Discover the lack of diversity.

Discover the lack of diversity.

When I was young I protected the opinions I held like tender plants. I shielded them from harm and fed them well. I read newspapers and articles that confirmed my fledgling biases and listened to authorities in the media who reminded me that my viewpoint was correct. One of the great pleasures of being older is that not I have much more knowledge, experience and better judgement I am free to think as I will. I do not have to follow any particular herd I don’t need to toe any party line. My opinions are no longer those given to me but those I have forged for myself over many years. 

I am also aware that others go though the same process as myself; discarding, forming and reforming their views, and that, as a consequence, good ideas can come from very diverse sources. I am also clear that many things I held as self-evident were in fact wrong, and it is inconceivable that my current views are immutable and cast in stone. Even faith can only survive if it is tested from time to time. 

For the reasons above I like to try and vary my sources of information and try to consider opinions from differing viewpoints. This is why I prefer using Wordpress to other ‘social media’ the range of opinions is broader and the content is less trivial and partisan. The essay/blog format is better suited to discussing ideas than the short sentence format which is better suited to rispostes, oaths and threats. It might also be anticipated that I’d enjoy the “Discover” section on the Wordpress Reader. This is described as “A daily selection of the best content published on WordPress, collected for you by humans who love to read” and sounds like a place to find new ideas and interests. I hate to be churlish but this is anything but.  

Each day the same type of pages are promoted with similar themes and topics. Even when the themes vary, the opinions on culture, politics, religion, society or any subject are the same and predictable. There are no discordant voices and no ‘surprising takes’ on any issue covered. It is rather like a pull-out supplement for the Huffington Post; bland and pappy, afraid to venture where there might be controversy, no voice appears from out of the wilderness to tell us we are wrong or misguided. While the race and gender mix of the authors is probably a good representative spread of our community, the lack of diversity of opinions held in this section is the only ‘discovery’ I have ever made. I am aware that I am not perhaps their target demographic but I can’t imagine everyone wants to read the same, unchallenging pieces day after day.

Heavens, this used to be the prerogative of the elderly. We old folk were meant to be the ones that wanted the same ‘nice’, comforting, ‘everything will work out fine’ stories day after day – indeed we had a magazine dedicated to this “The People’s Friend” (The world’s longest running women’s magazine). It used to be the young who wanted to explore new ideas, to kick over the traces and to shock. But perhaps with the fears of being “triggered” or experiencing “micro-aggressions” (Surely less troublesome than full throated aggression) it is the young now who want to curl up in the evening with a pipe, a good book, and their slippers. (Though the pipe is perhaps a bit dangerous). To be fair, it is likely that WordPress’s curators are too afraid to include anything which might give cause for offence to anyone for fear of being sued. This avoidance of controversy is guaranteed to lead them to curate the bland

A previous blogging platform I used had a useful feature. It had the option to read a random blog piece by just clicking a button. Using this I found many interesting sites (as well as many tedious and shocking ones), some of which I continue to read regularly and are sites I would not have found were it not for this act of chance. Wordpress itself had a “daily word” prompt blog. This allowed bloggers to create content in responce to a single word prompt and gave rise to a site with many varied authors taking very approaches to the subject matter. This also was a good source of discovery of new talent and content. Unfortunately this has now gone and we are left with the anodyne offering of the Discover page. 

I have found one partial remedy. Take a word, at random, from the last paragraph of the blog you are reading. Don’t select, just plump for any one regardless – e.g. ‘partial’ ‘reading’ ‘paragraph” – and type this into the search bar of the reader. Surprises await you. Not always good ones but still often enough to make the endeavour worthwhile. Give it a go, you’ll certainly have more chance of making a discovery than with the official route. 

Post-apocalyptic Lathe Shifting

Post-apocalyptic Lathe Shifting

Yesterday my neighbour had a large lathe, to turn and mill metal, delivered to his door. Four guys pulled the palette off the lorry and drove off leaving it in his drive. It was enormous and heavy, and he was unable to move it. Luckily, shortly after this, a van with some local youths, on their way back from shearing sheep, passed by. They noticed his dilemma, stopped and helped him lift the crate up to his workshop.

After unpacking the lathe and assembling its stand in the workshop another problem became apparent. The machine weighed 300kg it was going to be difficult to lift it up, through the door, and onto its stand. I was passing, walking the dogs, and started to help. We fashioned a moving shelf with a car jack and a metal plate but, even with crowbars, we couldn’t get the machine up onto the shelf.

Luckily another farmer was passing bringing hay back from a field recently cut. We flagged him down and asked if he would help us with the last leg of the lathe’s journey. This was no minor request. This weighed over quarter of a ton, was difficult to handle and could cause serious injury, or death, if it toppled and fell. But none the less we all set to and after an hour of panting, groaning and swearing the job was done. We gossiped for a while about politics and Brexit, then I completed my walk with the dog, the farmer finished his journey with the hay, and my neighbour settled down to read the lathe’s handbook.

