A ten-year study of local rodents

For my fifteenth birthday, my parents gave me a copy of Arno Karlen’s book Plague’s Progress: A social history of man and disease. This is, as the title suggests, mainly concerned with the history of epidemics and pandemics, and how they occur (principally through a disease that is well-established in an animal species jumping the species barrier). It is prescient reading, and so I’ve just whipped through it again in a couple of evenings.[1] Having read and inwardly digested the central message of the book twenty-five years ago (i.e. LOOK OUT), some small part of me coiled itself up to wait, wondering when the next pandemic was going to be. A mere seven years later, the SARS outbreaks occurred, followed by swine ’flu shortly afterwards. The latter prevented me from going to China that year, but otherwise came as no surprise whatsoever. I read a sensible, well-researched book. Based on the evidence, the book predicted a thing; the thing came to pass. Why, then, is the current pandemic such a shock to the system?

One reason, and the idea I want to explore in this post, is the lack of a more meaningful connection between scientific research and policy. Here is a passage from Plague’s Progress in which Karlen explores an outbreak of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome in the Four Corners area in 1993:

a New Mexico biologist, Robert Parmenter, had just finished a ten-year study of local rodents. Heavy rain and snow the previous year had caused a rare abundance of piñon nuts and grasshoppers, staples of the deer mouse diet. When the animals’ food supply expands, they have bigger, more frequent litters and their population grows. From May 1992 to May 1993, deer mice had multiplied tenfold. As result, people were exposed far more than usual to the mice and their wastes. Late in the summer of 1993, the mouse population started to fall, and the hantavirus epidemic in humans waned.

Arno Karlen, Plague’s Progress (London: Victor Gollancz, 1995), p.172.

Notice four important things here. One, somebody (Dr. Parmenter and/or his funding body) decided that deer mice were interesting – so interesting, in fact, that they were prepared to study the little blighters for a decade. Two, somebody (Dr. Parmenter and/or his research team) noticed the explosion in the deer mouse population. He and his team had probably written at least one paper on the subject, including lots of meticulous stats and several photos of whiskery-faced mice looking both cute and harmless. Three, somebody – quite a few somebodies this time – knew that hantavirus was linked to human/mouse contact and it seems reasonable to suppose that this may even have been one of the reasons these mice were being studied in the first place. Stephen Porter devotes two entire pages of The Great Plague to speculating about rat populations in the 1660s, and while his various suggestions are convincingly argued, he has no rat-based data with which to support them.[2] Similarly, Roy Porter makes it clear in his medical history of humanity that one of the reasons we can’t say anything substantial about the rat populations in plague years is that ‘no-one had any reason to suspect rats’.[3] Karlen makes it very clear in the preceding pages that, in the case of hantavirus, the link to mice was known and the virus was sufficiently well understood that it had been placed into the correct family, alongside Bolivian haemorrhagic fever, which he describes as appearing in 1960 and ‘like the Argentine fever, but even deadlier.’[4] Four, notice how keen we are to pin these diseases down to a specific location in the way we name them. This nasty pox can’t have originated here, in our nice clean homes, we imply, but somewhere else, where people are less clean, less responsible and less white (although we might note in passing that there are infestations and infections, from nits to polio, that thrive on cleanliness). This is an attempt, I think, to shift the blame. Rather than focusing on (say) idiotic, irresponsible behaviour here (e.g. the delivery driver who yesterday tried to hand me his telephone, a thing he literally holds up to his face to make it work), it allows us to focus on there: some unfamiliar, barbaric place, where no doubt they do things differently and more dangerously. It is an attempt to make these diseases sound external, invasive, foreign and other. The obvious examples are of course Spanish ’flu (of which more later), German measles and various names for syphilis.[5] Karlen notes that,

People around the world named it for the nations they thought had infected them; in France it was the Italian disease … the Spanish disease in Holland, the Castilian disease in Portugal, the Polish disease in Russia, the Russian disease in Siberia, the German disease in Poland, the Christian disease in Turkey, the Turkish disease in Persia, and the Portuguese or Chinese disease in Japan. [Syphilis] became the most disowned infection in history.

Karlen, p.124. I am also reminded of Flanders and Swann at the end of the Song of Patriotic Prejudice: ‘it’s not that they’re stubborn or naturally bad/It’s knowing they’re foreign that makes them so mad.’

This is a tale as old as plagues themselves. Stephen Porter tells us that,

When the chronicler Henry Knighton described the origins of the Black Death in the 1340s, he noted that it had begun in India, spreading from there to Asia Minor and then infecting the Christian and Jewish populations.

Stephen Porter, The Great Plague (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2003), p.1.

Donald Trump’s idiotic label for this latest form of the coronavirus as ‘the Chinese virus’ is, therefore, entirely of a piece with the racism and othering that has been applied to infectious disease for centuries. However, as the syphilis example shows, the origins of a disease are rarely captured accurately or helpfully in its name. Karlen suggests, with reference to polio, that ‘officials responded … as they often do to puzzling new challenges by refighting their last war’[6] and perhaps we can read the current situation in the light of Brexit and other sources and/or expressions of racial tension around the world. British exceptionalism will not save us, as we blunder off into the night, mumbling ‘keep calm and something something’. I’m also getting pretty tired of the situation being described as a war or in warlike terms, given that what is currently required is calm, compassion and good sense (qualities not usually sought out or rewarded in wartime). Again, I read this as othering: wars are, after all, almost always fought against other nations.

We can find a whole load more racism in the efforts made to fight (by which I mean find someone to blame for) previous outbreaks of various diseases. For example, in her review of John Henderson’s book Florence Under Siege, Erin Maglaque speaks of Jews being ‘locked in the ghetto’ during the 1629 outbreak of the plague in Italy; Roy Porter of Jews being ‘penned up in a wooden building and burnt alive’.[7] In the many polio epidemics in the twentieth century across Europe, doctors, public health officials and parents were basically just guessing at how to prevent and treat the disease, and naturally turned on those they already viewed with hatred and suspicion. Karlen describes

a belief that dirt, and polio, were spread by the poor and foreign-born. Scientists and laymen alike feared that hordes of dirty, ignorant immigrants with primitive hygiene were infecting clean-living society. … polio was rare among poor blacks. Yet official attention stayed fixed on ethnic and racial slums.

Karlen, p.152.

In 1916, there was no test for polio, no vaccine and no effective treatment. There was also no idea of how it spread from one person to another. Polio appeared to strike at random (Karlen describes it as ‘evil lightning’)[8] and thus as well as People From Forn Parts, suspected causes included fomites (objects, door-handles, railings and so forth), dogs, cats, dirt, insects, Jews and swimming. In fact, polio is caused by a virus that occurs naturally in the intestines, and that only becomes troublesome when spread (via the fecal-oral route) into the mouth. In some people it will cause a mild infection; in others, the spinal cord will be affected, leading to lifelong paralysis. This explains why polio thrives in clean, warm places: in dirty homes, children are far more likely to be exposed to the virus at an early age, experience a short illness and thereafter immunity.[9]

To return to my comment that the relationship between research and policy is a problematic one, here is Karlen again, on the aforementioned Bolivian haemorrhagic fever:

When the epidemic peaked, in the mid-sixties, there were a thousand cases a year and hundreds of deaths. In one village, the ecological source of the disease became obvious. Spraying with DDT to prevent malaria had wiped out the village’s cats; mice multiplied, and human illness followed. Destroying the mice ended the epidemic in precisely two weeks, the virus’s incubation time.

Karlen, p.162.

A couple of things leap out at the contemporary reader here, I think. Firstly, we might recall the oft-repeated story of villagers suspecting cats to be carriers of the Black Death and killing them, thereby leaving flea-bearing rats and mice to proliferate in greater numbers. Stephen Porter describes the public health measures suggested by Sir Theodore de Mayerne (the king’s physician) in 1630, which including widening the net of death to include dogs, rats, mice and weasels.[10] Secondly, I notice that the people tasked with killing these creatures are (much like our teachers in certain parts of the gutter press) considered simultaneously vital and expendable here, especially since the dogs, cats and weasels that might have happily wiped out the rats had already been pointlessly executed. If we agree with Mayerne that rats needed to be killed (and from our modern perspective with the knowledge that rats carried the plague-bearing fleas, this seems like a sound idea), then being the person tasked with killing hundreds of hysterical rats seems like one of the crueller and more unusual death sentences: I’ve no idea how medieval rat-catchers killed rats, but I doubt it involved hand sanitizer or PPE. Thirdly, if it was established in the mid-sixties that deer mice could carry disease (and a very unpleasant, often deadly disease for which there was no treatment), why was the hantavirus outbreak in Four Corners thirty years later such a surprise, given that it coincided with a tenfold increase in the deer mouse population?[11] Presumably, alarm bells rang for Dr. Parmenter as he documented the massive increase in the number of deer mice. “Gosh”, he probably said to himself, “all those mice rushing about the place is going to increase the possibility of humans catching hantavirus! Thank goodness my university and/or funding body employed me to monitor their population! I should tell someone!” I imagine he thought more or less exactly that, but there was no Deer Mouse Hotline with a big brown flashing handset and Bakelite mouse-ears. The paper I imagined earlier, probably called something like ‘Piñon nuts and grasshoppers: On the population of deer mouse (Peromyscus sp.) in the Four Corners area’ no doubt exists, but it doesn’t even make it into the references for Karlen’s chapter: the best I could do was a summary of the original paper. I wonder how many people read Parmenter’s paper before the outbreak of hantavirus. I wonder how many of those people understood what it meant for human health. Look up the deer mouse and you will discover almost immediately that it is a reservoir of both hantavirus and Lyme disease, and that Peromyscus is the most commonly-used rodent species used in scientific research. No wonder the hantavirus jumped the species barrier: the power of irony compelled it.

