Archive | January, 2012

The Duke

31 Jan

When John Wayne died on the 11th of June 1979 I was struck by the fact that one of the guys I was at school with was in tears off and on all day.

I suppose that might not seem all that odd. People get very attached to pop stars and film stars and so forth and people these days seem to be moved to tears on a pretty regular basis on reality TV shows and what have you. (There seems to be a consensus in some quarters that this is a good thing, because it’s supposedly healthier than bottling things up, but I must confess that I’m not convinced).

So we had this guy aged about 16 who was attending the same, not exactly genteel secondary school that I went to. I won’t claim that our school was the toughest school in the world, compared with some of the tales one comes across from High schools in inner city America (Which sound more like maximum security prisons to me at times) our school wasn’t all that tough, but it had its share of aspiring hard cases, and in any case, back in the seventies in West Central Scotland bursting into tears was permissible for girls but most emphatically not acceptable in boys (Or men).

But the odd thing is that this particular lad, who in the ordinary course of events could have expected no mercy, was largely left in peace and even offered the odd halting and embarrassed word of comfort.

Why?

Because we all knew how he felt and there were more than a few of us who, behind our juvenile tough guy personas were pretty close to tears ourselves.

This is all a bit odd, I suppose, and very hard to explain to anyone who’s grown up over the past couple of decades.

When people think about John Wayne now, and I’m not even sure anyone does these days, they probably think about his politics (which have been described as neo-fascist), his support for the war in Vietnam, the mythology surrounding his non service in World War Two and then maybe sneer a bit at a couple of his less brilliant performances.

(John Wayne’s cameo in The Greatest Story Ever Told  is admittedly risible, but then again, any film that casts Max von Sydow as Jesus Christ is asking for trouble. I should add that Max von Sydow seems to be a very nice chap and his talent as an actor is quite rightly revered, but he’s over six feet tall, with blue eyes and blonde hair. We don’t have a description of what Jesus Christ looked like, but given the time and place of his birth, I think if he had been a tall, blue-eyed, blonde then we certainly would have).

Then again there’s the whole thing about him not serving in the military during WWII. Well, during his lifetime it was always said that he was medically unfit for service due to a back injury. This was crap, he did have a back injury which put paid to his sporting career, but it wouldn’t have kept him out of military service.

So then there was the suggestion after his death that he had somehow ‘dodged’ the draft. Also crap. John Wayne was given a deferment due to his age (34) and his family status as a father.

It’s perfectly true that others, notably John Ford, James Stewart and Dashiell Hammett (who served in both World Wars and was ironically jailed by the McCarthyites for ‘unAmerican activities’) all pulled strings, wangled and generally went to great lengths to sign up.

John Wayne did not go to the same great lengths, but he certainly did not break the law or otherwise abuse the regulations in order to avoid military service. As a matter of fact when his draft status was later revised, he did nothing to prevent it and it was actually pressure from the studio (including the threat of litigation), that kept him out of the war.

So their’s a lot to say about John Wayne that isn’t exactly positive and there’s also a certain amount you can poke fun at if that’s your inclination.

Having said that, he probably still holds some kind of record for the number of films he made (about 200) and for his success as a box office draw.

There are also a few facts that seem to undermine the image some people seem to have had about him as some monolithic, macho fossil.

For example, when he was making Red River, he worked with Montgomery Clift, and actor of truly awesome talent and potential, but who even by then was a heroin user (if not actually an addict), who was gay and who was also a totally different kind of actor from John Wayne and the generation of actors he’d always worked with. You’d expect The Duke to be pretty dismissive, maybe even downright hostile. He was nothing of the sort. Apparently he recognised and respected Montgomery Clift’s talent and had a great deal of time for him.

He was also perfectly happy to admit that there were about 100 of his films that he didn’t like much.

He had a three-year affair with Marlene Dietrich. (Whatever her faults, she was a strong, intelligent woman, and in her prime she could pretty much have taken her pick of men, and apparently a good few women, in or out of Hollywood. It was said that even James Stewart, one of the most monogamous of men, was still besotted with Marlene Dietrich years after making Destry Rides Again). 

Since I’m addressing a few myths about John Wayne, it’s worth mentioning that his nickname ‘The Duke’ was actually a tag given to him in childhood in his home town and had nothing to do with any role he played as an actor or any supposed aristocratic connections he might have had.

It seems that in those days, the  young Marion Morrison, as he was then called, was inseparable from his huge Airedale terrier, who was called Duke, and since he disliked being called by his real name, the local Fire Chief  took to calling him ‘Little Duke’ and the name just seemed to stick.

So maybe John Wayne was a nice guy after all.

Or maybe there was at least a bit more to him than you may have been led to believe.

Or then again, maybe not. I don’t really know and I’m really not sure I care.

What I care about are the films he made. The good ones anyway.

So if you want to see what I mean (and avoid the 100 odd films that even The Duke didn’t like), then I can offer a few suggestions.

First a rule of thumb. Avoid anything he made before Stagecoach. Some of those films might be okay, but a lot of them, including the ‘singing cowboy’ films are truly dreadful.

