No Such Thing as Sociology?

I had the impression that sociology wasn’t much studied nowadays, but a cursory google search found more than a hundred courses, most of them sociology combined with other subjects but still. It was very much in vogue when I was at uni and I’m sure it’s a very interesting subject but sadly for my projected blog post, it’s still alive and well: I was going to have a rant about how, now that there’s no such thing as society, we’re not encouraged to study it either so there’s no such thing as sociology. But there you go. One thing I know is out of vogue is the study of philosophy – or so I thought, but a trawl of the nation’s universities brings up a hundred places you can study it. So what is really going on here and why do we never seem to hear about these subjects?

I’m fairly certain that in society as a whole philosophy is not much valued. I mean, when you work in the money markets what use are the novels of Plato? – to paraphrase the boring guy in Four Weddings and a Funeral. What use is it to spend three years of your life questioning the meaning of existence? I actually did some philosophy, though more or less by accident, when I studied French literature; Sartre and Camus straddle the boundary between literature and philosophy so you can’t do one without the other.

There’s a story told about the famous philosopher Socrates. He was walking one day with a pupil when a man came up to him and said, ‘What’s the point of philosophy?’ Without answering the man, Socrates immediately turned to his pupil and said, This man wishes to profit from learning. Give him a penny.’ Socrates had instantly divined that when the guy said ‘what’s the point?’ he was really asking, ‘Can I make money from it?’ and answered him accordingly. So what is the point of philosophy? Is there any point? Does it have to have a point? What’s the point of a new-born baby or a cloud that sheds no rain or a flower in the middle of a concrete slab? When it comes down to it, what’s the point of anything? And what do we mean when we say ‘What’s the point?’ What are we really asking?

On the whole I think we’re asking, what does it contribute to the world, by which we mean to society. What use is a flower growing in the middle of a patch of concrete? You could argue that it gives us hope in the midst of despair but what if nobody sees it? What’s the point of it then? What’s the point of a new-born baby? Yes, it gives the parents joy but you can’t eat joy, can you? And yes, it will grow up to be a useful and productive member of society and take care of its parents in their old age, but that’s way in the future. What’s the point of it now?

Some parents seem to take that attitude to their babies, farming them out to nannies and packing them off to school until they’re old enough to take care of themselves. Some societies take that approach to women, that all we’re good for is to provide children and do all the messy jobs men don’t want to do. The point of a woman is her function; the point of a baby is as a potential adult.

Balls. The point of everything is itself. And the point of philosophy is to study that.

Kirk out

Johnson’s Days are Numbered

I think that, the way things are going right now, Boris is on his way out. So far he’s been Mr Teflon; mud has been thrown – mainly by himself – but it hasn’t stuck. But I predict that pretty soon he will make one gaffe too many and that will be that. It may even be something small that undoes him, but so was the final straw that broke the camel’s back. The day of reckoning is coming, and soon; the question is, who will we be landed with instead?

There’s an unappetising line-up here. Worst-case scenario would be Priti (‘bring back hanging for all refugees and protestors’) Patel. Next on the scale of awfulness is Gove. I can’t see Gavin Williamson making much of an impact on the race to No 10 but Hancock and several other front-runners would all be equally dire. And then we have Sunak. What to say about him? There was a moment back in 2020 when he almost looked personable and in a dim light almost appeared to have socialist leanings; but once you turned the light on and there were revelations about his wife’s massive wealth which he concealed, thus probably breaking the Ministerial Code (but who cares? Ministers break that every day) he looks just as corrupt and sleazy as the rest of them. But whoever eventually wins this race I think it’s only a matter of time before Johnson is done for. It’s not only everything he’s done so far; it’s the latest accusations by his former favourite Dominic Cummings (blimey! Don’t ever get on the wrong side of that guy) including the allegations about renovations to his flat and now even the Daily Mail has turned against him: today’s headline reads ‘Let the Bodies Pile up in their Thousands’, something Johnson is reported to have said as a scenario he’d prefer to a third lockdown. Whether true or not, what’s interesting is that the Daily Mail has had enough; and when the Mail deserts a far-right leader you know they’re in trouble.

