E is for economy


Economy  n. the state of a country or region in terms of the production and consumption of goods and services and the supply of money

If you were asked your favourite political catchphrase, what would it be? There are so many to choose from. Politicians love distilling their messages into sound bites, clichés, for easily-digestible consumption. Many have been worthy of record in the annals of history.

If you’re British, patriotic and of a certain age, it might be that famous, stirring World War Two injunction to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. Or, more recently, Gordon Brown’s complacent, considering what was coming, economically, down the track (note ironic use of clichéd phrase there), ‘Britain will not return to the boom and bust of the past’. Or if you’re American, perhaps it could be ‘The buck stops here’ on Harry Truman’s paperweight. Or the slightly misquoted ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid’, attributed to Bill Clinton’s advisor James Carville during the presidential campaign of 1992. (It’s misquoted because originally there was no ‘it’s’.)

It’s certainly a measure of its central importance to politicians and political systems that The Economy so often looms large in the roll-call of famous political utterances. And it’s true that all political systems are defined by how they run their economies – and therefore how they order their societies. How many sorts of economic system are there? Well, the short answer is: many. Many because there are myriad permutations of the four basic ones: Traditional, Command, Market and Mixed. Although Mixed, by definition, is a mixture of all or any of the other three, so you might say there are only three basic ones really.

The oldest, the first one to develop in human society, is the traditional economic system. Many modern economies in less ‘developed’ countries of the world, particularly Africa, still operate largely in that way. They’re mainly concerned with locally produced goods and services, usually provided on a relatively small scale, that relate to a country’s customs and traditions. Hence the name. The participants will generally be small farmers, artisans or other individuals. There’ll be few or no big companies, thank you.

These economies are often hobbled by a lack of resources in their own country, or can’t access them from other, more resource-rich and powerful like the Gulf States because they themselves aren’t rich enough. So traditional economies generally can’t produce the same output or wealth-generating surpluses that more developed economies can. It’s a very unjust situation.

But on the other hand, the smaller scale and lower output of traditional economies is sometimes more sustainable, less wasteful and – provided it doesn’t pollute – less environmentally degrading than systems that operate on a bigger scale. And idealistic environmentalists and some radically left thinkers think that, apart from those aspects of a country’s infrastructure that are best organised large-scale (like road or rail networks) small is better. The radical economist EF Schumacher, famous for his influential 1973 book Small is Beautiful certainly thought so.

By complete contrast, in a command economy, all (as in totalitarian communism) or at least a large part of economic activity is centralised and controlled completely from above, usually by the government. Many countries (although not all; oil-rich North America is a notable exception) that have huge amounts of natural resources tend to have command economies to regulate the exploitation of their bounteous asset. Economic production is planned and controlled, ideally for the greater good, rather than left to The Market to decide things.

In the perfect world dreamed of by the radical political left, this would be the best and fairest set up – if the government was liberal and benign – with little opportunity for individual selfishness and greed. In reality, as most communist experiments have found, it doesn’t quite work out that way. Huge wealth isn’t necessarily generated, what there is, isn’t shared around fairly, there’s less flexibility and adaptability to change and freedom suffers. Speaking in capitalistic terms at least, the only successful fully command economy has been China, but it comes a long way down the league table of ‘good’, free societies.

And then there’s the market economy, best exemplified by countries like America. These systems allow no government involvement in the economy; they rely solely on the law of supply and demand. But having presented the United States as a prime exemplar of laissez- faire, even that country has laws to prevent monopolies and ensure reasonably fair trading. An example of that is John D Rockefeller who, although he became fabulously rich, wasn’t allowed to completely monopolise the American oil industry.

Theoretically – and often in practice – market economies produce (at least in good times) high growth and prosperity. But they aren’t very good at sharing it equitably either. The ‘trickle down’ process, whereby if the ‘wealth creators’ at the top of the pile are handsomely rewarded some of the wealth will find its way to those below doesn’t always work. That’s certainly been the case over the last decade since the 2008 financial crash; a few people have continued to become even richer whilst the majority have seen their incomes stagnate.

Market economies ensure separation of economy and overbearing government control. But they also enable individuals, firms and corporations to become extremely rich and also extremely powerful, as in the bad old days of unbridled Victorian capitalism. You’ve only got to look at the major corporations in America (particularly) and other developed countries where the weighting on the capitalist/socialist scale is heavily towards the former to see this. Big Business funds and helps elect, by donation, right-wing governments sympathetic to the creed of the knowing-best Market.

The National Rifle Association in America both donates to and lobbies the Republican Party, influencing policy on and minimising gun control with no regard for the social aspect. And although it vigorously denies it, the immensely wealthy Facebook has enormous power to influence public discourse and elections. A British information technology firm is accused of supplying the personal data of thousands of people to the Trump election campaign, and at the time of writing this, Facebook is being called to answer for itself to the British government

But in practice, most developed economies are in the Mixed category, in varying degrees. They would certainly describe themselves as such. Theoretically, they combine the best of both worlds: the high wealth creation of the market economy and the social equity of the command model. Think of a country represented as a sort of out-of-focus pie chart, with its proportions of the three basic types of economy being colours – say green for Traditional, red for Command and Blue for market. The colours merge into each other. A less-developed country will have mostly green with small amounts of the red and/or blue, but a much more developed one would have little or no green and probably, in the case of countries like America or Singapore, mostly blue.

And then there’s the factor of taxation. The more socialistically-inclined Nordic countries have higher tax takes to fund higher levels of socially-provided services such as healthcare or welfare; a more inherently right wing, big state-hating country will have lower taxation and encourage self-reliance.

Here’s another graphic to illustrate: a horizontal band, a spectrum of blue and red and mixtures of the two, with blue at the extreme Market end and red at the extreme Command, with various gradating hues of violet and purple in between. Whereabouts on that spectrum do you think your country would lie? Speaking as a Brit (although, in defiance of Brexit, I’d rather identify as European), with the current government running things, I’d place mine as slightly to the blue side of the centre point.

Whether or not you think your country has its economic priorities right – whether you believe in striving for as equitable a society as possible or Greatness of (supply country name), whatever that means – is of course a matter of personal perception and opinion. With the tyranny of the, nowadays, often-populist majority, we tend to get the politicians and economic systems we deserve.

To quote another popular British cliché about economic matters: when people demand higher public services but go rather quiet when the subject of paying for them is put, political journalists trot out the line, ‘We expect Scandinavian levels of public service with American levels of taxation [to fund them]’.

To come off the fence of objectivity and (another cliché alert) nail my colours to the mast: they have a point, I think.

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E is for eccentric

Eccentric  n. a person of unconventional and slightly strange views or behaviour

Whatever else they may be, eccentrics are certainly often viewed as ‘strange’, perhaps a little alarming, by most of us. If that strangeness is really marked does it border on insanity? Or are eccentrics always simply colourful individuals, free spirits unwilling to be vanilla, eschewing the bland, doing their own often decidedly odd thing? Yes, it’s perhaps a matter of degree in actual terms (but then how do you define insanity? Some hold that there’s no clear boundary between mental illness and ‘normality’) – but it’s also a matter of perception by dull, conservative, conventional people. Some might find eccentrics amusing, but to others they’re just plain ridiculous. Personally, I love eccentric people. To me, they bring colour to an otherwise drab, timid, conformist world, and long may they thrive.

Here’s a sample of some of my favourites. Some are long since dead, some I have known personally and one is fictitious, created by Yours Truly.

Billy King (1807-1873). Australian Billy didn’t hold with any form of transport other than Shanks’s Pony. And not content with footing it everywhere, he enjoyed a challenge. One such was to walk from Sydney to Parramatta, a distance of 29km, carrying a perplexed, 40kg live goat on his shoulders. Regarding that as a little too easy, he added a further 5kg of dead weight but still made the journey in under seven hours. He was also known as the Flying Pieman. He sold freshly baked pies to passengers embarking in Sydney for a river trip to Parramatta, then walked briskly to the destination, beating the steamer, to met the astonished passengers off again. Presumably to ask the punters what they thought of his pies. Wonderful!

John Christie (1882-1962). A famed British eccentric, Christie and Mrs Christie founded the Glyndebourne Opera Festival. He had a very relaxed attitude to formal dressing; on hot evenings at the opera he would cut the sleeves off his dinner jacket, and sometimes wear scruffy tennis shoes. (But then it was his event, after all, so he could please himself, really.) Christie also went through a phase of wearing lederhosen to the performances and in 1933 expected all guests to do so as well. One wonders how the singers kept straight faces at the unprepossessing sight of all those leather-clad bare knees. But it would have been appropriate if they were doing Wagner, I suppose.

John Warren Barry. The squire of Fyling Hall near Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire, he had a penchant for making his farm buildings as picturesque as possible. Said to have been inspired by the classical architecture he’d seen on his Mediterranean travels in the 1880s, at the turn of the twentieth century he built a lavish, elegant home for his pigs in the style of a Grecian temple. Pampered porkers, you might think. But not a bit of it. It was said that, quite unimpressed, they refused to go inside. The building has been sympathetically restored and enlarged as a holiday let by the Landmark Trust and is the butt of many a porcine-based bon mot in the visitors’ book.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). The famous playwright and wit was your consummate eccentric. He was a popinjay (at last; an opportunity to use that word!) par excellence. Whilst at Oxford he would go about trailing a presumably reluctant lobster on a lead. I love that! I bet it was pink with embarrassment (sorry about that).His sexual orientation was of course illegal then, but he flaunted it nonetheless and his career came to an inglorious end, to mankind’s loss, when he was jailed for ‘sodomy,’ first at Wandsworth and then Reading, after an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas. The two years’ incarceration broke the poor man’s spirit, and he lived just three years after release.

