Lament on a Linguistic Monoculture

In the reception area at my local GP surgery, there is a small notice that says “Have you had Great Care today?”

I can’t honestly say I have ever seen the words “great” and “care” juxtaposed (except in the context of “taking great care” over something, which is not what is meant here, I fear), and seeing them together today made it feel as though I was witnessing a milestone in the deterioration of language.

Every era – every generation – has its own special words, of course, and in the age of communications – radio, TV, computers, mobile phones – it does not take long for a particular word to become fashionable. In the 1960s, thanks to a certain TV pop show, everything suddenly became “fabulous”, at least for the younger generation. I forget what followed, but in more recent times we have had “wicked”, “awesome”, and even, I understand – something I find difficult to grasp in terms of a superlative, which is probably the point of it – “sick”.

These words tend to be “in” for a short while before being replaced by something else. Sometimes they can even come back. In recent times we have seen the return of “cool”, a word that, for me, sums up the pre-1960s, US-obsessed generation; it amuses me that probably a lot of people who used it (and still use it) thought it was a modern term.

But nowadays it seems that either the process of finding new “in” words has slowed, or we have simply run out of them. For some time now, it has been disturbingly common to find “great” used as an all-purpose superlative, and one cringes at its use in one inappropriate context after the other. However, “great care” surely breaks all the records for crassness.

It is not, unfortunately, an isolated example. Views are almost universally described as “stunning”, rendering that word almost meaningless. This occurs, not just in the writings of estate agents (never known for their command of language) but also in brochures and websites on holiday cottages. Now surely, if there is any group of people who ought to have the full richness of language at their disposal, it is those whose job involves convincing us of the delights of a particular holiday location; surely they could chuck in the odd “arresting”, “breathtaking”, or even – heaven forbid – the occasional “beautiful”? Yet all we get are stunning views. But then, since people in the holiday industry also habitually refer to the cottages as “properties”, it is clear that they are in fact the same people as those writing the estate agents’ blurb. How else can one understand the use of a term which emphasises the role of a house as a commodity or investment, in a context in which we are supposed to see it very differently – as a cosy nook? In fact, I’ve noticed that even the Youth Hostel Association now describes its hostels as “properties”. They just don’t get it, do they?

Down the Long Slide

Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide
To happiness …

Philip Larkin, High Windows (1967)

Another successful attempt to get a Larkin quote into my blog. High Windows (not one of my favourites, though it got the poet’s fourth collection named after it) is about the way each generation throws off the taboos of its predecessors, and envies the next generation in turn for the taboos it will throw off. It was written four months before Annus Mirabilis, one of Larkin’s most well-known poems, which has a similar theme but is one of his most misunderstood ones, if Wendy Cope’s Larkin satire “Mr Strugnell” is anything to go by. This “long slide” is a never-ending process; indeed, if you take a slide and bend it round, you get a spiral, which could be called a regress … which brings me to the actual subject of this piece.

Following the recent announcement of gravitational wave detection by the LIGO collaboration, a friend posted the following on her Facebook page:

“CALTECH found #gravitationalwaves using super-expensive technology designed to find #gravitationalwaves confirming #einsteinwasright because we all thought that #einsteinwasright but needed to find #gravitationalwaves! #scientificprogress #circularity”

The concatenated words following the “#” symbol are links to other Facebook posts, with varying degrees of relevance to the subject under discussion. Some of these “links” are actually not far short of random; the posts listed under “#circularity” seem to have very little in common, and some of them even seem to relate to a band and a brand of ear-rings!

By removing all the hashes and concatenation, and putting some rather speculative additional words at the end, we arrive at something more intelligible:

“CALTECH found gravitational waves using super-expensive technology designed to find gravitational waves, confirming Einstein was right, because we all thought that Einstein was right, but needed to find gravitational waves! Is this scientific progress or circularity?”

This was, at any rate, how I interpreted it when I read it. My response was to ask where the circularity was, but I was informed that it was obvious; admittedly that was followed by the disclaimer that it was “not necessarily epistemically or metaphysically devastating, just worthy of a flippant Facebook post” (now there are two words that definitely go together, “flippant” and “Facebook”!)… so maybe I’m wasting my time here; nevertheless I will plough on.

If the circularity is obvious, perhaps it relates to the fact that my revised version of the post includes the words

“confirming Einstein was right, because we all thought that Einstein was right”.

But that is only circular if “Einstein was right” refers to the same thing in both places. And even then, it would only be truly circular if “thought” were strengthened to “knew”. In any case, it is clear that the phrase does not mean the same thing, although to be honest I have to admit that I am not sure exactly what “we all thought that Einstein was right” means. My own interpretation of the background to the search for gravitational waves is as follows:

Einstein’s theory of general relativity explained the already-observed anomalous precession of the perihelion of Mercury, and predicted the relationship

Equation3

between the angle through which starlight is bent by the Sun’s gravitational field and the distance r from the incident ray to the centre of the Sun, with G, M, c as the gravitational constant, the mass of the Sun and the speed of light. This was confirmed – somewhat controversially, by the Eddington eclipse experiment in 1919, and more definitively later on, using radio astronomy. So on that basis our confidence in the theory is boosted (“we all thought that Einstein was right”) and we expect to be able to observe another of its predictions, gravitational waves; but the search for such waves, and the discovery, are not dependent on our previous belief that Einstein “was right” about general relativity. The method used, interferometry, predated the theory of relativity by several decades at least, so does not depend on it in any way.

The reference to circularity in the context of gravitational waves reminded me of what Harry Collins said about gravitational waves in his 1985 book Changing Order. I have of course mentioned this book in a previous blog. It is a short book written by a sociologist of science, and its two main topics are a project to build a laser and an attempt to detect gravitational waves. My previous comments were about the former, which was a vehicle through which Collins introduced the concept of tacit knowledge; the latter paved the way for a discussion of what the author called “The Experimenter’s Regress”. I did not comment on this in my previous piece on Collins, because I found it almost too ridiculous for rational discussion, and was angered by the way both of these concepts had passed into the “science studies” lexicon and are now used somewhat uncritically by Collins’ disciples.

