Saturday, January 24, 2015

Cutting the Mustard

Here in Norfolk we have a sparkly local TV station, Mustard TV. It's named, I guess, after one of Norfolk's most famous products - Colman's Mustard.

I've been in the Mustard TV studio before, to talk about books, but a week or so ago I had the chance to go out on location for their regular magaziine programme The Mustard Show with debonair presenter Darren Eadie (yes, the former Canaries and England Under-21 midfielder!) to talk about Norfolk's prehistory.

Here we are at Happisburgh (pronounced 'Haze-borough'), where digs have reavealed the earliest known human occupation of Britain, about 800,000 years ago, as originally reported in a well-known journal.

The newspaper clip comes from Mustard TV's page in the Eastern Daily Press. To see the show itself click on part 2 and go to 05:15). We also went to West Runton, whose Ice-Age fauna impinged on my PhD thesis, but that didn't make the cut - perhaps another programme?

You can watch Mustard TV on Freeview or on Virgin channel 159, or catch up with past shows on demand.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Facebook and the Blood Libel

Of the many lies told to demonise the Jews, one of the most persistent is the so-called blood libel. This is the story that Jews murder children, especially Christian children, to use their blood in the baking of matzot. The story originated, as far as anyone knows, in Norwich, in which the Jews were accused of murdering a young boy called William, who was later canonised. The accusation persisted and later took root especially in Eastern Europe and sprouts anew in each generation, now in the Islamic World.

A rather small head of the many-headed hydra that is the Blood Libel surfaced recently on this Facebook page, which quite plainly demonises Jews and perpetuates lies relating to the blood libel. Well, I reported this page to Facebook as an example of hate speech according to its own community guidelines. Here they are.

For the hard of seeing, here it is again:

Facebook does not permit hate speech, but distinguishes between serious and humorous speech. While we encourage you to challenge ideas, institutions, events and practices, we do not permit individuals or groups to attack others based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or medical condition.

Many of my friends were as shocked as I was and reported the page similarly, and all of us received the following stock pronouncement:

I have a problem with this. How does a page promoting the lie of the blood libel in any way not contravene Facebook's own boast that they do not permit attacks based on race, ethnicity or religion?

I also learned that friends have been reporting this page for many months, without success.

So, any insights into why Facebook is, through its inaction, promoting hate speech, would be most welcome. Answers, on a postcard, please, to Third Park Bench On The Left, The Esplanade, Cromer.

I shall start the ball rolling - perhaps they think it's funny? If so, this is problematic, because we have to have some notion of intent. Is the person posting the page trying to be funny - satirical - like Charlie Hebdo? Or is he (or she) being deadly serious? That might be a harder nut to crack. In any case, Facebook has been silent on this, and hasn't explained precisely why this page does not contravene its guidelines.

Friday, January 9, 2015

100 Lashes If You Don't Die Laughing

'100 lashes if you don't die laughing!'
The first thing I think of when the latest religiously-inspired outrage hits the news is … a novel.

Specifically, The Name Of The Rose by Umberto Eco in which (spoiler alert!) monks in a monastery die when they come into contact with a poisoned book. It's the last remaining copy of the Comedies by Aristotle, and it's been poisoned by an elderly monk who is convinced that laughter is the enemy of faith. Not only is he prepared to kill for his convictions - he is prepared to die for them, too, and, not only that, take down the entire monastery library with him in a fire, consigning centuries of painstakingly curated and irreplaceable knowledge to the flames of unreason.

Written things have always attracted those prepared to kill and die in the attempt to expunge such criticism. They haven't always been fanatical Muslims, although many have been religiously motivated.

So it is, much as it ever was, when on 7 January the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were attacked by two Islamic fundamentalist fanatics who slaughtered much of its editorial staff. Charlie Hebdo had attracted Islamic ire before. Its offices were firebombed a few years ago when it had the temerity to print, as its cover, the picture I take the liberty of showing here, in which a gleeful Prophet warns that if you don't die laughing at the contents of 'Sharia Hebdo' you'll be in line for a hundred lashes.