Thirdly, there is the reference to spraying (spraying, for God’s sake) with DDT, again, in the mid-sixties. Why in God’s name was anyone doing anything with DDT in the mid-sixties, given that Silent Spring was published in 1962? Silent Spring, in glassy, beautifully controlled prose, did not so much debunk the indiscriminate use of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides as hack it to pieces and hurl the mangled remains onto a fire, much as Damiens the regicide is dismembered in the opening pages of Discipline and Punish. Rachel Carson builds her (absolutely watertight) case with great skill and persuasion. One is both frightened and utterly convinced well before the end of the first chapter. Why, then, does Ernest Shackleton describe the book as ‘brilliant and controversial’? What could possibly be controversial about warning both the public and the policy-makers that substances being merrily used to hose down homes, gardens, people and crops were highly poisonous to both man and beast? The answer is, of course, that it was more convenient to pretend that it wasn’t so. This, too, is as old as time: Maglaque notes that in early modern Bologna ‘officials had forbidden people to discuss the peste, as it they feared you could summon death with a word’ (nope: that’s Candyman).

Silent Spring is riddled with the lack of connection between research and policy (or perhaps the failure of policy-makers to take research seriously). For example, in Chapter 8 we meet Professor George Wallace and his grad student John Mehner, who was doing a PhD on robins in 1954. Much like Dr. Robert Parmenter and the deer mice, Mehner was uniquely well-placed to comment on the almost total lack of young robins after the elm trees in which the robins lived were sprayed with DDT. DDT is incredibly poisonous to both worms and the things that eat worms (including robins: Wallace reports mortality of 86-88%); and even small doses of DDT destroy the reproductive capacity of those that survive, creating eggs that refuse to hatch at all, or eggs with shells so thin that they either break prematurely or cause the baby birds to bake to death under the warm bodies of their brooding parents. The Cranbrook Institute of Science (Michigan)

asked in 1956 that all birds though to be victims of DDT poisoning be turned in to the institute for examination. … Within a few weeks the deep-freeze facilities of the institute were taxed to capacity, so that other specimens had to be refused … sixty-three different species were included among the specimens examined at the institute.

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1964), p.89.

One of the many criticisms levelled at doctoral research is that one spends four years researching and writing something that eight people will read and only five will care about (a criticism that is not without validity). In this case, however, Carson goes out of her way to make it clear that people did care about the dead robins, noting that citizens ‘show a keener understanding of the dangers and inconsistencies of spraying than do the officials who order it to be done.’[12] In other words, while the good people of Michigan might not have found the time to read Mehner’s thesis, they were certainly interested in the dead birds piling up in their gardens (‘one woman calling the institute reported twelve robins lying dead on her lawn as she spoke’) and they also knew that the appropriate thing to do with that information was to pass it on to a scientist.[13] Not every thesis is as carefully situated in the wider context as it might be, but as we can see from the quotation above, it was perfectly clear that the problem was not robin-specific, and that none of the researchers working on it thought it was.

Karlen says, ‘[u]nderstanding ecology means not just sympathy for whales and owls but an appreciation of the entire biota, from humans to weeds to the smallest microscopic parasite’.[14] Similarly, Shackleton writes in the Introduction to Silent Spring that the book is ‘not merely about poisons; it is about ecology or the relation of plants and animals to their environment and to one another.’[15] The remainder of Carson’s exposition of the DDT/robins example in Michigan is as follows:

The robins, then, are only one part of the chain of devastation linked to the spraying of the elms, even as the elm programme is only one of the multitudinous spray programmes that cover our land with poisons.

Carson, pp.89-90.

She lays out over the next few pages the various species, from spruce beetles to screech owls, poisoned and rendered infertile by the spraying of elms against Dutch elm disease. Finally, we reach the devastating conclusion:

Spraying is killing the birds but it is not saving the elms … a drought year brought conditions especially favourable to the beetle [that carries a fungus that is the ultimate cause of Dutch elm disease] and the mortality of elms went up 1000%.

Carson, p.94.

Carson then outlines how, with patience and rigour, scientists in New York established a programme of destroying infected trees and ‘beetle-breeding material’ that actually fucking worked, cost far less than spraying with DDT and didn’t kill anything other than the beetles. Three hundred years earlier, as the plague spread across Europe, Maglaque notes that Florentine officials ‘wrote anxiously to their colleagues in Milan, Verona, Venice, in the hope that studying the pattern of contagion would help them protect their city.’ It’s almost as if information is our best weapon against death and destruction, everyone.

If early modern Italians knew that knowledge was power, my question is this: why do we no longer believe this? If we no longer believe this, what the fuck is the point of research? What is the point of universities? Universities generate knowledge and pass it on. That is the whole reason they exist. Universities are often unclear about their own objectives, including what their top priorities should be: you may notice that institutions in the Russell Group like to describe themselves as ‘research intensive’, but whenever we ask for money, it is the young minds in our care that we wheel out, rather than the latest ugly capital building project or pointless HR initiative that has actually soaked up the funding. Nevertheless, for our purposes here, I am going to take universities at their word that research is somewhere near the top of a list of Things We Do. It seems clear to me that, as outlined above, relevant research is being done. Yet the information – important information, that took work and time to acquire – is frequently ignored, misunderstood, twisted or minimised. Karlen spends most of his introduction explaining the difficulty he had in getting his book published at all:

Almost twenty years ago [i.e. in 1975, for fuck’s sake], I told friends that I was thinking of writing a book about why so many new diseases were emerging. Most of my friends were puzzled. A few asked if I meant Legionnaire’s disease and Lyme disease, both of which had lately appeared. I said yes, those and many others … No publisher was interested. I was told this could only interest specialists.

Karlen, p.2.

I cannot grasp why a funding body would think it a good use of time and money to send someone out into the field to study mice for ten years without a coherent understanding of when and how that research might be valuable – and it could have been extremely valuable to the 32 people that died horribly in the Four Corners hantavirus outbreak, a disease with a mortality rate of 60%. Karlen is acutely aware of the need to research this stuff, learning from the past as we go (surely the task of both researchers and policy-makers). He has much to say here about influenza pandemics, primarily those in 1889 and 1918 (there were several earlier ones). The numbers are quite staggering. Here’s Karlen on the 1889 outbreak, which was ‘the first to move with the speed of trains and steamships, [and which] killed 250,000 people in Europe alone.’[16] Compare those figures to these from 1918. Humanity appeared to have learnt precisely zero about how to prevent or treat influenza in the intervening thirty years:

Influenza deaths reported in the United States numbered 550,000, ten times the nation’s death toll in World War I. Many cases went unreported; the real total may be as many as 650,000. One can only guess at how many died in such badly ravaged countries as India. The global mortality, usually given as 20 million, may have been 30 or even 40 million. World War I killed 15 million people in four years; flu killed perhaps twice that number in six months. Even bubonic plague did not kill so many people so fast.

Karlen, p.144.

Notice that the Black Death is well-known to every schoolchild, even though a) influenza killed far more people; and b) influenza is far more likely to kill somebody known to that schoolchild than bubonic plague. Stephen Porter touches on the same idea, noting in the final pages of his book on the Great Plague of 1665-6 that

[t]he physical manifestations of plague [i.e. buboes, blotches under the skin, vomiting, delusions etc.] and the high levels of mortality among those infected made it one of the most feared of diseases, attracting attention in a way that other large-scale killers, such as influenza, did not.

Stephen Porter, p.130.

Karlen recognises this, but I think what he’s really upset about here is the same thing that is bothering me: the failure of policy-makers to plan for the next epidemic.

[This was] was one of the worst disasters in history and it holds puzzles for virologists and historians today. Their questions are more than academic. If another such virus should emerge – and many researchers expect it will – we may be little better equipped to fight it than people were in 1918 … The 1918 flu pandemic continues to recede from memory. Curiously, medicine was not blamed for failing to prevent 50 million deaths from flu and typhus in the world’s last huge pre-AIDS pandemics…. It seems that, in the 1920s, the country saw its present and future not in the unsolved, lethal forces of typhus and flu but in the rescue of children from infectious diseases.

Karlen, p.144 and p.147. The rescue he is talking about involved huskies dashing across Alaska to deliver diptheria antitoxin in 1925.

Now we come full circle, to the current pandemic (again, by way of early modern Italy). Here is Arno Karlen again, and again I remind the reader that he was writing twenty-five years ago:

in the middle of the fourteenth century came the worst disaster in human history, the second bubonic plague pandemic, the Black Death. It had the usual precursor, a Malthusian crisis of rising population, strained resources and environmental change.

Karlen, p.86.

Note that phrase, ‘the usual precursor’. It should not be remotely surprising that fucking about with nature and squandering resources leads to new and exciting ways to die. Maglaque notes that ‘Florentines flouted the quarantine in ways that were both petty and risky … [they] understood the dangers, but gambled with their lives anyway: out of boredom, desire, habit, grief.’ Unlike Venice, where one in three people died from the plague, and Milan where it was nearly one in two, in seventeenth-century Florence, one in eight people died from the plague. The quarantine measures undertaken in Florence that saved so many lives are recognisable as what we now call ‘lockdown’, a term we have all started using as if it has been part of our vocabulary for years (see also ‘prorogation’). Medical advice is usually kindly meant and generously given, but that wasn’t always the case, and the public were just as reluctant to do as they were asked in early modern Florence as they are now in contemporary Britain.

