Sunday, 27 December 2009

geography for beginners #4

It’s sometimes dry
in Mumbai
when it’s wet
in Phuket,
but there’s no rain
in Bahrain,
only a downpour
in Lahore.

It’s often windy
in Rawalpindi,
although it’s windier
in India,
and the monsoon
in Rangoon
makes it wetter
than Quetta.

Friday, 25 December 2009

the failure of capitalism

A week ago, I read a report on the BBC news website about how coal is powering much of China’s economic expansion, which is bad enough given its likely effect on global warming and climate change, but the part that really struck me was the following:
Jeff and Ada Qian both work as IT specialists for international firms in Shanghai. At home in their flat they and their 10-month-old son Tim enjoy many of the comforts of modern life. They have air conditioning, a car, a fridge, a washing machine and two televisions.

“I feel so far our life is good,” said Jeff. “But I think people always have ambitions, you always want to have more. If I have more money I want to have a better car, a bigger apartment.”

Today perhaps one-third of China’s 1.4 billion people live like this, and many of the rest aspire to.

“I think many of China’s people would like a lifestyle like us," said Ada.
This extract succinctly sums up what’s wrong with the modern capitalist system, which encourages wasteful, needless consumption by focusing on the individual and the satisfaction of personal desires over the collective needs of the world as a whole. Unfortunately, consumption is integral to the capitalist system and is seen as virtuous, even mandatory. During the early part of the Industrial Revolution, capitalism was clearly the optimum form of social organization; indeed, it drove much of the social progress of the nineteenth century. However, resources were plentiful then, and few cared much about tomorrow. Resources are no longer so abundant, yet the present system encourages aspirations that can only deplete those dwindling resources at an ever-increasing pace rather than conserve them to be channelled into useful applications.

In the quoted extract we have, by any standards, an obviously prosperous couple who still want more, while hundreds of millions of their fellow Chinese remain in poverty. It is a scenario that is repeated around the world, both by citizens of the developed nations with respect to those in the developing world, and by elites in developing countries with respect to their compatriots. Yet by satisfying such demand we merely accelerate the inevitable. When are we going to develop a social and political system that encourages people to use less, not consume more? Answer: only when the various crises that are likely to kick in over the next couple of decades really hurt, when people are affected personally.

The recent financial meltdown should have been a wake-up call, but already we’re almost back to business as usual, particularly for the bankers, brokers and others at the top of the greasy pole of acquisition and accumulation who created that problem in the first place. Wealth creation? The global financial system is merely a clever wheeze for channelling money from poor countries into the already bulging pockets of the rich. We’re poorly placed to withstand the next crisis when it comes along. What will that be? Well, my bet is that degradation of the global environment (destruction of forests, rapacious extraction of minerals and other raw materials, etc.), which has been a problem for a long time, mainly because we don’t place a cash value on that environment, and which has accelerated rapidly in recent years, is going to start to have a massive effect on people’s lives fairly soon. You can’t expect finite resources to last for ever, but we behave as if we do. And the environmental crunch, when it does come, will make the recent credit crunch seem like a genteel tea party by comparison.

And what about the population crunch, when that comes? It is an iron law of ecology that the population of a species cannot exceed the carrying capacity of the environment it finds itself in. We as a species are clever enough to be able to postpone the inevitability of an ultimate population crash, but not clever enough to see that we cannot do so indefinitely. Drastic action is needed now on all fronts. The human race is in deep shit, and those of us at the top of the tree need to dramatically downsize our lifestyles, not encourage others to climb to our level. Unfortunately, I don’t expect anyone to follow this advice until we can actually see the precipice ahead, by which time it will be much too late to find out that the brakes don’t work.

Monday, 21 December 2009

who's fooling who?

You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all of the time.
Abraham Lincoln, in a speech delivered in Clinton, Missouri, in February 1858.
Some people can be induced to believe almost anything with remarkably little effort. It’s a thought that has been expressed many times, although seldom as succinctly as by President Lincoln. I was reminded of it one day in 2003 by my neighbour, a self-righteous lady who makes snap judgements about everyone and everything, and who continually makes outrageous statements based as much on prejudice as on any dispassionate assessment of the evidence.

“What d’you think about that thing in Hong Kong?” she enquired when I met her in the street one morning.

“Not much!” I replied casually.

There is little mileage in getting excited about something that you are utterly powerless to influence or affect.

“Don’t you know what’s happening there?” she asked scornfully, in the process jumping to yet another of her misplaced conclusions.

Of course I did. Like anyone who’d just spent four months in Hong Kong, I’d been aware of SARS since well before Christmas, but it seemed at the time—and still does—to have been nothing more than the latest viral nasty from East Asia, a little nastier perhaps, a little more virulent than usual, but certainly not a cause for undue concern. From a distance of eight thousand miles, it was hard to feel a sense of the panic that was apparently gripping Hong Kong.

“It was al-Qaeda!” announced my neighbour self-importantly.

Well at least she made a better stab at the proper pronunciation than did President Bush or any of his lieutenants. But there really is no way to argue with this kind of statement. I merely disagreed politely and continued down the street. My neighbour probably wouldn’t have accepted an outright denial delivered in person by Osama bin Laden himself.

In fact, we can confidently turf this hypothesis out of the window, as too the notion that it was all down to unhygienic farming practices in China, keeping pigs and chickens too close to humans, or something like that, allowing the easy transference of infective agents across species. This idea was mooted a few days after the encounter with my neighbour by a correspondent writing in the letters page of the Daily Mail, a leading refuge for members of the loony Right in the United Kingdom. The suggestion, made very forcefully, was that China be subjected to an immediate and total quarantine until it had cleaned up both its act and its pig sties. The risk was of the decimation of the world’s population by a pandemic on the scale of the one that followed the First World War, which killed many tens of millions of people. You could detect a strong whiff of xenophobia in the letter, another characteristic that my neighbour has in abundance.

Anyway, the reason for this diversion into recent history is to emphasize my point that reality is not a requirement when such people rush to judgement. However, two other aspects of the 2003 SARS epidemic in southern China are also relevant to the discussion. The first is the idea that boiling vinegar might be efficacious in fighting the infection. As in the old wives’ tales that once dominated popular thinking in the West, there may be a kernel of truth in the notion, but it does seem equally likely that you might ward off bubonic plague armed only with a pocketful of posies. And then there was the claim made by some of the scientists investigating the outbreak in Amoy Gardens, a housing estate in east Kowloon, that the infection was being spread by cockroaches. Never can straws have been clutched at so resolutely.

It turns out that scientists are no less gullible than the rest of the population, easy prey for anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the weaknesses in the so-called scientific method and a bent for trickery. There have been plenty of instances: scientists are either easily hoodwinked or so dogmatically determined not to be fooled that they are unable to see the screamingly obvious. The cold fusion controversy of the 1990s is a case in point. Was it a hoax? The protagonists, Martin Fleishmann and Stanley Pons, remain convinced that cold fusion works and claim that they were against releasing details at the time because they felt that the idea needed more work. However, their employers, the University of Utah, wanted to ensure that it would be first with the announcement in order to be able to bask in the kudos of being the host for such ground-breaking work, so it rushed out the lamentably incomplete information it had with all the fanfare and razzamatazz of a major press conference. Once the initial excitement had died down, it was inevitable, given the insufficiency of detail, that no one would be able to replicate the experiment, so it was soon dismissed as nonsense. However, whether it was a hoax or merely incompetent science, you will note, in passing, that the main opponents of the idea were those with the most to lose in terms of public reputation if cold fusion really were possible.

