Those crazy Brits!

There’s speculation that we might have a general election soon; November 4th was a date I heard suggested on the radio today. Which means, since we don’t have any kind of hand-over period, that we might have a new government and a new Prime Minister on November 5th.

Guy Fawkes and cronies

To those of you who live in countries with less impetuous political systems, it might seem surprising that we don’t know yet. Well, in the UK, the Prime Minister can dissolve parliament and so trigger an election any time s/he feels like it. It’s a minimum of 17 working days from proclamation to election, according to Wikipedia. The maximum term is five years; we’re about half way through that, but since Tony Blair stepped down and Gordon Brown took over (without an election) their approval ratings have gone up, and there’s speculation Brown might take advantage with a quick election.

Despite having lived here all my life, I find it all rather extraordinary. At the very least, if the government had to give slightly more notice—three months, say—it would seem more sensible. Still, if we do have an election at the start of November, it means only a month of campaigning. Which is a bonus.

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Tender American sensibilities

Via bookofjoe; the OED and BBC are repeating their exercise of inviting the public to try and find earlier citations for various words. It’s a somewhat interesting idea but, having seen some of the last series: the results don’t make for riveting television.

What I found interesting was a couple of things from the Washington Post article on the subject. Firstly there’s this weirdly obsequious paragraph about the English:

The English have a special relationship with the language named for their land. From Chaucer to Shakespeare to Dickens, this country has given the world some of its most memorable literature. The spoken word is also revered here, and English debaters articulate even the most mundane ideas with remarkable music and vocabulary. Americans puzzle over Britons keeping their spare “tyre” in the “boot” of their car, but most admit that they sound clever doing it.

The spoken word is ‘revered’ in England? You what? And what do simple regional variations like boot/trunk have to do with anything?

The other thing that I found odd was this:

Before 1976, “marital aids” were known by less genteel names, and using them, along with other more sexually adventurous behavior, became “kinky” in 1959. Some terms on the list are too naughty to be printed here. But the Oxford editors are as interested in their X-rated beginnings as they are in “identity theft,” “spiv” (a sharply dressed hustler), “mucky pup” (a messy child) and “prat” (a fool or a jerk).

I was surprised that the BBC would pick unprintable words for a TV show about word origins, so I checked out the list. The only possibilities seem to be ‘dog’s bollocks’ and ‘tosser’. Or ‘dogging’, I suppose. Can it really be true that an apparently grown-up newspaper like the Washington Post has such tender, innocent readers that they would be offended by seeing the word ‘bollocks’ in print?

I suppose it might be. I remember seeing some footage of Emma Thompson on Leno where she starts telling an anecdote about doing some filming with a horse which, hilariously, had an erection, and Leno having to cut her off because the e word was apparently just too strong for a late-night chat show. Perhaps that’s what our ‘special relationship with the language’ consists of: knob jokes.

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British food

I’m always somewhat irritated when someone from The Land of Industrial Food is rude about British cooking. If it comes from one of the great foody cultures (the Italians, the French, the Indians, the Japanese…) I’m willing to admit they’re talking from a position of strength. But the country of processed cheese, marshmallow fluff, and beer brewed with rice? Not so much.

That gripe aside, the blog is worth reading.

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Colonial troops in WWII

I found this article in the Independent interesting. There’s a film coming out in France called Indigènes about “the 300,000 Arab and north African soldiers who helped to liberate France in 1944.” Apparently about half the French army in 1944 was African or Arab. The director and producer, both French of North African descent, “hope the film will remind the majority population of France that the country owes a deliberately obscured debt of blood to colonial soldiers with brown and black skins. They also hope the film will persuade young French people of African origin that they belong in France.”

In one respect, the film has already succeeded where years of complaints have failed. Last week, just before it reached the cinema, the French government was shamed into paying belated full pensions to 80,000 surviving ex-colonial soldiers who, since 1959, have been paid a fraction of what French veterans receive.