In addition to this, and even more importantly, avoid anything he ever did for RKO while Howard Hughes was in charge. As I’ve suggested, John Wayne’s own politics were pretty far to the right and Howard Hughes made him look like a socialist (Incidently, even before he became a total recluse, Howard Hughes seems to have been pathological to some extent.If you ever have the misfortune to watch one of the films he had a hand in you’ll find a disturbing preoccupation with sadistic violence and torture).

It also has to be said that at the height of his popularity John Wayne could be an infuriatingly lazy actor and he practically sleepwalks through quite a few of his films, so you need to pick out the films he made with a really strong director like John Ford, Howard Hawks or Raoul Walsh, (and don’t bother with anything John Wayne ever directed himself, his talents really didn’t lie in that direction).

So let me offer a few suggestions:-

Stagecoach (obviously)

Red River

The Searchers (Probably John Wayne’s finest and most complex performance)

Rio Bravo

Eldorado (The only time Robert Mitchum ever looked small was when he was standing next to John Wayne. As a matter of fact, whenever I see this film I always feel a bit sorry for John Wayne’s horse. He just looks too big for the poor thing).

Rio Lobo (Actually this one’s not that good, but it makes up the third in a trio with Rio Bravo and Eldorado which are both much better)

The War Wagon (Not a classic, but the by-play between John Wayne and Kirk Douglas makes it worth a look. You also get to see Howard Keel playing a Native American, which isn’t exactly politically correct these days, but I’m always happy to see Howard Keel).

True Grit (As a matter of fact, this isn’t really a favourite of mine. I felt obliged to include it since it’s the film that won John Wayne his oscar, but I always feel it’s unbalanced. John Wayne is too big and his performance is too much. I think Kim Derby and John Campbell are fine, since they’re only really there as supporting players. The real problem is Robert Duvall playing Lucky Ned Pepper. Normally I have a lot of time for Robert Duvall, but his performance was too subtle and too nuanced to stand a chance opposite John Wayne. They really should have cast someone who worked on the same scale as The Duke, ideally Richard Boone.He would have been perfect for the role).

The Shootist (This is a hard film to watch. John Wayne was dying when he made it. He needed a stunt man just to fall on the floor for him. I happen to think that anyone who’s inclined to sneer at John Wayne should watch this film at least once. It would probably shut them up. Some of the scenes between John Wayne and Lauren Bacall are almost unwatchable. John Wayne obviously knows he’s dying, just like the character he’s playing, and you can see it in his eyes. Whatever else you might want to say about John Wayne as an actor, a public figure, a cultural icon or just as a man, it took real guts to put that on the screen).

Nefarious, Scurrilous and Louche

25 Jan

No, not actually a firm of solicitors, but three of my favourite words.

I think that words like nefarious and scurrilous have a certain dash to them. They’re  far more fun than their more modern equivalents and they have a sort of texture to them.

And be honest, wouldn’t you just love to be louche?

I know I would.

And then again there’s a certain lyrical quality to a word like melifluous. It’s kind of melodious, don’t you think?

There are other words I don’t like so much, juxtaposition being a case in point.

I suppose my innitial dislike of this words probably stemmed from the fact that I wasn’t too sure what it actually meant, I sort of knew in a general sort of way from the context I would find it in, but I was honestly just too lazy to go and look it up.

The problem with juxtaposition is that it’s just too lumpy. I don’t like the texture you get from having all those consonents jammed together like that.

Of course there are other words that I don’t much like, but at least they’re interesting or instructive on some level.

One case in point would be the word Homophobia.

Of course it’s a somewhat perjorative word that we use to refer to a prejudice or negative attitude towards gay men, lesbians. (I knew one guy who said that he would only believe in bisexuality when a man left his wife to stay in a relationship with him).

What’s interesting, and highly appropriate about the word is the inclusion of the suffix ‘phobia’.

Obviously a phobia is an irrational dislike or revulsion with the implication that it may not be fully under the control of the person who is subject to the emotion.

The reason that I think this is so apposite is obviously because I hold the view that a prejudice against anyone on the grounds of their sexual preference or orientation is irrational (Providing all parties concerned are consenting adults, of course). But I also think this connotation of being uncontrolled is also highly appropriate.

I remember a discussion I had with a former colleague who was expressing her pretty negative attitude to the proposal, then current, to make the age of consent for same sex couples the same as that for heterosexuals. (I should stress that she was, in general, a very decent, intelligent, hardworking person). What struck me in this conversation was that she didn’t simply disagree with the proposal, her response was much more visceral than that.She seemed to be acting on a combination of revulsion and even fear.

(The fact that she wore her hair short and often favoured jeans and checked shirts seemed to have led at least one lesbian to suggest that she could have had a really good time ‘if she was only out’. I suspect that there was a degree of optimism involved here, she was (probably still is) a very attractive woman and I can fully understand why anyone, male or female, whowas oriented towards women would want to chat her up. On the other hand I suppose she might well have found this experience offensive, or even threatening).

So homophobia seems like an appropriate term for what is an irrational and often emotionally charged form of prejudice.

