Mention the War

From Carole Ann Duffy’s Last Post:

You lean against a wall,
your several million lives still possible
and crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food.

The life cut short would always have been good.  A life actually lived rarely compares.

Thoughts on war as a ‘game’Thoughts on the “old lie” and my own long-dead uncles:

That word, that “yet”, challenges us.  Sassoon knows that we will forget, eventually, and the men who died at The Somme and elsewhere will eventually be known to us only as nameless fodder, much like the thousands who died at Waterloo.  Too far back in history to be properly human.  But no Seigfried, not yet, not while three men who fought in that war still roll down Whitehall in their chairs.

Well, Harry Patch and Henry Alligham are gone, and our own memories will start to fade.  Its not the job of poets to rewrite history.  Its enough for them to keep the memory strong.

Thoughts on Apollo, part I

Its the anniversary if the first moon landing tomorrow. Here’s yrstruly on Twitter:

I really can’t get enough Apollo XI anniversary coverage. An extraordinary boundary in human achievement.

Two minor thoughts on why I find the Apollo missions so fascinating. First, the technology seems so basic by today’s standards. I’ve read widely on the engineering behind the Apollo programme, so I know the machines were cutting edge in the 1960s. But I also know that the speed at which inventions were taken from theory to prototype and then to implementation, was much quicker than comparable projects, such as airliners and military hardware, are developed today. The images of the Apollo space craft modules make me think of the word ‘contraption’.

In addition, they were supported by such meagre computer power. Famously, there is more computer capability in a modern mobile phone than there was on the Apollo missions. Worse, the lunar model computer actually crashed during the descent stages of Apollo XI and Apollo XIV. What a contrast to all the back-ups, fail-safes and diagnostics that go into modern aviation technology.

To go so far in such vehicles was brave to the point of insanity. It is almost as if they went before their time. Most people speak of the Apollo programme as being a feature of the Cold War, part of the Arms Race, quintessentially 1960s. But I see it as being rather incongruous with the earthbound history around it. A tangent to the timeline that no-one was ready for, that no-one can parse. An alien act.

Timeshifted Blogs

The Apollo Plus 40 Twitter Feed reminds me of the Orwell Diaries project.  Each pulls a piece of history forward to the present day, where you can experience it in real-time. (via Kottke).

My inner autistic feels slightly uneasy about the the disparity between dates and day.  For example, The Eagle Lunar Module landed on the moon at just after 8pm EDT, on 20th July 1969, which was a Sunday evening (see Mark’s Livingston’s date-to-day converter).  However, I’ll presumably be reading a tweet announcing “the Eagle has landed” late on the evening of Monday 20th July 2009.  Sunday nights and Monday nights feel very different.

The BBC screened couple of TV programmes a few years ago, Dateline Jerusalem and Bethlehem Year Zero, that operated on a similar timeshift concept for the Easter and Christmas stories.  Not quite real-time, though.  It strikes me as a new way to consume other types of art too:  perhaps reading the entire oeuvre of a given writer by purchasing their books exactly 40, or 50, or a 100 years after the initial publication.  Hansard, the Houses of Parliament archive, would be the perfect resource for an extended “on this day” type feed.

What’s freaky about the Internet, or specifically, the Internet where everyone uses permalinks, is that everything is already pre-archived, ready for this kind of treatment at a moment’s notice.  Many is the time when I have accidentally thought that an archived news story is happening at that moment.  With TV, film and radio, there are certain giveaways like picture and sound quality, colour balance, or even accents and pronounciation, which date the archived item.  In print, the age of the page is easy to discern, by the graphic design style if not by the yellowing of the parchment.  Meanwhile, the division of design and content on the Internet means that old text is constantly inserted into modern designs.

I’m not sure which I like best – going back in time to experience the sights and sounds of a forgotten era; or having the old narratives brought forward into a twenty-first century setting.  There’s room for both, of course, but different approaches conjour different feelings, and teach us different lessons.

Social Cost of Slavery

Via Blattman, by way of Sides and Sullivan, an interesting piece of research on how the slave trade had an impact down the generations:

we show that individuals whose ancestors were heavily threatened by the slave trade today exhibit less trust in neighbors, family co-ethnics, and their local government. (pdf)

This reminds me of several things.  The first is the debate between Alan Keyes and Barack Obama in 2004, when they contested the Illinois Senate seat that Obama eventually won by a landslide.  Keyes essentially accused Obama of being “not black enough“:

Barack Obama and I are of the same race, but we are not of the same heritage. And there is a distinction. Race is something physical. Heritage is something that may have an element that is physical or biological, but that also includes other elements of history and experience–the kinds of things that have helped to shape the mind and heart of an individual and that are not determined by physics and biology. And we are of different heritages. I’m of a slave heritage, and he is not.

