21 February 2011

The Pale Elephant

And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death

I’ve been reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It’s set in Germany during the second world war, and is narrated by Death. There’s quite a lot about the power of words, and about Jews. My memory needed refreshing, and I turned to Pox by Deborah Hayden, as one does.
This is about what we might call today a pale elephant in the room, the sometimes recognised and often overlooked or painted-out pale intruder into the lives of the famous. An american elephant, certainly over-sexed and over here.
She makes a good case for Hitler being so afflicted, and indicates a possible origin from a Jewess in his youth. There is even a chapter about the elephant in Mein Kampf, not that I’ve read it. This hypothesis would certainly go far to explain the Holocaust as the product of a deranged mind — there are references to forced marches in The Book Thief. Hitler having a dermatologist as his personal physician is otherwise a curious choice, given that german dermatologists were experts in the diagnosis of skin rashes, and used this knowledge in the treatment of the ‘specific’ disease in which they also specialised.
The name of the pale elephant? It is Treponema pallidum, the pale spirochete. It gives you the Great Pox. While there was once the idea that those of an artistic temperament whose exposure to it was an essential part of their personal development would benefit from creativity in middle age, this happy idea is known now to be wrong.
It’s syphilis.

19 February 2011

Economical with the vérité

The Chief Executive of Barclay’s Bank, Mr Bob Diamond was recently up before the House of Commons Treasury select committee. He told the committee that the Bank had paid £2 billion in taxes in 2009. He is also reported as saying that the time of “remorse and apology” was over.
It now transpires that almost all of this was income tax and national insurance. The Bank collects this on behalf of the taxman, and passes it on. It is not the Bank’s money, it is their employees’ money. It is hardly credible that the Bank actually pays, from its own resources, the tax due by their employees, though it would be a mighty perk if they did.
For 2009, Barclay’s Bank paid £113 million in corporation tax on its profits.
Mr Diamond’s statement is a nice example of being “economical with the vérité”. Or, when MPs do it, dissembling.

18 February 2011

Two Museums

I read Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence recently. Set in Istanbul, it describes the effects of the new west on the old eastern values — a very short description of a very long book.  The book has been very well translated from turkish — so much so that it doesn’t read like a translation. In fact, according to Wikipedia, the english translation is the basis for translations into other languages, and is given special attention. I did find the description of Greeks in Istanbul immigrating to Greece rather odd; I though the country you were in was from where you emigrated, and people coming to your country were immigrating. But never mind.
The Museum is both metaphorical and real, for Wikipedia also told me that Pamuk is actually constructing a Museum of Innocence at the location described in the book, and illustrated on a map. It’s to be about everyday artefacts, apparently, and has UNESCO backing. There’s an entry ticket printed in the book, if you want to go there when it’s finished (probably in 2012).
Anyway, this Museum of Innocence reminded me of another museum, our Museum of Childhood. In norn iron, I live alone most of the time in a large family house with its bedrooms, generous living areas, and even a cellar. Now that the family has all left, all that remains are their artefacts, treasures and the non-assorted junk that they didn’t want to take with them. Their old books fill three Billy bookcases on an upstairs landing, there is the old rocking horse, and wardrobes with clothes that they will never wear again.
I’ve asked the kids what is to be done with this museum; do we sell up, or keep it. Mostly, they think we should hang on to the house — I don’t know whether they still think of it as home — with some vague idea that one or more of them would, one day, want to live there. 
So, for the moment, I’m condemned to my own museum, trapped by duty, responsibility. Sometimes, it feels more like a prison.

16 February 2011

Why Marriage?