The epigraph to Silent Spring is a quotation from Albert Schweitzer, which reads ‘Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth.’[17] I normally flinch at that use of ‘Man’ to refer to all of humanity, but in this case I think perhaps Rachel Carson intends us to read the gender as it stands. Virginia Woolf argues in Three Guineas (another controlled, raging piece of non-fiction) that one of the reasons the world continually lurches from crisis to crisis (she’s speaking specifically about warfare, but again I think the point stands) is that women aren’t at the decision-making table. Female politicians in the UK have been conspicuous by their absence since the pandemic began (so much so that Woman’s Hour recently asked where on earth they all were). I wonder if somebody somewhere decided that the general public would find it reassuring to see a load of exhausted men running the country, as if all the Men Who Always Sound Tired in The Archers had quietly conducted a coup d’etat.[18]

Jacinda Ardern has implemented public health measures that have so far not so much flattened the curve as crushed it altogether: at the time of writing, the offical death-toll from coronavirus in New Zealand is one. In Britain, nearly a thousand people died (again, officially) yesterday alone. Let’s recall here the criticism of Hillary Clinton as ‘too prepared’; Elizabeth Warren’s famously meticulous and detailed plans, including one that she released to combat coronavirus in fucking January; and Stacey Abrams being shut out of the governorship of Georgia in favour of Brian Kemp. Kemp is a late entrant in the competition our male leaders seem to be having right now as to Who Can Be The Most Like Larry Vaughn (the mayor of Amity Island in Jaws), but Kemp might be ahead by a nose since he did just literally open some beaches. You may have missed Boris Johnson declaring Larry Vaughn to be the hero of Jaws and in the article I’ve linked to the writer urges us all to watch Jaws 2[19], in which Larry Vaughn is still mayor and still doesn’t believe in sharks. That’s not what happens in the original story, however: Peter Benchley’s Larry Vaughn is devastated by the deaths that are the result of his own hubris, losing weight, his fortune and his self-respect in rapid succession and eventually crawling quietly out of town a broken man. However, you shouldn’t watch Jaws 2. It’s terrible. I also urge you not to watch Jaws 3-D or Jaws 4: The Revenge or Jaws 5: Cruel Jaws or Sharknado or Sharknado 2: The Second One or Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No or Sharknado 4: The 4th Awakens or Sharknado 5: Global Swarming or Sharknado 6: The Last Sharknado or Deep Blue Sea or Deep Blue Sea 2 or Three-Headed Shark Attack or Five-headed Shark Attack or Six-Headed Shark Attack or Bait 3-D[20] or The Reef or Frenzy or Shark Night 3-D or 47 Metres Down or The Shallows or The Meg or Piranha Sharks or Toxic Shark or Jurassic Shark or Sand Sharks or Sky Sharks or Avalanche Sharks or Snow Shark: Ancient Snow Beast or Ghost Shark or Ghost Shark 2: Urban Jaws or any of the other fucking moronic Jaws rip-offs in this strangely crowded sub-sub-sub-genre. If you want to watch a film with a shark in it, try Jaws (spoiler alert: it’s not really about the shark).

It may seem that I have wandered off the point into a shark-infested backwater, but if you actually watch any of these films (and again, I don’t recommend that you do), you will see a set of familiar, tired stereotypes that are relevant here. Men, filled with rage and violence, but allowed in these oddly specific circumstances to unleash that rage and violence upon sharks, symbols of everything men both admire and fear. Women (by which I mean bikini-clad twenty-five-year-olds without surnames), screaming, taking their clothes off and falling into water for no good reason. Each of these braindead films has led in its own tiny, stupid way to the endangering of every species of shark; Peter Benchley spent much of his life attempting to undo the harm that he felt Jaws had done, but of course Jaws wasn’t the problem. These sub-Jaws films show sharks as huge, terrifying, voracious and unstoppable by any sensible means: generic serial killers, perpetually armed and with no tedious psychology to worry about. Just as the indiscriminate spraying of DDT to save a few elm trees as described above was a massive, disproportionate and destructive over-reaction, notice how these unfeasibly large film-sharks can only be killed by some kind of hastily improvised, highly unlikely and ultra-violent means: electrocution (Jaws 2), nuclear explosion (The Meg) or whatever (any and all of the Sharknado films). In short, we are back to the warfare metaphors I mentioned above, improvisation rather than planning, and narrow, shallow roles for women.

Why do we keep electing mediocre white men? Because so much of our culture tells us that mediocre white men are the answer to every problem. Why do we keep making excuses for them (see Brexit, pursued by a bear)? It’s as if the crew of a starship were offered a choice of Janeway or a semi-sentient potato to captain them through a series of unknown crises, and choose potato after potato because Janeway isn’t ‘likeable’. We could so easily have elected leaders that would been up to dealing with the pandemic. It’s neither fanciful nor unfair to say that our leaders could and should have made informed, well-researched contingency plans for this scenario: the fin has been slicing through the water for centuries. My colleague Prof. Gary Foster has been banging on about pandemics for decades, both in lectures and on Twitter. Literally everyone who studies infectious diseases knew this was coming. All their students knew this was coming. Arno Karlen knew this was coming and so did I. Our leaders did not.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

[1] This meant taking a holiday from Clive James’s massive tome Cultural Amnesia, a book I have now been reading for several weeks. Even here, I have found ideas relevant to our current situation, including this rather lovely echo of social distancing in James’s essay on Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: ‘Lichtenberg’s innumerable observations add up to a single demonstration of his guiding principle: that there is such a thing as ‘the right distance.’’ Clive James, Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the margin of my time (London: Picador, 2012), p.380.

[2] Stephen Porter, The Great Plague (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2003), pp.126-127.

[3] Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A medical history of humanity from antiquity to the present (London: Harper Collins, 1997), p.125

[4] Arno Karlen, Plague’s Progress (London: Victor Gollancz, 1995), p.162.

[5] Fracastorius was both the first physician to describe the disease and the first poet to write about it in any detail. He did this with great enthusiasm in the poem Syphilis suve morbus gallicus (‘Syphilis, or the French disease’).

[6] Karlen, p.151.

[7] Erin Maglaque, ‘Inclined to Putrefaction’, London Review of Books, vol. 42, no. 4, 20th February 2020; Roy Porter, p.125. Porter notes that Jews were also accused to poisoning wells, an accusation levelled at ethnic Koreans in the aftermath of the 1923 Kantō earthquake in Japan. In reality, the wells were cloudy because of the turbidity caused by the earthquake, but as in the plague example, apparently any excuse to turn on one’s neighbours will do.

[8] Karlen, p.149.

[9] We think of polio as a child’s disease because distressing images of small children in iron lungs and callipers were used to raise money for treatment and research (such as in the March of Dimes campaign), but polio is in fact more likely to be dangerous in adults. Michael Flanders, for example, contracted polio as a healthy twenty-one year-old.

[10] Stephen Porter, p.15. Elsewhere in the book, Porter mentions pigs being killed rather than allowed to wander the streets, a medieval attitude to feral hogs that was new to me and that puts an interesting slant on those charming videos of boar roaming through deserted Italian streets.

[11] Peromyscus (‘the booted mouse’ in Greek) refers to the pattern of fur, in which the underside and feet are a pale colour, while the rest of the mouse is darker, giving the impression that the mouse is wearing boots (or possibly socks to modern eyes).

[12] Carson, p.93.

[13] Carson, p.89.

[14] Karlen, p.229.

[15] Ernest Shackleton, introduction to Silent Spring, p.xiii.

[16] Karlen, p.86.

[17] Carson, p.vi.

[18] Clearly, the only character in The Archers remotely qualified to act as benign dictator was Nigel. I’ve always hated The Archers, but ever since Nigel was pointlessly hurled to his death, nothing beyond the first three bars is tolerated in this house.

[19] Yes, I did completely ruin my YouTube search history adding in all those trailers for you. I regret nothing.

[20] Don’t waste your time on Bait (by which I mean the 2012 Australian horror film about a shark in a flooded supermarket). You might, however, enjoy Bait (by which I mean the 2019 film about Cornish fisherman finally having enough of all the fucking second-homers), even though it doesn’t have any sharks in it.

Things to make and do with a fake P45

Theresa May is, in my view, a cold, mean woman and a poor Prime Minister. However, she is also (on the balance of probability) a person, doing an important and difficult job, not very well. I think she knows she’s not doing it very well, because I’ve also done jobs that were, in their local context at least, important and difficult, and at which I was poor. I understand that haunted, gaunt look on Theresa May’s face and her unsteady voice: these are the features of someone who knows they suck at their job.

Do you know what I did when I realised I was in a job I wasn’t any good at? I quit, and let someone more competent take over. Theresa May seems to feel that she has to stay in post, maybe because the alternatives are just too awful too contemplate. This week someone at the Conservative Party Conference actually said on live radio that he thought Boris Johnson would make a good Prime Minister.[1] I know people have been saying that for years, but this fool said it after the British Foreign Secretary made light of civil war in Libya and and after he recited the opening lines of ‘The Road to Mandalay’ in the Shwedagon Pagoda (the holiest Buddhist site in Yangon).[2] Imagine the fuss if a Burmese diplomat spontaneously recited a poem in his native language, protesting about the hundred-odd years of British occupation perhaps and maybe including a bunch of sexually inappropriate suggestions, while visiting Westminster Abbey on behalf of his nation. Imagine also, if you will, how politics in Britain might change if we all stopped pretending that an Oxford education (or a tendency to make jokes in Latin, or a liking for Eton and governesses, or a total lack of respect for other cultures) makes a person special, clever or eccentric. Boris Johnson does a good impression of a Very Clever person, but doesn’t have the wit or humility to acknowledge that he is deeply mediocre. The same applies to Jacob Rees-Mogg, a man so clearly convinced of his own sense of entitlement that I sometimes comfort myself in the small hours by imagining bizarre deaths that might befall him (see also evil sock-puppet Michael Gove). Since I first wrote this blog post, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson has managed to (yet again) say the wrong thing about a British woman currently in an Iranian prison on trumped up espionage charges, suggesting that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran ‘teaching journalism’. No, she wasn’t. She was on holiday. The Iranian government are now using this information to support fresh charges and there is every chance her sentence will be extended. If you go to the Independent article I’ve linked to above, for the next few days you can hear disgraced former defence secretary Dr. Liam Fox MP for yourself, defending Boris Johnson’s ‘slip of the tongue’ and suggesting that people shouldn’t ‘overreact’.