Although Keyes was right to make the distinction between heritage and race, he was wrong to think it had any electoral relevance.  And in the light of the Harvard research, it looks like he was wrong about the extent of the differences between his and Obama’s heritage.   Even if Obama, through his father, is not of slave descent, he is however from a people from whence slaves were drawn.  And that brings with it similar social problems to bona fide slave children (as Keyes would have it).

Second, I’m reminded incidentally of the correlation between the counties that voted blue (i.e. Democrat) last November, and the cotton picking regions of mid-nineteenth century America.

Thirdly, I’m reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s formulation: “We are the heir of all ages”.

Which in turn allows me to ponder the idea of ancestor worship, popular in many African cultures.  Taken literally, the idea that your forebears might be watching you seems like an irrelevant and primitive idea.  However, seen through the prism of the Harvard research, the idea of being haunted by your country’s collective past takes on a new and very real meaning.  The unease of great-grandparents long-since buried, still festers in the soul, and it cannot be excised by education, science or modernity.

Part of the 'Gambella Stories' series by Turkairo
Part of the ‘Gambella Stories’ series by Turkairo

The Convention on Modern Liberty

Writing in the Observer, Henry Porter advertises the convention, to be held on 28th February at various locations throughout the United Kingdom.

But this is no awayday for MPs, because in some sense the convention is a challenge to a parliament. For a brief moment, we will be airing the issues that haven’t been heard in the Commons this past decade, because Labour has all but anaesthetised the business of the chamber to push through its laws.

The website is now tested and live at  Please tell your friends, spread the word, and buy a ticket.  That other site of mine, LiberalConspiracy, is a supporter too.

On Trolls, Liberty, Debate and Damian Green

There’s a recently concluded debate over at the Liberal Conspiracy about ‘feeding the trolls’, that is, engaging with commenters on the blog who are just there to provoke an argument. I think there is a distinction between proper trolls, who are actively seeking to waste their own time in order to waste others’, and other people who simply have a wildly differing worldview. In the case of the former, it is rarely worth engaging. But in the case of the latter, debate can sometimes be helpful. It all depends on what kind of conversation you want to have, and on the Liberal Conspiracy, it is often impossible to talk about something at the level of detail you desire, if you are arguing first principles with someone else (be it a troll, or bona fide member of the seething classes).

Sometimes, I wonder if the mainstream media aren’t trolling. Today I spotted this headline from the Daily Mail, and feel confident that it has been written to waste my time.

Human Rights: Straw To Get Tough

Exclusive – Minister tells Mail how he’ll reform ‘Villiain’s Charter

Its not that I do not disagree with the idea of labelling the Human Right’s Act a “villiain’s charter”.  Its just that attempting to engage with it – especially on a blog – is a bit pointless. Its not as if they are making some kind of technical or categorical error that a plucky blogger might tease out and add to the debate. This article is speaking a genuinely different language. I have been silent on the ‘Baby P’ issue, because the debate was of this highly toxic, divisive type. Others gamely engaged with the trolls, so to speak, but there comes a point where its down to someone with a little more profile that bloggers to take up the political fight. This is why people often end up criticising political allies, for relatively trivial reasons, apparently missing the wood for the trees. Its not that we’ve lost our moral compass, just that we’re angry that other people are not speaking up for us in the places that matter.

As to the substance of the article, I’ll merely note again that it is the hated and the vulnerable who have their Human Rights violated first. The Declaration of Human Rights was created precisely to guard against populist tendencies in governments. They’re inconvenient, but then so is the task of retaining our humanity in the face of violence and antagonism.

For those with a fatigue for this sort of thing, I highly recommend a visit to the ‘Taking Liberties‘ Exhibition (no, not that Taking Liberties) at the British Library. It has the Magna Carta and other declarations of Rights and Freedoms penned by various men and women from around these isles.

The exhibition set me thinking about the Damian Green affair (something else that seems so divisive that there is so little common ground between the warring parties that debate seems futile). Whilst I personally don’t believe that Jacqui Smith ordered the police into Mr Green’s office, and I do not believe that the Speaker, Michael Martin, colluded in the warrantless searching of the Tory MP’s office, the outcry itself seems like a healthy thing to me. It is good that there is an ‘awkward squad’ barrage of questions every time there is any hint of impropriety. Far from us living in a Stalinist State, as some alledge, it is the indignant calls to account which prevent us sliding into one.


Heh – I wrote:

its down to someone with a little more profile that bloggers to take up the political fight

Ask and it shall be delivered unto you.

A Sunlit Salute to The Fallen

I managed to get down to the Cenotaph last Tuesday for the Armistice Day ceremony. However, I did not manage to post any kind of tribute on the blog.  Better late than never, here are a few thoughts.

Whitehall runs through Westminster on a North-South axis, with Parliament Square and the Palace of Westminster immediately to the South.  Since its a road in the Northern Hemisphere, this means that during a mid-morning in November, the sun will be low in the sky behind the Victoria Tower.  Tuesday was crisp and clear, and as Big Ben struck eleven o’clock last Tuesday, the sun peaked out from behind some lingering cloudes and streamed down Westminster.  North of the Cenotaph, we onlookers raised our hands to our heads, to sheild our eyes from the glare.  An unwitting, yet entirely fitting, civilian salute to the dead.

