Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Explaining Yourself

Isn't it funny. The reason that we humans are where we are today, in terms of our position of power on this planet, is due to our ability to talk to one another. Opposable thumbs help too, of course, but there's no escaping that fact our ability to communicate is the main achievement.

Can you imagine any large construction, with no words being exchanged? The Tower of Babel story only goes to show that we already understood this long before modern technology. In fact we would probably struggle with making spears to throw if there was no language. We use it to pass on what we know.

But it isn't being able to say "Cut it 4" from the end at an angle of 60 degrees" that we are most proud of, is it? It's more the words of love and support and kindness. Poetic descriptions of beauty. The amazing power of diplomacy.

So, why is it we have such a hard time explaining ourselves?

Be honest. Have you ever been upset, that is to say frustrated about a situation or a person, to the point of tears or anger, and when asked what was wrong you couldn't find the words? I know I have. And I'm usually very good at this communication thing.

There are quite a few theories as to why we fail at communication.

Some of it is taught. If we come from a home where it's normal to keep your feelings to yourself we get no skills taught to us at the important learning years. So there are lots of child raising experts encouraging us to share our feelings with our children, and encouraging them to share theirs.

Some of us are naturally more open and willing to "speak our minds".

Sometimes we need time to actually process in our own heads what the problem is to begin with. Why is this bothering me so much, why am I angry? Therapy is a multi billion dollar industry.

It doesn't help, obviously, if the person we need to express ourselves to is dismissive, so this can be a two-way street.

Then there are cultural expectations. There's that whole thing about the English stiff upper lip, for example. In recent years it seems to be less of an expectation there, with tell-all celebrities leading the way, but many parts of the world there is still this vague idea of stalwart patriarchy never letting their emotions show. Even the Japanese are more open, but they've got a long way to go.

It doesn't do us any good to keep things "bottled up",we've been told,  and some people have taken it to the other extreme, sharing their most private thoughts all over social media. Has THAT level of emotional puking made us understand one another better?


WTF, seriously is wrong with us? We have the power of fluent language, but we remain frustrated.

I'm going to tell you a little anecdote, because as a person with a long and happy marriage it may just help.

I like to do needlecrafts of an evening, otherwise I'd just work all the time. I can't sit passively, I have to have something to DO. Martin likes to chill out by watching a movie. We don't have a TV service, but we do have an excellent DVD collection. In theory I could sit with him, and do my own thing. I could knit a hat while sort of watching the movie, as it were.

BUT. He likes to sit in the dark to watch his movie, as you would in the movie theatre. So, I can't see to do craft stuff, and I wander off. I end up coming back in here, working.

It's fine in summer, light evenings and all that, but this winter we've pretty much led separate lives in the evening, him in the dark living room, and me in my office.

I experimented with angled desk lamps, but they didn't quite work, he'd be getting a bright light in the corner of his vision, and I was actually getting dazzled. From one extreme to the other. However, the regular lamp on the table didn't cast enough light for anything intricate or dark.

And here's the thing, I am not one of those people who insists everything be done my way. Plenty do. Plenty of women would just insist on having the light on, and too bad. That's not who I am. Our marriage is based on equality, fairness, and compromise, not demands. That's how you survive 34 years together.

Except......the situation was pissing me off. I was resenting my lack of options. I tried really hard to just let it go, but I was getting very frustrated.

One evening recently I was crocheting until the sun went down, and when I couldn't get enough light from the table lamp, I stormed off in here, muttered a few expletives, and sat crocheting in my office chair. Martin thought I was mad at him.

So when I was reassuring him, next day, that I really wasn't, that I was just frustrated at the situation, it occurred to me that if he can misunderstand my feelings after all the time we've been together, and how well we know each other, how the hell can anyone else ever intuit each others needs?

Seriously, if Marin & Melanie Boxall can have a misunderstanding, then anyone can.

And we do. It's not even rare. It's almost always over something stupid too, because we are both well-trained in discussing the important things well. It's the silly little things that are the always the problem.

And honestly it can be fixed, but we don't bother, do we? We aren't too worried if we have a misunderstanding over a small thing.

And yet...we could use it as practice. We could remember what we were taught about saying "When X happens I feel Y because Z". In these situations we don't actually have any difficulty explaining it.

"When you walk across my clean floor in your dirty work boots I feel frustrated because I just cleaned it and now I've got to do it again"

We can even offer an immediate solution. Even a CHOICE.

"Please leave your boots outside, or buy a boot tray for just inside the door"

This is simple stuff, but by approaching it in this way, by explaining the situation rather than just shouting accusations, we practice our communication skills.

THEN...when something more complex or important comes along, hopefully we simply follow the same steps.

But we don't, do we?

Frustration short-circuits our rational, memorized strategies.

I have been a sounding board as long as I can remember. People seem to come to me for help with relationship issues. I appreciate that, as I do believe that successful people offer the best advice. I get exasperated at those who seek advice from those who relationships have failed! One thing that I hear over and over again is:

"He does X and it really bugs me."

And when I ask "What did he say when you told him that?"

I get told "I haven't told him."

