Symbolic Forest

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Casting the runes

And exercising my rights

The line was certainly longer than usual. More spaced out. Not that I knew what “usual” meant, of course. Yesterday was the first time I’d been to this polling station—the first time anybody had, I think, because the city council has reviewed and rebalanced and rejigged where they all are.

Oriau Agor

You could say I was lucky, really, moving house just a few months before a Senedd election. Getting to vote for my national representatives straight away, rather than having to wait a few years. It was all very well organised, to be honest. In general in my experience people in this part of Wales have been doing social distancing and similar much better than people in Bristol; here, for example, people will cross the street or walk into the middle of the road to avoid passing someone on the pavement, whereas I don’t think I’ve never seen that happen in Bristol. The queue was nicely spaced out, with most people wearing facemasks well before they reached the chapel door. A woman on the door was carefully regulating admission, making sure there were never more than three voters inside the station at once, one collecting their ballot papers and two actually voting.

So who to vote for? As I said a few months ago, British politics is in a fairly terrible state right now; a dangerous state, you could say, in which populist reactionary Kulturkampf seems to be winning out over any sort of belief in honesty or integrity. It’s a depressing sight, in a situation where however awfully the Prime Minister behaves, however angry he gets at the thought of being held to account, any attempts to try to hold him even slightly to account seem to fail to make any impact on the voting public.

However, the awful state of British politics is very much the awful state of English politics. In Scotland and Wales the situation is somewhat different. In the former reactionaries are desperately trying to stop the country following its natural path to independence; here in Cymru, the Labour government is in the strange position of dealing with one opposition whose main selling point seems to be pride in their own inability. “We want to be leaders,” they seem to be saying, “who know we’re no good at leading, who want to give all our power away.” It’s embarrassing, every time the Welsh Tory leader speaks, to hear just how much he shows off his own anxieties of inadequacy and incompetence. On the other front, support for independence is understandably growing but it doesn’t seem to translate into support for Plaid Cymru.*

At the time of publishing this post, only a handful of the Senedd results have been declared and it’s far too early to say what the final numbers for this Senedd will be once the regional papers have all been counted and seats allotted. Hopefully, though, we’ll continue to have a sensible and compassionate centre-left government, ruling for the benefit of everyone in the country. If only England was so lucky.

* As an aside, one thing that annoys me slightly is the habit the press have of abbreviating PC’s name to “Plaid”, because that just means “Party”.


Or, who made you king?

There’s been in the lot in the news over the past few days about the British royal family: whether or not they are consciously, deliberately racist or whether they are just racist in passing like some ancient uncle who comes to visit at Christmas. Why this is the case probably isn’t worth going into here; I don’t see the point of me just reciting the latest news headlines. What it’s got me thinking is: why do we have a monarchy at all any more? Why are people still happy to regurgitate the old lies about what they do for us?

You don’t have to go far in discussions about the monarchy before you hear claims like “they bring a lot of money in for us, like tourists.” That doesn’t sound very likely to me. Empirically, it can’t be the case that tourists choose to come specifically to the UK because we have a monarch. If it was, Paris, Dublin, and Berlin would be struggling to attract tourists, who would all flood to London, Amsterdam and Copenhagen instead. There’s no real evidence that tourists come because we have a monarch at all; and as the campaign group Republic has worked out even if some do it has a negligible effect on British tourism as a whole. So why, then, do they exist? Moreover, why is it taken essentially for granted that the right of who should be king or queen is set in stone, frozen and immutable?

This idea, the idea that at any one time there is one person who has the right to be king or queen, and that they will be followed by their closest blood relative as surely as night follows day, is an old idea but it’s not that old. Royal legitimacy is, by any practical measure, an utterly terrible idea. If the monarch has to be the closest blood relative of the previous one, then to have good, successful monarchs, you need to have an excellent run of luck. How many times can you look at a group of brothers and sisters and be sure that, automatically, the oldest one is the best leader or the best manager? Eventually, purely by the mechanical operation of statistics, you’re going to see the job going to somebody who is always going to be a bit of a failure in that sort of role; and that’s without thinking of the sort of health problems that frequently tend to crop up in royal lineages stuffed densely with cousin-to-cousin marriages.

“They don’t really have any power,” though, the monarchist will tell you. “They’re just figureheads.” So, if that is the case, why keep them? Why not replace them with a nicely-carved statue as a figurehead instead? It’s fair to say that in modern British law the Queen has very little freedom to act, in the sense of being able to make meaningful decisions. Sovereignty is in Parliament, and the Queen must always follow whatever convention is appropriate in any given situation: appointing the person who can guarantee the Commons will vote for them as her Prime Minister and suchlike. This doesn’t make her powerless, though; it means her power is all in the soft sphere. The power that comes from having that weekly confessional chat with the person actually in charge of things, for example. The relationship benefits both the monarch and the Prime Minister. Any sort of uncodified situation always tends to reinforce the side with the greatest power to begin with: the biggest winners in the British unwritten constitution are the monarch and the government, and the losers are the opposition and the greater mass of the populace.