In the eyes of Islam (or so I understand it) the error of Charlie Hebdo was not just that it published cartoons poking fun at Islam (as it pokes fun at a lot of things); not just that it published cartoons of Mohammed in a somewhat crude way; but that it depicted Mohammed at all. And for this they were deemed to have transgressed the boundaries of what is proper in Islam, so much so that they were inevitably condemned to death. Such is my understanding of the brand of Islam advocated by Islamic cleric Anjem Chaudury (at least as reported recently) and presumably by the authorities in Saudi Arabia, which recently sentenced a blogger to ten years in jail, 1,000 lashes and a large fine for the crime of insulting Islam. And he was lucky! He was cleared of a charge of apostasy, which carries the death penalty. It should be said, however, that quite a few Islamic scholars have lined up to condemn the attack in very strong terms as un-Islamic; and one or two people who would identify themselves as Muslim have been especially strong in their condemnation, as Boris Johnson describes in his column:
'My hero – the man who got straight to the point – was the Mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, himself a Muslim. “If you don’t like freedom,” he told the Dutch nation’s potential jihadists, “then pack your bags and leave. There may be a place where you can be yourself, so be honest with yourself, and don’t kill innocent journalists. If you don’t like freedom, then f--- off.”'
Now, I have no idea whether Mr Chaudury's views are typical of Islam in general (outside Saudi Arabia), or representative only of a fringe tendency. I suspect the latter, though Islamist attacks tend to share the same justification, that transgressions against Islam are punishable by strict sharia (Islamic religious) law, wherever the alleged transgression occurs, even if the location is nominally under the control of a secular legal authority.

But I digress.

In the wake of the shootings many people on social media have put up the slogan or hashtag #JeSuisCharlie as a gesture of solidarity with the murdered journalists. I wonder how many really mean it, and how many will move on when the news has blown over and their butterfly minds turn to more immediate matters? For example, how many people still campaign for (say) the release of the Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by the terror group Boko Haram, another religiously inspired group dedicated to the destruction of secular knowledge?

And I wonder how many really understand what the slogan #JeSuisCharlie really means? Apart from a trendy label of smug self-justification, that is?

This casual attitude shows, I think, how much we take for granted the ability we have to say what we like, print what we like, and read what we like. The attack on Charlie Hebdo shows that we cannot and must not take that right for granted.

It's important to distinguish, here, between absolute freedom of speech, and freedom of speech under the law. In the UK at least, the regime is the latter. There are things which one is not allowed to say, print or read, for all kinds of reasons ranging from decency to racial hatred to child protection to national security. However, the decision about what can and cannot be disseminated is - in theory at least - subject to consensus, and not determined by the whims of some unaccountable agency - whether Emperor or Religious Police - acting without the strictures of a government elected by popular mandate.

It is noteworthy that some publications, while loudly giving vent to the ideals of freedom of speech and saying that they are Charlie, fail to reproduce the offending cartoons, presumably for fear of terrorist reprisal. One can see why they are doing this. One can equally see that they are cowards. This is precisely what the terrorists want. That is, to enforce subservient dhimmitude, eroding by intimidation our hard-won freedom of speech. It is my view that no-one should declare that they are with Charlie unless they are also prepared to re-post Charlie Hebdo's cartoons. As ever, talk is cheap. Such people should thank their lucky deity/rabbit-foot/penny that they aren't in Saudi Arabia. Much more cowardice of that kind and dhimmitude will become the norm, because, then, Saudi Arabia will have come here.

Here again is Boris Johnson, who you'll remember is a journalist and editor by trade, as well as being the current elected Mayor of London, talking about the degree to which most people - journalists, too - will commit themselves to being Charlie:
'And yet we must be honest, and confess that in claiming the mantle of the editors and cartoonists of the French satirical magazine, we were being not only presumptuous, we were being pretentious and, I am afraid, simply inaccurate. There is hardly a paper in Britain that has followed the lead of Charlie Hebdo, and printed the offending cartoons of Mohammed. In fact, I cannot think of any mainstream media organisation that has been able to tell its viewers or readers what the fuss is all about... The British press is globally famed for its willingness to say anything to anyone, to tell truth to power, to hold up people’s private lives to hilarity and scorn. In this case, a great ox has stood upon our tongue.'
He went on to admit that when as editor of the Spectator a decade or so ago, he didn't reprint the Danish cartoons of Mohammed which had incited a fundamentalist backlash, for fear of his responsibility to the 'widows and orphans' of his journalists should his paper itself become a target.