What struck me, as I was walking the dog, was how ready people are to help each other. Happy to help for no reward other than to be helpful. It struck me how often I see this. Or local community hall is run and shared by volunteers who maintain the grounds at their own cost and who give hours of time to organize local events. I recalled spending an afternoon with a man I did not know as we cut and cleared a tree which had fallen and blocked the road, and a prior evening when a different stranger had helped me round up someone’s sheep that had got out through a broken fence and were wandering the lanes. I have an evening booked, later this week, to go to the pub with some people in the town who, like me are Community First Responders, and give up some of their free time to help should anyone be in need.

Life would scarcely be liveable were it not for these multiple acts of kindness from strangers. If I drop my wallet, or leave my phone on the table, as I leave a cafe someone will call to alert me or run after me to make sure I don’t lost my property. Anyone with the misfortune to be in an accident will recall the offers of help from bystanders. Anyone lost knows you can ask a passerby for directions. Every day our interactions with others is usually helpful. When we walk on a busy pavement in the city we do not jump and jostle for space but step aside and ensure we can all move as freely as possible. It’s the way we are made, it’s our nature, we are designed to be helpful.

It is for this reason that I get annoyed with post-apocalyptic films and novels which suggest that when the state is destroyed we will all descend into barbarism. The usual scenario is, that after a disaster, man-made or natural, all the authorities have gone and our heroes have to travel across a land populated by villains intent on rape and murder. These dystopias paint a bleak picture of life without the state. The message is clear, without the state to protect us we world all be at risk from the murderous impulses of our neighbours.

This runs counter to our general experience. We rarely call on the state to defend us and every day we experience pleasant or useful communal interactions with our fellows. Our instincts to be sociable and create society are so innate and quotidian that we fail to notice them. Rather, we only notice when people fail to be nice and are, on rare occasions, rude to us.

There is a misconception that the state creates society. It does not, individuals by their nature create society. The state, by contrast, creates power; rather than fostering cooperation it creates compulsion and obligation. Humans do not by instinct kill each other, if you want to see violent and cruel behaviour you need a ruling class to compel it. The mass killings our species has seen (wars, genocide or pogroms) have always been instigated by a state and a call to the authority of a God, King, Nation or ideology. We have to compel people to go to war and sometimes shoot them if they won’t go – to encourage the others. People spontaneously build communities and society not war and oppression, you need a state for that.

Even the benign aspects of the state carry their risks. If, ‘for or own good’, the state looks after our welfare it takes it out of our hands. It means we do not make the choices and priorities, and we do not make the social bonds and links to promote our welfare. Charity, locality planning and fraternal organizations all become weakened when the state steps in. As the sociologist Frank Furedi noted :-

“Indeed, it can be argued that state intervention in everyday life corrodes community life no less, and arguably even more, than market forces. In many societies, people who come to rely on the state depend far less on each other and on their community. When what matters is access to the state then many citizens can become distracted, and stop cooperating and working with fellow members of their community”

In a practical sense, here is some free advice. If you ever find yourself lost in the desert, or jungle, or crossing barren windswept plains after a nuclear holocaust, and you see other people don’t run away from them. They are your best hope, do what all your instincts tell you to do and run towards them shouting for help; they probably will.

If we ever do see the breakdown of the state then I will be even more reliant on my friend and neighbours. We would quickly reorganise our local community again and people might take the opportunity not to return to power structures that we had lost, with all the inequality that accompanied it. The world would go on but sone of those who leeched of our backs would now have to fund a way to be helpful and productive.

The state might tell us whether we can buy a lathe or not, or might put taxes on its purchase to fund its own agenda, and it may punish someone if they steal it from us, but it doesn’t do much else. It didn’t design it, make it, or transport it, individuals working cooperatively did that. The state didn’t help us move the lathe in the past and we will still be able to move it, despite its weight, once the state has gone.

The SDP : a new home ?

The SDP : a new home ?

British Politics has become increasingly tribal. Both of the main parties now  have been dragged by their extreme wings away from the centre-ground and towards increasingly exaggerated positions. Both seem to have drifted away from their core purpose and now appear to pander to powerful sects as their leaders try and remain in control. The Conservative leader, Theresa May,  is constantly harried by the European Reform Group whilst the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is kept in position by the Momentum group. Neither leader commands the respect of the majority of their party and only survive by compromising vision and honesty for pragmatic coalitions which allow them to remain in power.

We were in a similar position in the 1980’s when Labour had its troubles with the hard left Militant Tendency and the Conservatives were being dragged further rightwards by the strength of the Monday Club. There was considerable unhappiness and it looked as if the large parties might split asunder into different parties.  In 1981, four senior  labour MP’s  (David Owen, Bill Rogers, Shirley Winters, and Roy Jenkins ; the Gang of Four) did break away and set up the Council for Social Democracy by issuing the Limehouse Declaration. This subsequently established the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in the UK which had considerable initial success. 28 Labour and 1 Conservative MP joined the party and over the first few years  it had growing electoral success. In 1983 it took 25% of the national vote. However, this was not sustained and by 1987 the party merged with the Liberal Party to become the Liberal Democrats in 1987.

