One-Upmanship: How to Win Life’s Little Games without Appearing to Try” and may even have invented the word, but he didn’t invent the concept. I have come to suspect that the attempt to climb the pecking order is little more than an extension into the modern world of basic primate courtship rituals. Unlike Capuchin monkeys we no longer urinate on our hands before rubbing it all over us as the ultimate aphrodisiac; but at their heart there isn’t really all that much difference in our behaviours.
It’s simple, the higher up the pecking order you are, the wealthier you are, the healthier your mate will be and the better the chance of your offspring doing well. So one-upmanship is probably something that is innate.

There are people who feel that they’re outside the system and who look upon those jostling for status with amused contempt. I confess that I have found myself in that category, living as I do semi-detached from conventional society. But in reality this pose can merely be another form of one-upmanship. As we sneer at those for whom the ultimate status symbol is a pair of fake Chinese made Christian Louboutin shoes, all we’re really doing is pointing out that we’re so superior that these people aren’t even in the same league as us. In one of his books, Jack Vance had a character say “I apologise if I trespass against the full rigour of your informality.” Sneering at the rules of Oneupmanship is in itself a gambit to put you ahead of those you are sneering at.

There’s also the indirect approach, the ‘one-downmanship’ approach as shown in the classic ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ Sketch

“TG: You were lucky to have a ROOM! *We* used to have to live in a corridor!

MP: Ohhhh we used to DREAM of livin’ in a corridor! Woulda’ been a palace to us. We used to live in an old water tank on a rubbish tip. We got woken up every morning by having a load of rotting fish dumped all over us! House!? Hmph.

EI: Well when I say “house” it was only a hole in the ground covered by a piece of tarpaulin, but it was a house to US.

GC: We were evicted from *our* hole in the ground; we had to go and live in a lake!

TG: You were lucky to have a LAKE! There were a hundred and sixty of us living in a small shoebox in the middle of the road.”

I think it could be instructive that so many comedians say that they were the weedy kid who used to tell jokes at school to make themselves popular and avoided being bullied. If winning a good place in your social group demands the ability to punch the lights out of an opponent; for the weedy kid, survival demands a rapid reassessment of your assets and an alternative approach.

Then of course, there’s self-depreciation. It’s something that I’d like to say I was good at, but I always blow it by boasting by accident. Luckily it’s my humility which makes me the warm and wonderful person I am. “Humility is like underwear – essential – but indecent if it shows.”