Legitimacy wasn’t always the way these things were done. It would probably surprise a lot of people to learn that the rules on succession changed relatively recently. In part, we have forgotten that royal succession isn’t set in stone because very few British people have encountered it or can remember the Queen’s accession. A thousand years ago—when England was only a few hundred years old—the English monarchy was a semi-elective institution. After we experimented with a dictatorial republic for a few years in the seventeenth century, Parliament made clear that the monarch ruled only at Parliament’s pleasure. Within thirty years of the Restoration, politicians had invited a Dutchman to invade and take over as king; a few decades further on, Parliament skipped over a number of potential legitimate members of the royal family to appoint a German head of state as king here. Over time the monarch’s control over government, slippery enough in any case after 1688, faded away further and further. By the 19th century it was all but gone.

An aside at this point: legitimist ideas rarely take into account the fact that different countries have someone different ideas on legitimacy. When William IV, King of Great Britain and Hannover died, his niece Victoria became Queen in Britain but his younger brother and Tory poltician the Duke of Cumberland and Teviotdale became King of Hannover, because Hanoverian law did not permit queens regnant. His son, King George V, had his kingdom flattened and squished away in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. If Victoria had still been ruler of a German state during the slow German unification process that concluded in 1871, later history would in some ways have been very different.

So why do we still have a monarchy, and why do we still sometimes behave as if it is implicit and inevitable that we always have one? Partly, I think, because it is what we are all used to; but largely because it brings huge benefits to all who are involved with it, to everyone touched by it.

One thing is certain, though. Within the next few years, within this decade, there will be big changes. The current reign is going to come to an end; that’s just the way things are. When it does, what will happen? Nothing, no doubt, initially. King Charles will be proclaimed, although I wouldn’t be surprised if he chooses a different name to rule by. It was at one time a standard royal tradition—the Queen’s father wasn’t actually called George—but it’s one that will be shocking and alien to most people if it were to be reintroduced. The shock of the change will, I suspect, startle people into finally considering that the monarchy don’t actually have to be a fixture in our world. It will be an interesting process to watch.

Wales is not a principality

But what is it?

As it’s St David’s Day, and the shops are all full of daffodils and Welsh cakes, I thought it might be worthwhile writing something about the history of Wales, possibly even a chain of posts. And the obvious starting point for that is: well, what is Wales?

Back when I was at primary school, we had a few very traditionalist lessons about the history and geography of Britain, and one of the things stated as fact, without meaning or explanation, was that Wales is a principality. Lots of people think this, and lots of people take it for granted, and you still hear “the Principality” used to refer to the country now and again. As you might have noticed, Wales won a rugby match at the Principality Stadium the other day, but that’s named through a straightforward business deal rather than anything more ancient or romantic. But, is Wales a principality? No, not really, not in any meaningful sense. Has it ever been? No, not unless you take “Wales” to mean something rather different to what it does today. But what are the reasons for this misunderstanding? Simply put, this all comes out of the fact that the nature of the Welsh state when it existed does not fit comfortably with what you might call the English pattern of history, the pattern which takes the 19th-century nation state as the ultimate ideal form of political division and judges all historical change against it.

What is a principality, then? Essentially, a monarchy ruled by a prince. There is, of course, a Prince of Wales; but he doesn’t really have very much to do with Wales itself. His vast personal income isn’t from Wales, it’s from the tenants and the business of the enormous Cornwall estate, spread across a huge chunk of south-west England and not really a Cornish affair at all. Much as he sends interfering letters to government ministers behind the scenes, he doesn’t have any formal role to play in government, certainly not any role specific to Wales. The UK is a monarchy in that its monarch signs all its laws (and makes sure any she disapproves of don’t even reach Parliament to be debated), and appoints its government, but the Prince of Wales doesn’t have any say in the matter. Laws passed by the Senedd are signed off by the Queen in the same way that laws passed by the Westminster Parliament are signed off by the Queen. The Prince of Wales? Sits around, running his business empire, slowly curdling with frustration knowing that he has reached retirement age with the whole world seeing him as a sort of semi-comic understudy. Wales is clearly not a principality in any functional or meaningful sense.

Was Wales ever a principality, in reality? Well, parts of it were. Only, though, if you go back a rather long time. Even then, as I said, Wales does not fit very well into the English pattern of history, because it followed a very different history to England.

Everyone in England thinks of England as a unitary, unified, single state that has been around for a literal eternity. That has, indeed, been the truth for a very long time. England came together as a single unified state well over a thousand years ago, but it did so largely for one very specific reason: to define itself in order to save itself. England became a unified single country in response to “the Danelaw”, the control of most of the country by Danish and Norwegian settlers who almost wiped out the English kingdoms that resisted them. The surviving anti-Dane English aristocracy rallied and unified, producing a single kingdom of England with its centre of gravity forever fixed firmly in the South. France to some extent has a similar history: the power of the early Frankish kings around Paris rose significantly just as they had to defend themselves from Danish incursions up the Seine. In Ireland, the Norwegians ended up founding a new capital city, and in Scotland the Norwegians ruled a huge (if marginal) chunk of the modern country for about four hundred years or so. I’m aware, by the way, that I am simplifying swathes of historical argument here, thousands and thousands of pages of academic debate into one paragraph for a surface-skimming blog post. Real historians: please don’t write in. Wales simply didn’t face the same Scandinavian pressure as the rest of Western Europe. The Danes and Norwegians sailed round the coast, and gave names to many of the important coastal bits (step forward Swansea, Anglesey and Fishguard), but don’t seem to have settled in the concentrated, forceful, focused strength-in-numbers way that they did around the mouths of the Seine, the Liffey or the Humber.