William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930. He of the famous ‘spoonerism,’ whereby letters in words are swapped around – in Spooner’s case usually inadvertently – often with comical result. He was a lecturer, dean and finally warden of New College, Oxford, and students would often attend his lectures just to enjoy his linguistic manglings. A popular one was when he lauded British farmers as ‘ye noble tons of soil’ (sons of toil). There are two recorded versions of a cracking gem he bestowed when toasting Queen Victoria. I prefer this one, which will probably amuse Americans reading this: ‘Let us glaze our asses to our queer old dean!’ I’m sure you can decipher that. Brilliant!

And ones I have personally known:

Miss de la Questa (she was much too old-school to reveal her first name). This wonderful lady lived in a large cluttered Victorian villa in Leicester in the 1960s. With an exotic-sounding name like hers, I used to imagine that she must have been a lover of Hemingway, or something. A friend and I had a bedsit in her house when we were at art college. When I knew her she’d recently retired from a career in physiotherapy. She proudly showed me her favourite retirement present. It was an electric drill!

Tony. I lodged briefly with larger-than-life Tony in 1977. Blessed with a splendidly fruity West Country accent, he’d been a docker at Bristol for most of his working life. But then he spread his wings. He divorced, and moved to Wales to do the hippy thing, as many of us did back then. When I was privileged to know him he was in his late sixties, perpetually waistcoated, corduroy-trousered, John Lennon-style-bespectacled and white-bearded. He styled himself ‘the oldest hippy in Wales.’ What a character!

Len and Sally. I also lodged with these people during the same period. They were an odd couple indeed. Len had fought in WW2 in North Africa in the famous Long Range Desert Group, the ‘Desert Rats.’ He was short, wiry, gimlet-eyed and as hard as nails. You didn’t mess with Len. After a continuing career in the military after the war, when he was finally obliged to reluctantly retire he’d gone into something equally hazardous and become a film stunt man.

Sally, all faded elegance and enormously long legs, had been a dancer in one of those 1930s troupes like the Tiller Girls (you know; linked into a long line and kicking legs high, wearing fixed grins). When she became too old to do that she’d become a wardrobe mistress in films, at which point she’d taken up with Len. When I knew them they’d left showbiz far behind, blown all their money and were living in cheerful penury and squalor amongst the dropout hippy community in Wales.

Finally, here’s one I made up:

Lowrie Rees. She’s feisty, radically left-leaning, does demos and is the much older sister of one of the male protagonists in my novel The One of Us. She instinctively takes him very much under her wing. In one saucy scene she engineers shy little brother Tomos’s loss of virginity. Here’s a snippet from another, later one, where Lowri visits Tomos, who’s recovering from a major operation in hospital:

The next day, the Sunday, Lowri and Will drove up from Cardiff. Lowri too had wanted to just drop everything and dash up to Birmingham, but once it was clear that all was well, the operation had succeeded, Glyn had persuaded her to wait a few days, until her brother was feeling up to receiving boisterous visitors. He would keep her well updated about things. Lowri had reluctantly agreed.
No longer needing the same degree of intensive care, Tomos had been moved to the next grade down: a high dependency ward. His sister and Will peeped a little apprehensively into the ward just after lunchtime. It was a small room containing just four patients and she quickly spotted Tomos and the ever-present Mair (Glyn and Sioned having paid a morning visit and departed to have a look around Birmingham). She was bearing the traditional offering of grapes, bought in a Services where they’d stopped for fuel on the way up the M5, hoping he was at the grape-eating stage by now. Well, it had been three days since his operation. How long did recovery take? They’d keep for a few days until he was ready, anyway.
To Lowri’s astonishment, Tomos was out of bed, sitting in a chair. He’d spotted their arrival and raised a hand to gain attention, Mair swivelling to see who was making him smile. Lowri approached, her face wreathed in smiles, determined not to lapse into soppy tears of relief. She’d already done that, three days ago, when Dad phoned to say that everything was okay. Lowri fought to resist the temptation to hug him. Obviously that couldn’t be done; he was fragile.
So she could only convey how she felt through speech. ‘Hello little man. How are you?’ she said, voice quavering just a little, fighting down the mothering instinct he always provoked in her anyway, eyes smarting slightly.
He grinned up at her. He looked tired and drawn, but not as much as she’d expected. But there was a light in his eyes now that hadn’t been there for a long while.
‘Hello Lowri. Hello Will. Good, thanks. Really good.’
Lowri wanted to ruffle his hair but restrained herself. ‘Great; that’s my boy. Have you got your name down for the London Marathon yet?’
Tomos laughed. ‘I’m working on it. Perhaps I should take a bit of interest in sport, for the first time in my life.’
‘Well why not?’ Lowri enthused. It was so good to see her little brother happy. Actually indulging in banter. For the first time she noticed Mair, who had got up, offering her chair, to perch on the bed. (Will took the remaining one, beaming his pleasure too but staying discretely out of things. This was a family thing, after all.) ‘Hi Mair; you okay?’
Mair nodded. ‘Yes, fine, thanks Lowri. Certainly relieved, that’s for sure.’
Lowri grinned. ‘Yeah, I’ll bet. This young man’s caused us all quite enough worry, to be honest.’
She remembered the grapes and thrust them at Tomos. ‘Oh, these are for you, bach. And don’t tell me you don’t like grapes. You have to have grapes when you’re in hospital. It’s compulsory. Otherwise Will and me’ll have to eat the things ourselves.’
Tomos laughed again. ‘Diolch Lowri. Yes, I’ll eat them, don’t worry. I’ve got my appetite back. I’ll eat anything now.’
‘Good. That’s alright then. Perhaps you’ll put some weight on now; not be such a bag of bones. Have something for Mair to grab hold of when you’re back in harness.’
‘Lowri!’ Mair expostulated, pretend-shocked.
‘Well, why not? You’ve got to think of these things,’ Lowri retorted. ‘Haven’t you, Will?’ she added as an afterthought, including him for the first time.
Will sniggered too. ‘Absolutely! You’ll have some catching up to do, Tomos.’
‘Yes, well, you take it easy. Don’t overdo things when you do.’ Lowri was suddenly, uncharacteristically serious. ‘Leave most of it to Mair; know what I mean?’
‘Lowri! Mair shrieked again. Can we just stop talking about Tomos’s sex life please?’
But she was loving it. It was nice to be normal; be talking about normal things. But when that happy day or night arrived, she certainly would be very gentle with him. Wouldn’t risk anything.
‘So,’ Lowri continued, ‘how long will you be in hospital? Have they said?’
‘It’s about two weeks normally, apparently,’ Tomos said. ‘Assuming there are no complications. But Mr Petersen says it’s all looking good. He seems pleased with me. And I’m pleased with me. So maybe in about ten days’ time.’
‘That’s amazing,’ said Lowri, ‘considering what a major thing it’s been. Well I didn’t expect to see you out of bed today, for sure.’
‘Yes, they like to get you up as soon as possible. Tomorrow I can start a little walking, they say. Maybe even make it to the bathroom. That would be nice.’
‘Well you take it easy young man,’ his sister repeated, still solicitous. ‘We don’t want any relapses.’
‘Yes, I will,’ Tomos assured her. ‘Don’t you worry about that!’

Yes, as I say: I love eccentrics; even made-up ones!


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E is for earth


Earth  n. the planet on which we live; the world

Imagine yourself an astronaut on the International Space Station, gazing at the view of earth. Your terrestrial home, from which you’re temporarily separated, fills the frame; a huge beautiful blue globe shrouded and mottled with white cloud, floating serene against the piano-blackness of space.

If atmospheric conditions permitted the shapes of the continents would be mapped out, confirming that the manufacturers of educational globes had got it right. You would be able to pick out your home continent, possibly your home country, a heart-stopping long way below. It wouldn’t do to be suddenly afflicted by vertigo (although I doubt whether astronauts are prone to that particular malady).

If you were photographing and lengthened the focus of the camera lens to zoom in closer the traceries of cities would emerge; your own, if you live in one. And closer still, rivers and forests and mountains and green pastures would resolve, like a Google map: all the myriad wonders of, as Louis Armstrong once sang, a wonderful world. Yes, you think, sighing wistfully, that’s home. One day, you might muse, when my posting up here has ended, I’ll be returning, hopefully surviving the furnace of re-entry and trusting that the retro-rockets and parachutes ensure a safe landing. I’ll be back on terra-firma, firmly anchored by rediscovered gravity to the place that all people who aren’t astronauts and all other life have never and will never (at least, not in the foreseeable future) leave.

