Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Saint Augustine of Hippo - what did he know?

It is only the illiteracy of the current generation of atheists that leads them to think religious practitioners must be stupid or thoughtless. Were Augustine, Maimonides and al-Ghazali - to mention only religious thinkers in monotheist traditions - lacking in intellectual vitality? The question is absurd...

John Gray, reviewing Alain de Botton's book, Religion for Atheists, for the New Statesman

Secularists stand accused of "religious illiteracy". A bit of background here. For me, there are two separate, but linked, reasons for being irreligious.

1. Not believing that the revealed truths set out in sacred texts are, literally, true. Take the creation story in Genesis - it contradicts so much compelling and coherent evidence from the fields of cosmology, planetary science, geology, archaeology, paleontology and ancient history, that it's safe to conclude that it's not a true account of anything that ever happened in the real world. Or take the first miracle that Christ supposedly  wrought, in Cana of Galilee. According to John's Gospel, Jesus turned water into wine. This is one, rather implausible, anecdote in an ancient text. There's not enough evidence to either back up or disprove the assertion, so it seems sensible to apply the sort of rule-of-thumb test we'd apply to the sort of claims people might make today. If somebody's trying to sell you something, and you've not got much information to go on, you might apply the rough and ready rule that 'if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is'. In the absence of any compelling evidence, I'd rate the water-into-wine story as 'too good to be true'. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

2. Disquiet over the role of religion in public life. Secularists might find certain religious practises harmful or questionable, or reject religious authority as a legitimate basis for decision-making, or disagree with the divisive effects of teaching children in "faith" schools, or oppose discrimination on the grounds of religion, or disagree with those who say that the views, or interests of religious people or institutions should be privileged above the views or interests of any other members of society. 

There's a strong link between 1. and 2. The authority and privileges enjoyed by religion are based on its claim to access to a set of unique truths and divine authority. Call the truth of scriptures into question and there's no reason to accord the views of a religious leader or committed believer any more - or any less - weight than those of any other citizen. So, I'd have thought it matters rather a lot whether what's written in holy books is, so far as anyone can tell, accurate or otherwise.

This is where the "religious illiteracy" charge comes in. The argument goes thusly:

Unbeliever: I've looked at your scriptures. A lot of the stuff that can be compared with the best available independent evidence seems to be factually wrong, and the supernatural anecdotes aren't credible. Get rid of the stuff that's unreliable and you're left with a bunch of rules and some bits of moral philosophy which we can debate on their own merits, but which are no more sacred or authoritative than anything else written about ethics, by anybody from Socrates to Jacques Derrida.

In other words, if I ask myself whether any of the stuff written down in a holy book actually happened, I'm asking the wrong question. It's meant to be understood on a more complex, metaphorical level and it always was. People in the past understood this, but our rationalist, literalist, reductionist modern brains just aren't highly trained enough to get it.

If I was in a cynical mood, I'd immediately dismiss this as a rhetorical trick that conveniently makes every sacred text immune from rational analysis, or sceptical questioning, but there is an interesting assertion that I'd like to follow up. Have some people always believed that certain parts of sacred texts (in this case the Bible) weren't supposed to be taken literally? Not just the parts clearly flagged up as parables or proverbs, which we can all agree were never intended to be taken literally. I'd always thought that the further back you went, and the fewer convincing, alternative sources of knowledge people had, the more likely they were to believe in the literal truth of, say, the creation story in Genesis.

It's not possible for anybody today, except a few wilfully ignorant creationists, to take Genesis literally, but how about people many centuries ago? I don't believe that people back then were all gullible or stupid, but without the benefit of modern knowledge about such things as the cosmological and geological timescale, the heliocentric solar system, evolution and so on, wouldn't this story have been as just as plausible as any other story about how the world came into being? My guess was that quite a few of them did believe Genesis to be literally true.

But, as believers keep on telling us, there is written evidence to the contrary. Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430AD), for example, had a more subtle, nuanced view. Wikipedia's on hand for a quick citation:

It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation.

De Genesi ad literam

On first reading, it looks as if Augustine didn't believe in the historicity of the Genesis creation story and was worried that literal-minded Christians who did would expose the Church to the mockery of intelligent, educated pagans. Augustine, who didn't benefit from standing on the shoulders of Darwin, Galileo, Hubble, or the rest of The Usual Suspects, had clearly decided that the Genesis account of creation wasn't credible, but, presumably, thought that other parts of scripture were. Quite interesting? Certainly. Score one for the believers? Well let's unpick this one a little bit.

The first thing that strikes me is Augustine's acknowledgement that many things 'may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience' (and, by implication, without reference to scriptural authority). We're used to thinking about observation scientific method and reasoning as something uniquely modern. But the ancient Greeks, among others, spent some time observing and thinking about 'the earth, the sky, about other elements of this world, the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about eclipses of the sun and moon, the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things'. Some of this classical learning may have been superseded by more precise observations and better theories, but educated people in Augustine;s time already knew more than enough to make the Genesis story look crude and unconvincing.

For example, according to Genesis, on day one of Creation God creates light and darkness, day and night. It's not until day four that He gets round to creating the sun and moon. The idea of day and night without any sun must have sounded pretty unlikely to people sophisticated enough to have predicted eclipses and worked out what was causing them. And as if the scientific implausibility wasn't bad enough, textual inconsistencies are already creeping in by Chapter Two. In Chapter One, God creates the fowl of the air on day five of creation, then land animals and humans on day six. In Chapter Two, God forms Adam from the dust, then decides that 'It is not good that the man should be alone', so subsequently makes all the land animals and every fowl of the air specifically to keep him company. Only when it becomes clear that birds and beasts aren't enough to satisfy Adam's desire for companionship does God finally get down to whipping out a spare rib and creating Eve.

No wonder Augustine was worried that non-Christians might laugh. Putting this context round Augustine's interpretation of Genesis as metaphor makes me wonder whether this was really an example of the ancient mind being wiser, more subtle and less literal-minded than we are, or whether his position was just an early example of a tactical retreat from an indefensible position.

As Catholic Answers* helpfully points out, Genesis posed problems for other early writers. Saint Cyprian, writing in the third Century AD, seems to have found it implausible that God created the whole world in the sort of timescale it might take a gang of slaves to put in a new hypocaust, so decided that  'The first seven days in the divine arrangement contain seven thousand years'. This class of explanation comes from what you might call the Humpty Dumpty school of biblical exegesis ('When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less').

Again what springs to mind here isn't ancient subtlety and wisdom, but a politician or bureaucrat using an idiosyncratic definition of words, in order to maintain some wiggle room and defend an exposed position (see 'I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky', 'The work experience programme is voluntary', et al.). Augustine himself could give a masterclass in not providing hostages to fortune:

Seven days by our reckoning, after the model of the days of creation, make up a week. By the passage of such weeks time rolls on, and in these weeks one day is constituted by the course of the sun from its rising to its setting; but we must bear in mind that these days indeed recall the days of creation, but without in any way being really similar to them.