If, while taking money to do a job I was terrible at, someone had handed me a fake P45 (even in jest), I’d have seen it as fair comment. If, however, one has confidence in one’s ability and knows that one is just taking some time to find one’s feet, then being handed a fake P45 in public isn’t a problem. It’s a gift. Much as I dislike Theresa May’s policies, I hate to see a woman (any woman, but a woman in public life particularly) miss an opportunity to humiliate a man who is trying to humiliate her. Here, then, are some things to make and do with a fake P45:

i. Take fake P45; crack weak joke; finish speech; cry about it later in conference venue toilets. Listen to moron who does your old job being interviewed on evening radio describe breath-takingly inadequate security as ‘disappointing’ and respond to the question ‘what if he had been carrying acid?’ with ‘well, he wasn’t.’[3] Google ‘acid attack’; ponder own mortality; cry some more in Downing Street toilet.

ii. Ignore man attempting to hand you fake P45. Pause speech only to say, ‘If that man isn’t removed immediately, I’m going to make whoever is in charge of security come up here and explain to the class how this person was allowed to get within touching distance of the Prime Minister.’ Wait in stony silence for security to remove P45 Man. Finish speech.

iii. Take fake P45, screw it into a ball and bounce it off P45 Man’s face. Dust hands. Finish speech.

iv. Take fake P45. Walk back to podium and announce that you are firing your current bodyguard. Point out that P45 Man could have been carrying acid, and show you’re capable of going off script and familiar with your own legislation by reiterating the new regulations being brought in to make acid attacks more difficult, thus both protecting the victims of acid attacks and pissing off Amber Rudd, who already announced them.[4] Have epiphany that Amber Rudd is a moron and fire her too.

v. Take fake P45. Walk back to podium and explain that this P45 has reached you by mistake, and was intended for the Foreign Secretary. In fact, this has just reminded you that Boris Johnson deserves to be fired, right now on live television, because of, among other things, the hateful thing he just said about the civil war in Libya and his tone-deaf impromptu poetry recital in Yangon. Note that you are not going to fire him, however, because the whole Brexit fiasco is at least partly his fault, and you expect him to help clear up the mess he has made. Explain that foreign wars are not opportunities for British businesses to exploit, and that representing one’s nation requires one to have some idea of history, context and courtesy. Declare that Johnson will, therefore, not be going on any further foreign trips until he has demonstrated to your satisfaction that he can leave the country without embarrassing it. Apologise unreservedly to the people of Libya and Myanmar. Finish speech.

vi. Take fake P45. Walk back to podium. Announce, in coldest, most menacing tone, ‘It’s a fake P45, everyone. Let me show you what I think of that.’ Tear it into bite-sized pieces and eat it. Take your time over this. Freestyle rest of speech, announcing whatever the fuck you like. Never worry about leadership challenges ever again. Bonus: any subsequent throat problems can be blamed on the fact that you literally just ate that fucker’s joke.

vii. Take fake P45. Walk back to podium. Commenting that you intend to treat this gesture with the dignity it deserves, fold fake P45 into jaunty hat. Put hat on. As P45 Man is removed by security, remove hat and fold it into a paper aeroplane. ‘Accidentally’ release paper aeroplane into the crowded auditorium in such a way that Jacob Rees-Mogg is fatally wounded in the eye and bleeds out as you finish your speech. When prompted in post-speech interviews to comment on this tragic and yet deeply satisfying end, describe the incident as ‘disappointing’.

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[1] Until the end of October, you can listen to this buffoon for yourself on PM via iPlayer (starts just before the 18-minute mark), but the burden of his song is that Boris Johnson appeals to young people (?), whom it is hoped will learn to ‘aspire to the Conservative way of life’ (??).

[2] ‘The Road to Mandalay’ is Kipling in full colonial fig, speaking from the point of view of a retired soldier reflecting on his time in Burma (as it was then). It refers to Yangon throughout as Rangoon (as it was known under British colonial rule), describes the Buddha (again, I remind the reader that Boris Johnson was in a Buddhist temple) as ‘an ’eathen idol’, and a ‘Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud/ Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd’, and suggests that the soldier persuaded a Burmese girl to stop ‘a-wasting Christian kisses’ on the Buddha’s statue by kissing her himself. Fortunately, the British ambassador was able to intervene before Boris had got much further than the fourth line (‘Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!’, which is quite bad enough). I suggest that the British ambassador shouldn’t have to educate the Foreign Secretary as to how to be a diplomat, or to point out that they’re in a Buddhist temple (it’s huge and covered in gold). For such a thoroughly educated man, he is extraordinarily ignorant.

[3] Amber Rudd didn’t even manage to use the question as an opportunity to talk about the legislation she had just announced (again, you can listen to her excuse of an interview via iPlayer for the next few days, from 20 minutes 45 onwards). She could so easily have said, ‘I can’t comment on the specifics of this security breach, but I’m glad you mentioned acid attacks. Acid attacks are very serious, and I just announced a bunch of regulations that will make it harder for people to carry them out.’ It also suggests that Amber Rudd doesn’t understand hypotheticals. What if Jacob Rees-Mogg was run over by a float at gay pride? What if his face was eaten by owls? What if he choked on a quill pen? What if he was smothered in vellum? What if he was wounded in a freak paper aeroplane accident? Well, he wasn’t. So far, Amber Rudd. So far.

[4] The majority of the new acid regulations are pretty sensible and supported by the research, but the age restriction (it will no longer be legal for those under the age of eighteen to purchase acid) gave me pause, because it’s so bloody Tory. They court the youth vote with all that stuff about student loans and home ownership, but they don’t understand them (see above for the ‘young people like Boris’ bullshit), and they can’t help but show their fundamental fear and hatred of young people (see Bing-bong!).

Bing-bong!

The general election reminds me of the one and only time I have been door-stepped by a political representative. I have touched on this briefly before (see Brexit, pursued by a bear), but here it is again in all its glorious detail. The candidate was from the British National Party, and looked every inch of it: sweaty, middle-aged, red-faced. He had been squeezed into a cheap suit and then partially lynched with an offensive tie, before staggering into my front garden where I was pruning a hedge, and demanding I listen to his views on immigration. Predictably, and while casually holding a nice sharp pair of shears, I told him to fuck off back to where he came from. Nearly ten years later, this still fills me with a lovely warm feeling of a job well done. I also I find myself wondering why this heart-warming experience has been an isolated one. Unlike our (awful, recently departed)[1] neighbour, I always answer the doorbell when it rings. Bing-bong! It’s a parcel! Bing-bong! It’s the LRB! Bing-bong! It’s our horrible neighbour collecting a parcel I’ve taken for her because she doesn’t answer the fucking doorbell! She takes it from me without thanks and the Hound growls at her deep in his throat. Usually I tell him off for growling at people and warn them that he’s snappy at the moment because his teeth are hurting, but frankly she can take her chances. She doesn’t answer the doorbell because she’s disconnected it, on the grounds that ‘it makes the dogs bark.’ After three years of listening to the damn things bark at literally anything at all times of the day and night, I wonder if she’s considered making the barking stop by simply hitting them with a frying pan for a bit? Another option would be to leave them alone with our Tiny Hound in a locked room for an hour: they’re twice his size and there are two of them, but a. he would have the element of surprise, and b. he knows how much I hate those dogs. He also knows that if he were to kill them, he’d be allowed to shit on the carpet twice a day for the rest of his life, and I’d clear it up cheerfully, saying, ‘yeah, but you killed those dogs that lived next door! Remember when you borked them to death, ripped their ears off and then partially buried them? Who’s a good dog? Who’s a good dog?’ This may explain, then, why the woman next door doesn’t get door-stepped (‘wait. Why doesn’t this doorbell go bing-bong?’ <silence>), but what about me? I’ve been eligible to vote for twenty years, work from home almost every day and have never voted for either of the two main parties. Why haven’t I been door-stepped more often?

The first and most obvious theory is that I have spent the majority of my life living in safe seats. At the time of my encounter with the Person from Get The Fuck Out Of My Garden, I lived in a safe Conservative seat. Indeed, I have lived in several safe Conservative seats, including those represented by Michael Heseltine, John Major and disgraced former defence secretary Dr. Liam Fox MP.[2] Currently, we live in yet another safe Conservative seat: at the 2015 election, the sitting MP won by a margin of over 14,000 votes, and the candidate in second place represented UKIP (and got over 10,000 votes).[3] Brilliantly, the website of my MP still reads ‘the next general election will be in May 2020’; he’s spelt his own name wrong on another page; and the page on which one is encouraged to contact him to raise issues (‘Your listening MP’) includes an enormous picture of his own ear. And, really, why the hell not? He now has a majority of 16,000 votes! He can do exactly what he likes, including not bothering to doorstep anyone at all; and the other parties know they would do better to concentrate their efforts in other, more closely-fought seats.

My second theory is that it may be genetic in some way. My mother loathed being door-stepped by anyone, and Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular. She once tipped a bucket of water over some people who knocked on the door to ask her if she’d thought about the fate of her immortal soul at all. I was nine or ten years old, off school with a tummy bug, and she had just finished clearing up a load of vomit (i.e. it wasn’t very clean water). Perhaps her reputation has somehow attached itself to me and I am on some kind of list of People Who Should Not Be Bothered?