Daily Mail front page

So whether it’s days or weeks I think it’s inevitable now. The Tories always get rid of their leaders smartish and without any compunction at all – as soon as they become a liability, that’s it. Off they go.

In other news, I’m happy to report that I had the first dose of the vaccine yesterday. I was unreasonably anxious about it but it went fine in the end. Today I’m experiencing fatigue and joint pain but no other side-effects.

Kirk out

Today’s Guest Blogger: OH on Radioactive Kids

Quaker Oats have nothing to do with the Quakers, as in Society of Friends. Some time ago there was a trend to brand certain products with stereotypical characters, such as Captain Crunch, Matey, the Robertson jam golly and there was also a picture of a Native American man with a war bonnet on the side of some packet or other, possibly flour? Some of these were frankly racist – Robertson jam in particular springs to mind here – and whereas the Quaker on the porridge oats box may not represent an ethnicity, it coöpts the image of traditionalism and simplicity the real Quakers may have in the mind of the public and seems also to associate it with the likes of other groups such as the Amish and Mennonites, who are seen as eschewing modern life for a more rustic approach. However, there was never any association between the Quakers and Quaker Oats.

There are of course many Quaker companies, including for example Cadbury’s and Fry’s. I went to school with someone in the Fry family, who were very rich, but he was very down to earth and just a general all-round good bloke. I went to a party at his house once and it was enormous, and this is in rural Kent, so that gives an impression of how wealthy they really are. The situation traditional Quaker families find themselves in today reflects the similar position some Jewish families are in: because they were excluded from many of the mainstream professions such as the Church and armed forces, not being Anglicans, they made their own way in the world and often had little choice but to start their own businesses, and consequently some of them did get very rich. This is not to say that there aren’t very poor Quakers today as well, just as there are Jews, but the existence of these large companies ultimately owes itself to this exclusion. On the whole, the Quakers seem to have lost control of the undertakings, which is what usually happens when a company is floated on the stock market, and they become unethical in various ways of which I can’t imagine Quakers ever approving. This observation about wealth, though, is not meant to be a criticism of Quakers or Jews. It’s just an observation of how the history of religious persecution sometimes has unexpected positive consequences.

My own childhood was characterised more by Scott’s Porage Oats than Quaker, which possibly has stereotypical issues of its own, though maybe not. The image in that case seems to indicate that Gaels will grow up big and strong, and it’s a very masculine image in quite a positive way. There was a third popular brand of oats though which was definitely inferior. I get the impression it consists of the dust that’s swept up when the oats have been removed but I expect it’s just ground oats or something. Continuing the tradition of misspelling which seems to delight the porridge industry, this was known as Ready Brek, and marketed as “Central heating for kids”. At the time I found this off-putting because I felt the word “kid” had dismissive connotations, and in fact I still do so and I know my own “kids” did as well in the ‘nineties and ‘noughties. Anyway, it was famously advertised like this:https://www.youtube.com/embed/SVAvA6fP8Xw?version=3&rel=1&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&fs=1&hl=en-gb&autohide=2&wmode=transparent

And famously parodied like this:https://www.youtube.com/embed/Wk0WzCtF0yY?version=3&rel=1&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&fs=1&hl=en-gb&autohide=2&wmode=transparent

(both of these will be removed on request).

Only if you don’t know, Windscale, since conveniently renamed Sellafield, was a nuclear facility in Cumbria which almost went critical in 1970 and generally had a bad reputation.