There’s also the economic determinism argument about Welsh history. Put simply: it is that the geography of Wales is distinctly different to that of England in a way that, in the pre-modern period, made it hard to unify. There are still constant complaints in Welsh politics that North-South travel is too hard and that Cardiff is too distant from Holyhead to rule it effectively or to understand its needs. There is often a call that the fact there is no North-South rail link entirely within Wales is somehow a failure of Welsh politics or of English centralism, skipping over the fact that it is a fundamental problem with Welsh geography, and that the only entirely-within-Wales links from South to North were for their whole existence extremely marginal links.* Similarly, the A470 links Cardiff with Llandudno but it is in no sense a coherent and sensible route, just a mixture of cross-country links all coloured in with the same pencil on a map so that somebody could indeed claim that there is a single South-to-North road.** The point here is that, in an age when everyone depended on food grown pretty close-by for their regular staples, and when local kings depended on a personal warband of big burly followers as an army, it was just too difficult in a country like Wales to gather together sufficient force from your own core estates and project that force into a different part of the country, to do that in any sort of way that stuck. Each of the small medieval Welsh kingdoms has this core area which could act as the motor of a pastoral economy: Ynys Môn for Gwynedd, for example, or the upper Severn valley (as pictured here a few weeks back) for Powys. Each also has a belt of less hospitable land protecting it from the others. It therefore shouldn’t be surprising that the history of medieval Wales is a history in which for a short time one of these kingdoms was able to assert itself over some or all of the others, but such assertions barely lasted more than a single reign. Or so the theory goes, at any rate; we should always be suspicious of such straightforward determinism, if you ask me. Note, too, that these were kingdoms, with kings. Not principalities.

When all those Danes who had settled at the mouth of the Seine invaded England very successfully in the eleventh century, they stopped short of invading Wales. Or, rather, their kings stopped short of invading Wales in a controlled and centralised way. However, rich and important landholders were allowed to invade Wales on their own account; and as long as they still recognised the English king as their overlord, they were effectively sovereign in their Welsh estates. This means that later medieval Wales was much more like medieval Germany in its political structure than anywhere in England or Scotland: a patchwork of relatively small states, each independent, quite martial, at each other’s throats from time to time, but most generally recognising a kind of “imperial” overlordship. It’s in this period that the Welsh leaders’ titles start to slip downwards, from king to prince. Over the course of this “marcher” period—and again I am enormously oversimplifying here—the tendency was for both types of state, both Welsh-ruled and English-ruled, to both coalesce and grow more accepting of the King of England’s overlordship. By the thirteenth century the family of the kings of Gwynedd had reached the point of taking over all of the other Welsh-ruled microstates—about two-thirds of the land area but only half the population, because the invading English lords had naturally headed for the economically best bits—and at this point they started to use the title “Prince of Wales”. Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd was promptly rubbed out very thoroughly by the English, with most of his family aside from one brother who Anglicised his name,*** moved East, and settled down as a quiet provincial landowner on the border of Kent and Surrey. His territory became something in-between, not part of England, but not as independent of England as the Marcher lords, with strict rules to prevent the Welsh from holding any sort of political power unless they could very definitely be trusted.

So that was the Principality of Wales: most of the Welsh-speaking people didn’t live there, and it wasn’t really ever ruled by a Welsh prince. It lasted until Tudor times, when Henry VIII shut down the last of the Marcher lordships and integrated all of Wales into his kingdom, with the aim of removing almost all Welsh political distinctiveness. It then disappeared, except in name. Wales is not a principality, and huge chunks of the modern country were never part of the principality that arguably did exist.

Will Wales ever be a principality? Well, never say never. The UK today is clearly on a path towards fragmentation; there is a tremendous energy in the UK’s extremities towards fission of the country into multiple separate parts. You don’t have to travel far in Wales right now before you see a pro-independence banner, sticker or graffito.

Independence sticker in Newport

Although the breakup of the UK is probably now inevitable, the exact form that it will take is still impossible to predict. It’s a fair bet, though, that when Wales does become independent, it will be the first time in history that a single unified and unitary state of Wales has existed; and secondly, that it will not be a monarchy of any form. Republican sentiment is already much higher in Wales than elsewhere in the UK, and this is likely to increase as support for Welsh independence increases. Wales is not a principality, and Wales is not going to be. Cymru am byth!

* Firstly, the Manchester and Milford Railway. As its name suggests it was originally meant to be a lucrative main line linking the ever-churning Satanic mills of Manchester with the Atlantic harbours of West Wales. It ended up as a sleepy rural byway linking Carmarthen with Aberystwyth. Secondly, there was also the Mid-Wales Railway which linked Brecon to Newtown via Rhyader; from Brecon you could get to either Swansea via Neath, or to Newport or Cardiff via the vertiginous Brecon and Merthyr Railway. With either of these routes, to truly get North you had to either reverse once or twice and head up the coast to Caernarfon and Bangor, or give up on the whole avoiding-England lark and go the other way via Oswestry.

** It must be a South-to-North road because of its number. If it was a North-to-South road its number would start with a 5, because Llandudno is north of the A5 and West of the A6.

*** From Rhodri ap Gruffudd to Roderick Fitzgriffin.

Sons and daughters of the soil

On local history (in general)

A train of thought has been slowly easing into the station over the past few days, after I read a very interesting blog post by historian Caitlin Green about the Ridings of Lindsey and the route between Lincoln and Grimsby—at any rate, the route between Lincoln and Grimsby mapped in 1675 by the Scottish cartographer John Ogilby. Ogilby was the creator of Britannia, Britain’s first road atlas, in the form of 100 cross-country routes drawn as strip-maps at a scale of 1 inch to the mile. Nottingham to Grimsby via Lincoln is map 78.