I suspect that this is a generational issue to some extent. A few months ago I met a woman who would have been in her twenties. She was talking about the old Scots custom whereby a couple could get married if they exchanged rings and jumped over a broomstick while holding hands. I’m not sure what the corresponding custom fordivorce would be). She mentioned that she wasn’t sure that her partner had really understood the implications of what they were doing. I made some joking comment about her having conned her boyfriend, at which point she told me that her partner was another woman. The curious point as far as I’m concerned is that we barely knew each other. I’d have to admit that I was surprised that she was so open about her relationship. I was also rather pleased, in a way, because I took that to mean that she felt safe in discussing it. Maybe the kind of bigotry that was endemic when I was growing up is no longer a factor for younger people. (Anyone in their twenties is young to me. It’s my consolation for getting older).

Of course I’m no one to preach. I don’t agree with penalising anyone because of their sexuality, but I think I really would have a problem with two guys snogging in public. But then again, I would see that as being my problem, not theirs. (And in any case, beyond a certain point I would have a problem with any public display of physical intimacy same sex or otherwise. It’s just a hangover from my slightly puritanical upbringing).

In conclusion, I suspect that maybe we need a similar word to use for racism. After all, I have known people who were not just hostile towards ethnic minorities but also seemed to be frightened and repelled by them. (I really don’t get this, but as an empiricist I have to accept that it exists).

 

On Reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

23 Jan

As a matter of fact I’m reading about Pirates and Buddhism at the moment (although not in the same book, obviously).

I suppose it’s worth asking why anyone would bother reading Gibbon’s epic, given that it was published between 1776 and 1788 and history has moved on a bit since then.

(Not only in the sense that we’ve actually had quite a bit more history since then, but also in the sense that the study of history itself has moved on, historians have developed new sources of information and they have also radically overhauled the ways in which they use their sources).

There is also the fact that Gibbon himself had his blind spots. He has been criticised for being too critical of the early Christians (Which probably means that he was simply insufficiently deferential for the tastes of some of his more pious contemporaries) and he has a definite prejudice against the Byzantine Empire.

If you’re a little unsure about Byzantium, which was basically the Eastern Roman Empire, don’t be too disheartened. I was about twenty-six when bought a second-hand book entitled The Byzantine Empire, partly because it was cheap, but mostly because I had no idea where or when the Byzantine Empire had actually been and I thought it was high time I found out.

(My book turned out to have been written by one Edward Foord and first published in 1911. This makes it a fascinating historical text, partly because of the information the Mr Foord intended to supply, but also because of the insight it gives into the thinking of an educated Englishman in the early years of the Twentieth Century. It really is remarkable how attitudes and perspectives have changed).

Gibbon’s prejudice in this matter would have had its origins in the accounts left by the Crusaders who generally misunderstood and mistrusted the Byzantine Emperor, in spite of the generous support provided by the Emperor Alexius Comnenus to the First Crusade.

Essentially it all boiled down to the schism between the Eastern Greek Orthodox form of Christianity and the Western Latin form of Christianity and the basic difference in orientation between the Normans, Franks and later German knights who thought the best way to resolve a dispute was at the point of a suitable sharp implement, while the general trend of opinion in the Byzantine Empire was that it was better to avoid war if possible, hence their policy of subsidies and creative diplomacy in order to deflect the aggression of their neighbours.

As a result of the success of Byzantine diplomacy the adjective ‘byzantine’ has been adopted in the English language to  describe behaviour that is devious, treacherous and duplicitous with the connotation of subtlety and complexity. (As opposed to the more straightforward forms of treachery and duplicity such as you would often find amongst the leadership of the First Crusade, for example).

Put very simply, anyone who relies solely on Edward Gibbon’s work for their view of Roman history will be left with a perspective on the subject that would be distinctive, to say the least.

Naturally, I don’t see this as a reason not to read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. To me, it’s just a reason to be sure to read other, preferably more modern, histories as well.

So what positive reasons would there be for reading it?

Well, the fact remains that there isn’t any other work that covers the same expanse of history, ie  from the age of the Antonines until the final fall of Constantinople, or roughly  98 CE (AD) to 1453 CE (AD). There are plenty of books that cover different aspects of Roman history or shorter periods of Roman history in much more detail but none of them, so far as I know have the same scope.

Another reason for reading it is that Gibbon was writing a work of literature as much as a work of history. Given that he was working long before the novel was fully developed as a literary form people often read history when they wanted some kid of prose narrative. (I still do, and as far as I’m concerned anything that happened after May 29th 1453 is simply recent).

Another reason for reading The Decline and Fall, and a large part of my reason for writing this in the first place, is the way that Gibbon’s prose makes you read.

What’s important to understand about Gibbon’s writing is that it was aimed at a readership who were not troubled, as we are, by the problem of how to pack all the things we need to do into the time we have available. Gibbon’s target readership were people who had the money to buy books, and the education and leisure to read them. The problem these people had wasn’t finding the time to do things, it was finding the things to do in the time they had.

As a result of this situation, and probably Gibbon’s own temperament, his style is discursive, perhaps a little pompous, although good humored and rather amusing, and laden with digressions, parentheses, sonorous rhetoric, and many, many footnotes. (Some of them pretty scurrilous).