Then there are those, mostly on the Left, who deplore the massacre at Charlie Hebdo but qualify this by saying that, in effect, they had it coming. That Charlie Hebdo is a bunch of white men making fun of a marginalised immigrant community. That Charlie Hebdo is staffed by racist, homophobic misogynists and so on. That their cartoons are crude and rubbishy. That Charlie Hebdo is (to use the modish, catch-all term) offensive.

Both factors - cowardice, and fear of giving offence - have been eroding our culture for some time now. It also betrays any hope of moderate voices in Islam (or in any other minority community) being heard. In this trenchant essay, Kenan Malik writes (the italics are mine) -
'What nurtures the reactionaries, both within Muslim communities and outside it, is the pusillanimity of many so-called liberals, their unwillingness to stand up for basic liberal principles, their readiness to betray the progressives within minority communities. On the one hand, this allows Muslim extremists the room to operate. The more that society gives licence for people to be offended, the more that people will seize the opportunity to feel offended. And the more deadly they will become in expressing their outrage. There will always be extremists who respond as the killers did. The real problem is that their actions are given a spurious moral legitimacy by liberals who proclaim it unacceptable to give offence.'
The founders of our modern liberal democracy, living back in the eighteenth century, must be spinning in their graves in disbelief. Those who advocated freedom of religion (and, let us not forget, freedom from religion) must be grinding their ghostly gnashers both at fundamentalism (of any kind) and at the failure of people to stand up and defend the rights of freedom of speech for which their ancestors fought, of which the growth in the culture of offence is just one symptom. So what if some of the things we see and read and hear about and see on TV are unpleasant? I cannot hope to compete with the lucid and lambent prose of Neil Gaiman on this issue, so I implore you read his post here. It's a long, detailed and above all deeply humane post, but here's the rub:
'If you accept -- and I do -- that freedom of speech is important, then you are going to have to defend the indefensible. That means you are going to be defending the right of people to read, or to write, or to say, what you don't say or like or want said.' 
Or, as Salon magazine put it, somewhat more forcefully:
'If we’re not going to defend the most obnoxious varieties of free speech from those who would silence it in the most literal sense – and there are plenty of examples more obnoxious than Charlie Hebdo – then we don’t deserve to have free speech at all.'
It might well be that the outpourings of Charlie Hebdo are rubbishy, and that some people might find that some of it grates on their over-sensitive liberal souls. But freedom of speech means freedom of all speech, whether or not it tilts at religion, and irrespective of whether you agree with it or not. The corollary is that you are equally free to be offended. If you are, by all means write a letter to the editor, an outraged blog, a facebook post, whatever, if it makes you feel better. But remember that your freedom to complain carries with it a responsibility, that is of allowing the author to exercise their right to free speech.

To condemn the murder of the Charlie Hebdo journalists, and at the same time object to what they were drawing or writing, represents one or more of the following: a gross failure to understand the meaning of free speech; a kind of hypocrisy; or, a covert way of seeking to dominate the discourse with the things only you like to see and hear and read about, having decided what's best for everyone else, whether they like it or not (as in Saudi Arabia).

As for me, well, I find some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons crude and trashy, and some of them make me wince. But that's exactly why I repost them and retweet them. I am, in that Voltairean way, defending the rights to free expression of views I don't much like, to keep safe freedom of speech in general.