I recall watching a documentary when I was a child about the history of mapping, which discussed Ogilby, and for some unknown-to-me-reason it was illustrated with rostrum shots of Ogilby’s Grimsby-to-Lincoln route. I was baffled and amazed. Firstly, that of all places, they had decided to show a map of the very village I was living in at the time; and secondly, that our village was on Ogilby’s map. Our village was on a route from Grimsby to Lincoln, but it certainly wasn’t on the main one.

Nowadays there are basically two reasonable routes between Grimsby and Lincoln. You have the main road, the A46, with various straightened-out parts and bypasses and suchlike. Parallel to half of it, though, is the B1203: in general it still goes through villages rather than around them, and it goes up and down a lot more. The A46 cuts across the Wolds from Grimsby to Caistor, then runs south along their foot to Market Rasen, minimising the time it spends on the hilly ground. The B-road’s route is closer to a crow-flies route from Market Rasen to Grimsby, but as a result much more of its route is in the hills. This is the route that appears on Ogilby’s map, following much the same route as the B1203 today. However, it wasn’t until I read Dr Green’s post the other day, that it really occurred to me that, of course, Ogilby’s route didn’t quite follow the same route as the modern roads. The question of exactly which routes were meant by Ogilby when compared to modern topography is a very interesting one.

My thoughts on this led to a bit of a Twitter discussion with Dr Green,as to how Waltham has developed over the years and how the pre-enclosure road from Waltham to Scartho might have survived as a footpath down to the 1950s. That’s not really what I wanted to talk about today, though, although I might possibly write something about it in the future. The train of thought that’s been wandering around in my head this week is more about the importance of fine-grained local history, and how easily it is lost.

The Mother spent a lot of time over the last twenty years researching our family tree—or, rather, her family tree, as she gave up on my dad’s when she discovered a number of things in the early 20th Century which didn’t quite tally with her views on how People Used To Behave.* From her grandmother, she inherited a Victorian Bible with lists of various marriages and dates of birth inscribed on the flyleaf, and various stories about how her family were descended from Spanish pirates who had settled in Cornwall in the 16th century. These had presumably all come from her grandmother’s parents, who had been the first generation to move out of their tiny Cornish fishing village and had moved to London to marry and have children. I don’t remember meeting my great-grandmother, but apparently she was always also very proud of her “genuine Cockney” roots, having been born in Soho. My mother got right onto all of this, feeding the information into Ancestry, linking it up with other people who could trace their roots back to the same Cornish fishing village, and so on. However, all she ever seemed to be interested in were names on a chart. She entered different ancestors’ names into the data like a birdwatcher who is only interested in ticking each species off in a book, or a trainspotter who does nothing more than gather numbers. That’s…not really what history means to me. To me, history is more about what these people actually did. How they lived their lives, and what the world was like around them.

When we moved to Waltham, before I started school, we moved to a new-build house on a clean new estate with barely any sense of history. My parents, too, seemed to have no sense of history or of the landscape around us. I remember asking The Mother one day what we might find if we did an archaeological dig in the garden, and she replied with: “nothing at all, it was just a field.” It took a few years before I realised that one farmhouse left behind on the estate was much older than all the other buildings; or before I realised that one cul-de-sac was in the middle of a mature avenue of trees. As far as my family were concerned, or anyone I knew, the village was tabula rasa, a clean slate with no history save for the old windmill and the part-Saxon church. All of the roads might for all I knew have been there for eternity, whether built two or two hundred years before. History, to me, was the sharp-angled village library, built in 1981.

At secondary school we learned about enclosure and were shown before and after maps of each of the local villages. Most of the roads, we were told, were built at enclosure, which is why they have sharp bends or zig-zags where they cross the parish boundary. So how did people travel before that? There were few if any roads marked on the pre-enclosure maps. What route was John Ogilby marking on his map, if all the roads were built later? If I thought at all to ask any of these questions, nobody quite knew how to answer them.

I recall someone from my parents’ generation who had grown up in the village telling us that a slight rise in the Grimsby road, close to the old village school, was called Pepper’s Hill. As a name, it didn’t appear on any maps, and I have no idea where it came from, or where she had got it from. Moreover, why did nobody else know about this, and why had nobody told me?

Traditionally, history was always seen as a grand progression of Great Men, of names and dates and battles and similar Important Events. That’s still believed in some regressive, reactionary circles, but it’s not true. There are many histories, and everyone’s story is a history in itself. I love the history of place, the fine-grained history and archaeology of a small piece of topography, the sort of history that asks where the roads really did run in a particular village a few hundred years ago. It’s one of the reasons I waffle on here so much about local cemeteries and suchlike, and why I think it’s worthwhile to look at just how individual places and neighbourhoods have changed. It’s even more important to look at a regular neighbourhood than it is to study the history of a castle or a palace; but so much is lost, or overlooked, or just forgotten. My great-great-grandparents left Cornwall, and left behind them so much knowledge of their tiny village and of their local towns that is all gone completely now, so much dust in the wind. I can go back to where they came from and walk the same streets; I can go to the village museum and see walls of photos of Victorian fisherman who are probably all distant relations of myself; but I have no connection with that landscape or with any of the people. My family has jumped too many times, and broken its connections at each one.

