Sunday, May 31, 2009

Ruidera; of Lakes and More Lakes

The area known as the Lagunas de Ruidera, where Mrs Hickory has a farm, is a place of great beauty, where nature has contrived to create a landscape of rocks and hills, of trees and dry earth, of water that flows, that crashes, that lies still and brilliant, that ripples in the breeze and appears and disappears under the rocks, and from one year to another can almost cease to exist, then fill to the brim as most of them have this spring.

It is very popular with tourists, and in spring and summer the campsites and hotels are full and the better swimming lakes are all but unusable by anyone who likes to do more than splash around. At times we swim, in the less well known places where the access to the water is difficult, away from the road, or there is nowhere to throw down a towel and a picnic, but not often, and only to cool off when we have gone on foot or by bike. Last weekend we went to a look at the rocks in the lake known as the Colgada, which has a form of wetland between it and the lake above it, where it is possible to walk jumping from rock to rock and crossing the odd walkway that functions as a bridge. There are low rock walls down which the water flows to reach the basin. The water was full of novice windsurfers, divers and canoeists from a nearby youth camp.

From there we went to a similar, but much higher, waterfall between La Lengua and La Salvadora, a little upstream. More people there, clambering over the rocks and taking so many photos they probably observed very little of what they had come to see.

Then we followed a path we have taken before by bike, to the top of a hill which overlooks the point where the two rivers which feed the system join, merging two lakes, La Tomilla and La San Pedra, which can be seen below, one on each side of you, pooling their waters below and in front of you, stretching into the distance, creating, together with the bright sun, the most beautiful view in the Lakes, as without any doubt. The spot is marked by a cross, known as the Monks' Cross, whose story I have not yet ascertained. If you can go there, climb up (it's more a walk, about half an hour, and very enjoyable in itself, as the tracjk goes through woods and then takes you along the very edge of the hill, with a drop beside you) and see it for yourself, you won't regret it. Meanwhile, here are the photos.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Iron King III

As I mentioned in passing in a previous post, one of the fascinations of railway lines is where they split in two, with branches going off at approximately 120º, and with the possibility of a train running directly between any two of the three directions thus created. It results in what I think off as a triangle of lines, though strictly speaking it is more a deltoid, if it is roughly regular, or the cross-section of an aerofoil if it more elongated, which is usually the case when only two of the three combinations are available.

In this way it is possible to be completely surrounded by railway lines, a form of isolation that I have always found particularly fascinating. The two pictures of this phenomenon, courtesy of Google Earth, are both from where I was brought up, and I have often wandered through them just for the pleasure it gives me to be there. The truer triangle, as can be seen, is almost completely built upon, with only a small area in a corner still green, but I find it easy to imagine how it was to be fenced in, isolated from the world by the banks that support the tracks, alone in a private kingdom that can briefly be yours. I wrote a story inspired by this feeling some time ago, which I might post a bit of later.

To begin to understand how it feels you have to go to such a place and experience it. If you feel nothing, it probably means you are perfectly normal. If, however, the hair starts up on your neck and butterflies move in your stomach and you feel the urge to remain there, take a sceptre in your hand and follow with your mind each train that passes, through whatever towns and fields and bridges it crosses, to wherever it happens to be going, then you will know why I am writing this.

There is one where I live now, a modern one, raised on pillars, as you leave the city. The isolation is not so complete as you can see between the supports, but the sense of being in the middle of something very private and very large is still there. You can also see the traces where there used to be such a triangle here, in Dalston in London. although Broad Street station was closed years ago and the line removed, the route it followed can be clearly seen from the air, and followed on the ground, up to this point. There are plenty of them about. In fact, I'd like to hear of more

If, on the other hand, you prefer to live in the middle of a golf course that looks like a chromosome, then El Macero, California is the place for you.

The Village Idiot

A little Saturday humour for those of you tired after a long week. It helps to imagine it spoken by someone like John Bird, in a slowish, slightly petulant, slightly resigned tone of voice, and a reassuringly educated accent.