We are on much firmer ground when we discuss Piltdown Man. At least we are on ground that is firmer than that from which this purported missing link in the evolution of Homo sapiens was unearthed in 1933. It was in fact a crude forgery, pieces of an unusually thick human skull with the jawbone of an orang utan that had been filed down to make its true identity less obvious. This find confirmed the dominant theories of the time, that our fossil ancestors, when found, would carry a noble human braincase atop a simian frame, so the skull was not finally denounced as a hoax until 1951, partly because so many leading scientists staked their less than solid reputations on its being genuine. The identity of the hoaxer has never been discovered.

A similar but less well-remembered hoax took place at Glozel, a hamlet in the foothills of the Auvergne just outside Vichy in southern France, in 1924, which again targeted the archaeological community. In an overgrown field soon to become internationally famous as le champ des morts (the field of the dead), a cow stumbled into a hole in the ground. To cut a very long story down to manageable proportions, this event led to the discovery of vast quantities of artifacts, mainly pottery, frequently intact, on a site that should not have been able to produce even a fraction of these quantities, and certainly not undamaged. The soil was shallow, and the field was on a slope, so the degree of water throughflow would have ensured that no archaeological sequence could have developed. And to cap it all, some of the pottery was so badly fired that it actually dissolved in water. It took an international commission, but the Glozel ‘finds’ were finally found wanting.

However, there is a telling postscript to this story. Many years later, a new technique for dating ancient pottery was developed: by measuring the thermoluminescence of a pot, the approximate date when it had last been fired could be determined. The pioneers of this technique tried it on some pots from Glozel, and they came up with, not a modern date for their firing as the archaeologists had expected, but a date around two thousand years ago. The physicists could see nothing wrong with their methods, or any flaws in the underlying science, while the archaeologists were equally insistent that the Glozel site was not just implausible. It was impossible. Even when faced with damning evidence that they must, somehow, be mistaken, the physicists had faith in science, as all its practitioners are required to do. This misplaced faith is now enshrined in the pages of Wikipedia, which confidently proclaims the Glozel site to be genuine, solely on the basis of the thermoluminescence data.

It is sometimes said that we live in an age of science, but that is not true. We live in an age of faith. Faith in science. The mediaeval connotations of the phrase ‘an age of faith’ are not out of place, because there is an unquestioning orthodoxy about some key areas of science today, typified by the single voice with which scientists proclaim the origin of the universe in the Big Bang. The original theory has had to be modified more than once. For example, once it had become possible to calculate the mass of the universe, it also became apparent that we couldn’t see four-fifths of it. Hence the invention of ‘dark matter’, ‘invention’ being a mere courtesy title. On encountering such intellectual legerdemain, one is bound to ask: “How can you tell if what you can’t see isn’t there?”

And once the physicists had calculated the age of the universe, it became apparent that the structure seen in the present universe, at the current rate of expansion, couldn’t have been produced in the time available. Hence ‘inflation’. Expansion of the universe had been faster at some unspecified time in the past. Despite this blatant fudging, challenge is heresy; the penalty is excommunication. Naturally, no one likes to be thought a fool, so the silence is self-enforcing. Alternative and equally rigorous theories are not even discussed, or are dismissed outright as crackpottery, a term that would be more appropriate to describe the artifacts from Glozel.

However, it should be noted that there are many fields of science that are comprehensively beyond reproach. Anyone with a basic science education can follow the vast accumulation of evidence in favour of the theory of evolution, for example. Only someone who believes in the literal truth of the Bible would think it plausible to argue against such a well-attested theory, and on the terminally fatuous grounds that evolution contradicts their treasured source of knowledge. But this kind of idiot tends to dismiss all of science as a conspiracy, which of course it is not.

The problem lies with esoteric fields of science such as cosmology and theoretical physics. The vast majority of the general public are unable to follow the assertions of the ‘experts’ in these fields, because the mathematics involved is far too difficult, so they are reduced to accepting such assertions on faith. Ours may be a more sophisticated age, but at root there is little difference between this situation and that of credulous peasants toiling in the fields of ancient Sumer being told of the latest pronouncements by the city’s priests. These latter may have been able to predict eclipses and other astronomical phenomena, but they also advocated human sacrifice as a means of appeasing the capricious gods whom they alleged caused these events. In this matter only have we advanced in the intervening six thousand years.

Friday, 18 December 2009

did you know that...

a noise annoys an oyster?

drugs and religious experience

I was 21 years old during the so-called ‘summer of love’, but as far as drugs were concerned the 1960s passed me by completely. Inevitably, I was aware of drugs, especially LSD—you couldn’t help but be aware, given the number of songs I listened to that were clearly inspired by drug-induced experience, from Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man to the Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. However, the opportunity to find out for myself didn’t come along until I was 25, when I dived straight in at the deep end with a tab of LSD. In retrospect, I was fortunate, because I was chaperoned throughout the experience by a friend who already knew what it was like and thus what was needed. Music. So we listened to the Incredible String Band’s album Changing Horses (over and over again), their 15-minute epic Creation being particularly suggestive. My friend also knew, as I was to find out, that although the hallucinations do get wilder and wilder, there comes a single clearly recognizable point, almost like a door slamming in your brain, when you know you’re coming down. It’s like peeling the layers of a cosmic onion one by one, each a tiny step on the road back to reality. Aficionados would have told you that this is the best time, although it happens so slowly that you begin to wonder at what point you will merge back into the real world, or whether you ever will.

After a second chaperoned trip, I decided that it was time to fly solo and record the experience. So there I was, notebook in hand, ready to describe to the world what an acid trip was like. I still have that notebook, but the only person it makes any sense to is me. The word that occurs most frequently is ‘silly’. Anyway, once that door had slammed, I decided it was time to go for a walk—around a deserted council estate at 3am. At an upstairs window of every house I passed was propped a ladder. And descending each ladder was a man in a black mask wearing a black and white striped jersey with a black bag marked ‘swag’ over his shoulder. My walk was taking me on a roughly circular path, and I eventually became aware that I was heading back home, which I didn’t want to do. There was too much to see and enjoy. Fortunately, there was a cut leading up to the next road nearby. As I entered the cut, the high garden hedges on each side began to block the light from behind, and a dogleg halfway up the cut shut out any light from the road at the top. Suddenly, I became aware of hordes of evil witches, foul demons and monsters of every sort. However, I had the presence of mind to turn on my heels and go back the way I’d come. I would return to the world of fun and laughter. But then, twenty yards down the road, I suddenly thought: “No! This is a challenge. is my mind strong enough to resist the forces of evil?” As I walked confidently into the darkness, I saw myself as Captain Invincible. “Take that foul fiend. You cannot defeat me.” And sundry other do and derring. All inside my head, of course. I reached the dogleg, and a streetlight at the top shone like a spotlight on my face. I was in a packed 100,000-seater stadium, and I was getting a standing ovation.