What this means is that if you want to read Gibbon’s prose, you really have to let him dictate the pace. You just can’t rush through The Decline and Fall in a hurry the way you might read a modern novel, or even some modern histories. You have to take your time. (Try to think of it as a form of  ‘reading meditation’).

Maybe I’m just getting old, but I think that anything that makes you slow down a bit is probably a good thing.

PS Penguin do a rather handy single volume paperback version of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It abbreviates some of the less important material and it stops short at the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. (This is fair enough since Gibbon himself considering drawing to a halt at this point and in fairness the latter part of his work covering The Byzantine Empire, the rise of Islam and Crusades and the final end of the Empire in the East isn’t generally reckoned to be as good as the earlier parts).

I have a copy of this volume and I enjoyed it very much. Some time later, by means that were a little indirect, but entirely legal and reasonably ethical I managed to obtain an eight volume hard back edition of  the full text which looks very handsome on my bookshelf (one of them at least.) As a matter of fact, it makes the rest of the room look a bit shabby (not very difficult).

PPS If any of the above makes me seem like some sort of intellectual, I should point out that I only seem like an intellectual whenI’m not actually in the company ofthe genuine article. At such times, I try to keep my big mouth shut and look for a quick exit.

Talking about God (Or Not) Part 2

17 Jan

Recently I came across a comment to the effect that the evidence in support of the existence of God was ‘overwhelming’. The contributor gave no indication of exactly what he considered this evidence to be, but I can’t criticise him for that, he was replying to a post on someone else’s blog, so he probably didn’t feel able to go into too much detail. Maybe I should have followed the link to his blog to see if he’d expressed his views at greater length elsewhere.

I was tempted to take issue with this comment, but I wasn’t. As I’ve indicated, it was a comment on someone else’s blog and I’m not sure about the etiquette of  commenting on the comments left on other people’s blogs. Maybe I’d be encroaching on the blog owner’s prerogatives. Besides, I wanted to comment at some length and I thought maybe I should save it for my own blog.

As an atheist, obviously I don’t think that the evidence for the existence of God is overwhelming. If I did, I wouldn’t be an atheist.

I accept that many people find the evidence for the existence of God convincing, but I suspect that this is largely because they are already convinced that God exists.

I seriously doubt that anyone who came to the question with no preconceived ideas on the subject would find that evidence convincing, but then again, I can’t claim to have come to this question with no preconceived ideas on the subject. I’ve been an atheist for as long as I can remember.

As I’ve said in an earlier blog, I don’t believe that most people arrive at a conclusion on whether or not God exists as a result of a rational (and possibly not even an entirely conscious process). It’s my impression that people become atheists or believers at a very early age and once they’ve become one thing or another evidence and argument is used to support the position they’ve already reached. This is why, in my opinion, most debates on the subject very quickly become entrenched and acrimonious.

But enough of that, time to move on to something new.

One of the things I’ve been reminded of recently is the way that a discussion about whether or not God exists tends to veer off into a discussion of whether or not religious faith is a good thing (Which itself can deteriorate into slanging match over the alleged vices and virtues of atheists and believers).

As an atheist I suppose it might be expected that I would come down on the ‘religion is the source of all evil’ side of things, but, as a matter of fact I don’t.

In fact, I think the question is unanswerable in practice and pointless in any case.

In order to answer the question of whether or not religion is a Good Thing, I suppose you could draw up a list of all the good things associated with religion and then another list of all the bad things. Then you’d have to compare the two lists and decide on balance whether the good outweighed the bad.

I think the difficulties involved in this process should be obvious, so I won’t labour the point. Obviously you’re going to have no real agreement as to the extent that either good or bad things on your lists are dependant on religion, you will also struggle to reach agreement as to the relative importance of any given item on either list in relation to other items on the opposing list. You may also find a surprising lack of agreement as to which list, good or bad, certain items should go on.

In other words, your chances of reaching agreement at any stage in the process are remote to non-existent.

An alternative strategy might be to look for examples of societies, communities or even individuals that have been either atheist or religious and compare them. I don’t want to get too bogged down in the detail, but I think the problems associated with this are comparable to those I’ve outlined above.

Hence my conclusion that the question is unanswerable in practice.

I think the question is probably pointless because the plain fact is that religious faith is a feature of human life and all human societies that I’m aware of (even where it’s officially banned) and I don’t see that changing in a big hurry.

I think there was a period during the mid twentieth century where religious belief seemed to be in decline and it didn’t seem to be impossible that some day religion would simply fade away, but towards the end of the twentieth century there was a resurgence in religion and, as of now, it looks as though it’s here to stay. (Equally we could say that atheism isn’t likely to just fade away either).

I’m all in favour of dialogue, but I don’t see the point in conducting two parallel monologues where actual communication seems to be at a minimum and exasperation seems to be at a maximum.

I should also admit that I’m as prone as anyone else to the temptation to correct other people when I think they’re wrong, but as I’ve said, although I belive that there is no God, I see no realistic prospect of changing anyone else’s opinion on the subject. The most I can do is, perhaps, to reassure someone who is already an atheist but not comfortable about it. Or possibly to exasperate believers. And even if I could talk someone out of their religious beliefs, would that make them better or happier people? I doubt it.