"I am a village idiot. By far the stupidest person in the place, the one they are all kind to, never bother trying to explain things to you know what I mean. The trouble is I’m not taken seriously as a village idiot. Being so thick you can’t understand what the people around you are saying, you know, the normal lives they lead, should be enough, do we need this drooling at the mouth and speaking in absurd rustic accents that no one else uses, do we need the wild, straggly hair and foolish leer? If I am much stupider than the rest then I am the village idiot. QED. But people say no, they won’t accept it. They bring up the business of the job in the City, they make snide remarks about the First from Cambridge. The trouble is this absolutism that people bring to the debate. You’re not really thick they say, not like the village idiots I remember, now they really were dim, they’d have given their right arm for your brain, but it’s not about I.Q.’s, it’s not about numbers, it’s about difference, you see. Relatively speaking I’m in just the same position.

It’s not like it used to be, it’s true. The place has changed. Fewer farmers these days and rather more Nobel laureates has, I admit, raised the tone of debate in the Aquinas’ Head, but that’s just the point; I could have joined in the chat with no trouble a generation ago, but nothing stays still, and that is what gets forgotten.

Fine people here, very friendly, take a chap as he is, you know. If you’re an idiot they treat you like one. There’s old Freddy Barnes, grows the finest vegetables in the village- I’m very partial to a chalotte, myself- spends his time digging a bit, weeding a bit, sprinkling a bit of manure here and there and he makes enough to live on. Used to have one of these Internet companies, selling, for their weight in gold, as it were, personalised individual methods for sending any other specified Internet company to the wall. Quite brilliant. But it was all too much for his nerves, and he came here to relax and lead the simple life. He says he gets the same buzz from spraying greenfly, and who am I to argue? It’s all above my head.

Then there’s Dravindra Singh, Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at somewhere terribly famous, the one all the other linguisticians went to when they couldn’t work out what the Halibi tribe were trying to express by a rising tone in the fourth declension of the thirteenth variation of the seventh primal grunt. He would listen once and explain it to them almost as though he were talking to me. Remarkable man. Then one day he had a seizure or something, poor chap, not really old, either, and when he recovered they found he could only communicate in fifteenth century Estonian. Bit of a problem really, especially as he runs our Post Office in his spare time. But they brought someone in and gave the whole village evening classes and in a few weeks they were all chatting happily with the Prof in the saloon bar and making jokes in the shop about the fact that the word for paperclip is the same as the word for- well, you know what I mean. Anyhow, problem solved. Except for me of course. They were very good, of course, let me sit in the classes with them as though I was going to learn too, but I couldn’t get past the basics, you know, and all I can say to him is, Hello, How are you, and Look at that dungbeetle trying to shag that dried leaf, and Do you think the sun will come out later, I want to look for leeches, and that sort of thing. All too much for me, of course..."

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Thinking's Hard, Let's Shout at Each Other

In response to something ridiculous in the Times this morning that I’m not even going to link to, I am obliged to explain again what science is and what truth looks like. Scientists want to know the truth, they want to find ways of getting nearer to it and of being fairly confident that they have in fact found it.

Basically what scientists do is to say, look, I have gathered this data in a way that I shall explain carefully, and present as clearly as possible. Based on previously accepted conclusions and original interpretations of the data I tentatively suggest that we may deduce the following. Tell me what I’ve missed or why I’m wrong. Then they will assess the extent to which their knowledge has been increased and will consider the new questions that are brought to light by it.

If any of these steps is missing you should at least suspect that what you are seeing is not science, and is not part of a genuine search for truth. Anyone who does not encourage their results to be repeated or challenged is probably not doing science. Anyone who does not provide all the data, its sources, and an explanation of the techniques used for the gathering and analysis of that data, or who does not detail the reasoning process by which anything concluded or deduced from the results is arrived at, is probably not doing science. Anyone who appeals to his own authority, or who throws around words like ‘obviously’, or who attacks real or imagined critics personally, is almost certainly not doing science. Anyone who shows that they do not how to reason is definitely not doing science, and probably does not know what truth means either.

Most people are not interested in the truth; they simply want to affirm their own beliefs in a way that will satisfy them. This mostly involves not analysing them, but if forced to, because they are confronted with someone who does not share them, the purpose of their argumentation is to score some sort of rhetorical victory by getting the opponent to admit that they are right, not to find the truth. In the search for truth the only opponent is unreason, recognisable by its love of dogma and compulsion, and the arbitrariness of much of what it believes.

In the end it usually doesn’t matter all that much. Psychologically, belief is much more important than knowledge, and socially it tends to be much more useful. But there are times when everyone needs to recognise whether an argument is or is not valid, and how a proposition is being defended, in order to make decisions or to avoid being fooled. And it is painfully clear that they cannot.