I have some personal experience of these events as I was one of the Labour Party election organisers who helped in the 1987 general election. I worked with the team to make sure that Roy Jenkins lost his Glasgow, Hillhead seat to the Labour Candidate George Galloway. In those days I saw the SDP as turncoats and traitors who were splitting the left vote and was quite convinced that my mission was to get a true socialist goverment into power. How life has changed ! But why am I thinking about the SDP in 2019 ?

It seems the SDP never went away. I was listening to a podcast, by the Anglican priest Giles Fraser, and learnt that the SDP continued and recently issued a renewed declaration. In his podcast he wondered if the SDP would provide a home for many people who, like him, find themselves politically homeless. I read the declaration and had to agree with him; there was nothing objectionable and much with which to agree.

They recognise the failures of our current two major parties :-

The Conservative party has conserved very little and instead, has put everything up for sale. Labour has abandoned the nation’s working men and women.

and recognise that if we are to preserve democracy it is important to keep it local :-

We consider the nation-state to be the upper limit of democracy. Along with the family, we regard it as indispensable to the solidarity of our society and concern for our fellow citizens. We regard supranationalism as a neoliberal ideology aimed at neutering domestic politics and placing the most important issues beyond the reach of ordinary voters.

Socially and personally they  avoid the excesses of libertarianism whilst keeping true to socially liberal beliefs. They are aware that there has been increasing intolerance in our society and a tendency to fragment our communities  by the pernicious use of identity politics. They stress the importance of mutuality, rather than law, to bind communities together and this is an important aspect of politics which is rarely discussed by the main parties :-

We believe ‘fraternity vs division’ to be a key watershed question in all Western societies. Fraternity must prevail.

We regard kindness and mutuality as a political rather than a legal achievement which relies on free consent rather than legal obligation. Excessive individualism – of both the social and economic variety – has regrettably led some citizens to believe they don’t share a common fate with their neighbours. They do.

On the economic front they recognise the dangers of rampant neoliberalism, and the adverse effects of globalisation,  but appear also to recognise that there needs to be boundaries to the state’s intervention in a social market economy. They see the public and private sectors as complimentary and see a natural boundary between them :-

The correct frontier between the public and private sector is determinable. Natural monopolies – the utilities requiring universal delivery to citizens – should be returned to public ownership and operation or be subjected to significantly more effective regulation.

There are interesting and positive bits on the family, the welfare state, culture and mutuality. On reading it I felt that there was really little to which any reasonable person could take objection. So is this the start of a change ? Or will this be like the 1980’s again ? Can a party which tries to push for a middle-road out of our present chaos ever gain enough traction to get moving ? I would like to think so and will watch their progress closely, although I am aware that in these acrimonious times they are going to have an uphill battle to make any headway. If they do, I will find myself, 30 years later, in the unusual position of being on the exact other side of a political divide. Perhaps my team will win again.

 

Three rolls of fencing.

Three rolls of fencing.

I was on pleasant walk to post a letter this afternoon when I had an opportunity for a short thought experiment. As I walked along the road, with the dog, I noticed that the fence at the side of the road had been removed in preparation for being replaced. Every hundred yards or so there were neatly stacked piles of fence posts and rolls of fencing; some new and some tidily rewound ready to be reused. Everything was left ready for tomorrow’s task of refencing a large field.

I looked at these piles of equipment and recalled that I need to refence or middle field and will need to do this next month before I am able move the sheep. I then had the ‘thought experiment’ – “Why don’t I steal the fencing?”. This equipment, like so many other pieces of farm equipment, had been left here unguarded and with no protection, why don’t I just take some? If would be so easy just to lift it up and take it home.

The first reason I considered was that perhaps I didn’t need or want this stuff. This was easy to dismiss. Fencing is an never ending job on farms, a bit like painting the Forth Road Bridge, once you get to one end it is time to go back to the beginning and start again. Nor was it because this material is so inexpensive as to not be worth stealing. Although fence posts are relatively cheap, the fencing itself is reasonably dear and this is a noticeable cost in the farm budget. These weren’t the reasons.

I then considered the law and issues of crime and punishment. I knew that this was against the law, as taking without permission would be stealing. However, this would only influence my decision if I had a chance of falling into the hands of the justice system. In other words, it would only be an issue if I might, possibly  be caught. The risks of this were really quite negligible. One bit of fence wire is much like any other and who would be able to prove that this was not my wire once it was on my land. No, if I stole this wire punishment by the legal system would not be my biggest concern. Punishment in another way, however, might well be the reason.