Back to Quaker Oats. The above is an obvious joke, but unfortunately seems to be a case of art unwittingly imitating life. Shortly after the end of World War II, the company, in partnership with MIT, fed children at a “special school”, as we used to call them over here, radioactive porridge. Of course, in a sense everything is radioactive, and more so today on the surface of this planet than it used to be due to nuclear testing and other activities, so we’ve all eaten radioactive porridge, but this particular porridge was adulterated with radioactive isotopes of iron and calcium, as was the cow’s milk added to it, to demonstrate that it was absorbed more efficiently from porridge than other sources. However, this wasn’t pure research. It was done for use in advertising the product. And unsurprisingly, it did indeed show that, because it wasn’t really a proper experiment in the sense that it was breaking new ground or establishing a new discovery which wasn’t already considered probable. It was more like the kind of experiment children at school might carry out in a biology or chemistry lab, i.e. nothing really novel and conducted for different purposes. This was also done without informed consent from the children or their parents. Having said that, the maximum radiation dosage each child would’ve received from this would be about 330 millirems, which is the kind of dose one would receive from living for a few months in some inhabited parts of the planet which have somewhat radioactive rocks and minerals such as Cornwall or Aberdeen. However, this is a false equivalence because of the mode of decay involved. I’m guessing that calcium-48 was used, which exhibits beta decay as opposed to alpha. Alpha particles are easily stopped by the skin but can cause damage if the elements which produce them are inhaled, ingested or injected. Being calcium, the dose would have continued for quite some time and will still be irradiating today because it will be in the bones and teeth and if it was that isotope it has a half-life of around 64 billion aeons, which is about fifteen billion times Earth’s age. On the one hand this is good news because it won’t be as radioactive as a material with a shorter half-life, but it does also mean there would be a long-term steady source of beta particles in the bodies of these children, now adults. The risk from such a low dose is very small, but that’s not really the point.

By the time these “experiments” were carried out, 1946-53, the initial honeymoon period ionising radiation had enjoyed shortly after its discovery had been over for decades, and we were firmly in the era of global fear of the A-bomb, although it was also almost the era of the Ford Nucleon, a nuclear-powered car which never reached the market, and there did seem to be more trust in nuclear power at least, as opposed to nuclear weapons, at that time. Nonetheless I wonder if that fear was the reason for the lack of information to the parents. The issue is not so much of real risk as lack of informed consent, and the fact that the “studies” were conducted on children with learning difficulties. That seems much more incriminating than the mere fact that it was done, because if the real risk is that low and it could be sold easily to parents, there seems to be no reason why this shouldn’t have been done in a mainstream boarding school, for example. It’s a similar argument to the one against the fluoridation of drinking water – it isn’t about the real health risk so much as about civil liberties. I’m not going into the issue of fluoridation here though.

But this raises a difficult issue. There are plenty of procedures which carry risks unknown to the general public. In terms of radiation, one of the biggest of these is actually a barium enema, which uses unusually high doses of X-ray radiation because the image has to be obtained through the very thick and mineral-rich pelvis. There is no mention of this in the information given to patients who undergo this investigation as far as I know. There certainly wasn’t in the late ’90s when I had it done. There are of course plenty of other risks, usually covered in consent forms which people don’t read. Besides this, there are a couple of other cases which I had personally always taken for granted but to which other people seemed to take exception. One of these was the scandal at Alder Hey when children’s organs were routinely retained post mortem. Up until this came up, I had always assumed this was common knowledge – that this is what hospitals did. I’m not saying it wasn’t wrong, but this has created a problem for research. The other odd, child-related scandal that springs to mind is the practice by undercover police officers to adopt identities based on documents derived from people who had died as children and had a date of birth close to their own. Again, this has upset the families of many people who did die young (and that category includes me) but until the reaction I didn’t realise that this, too, wasn’t common knowledge. I suppose one normalises things and values change, although this, as usual, makes me wonder how much of what I now perceive to be acceptable would turn out not to be if I thought about it in a particular way.