 De Genesi ad literam

I think 'we must bear in mind that these days indeed recall the days of creation, but without in any way being really similar to them' is one of the most brilliantly obscure and un-disprovable statements you're ever likely to come across. You'd have to get up very early in the morning to pin down a man who could come out with something like that. 

And, talking of obscurity, does recasting the Genesis creation story as an extended metaphor make us any wiser? Take the specific example of Cyprian's theory that the first week of creation in Genesis was a metaphor for what was really a more reasonable-sounding creation period of seven thousand years. This doesn't actually make sense on either a metaphorical or literal level:

  1. If you think that the whole story is just a metaphor for some profound truth, why change the meaning of the words to make the story more historically plausible? It sounds to me as if Cyprian wasn't claiming that the whole story was just a metaphor for something deeper and more subtle, but rather that he thought that the events related in Genesis actually happened, just over a much longer timescale.
  2. Changing the timescale from a week to seven thousand years might have made the story sound a lot more plausible to Cyprian's contemporaries, who had no way of knowing about deep time and the true age of the earth and universe, but his reinterpretation hasn't stood the test of time. We could always revise his estimates upward and assume that when Genesis talks about a week, that really means 4.6 billion or 14 billion years, but once you've stretched the meaning of language that far, you might as well be re-interpreting absolutely any statement to mean literally anything that takes your fancy (see 'the Humpty Dumpty school of biblical exegesis' above).

Once you lose any sense of clarity over what's a metaphor and what's not, you can make your holy text mean whatever you want it to mean. Take this famous passage from the New Testament:

And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

Matthew 19:24

Creative Bible commentators have tweaked the meaning of this passage, claiming that The Eye of the Needle was a gate leading into Jerusalem which was notorious for being almost impossible to get a camel through. Therefore, Jesus wasn't saying it was impossible for a rich man to get into heaven, just a bit tricky. Lucky old you, creaming off the rents from your hotel on Mayfair and picking a Get Out of Jail Free Card out of the Community Chest, too! Here's The Straight Dope's Cecil to unpick this one:

Next, the history and archaeology. The notion your Baptist friend has picked up apparently comes from a single ninth-century commentary asserting that in first-century Jerusalem there was a gate called the Needle's Eye which a camel could only get through on its knees. (Sort of like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: "only the penitent man will pass …") A cute allegory, but there's no archaeological or historical evidence for the existence of such a gate.

There's a good brief discussion in the article on "kamelos" in Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 3, pp. 592-594 (one of the standard works on New Testament language). TDNT, and other commentators with an interest in history, point out several parallels in later rabbinic language about the impossibility of getting an elephant through the eye of a needle: it's a way of describing something so difficult it's grotesque.

So the "Gate of the Needle's Eye" notion has no firm historical basis. It looks like a way of getting around the plain (but inconvenient) meaning of the text.

Another less-than-glorious example of subtlety and metaphor not actually being any deeper or more profound than the "shallow literalism" of the "religiously illiterate". For people who routinely accuse secular sceptics of being tricky smart alecks who like to think they're being clever, some of these religious thinkers sure like to complicate things. Mind you, it is complication with a purpose. There's a lovely quote from one Dr Kevin Lewis on on "The Heresy of Literalism":

And God forbid that the faith leaders should ever be asked to prove, verify or justify their core beliefs, just like any other public figure. Dangerous heresy, indeed.

*  I love Catholic Answers' authoritative quality standard certification. 'I have concluded that the materials presented in this work are free of doctrinal or moral errors. Bernadeane Carr, STL, Censor Librorum, August 10, 2004', sounds so much more impressive than 'certified gluten-free' or 'Complies with BS5852 requirements and regulations. Not suitable for children under 3 years old'.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The NHS versus Sick Filth

Currently, the most popular e-petition on the Government's "ask the people" web site calls on the government to drop its Health and Social Care Bill (if you decide to click though and add your name, thanks). I can imagine what sort of person would want to sign this; anybody worried about the potential breakup and privatisation of the National Health Service. It's a big issue, and I can see why it matters to a lot of people.

Here's a very different on-line petition. Any idea why the undersigned are getting so hot and bothered about the following issue?

Well, the controlling minds behind this petition may be astute enough to be doing bit of diversionary trolling - I'll link once more to the Flying Rodent's excellent piece on noisy little squabbles as political camouflage:
There are hundreds of thousands of aggrieved, unhappy people out there, and lots of them have years of experience in stoking popular resentment over slights, both real and imagined...

Let battle commence!  Why not have an argument over who gets custody of the Nazis?  Abortion is literally genocide!  And don't go reading any headlines today about how the government is tanking the economy, thanks.

What sort of emotional hot buttons are the people behind this petition trying to press? This arresting image and caption combo from the Daily Mail (via) might give us a clue:

It's an interesting peek into the mind of the sort of person the Mail thinks might get hot under the collar about this issue. You've got an prominent picture of a couple of happy lasses in bridal veils enjoying a kiss, accompanied by an urgent warning about the national disaster that will follow if we don't Act Now to Ban This Sick Filth.

There's some serious psycho-sexual turmoil going on here, with readers being simultaneously lashed with stern warnings about moral degeneracy and titillated with images of girls getting off with one another, just to make sure that readers can clearly picture the orgy of sapphic snogging that could ensue. Could it be that some of the people getting worked up about this are getting a furtive kick from fantasising about what other people might be getting up to? There are few temptations with the emotional power of unacknowledged, illicit desires. Credit where it's due, the people at the Mail clearly know the power of guilty pleasures to hook people and draw them in to a story.

And, talking of illicit desires, it's not just prurient straight males, inflamed by the thought of all that sinful girl-on-girl action, who might be feeling some guilty stirrings in the undergrowth. Remember Pastor Ted Haggard, the homophobic American conservative Christian pastor with an embarrassing fondness for methamphetamine and male prostitutes? Well, he's got a meme all of his very own now:
Haggard’s Law: the likelihood of someone’s being gay increases in proportion to the force of that person’s public objections to homosexuality.

 Hat tip

To paraphrase Roy Scheider in Jaws, we're gonna need a bigger closet.

I think this is why social conservatives sometimes seem immune to rational argument. It's not about reason. They recognise something that their more thoughtful critics don't quite get - the seething power of repressed emotion and desire. Try and contain the messy, ambiguous, changeable, subtle thing called human nature inside the rigid pressure vessel of a cast-iron, repressive, authoritarian code of behaviour and you've bottled up something more powerful than you can possibly imagine. The power of all that pent-up feeling can sweep away any amount of patiently thought out, rational argument in a tsunami of incoherent pain and rage.