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in
possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Though Jane was looking sideways at the mores of the Regency, the quotation is unusually prescient. Ask why the man has a fortune and why he wants a wife. (Yes, I’m only thinking of heteronormative values here, biased towards the UK.)
The idea of ‘fortune’ goes back to the start of settled agriculture in the fertile crescent, to the area around Babylon. Before this, people lived in groups, moving from place to place as a small community, sharing food and partners, and parents. If you don’t have a fortune, in a wandering community, you don’t need what we would think of as a legitimate heir, and you don’t need marriage. Nor do you necessarily need monogamy: group responsibility for the rearing of children (and even their origination) seems to have been ubiquitous. The development of early forms of wheat meant that you had to stay in the same place permanently, to tend the crop. Settlement meant land, fields, farmers and specialisation, merchants and craftsmen from any of which occupations the man (and it was generally the man) obtained his ‘fortune’. And having made this fortune, he didn’t want it to disappear on his death; he needed not only an heir, but a legitimate (male) heir, one against whom there could be no argument. He needed a form of legality for this, to recognise his marriage, his heir and his will or testament. If you think I'm too male-centric, the wife got a provider for the children whom the husband wanted to think were his.
As an aside, think of King Henry VIII and his need for a legitimate male heir; his first two wives did not perform their ‘duty’. Henry needed an heir — or even, in today’s argot, ‘an heir and a spare’. Henry, unaware that the Wars of the Roses had ended, went to great lengths to get his heir: one annulment, one execution and a break with the Church of Rome. (Henry did have a natural male child, the Duke of Richmond, at this time; ‘natural’ is a curious description for a bastard.) The idea of a Queen regnant was an anathema then; how could a mere, semi-schooled female be expected to wield power, to play secular and religious powers off against one another? Semi-schooled, because a woman was expected to be an adornment, to provide the heirs, to know her place; so why waste time and expense on an education for her?
It’s reasonable to assume that the development of law and religion were coeval and inter-dependent. Marriage in the western world draws on ancient greek and roman roots, as modified by christianity — a syncretism. The Christian form of marriage includes obligations and prohibitions; and significant sexual modifiers. Not all of these have been relaxed: the Roman Catholic Church still officially regards sexual intercourse as being only for procreation or reproduction. The idea of sex for recreation or relationship building and maintaining doesn’t exist in the Church’s view. (The ‘primitive’ concept that lots of different sperm add goodness to fertilisation doesn’t exist either.) You could argue therefore that, following the menopause, women should not have intercourse.
Beside the need for an heir, there are other reasons for marriage; romantic love, pregnancy, a large dowry, to gain the right of residence for the partner and to gain allegiances, for example. The right of residence reason is fairly recent, and there have been cases before the Courts concerning this. A chum of my daughter’s is getting married shortly for this precise reason. There might be other reasons, of course.
The fairly recent stigma of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy has all but disappeared today. It’s not all that long ago that it was only when the woman was pregnant that the marriage could be officially confirmed; and if she wasn’t pregnant after a year, it was as if the ‘marriage’ had not happened.
I’m going to ignore dowries and military allegiances, and concentrate on ‘romantic love’. The rituals of romantic love are often called ‘courtship’, the word deriving, like courteous and many others, from ‘Court’, the Court of the sovereign, and the behaviour expected there. There are echos of ‘the chase’ as well, it being accepted that the man had to chase the woman, who had to put up some form of resistance; the woman on a pedestal, as a Madonna. Yet it also seems that the woman was just as likely to be a ‘whore’ with normal carnal desires, or lust. At a given stage in the relationship, be it the first kiss or an ‘engagement’ the woman signalled her readiness for sexual intercourse. Fornication was unremarkable, healthy, though adultery — or as the lawyers would have said then ‘criminal conversation’ — could be perilous.
The dead hand of reformed religion didn’t like fornication any more that the Church of Rome did; Rabbie Burns was harangued from the pulpit, for instance, and an expressed view that marriage was for sex, and sex was for marriage developed. Expressed as in the sense of do as I say, not what I do. This paradigm existed up to the mid twentieth-century, almost unchallenged. Of course, there was still plenty of fornication and adultery, but while this was pretty common knowledge, it wasn’t proper to speak it out loud, a culture of silence and hypocrisy. This was combined with a (deliberate?) lack of education and information, other than to promote the fear of syphilis.
It’s really a cliché now to talk of the ‘pill’ and the sexual revolution, and the emergence of female carnal desire. Lust was always there, even if people didn’t like the word, but it had been mercilessly repressed; so many just didn’t know they had it — it may have needed an ‘awakening’.
Marriage is an artificial construct — something made by the hand of man. In the set of marriage today in the western world there are concepts of ‘soulmate’ and ‘commitment’ and ‘monogamy’. The idea of monogamy, or in it’s most recent revival as ‘serial monogamy’ is, in evolutionary terms, quite nebulous. Humans are not programmed for monogamy, serial or otherwise. It’s the social norms and expectations that keep it so. The commitment is towards financial stability and the rearing of children. Soulmates are partners with whom we can easily relate, communicate. If it’s lust (Eros) that initially attracts people, this tends to fade after a couple of years; enter, if you are lucky, Philia and Agape, roughly friendship, benevolence, selflessness to restore it.
Marriage is still popular, though the divorce rates suggest that many ‘fail’; perhaps because it’s much easier to divorce now than it once was — honesty over the pretence and hypocrisy that once prevailed. Marriages fail, people change and leave, rather than remaining in a false, sterile limbo.
I wonder, what is there going for marriage today?