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My third theory relates to the Hound. Even for a Russel Terrier, he is very small (around eighteen inches from nose to tail), but now that he’s recovered from recent surgery on his teeth[4] his bark is really quite something. He sounds really very much larger and more aggressive than he actually is. His bark says ‘I’LL BITE YER FACE ORF!’, but last night while we watched the election coverage, he fell asleep contentedly on my chest and only woke up when Giant Bear and I high-fived each other over the first few results from the north-east. Perhaps potential door-steppers (here comes the door-stepper!) hear him barking his Big Boy Bark and go to ring the bell of the horrible woman next door instead. Good luck with that, Potential Door-Stepper. She probably won’t answer the door, and if she does, you’ll have to actually talk to her.

I found it fascinating how little Brexit was discussed meaningfully during this campaign. Fox-hunting was suddenly a live issue again for no reason whatever, but it seems that Brexit is just an embarrassing thing that we’re all sick to death of, eyeing it doubtfully much as one might consider a painful, distasteful but necessary operation that one had foolishly brought upon oneself: the removal of an enormous but ill-considered tattoo, for example, or the amputation of a gangrenous limb, although of course it is Britain that will be chopped off and discarded. I’m still furious that the referendum went the way it did, and on reflection I think it’s perfectly OK to be furious with people who voted Leave: some of them at least were, objectively, stupid.[5] Some of them at least were taken in by the lies that were told, and there is no way of telling who was and wasn’t persuaded by that misinformation; as I’ve written before (see Brexit, pursued by a bear), it’s very hard to know why we think what we think or why we vote the way we do, but this nonsense must have had some kind of effect. The slim margin of victory is also bonkers: we recently asked the members of our choir if they wanted to tweak the concert dress, and *all* the things we considered to be binding in the Sub-Committee Of Telling Grown-Up Women How to Dress (I was the mole on the inside) had to have at least a two-thirds majority. In other words, we’re going to leave the EU based on a margin that wouldn’t be sufficient to enact change in your average golf club. More mortifying to me (and more relevant to my argument here) is the cynical way in which the Leave campaign was run. Clearly they didn’t expect to win; clearly they didn’t expect people (or at least, not enough people to change the result) to believe the nonsense they were spouting, which then allowed them to go on spouting it with clear consciences; and clearly they have no idea whatever how to handle the absurd situation we find ourselves in.

Most astonishing of all is that, of all people, Theresa May failed to learn from David Cameron’s fatal mistake, which is that you should never take the electorate for granted. You don’t know how they’re going to vote. If you think you do, why are you asking them? What do you think voting is? She also failed to learn the following from the Leave campaign’s mistakes (and there were plenty, even if we leave aside the whole winning-when-we-didn’t-really-want-to thing): make a fucking plan. It might not go the way you think it will. We know that she seems to have spontaneously lost her judgement because a. here we are, after all; and b. let us not forget that one of her first acts as Prime Minister was to make Boris Johnson Foreign Secretary, a role he is so breathtakingly unqualified for that it almost defies belief. It’s in the same category as Tony Blair becoming a peace envoy to the Middle East, which I still think must be satire.[6] What next? George W. Bush writing a book[7] received by critics as a cogent and thoughtful comment on our times? Putin releasing a range of vegan ready-meals?

These, and other such mad things, have left me tired and cynical. Therefore, my fourth and final theory for my lack of door-stepping is this: everyone over the age of thirty is tired. We’re tired of talking about politics (and hearing about it on the radio, in the pub, at work and on the TV), but also we’re just tired. We’re too tired to ring doorbells (bing-bong! ‘Fuck off!’), and we’re too tired to answer them (bing-bong! ‘Fuck off!’). Yes, people could throw themselves into campaigning in my constituency in the hope of removing Ear Photography Guy, but it’s just too much effort, not very well spent. I teach at a university and so am well aware how brilliant young people are, but it’s worth saying that young people are particularly brilliant in three specific ways: (i) they don’t like being talked down to; (ii) they don’t read tabloids; and (iii) they aren’t knackered yet. They still have the energy to get excited about the possibility of change; to ring and answer doorbells; to have someone tell them to fuck off and not mind too much (the BNP guy really minded). I listened to an interview with someone from the University of Kent yesterday, in which she explained how student volunteers had knocked on doors in the run-up to the election asking students if they were registered to vote (and helping them to register if they weren’t). They also explained to students who didn’t know that they were allowed to register in either their home or university constituency, along with a hundred other things that helped get the vote out. That seat (Canterbury) is now a Labour seat, for the first time in a hundred years, with a winning margin of 187 votes. Young people did that.

In the last few days of the election campaign, I wondered if any of the opposition parties might consider posting huge pictures of Theresa May looking disappointed and chastened (possibly standing forlornly in a field of wheat, possibly not), with the simple caption ‘imagine her face’. Gentle reader, even though she won, she’s making that face right now. She’s dreading the sound of her doorbell (I doubt the doorbell at 10 Downing Street goes bing-bong, but indulge me). Young people did that, too. Bravo.

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[1] Departed from the house, I mean, rather than departed this mortal plane, which I guess will have to do.

[2] I refer to him this way as per this brilliant article by Jonn Eledge in The New Statesman, and as per my own rules about never, ever letting powerful people off the hook (see Punch drunk).

[3] This time around, the UKIP guy finished a poor third with about 2,000 or so, and the candidate in second place represented Labour, who received around 16,000 votes. Silver linings?

[4] Sedating our tiny Hound (see Dog Days and Nothing but a Hound Dog) for his most recent operation took twenty minutes. He’s so scared of vets that he climbed onto my shoulder, jumped off the bench four times, hid behind me, up my skirt and under the chair and even tried to get into my handbag, wailing piteously the whole time. Getting the needle into him required three people, two towels and two syringes (he bent the first one). Anyone that says they can subdue an animal larger than a domestic cat gently and single-handed (Exhibit A: Born Free) is a liar.

[5] It is also OK to be furious with people who voted Trump because WHAT THE FUCK WERE THEY THINKING? There was, however, a lot of anger directed at various sub-categories of Trump voters (e.g. white women), and while that’s entirely reasonable (because WHAT THE FUCK WERE THEY THINKING?), the people I am most angry with are people who didn’t vote at all. Have you seen this chart? It shows how ‘did not vote’ would have played as a third party and, honestly, it blows my mind.

[6] Speaking of Boris Johnson, I am reminded that President Trump has, for much of his time in office, worn much the same expression as Boris Johnson the day after the Brexit vote. Clearly, Trump didn’t actually expect to win, doesn’t want to do the job (unless he can make a fuckton of money from it and carry on going to rallies where people cheer his every mangled sentence) and literally doesn’t understand politics, the presidency or basic English. Well, I never expected to fall in love with a creature that licks its own arsehole when it thinks no-one is looking, but here we both are. Suck it up.

[7] George W. Bush reading a book (or using the word ‘cogent’ correctly in a sentence) would be almost as astonishing.

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.

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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).

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‘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.’ Naturally one doesn’t actually deserve love, but it is given freely anyway, and that is precisely what makes it so wonderful. 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’).

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The students gave us T-shirts as gifts at the end of the week (among other things), suitably vandalised with messages and caricatures, including this one.

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.

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[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 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 here: ‘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 episodes 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 ‘sent’: 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 non-Member of Parliament Nigel Farage failed (again) to win a seat at the last general election! A terrible overall result, but at least non-Member of Parliament Nigel 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, non-Member of Parliament Nigel Farage and the like get away with it because they aren’t appealing to people’s thoughts, but their feelings. Non-Member of Parliament Nigel Farage tells people who already agree with him that 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 non-Member of Parliament Nigel 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 Trump,[9] Gove, Johnson and non-Member of Parliament Nigel Farage very clever, then, or are the people that listen to them very stupid? The answer is, I think, neither. They don’t need to be very clever, or even clever. They just need to be slightly cleverer than the people who think they agree with them. Non-Member of Parliament Nigel 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, and 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. At the time of writing, 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, as described in Bing-bong!). 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 I resent the assumption that people like this are 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, and yet he is still doing it. 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 was 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 male Cantonese representative from a group that contains a considerable range of genders and races, 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. The more he continues to double down on his own terrible choices and opinions, the more Boris Johnson reminds me 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 either side.

[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-Member of Parliament 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 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, is the child of immigrants and 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. I think we might have been asked for our views, but there was certainly no campaigning or hustings etc.

Better together

I have written before about conflicting ideas of roles within relationships in young people (see Some bad words); the idea of a ‘normal’ introduction to relationships (see Punch drunk); and the place of relationship skills in sex education, as both student (see Shake it all about) and teacher (see Open the Box). I’ve argued (see Shake it all about) that isolating sex from the wider context of relationships is like teaching someone about baking by throwing eggs at them.[1] The over-arching argument I’ve been trying to make in all these posts is that good relationships and good relationship skills are enormously important, and something we don’t see enough of in wider society. Today, I’m interested in what makes a grown-up relationship work, in the context of the General Election.

Here is a brilliant video via Jezebel, showing parents talking to their children about ‘where babies come from’. My favourite things about this film, in ascending order of how much I love them, are as follows: the little girl in purple that says that God sends babies down to be born, particularly her epiphany face when her mother adds some basic biology to her basic theology; the kid and his mum who say variations on the word ‘vagina’ to each other until he’s happy he’s saying it correctly; and another little girl in purple, who identifies the primary physical difference between her parents as her father having ‘bigger hands’ and greets her father’s pocket-based explanation of sex with a perfect Sceptical Toad[2] face and the comment ‘eugh’ (as well she might). Later in the video, however, this second little girl in purple, whose name is Melody, completely nails the whole of sex, marriage, parenting and any co-operative relationship in two words. Her father says, ‘when two adults want to have a child, they have to …’ and Melody fills in the gap for him. She says, ‘work together?’

