Friday, 30 January 2009

The unjust oppression of naughty men

I had a gentle stroll down memory lane recently, after looking at a relatively recent post on Mick Hartley's blog, complete with pictures of Hampstead Heath. I haven't been round those parts for years, but the pics did bring back memories of life twenty-something years ago as a student in London, when I lived and (occasionally) studied in the vicinity of the Heath. The blog post also has a link to an article on the web site of the North London Branch of the Campaign For Real Ale about a pub I used to frequent in those days, Jack Straw's Castle.

The pub, as the CAMRA site explains, was named after Jack Straw, one of the leaders of the 1381 Peasants' Revolt. According to legend Jack Straw addressed groups of peasants on Hampstead Heath from the back of a hay wagon which was nicknamed "Jack Straw's Castle" (I say "according to legend" advisedly - according to the BBC History site, Jack Straw may not even have been a real person, but might have been an alias of the rebel leader, Wat Tyler).

The Peasants' Revolt, as any fule kno, came in the wake of catastrophe and turmoil - it's widely thought that the labour shortage caused by history's deadliest pandemic, the Black Death had already begun to undermine the old feudal order, whilst the burden of taxes levied to fund the King's French wars royally pissed the lower orders off. The toffs could no longer rely on unquestioning loyalty with radicals like John Ball coming out with incendiary statements like this:

From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men ... I counsel you therefore well to bethink yourselves, and to take good hearts unto you, that after the mannar of a good husband that tilleth his ground, and riddeth out thereof such evil weeds as choke and destroy the good corn, you may destroy first the great lords of the realm, and after, the judges and lawyers, and questmongers, and all other who have undertaken to be against the commons.

To those in charge, this was subversion and treason (our current rulers would probably call the speech "inappropriate" or "unhelpful", which is just corporate-speak for subversive and uppity).

Fired up by the fighting talk of Ball and others, the army/mob of repressed peasantry marched on London, burning the Savoy Palace, one of the homes of the fabulously powerful John of Gaunt, slaughtering the Archbishop of Canterbury and John Legge (who had devised the hated poll tax) and forcing concession after concession from the boy-King Richard II.

It looked like revolution and the world turned upside down until, on 15th June 1381 during a parley between Wat Tyler and the king at Smithfield, the Mayor of London lashed out at Tyler with his sword, knocking him off his horse. One of the king's squires stabbed Tyler to death as he lay on the ground and the rest, as they say, is history - the rebellion collapsed, the king went back on all the promises Tyler had forced out of him and the ruling class re-established order by re-asserting its exclusive use of extreme violence in the traditional forms of hanging, drawing and quartering and sticking heads on spikes, just in case anybody hadn't got the message about who was back in charge. Mind you, our rulers never quite plucked up the courage to bring the poll tax back (well not until the end of the 1980's anyway, and the idea got another good kicking then, too).

Looking at the news today, it seems rather as if we're in the wake of another catastrophe and that Joe and Joanne Average are getting angry and stroppy again. It's not quite on the same scale - the global economy may have gone completely Pete Tong, but we haven't yet lost a third of the population to a virulent plague and I think the chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury can sleep soundly in their beds for the moment. But things definitely aren't looking great, and people are getting very cross indeed:

Strikes have been breaking out across the UK in support of a mass walkout by energy workers in Lincolnshire angry at the use of foreign workers.
Huge crowds have taken to the streets in France to protest over the handling of the economic crisis, causing disruption to rail and air services.

I think that with all the bad stuff hitting the fan, the ruling classes ought to be getting a tad nervous. The artificial sense of prosperity created by cheap credit and a property bubble has, like one of those shoddy sofas bought on tick in the January sales, fallen apart before it's been paid for. The old economic order, to which there was allegedly No Alternative (remember The End of History?) looks like a bit of a scam which has left a lot of ordinary people insecure and up to their eyes in debt. These are horrible times for many, but they're also getting interesting.

John Ball had a vision of the sort of world he wanted to see after the Peasant's Revolt. It didn't happen, of course and it probably won't come to pass even if the world is changed for the better after the present mess is cleared up. But it doesn't sound an altogether bad place and maybe, when all the hype and bullshit of the latest boom/bust has been purged, and the inept Masters of the Universe have been wholly discredited we might be just a little nearer to a different sort of world:

For so shall you procure peace and surety to yourselves in time to come; and by dispatching out of the way the great men, there shall be an equality in liberty, and no difference in degrees of nobility; but like dignity and equal authority in all things brought in among you...