Look at the way bacterially-enriched yoghourt is advertised on the television, or the generally horror of government-owned newspapers, as contrasted with the deep suspicion of private television stations, or the way people have learnt to call the BNP rightwing, or the acceptance of income tax as consonant with natural justice, and of ‘tax havens’ as fundamentally unjust. Just a random list of things that we should think about more, the first that came to my mind. Then try to work out whether swine flu and global warming are or are not going to kill us all, or whether it was such a good idea to vote for Obama. It’s all terribly hard. And we know the answers already, don’t we?

There is no greater truth than the beauty of a rose, hence the photo.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Of Springs and Lakes

We have been in the country this weekend, on Mrs Hickory's farm with a group of friends, a hot sun and a lot of vary varied life. Over the next few days I imagine I shall add to these jottings regularly, musing on what I have seen there. It is always new, because the seasons change and the cycles does not repeat, every year is unique. Panta rhei, as Heraclitus observed, and lovers of beauty are grateful for it. Farmers not quite so much.

The roses in the garden are beautiful at this time of year; I offer a single photo. On Saturday we went to a place known as zampullones o zampullanos, where the river Pinilla springs from a series of cracks in the rocks and sweeps (or gurgles) through a reed-filled valley to the Laguna Blanca, where the Ruidera lakes begin. Of the lakes we will speak another day. Today I offer a picture of the birth of a river, a miracle of beauty, rather than of biology.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Something for the Weekend

The recent revelations about the extent of rules-bending and outright fraud by our representatives at Westminster has been interesting for a number of reasons. Many of them are insufferably arrogant, believing themselves superior to others in that way that many people who regularly appear on television seem to fall into, and to see their carefully honed presentational skills reach breaking strain is something of a pleasure.

They are not our masters. Their job is to represent our interests and to hold the government to account. We send them to Westminster for that purpose. They are not there to experiment with their own ideas or to try to tell us what to do. If they do not do fully, diligently and competently carry out that function then they are worthless and we owe them neither loyalty, nor respect, nor, of course, a single penny of our money.

The media, who also tend to have a hugely inflated sense of their own importance, are far more interested in anecdote, gossip and derivative material which will easily catch the attention of the public. (And they always have been; despite endless protestations about defending the public interest, speaking truth to power and being the only thing which protects us from tyranny, the origins of non-government publications were in the tattle-sheets circulated by court hangers-on.)

Politics, even local politics, seems to be almost entirely about money and power. Actual government, as in organization of necessary public functions, creating and preserving the conditions for a peaceful and prosperous society to exist, is not what motivates people, and probably never has been. The idea that they are servants of the people is so far beyond their comprehension that they would not even laugh at it.

Anyhow, all this and much more has been said by others, and the world is not going to change because I happen to have pointed out a couple of its faults, so enough of this. I rarely read the papers and never watch the television news, there are long periods when I have little idea what the people who want to tell me how to live are saying and doing, and I don't miss it. It means I can think more freely because I don't have to argue with them, and it becomes clear that they really don't matter very much.

So I'm off to the country for the weekend. Expect bucolic ramblings and photos of flora and fauna in the next few days.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Miliband on Democracy

One half of the Miliband being says that democracy is under threat because people might vote for unapproved parties. It is highly instructive to learn that there are parties we can and cannot vote for. Basically, it appears we are only allowed to vote for Lib Lab Con; anything else is a threat to democracy.

Miliband should remember, or rather, we should point out to him (with ropes if necesary), that freedom can only be threatened by those who have power. We, the people, are scarcely represented in any meaningful sense these days, and if the government is trying to stop us voting for the candidates of our choice, then it is perfectly clear where the threat to democracy is coming from.

Vote for whoever you wish in June. Remind them that you can. Not that the result will matter in the slightest, since the EU Parliament has no power, but for Labour to receive fewer votes than UKIP would be terrifying to their own sense of entitlement. Vote Green if you must, vote BNP if that is your wish. Vote Monster Raving Loony. Or just ignore them all. It's all democracy. Miliband knows this, but cannot admit it. For him and his kind, the real danger is that they might lose power.

Update: Yes, vote BNP if you must. But first reflect that a) none of them is capable of representing fresh whale blubber to a starving eskimo, let alone the interests of the British people in Brussels b) their more sensible policies have been tacked on a posteriori in an attempt to obscure their central policy, and the reason for their existence, which is nigger-bashing and c) there is nothing British about the BNP, as pointed out by David T at Harry's place, which I picked up via Counting Cats in Zanzibar.