For most people – those fortunate enough not to be living through the hell of war or having any other sort traumatic or unhappy life – earth is a benign home; a Goldilocks planet not too near to and not too far from our solar system’s sun to allow liquid water, and therefore life, to exist. Yes, distance from our solar mother is pretty crucial. For us and all life to survive it has to be just right. Although it varies because the earth’s orbit around the sun is not quite circular, the average distance is 149.6 million kilometres, placing us in a nicely habitable zone between the orbits of Venus (the second planet from the sun; Mercury is the nearest) and the fourth one out, Mars.

Earth is just the right size too. It’s diameter at the equator is 12,756km. And it’s greatest circumference? Well, if you did a Philias Fogg but with an aeroplane, and flew first due south on the Greenwich meridian to the equator and then set off, flying low, due east (or west), by the time you’d returned to your equatorial starting point you would have travelled more than the Earth’s circumference of 40,075km. But if you did the circumnavigation longitudinally via the poles, the meridional circumference would be only 39,931km because they’re slightly flattened.

And here’s a little more useless information: the surface area, land and sea, of our globe is 510.1 million square km. Three-quarters of it is water and life is supported by an atmosphere mainly of nitrogen and oxygen. So what about the age of the Earth? Assuming that you aren’t a religious fundamentalist who takes the Biblical account of Earth’s genesis as, well, gospel, the answer is around 4,600 million years, roughly a third of the probable age of the Universe. How did it come into being? Well, leaving the Divine Creator miraculous explanation aside again, the current scientific view has two main theories. The first, and most generally accepted, core accretion, seems most plausible for relatively small, dense planets like Earth. It postulates that around 4,600 billion years ago, our solar system was nothing more than a huge cloud of gas and dust called a solar nebula on an arm of our home galaxy the Milky Way.

A possible explosion of a huge nearby star provoked squeezing, and gravity caused most of the material to collapse in on itself. It began to spin, getting ever hotter, and eventually forming a fiery sun at its centre with the other material clumping together to form planets, and moons of those planets, which began orbiting the young Sun, partially captured by its gravity. Four small ones nearest the Sun, like Earth, were dense and rocky whereas the next two out, Jupiter and Saturn, became gas giants, composed mainly of hydrogen and helium; and two smaller giants (as it were) further out still on the colder outskirts, Uranus and Neptune, became ice giants of mostly frozen water, ammonia and methane.

In the other earth formation theory, disc instability, the dust and gas clumped together more quickly and, it’s suggested, were a more likely means to form the larger planets. Well, perhaps the planets of our solar system were formed in two different ways. But whatever catalyzed the earth’s creation, its rocky core formed first, from denser material, whilst lighter elements formed the outer crust and the earth’s gravity captured the gasses that formed its first atmosphere. Quite early in its creation, scientists think, the young Earth was hit by another large body that knocked off a bit of its mantle (the molten layer between core and outer crust) into space where they clumped to form a satellite – our moon.

The not-fully-solid-or-stable mantle, as it still does today, created shifting tectonic plates of rock within the crust. As they rubbed together, mountains formed and active volcanoes spewed out gasses, mainly carbon dioxide, ammonia and methane, to create the atmosphere. Land masses formed, fractured, moved apart and reformed again, finally coalescing into a huge supercontinent called Pangaea.

This split again into Gondwana in the southern hemisphere, which would further subdivide into the precursors of present-day Africa, Arabia, the Indian subcontinent, South America, Australia and Antarctica. In the northern hemisphere, the other half of the split, Laurasia, subdivided into proto-North America, Greenland, Europe and northern Asia. After a final drifting apart of these continents to their present positions, the current physical map of Earth was drawn.

For life to arise on the now slowly cooling planet there had to be water, so how did that come about? Again, there’s more than one theory, one of which is that additional water to augment that already existing was brought here in the form of ice contained in colliding comets or asteroids. But whether water was already present or imported (or both), the lowest-lying areas of Earth became covered in water and as far as life was concerned, the stage was set. Somehow, very simple primordial molecules learned the trick of replicating themselves, as DNA does. Over many millions of years, these combined with other molecules to become single-celled prokaryotic organisms such as bacteria and, later, increasingly complex organisms, and the rest is (very long) geological history.

It’s believed that simple life began 3,500 to 3,800 billion years ago, but it wasn’t until much, much later, 570 million years ago, that relatively complex animals such backbone-less arthropods and then fish began to appear. Simple plant life arose on land 475 million year ago, and with it came, in time, flowering plants and then forests, and plant photosynthesis: the ability to split carbon dioxide into carbon for building living tissue and atmospheric oxygen to enable land-living animals to breathe. And then there was another significant milestone when some fish-like creatures developed lungs and evolved into amphibians, so that they could leave water for dry land and a now-breathable atmosphere. And so the wonderful, intricately complex web of life on earth slowly evolved. By now, all emerging species of plants and animals were reproducing themselves sexually.

Of course, early Homo sapiens knew none of the science of planet building or evolution of life, but he and she instinctively revered Earth all the same, and religions that worshipped the earth and nature became part of human existence. Although it wasn’t an abstract or ‘moral’ sort of worship, wasn’t about being consciously good, but pragmatic; gods and goddesses of the earth, of fertility, of earthly bounteousness had to be appeased, first in hunter-gatherer times and later as farmers. Man worshipped the natural world that surrounded him and upon which he relied.

Many centuries later earth worship revived in the 1960s under various labels such as paganism, hippyism and environmentalism, to name but three. Well, in spite of what some sneering climate change deniers say, environmentalism isn’t a religion. It isn’t spiritual in that sense; it’s not about worshipping an Earth Mother or invoking mystical forces at the winter solstice, but science-and-morality-based, about having concern for the way in which humankind is wrecking its lovely, hospitable planetary home through pollution, destruction of habitats, overuse of finite resources and global warming.

To end with the view-from-space image: in the penultimate chapter of his thought-provoking book about the dangers of runaway manmade global warming Storms of my Grandchildren, NASA scientist James Hansen imagines visitors to our solar system several hundred years in the future. They approach Earth, but instead of finding a beautiful blue orb hanging in the blackness, they encounter a burned-out rock devoid of life. That has been the legacy of Mankind’s indifference, greed and rapaciousness.

As another North American, artiste Joni Mitchell, sang back in the 1960s, ‘You don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone.’

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D is for dream


Dream  n. 1 a series of thoughts, images, and sensations occurring in a person’s mind during sleep
2 a cherished aspiration, ambition, or ideal

I had an extraordinarily vivid, bizarre and surreal dream the other night. As you do. As we all, almost every single human being on this earth does. And, for that matter, as do many species of animals, particularly dogs. Which dog lover hasn’t been amused by their furry friend, sound asleep, suddenly erupting into high-pitched yips? Presumably these canine companions are dreaming of chasing prey or possibly, if male, fighting to become top dog or for the favours of a lady dog. It’s a pity they can’t tell us.

Anyway, my dream was laced with anxiety, because it was one of the potentially-dangerous-situation sort. I was in a vehicle, apparently an off-roader, driving or being driven up a steep hillside track. And I do mean steep. Steep as in virtually vertical. I remember thinking in my dream state, surprisingly calmly, that this wasn’t possible; that surely the vehicle would tip over backwards and tumble with fatal consequences to the valley below. I found myself looking for a gentler route, but there was no such alternative easy-angled track up the smooth treeless grassy dome.

Thankfully, the dream – or the recollection of it – ended before it progressed any further. There wasn’t a nightmare tumble to certain death and I awoke to the relieved realisation that it was just that: an anxious dream. So what was going on there? I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I sometimes find that my dreams are like nocturnal distorted re-runs of real-life experiences. In the case of that dream, I had watched a video on Facebook of daredevils driving a monster-wheeled SUV down a vertiginously steep gulley and thinking, surely that’s impossible? Also, most weeks on Facebook there are pictures posted by my son, who is an avid mountaineer and rock climber, scaling a sheer cliff face somewhere with his wife and intrepid friends. So perhaps my dreaming brain was combining these two memories, literally inverting one of them, to produce a composite dream.

So what exactly is dreaming for? You would think it must serve some biological purpose if it also evolved in many other mammals and even some birds and their ancestors the reptiles. Well, in spite of much neurological research, scientists don’t really know. There are theories, such as threat simulation – rehearsing or practising fight-or-flight responses in real life; memory consolidation – sorting memories important enough to warrant retaining from trivial ones; or emotional regulation – a sort of emotional self-psychoanalysis during sleep. But there’s no consensus about it.

You’ll read lots of stuff on websites purporting to be knowledgeable about the meaning of various sorts of dream, such as that horrible (and horribly vivid!) one where you find yourself naked in public, but some neurologists maintain that they have no meaning at all; they’re simply random firing of the brain’s neurotransmitters that mostly happen during less deep REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, particularly towards the end of the night. It’s been found by experimentation that those are the ones we usually remember most readily. We simply don’t recollect most of the several dreams we experience every night.

Sigmund Freud, working at the turn of the twentieth century, was the great dream-interpreter. He thought that all dreams were unconscious wishes or anxieties given expression, and originally that most were the release of repressed (particularly female, as most of his patients were women) sexual tension. In fact, modern research shows that sexually-themed dreams occur only around 10% of the time and are, unsurprisingly, mostly confined to adolescents.