Now contrast this account with that of a guy I met around this time, a few years younger than me, who claimed to see God when he took acid. I’d graduated to listening to Pink Floyd by this time, and the best that I could set against his ‘revelations’ was the belief that the band were trying to play tricks with my head:
I’m most obliged to you for making it clear
That I’m not here. (Jugband Blues)

Will the key unlock my mind?
Will the following footsteps catch me?
Am I really dying? (Julia Dream)

I didn’t mind though, because I was wise to their little games. In other words, I took acid purely for fun. The other guy became a disciple of Guru Maharaj Ji, a fourteen-year-old charlatan who was doing the rounds at the time, while I decided, after two years and about twenty trips, that I was whistling up a blind alley and moved on. I’ve never tried LSD since, nor do I have any desire to do so.

Thirty years later, the guy who saw God can still be described as a hippie. But now he’s fallen under the spell of a shaman from the South American jungle who feeds him God knows what cocktail of psychotoxins at £50 a pop. Some people are so gullible. And he still thinks he sees God.

What do I deduce from the above? That the nature of hallucinations induced by psychedelic drugs reflects predispositions in the user. There is no shortcut to enlightenment. The only insight I ever got from LSD was into the deranged mind of the lonely schizophrenic. On the other hand, there is one sense in which taking acid and religious experience can be compared: both can be difficult to escape from, even harder than from religion itself. My idea of the worst thing you could do to someone is secretly to drop a tab of acid into their drink. I shudder to think how horrifying an experience that would be for someone who had absolutely no idea what was happening to them. For a start, they’d believe absolutely everything anyone told them. Does that sound familiar?

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

geography for beginners #3

The line of the Equator,
according to Mercator,
passes through Uganda,
but misses out Rwanda.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

dictator

Vladimir Putin
once wore his suit in
the bath. But if you laugh
at this gaffe
he’ll put the boot in.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

scramble six

The two grids below are separate puzzles. Discard one letter from the starter word at the top of each grid and rearrange the remaining five letters in the five empty squares in the second row to form a new six-letter word using the additional letter provided. Repeat this process for each row in turn until you have six new six-letter words. The puzzle has now been solved. At each stage, the letter you choose to discard must be from the starter word; the letters provided in rows two to seven must be retained.

Friday, 11 December 2009

geography for beginners #2

If you develop pneumonia
while visiting Estonia,
if you pick up malaria
on a trip to Bulgaria,
don’t rely on that quack
from a street in Iraq.

If you suffer a seizure
in remote Indonesia
or acute kidney failure
in the heart of Australia,
don’t count on that man
whom you met in Japan.

If you fracture your tibia
on a tour of Namibia,
if you contract ebola
in rural Angola
or severe diptheria
in coastal Nigeria,
you might think that’s bad,
well, don’t visit Chad.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

one word

Cantonese is a difficult language, even for the Cantonese, even though they start early and get plenty of practice. Some Cantonese speakers can’t even pronounce words in their own language, a particular problem arising with words that start with the nasal consonant ng–, such as ngor (I), ngan (silver) and ngau (cow). The solution adopted by many is to omit the initial consonant altogether, but this leads to yet another difficulty: what to do with a word that consists solely of that nasal consonant, such as ng (five). The usual rendition is “m”, which gives the unfortunate impression that the speaker is expressing an opinion on food. Many Cantonese speakers also have difficulty pronouncing an n sound at the beginning of words such as nai (milk) and nei (you). These are often pronounced “lie” and “lay”, respectively, which at least gives the lie to the notion popular in the West that the Chinese are unable to pronounce the letter r.

So where does that leave the rest of us? Cantonese is a language full of snares to trap the unwary. For example, I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve said something different to what I thought I was saying, sometimes with embarrassing results, simply because I got the tone wrong.

Consequently, if you’re thinking of visiting Hong Kong, throw away your phrase books and other self-instruction paraphernalia, because they are all a complete waste of time. There’s only one word that you should learn, a word that can be applied in almost any situation and if spoken with real feeling will convince your listeners that you’ve lived in the territory for years. It is a word that can be used to express surprise, disbelief, exasperation, frustration, annoyance, disgust and relief, and several other emotions if you’re really desperate. This is the word:

“Aaiiyyaaaah!!”

In the appropriate context, nothing more need be said.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

chainwords

The object of this puzzle is to place the 21 two-letter combinations below into the grid so that every pair of adjacent squares, horizontally and vertically, forms a four-letter word. No inversion of the letters in each pair is allowed, and words must read from top to bottom or left to right, as appropriate:

AL AN AR CH EA EL ET FE IC IN LY
ME MY NE ON RE SA SE TH TO VI

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

geography for beginners #1

You can’t ride a tram
in Vietnam
or a trolley bus
in Belarus,
but you can hire a van
in Azerbaijan
and a luxury car
in the state of Qatar.

Friday, 4 December 2009

the beatles: a personal memoir

How you approach the Beatles depends very much on your age. If you were born after about 1965, your only knowledge of the Beatles will be of a complete body of work. Modern critics who denigrate the Beatles tend to overlook this obvious fact. However, if, like me, you were 16 years old when Love Me Do was released, you would view the band differently. I and my contempories got it all in sequence, conveniently spaced at intervals of a few months to keep us eager for more. My cousin, who was two years older, looked down her nose at us young fools and wondered what all the fuss was about. A couple of years younger and you’d have screamed your bloody head off and not even listened to the music. In fact, the Beatles gave up playing live because they couldn’t hear themselves playing. Check out The Beatles at Shea Stadium: the band is off key most of the time, and the playing is extremely ragged. As professional musicians—and by ‘professional’ I mean someone who not only earns a living from an activity but also takes a pride in doing that activity to the best of their ability—they had little alternative. And it’s nonsense to suggest that they weren’t competent musicians, as several recent critics have done. You don’t play five-hour sets at the Indra and Star clubs in Hamburg for weeks on end without either getting good or getting thrown out. These guys paid their dues.

Anyway, my father had just bought a new gramophone in October 1962, and Love Me Do was the first 45 I ever bought, complete with original red Parlophone label (Parlophone had switched to a black label by the time Please Please Me came out). It is my proud but of course unsubstantiable boast that upon hearing Please Please Me (I placed an advance order based on the impression that Love Me Do made on me) for the first time I predicted to my friends that the Beatles were going to be big time; and my friends continued to remind me of this for several years thereafter. I had a little status at that time, because I’d been entrusted with the task of selecting records for the jukebox in my local coffee bar, the Dunrobin. Its proprietor actually owned this jukebox, which meant that he had to buy his own records. Service companies put records on their jukeboxes only when they were already climbing the charts, but I can say that we had most of the big hits on our jukebox at least a week before they hit the charts, and I didn’t pick too many lemons. However, although I was quite good at picking the hits, I did (ab)use my position to further my own musical agenda, so we had Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and other R&B heroes. And Tamla Motown at a time when Motown’s output was still being released on Oriole American, an extremely minor label, in the UK. Unbelievably, one of the most popular records with the coffee bar’s regulars was Just Like I Treat You by Howlin’ Wolf! And all this in a small market town in the north of England. That jukebox must have been one of the most eclectic to be found anywhere. But I digress.