Part of the reason I feel so passionately about all this is that I am a writer, and an editor for a magazine. The first thing the then Editor-in-Chief told me when I joined was that I "would make enemies" - the subtext being that if I didn't make enemies, I wasn't doing my job properly. The Editor-in-Chief was an old-fashioned newspaperman from tip to toe, and cultivated a journalistic relationship with the establishment (to paraphrase H. L. Mencken) akin to that between a dog and a lamp-post. He was used to extravagant protestations of all sorts from people who'd fallen before his pen. So it is that my colleagues and I make editorial decisions all the time with which people might disagree, sometimes vehemently.

Because of some of the editorial decisions I have made, I have been branded a racist, a misogynist, an atheist, a religious nutcase and, no doubt, other things, and petitions and campaigns have been got up for my removal for the 'crime' of causing offence to someone or another. What irritates me most about such busybodies is that they presume to act on behalf of a wider constituency, never mind whether they really are representatives of that community - in the way that Islamic fundamentalists take it upon themselves to act on behalf of Islam in general.

These self-styled progressives show themselves to be, in their way, as regressive and reactionary as any Islamist extremist, seeking to roll back the freedoms of thought and speech and expression for which our intellectual ancestors fought.

They might not go as far as shooting people, but their aim is the same - to enforce their own views on others by eroding the ability or willingness of others to express contrary views for fear of giving offence. One could argue that this necrosis has already claimed the victory. As Kathryn Cramer, a writer and editor, notes, we know that in our societies today we already do our best to steer clear of any theme which might seem provocative, and in so doing we fool nobody but ourselves. 'If your art isn't worth dying for,' she notes, 'what is it you think you are doing?'

This article by Fraser Nelson in the Spectator shows how deeply entrenched this tendency for self-censorship now is, especially on campuses. I take the liberty of quoting from it. Oh, and reproducing a cartoon (at left) which I suspect some people will find offensive.
'This is what those censorious Cambridgers meant when they kept saying they have the ‘right to be comfortable’. They weren’t talking about the freedom to lay down on a chaise longue — they meant the right never to be challenged by disturbing ideas or mind-battered by offensiveness. At precisely the time they should be leaping brain-first into the rough and tumble of grown-up, testy discussion, students are cushioning themselves from anything that has the whiff of controversy. We’re witnessing the victory of political correctness by stealth.'
I wonder how many such people have adopted the #JeSuisCharlie hash-tag?

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Stars My Resolution

For the past couple of years I have summarised my annual reading in these annals. As you can see my reading choices are both idiosyncratic and eclectic. Much of my reading is determined by books I get sent to review, which are generally popular science, and some of the rest is governed by things that are easy to read on my Kobo Mini when I travel.

Other books are by people who are already friends either virtually or in meatspace. A few books are suggested by these, and most notably the younger Croxii, who have put some real gems my way. And of course there are those random meetings with books as one is browsing in actual bookshops.

You will, I'm sure have discovered (both of you) that I am rather fond of science fiction, so SF makes up quite a lot of my reading, and always has. My love of SF started when my father read H. G. Wells to me, but was fired by the rising of adolescent sap and the scent of a woman.

I was eleven or twelve years at the time and went to a school far from home in the town where my father worked as a lawyer. After school I'd walk to his office, and was sent upstairs to a garret to do my homework until my father had finished for the day and we could go home. I shared the space with a typist called Margaret who must have been about twenty. All I remember was that she had long, brown hair, and to my just-about-to-be-pubescent state she was absolutely gorgeous. Anyway, Margaret read SF paperbacks in her lunch hours and gave her cast-offs to me. Those old Panther editions of Asimov's Foundation trilogy and Robot stories bore the faintest odours of cigarettes and someone who, might possibly, have been a bad girl. Grrrr. I wonder what happened to her?

In later years my horizons were expanded both at University and beyond, during which I brushed up against Neal Asher, Gregory Benford, Peter F. Hamilton, Frank Herbert, Kim Stanley Robison, Greg Bear, Nalo Hopkinson, Peter Watts, Michael Moorcock, Dan Simmons, China MiƩville, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Mercurio D. Rivera, Ian Watson, Charles Stross, Vernor Vinge, Scarlett Thomas, Justina Robson, Alastair Reynolds, Ursula Le Guin and many others, perhaps the chiefest star in the firmament being the dear departed Iain M. Banks.