He later became less dogmatic about the sexual connection and acknowledged that repetitive nightmares associated with post traumatic stress disorder were hardly likely to be a matter of wish fulfilment. Nowadays, although he was an indisputably pioneering psychoanalyst in his day, many of his theories are regarded as naive. Some in the thriving dream interpretation business (you’ll find many on the Web) base their pseudo-science on Freudian and similar systems though.

There are other phenomena associated with dreaming, such as incorporation of reality, where actual happenings like a phone ringing or a baby crying while you’re asleep are initially experienced as part of a dream, before you wake up realising they’re real. Or the apparent precognition of later real-life events in a dream. People are often convinced by popular media stories that this happens, although psychologists explain it as simply making very selective connections between dreaming and subsequent happenings that are really co-incidental (I would struggle to find an event or situation in my recent life that was in any way foretold by my car-up-the-impossible-hill dream, though).

The recalling of dreams is usually very unreliable, although more accurate if a test subject is awakened in the middle of one. And, perhaps not surprisingly, vivid or novelly-themed dreams are more easily recollected, whilst more mundane ones seldom are. It’s also been found that creative people are more likely to recall their dreams. And people like composers or writers often find ideas that would otherwise not have occurred, while wide-awake dreaming – or to put it another way: daydreaming. Ah, yes; daydreaming! Yours Truly could win prizes for that. I’ve made a lifetime art form of it.

Of course the ugly reverse of the dreaming coin is the nightmare, which can frighten children and chronically affect sufferers of PTSD. Often experienced as vivid ‘flashbacks’, the dream will contain situations of danger or psychological or physical danger and can be extremely debilitating. Typical sufferers were the ‘shell-shocked’ soldiers of WW1 and the young men and women who have been exposed to the horrors of war in more recent conflicts such as Iraq or Afghanistan.

But let’s return to happier aspects of dreaming. As a concept it has been associated with love and romance for centuries. Shakespeare made many references to dreaming. And in more recent times, think of all the dreamy love songs that have been written, such as the Everly Brothers’ Dream or the immortal love-sick words of Roy Orbison:

I close my eyes then I drift away, into the magic night, I softly say. A silent prayer, like dreamers do, then I fall asleep to dream my dreams of you.

And in spoken literature, for example in the surrealistic, evocative introduction to Dylan Thomas’s splendidly comical 1953 radio play Under Milk Wood:

Young girls lie bedded soft or glide in their dreams, with rings and trousseaux, bridesmaided by glow-worms down the aisles of the organplaying wood. The boys are dreaming wicked or of the bucking ranches of the night and the jollyrogered sea . . .

And let’s not forget the other definition of Dream: a cherished aspiration, ambition, or idea. The words ‘dreamer’ and ‘idealist’ are often conflated. John lennon sang: ‘You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one’. And possibly the most rousing and inspirational use of the word ‘dream’ ever came from Martin Luther King on August 28 in 1963, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and we will live out the true meaning of its creed – we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.

Yes, dreaming as a still not fully explained brain phenomenon has been around for thousands of years (millions if you include non-hominoid animals) and the word for it, in many languages, has figured in human culture for centuries. The Brainy Quote website, in its top ten dreams quotes, has the rather dully pragmatic words of Colin Powell at number one: ‘A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work’.

I prefer number two though, the immortal, King-prefiguring words of Harriet Tubman: ‘Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world’.

Much less famously, in the introduction to my own autobiography of an inveterate daydreamer Wishing for the Better, I quoted the Rogers and Hammerstein song from South Pacific: ‘You’ve got to have a dream, if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna make a dream come true?’

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D is for Doomsday

Doomsday  n. the last day of the world’s existence
– (in religious belief) the day of the Last Judgement
– a time or event of crisis or great danger

Private Fraser, gloomy undertaker and brave Home Guard volunteer in the BBC’s classic evergreen comedy Dads Army, often used to sepulchrally intone, fixing his comrades with his staring Scottish eyes, ‘We’re all doomed! Doomed!’

It was guaranteed to make the viewer smile, but of course there was a serious subtext to that much loved Home Guard-inspired show. Britain in 1940, reeling from the defeat of the Expeditionary Force and the frantic, humiliating retreat from Dunkirk, must indeed have felt a terrifying sense of imminent catastrophe as country after European country fell before the remorseless Nazi onslaught.

Yes, Dads Army was a brilliant comedy. But, in the same way that we like violent and dark television thrillers (especially Scandinavian ones), ghost stories or dystopian films, we also enjoy reading or watching apocalyptic fiction. Just so long, of course, as it’s only fiction. Disaster movies are always big box office.

I’m not going to discuss here the dictionary’s first definition of Doomsday: the religious one. The biblical warning of the last day of the world’s existence; the Last Judgement by an apparently not so benign after all God if we don’t jolly well mend our ways. That’s a whole other subject. Or the entirely different meaning of Doomsday, as in ‘Doomsday (or Domesday) Book’: William the Conqueror’s 1086 inventory of the extent and financial worth of defeated England (well, it’s perhaps not entirely different; the Middle English word Domesday was apparently used because the book was regarded as a final authority).

Let’s stay with the concept of threat and doom. I’m old enough to remember (in fact I think it was what first provoked stirrings of interest in environmental matters) the BBC’s cult science fiction series Doomwatch from the early 1970s. In it, a team of scientists heroically sort out the sometimes unforeseen consequences of cutting edge science. Considering that it was made over forty years ago, it was really quite prescient on many of the subjects it covered, which are still concerns today. Well, one of its creators, Dr Kit Pedlar, was a real-life scientist, so many of the themes of science and technology-gone-hideously-wrong were authentically grounded in the latest scientific knowledge of the time, albeit that the weekly episodes were dystopian extrapolations of them leavened with a generous dose of dramatic license.

Concerns like catastrophic, out-of-control climate change had yet to enter most scientists’ concerns, but pollution was already becoming a worry. Such as the contamination of river water with oestrogen from the female contraceptive pill in sewage discharge into rivers, which real science has shown to feminise male fish and put human males at danger of emasculation too. It was foretold in the episode The Battery People and really wasn’t too removed from actuality.

And the issue of lead in petrol, which used to be an additive to make engines run more smoothly. It was exaggeratedly dramatised in Waiting for the Knighthood as causing terrible cognitive problems, but the show played a significant role in highlighting a real public health risk and helping pressurise manufacturers to change their ways. Its use in paint was eventually banned in Britain in 1992 and in petrol in 2000. Indeed, although the Doomwatch series were popular entertainment, not documentaries, they were often instrumental in bringing environmental issues into the public discourse.

Then there’s the debate about gene editing and ‘playing God’, as some would see it. The human genome hadn’t been mapped forty years ago and gene manipulation was in its infancy with the famous Dolly the cloned sheep still over two decades in the future, but Doomwatch painted a terrifying vision of hybridised humans and animals in You killed Toby Wren. It was far-fetched of course, but nevertheless it posed tricky moral questions and scientists working in the field today are only too aware of what might happen without very stringent controls.

Of course, the Doomwatch series, dealing with doom-laden stories as it did, had to include stories about the dangers of nuclear weaponry. After all, nuclear Armageddon was perceived as the greatest threat to mankind then, with the memory of the Cuban missile crisis less than a decade in the past. So in the final episode of the first series we see a terrifying near- catastrophe when a military plane carrying three nuclear bombs crashes into the sea off the south coast of England. When one of them washes up at a seaside resort, a team member attempts to defuse the alarming – and alarmingly-live – device. He manages to make the nuclear component safe but doesn’t have time to deactivate the conventional explosive part, and dies in an explosion, having heroically saved the resort from annihilation.

Nuclear weapons were revisited, in the nightmare scenario of one falling into the wrong hands, in the episode Say Knife, Fat Man (the code name of the first atomic bomb) in the final series. Here, the head of the Doomwatch team, Dr Spencer Quist, who had worked on the WW2 Manhattan Project that developed The Bomb, has been wracked by a guilty conscience ever since. Physicist and bomb maker Robert Oppenheimer’s words, ‘I am become death, the destroyer of worlds’, have always resonated with him, and in this episode he’s faced with the nail-biting scenario of radioactive fuel rods being stolen from a nuclear facility by student activists bent on building their own bomb.

Still on the subject of nuclear winter: in real life, a group of scientists who actually participated in the atomic weapons programme felt it their duty to warn the world of possible doomesday unless humanity came to its senses. In 1947 they began publishing a newsletter assessing the state of safety of the world. They called it the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and used a counting-down-to-midnight clock face as a metaphor for timing running out on the superpowers’ rush to mutually-assured destruction. Their first bulletin had the minute hand poised ominously at seven minutes to midnight, the time of Mankind’s hari-kari.

They and later other concerned scientists met and still meet biannually, considering the situation and making adjustments to the time remaining on the Doomsday Clock. From 1947 to 1953, with the tension of the Cold War at its most strained and worrisome as first and America and then the USSR tested thermonuclear devices with more, considerably more, destructive power, the minutes left to midnight closed to a disconcerting (to put it mildly) 2. After the alarming stand-off of the Cuban missile crisis, things then improved a bit, to 7, with the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963.