The obvious reason I don’t take the wire is because I know it is wrong and that if I acted wrongly I would feel bad. The anticipation of guilt is the main barrier to bad actions. This guilt is modulated by a number of factors but, in today’s walk, community seemed to be the biggest modifier. I know who is repairing that fence. I know who would be hurt by my actions. I know that they, like I have, had left things out because they trust that their neighbours will behave well. My guilt would be even worse if I broke this trust. My knowledge of who was involved was the biggest factor in my decision. If I did steal from them,even if they never found out I would know. This knowledge, that I had stolen from them, would be corrosive to my soul and very difficult to bear.

All our lives, from when we are able to be independant, we are trying to balance the drive to keep our individuality whilst seeking to enjoin ourselves in community. Our first step is usually to find a partner, then to create a family, while all the time trying to find a community, or kinship group, in which to thrive. It is no surprise that the Lord’s Prayer asks for “our daily bread”, rather than “my daily bread”, and to pardon “our trespasses” not “my trespasses”. We only exist, as people, when we are in relationships with others. John Donne described this well in his poem “No Man Is An Island” :-

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee. 

But as we build bigger and bigger communities there may be a cost. The anthropologist Robin Dunbar estimated, that due to the limitations of the size of our cortex, we can only get truly to know between 100 and 200 people. This number, usually rounded to 150, is Dunbar’s Number and is the limit of people we can know in any real and significant manner. Above this number,  communities start to require stricter rules and regulations to ensure good behaviour from its members. Above this number, the knowing interaction between individuals, and filial feelings, can no longer be relied upon to ensure decent behaviour.

I found the idea of stealing the wire “unthinkable” and I believe in part this was due to my temptation occuring in a smaller community. Were I tempted in a larger group, with anonymity for me and for my victim, I am not sure I could be relied upon to behave as well. Those of us who wish people to behave well, to seek out the good, and to become better people need to think about this. Rather than devising more, strict rules, which might more strictly control behaviour, but at the expense of weakening moral abilities, we should perhaps ensure that our communities are small and human sized. In larger communities there is a danger we become a myriad of individuals, in a huge shoal of individuals, requiring supervision to ensure we don’t harm one and other. In smaller communities the instinctive urges we have to look after ourselves while working cooperatively with our fellows are well balanced and effective.  Larger societies don’t just end up concentrating power they need to concentrate power and it is for this reason that we should resist this danger.

Let’s hear it for .. .. The Superego

Let’s hear it for .. .. The Superego

It is clear that history has not been kind on Sigmund Freud. His theories have not fared well in the face of scientific enquiry and they are rarely applied in the treatment of mental illness today as they are date, often wrong and usually ineffective. However, he was an important figure in our culture’s development and his influence on opinion and attitudes is hard to overestimate. Despite the shortcomings of his theories he made many useful analogies which help us understand our psyches at some level.

His description of the psyche as comprised of three components, the Id, the Ego and the Superego,  will never be shown to have any physiological nor psychological basis but is a useful analogy to help us understand aspects of our functioning. When the doctor uses the analogy of the telephone wires to explain the nerve damage that a patient experiences they know their analogy is wrong on very many levels but it is also useful as it allows some thinking and understanding of the problem faced.

The idea that the, largely conscious, ego tries to balance the demands of our Id and Supergo in the face of the needs of outside world is a helpful way to consider our own psyches. We clearly we are born with primitive desires and appetites, only some of which we are conscious, and these can be thought of as our Id. The feelings of sexual desire, our hungers, our passions (both good and bad) can be thought of as the animus which drives us. Our conscious ego has to steer these to socially acceptable outlets and in this task it is help by the superego. This is the, partially conscious, part of our psyche which knows what we should, or ought to, do. It is the consequence of learning, firstly from our parents and later from society,  what are the good and right things to do. In the modern parlance it is our “moral compass“. It sets up ideas of right and wrong and allows us to have an ideal vision of ourselves and helps guide our actions.

Unfortunately since about the end of the 1950’s we have been living in a world in thrall to the feelings of the id. We have tended to the view that what defines us are our inner passions and drives. The “inner child” is held to be our true nature and we are encouraged to “be true to our inner selves“. But is this actually our inner self ? There are good reasons to doubt this approach.

Our primitive desires are largely innate – our sexual preferences, our tendency to anger, our hungers and tastes, our fighting response when attacked – and they do give force to much of our behaviour. But this is purely at an animal level. All animals, not just homo sapiens, have these desires to some degree or another. All animals will eat, mate, fight and flee (Though not necessarily in that order). We are different because we elect not to follow instincts. We can see a beautiful sexually enticing person and elect not to try and mate, we can see food and decide to give it to someone more needy, we can feel the fury of revenge and decide to let the law take its course. We are human because we are not driven by these passions and instincts. What the world sees and what the world judges is the skills of the ego and superego in limiting the id.

To see the id as the true self is akin to seeing the petrol as the true core of the motor vehicle. Agreed, the petrol (or some motive force) is necessary but what makes the car is the engineering and electronics that convert this to speed and comfort. On its own petrol is just a short destructive blaze. If we want to know someone’s character we need to know how they temper and direct their passions in the face of the real world and its opportunities and adversities. Our heroes are those who curbed their own urges for self protection to allow them to save others. Our saints are those who ignored their own needs and comforts in order to improve the lot of others. We never hold someone in high regard because they have high passions or are probe to their impulses. Giving in to temptation is easy, resisting it is the proof of character.