The essence of the “experimenters’ regress” can be summarised by the following extracts from Collins’ book:

“Proper working of the apparatus, parts of the apparatus and the experimenter are defined by the ability to take part in producing the proper experimental outcome [Collins p74]

“We will have no idea whether we can do it [i.e. detect gravitational waves] until we try to see if we obtain the correct outcome. But what is the correct outcome? What the correct outcome is depends upon whether there are gravity waves hitting the Earth in detectable fluxes. To find this out we must build a good gravity detector and have a look. But we won’t know if we have built a good detector until we have tried it and obtained the correct outcome! But we don’t know what the correct outcome is until … and so on ad infinitum” [Collins p84]

The idea that we don’t know what we are looking for until we have found it is anathema to anyone who has any experience in experimental science. What Collins is saying here is that general relativity predicts gravitational waves in some vague sense, but does not actually make any testable predictions about them. If that were the case, gravitational waves would be on a par with such ethereal concepts as “extra dimensions”, which are in some sense “curled up” and hence not detectable (though, since I am not an expert in extra dimensions, I will accept that they may make some sort of testable predictions).

Let us explore this idea of searching for an “outcome” whose identity we are entirely ignorant of. Here is a poem by John Updike:

Neutrinos they are very small.
They have no charge and have no mass
And do not interact at all.
The earth is just a silly ball
To them, through which they simply pass,
Like dustmaids down a drafty hall
Or photons through a sheet of glass.

It goes on a bit more, but hopefully you’ll get the drift. Now, John Updike was a novelist and poet, not a physicist, so we can excuse him for not getting it quite right, and no doubt that third line was just too tempting to resist … but of course a particle that “does not interact at all” would not be detectable, and so would not be a very sensible thing to postulate. This is certainly how Wolfgang Pauli felt when he postulated the existence of the neutrino in 1930; he said he had done a terrible thing, proposing a theory that could not be tested. It was a desperate measure, put forward to account for an apparent violation of the conservation of mass/energy in the beta decay of the neutron. In this decay, a neutron turns into a proton and an electron is emitted; the neutron is slightly heavier than the proton, and the mass difference is sufficient for the creation of an electron with kinetic energy, which duly speeds away from the nucleus in which it was born. But these electrons were known to have variable kinetic energies, which at their maximum value could account fully for the mass difference, but in other cases there appeared to be a loss of mass, and hence of energy.

However, even Pauli must have realised that there was some chance that a decay in which a particle came into existence could be reversed, with the absorption of that particle by another. It’s true that the early theory of beta decay due to Fermi featured a “4-particle vertex”, with the decaying neutron producing a proton, an electron and a neutrino; the reverse of that might naively be supposed to require the coincidence of the latter three particles to make a neutron, the probability of which would be extremely small. But when the theory of the weak interaction was developed, the 4-particle vertex became a 3-particle vertex, and the decay proceeded in two stages:

Feynman1a

The inverse interaction is shown below. The anti-neutrino interacts with just one other particle – a proton in a nucleus – via a W boson, emitting a positron, and turning the proton into a neutron.

Feynman2

The possibility of such an interaction – in which the absorption of a neutrino effectively transmutes an element into one with one fewer proton and one more neutron – paved the way for the discovery of the neutrino by Reines and Cowan in 1956.

Now, if there really had been no theory predicting an interaction between neutrinos and other particles, any attempt to detect them would have looked a bit like Collins’ caricature of the search for gravitational waves. But of course we already know that gravitational waves do interact – by definition they are perturbations in spacetime, affecting the metric of spacetime and hence the way other particles, such as photons, propagate. So we build a very sensitive measuring device – an interferometer – and look for any such perturbations. Or rather, we build two interferometers, 3000 km apart. If a disturbance is detected simultaneously in both devices, it rules out any local, terrestrial source and hence points to events a long way away.

I sometimes think that the problems Collins and others have with concepts such as this may stem from a particular way of thinking about scientific phenomena, namely in a discrete, “all or nothing” sort of framework in which such phenomena are regarded as either there or not there – detected or not detected, producing “correct” or “incorrect” outcomes. But in reality, what we are doing almost all the time in modern physics is to measure things, and the measurements can take any rational values.

This discrete language even finds its way into the mouths of scientists occasionally; a perfect example is the experiment I did my PhD on, which was often described as “searching for the electric dipole moment of the neutron”, as though it could be “found” or “not found”, although the same people who described it thus knew very well that the experiment only returned a measurement and an associated probability, so that we could say, in a vague sort of way, that the dipole moment was probably no bigger than a certain value; but we could never say with certainty that it was zero, so, in that sense, we should not talk about whether or not it exists, because such questions are untestable, just like Pauli’s original neutrino hypothesis.

So my version of that Facebook post would go something like this:

“CALTECH measured perturbations in spacetime consistent with a theory of gravitational waves, using super-expensive technology designed to measure such perturbations, confirming Einstein’s prediction that large-scale fluctuations in gravitational energy could propagate to remote locations. These phenomena were expected because other predictions of general relativity had already been verified. A failure to detect them would, however, have cast doubt on the theory.”

Not as catchy as the original, perhaps, but possibly closer to the mark …

Into the Asylum?

I started this blog piece several months ago, but never finished it ; instead it languished in a folder on my computer. I am publishing it now as a result of what I call my “John Watson moment”.