Monday, 26 January 2009

The hounds of spring

Not before time, the hounds of spring are on winter's traces. Today's been mild and sunny hereabouts - for the first time I've been able to just stand still stand outside without feeling cold or wet and actually feel some warmth in the sun. A day to throw open the windows and let some fresh air into the house (although discovering a long-dead mouse in the utility room and throwing it out probably did more for the sum total of household freshness). It's a month away from midwinter and there's a real feeling in the air that the seasons are turning.

All of which set me to brooding on something which I'd never quite got my head round - why is the rate of change in day length slowest around the midwinter and midsummer solstices? It's particularly noticeable if, like me, you're impatient to see a bit more daylight after the gloom of midwinter. I had some vague notions of why this might be so, but had never pinned it down. The other week, coincidentally, I was looking at a diagram describing how the amount current or voltage created by the spinning armature of an Alternating Current generator as it rotates through a magnetic field varies over time. It's a circular motion and the effect is described by a sine wave, with the rate of change constantly speeding up and slowing down. Thinking of day length, determined by circular motions, as changing in a similar unequal fashion due to trigonometry makes it a bit easier to understand. A further complication is that the rate of change of day length is asymmetric (i.e. the time of sunrise and of sunset do not change by equal amounts) - if you want to worry about that further variation, there's a fuller explanation here.

For the faint east quickens, the wan west shivers,
Round the feet of the day and the feet of the night.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

The Guy From Tomorrow

The phone rang last night. I picked it up and - as this wasn't an unsolicited call from somebody I didn't know asking me to part with money I didn't have in order to buy something I didn't want - had a brief conversation with the caller. I put the phone down and my partner asked drowsily "was that the guy from tomorrow?" The Guy From Tomorrow - what a great title. All I need now is a plot and several hundred pages of appropriate prose and that's my off-the-wall science fiction novel off to the publishers. In my significant other's head, "the guy from the tomorrow" was just sleepy shorthand for "the man with the van who's due to be delivering some second-hand furniture tomorrow" (and the mystery caller was, indeed, he). If I ever had the time, energy or inclination to make him a fictional character he'd have to be something a bit more surprising - an employee of the Milky Way Transit Authority, perhaps (I was going to cite the blog which originally drew my attention to this little gem, but seem to have mislaid the bookmark - all I can say is "oh dear link", in the same tone that my two-and-a-bit year old son uses to say "oh dear milk" after having created a milk lake in the kitchen, either by accidental spillage or a deliberate act of tipping).

This potential title got me thinking about language which, some people insist, is constantly being "dumbed down". Sometimes they're dead wrong, especially when they decide that that simpler always equals dumber. Compare the title of H G Wells' early short story about time travel, The Chronic Argonauts, with that of his later novella The Time Machine. The early title uses more complex vocabulary and drops in an allusion to a classical myth, but the simpler title The Time Machine is far, far better - short, snappy, understandable and straight to the point.

For me, the adulteration and debasement of language happens, not when you make things shorter and simpler, but when you introduce fuzzy abstractions and groupthink into the mix. The Time Machine is about a machine which does something with time - a baffling concept, back in the 1890's, but the title couldn't be any less baffling. If you're looking for examples of language getting dumber, communicating less, you could do worse than taking a look at the wonderful world of branding. Take the Post Office - by the early 21st Century most people understood what the Post Office was and what it did. Some managers who clearly took their eyes off the ball, assisted by a bunch of highly-paid brand consultants decided that everybody would be happier if the name they knew and understood was replaced by the made-up word Consignia. Fail!

There's a certain inevitability about re-branding creating something more abstract, nebulous and silly than what existed before. For many years I used to work for the Norwich Union insurance company, now to be assimilated into the global brand called Aviva. Resistance is futile. The word "Aviva" doesn't mean anything concrete in most languages where the company does business*, but was created by committee to sound as if it stands for something vaguely positive and life-affirming. It's no coincidence that it sounds a lot like "Arriva", the name of a bus company also made up by branding wonks, who decided that passengers .. sorry, "customers", might form a closer relationship with the brand if the name subliminally suggested that some of the buses might actually arrive, or something of the sort. I'm not a Star Trek fan, but there is something Borg-like about the way that global branding sucks the individuality, history and identity out of institutions we know and (sometimes) love, replacing them with an aggressively bland, characterless corporate identity. There's recently been more on the triumph of the Aviva hive mind over at the Chicken Yoghurt blog.

* According to Wikipedia Aviva means "spring" or "renewal" in Hebrew, which I suppose has positive connotations, although it might damage sales of insurance products to the Hamas demographic.