So if it's not about minds, there may not be much we can do to change minds on this one, but if we can't beat 'em we can at least support the people they want to exclude and show solidarity with Peter Tatchell's campaign to stop discriminating against gay people who think enough of the institution of marriage to want to be part of it. There's a link to the Equal Love petition, here.

Slightly foxed

A good day to bury bad ideas

Just when you thought the gilded representatives of the overclass running the coalition could humiliate the powerless more or less at will, here's a cheering example of what can happen when people actually stand up to bullies:

Britain's biggest private sector employer has agreed to pay people taking part in a flagship Goverment work-experience programme, amid a growing backlash over the scheme.

Supermarket chain Tesco was forced to act ahead of expected protests outside its shops on Wednesday by campaigners who have described it as “slave labour". Argos said it wanted assurances that young people who do not take part will keep their benefits. Other leading high street names including Burger King and Pizza Hut are also reported to be reviewing their involvement in the scheme.
Ministers are now battling to save the work experience scheme, which has seen more than 34,000 young people aged 18 to 24 year olds sign up.
Christopher Hope, writing in the The Telegraph.

Fantastic. And all down to activists like Louise Whittle, who refused to give in to the cynicism and learnt helplessness that convinces so many of us that what we say or believe can't possibly stop the powerful from doing exactly what they want. She wrote to tell Tesco what she thought of their involvement with this exploitative scheme (most people would have given up, assuming that they wouldn't listen, or wouldn't care what we thought, before even putting finger to keyboard), got your standard boilerplate corporate brush-off non-answer, but still got off her backside and protested.

She, and everyone else who actually did something to stand up for the people at the bottom of the heap, and against those who'd like to trample all over them, should be very proud today. And those of us who tend to grumble about the injustice of it all without actually doing very much about it, need to take a long look at ourselves.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

I fought Godwin's law and the law won

Historically, when people get to imposing their own definitions of religiosity on others, you’re looking at persecution. You’ve got three Jewish grandparents, you’re a Jew. Go directly to the Gas, do not pass Go, do not collect £200.

Dawkins, in his sour, power-crazed, demagogic old age is bringing more than a whiff of Nuremberg to his definitions.

Giles Coren goes ballistic, somewhere behind Murdoch's Great Paywall. Via Mick Hartley, who's been keeping an eye on young Giles for a while now. Here's Gilesey Boy on ordering food in McDonald's:

You know what I mean? We want a spotty teenage loser in a skid-mark-coloured shirt that drains all the colour from his pasty face. We want a woman, squeezing between the chip-fryer and the milkshake machine, in a blouse you could make into outfits for a whole Brownie pack. We want a man whose polyester shirt sparks in the dark and out of which the smell of BO can never quite be washed. We want someone, in short, who is even lower down the food chain than we are. Someone in whose opinion we are not even slightly interested.

It's a wee bit early to get into succession planning for the post of Britain's Pillock Laureate, what with James Delingpole so reliably delivering the nation's weekly drivel quota, but I reckon the boy Coren's one to watch.

Strange search engine queries 2

Due to a total lack of popular demand following our last thrilling instalment, here are some more of the stranger tides that have caused storm-tossed netizens to wash up on the seldom-visited desert island of my blog:

To kick off, it's great to see people still looking for 'thug narwhals' and 'axolotl piano', two of my all-time favourite '80's  indie bands. Maybe they were researching the legendary lost recording of Axolotl Piano's John Peel session.

tram party - first, find your tram, break out the Bacardi Breezers, stick some Axolotl Piano on the boombox, then you'll be sorted, my friend.

extreme gushing - so you caught a bit of Andrew Marr's mini-series about the Queen, too? Bummer.

animals i can kill with my bare hands workaholics - well, bees would be your obvious first choice, although your bare hands may swell up to the size of boxing gloves afterwards.

dead weasel - I warned you about making the poor thing go 'pop'. And if you carry on knocking that monkey off the table with a stick, I'm ringing the RSPCA.

i secretly loathe the colorblind - thank you for sharing, Mr Lansley. If your loathing extends to everybody else who uses the National Health Service, that might begin to explain the thinking behind your health care reforms. And stop looking for 'pictures of unemployed people' - they're not funny.

In this age of 'big horse inflation' it's no surprise to find someone seeking a 'double decker horse trailer', although I can't condone its use for a 'furry horse porn' photo shoot. Speaking of which...

'naughty stuff' - oi! I'm a good girl, I am!

'ladies urine point photo' - 'ee ain't no proper gentleman! 'Ee promised me 'ee could pass me off as a duchess, but then 'ee goes an' whips out 'is camera the moment I gets caught short, without so much as a 'by your leave'.

Well, at least we may be thankful that his depravity did not extend to 'tank girl cosplay', my dear.

Speaking of niche interests, I'm not entirely convinced that the collectibles market is ready for a 'lizzie borden action figure', although time may prove me wrong on that one.

'2012 please be good to me' - I'd like to make your dreams come true but, realistically, the best you can expect round here is more of the same old 'people making fun of people'.


I don't have much time for organised religion, but I do think that the Buddhists might be on to something when they tell people that suffering arises from attachment to desires. For me it's not a metaphysical thing, but I can see how life could be a whole lot better without the Pavlovian desire for this or that tugging your chain all the time and making you miserable when you can't have whatever you're currently drooling over.

I'm not enough of a self-denying ascetic to go all the way on this - we wouldn't be human is we didn't want a little bit from every level of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, plus a bit of frivolous fun stuff as the cherry on top of the coconut pyramid. But there are limits. Living in a marketing-led consumer society that invests billions in persuading everybody to want ridiculous amounts of, mostly useless, new stuff all the time might drive our current economic model, along with some innovations,  but on a psychological level, it's a guaranteed recipe for infantilizing people, eroding their capacity for self-control, making them ever more needy, increasing desires and escalating societal levels of pointless dissatisfaction, frustration and suffering.

So I treasure little moments like spotting this advert for personalised car mats. A feeling of utter contentment washed over me when I saw it and realised that I've no desire at all to own a personalised car mat and that I'd struggle to imagine why anybody would ever want one. Pavlov's bell was ringing in my ears, but there was no drooling, no desire to get on the hamster wheel of getting and spending, just complete tranquillity. There's something soothing about ads for stuff that doesn't tempt me in the slightest - the feeling of total calm, impregnable detachment is like a small taste of nirvana.