When I became an SF editor - of Nature's Futures series - which I was for more than a decade - I had to chance to correspond with and even meet some of these wonderful writers myself. In addition to meeting and corresponding with many of those listed I actually met Arthur C. Clarke (who wrote me a story by return of post), and commissioned - and received - stories from the likes of Barrington Bayley, Harry Harrison and Frederik Pohl.

Please indulge me with a small fanboyish digression. Ahem.


Thank you.

Where was I?

Oh yes.

It also led to my exposure to vastly more excellent SF writers than I dreamed existed, some already deservedly famous, others deserving of far more fame than they have already achieved. Oh, and Professor Trellis of North Wales.

But it struck me recently that many of the great works of SF of the past few decades have yet to pass before my astonied gaze.

Apart from Asimov and Clarke above mentioned, a few of the 'greats' that my memory keeps green are Robert Heinlein's Stranger In A Strange Land; Joe Haldeman's The Forever War; Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light; Gateway by Frederik Pohl; Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz; George R. Stewart's Earth Abides; Brian Aldiss's Helliconia; Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon; James Blish's Cities In Flight; Stapledon's astonishing Star Maker, and, perhaps at the toppermost top, Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination. To anyone wishing for recommendations for SF classics, these would, in my humble opinion, make a fairly stellar reading list.

There are others, though, I have yet to broach.

Quite a few of these have accumulated on my shelves by my assiduous tsundokuismus, and I have resolved this year to tackle some of these books. They include such gems as Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; Pavane by Keith Roberts; Hothouse by Brian Aldiss; Bill the Galactic Hero by Harry Harrison, Ringworld by Larry Niven; The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe; Bug Jack Barron by Norman Spinrad and Wolfbane by Pohl and Kornbluth.  I expect I am missing some Ray Bradbury.

Have you any suggestions? I thank my regular correspondents K. Z. of Finchley and C. F. of Cromer for keeping me well supplied with suggestions and loans of copies, but my lust for the Golden Age has yet to be sated.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New Year, New Dhimmitude

A couple of days ago the Croxii went to the Cromer Enormoplex to see a magic lantern production called Exodus: Gods and Kings. This is an old-style Biblical Epic in the Charlton Heston tradition, all about Moses imploring Pharaoh to Let My People Go, and so on and so forth in like fashion.

Well, we liked it, but thought it inferior to the animated version, The Prince Of Egypt, which, as Crox Minor pointed out, is also a musical, noting in passing that any film can be improved by the interpolation of song and dance, at which I started to sing 'Springtime For Hitler'.

At least we got to see the film, because (in general) we live in a country in which people can choose what films they see. Viewers in a number of Muslim countries will not have the chance. Egypt, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates banned it for what they called 'historical inaccuracies', but, basically, and let's not put too fine a point on this, because the Jews come out on top.

Do we chastise such censorship? Of course not! We get into bed with it. Harper Collins, which is believed to be a publishing company, has recently published school atlases intended for the United Arab Emirates and similar countries in which Israel has been airbrushed out. I include a screenshot here.

The UAE is a country well known for its flagrant abuses of human rights, the persistence of slavery, its abuse of children and so on. Yet we allow its organisations to sponsor our football teams and even our transport infrastructure. And we shall continue to do business with this cruel, blinkered and backward totalitarian dictatorship, even if Israel, a modern, democratic and technologically sophisticated country with a vibrant free press, which is also our ally, a legally established entity and a member of the United Nations, is airbrushed out of history, and never mind the undertones of antisemitism. Did I hear Judenrein?

This picture also illustrates a greater crime - that against truth. By airbrushing out a country with a population of millions, and which exists as a matter of fact, Harper Collins has given itself license to produce creationist biology textbooks to appease (and attract the custom of) school boards in parts of the U. S. and A., and even (as commenter Steve notes below), disc-shaped globes for people who'd rather the Earth was flat.