If you go all the way back, back to when the English first arrived here, just think: there is so much that has been forgotten and lost. There are so many rivers in England called Avon, and we do not know the pre-English name for any of them, because Avon is just the Welsh word for “river”. There are so many kings of Britain, from the period after the Romans left and before the English arrived, whose names and numbers and forts are forgotten and missing from the record completely, because they had the misfortune to lose a war. The history we do have now is the history of survivors, but sometimes we should remember there is a history of the forgotten too.

This post is a bit of a mish-mash, a bit of a strange ramble around my mind, but I suppose what I’m really trying to do is set out some sort of a manifesto, for why I like to study history, for why I went and got myself a degree in archaeology, and for what I think is important in those fields. Above all, this is a plea to know the land around you, know its shape and how it came about, know what was here before you and what you have inherited. I hope that wherever I live in the future I will always try to learn about the landscape around me; and hopefully now I’m an adult I will have the resources to be able to do that. This land is our land, but we merely hold it in trust for our descendents; and the same goes for our history too.

* My great-grandparents got together circa 1910 or so but never actually married—because my great-grandfather was already married to someone else. Allegedly, a few decades later someone used this fact to taunt my grandmother, and she immediately punched them to the floor. There were also other bits which would be hard to even draw on a standard family tree, such as the distant relative of my dad who got married to his stepmother’s sister.

The world of the humans

Or, the things we assume just because we assume they'll be like us

A random thought came to me the other day, about how we frame the world. How we conceive of the world, almost entirely around one particular mental framework: that the world and the universe operate in the same way as humans in general and ourselves in particular.

Take, for example, the mayfly. They’re famous for only living a few hours. They emerge, live, reproduce and die in the space of a single day, in the case of many mayfly species. In the most extreme case, Dolania americana live and die in, at most, half an hour for the males, about five minutes for the females.

Except that: of course they don’t, really. We’re talking here about their “adult lifespan”. Most mayflys live about a year, most of which they spend in a “juvenile” state. It’s only the “adult” stage that is quite so brief. It is, it’s fair to say, by far the most visible stage of the mayfly lifecycle. We call it the adult stage because it’s the stage of sexual maturity and reproduction. Mentally, we privilege that stage because most humans spend most of their lives as adults. But for mayflys that’s not really relevant. It’s a tiny fraction of their lives. They don’t even eat in that stage of their life, nor can they. The primary stage of their life, in the sense of it being the one they spend the most of their time doing, is the water-dwelling flightless “nymph” form.

I distinguished above between male and female Dolania americana mayflys. Even these terms, though, are glued on from the human experience, without really considering how relevant and applicable they are. Yes, there are two sexually distinct forms of the species. One of them mates, lays eggs, and then dies; the other mates as much as it can before dying from exhaustion. Being humans, we have an innate tendency to look for parallels and for binary opposites, so we attach the labels “male” and “female”. We probably then also make a lot more assumptions as to what this actually means for the mayflies.

The Plain People Of The Internet: But isn’t that all down to your chromosomes and whatnot? We all have chromosomes! They all have chromosomes! It’s all very basic and that.

Except…that’s not really the case. We have XY chromosomes, where some people have two matching big chromosomes labelled X and some people have one big X one and one small Y one, and we say the former are female and the latter are male. Birds, by comparison, have what are called “ZW” chromosomes: the animals that have one big chromosome and one little one are the ones that lay eggs so we call them female, and the animals that have two big identical chromosomes don’t lay eggs and are called male. Birds and ourselves both evolved from reptiles, not at all that far back in history compared to, say, us and mayflies. There are other reptiles that also use “the ZW system”, but they have different chromosomes for Z and W, showing that they evolved the ZW system independently from the birds and other dinosaurs. And naturally this is without even considering “unusual” cases such as intersex conditions, which we know occur relatively frequently in humans, so must occur relatively frequently in other animals too whether or not anybody has actually noticed. Incidentally, some mayflys can become intersex as a result of parasitic infection and some mosquitos as a result of changes in temperature; that paper also summarises some of the many different genetic and non-genetic mechanisms which determine sexual development in insects.

My point here isn’t just to say that the world is considerably more complex than you thought; more, that at a very basic level, we assign names and labels and modes of thought to things based on nothing more than how we think humans should operate. This is wrong, but it’s also extremely hard to avoid, particularly as it is so deeply embedded in human behaviour and language. One of the tenets of structuralist anthropology—as posited by French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, whose master-work on the subject The Raw And The Cooked later became a Fine Young Cannibals album title—is that this is fundamentally part of the way we as humans think: that binary category distinction is effectively hardwired into our thought processes because it is how our brains function at an extremely low level. This hypothesis is completely unproven and rests on slightly simplistic assumptions, but it is certainly an easy pattern of thought to fall into, reinforced by the structure of much human language.*

As a final aside here: maybe this gives us a way to categorise science fiction works, to categorise them into another sort of binary division. Maybe we can say “good science fiction” is science fiction that tries to be open, speculative and imaginative, and that tries to get away from human-frame assumptions such as “there are male and female sexes” or “the most important stage in the organism’s life cycle is the adult stage, the stage in which reproduction occurs”. “Bad science fiction,” then, is the opposite: works that are closed and imagine that all alien life forms still operate entirely within the human frame of reference, where everyone is another humanoid with differently-coloured skin. It might be stupidly simplistic, but it has to be worth a thought.