In fact if I had a penny for every time I've asked "And what did/he she say when you told him/her?" about just about ANYTHING, only to be told "I haven't told him/her" then I'd be very wealthy indeed.

Why? Why? Why?

Why are we so bad at this?

What can I do? Well, I can't make people open up, any more than I can make them listen. All I can do is try to be better at both myself. Teach by example. That sort of thing. No matter how much I fail, no matter how many times I speak and don't get heard, if I don't speak at all nothing will be achieved. And I must listen well too. That's all I can do.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Art is in the Eye of the Beholder

Aaaand another one that crops up a lot. I have some pretty strong opinions on the topic and you won't like any of them. But what the hell, it's Sunday, it's kick back morning. I may as well stir things up a bit, and this usually does.

So first of all I'm going to make a statement that will enrage half of you, and it is this.

Art is the most important thing there is.

Actually that probably just confused many of you who've known me a long time, because I've been heard to say otherwise. A lot. So you'll have to read all of it now, won't you?

And just so I've covered all bases, to enrage everyone else, art is a complete waste of time and money.

Right. Good. That's pissed everyone off, now let's actually examine it.

When I was a little girl it was noted that I was artistic. Probably very early on too, so I grew up being told that I was. When I was 11 a teacher took me aside and said I had the greatest ability with colour and form that she had ever seen and I really must put every effort into developing it. So, I did what all kids do, I completely ignored her.

It came too easily, you see. Whatever medium we were using, I took to it like a duck to water, and I often outshone everyone around me. I never took it seriously because it was like breathing.

Some of my peers were talented though, and some of them took it VERY seriously. They were best described as arty types. They talked about nothing else, and they all had great plans to be real artists in one way or another.

But, in fact most of the arty types I considered my peers back then probably don't even as much as doodle anymore. It's a great tragedy, but it's commonplace. Art is something we encourage in the young, and then consider a hobby for those with time on their hands in adults. Why do we do that?

Well, for the most part there's no money in it, you see, and we're all about money in the adult world.

However, the fact is that if you put enough effort into it, if indeed, you follow your bliss, you can make a living out of art. You may even make a GOOD living out of it. And if you struggle financially, you still have your art. There's no real downside to it.

But a few truths have to be faced. Some people are more talented than others. If you go to art sites online you will find endless pieces of what is best described as accurate work. Technically it's hard to criticize them, if you had done this work you'd be very pleased with yourself. Your family and friends would gush over it. This is competancy.

On the other hand, there is...........other work.

Now, in fairness the second piece is fantasy, but if you were an art teacher, and this was handed in as a piece of homework, what would you give it? How about the detail in that moon huh? In fact it's not by a student at all, it's for sale on a fine art website. I'll say no more.

So, there's technically correct and there's, hmm, well, but then.....there's art:

So let's not pretend we don't know the difference.

Let's also remember that it's all in the eye of the beholder, especially once you get into the abstract.

Let's also not forget that art takes many forms, but we'll stick to the visual arts.

So, this is art:

And so is this:

And this:

And this too:

And when I found that last one, I found this statement that I thought I'd bring in here:

"A characteristic that defines our species is the making of art."

Nature and humans create art. OK, other species do by accident, and I suppose Nature does it by accident too. Well, there it is. Perhaps a lot of art is accidental, so that just makes it harder to define.

Art makes me happy. It also takes up a lot of my time, as it happens, but am I an arty "type"? No.

Fraid not.

For a start I think there's good art and bad art, which is a complete no-no in artistic circles. One is NOT supposed to criticize. Oh, believe me, arty types DO criticize, but they do it in arty ways. Because they talk arty talk. They live arty lives. They drive me effing nuts. I can't be done with it.

On the other hand I want to claw the eyes out of people who dismiss art altogether. Or who put really bad art on their walls. OK, OK, you like what you like, we all do, but there is still bad taste. If I visit your home and you have something like this displayed (yes, even if it was YOUR work), I will judge you. Sorry and all that.


If you just don't bother because you don't have the money or time, that's one thing. Life gets in the way. Most of my art is rolled up in tubes because I can't afford good frames and I won't use bad ones. Lack of art is just....well, lack.

But if you don't think art matters, or if you actively oppose it, what else drives you?

It isn't enough to say that people matter more, because the people who you care about may be the ones whose lives would be enriched by art. There are people out there who give their lives to save great works of art. They consider its importance to future generations is greater than their own existence. I'm not certain I could be that selfless, but when the elderly ladies came between Mussolini and the paintings - yeah, I grok

There is a popular quote attributed to Churchill, which apparently he never said at all, but which I still love. It goes like this: when asked to cut arts funding in favour of the war effort, he replied: “Then what are we fighting for?” 

 That is what I mean by important. If there is no art in the world, and that includes the beauty of nature, by the way, then really, why bother? If all is ugly, or just plain, where's the excitement? Obviously if you were born blind and never knew any different, you'd never miss it and you'd find all your beauty in music, or poetry, or whatever. But we evolved sight and then we evolved sentience, and when you place the two together there is a yearning for colour and form.