Then there were up-and-down oscillations until another low point of 3 in 1984 (note the sinisterly-associated year) as tensions between the superpowers increased again when the USA deployed ballistic and cruise missiles in western Europe and the USSR boycotted the Los Angeles Olympic Games in that year in retaliation for America having done so at the previous Olympics. That was the dangerous nadir of superpower relations.

The situation improved steadily up to 1991 as the superpowers signed the first START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) – nevertheless, both sides were still left with enough weaponry to destroy the world several times over – and the USSR crumbled in December of that year. The hand now stood at a heady, optimistic 17 minutes from midnight, its greatest recorded distance away, as it looked as though, with Russia now embracing capitalism, she was now on the same ideological side as America.

But that was the most hopeful the clock has ever got. Since then, with the isolated blip of a slight adjustment from 5 to 6 in 2010, resulting from a new START signed and growing awareness of, and increasing international willingness to co-operate on tackling that other great fear (at least as far as some concerned people are concerned), climate change, the trend has been inexorably downwards. It was at 3 in 2015, 2.5 in 2017, and back to 2 this year, with the jitteriness of the slanging match between America and North Korea and its provocative missile testing, and Donald Trump’s nationalistic abrogation of responsibility for climate change.

And with an increasingly anti-Western and authoritarian emperor back in the Kremlin (whatever happened to the new liberalism in Russia?) the world is as close to Doomsday now as it was in the frigid Cold War days of 1953.

But, as Eric Idle famously sang in Monty Python’s the Life of Brian, ‘always look on the bright side of life!’

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D is for dog


Dog  n. a domesticated carnivorous mammal that typically has a long snout, an acute sense of smell, non-retractable claws, and a barking, howling or whining voice

Yes, I know, I know. Canis familiaris, the dog, is a vast subject. Many, many words have been written about mankind’s (with all due respect to cat lovers) favourite pet, on many, many aspects of the subject. To adequately cover even the basic ones in a brief blog post would be absurd. So I’m going to concentrate on the Man’s Best Friend angle of our millennia-long relationship with our furry friend and illustrate a few examples from history.

Modern Fido, in all his many breeds, shapes and sizes, is a single species descended from a wolverine ancestor and has symbiotically hung out (probably originally as a hunting partner) with Homo sapiens for a very long time indeed. Some scientists believe dogs may have been domesticated as long ago as 13,000BC, in India, and a tomb excavated in Israel dating from 12,000 years ago revealed a canine puppy buried with a man. So even way back then, there seems to have been a bond between the species.

At any rate, it’s clear they were associates in the Mesolithic (middle Stone Age) period which spanned from 8,500BC to the beginning of agriculture in the Near East. Clear archaeological evidence has been found of jewellery and artefacts depicting dogs as a valued part of society in Mesopotamia. And sometime around 2,600BC, the famous ancient Egyptian canine Abuwtiyuw was afforded the high honour of a ‘grand burial’ and interred in an elaborate coffin with expensive grave goods such as incense to accompany him to the afterlife. So he was clearly very well thought of. Dogs were domesticated in China very early on and featured in Roman law, and they have been Man’s faithful companion ever since.

So just what is it about the special bond between humans and dogs? Ask any dog lover how they feel about their furry friend and they’ll insist that, whilst it’s usually not as strong a feeling as they would have for a human family member, they nevertheless feel a degree of, well, love. Dogs are often regarded, especially by children, as part of the family. Speaking for myself, I’m not ashamed to confess that when my dogs die, I shed tears.

But do dogs reciprocate love? I don’t want to come over all anthropomorphic and insist they give the human members of their pack ‘unconditional love’, as some sentimental dog lovers insist. I’m not sure we can ascribe a highly evolved emotion like love to admittedly sentient but cognitively less-developed ‘lower’ mammals. Let’s keep things in proportion, after all. A female dog will fiercely protect her puppies from attack, by necessary instinct to ensure continuance of the species, but that isn’t quite the same thing as actually maternally loving them according to the human definition of the word.

Which isn’t to say that dogs (and other creatures, like pigs and elephants) don’t feel emotion on some level. Of course they do. Dogs are very sensitive to the emotional state of humans. And they seem to feel genuine happiness and have fun when you play with them, or become subdued when they sense you are sad, or if you show displeasure at them, as many a Facebook video will attest. But the other thing about a dog’s apparent ‘love’ for his /her human leader of the pack is, it’s probably also (apart from a knowing-the-place-in-the-hierarchy, appeasing response) pragmatic and food-related. It’s cupboard love; they know who feeds them.

Well what about loyalty than? Speaking from my own experience again, my current dog, Sali (that’s the Welsh spelling of Sally), a feisty little sprocker (springer/cocker cross) spaniel, is in some ways quite emotionally self-sufficient, for a dog. She’s almost cat-like in her detachment sometimes. When we go out for her walkies she never stays close but bounds way ahead (although that could be the cocker spaniel hunting instinct). However, she doesn’t disappear doing her own thing completely. She frequently looks back to make sure I’m following, as if she needs the reassurance of being in a group rather than an entirely lone wolf.

And she always comes to bed with me. And I’m sure that if something calamitous happened on one of our walks – say I collapsed with a coronary or something – she would anxiously stay with me. But is that really loyalty, in the human understanding of the word, or simply biological pack instinct, sticking together, being an essentially social animal? Or would she be reacting just like a very small child, who wouldn’t know how else to behave? It’s certainly the case that canines can find new ‘parents’. Sometimes dogs that have had a caring owner find themselves re-homed because of their human’s death. Provided that their new family is equally loving, they often adjust in time to the new situation.

Well, be that as it may, let’s give dogs the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume, because it’s a nice warm fuzzy thought, that it is indeed an almost anthropomorphic sort of loyalty. There have been many well-documented cases of what seems to be unswerving loyalty. Here are some of the best- known ones.

Barry. His full name was Barry der Menschenretter (the people rescuer). Barry’s loyalty wasn’t so much to his own pack as to humans in general. He was an earlier, lighter-built version of the St Bernard breed and lived in Switzerland from 1800 to 1814 at the St Bernard Hospice. He became famous for his ability, equipped no doubt with a barrel of brandy around his neck, to search for and rescue unfortunates lost or in dire straits in the mountains. He eventually saved the lives of over forty people.

A romantic and heroic folk legend has him dying gallantly, and satisfyingly, attempting a dangerous rescue, but in fact he retired from the rescuing business and died of old age, after which his body was taxidermically preserved at the Natural History Museum in Bern. There is a monument to him in the Cimitière des Chiens near Paris.

Gelert. This canine didn’t actually exist but is an example of the popular European ‘faithful hound’ myth. In it, he was the favourite hound of 13th-century Prince Llewelyn of North Wales, who one day went hunting although Gelert stayed at home. On the Prince’s return, Gelert, as was his wont, rushed to welcome him. But he was smeared with blood. And the cradle of the prince’s son was empty with its bedclothes and the floor also soaked with blood. Enraged and completely misunderstanding the situation, Llewelyn drew his sword and plunged it into Gelert’s side, killing him instantly. Only then did he notice the baby nearby, completely unharmed, and also the body of a huge wolf, which the faithful Gelert had slain. The prince was said to be so stricken with remorse that he never smiled again.

There is a ‘grave’ to tragic Gelert at Beddgelert (Gelert’s Grave) village in North Wales. The village wasn’t actually named for Gelert the dog though but for a saint called Celert; the monument is the handiwork of an enterprising 18th century innkeeper who realised the money making potential of combining the village name with a popular legend.

Greyfriars Bobby. This pooch was real though: a Skye terrier who lived from 1855 to 1772 in Edinburgh. He was owned by John Gray, a farmer (or in some accounts a nightwatchman) who died of pneumonia and was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard (Churchyard). The devoted and bereft Bobby refused to be adopted by anyone else. Instead, the wee dog spent every night for fourteen years sleeping on his erstwhile master’s grave, right up until his own death.

He was buried near to John Gray’s grave. A proper, engraved red sandstone memorial was added in 1981 and he also has a statue-cum-drinking fountain for humans, with a lower one for dogs, erected near the main entrance. Whilst the statue is still there, for public health reasons, the fountains are now defunct.

Hachikõ. He was Japan’s Bobby. A handsome brown akita, he was owned by Hidesaburõ Ueno, a Tokyo University professor in the 1920s. Ueno commuted to work every day by train and Hachikõ would meet him at the station on his return in the evening. This went on until 1925, when the professor died from a stroke at work. The faithful Hachikõ continued to turn up at the station, at exactly the right time, for over nine years, patiently and forlornly waiting for the master who would never come.

On his death he was cremated and his ashes buried beside his beloved master. His skin, like Barry’s, was stuffed to go on display in the National Science Museum of Japan. He is commemorated by two statues: one outside the station where he waited in vain for his master, and one in his own town of birth. A ceremony is held every year to remember Hachikõ, who is celebrated as an example of fidelity and steadfastness.

Non-dog-lovers reading this will perhaps cynically dispute that Bobby and Hachikõ really felt a true sense of loyalty, but I’d prefer to think that they did!

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D is for democracy


Democracy  n. government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives

Winston Churchill once memorably opined, although quoting another:

‘Many forms of government have been tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’.