John Watson was a character in one of Douglas Adams’ Hitch-Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy novels (the fourth one, I think). For some time he had been harbouring grave doubts about the state of society in general; then he saw something that tipped him over the edge: a packet of toothpicks with operating instructions. He reasoned that any society that could produce such a thing was beyond hope, and he therefore changed his name to Wonko the Sane, and rebuilt his house so that it was inside out: the bare bricks were on the inside, and the wallpaper and furnishings were on the outside. He renamed it “the Outside of the Asylum”.

My own John Watson moment came when I received an email from a climate change action group that I’m involved in. It contained an urgent message: We need a logo. I wanted to scream: “No you don’t. You don’t need a logo. You need to get out onto the streets and persuade people to live sustainably. A logo can’t do that!” But I didn’t do that, nor did I rename my house; instead I decided to finish this blog piece.

I think the current obsession with logos is part of a wider pattern: for some reason, a lot of people in a certain stratum of society seem very keen to eschew language as a means of communication, and instead do it in pictures. This is not a totally mad idea – sometimes a picture can be a very good means of communication – hence the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words”. The trouble is, it isn’t always; sometimes it is actually worth very little.

This is particularly true of the logo. Every self-respecting organisation, it seems, has to have one of these little coloured pictures or phrases in a special font. I’m not sure how long the word “logo” has been around, but I am fairly sure that when I first heard of them, the word had not been invented. It was several decades ago, during elections in one of the new African democracies that had shaken off the British imperialist yoke. There were complaints in the press that the elections would be a farce, because such a high proportion of the population was illiterate; because of this the candidates were being represented by distinctive little pictures – for example, of a tree, a lion or a flower – and as a result, so the objectors maintained, most voters would just choose the nicest picture.

Now, I don’t think this was a very valid argument, because, assuming the candidates spoke at hustings meetings, these early logos, which would surely be prominently displayed at such meetings, would form a link between what the candidate was saying and the ballot paper. If a candidate whose logo was a tree was advocating policies that a particular voter liked the sound of, that voter would put a cross against the tree even if he or she could not read or write. Nevertheless, since that time I have always thought that logos did corrupt rational behaviour just a little. Faced with three otherwise identical-looking companies, for instance, isn’t there a danger that we will choose the one – to repair our roof, or to apply to for a job – that has the nicest logo?

I have no doubt that organisations that use logos do so in order to maximise the chance that they will be remembered, recognised. A similar process goes on in other walks of life; consider road signs, for instance. These codify certain laws or warnings in such a way that their meaning will be taken in in the split second a road user has to study them. What fascinates me here, though, is that there is a point at which pictograms give way to good old words.

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Consider these two examples of traffic signs from the same street in my home town. It seems the authorities can’t quite make up their minds whether a “bus” is best represented by a three letter word or a rather complicated looking pictogram. Presumably experts differ on this point. At least, I hope experts of some sort have been canvassed by the designers of these signs; otherwise it looks like sheer randomnesss as to whether we use a word or a picture, and mixing them up in the same sign is, in some sense, the worst possible thing you can do.

Other forms of transport are not immune. I remember when we were installing flap indicators on the platforms at Southern Region railway stations in the 1980s, we were told that whenever a train was due to stop at Gatwick Airport station, the word “Airport” was to be replaced by a little picture of an aeroplane. This was, to some extent, sensible: the little picture took up much less space than the word “airport”, so you could get more stations on the flap. Still, it looked odd having just that one pictogram amongst a sea of words.

Pictures do have their uses, of course. If I am trying to describe a complicated three-dimensional object to someone who has not seen it, I can try using words but a picture will be a lot better (and a proper engineering drawing, with plan and elevations, even better). Yet anyone who has attempted to put together a modern “flat-pack” knows the severe limitations of using only pictures in order to overcome the language problem, or rather, in order to increase the manufacturers’ profits by not needing to translate for different countries.

Nevertheless, it does seem that we live in a culture obsessed by the visual. Some time ago, I went to my local library to view a series of black and white photographs taken in Berlin and other parts of Eastern Europe in 1989, the year the Wall came down. Having been to Hungary, Poland and Romania, but not Berlin, I was interested to learn exactly where these photos had been taken; but alas, there were no captions, so I could not find out. All there was was the pictures. I emailed the photographer to find out why no captions had been provided, and his response was that “I wanted the pictures to speak for themselves”.

He has a point. These pictures can, to some extent, speak for themselves; but the message they convey will be dictated by the beholder, not by the artist. If someone from, say, Chile had seen one of the pictures of a political demonstration, they might have linked it in their mind with a memory of such a demo back home. But it clearly wasn’t a picture of Chile but of somewhere in Europe ………

Once upon a time there was, in my home town, Brighton, a huge railway works which built and repaired steam locomotives. Situated adjacent to the main station, it opened in 1840 and eventually closed in 1962. Later the buildings were pulled down and it became a huge car park. Later still, in the early 21st century, this area was redeveloped as the New England Quarter.

In the heyday of the railways there had been a goods depot just down the hill from the station. It was served by a goods line which left the main London line near the bridge carrying Dyke Road Drive over the line, and ran southwards alongside it, on a slight downward slope which eventually took it under the Brighton-Lewes line and on to the goods depot.

As with many old railway lines, this goods line escaped development because a long narrow piece of land is not really much good to anyone. When the New England quarter arrived, the line – which had long since lost its rails – was earmarked as a “Greenway” – a path leading into Brighton town centre from the outskirts.

So, as blocks of posh flats rose out of the old car park, the old goods line was transformed into a path winding between grassy verges and running past the only remaining relic of the railway works – the tall brick columns that held up the depot buildings after they were extended outwards over the goods line.