So, what does it achieve? Well, nothing useful. One could go broke, into debt, into destitution even, spending money on making or buying art. If you can't put food on the table because of art, you may not be making the wisest of choices. I hear regularly of the work colleague of a friend who has expensive tattoos but can't make rent. I have run into many people who buy non-essential clothing or other decorative things and have to go hungry, or borrow money, as a result. There has to be some common sense involved somewhere, because if we all sat around carving rocks instead of growing food, we'd die out.

Therefore, as always, I conclude there's a balance. We should all make/buy/enjoy as much art as we can, and plan our sacrifices carefully. We should be realistic about our abilities - we should accept criticism and advice gracefully, and act on it. But we should never be put off by people who just don't get it. Happiness is the guide.

When I Rule The World

One of the things I have often been heard to say over the years is that inefficiency and corruption in any system are more of an issue than the system itself. I said it again recently, and I was told I was an idiot. As soon as the ad homs begin in a discussion, I wander off. We can go no further. But I am not an idiot, and you will get my reasoning instead.

Let's imagine, for example, that I became your dictator. How would I run things? Well I'd dispense with the current system, because it's wasteful. Every scandal you've ever heard about back-handers and cronyism has cost money, and I'm not having any of that. I would govern absolutely, while listening, obviously, to experts in various area and everything would be fantastic. Because I'm nice. You have nothing to fear.

The reason we don't like dictators isn't because they dictate. It's what they dictate that we object to. Oh sure, if you're accustomed to democracy the idea of a dictator is unsettling, but if it were me you'd be fine.

Here's the problem though, I won't live forever. Whoever came after me, even if I hand-picked and trained them, could turn out to be quite different.

This was how it was with dynasties of monarchs. You got what you got. This is why they had nicknames like "Haakon the Good" and "John the Bad". Sometimes either one could find an arrow in his throat.

The reason we like democracy, in principle, is that it has rules, so in theory it doesn't really matter who is running the show. They do a few things slightly differently, but in a broad sense, here's the new guy, just like the old guy.

Now, the perfect model for democracy is the U.S. system. Yes, I really said that. I also said model. Unfortunately they aren't using it. It is similar in other places however, where it works much better. Most of Europe has a fairly decent democratic thing going on, but there are examples on all continents.


But don't be fooled by this. Look at the Top Ten countries:

1. Norway
2. Sweden
3. Finland
4. Switzerland
5. Denmark
6. Netherlands
7. New Zealand
8. Ireland
9. Germany
10. United Kingdom

Do you think life is perfect in all those countries? Do you think things are fair all the time in those countries?

You know it isn't, because you can read. These are just the ten most democratic countries, it doesn't mean their system of democracy is flawless, and sometimes it simply fails.

There's another ranking system, the quality of life rankings. Here's the top ten of those:

1. Ireland
2. Switzerland
3. Norway
4. Luxembourg
5. Sweden
6. Australia
7. Iceland
8. Italy
9. Denmark
10 Spain

So, for example, Ireland does well on both, but we've all heard of the woman who died a couple of years ago because she was refused an abortion, even though it would have saved her. Perhaps the exceptions prove the rule, after all if that's the best example I can give, it shows that generally things are pretty good.....but my point is that nothing is perfect.

Comparing these two charts demonstrates that quality of democracy and quality of life do not correlate. In democratic ranking, the UK is in 10th place. In quality of life, however, it's at 29th place, behind Greece at 22. While Greece ranks 33rd in democracy. Is it the weather? No, while climate is included in quality of life, it's only one of 9 factors.


Please note: Ireland at the top only actually gets 8.3 out of 10, or 83% if you like, which is not a perfect score. It's about a B+.

So, when we are busy complaining, which we do, it's important to remember nothing is perfect.

A perfect system isn't possible, because of humans. For example freedom is often compromised for safety, because some humans can't behave themselves. Often, lots of things are sacrificed. Costa Rica only scores 31 on democracy, and 35 on quality of life, BUT it came first in the Happy Planet index....


...and is widely considered to be pretty idyllic. It's incredibly stable, the military is forbidden by the constitution, and it has a 95% literacy rate.

Right now, despite all the issues we see, democracy is the best system we've discovered so far. In principle it's as good as it gets. But it is damaged to a greater or lesser degree by the level of corruption and deviance from the rules of the game by the elected officials. You do not need me to give you examples. You have seen plenty of them. Some make headline news immediately, some are covered up for years, but it happens all the time. If your elected officials are a bunch of scheming criminals you are no better off than if you had an absolute ruler, and you could potentially be worse.

The problem then, is that a system is only as good as those running it, regardless of the system chosen.

Is there a solution? Yes, but you won't like it. The solution is that if the people want to be ruled by the people, they'd better start being the people. Apathy among the people is the quickest way for a select few of the people to get carte blanche to ride roughshod over the people. And nobody said it was going to be easy, either. Once you've let it get that bad, it's awfully difficult to get things back on track.

Friday, 11 April 2014


I often waffle on about finer points of language, and I have an interest in differing versions thereof. Many's the time I've had to point out that despite all my pedantry, in many situations, especially pronunciation, I not only concede but insist that there are alternatives, mostly regional.

It's fun of course, to compare these, and a little light-hearted teasing across the Atlantic doesn't do too much harm. 