After this moment of bliss, I was tempted to spend some time browsing the Past Times catalogue, just to get a fix of totally not needing a Downton Abbey wall calendar, a Limited Edition Union Jack Henry Desk Vacuum Cleaner or a set of "Keep Calm and Carry On" cuff links, but then I realised that I was actually starting to desire the sheer undesirability of everything in the Past Times catalogue It's trickier than you might think, getting off the Wheel of Suffering

Diversionary tactics in the culture wars

If I was Sayeeda Warsi, you're damn right I'd want a public debate on religion, a really feral and merciless one. Take a look across the pond and you'll see why. Every second that the suckers on both sides spend raging over piss-soaked crucifixes or the commandments in court is more time that they're not spending comparing the unemployment rate to the number of available jobs. 

Part of the Flying Rodent's too-good-not-too-share analysis of why some right-wingers are desperate to big up the phony 'war on religion' (along with other piffling side issues like allegedly lax immigration controls, the tiny subset of unemployed people who don't actually want a job, straight bananas from Brussels, underpants bombers, and any other bit of tabloid nonsense that might divert attention from the painfully obvious, massive, ongoing, humiliating, failure of their beloved deregulated, buccaneering. risk-taking, devil-take-the-hindmost, neoliberal economic model).

Monday, 20 February 2012

Place name of the week

We took the offspring to a birthday party for one of his friends at the weekend. The venue was Berzerk (Northampton's Premier Children's Activity Centre, it says here).  Berzerk is a large example of your standard children's soft play area, a padded assault course where the wee ones can climb, slide, swing and dive, shrieking and chortling into ball pools, all housed in a big profiled steel shed on an industrial estate. It did more or less what it said on the tin, and satisfied its target demographic, with a party meal of chicken nuggets being served up to replenish the party goers after their gleeful berserker rampages.

The kids also got to meet the Face of Berzerk, Barney the Bear. Unfortunately, visibility from the bear suit was quite limited, so Barney had to be led around by assistants, like a frail invalid, in order to avoid the health and safety nightmare of mowing  down the swarms of unseen small people darting across his path. With no opportunity to safely caper about like a football mascot, or do anything remotely active or entertaining, Barney just waved limply and was duly ignored by all the children he was intended to thrill.

As an adult, the best thing about Berzerk (apart from the entertaining spectacle of Barney The Bear failing to whoop up an audience) is its location. It's in a district of Northampton that goes by the rather wonderful name of Lumbertubs. Lumbertubs - sheer bloody poetry, right up there with Six Mile Bottom. British place names, I love you all! I recently found out that there's a place called Kemeys Inferior near Newport, Gwent, a location that cries out for a leisure complex of its own. Or some kind of complex, anyhow...

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Per ardua ad astra

Here's a picture of one of the last generation of piston-engined airliners, Lockheed's stylishly elegant Constellation. Why? Just because it's gorgeous. I don't need any other excuse:
Those old piston-engined airliners would have fascinated me even had they never left the ground, but the thought of such beautiful mechanisms actually travelling through the sky was almost too much to take.

Clive James Flying Visits

 Mind you, the first jet airliner was a thing of beauty, too. Check out this picture of a De Havilland Comet resplendent in its BOAC livery.*
 Photograph © RuthAS published under a Creative Commons Licence)

There are a couple of pictures in my dad's photograph album, showing a gleaming silver Comet undergoing trials in Cyprus (taken when he was doing his National Service, as an admin erk with the RAF). Back in Britain's last age of austerity, the Comet must have looked like the future. Not just some marketing bullshit about a brighter future, but something real, substantial, riveted together and ready to fly. The democratisation of air travel was still decades away, (first came the phase when "jet set" meant the globe-trotting elite) and the planes that would deliver it, on the far side of a series of those tragic Comet crashes, were mostly American, but a real future was being built, starting here and now. Dan Dare may have been fantasy, but a bit of the future promised by the Eagle Comic would be delivered.

Britain was further ahead in democratising health - the National Health Service was being built and starting to deliver for ordinary people. Educational opportunity was being widened in the wake of the 1944 Education Act. A million new homes were being built. In a nation exhausted, grieving and debt ridden after half a decade of total war. Of course there's a list of things as long as my arm of things that were deeply wrong with '50's Britain, things nobody in his or her right mind would want to go back to, but at least there was a workable vision of the future. The future contained both excitement and real improvements to the lives of ordinary people and a substantial portion of what was being promised would really happen, or was already happening.

Compare and contrast with the view form today's Austerity Britain, at the tired fag-end of the New Elizabethan Age. Never mind building anything, we're just looking on in mild bafflement as a succession of clueless, over-indulged ex-public schoolboys break the NHS up for whatever scrap value their cronies can squeeze out of it. Better education, housing, jobs the promise of a brighter tomorrow? Sorry, we can't afford any of that. Not because we've just made unimaginable sacrifices to help defeat an existential threat of pure evil. No, just because a few influential people believed that a muddled mess of mergers and takeovers, trading in obscure financial instruments and people selling property to each other at ever more inflated prices was the future. And gambled our future on this sorry excuse for a vision and lost big, and presented the rest of us with the bill, and convinced us that it was all our own fault for selfishly wanting hospitals, schools and libraries and stuff.

But don't worry folks; we may not have a future, but we can still party like it's 1952, to celebrate the fact that a random member of the population has spent the last fifty years living in several gigantic houses, wearing hats and waving. We can't top the ascent of Everest, but we can all enjoy watching Andrew Marr trying to out-toady Gyles Brandreth. And why not come along to our national sports day - we've even designed a special logo that looks like it came from a pound shop, but actually cost the best part of half a million quid? Good grief.

Britain was less prosperous then, but it did have one thing we lack today - 'change you can believe in', as the saying goes. I'm sure there's a brighter future out there somewhere, but it's damn near impossible to see it from here.

Anyway, back to the Constellation and the Comet. They represent a surprisingly small subset of aircraft - ones named after heavenly bodies. You'd think that celestial objects would be a popular choice for machines aspiring to break the surly bonds of earth, but it doesn't seem to be so. If we strip out the workaday nomenclature of letters and numbers (Boeing 737, Airbus A340, etc), the most popular aircraft names seem to come from birds and winds (fair enough). Names with a night sky theme don't seem to stand out very far above the background noise of more random, idiosyncratic names (and they do get pretty idiosyncratic - what were they thinking when they came up with "Vickers Wildebeest"?). You've got the Gloster Meteor, the Martin Mars the Canadair North Star and not many others. 