To assess the impact that the Beatles undoubtedly had, you need to see the context. Pre-Beatles 1960s pop music was unrelentingly dire, with just a few notable exceptions—Shakin’ All Over by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates springs immediately to mind. And then there was the serendipitous coincidence of a number of factors, the first of which was that they were turned down by Decca. Just imagine it: if Decca had signed the band, they would probably have been produced by Joe Meek. If you don’t think that would have been a problem, check out Meek’s production on John Leyton’s Johnny Remember Me or the Tornadoes' Telstar. Ugh! Second, the Beatles signed for EMI, where they had the great good fortune to be assigned to George Martin, who was sympathetic to what the band was trying to achieve, unlike Phil Spector, who imposed his own style because he thought himself the star of the show. His work on Let It Be makes this point with devastating clarity. It is nothing short of execrable. Third, they dumped Pete Best and replaced him with probably the most underrated drummer of the 1960s, Ringo Starr. Ringo is underrated precisely because he’s not flashy. Contrast him with Keith Moon of the Who or Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, both brilliant drummers but with flamboyant playing styles, so people notice them. Mind you, Ringo would have been the wrong man to accompany Hendrix, but it takes another drummer to appreciate the metronomic precision of Ringo’s drumming and the hundreds of hours of practice that are required to reach that level of accuracy. Finally, however, the really crucial coincidence—it had never happened before and is very unlikely to happen again—is that of finding two geniuses in the same band. And contrasting styles too. McCartney had the better ear for a tune and wrote simple songs with a wide appeal—note how often his songs are covered by other artists. In contrast, Lennon’s songs are more introspective and personal, and they attract fewer cover versions. And the definitive version is invariably Lennon’s. The contrast is best exemplified by the 1967 double A-side Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever.

That said, I entirely agree with modern criticism of the hype and media-induced frenzy surrounding the early Beatles. However, the stupid haircuts and collarless Italian suits were the work of their manager, Brian Epstein. The boys didn’t like them. And Epstein was a brake on their creativity too. He actually wanted the band to record How Do You Do It? (later covered by Gerry and the Pacemakers), written by a jobbing Tin Pan Alley songwriter, as a follow-up to Please Please Me!

There is an interesting but also saddening downside to all the media adulation that the band attracted: the tendency to build something up while waiting for a chance to put the boot in. The British media are experts at the technique. The Beatles could do no wrong for five years, but you could just hear the knives being sharpened. The chance came at Christmas, 1967, when the BBC screened the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. It was largely unintelligible or just downright silly, but it was the Beatles after all, and it was torn to shreds by the TV critics the following day. Nobody appeared to notice that it contained some of the Beatles’ best songs: Fool on the Hill, I Am the Walrus (which together make for another interesting comparison of the contrasting styles of McCartney and Lennon). As to influence, it’s hard to say. There was a deluge of competent but hardly exciting bands, first from Liverpool and then from other population centres, in the wake of the Beatles, but by the time this dust had settled, a clutch of very talented bands had emerged: the Rolling Stones, the Hollies, the Animals, the Kinks, Manfred Mann, the Who, etc. We waited eagerly for each new release.

Something not appreciated by those who are only familiar with the contemporary music scene is the nature of these releases. Today, chart singles are merely lifted from the artist’s current album and are really just a cheap marketing ploy. In the 1960s, singles were produced specifically aimed at the charts without appearing on any album until much later, so there was genuine excitement whenever a new release was imminent. And I shouldn’t leave out the influence of the pirate radio stations. Before Radio Caroline came and anchored in the Irish Sea, I had three options if I wanted to listen to any music: (1) buy the record (very limited); (2) the jukebox; (3) Radio Luxembourg. This latter was a commercial station in a particularly grim way: it’s entire output (save for the religious fundies on early in the evening) was advertising. Each program was sponsored by one of the major record companies, and in a thirty-minute slot you were likely to get twenty songs, or more precisely the first minute or so of each song. Radio Caroline gave me the opportunity to hear the whole song, and in a playlist where record label was not a factor in choosing what to play. In an age of CDs, MP3 players, online downloads and the opportunity to listen to music almost wherever you are, it may be difficult to imagine what that meant in 1963–64.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Bob Dylan heard the Animals’ version of House of the Rising Sun and decided to go electric. One of my favourite chuckle memories of the period is of all the folkies walking out of concerts shouting “Judas” when Dylan walked onstage in front of an electric band. They probably deserved what was coming: spending the rest of the decade with their heads up their backsides listening to Joan Baez. It doesn't get any grimmer. Anyway, the Beatles heard the new electric Dylan, and that is what made them realize the old moon/June paradigm of lyric writing was strictly one-dimensional, leading to a much more mature approach to their songwriting (cf. Rubber Soul and Revolver, and single releases of this period). And so it went on. Everybody was influencing everybody else, leading to an explosion in creativity and a great time to be young. At the time, I was devastated when the Beatles broke up, especially as the Spector-produced Let It Be turned out to be a cheapskate epitaph for such a great band, but in retrospect I came to realize that they had burned themselves out as a creative force, and, after all, good things never last for ever.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

drug of choice?

Television is a malevolent influence. This statement ought to be self-evident, but, especially in Hong Kong, most people would deny it, almost as an article of faith. It is a curious fact that television is widely considered to be a positive influence. Appealing to the heavy weight of Chinese tradition, which it is perilous to attack, proponents claim that it brings families closer together.

This is palpably untrue. When a family sits down to watch television, they watch television; they may chatter inanely, but they do not communicate. Conversely, when a set is left on as a background filler, it provides sufficient distraction to seriously impair the ability to think. Without thought it is impossible to express feelings, even about fellow family members. What is felt but not expressed is rarely assumed. Far from drawing the family closer together, television drives it apart, each member into their own tiny, self-contained universe.

However, I’m not advocating the abolition of television. Like the atomic bomb, it cannot be uninvented. But we should learn not only to live with but also to use constructively the demon that has become such an inextricable part of all our lives. This we have so far failed to do.

On the contrary, we have allowed the television set to become an instrument of control, because we have not stopped to consider what it is, what it does or what it represents. Television is essentially a relentless projector of images, a distorted montage of unreality. It is constrained by the dimension of time, always moving forward beyond hope of recall. Even the development of video recorders permits no more than a measure of control over the composition of that montage; such devices do not provide a closer approach to reality. How many viewers ever stop to consider that the images they are being shown have been selected by an unseen director? And have they ever considered the images that are not shown? Finally, television provides input to only two of our five senses, one the all-powerful sense of sight, which has the capacity to delude even the most conscientious observer. Bearing in mind that millions of people rely on television, and many form a world view based on what they see, this cannot be a good thing.

But the real danger, and the tragedy, of television is that it is addictive. It is as debilitating as any drug, robbing the viewer/user of the power of discrimination. And the tragedy is that this quality has led to its prime use in modern society: as a means of capturing, and holding, a mass audience, who are then easy prey for advertisers and their subtle or, more frequently, heavy-handed blandishments. This too is probably inevitable, but it does create the quite reasonable expectation that those who have the opportunity to engage in television broadcasting show some degree of responsibility. This seems to be lacking in Hong Kong.

In a few places, television broadcasting has been established and subsequently funded by a licence fee on all sets—an attractive idea, but much too close to being thought a form of taxation to be acceptable in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, what does seem to be acceptable in Hong Kong is broadcasting with the sole purpose of making as much money as possible. Television stations provide as cheap—and as shoddy—a service as they believe they can get away with.