Something crops up from time to time when discussing this stuff, and it dawned on me today that one of the problems that arises is a very useful way of explaining a much larger and more serious problem, that of being in a privileged position, not realising it, and subsequently dismissing those who aren't. 

I've been on a bit of a crusade lately with regard to dismissive behavioiur, and it's going to come up in a very long and difficult post I have planned for later on this month. You see, I am committed to the idea that for human society to move forward - or even continue at all - we have to start listening to one another. You've heard me emphasize that before, and I make no apologies for repeating myself, because it is really important. 

Listening to one another is harder than you think. Not all things we need to listen to come in the form of statements. Some don't even come as words. Perhaps it's more to do with paying attention than anything else, but for clarity we communicate with language most of the time. So the example I'm going to give you connects twice with the larger issue at hand.

OK, so as you cannot possibly have missed, North Americans speak differently to the English. I'm specifying English, because while there are many different accents in England (and even that is a point I have to explain sometimes), English accents are further removed in their vowels from North American than Irish or Scottish. Accent differences are mostly to do with vowel sounds. Most North American vowels are different to English vowels, but some are more different than others. The one we are talking about today is O.

I could go and find audio or video clips to demonstrate this, but the whole point of this post is to show what happens when you try to explain it without using those, but you can always look them up yourself later.

There are several ways to pronounce O of course, there's the O in "go". We're not worried about that one. We're looking at the O in "cot". Just in case you aren't aware of it, this English O is not like the North American O. In fact linguists devote a lot of time to studying how this O varies within North America. As language changes over times, the O changes in different places. 

Linguists refer to this issue as the "cot/caught" merger. That means that in some places in North America these two words sounds exactly the same. They are homonyms. A homonym is a word that sounds the same but has a different meaning to another word. Sometimes it's spelled differently too. In this case it is.

So, if you come from an area where cot and caught sounds the same, you have merged those words into homonyms. It's part of your natural accent and you really don't think about it, and as I stipulated earlier, it's neither wrong nor right, it's just a variety of accent.

In other parts of North America these words do not sound exactly alike. They are similar, but they are distinguishable. They are not homonyms. 

In English accents, with no exceptions I can think of (although there may be some obscure accents in deepest Cumbria or something, I'm sure somebody will put me right) these words sound totally different. More different than any American can ever make them. 

But I can't tell you why. Because neither vowel exists in North American. I can't say "like ......" because there are no examples. 

Inevitably if you have this discussion a well-meaning North American will say "Spell it phonetically!" But that doesn't work. Phonetic spelling requires that all those using it have the same accent.

You can see this in any North American dictionary. Look up the word "cot" and see what it says. Chances are it says "caht". That is a perfectly reasonable attempt at demonstrating how cot is prounounced in North America. But that's not how "cot" is pronounced in England.

How is cot pronounced in England? I can't show you, because in a dictionary published in England the pronuncation of "cot" is "cot". I hope you are beginning to see the problem, and at this point if you are confused, you'd better find an audio clip.

The problem is that both the American and the English dictionary maker thinks he's right, and he's certainly not wrong.

Increasingly, however, people don't buy dictionaries in hard format, they go to websites. The biggest of these are based in North America. Guess which "phonetic" spelling is given?

Sometimes the English pronunciation is given as an alternative, sometimes it's just ignored. 

It's a question of numbers, to a certain extent. But already it is possible to see a creeping Americentrism coming in. So, if your own accent is English, as mine is, it starts to get a bit tedious after a while, and I often find myself rolling my eyes at it being assumed that North American accents are the default and that mine is an alternative. 

Still, at least mine is sometimes acknowledged. Imagine if your accent is from New Zealand.

New Zealand English is as valid a form of English as any other. Have you EVER seen its phonetic version given space, anywhere? No, neither have I. 

I'm sure North Americans don't think New Zealand English is wrong, or lesser. It's far more likely they don't think of it at all. Too far away, too few speakers, of no importance or interest really, unless you like the scenery in Peter Jackson movies. 

When you are used to not just your language, but your version of it, your accent, being the default, you forget about the others. They don't matter to you.

In fact I absolutely guarantee, that if I contacted the webmaster of an online dictionary and asked him to add the phonetic explanation for New Zealand English to all his entries, he'd dismiss me and give to further thought to it. If I even got a reply. 

I don't think it's of earth-shattering importance either, and my guess is that New Zealanders just roll their eyes at it. They're probably well-educated enough not to need it.

The point I'm trying to make is that this doesn't just happen with phonetic explanations in dictionaries. It happens with EVERYTHING

The things that you are used to, are familiar with, that you think of as normal, are your defaults. This is quite normal. It's not a crime. But at some point you have to be aware that your defaults are not definitive. Not just how you talk, but everything you do. What you wear, the music you listen to, what you eat and how you think about things. Many things you take for granted as "normal" are not. They are just your cultural defaults.

Sometimes we sit up and pay attention because white privilege, or male privilege, or western privilege or whatever is pointed out. With a bit of effort we can sometimes grok this. But it has to be pointed out first.

