Chinese Whispers

Regular readers will recall that I often return from China with thoughts, on voting (see Brexit, pursued by a bear), the Rape of Nanjing (The fish that is black and Notes from Nanjing), insect bites (Bite me), asking and answering questions, both in interviews (No means no) and when drawn from the Embarrassing Questions Box (Please use power wisely, Shake it all about and Open the box) and salmon-skin suits (A small, mysterious corpus). This year (and what a year it has been!), it has taken me rather longer to process my thoughts. Of course, being in any city a few weeks before the G20 carnival comes to town would be interesting. Every journey that involved actually leaving one’s hotel room required the approval of a small man in white gloves and a nondescript blue uniform, sitting at a desk with a bunch of other uniformed and remarkably non-threatening people standing around it. His desk was right by the lift, and one was required to provide one’s room number and passport before proceeding to the upper floors. The hotel restaurant was on a mezzanine only accessible from the lobby, which meant we all had to take our passports to breakfast, and then carry the wretched thing with us for the rest of the damn day. I kept mine inside my copy of Night Watch[1] on the grounds that a whole book was easier to keep track of than a skinny little passport, which meant that like a teenager with a spot, I was constantly running my fingers over it to check that nothing had changed. Hangzhou was looking its best, including the twin globe-shaped hotels, one intended to resemble the moon and therefore lit up with white lights, and the other the sun, lit up with yellow ochre (it looked rather like a pumpkin, but a very splendid one). The waterfront, beautiful lakeside parks and (that peculiarly Chinese thing) musical fountains were all poised to welcome President Obama, although I note that the first piece of music chosen for the fountains while we were there was ‘Time To Say Goodbye’.

Hangzhou is a charming place, but the highlights of the trip are always the students. For example, there was a student called Peter, with such a strong perfectionist streak that I had to physically remove his laptop from him to stop him continuing to tinker with his (excellent, finished PS). A quiet, perpetually worried-looking student named Hannah used The Power of Maths to demonstrate that Professor Sir Tim Hunt’s comments about female scientists being ‘distractingly sexy’ were nonsense. She also argued (successfully, in my view) that male scientists who found their attention wandering needed to pull themselves together, in the following deathless sentence: ‘I can concentrate all the way to the end of an experiment, even if there is a boy in the room.’ Another student (rejoicing in the name Jordan at the beginning of the summer school and renamed Bernard by the end)[2] expressed concern about the character count in his PS:

Bernard: You told me to use ‘she’ in all my hypothetical examples, but I need to cut the characters. Can I say ‘he’?
Me: If you want to, Bernard, but it’s becoming common practice in academia to use ‘she’.
Bernard: Why?
Me: Centuries of oppression.
Bernard: I have no further questions.

This year I also threw together a pub quiz on the subject of the United Kingdom in a few hours, learning a great deal about my students in the process. The incredulity in the room on being told that our Commander-in-Chief is a little old lady, for example, was highly educational. I asked them to name their teams after something British, which generated the predictable Big Ben, British Boys and Spice Girls, as well as the frankly baffling Spicy Chicken (I’m told this is a terribly funny pun in Mandarin). I grouped the questions into rounds, of course, including one on food that required them to draw a traditional tiered wedding cake (everyone got this one right), asked which food is served sunny side up (‘sunflower seeds?’), and how fish and chips is made. The answer ‘boiled and then set on fire’ received no marks, whereas ‘plunged into boiling oil’ got an extra mark for making it sound like an answer from the previous round on medieval history. Unsurprisingly, their knowledge of British history was scanty at best; the question ‘Name the two sides in the Wars of the Roses’ was answered correctly by one team only (the only team with a PPE student in it), although I also gave a mark to Spicy Chicken who happened to guess ‘red and white’. ‘When was the Civil War?’ drew answers from across the centuries, including one team who thought it was in the 1980s; and the question ‘How did Charles I die?’ was answered tersely by the team that went on to win with the grim little sentence ‘he have no head’.

The round on international politics asked the students to name the countries with which Britain enjoys the Special Relationship (every team answered ‘China’)[3] and the entente cordiale; here, incorrect answers (nobody got it right) included Sweden (‘cordiale sound a bit Swedish’), Germany (‘because I think entente sounds bad and I know Germany is bad’), Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Another round cherry-picked ten striking pieces of vocabulary from their PS drafts (i.e. at least one student in the room ought to know what at least one of the words meant) and asked them to tell me whether the word was an adjective, verb, noun or preposition and what it meant. This turned out to be a bit like the Uxbridge English Dictionary. The words were as follows: conurbation (‘when someone build a town without ask’), orca (‘orc that is lady orc’), zooming (‘making a zoo’), feudal (‘place where eat food’), Anglophile (‘place to file things’), nevertheless (‘definitely never happen’), kidnap (‘when child is sleepy’), compliment (‘you look nice’), complement (‘you look nice but no-one notice’) and collate (‘you are late because your friend is also late’). Bearing in mind that the only sports that capture the interest in China are badminton and basketball, I also put together a round on sports popular in Britain, including the question that offered them a point for every team they could name from the Six Nations. I was pleased to see everyone score at least three for naming England, Scotland and Wales (two teams, with a certain amount of inevitability, also suggested ‘Northern Ireland’, for which they got half a point: the answer was wrong, but the thinking was good), but the remaining suggestions ranged wildly around the world and included many nations that have no rugby culture whatever (my favourite was ‘Madagascar’). The only question from this round that everyone got completely wrong was ‘What is the profession of Mervyn ‘The King’ King?’ Brilliantly, they all answered that he was the Governor of the Bank of England, forgetting of course that this was a round of questions on sport.[4]

At the end of the (raucous, laughter-filled) quiz, after the points had been totted up and the prizes awarded, with what little voice I had left, I asked some of the students how they had learnt so much about the United Kingdom, given that they don’t study history and receive very little unfiltered news from the outside world. It seems that almost everything starts as a rumour that they might or might not bother (or be able) to verify, remarkably (and depressingly) like Chinese Whispers. The real joy, of course, always comes from letting the students ask questions rather than answering them, and thus the following day we braved the Embarrassing Questions Box.

eqb1
Eight months later, I still have no idea why this student felt the need to cut their question into the shape of a bus.

In a previous post, I declared my favourite question from the Embarrassing Questions Box to be from a student named Kim (‘Can you tell us everything you know about sex?’; see Open the Box). Chinese Whispers is a game without a winner, and it’s fortunate that I don’t have to pick a favourite here as 2016 was a vintage harvest of Embarrassing Questions, including the following gems: ‘Which area in the UK has the greatest number of handsome boys?’; ‘How do you dry your underwear every day? Because you can’t possibly use dryer every single day, right?’ and ‘How to find a boyfriend in the university?’ I love this last one because it suggests exactly the fruitless wandering I did so much of in my first few weeks at university (I wasn’t in search of a partner, but rather various rooms and noticeboards).

eqb4
‘How do I date a foreigner? Is it by making my face really sneaky? Is it?’

My favourite question this year, however, was this: ‘What do you think of real love? What is it?’ As I read the question out, I must admit that I wondered how on earth I came to this: standing in an air-conditioned room in Hangzhou, wondering if I was going to be able to make the projector work well enough later on to show them The Man in the White Suit, clutching a cardboard box in one hand, looking forward to my evening bowl of noodles and trying to answer philosophical questions about love. I actually didn’t find the question difficult to answer, but the fact that it was asked at all should give us pause. Two weeks of asking and answering questions all day (including mock Oxbridge interviews; see also No means no) causes both question and answer to feel rather slippery after a while, just as repeating a phrase over and over can both reveal and strip away layers of meaning. I said, ‘real love makes you feel that, even at your worst, you deserve to be loved.’ I’m quite proud of that as a spontaneous explanation; I jotted it down in my notebook immediately afterwards, which is why I’m able to quote it with such confidence. This was the last question and as we broke for dinner, my student Zoe told me that it was her question, and that she liked my answer very much. One shouldn’t have favourites, of course, but Zoe was my favourite this year, partly because she was such a thoughtful young lady: both in the sense of being considerate to other people, and also in the sense of turning things over in her mind constantly. In each interview I did the following day, I finished by asking them Zoe’s question. One of the best answers was, ‘If you don’t know the difference between real love and not-real love, it is not real love.’ (‘That’s a good answer’, I said. The student replied, ‘Yes. I think about that question all day. It stick in my mind’). In the face of huge, Trump-based global-scale nonsense, it’s hard to feel able to exert any kind of influence over events, but it seems to me that anyone who teaches, asks or answers questions has more influence than they realise. The whispers of a good question go on forever.

eqb2


[1] I took both Night Watch by Terry Pratchett (his finest work, second only to Thud!) and Night Watch by Sarah Waters (her finest work by a mile), for no reason other than it pleased me to do so.

[2] Bernard was concerned that his name might be a little old-fashioned, and when I asked him what other names he liked he said, ‘Jim, or Humphrey.’ Thus did we uncover his love of Yes, Minister.

[3] Enjoys! What was a cosy flirtation is about to becoming a savage buggering.

[4] Mervyn ‘The King’ King is a darts player. Even had the question been ‘Who is the Governor of the Bank of England?’, Mervyn King is still not the correct answer, as Mervyn King the Baron of Lothbury was replaced as Governor of the Bank of England in 2013 by Mark Carney.

Brexit, pursued by a bear

Once, when it was time for the clocks to go back, I got up on the kick-step, took the Departmental office clock down and changed the time. As I was getting off the kick-step, I twisted my ankle very slightly. Noticing my limp later in the day, my boss asked me how I acquired it. ‘Ah’, I was told, ‘No. You either have to call someone from maintenance to get up on the kick-step and change the clock. If you want to do it yourself, you have to go on the Ladder Awareness course.’ Further conversation established that i. this wasn’t a joke; ii. I was only being let off filling out the Accident At Work form because neither of us could be bothered with the resulting paperwork (my ankle was fine the next day); and iii. I simply couldn’t bring myself to call maintenance twice a year every year to ask them to adjust a fucking clock.

The Ladder Awareness course was astonishing: that it existed at all; that it was three hours long; and that it contained only one take-home message, which was that when ascending a ladder, kick-step or other elevating device, we should under no circumstances wear high heels and tight skirts. The people in the room were as follows: the earnest chap teaching us, who was wearing a pair of those slightly shiny trousers that make a noise like a tent being unzipped when the legs brush together, and eight Departmental administrators, including myself. The other seven were middle-aged, dressed in sensible shoes and called Doreen. We sat in stony silence as he paced around, trousers threatening to burst into flame, occasionally gesturing at a tiny bit of truncated ladder propped pointlessly against the wall. Later, we each climbed up and down it to demonstrate that yes, we could go up and down two steps without injuring ourselves. Yes, we are now fully aware of ladders. Yes, we can all successfully complete your tedious quiz, the first question of which was ‘When a task that requires someone to go up a ladder needs to be performed, is it acceptable to ask a student to do it? Yes/No’.[1] Yes, we promise to forgo our usual attire of stripper heels and mini-skirts. Yes, we would like to fill out a feedback questionnaire. The first question on the feedback questionnaire is what I want to apply to the EU referendum: ‘On a scale of one to five, how much have you learnt today?’