He was probably right there. For all its imperfections, it’s the best we’ve got. So where did it all begin? Well it certainly wasn’t spontaneously created as a fully-formed ancestor of the democracy some of the world’s population know today. Like the natural world or developments in human society, it was a matter of slow evolution. The first stirrings of what we call democracy – ‘rule of the people’ – seem to have begun not in Athens but in another city state of Greece: Sparta.

That was as early as 700BC. The Appela was a peoples’ assembly held monthly in which every male citizen over the age of thirty could participate. The assembly elected leaders and voted on debated issues by range voting, which in those days took the form of shouting (not unlike Prime Minister’s Questions in the British House of Commons) agreement or otherwise, so the candidate or proposal that elicited the loudest noise won.

Aristotle dismissed it as childish compared with the more accurate system of stone counting used by the Athenians, but the Spartans said that it prevented the bias voting, cheating or vote buying that usually characterised early voting systems. The Athenians couldn’t feel entirely superior though. For all their greater sophistication and the fact that a large proportion of the citizenry was frequently involved in debate, by no means all of it could. There was no participation by the under twenties, women or slaves, and only landowners could take part. These restrictions would remain for many centuries to come.

The proto-democracy of the later Roman Empire wasn’t significantly more enlightened either. Whilst continuing many of the features of the Grecian model, it effectively restricted the franchise to the most powerful citizens, whose votes were given greater weight, so that most top officials and senators hailed from wealthy families. Sound familiar? Nevertheless, most modern democracies emulate more of the Roman than the Grecian systems.

Not that democracy was the sole preserve of Europeans; early versions were practised in other cultures too, like the Iroquois nation in North America, who developed a form of it between 1450 and 1600AD before coming to contact with white people.

Various systems of assembly and voting evolved through the Middle Ages, again involving only a select minority, in such bodies as the Scandinavian Thing (assembly), the Holy Roman Empire’s Hoftag (assembly again) and the English Parliament. But it wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe, the colonies and the young country of the United States of America that democracy as we understand the word began to take shape. And it was not until the 20th before full universal suffrage of both sexes and all classes was achieved.

How do you define democracy, anyway? Well, there’s no universal agreement really, although you might say that concepts such as freedom to choose the politicians you want, the rule of (independently dispensed) law and legal equality in the sense of every voter having the same access to the legislative process, are pretty fundamental ingredients. Without these it simply isn’t democracy.

And how many different types of democracy are there? In terms of actual governance of countries, Wikipedia lists no less than fourteen variants ranging from constitutional (and powerless) monarchy and republic through socialist and anarchist to ‘guided democracy’ which although operating ostensibly open elections, offers only a limited, controlled and approved choice of candidates. (It’s a sad fact that virtually all countries, no matter how repressive and authoritarian, claim to be ‘democratic’. Saudi Arabia is an exception; it candidly admits to being a totalitarian monarchy.)

There are two broad categories of democracy though: direct and representative. In the first, the people participate directly in debate and voting. Obviously, that must be limited otherwise it would be impossibly cumbersome. It usually entails having referendums to give the electorate a say in the business of law making. The only country where that happens to a significant degree is Switzerland – which isn’t to say that every issue or proposed law is decided by a popular vote there. Not at all. But there is still much more opportunity for involvement than in other democracies. There are three types of referenda: ‘mandatory’, where the people are expected to vote on fundamental amendments to the constitution; ‘popular initiatives’, where the populace can ask to vote to make lesser changes; and ‘optional’, where, again, the people can request a vote on law-making.

Unlike Britain, which made a complete pig’s ear of its Brexit popular vote, Switzerland has got popular voting down to a fine art. Popular initiatives can be requested if eight cantons want one or 100,000 names are collected in a petition – although it will only go ahead if the federal parliament agrees and will become law only by a double majority, where there has to be a majority of both the popular vote and of cantons. This is to avoid a majority foisting their will on a minority, and vice versa. There have been 200 of this type of referendum since they began in 1891, but only twenty-two have become law.

An optional referendum is more straightforward. They go ahead simply if eight cantons and 50,000 names are collected. There have been 176 since they began in 1874, with seventy-eight being successful. Only a simple majority is required for a proposal to pass into law. Rather oddly, you might think, the Swiss are rather ambivalent about their participatory democracy. 65% are happy with the system but voter turnout at the last general election was only 48.4%.

But in almost all democracies, the electorate only really gets a say in its own governance when it votes in an election. Whilst there will always be a disaffected section of the people who didn’t vote for their government, most people agree that the only sensible system is to elect representatives to make law on their behalf and just leave them to it. If a majority of people are disappointed by a government’s performance in office, they can always vote it out next time.

There are many variations and permutations of representative democracy, such as the aforementioned monarchy, or a republic with an elected president, which arguably is much more democratic (although most monarchs are simply powerless figureheads). And the voting systems are many and varied too, ranging from the simple-majority, first-past-the-post, elected constituency member of the British parliament (whose anachronistic upper house isn’t elected at all) to the various forms of proportional representation that most democracies have, where legislators are voted for in a system that better reflects, proportionally, the wish of the people.

Such systems – unlike those in Britain or America – tend to encourage a multiplicity of political parties (and coalition governments) rather that just two huge ones. And representative democracy can throw up a conundrum: do lawmakers always strive to represent the wishes of their constituents, even at their most shallow-thinking and populist when, for example, they bay for the return of capital punishment or are indifferent to climate change, or do they try to act intelligently, follow their conscience and lead opinion?

So which is the best current form of democracy? You might as well ask how long a piece of string is. Several organisations compile indices comparing democracies, each employing their own criteria, and here’s just one: The Democracy Index, compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit. It rates 167 countries using five criteria: their electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. It also ranks countries in one of four bands: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes (such as Albania) and authoritarian regimes. Top of that last band, at number 116, is Ivory Coast. China is number 139 and, unsurprisingly, North Korea is last.

In the top ten, all full democracies, six are European countries, including all the Scandinavian ones, and the other four are Iceland (number 2), New Zealand (number 4), Canada (equal 6) and Australia (number 8). Britain struggles in at number 14 and the USA is actually outside the full democracy group: equal with Italy at number 21, behind South Korea at number 20. These three hold the top places in the flawed democracies band.

And number one is? Pause . . . Drum-roll . . . Norway! Perhaps it’s no coincidence, but Norway is also number one in the 2017 World Happiness Report, and number three in the widely-used Gini index of inequality (or to be precise, it’s third most equal).

So democracy comes in all flavours and degrees and, as Churchill remarked, is often far from perfect. As many others would say, even in its most liberal manifestations, it’s still a work in progress.

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D is for deja vu

Deja vu  n. [mass noun] A feeling of having already experienced the present situation

Bennett Schwartz, a cognitive psychologist at Florida International University in Miami, was on holiday/vacation in Scotland. One day he visited one of the country’s splendid romantic castles and, gazing around admiringly, he suddenly had the bizarre, rather unsettling feeling that he’d been there, seen it, before.

And yet his rational mind told him that wasn’t so. Couldn’t be so. It was the first time he’d visited the place, ever, even as a small child, as far as he knew. So what was going on? He’d had a fleeting but powerful episode of déjà vu (French: ‘already seen’). But how could that be? To a scientist like himself it seemed a logical impossibility.

This weird phenomenon has been known to mankind for centuries. It crops up in literature and was used in the Rogers and Hart song ‘Where or When’ from the 1937 Broadway musical Babes in Arms, wherein 20-year-old Valentine and hitchhiker Billie (that’s a girl) fall in love at first sight of each other and each confess to a strange sense of déjà vu:

It seems we stood and talked like this before.
We looked at each other in the same way then
But I can’t remember where or when.

The clothes you are wearing are the clothes you wore,
The smile you are smiling you were smiling then
But I can’t remember where or when.

Some things that happen for the first time
Seem to be happening again.

And so it seems that we have met before
And laughed before, and loved before,
But who knows where or when.

(Courtesy of lyricsfreak .com)

In his novel David Copperfield Charles Dickens wrote with déjà vu in mind thus: We have all some experience of a feeling, that comes over us occasionally, of what we are saying and doing having been said and done before, in a remote time – of our having been surrendered, dim ages ago, by the same faces, objects and circumstances – of our knowing perfectly what will be said next, as if we suddenly remember it.

The term déjà vu (English scientific umbrella name paramnesia) was first used by the French psychic researcher Émile Boirac in 1907. In days gone by most people explained the phenomenon in spiritual or paranormal terms. They put it down to such causes as clairvoyance, extra-sensory perception or reincarnation. Those believing the last thought it was bits of past-life memories being briefly catalysed into consciousness by similar present-life circumstances or surroundings. Or, it was thought, it was a fragment of a dream which, some spiritual writings maintained, could be spontaneously awakened after a period of time.

More rationally, some modern researchers suggest that it might be the brief memory of a dream; a dream where the circumstances or surroundings were similar to the current experience. It’s certainly the case that, although most dreams don’t seem to be stored as memories, some might be, although they weren’t remembered the morning after. Scientifically speaking, that’s a plausible if tentative hypothesis.

Around 70% of us have reported at least one déjà vu episode in our lives, and they’re usually more common in younger people aged 15 to 25. That might be because, if it’s memory-related, memory is at its best during the youthful learning years. It can also vary between straightforward ‘already seen’ and déjà vêcu (‘already lived’) which involves not just having the feeling that you’re witnessing something you’ve seen before but experiencing it in greater detail through more than one sense, and even more weirdly, feeling you know what will happen next.