Here's an online quiz that's not as silly as most of them:


I'm not sure just how accurate that is (I got 7 by the way) because I am quite certain that black people go fishing. I could find other faults with it too, but it does make an interesting point.

And then, just when you think you've got that, I'm here to tell you that this is also an Americentric quiz. I assure you LOTS of white people will score low. Try in Lithuania. 

No, this isn't a "How White Are You Quiz" at all. It's a "How White American Middle-Class Urban Are You?". The very people who created a quiz to make a point about defaults and stereotypes fell into the same trap.

Of course they did. It's where they are.

We have to work hard at seeing things outside our own defaults. We have to take off our culture-tinted glasses. When you make the effort to seek out similarities in people from far flung places, it turns out that in all the really important things we are the same. We all have hopes and dreams. If we get bogged down with differentiating people by cultural details we run the risk of missing out on humanity. 

Cultural differences are lovely, they're fun. This is why we travel, or at least read about different places, different people, different ways. But we must constantly remind ourselves that not one of them is superior, especially not our own. We must not forget this. We must never get comfortable in our defaults. 

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Some Have An Education, Some Don't

I absolutely MUST begin with a disclaimer. The moment I get on this topic people assume I'm bitter and resentful about it. I'm not. But I think it's important, if we are ever to change anything, is to acknowledge that a poor education is never a GOOD thing. One can do that without being bitter and resentful.

So, I was born in in 1962, in a suburb of London, England, to a comfortably-off, albeit working class family, and my education began early (before my 3rd birthday, in fact) in a private school, where I was identified as above-average and placed into a classroom with children 2 years older than myself.

And it all went downhill from there.

My grandmother was a lovely woman who believed children should play and be free. She thought this educational hot-housing was all wrong and she persuaded my mother to take me out of there and instead she took me to the park and encouraged fishing and bike riding. I come from a long line of tomboys.

Why didn't my mother fight back? She just wanted me to be happy. That was all she ever wanted. My grandmother convinced her I wasn't happy. I honestly don't remember whether I was or not, kids that young are adaptable and just go along with whatever is presented as daily life. But I have an inkling what was behind it all.

My mother had wanted to be a history teacher. But my grandfather made her leave school and get a job. She was an intelligent and well-read woman, but she wasn't given a chance.

My grandfather in his turn, had been one of the younger children in a family who owned a shipyard. He was a reader too, always had his head in a book. His elder brothers inherited the family business, but he was sent to work at the docks at the age of 14.  Did he resent that and not allow my mother to get on as he'd been unable to? Maybe. In any case, he married beneath himself. His family had servants, my grandmother was a servant. I'm not altogether sure you know, that she could read much more than a knitting pattern. I never saw her pick up a book. I may be mistaken. But in any case, her humble background certainly didn't give her any reason to think I needed to study geography at the age of 3.

Of course she didn't stop me being a bookworm, and once I turned 5, I entered the state school system already able to read fluently. Every teacher I had decided I was above average, and they all tried to "challenge" me but none of them really knew what they were doing, quite honestly. Above average kids are often difficult. Just because they learn easily doesn't mean they want to learn what you want to teach them. Plus, if you aren't teaching them the right things, they aren't going to pluck it out of the air.

The sad fact is, nobody told me what I was there for. OK, to be fair, maybe they did, and it didn't sink in, but that's where you try another angle. And you keep on trying, because otherwise children don't get it. The message they get is that they must do this and they must do that, but they don't understand why.

Left to my own devices, at home or in the library, I opted to learn much more than they ever bothered to teach me. But it goes without saying, totally unguided learning is never complete, otherwise all we'd ever do with children is teach them to read and leave them to it. No, we have teachers and curriculums, and some of them are rubbish.

When I was 10 years old, we did a special test called the 11-Plus. The object of this test was to see how intelligent you were, not what you had been taught in school. If you passed, you went to a school for clever children. They didn't call it that, it was called Grammar School, and was described, if you pushed it, as a more academically oriented school. What it really meant was, these kids will go on to college or university. The rest? Factory fodder. So, it was an aptitiude test. It contained questions like:

My best friend is tall and dark. I am nine and he is ten. He is one of these four boys below. Read the following sentences and write down my best friend's name. Harry is younger than me. He is short and dark. Dick is ten. He is a tall boy with fair hair. Tom has dark hair. He is older than me and is a tall boy. Frank is a tall boy with dark hair. He is nine.

I aced it. Unfortunately they then decided to scrap the whole idea of streaming us at that age, and my results were void. We all went to the same school for two years. Two years is an eternity at that age. By the time they next decided to stream us I was very settled where I was, and while it was recommended that I go to Grammar School, I didn't want to go.

Nobody made me. Nobody said don't be a fool, that's obviously the best choice for you. They shrugged and allowed a 12-year-old to decide her entire educational future. How stupid is that?

When I tell this, and the remainder of the story to people now, they say "Well, you can't blame anyone else, these were your decisions, this was your foolish attitude." I know that. But do you honestly believe kids really know what is best for them?