Firstly, some voters[2] seem to have learnt that their vote made a difference to the overall result. This blows my mind. First of all, everybody’s vote made a difference to the overall result. In a general election, it could be argued that my vote for the Green candidate in a staunchly Conservative constituency didn’t matter, because the majority of people in my constituency voted such that my vote had precisely zero influence on the final result. In a single-issue referendum, however, every single damn vote matters, regardless of how or where you voted. Secondly, I know everyone is either very angry or very smug (or, in the case of multi-tasking racists, both) and I don’t want to make that worse by calling people names. However, I can’t help feeling that everyone currently experiencing voter’s remorse has only themselves to blame.[3] What can you possibly say to someone who waits until the day after the vote to frantically Google ‘Jesus Christ, what the fuck is the EU?’, or who really, truly believes that Boris Johnson (who was sacked by a national newspaper for making stuff up) is an honest chap, or that the Sun is an impartial source of balanced and nuanced information?[4] I cannot comfort someone who muttered ‘good point’ when Nigel Farage urged us to take back control from people who haven’t been elected, when Nigel Farage isn’t even an MP.[5] The protest vote argument is the most laughable: if you voted Leave as a protest vote and now wish you hadn’t, what you are really saying is ‘I thought responsible voters would save me from myself.’ I have absolutely no sympathy for those currently wailing, ‘How could I possibly have known that a vote for Leave could lead to an overall majority of Leave votes?’ If you didn’t think anyone would take your vote seriously, why did you vote at all? Do you even understand what voting is?

It’s important to teach people (the hard way if necessary) that yes, your vote does matter and yes, you need to do your research and at least some thinking before you decide how to vote, rather than simply turning your existing prejudices and fears over in your mind. That sounds like it’s aimed at Leave voters, but of course it isn’t: since we have a secret ballot it could apply to anyone, and any vote. I also think there is something very dubious about the idea of re-running referenda/elections etc. until we get the ‘right’ result (especially as they aren’t actually legally binding). For one thing, political campaigns are really boring: the last four months have seemed interminable, with two lacklustre campaigns mangling the issues, until everyone just throws up their hands and says, ‘fine, yes, alright! I honestly don’t care anymore – just stop going on about it!’ Personally, I’m furious so much of my time has been wasted. I thought hard about my vote and I listened to the views of people that know more than me i.e. even more Radio 4 than usual (including, God help me, two editions of Moneybox). My carefully-considered vote counted the same as the vote of someone who rolled out of bed and put a cross in a box because he once had a Polish builder he didn’t care for. It counted the same as the vote of the person who called me a ‘liberal wanker’ on Facebook this afternoon after I commented that he must be very proud to have voted for the winning side (his stated reason for doing so was that he was fed up with Brussels ‘interfering with bananas’). It counted the same as the vote of the person who described me as a ‘xenophobe’ because I pointed out that voting Leave meant voting alongside racists, and that I thought that was very dangerous. I chose the word ‘alongside’ very carefully (more carefully than he chose the word ‘xenophobe’, anyhow), and was still misunderstood. On Twitter this morning, I saw this: ‘Of course not all Leavers are racists. That would be a terrible thought. But all racists now think 52% of the population agree with them’ (I was going to amend this slightly with square brackets, because 52% of the people that voted voted Leave, not 52% of the total population, but on reflection I’m going to let it stand because I think 52% of the population is probably closer to what the aforementioned racists actually think).

If you’re experiencing voter’s remorse, understand this: when you cast your vote, there isn’t a free-text box where you get to explain why you voted the way you did. That means we can’t differentiate between people who voted Leave as a protest of some kind, people who voted Leave because they have legitimate concerns about the EU, and people who voted Leave because they’re racist. Similarly, we can’t differentiate between people who voted Remain despite David Cameron and George Osborne urging them to do so, and people who voted Remain because they think Cameron is a fine statesman and that, despite appearances, Osborne is not at all a human weasel.[6] A cross in a box is not nuanced information. You may wish to convey something complex with your vote; you may even believe that you’re doing so, but that’s not how voting works. You were asked, clearly and specifically, about Britain’s membership of the EU. Answer the question you were actually asked, moron.

While I’m utterly horrified at the result, the potential break-up of the United Kingdom (with both Scotland and Northern Ireland on the table) and the legitimisation of racism, I’m also very dubious about the idea of a second referendum. Yes, there is voter’s remorse, but there also seem to be many people becoming even more certain of the position they already hold, and even more contemptuous of the other side. If we were to have a second referendum in (say) two months, would the country bear the collective weight of being so unutterably bored and divided all over again? A second referendum would be no more legally binding than the first, because referenda are not the same as laws. For us to leave the EU, both Houses of Parliament still have to vote on the relevant legislation, a situation not dissimilar to our regretful protest voter hoping someone more responsible (Parliament? Really?) is going to ride to the rescue. And yet, it’s also very important that we don’t tolerate misinformation and lies, particularly in political campaigns that actually matter. Does that also mean we shouldn’t wear the results of votes in which the public were misled? Some of the misinformation was clearly very misleading and very persuasive. For example, the figure of £350 million per week being ‘sent’ to the EU quoted by the Leave campaign has been debunked many times (I also question the use of the word ‘send’: I don’t ‘send’ dinner from my kitchen to my house, since one is inside the other). Now that Leave has won, and the falling pound has wiped several times that amount off the value of the UK economy, we get to see IDS et al. saying, as nonchalantly as they can, ‘aha, yes, well, I never actually used that figure’. Rode around on the bloody bus, though, didn’t you?

Secondly, here’s something else I learnt from the referendum result, and it really pains me to say it: Michael Gove was right when he said people had ‘had enough of experts’. Mervyn King said in an interview on The World at One that he thought people didn’t want to be told what the former head of the Bank of England thought about Britain leaving the EU, but rather wanted some proper facts and figures so they could make up their own minds. He then refused to give his view either way, saying it would take at least two hours to give a properly balanced answer (‘Please’, I begged the radio, ‘give him two hours of airtime to do that, then!’). The following, from a book that has nothing whatever to do with politics, captures it nicely:

We are obviously going to present our view, but our overriding desire is to engage you via the evidence in a debate that is very much ongoing across several research communities, rather than simply convince you that we are right.[7]

People should make up their own minds, and they should listen to expert views while they do so, and then form their own view on the basis of the information presented to them and the expertise of the person presenting it. This is surely the fallacy at the root of all celebrity endorsement. Mervyn King’s view of the EU is important, well-informed and maybe even interesting, and I stand by all of those descriptors even though I don’t know what his view is. Can the same be said of David Beckham?[8] Moreover, seeking expert views is something we do as a matter of routine. We seek other people’s opinions when we buy anything from a house to a compost bin; we read and write reviews (see Iron Get Hot Now); we Google everything from individuals to cities. Seeking advice from people who know more than you do is a sensible, commonplace act. For example, if I was asked to (say) write an essay on economics, the first thing I would do is read the work of some economists. I’ve picked economics because a. I know very little about it; and b. it’s a discipline in which it is normal for experts to disagree violently with one another. Therefore, I would approach each expert view with a critical eye, thinking all the time about forming my own view, but also aware that I was becoming more informed as I went along, and therefore more qualified to express that view with confidence. I’m not arguing here that people who haven’t bothered to inform themselves about a given subject shouldn’t be allowed to vote on it; rather, I’m pointing out the cognitive dissonance in Gove’s position. He is suggesting that, because there were economists who failed to predict the crash in 2008, it is reasonable to ignore all economists. He is suggesting that it is legitimate to make uninformed decisions. If that’s what voting is, we don’t need four months of dreary campaigning: we just go into the booth, pretend we are characters in Yellow Submarine and pick YES or NO on general principle. I have even seen a couple of people stating defensively on social media that they ‘didn’t listen’ to any of the referendum coverage (how? It has been day and night for all of eternity) and voted based on ‘what I thought was right’. These are people who are actually proud of how uninformed they are, and how little opportunity they allowed themselves to have their views challenged, shaped or finessed by people who know more than they do, including people who agree with them.

How I rejoiced when Farage failed (again) to win a seat at the last general election! A terrible overall result, but at least Farage is going to go away and shut up, I thought. No such luck.

Farage
Non-Member of Parliament Nigel Farage

 

Non-Member of Parliament Nigel Farage says and does appalling things as a matter of routine. See, for example, his statement (above) that ‘we won it without a bullet being fired’, which I would have thought was the minimum requirement, and, oh yes, there were those bullets that killed Jo Cox MP on the same day as Farage’s hateful pseudo-Nazi ‘breaking point’ poster was unveiled, something he described as an ‘unfortunate’ coincidence. For other people, one comment like that would be the end of their career. Trump, Gove, Johnson, Farage and the like get away with it because they aren’t appealing to people’s thoughts, but their feelings. Farage tells people who already agree with him yes, the ‘feelings’ you have are totally valid: membership of the EU does somehow make your local hospital a bit crappier, your policemen scarcer, your child’s school crowded with African refugees and your road bumpy and full of pot-holes. It seems to me that whether or not there is a causal link between the EU and your local woes, your feelings on the subject are really neither here nor there until you have some actual data. What Farage et al. have achieved is to state out loud, in public that the data is neither here nor there, and feelings are everything. Are people like Farage and Trump[9] very clever, then, or are the people that listen to them very stupid? The point is that the question is irrelevant: they don’t need to be clever. They just need to be slightly cleverer than the people who think they agree with them. Farage has run for election to the House of Commons seven times, and every time he has been unsuccessful. This shows that he doesn’t need to be right; he doesn’t need to be elected; he doesn’t even need to be important. He just needs to sound absolutely certain that he’s all three.

The third and final thing I have learned from the referendum is that I have no idea why people vote the way they do. We ask people to vote, but as I pointed out earlier, we don’t ask them why they are voting the way they are (and as I’ll argue below, I’m not sure people can articulate why with any great accuracy). Further, because we don’t know why people voted the way they did, the data we do have can be interpreted and/or manipulated in any number of ways. For example, we can point to the suggestion that more educated people tended to vote Remain, and conclude that ‘being educated causes you to vote Remain’, but that’s not a strong inference. It may be that people with a degree are more likely to have met large numbers of young, well-educated, articulate and charming foreigners during their time at university (I certainly did), and therefore think of ‘migrants’ in completely different terms to someone living on a council estate in central Leeds surrounded by people speaking Foreign. It could also suggest any number of other things. My father pointed out that many people in his age group appear to have voted Leave, but that doesn’t mean their age necessarily has any relationship with that decision. This morning, Radio 4 reported on ‘David Cameron’s analysis of the referendum data’ and really, I’m dying to know: what analysis? What data? The people may have spoken, but I think mainly what we said was, ‘wait. What? WHAT?’