* An idle thought: I wonder if Levi-Strauss, as a native French speaker, was innately more likely to come up with the idea that human thought tends always to divide things into binary categories, than someone whose first language was say English or German.

Cloudy skies

And not much we can do about it

Sadly, I didn’t get to see the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, at least not at the closest approach that would have been visible. We had heavy rain here this afternoon; and after sunset the sky was a uniform, undifferentiated cloudy mass with not even the moon visible.

Oh well: we had clear skies last night, at least, and I did see them both, maybe only about 10 minutes or so apart in the sky, just over the horizon after sunset. I tried to take a photo on my phone, but although Jupiter was clearly visible on it, Saturn was only really spottable if you already knew it was there. Maybe it’ll be clear skies tomorrow, when they are parting again.

The solstice has passed too, of course. Politically this country might seem be descending into some sort of nightmarish fimbulvetr right now, but at least the heavens don’t know that.

Feeling at home

On inclusion and diversity

Serious posts are hard to write, aren’t they. This article has been sitting in my drafting pile for a couple of months, and has been sitting around taking up space in my head for most of the past year. It’s about an important topic, though, one that is close to me and one that I think it’s important to discuss. This post is about diversity and inclusion initiatives, in the workplace in general, and specifically in the sort of workplaces I’ve experienced myself, so it will tend to concentrate on offices in general and tech jobs in particular. If you work in a warehouse or factory, your challenges are different and I suspect in many ways a lot harder to deal with, but it is not something I am myself in a position to speak on.

It’s fair to say, to start off with, firstly that my career has progressed a lot since I first started this website; and also that attitudes to diversity and inclusion have changed a lot over that time too. I’ve gone from working in businesses where you would have been laughed at for suggesting it at all mattered or should even be considered, to businesses that care deeply about diversity and inclusion because they see that it is important to them for a number of reasons. What I still see a lot, though, are businesses that start with the thought diversity is important, so how do we improve it, and I think that, frankly, they have things entirely the wrong way round. If instead they begin from a starting point of inclusivity is important, so how do we improve it diversity will naturally follow. If you try to make your workplace an inclusive workplace from top to bottom, in across-the-board ways, then you will create a safe place for your colleagues to work in. If your colleagues feel psychologically safe when they are at work, they’ll be more productive, you’ll have better staff retention rates, and people will actively want to work for you.

The Plain People Of The Internet: But I’ve always felt happy at my desk, chair reclined, just being me, anyway. It’s not something we have trouble with!

But this is where the inclusivity part really comes in to it. There are always going to be some people who feel at home wherever they are. They’re usually the people who are happy in their own identity, which is very nice for them. They’re also the people who expect everyone else to go along with what they want, which is less nice. The people who say “well I have to put up with things in my life, so I don’t see why we should make life easier for everyone else,” and “they’re just trying to be different because they want the attention.” These are the people who are going to have to have their views challenged, in order to make the office round them a truly inclusive place for everybody. At the same time, though, you can’t ignore these people, because inclusivity has by definition to include everybody. You have to try to educate them, which is inevitably going to be a harder job.

For that matter, you always have to remember that you don’t truly know your colleagues, however well you think you do—possibly barring a few exceptions such as married couples who work together, but even then, this isn’t necessarily an exception. You don’t know who in your office might have a latent mental health issue. You don’t know who might have a random phobia or random trauma which doesn’t manifest until it is triggered. Whatever people say about gaydar, you don’t know the sexuality of your colleagues for certain—they might have feelings they daren’t even admit to themselves, and the same goes for gender identity and no doubt a whole host of other things. You can never truly know your colleagues and what matters to them, or who they really are inside their heads.

The Plain People Of The Internet: So now you’ve gone and made this whole thing impossible then!

No, not at all; it’s just setting some basic ground rules. In particular, a lot of companies love “initiatives” on this sort of thing, but they tend to be very centralised, top-down affairs: “we’ll put a rainbow on our logo and organise a staff party”. Those aren’t necessarily bad things to do in themselves, but I strongly believe that to be truly successful, inclusivity has to come from the ground upwards. The best thing you can have is staff throughout the organisation who care about this sort of thing, if they can be given the opportunity to gather people around them, educate them about the importance of the whole thing, and push for change from the bottom upwards.

The Plain People Of The Internet: Aha, I get you now! Get all the minorities together, shut the boring white guys out of the room, and get the minorities to tell us how to sort it out!

No! Firstly, the people who you need to get to seed things off are the people who are passionate about it, moreover, people who are optimistic that their passion is going to have an affect. That applies whoever they are, too. If you want to be inclusive, you must never shut out anyone who is passionate about the topic—with certain exceptions that we’ll come to—because, firstly, inclusivity is for everyone, and everyone has a part to play in it. Secondly, as I said above, you don’t know your colleagues: you don’t know why any particular colleague is passionate about it.