So I got "left behind" in a Secondary Modern, instead of going to Grammar School, and I wasn't the only one. All the clever rebels that stayed were herded into T class, T for Top (it wasn't really, but it may as well have been) and treated thusly. But they didn't really know what to do with us. We had some reasonably good teachers, certainly, but if they had been the best teachers they wouldn't have been working there.

One problem was that it was an all-girl school. Some people will tell you single-sex schools are a good idea, less distraction, and that may be true. Certainly the Grammar School was also single-sex. But because they were expected to Do Things With Their Lives, they got a full range of subjects offered. We did not. There was no physics, all math was taught together, and great emphasis was placed on typing, cooking, and needlework. Be a good little woman, that sort of thing.

I rejected typing, because there was NWIH I was going to spend my life at a keyboard! Ha! (Laugh NOW, damn you!) Instead I took a language bias. And I did well. I argued with teachers a lot, but I got the precious certificates.

In fact, because we were given the opportunity to take O Levels as well as, or instead of, CSEs when it came to our exams at the age of 16, we could actually have made it to college or even university, but there was one tiny problem. Nobody told us that. And you only know what you know.

Not only were we oblivious to this, there was no other encouragement. A very stupid Careers Officer, who, having asked me what I liked to do, and I had said writing, suggested secretarial work.......When I rejected this, one teacher with a gram of initiative, asked me if perhaps I fancied journalism. I even got a tour round the county newspaper offices. It looked as boring as hell and I think they gave up on me at that point.

In fact I think it's fair to say that the only teacher who really paid any creative attention to my future was my languages teacher. I really admired and respected her, she'd made a career simply out of being a polyglot, and she got us very interested in travel by taking us on trips for every single excuse she could find. Living where we did, Paris, Amsterdam, and Brussels were nearby, so off we went every few months. She even wangled a trip to Munich for us, by plane. These were not your average school trips. She was cool.

She told me my future lay in two possible areas, government service overseas, or the travel industry. So when I finally fell out with the school and left prematurely, I went into the civil service, with some vague idea of working in a foreign consulate eventually. It never happened, because in my first placement with the Ministry of Defence I did that thing where all plans change, I fell in love.

Once married, I had to stay put, obviously, so when I got promoted I transferred to the Department of Employment, but it was as boring as hell, and so I did that other thing that changes all plans, I had a baby. And another one. And I never went back.

Let's now jump forward a few years. I found myself needing to return to work to make ends meet, and I applied for a job in a travel agency. Guess who also applied for that job? My old languages teacher! And guess who got it....yeah, me.

All my admiration for her - GONE. All her skills and experience and I got it instead? Maybe they simply wanted somebody younger.

So, one night in a bar in Austria I was talking to a very glamorous older lady who had been in the travel industry her whole life, had been everywhere, following her dream career, and I realised two things. One, I wanted to be at home with my kids, and two, it wasn't really that glamorous at all. She spent all her evenings sitting talking to strangers in bars. That's fine on holiday. It's no way to spend a life. There's no depth at all.

I quit. I got a 9 to 5 job in a delicatessen, the following year I had another baby, subsequently 3 more, and I have never had a proper job since. I opted out of the rat race.

I do not regret my barefoot and pregnant years one bit. I enjoyed raising a family to the nth. Coming to Canada even made it affordable. Buying the farm took it to another level.

What did I do for myself during that time? I educated myself. I read voraciously. Once I discovered the internet 17 years ago it became even easier. And an interesting thing happened, and continued to happen. The more I learned, the more I discovered I had a lot more to learn. So I learned more. I studied hard. I learned quite a lot about all sorts of things. I found I was quite comfortable discussing things with highly educated people. I could hold my own, even with experts sometimes.

Most of all, I learned about learning. I discovered some people had 2 or more degrees but still couldn't spell. I learned that really very succesful people, in their field, could manage without a ha'p'orth of common sense. I learned that doctors could be complete bozos on nutrition and the history of public health. I learned that geniuses could be clueless about where things were in the world, and not even realise that Britain was an island. I learned that engineers couldn't cook or tell the difference between a rooster and a hen. I learned that all of us only ever know what we know.

So, what I really learned is that it's not what you know that counts, but how you learn. It took me decades to understand certain aspects of science that I could have picked up easily in 3 years in college. No guidance, you see.

I have learned that if my teachers in school had taught me why learning mattered, I'd probably be a professor now. But I'm OK that I'm not, because what I did instead was amazing.

That doesn't mean it's OK for children to be allowed to miss out on an education the way I did. Sure, their lives may turn out just fine anyway. They may end up as happy as I am.

AND THEY MAY NOT. They may be miserable, they may even go hungry. They deserve the chance.

It is our absolute duty to the next generation, and those to come, that EVERY child reaches his full potential whatever that may be, to follow his bliss, and yet to be guided so that he may be able to follow it effectively. Especially, above average children must never be allowed to rot. We face incredible challenges in the future, and we need innovation, we need wisdom in the young, and we need it now.

When I grow up, I want to be a writer. Everything I have ever learned up until now is being channelled into that. And now, in my fifties, I'm playing catch-up academically, and studying more topics, and even more intensively than ever. The only thing I can do now is to share whatever I've picked up along the way, hopefully it'll benefit somebody else. If not, at least I enjoy learning. Thankfully they never poisoned that well.