Similarly, notice how quick everyone was the morning after the 2015 general election to tell us that Labour had failed to engage their core vote; that David Cameron energised somebody or other by rolling up his shirt-sleeves and taking off his jacket; that the polling was misleading (remember that, before it disappeared into the maelstrom of news with barely a ripple?), and so forth. When the general election in 2010 resulted in a hung parliament and then eventually a coalition, journalists informed us ruefully that, ‘the people have spoken’, forgetting that ‘I’d like a hung parliament, please’ wasn’t on the ballot paper. In the 2015 general election, within a few hours of the result Labour politicians were giving interviews about what Labour had done wrong and what they needed to do differently, when they simply didn’t have sufficiently sophisticated data to know any of that. They spoke as if their ideas were self-evident, and yet somehow not self-evident enough to have occurred to them before the election. The Conservatives responded to UKIP’s pre-election campaign by attempting to appease potential UKIP voters, banging on about immigration even more than usual, and promising the referendum we’ve just had. However, I think it’s worth noting that UKIP won one seat in the last election, and 3.9 million votes. The Green Party also have one MP, and around 1.1 million votes, which is very nearly as many as the number of votes for the SNP (1.4 million, resulting in 56 seats). Of these three smaller parties, only UKIP and the SNP are taken seriously. Nobody responded to the Green vote by saying ‘crumbs, we simply must include more environmental measures to appeal to all the people that voted Green!’ and there is absolutely no suggestion that we should take the Lib Dems or their voters seriously (2.5 million votes and eight seats). I suggest that this is because the Tory party (and the dominant voices in the media) chose to interpret these data as ‘we simply must talk more about immigration and the EU’ and shuffled to the right in order to engage the 3.9 million UKIP voters, when they could just as easily have interpreted these data as ‘we simply must talk more about the environment and social issues’ and shuffled to the left in order to engage the 3.6 million Green and Lib Dem voters. I suggest that, much like the voters, politicians use data to confirm what they already think, to justify decisions they have already made, and to stay in their comfort zone. It seems that the two main parties are more interested in reinforcing the existing views of ‘their'(?) existing voters, rather than gaining new ones. Also, I conclude that Tories don’t care very much about the environment or social issues (and are very bad at pretending they care about these things); they do care about immigration and the EU, and so here we are.

Going through old teaching notes from Shanghai, I find the following statement on a mock interview for PPE:

Caroline comments that she thinks Russian voters expect masculinity from their political leaders. She illustrated this point by quoting a Russian friend, who said, ‘I saw him [Putin] with his shirt off on a horse once and I liked it.[10]

Google ‘Putin on a horse’ and you will get 394,000 hits. And yet, I’m sure that if that same Russian friend was asked by (say) a journalist why she voted for Putin, she’d say something politically relevant (about foreign policy or whatever) so that she didn’t sound like a moron.

Putin
Putin started by rolling up his shirt-sleeves and taking off his jacket as per Cameron. The horse is thinking, ‘well, that escalated quickly’.

 

Do we actually have any reliable data that tells us why people vote the way they do? I like to get my information from the radio, and recycle newspapers, leaflets and copies of The Watchtower that come through the door without reading them. During elections and/or referenda, I only answer the door to the postman, because I work from home and don’t have time to debate politics with the local BNP candidate (actual example. The conversation ended with me telling him to fuck off back to wherever he came from). The point is that I’ve literally no idea if that’s typical. I’ve seen several friends on social media who were very active in the Remain campaign saying that they wish they had done more, but would it have made a difference? We behave as if leaflets, picking off voters one by one on the doorstep, interminable interviews on TV and radio, newspaper opinion pieces and sharing thoughtful videos and statements on social media are persuasive. Are they, or do they merely confirm the views people already have? Also, I think I know what caused me to vote Remain, but do I really? I think I voted Remain because I don’t like being lied to, and I felt the Leave campaign was lying to people; because I love Europe and think other Europeans should know that; because I think, given our history of empire and war-mongering, we should take more (way, way more) refugees than we actually do; because, much as I dislike doing things that make David Cameron and George Osborne more powerful and smug, I dislike that less than doing things that make non-Member of Parliament Nigel Farage more powerful and smug; and finally because it seemed to me that a vote to leave was also a vote for the break-up of the United Kingdom. If I was asked to give my reasons for voting as I did, that’s what I’d say, but it may be that my real unspoken reason is that I was at school with people like Boris Johnson (by which I mean financially comfortable, male and mediocre) and resented their assumption that they were entitled to rule the world. For many of these people, this sense of entitlement was so strong that they didn’t bother with trivia like homework or preparation, an attitude we can see in everything Boris Johnson has ever done. Look at his face. Read his terrible columnHe doesn’t have the faintest idea what to do next. According to his Wikipedia entry, Boris Johnson lost his wedding ring an hour after getting married and, for all his spoutings about immigration, was born in New York and has US citizenship. I suggest that this is not a man who thinks things through. Contrast the panicky, ‘tired’, bumbling Boris Johnson with Nicola Sturgeon, currently zipping around Europe being a sensible, calm leader, who actually had the sense and humility to make a fucking plan.

In my upper sixth year, my Cantonese boyfriend was chosen as Head Boy, and I remember being told (by someone who clearly thought he, a white, blond rugby player of very little brain, would have been a better choice) that my bright, kind, thoughtful and hard-working boyfriend shouldn’t be allowed to be Head Boy, because he only represented the Chinese students. When I pointed out that there were more Chinese students than there were girls, i.e. they were a sizeable minority, I was told there was no need for a Head Girl either, precisely because we were in the minority. Note that the objection was not ‘I’d be a better Head Boy because x’ or ‘I wish I’d competed better’, but ‘this shouldn’t be allowed’ i.e. the system had delivered a result he didn’t like.[11] Note also the cognitive dissonance: if you choose a Cantonese representative from a mixed gender, mixed race (i.e. white/Cantonese) group, he only represents the Cantonese males. If you accept that premise (and I don’t think you should), the suggested solution can be glossed one of two ways: either (a) ‘a white male represents everyone in the group regardless of whether they are white or male themselves’; or (b) ‘a white male only represents the white males in the group. That leaves both the Cantonese and the girls in the group unrepresented, but fuck minorities’. Let’s be clear: the group the aforementioned blond rugby player wanted to protect from the perils of under-representation was privileged white guys. Boris Johnson reminds me strongly of this boy, and I struggle to think of anything that might persuade me to vote alongside (or for) Boris Johnson.

If we really want politics to become more responsive, more informed, more interesting and less territorial, we all need to be more honest about our own motivations, and clearer about what actually persuades people. I think it is very easy to hurl ourselves furiously into activity: attacking/comforting immigrants; campaigning for this or that; signing petitions for this or that; seeking to apportion blame, and so forth. However, I suggest that we might want to spend some time considering which activities make the best use of our energy before we leave the stage. Brexeunt.


[1] The correct answer is ‘no’, Fact Fans, because students aren’t insured to get up on the kick-step, and can’t attend the (vital, vital) Ladder Awareness course.

[2] Of course I understand that not everyone who is currently experiencing voter’s remorse voted Leave; I’m using a Leave voter as an example purely because the majority of voter’s remorse appears to be on that side.

[3] A report I read today put the number of people declaring themselves to have voted the ‘wrong’ way at just over 1.5 million, including people from both sides.

[4] Even if one had thought (erroneously) for several decades that the Sun was marvellous, surely the recent coverage of the Hillsborough enquiry would have given pause for thought?

[5] Farage has been an MEP for some time, but is not and has never been an MP. Therefore, since he is so keen that everyone knows who is elected and who is not, I think we should refer to him in public discourse as ‘non-MP Nigel Farage’. As I have argued elsewhere (see Punch drunk), I feel similarly about how we refer to convicted rapists in public life (as in, ‘Today, convicted rapist Mike Tyson unveiled his new range of men’s underwear. Nobody cared and he was later seen weeping quietly in a car park’) because a. rapists are, overwhelmingly, multiple offenders who show little remorse for or understanding of their crimes, and therefore this would be a public service, designed to make everyone safer; and b. we need to counterbalance the message that rapists can get away with it if they appear to be upstanding members of society, particularly if they are good at sports. We help them believe this is the case by protesting that they ‘always seemed nice’ when the crimes come to light, and then forgetting their crimes incredibly quickly. If it’s legitimate to remind an entire Trump rally that Mike Tyson used to be a champion boxer, it’s also legitimate to remind those people that, around the same time, he raped an eighteen-year-old, lied about it in court and was sentenced to ten years but only served three. He later wrote in his autobiography that he didn’t rape anyone and then blamed the victim for going to his hotel room in the first place, a stance that Donald Trump recently recapitulated. Then, just as the police failed to intervene when O.J. Simpson started beating his wife, everyone forgot about any of this because SPORTS.

[6] Me: Is there a box for ‘I’m voting to remain, but I also want it to be understood that this should not be taken as an endorsement of Cameron and George Osborne in any way, because fuck those guys’?
Official Polling Station Man: You’re the fourth person to make that joke today.
Me: It’s not a joke.
Official Polling Station Man: I’ll get the Special Pencil.

[7] Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2015), p. 9.

[8] I don’t care what David Beckham thinks because I see no evidence that he knows any more about the EU than I do. John Barnes, however, had several very interesting things to say after Gove misrepresented what he said about the possible consequences for British football of leaving the EU.

[9] Want to cheer yourself up with something Donald Trump-related? This Chrome extension automatically replaces the words ‘Donald Trump’ with an unflattering description from Jezebel. It really did make me feel slightly less depressed about geopolitics.

[10] Me: why do you think this vision of Russian ‘masculinity’ doesn’t include chest hair?
Caroline <shrugging>: People are stupid.

[11] The system was simply that the staff chose a Head Boy and Head Girl from the senior prefects, who they thought would be good. I think we might have been asked for our views, but there was certainly no campaigning or hustings etc.

A ‘small, mysterious corpus’

In her excellent book Ex Libris[1] Anne Fadiman writes about what she calls her ‘Odd Shelf’, which she defines as follows:

On this shelf rests a small, mysterious corpus of volumes whose subject matter is completely unrelated to the rest of the library, yet which, upon closer inspection, reveals a good deal about its owner. George Orwell’s Odd Shelf held a collection of … ladies’ magazines from the 1860s, which he liked to read in his bathtub.[2]

Fadiman’s own Odd Shelf is about polar exploration, a subject close to my own heart (for absolutely no reason whatever: I have no desire to visit such places and hate being cold), and I remain confident that we both own copies of F.A. Worsley’s book Shackleton’s Boat Journey and Scott’s Last Expedition (Captain Scott’s journals, recovered from beside his frozen body; see The fish that is black for Scott’s description of watching killer whales attempting to tip his dogs into the water). My own Odd Shelf is somewhat broader, and contains works on exploration of all kinds (see Why Don’t You Do Right?). These are books about men (and a few hardy women) who ‘went out to explore new lands or with toil and self-sacrifice fitted themselves to be champions … the conquerors of the great peaks.'[3]

My explorer books begin with Exquemelin, Bernal Diaz and Zarate chronicling the conquest of South America, continuing with nineteenth- and twentieth-century works by Mary Kingsley and Laurens Van Der Post, mid-century books by T.E. Lawrence (see No means no for Lawrence’s unhelpful responses to his long-suffering proofreader), Peter Fleming, Elspeth Huxley and Thor Heyerdahl, and finally modern writers such as Peter Hessler and Mariusz Wilk. I also have a book by Ian Hibell, a relative on Giant Bear’s side, called Into the Remote Places. This is an account of Ian’s journeys, cycling across various continents. Like Shackleton and Scott, Ian died in pursuit of exploration after being knocked off his bicycle while cycling across Greece; and, like Shackleton and Scott, Ian struggled to explain his need to explore:

I couldn’t explain to them the lure of travelling. You went to a place to get something, they reasoned.[4]

His Sudanese hosts are, I think, meaning a physical ‘something’; Ian might have agreed with them had they meant something less tangible. There is no real consensus on why or how exploration is necessary, or exactly what one is in search of. R.B. Robertson reports a group of whalers discussing their hero Shackleton (Mansell was present when Shackleton’s party arrived in Stromness, having been given up for dead), and again there is no consensus:

… we talked of Antarctic explorers, and the motives that take men down to that terrifying white desert, not once, but time and time again, to dedicate a large part of their lives to its ghastly waters, often to die there.