So given that I seem to have decided that there’s no point in arguing about whether or not God exists and also that there’s no point in the debate about whether or not religion is a good thing, what are we left with?

Well,  maybe we could try treating each other with a bit of respect?

(It’s unhelpful to imply that people who believe in God are deluded, nor is it accurate to suggest that atheists are any more prone to immorality, or amorality, than believers).

Maybe we should concentrate on debates where some kind of progress is possible. (I’m well aware that philosophers are still debating many of the issues first raised in Ancient Greece, but the fact that they haven’t reached a conclusion and don’t seem likely to, doesn’t mean that no progress has been made or that none is possible. Simply clarifying the question and the significant issues arising from it is also progress).

And if we can’t manage that, maybe we should take Voltaire’s advice and cultivate our gardens without arguing.

Although maybe all I’m really saying is that I think a civilised and informed debate on these subjects could be a lot of fun, but I’m sick to death of the way it always seems to fall into one kind of rut or another.

Scottish Independence (What’s the point?)

14 Jan

One of the interesting features of the reaction of most English people to the creation of the Scottish Parliament was that it was not one of hostility or resentment, as much as it seemed to be one of puzzlement.

This would have been due to the fact that the debate around devolution that was going on in Scotland was one of those things that the UK media didn’t pick up on.  Because the UK media tend to be based in and around London, events aren’t happening in and around London have to be pretty dramatic to make the headlines.

 So when it was suddenly announced that it was ‘the settled will of the Scottish people’ that there should be a Scottish parliament it would have come as a bit of a surprise for anyone who doesn’t live in, or regularly visit, Scotland. (Awareness of the devolution debate would have been greater in Wales, Northern Ireland and even Cornwall, due to their own ongoing debates about what their relationship with the rest of the UK should be).

And now here we go again, Scottish Independence is back on the UK political agenda and I expect it’s come as a bolt out of the blue for the majority of the non Scottish people in the UK.

So maybe it’s a good time for someone to offer a few comments on why constitutional reform of the UK might not be such a bad idea.

First, let’s get rid of a few idiotic misconceptions.

1/ The fallacy that the English can be blamed for all Scotland’s woes. (Some Scots do believe this. We have a word for them, ie ‘numpty’)

As a matter of fact, anyone who has a passing acquaintance with Scottish history knows perfectly well that many of Scotland’s ills, past and present have been inflicted self-inflicted.

2/ Scottish Nationalism is based on anti-English sentiment.

Alex Salmond (MSP and leader of the SNP) has been quite emphatic in rejecting anti-Englishness as a basis for Scottish Nationalism and any kind of Scottish Identity. (I’m not necessarily in Mr Salmond’s fan club, he seems to me like a walking definition of the Scots term ‘sleekit’, and I’m really not sure I’d want to buy a second-hand car from the guy. Having said that, I do agree with him on this, and one or two other points).

3/ Scottish Nationalism will inevitably lead to a ‘Balkanisation’ of the UK.

I’m not even sure what this is supposed to mean, but if the idea is that the UK will collapse into intercommunal violence in the way that the former Yugoslavia, then this is patently absurd. There was an extraordinary depth of hatred between the different communities in the former Yugoslavia that had been held in check by Tito for decades and was then stirred up by a bunch of irresponsible, self-seeking scumbags. (We have irresponsible, self-seeking scumbags aplenty in the UK, but not that same depth of hatred).

4/ The day after Independence Scotland will immediately transform into the land of milk and honey.

Obviously absurd. My best guess is that the first few years after independence will be a hard slog. I’ll come back to that later.

5/ Scotland will necessarily be better governed by Scots than it ever could by any English people.

Even a brief reference to Scottish History will demonstrate that Scotland was not always well-governed by Scots, nor has it necessarily been badly governed due to any inherent failing in the English. As a matter of fact Scots have always participated in the Westminster parliament following the Act of Union and there are times when Scots have been disproportionately well represented at the highest levels of government.

So having rejected a certain amount of nonsense, maybe it’s time to move on and get to the point.

Essentially the reason I’m in favour of Scottish Independence doesn’t really have much to do with Scottish Nationalism. It has nothing to do with any claims to special virtue on the part of Scots, or even Scotland, nor does it have anything to do with any complaints about England, or the English people.

The real reason for wanting constitutional reform is that the constitutional arrangements for the UK, as they stand at present, are a miserable, inefficient, undemocratic mess and I can see no prospect for reform from within.

The Westminster parliament was essentially created by Edward I (Longshanks, the Hammer of the Scots etc). He was not a democrat by any means, and what he wanted was a device that would give his revenue raising measures a veneer of consultation. (He was very successful in this, unlike his French counterpart).

The Westminster parliament has moved on since then, it’s been tweaked about over the centuries by a succession of (mostly non-democratic) leaders to suit their own interests.

Oliver Cromwell was a case in point, he was a great supporter of the concept of the sovereignty of parliament provided parliament was doing what he wanted. At other times he was perfectly capable of using his soldiers to exclude parliamentarians who might oppose his wishes or even dissolving parliament altogether and ruling by dictat when that suited him.