The upcoming General Election annoys me for many reasons; there simply isn’t the time to go into them all here, particularly since one of the things that has annoyed me is how long the campaigns have taken (urgh. Is there really a whole week to go?). Therefore, I will confine myself to just two Annoying Things. Firstly, the infantile tone of the debate. Some of the politicians that get interviewed speak as if that very morning they were issued with a mouth and ears for the first time, and are still having trouble negotiating the trickier elements of both listening to what they are actually being asked and responding in a meaningful way. These are people who speak in public, on a given range of subjects, for a living. Why are so many of them so terrible at it? Why do they recycle the same General Election Bingo terms until you could swear you had already flung the radio across the room, and the babbling in your ears is actually the rushing of blood? The lack of cross-referencing in the way some of these people speak about each other and about issues is breath-taking. For example, we are all perfectly capable of remembering the soft soap of the Better Together campaign, suggesting that it was better for both Scotland and the rest of the UK for everything to stay Just So. Regardless of whether that’s the case, we all remember the way the coalition attempted to frighten everyone into doing what they wanted. Skip forward to now, and suddenly the Scots are the enemy. I don’t understand the tactic of wheeling out Sir John Major (knighted for services to People With Boring Voices) to argue that the SNP are dangerous nutters who will flounce off to eat porridge and toss cabers the minute negotiations become strained, thereby destabilising the government whenever they feel like it. Does nobody remember any British history? Of the various parts that make up the United Kingdom, is Scotland really the country most likely to bully others into doing what it wants? I don’t recall Scotland having an empire spread halfway around the world, subjugating other nations, stealing their natural resources and eradicating languages and traditions, but perhaps it happened when I was in the aforementioned radio-based red mist.

I also think it’s bonkers to attempt to frighten potential SNP voters with the notion that the two main parties are ‘unable’ to work with the SNP. This suggests to me that independence would be vastly preferable to being effectively shut out of British politics altogether, by either Cameron or Miliband taking the huff. You’ll notice also that both leaders of the larger parties continually invoke Alex Salmond as the bogeyman representative of the SNP, because Nicola Sturgeon is likeable, professional and popular both sides of the border, so a. let’s pretend she doesn’t exist; and/or b. she’s not really in charge. Alex Salmond is standing for election in a Scottish constituency, but he’s been well out of the limelight since leaving office, isn’t the leader of the SNP and hasn’t been for six months. Despite that, and despite (for me) Nicola Sturgeon putting on a consistent show of leadership skills and general competence, yesterday on PM, she was asked a series of questions implying that Alex Salmond was secretly in charge. Why? This isn’t as bad as the way Hillary Clinton’s gender is used as a stick to beat her with (see The man doctor will see you now), but I doubt very much that a male political leader as popular as Nicola Sturgeon would be asked if he was ‘really the leader’ in this way.

My second Annoying Thing is the way in which so many of the politicians (particularly the men. Imagine my surprise)[3] feel they have to assert themselves by banging on about who they will and won’t collaborate with. Here’s something I’ve learned from my various jobs: I am very lucky to be able to choose who I work for and with (see Exemplum Docet and I was flying from the threat of an office life), and in being able to negotiate the balance of power within each working relationship. However, the majority of people get the colleagues they are stuck with, and have to make the best of it. That is because choosing a new head of department (say) is a collaborative process, and won’t/can’t involve absolutely every person who will be required to work with the successful candidate once they are in place. Similarly, MPs don’t get to choose who we elect. Once we’ve elected them, all the MPs in government, as part of a coalition or whatever, should show that they are grown-up people who respect the choices made by the electorate by working together. In any context, but particularly in the context of the Scottish independence referendum and how close it was, it simply doesn’t make sense for either of the larger parties to say ‘we won’t work with the SNP’, when the SNP members will have been elected by exactly the same democratic processes used to elect the person speaking. Yes, you will work with the SNP (or the Lib Dems, or UKIP, or the Greens, or Plaid Cymru, or whomever). If you don’t, you are denying the democratic rights of every single constituent that politician represents. Moreover, those potentially SNP-voting constituents are, I hope, smart enough to realise that ‘I shouldn’t vote for the SNP because the Conservative/Labour party is too childish to work with them’ isn’t sound logic. You may want to throw your toys out of the pram; you may not like having to work together, but in such a close election full of uncertainties, one of the few things we can be sure of is that whoever is in government will have to work with at least some people they find distasteful.

Finally, consider this: just as everyone else has to work with people they may not like much, everyone has to deal with disagreement within their relationships. Everyone. Imagine a coalition/collaboration between (say) Labour and the SNP. Imagine that partnership as a difficult marriage (see Delete as appropriate) and it becomes clear fairly quickly that, again, Melody is spot on. You won’t agree with your partner on every single damn thing and sometimes you will argue with each other. Our metaphorical spouses are going to be exhibiting classic Dysfunctional Couple Behaviour and arguing in public.[4] In a political context, again, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. A healthy relationship is not one in which the partners never disagree; that would be both weird and dull. A healthy relationship is one in which disagreement is expected, because you are both complex, passionate, grown-up people with your own opinions. A healthy relationship is one in which those disagreements are handled in a calm, mature and open way, probably involving compromise on both sides, but which ultimately makes the relationship better. Therefore, if political disagreements lead to more public debate, fine: the largest governing party will be unable to rely on an overwhelming majority who can be whipped to vote a particular way, but instead will have to actually persuade a bunch of people who don’t agree with them in order to get anything passed. In other words, they will have to do politics properly.

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[1] The kid in the video I mention in the second paragraph who describes having a child as ‘sperm egg collide blah blah blah’ is the closest read-across to our current sex education, except we don’t bother with the ‘blah blah blah’ part.

[2] Also the eponymous central character of my first children’s book, Sceptical Toad Goes to School. 

[3] Contrast that with the group hug between the three female party leaders during the TV debate, and the way various female politicians talked this morning on Woman’s Hour about co-operation and working to change British politics as a whole.

[4] ‘I don’t care if you like the own-brand chickpeas better!’ <flings can into trolley>

‘The man doctor will see you now’

I love Woman’s Hour. It’s a super program, full of thoughtful, passionate women talking about things that actually matter. I admit that there is sometimes an almost audible grinding of gears as they segue from (say) an interview about women being stoned to death in Iran for adultery to (say) an earnest discussion of whether the maxi dress is back, but otherwise this is good radio. Today, however, the phrase ‘women politicians’ issued from the speaker and I can’t let that go.

‘Woman’ is a noun. ‘Women’ is a noun. Nouns. Not adjectives. NOUNS. The adjectival form is, strictly speaking, ‘womanly’ and I’d pay good money to hear someone refer to, I don’t know, Theresa May, as a ‘womanly politician’ (‘she’s womanly, by which I mean it’s legitimate for us to talk about her shoes rather than her policies’). We should not be saying or writing ‘women doctors’, ‘women politicians’ or ‘woman presidential candidate’, but ‘doctors’, ‘politicians’ and ‘Hillary Clinton’, because in none of those cases is the gender of the person concerned remotely relevant to what they are doing. Even in Hillary Clinton’s case, this is true: she may be remarkable in part for what she is doing for women and the way we are perceived, but she would still be a remarkable politician if she were male, especially with regard to her work on Chinese stoves, of all things.[1] Therefore the word ‘woman’ is not only grammatically dubious but redundant. If one is speaking or writing about a situation in which gender is relevant (e.g. a discussion of whether ladies will be allowed to become bishops in the Church of England, or whether all the excellent women should simply splinter off and form our own church, leaving the sexist rump to arrange their own Goddamn flowers), then one should say ‘female bishops’.

As with so much in grammar, it’s largely a matter of opinion as to whether it’s acceptable to use ‘woman’ as what we call an apposite noun i.e. a noun that is used to modify, identify or explain another noun. The argument goes that, firstly, using ‘woman’ as an adjective (‘woman bishop’) changes the modified noun (‘bishop’) more than using ‘female’ would, and therefore the ‘woman-ness’ of the bishop in question is emphasised. Secondly, ‘woman’ only ever denotes adult female[2] humans, whereas ‘female’ could refer to anything from a whale to a statue, and therefore using ‘woman’ is more respectful.

I think both these arguments are nonsense. Firstly, I think that emphasising the gender of the bishop (or the doctor, or the pilot, or whatever) is simply a way of folding sexism into the grammar, as one might fold an unnecessary flavouring into an otherwise pleasant cake. It’s a way of saying, ‘hark at me! A woman pilot! A pilot who is also a woman! HOW CAN THIS BE?’ See, for example, the old-fashioned chauvinism of She’ll Never Get Off The Ground by Robert J. Serling,[3] a novel that makes its intentions clear in the subtitle: A novel about a woman airline pilot …?![4]. The awkwardness of the language (and no-one can tell me that ‘woman airline pilot’ trips off the tongue) echoes the awkwardness that we are supposed to feel about the whole concept (see also ‘midhusband’ and ‘male nurse’). Secondly, I suppose it might be argued that being referred to as ‘female’ is degrading because the same word could equally be applied to a cow wandering vacantly round a field, a spider with half her mate sticking out of her mouth or a dog that’s licking itself, and so it can, and I don’t think that matters at all. What does matter is that ‘female’ cannot be used to denote something intended for use by females e.g. ‘female toilet’. This implies that the toilet itself has gender, which of course it doesn’t. The toilet is not female, any more than a skirt or a bra or a tampon is female; toilets, skirts, bras and tampons are, mostly, for the use of females.[5] I suspect that this horrible phrase is used to avoid the knotty question of how to punctuate the possessive plural (Ladies’ Toilet, the toilet for ladies). If you don’t know how to punctuate a possessive plural, wouldn’t it be better to ask someone with a basic education how to do it, rather than choose a different word to misuse as a workaround? Females objecting to being called ‘female’ is so stupid that I almost can’t be bothered to refute it. ‘Female’ is a perfectly good word. It’s not remotely offensive (or, if it is, it’s a lot less offensive when applied to a woman that it is when applied to a toilet).