‘The motives of some of them are only too obvious,’ Gyle said. ‘Personal glory, kudos or ever material gain … others are real scientists who reckon that the knowledge they gain of the last unknown part of the earth is worth the agony of getting it … [and] there’s always a handful of man like Shackleton who keep coming down here as it were for the fun of it … they find … real comradeship. That’s a human relationship second only to sexual love, and a thousand times rarer.'[5]

Gyle may be right here in some instances, but many of the explorers in my collection travel alone, and are profoundly isolated even when surrounded by people. Robertson’s whalers suggest other theories: the unnamed Norwegian bosun argues that Antarctic explorers go south to get away from ‘up there’, and Davison suggests that, ‘Antarctica’s the only part of the world left where it’s still possible to look over a hill without knowing for certain what you’re going to find on the other side.’ Mansell, in some ways the hero of Robertson’s book Of Whales and Men, dismisses all these ideas. His explanation is, for me, the most convincing, and again refers to an intangible ‘something’:

‘Shackletons, and [the] best kind of explorer … come here because they know there is something else, that man can feel but not quite understand in this world. And they get closer to that thing – that fourth man who march[ed] with Shackleton across South Georgia[6] – when they are down there than anywhere else in world. This island [South Georgia], Zuther Notion [this is how Robertson renders Mansell’s pronunciation of ‘Southern Ocean’], Antarctic continent – all haunted places …  [Shackleton and men like him] keep coming back to discover – haunted by what?’[7]

There are some issues with defining one’s Odd Shelf. Firstly, I differ from Fadiman in that I think I probably own too many volumes on the subject of exploration to describe it as a ‘shelf’; secondly, I read explorer books because I find them interesting as studies of human nature, rather than because they describe activities I wish to participate in. Fadiman’s essays ‘The Odd Shelf’ and ‘The Literary Glutton’ describe various trips she has made to the Arctic and Antarctic, whereas I have no wish to actually go to fifteenth-century Peru or similar. Finally, I think there is a difference between amassing literature on or in a particular area, and collecting porn: after Orwell, her second example of an Odd Shelf is that belonging to Philip Larkin, who nobody will be surprised to learn had ‘an especially capacious Odd Shelf crammed with pornography, with an emphasis on spanking.'[8]

I do, however, single out a few books for special status. These are books that I have worked on, contributed to, or am mentioned in. It is, at the time of writing, a fairly small collection, as follows: Pilgrimage (written by my godfather, and dedicated to his godchildren); Edith the Fair: The Visionary of Walsingham by the late Dr. Bill Flint (I copy-edited the book, provided the index and contributed much of the transliteration of the Pynson Ballad in chapter 3);[9] two histories of Hertfordshire and an academic book about the philosophy of evolution, all of which I compiled indexes for; and Salmon by Prof. Peter Coates. My cameo here is in the acknowledgements, on a list of people ‘keen to talk salmon with me’. In my case, this consisted of providing Peter with photocopies of the relevant pages of Mr Philips, a marvellous book by John Lanchester in which Mr. Philips spends a diverting afternoon watching salmon-based pornography (it wouldn’t have been to Larkin’s taste, I fancy)[10] and a photograph of a salmon-skin suit I took at an exhibition of ancient textiles from the autonomous regions of China while in Shanghai (he failed to use this, the fule).

Shanghai, March '08 - 07
Salmon-skin suit, Shanghai museum, taken March 2008

The latest addition to this shelf is Romeo and Juliet in Palestine: Teaching Under Occupation, which I proofread for my friend and colleague, Tom Sperlinger.[11] I have written elsewhere about how we might assess the quality of a book[12] (see The search for perfection) and indeed why one might write or read a book at all. Speaking purely for myself, I write for an audience of one. On the back of Stella Gibbons’s Ticky (a very silly book that I thoroughly enjoyed on the train the other week, muffling my giggles between the pages in the hope of suggesting to the other passengers that I was suffering from a surfeit of sneezing rather than gin), she says, ‘I wrote it to please myself’. Tom is more speculative; he says simply, ‘I try to tell the story of the semester I spent at Al-Quds’. His book also engages with another topic I have explored in other posts: that of why we read (see House of Holes, among other posts). In chapter 5, which is built around Daniel Pennac’s ‘Bill of Rights’ for readers (the first item is ‘the right not to read’), Tom speaks of his struggle to get his students to read more:

Haytham was not the only student who often did not do the reading. Some of the students were taking six or seven classes at the same time and claimed they had too much preparatory work to do. Others saw the reading as peripheral; they wanted to come to class, write down the answers, and prepare themselves for the exam.[13]

The teaching Tom describes here is very different from my own foreign teaching experiences. I don’t teach literature to my Chinese students, but if I did, and if, as part of that teaching, I told them all to read a book or a short story, my sense is that the vast majority would read it (and several would read it more than once); specifically, I wonder what my (overwhelmingly eager and respectful) Chinese students would make of this chapter, and of the students’ reluctance to do what their teacher has asked. In his Q&A after reading from Romeo and Juliet in Palestine at Waterstones a few weeks ago, Tom described the intimacy of the classroom, and how there are things that can be said in that context that wouldn’t (couldn’t?) be said in any other setting. This chimes more closely with my own experiences in China, particularly with reference to sex education (see Open the Box, Some bad words, Please use power wisely and Shake it all about). This sense that the students aren’t holding up their end of the bargain, however, is something that I have only had in a few isolated cases (see No means no): Tom is describing a widespread mutiny, in which so many of the students aren’t doing the reading that discussion of their reasoning is a legitimate topic for discussion in class. A few pages on, Tom quotes Malcolm X’s Autobiography, in which he describes learning to read by the glow of a light just outside the door of his prison cell (the second time I read the book, having read it the first time as a proofreader, this moment reminded me of Chris Packham on this year’s Springwatch describing how he had read by the light of a glow-worm), and the hunger Malcolm X had for reading. Contrast that with my train journey home from Bristol after Tom’s reading: I was the only person in the carriage with a book. I would have been perfectly happy to chat (as often happens when I knit on trains), but the other passengers were all either looking at their ’phones or simply staring into space. There was no conversation, and apart from my own muffled laughter, the carriage was devoid of the sound of meaningful human interaction (the various mechanical beeps of the various mechanical devices don’t count). My chosen book was the aforementioned Ticky, which, in the quiet, conversationless train (and on the way home from an evening spent discussing a book), suggested a superbly ironic reason for which one might choose to read: to avoid conversation.

‘… hand me Bore Upon the Jutes – no, no, that is a Circassian grammar. Bore Upon the Jutes is what I require – no – now you have given me Notes on Early Saxon Religious Musical Pipes [see An unparalleled display of shawms] – I asked for BOREBORE UPON THE JUTES.’
‘I think you are lying upon it, Papa, there is a book just under your pillow?’
‘Oh – ah? is there? – yes, exactly so: I thank you. Well, no doubt you have your morning duties to perform. You may look in upon me again immediately before luncheon.’ … Doctor Pressure held Bore upside down and pretended to read.[14]

Naturally, my frequent train journeys are occasions on which reading is a wonderful way to fill time that would be otherwise wasted, but of course I don’t simply read to fill time or to avoid conversation with one’s fellow passengers (it seems so much simpler to just ask them to be quiet). I read because, among other things (and to misappropriate Nagel for a second time: see The fish that is black), I simply can’t imagine what it is like not to read (or not to want to read).

Nabokov used to encourage his students at Berkeley to read and re-read, as part of a search for detail. In a discussion of why we read, Nabokov might have answered that one reason for doing so is to cultivate the ability to find ‘bigness’ in that which is small. In the Q&A after Tom’s reading, I commented that, were I allowed to teach literature to my Chinese students, there would undoubtedly be a long list of forbidden books handed down from On High, and asked Tom if he would have felt comfortable giving the students The Merchant of Venice rather than Julius Caesar or Romeo and Juliet (I was also thinking of one of Tom’s students, who comments that ‘she stopped reading a book if she did not like the way it made her think’).[15] He replied that yes, that would have been fine, and other colleagues at Al-Quds were teaching The Merchant of Venice. On each of my trips to China, I have considered it my moral duty to take something dangerous to read, in the hope of being (at the very least) accosted at breakfast with the question ‘why are you reading that?’ So far, Alan Hollinghurst’s tale of drug-taking and gay sex in sheds The Spell, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, The Well of Loneliness, and The Joy Luck Club have all failed to get a rise out of anybody. I suspect this is because one has to have actually read these books to know that they are ‘dangerous’, but this is still very disappointing.

One of Tom’s courses at the university is called ‘Dangerous Books’, and the course description includes this sentence: ‘Why might a work of literature be considered dangerous?’ One answer is, of course, the circumstances in which one reads it (see The search for perfection). This year, my chosen Dangerous Book to flourish at breakfast is also an explorer book: Seven Years in Tibet. While Nabokov might argue that the devil is in the detail, in this case I think Margaret Atwood has it right in The Handmaid’s Tale: ‘context is all’.

————————————————————————–

[1] Her book The Spirit Catches You and Fall Down should be required reading (the right not to read notwithstanding) for anyone considering medicine as a profession.

[2] Anne Fadiman, ‘My Odd Shelf’, in Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), p. 21.

[3] Heinrich Harrer, Seven Years in Tibet (London: The Reprint Society, 1953), translated from the German by Richard Graves and with an introduction by fellow explorer Peter Fleming, p. 11.

[4] Ian Hibell and Clinton Trowbridge, Into the Remote Places (London: Robson Books, 1984), p. 96.

[5] R.B. Robertson, Of Whales and Men (London: Macmillan, 1956), p. 60.

[6] The ‘fourth man’ refers to the conviction, held by Shackleton and both of his companions Worsley and Crean, that as the three of them trekked across South Georgia, ‘we were four, not three’ (Shackleton’s words, as quoted by Robertson, p. 62). As Robertson tells us (p. 55) as part of a discussion about how little poetry (plenty of prose) has been written about Antarctica, the one outlier is a cameo by the fourth man in ‘The Wasteland’.

[7] Robertson, Of Whales and Men, p. 61.

[8] Fadiman, ‘My Odd Shelf’, Ex Libris, p. 21. While re-reading ‘My Odd Shelf’, I discovered a postcard pushed between the pages at the start of the essay ‘True Womanhood’ (pp. 45-53). Fadiman describes reading The Mirror of True Womanhood: A Book of Instruction for Women in the World (as opposed to the follow-up volume, A Book of Instruction for Women Floating Aimlessly In Outer Space) by the Rev. Bernard O’Reilly, and intended to convey the take-home message that ‘Woman’s entire existence, in order to be a sources of happiness to others as well as to herself, must be one self-sacrifice’ (Fadiman, p. 47). Fadiman’s response is to compile a list of the virtues O’Reilly values most, and ask her husband to give her marks out of ten in each category (p. 51). The postcard, which shows van Gogh’s Le nuit étoilée, Arles on the picture side, has Fadiman’s list and my marks from Garden Naturalist written on it, from just after our eleventh wedding anniversary. Naturally, the only sensible course of action was to yell at Giant Bear to run upstairs immediately and provide his own scores, which proved to be three marks lower overall. My main failing is apparently in the category ‘Avoidance of impure literature, engravings, paintings and statuary’, in which both husbands have given me a resounding zero.