Having thus reflected, use your freedom as you wish, and enjoy it. There are many people who don't want you to be free.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Iron King II

Ask people who have travelled in Spain what is between Madrid and Andalucía and the reaction is likely to be a stuck expression, a search for some intelligent guess, a confident ‘nothing’, or, possibly, a tentative ‘er, Toledo?’ Very few foreigners can identify Ciudad Real. We are a forgotten province. Even within Spain people’s eyes can glaze over as they try to work out where it is. If you have looked at my profile the chances are you just shrugged and said, ‘Some little village on the south coast, lucky bugger.’

Things have changed a bit in the last five years, as we now have the best handball team in the world. The name is familiar to Spaniards, and to those many countries of Europe where the game is big, but it is a cultural, rather than a geographical, reference. Don Quijote was probably from somewhere in the east of the province, but the historical name of La Mancha, rather than the modern name of the region, is the one commonly associated with the old nut.

In Britain there is no handball, so the name means nothing. Nevertheless, it’s the first stop on the high-speed train line from Madrid to Seville, built for the Expo in 1992, and many people have certainly passed through without ever noticing the name of the place. And having managed to work a train reference into the post, I can now talk about railway lines, which was the original intention.

The high-speed line is as straight and level as possible, cutting through hills and river bends and slicing corners off farms, unlike the old line which wandered unhurriedly around any kind of obstacle. Back in the 1870’s the train was so much faster than anyone could possibly need to travel that it didn’t seem to matter if there were a few extra curves. One of the first things I discovered on arriving here years ago was that the old line south, before it links up with the new one, has been preserved as a path, and trees planted along it. At the time they gave no shade, but now they do take a little of the edge off the spring sun, allowing the path to be used when it would otherwise be impossible.

It runs about three miles, crossing a volcano (not that you’d notice) and twisting up and down a hill, before it is joined by the new line, which was sent out on a flatter, much more sweeping route, to get up speed more quickly. As you walk along it you are wading through a million ghosts, who went that way before you, seeing what you see, through the windows of a hundred different wagons. The old line entered directly, touched the park on the southern edge, went high above it, headed out east, then swept back to go north, brushing past the east side of the town.

Ten years ago the old track itself was still visible in the south east corner, as it curved, and also where it went east from the same point, heading for Almagro and finally to the sea. That part has been replaced by a raised triangle (more a deltoid, but it doesn’t sound the same) of lines, which is one of my favourite features. The track has all gone now, and is partly built on, but the embankment that shored up the curve is still there, and allows you to follow the route.

The line only went around the east of the town from the 1930’s. Before that it went by along the western section of the ring road, coming in through the park, stopping at the original station which is still there, now a storeroom for the park workers, and leaving at the northern tip in front of the cemetery. About a mile north of the town it meets the present line, and there is still a path where it used to run. A path I enjoy walking when the sun is hot and bright, just because the train used to run along it. In the five miles north between the town and the river there are several places where the old line took a little wander around something. There is no track left, except on the bridge itself, but the route can easily be seen. Although not as complete as it was; it is slowly being developed in various ways.

Apart from the bridge and the original station, the only structures left standing are two small buildings that were once warehouses, one on the ring road, the other out in the country. Both are now houses, but their style gives them away. The pre-1992 station and all its associated sidings and structures were demolished, and the area has mostly been built over. If you know where it all was it is possible to follow, but there is nothing to see, no sense of what it used to be.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Iron King I

I have never understood why it is that railway lines join places and roads don’t. Why railway lines are permanent, still having a ghostly existence even when they have been closed and removed. Why the traces of old stations leave an indelible mark on the ground they stand on. Why any of this matters. Why they are more than simple means of transport. I do not understand why it is so, but it is.

It isn’t because of the beauty of some of the stations, bridges, or landscapes, nor of the trains themselves, although it contributes to the pleasure of contemplating the lines. It is true that there are many fascinating and deeply satisfying structures associated with the railways; the Victorian age seemed to produce great engineering design, but there is much that is not of any particular beauty. As I have said, the railway continues to fascinate even when it is no longer there. It is, in part at least, the link with history, the knowledge that people who died 150 years ago travelled those same lines, that they have seen houses built and demolished beside them, and whole towns grow up around them. The lines have seen changes in the etiquette of the people who travelled on them, in the clothes that were worn, in the goods that were transported, in the power that moved them, in the very reasons for travelling. And they remain, unchanged, through the centuries.