As the work progressed, I was pleased to see that the brick columns had been preserved, and hoped that some record of the area’s history might be provided in the form of a short piece of historical text, with pictures, mounted in a slanting frame like those often found on Sustrans cycle routes. But I was to hope in vain. When the Greenway opened, there was not even so much as a sign telling people where it led to – much less a historical display. Instead, there were some large “tools” resembling foks and shovels that had been hung from the tops of the brick columns. These were supposed to “represent” in some way the industrial heritage of the site. But there was nothing more explicit than that. Later, in the same vein, and probably at vast expense, a two-dimensional model of a steam locomotive was erected on a bridge at one end of the path, visible to all who passed beneath and of course to walkers on the Greenway itself. It was accompanied by a plaque with three columns of text describing “The History”, “The Installation” and “The Artist”. Incredibly, the locomotive depot was not mentioned at all under the first of these; it only featured in the middle column, which noted that steam engines once ran along the goods line, “past the locomotive depot”.

This idea that it is intrinsically better to communicate in pictures rather than words seems to have become endemic. I might say it was “post-modern” if only I knew what that term meant; to me, it suggests, vaguely, being deliberately obscure and contrary, always taking the most convoluted and non-intuitive path – but don’t quote me on that.

Anyway, we are sophisticated people, aren’t we? We are too clever to do the obvious, so we do something else instead. So, when civilisation itself is under threat, what do we do? Reach for a logo! That will surely help!

Flying

Shannon Smy’s song “Flying” on Seize The Day’s CD “The Tide Is Turning” is a heartfelt plea. In it she tells us about a friend who uses air travel reluctantly, for economic and personal reasons. She sings:

He knows flying is a climate crime
But he doesn’t have the money and he doesn’t have the time.
When it’s cheaper to fly than to park at the airport,
What would you do? What would you do?

That term, “climate crime”, is a brilliant way of referring to the way our behaviour is threatening our environment, and I can’t help wondering why, when I first heard the song a few years back, I’d never come across the term “climate crime” before, and have not heard it anywhere outside this song. Why? Surely climate change has been a topical issue for many, many years now, and there is very little disagreement about anthropogenic warming, outside the fossil fuel industries and those who profit from them. But it seems we are still, in the main, turning a blind eye.

I have been lucky, in that (a) I dislike flying for various reasons and hence would not consider it unless desperate; (b) having worked on the railways, I have an alternative mode of travel. This is not just because of the admittedly generous availability of free tickets for international travel even for “retired” railway employees like me (though these facilities are now restricted to a few countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy, and the “reduced” rates I pay for tickets in other countries are probably not substantially less than others would pay by going through a booking agency).  No, I think the main legacy of my career on the railways in this respect is that it has made me feel comfortable with rail travel and so it seems to me the natural way to go – and not just because travelling by train to a holiday is really a part of the holiday.

I realise that others are not so lucky, and some have little choice about having to fly for business reasons. The friend mentioned in Shannon’s song flies because

His lover lives 400 miles away –
So far by ferry, bus and train
It takes all day …

Now, notwithstanding the question why two lovers would be living 400 miles apart (possibly due to economic reasons connected with work, or not being able to move house, or some other reason) I don’t think anyone would want to deny them the ability to travel to see one another, and to do so relatively cheaply. It seems they are an example of people who are punishing themselves because they are conscientious enough to acknowledge the consequences of burning fossil fuel. If global warming is affecting them, it is surely hitting the wrong target: surely people who use air travel regularly to attend meetings or conferences, or simply for a quick holiday, are the ones who should really be being squeezed here? After all, it is not just lovers we may wish to go and see, but relatives. Here Shannon can speak truly form the heart:

I always thought I’d be by my sister’s side
When she gave birth to her first child;
I’d love to see my grandma again
Before she goes … all the way …

Now they live so far away –
Australia and the USA.
What the hell will I say if they need me?
What would you do?

Later in the song, in a talking interlude, she presents the statistics to back up her anguish: Official sources say that we need to reduce our CO2 emissions to between 1 and 2.5 tonnes per person per year, if we’re to stabilise the atmosphere … One return flight to Sydney, Australia, produces 10 tonnes of CO2 per passenger.

Why don’t other people always think about these things before jetting off on some escapade far less justifiable than saying goodbye to your grandma or holding your sister’s hand in childbirth? Or rather, why aren’t “the authorities” making sure people ask those questions by deluging us with propaganda? After all, it has been shown that people can change their habits if subjected to enough graphic reminders of the dangers of not doing so – look at smoking for instance (though the health risk there is far more personal and visualisable than that from climate change). Why is it always the conscientious, concerned people like Shannon who end up beating themselves up over this?

But then she weakens her own case by admitting, in the next verse, that

I discovered so much of who I am
Sitting in deserts in the sand,
Nothing and no-one to get in the way, no bills to pay;

I love lying in the sun and swimming in warm sea,
I don’t want to think about all the places I will never see.
When living is hard and flying is easy,
What will you do?
What will we do?

The song is in danger of turning into a sort of NIMBY argument along the lines of “I acknowledge the dangers of climate change and mankind’s role in causing it, and I think something needs to be done about it, but please, don’t let it change my own lifestyle”. The song’s chorus is a litany of promises to do what she can:

I will recycle,
I’ll use my bicycle,
I’ll walk into town,
I’ll turn the heating down …

As these promises are piled on top of one another, she gets more and more distraught, and even mixes up other topical issues that are not directly linked to climate change:

My clothes are ethically made,
I drink my tea fair trade …

At the end of each chorus is the plea:

Don’t take my freedom away
Don’t take my holidays
Don’t take my time away
Don’t take my wings away

and the song ends with her clearly at the end of her tether:

Doesn’t anyone get a break these days?