Informed consent, however, is a problem with a public which is poorly-informed in other ways. If there were more general scientific literacy, and in fact it extends further than this because the identity adoption issue above is not a scientific one, this kind of deception would be harder to excuse. Not that there is an excuse now, but I would expect the mental process with Quaker Oats was that if the parents of non-disabled children had been asked, they wouldn’t’ve given consent, and the question then arises of why this would be. It also raises another spectre: what attitude did these parents actually have towards their children? It took me a while to pick up on this implication, but I suspect Walter White’s attitude towards his son in ‘Breaking Bad’ is not based on unconditional acceptance of his son, disabled or not, and I just wonder whether the parents in this non-fictional situation might have likewise have given consent had they known, not because they weren’t worried about the effects of the radiation but because, and I’m sure this isn’t usually true, they actually loved their children less because they had learning difficulties. Of course I don’t know this, but I have in mind two things here. Firstly, it’s bafflingly common for fundamentalist parents to disown queer children, which strikes me as connected to the idea of an idealised image of how they wanted their children and grandchildren to be rather than loving their children directly. I can only think this is connected to an authoritarian parenting style, but I’ll listen to anyone who disagrees with me on this. Secondly, there’s the attitude, which sadly charities like Autism Speaks seem to encourage, that children on the autistic spectrum are less than ideal, put a strain on the parents’ relationship and need to be “cured”. This seems to be coming from the same kind of place.

Quaker Oats don’t seem to come out of this very well. Not only have they used the image of a Quaker to generate some kind of folksy artificially wholesome aura around their product, but they have also acted historically with remarkable disregard for the wishes of the general public. Having said that, I would also hope that the public takes it upon itself to keep abreast of accurate information and assessing its quality. This has led to such problems denial of anthropogenic climate change and the various issues with the Covid-19 pandemic. And the other thing, which surely hardly needs saying to most people, is that you really are supposed to love people for themselves and not for your image of them, but I would hope this is a small contingency, at least nowadays.

Have You Got Beetees?

Looking back over the last week I realise that I haven’t posted the link as promised to the Jo Berry interview. She, you will remember, was the daughter of an MP killed in the Brighton bombing who made friends with the bomber in order to effect some reconciliation. So here’s the link and I totally recommend giving it a watch.

In response to yesterday’s post on malapropisms OH came up with an overheard conversation where someone was going to ‘die of beetees.’ So keep your thinking caps on and send me your favourites. In other news, there is no other news except to say that I’m feeling exceptionally tired lately. I can’t blame it on lack of sleep – except that in some perverse rule of inverse proportion I often feel more tired when I’ve slept well than when I don’t – so I think it’s the fact that we’re coming to the end of winter. And what a winter! Most of it has been spent in lockdown (we were in Tier 4 before Xmas so lockdown hardly changed anything) we’ve had snow and ice and cloud and rain and now I’ve JUST ABOUT HAD ENOUGH. I too long for a holiday but my heart sinks when I hear of people booking flights for the summer – since Johnson posited the date of June 21st hordes of people seem to have taken that as the green light to book a holiday; very chancy if you ask me – but I despair sometimes of our ever getting to grips with climate change. It’s as if they watch David Attenborough, then open another tab and book with EasyJet. If we don’t stop flying climate change will get worse and worse and the tipping-point Attenborough warned us of will come and then what will we do? The government talks green but acts – well, whatever the opposite of green is. Since they’ve been in office they’ve approved a third runway for Heathrow (pity the poor people under the flight paths) given the go-ahead for a new coal mine and agreed a tunnel under Stonehenge.

On the other hand I can’t really blame people for wanting to get away. If you’re a key worker or someone cooped up in a flat or if you’ve been struggling with working and schooling from home it must be incredibly tempting to just jump on a jet and head off to a beach somewhere warm.

*sigh*

Ah well, at least we’ve discovered some Dennis Potter on Channel 4 – they have Karaoke and Cold Lazarus. And OH informs me that the opposite of green is magenta.

Don’t forget those malapropisms.

Kirk out

Imagination? That’s not Scientific!

I was having thoughts this morning at 5 am, as you do, about the life of the imagination. I have blogged before about my dislike of the phrase ‘it’s just your imagination’, meaning ‘it’s not real and therefore not worth your consideration.’ But today I’d like us to consider the proposition that imagination is as important in science as it is in art.