Deliberately making inclusivity and diversity the responsbility of the minorities on your staff is, I’d go far to say, nearly always a counter-productive option. For one thing, you want to find passionate people to drive this forward: you shouldn’t automatically assume that everyone who doesn’t fall into a particular “minority” bucket in some way will be passionate about diversity and inclusion, or even that such a bucket exists. Equally, you need to be very wary of some people who will ride the concept as their own personal hobby-horse, and insist that they, personally, should be the arbiter of what diversity means. There are people out there who will insist that because they are disadvantaged in one way or another, they have the right to determine the meaning of diversity and inclusion in any organisations they are part of. These are the sort of people who conflate inclusivity across the whole office with advantage for themselves personally; they will insist that inclusivity and diversity efforts be focused solely on aspects that benefit them, and will attempt first to narrow the scope of diversity and then to gatekeep what is allowed inside. If you’ve followed my logic about diversity flowing from inclusivity and not vice-versa, you’ll immediately see that this is a nonsense. The reason the type of person I’m talking about doesn’t see it as such, is that they see it, even if they don’t realise it, as being something solely for their own benefit in one way or another.

The Plain People Of The Internet: Now you’re not making sense again! Find people that are passionate but not too passionate? You’re just looking for a team of nice milky liberals who won’t really do anything!

It’s difficult, really, to talk about hypotheticals in this sort of area, partly because every organisation and every situation genuine is very different to another. I’m confident, though, that when you do start getting involved in this sort of area it’s straightforward to see the difference in the two different kinds of passion I’m talking about: passion to improve everybody’s lives, or passion to get more for themself. Sadly, the latter are often much louder, but it’s often very clear: they will be the people saying that they know Diversity and can precisely define it, because they are themselves more Diverse than anybody else so know exactly what needs to be done. The people who say “I’m not really sure what diversity is, but I know we need to get everyone’s input on it” are the people that you want on your team.

The Plain People Of The Internet: So what was the point of all this again? Just what are our team trying to do here?

Make your workplace a more inclusive place, whatever that takes. Make sure that nobody feels excluded from social events. Try to make everyone feel that they are on the same broad top-level team. Make sure that “soft” discriminatory behaviour is discouraged,* and that people are educated away from it: for example, teach people to use non-discriminatory language. Make sure your interview and hiring processes are accessible and non-biased—this is particularly important at the moment when doing remote interviewing, because requiring the candidate to pass a certain technical bar is inevitably going to exclude people. But, most importantly, when your passionately inclusive pathfinders of inclusivity come up with ideas and want to get them adopted, make sure they have the support and resources to actually get that done.

The Plain People Of The Internet: And then you’ll magically be Diverse with a capital D?

There’s a lot more to it than that, of course. People have written whole books on this stuff; I can hardly squeeze it all into a single blog post. But if you can find people to transform your office into a more inclusive space—a space where everyone can feel safe and at home—then you are one step along the road. Actually generating that atmosphere: another step. After that, your office will become somewhere that a diverse range of people feel comfortable working in, because it is a fully inclusive space and because everyone across that range can feel at home working there. And then your management can start being proud of being a diverse organisation, rather than deciding that you are going to be Diverse but not knowing how to get there on more than a superficial level.

The Plain People Of The Internet: Feel at home at the office? Pshaw! Terrible idea!

I agree with you completely that the office shouldn’t be your home, “working from home” notwithstanding. It’s still important to separate the two and not hand over your entire soul to the capitalist monster. Nevertheless, much as you might hate working for a living, if you do have to work for a living, it’s important for you to try to be as happy as you can be within that context. Finding a workplace that can be a safe place for you to exist in, whilst not being your home, is one way to go about that. It’s not really what this post is supposed to be about, but it’s a digression it might be a good idea to explore at some point.

This post is getting a bit long now, judging by the way my scrollbar is stretching down the screen. It’s a personal view. I don’t pretend to know all the answers, and it’s not a field I claim to be an expert in, but it’s a suggestion towards a sensible approach to take. Diversity is important to all of us, because we are all diverse: none of us is any more diverse than the other, and none of us has the right to judge another’s lifestyle as long as it causes others no harm.** The key thing, to my mind, is accepting that genuine diversity does require acceptance and appreciation of this; and that if you want to become diverse, becoming inclusive first is by far the easiest approach.

The dichotomy really, I suppose, is between organic growth and forced construction. Consider, if you’ll forgive me another painful analogy, your workforce as the shifting sands of a beach. If you build a Tower of Diversity and Inclusion on top of those shifting sands, it will fall, or get swallowed up by the dunes. If you let a Forest of Inclusion and Diversity grow up through the sand, it will hold it together and make it more cohesive. I know it’s a bit of a daft analogy really, but hopefully it helps you see what I’m trying to painfully and slowly explain. If you try to be inclusive, and if you turn your workplace into a safe space for everyone to be themselves, the latter is hopefully what you will be able to grow.

* I’m working on the basis here that “hard” discriminatory or offensive language or behaviour is immediately called out and shut down, which I know isn’t always the case in all workplaced.

** I have cut a whole section out of a previous draft of this post, discussing how to spot people who use diversity as a shield to do horrible things. Hopefully, in most situations, it’s not something people have to worry about, but it does happen. It’s a shame that we do have to worry about these situations, but they do happen. Going round again, though, if an inclusive workplace is one where people feel safe to be themselves, it’s also one where hopefully people feel safe to report any transgressions and make sure they are dealt with. I have, sadly, heard of people who use diversity-styled language to try to defend themselves against accusations of abuse or of sexually predatory behaviour, and I’m not surprised there are some who think that diversity is some sort of loophole in that regard, because some people will always take whatever advantage they can.