I’m not particularly interested in trains themselves. The form and detail of them are not part of what makes railways so compelling. However, their power and speed do matter. Something that moved like a carthorse would not produce anything like the same sensation. To the first people who heard about the railways, who saw them being built, watched trains go past, and then rode on them themselves, it must have seemed little short of magic, and that magic can still be felt today. (Like many people, I like steam trains. It’s common here to put them in parks as an ornament and a point of interest. But this is a different thing entirely.)

The south of Spain is dotted with simple, attractive whitewashed stone railway buildings, most no more than a ticket office, a small waiting room, and a locked door behind which the station master made his coffee and hid when there was a delay. Many now stand alone, the lines gone. Some are now houses, or warehouses, or impromptu discotheques and shooting galleries.

If there is an answer, it is probably in the stations. Roads have no meeting point, no start and no finish, nowhere that the hopes and dreams and fears of a hundred or a thousand people can mix daily, before each is carried away, and the hopes are dashed or fulfilled, the fears justified or confounded the dreams realized or destroyed. Airports are not connected to anything. Railway stations are steeped in humanity. Every sentiment is human, every feeling real. No one worries about trains crashing; the nerves are caused by the pain or the joy of leaving, by the worry that we may be late, that the train may be delayed, or the fear that we shall, inevitably, arrive somewhere we don’t want to be.

There is a fascination in the idea that these lines, a physical, immutable object, not an abstract concept, joins the place where you happen to be standing with innumerable other places where you have never been, whose names you have never heard, but which you could reach if you followed them. I like to walk beside lines, to follow them through built-up areas, to track them across country, to find old maps and uncover the original reasons for the routes that they took, and how those routes, once cast in iron, determined the way further growth took place.

And I walk along old lines, seeking them out on maps, then on the ground, walking where once the trains roared, again and again, with an enthusiasm that never dies, seeing what they saw, becoming a part of history, of the past and the future, because the railway is eternal.

The photo is of the old Clare Station on the disused Sudbury line in Suffolk, taken in September 2005.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Basque Politics, a Synospis

Something took place in Gernika last Thursday. Something that should have happened years ago, but, politicians being what they are, it has only happened now that it is their own interest, rather than that of the people they represent, who have been saying it for years. What happened was that a Socialist became President of the Basque country, and this is an excellent thing.

Those who have been paying attention will wonder why I applaud the election of a Socialist government, so a little background is called for: since the restoration of democracy the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) has been in power. They are a perfectly legitimate centre-right party who have no connection whatsoever to the terrorist group ETA, and as long as they have been winning elections I say 'Viva la democracia'. In fact, when I lived up there I would probably have voted for them, if I had been allowed to.

However, that was in the days of José Antonio Ardanza, who was a tough, honest politician, who did sound economic policy and stood up to the terrorists with dtermined courage. The real point of the President of an Autonomous Community in Spain is to inspire confidence and get money out of Madrid. Ardanza was good at that. He was also good at ignoring the counsel of the president of the party, Xabier Arzalluz, a huge figure who unfortunately went completely off his rocker in the mid-90's.

The problem started in 1999 when Ardanza stood down as Lehendakari. He was replaced by Juan José Ibarretxe, an inept and cowardly man, controlled intially by Arzalluz and the hard left, including the terrorists, with whom he formed a coalition government. He did remove them from the coalition after a year or so, but he was clearly incompetent to govern a place with such serious security problems, and he was scared of ETA. His physical fear of the ETA MP's was obvious when they spoke or crossed in the Basque Parliament. They smelt it, of course, and they used it. He even allowed a known ETA terrorist to chair the Parliament's human rights commision. (It is the central government in Madrid, and the courts, which have done a good job of keeping the murderers under control in the last few years.)

A further note: The Basque Country is not a hotbed of bandits and killers, where the people hide the bombers from the half-dozen good guys who try to impose peace and order. It is historically one of the two wealthiest areas in Spain and, though shipbuilding and steel are not what they were, it has a great deal of modern industry and is a major financial centre, and would be wealthier still if ETA did not drive businesses away by extortion and threats. ETA recruit almost exclusively in a few working class areas in and around San Sebastián, and, like all tyrants, they use the power they have in some town and village councils to make sure the schools in these places do not provide any real education. You need to keep the peasants in ignorance, or they might start to think.