However there's one notable cluster (or constellation) of astronomically-themed aircraft names. Lockeed, makers of the Constellation kept their starry night thing going for years. Not even counting starry names that don't refer to actual celestial bodies (Tristar, Starfighter, Starliner, Starfire, JetStar, Quiet Star), Lockheed have given us the Vega, the Orion, (so good they used it twice) the Sirius, the Altair, the Lodestar, the Neptune,** the Little Dipper, the Big Dipper, the Shooting Star, the Saturn, the Hercules (a constellation as well as a Greek tough guy) and (as Lockheed Martin) the Galaxy

They didn't do a Comet, though. Which might be just as well, given how unlucky the British Comet was. I'm not superstitious or anything, but after the Brits had called their jetliner after a star of ill omen, they had to literally pick up the pieces when it started to demonstrate the effects of metal fatigue in the middle of scheduled flights. A few years earlier the Nazis built themselves a rocket-propelled wunderwaffe called the Messerschmidt 163 Komet, which proved as hazardous to its pilots as it did to the allies. The Japanese had a dive bomber called the Yokosuka Suisei ("Comet"). There's quite a famous photo of one of these, pressed into kamikaze duty, trailing smoke in its last, doomed, dive.

 Superstition thrives on such unfortunate coincidences.

*Bonus points for the livery, by the way - doesn't the speedbird symbol on the tail look so much crisper, more purposeful and altogether better than the post-privatisation Union Flag tailfin currently adorining British Airways aircraft? BA have used a couple of fuselage logos related to the original speedbird, the "speedwing" and the "speedmarque", but neither of them look anything like as good.

** OK, this may have referred to the sea god, rather than the planet.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Roundheads vs. cavaliers

I caught a tiny bit of Andrew Marr's jubilee commemorative series The Diamond Queen on the telly last night. I lost the capacity to fake the remotest interest after about four minutes, (it felt like four hours) of deferential blandness. It made Sunday evening with The Antiques Roadshow feel like an unstoppable tsunami of adrenalin.

Which may be exactly the sort of PR the monarchy needs. As the Heresiarch astutely noted:

...the monarchy can survive, or even flourish, when the monarch does a reasonable job, which in Elizabeth II's case has meant keeping her head down and never saying anything remotely interesting... The present Queen may well be the most boring monarch in British history... Where public affairs are concerned, the weight of inertia is typically huge. It certainly is in the case of the monarchy (or the NHS, or the BBC). Boring is good, or at least safe from too much scrutiny.

Hence the Queen's determination to keep on reigning on Prince Charles' parade. He thinks too much,* has opinions and hobbyhorses, gets people's backs up and puts the institution at risk. He gives anti-monarchists a definite target to fight against. I'm not the first person to notice that attacking a monarchy represented by the present Queen is like taking on a wily martial arts master. She's an adept, so highly trained in the beige arts that she's attained an almost zen-like state of impregnable banality. Strike at the monarchy and your fist hits empty air; there's just no there there.

Every intelligent royalist and royal functionary must be privately hoping that the succession skips a generation, or at least that the reign of Charles III (or whatever he chooses to call himself) is a short and quiet one

Blandness protects the monarchy from its enemies, but what does it do for its friends? What kind of person is actually interested this endless diet of waving and inconsequential small talk, the titles, the line of succession, the uniforms, the dresses, the Buckingham Palace garden parties, the deferential, bobbing heads of the great and the good? Personally, I wonder whether it's down to psychology; maybe extroversion is a predictor for monarchy tolerance.

If so, it might explain why people like me just doesn't just don't get the concept of our monarchy. Introversion and extroversion are two ends of a spectrum, not binary alternatives, but I'm pretty sure that I'm somewhere near  the "introvert" end of the spectrum. Energised by thoughts and ideas? Check. Drained by crowds, over-stimulation and endless small talk? Check. Hate being the centre of attention? Check. Able to tolerate being alone without being bored? Check. All of which might well inoculate me against the allure of our monarchy.

After all, the monarch's job, so far as I can see, consists of conducting reassuring national small talk and having constant interaction with random subjects, hand shaking, meeting, greeting and grooming ('So what do you do?' 'Really? how interesting.'), hosting ritual events hedged round with elaborate rules of etiquette and precedence and giving speeches vetted to remove the smallest trace of anything interesting or controversial. All of this, built around an institution that makes no coherent sense to anybody who stops to to think about it - and introverts do tend to stop and think about things - adds up to a precisely-calibrated recipe for boring and irritating the hell out of your inner introvert.

Conversely, it might be a recipe for pleasing many of the folk out there who'd identify themselves as extroverts. All that interaction's very sociable, the chatter about nothing very much is socially acceptable and proves that the monarchy aren't at all stuck up despite their immense wealth and privileges, all the events and rituals and crowds are an opportunity to bond, and the social dynamics of all those princes, politicians, aristocrats and celebrities hob-nobbing at the top table add up to one long, endlessly fascinating soap opera.  More fun than getting all serious and asking yourself what it all means or why none of it seems to be fair or to make any sort of sense. Perhaps many extroverts, being people who love networking and pressing the flesh, see nothing wrong in a system based on social climbing, in-groups and out-groups, back-scratching and knowing the right people.

If extroverts form the majority of the population, that might explain the mystery (to me at least) of the monarchy's apparent popularity. Maybe we introverts are too serious, thoughtful and reserved to get something that appeals to the more gregarious, spontaneous, flamboyant and less thoughtful majority. It's like the stereotype of the dour, serious roundheads versus the dashing, carefree cavaliers. It's just a theory, but if it's correct it'd be quite ironic. After all, names aside, the thoughtful, opinionated and probably quite introverted Charles is more like a roundhead than his cavalier royal namesakes. Which is precisely why the establishment is probably desperate to see him passed over for the throne.

*Most of what he thinks seems to be complete rubbish, but that's beside the point. Even if he was full of the most brilliant insights, having opinions that somebody might actually engage and disagree with would expose the absurdity of his position and render the institution of monarchy vulnerable to attack.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

More tea, vicar?

Public authorities - be it Parliament or a parish council - should have the right to say prayers before meetings if they wish. The right to worship is a fundamental and hard-fought British liberty.

Eric Pickles, the Daily Mail, the Bishop of Exeter, the Bishop of Rochester and The Christian Institute and the rest of the usual suspects either don't understand the basic idea of liberty, or are pretending not to.  As Basil Fawlty once said, 'I can spend the rest of my life having this conversation. Now, please, please, try to understand before one of us dies'.

It really is quite simple. You can believe what you like, but you've no right to impose your beliefs on people who don't share them. If you're in a council meeting, you should be doing council business, sorting out pedestrian crossings and making sure people's bins get emptied, not expecting everybody else to wait in embarrassed silence while you take time out to talk to your invisible friend. If that floats your boat, fine, You're welcome to be a sunbeam for Jesus, but there's a time and a place for it. The time is your own spare time and the place is called a church.

It is quite simple, but I don't think that conceptual difficulty is the problem here. It's all about power and status. As Upton Sincalir famously said, 'It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it'. If clerics and supporters of the established church were seen to understand that their views and sensibilities occupy a privileged status in public life that owes nothing to the plausibility of their beliefs or to the number of adherents they've managed to convince, they'd stop looking merely dim and start to look like self-serving apparatchiks trying to hold on to their positions.