Prepared for, and Preparing, my Grandchildren

When we go out for a walk we often see things that we haven't seen before. If we don't know what it is, we can ask somebody, maybe somebody who lives nearby, who has seen it before. Sometimes the things we see can be a bit scary, and often it's best not to touch something or get too close, but we don't have to be afraid of everything new that we see. If we are sure it is safe to do so, we can pick it up or touch it, and perhaps we can guess what it does, or what it's for.

A long time ago people didn't know as much as you do about things like the weather, or what the Sun was, or why things died or were born. And because nobody knew, they didn't have anyone to ask! It wasn't any good asking the man by the river why the water always went the same way, because he didn't know. He had never seen where the river came from. He knew there were fish in it, and he probably knew how to get them out, and that he could eat them, but he didn't know where the water came from.

But just like you, early people watched things, and wondered about them. Sometimes they watched things every day to see how they changed, and by watching like this they learned a bit more. Then they could tell other people, and they could teach their children and grandchildren. Because they didn't have writing or books, they had to tell each other everything, and sometimes thing were forgotten or not passed on. When people started to write things down it was much easier to remember or save information.

Watching very carefully, writing down what we see, and figuring out how things work is called science. When we watch things very carefully over a long time we can learn a lot about them. When early people watched the Sun and the Moon moving, and also the patterns of the stars in a different place every night they drew pictures of them, and it helped them predict the weather, so they knew when to plant crops. Watching the plants grow taught them how to look after the crops they planted.

There really are only two ways to learn about anything. One is to watch things very carefully for a long time yourself, and the other is to have somebody tell you about it all instead. If you study things yourself and have people teach you things too, you can learn even more. Gradually, over a long time, people have learned a lot about so many things that these days we are able to build airplanes that fly all over the planet, and we can talk to each other over long distances using phones. We are able to do things like this because people before us watched very carefully, and wrote things down.

But there's something else sometimes people do when they don't know something. They guess. Guesses can be very useful, and sometimes they are right. If you are digging in your garden and you find a piece of thin stone, shaped like a triangle, with sharp edges, that looks as if somebody had made it on purpose, you can probably guess it was a tool or a weapon. When you show it to an older person, they can tell you it was an arrowhead, so your guess was pretty good! Sometimes even scientists have to make guesses to start with. Then they tell each other about their guesses, and put together a theory. A theory is a very special type of guess, not just any guess. It means you have watched things very carefully, lots of times. You make sure it is always the same.

Sometimes people made guesses, but they didn't have anyone who knew more, to ask if they thought it was right. Sometimes their guesses seemed quite good to other people, and instead of checking it for themselves, they assumed the guess was right. Sometimes they wrote this down. This is very bad science. Writing down guesses is a good way to start, but writing down other people's guesses and passing them on as facts is a bad idea. It can lead to lots of people believing things that are wrong.

A lot of these unchecked guesses were written down a very long time ago. Some people, often called priests, spent all their time telling others what these old books said, and they decided the books could never be changed. As time passed, people watched more, and learned more, and found that some of the guesses in the books were wrong, but when they told the priests what they had learned, they were told to go away. Sometimes they were treated very badly for disagreeing with the guesses in the old books.

Today we know that almost all of the guesses in these very old books are wrong. We have been watching things and learning about them for such a long time now, that we have new books, called science books. With science, when we learn something new, we change the books. In the future we will know even more, and our science books will be replaced with even better ones.

Priests don't change their old books at all, not even one word of them, even when they know the guesses in them are totally wrong. They like their old books so much that some of them think we should be using them instead of science books. This would be a big mistake and would cause a lot of problems.

Priests have lots of other names, such as pastor or minister, and sometimes the people who share the old books are just teachers and other ordinary people you meet. They are not bad people, some are very kind and helpful, but they don't understand science. So, these people cannot teach you science. You should always be polite to them, but you don't have to take any notice of what they say.

Sunday, 6 April 2014


I have studied history all my life, it was my favourite subject in school, and I've never stopped. I wouldn't go so far as to think of myself as a historian, because I think that implies a high level of dedication and possibly specialization; I am much broader in my interests. But I am quite comfortable interpreting certain aspects of history, which after all has to be the point of it all. Anyone can memorize names, dates, and places, but without some sort of of context, it's meaningless.

My interest is largely in social history - I really don't give a damn about kings and battles - I am far keener to consider the lives of ordinary people like you and me, and for that reason one of the aspects of human history I am most interested in is migration.

Obviously I'm a migrant myself, so that may have started it. But the phenomenon of an individual, family, or entire people travelling a distance and settling in some other area is nothing new. Ultimately we all come from Africa anyway, but what absolutely staggers me is how most people have absolutely no idea just how much movement has occurred in the last couple of thousand years.

Even more so, when I get onto the topic of genealogy, which is to say fairly recent history, I am totally gobsmacked by the lack of knowledge people have about Europe.

So. Assuming you have European ancestry, and that it was reasonably direct (we are not referring to conquistadors here) then you are a mutt. Hope that isn't too much of a shock. (N.B. The same applies to other parts of the world, so if you have no European ancestry the same principles apply, just with different details).