I’d better say at the outset that I’m not a scientist. But I am married to someone with qualifications in various sciences and who, moreover, is able to tell their quarks from their gluons (don’t ask me, I just know they’re something to do with particles.) But from reading about scientific discoveries I’ve learned this: that imagination is key to scientific discovery. There must be a ‘what if?’ moment, a moment of imagining or positing that something hitherto unreal might just turn out to be real. You take the idea and then you test it: what if time were non-linear? What if dark matter made up most of the universe? What if two different particles could occupy the same space? CP Snow complained loud and long about the two cultures but I’m not sure we’re any further forward than in 1959 when he gave the lecture. Yet there is more that unites us than we know. In science you take a theory – something imagined, sometimes wildly imagined – and test it until you find out whether it works. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. In art it’s the same: you imagine a character or a story or an idea: What if there are other worlds next to our own? (His Dark Materials.) What if there are wizards living amongst us? (Harry Potter.) What if an ordinary Belfast girl was recruited into the IRA without realising it? (Milkman by Anna Burns.) What if I write a novel about time (A la Recherche du Temps Perdu) or even outside time (Ulysses)? What if I write a novel based on the Fibonacci sequence? Will that work? (Spoiler alert; I tried it and it doesn’t.) You imagine it and then you test it to see if it works in reality. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t – but there’s more that unites science and art than divides us, and the more I write the more I am convinced of this.

Speaking of having more that unites than divides, I watched a stunning video last night on Owen Jones’ Youtube channel. I subscribed to this as a Patreon supporter a while back and this week he’s posted two amazing interviews; one with Patrick Magee, the Brighton Bomber, and the other with Jo Berry, daughter of a Tory MP who was killed in the blast. You’d expect the interviews to be confrontational, combative, telling widely differing stories: what you wouldn’t expect is that in 1984, a matter of weeks after Jo lost her father, she arranged to meet Magee in order to try to understand why he had done what he’d done and to attempt some sort of reconciliation. The very last thing you’d expect is that these two would become friends.

The interview with Magee is difficult to watch: he acknowledges the pain he caused but stops short of apology, saying instead that this was a war and there was violence on both sides. But the interview with Jo Berry was stunning. She was more understanding, more forgiving and more restrained than I even want to be (I don’t go for revenge but at least give me self-righteousness when I’m wronged!) This interview will be up tomorrow so I’ll post a link (we Patreon supporters get to see it ahead of time.) There were many issues raised by these two interviews so I’ll come back to those in a day or two (or three, seeing as it’s the weekend tomorrow) but I guess all these projects of reconciliation are about imagining something better. I’ll drink to that.

Kirk out

Fascism for Dessert

I’ve been watching bits of the impeachment trial on youtube. It’s deeply shocking when you put together Trump’s inflammatory speeches, tweets and statements with the actions of the crowd rampaging through the Capitol carrying nooses and guns and threatening to kill Senators for merely carrying out their duties. But what’s worse is the fact that as things stand the Senate is unlikely to convict. Republican Senators are scared, not so much of Trump as of their constituents (or whatever they call them over there). It really is mob rule, and you have to salute those brave enough to stand up for the rule of law. They are the human barricades in this situation.

I grew up believing fascism was dead, that it had been defeated in my parents’ generation and could not come back. That was a delusion; fascism is back, it’s loud and Proud, it waves flags and totes guns and will stop at nothing to achieve its ends. Fascism has no arguments and no creed; it doesn’t bother to debate, just says get out of my way, I’m going to win here because I’m right. And why am I right? Because this gun, this fist, this flag says I’m right. This President says I’m right. Fascism takes no account of reason or law except as obstacles that stand in its way. Of course, when they get into power they will enact their own laws which they will enforce with draconian severity, but for now laws are there to be broken. Your laws have no legitimacy. Why not? Because I say so. It’s this climate which encourages far-right Senators to insist they can bring guns into the Capitol and go without a mask: because I say so. Because it’s my right. Because I have the freedom. They are quick enough to invoke the second amendment for their own freedom of speech but would deny others the right to go about their lawful business or to cast their vote.