And there could indeed be a memory connection. Although there have been comparatively few studies, as it’s proved difficult to provoke the experience in a laboratory (however it has been done to a limited extent using hypnosis), the most likely cause according to current thinking is some sort of aberration of memory or recall. It’s thought it could be because of an overlap or confusion between the brain processes responsible for producing short-term, in-the-present memories and those that lay down and store long-term, in-the-past ones. To greatly simplify a complex subject, a present-day experience might trigger a long-forgotten, distant memory trace of a similar but not precisely the same one – there might simply be enough similarities in the trace to trick the brain into creating a false memory and a sensation of déjà vu.

What about the effect of – not necessarily mind-altering – drugs which might have the unintended consequence of causing brain function anomalies and déjà vu? Some drugs, taken individually or in combination, have been implicated as culprits. In one case study a perfectly (mentally) healthy man had flu and took amantadine and phenylpropanolamine to relieve the symptoms. He began experiencing recurrent and intense déjà vu. The researchers speculated that it was due to excessive release of the dopamine neurotransmitter in the mesial temporal areas of the brain.

It’s also been thought in the past that it was a matter of mistiming of neurotransmitter firing, as if the brain was being fooled into thinking it was retrieving a memory when there hadn’t been an event in the first place; or that abnormally fast neuronal firing between the two hemispheres of the brain might be causing the sensation. And researchers have also speculated in the past about a possible link with psycopathological problems such as dissociative identity disorder or schizophrenia, but no association has been proven. However, there could be a link with epilepsy, which is due to erratic electrical discharges in the brain. It’s possible that a similar but milder aberration might result in déjà vu and a false sensation of memory.

Or it may be that déjà vu is simply a sort of misplaced sense of familiarity. Early studies had suggested that the phenomenon was usually tied to places, but a few years ago psychologist Anne Cleary at Colorado State University did some research using computer 3D virtual-reality headsets showing subjects a series of different locations – scenes – with collections of items such as outdoor furniture, potted plants etc, arranged in sixty-four pairs of identical layouts. Déjà vu responses were produced, but not so much when an exactly identical scene previously viewed was observed (which would have been a straightforward memory, after all) but when it was similar in terms of the arrangement of the objects within the scene, even if the scene itself was different. The conclusion was that déjà vu occasionally stirs a ‘false’ memory when similar elements, traces, arranged in a similar configuration to the one being currently viewed, are recalled.

Which brings us neatly back to Bennett Schwartz’s Scottish castle episode. No, he hadn’t visited the castle before and therefore couldn’t possibly have had a ‘real’ memory of having done so. But the mystery was solved when later he was browsing in the souvenir shop and saw postcards with photographs of the castle. They were stills from a film that had been shot there. They reminded him that he’d seen the film five years earlier. So there was a perfectly rational explanation. A stored memory trace of seeing parts of the castle in the film had been triggered by seeing it again, this time in real life, which had resulted in recall and the weird déjà vu sensation.

The human brain is a complex and wondrous thing, certainly. But occasionally, as when taken in by optical illusion, or false memories from déjà vu delusion, it can play naughty tricks on us.

To end on a lighter note: you’ve probably heard the done-to-death quip, the tautologous, ‘déjà vu all over again’. This wonderful mangling of the English language is usually attributed to the New York Yankee baseball player and philosopher Yogi Berra (who also immortalised ‘He hits from both sides of the plate. He’s amphibious’). Nowadays, like that other old favourite ‘nostagia isn’t what it used to be’ (which may or may not be a Yogi-ism too), it’s passed into common usage as if it’s the correct form.

Er, no, folks. I shall say this only once. Originally intended by Yogi jokingly or not, it’s a pun!

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D is for decency

Decency n. [mass noun] behaviour that conforms to accepted standards of morality or respectability

Ah, yes, decency. What a rather quaintly old-fashioned word that sounds nowadays. It evokes last-century (perhaps even early last-century) notions of high moral standards; of rigid rectitude. Of, if you were a male, having a thoroughly considerate attitude; of treating ‘the ladies’ with respect, rising when they enter the room to be introduced or holding the door to let them pass through first; of being a jolly good family man. Of being gentlemanly, courteous and kind. And I’m not knocking these social mores of another time. Not at all. Contrast that sort of gentle respect with the cowardly brutal misogyny often seen on social media nowadays.

There wasn’t an exact equivalence if you were female. Being ‘ladylike’ didn’t necessarily equate to kindliness but rather to behaving decorously. Well-bred ladies didn’t indulge in vulgar behaviour like drinking to excess or swearing. Oh, good gracious no. They were expected to be peerless and compliant wives and mothers and that was all, really; the family and home were their sole domains.

The Oxford dictionary uses the synonym ‘respectability’, which isn’t the same thing as ‘respectfulness’. Being respectable-decent is to be regarded as socially proper or correct. Yes, ‘regarded as’; that’s the key phrase. It’s superficial, a matter of appearance. Being seen to, say, ostentatiously do your bit for a Good Cause or be there every Sunday morning in church, wearing your best expression of sober reverence. Whereas respectfulness is about showing deference or respect as in, for example, listening respectfully to someone else’s possibly different point of view.

Respectability of the Victorian kind was (and sometimes still is) often bound up with sexuality, often of the prurient variety. To quote Cole Porter, a glimpse of stocking was thought of as something shocking, even of a heel, lest red-blooded males, poor dears, lose control of their animal (but for them, perfectly natural) instincts. That attitude still persists; girls who dress ‘provocatively’ are sometimes held to actively invite rape.

And the antonym, indecency, although it can be used in other contexts, like ‘indecent haste’, has usually been conflated with perceived sexual malpractice. I remember, over half a century ago, an enormous kerfuffle in 1960 when Penguin Books was taken to court for publishing the then-notorious Lady Chatterley’s Lover. With its frank depictions of adulterous sex it had provoked much moral indignation in some quarters, particularly from the sex-obsessed Church. And only fifty years ago homosexuality was considered ‘indecent’ and criminal – and in some puritanical, religious fundamentalist minds, it still is.

At the time of writing this, in Britain there’s another ‘scandal’ currently doing the rounds. The Times newspaper recently carried a story, rather old news, about some of the charity Oxfam’s aid workers using the services of prostitutes during the 2011 Haiti earthquake disaster, a minority acting inappropriately (as the euphemism as it) towards females and a few seriously abusing vulnerable women. Of course, in varying degrees that’s deplorable behaviour by people who should be there, you might say, with the sole purpose of helping people in dire straits. But (apart from the serious abusers, who are despicable) why should people who clearly feel altruistic enough to want to help others in desperate need be expected to be total paragons of virtue as far as their private off-duty sex lives are concerned? I can’t help feeling that there are far worse things going on in the world, like the appalling bloodshed in Syria and other places of strife, for their critics to feel outraged about.

Sadly, it’s being reported that 7,000 morally outraged Oxfam supporters have stopped donating. They see a lack of ‘decency’ (and yes, admittedly, some serious misbehaviour too, and it seems that such goings-on aren’t confined to Oxfam) rather than the bigger picture: the undoubted good that these charities do. For every pound now lost due to withdrawal of support from government and members of the public, a poor unfortunate person somewhere will suffer.

As I regularly say in these posts, in my view moral qualities are relative things, not absolutes. An absolutist would say that you should only do altruistic work in, for example, the aid sector (let’s not use that ghastly word ‘industry’) if you are impeccably pure, like the driven snow. But most, even sometimes the best of us aren’t like that; we are complicated and have our negative aspects and foibles. You know the Biblical proverb about casting the first stone. Which is not to suggest for a moment that abuse of women or, even worse, children, is ever justified in any workplace or situation – let alone aid work – by the greater good being done. Of course it isn’t. That never justified the paedophilia in the Roman Catholic Church. But (although I’d never do it myself) simply using the services of a prostitute isn’t exactly a hanging offence. It’s a question of context and proportion.

And yes; as well as a matter of relativity, perceived decency in others will always be down to personal mindset. Take the way we perceive leaders in public life like, for example, the present and past American presidents. Many people would probably opine if asked that Barack Obama comes across, generally speaking, as a decent person but Donald Trump doesn’t.

When Trump met survivors and relatives of the latest American school massacre, with careful public choreography for the media and a moment for thoughts and prayers for the dead, he was observed to be holding cue cards, as if to remind him to ask sympathetic questions and appear to show empathy. But he had little to offer except the same well-used, NRA-approved and absurd sound bites about arming teachers (there was an armed guard, but he cowered impotently outside, so a fat lot of protection a gun on the premises provided) and crass, grinning selfies with hospital staff.

By contrast, quietly, out of the glare of publicity, Obama visited all of the families of the Sandy Hook school outrage. I hope he doesn’t mind, but I’d like to quote some of the account of Joshua Dubois, former head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, who helped organise the visit in classrooms in the town’s high school. He can tell it much more eloquently than me.