This "assault on our Christian heritage" nonsense is a, slightly more polite, watered-down version the politics of the Conservative Christian / Tea Party lobby in America. The Americans don't have an established church, but they do have a lot of influential, but insecure clerics, for whom it's all about me. Never mind the global economic meltdown (clue; it really is the economy, stupid), what really matters is my freedom to shout what I believe and to tell anybody who believes different to shut up, to interfere in what other people get up to in the privacy of their own bedrooms and to never, ever, be offended, challenged or made to think.

There should be a name for this retreat into brittle, self-serving, self-obsessed identity politics that  ignores the obvious, massive issues affecting everybody in favour of obscure issues that don't even exist for people outside a narrow "faith community". "Surrealpolitik" will do.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Car hat man

It's freezing outside. So cold that I've driven the car half a mile down the road before I've realised that I'm still wearing a hat. In a car. This is not acceptable.

As any fule kno, only two types of male wear hats in cars:

  1. Doddery little old men (usually with sticking out ears), who drive slowly and erratically. Hat of choice - the flat cap.
  2. Spotty boy racers, who drive fast and erratically. Hat of choice - the baseball cap. The baseball cap effect is scalable, with levels of uncontrolled speed and spasmodic manoeuvring increasing in a predictable way as the in-car baseball cap count increases (immediate evasive action is recommended if the number of baseball caps in one vehicle is equal to, or greater than, four)

My hat comes off and I wait for the car heater to kick in. Hats in cars. There's no excuse.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Unquiet flow the Dons

... we need to find the stars to wear the cow-suits. Chairman Pete Winkelman said: "These are key members of the team... It will be hard work, but a lot of fun."

Candidates should be around 5ft 10ins - 6ft 2ins tall and be fit. They will need to entertain the crowd and be available for home matches and other club events... Auditions will be held, and you can apply in writing to The National Hockey Stadium, Silbury Boulevard, Milton Keynes. MK9 1FA, marking your correspondence as 'MK Dons Mascot'.

From the pre-launch publicity for the MK Dons' official mascots, Donny and Mooie, back in 2004  More than seven years and a shiny new stadium later, some disgruntled Wimbledonians are still resisting the relentless progress of the MK Dons' branding juggernaut:

The Wimbledon Guardian is calling on MK Dons FC, which was Wimbledon FC until it was relocated to Milton Keynes and rebranded, to drop the Dons nickname to respect fans of AFC Wimbledon, which returned to the Football League this season.

Hours earlier, Mitcham and Morden MP Siobhain McDonagh, had raised the issue in the House of Commons, calling on the Government to support our campaign and take steps to prevent similar franchise deals in which football teams leave their communities. 

The Wimbledon Guardian, on their "Drop the Dons" campaign (now endorsed by Ken Livingstone). Karl Robinson, the Manager of MK Dons is not amused:

It's left to a journalist at the Milton Keynes Citizen to try to develop Robinson's belligerent grunting into something approaching a coherent defence of the "MK Dons" brand:
The ‘Drop the Dons’ calls come despite:

The Citizen's first point is, like Bill Clinton's assertion that he'd never had sex with Monica Lewinsky, true only if you take a ridiculously narrow view of what happened, ignoring obvious questions, like what those affected (Hilary and Chelsea, or your average Wimbledon fan) would have called the goings-on in question.

What did the club's previous move involve? Plough Lane, in Wimbledon was the home of Wimbeldon FC from September 1912 to May 1991, when the club moved and started sharing Crystal Palace's Selhurst Park stadium. The Wimbeldon FC board decided to move to Selhurst Park after the Football League's post-Taylor Report decision that all clubs in the top two divisions must have all-seater stadiums. The board had decided that it would have been too difficult and expensive to bring Plough Lane up to the necessary standard (the local council had also approved plans for a new 20,000 seat stadium in the London Borough of Merton in 1988, but these never went ahead, presumably due to cost considerations). The move to Selhurst Park was only intended to be temporary.

Having to travel about nine miles to Selhurst Park to attend home matches that used to be just round the corner might have inconvenienced local fans, but it wan't the end of the world. It's another thing altogether to see your local club moved to a location sixty-odd miles away by road or a four hour round trip away by public transport (once you've factored in local transport links to and .from the main train / coach station at either end of the journey).

As for the second point, WISE spokespeople may well have referred to MK Dons by their brand name. So what? Using the words hardly constitutes something akin to formal diplomatic recognition. They call the re-branded club "Franchise FC", too, but I don't see The Milton Keynes Citizen making anything of that.

Yes, some season ticket holders still travel from Wimbledon to MK. Now imagine that the local football team that you've supposed all your life is suddenly re-branded with the name of a town you've no connection with and moved to a ground sixty miles away. What you gonna do? If your club means so much to you that you're not prepared to give up your season ticket, or switch allegiance, you might decide to suck it up and make the journey to MK. All that means is that you've got no alternative. It doesn't mean you like it.

If the Milton Keynes Citizen is so confident that former Wimbledon-based MK Dons fans are just fine with the move, maybe they should commission an independent polling organisation to ask them how they feel about their team's relocation and squash, once and for all, any baseless rumours that they're not entirely delighted with the move.

Pete Winkelman may have spent money maintaining the Wimbledon youth sides and employing staff members from that club. Maybe that's what they call a "sweetener", or maybe it's just because he's a nice bloke. Who knows?

Wimbledon AFC, Wimbledon's recently-formed local club do have their ground in Kingston Upon Thames. Which is less than five miles from the centre of Wimbledon. Five miles. Not sixty. See my rebuttal of the Citizen's first point. With knobs on.

It's the corporate pretence that fans have somehow bought into a move that was driven by commercial imperatives that they had no knowledge of, and no control over, that makes the MK Dons saga so interesting and so dispiriting. It's all part of the modern ideology of "free choice" which, when you look more closely, turns out to be an incredibly narrow range of unpalatable options on offer from powerful vested interests, who will spin the most grudging acquiescence to look like enthusiastic endorsement of their self-interested plans. Ignore the PR and follow the money if you want a clearer idea of what's going on:

The stadium would not exist without the enabling powers of Wal-Mart, the monolithic American retailer and now the parent company of Asda, famed for denying its staff union rights and killing off small family businesses wherever it sets up shop. The deal for 73 acres of land was done between the owners – the council and regeneration agency English Partnerships – and prospective tenants Asda and Inter MK, the holding company that took Wimbledon FC out of administration three years ago.

Asda/Wal-Mart wanted a foothold in Milton Keynes but needed the Trojan horse of a football stadium to dodge planning laws restricting out-of-town retail development. A third tenant, IKEA, was soon on board to complete a holy trinity worthy of our consumerist age...