The song is slightly odd, though, because it seems to be a response to the constant nagging about carbon footprints that we all ought to be subjected to, but in practice, most of us are not. Shannon, being a member of a very political, activist folk group, is probably constantly surrounded by fellow eco-warriors (and warriors against all sorts of injustice too – don’t pigeonhole them) who are probably aghast at her global wanderings. But why aren’t we all constantly nagged about such things? Why don’t we hear more about “climate crime”? Some of the people I mix with in academic circles think nothing of jetting off for a one or two day conference; I once worked with a physicist who was actually commuting weekly from Germany to the UK by air. These are the guys who need to be nagged; though of course they are not a large group of people on a global scale (thank goodness!) – it is maybe the businessmen (and the odd businesswoman) we need to get through to. But then again, we also need to get through to people who go for short breaks by air … and this leads us back to Shannnon and her holidays.

But of course there is something that can be done without cutting people like her off completely from her family and her holidays: flights could be rationed; people could be given a personal carbon limit. Of course, from the data Shannon quotes, she would exceed such a limit with one flight; but perhaps the mitigating actions she takes could be offset against the limit, or her flight to Australia could be saved up for from several years’ carbon credits (not that her grandma, or the planet, can necessarily wait that long though). The truth, sadly, is probably that there are many, many people out there who are much further over the limit than Shannon would be if she went to Australia once a year; surely it is those people who should cut down first.

In an interview from which excerpts were used in the film The Age of Stupid, George Monbiot says: “It’s staggering to see how passive we’ve been about it, how little we’ve done to try and stop it. Where’s the direct action? Where are the vast protests? We’re fast asleep, we’re sleepwalking into this catastrophe”. But there are a few signs of an awakening. There are some good organisations lobbying for change, such as the Aviation Environment Federation and Airport Watch. And a few months back a group of particle physicists I used to work with circulated an email in which they excitedly proclaimed that it was now possible to get from London to CERN by train with only one change, and clearly some of them were thinking of switching from air travel to the train. I couldn’t help pointing out to them that this has probably been possible for at least 10 years, and probably ever since the Eurostar started running, with possibly one additional change. But hey, it’s a start, isn’t it?

Labour and Welfare

If ever you needed a reason not to vote Labour today, it was on the front page of the Guardian yesterday. The article, by Shiv Malik and Patrick Butler, was on benefit cuts, and revealed that these cuts had arisen because of a vote taken in Parliament last spring to place a cap on welfare spending, with 520 votes in favour and only 22 against. Malik and Butler state that “Labour’s front bench supported the legislation to defend itself from Conservative accusations that they were ‘the party of welfare’”. They also point out that George Osborne challenged Labour to back the bill.

Whaaaaaat? But surely the very nature of party politics is oppositional, because the parties represent fundamentally different and incompatible ideologies; so parties must be challenging one another all the time – why should one party just roll over and let the other walk all over it? Imagine if there were a football match between Arsenal and Spurs, and at the start of the match the Arsenal captain challenged the Spurs captain to support Arsenal. “Certainly sir. We’ll just go off and score a few own goals then …”

Besides, Labour surely is the party of welfare – or at least it was once. It was the party that introduced the welfare state, on the principle that people pay according to their means and receive according to their needs. So the rich pay more than the poor but everybody gets an income they can live on. When, exactly, did Labour give up that philosophy?

Well, one answer to that question can be found by looking at my last blog piece. The Labour front bench doesn’t want the crypto-Tories it now serves – people who crawled out of the woodwork in the early 1990s when the Tory governemnt looked to be on its last legs and Labour poised to take over, so they took over Labour instead – to think it supports anything like that. And they are also scared stiff that they will be portrayed by the gutter press as the party of welfare, where the word “welfare” has been redefined by the same gutter press to mean “scroungers”. So, are we now effectively being ruled by Rupert Murdoch? And if so, what is the point of having parties at all, or indeed, elections?

There are still a few good souls in the Labour Party; I met one this morning, election leaflets under one arm. And Malik and Butler’s article points out that among the 22 opposing that bill were “a small group of Labour rebels” (as well as the SNP). Sadly, those people no longer have any influence on policy. They will shrug and say, “well, even if the Labour leadership wanted to do anything, it can’t. The right-wing press is just too strong”. Errrr …. excuse me, but what exactly was Labour doing during its 13 years in office? Couldn’t it have taken steps to curb the power of Murdoch and co? But then, of course, Blair was in bed with Murdoch. He, and the greedy capitalists who made him, have no interest in the poor, or in socialism, and nor, sadly, do his successors. We have arrived at a situation not unlike the USA, where two big parties which are pretty much carbon copies of each other go through the charade of slugging it out every few years for the prize of being the ones in charge of continuing the status quo. Thankfully, in this country we have a few “minor parties” which seem not to be about to do the decent thing and go away or shut up. (We could, of course, do without one of them, which I will not even dignify with a mention, although really it is just a laughing stock.) But let’s hope the Greens are able to continue reminding  Labour supporters, and indeed Labour itself, that there is still an alternative.

Labour or Green?

Here in Brighton, the forthcoming elections will pit supporters of Caroline Lucas, our Green MP, and the minority Green administration on the local council, against Labour supporters who are campaigning to re-take the parliamentary seat and regain control of the council.

Labour supporters are clearly getting fed up with the number of voters who cite the Iraq war  as a reason not to vote Labour. Recently the Labour candidate in my constituency said:

“To say that Labour’s sins over Iraq trump all else is to allow another Tory led government in to continue to dismantle every iota of community and respect that ties our lives and futures together and that makes us strong.”

I am glad she agrees that Iraq was a “sin”, but I fear others in the Labour Party may not. In fact I think it is somewhat disingenuous to use the word “sin”, since it is relatively meaningless to those of us who are not religious, and does not carry the same weight as a word like “crime”, which is what the Iraq invasion actually was. When a crime is committed, those affected by it find it difficult to “move on” until justice has been done; but justice has not been done in this case. Far from Blair being tried as a criminal – calls for which I fully support – he has not even been expelled from the Labour Party, and I think that fact speaks volumes to potential voters who are concerned about this issue: it says that those in power in the Party do not regard Blair’s actions as a crime, nor even, most probably, as a “sin”. If Labour is really a party in which we can place our trust, it ought to have been possible in the time that has elapsed since 2003 to get a sizeable majority of members voting for the expulsion of Blair and his cronies for bringing the party into disrepute. Ah, but sadly, of course, it is many years since that degree of internal democracy existed in the Party. So what Blair’s continued membership tells us is that (a) the leadership – those with the power to expel him – don’t want to; and (b) the members – a majority of whom probably would want to expel him – don’t have the power to.