The tendency to glorify the id and define ourselves as our passions (a lot of current identity politics reduces people to a small, animal impulse), or the tendency to see our personal growth in terms of sating appetites, is a tendency which belittles us as a species. It is ignores what is unique and great about us. Our ability to do things because they are right, despite them being difficult or carrying a personal cost, is our stamp. Self-control, planning, perseverance and prudence are signs that we are behaving as humans. It is no surprise that the seven virtues are descriptions of when we resist our urges, while the seven vices describe when we fail to do so.

We need to see through this infantile fad of revering our animal instincts and start to recognise our human abilities. We need to start to praise women and men with fortitude and prudence, or self-control and charity. It is people with these natures that will allow us to develop our society and culture. We will never be free from the devil on our left shoulder but we need to try and listen to the angel on our right.

 

Worldwide Confusion

Worldwide Confusion

Humpty Dumpty, in ‘Through the Looking Glass” said, in a rather scornful voice “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less‘. I fear that many of us follow his advice and use words in ways that can be rather idiosyncratic. As individuals this may be only a minor problem and our friends and acquaintances  get to know our foibles and may even adopt them. However, sometimes this use of language can be quite deliberate and designed to confuse or obfuscate. I think this latter misuse of the language is occurring with the words ‘globalism‘ and ‘internationalism‘.

Internationalism has a long history and it is a word close to the hearts of those who are on the left of the political spectrum. Indeed “L’Internationale‘, written by the anarchist Eugene Pottier,  is the anthem or hymn of the communist, socialist and anarchist movements. This song took its name from the first congress of the International Workingmen’s Association in 1864 called the First International. In this sense internationalism meant cooperative actions between national groups; a recognition that there could be common aims and mutual advantage when groups worked across national boundaries. In essence, it is a recognition that there are many things which we hold in common because we are human which cross national boundaries (in this case the class struggle). To be an internationalist was to promote working across these boundaries for the common good.

Globalisation, on the other hand, is a word with a shorter history, possibly dating back to 1991, and is a word more closely related to those on the right of the political spectrum. This word relates to the application of power, influence or money on a world-wide basis, operating above and outwith national boundaries. This is the world of corporations which have a global presence but no national home. Globalisation started with the deregulation of banks and financial institutions. This freed them from National regulations which allowed them to amass great wealth and power unfettered by Governments’ wishes. These global corporations have been able to develop impact all over the globe but now have nowhere that they can be held accountable.

It is the misuse of the two terms that causes so many problems. The left and progressive wings of politics have fallen for the idea that globalisation is akin to internationalism and has taken this view to its heart. This is attested to in slogans such as “no borders” and “no human is illegal”. These are on the surface benign and welcome statements. But if we look deeper, it is clear that these are slogans which support globalisation which requires  free-movement of capital and labour and finds borders irksome at best. Karl Marx, himself, was well aware that free movement of labour was a useful way in which workers’ power and workers’ wages could be kept in check and wrote about this in relation to the migration of workers between Ireland and mainland Britain.

There is another aspect in which globalisation can pose a threat which internationalism avoids and this is in the area of welfare provision. Most developed countries have some form of welfare state. This can vary widely in the extent and depth of its provision but all of them rest on a similar principle. This principle is of a community grouping together to look after one and other;  to ensure in times of illness, or hardship, we are able to care for our fellow citizens. These are like clubs, we all pay in so that should misfortune arise we may benefit. But like clubs there needs to be a definition of membership, we need to feel that we are contributing to support our fellows. This is where nations prove useful. In a nation we all pay in our dues (personal taxes or corporate taxes) and can use the services when needed.  At a national level, even if there is no kinship, we can feel some relationship to our fellow citizens and feel a link between our inputs into the system and those who are benefitting from it.

Steffan Mau of the University of Bremen, in 2007,  suggested :-

“the nation state became one of the most important organizational entities for social solidarity…because it provided the fundamentals of a political identity and social morals, which legitimately guaranteed the establishment of social security and transfer systems”

This is a major problem for those on the left of the political spectrum. If we want welfare states then we need to promote the nation as a unit of manageable size to allow people to care for each other. Nationalism, in this sense, has little to do with any perceived superiority of one nation over another. It is simple a way to break the economy down into manageable chunks. This ensures that there is a link between the payers and the benefactors of welfare provision. Without this link it is unlikely that welfare systems can flourish. This is an areas where, as E.F. Schmacher might have said “Small is Beautiful

Finally, if those on the left, wish to control the influence of global corporations, then they need nation states. Global corporations have capital and investments across the globe which move, as required, to maximise their returns and to minimise their exposure to risk. This means they can avoid, to a large extent, paying taxes and contributing to welfare schemes. They can also avoid listening to national governments’ concerns and decline to follow any legislation their citizenry might enact. International companies will operate in a number of countries but have a base where they hold their assets and investments. They have a national base where they can be taxed and regulated and thus they can, in part, be held to account and obliged to pay their dues.