The state of the world

Or, the world keeps turning

Today was the first morning of this autumn with signs of frost on the ground. I sat down at my desk and saw the roofs across the street fringed with white at the edges of the tiles, as the sun rose in a clear blue sky. Winter is coming, and our Hallowe’en pumpkins are in a dark corner of the garden for the local slugs and snails to eat. A robin fluttered around the garden, getting ready for all the Christmas posing; I doubt they go for pumpkin. In the summer the garden was full with house sparrows, as nearly every house in this street has a few sparrow nests under the eaves; but now they are quiet and are staying inside.

A month or so ago, I talked about how awful the world of politics is, too awful to want to write about. This morning, with the results of yesterday’s American presidential election still entirely up in the air, that seemed still very true. This evening, the results of yesterday’s American presidential election are still somewhat up in the air, but not quite as awful. We can but hope.

Since the clocks changed it’s dark now before I leave my desk in the evening, and on nights with clear skies, at the moment, I can see Mars rising, the first “star” visible above the roofline on the other side of the road. It rises above them just as dusk falls, visible already as a dim orange pinprick whilst the sky around it is still blue. Over the course of this year I’ve come to know the roofline opposite my window intimately. I feel like I know all the cracked tiles and broken patches like the back of my hand; I’ve watched the missing tiles on a house down the street get worse as the year has gone on and wonder how the residents cope in rainstorms, and I’ve watched a house a similar distance up the street slowly have its roof replaced, its chimney repointed, everything tidied and neatened and primped. Winter is coming, we are a third of the way through the final quarter of the year. After that, though, things will be brighter again.

The nightmare realms

Or, some things are too awful to talk about

Very long-term readers, or people who have gone delving around in the archives, might be aware that back when this site started, I used to talk about politics on a reasonably regular basis. Indeed, if you look in the menus (either down below or over on the right), you can see there’s a whole category for it. Since the restart, though, there really hasn’t been anything political that I have wanted to write about, or thought it worth writing about at all.

Fifteen years ago, British politics was in a pretty moribund state. The passion that led from getting a Labour government into power on a landslide win had faded. The Tories flailed aimlessly for a few years before settling on a leader with a shiny, plastic PR-friendly exterior and barely anything on the inside beyond a passionate over-confidence in his own ability. Labour were just…tired, fading away into a party mostly consisting of bland interchangeable technocrats. The feeling I had was: it didn’t matter back then what you thought about politics. Everything was just a bland porridge of centrist-looking parties not wanting to rock the boat, not doing anything too controversial or too likely to upset the press barons, mostly interested in finding some sort of grey consensus. There was a vague sense of religious morality underlying everything, a vague tinge of disapproval of anything sexual that wasn’t straight, cis and vanilla; but otherwise nobody seemed to have any passion or aims beyond their own careers.

I somehow predicted the planned outcome of the 2010 General Election five years ahead of time, and could see that the Tories were slowly and painfully pulling themselves apart as a party, but almost everything else I tried to predict about what might happen to the world, politically, turned out to be wrong. I suppose that’s still a better success rate than most political journalists who actually get paid to ramble, but nevertheless, I still feel as if maybe fifteen years ago I should have realised the extent of the precipice we were on, and just how far we were going to fall, when people realised just how to take advantage of the online world, and of the bland vacuity that was 2000s politics. I didn’t realise the Tories would keep themselves alive by trying to absorb every opinion to the right of them. Eight or nine years or so later, their ploys all played off, and we have been in the nightmare timeline ever since. We should have seen in coming.

So now, why would I want to write about politics, when it is worse, darker, more divisive, than anything I would have ever imagined? Fifteen years ago, you often would hear people saying they didn’t trust politicians, that they never told the truth, that no politician was ever honourable. People have taken advantage of that: if nobody ever trusted politicians, why should they even try to tell the truth? Why should they even try to behave with honour? In Britain the government has made it clear that laws are for others to obey and them to ignore, whether at the level of international relations or at the level of individuals. It seems pointless sometimes to point out just how poisonous this is. All we can do is try to still behave honourably ourselves. In this morning’s news, the American president has apparently come down with the ongoing pandemic disease, one that—given his age and ill health—has a high chance of either killing him outright or leaving him even more mentally impaired than he already is. Given he has recently claimed the disease is a hoax, given that by both accident and design he tells multiple lies every single day, it seems impossible, a few hours later, to tell whether he actually has it or not.

Hopefully, one day, there will be light on the horizon and politics will be boring again. Hopefully one day all the politicians will be interchangeably bland. Looking back, we didn’t realise just how lucky that was. Maybe my ambition for the first year of this blog’s relaunch should be to end up with more posts in the “Trains” category than the “Political” one, because those posts will be much more fun and healthier to both read and write.

And then again

In which there are updates on a couple of items

Well, hello there. Happy new year and all that.

I’ve broken the silence because, in the post below this one, you might notice that I said the one-off Dirk Gently adaptation broadcast on BBC4 last Christmas “very much had the smell of a pilot about it”. Funnily enough, the BBC agreed with me, so much so that it will be getting a short series in 2012. Whether the series will also be filmed in Easton, Montpelier and St Werburghs remains to be seen. Nostradamus himself would be jealous of my keen-eyed prediction skills.

In other futurology updates: a year ago, I predicted that the new government would last about fifteen months, collapsing over electoral reform. I now have three months left on that one, and the electoral reform has gone the way I always thought it would.* We will see. Nostradamus may not be quite so impressed. In slightly better news, though, we do now have the tea towel that we wanted this time last year. The downside to this: I now have to catch up on all the washing-up that’s been waiting since then.

* Despite being a Yes voter myself. No, not that Yes.