Image

Trump will go down in infamy, sure. But the chaos he caused will carry on. Year on year there may be fewer people believing the election was ‘stolen’ but there will still be some – and in four years time a cleverer person can come along and manipulate these people and in the guise of rescuing America do what Trump failed to do and finish the job. In the end Trump was a useful idiot; he was like the Ape in The Last Battle who only wants more nuts and oranges and is made use of by cleverer, more manipulative power-brokers. To gain power in a democracy you need at least a measure of self-control and Trump had none; in the end his downfall was that he couldn’t accept losing. Losing was against his code, against his creed (if you can call it that) against his whole raison d’etre. He is simply incapable of accepting defeat; he has not conceded the election and probably never will. This is a terrible weakness. A more sensible person would have conceded, albeit between gritted teeth, and bided their time for a comeback. But Trump has never been sensible.

Whatever possessed a population to vote him in in the first place is a question we’ll probably never fully be able to answer. He was a disgrace to his office and his country. He roused up the worst elements in the population, incited an insurrection and should never be allowed anywhere near office again. Will the Senate have the guts to convict? We live in hope.

In other news, my copy of The Dig has arrived. Yay! I look forward to reading it and I’ll let you know my thoughts. In reference to Wednesday’s discussion on books vs ebooks, I get most of my reading via Alibris, a site which links second-hand bookshops throughout the UK (there’s also a US site.) Typically prices are much lower than in the shops, though not so low as Amazon. But you know why I don’t use Amazon: at least you ought to know, for I have often told you so… You can also find obscure or out of print books, usually for a reasonable price; I’m still awaiting my copy of Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer. Greek is not enough: I must learn Anglo-Saxon! I must read the tales of Hroth and Hgoth and their glorious swords and try to detach my feminist consciousness from this chest-beating epic. I’ll let you know how I get on…

Kirk out

Oranges Are Not The Only Presidents

There’s a cartoon doing the rounds on Facebook which has resurfaced from the first trial of Trump: it shows a picture of the man saying ‘I’m not orange. Im peach.’ The second two words are close together and I was briefly outraged by the absence of an apostrophe before realising that it was a very clever pun. Impeach! was the cry then and now and on Tuesday this week the second trial got under way.

The fate of Trump has yet to be decided but the fate of his deputy is particularly striking. There’s an interesting article about him in The Guardian detailing his rise and fall and giving some interesting insights. I hold no brief for the man whatsoever; I think his religion is Puritanical and joyless and his support of Trump a fatal mistake. For four years he enabled and legitimised one of the worst abusers in modern history like a priest blessing a nuclear missile before it goes off to destroy millions. But however mistakenly, Pence believed that he was doing God’s will. Trump, of course, had no such belief – he probably thought God was doing his will – always assuming he believed in God in the first place. But Pence had at least a core of principle and that came through for him in the end; when the chips were down he couldn’t stomach Trump’s demand that he overturn the vote, and he acted according to his conscience. His reward was to be sent a lynch mob who almost certainly would have killed him if he hadn’t escaped.

The video footage of that day is horrendous, far worse than what we saw on the news. From outside it looked like a ramshackle bunch of weird people breaching the barricades; seen from inside this is a mob with intent, a murderous mob. From inside the Capitol we see police fighting much harder than they appeared to do outside – we still have to get to the bottom of that story – and really pushing back against the insurgents. And why were they here? Because they had been fired up by the rhetoric of one person: Donald J Trump. Sure, they were already fired up but they were tinder and he lit the match.