Not only did people move from country to country, the countries wandered about a bit too. Some of them disappeared completely. Some only began to exist in really very recent times. Some went away and came back. Many, many borders shifted. Some more than others, for example, if you think of yourself as having German ancestors, that could mean a lot of different things, because the word Germany means lots of different things.

At the beginning of that video you can't actually find "Germany" anywhere. And yet, in the centuries before, the Holy Roman Empire covered most of the territory shown and was known as officially for a time as "The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation". And in fact, when this video begins, the Holy Roman Empire (said by Voltaire to have not been holy, or Roman, or an empire) still covered about half of it. German borders have changed over time more than you change your socks. Confused yet? Good.

What happens, in fact, is that nationality at any given time is often more of an attitude than a reality. At any time, there are legal residents, or even citizens, in any given place, who don't identify with that place. There are always people whose inner concept of who they are is at odds with where they are. Even if they were born there.

This can happen if you stay in place and the borders move around you, which is common enough, as I've said. But it can also happen if for some reason you were forced to move. It doesn't have to mean that soldiers marched you out of town, although there have been plenty of examples of that. It can mean that you had to choose between migration or starvation. The vast majority of movement is neither truly voluntary nor truly coercive. It's more like Hobson's choice. 

You can sometimes see from surnames where your ancestors orginated from, but it's only part of the picture. One of my family names is Thurman, a family with English first names in London in the late 18th century, but how long had they been there? Thurmans can be found in Germany today, but they also moved to Britain in every century prior, right back to when surnames were first used. 

There have been many waves of movement. It's even thought that home sapiens as a species had two attempts at Europe, the first having been a total failure. But by the time records were kept - so we're referring to the Romans here - the continent was full of established tribes. If you had met each one, you'd have found it had many smiliarities to the one next to it geographically, most of the time, because there was never anything exclusive about tribes. But every so often, people travelled a bit farther than the tribe next door. 

When the Romans spread all over Europe, they took their genes with them. These were sufficiently different to have markers in the DNA that we can pick out now. We can dig up a body in England and confidently ascertain it was a Roman, without any other clues. People with part Roman blood then spread this around, obviously diluting and mixing it with others, but keeping it moving. 

In Medieval times trade routes were a big factor, but so was persecution, mostly religious, and while some moved to places where they were more tolerated, some were simply thrown out, like the Jews in Spain. 
And if you were a woman, and you married outside your own ethinc, linguistic, or religious group, your history was LOST. Your birth name gone, not always even recorded at the time of marriage. 

London, 1593

"By banns on Friday 12th, Thos Woode, and Sarah, a Jewesse."

It's only now that we can look for markers in the DNA that we have any idea of who we really are, and there are so many lines. I'm going to have to do a bit of math, bear with me.

2 Parents
4 Grandparents
8 Great-grandparents
16 Great-great-grandparents
32 Great-great-great-grandparents
64 Great-great-great-great-grandparents
128 Great-great-great-great-great-grandparents
256 Great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents
512 Great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents
1024 Great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents
2048 Great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents
4096 Great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents
8192 Great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents
16384 Great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents
32768 Great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents
65536 Great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents
131072 Great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents
262114 Great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents

Let's look at the date. We have roughly reached Shakespeare's time here, and already our ancestors number that of the population of the whole of England. Twice as many as the population of quite a few other countries. If you go back a few more generations, you have more ancestors than the population of all of Europe, and a few more gives you more ancestors than the population of the entire planet.

How does this happen? Well, obviously, the same person crops up in multiple lines. So, while you would have 262114 entries at this point in your family tree, you may only have 12000 actual individuals. In my family this repeat happens as recently as 1856 due to a first cousin marriage. People knowingly and unknowingly married cousins frequently throughout history. My current aim in my family history research is to find out where partners and inlaws connect as cousins, and of course professional genealogists do this stuff all the time, with announcements like "Obama is Brad Pitt's 9th Cousin!!"  

Yes, you can even see it now you look carefully, HA!

Some people are totally shocked by this stuff, but they shouldn't be. You, reading this, are my cousin somewhere. Even if you come from a remote Pacific Island, and we'd have to go back hundreds of thousands of years to find a common ancestor, there was one. 

But reigning it back in again, within Europe, you still have a lot of ancestors, and I can assure you they were not all born in the same place you were. They didn't have to be part of an invading army, or a wave of migrants. They only needed to travel 100 km in an entire lifetime (you could crawl it!), and in 20 generations (5 centuries) they've crossed the continent. In practice some people never left the village they born in, while others hopped on a boat and did it all in one go. But when you average it out, there is absolutely no reason at all, and no need for a reason, why your 262114 ancestors reading Shakepeare when it first came out could not have had representatives from every single country in Europe. And they probably DID. 

There's a new phenomenon in Europe. It's a generation born into the EU with the freedom to live, study, and work wherever they like, and who identify as European first and the place of their birth second. Obviously this doesn't apply to everyone, and never will, but it is a bona fide attitude among those who it does apply to, and I think it's a wonderful thing.