So, we have a useless puppet of a President, afraid of ETA, and in league with their mouthpieces in Parliament, without a majority these last ten years, governing because the Socialist and Popular Parties are too busy arguing with each other to mount an effective opposition. For years they have been urged to recognise that defending democracy, freedom and peace is what matters, and that they are in complete agreement on that, whereas the things they disagree on do not matter in the context of the Basque Country.

At these last elections they finally behaved like human beings and representatives of free peoples, and formed a coalition. They will soon remember that they are politicians, of course, and start behaving as such, but the importance of such a coalition, that owes nothing to the terrorists and will resolutely face them down, is very great. And the Parliament is free of terrorists for the first time.

So I welcome the arrival of a Socialist President, because he is a democrat, and a man of courage. The alternative was not a PP government, but more of the same.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Obtuse Remark of the Day

Johann Hari has this article in the Indy, which I saw by chance, not being much of a fan of his ill-informed dogmatism. On the central point of the article I have little to say, beyond the observation that it seems to be pretty much a dead letter anyway, and most children go to religious schools because their parents choose to send them there. Also, one man's indoctrination is another's education, as evidenced by this from the comments thread:

"hcurtiss: Religious education is actually child abuse

You have pointed out many of the irrational absurdities of religious education. And in a multi-ethnic society how can we promote one incomprehesible mythology over another.

For many educated in Catholic schools there is often a shared memory of psychological abuse by priests and Christian brothers who often terrorised children a young as five or six with vivid descriptions of eternal hell, unspeakable torment.

Religion has no place in our modern society. The common problems that the entire world face must be tackled with humanity, sympathy and rationality. Perhaps replacing religious lesson for young children with green studies focussing on climate chasnge, biodiversity issues, species exinction, abuse of animals in factory farming, impact of HIV- and for older children an introduction to philosophy, completely neglected in our syllabus would help."

Apart from the teaching of philosophy, which should be part of any proper education (along with Mathematics, Greek, Music... but I digress) this is a classic example of 'Children must be indoctrinated my way, not yours.' There is very little sign of intelligence or an understanding of reason in the entire thread, though the words are used regularly. It all shows how terribly hard it is to hold a discussion when both sides have their ears and their brains nailed shut.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

I For One, Welcome Our New Nazi Overlord

He really shouldn't be let out on his own. For once he manages something vaguely recognisable as a smile and he doesn't think to look behind him. We are going to see a lot more of this photo.
Tip of the spines to Samizdata, where I saw it first. Photo pinched from the Times.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Few Thoughts on Capital Punishment

I don’t object to it in principle, for reasons I shall explain later, but it does need to be carefully controlled, and I mean controlled by us, the people. The EU decided a few years ago that we should not be allowed to determine for ourselves how we wish to protect our societies from murderers, thus making us a little less free. Our own Parliament has, in any case, been ignoring the wishes of the people in this matter for 40 years, so it probably made little difference, but it is one more petty tyranny by those who cannot abide the idea of freedom.

In Britain there has always been a majority in favour of capital punishment for murder. In Spain the death penalty was abolished by the 1978 Constitution, agreed by all parties and approved overwhelmingly in a referendum. Execution was too closely associated with the dictatorship of Franco for the Spanish to be comfortable with it. (Even though nearly all those executed were murderers, rather than ‘enemies of the state’) Moreover, there were no juries in Spain (this is no longer strictly true- there now are for certain trials, but their verdicts are not binding in most circumstances).

A young woman was executed last week in Iran, which is what has prompted me to write about the subject. Something about it makes me uneasy. Not the possibility of her innocence- I am assuming she was guilty for the purposes of the argument (she confessed repeatedly, although she also retracted her confessions; there is no political implication in this, and I imagine in the absence of other pressures even Iranian judges prefer not to send innocent women to die). Not the fact that she started painting pictures to pass the time in prison, which most papers seem to think is the crux of the whole business. Nor the fact that she was only 17 when the murder was committed. She is legally an adult for the purposes of Iranian law, and in any case, if she had been 18, or 21, I should still feel the same unease.

And I should not. She committed murder, and that is the price you pay. If I believe in executing some violent thug who has finally gone too far, the same must apply to a young woman who has done the same. And my instinct says it should not. My instinct is therefore wrong in one sense or the other. Given that the murder was not committed in the abstract, but had as its victim an old woman who was alone in her house when Darabi and her boyfriend broke in and killed her, it may well be this latter instinct that is wrong, but either way it is very hard to arrive at any convincing conclusion by playing around with these gut feelings.