13 February 2011


There was a lot of clucking recently about some off the cuff and off-camera remarks recently. Clearly, sexism lives on, perhaps it’s not universal, but in some places, some organisations, it almost seems to be the norm.
I’d hazard a guess that the organisations and cultures where this happens are those traditionally seen as ‘male-only’, for I’m thinking of sexism as male abuse directed towards women. Women are thus fairly recent entrants to these organisations.
I’ve mentioned the rise of the professional woman previously; the days of the woman as a housewife-type appendage are largely over now. Many couples these days need two incomes to live at a more than subsistence level, to pay the mortgage.
Many if not most of our social and emotional constructs seem to be imbedded by early childhood influences, nurture wins over nature in the home. Even at primary school it can be difficult to avoid stereotypes, unless you are very careful. If the primary school kids are being nurses and doctors, it’s all to easy to make the boys doctors, and the girls nurses. I’ve seen it done, not so long ago. Or, if teacher needs a table or two moving, she shouldn’t ask for ‘a strong boy’ to assist her. I say her deliberately, for I understand that only women may teach the most junior classes.
There are still single sex schools. Girls do better academically at all-girls schools. However, they do have a civilising effect on boys in mixed schools, and I feel that this socialisation is one trade-off that is well worth while for both sexes. I was surprised to discover that English studies at universities began as a sop to women; they were designed to be suitable for women with their supposedly inferior, feeble  brains. Now, I’m not getting into a froth about which subjects ‘suit’ girls or boys better, I’m just going to ignore it. There are too many other variables to make this anyway easy.
Sexism can be seen at work, after work, almost anywhere. I see it as a power problem; women in the traditional male role. It’s as if men have an inbuilt inferiority complex about this — some women are clearly ‘better’ than men at times in some roles. It’s almost like the men feel that they are being emasculated, castrated. There may well be some women who feel and act towards men like this; but again it may be a reflection of the culture in which they have been brought up, or in which they find themselves.
If we agree that sexism is ‘a bad thing’ how then do we eradicate it? For those with fixed ideas, it may well be very difficult, if not impossible. Training may help, but this may be only a temporary change, unless reinforced.
Otherwise, it’s a societal change, a paradigm change, and for this we have to wait until the dinosaurs are extinct. Care in the home — be careful with the colours you choose, and remember that boys wear pink in France, where girls wear blue. Awareness in schools — mixed schools, secular schools. And patience.

Birth Certificates and Lyme Regis

I was reading a novel a couple of days ago, when the thought struck me: can you get names on a birth certificate changed? Now, I’m not going to tell you the name of the book, for the reason for the name change is part of the denouement. Mind you, it’s pretty clear from an early stage what’s going to happen, though the exact series of events is harder to predict. And there’s nothing in the book about birth certificates, it’s just something that has to happen off-stage.
A small amount of research showed that a name change is possible. For an adopted child, the natural parents can be replaced by the names of the adopters. I suppose I should have known this, given that it is now possible for adopted children to seek their natural parents when they are eighteen — which must imply that their birth certificate was changed at some stage.
If this wasn’t possible, the whole story in the novel would collapse.
And, not entirely unrelated, what is it with The Cobb at Lyme Regis that causes so many authors to cause their characters to have disasters there? I know now of three.