Cynics might suggest that the ideal core business for Inter MK is events and concerts, which is certainly a business Winkelman knows. He made his money in music, some of it promoting 1980s cartoon girl punks We’ve Got A Fuzzbox & We’re Gonna Use It, and now hangs out at his manor-house recording studio and his football club. It is easy to sneer at Winkelman. For starters, there are his many style crimes and gushing platitudes. Yet if he was a slick corporate clone he would be loathed for who he is, rather than simply for what he has done. It is not necessarily his fault that he cannot convince genuine fans of football who trust their own eyes that the whole Milton Keynes Dons project is actually about the club.

When Saturday Comes

At this point I'll have to declare a lack of interest. I represent one of the UK's quietest minority groups - straight blokes who aren't really that interested in football. But I live in the MK area and I'd like to feel, if not pride, at least a lack of shame, about my local team. Heck, I might even summon up enough interest to go along to a game, if only the "local" team wasn't such an outrageous manufactured monstrosity (even MK-based fans who feel that Wimbledon should get over it and move on, feel more than a bit defensive). As things are, I have to agree with Ken Livingstone that the "Dons" tag is a bit of a joke.

Without getting too thin-skinned and parochial about it, I would take issue with one of Ken's comments, though. 'Who in their right minds would leave London to go to Milton Keynes?' I've lived in London and I've lived in Milton Keynes. There's more of a buzz about London, more to do, but there's more access to space and peace and quiet in MK. Both places have things going for them.

I lived in London up to the late 1980's (when it was still a vaguely affordable place to live on a modest salary) and gradually moved further away, via Watford, Leighton Buzzard and Milton Keynes, ending up in Newport Pagnell, on the outskirts of the MK conurbation. This isn't entirely unconnected with the boom in property prices that's underpinned much of the economic havoc blighting the economy here in the UK and elsewhere. London, at the epicentre of the UK's property bubble, is now an insanely expensive place to buy or rent a place to live.

'Who in their right minds would leave London to go to Milton Keynes?' A lot of ordinary people who can't or won't pay a fortune to live in a shoebox, Ken.

Milton Keynes is OK. Hardly the planned earthly paradise promised by the Milton Keynes Development Corporation but it still a reasonable place to live. Nowhere's exactly thriving at the moment, but MK is weathering the current economic downturn better than many places and, on the whole, it's a lot nicer than most outsiders imagine. It would be improved by having a football team that wasn't such a total embarrassment, though.

Monday, 6 February 2012


Listen up shoppers! TK Maxx always have some items on sale that cost "up to" 60% less than either the recommended retail price, or TK Maxx's non-sale price, or the price that their main competitors are charging, or whatever the hell other unspecified benchmark they're using. "Up to" being an unspecified percentage lower than, or equal to, 60%. Maybe 25%, maybe 5%, who knows? And they they throw in an extra letter "x" at no additional charge!

Is this what marketing people call a "price promise"?

It's a modern platitude that today's consumers are way more savvy and sophisticated than the poor benighted simpletons who used to buy stuff in the past. If so, why is so much marketing ostensibly aimed at adults calibrated to appeal to rather dim children?  Could it be that passive, needy and not very bright people are the ideal demographic?

Maybe that's the real point of all the apparently counterproductive educational reforms of the past generation or so - training up the next generation of consumers.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Cryptid of the day...

... is the "Gloucestershire Growler", a savage mystery beast with staring green eyes that's prowling Gloucestershire, tearing livestock limb from limb, so they say. Luckily, Frank Tunbridge is on the case. Frank who? Frank was interviewed on Radio 4's Today programme this morning:

'I like to describe myself as an intrepid big cat detective'. Frank's main job is organising car boot sales...

Ace quote and a brilliant alter ego, right up there with the late Reg, (alias Merlin of Avalon).

Good on Frank and Reg. Wouldn't it be great to know that beneath your workaday Clark Kent exterior, you had a fascinating secret identity, which you assumed to live an extraordinary second life, packed with excitement, and adventure, and really wild things? I'm not quite sure what my unique alter ego would be, what with many of the best ones, like Operating Thetan VIII, International Man of Mystery, Genius, Gentleman Explorer, French Cabaret Chantoose and Small Bets Placed, being already taken, but I'm working on it.

 In the meanwhile, here's a free marketing tip for any micro-breweries down in the South West. Your actual Gloucestershire Growler might sound suspiciously like a normal-sized black cat seen, after closing time, by some bloke who thought it was a bit further away than it really was, but the name's pure branding gold. If there's not a real ale called "Gloucestershire Growler" on sale within the year, then my name's not Shadow Wolf The Adventurer (as I now like to describe myself).

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The 'F-word'

There are a few words that I'm not comfortable with. The 'N-word' for example. I don't see any reason to tolerate, still less use, racist abuse. I'd find it hard to say, even in the context of reported speech, and I'd draw my own (unflattering) conclusions about anybody using such language (with exceptions for the victims of racial abuse reclaiming such words, or the simple reporting of racist language from the past - you can't learn from history by censoring it).

I don't have such any such principled objections to swearing, but I'm still uncomfortable with it. Just a personal preference and the way I was brought up, I suppose. Obscenities will come out, under extreme provocation but, mostly, I do without. Apart from anything else, endless repetition robs the words of their power and leaves you with nothing in reserve for those, mercifully rare, occasions when a volley of unrestrained swearing really is the only adequate response to some really outrageous situation.

Another of the fringe benefits of of restrained swearing is pain relief. Recent studies suggest that swearing may give relief  from physical pain. But you do have to ration your swearing - the more you swear in everyday life, the less emotionally charged the words become and the less effective swearwords are in reducing pain. I saw somebody demonstrate this effect on telly, in an experiment featuring Brian Blessed and a bucket of iced water, so it must be true.

There's one F-word that I've never, ever been able to force myself to say, though - fiancée. I got engaged a while ago and, all being well, will be married this summer. I'm quite happy with the situation, but the first time I had to refer to my significant other after our engagement, I just couldn't say the F-word and found myself falling back on the tried and tested "partner". I've never yet been able to refer with a straight face - or indeed refer at all - to "my fiancée".

It's not surprising in my case. Self and partner are both well on in our fourth decade, have a school-aged child and have been cohabiting for years, so the term sits a bit oddly, rather like "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" when applied to people beyond a certain age. But even for younger people the word has an odd, archaic ring to it.

First off, it just sounds too la-di-da, like calling a napkin a "serviette". Damn your French fads! At least "partner", sounds practical and down-to-earth. Come to think of it, Peugeot make a van called the Partner, but even the French would have to draw the line at making a commercial vehicle called the Peugeot Fiancée.