I use the phrase “bringing the party into disrepute” partly because it is, or at least was, frequently used against members the party leadership disliked and wanted to get rid of. I have some personal experience of this, since it was what I and many others were accused of back in the early 1990s, following the closure of the local Labour Party, when I had been a member for barely a year. There were twenty-six of us altogether, and we were accused of that or similar “crimes” (the party had, and presumably still has, a sort of quasi-judicial mechanism for “trying” its members and “punishing” them), but not told what the evidence was against us for some considerable time; then, after 18 months or so, we were allowed to wither away (our suspension lifted but the unjust and groundless smears not apologised for) once the Kinnockites had got what they wanted. And what did they want? Well, clearly the motivation for the closure, coming swiftly on the heels of the selection of a left-wing candidate for a council byelection against the leadership’s wishes, was to stifle internal democracy enough to stop ordinary members from doing it again, and instead to shoe-horn in candidates approved by the leadership, whom we described, not unfairly I think, as “stooges”. Of course it was not publicly spoken of in such terms – it was dressed up as a response to a “Militant threat” that most members agreed had long since passed, if it ever existed in the first place.

But surely no-one has ever brought the party into disrepute more than Blair did? So why hasn’t there been a massive majority of ordinary party members calling for his expulsion, together with that of his companions-in-crime – Straw and others – even if the “modernisation” of the internal party structure means they can’t actually enforce it?

Probably the haemorrhage of members since 2003 means most of those who would have wanted Blair out have got out themselves (like me), and the bulk of the rest – like the candidate who described his action as a “sin” – don’t really care too much; which leaves a small, ineffective minority of good people who have decided to “stay and fight”, perhaps, as Polly Toynbee would say, holding their noses as they do.

Actually the assault on both internal democracy and socialism in the early 90s – which eventually saw the party abolish its socialist creed, Clause IV – was not done in isolation or without purpose. Several local parties around the country were closed down at the same time as ours, for similar reasons. After Blair came to power, what started as an exercise in internal party discipline was then “rolled out” across the nation in the form of draconian “anti-terror” legislation. The same hallmarks were there – detention without trial, guilt by association, kangaroo courts, secret evidence neither the defendant nor his or her lawyers were allowed to see. Caught up in this travesty of justice were some people who subsequently became good friends of mine; one was a victim of Blair’s mendacious “ricin plot” story, which was cited by Colin Powell as part of the reason for invading Iraq despite having been shown to be a complete fabrication. There are people in this country who are still having their freedom curtailed because of that – because of ambitious, greedy, foolish men who seemingly lack the ability to apologise. Sorry, did I say “men” there? The current Shadow Home Secretary has done a pretty good job of deterring any would-be Labour voters who have an ounce of regard for natural justice, often outdoing her Tory counterpart in her desperation to be seen as “tough”. I shudder at the thought of that woman ever becoming a minister, and I am sure my aforementioned friends do too.

But what was actually driving all this? Why, when the Thatcher and Major governments were implementing increasingly draconian and unpopular measures, was the official opposition so keen to roll over and let them? Why, when “new” Labour did finally win power, did they not at least repeal the pernicious anti-union laws, if not reverse some of the privatisations as well? Well, you don’t have to be much of a conspiracy theorist to imagine that corporate vested interests would have infiltrated what was the main opposition party when, if not before, the long-serving Tory administration started coming apart at the seams. After all, they’d have been pretty stupid, by their own standards, not to do so. But there is a more straightforward reason.

A few years ago the Guardian published a very interesting article by Philip Gould, one of the first “spin doctors” and “modernisers” in the Labour Party, who died in 2011. He had advanced cancer at the time he wrote the article; perhaps he wanted to put on record what he’d achieved for the party. What he said was very illuminating. He said that he and his friends got involved in the party because they wanted it to represent “aspirational” people. How dare he? How dare this former advertising executive suggest that the party didn’t already represent aspirational people – as if anyone could be in politics without being aspirational! What he was referring to of course was not the sort of people who aspire towards a fairer and more equal society like you and me, but people who were “aspirational” for their own ends – in other words, greedy people, who were in awe of the rich and wanted to be rich themselves. This all happened at around the same time as our party and others across the country were closed down for being too left wing, and party democracy was replaced by pointless “issue-free” policy fora; and I am sure that is no coincidence. The rest, of course, is history.

While writing this, I must say something briefly about caucusing. Ostensibly, the “charges” the Labour leadership made against some of us in 1990 were to do with belonging to “banned” organisations such as the Militant Tendency. This group was banned because it was considered to be a “party within a party”, with its own agenda. We were supposed to think that such behaviour was beyond the pale, and the proscription of such groups beyond debate. But tell me, honestly – what member of a democratic party does not have their own agenda? And what could be more natural than those of a similar persuasion – especially within an extremely “broad church” such as the Labour Party – getting together to discuss tactics? The Blairites and their creators, the Kinnockites, would have you believe that a good Party member goes to a meeting with a completely blank mind, and makes up his or her mind on the basis of the arguments put for and against. But the Labour Party was built by people who were driven by conviction – blank minds never got anyone very far. And besides, of course, to suggest that having one’s own agenda was intrinsically wrong was somewhat disingenuous when it was considered “all right” for the right wing of the party to have its own caucuses – such as the Labour Co-Ordinating Committee (LCC), which masterminded the party closure.