If we want to limit the increasing centralisation of power and the wealth then we need to oppose globalisation and promote internationalism. The borders of the nation will provide the shelter so that  we can work cooperatively for own commonweal, and, across these borders, we will work cooperatively  for the commonwealth of nations to tackle problems that face us all. In the future our nation states may be found to be too large and we may feel that we need smaller, more human sized, communities (like the canton, the commune or kibbutz) but, for now, they will act as our starting point to wrestle back power from a global elite.

The Wizard Trump

It is sometimes odd how we stumble into knowledge of matters. I was listening to a podcast which was discussing President Trumps’ potential legacy when the contributors began to make reference to “The Wizard of Oz”. They argued that many of the aspect of populist politics in today’s America echoed those of a hundred years ago and the satire about the Wizard of Oz could equally be applied to Donald Trump. I had not been aware of the political analysis of L. Frank Baum’s book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and it was fascinating to hear these.

When the book was written American politics and economy were in turmoil. There had been major changes in monetary standards and the Fourth Coinage Act had devalued silver. There were major financial difficulties and one of the movements aiming to address these was a move for bimetallism – money backed by both gold and silver. This was taken up in 1896 by the William Jennings Bryan , leader of the Democratic Party, as well as some populist groups and Republicans from silver mining areas (“Silver Republicans“). Bryan won the leadership by his ‘Cross of Gold convention speech where he stated “The gold standard has slain tens of thousands.” and urged the convention “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” It was felt that gold helped the rich get richer while ‘free silver’ would create cheaper money with a wider base and provide help for the poorer sectors of society.

It was against this backdrop that “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was written.  It may be no coincidence that gold and silver are measured in ounces which are abbreviated to “Oz.” Similarly a “yellow brick road” to the “emerald city” might well signify the power of the gold standard (yellow) to lead wealth to the wealthy (green signifying fraudulent greenback money). In the book, but not the film, the way to sort problems, and get out of trouble and back home, is by the “silver slippers” – the film used the more photogenic ruby red instead. It is quite easy to imagine Dorothy as the common man assisted by a ‘cowardly lion’ (William Jennings Bryan) on their way to find solutions for the Scarecrow (farmers and agricultural workers) and the Tin-man (Steel and other industry workers). Certainly when Baum wrote a stage version of the book in 1902 he made many political references, mainly as jokes against the current luminaries.

At the end of their trek they meet the wizard who is revealed to be a pompous humbug who uses all sorts of tricks to hide his nature from the people. He actually has no ideas and no power and admits to Dorothy that “I am a very bad wizard. And, thinking of Trump, this seems to be where we came in.

ww-denslow-illustration-4

 

 

Chip Shop Blues

I was quite unsettled during my recent visit to the chip shop. I was perhaps already feeling unsettled as I went in, as I was breaking all of my good New Year’s intentions. I had intended not to eat take-aways, I’d intended to prepare our meals from scratch and to maintain a healthier balanced diet. But we’d had a difficult cold and wet day in the fields and the chip shop’s warm smells and bright lights were irresistible. I had done my usual trick of thinking of excuses : I had always said I should eat more fish and I guessed potatoes in chips are, in fact, a vegetable. I’d also worked out my escape strategies; eating less the next day and doing a but more exercise to compensate. I am a master of self-deception and despite the guilt I was initially quite content standing in the queue, in the warmth, smelling the chips and vinegar, while I waited for them to deep fry my order.

My disquiet started as I watched the television high up on the wall behind the deep-fat friers. It was tea-time and the television was tuned to a music video station, MTV or something similar, and I started to watch the performances. I didn’t know any of the bands or songs and, to be honest, I couldn’t see myself rushing out to a record store to rectify my ignorance. Though not my taste, the music was unremarkable pop music. What was remarkable were the videos that accompanied the songs.

The themes of the songs, as far as I could judge, were as paeans to the singer’s virility, if male, or pulchritude, if female. I guess so many songs are, but these seemed less subtle, less sublimated than I recall songs from my youth. The men all described their unbounded stamina while the womenrihanna-small_trans_nvbqzqnjv4bqeo_i_u9apj8ruoebjoaht0k9u7hhrjvuo-zlengruma invited you to compare them with other less-fortunate women. Both suggested you’d be better to drop your current partner and choose them if you wanted any chance at future happiness. But is was not the shallow lyrics, nor such a carnal view of love,  that made me feel out of time, it was the accompanying videos.

The videos were comprised of very attractive men and women dressed in very little at all. The dancing, as far as it went, comprised thrusting the genitals, buttocks or breasts towards the camera so as to make their pulchritude fill the frame. Sometimes, lest the viewer had missed the point, it was necessary to jiggle the body parts to catch the attention of anyone who was not paying heed. These movements were coordinated into dance scenes when the dancers skilfully simulated sexual acts with each other just in case the viewer had not got the point of the endeavour. The crassness of the videos unnerved me and set me to thinking about the changes that have occurred in my life and set me to worrying about the future my grandchildren will have.