All of which is quite interesting, but I was mainly struck that the article managed to get all the way through exuding a sense of superiority to those racist French without commenting on the British parallel. There were really quite a lot of colonial troops fighting for the British in the war, most notably the Indian Army, which in WWII was the largest all-volunteer army ever assembled. Unsurprisingly, the Indian Army was important in the Burma campaign, but they also fought in North Africa, the Middle East and Italy. I think I read once that a third of troops at the battle of El-Alamein were Indian. There aren’t too many Indian faces in all those old war films, though, and I really don’t think most British people know anything about their role. And given that the Ghurkas who are current members of the British army still don’t get the same pensions as their British counterparts, it seems a fair bet that Indian veterans of El-Alamein and Monte Cassino don’t either.

This particular blindspot in the British view of history isn’t simply a race thing, of course. Only a minority of the ‘British’ Eighth Army at El-Alamein was actually British; apart from the Indians, there were troops from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Rhodesia; and even a few Free French and Poles. But I only know that because I just looked it up in Wikipedia, and I imagine that most people in this country would have assumed, like me, that the British Army was, basically, British.

Quite apart from the fact that le fairplay demands these things be better known, the French example makes me think – there must be a good film in this somewhere. Or novel. Or even poem, at a pinch.

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Militant Atheism

I’ve just finished The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, which I enjoyed more than I expected, since generally I prefer Dawkins when he’s writing about biology. I might blog about the book later, but for now it got me thinking about religion.

My own opinions are uncompromising: I don’t believe there is anything beyond the material universe, so that means no gods, no fairies, no ghosts. I think that theism and deism are just about intellectually defensible, but the details of particular religions, whether Christianity, Islam, Scientology or whatever, are about as plausible as crystal healing; only their cultural importance gives them a spurious sense of reasonableness.

I used to enjoy arguing with believers for the sake of it, but I largely stopped that at university when I came to the conclusion that I was just upsetting them for no good purpose. And on the whole, despite the occasional internet argument, I’ve stuck to that. I tend to think of religion in much the same way as I think of the monarchy. The status of the royal family is undemocratic, anachronistic and generally intellectually indefensible, but as long as they don’t seem to be doing any harm, and as long as they keep out of politics, trying to get rid of them doesn’t seem like a battle worth having; there’s very little popular support of it, the process of working out a system to replace the status quo would be interminable and painful, and in the end I don’t think we’d have gained much.

The same applies to religion. As long as religions keep themselves to themselves and don’t obviously do much harm to others, I’m generally willing to live and let live. And in the UK, it’s pretty easy to take that attitude. Growing up as a middle-class Londoner, agnosticism was the default position, and if there was any social pressure it was that Christianity was desperately unfashionable. In that environment, rejecting belief is easy, socially and intellectually. And while London is probably exceptionally godless, especially outside the various immigrant communities, the same is broadly true of the UK as a whole. Although 72% of people identify themselves as ‘Christian’ on the census, when asked the question ‘Do you believe in God?’ only 44% of people actually say ‘yes’, with another 21% not being sure. Presumably that leaves another 7% who describe themselves as ‘Christian’ while definitely not believing in God. And even among the believers, only 10% go to church ‘in most weeks’. Fortunately, the Church of England is so theologically open-minded that it’s hardly necessary to believe in God to be a member.

Even more important, perhaps, is that enthusiastic religion is not really very socially acceptable. Certainly for politicians, being overtly religious is more likely to attract mockery than support. So there’s no prospect of anything like the American ‘religious right’ appearing any time soon over here (or indeed, the CofE being what it is, a ‘religious left’).

And yet, recently (and even before reading the Dawkins) I’ve been feeling more militant about my atheism, and less willing to be tolerant of people’s religious beliefs. Partially that’s because of the growth of extremist Islam. Not just the terrorism, which is an unwelcome development but is in the end a fairly minor threat. It’s the intrusion of Islam into politics; the prominence of Islamic organisations as a part of the anti-war movement, the protesting and flag-burning at any perceived slur, the election of George Galloway, the issue of faith schools. It’s not that I necessarily disagree with all of the politics; I’m not a big fan of the war, for example. But I don’t like to see politics infected by religion.