The way in which people perceive this subject depends a great deal on the experience they have of government, whether the ‘people’ or ‘society’ really take these decisions or they are seen to be controlled by the state. In Britain we have juries, and have had for hundreds of years. They represent, together with public trials (another thing the EU seems to dislike) a great bastion against the arbitrary intervention of government in the judicial process. Juries caused the repeal of the Black Acts in the 18th C by refusing to convict on capital charges which they did not think deserved death. Again in the 19th C it was partly the reticence of juries to convict that led to the abolition of the death penalty for all crimes but murder (and treason and a few oddities for which it was never applied in peacetime). That is democracy in action, hard though it is for some to understand it. But, juries were not failing to convict for murder in the 50’s and 60’s when they knew it carried a mandatory death sentence. The decision was taken by Parliament, on behalf of the people, not in representation of their will.

For what crimes, then, should punishment by death be available to the court? Not necessarily all murders, or certainly not automatically. For the (premeditated) murder of children? Probably. The murder of police officers in the exercise of their duty. Quite possibly. Terrorist murders? A trickier one, but probably not. Politicians love to politicize everything and the media love to help them. Before long everyone who felt sympathy for a killer (and there are always plenty including in the media) would be calling them freedom fighters or common criminals, and those who did not find the right advocates would become terrorists whatever the real circumstances of their crime. The question of motivation would become one of life and death, but divorced from reality (and that ignores the fact that for many terrorist murderers the motivation is the bloodshed, and the supposed cause is secondary, or merely a pretext). For ‘hate crimes’? No, no and no again. It serves no purpose, can be twisted, in the right hands, to mean almost anything (see terrorism above) and would lead to monstrous injustices, both by excess and by defect. It is unconscionable; but, if capital punishment were to return in this country, it would probably happen. Which is a good reason not to have it, I suppose.

Since the decision is not mine, and we have been told that no one cares what we think about it or why, it is possible to consider the matter freely, to ask questions without answering them, to only half-understand, and even to be wrong. But it is worth thinking, and forming an opinion. One day they might want to know.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Expression, Beauty and Art

There are many faces of art and of artists. The human urge to self-expression, the imitation of beauty, and the pursuit of power are the most important. Those who consider themselves artists tend to say that self-expression is the only purpose of pure art, whereas he who observes the artistic creation might think that its purpose was the reproduction of something observed to be beautiful. Less frequently considered is representations for magical purposes, but they may be important. And whatever the origin of the motivation, art is the physical expression of an idea that existed in the mind in abstract form, even though taken from nature. This representation passes necessarily through a phase of abstraction, and so can only be produced by the human faculty of reason.

Many animals use body language- in some cases including the manipulation of objects-to which females respond according to criteria which depend on the species. The experts in the field can tell us what a female baboon or a peahen or a frog looks for in a male, but words such as aesthetics, creativity and beauty should be used with care when referring to what the male does and the female responds to. It appears to be a simple biological process, with no invention on the part of the male or interpretation on the part of the female. It depends on the species, not the individual; there is no possibility of surprise or innovation. The male acts according to his instinct, with no thought, no pleasure in the show, and the female responds the same way, without questioning what she sees, or uplifting of the spirit.

Certainly there is something attractive in the male which has what the female is looking for, because it actually attracts, but these qualities are arbitrary. The meaning behind them is fixed, encoded by the genes, not the consciousness of the male. Furthermore, it is done only for a particular purpose, and no other. It is clear that only man expresses himself with no other motivation than the desire to do so (not that that is the only reason people have for producing creative work). And only man thinks about what, how and why he creates.

One of the earliest known forms of creative expression is cave paintings. They are of many different styles, technical quality and occur in a variety of places. Language is known to be older, probably much older, but the paintings, whatever their purpose, are the product of symbolic thought. Their purpose is not known exactly, they may have had a magic or religious function, or they may have been largely administrative, recreational or aesthetic. Again, it is unlikely that a man of the Upper Palaeolithic would be able to take time off from hunting to paint pictures without being maintained by the rest of the group, and so performing some function for them. But whatever the reason, they chose to represent humans, animals, objects and abstract designs on cave walls, and perhaps in other places where they have not survived, and they found the means to do it.