When I was an adolescent, and my life focussed on sex and all matters sexual, we would sometimes sneak into cinemas showing adult films. At sixteen we could sometimes fool a lackadaisical adult on the desk at the cinema that we were of age to enter. When successful I was able to see films, in technicolour, and with sound, of women with few clothes and some brief nudity. At times I and my friends would see actors simulate sexual acts which were less explicitth than the video in the chip shop. The films I was watching in a public space, at tea time, were stronger than I had seen illicitly in cinemas where the wearing of a raincoat was almost compulsory. Times have certainly changed. Early evening music entertainment in my childhood was a man, with a variety of colourful jumpers, singing while in a rocking chair. To spice it up some dancers may have bounced demurely in the background to the beat of the music. (Val Doonican won all the NME awards in 1965 !).

I worry about these changes not because I fear the effects of nudity nor erotica. These are pleasurable. I fear these changes,  as I feel pleasure, like many things, is relative.  Much of the pain and pleasure we experience in life comes from the change from state to another. If you lived on a very plain diet of beans and rice then the excitement of a meal in a middle-price restaurant would be major. The epicure or gourmand, however, will not be able to enjoy ‘bangers and mash’ after a life of ‘larks tongues in aspic’. The baseline setting of our lives determines what it takes to excite us, to please us or to upset us. I think that there is a danger than this turning up of the background noise of erotica is dangerous.

When we are young we are driven to seek pleasures and focus easily on the erotic. The background setting in the 1950’s and 60′ was quite low. Modesty was considered important and as a consequence it was quite easy to be exciting and sexy – raising hemlines in to 60’s caused a stir as did the wearing of a bikini. Young boys could be excited by an underwear catalogue as it revealed the bra under the blouse. However, the excitement caused by these glimpses of nethergarments had exactly the same frisson as the excitement that boys and girls experience today when they see something risqué. But they start much nearer the top of the scale. My scale started with the excitement of seeing a ‘bra’ or a ‘leg’ and rose from there. When you start with simulated sex and crotch shots there is not a lot further to go. Therefore I fear that the total amount of pleasure that can be experienced will ultimately be smaller.

We know forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest and it is important that we keep some pleasures in reserve. By withholding gratification we allow the potential pleasure to build. If we try and enjoy everything at once we  rob it of its value and end up less pleasure than we could have enjoyed. As in the warning of “Brave New World” we could end up with a world of frequent sexual activity but little enjoyment from it. Standing in the chip shop I felt I was almost there already. I felt as if  in a scene from Blade-runner, in a brash, noisy, gaudy future with images and video all around, all senses stimulated and all pleasures offered but with little prospect of happiness. Next time I’ll peel some potatoes and put some carrots on to boil, it will be safer.

 

 

 

 

We made our own presents.

We made some of our own presents this year. This was possibly unwise as neither of us could be described as artistic or skilled at craft. Rudimentary knitting is as far as we get, and the results of our endeavours with wool and needles would scarcely bring a smile to someone’s face over the festive season. However, as part of our endeavour to be self-sufficient, and due to our abomination of waste, we wanted to use the sheep skins of our lambs after slaughter. So we thought learning to tan hides would be a way to kill two birds with one stone.We would use the skins and have no need to buy Christmas presents as we could give rugs and jackets to our friends and family. This plan only half-worked. Therefore, if you decide to follow the instructions which follow, then stop half-way through.

The first stage of tanning is to salt the skins.

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Salted skin

This means covering the whole area of the skin in a layer of salt about 0.5cm thick. Don’ try and do this with a salt cellar you are going to need about 1kg of salt per skin. Table salt or, if it is cheaper to buy, then dishwasher salt will suffice. This stage starts the preservation by drawing the moisture out of the skins as it drops on the floor. It is best to leave the skins for up to a week under the salt. Check them daily and renew the salt at any areas where pools of water have formed. The area you are working in will become wet and damp as the salt draws out all the water from the skin.

The following stage is scraping. You need sharp knives and any metal implements which

scraping
Tools and a wet floor

will allow you to scrape off any bits of meat of fat which are adhering to the skin. There are fleshing knives available at a cost, but kitchens knives, paint scrapers and a bee-hive tool work jus as well. This is very slow work but you have to persevere until a smooth, thin, white skin is all you have left. It should be about 1-2mm thick. Your hands will probably dry out during this process as the salt and the work will pull out all the natural oils in your skin. I found that, when I was doing this, if I went out in the rain, my hands looked as if they had been in a long hot bath as my finger tips went white and wrinkly very quickly.