There’s also the increasingly religionised nature of US politics. As I say, I can’t see the same thing happening here; but the prospect of religious zealots in control of the world’s largest ecomony and military isn’t exactly reassuring either. And as worrying as both Islam and the religious right are individually, the most worrying thing of all is the idea of them validating and motivating each other. I’m deeply troubled by the idea that people who talk about a ‘clash of civilisations’ don’t mean a clash between aggressive religion and post-Enlightenment secular democracy, but between two competing religions. I’m troubled by the possibility that, in wishing to define Britishness in opposition to Islamism, people will increasingly talk about the UK as ‘a Christian country’, and Christianity will once again start to seem like a defining part of what makes Britain British. Personally, I can’t see how British history is any kind of advertisement for Christian virtues, since from the Reformation right up to the current situation in Northern Ireland, Britain has repeatedly been torn apart by violent clashes between competing Christian sects; but I know some people see it differently.

Where does this increased militancy lead me? I don’t know, really. It’s not like there has ever been a period in my lifetime when religion wasn’t a source of oppression or conflict somewhere in the world, but somehow at the moment the damage done by religious belief seems particularly vivid. It makes me less inclined to show any respect to someone’s faith just because it’s well-meaning and sincere.

And as irritating as I tend to find militant atheism in others, I have an uncomfortable feeling that I should proselytise, that it’s important to assert that religious beliefs are not simply false but harmful. Even the anaemic Christianity of the CofE represents the victory of superstition and inertia over evidence and logic, and if it does little harm it’s only because it is generally ineffectual. Forceful religion, impassioned religion, campaigning religion: these are Bad Things. Perhaps it needs to be said more often.

Still thinking about books to explain the UK

Well I’ve still been thinking, on and off, about that list of ten books to explain the UK. Which is an interesting exercise.

I quickly decided to eliminate Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Not that I have anything against the Celtic Fringe, but it was complicated enough dealing with Englishness. There’s no difficulty in finding ten books all of which have some characteristically English quality to them; it’s getting some kind of balance to them as a list. For example Brideshead Revisited, Crome Yellow, Love in a Cold Climate, Summer Lightning, The Complete Saki and The Importance of Being Ernest are all in their way very English*, but they don’t exactly represent a very broad range of Englishnesses. And then there are cases like Gerard Manley Hopkins. He’s possibly my favourite poet, but as a Jesuit priest and radical poetic innovator I can hardly claim him as representative or typical.

I’m probably over-analysing again.

One thing that becomes apparent is that I don’t read enough contemporary fiction. I mean, over the years I have read quite a lot of it, but not a lot of books from the past few decades seem to be springing to mind at the moment.

I find myself drawn to books by and about English people but set abroad – A Passage to India, My Family and Other Animals, Our Man In Havana, Into The Heart of Borneo. Perhaps because the Englishness of the characters is set into relief. The flipside would be books about England written by foreigners: Voltaire, Conrad, Henry James, T. S. Eliot, even Bill Bryson.

I’m still thinking.

* yes, I do know that Wilde was Irish

FSotW: Tyneham – the village that died for D-Day

Flickr set of the week is Tyneham – the village that died for D-Day by Whipper_snapper.

‘In 1943 the War Department closed Tyneham village near Lulworth in Dorset for D-Day training preparations.

The villagers never returned as the War Department kept the village as a post-war training area and tank artillery range for nearby Lulworth and Bovington camps.

Today most of the buildings are gaunt and empty, like a war zone, but the Army does allow visitors to return to the village on a regular basis.’

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Ten books to explain America

A really interesting question at the cassandra pages: ‘If you were recommending, say, five to ten books you most felt would “explain America” to a foreign person who had never been here in person, what would they be?’ You can read people’s answers there.

I’m not about to try and pick ten books about America, for obvious reasons. I suppose that, as a foreigner, I’m in a position to name books that I felt gave me an insight. But I’m not going to do that. I might try to come up with ten books for the UK. It’s difficult, though; for a start, how much historical background do you need to touch on? I don’t see much need to go too far back ino the Middle Ages, but the Reformation, the Civil War, the Glorious Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the growth of the Empire, the loss of the Empire, the growth of unionism and the Labour party, the Suffrage movement, and the two World Wars are all to some extent relevant to what Britain is now and what British people are like. Oh, and I almost forgot the battle of the Boyne, the Potato Famine, the Irish Question*, the Easter Rising, partition and the Troubles.