‘The president took a deep breath and steeled himself and went into the first classroom. And what happened next I’ll never forget. Person after person received an engulfing hug. He’d say [having been previously advised of the child’s name] “Tell me about your son…Tell me about your daughter”, and then hold pictures of the lost and beloved as their parents described favorite foods, television shows, and the sound of their laughter . . . And then the entire scene would repeat – for hours. Over and over again, through well over a hundred relatives of the fallen, each one broken, wrecked by the loss . . . We spent what felt like a lifetime in those classrooms, and each and every single person received the same tender treatment.’

Now that’s what I would define as decency: the instinctive, unprompted showing of compassion.

Not that decency is the sole preserve of the liberal left. During the European refugee/migrant crisis of two years ago, when many desperate people perished crossing the Mediterranean in overloaded boats, it was Germany’s Christian conservative Angela Merkel who led the way, followed by Sweden, in offering sanctuary to many, shaming countries like Britain and especially eastern European countries like Hungary. And a third example: the Speaker of the British House of Commons often gets a much higher decency rating than Tony Blair.

There are many synonyms for decency, or decencies, some appearing outdated by modern or liberal standards, such as propriety, correctness, decorum or ‘good form’. Or there are neutral ones, like fitness or good manners. And others again that define it in ethical terms, like respect for others, goodness, honour or integrity. The best way to think of decency, in my humble opinion, is not as a measure of stuffy respectability but rather an innate instinct for behaving kindly and empathetically. Of Doing the Right Thing, the ethical thing, not the superficially respectable thing. Not that which simply looks good, but which demonstrates quietly the better aspects of the human character.

Look at the Online Power Thesaurus for synonyms and, like the Inuit words for snow, there are many. Those Arctic people have fifty words meaning the cold white stuff, which is impressive, but there are an astonishing 684 suggested synonyms for decency. It’s obviously a very flexible concept meaning many different things to many different people. Voted number one is, simply, ‘honesty’.

Yes, I think that encapsulates it nicely.

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D is for Darwin

Darwin, Charles Robert (1809-82) English naturalist and geologist, proponent of the theory of evolution by natural selection

Here is one for the scientists-and-list-nerds among us (of whom I’m one). The LISTVERSE website’s list of the tenth most influential scientists ever rates Charles Darwin as number six. His precise position is a matter of opinion and other lists are available, but he’s certainly up there with the greats like Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein (who are numbers one and two – three, four and five are Nikola Tesla, Galileo and Leonardo da Vinci).

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution of species from common ancestors over long spans of time by natural selection was groundbreaking back in the nineteenth century. And highly controversial. It challenged profoundly the prevailing view of the world: a view dictated by religious orthodoxy of species ready-made, created by the Christian Creator. To the Establishment of the day, Darwin’s audacious suggestion was earth-shattering.

To some scientists though, now there was a credible, logical explanation of the astonishing diversity of both existing and extinct species (and an explanation of why some did go extinct) without the need for divine causation. Darwin later developed his ideas to propose a theory of human evolution too, linking us to our cousins the apes. But had things turned out differently for Darwin’s career, he might have remained an amateur naturalist and others would have taken credit for his discoveries.

In fact, Charles hadn’t set out to be a scientist at all. He was born to wealthy Christian but free-thinking parents in Shrewsbury, Shropshire in 1809, into a family where there were already the seeds of radical thinking. His grandfather Erasmus Darwin, a doctor, had proposed in his book ‘Zoomania’ that species could sometimes ‘transmute’ into each other. Intending to follow in Erasmus’s footsteps, Darwin studied medicine at Edinburgh University, considered then the finest, most forward-thinking seat of learning in Britain.

But he wasn’t cut out for medicine, least of all the brutal pre-anaesthesia surgery of the time. However, he did listen avidly to the latest theories about transmutation of species, before dropping out of medical training and going instead to study divinity at Cambridge. This wasn’t really his thing either, and would prove another dead end. His real passion was biology and he spent many happy hours walking and collecting beetles.

He graduated as a vicar in 1831, but life was to take an entirely different turn when his university tutor recommended him as a ‘gentleman naturalist’ for a scientific voyage around the world in HMS Beagle. It was the opportunity of a lifetime for the young man, and during the five-year voyage he had plenty of time to collect specimens, read and think. Ideas were forming about how species might evolve over geological time; not necessarily in a straight line of serial transmutations but more like the branches of a complex tree.

After first visiting Brazil and travelling down the east coast, past the stormy Cape Horn and then back up the west coast of South America, the Beagle sailed westwards into the vast Pacific, to stop for several weeks at the volcanic Galapagos Islands, a remote archipelago with a unique environment. Here Darwin observed mockingbirds, tortoises and particularly finches, noting how the latter had various types of beak according to their particular needs. A theory as why that might be so was beginning to form.

The expedition continued westwards, skirting the south coast of Australia, passing today’s Cape Town before heading back to Brazil and finally turning northwards and home. Back in Britain and reflecting on his experiences, Darwin’s Big Idea steadily grew. He became convinced that creatures better suited to their environment than others tended to survive more readily and have more young, which would inherit their suitability and pass it on in their turn in a process he termed ‘natural selection’.

But he was caught in a dilemma. His radical idea rather contradicted his orthodox Christian faith (his grandfather Erasmus had been ostracised for daring to propose transmutation, after all) and he decided to bide his time until he had more evidence. Meanwhile, he played safe and successfully and un-controversially wrote about his adventures.

Until, years later, his hand was forced. A fellow-biologist, Alfred Wallace, had been on an expedition too and arrived at a very similar theory. He asked Darwin for advice on publishing. Darwin saw that if he didn’t finally go public, Wallace would take all the credit. But he was fair-minded, and in Wallace’s further absence abroad agreed that some of each of their papers be presented to the leading natural history body, the Linnean Society. So at that point, at least, the two scientists (although Darwin had reached his radical conclusion years earlier) shared the credit. Darwin, however, remembering his grandfather’s loss of reputation, was still reluctant to properly publish.

But then he found the courage and decided to go for it, and wrote and published his seminal ‘On the Origin of Species’. It polarised opinion. Whilst some were coming round to the idea of evolution, he drew fierce criticism from the Church and some conservative sections of the press. Reluctant to defend his ideas publicly, it was left to others like the biologist Thomas Huxley, to do it for him, most memorably in a clash with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce. But Origin of Species became a worldwide success and ran to many editions in which an increasingly self-assured Darwin strengthened his arguments.

Over a decade after publishing Origin of Species, he felt brave enough to publish a book about Man’s place in evolution. ‘The Descent of Man’ was controversial too because it clearly suggested that, far from being created in the image of God, Homo sapiens had evolved in parallel with apes from a common ancestor.

Now feted by many, Darwin went on to publish other books on biology although none were as important or groundbreaking as Origin or The Descent of Man. He had suffered recurring ill health since ever since the Beagle voyage and died, reclusively working until the last, aged seventy-three on 19 April 1882. His modest wish had been to be buried in his local churchyard but his many admirers had other ideas and he was given the nation’s highest accolade: interment in Westminster Abbey, near to the great Isaac Newton.

And what of the 138 years since his death? Of course science has moved on. With ever- greater knowledge, there comes the discovery of ever-greater complexity, and evolution is by no means as simple as Darwin imagined. Scientists today understand that Darwin’s natural selection – ‘survival of the fittest’ (i.e best suited) – which itself is a combination of competition for limited resources and natural species variation, is by no means the entire story. In the twentieth century, with advances in genetics, the discovery of DNA and genome sequencing, a gene-centred explanation and understanding of evolution gained currency. All the same: all credit is due to Darwin; he did the spadework.

In the first half of the twentieth century Darwin’s oft-quoted (and misunderstood) ‘survival of the fittest’ theory became corrupted in the concept of eugenics. A term first coined in England by Francis Gatton in 1883 (although Plato had advocated deliberate selective breeding of humans around 400BC) and promulgated in the early 1900s by such worthies as the Liberal politician William Beverage, Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw, it raised its unattractive head in America in 1937 when Fredrick Osborn advocated higher reproduction of people with ‘desirable’ traits – positive eugenics – and reduced reproduction (and even sterilisation) of those with less desired ones. Some states did indeed practise sterilisation, and sometimes of black people without their consent.

This social manipulation reached its vile logical conclusion with the Nazi genocide of Jews and disabled people, and other genocides since, and the very idea of regarding people as having greater or lesser value as breeding stock is abhorrent today. Although terminating a pregnancy where the foetus is known to be severely disabled and the child likely to have a very poor quality of life, or the parents feel they’d be unable to cope with caring for such a child, is quite a different matter. But yes; it’s a tricky and complicated subject.

Eugenics aside, there are those who still reject evolution today. In the United States, divine creationism has been dressed up as ‘intelligent design’: a valid alternative explanation of evolution, and some Bible Belt states are considering allowing it to be taught in schools. As is the case, in spite of government disapproval, in some ‘faith’ schools in Britain. Some Northern Irish politicians of a fundamentalist religious bent are unapologetic creationists too.

When Charles Darwin took his trip on the Beagle all those years ago, he certainly started something. But things might have turned out very differently. What if Charles had never found the courage to publish his controversial ideas, but Alfred Wallace had? Then, Darwin might have sunk into obscurity, forgotten by history, and it might have been Wallace occupying position number in the LISTVERSE list of greats.

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