So much for history (and not everyone is going to agree with what little history I’ve referred to here).

The real question isn’t ‘how did we get the parliament we’ve got?’ it’s ‘is this parliament conducive to the good governance of the UK?’.

I think the answer to that question is ‘no’.

Let me explain why.

We talk about the sovereignty of parliament. I have reservations about the proposition that parliament really is sovereign in the UK, (more on that later) but even if it is, the question is ‘should it be?’

My answer to this question would also be ‘no’.

In a democracy the only locus for sovereignty lies with the people. If sovereignty lies with parliament then you have an oilgarchy, not a democracy. (You may feel that oligarchy is okay, but I would prefer a democracy, I agree with Winston Churchill, it’s the worst form of government except for all the others).

In any case does sovereignty really lie with parliament in the UK?

I don’t think sit does. Not fully, at any rate.

Let me refer you to the concept of ‘crown priviledge’. And odd term to use in a parliamentary democracy, I know, but the UK is less of a parliamentary democracy than a constitutional monarchy. But it’s a constitutional monarchy where the power of the sovereign have been delegated to the Prime Minister (Hence the term ‘crown priviledge’. In effect, the Prime Minister has the privileges of the crown delegated to him).

This point probably seemed academic for long enough because the UK was governed for decades (generations even) in line with the convention of ‘Government by consensus’. (IE even if the Prime Minister could implement a particular policy, he would refrain from doing so unless there was a consensus in the country in favour of doing so).

Baroness Thatcher as Prime Minister put a coach and horses through this, amongst other conventions, and demonstrated quite how little power to oppose Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition really has. (Opinions differ, to put it mildly, as to whether or not this was a good thing).

As ever Tony Blair was quick to exploit the work of others, and in this case take it further. Thatcher maintained a facade of ‘Cabinet Government’, even if she made sure that her cabinet was composed of people who would roll over and submit to whatever she wanted, while Blair further eroded any notion of collective decision-making by calling individual ministers into 10 Downing Street and telling them what to do from the cosy vantage point of his sofa.

You may feel that all this  furniture based talk of cabinets and sofas is a bit tedious, so let me boil it down to a simple fact.

In the run up to the invasion of Iraq it became apparent that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom had the legal power to declare war on his own initiative without let or hindrance from any other human being.

(Gordon Brown talked about reducing this power, but I honestly don’t know whether or not anything came of this).

The fact that Tony Blair would have been foolish to the point of committing political suicide if he had, in fact, declared war off his own bat is beside the point. No single person should ever be allowed this degree of power in any civilised country.

At about this time, comedian and political agitator (I mean this as a sincere compliment), Mark Thomas asked for information as to the full  extent of the powers that could potentially by wielded by the Prime Minister under crown Privilege. He was told by the relevant authorities that they couldn’t tell him. The powers were effectively so extensive that they could not be defined.

Experts in constitutional lore and parliamentary procedures (of whom I am definitely not one) could doubtless provide examples ad nauseam of all the convoluted, involuted and downright absurd customs and practices that bedevil our lawmaking system. I am not qualified to do this and (I suspect much to everyone’s relief) I will not wade through the pointless tedium of making any such attempt. I don’t think it’s necessary. I think my point is made.

Only a fool would invent the system of government we now have and it only exists due to a long series of tweaks to an institution that was never designed to be democratic in the first place.

I don’t believe that our current (unwritten) constitutional arrangements are capable of reform, and I see no political will to even try. There are too many vested interests and too many fustian old clown who claim that, because we’ve been doing things a certain way for as long as anyone can remember, it would be an unforgivable crime against God and nature to make any change now.

So the only real chance to get my country and my people out from under the dead weight of the Westminster Parliament is independence (Or some system of devolution that is the same as independence in all but name). This isn’t to say that I don’t care about what happens to people out with Scotland, it’s just that, as I’ve indicated above, I see no prospect for reform of the UK as it currently exists and I don’t want to make any attempt to tell people in England, Wales or Northern Ireland what they should do in their part of the UK.

I don’t believe that an independent Scotland would have an easy ride from day one (as I’ve indicated above), but I do believe that independence might give Scotland, and more to the point the Scots, exactly the kind of firm boot up the backside that, collectively, we need.

I accept that the public sector in Scotland is far too big as a proportion of the economy. This isn’t due to anything inherent in ‘the Scottish character’ (If there is such a thing). It’s the result of a policy conducted for decades by governments of all persuasions to boost the public sector as a sop to Scots in compensation for the decline in the industries that used to make up our private sector. (I don’t ascribe this to any malice on the part of Westminster politicians, quite the opposite. I accept that it was well-intentioned, but it has left us with a structural economic problem).

I like to think that if we achieve independence in Scotland, maybe it would help pave the way for others in the UK to follow suit. Maybe that might lead to the Westminster parliament, and all that goes with it, fading away into history. If and when that happens, I might even be in favour of reconstituting the UK, only this time under a properly democratic, representative and transparent system of government. (Far fetched, I know. It’s practically science fiction, but the first step is eminently possible if the Scots people don’t ‘bottle it’ in an independence referendum).