[9] Dr. Flint died unexpectedly while the book was still in production and although we never met, I remember him very fondly for our first telephone call, in which I explained that, while I was delighted to take his book on, I was also about to be taking two weeks off in order to get married and have a honeymoon. There was a brief pause and a sloshing noise, followed by Bill announcing to me that, having known me for less than thirty seconds, he was ‘breaking out the gin’ in celebration of my upcoming nuptials. Thus did we warm to each other enormously.

[10] I had expected the university photocopier to spontaneously combust, but of course it only does that when one has an important meeting to go to and/or is wearing a long-sleeved top in a pale colour. Salmon was Peter’s contribution to a series of books, each on a different animal, to which the excellent Helen MacDonald (of H is for Hawk fame) contributed Falcon.

[11] Regular readers will notice that I haven’t bothered with my traditional faintly insulting pseudonym for Tom; this is because I want to link to a place where you can see all the details of Tom’s book, which is available for the outrageously modest sum of £9.99 (obviously don’t buy it from Amazon, though. Fuck those guys. I link to it merely to show that Tom has hit the big time: get it here instead). This would naturally make a nonsense of a pseudonym, had I bothered to come up with one (it would have been Voice For Radio, thanks so much for asking).

[12] There’s no need to take my word for it that Tom’s book is marvellous; Tom ‘It’s So Anodyne’ Paulin and John Berger loved it, too.

[13] Tom Sperlinger, Romeo and Juliet in Palestine: Teaching Under Occupation (Winchester: Zero Books, 2015), p. 45.

[14] Stella Gibbons, Ticky (Guernsey: Alan Sutton, 1943), pp. 162-163. I have concluded that Bore Upon the Jutes, which Dr. Pressure is so keen to read, must have sprung from the imagination of Gibbons, as the first hit when put into Google is the quotation I have just given.

[15] Sperlinger, Romeo and Juliet, p. 46.

The fish that is black

I wrote recently about visiting Nanjing Holocaust Museum in 2009 (see Notes from Nanjing). Today I found the following snippet in one of my many ‘Thoughts and Notes’ documents, jotted down in a dentist’s waiting room and later typed up:

In January 2012 a hundred raiders on horseback charged out of Chad into Cameroon’s Boune Ndjidah National Park, slaughtering hundreds of elephants—entire families—in one of the worst concentrated killings since a global ivory trade ban was adopted in 1989. Carrying AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, they dispatched the elephants with a military precision reminiscent of a 2006 butchering outside Chad’s Zakouma National Park. And then some stopped to pray to Allah. Seen from the ground, each of the bloated elephant carcasses is a monument to human greed. Elephant poaching levels are currently at their worst in a decade, and seizures of illegal ivory are at their highest level in years. From the air too the scattered bodies present a senseless crime scene—you can see which animals fled, which mothers tried to protect their young, how one terrified herd of 50 went down together, the latest of the tens of thousands of elephants killed across Africa each year. Seen from higher still, from the vantage of history, this killing field is not new at all. It is timeless, and it is now.[1] 

Notice how the final position of the elephants’ corpses appears to make a statement about what was important to each animal; we can find the same idea in Silent Spring, in the chapter ‘And No Birds Sing’ where Rachel Carson describes the spring of 1960 in the UK and a ‘deluge of reports of dead birds’. The relevant part here is a quotation from a gamekeeper, who comments, ‘It is bad to see pairs of partridges that have died together’.[2] What I want to consider in this post is fundamental attribution error, and the idea that animals have an understanding of family.

I don’t mean to insult elephants (or partridges) by suggesting that their understanding of family is the same as my human understanding, for two reasons. Firstly, it seems to me that, just as these elephants seem to have divided into two groups (those that fled, and those that didn’t), people might divide along similar lines. Not every person (or elephant) behaves heroically in such a situation, and may or may not be surrounded by family members at the time. Furthermore, not everyone places family members (people one has, after all, not chosen to be associated with) above all others. It seems to me that, for every elderly skeleton in Nanjing shielding another that he or she believed to be his or her kin, there is probably another skeleton belonging to someone who died trying to protect someone of no blood relation at all (maybe someone they didn’t even know). Returning to the dividing line mentioned earlier, for each of these skeletons, then, I think there is likely to be a further skeleton on the edge of the mass grave crawling over the others in an attempt to save him or herself, who may have been in a crowd of strangers, or who saw his/her relative/friend being shot or maimed, but did not feel moved to risk his/her own life further by intervening. In other words, I think the human concept of family, and how we juxtapose that against the concepts of friends and strangers, is more fluid and layered than it is in the animal world. Consider, for example, how many people dislike (or limit) contact with their closest relations, feel a sense of foreboding when their closest relations visit, or have formed marriages that linger on, despite not satisfying either party. Feelings of dread can coexist with being deeply attached to the people concerned, because such feelings aren’t an expression of not loving those people, but of a whole host of other intertwined issues (expectations reasonable and unreasonable, met and unmet; issues around roles, leadership and decision-making; religion, politics, lifestyle choices and so on). I find it unlikely that elephants or partridges have such fine-grained, complex feelings towards their parents, partners, children and siblings, given that a. they are elephants/partridges; and b. elephants typically live in large, matriarchal groups constructed along family lines, while partridges mate for life, with any consequent baby partridges moving on to form their own lives only a few months after hatching. It seems probable that such interactions and feelings are more straightforward for both elephants and partridges.

Secondly, it seems to me that anthropomorphizing animals demeans both animals and humans. Clearly many species besides humans have a profound concept of which individuals besides themselves are worth protecting at their own risk, but these concepts and the behaviours that flow from them vary enormously. A mother lapwing will fake a broken wing to draw a hawk away from her babies, but in my own garden I have found the pathetic, wrinkly evidence of blackbird parents ceasing to feed a baby that has fallen out of their own nest, even though it is only a few feet away and has survived the fall. Animal societies, physiologies and means of expression are so different from our own that I think it is unhelpful and confusing to talk about animals as if they are people, and as if they experience the same emotions that we do. Richard Perry puts it well, describing the response of a Gigas squid (now usually referred to as a Humboldt squid) when hooked with a fishing gaff, which is a long pole with a hook or nail in the end, used when the fish is too heavy or strong to lift with a conventional pole. He writes:

it discharged a cloud of ink as its normal reflex reaction to fear (or whatever may be a cephalopod’s equivalent of that emotion)[3]

I watched Blackfish for the first time last week (or, rather, I watched it, went to bed, woke up the next day and immediately watched it again). There is much discussion of the family bonds within groups of orcas: each pod has something analogous to its own language, and adult orcas live with their mothers for their entire lives (their lifespans are comparable to human lifespans, so this is not trivial). The concept of family is, therefore, deeply important to these animals; if anything, the film suggests that it is far more important than it is to humans, who can learn to speak another language if they so desire; can leave and join other family groups (indeed, are often expected to do so); and can often dictate the intensity and duration of family relationships. These are murky waters, therefore; as Aristotle says in his thoughts ‘On Respiration’, ‘Among water-animals, the cetaceans may give rise to some perplexity.'[4]

Philip Hoare tries to make sense of the mystery that is the whale in various ways, comparing them to clouds in all their fluidity and shape-shiftiness. He also tries to make them familiar by comparing whales to domestic dogs, but for me this is problematic. He writes that whales ‘are voluntary breathers, and must keep half their brains awake while they sleep, during which – if dogs are anything to go by – they certainly dream.'[5] Our Hound (see Dog Days and Nothing but a Hound Dog) dreams frequently, often that he is swimming; one can tell from the way he paddles his tiny paws, but I struggle to conceive of similar physical indications that whales might make. If they are never fully asleep (or awake), in what sense are they dreaming? Moreover, why on earth would dogs be ‘anything to go by’? It seems to me that attributing human emotions to a domesticated animal such as a pet dog makes some (limited) sense. Dogs have lived in close proximity to humans for thousands of years, and have been bred by humans to please humans: to be docile, aesthetically pleasing and able to remember their name, various rules and possible even a set of commands. Dogs and people, in other words, have a long-standing relationship with (and understanding of) each other that cannot be applied to orcas. Orcas are wild animals that live in the open ocean in vast territories, and could easily go their whole lives without seeing a boat, nevermind a human being, and so I think Henry Beston has it right when he says ‘the animals shall not be measured by man […] they are not brethren, they are not underlings.'[6] As Alan Bauch says in Dolphin, ‘dolphins are totally aquatic animals whose environment necessarily prevents the kind of companionship – and even mutual knowledge – that humans share, say, with dogs’.[7] Notice again the swiftness with which we reach for dogs as a point of reference. The point here is that dogs have spent thousands of years evolving and/or being bred to be obedient and useful companions, orcas have spent thousands of years evolving into things that are good at killing and eating stuff. See, for example, Scott’s Last Expedition:

I … witnessed a most extraordinary scene. Some six or seven killer whales, old and young, were skirting the fast floe edge ahead of the ship … Close to the water’s edge lay the wire stern rope of the shop and our two Esquimaux dogs were tethered to this … the next moment the whole floe under [Ponting] and the dogs heaved up and split into fragments … Whale after whale rose under the ice … [the whales’] huge and hideous heads shot vertically into the air through the cracks which they had made … there cannot be a doubt that they looked up to see what had happened to Ponting and the dogs.[8]

Similarly, in his account of a whaling expedition in the 1950s Of Whales and Men, R.B. Robertson finds himself repelled by orcas, referring to them as ‘the most voracious thing in the Southern Ocean’. His tone when describing orcas is larded with disgust in a way that his description of the butchering (‘flensing’ and ‘lemming’ are the technical terms) of a blue whale is not:

Five killer whales … with … evil black-and-white snouts broken by malignant fang-filled cavities rising occasionally above the water, advanced upon the meal [the guts of the dead whale]. Only hyenas on land and vultures in the air can convey the same sense of remorseless ill-will against all creation that killer whales convey as they slowly approach their loathsome victuals.[9]

The only way in which I think making a comparison with dogs may work is that even dogs can become vicious, unpredictable creatures that will attack a person that has never wronged them if that dog has been abused and traumatised thoroughly enough. This can even be true in a scenario where an abused dog has been rescued and re-homed with a family that love it and attempt to correct or compensate for that trauma (although, again, see my posts on our own Rescue Hound for a happier ending). Although the sections of Blackfish that show various killer whales lunging at or attempting to drown people who were interacting with them peacefully a moment ago are shocking, in some ways the most troubling footage (to me) showed some of the same people interacting with the orcas with great affection and talking about the bond that they feel they have with the animals. I found the question of whether that bond was real profoundly disturbing.