But if anything, people’s perceptions of Britain seem to be mired in the past – Americans always seem to be convinced that we’re still obsessing about the loss of empire, for example, which I really don’t think is true. So perhaps the history should be downplayed and more emphasis placed on the past 30 or 40 years. And for the curious visitor who wants to get inside the head of the British, is lots of historical background better than one really insightful novel anyway?

Anyway, I’ll try to think of some interesting choices.

* according to 1066 And All That: ‘Gladstone spent his declining years trying to guess the answer to the Irish Question; unfortunately, whenever he was getting warm, the Irish secretly changed the Question.’

Rough Crossings by Simon Schama

During the American War of Independence, the British promised freedom and land to any slaves who left their masters and served with the British. Many thousands did so, and after the war they were taken first to Nova Scotia and then settled in a colony in Sierra Leone. This book tells that story.

Among the slaves who decided that their best hope of freedom was with the British were some who had belonged to George Washington. At times I got the feeling that Schama, as a British historian working in the US, got a degree of mischievous pleasure from writing about the War of Independence from an angle that shows the British as the defenders of liberty and equality in the face of American tyranny.

It’s not that simple of course. The original decision to offer freedom was pragmatic rather than a principled, and in practice the implementation of it was consistently undermined by the greed, paternalism and piety of British administrators. The book does include some genuinely heroic British figures, but there are no shortage of complete shits as well.

It’s an interesting story and a moving book.

FSotW: Car Boot Britain

Flickr set of the week is Car Boot Britain by Whipper_snapper.

Boot sale, originally uploaded by Whipper_snapper.

Boot Sale 2, originally uploaded by Whipper_snapper.

Intellectuals, science, and the English Channel

Something Todd Swift said pointed me to an article in the Guardian about the lack of public intellectuals in Britain, written by Agnès Poirier, a French journalist working in London. It’s worth reading just for the culture-clash exhibited in the comments.

I noticed that the unspoken assumption, from both sides of the argument, was inevitably that an intellectual is a philosopher, a cultural theorist, a littérateur and not, for example, someone like Richard Dawkins.* So I started digging around for this quote from C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures:

I remember G. H. Hardy once remarking to me in mild puzzlement, some time in the 1930s, “Have you noticed how the word “intellectual” is used nowadays? There seems to be a new definition which certainly doesn’t include Rutherford or Eddington or Dirac or Adrian or me? It does seem rather odd, don’t y’know.”

The point being, of course, that Hardy was a mathematician, Rutherford (no relation), Eddington and Dirac were physicists and Adrian was, Wikipedia informs me, a physiologist. Three of them won Nobel prizes. I remember being very struck by that quote when I first read it, and I still think Snow’s basic point about the wilful scientific ignorance of those in the humanities is a good one, even if some of the other things he says in the essay don’t stand up very well. Indeed Wikipedia led me to an essay by Roger Kimball titled “The two cultures” today, published in 1994 in the New Criterion. Kimball does an excellent and largely deserved demolition job on Snow’s essay, but in the process demonstrates exactly the depressing indifference to science that Snow was complaining about.

Snow’s argument operates by erasing or ignoring certain fundamental distinctions. He goes to a literary party, discovers that no one (except himself) can explain the second law of thermodynamics, and then concludes triumphantly: “yet I was asking something which is about the equivalent of Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?” But, as Leavis notes, “there is no scientific equivalent of that question; equations between orders so disparate are meaningless.” The second law of thermodynamics is a piece of specialized knowledge, useful or irrelevant depending on the job to be done; the works of Shakespeare provide a window into the soul of humanity: to read them is tantamount to acquiring self-knowledge. Snow seems blind to this distinction.

“A piece of specialized knowledge, useful or irrelevant depending on the job to be done”. It just makes me want to cry. An insight into the fundamental workings of the universe reduced to a tool, a mathematical spanner, something of no possible interest to anyone who doesn’t need it to do a job. An indirect and second-hand insight into ‘the soul of humanity’ meanwhile is of such obvious value that it apparently goes without saying.