In conclusion, Tony Benn once described the UK system of government as an ‘elected dictatorship’.

I find myself in the surreal and disorienting position of agreeing with him.

On the Natural History and Lifestyles of Werewolves

9 Jan

Sabine Barrat-Gould provides an excellent overview of the folklore and myth concerning werewolves. (The Book of Werewolves S. Barrat-Gould 1865 ISBN 1 85958 072 6).

Unfortunately there does not exist an equivalent text giving comprehensive details of the documented facts of the species. This omission has allowed the perpetuation of a great many misconceptions and errors concerning homo lycanthropus and it is my intention to address this problem, albeit briefly, in the following post.

The fossil record is generally unhelpful given that the skeletal remains of homo lycanthropus are indistinguishable from those of Homo sapiens, (or, where relevant, canis lupus) and a comprehensive study of mitochondrial DNA for the species is still sadly lacking. As a result, it is necessary to rely on oral traditions and cultural and linguistic studies. The oral traditions of homo lycanthropus are frequently reliable given the longevity of individual werewolves, but as a community they are notoriously reticent and unwilling to discuss their history and culture with outsiders.

The origins of homo lycanthropus, in as much as they can be determined given the paucity of available evidence, appear to lie in the foothills of the Himalayas some two million years ago.

The species appears to have spread rapidly throughout the Northern Hemisphere but given their dislike of tropical climates it is only very recently that communities of werewolves have begun to settle in the Southern Hemisphere. (Most notably in New Zealand and the Southernmost regions of Chile and Argentina).

The lifespan of the individual werewolf has never been accurately determined as there are no records of any werewolf ever having died of old age. It is clear, however that as well as providing considerable resistance to injury and disease, the process of shape shifting also retards the aging process to a considerable extent.

It is noteworthy that, unlike the vampire (homo vampiris), werewolves cannot be described as ‘undead’, in that they are capable of sexual reproduction. (The popular belief that one can become a werewolf through being bitten is incorrect and probably based on a misinterpretation of the transmission of rabies to which homo lycanthropus, unlike homo vampiris, is prone). Having said this, the reproductive rate of werewolves is very slow. This appears to be largely a matter of choice as werewolves, unlike Homo sapiens, deliberately control their fertility in order to avoid placing undue strain on the resources available to them, although there is some evidence to suggest that the werewolves longevity is also a factor as all aspects of their lifestyle seem to be extended in their timescale.

The phenomenon of shape-shifting is poorly understood and seldom witnessed by outsiders. What evidence is available suggests that the ability to shift is seldom present until puberty and is generally voluntary. The belief that werewolves are compelled to shape-shift due to the phases of the moon, or indeed due to sexual congress, appears to be quite false. Accidental shape shifting has been known to occur during early adolescence and is believed to be associated with hormonal imbalance and mood swings.

Shape-shifting appears to be experienced by the werewolf as a profound change in perceptual experience with associated cognitive and affective changes. In effect there is an extreme enhancement in auditory and olfactory perception, while the effect on visual perception is more complex. While there is an enhancement in night vision and perception of depth and detail, there is also a marked loss of peripheral vision and a significant change in colour perception. (Yellows and blues are reduced to some degree, while reds are reduced almost to grey).

The cognitive changes associated with shape-shifting are difficult to assess, given that the only available evidence is fragmentary and anecdotal. What can be established is that shape-shifting seems to be beneficial to the emotional,as well as the physical well-being of the individual. Studies indicate a significant reduction in stress and anxiety following a shape-shifting experience and prolonged periods without shape-shifting seem to cause a marked deterioration in concentration, emotional stability and mood.

Generalisations regarding character and behaviour across any population must be treated with caution, however some tendencies do seem to be consistent amongst the werewolf community.

Werewolves are notoriously itinerant, if not necessarily nomadic in the true sense of the term. In general they will tend to move from place to place within an extended range seldom staying in one place for long periods or wandering outside their chosen territory. They consistently avoid urban environments and report discomfort in the proximity of large numbers of humans. This appears to be due to overstimulation of their auditory and olfactory senses which can result in disorientation and distress.

Contrary to popular belief werewolves invariably live in close-knit family groups, normally numbering between four and six although groups of up to twenty-five have been recorded. They seldom, if ever, live solitary lives. Misconceptions in this regard seem to have arisen from the fact that individual werewolves will undertake extended solo expeditions, but it should be noted that they will always return to their family group if at all possible. Relationships within these groups are often intense and even volatile but disputes, while sometimes violent, are generally short in duration.

Werewolf culture is characterised by a rich oral tradition, particularly in music, (a capella singing featuring close harmony and intricate counterpoint is typical), verse and story telling. It is believed that werewolves have never independently developed a written language, but they have successfully adapted human scripts to meet their needs and recent developments include the growth of written werewolf prose fiction and even academic writing.

In general werewolves tend to be conservative by temperament, and they are slow to adopt new technologies. One exception to this trend was their early adoption of the motor car due to the promise of enhanced mobility. Werewolves are often adept in manual dexterity and this, coupled with their reluctance to discard and replace possessions, often leads them to continue to maintain and use their vehicles for years, and even decades, wherever possible.