I actually went along with all this “no caucusing” crap for years, but eventually I had to admit that it was utter tosh. I didn’t have the time to join any of these internal groupings before the party was closed down, but that didn’t stop the local council leader from accusing me of belonging to an organisation that I’d actually never heard of before I was accused of belonging to it – and this an organisation that was not actually proscribed, but was a bit left-wing, which was probably all the excuse he needed. (I was also “accused” of being involved in an organisation called the Friends of Brighton Labour Party, which was set up after the closure of the official party, to fill the vacuum and debate the issues out in the real world, where of course life was going on as normal, and the kind of injustices socialists campaign against were still occurring. This was perfectly true, except that the “Friends” didn’t actually have members, and more to the point, it had absolutely no connection with the Labour Party, nor any pretence of being the Labour Party, so it was outside the jurisdiction of the Stalinists at party HQ). I asked my accuser, several times, to apologise for libelling me, but he did not even reply to my letters. No doubt if I had been rich enough I could have sued him, but then if I’d been rich he wouldn’t have libelled me in the first place.

Incidentally, in case you are still wondering why a new member like me should have been picked on, then left to rot once the real targets of the closure had been dealt with, the answer, of course, is in numbers. There were 26 of us who were originally suspended. Of those, perhaps a dozen at most were the real targets. But the local rightwingers in the LCC and other groups had been waging war on these people for years, and had tried to get the local party closed down before; however the national party would not play ball, and instead told them to come up with some better statistics. I am not sure if an exact numerical threshold was actually discussed, but presumably 25 was considered to be a nice round number, and maybe I was the “one for luck”.

So, after all that, who am I going to vote for? Well, I’ll give you three guesses.

“I’m over there”

One of the oddest conversations I ever had occurred in the early 1990s, after a political meeting in Brighton that I helped to organise. A woman who had been at the meeting came back to the foyer as we were clearing up looking rather dazed, and said “Someone’s just hit me!” We were all very concerned about this; but in the ensuing conversation, it transpired that not only had it been her car that was hit and not her, but also that she hadn’t actually been in the car at the time.

This is an extreme example of a rather worrying tendency for people to identify closely with their vehicles. Worrying, at least, for those of us who are concerned about global warming and the congestion caused by the number of vehicles on the road nowadays, many of which spend most of their time lining residential streets. (And even if a solution to the first problem were found, the second would still be with us, and in fact would probably worsen, as those people who had decided not to get a car because of the pollution they cause would then not feel so inhibited). Granted, most people will hopefully make what they at least would see as a fairly rational decision on whether to run a car, depending on how much they need one and whether they can afford it. But once they have one, the tendency to identify with it as closely as in the above example may make it hard for them to part with it.

But what is behind this phenomenon? There is clearly some deep psychology going on here. The woman I quoted above was not a one-off. We have all surely heard someone, at some time or other, come out with the philosophically rather challenging statement “I’m over there”, meaning that that is where their car is. It’s true that people also say this about their house, and might say something like “I’m in Brighton” when they are actually nowhere near the place. But in that case I think it is a bit easier to understand, and less worrying; after all, most of us spend at least half our time in the house we live in, and our homes mean a lot to us. I think that in the case of motor vehicles, what ties an individual so closely to their car is the fact that when one is driving the vehicle becomes almost an extension of their body. When we learn to drive, we acquire tacit skills which we don’t even think about, and probably could not describe in words.

More recently I encountered an example of the converse phenomenon – referring to cars instead of people, as opposed to referring to people instead of cars. One of a series of photographs currently on display at Brighton station shows the London Road Viaduct, which the photographer says “serves as a constant reminder to cars stuck in traffic underneath that there is an alternative to driving”; and there is a road sign near where I work in London that is addressed to “buses” rather than to their drivers.

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Have cyber-buses finally arrived?   

Moving Stories

In the mid-1990s my partner Sally and I were involved in an organisation called Workers Aid for Bosnia. Well, I say “organisation” but I use the term loosely; it did have meetings, but it wasn’t really the sort of organisation with rules, a committee and all that. It was to some extent pretty anarchic and to some extent a bit Trotskyist. It didn’t even have an apostrophe. It did one big thing, and did it pretty well – it collected and transported aid (food and other essentials) to the non-sectarian community of Tuzla in Bosnia when all around that community were war and hate whipped up by various ex-Yugoslavian versions of the BNP.

WAB, as it was called for short, was a national group, and we were the Brighton section. We got hold of a 7.5 ton lorry which was donated by Thames Water. It was a Leyland DAF (and thus unofficially named “Leyla”) and it looked pretty big until you saw it parked alongside a really big lorry at a service station. The great thing was that you could actually drive a 7.5 tonner on an ordinary car licence. Well, it was “great” in some sense or other, but it was also “scary” in a lot of senses, particularly when some dickhead asked you to reverse it along Hanover Terrace and you left a trail of broken wing mirrors behind you … Nevertheless, we fell in love with it.

I never went to Bosnia in it, but I helped out with maintaining it. The people who drove it on the aid convoys were often not the sort to treat a piece of middle-aged machinery with much sensitivity (if any of them ever graduated onto wheelie suitcases, I bet they were the sort of people who bumped them mercilessly down stairs and then wondered why the wheels fell off). So the lorry needed a lot of TLC when it came back, not to mention the small matter of an MOT as well.

Some of us hit on the brilliant idea of letting the lorry earn its own maintenance money in the long months between convoys, by using it to transport people and things around. The idea was that we would put up adverts in the sort of places where they’d be read by “alternative” people, people who wanted something moved but did not fancy pouring money into the coffers of large removal firms. It was before the idea of “man and van” really took off, so there was not too much competition in this kind of market; besides, we had an ideological trump card up our sleeves – people liked the idea that their money was keeping an aid vehicle on the road and helping the hard-pressed souls of Tuzla, so they’d choose us in preference to Pickfords et al.