The trainers speak to the orcas as if they are enormous dogs, and I think this is because they don’t know what else to do. The film makes a powerful case for the whales being psychologically traumatised, bored, grief-stricken, confused and repeatedly under- and over-stimulated, but we aren’t orcas, don’t live in the sea, and (to misappropriate Nagel) can have only a very limited understanding of what it is like to be a wild orca, or what makes an orca an orca (or what makes a killer whale into a whale that kills).[10] In their recent book The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, biologists Whitehead and Rendell put it like this:

For whales and dolphins, living in an utterly different habitat, at the end of a very long, effectively independent evolutionary trajectory, taking what humans do as an ideal seems profoundly wrong.[11]

Naturally, and as with other ideas outside our immediate experience (see Punch drunk), we turn to things that we do understand: other people, and other animals. As Hoare says,

while it is a mistake to anthropomorphize animals merely because they are big or small or cute or clever, it is only human to do so, because we are human, and they are not. It is sometimes the only way we can come to an understanding of them.[12]

The sequences showing mother orcas grieving when their offspring are permanently removed from them are heart-breaking, but I feel that how moving it is depends on the frame of reference. Rather than comparing the mother orcas to human mothers, the people making the decisions to separate them from their babies continue to view the orcas as enormous dogs. Domestic dogs don’t much like having their puppies taken away from them, but if it is done at the right point they seem to bounce back from it fairly quickly, and the expectation seems to be that the mother orca should do the same. However, using a human mother as the gold standard of emotional connection wouldn’t be any better (e.g. removing the young orca when it reached sexual maturity, say, and then expecting the mother orca to think this gave her more time for herself). Indeed, since the orca mother and baby are being separated by humans, the idea of judging the intensity of their grief in human terms at the same time as humans are inducing that grief feels pretty queasy. In the wild, orcas live alongside their mothers for their entire lives. We don’t.

Something else I have been turning over in my mind since watching the film is whether the three people killed by the largest killer whale in the film (a male called Tilikum) were also in some way the victims of our tendency to misunderstand animals by projecting human emotions onto them. Several of the former trainers interviewed in Blackfish speak of how mortified they are at the nonsense they used to say about the whales performing ‘because they want to’. Seeing the killer whales doing various complex tricks is impressive only if you consider it remarkable that the killer whale is doing as it is asked rather than killing and eating stuff. Plainly these creatures are easily strong enough, agile enough and clever enough to leap out of the water and touch a ball with their nose or whatever, and the fact that they do so should not surprise us: they are able, receive a fish-based reward for performing such as task, and have absolutely nothing else to do. They are also strong enough, agile enough and clever enough to kill and eat the trainers if they so choose, and the fact that they do this should not surprise us either.

The film makes it clear that there have been many, many near misses: in other words, the truly remarkable thing is that there haven’t been more fatalities. While most of the people featured in the film who worked with the killer whales are shocked and upset that Tilikum has behaved ‘badly’ (i.e. killed and partially eaten stuff, including people), there is very little surprise expressed at the people who behave badly: those who capture and kill orcas in the wild; whoever it was that thought buying an orca who is only for sale in the first place because he killed someone was a good idea; those who didn’t bother to tell any of the people working with Tilikum that he had killed a person, during a live show, in front of an audience; those who wrote the gibberings that the staff at Seaworld uttered in good faith; and those who attempted to blame the three victims for their deaths. It is interesting to see Tilikum picked out as a ‘bad’ whale (contrasted with all the other ‘good’ whales) on the one hand, and on the other the faceless mass of venal, callous, stupid, reckless or greedy people. It is as if we believe that whales are fundamentally good and people are fundamentally not.[13]

That brings me on to another very human habit, which is the desire to categorise, just as I did at the start of this post by dividing the elephants into two groups. It seems to me that the managers of Seaworld who continued to allow the whale trainers to work with Tilikum and other whales known to be dangerous took the view that these were fundamentally ‘good’ whales who had behaved badly on some isolated occasions. As Blackfish goes on, it seems that those same managers change their minds, and take the view (after Tilikum has killed and partially eaten his third person) that he is a ‘bad’ whale. However, it simply doesn’t make sense to infer the fundamental nature of a species (or an individual whale) based on the behaviour of the few animals that can be observed splashing crowds of tourists from a blue concrete tank. The question ‘is Tilikum a bad whale?’ doesn’t make sense, because we have no way of defining the central terms.[14] We cannot explain what we mean by ‘a bad whale’. If we mean ‘a bad whale is a whale that has killed people’ (including two people that worked with him and probably felt deeply attached to him), then yes, Tilikum is a bad whale, but the list of other ‘bad’ whales that had given killing and eating a person a jolly good go was extensive and harrowing: he is by no means the only ‘bad’ whale; there are degrees of ‘badness’; and ‘goodness’ has not been established as the norm. Moreover, all of these ‘bad’ whales are likely to have been ‘good’ whales in their natural context, where their skill at killing and eating stuff would be useful and necessary. We might even say that these ‘bad’ whales are more fundamentally ‘whale-like’ than the ‘good’ whales that don’t make as much effort to kill and eat stuff. Furthermore, if we mean ‘a bad whale is a whale that could or would kill a person if he got the chance’ then we are left adrift in a sea of things that can’t be determined. We can’t determine why an orca kills a person or whether he thinks or feels anything in particular before or after doing so. We can’t determine whether he does this because he is peckish; whether he simply sees the opportunity; or whether it is part of his whale-like nature, although it is worth saying (as is said in the film) that there has never been any record of a person being killed by an orca in the wild.[15] Tilikum has killed three people, but I don’t know if we can even use that to make statements about the fundamental nature of Tilikum (‘Tilikum is a bad whale’) any more than we can use it to make statements about the fundamental make-up of orcas as a whole (‘all orcas are bad whales’). Blackfish makes a compelling case that captivity traumatises whales both physically and psychologically, such that they may be far more likely to unexpectedly turn on their trainers and attempt to kill and eat them than previously thought, and therefore we might feel more comfortable with the statement ‘all orcas in captivity are psychologically traumatised, and therefore are likely to become bad whales’, but again we can’t be sure whether this is part of their fundamental nature brought out by captivity, or whether this is purely caused by circumstance. Fundamental attribution error suggests that the circumstances a person finds himself in contribute more to his actions that the fundamentals of his character, but we cannot apply that with any certainty to Tilikum, because he’s not a person. It seems that the best we can do is to say ‘orcas are very good at killing and eating stuff. Therefore traumatising an orca is a bad idea, and being in a confined watery space with a traumatised orca is not safe’, which is surely a conclusion we could have reached without anyone having to die.

Tilikum now lives in a tank on his own, much like many people who have killed multiple times. As I’ve said, words that humans use to describe human concepts aren’t very meaningful when applied to whales and whale concepts, but if a whale can be said to be lonely, then given all that I’ve said about the duration and depth of the family bonds orcas have with each other, he probably feels something that we might recognise as loneliness. I suggest, however, that the difficulty of thinking about this particular whale is that using our own emotions as a frame of reference is inadequate, and using no frame of reference at all gives us no purchase. While the read-across between the massacred elephants in Cameroon and the rape of Nanjing is tempting and obvious, in both instances I struggle to state with any confidence that I understand how any of the people or animals involved felt, or how I might behave in a similar situation. I wrote about my visit to Nanjing that ‘No attempt has been made to understand any of these awful deaths and I don’t feel equal to the task’. Here, I feel that a thoughtful and nuanced attempt to make sense of the deaths of the three people killed by Tilikum has been made. Nevertheless, understanding continues to elude me.

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[1] Brian Christy, National Geographic, October 2012.

[2] Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1964) p. 102.

[3] Richard Perry, The Unknown Ocean (Newton Abbot: David and Charles, 1972), p. 165.

[3] Blackfish is, of course, a term for an orca or killer whale, but this is a comparatively modern usage. Richard Perry and Hoare use the same word to refer to pilot whales, which Bauch describes with the charming name ‘pothead whales’.

[4] Aristotle also suggests that dolphins snore, but leaves aside the tantalising question of how he knows this. He was unaware the dolphins making this sound were only half-asleep, or no doubt he would have had some thoughts to share on whether they were dreaming, too. See Armand Marie Leroi’s fascinating book The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).

[5] Philip Hoare, Leviathan or The Whale (London: Fourth Estate, 2008) p. 77. As if dimly aware that he is also misappropriating Nagel, Hoare compares whales to bats in the same paragraph.

[6] Henry Beston, The Outermost House, as quoted by Hoare, Leviathan, p. 210.

[7] Alan Bauch, Dolphin (London: Reaktion Books), p. 7. This is from an excellent series on animals, which includes Falcon by Helen Macdonald of H is for Hawk fame (see footnote below), and Salmon by Peter Coates (see A ‘small, mysterious corpus’).

[8] Captain Robert Falcon Scott, in his journal, published as Scott’s Last Expedition (London: The Folio Society, 1964), p. 56. Readers will be pleased to learn that both Ponting and the two dogs were unharmed, escaping purely by chance.

[9] R.B. Robertson, Of Whales and Men (London: Macmillan, 1956), p. 115. Robertson then observes a crew member shooting one of the orcas dead, ‘drilled neatly behind the eye’, which is explained by another sailor as an expression of ‘loathing quite out of proportion to the damage they do to him and his bonus’ (pp. 116-117), referring to the orcas’ habit of eating the tongues of the dead whales. The comparison with hyenas and vultures is instructive, however, as both these creatures, however unpleasant we may find them, provide a very useful service. Would we prefer that the entrails of the fourteen dead blue whales simply float around the Southern Ocean forever?

[10] ‘Can your allegiances be changed? Can you be trusted? What makes you a chaffinch?’ Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (Falkirk: Jonathan Cape, 2014), pp. 64-65.

[11] Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), p. 27.

[12] Hoare, p. 29.

[13] I know orcas are dolphins rather than whales (see Bauch, pp. 61-62), but the term ‘killer whale’ is so loaded with meaning here that I’m using the word ‘whale’ rather more loosely than I would otherwise. Hoare says that ‘whale-killer’ is a more accurate term (orcas kill and eat other whale species, mainly grey whales) and notes that the name orca ‘has its root in orcus, meaning ‘belonging to the kingdom of the dead”, from which the word orc is also derived. The word ‘narwhal’ is also somewhat ghoulish in original, being derived ‘from the Old Norse, nar and hvalr, meaning ‘corpse whale’, because its smudges resemble the livid blemishes on a dead body.’ Hoare, p. 269.

[14] I will leave aside the unanswerable question of whether an animal used to swimming hundreds of miles a day in a family group, and evolved to use its size, strength and intelligence to kill and eat stuff can continue to be considered a whale if it lives in a tank a few yards across, away from all its relatives, unable to hunt, and receiving food by hand from a bucket in exchange for swimming about in an amusing way.

[15] Hoare says that ‘at least one sailor was killed by a blackfish during [Herman] Melville’s years of whaling’, but it becomes clear later in the book that he’s not using ‘blackfish’ to refer to an orca here, but a pilot whale. Hoare, p. 167.

Notes from Nanjing

The following notes (relating to my time in Nanjing in 2009) were found in an old notebook, unearthed this week while I tidied my office.

Day 1, in the airport (Frankfurt)
The smoothest landing coming into Frankfurt that I have ever experienced (I almost slept through it). Going through security I had to remove the 99p bottle of water I had bought in Bristol and drink it before I was allowed into another dingy booth. The German security people thought this frightfully funny and laughed like very efficient drains. I couldn’t see the joke, but perhaps it had been an unusually boring day (or perhaps the national stereotype is inaccurate, and the Germans are a nation of childlike, humorous people). Security in Britain resulted in my incredibly dangerous sun-cream and deadly deodorant being confiscated. The man was unmoved by my argument that sun-cream is too thick to be considered a liquid as such; he was also unable to explain how placing the deodorant in a plastic bag rendered it harmless. As soon as they let me through, of course, I was free to stock up on other, more sinister fluids at the duty-free Superdrug.