Although not workshy in any real sense, werewolves seldom take regular employment. This is largely due to a reluctance to take on long-term commitments, or to submit to the discipline required by most employers. As a result werewolves are generally to be found taking seasonal and casual employment as and when it becomes available. This preference is exaggerated by a general lack of formal qualifications and work related skills which is a consequence of the disruption caused to their education by their refusal to settle in any one location.

As can be inferred from much of the above, werewolves often come into contact with humans and their attitude towards humans is complex and often difficult.

As a rule werewolves tend not to generalise and have little, if any, concept of universal altruism. As a result they mistrust humanity as a collective entity but can have friendly and even intimate relations with individual human beings. (Children of mixed human and werewolf parentage are rare, but cases have been documented. They are almost invariably female, given that the female foetus is typically more resilient than the male, and tend to be creative, volatile in temprament and long-lived, but normally incapable of true lycanthropy).

In conclusion, you may well have come into contact with a werewolf, or even a family of them, but if you have, they will almost certainly not have disclosed their true nature. If you do meet someone you know to be a werewolf, the following points should be kept in mind.

1/ Werewolves, unlike vampires, do not hunt humans. When they are in human form they behave as humans, when they are in vulpine form they behave as wolves.  As a result you are in far more danger from a werewolf when he or she is in human form than when they appear as a wolf. Wolves seldom attack or kill humans and do not prey on humans, or even domesticated animals where their natural prey are available. Humans kill other humans all the time.

2/ If you enter into an intimate relationship with a werewolf there is no danger of shape shifting during sex (The folklore is quite wrong on this point). There is some chance that children will be conceived and carried to term, although this is rare. The relationship is likely to be intense and include moments of extreme irritation and possibly sheer terror, but not of boredom. The relationship will not last. Werewolves can make exotic and stimulating lovers, but very poor husbands or wives. They never stay for long.

3/ Werewolves are quick to take offence and slow to forgive. They have very long memories.

4/ They always need money. They never have a regular income and they’re generally careless with the money they do have.

5/ Don’t lend them money. They will always mean to repay you, but there’s no telling when. They operate on a much longer timescale than humans so you may not live long enough to see your money. (Payment will, however, be made to your estate or descendants).

6/ Don’t call them werewolves. They prefer the term Vargr (from the old Norse meaning ‘restless’  and ‘wolf’ which is appropriate, and also ‘godless’ which isn’t, werewolves are often religious).

Josef Skvorecky

5 Jan

The only reason I’m writing this is because I learned that Josef Skvorecky died yesterday and his death seemed to be completely overshadowed by other events.

That’s understandable, I suppose. He never was that well-known in comparison to J K Rowling or Stephen King, but if I could persuade someone to pick up one of his books and have a look at it, I’d consider my time well spent. (For a change).

While living as an exile in Canada following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 Joseph Skvorecky was active in publishing the works of  ‘forbidden’ authors, including Vaclav Havel the future first President of a free Czechoslovakia.

So he might be remembered by future generations for being instrumental in letting the world know about Vaclav Havel. (Not a bad claim to fame, it’s better than I’ve ever managed to do).

That would be a bit of a shame, however, because Skvorecky was also an author in his own right.

I suppose his magnum opus would be The Engineer of Human Souls (Josef Stalin’s description of a novelist), an autobiographical work based on Skvorecky’s life under Nazi occupation and his comical, and potentially disastrous, attempts at sabotage, and his later life as an academic in Canada.

Skvorecky also wrote a series of gentle and rather wistful detective stories featuring Lieutenant Boruvka. (A decent and competent, rather than brilliant detective who is good at solving his cases, but is saddened rather than triumphant at his success). Lieutenant Boruvka sometimes has a tendency to miss the important wider points in his life, but in the anthology called The End of Lieutenant Boruvka there is a theme linking the various crimes that the Lieutenant investigates and that theme is the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia and the pervasive corruption and brutality that comes with it. In the end Boruvka gets the point. He tried to act and Skvorecky, not being an ideologue leaves the reader to decide whether or not his attempt at decency really works out.

Miss Silver’s Past could best be described, I think, as a sort of  dark love story (in that it features a ‘sort of’ love and some very dark themes).

Josef Skvorecky didn’t really do magic realism, but he came close in The Base Saxophone, which should probably have been filmed by Fellini, or someone with a similar flair for the surreal.

I suppose you might think that Skvorecky’s work has less relevance now that the Cold War is over, the Czech republic is free and democratic and the Nazi occupation of Europe is fading into the background of history.

I think that would be a mistake. Essentially what Skvorecky was writing about was the struggle of a decent human being to stay decent while living within an inhuman system. He also wrote about the pain of exile and the tendency of corrupt political institutions to distort every aspect of life. (And we’re still not running short of either exiles or corrupt political institutions).

I wouldn’t have said he was an overtly political writer, he doesn’t have an ideology to shove down your throat, he seems much more interested in giving you something to smile about and maybe think about as well.