Trump is basically a gangster with a veneer of respectability; how thin that veneer was is a subject explored in BBC documentary series Trump Takes on the World. We’ve only seen the first episode so far but it was a fascinating watch. We saw footage never normally shown, such as the inside of G7 conferences, the dining-rooms and hallways of state buildings where leaders interact; we saw politics and diplomacy close up. We heard interviews with people who were there at the time; diplomats, advisers, Trump’s staff, European leaders and commentators. We got the low-down on phone conversations and private talks. We found out what Merkel said to Trump over dinner and what he later did in a fit of pique. We heard ex-President Francois Hollande explain to us – en Francais, naturellement! – his difficulties in dealing with Trump. Episode 1 explores the unfolding narrative as world leaders begin to get the picture: that they are dealing with the most powerful world leader who has the instincts of a gangster and the self-control of a toddler. Basically everyone was behaving as though there were an unexploded bomb in the room and one false step would set it off.

So what happens now? We wait and see; in the meantime you can watch the impeachment trial live on CNN via youtube.

Is it Thursday already?

Kirk out

Biden His Time?

I can’t help thinking as Biden signs one executive order after another reversing Trump’s legacy, that he’s been forced to become a much more dynamic President than he might otherwise have been. I suspect in other times he’d have been more like Starmer – cautious, gradual, unwilling to upset big business – but so devastating has the Trump legacy been, so pressing are the problems the US and the world face, that he has had to hit the ground running. So far he’s rejoined the Paris Accord on climate change and the WHO (cheers), reaffirmed the US commitment to NATO (boos because it’s largely a nuclear club) stopped a damaging oil pipeline, passed legislation on racial equality and reversed Trump’s opening of federal land to drilling.

Of course there’s a response to this; Trump has so emboldened his supporters both within and outside government that they have come to believe they are entitled to have what they want. You can’t tell me what to do seems to be their attitude, along with I have a right to make as much money as I want and if I want to take guns into the Senate, I will.

It’s tempting to be smug here; we don’t have the right to carry arms and recent trends are towards curtailing even those limited rights which obtain; nor do we have the death penalty – despite Priti Patel’s yearning to bring it back I suspect that outside Daily Mail-land there’s not much appetite for it. Yet if Biden gets his way we may soon be lagging behind the US in terms of human rights as one key thing he has done is to stop future private prisons and not renew the contracts of existing ones. It has always struck me as completely wrong to privatise prisons; they are a primary function of the state and the idea of some private company profiting from the incarceration of people makes me physically nauseous. And perhaps the best thing of all? Biden reportedly wants the UK to rejoin the EU.

Yes, OK the people voted to leave, but it was badly done and in my opinion should not have happened in that way. So we’ll see what happens. Meanwhile in a desperate flurry to repair the damage he himself has caused to the union, Boris Johnson plans a dash up to Scotland where no-one particularly wants him.

Far too many people have died here from Covid and pretty much all of us know someone lost to the virus, so let’s take a moment to remember them.

Kirk out

And Now For Someone Completely Different…

Like millions of people I was glued to yesterday’s inauguration of President Joe Biden. There’s lots to say about the event but perhaps the most important thing is not what happened but that it happened. The transfer of power took place peacefully, with dignity and decorum and without a single protest, violent or otherwise; a fact which was celebrated throughout by all commentators. I don’t normally watch these events; they’re rather too heavy on God, flag-waving and my fellow-Americans schtick for my liking, but this time was different. Completely different. First of all, there was the sheer heartfelt relief of waving goodbye to the little orange would-be dictator and seeing him head off into the sunset not having got the send-off he wanted and about to see many of his key policies reversed. Phew. Then there was the event itself. Disregarding a lot of the ‘we are the fathers and upholders of democracy’ – ahem! I think you’ll find that’s us (though just don’t enquire too closely into what sort of democracy we had) it was nevertheless important to state and restate that the democratic process had been upheld in spite of strenuous attempts to topple it. This was underlined by the presence of past Presidents including Bush, Clinton and Obama and not least by the attendance of Mike Pence. Reactionary Trump-enabler though he was, he at least understood that the first rule of politics is to show up: show up when you win and show up when you lose – and the handing over of Vice President Pence to VP Harris as Pence and his wife left after the ceremony was almost as moving as the ceremony itself.