Such arrogance. Not just the intellectual arrogance that is willing to dismiss physics as just a tool for getting jobs done, but the arrogance to assume that ‘self-knowledge’ is of more value than the attempt to understand everything that exists. This isn’t an argument, it’s just an assertion of self-importance.

And yes, I do know that scientists are sometimes just as arrogantly dismissive of the value of the humanities. For the sake of even-handedness, and because it amuses me, here’s a quote from Dirac: “In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it’s the exact opposite.”

* Just a note to say that when I wrote this, Dawkins hadn’t yet published The God Delusion; he did write articles about atheism but was primarily known as a writer about evolutionary theory.

Figgy Dowdy, Sussex Pond Pudding and English food

I got back to England to find, appropriately enough, that some food blogs, English or otherwise, celebrated St George’s Day (Apr 23rd) by cooking English puddings, cakes, biscuits and other sugariness.

Why British food has such a bad reputation, and whether it’s deserved, is a question for another day. One kind of British food that has always been easy to defend is the baking; and one of the nice things about it is that it seems to be a genuinely popular tradition. Despite the good work done by Tea Shoppes in the Lake District, to a large extent, the cake-making tradition of Bakewell tarts, fruit cakes, tea cakes, spice cakes, lemon drizzle cakes, oatmeal biscuits [etc etc] is passed on through local charity cake sales and coffee mornings. I almost feel moved to make some parkin. Mmmm, parkin.

Another British tradition that is perhaps less lively is the steamed suet pudding. And yes, that is indeed a dessert made with beef fat and steamed. With central heating, we just don’t have the same appetite for piles of calorific stodge any more. But excitingly, two food bloggers tried particularly noteworthy steamed puddings: Sussex Pond Pudding (which I’ve wanted to try for some time) and Figgy-dowdy (particularly vital reading for fans of the Patrick O’Brian novels). Both of those bloggers do a far better job of explaining the dishes than I could.

A round-up of other entries can be found at Becks & Posh.

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It’s a whole different world.

This article about atheists in Texas (via Pharyngula) is just mind-bogglingly odd to me. I grew up in secular, middle-class London where the default position was a casual agnosticism, so the image of atheists as a secretive minority, afraid to give their name in a newspaper interview, seems surreal. The flipside of that is the presentation of atheists as fiercely rationalist and potentially campaigning ideologues, who go to atheist meetings. What do you do at an atheist meeting? All sit in a room together not believing? It doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. Just like Christians, most of the non-believers I know are that way because they were brought up like that. I’m wary of attempts to make atheism into either an alternate belief system or a political cause. I mean, I don’t believe in unicorns either, but I’m not about to go to any meetings about it.

Of course, I can see that if I lived in America, it might seem more important, both because of the overwhelmingly religious culture and because the constitutional separation of church and state makes it into a political issue. There’s an irony in the fact that in the UK, which has a constitutional intertwining of church and state, we tend to be suspicious of overt religiosity in our politicians, while American politics practically demands it.

I remember a few years ago reading an article in the Economist which argued, in the context of abortion, that the US Constitution actually tended to inflame political debates, because the insistence on absolute and inalienable rights makes both sides inflexible and removes the chance of compromise. Specifically, it means that, whereas in Europe, the focus of the debate tends to move quite rapidly onto specifics which can be farmed off onto technical committees – the maximum age of a fetus that can be aborted, whether a woman has to see a doctor before getting an abortion – in the States, there’s always this central totemic Supreme Court decision that hangs over the whole subject, and the possibility of the decision being overturned. Once the sides have branded themselves in the rhetoric of absolute rights – the ‘right to life’ and the ‘right to choose’ – it becomes all-or-nothing. Similarly with obscenity and hate-speech laws vs. free speech, or the right to bear arms.

I don’t know whether the separation of church and state has played an important part in shaping American religious culture; the French, who have the same constitutional separation, seem to be pretty Godless. It certainly politicises the debate on teaching evolution in schools and prevents the obvious compromise of teaching Genesis in religious education classes and Darwin in biology, though. And although I completely agree that natural selection is the only origin theory children should be taught in biology, the debate shouldn’t be about constitutionality. It should be about teaching the overwhelming scientific consensus.

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