The following stage is the actual tanning stage. You need to soak the skins in acid for a few days. There are many traditional

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Chemistry

 

ways of getting an acid for this procedure. Originally the brains of the animal would be smeared on the skins for the syringomyelic acid they contained, and in the middle ages there was some poor unfortunate whose job was to collect dog poo (as dog poo and urine are slightly acidic) for the tanning process. We decided against these strategies and went for oxalic acid which is quite easy to obtain as it is a common cleaning preparation (often used as a decking cleaner). We sent up three bins and the skins went through these over the next weeks. The first 4 days in the acid solution, then a day in

mixing
Mixing

 

a bicarbonate of soda wash (to neutralize the acid and start the cleaning) then a few days in a solution of soap flakes for simple cleaning. During each of these steps it is important to stir the mixture once or twice a day with a wooden stick.

Once you have completed these stages you are into the home run. The next stage is to dry the skins by hanging them on a line somewhere. Then daily pull and stretch the skins to make them pliable. This must be done multiple times and which considerable force and vigour as it breaks down the fibres in the leather and makes the leather supple.

drying
Drying

This, I have to confess is where we

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Cadi thinks we’ve skipped a step

made our fatal mistake. While we dried the fleeces well and did try and bend and pull them, we did not do this adequately and when the skins finally dried the leather was too hard and rigid. It was tanned but not, by any stretch of the imagination, supple. This part of the job can’t be skimped unless you are going to be happy with wall hangings or rugs, where flexibility is less important.

This unfortunately did not deter us. We had set our mind on Christmas presents and were not going to be so flexible as to let some stiff leather put us off. After some deft work with leather thongs and a needle we constructed a jacket.

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Merry Christmas

Now the leather outside is indeed waterproof, and the inner wool lining is very warm,  but is does lack a little in finesse and fashion. It looks a little too Neolithic, or Game of Thrones, for day to day wear. I fear if we both wore matching jacked to the supermarket we might even be viewed as a little eccentric. But as proof of purpose it has shown it is possible to tan the skins and next year, after much more diligent work at the drying stage, we hope to have flexible, supple leather. Version 2 might even be wearable in public.

 

Gaeaf Glas wna Fynwent Fras.

We had a cold start to the day this morning and we have more promised to come. Though I was not too keen on this first thing today, when I had to break all the ice from the animals’ water troughs, I am generally glad to see the season behaving more like a normal winter. The cold snap reminded me that, while I had cut and collected enough timber for fuel, I have not split enough logs nor prepared enough kindling. So now I have my weekend planned.

I saw in the agricultural diary, when I was writing our log, that the Welsh proverb of the week is “Gaeaf Glas wna Fynwent Fras“.  This can be translated as a harsh or cold winter will lead to full cemeteries. It reflects early awareness, of now scientific knowledge, that winter is the most dangerous season. Indeed the 7th of January is the day of the year on which  more people die than any other. Possibly reflecting two factors : the first is the winter season itself,  and the second may be the ability of people to hold on or persevere until after the Christmas period – slipping off the mortal coil at a more timely point.

Gaeaf Glas literally means a blue or green winter. Although now ‘glas’ is used to mean ‘blue’, earlier the celtic languages didn’t distinguish in words between blue and green and used ‘glas’ for both colours.  This is why the “dear green place is called “Glasgow”.  Now, in  Cymraeg (welsh) we use glas for blue and gwyrdd for green and I am not sure that this is a step forward. Sometimes I think the prior situation may have been better.

At the moment we are trying to renovate our holiday let’s kitchen and this entails choosing the colour of the doors of the cabinets. You might imagine that this is an easy task. Think of a colour you like, blue, or green, or red, and decide on that colour. But unfortunately this does not work. I have now discovered that there are bluey-greens and greeny-blues, as well as greens that are too greeny. I have been asked to look at  cards and select between sage green, pale verdigris green (which is gray), soft pastel mint green or soft duck egg green (which is blue). Once we have selected an apt green for the cabinets we can then open the big book of paint colours for the splash back. I think there are over 20 blues and greens in here.

I really have no hope of contributingcolor_differences to this debate. Indeed I don’t know why I bother, my wife will make the decision anyway. Not only can I not distinguish between these imperceptible shade differences (Imagine being asked which you prefer “magnolia” or “almond white” or “cream” ! They are all the same). But also there is the mystery of matching to come – “Do you think this brown picks up the brown in the carpet ? Or is it too reddy brown ? I have no hope of playing this game. I don’t know the rules and I am also wired wrongly. Studies have shown that men and women differ in what colour differences they can perceive and as a consequence men and women have different colour categories and nouns.

In this area I think expansion of categories is a hindrance rather than a boon and we should start a campaign for real colours. We would permit red, blue, green, yellow, purple and orange but suggest that all the other colours are simple figments of the home-decorating and furnishing industry and banned as fraudulent advertising. Although of a libertarian inclination this is one area in which I could support some increased legislation. Think of the marital disharmony it would prevent and the number of divorces that would be avoided. Think of the errors that could be avoided day-to-day – no longer could somebody be asked to get the taupe cardigan and make a mistake and get the gray one. Bliss.