There was a great deal of good stuff here; anthems sung by Lady Gaga and Jenifer Lopez and humorous introductions by Senator Amy Klobuchar but I’m just going to mention two things; the poem and Biden’s speech. The poem was written and delivered by Amanda Gorman, the youth Poet Laureate, and was the highlight of the entire ceremony. And there could hardly be a more important keynote speech than this one, delivered on the steps of the Capitol building and setting the tone for the years to come. Biden did not disappoint. He avoided triumphalism, saying this was a victory not for a candidate but for the process of democracy. He called out racism and misogyny, mentioning Native Americans (who don’t often get a look-in) and heralding those women who marched for the vote; he flagged up climate change and the virus as the most serious challenges and called for a moment of silence for the victims of C19. But perhaps most importantly of all were two key features of his speech, the call for unity and the call for truth. It should not need saying but after the last four years it does: there is truth and there is untruth. There are truths and there are lies. I can’t think of a thing he said that I disagreed with, nor a single thing he left out that he should have included; the speech was bang-on. The full transcript is here. And video highlights of the event can be found here.

Biden has hit the ground running – as indeed he needed to – signing a slew of Executive Orders on rejoining the Paris Climate Accord and the WHO and on immigration, Covid and the environment. But there is much more to do and it causes me to wonder: could Biden under these circumstances be a better President than he would have been in other times? History will show; he may be too timid and his best instincts may yet be stymied by the Republicans in the Senate, but as the phrase has it, well-begun is half done and Biden has begun well.

Here’s the brilliant poem by Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman.

Kirk out

North-West? North by North-West? North-North-West?

My brain goes into a bit of a spiral when I try to remember the finer points of the compass. The first principles are easy; North, South, East and West (incidentally, should they be capitalised? I’m never quite sure) and if you bisect those you get North-West, North-East, South-West, South-East and so on. It’s when you bisect each of those that I get confused; I know that half of North-West and North is North-north-west (I’m getting tired of doing capitals so I shall stop) but after that I’m a bit hazy on it. There’s a thing called north by north west (not to mention a film) but I’m not sure where exactly it lies. Sure, I could always google it but where’s the fun in that? Besides, I’m sure OH will enlighten us all later.

Anyway, having reorganised the study over the weekend I am now, my phone compass informs me, facing almost exactly north-east. This house faces North-north-east (I think) so we get the sunrise through our bedroom window, and in the evening I can sit at the study window and watch the sunset (weather permitting.) It’s important to take time in the day to notice the coming and going of the sun, to reflect, to watch the moon rise and notice its fullness, to observe the clouds and the winds. So whether it’s the direction I’m facing or whether it’s the desk at which I am sitting I don’t know, but it feels sooooooooo much better to be here. The desk is old, made of solid wood and until the weekend covered with dust and layers of abandoned papers not to mention desk paraphernalia; but these have now been swept into a box and the desk dusted. After this I went to Sainsbury’s intending to buy Pledge * but found instead some proper beeswax and turps-based polish, which I proceeded to lovingly apply with a soft cloth until I could see my reflection in the surface. It’s very satisfying. Like sunsets, wood should be cherished and appreciated (*other brands are available.)

I don’t know about you but I actually had a brilliant weekend. Nothing much happened: I ‘attended’ a Quaker meeting and a Quaker Meeting, both on zoom; I carried on knitting my latest project, a purple jumper, and I watched the launch of Jeremy Corbyn’s Peace and Justice project which featured Noam Chomsky, Yannis Varoufakis and of course the man himself. It seems a worthwhile project so I’ve signed up to it. It’s idealistic of course, but so am I – I subscribe to Henry David Thoreau’s philosophy: ‘build your castles in the air where they belong, then build the foundations under them.’

Have a good Monday and stay safe out there.

Kirk out