This is precisely what has happened; existing provision is woefully inadequate. If the two terrestrial stations had approximately equal shares of the audience, things could be different, but in Hong Kong we have the odd phenomenon of one station being so completely dominant that it can fill our screens night after night with mindless garbage with no perceptible adverse reaction from its audience. The minority channel can be as adventurous as it likes; in practice, it will make no difference. This is odd because in practice the output of the two stations is broadly similar, so the only plausible explanation for the imbalance is a kind of brand loyalty, which effectively reduces broadcasting to the level of selling soap powder and clearly demonstrates how advanced the narcotic process has become.

The mention of advertising calls to mind yet another danger: the influence that advertisers have, directly or indirectly, on what is and what isn’t broadcast. If an advertiser’s instinct is always to stick with a familiar formula, then programs that are experimental, adventurous or controversial will never see the light of day, unless, that is, a significant audience segment is no longer prepared to watch the mind-numbing drivel that passes for the proven formula.

This is more difficult. Complaining about the quality of television programming is a perennial pastime, but one in which the logical next step is never taken. Not only should we be prepared to boycott a station that refuses to upgrade its programming, we should also be prepared to take the same action against companies and their products that associate themselves with especially bad programs—or with insulting adverts, for that matter. Unfortunately, what constitutes a bad program is an endlessly debatable question and one impossible to answer objectively.

Perhaps there is no answer. Perhaps, given the tedium, the drudgery, the sheer ordinariness of everyday life, we need our daily fix, like any other addict. Perhaps we actually like television. Perhaps we might be permitted our harmless little daydreams.

And then you wake up. A little-known fact about Victor Lustig, the man who famously sold the Eiffel Tower, is that he attempted to sell it a second time, because the first victim was too embarrassed to admit that he’d been done up like a kipper. A similar principle underlies the perpetration of every successful fraud.

Monday, 30 November 2009

wedgewords

A wedgeword is a word that can be inserted between two given words so that when split between those given words two longer words are formed, as in the following example: OUT(.......)LION. The wedgeword CRYSTAL when inserted between OUT and LION gives OUT(CRY.STAL)LION. CRYSTAL is therefore the solution. If more than one wedgeword is possible, only the longest counts as the correct solution. The number of dots does not indicate the length of the wedgeword. British English spellings apply. Now try these:

1: UNDER(.......)LIED
2: UNDER(.......)OUR
3: RAM(.......)HEM
4: FORM(.......)LED
5: HE(.......)HE
6: GRAM(.......)LING
7: INTER(.......)END
8: PEA(.......)OR
9: CAR(.......)ATE
10: CARE(.......)PET

Sunday, 29 November 2009

sleep

storm raging overhead.
still, he lies suspended,
cool in his cocoon of sleep.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

an asinine analysis

The global capitalist system as it currently operates encourages individuals, as well as corporations and countries, to spend all their time putting together their own private piles, around which they then proceed to erect tall fences with signs saying, in bold letters, ‘Keep off! This is mine!’ This is the unfortunate result of a system in which every material thing can be had if you can afford the price, from exotic, out-of-season vegetables to a trip to the International Space Station, and it is not a good use of finite and now rapidly dwindling resources, especially when the thing in question is neither necessary nor useful. This type of behaviour, this greasy pole of accumulation, can achieve only short-term rewards for a lucky few while sacrificing any prospect of long-term communal gains. And in the long run it is completely unsustainable. There is an appropriate word for this behaviour: avarice has all the right credentials to be that word, but there is another word that has an even stronger claim to be the right one to use here. Stupidity. Selfishness comes into the picture too, but that word merely underlines the stupidity of mindless acquisition: notice that the initial letters of the three words spell ‘ass’, which can be taken to mean whatever you like in this context, but one should not forget that the ass has been nothing more than a beast of burden throughout human history and is noted chiefly for obstinacy and not being very smart.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

silence (a fragment)

1
the silence is resounding,
  pounding
    like the rain
on a rooftop, echoing,
  glowing.
    twilight’s bane
is the shadow in the dark,
  remark:
    spectral light
criss-crossing across the sky,
  low—high;
    shades of night
closing in. a sudden fear:
  unclear
    higher ground;
uncertain haze descending,
  blending
    sight and sound.

2
silence is a swirling green
  fog, seen
    but unheard.
silence is a resonant
  green slant,
    slightly blurred.

3
flying, fragmentary mind,
  unwind;
    it is air,
it is emptiness. and all
  must fall,
    for there, there
on the mysterious height,
  a light
    (now intense)
burns. and then down, the last spark,
  the dark,
    the silence.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

another side of hong kong

Everyone is familiar with the popular image of Hong Kong—high-rise buildings, crowded streets, bustling markets, a spectacular harbour—but venture into the countryside and a different picture emerges. Apart from wild pigs, which are surprisingly numerous, and a few porcupines, there are no large mammals, but there is still a lot to see: particularly reptiles, insects and flowers. The following photographs were taken with a cheap digital camera, but what they lack in technical quality they more than compensate for in interest. All were taken in the Sai Kung area.


Mangroves are one of the very few plants with leaves exposed to the air that grow happily in seawater.


Competition for space is intense in the forests. This tree has solved the problem by growing atop a large boulder.


There are more than 200 species of butterfly in Hong Kong. This is Papilio palinurus.


Papilio rumanzovia.


This leaf-mimicking butterfly hasn't chosen a good place to settle.


However, this leaf-mimicking butterfly really does know how to hide.


The Hong Kong countryside is a noisy place. This cicada is one of the many reasons.


Back in the leaf litter, land crabs are also no slouches when it comes to camouflage...


...while in a nearby stream, two toads mate oblivious to the prying eye of the camera.


It was obviously too cold for this skink to run away.


Strangely, this large flower, the only one on the tree and very close to the ground, faced directly downwards and was very hard to spot.


Nothing is wasted in the forest. Here a bracket fungus is in the process of polishing off the last of a fallen tree trunk.


Meanwhile, back in the mangroves, it's low tide.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

chinese whispers

If you were to look up the entry for ‘China’ in Cassell’s Book of Knowledge, an eight-volume encyclopaedia published in London in the 1920s, you would find the following opening paragraph:
A book in China begins at the top of the last column on the last page and goes backwards till it ends with the first column on the first page. A dinner begins with fruit and sweets and ends with soup and rice. Men in China wear skirts, and women wear trousers. White is the colour for mourning, and brides dress in scarlet.…
Disregarding one or two slight inaccuracies (a dinner does not begin with fruit and sweets, and men have never worn skirts in China), the subtext of this passage is clear: ‘just look how these silly foreigners behave! Why can’t they do things correctly, like us?’ The times may have changed, but not the attitudes. In 2001, a group of Chinese residents in Britain complained to The Guardian, the country’s most liberal and presumably most enlightened newspaper, about the treatment of Chinese people in news stories. The nub of the complaint was that, whatever the context, any Chinese who appeared in a story was invariably described as ‘inscrutable’. This conception of the Chinese is so ingrained in the West that we may even fail to notice that it is a stereotype, and we would certainly overlook any idea that it might be insulting, in the same way that the quoted passage is insulting, because it conforms to the long-established tradition of the ‘mysterious Orient’, a far-off place where other rules apply. A place that exists only in the imagination.

A small and entirely insignificant part of that tradition is the Victorian parlour game commonly known as Chinese whispers, which is probably played seldom if at all nowadays. It involved passing a short verbal message down a line of players in turn, the object being to see whether the message reached the far end of the line ungarbled. Apparently, when played with the naive enthusiasm of the game’s originators it rarely did reach the end of the line intact unless the line or the message was very short, and one can imagine some anonymous fool, clearly struggling to come up with a rational explanation for the phenomenon, linking the changes in the message not to chance error but to something ineffably mysterious to do with China.