I rode the travelator, but this turned out to be a lot less fun on my own. Now I am reading A Dance to the Music of Time (which, so far, I don’t much like), sitting on a comfy chair by a weird bakery (pastry the size of your head, madam? How about if we encrust it with unidentifiable purple crap?), from whence ‘Tainted Love’ is blasting out. The bakery also serves beer (because this is Germany and there is a probably a law about it) and a Chinese man, who might even be on my onward flight, is wearing a purple cardigan that almost matches the pastries, visibly more relaxed than when he arrived and with three empty steins in front of him. Opposite me, a woman is reading the most German newspaper in the world: an edition of Das Bild, with the headline ‘HITLER IN BERLIN SCHATZ STOLLEN’ and a picture of a naked women crouching over a Bratwurst in the middle of a field. The TV cycles ads for HDTV on mobile telephones, urging us to watch CNN on a screen the size of a golf-ball. Don’t they see how they undermine their own sales pitch by telling us this via a screen nine feet long?

Day Six, Nanjing
Signs I Have Seen: ‘Dagoba’ as a misspelling of ‘pagoda’ (‘we can’t possibly repel a Buddha of that magnitude!’) and a sign in the hotel clamping down on guerrilla sewing cells (‘No Smocking’).

Day Ten, Nanjing Holocaust Museum
P [Chinese colleague] suggested that we [myself, colleague James, and John, the husband of our American colleague] might visit a museum together on our day off, which we thought sounded like a fun and educational way to spend the day. The taxi pulled up outside an enormous building with a statue of a weeping woman on the pavement beside it. This should have told us that ‘fun’ and ‘educational’ were the wrong words entirely.

The signs in the holocaust museum, commemorating the Rape of Nanjing in 1937, are confused about how many people were killed – it might be 30,000 (all the students in Bristol), or it might be ten times as many (the entire population of Bristol). Either number is plausible in a city of so many millions of souls.

First there are piles of dusty bones in fish-tanks (almost all adult femurs. They do not look real). Then we move into a darkened room with illuminated glass boxes around the walls. The signs, as I say, are curiously uninformative. There is no mention of the thousands of (actual) rapes perpetrated by Japanese during the (metaphorical) rape of the city itself and I wonder if this is because they simply don’t ‘count’ in the face of so many murders. P seems largely unmoved, and I think James and John are more surprised at being taken on a fun day out at a holocaust museum than anything else. I am comparing this room with Pit 1 in Xi’an. The terracotta warriors marching away in perfect silence are creepy after a while; one keeps expecting them to step forward (all of them, all at once). They don’t, of course.

In the centre of the room is a partially excavated mass grave. Not a reconstruction, but an actual mass grave. The skeletons lie where they fell in 1937. There is a skull with no jaw. There are numerous children. There are couples huddled into each other’s arms. There are several with nails driven through their joints, bright orange with rust. The earth is grey and the bones are brown, and the whole thing is lit up with festive fairy-lights. The colour of each light indicates the gender and estimated age of each victim. There is no explanation offered anywhere of what the Japanese hoped to achieve or why the Chinese did not fight back, and that lack of narrative makes the museum feel pointless and not like a museum at all. Nobody is trying to educate me. No attempt has been made to understand any of these awful deaths and I don’t feel equal to the task. I turn to P to check that he is OK; the whole thing is utterly bewildering and I think I might cry out of sheer frustration. P is fine and takes my question as more P-centric than I intended. He was not there, he says, and there is a reason that he was not there. So, he is OK. I was not there either, and I’m now even less sure why it bothers me so much (and him so little). All of the bones look like children to me and the illuminated panels give more gory details of impaling, bayonets and possible drowning, as the site of the grave appears to have been a shallow pond. This is based on the discovery of snail shells, some of which are on display, rather than the testimony of survivors. Were there any survivors? The Japanese escaped with their lives, I assume? Or, perhaps, some of the Chinese were allowed to live, or some escaped, or were too ashamed to say that they surrendered their weapons on request, but did nothing to reclaim them when they saw what was going to happen. This is what P tells me, when I ask how a force of a few thousand soldiers from a small country can invade a much larger country, march through the middle of the land (Nanjing is not a coastal city) and murder thousands of people in broad daylight. Did the Japanese have superior weaponry, I ask? No, says P. They are better mentally. What does that mean? When the Japanese tell them to put down their guns, they do it, he says. And when the killing started, I asked? P shrugs and I have learnt nothing today.

Day Twelve, Nanjing
Today a student told me that he wanted to broaden his ‘horizontals’ by investing in the ‘stocking market’. I said, ‘I hope your plan holds up’ and nobody laughed. I miss home.

No Means No

One of my jobs when I work in China is to conduct mock Oxbridge interviews with those planning to study arts or social sciences, and I make a point of praising them for answering a question directly, rather than using it is a peg on which to hang their knowledge of a given subject. This is for several reasons:

i. I want to help my students practise some intellectual and verbal discipline;
ii. it isn’t polite to avoid a topic you’ve just been asked to address;
iii. I want them to get used to leaving their comfort zone; and
iv. I have a simple, wholesome appreciation of a direct response to a direct question.

This last applies to other areas of my work, too. For example, consider what an honour and irritation of the first order it must have been to be T.E. Lawrence’s copy-editor for The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The introduction to my edition contains the following telling exchange, under the comment, ‘I reprint here a series of questions by the publisher and answers by the author concerning the printing of Revolt in the Desert’:

[publisher] Slip 28. The Bisaita is also spelt Biseita.
[Lawrence] Good.
[publisher] Slip 47. Jedha, the she-camel, was Jedhah on Slip 40.
[Lawrence] She was a splendid beast.
[publisher] Slip 53. ‘Meleager, the immoral poet.’ I have put ‘immortal’ poet, but the author may mean immoral after all.
[Lawrence] Immorality I know. Immortality I cannot judge. As you please: Meleager will not sue us for libel.[1]

Worse, over the page we find this:

[publisher] Slip 78. Sherif Abd el Mayin of Slip 68 becomes el Main, el Mayein, el Muein, el Mayin and le Muyein.
[Lawrence] Good egg. I call this really ingenious.[2]

I had an interview myself recently, and found myself reflecting as I waited to be called in on how much more comfortable I would have been asking the questions. This is partly because I have had so much more practice in that role, and partly because I am still haunted by the spectres of interviews past. On one occasion (I was a mere stripling of twenty-five ), I was asked, ‘and when do you think you might be taking maternity leave?’ I replied (somewhat tartly) that I could only assume this was a trick question to test my knowledge of employment law and that clearly they didn’t really mean to ask me about my future womb-related plans, because that would be illegal. There was a horrible silence, which I broke by picking up my things and leaving.[3] Today, as I was tidying my desk (thereby unearthing, among other things, the nail scissors, a dozen curtain hooks and several hundred dead shopping lists), I found the notebook I took with me to Shanghai in 2013 and 2014. This included notes from two interviews I conducted with Chinese students, one at either end of the quality spectrum.

Cathy was very unusual, for two reasons. Firstly, she wanted to study Archaeology and Anthropology (the only Chinese student I have ever worked with to choose these subjects). Secondly, she was effortlessly good in interview. My notes give a flavour of the conversation:

– C notes that ‘official history’ is written by the victors and therefore not to be trusted [I asked her where she had read this; ‘I didn’t read it; it’s obvious’, she said]
– Asked to discuss the Rape of Nanjing and how it is described variously by Chinese and Japanese historians. Excellent examples; thoughtful, non-judgemental answer. Pressed on snails in Nanjing Holocaust Museum [see my own thoughts on visiting this museum in Notes from Nanjing and The fish that is black]; responded by drawing a snail to check that she had understood the word correctly and speaking eloquently and thoughtfully for nearly two minutes on why the snail shells could be viewed as poignant rather than macabre.[4]
– Asked to distinguish between Arch and Anth. and demonstrate how old things can still teach us things. Eloquent example using Chinese characters.[5]
– Asked to contrast political systems appropriate to small and large countries. Excellent example comparing China with Sweden. Knew more about European political systems than either of the PPE students interviewed earlier in the day. When asked how she knew so much about it, she said simply, ‘I read’.
– Asked to compare capital punishment as used in modern-day China and as used in an ancient culture. She chose imperial Rome and described the Tarpeian Rock as more appropriate in her opinion than current methods, on the grounds that death was likely to be quick, but that it retained ‘an element of spectacle and therefore fulfilled the state’s aim of deterrent’ (her words!). Asked to name current methods of execution in China, she listed hanging and the firing squad. Unprompted, she then observed that these methods haven’t been used in Europe for several decades and that she felt the way in which a country treats its prisoners is a good benchmark of how civilised it is.  

Contrast this with the weakest student from 2014. He was so terrible that I’m not going to use his name: let’s just call him Bozo. He wanted to study Music (‘I want to sing like Michael Bublé. I may need to study for long time to achieve this dream.’ You’re right, Bozo. Singing like Michael Bublé is an unattainable ambition). As my notes make clear, his week began inauspiciously (‘I have had to wake this student several times during lectures. He is reluctant to show his Personal Statement to any of the staff, because, I assume, this would make it clear how little he has done, and how many times he needs to be told to do something before he does it’) and came to the ignominious conclusion that ‘[i]f [Bozo] succeeds in attending a good university, it will be down to the work put in by people other than himself.’ I was, therefore, not looking forward to interviewing him.

I usually try to put students at their ease by (initially) asking them about things they know about. This was not a success, because, as I wrote in my notes,

[Bozo] knows very little about his subject. I tried to focus on vocal music because he doesn’t play an instrument (!). He made numerous factual errors … [for example] when asked to describe the differences between European and Chinese opera, he stated that Chinese opera is ‘more sadder’ and characterised European opera as inherently comedic (!?). I asked him to name an example of a European opera that he would describe as a comedy. He named Carmen (!!), which he thought was written in Latin (!!!).[6] He also expressed an interest in American opera but could not name a single opera, composer or singer.[7] He did better with an exercise about composing for an unusual ensemble, although he didn’t know what a ’cello is, how it is played or what it sounds like. To crown it all, when asked how he might go about composing and/or arranging a piece of unaccompanied vocal music to help singers keep in tune, he said he would simply add a piano <facedesk>.

We had several more false dawns, each of which made me die a little inside. In desperation I asked him to talk about the only piece of music he had mentioned specifically in his PS, Mozart’s first clarinet quintet (K581). What follows demonstrates why I described this student in my final reports as ‘the weakest and laziest student I have ever had the misfortune to teach’ (and also, in a very strange context, that while ‘yes’ doesn’t always mean ‘yes’, ‘no’ really does mean ‘no’).

Me: You mention polyphony in your PS.
Bozo (laconic): Yes.
Me: Can you tell me what polyphony is?
Bozo: Yes.
Me (after a short pause): Can you tell me what polyphony is right now?
Bozo: No.
Me (mystified): Why not?
Bozo (reassuringly): Because I forgot.
Me: I see.[8] Well, since you’re intending to specialise in vocal music, can you tell me anything about vocal polyphony?[9]
Bozo (sorrowful): No.

—————————————————–

[1] T.E. Lawrence, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (London: Jonathan Cape, 1973), pp. 18-19.