Onlookers at the ceremony to mark the 90th Anniversary of the end of the Great War 1914-18
Onlookers at the ceremony to mark the 90th Anniversary of the end of the Great War 1914-18. 11th November 2008

For me, I always find the moment when music breaks the silence to be the most moving.  Bag-pipes, so often derided as a nuisance on the Edinburgh Royal Mile, find their niche at these sombre moments.  A brass band, a Welsh male voice choir, and a poem by Siegfreid Sassoon, Have You Forgotten Yet?

That word, that “yet”, challenges us.  Sassoon knows that we will forget, eventually, and the men who died at The Somme and elsewhere will eventually be known to us only as nameless fodder, much like the thousands who died at Waterloo.  Too far back in history to be properly human.  But no Seigfried, not yet, not while three men who fought in that war still roll down Whitehall in their chairs.

Who do we forget first?  Those young unmarried men without descendants, that’s who.   It is a crass, Darwinian truth that, for the most part, we are a nation descended from the survivors of war, not the fallen.  Its telling that the two poppies I planted in the Westminster Abbey Garden of Remembrance, I planted not for grandfathers, but for two distant uncles: 2nd. Lt. Roland Ingle, who I’ve written about before, and Flt. Lt. Reginald Rimmer, blown up over Burwash, East Sussex, during the Battle of Britain, 1940.

You silly, silly young men!  Positively eager to go-over-the-top.  Stubbornly climbing back into the cock-pit.  Zealous, brave, and long dead by the time you were my age: Thank you.

Tributes in the Garden of Remembrance, Westminster Abbey, London. 11.11.2008
Tributes in the Garden of Remembrance, Westminster Abbey, London. 11.11.2008. Photo by yrstrly

History Conscious

Simon Hoggart on Obama’s acceptance speech:

Here is a man, you feel, who is already looking back on his own life as a central moment in the American narrative. In a sense, he hovers over himself, watching and hearing his own performance, as if being elected President was the supreme out-of-body experience.

I think this attitude, conscious of being a crucial part of a larger history, could lead to wise decision making that eschews the partisan for the conciliatory, and the short-term for the long-term.

Reading the second-day coverage of this election, one can clearly see how history conscious the media are too.  They have been aware for weeks that this moment would be transformational, and have had time to prepare their most eloquent, flowing, go-down-in-history prose.  Sadky, very little of it will ever be read again – instead, it will merely be rewritten my new hands, as future pundits with the benefit of hindsight file reminisces of a pivotal moment.  Only Obama’s acceptance speech will endure (and even this may be superseded by his Inaugural address next January). I half wish that the papers reverted to their dense, colourless reportage, and let us conjour whatever historical significance we wish in our own minds.

Is there a difference between living the history, and merely watching it unfold?  I think so, and for those of use observing the moment overseas, I think the detachment was particularly acute.  We are delighted and relieved at the news… and yet we were unable to participate.  The celebrations in Grant Park, Chicago were genuine, but we were elsewhere, and so we had to watch them on a flat screen.  That most important of sounds, the noise of the thousands cheering, was dialled down by the sound editor, so we could properly hear Obama’s words.  It is historical, yes, but by the time we come to experience it, it has already been tampered with.

Southwark Rooftops

The rooftops of houses behind Waterloo East rail station, Southwark London.
The rooftops of houses behind Waterloo East rail station, Southwark London.

What did I tell ya? There’s the whole world at your feet. And who gets to see it but the birds, the stars and the chimney sweeps.

‘Bert’ (as played by Dick Van Dyke), Mary Poppins, 1964.

These Southwark Terraces are perhaps not as salubrious as 17 Cherry Tree Lane, but their rooftops are a perfect example of the secret world of London that Bert loves, the one above the rooftops.

A favourite part of my journey into London each morning, is that portion between London Bridge and Waterloo East station. Nowhere is the labyrinthian qualities of the city demonstrated better than in that mile long stretch of rail. The train snakes in between the buildings, above the workshops and Borough Market, and you get to look out onto a little piece of that chimney sweep world that is inaccessible from street level. It would be perfect for Parkour.

Its also a journey which perfectly illustrates how London is a human, organic city (this is something I’ve alluded to before):

I am entertained the thought of one set of people building something; then some other people extending it in a different archtectural style; and yet some more people knocking half the walls to reuse the space for something else. These mutated forms are what humanity has created as a collective, over centuries.

This is of course impossible in Second Life, which has no ruin value.  Via MK, I read that buildings in Second Life are being abandoned but do not decay, or worse, are being deleted wholesale without a trace.  A fundamental problem with the virtual world is that it doesn’t age like normal cities.  And what sort of city doesn’t have a history?