On the other hand, as has been known in horse racing for a very long time, blinkers often enable the wearer to see more clearly, to focus only on the important detail, and the long-forgotten coiner of the name ‘Chinese whispers’ may have been closer to the mark than he realized. In historical times, the Chinese rarely adopted anything from the West. In that regard, they may have been more inward-looking, more insular in their national philosophy, than even the English. But times change. Every country, even China, is now founded on a commercial and technological culture with its origins in the science of the West. A modern city is recognizably a modern city wherever in the world it is built.

Hong Kong is a good example. Viewed from a distance, it has all the trappings of a modern city—high-rise buildings, a fast and efficient subway system, streets choked with traffic—but when you look more closely you will find evidence of how the Chinese adopt and adapt ideas from the West. Take the eighteenth-century English barber’s pole as an entirely trivial example. Originally, it was painted in alternating spiral stripes of red and white, signifying blood and bandages in allusion to the barber’s secondary profession as a surgeon. This has now become the universal symbol for a hairdressing salon in Hong Kong, brought up to date in that modern poles are not wood but plastic, and they are rotated by electric motors rather than being fixed in one position.

The surprising aspect of all this is how far it is possible to depart from the original red and white stripes without affecting the recognizability of the sign. Red, white and blue striped poles are common, and poles with black and yellow or pink and yellow stripes occasionally appear. In addition to the standard stripes, blue or black and white chequerboard designs are also common. It would have been useful to have been in Hong Kong when such signs began to appear, but it does seem likely that the more radical departures from the original barber’s pole had as their models other signs in their neighbourhoods that had already made some modifications, rather than the original design. At this late stage, it is impossible to test this hypothesis, but a series of such causal links rather than a single change is the only plausible explanation for two of the most extreme examples of transmutation.

On the edge of Tsim Sha Tsui, the main tourist and entertainment district in Kowloon, there is a salon where the spirals are preserved, but as a thin black stripe alternating with a broad transparent one. This may sound prosaic, but what lifts this sign out of the ordinary is the line of closely spaced, dart-shaped asymmetrical triangles that is superimposed on the transparent stripe. These triangles are almost the width of the stripe in size, with the darts pointing in the direction of rotation of the pole, and they are an iridescent blue. However, within a quarter of a mile of this salon, another pole signals an even more radical departure from the original. This pole is bright yellow, with large green circular dots, the balance of the colours being roughly fifty–fifty. The only feature that this example has in common with the striped and chequered poles is that it constantly rotates. Were it stationary at all times, it would offer clues to no one as to its likely meaning or purpose.

The connexion of this phenomenon with Chinese whispers should now be obvious. It is merely a semiotic version of the game. And on this evidence, the Chinese would have been masters at the game that bears their name, because in making changes, serendipitously or otherwise, to a concept, they take great pains to preserve the essence of the message that they are trying to communicate. And so it is with barbers’ poles. Colour is irrelevant, with due respect to those unfortunate enough to have provided the blood that inspired the original poles. And geometry is also irrelevant. It is only necessary that a pole be rotating.

Now look at how the process works in reverse. How does a traditional Chinese idea acclimatize itself to a Western environment? How does it change, and how is it adapted to conform to Western norms? The obvious example is gunpowder. The Chinese invented the stuff, and for a thousand years they used it to make fireworks. For entertainment. Gunpowder finally made it to Europe in the thirteenth century, where it quickly escaped from the alchemist’s bench. And what did we use it for? Weapons of mass destruction.

If, therefore, we are prepared to concede that Chinese whispers, then we must also acknowledge that English shouts.

train spotting

I’m not embarrassed to admit it. I’m an ex-train spotter. I can understand why this pastime has had such a bad press though, but growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it did seem quite adventurous. Of course, I scorn with the rest of you the popular stereotype of the train spotter, although I assume that they do what they do because they have nothing more exciting to do.

Anyway, the incredibly banal object of train spotting is to see every single locomotive in the entire country and note down its unique number, but the idea of sitting on a windy station platform, waiting for those locomotives to come to you, does sound pointless. I think we can agree on that. However, we reversed the process. In other words, we spent a lot of time visiting the sheds, the depots where the locomotives were maintained, repaired and prepared for their next assignment. And we’d plan days away in cities like Glasgow, Edinburgh and Newcastle to a tight timetable to get to as many of these engine sheds as we possibly could. We occasionally had official permits, but more often than not we were, in the ubiquitous slang of the time, ‘bunking’.

Bunking was fun, if occasionally dangerous, but you quickly found out which was which. I spent a fortnight in London in the summers of both 1960 and 1961, and for someone from the north, the sheds of the Southern and Western Regions of what was then British Railways were the main target. Armed with my Ian Allan shed directory, I found my way to Nine Elms, code number 70A. Now, I’d been informed by our local expert before I came to London for the first time that the sheds on the Southern had official gatekeepers. No problem. Just pretend not to notice.

“Hoi! Where d'you think you’re going?”

“In there,” I replied politely.

“No you’re not! Clear off!”

There was something about the smug, spoilsport expression that the gatekeeper leered in my direction that made me determine to get him back. Accordingly, I turned left as I came back out of the gateway. I kept on walking, always visualizing where the railway was behind the rows of houses that quickly blocked my direct view. I walked for perhaps fifteen minutes, taking every possible left turn to maintain proximity, before I saw an opportunity to get on to the railway. All I had to do then was to backtrack leftwards and I should be inside Nine Elms. Well, it turned out that I did have to cross a fairly busy double-track line and find my way through a large freight yard, but I finally reached the shed, where I excitedly wrote down the numbers of all the unfamiliar locomotives I found there.

Well, I’d accomplished the main objective, but now for the grand exit. Not the way I came, naturally, but by the main gate. The gatekeeper’s expression (where the bloody hell did he come from?) lingers still in my memory.

When I was growing up, although I didn’t realize at the time how quickly it would all disappear, we were still in the age of steam. We were excited by the new diesel and electric locomotives, mostly for their novelty value, but we never suspected that within a decade that would be it. British Railways was still building steam locomotives up to 1960, for heaven’s sake. Trying to explain the attraction of steam to someone who wasn’t there may be akin to trying to explain Lourdes to a non-Catholic, but I still remember a trip to Glasgow with a classmate in about 1959 or 1960. Although we didn’t know it, our shed directory was out of date, in that Glasgow had started to shut down its tram network, and we had only the old tram numbers with which to plan our itinerary. Anyway, everyone was incredibly helpful to two country boys just trying to get around. So helpful, in fact, that we received no more than a friendly warning from two members of the British Transport Police—we’d have been lucky to escape without a fine in some places—who encountered us walking carefully and methodically around Polmadie, 66A, the main shed for trains to the south out of Glasgow Central station. You always walked around a shed in a particular way, ostentatiously looking in both directions whenever you crossed a line, and making sure with your body language—we didn’t have the term then, but we had the language—that you were aware of the potential hazards, like the ash pits and the coaling tower. That was enough in most sheds for those working there to leave you alone.