Second, The Glums. Post-Second World War Austerity Britain entertained itself by tuning in to Take It From Here, a radio comedy show written by a couple of young iconoclasts called Frank Muir and Denis Norden. The most popular part of Take It From Here was a sketch called The Glums, featuring the misadventures of the desperately perky Eth (June Whitfield) and her gormless fiancé, Ron (Dick Bentley). The Pismotality blog cites David Nathan's book The Laughtermakers: Quest for Comedy to highlight how the show reflected and mocked what was happening to the institution of engagement at the time:

It was about an engaged couple, sending up the relentlessly cheerful families then prevalent on radio, possibly a hangover from the wartime need to maintain morale. The comedy was fairly broad ... but with an undercurrent of reality, reflecting those times when long engagements were a matter of economic necessity.

Sexual intercourse may have begun in 1963, as "Chuckles" Larkin maintained, but accordin' to Norden ... there had already been stirrings in the undergrowth:

 What we ... did … was to send up … family relationships, things that were fairly sacrosanct at the time.

Ron and Eth started from a sketch we did about an engaged couple. We suddenly realised that one of the most hilarious and ludicrous positions to be in was this state of being engaged. It doesn’t apply now. We described it in one of the programmes as driving with one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brake. Nowadays it is driving with both feet on the accelerator.

Strangely, there was something very sexual lurking behind it, though it could never be made explicit in those days. But that was what we were on about, that was what we found funny, that state of having to hold back all the time. Frustration. It was possibly the first glimmer of the permissive society struggling to be born. People sort of recognised that if you were engaged the question was why don’t you go to bed together. But one never dared say it, never mentioned it. It was just simply this blind groping, this aching state, the tension.

Of course we weren’t allowed to indicate any of this for a second, but I think it caught the public at a time when they were becoming aware of sexuality.

Ron’s voice was funny, grotesque, June's voice was absolutely true – we knew who she was founded on. There were a lot of cosy family serials and soap operas on the radio, so it was a slight send-up of them too...

... Eth was the sort of girl for whom women’s papers published photographs of ideal kitchens. .. we used to read them just to get the picture of Eth. .. What was extraordinary though was the number of letters we got from girls asking how we knew that when two people are alone they talk like Ron and Eth ... The obvious answer was that your fiancé is a moron, but they didn’t see it like that. They saw him as the ideal fiancé, completely infatuated and dominated by both parents and girl. That was how a fiancé should be ...

Read the whole thing here If you're not familiar with The Glums, the blog post has a link to a later TV recreation of the characters that captures their uniquely grotesque sound (the original recordings aren't readily available on line due to BBC copyright issues, but they're occasionally rebroadcast on Radio 4 Extra). I doubt whether the word fiancé(e) ever recovered from the association with the simpering Eth and her twit of a boyfriend.

Moving from the 1950s to the '60s, the economic conditions that made long engagements a standing joke, eased, but so did the puritanical attitudes towards sex outside marriage. Look at the figures for marriage in Britain and you'll see marriage rates rising in the 1960s presumably reflecting increased prosperity and a decline in long engagements for couples who couldn't afford to get wed just yet. But after the early 1970s the figures go into an inexorable decline (although remarriage rates go up to a plateau that persists into the early 21st Century).

There are probably other factors at work, but the world that came after the 1960's marriage boom was different from the one that had gone before. In the old world, the institution of marriage and its preamble was Not To Be Trifled With (at least for "Respectable" folk). In the early part of the 21st century, nobody bats an eyelid at people cohabiting, or having a child out of wedlock (things unseen and unspoken of by people like my parents). People in the '50s may have laughed at The Glums, but engagement was still seen as the prologue to Something Very Serious Indeed:

DEARLY beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man's innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee; and is commended of Saint Paul to be honourable among all men: and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men's carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.

First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.

Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ's body.

Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity. Into which holy estate these two persons present come now to be joined. Therefore if any man can shew any just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter for ever hold his peace. 

That's telling 'em. Compare and contrast those splendidly thunderous words from the Book of Common Prayer with the more inclusive, less scary (and, frankly, rather drippy) form of language in common use in these more permissive times:

In the presence of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
we have come together
to witness the marriage of N and N,
to pray for God's blessing on them,
to share their joy
and to celebrate their love.

Marriage is a gift of God in creation
through which husband and wife may know the grace of God.
It is given
that as man and woman grow together in love and trust,
they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind,
as Christ is united with his bride, the Church.

The gift of marriage brings husband and wife together
in the delight and tenderness of sexual union
and joyful commitment to the end of their lives.
It is given as the foundation of family life
in which children are [born and] nurtured
and in which each member of the family,in good times and in bad,
may find strength, companionship and comfort,
and grow to maturity in love.

Marriage is a way of life made holy by God,
and blessed by the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ
with those celebrating a wedding at Cana in Galilee.
Marriage is a sign of unity and loyalty
which all should uphold and honour.
It enriches society and strengthens community.
No one should enter into it lightly or selfishly
but reverently and responsibly in the sight of almighty God.

The clergy aren't going to terrify anybody with that. In a world where marriage itself is optional and the language of the marriage ceremony is commonly reduced to a few neutered, inoffensive, feel-good words, stripped of any vestige of awe and majesty, it's no wonder that the word fiancé(e) is being quietly slipped into the drawer where "doily", "antimacassar" and other words too ridiculously quaint to continue existing, are put away to be forgotten.

Inappropriate politicisation

There are valid arguments for not putting Fred Goodwin on the Naughty Step - chiefly, that it's a dramatic gesture that gives the impression that politicians are "doing something" without actually obliging them to do any of the big, hard, complex, systemic, mindset-changing things needed to regulate an out-of-control financial services industry and neuter its capacity to lobby policymakers, nationalise its losses and destroy the prosperity and well-being of everybody else.

Then there are invalid arguments, like this, from Simon Walker, director-general of the Institute of Directors:

To do it because... you don't approve of someone, you think they have done things that are wrong but actually there is no criminality... is inappropriate and politicises the whole honours system.

If leading members of a society decide to honour certain achievements and not others, that's a political act. If they choose to honour certain people and not others, that, too is a political act. It's all about what and whom we value as a society, (not to mention politicians using patronage to reward loyalty or favours). What could be more political? The idea that the honours system is apolitical and that the decision to withdraw an honour somehow brings the nasty, rough world of politics into a system too high-minded to bother itself with such grubby considerations must be the daftest thing I've heard all week.

Walker gets an extra bonus bullshit bingo point for using the weasel word "inappropriate" to imply that his own personal distaste represents some universally agreed standard of behaviour.

Interesting historical fact of the day

Benito Mussolini, Premier of All the Italians, received the order of Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath from King George V. He is now at liberty to appear in the 1924 issue of Who's Who as Sir Benito Mussolini, G. C. B.! 


His title was annulled in 1940