Consider French grammar for a moment. David Sedaris says the following:

Because it is a female and lays eggs, a chicken is masculine. Vagina is masculine as well, while the word masculinity is feminine. Forced by the grammar to take a stand one way or the other, hermaphrodite is male, and indecisiveness female … I was told that if something is unpleasant, it’s probably feminine. This encouraged me, but the theory was blown by such masculine nouns as murder [meurtre], toothache [mal de dents] and Rollerblade [roller en ligne, for fuck’s sake].[6]

The word elles refers to a group of women. The word ils refers to a group of men. Ils also refers to a mixed group, made up of equal numbers of men and women. It can refer to a mixed group in which women predominate and a group in which they don’t. This tiny word ils can, in fact, denote a group made up almost entirely of women, provided that the group also contains a man. Or a male baby. Or a male dog. In other words, the masculinity of a single panting dachshund (even a comparatively effeminate one) in that group, a group which could contain thousands of women, trumps the existence of every single woman there. The same applies in Spanish (and no doubt many other languages that I’m not familiar with). This, it seems to me, is highly objectionable and should be challenged (and changed). Grammar changes all the time, usually for the worse through sloppy usage. It can, therefore, change for the better if enough people decide that it should. This is a battle worth fighting: women objecting to being described as ‘female’, I would argue, is not.[7]

We should seek equality in all things, including grammar. One does not say ‘the man bishops today decided that, actually, some of them would quite like to arrange their own flowers’, any more than one might say ‘the cabinet is made up primarily of man politicians’ or ‘the man doctor will see you now’. We say simply ‘the bishops’, ‘of politicians’ and ‘the doctor’, because we all assume (as does the grammar) that the gender of these people does not need to be stated. This should be on the grounds of irrelevance, but actually, of course, it doesn’t need to be stated because we know what their gender is already: they are all men. This is the default position of both society and the English language: the word ‘man’ would be removed from ‘man doctor’ on the same grounds of redundancy as I suggested above. So the uncomfortable compromise we have reached is to say ‘doctors’ to denote male doctors, and ‘women doctors’ to denote something freakish.[9] This contradicts the basic purpose of grammar, which is to remove ambiguity of meaning from language. ‘Woman doctor’ is anti-grammar: it introduces ambiguity in the meaning. Does it refer to a woman who is also a doctor, a doctor who primarily treats conditions found only in women (as one might say ‘bone doctor’ or similar), or perhaps some kind of weird hybrid of a woman and a doctor, using ‘woman doctor’ as one might use ‘witch doctor’? ‘Doctor’, however, is clear; and ‘female doctor’, in a situation where the gender of the doctor matters, is clear; and ‘man doctor’ is just silly.[10]


[1] Notice how her opponents can’t stop reminding you that she’s a woman. Why is that important? Because political leaders are men, Indira Ghandi, Benazir Bhutto, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, Mary McAleese, Aung San Suu Kyî, Angela Merkel, Michelle Obama and Nicola Sturgeon notwithstanding, we assume. I should also point out that strong female politicians are now such a commonplace that, while I admit I checked a couple of spellings, I didn’t have any trouble in coming up with this list off the top of my head. Rather than attack Clinton’s policies, her opponents attack what they consider to be her weak spot (her gender), and they do it in a way that would be beneath a group of sexist teenagers, most recently with badges that read ‘KFC Hillary Special: two fat thighs, two small breasts… left wing’. What can one say about a group of people so profoundly childish, other than ‘FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON’T VOTE THESE PEOPLE INTO PUBLIC OFFICE!’?

[2] Did you see what I did there?

[3] Mr. Serling is also the author of The President’s Plane is Missing, which was presumably being flown by a woman who wanted to stop off on the way to Washington to purchase a pair of tights and some lipstick. It appears at number 13 in a diverting list of terrible book titles, which also includes the ‘Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories’ at number 25, a title that has grammatical problems all of its own in the dangling modifier is-it-being-used-as-a-noun-or-an-adjective? confusion created by the placement of the word ‘Lesbian’. Are these stories about horses for lesbians, stories about horses and lesbians, or stories about lesbian horses? (‘Strangely Brown Beauty’s nostrils flared. She certainly hadn’t expected to be entered at Aintree’).

[4] The incredulous suspension points and interrobang (compound question mark/exclamation mark) also won Most Insulting Use of Punctuation 1967.

[5] One sees this on Ebay every day: ‘Woman’s dress, size 16’ says the heading. As opposed to …?

[6] And Professor John Raven. A role model for small, as yet un-heteronormatived/gender-role’d children if ever I saw one.

[7] He’s quite right: the French word for vagina (le vagin) is masculine, despite a. coming from a feminine Latin root and b. OH COME ON. David Sedaris (2000), ‘Make That a Double’, from Me Talk Pretty One Day (London, Abacus), p. 188.

[8] You can read more about the woman/female debate in the New York Times. Or just use adjectives to describe stuff and nouns to name stuff and stop pissing about.

[9] Thereby reinforcing the idea that a woman attempting to also be a doctor is something to be exclaimed over.

[10] I hope we can all enjoy the clash of stereotypes here: a man can be a doctor, but if he’s unwell he doesn’t have to go and consult a doctor until parts of his body start turning black and withering away.

‘GAH! Michael Gove!’

Seymour nominated me for the Leibster award, a thing which draws attention to, you know, blogs. The rules are that I post eleven facts about me (chosen by me); I answer eleven questions (chosen by Seymour); and finally, I pose eleven questions for eleven other bloggers I nominate to do the same exercise. So here goes:

Eleven facts about me

  1. I don’t own (and have never owned) a mobile ‘phone, a microwave, a toaster or a freezer. I have never read a Harry Potter book (because I’m thirty-three, for God’s sake). I will also shortly be without a television, as per the instructions of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. I have never watched an episode of Big Brother or any episode of any soap opera. I don’t watch news on the television and I don’t read newspapers, so all of my current affairs-related information comes from Radio 4. I only have the TV at all for films, box sets and televised sport (athletics; gymnastics; figure skating; rugby; snooker if I am ironing; and, in the days when I could still drink, darts, so that I could really enjoy shouting at the TV).
  2. I don’t drink. Sometimes when people ask me why this is, I tell them I’m Amish.
  3. I have a stress-related bowel disorder, caused by working in higher education for ten years. It’s painful and humiliating and is the real reason I can’t drink anymore. Dostoyevsky said the following, which I think describes the bulk of that hellish decade very neatly: ‘If one wanted to crush and destroy [literacystrumpet] entirely, to mete out to [her] the most terrible punishment, all one would have to do would be to make [her] do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning.’ Now I work for myself, and can’t imagine doing anything else.
  4. I’m scared of daddy-long-legses (or craneflies, if you prefer). They are so much worse than spiders. I don’t much like spiders (except garden spiders – they’re awesome), but at least spiders are sensible creatures with a purpose and a bunch of skills. Plus, when disturbed they tend to scuttle away and are usually amenable to (nay, grateful for) being caught in a suitable receptacle and returned to the outside world. Craneflies, however, are utterly pointless and seem to delight in zooming about rooms that they shouldn’t be in, legs spread and quivering and making a noise that haunts my nightmares.[1]
  5. Bees don’t sting me, even when I pick them up or plunge my hands into their hives. I did this once at the bee place in Portreath. According to the guy there, ‘some people smell like bees to bees’ and don’t need netting or smoke or whatever, a group of freaks that apparently includes me. There was a time when a swarm of bees settled in a garden belonging to friends of mine, where we were peacefully playing croquet, and I was able to pick up whichever ones I thought most interesting (and rescue several from concealed spider-webs) without so much as a suggestion of a sting. I am the Bee Whisperer. The only time I have been stung by a bee was when I found a queen bee in some grass and was so excited to see one up close that I picked her up to have a good look. She was freaking huge, not best pleased to be manhandled, and stung me viciously on the finger. I wonder if some people smell like queen bees to bees? 

    31. Bee
    ‘Smells like a giant bee in a white dress. Seems legit.’
  6. Where other children might accidentally call their teacher ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’ at school and then be mortified, I called my father ‘Sir’ at regular intervals throughout my childhood (and once or twice in adult life), which we both thought was just fine.[2]
  7. I think almost everyone looks better in glasses, including Superman.
  8. I don’t like mushrooms. I don’t allow them into my kitchen: they linger outside in the hall on top of the boiler to dry out.[3] Then I put the horrid things into jars and give them away to understanding friends.
  9. I was once asked in an interview what my ideal job was. I can’t remember what my actual reply was, because I was putting so much energy into *not* saying ‘I want to be Colin Sell’ (it wasn’t a job that would have involved playing the piano).[4]
  10. I am a tenor, and have been for about ten years. My range is tiny: C3 (C below middle C) on a good day, but most days barely-audible D3, up to C5 (C above middle C). C5 is sometimes called the ‘tenor C’, because it is the upper limit of what tenors are required to sing in standard repertoire, although I must say I’m rarely asked to sing as high as that. I have sung with the same church choir for fourteen years, and the acceptance and joy I have found from doing so means everything to me.
  11. Some can sing; some can dance. I can make marmalade.