This very informal (and quite possibly illegal at times) practice went on for perhaps two or three years (I can’t remember precisely), was great fun, and introduced us to some lovely people. It has also generated some very poignant memories and produced material for many stories, which have been told, orally, many times. Recently, while writing my blog piece about car hire, it all came back to me and I thought maybe the best stories should be preserved in written form. So here they are. They may prove too numerous for one blog piece, in which case this will become a series.

At first it felt like a bit of a con. People knew we weren’t professionals, but still when we went round to look at how much stuff they’d got they probably thought we were sizing it all up professionally, working out what should go where, what should go first and what last, etc, but really we were thinking “I haven’t got a clue how to do this …” We did get quite good at packing stuff in though. But one of my most enduring memories concerns the one occasion when I deliberately abandoned all those acquired skills and tried desperately to pile things up all higgledy-piggledy.

A lady called Wendy (not her real name) asked us if we could take her to South London and pick up a few of her belongings from the house of a friend who had died. So we set off, found the house and started loading things onto the lorry. She had said at the start that it was just a few items of furniture; I certainly remember a large table. Fair enough; it was a nice table. But as we went on, more and more things began to be brought out – some of them looking rather the worse for wear, many of them covered in mould. It was not so easy to see why she wanted these things – the mantra that accompanied their appearance was “might come in useful”. When a whole load of bits of an old car appeared, I started to feel as though I wanted the ground to open and swallow me up. So I tried my best to fill up the lorry, and at last declared, with relief, that there was no more room. Ever since then, whenever I have experienced that panicky feeling that things are out of control, I am in a situation I don’t want to be in and everything is getting worse, I have referred to it as a “Wendy moment”.

Probably the most challenging job was being asked to take the constituent parts of an exhibition stand to the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. It was for the BBC Gardeners’ World exhibition, and we had to be there by 8am on a Saturday, so that meant a pretty early start. We’d loaded up the night before so we just had to get there, unload, and meet up with the three exhibitors, who would then re-assemble it. Such a long round trip required two drivers, so Phil, another WAB person who did a lot of the driving, agreed to come along. We also had a passenger, a young lady who was moving to Nottingham, probably from university, with her small collection of belongings; I can’t remember her name, but as she features again in the story let’s call her Diana. The lorry had a compartment behind the cab with its own door, so that was perfect for her stuff. I picked her up at about 4am and we went to Phil’s house in Portslade. But try as we might, we could not rouse him. Door knocking, gravel on the window, shouting – all was to no avail. After maybe 15 minutes of trying to get a response, I realised that a decision would have to be made. I needed a co-driver. Optimistically, I turned to Diana and said “Can you drive?” But she couldn’t, so it was just me. I realised that I’d be able to do the return trip in 2 days, so a solution quickly appeared – I could sleep on the floor at Diana’s new place in Nottingham and return the next day. So we set off.

We got to the NEC in time, and unloaded the stuff. As we unloaded, the exhibitors (who had travelled separately by car) were supposed to be erecting it. But it quickly became apparent that this was no easy matter. They were two women and one man; the man had numbered all the parts, but none of them seemed to know how the numbers fitted together, and it was such a complicated structure that it actually needed several people, with bits being held in mid-air until they could be supported.

Time moved on …. One of the women ran off in tears … they apologised and offered me another £20, which in my embarrassment at holding Diana up, I gave to her. We were all five of us standing around holding things while someone tried to fit parts together and usually someone else was running off in hysterics (not that I am stereotyping artistic people here, please note). It was almost a Wendy moment. But we got there in the end.

Just in case I don’t get round to doing another blog in this series, I must mention one of the nicest jobs I had. I was asked to move an entire family (a couple, their young daughter and their cat), and all their possessions, from Sussex to Cornwall, where they were to “start a new life”. The daughter was four, and had so many teddies and soft toys that they took up the entire dashboard. She, Kara-Beth, and her mother Jenny sat in the front with me; Jeremy (Jez) and the cat (whose name I have unfortunately forgotten) were in the compartment behind the cab. There was a window between this compartment and the cab and so Jez and his feline companion were not completely cut off.

I don’t remember much of the journey; it was one of the longest ones I did, and I had to stay at my brother’s house on Bodmin Moor that night before returning home. But the whole trip was suffused by the strong, heady emotional atmosphere that one might expect to accompany such a radical uprooting. It felt good, everyone was upbeat, and I felt so privileged to be part of such a landmark event in this young family’s life. And the nicest thing about it is that we have exchanged Christmas cards every year since then. Kara (she dropped the Beth) is a young woman now; I am not sure if she still has the teddies. Every year I promise to try and get down to Cornwall to see them; hopefully one day I will actually make it.

Blood and Belonging: part 4

I wrote a series of blogs under this heading last year; I started the fourth and final one, then got distracted by something and it never went any further. I have used Michael Ignatieff’s book Blood and Belonging as the background to much of what I’ve said in the previous entries. Ignatieff’s last port of call on his journey to “trouble spots” around the world, in search of the meaning of nationalism, was Northern Ireland. He compares that divided society with those of the former Yugoslavia and the Ukraine, pointing out that

In all three cases, essentially similar peoples, speaking the same or related languages, sharing the same form of life, differing in religions which few actually seem to practise, have been divided by the single fact that one has ruled over the other”. Continue reading

The Cardboard Handshake

I have a memory of reading J.D.Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye in my teens. In fact, one quote stayed with me for decades afterwards: the hero, Holden Caulfield, is recounting how he went back to see the headmaster of his old school, who asked him why he had left school so young instead of staying on to take higher qualifications. His reply had been “I like to ride on trains too much”. Continue reading

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