And we did get to experience the trams, although I believe that the last of them were withdrawn no more than a few months after our visit. But the highlight of the trip was finding scores of tank and light goods engines, and even a few light passenger locomotives, built originally by the Caledonian Railway as long ago as the 1880s. To find examples of routine late Victorian engineering still doing an honest day’s work well into the second half of the twentieth century is something that I’m kind of pleased to have been around to catch a small glimpse of.

I once took my younger brother, Ian, around Gateshead (52A) on a Sunday afternoon during one of our family’s frequent day trips around that time to visit my grandmother in Newcastle. I was often detailed to look after him, but a gap of five and a half years did make it difficult to find common ground. Anyway, Gateshead was the main shed housing locomotives for the express passenger trains to Edinburgh and London out of Newcastle station. Its large complement of locomotives, most of which were normally resting on a Sunday, included several of Sir Nigel Gresley’s redoubtable A4 pacifics of the old London and North Eastern Railway, or ‘streaks’ as we used to call them, for obvious reasons if you’ve ever seen one. All were home that day. If your only experience of a locomotive is from platform level, you may not have tried to imagine what that same locomotive would look like from ground level. Shed level. Impressive, especially when you’re only nine years old, or possibly even younger, which is how old Ian would have been at the time. This is the only time I took him around an engine shed, but I believe that he still remembers the occasion. Rather vividly, as it happens.

One of my own earliest memories is of a visit to Carlisle in 1958, and my introduction to engine sheds. We’d heard about such places, specifically Kingmoor (12A), the old Caledonian Railway shed in Carlisle. We’d also heard about engine numbers beginning with a ‘5’. Well, we did find those semi-mythic engines with numbers beginning with ‘5’, six or seven of them, old CR locomotives but now with hessian sacks tied around their funnels, the universal symbol that they were condemned and would never again raise steam. Discovering, a year or two later, that others of their brethren were still being used in Glasgow was more than adequate compensation.

Anyway, one of Sir William Stanier’s pacifics, Duchess of Montrose, was coaling up for action, and the driver invited my companion and I up to the footplate as they worked the engine up and down the yard. But more was to follow. Without asking whether we wanted to or not, the driver then took us the mile or so to Carlisle’s Citadel Station, where he was scheduled to pick up a northbound express. That was the first and also the longest ride I ever had in the cab of a steam locomotive, and I was eleven years old.

It all seemed adventurous back then, but everything should be viewed in context. I wouldn’t want to try some of the things that people do for excitement nowadays, and I certainly wouldn’t advocate trespassing on the railway either, but things were different then. Now, even when there is no train, light engine or other moving part of the system in view, there is still a high likelihood that you will kill yourself. High-voltage electricity doesn’t ask you for identification. Back then, if there were no trains in sight, the only thing on the railway that could kill you was your own stupidity. We had some of that too.

a puzzle

Can you think of two nine-letter words that do not rhyme, but which can be made to rhyme simply by exchanging their initial letters? By the way, in case you were wondering, I shall not be pandering to the usual conventions by providing a solution to this conundrum, so if you are interested in finding the answer, you will have to work it out for yourself.

mind your language

Language is the tool that we use when we want to communicate our thoughts and ideas to other people. This is such an obvious statement, something that we take absolutely for granted, that we don’t bother to expend further thought on the subject. But that’s because we don’t realize that an important question is being begged: when we speak or write, how do we know that what we think we mean by our choice and ordering of words is what our listener or reader understands us to mean? How can we be sure there is no comprehension gap?

This dilemma extends beyond words to include gestures and other forms of non-verbal communication. In his capacity as vice-president of the United States, Dan Quayle was once asked what he thought of a prominent Latin American politician. The vice-president responded by extending his right hand with the palm forward and the thumb and forefinger joined to form a circle, which every American will tell you means top notch, first class, A1, or some more suitably convincing American idiom.

However, millions throughout South America knew exactly what Vice-President Quayle was really saying.

“Asshole!”

Nevertheless, it is with words that the real problem lies. Ideas don’t spring into existence fully formed, with pros and cons set out in a neat series of bullet points; they start as feelings, expressed inwardly in a way that scarcely uses words at all. Such instincts and intuitions allow us to look at an object or assess a situation and interpret it in a way that we immediately and precisely understand in our own minds, without using words. However, once we try to describe that idea or that sensation to another person, the only available medium for communication is words, perhaps reinforced by gestures and facial expressions. Unfortunately, it is impossible to write a book about what goes on inside your head, or even to describe to another what is going on at any given moment. The words simply don’t exist. So language, in the sense of a sequence of sounds or letters ordered semantically to convey meaning, is essentially a compromise.

You can go into a pub, order a pint of bitter and be certain that the barman will not give you a pint of lager and a packet of crisps. If you are a regular in the pub, the barman may pull the pint of bitter without being asked, knowing with the uncanny insight of the practised professional that we are all creatures of habit at root. However, this is communication at a very superficial level. If you try to express an opinion on the pint of bitter, the chances are that you will find yourself using words and phrases that you’ve heard someone else use in a similar context. How often have you heard a wine expert describing the bouquet of a wine in terms of oranges, lemons, blackcurrants, raspberries and sundry other soft fruit? It’s nonsense, of course, but the expert doesn’t have at his or her disposal the tools to be more precise. The bouquet may provide specific information to the expert nose, such as the variety of grape and the region where the wine was produced, but the expert is trying to describe what is essentially a personal reaction in words that someone else will understand. They do understand, but in a debased form. The fine details are lost. But it’s a loss that goes unnoticed by most people, because the expert never stops to think how well they might be communicating their thoughts, and their listeners merely take the words at face value.

Another difficulty is created by the fluidity of meaning of words and, especially, phrases. A phrase often changes meaning as a result of a misunderstanding, the differences between American and British English being notably fertile ground for such occurrences. A classic case is the now hackneyed phrase ‘to make the grade’. Not much room for ambiguity there, you will probably think if you’re British. It means ‘to reach the required standard’. Surely that’s obvious? But the phrase is actually nineteenth-century American railroad slang. When you recall that in American usage a ‘grade’ can mean what the British would term a ‘gradient’, you see that a wholesale change in meaning has taken place. For the engineer in one of those old wood-burning locomotives that finally tamed the American West, to make the grade meant to reach the top of a particularly tough incline. When it eventually escaped into the general population, it was as a vivid metaphor with the meaning of succeeding in a particularly difficult endeavour, but once the phrase had been dislocated from its metaphorical background, the force of that meaning soon evaporated. All that remains today is a cliché with only a vague meaning. The force of the original metaphor has been lost.

If all that was at stake was the continuing survival of a few hackneyed phrases, then there would be no problem. You can always fall back on the original words and eschew any attempt at metaphor. Unfortunately, the idea or concept behind some of the words that are affected by this change, which proceeds entirely from ignorance and a tendency to jump to conclusions, cannot be otherwise expressed in a single word. And as each word undergoes such a change, the language itself is diminished. If English is a toolbox from which a scrupulous communicator selects only the most appropriate implement, then we’ve just lost a tool, or had it blunted at best.