 

Answer eleven questions from Seymour

  1. Tattoo? Yes. I used to have one around my ankle, which read ‘Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven’ (a quotation from the hymn ‘Praise My Soul The King of Heaven’) during a period of religious enthusiasm. If only I had channelled this energy into something more meaningful than a tattoo. I had it removed when the black ink went green, which hurt like hell but fortunately did not leave much of a scar.
  2. Have you ever collected anything a bit odd? Thimbles.
  3. If you had the time and money to further your education, what would you study? Theatrical costume design.
  4. In the Hollywood feature film of your life, who would you like to play the title role? Jennifer Grey, with her hair as per Dirty Dancing.
  5. What was the last song or piece of music you listened to? Ascendens Christus in altum’, by Tomás Luis de Victoria (I was learning it for Ascension Day). For pleasure, the last song I listened to was ‘Love Has Come For You’ (Steven Martin and Edie Brickell, from their new banjotastic album of the same name).
  6. If you were stuck in a lift for an hour, which historical figure would you most like to have for company? Maurice Sendak.
  7. What is the next book you hope to read? Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’ve read it five or six times, but it’s an infinitely rewarding book that deserves to be read in times of crisis (and at other times, too).
  8. In a house fire, which of your possessions would you most like to save (apart from the house)? My laptop (which contains my novel and all my work) and as much of my fabric stash as I could carry.
  9. What would be your ultimate comfort food? Homemade meatballs with tomato sauce, spaghetti and lots of cheese.
  10. Where do you stand on politicians, from “I don’t vote” to “they are our only hope”? Women died so that I could have the vote. So I vote. But politicians continue to disappoint me, over and over.[5]
  11. Could you summarise how you see your mission in life in a single sentence? (What would it be?) I am deeply suspicious of people who can summarise their mission in life in a single sentence (who has such an uncomplicated purpose?).

 

Pose eleven questions of my own for other bloggers to respond to

  1. Is making music purely for yourself and those you make it with and/or for, or should it be (at least a little) for the people that can hear you?
  2. Does a gift that has been made for you rather than purchased still mean more if you really, really hate it?
  3. Wings or a tail?
  4. Stripes or spots (or, most excitingly, both together)?
  5. Night owl or morning lark? Do you ever wish you were the other one?[6]
  6. Name some things that you wash but don’t iron (my list: sheets, duvet covers, underwear, towels, bath mats, flannels, tights, tea towels).
  7. Name some words that you love (my list: frangipani; anaglypta; cocoa; cruciform; crackerjack; anacrusis; circumflex; archaeopteryx; nostril; macaroon; thurible; tangerine; toad).
  8. Name some words that you hate (my list: moisten; nasal; douche; boil; pouch; slick, esp. when used as a verb e.g. ‘slick on some lipstick’ argh argh).
  9. I once took four of my young nephews to Bristol Zoo, shuffling them to the front of the crowd around the lion enclosure just in time to see that the lions had decided this was an excellent moment to reaffirm their bond through the physical act of love. As an introduction to sex, what it lacked in intimacy and tenderness it made up for in snarling and clawing at the ground. However, when I thought about it afterwards I was at a loss as to what *would* constitute an appropriate introduction to sex for children under the age of ten. Discuss.
  10. I love textiles and I love music. However, I have a passionate hatred of textiles printed with musical notation. Musicians are always having this nonsense forced on them (‘look! It’s got music on it! And you like music, right?’ Good Lord). Do you have any similar beloved x + beloved y = hated z situations?
  11. Really, what is the point of Just For Men? I would really like to know.

 

Nominate eleven other bloggers

I just don’t read that many blogs, and several of those that I do read (Brainpickings, for example) don’t really need attention drawing to them. So I’ve nominated some that I think deserve to be better known.

  1. Seymour at Seymour Writes (yes, I know he’s already written a Leibster post, and this is my way of making it easy for you to read it);
  2. Emily at Through the Lattice (Seymour has already nominated her, but see above);
  3. Lilian at Bookmouse;
  4. Garden Naturalist, who really ought to blog more often. It’s been years;
  5. Bakingbiologist;
  6. Alex at closetphysicist;
  7. Robin at Robin Coyle;
  8. Alice at Alice Laird;
  9. Andie at andiesplace;
  10. Catt at DECIPHer, although she’s probably not allowed to come out and play; and finally
  11. Mark at many headed monster (ditto, although he could always do this exercise from an early modern perspective).

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[1] That’s what she said.

[2] He’s a teacher, not a knight of the realm. Maybe one day he’ll be both and *everyone* will have to call him Sir.

[3] I think of this as killing them. I know.

[4] I am a splashy pianist at best, so this would not end well.

[5] They also scare me, because (as I said) I get my news from the radio and am therefore prone to starting back in horror when confronted with photographs of public figures I am familiar with, but have never seen (‘GAH! Michael Gove! MY EYES!’).

[6] I’m writing this at fourteen minutes past midnight. Hoot.

Give a little whistle

I have been taking advantage of all the extra time I have now that I no longer have a proper job to catch up on some reading. It shows how behind I am that the quotation which prompts this post is from the London Review of Books, May 13th 2010:

Michael Gove, who increasingly resembles a defrocked pantomime dame, did quite well under post-manifesto interrogation from Jeremy Paxman, but I’m afraid that while he spoke at least half my brain was taken up by a heckler who was yelling: ‘I don’t want any sermons about democratic participation from a man who claimed a £34.99 foam cot mattress on his Parliamentary expenses.’[1]

I know the expenses scandal is a long time ago, but since I didn’t hear anybody making the point I wanted to make at the time, here is my take on it. In particular, I am interested here in the use of the word ‘conscience’, and the closely-related (but different) word ‘conscious’.

Most of the discussion of the expenses scandal was about ‘the system’. The system of reclaiming expenses and what was allowed and what wasn’t was described as broken, confusing and unfit for purpose. MPs queued up to say how dreadful it was: I even heard an MP on The World at One explaining that it was perfectly reasonable for people to put in claims for all manner of things, including things that they were fairly sure weren’t allowed, on the grounds that these items would simply be turned down and no harm done. Nevermind that this is a tremendous waste of everyone’s time, or that it implies that MPs are unable to understand or even acquaint themselves with the relevant rules, or that it removes the burden of making difficult decisions from people who have supposedly been elected on the basis that they are suitable people to make a whole load of difficult decisions on behalf of their constituents. In other words, it was not necessary for MPs to be conscious of what the rules were: there was a whole department to do this for them, and to apply said rules, and to send them the money deemed to be theirs by right.

Clearly, the system for claiming expenses was inadequate, but that’s not the point. The point is that this shouldn’t matter. If one works with an expenses system (or indeed any other system) in which the rules are either unclear or applied inconsistently, then the rules do not regulate one’s behaviour in a meaningful way. The only thing regulating one’s behaviour is one’s conscience. It is simply not good enough to say ‘the rules allowed me to claim for a duck house, so I claimed for a duck house’ i.e. the rules alone determine what I take to be morally acceptable. Do you really mean to say that you, an over-educated, highly qualified member of parliament, are not capable of deciding for yourself whether the taxpayer should pay for your pets to have housing appropriate to their needs? Moat-cleaning, cot-furnishing and the accommodation of waterfowl aside, there was of course also the case of Eliot Morley, who reclaimed mortgage payments on a mortgage he knew he had already paid off. What these by now well-rehearsed examples amount to is doing whatever you like as a default position. If you get caught out, then (and only then) you feel bad about it. If you don’t get caught, this allows you to believe that what you have been doing is morally acceptable, and indeed has in some vague way been sanctioned by somebody or other. Parallel lines of pseudo-logic can be seen in the ‘she was asking for it by wearing/drinking/saying x’ defence of rapists; attempts to declare the Iraq war ‘illegal’ when surely ‘immoral’ should have been more than enough; ‘I wore red socks to school and the teachers didn’t say anything, so they must be part of the uniform now’ (one of my dimmer students); and a former burglar I heard on PM recently saying that the people he had robbed ‘deserved it’ because he hadn’t found breaking into their house sufficiently difficult.

The vast majority of staff at the University Which Continues To Have No Name So That I Don’t Get Sued massively under-claim for their expenses, through embarrassment at processing a 67p receipt for a packet of biscuits (say); through forgetting to keep a receipt in the first place; through not really knowing what the rules are about things such as mileage or meals with guest speakers; or through actual principles about what they feel it is reasonable to charge to the university. However, one particular colleague used to claim for absolutely everything he could think of. I’m going to refer to him as Dr. Banana Republic (not because he bought his clothes in Banana Republic, but because he behaved as though being the dictator of a small, heavily-oppressed nation took up most of his time). I’m going to insist on the title ‘Dr’ also; he always insisted on being referred to as Professor, despite being no such thing, for reasons that I won’t go into here because THEY DON’T EXIST. Books of stamps (I wrote ‘use the franking machine next time’ on so many post-it notes that I might as well have had a stamp made, carved from purest irony) and packets of drawing pins (Me, again via post-it: ‘is there something wrong with the drawing-pins in the stationery cupboard?’; Dr. Banana Republic: ‘what stationery cupboard?’) were the inexpensive end of the wedge. At the other end was a £45 fax to Nigeria, and his inability to apply any sense of moral moderation to the rule that allowed staff to claim up to £5 per meal for any meal purchased while on university business for which they were not able to produce a receipt. Every single expense claim of his that involved travel would always include three ‘meals’ per day, each of which had apparently cost him precisely £5, and none of which he could back up with a receipt. This often added several hundred pounds to each claim. Dr. Banana Republic defended this exactly as above: the rules say this is OK.

If it were up to me, there would be no rules whatsoever about what could be claimed, by both MPs and members of academic staff. The only stipulation would be that *everything* they claimed appeared prominently on a website with their name and photograph on it, below the statement ‘I think somebody else should pay for this.’ We could call it www.jiminycricket.org.uk.


[1] This is from a post on the LRB blog by the brilliant John Lanchester. He is also the author of two of the best new books I have read in a long time: Mr Phillips and The Debt to PleasureI am ashamed to admit that I have at least one more of his books in the library which passes for my house, which I have so far failed to read. I’m sure it’s magnificent, though.