[2] One has little difficulty imagining what the copy-editor called it. Ibid., p. 20.

[3] There was also the time when I fluffed a really easy question (‘what is your ideal job?’ The correct answer is clearly, ‘This one, of course!’) because I was too busy trying not to say ‘I want to be Colin Sell’.

[4] This question referred to the Nanjing Holocaust Museum, which is built on top of a mass grave from the Rape of Nanjing massacres. Some of the victims were thrown into a pond (where those that were not already dead then drowned, or suffocated under the weight of other bodies), and one of the museum exhibits consists of the shells of pond-snails excavated when the grave was discovered.

[5] This involved drawing the ancient characters for ‘wife’ (looks very like a woman kneeling) and ‘slave’ (the same figure, but with a male-looking figure holding her by the hair). ‘This tells us much about their society’, she observed. No kidding, Cathy.

[6] I don’t wish to imply that an experimental production of Carmen in which all the characters enjoy fulfilling relationships and nobody dies, proclaiming their joy in starry-eyed, resolutely major-key Latin wouldn’t be worth seeing.

[7] Bozo (confident): American operas are my favourite.
Me (an offbeat answer, certainly, but one can name enough American composers who have written operas for this to be a plausible answer rather than a random guess e.g. Gershwin, Philip Glass, Robert Ashley. Maybe he’s going to name John Adams, and we’ll talk about Nixon in China and this morning will not have been a complete waste of time): What an interesting answer. Can you name a particular American opera that you like?
Bozo (looked doubtful)
Me (wheedling): Or maybe a singer?
Bozo (confident once more): Michael Bublé is my favourite American singer.
Me: He’s not an opera singer. And he’s Canadian.
Bozo: That’s just your opinion.
Me: NO IT’S NOT.

[8] I really didn’t.

[9] I say ‘specialise’, but that implies he had other options. He didn’t, because, ‘I have also learn saxophone for maybe eighteen months’ isn’t going to cut it at university level. Also, his only Associated Board examination was Grade 5 Theory. He was astonished to hear that this was not the highest grade available.

Some bad words

Sexism and gender bias in China is extraordinary, widespread, insidious. It hides in plain sight. For example, female students are allowed to study medicine, but they ‘can’t’ become surgeons. I have been told every year, by students and staff, that this is because women are ‘not strong enough’ for surgery, as if surgeons were expected to spend their days sawing the femurs of un-sedated soldiers in half with hastily-sharpened plastic rulers. As is so often the case, a question that they don’t know the answer to is met with silence and a blank look. ‘What about keyhole surgery?’ Blank look. ‘What about surgery on soft tissues, like abdominal surgery or caesarean sections?’ Blank look. ‘We have female surgeons in Britain. Do you think they are less competent than the male surgeons?’ Blank look. I also had to intervene in a conversation between two students (one male, one female), both intending to study engineering. The girl (Jane) was brighter than the boy (Eric) and I had encouraged her to consider studying Engineering Maths at Bristol, a five-year course with a very small cohort and some very special students. Jane and I were looking at the syllabus on her laptop, which included a picture of two rather dashing male students in serious conversation with a not-very-dashing male professor. Eric leaned over and pointed at the screen. ‘You not apply that,’ he said. ‘That for men.’

Three years ago, I introduced the idea of showing the kids a British film at the Chinese summer school. My original intention was to supply material for the practice interviews. Accordingly, the film we showed them was Passport to Pimlico, as I’ve described before (see Bite Me). Last year, and with gender issues in mind, I chose The Full Monty (recall Gary saying to his fellow unemployed former steelworkers that, ‘a few years and men won’t exist, except at the zoo … not needed no more, are we? What can lasses not do?’). This is the perfect film to show Chinese students who are trying to learn about British culture. There are regional accents, a non-Oxbridge setting, social issues such as unemployment and broken families, changing gender relations and lots and lots of swearing.

Several things have stayed with me from the 2013 film night. First of all, the students laughing at some of the same things that would amuse a British audience, such as Gary and Dave discussing Gary’s plan to steal a jacket to wear to a funeral (Dave: ‘what colour?’; Gary: ‘orange’), which I thought might actually damage some of the students, they were laughing so hard (partly at the joke, but also I think partly out of sheer pleasure that their knowledge of both English language and culture was good enough that they understood the joke). There are also things that are much funnier to a Chinese audience because of their love of physical comedy and slapstick (Nathan dropping the steel girder in the canal, leaving Gary and Dave trapped on an abandoned car, which then starts to sink). Secondly, I was asked to pause the film at the point when Dave rescues Lomper from his car, in which Lomper is attempting to kill himself via a hosepipe attached to the exhaust. The students asked me to pause the film because they hadn’t understood what was going on (‘his car won’t go like that!’ one of them said agitatedly. ‘He will choke!’ said another). I explained that he was trying to kill himself, my words falling into a suddenly silent room.

Thirdly, the response of the students to the homosexual relationship between Lomper and Guy. The film is exquisitely restrained in how it deals with this: we see the two of them mostly naked and panting, I admit, but they are mostly naked (as are all our heroes at that point) because they have been raided by the police while practicing their striptease, and they are panting because they have fled the scene and then climbed in through a first-floor window. Later, we see them holding hands at the funeral of Lomper’s mother, and that’s it. The students, who I will remind you live in a country where homosexuality is illegal (and which can be punishable by death in some circumstances), greeted the sight of Lomper and Guy holding hands at the graveside with a spontaneous oh! of recognition and sudden understanding. I think they were genuinely touched (one commented to me afterwards ‘just like married couple. I never see that’). If I may channel Jane Elliott for a moment, people aren’t born with prejudices. They learn them, and anything that can be learned can be unlearned.

Fourthly, again the power of the Embarrassing Questions Box asserted itself (see Please use power wisely), in that when I was trying to decide which film to show, I leafed through some of the questions from the 2012 Box, and came across this one: ‘Can you teach us some bad words so that when some native British wants to insult us, we would at least be aware?’ (see Open the Box). Accordingly, as the film loaded, I explained that what they were about to see was going to include a lot of swearwords, and that I wanted them to jot down as many as they could, to see whether they could identify swearwords simply from the context and tone in which they were used. At the end of the film, the kids listed the words they had written down.[1] We classified the words into nouns, adjectives and verbs as we went along, to help the students use the words grammatically. They even picked up some of the more unusual naughty words, like ‘chuff’, which I don’t think gets used much south of Watford. One student then raised his hand and told me seriously that he had written ‘pick-and-mix’ and was pretty sure it was a noun. ‘Did anyone else have pick-and-mix?’ I asked, at which point two more students put up their hands (one held up his notebook as evidence, like they do on Countdown). ‘Dave said it,’ one of the students explained, absolutely straight-faced. ‘He says, that fucking pick-and-mix was driving me crazy. He probably means his manager, or colleague, is a pick-and-mix.’ For the rest of the week, the students could (very occasionally) be heard using the phrase ‘pick-and-mix’ to each other in exactly this way, and then dissolving into giggles.

Fifthly and finally, the discussion after the film, which largely revolved around gender relations, has stayed with me. You may recall that Dave is made redundant, while his wife continues to work fulltime, and this creates ‘female’ behaviour in Dave, such as comfort eating and anxiety about his weight (much of this takes place in that most masculine of strongholds, his shed). ‘Dave clearly thinks that a husband should earn more than a wife,’ I said, ‘and that part of a husband’s function is to earn money. How many of you agree?’ The class of thirty was split, roughly 50/50, but not along gender lines as you might expect: five of the twelve girls expected a husband to earn more than his wife and thought it was part of a man’s role to have a job and earn money. Again, as with the surgeon example above, the reason give was that ‘men are stronger’. ‘Alright,’ I said. ‘Dustbins, cooking pots and hoovers are pretty heavy, aren’t they? If men are stronger, shouldn’t they do more housework?’[2] One of the girls said, ‘yes. Men should do more housework.’ I was about to ask her a follow-up question (‘more than women do, or more than men currently do?’) when she added, ‘unless they earn enough to employ a strong maid.’

Several years ago at the summer school, I took six male students into a room on their own and shut the door. This was in order to ameliorate the face problem that they would have had if I had chosen to say what I had to say to them in front of all the other students (and staff), an option that I personally would have preferred at that point.[3] The students that come on the summer school are supposed to be very bright, very motivated and able to speak, write and understand English at a level concomitant with their ambition to study at a British university. While I don’t flatter myself that I am anything like as accomplished a teacher as the incomparable Jane Elliott, I model my teaching style on hers, in the sense that I tend to hold a conversation with the class as a whole. These six students, who had sat right at the front of class every day, had not joined in that conversation once. When students send me a complete, finished PS, I keep the good ones intact, to use as source material for future years. I only ever keep a mediocre or poor PS as a series of anonymous quotations to use in a PS workshop, where I show the students examples of both good and bad personal statements and ask them to critique what they are shown (which, in turn, I hope, teaches them to apply the same thinking to their own work). Of the six students I am talking about, two had not submitted a draft to me at all; two had ‘finished’, in the sense that what they had written had improved as much as it was going to; and two were still ‘working’ on what they had written.[4] One of these personal statements has disappeared forever into the mists of time, while the other exists as a single slide in the workshop I mentioned above.[5]

I hope that quick summary conveys this simple fact: these were not strong students. They were not bright or motivated, and as I was wondering how to help them, I realised that there were two interlocking problems. One was that they lacked the third quality I listed above (good English). This also explained why they were sitting right at the front of class, where they might be able to do some lip-reading. The other was that they were all boys, with markedly lower grades than the other students, as if I had been teaching a top set and one of the tables had been quietly switched for a table from set three or four. In other words, these boys had not earned their places, but nevertheless somebody other than them had decided they should be present. When I asked the Chinese staff about these students, they were all open about the fact that the students’ parents (in four cases they used the word ‘father’) had demanded that their sons be included.[6] These six students were clearly not to blame, so they all had some time with me discussing some second-tier universities that might actually be interested in making them offers, and they all had what the other students had at the end of the week (a more or less finished application, a list of universities and courses, and a realistic idea of what they could expect), as well as the very clear message (from me, to their parents) that I was Not Amused and they should not expect such a tactic to work in Britain.

If one removed these six students from the cohort that year, the gender balance was equal: twelve girls, twelve boys. I couldn’t help wondering whether the three girls who had been excluded were as bright, and as likely to be dismissed, as Jane.

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[1] It was like a very smutty game of Boggle: the kid that initiated the discussion shouted ‘BASTARD!’ at the top of his voice and then looked horribly embarrassed.

[2] My own hoover is so heavy that sometimes I have to ask Giant Bear to carry it upstairs for me.

[3] Because I was under the (mistaken) impression that the students were deliberately wasting my time and therefore needed to be told off (and that it couldn’t hurt the other students to hear me doing so).

[4] I’d like to put ‘still’ in single quotation marks too here: they never started an activity that I would have described as ‘work’, and therefore ‘still’ isn’t any more accurate than ‘working’.

[5] The student had attempted to convey his love of his chosen subject (Architecture) by beginning his personal statement with the arresting sentence, ‘A boy like look lots of buildings every day’.

[6] I didn’t get a straight answer to the follow-up question, ‘did money change hands?’, annoyingly, but it would be entirely consistent with what I know of Chinese culture and the way in which parents in particular can be utterly ruthless.