When a BBC journalist referred to the enormity of the attacks on New York’s World Trade Center in 2001, he should have had precisely the right tool for the job. But ‘enormity’ is one of those words that has shifted in meaning, leaving behind a valuable descriptive word for which there is now no precise equivalent. As it happens, this report provides a perfect example of how promiscuous misuse of our language is having a damaging effect. So what did the journalist really mean? Although he might have been impressed by the sheer scale of the attacks, these were, above all else, examples of great moral wickedness, the meaning of ‘enormity’ that is still clung to by the dictionaries. However, most people now appear to believe that ‘enormity’ is the noun equivalent to the adjective ‘enormous’. It is true that both words derive from the same root, but the divorce in meaning was once almost total, the notion of size in ‘enormity’ referring only to the scale of the iniquity involved. The idea that something describable as ‘very large’ is being referred to is a recent invention born out of a careless disregard for the importance of meaning in communication. And did we really need to add to a mountain of synonyms?

In the end, perhaps the words are simply too similar in appearance to have avoided this confusion, because commonality of origin is not a problem. Nobody would claim any affinity in meaning between ‘legal’ and ‘loyal’, yet both derive from the Latin word for ‘law’, lex, with the Latin suffix -al. The difference is that ‘legal’ comes directly from Latin, while ‘loyal’ is from Latin via French. The similarity in meaning could have been retained, as has happened with a similar doublet, ‘regal’ and ‘royal’, which both derive from the Latin rex, ‘king’, but perhaps in the case of ‘legal’ and ‘loyal’ it proved possible to reassign ‘loyal’ to a new billet because there was a need. New words are required all the time, not only to describe new circumstances and new situations but also to replace old ones that have become debased through careless misuse. Meaning once shaped by hands wearing surgical gloves is now being moulded by hands wearing boxing gloves, with a concomitant decline in precision.

Exaggeration can also be a problem. To satisfy the needs of each new generation for its own cant, we are no longer able to describe something taken from a fable as ‘fabulous’, something out of a fantasy as ‘fantastic’, something that we might marvel at as ‘marvellous’, something that fills us with amazement as ‘amazing’. Each of these words now means little more than ‘I like this’. And as the process continues, something that fills us with awe will not be describable as ‘awesome’, and ‘brilliant’ as a word to describe something shining with an intense light will become obsolete.

“What do you think of that new night club in the town centre?”

“Awesome!”

“How was your holiday in Tenerife?”

“Brilliant!”

You see the problem.

For a reductio ad absurdum of this trend, we turn to the Chinese, who have been known to abandon meaning altogether. If you walk through the shopping streets of Hong Kong and Kowloon, it will not be long before you spot a few shop names that nobody in their right mind would dream of using in the heartlands of the English language. Perfect Corporation. Sincere Department Store. Treasure Restaurant. Grand Hotel. The Magnificent Company, if it exists, and it may well do, will be no more than a small office somewhere in one of the less salubrious districts of Kowloon with a desk, two chairs and, possibly, a secretary. Any idea of magnificence will be purely imaginary. To imagine otherwise is to miss the point. Language matters.

heaven central

The universe is vast, and in that vastness there are billions of small planets orbiting small and relatively stable suns in what might be called ‘the temperate zone’, the zone around a star in which water can exist on the surface of a planet in liquid form. Earth is one such planet. It is the presence of liquid water that sustains life here. The obvious question presents itself: is there life on any of these countless other worlds?

But before we try to answer that question, we need to determine the reason, if any, for the presence of ‘intelligent’ life on Earth. For many, there is no mystery: the planet, all of its minutiae and the human race itself were created by God. Fair enough! Let us accept this as a working hypothesis. The problem is that it doesn’t get us much further, because if God did create the Earth, why did he situate it in such a vast universe? And why would he create so many planets with a cosmic environment similar to that of the Earth? Unless….

One possible answer to the second question is that he also created life on all of the other similar planets. But what does ‘create’ mean in this context? The popular interpretation is of some kind of celestial magician who conjures living creatures, even entire worlds, into existence with a wave of his hand. But this overlooks one of the defining characteristics of God—his omniscience. He would know that if he merely created the appropriate set of conditions for life to evolve, life of some kind would evolve. However, he would surely want to monitor the progress of that evolution, which even for the supreme being would be a lot to ask. Think about it. Being omnipresent for billions of years without a break would be extremely tedious. How does he manage it?

Welcome to Heaven Central. Here, row upon row of closely spaced monitor screens, each attended by an angel at a keyboard, stretches away into the infinite distance. Each screen is crowded with meters measuring a range of performance indicators for each of the small planets created ‘in the beginning’. As you might expect, an unearthly silence pervades the scene. There is no idle chatter as each angel gazes intently at the eerily glowing screen in front of them, looking for any sign that something is going awry. One can imagine that they have been carefully briefed by the boss: what to look out for; conditions that require his immediate notification; that sort of thing.

Take global warming, for example, which is probably a major problem on all of the worlds where a dominant species has reached an industrial level of development. Being omniscient is extremely useful here. Even before the puny beings who caused the problem in the first place become dimly aware that the consequence of their carelessness is a climate that is changing in ways that are impossible to predict, God has seen the end result. Oblivion. But it is too late to rewind and repair the damage done. Unknown to the hapless inhabitants of the affected planet, a tipping point has already been reached, and while they continue to dither and bicker, arguing over who caused the problem in the first place, the species races downhill to its inevitable demise.

To enable him to avoid the tedium of long-term omnipresence and to put his feet up now and again, God has ensured that everyone knows how to spot a tipping point, a point of no return. And everyone knows that he must be notified immediately whenever any of his worlds has gone beyond the invisible barrier that astrophysicists call an event horizon. It could be global warming; it could be toxic waste overload; it could be overuse of finite resources; it could be overpopulation; it could be several different factors working detrimentally in unison. God alone knows. But why else would the monitoring angels be so diligent? And so quiet.

In a workplace where nobody actually does anything and nothing appears to happen, it is unrealistic not to expect a ripple of excitement to be generated whenever an angel notices that yet another remote world has tipped itself over the edge, unless, that is, such events are common. Given that we have direct evidence from only one of these worlds, it would be unscientific to dismiss this possibility out of hand, but let us for a moment assume that it is untrue and eavesdrop on such a scene.

Across the unmeasurable span of eternity, the monitor screens appear not to change. All movement on the meters is so slow that no mortal eye could hope to detect it, but the watchful angels do not miss a thing, even if they are in fact bored stupid. But one angel has just noticed that some key indices on her screen have been changing quite quickly recently, and she is wondering whether she should inform the boss. She glances up at the board above the screen. Terra (apparently, they still use Latin in heaven). Suddenly, a voice calls out:

“Ha! Ha! Ha! Oh, dear! Look everyone. Another one’s cocked it up. That’s the third this aeon,” laughs the angel on her left as he glances across at his colleague’s screen. “Terra. Who had that in the last sweep?”

Scary scenario, eh?

However, what if God takes the long view? After all, he is God. What if that nice Mr Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis is accurate? Unfortunately, we cannot expect any process whereby a planet corrects the imbalances forced upon it by short-sighted, small-minded creatures to be measurable in decades or even centuries. Or even millennia. But measure the future in tens of millions of years and we can see the big picture. It is only sixty-five million years since the final demise of the dinosaurs, and if we project that time span into the future, we can theorize that another species will have evolved to dominate the Earth. Homo sapiens will of course be extinct.

That species will have the opportunity, as H. sapiens has had, of fulfilling God’s plan. However, this is where the argument becomes annoyingly circular. Just what is God’s plan? Luckily, there is an alternative. Perhaps there is no God. Perhaps the human race really is in charge of its own destiny. Oh dear!