There is no need to imagine that they all had the same function. What is interesting is that they had no intrinsic biological function. Their function, whatever it might have been, was symbolic.

There is a variety of techniques and skills and precision in the representations depicted. Whether they form part of the symbolism, or rather reflect the abilities and whims of the painters.

Art is a number of different things, and so are artists. The urge to create things without function is probably unique to humans. It is certainly present in humans. The concept of beauty, whether or not derived from the sense of pleasure of physical comfort, is probably unique to humans. So is the ability to do abstract reasoning, meaning that an artist may not be motivated solely or at all by the desire to create something, but also by a search for the things which can arise from other people’s reaction to their work, or their self-defined position as artists.

“Art is supposed to hold a mirror up to nature.” Tell that to Beethoven.

“Art is meant to be talked about/provoke comment/reaction” So is almost everything we do, but this idea is usually reversed to justify as art what is no more than deliberate provocation. You could try telling that one to Beethoven as well; people who want to think of themselves, and be thought of as artists love to use this line, but it’s hard to imagine real artists even understanding it, let alone using it.

Art is self-expression. It has no identifiable absolute value. That’s why there are art critics, evaluating technical skill and creative innovation, and often playing the same game of self-aggrandizement that the soi-disant artists play. In the end, if you do art you should try to satisfy yourself and ignore everyone else. If you consume art you should stick to ‘I know what I like’ unless you’re in it for the money as well.

So, should art and artists be supported with public money? The answer is clearly no, with certain very limited exceptions. Where art has a public function- is produced for reasons of public good, be they magical, religious or ceremonial, as indicated above, or forms part of the cultural education of the young, who may be expected to gain pleasure and understanding if introduced to it- it may be reasonable for the public to pay for it. This applies more to the preservation or performance of previously created work than to new work. But the mere fact that someone who calls himself an artist can’t make a living means only that he should live more cheaply or try working; it does not in any way justify the use of public money to pay them to do what they do.

I think that was the point of this post when I started it several days ago. And I should point out that my own rather limited creativity takes the form of writing, and writers don’t get subsidies, so I don’t see why anyone else should.

Today's illustration is brought to you by Leuchars railway station on a wet Monday afternoon.

We're All Going to Die

Well, that's a relief. Mrs Hickory wants me to paint a couple of doors. After reading the Daily Mail I told her there wasn't much point really. However, the WHO and the Mexican Health Ministry suggest that I will end up with a brush in my hand in the near future. Amazing how little they know. I mean, don't they read the Mail?

There seems to be a bit of confusion about this latest route to Armageddon, so here I offer a handy guide to porcine influenza.

What do I have to do to a pig to catch it?
Nothing. Giving one mouth to mouth is probably a bad idea, but then it always has been. It's passed from person to person. Flu viruses are contracted by being spat on, which we do much more than we realize, and by touching our eyes and noses, which we also do far more than we need to. Chops, handburgers and bacon may have all kinds of nasty microorgamisms in them, but they got it from the butcher/waiter/shelfstacker/spotty McKid who just sneezed over them, not from the original pig.

How many Mexicans are dead already?
12. Twelve. XII. A round dozen. The Duke of Edinburgh's number when he turns out for the Lord's Taverners. Gordon Brown's popularity rating. Yes, you heard it correctly. Several hundred (not thousands) are ill, but nearly all are out of danger. There has been one death in the USA and none elsewhere. That number may rise, but probably not very much.

How many people die of flu in an average winter?
About 20,000 in the USA. In Britain some 3,000. Staggered? I was.

Why the panic then?
It sells newspapers and makes politicians feel important. Also, it's a new mutation, probably someone who already had flu picked up a pig strain and they shared DNA, mutating into something new that can be transmitted between humans. Until the strength of the virus is known (and it's not looking very strong at the moment) and until its response to vaccines and medicines is assessed (not too clear yet but probably good) it is wise to be cautious. But it's worth remembering that the real problem of flu, and other highly contagious disease (unless they kill you) is economic, which is also why they are trying to find a name without pig in it.

Will putting an old handkerchief/surgical mask/silk YouSave triangle by Yves Saint Laurent over my face save my life?
It will stop people spitting in your face, and stop you spitting on others, as well as stopping you touching yourself all the time. In many places (where there are a lot of people) it's worth doing anyway, especially in winter, but most of us don't bother.

I have no medical background, but I know where to find reliable information. The press, apparently, do not, even though that's supposed to be the point of them.