I believe I have two books on my back list under the Harper Collins banner, at least in the U. K. They are Deep Time and Jacob's Ladder. Please do me a favour by not buying these editions, and looking for U. S. editions instead. I am just now writing to Harper Collins to demand that all rights in these books revert to me, and also asking my agent to set the wheels in motion.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Festive Message

Here is a Festive Message with a difference.

It's from our Latin America Correspondent, A. C. of Santiago de Chile, which, as you might have gathered, is in the Southern Hemisphere.

So, please remember that while we in the North fend off the darkness with cheerful lights, songs and wassails, our colleagues in the Other Half of the World are frying in the midsummer heat.

The caption reads something like


to which is appended

Prolonged Exposure to Ultraviolet Radiation from the Sun is Very Bad For You. 

Presumably the person with the binoculars is trying to spot the few remaining wisps of ozone.

Feliz Navidad!

Monday, December 22, 2014

True Grit?

Boris Johnson, whom posterity will treat as the greatest statesman of this or any other age, has this column in the Torygraph exhorting our friends in the colonies to screen what sounds like a ridiculous film called The Interview in which two jokers assassinate the dictator of North Korea.

I say 'what sounds like' because I haven't seen The Interview myself and it seems I mightn't get the chance. As you will know (because you live in a free country) Sony Pictures, which made this particular farrago, withdrew the film from release after a rather embarrassing cyber attack allegedly from North Korea. So now we shan't be able to go and see this particular flick. I don't think I'd really want to see it, actually, I'd rather go and see The Battle Of The Five Armies or Debbie Does Dereham or a film with Adam Sandler in it or in fact pretty much anything else, but that's not the point. 

I was reflecting on this as the dogs took me for our regular daily constitutional a couple of days ago, and for some reason I cast my mind back to an incident I was too young to remember, but which everyone of my parents' generation remembers as a you-were-there-when-you-heard-it moment, and that was the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962, in which President John F. Kennedy faced down Soviet ruler Krushchev over nuclear missiles to be placed in Cuba, 90 miles from the continental U. S. and A. 

The Cuban Missile Crisis was played out over thirteen agonizing days and was, I am told, the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war. The stakes, as they say, couldn't have been higher. And yet here is a film company in the U. S. and A. backing down before the absurd posturings of a fat oaf with a silly haircut [it takes one to know one - Ed], and President Obama has signally failed to ensure that the film is screened. As Boris Johnson says, the U. S. administration should underwrite the insurance of every picture house where the film is to be screened. Where is the True Grit for which the U. S. and A. was once so widely admirated?

I also remember the day I passed my driving test. It was 1980, I was seventeen (or maybe just eighteen) and on the same day my sister and I went to our local picture house to see Monty Python's Life of Brian.  We lived in a remote country village, and before I passed my driving test, we had to cadge lifts from our parents, our friends' parents, or get the bus - which went every two hours, from a stop that was a mile away down unlit country lanes. So we drove the six miles to the cinema, and, well, the film was all the sweeter because flavoured with the first flush of teenage liberation. 

You might remember that Monty Python's Life of Brian is a satire on religion, but you might have forgotten just how controversial it was. Many religious people (and not just Christians) thought it blasphemous, and the burghers of many towns prevented it from being screened in their areas. One of them, according to a Reliable Source (OK, it's Professor Trellis of North Wales), was Aberystwyth, which reportedly banned the film for decades. It's one of life's ironies that the actress Sue Jones-Davies, who played the character Judith Iscariot in the film (including a memorable scene of full-frontal nudity: remember, I was only just eighteen) later became the Mayor of Aberystwyth and overturned the ban.

The BBC is about to run a radio play about a (fictional) plot to assassinate the former (and late) Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and no-one minds. Americans make films about bumping off Presidents every day of the week. Whereas one might feel a small twinge of sympathy with those who profess to be offended for some reason or other by this item of programming or that (and, I have to say, the twinges are getting smaller all the time) leaders of nation states might be expected to take such stuff in their stride. We should treat the warlike threats from North Korea with the contempt they deserve - as we should any impediment to our ability to watch the films we want, read whatever books we like and talk about them freely.

Happy Christmas!