Eat The Watermelon Pips!


One of those childhood myths adults spread for no apparent reason is that if you eat a watermelon pip it will grow into a watermelon inside you. Well, last night I ate the watermelon pips and I’m fine.

Here is last night’s dinner. I’m not generally one for fad diets, and in fact the idea of a diet is probably a bit flawed. That said, I am currently on what I might describe as a watermelon fast, and this is for dietary reasons. It turns out there is such a thing as a watermelon diet but I had no idea until two days ago when I Googled it. This is an original idea of mine which, like many things such as the filament bulb and the novel ‘Lucifer’s Hammer’, ended up corresponding to other ideas which were floating about in the akashic record or something and got captured by those butterfly nets we call our brains.

Here’s another picture of a watermelon:

There’s something about botanical illustration which is really appealing, and photography is no substitute because it doesn’t represent an ideal version of the plant in question. For instance, a photograph usually wouldn’t include buds, flowers and fruits on the same plant and therefore it’s an art in itself which can’t easily be replaced by photos, something which also applies, for example, to ornithology, where eggs, chicks and summer and winter plumage can all be included in one image. Yesterday I talked about my biological misadventures at Pegwell Bay and my focus on theory rather than getting my sweatshirt covered in stinky mud, and as you may have noticed I find “natural history” -type illustrations have an appeal all of their own beyond the nitty-gritty and messiness of the actual world with fish, beetles and moss in it. I find this rather unfortunate in myself, but maybe you too can see the appeal.

Returning to watermelon pips, yes, you should eat them. Like many other edible seeds they’re high in vitamins and minerals. Even better, if you actually pick them out and allow them to sprout, they become even more nutritious. The mineral content will always be the same, of course, because as far as I know living things can’t transmute elements although some alternative botanists have made that claim and Asimov’s <<Pate de Foie Gras>> depicts a goose who excreted gold transmuted due to having a radioactive liver in its eggs. Nonetheless, one of the things plants are really good at compared to animals is making their own food, and given the availability of ingredients, this means that like sourdough bread, sprouted pulses can be much more nutritious than their undeveloped analogues because they’ve had a chance to synthesise micronutrients.

I used to know a lot of fruitarians, whose diet used to bother me because so far as I could tell no fruit is more than 2% protein by mass and certain B vitamins seemed to be entirely absent from them. However, I used to reassure myself that these people would be okay because they ate the pips. It then turned out they spat them out, which has always struck me as perverse. Why would one eschew such a great source of minerals and other nutrients and just eat the flesh? Which reminds me actually – I now have abandoned watermelon rinds which are also edible, and that’s wasteful. Just for the record then, watermelon pips contain sodium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, iron and copper, and also mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids and B vitamins. And that’s just the pips.

Most of a watermelon is of course the flesh. I once heard it claimed that watermelon flesh wasn’t red until it was exposed to the atmosphere, but I can’t work out if this is a philosophical or botanical point. Clearly there is a sense in which (red) watermelon flesh isn’t red if it’s inside the watermelon, since it isn’t reflecting red light and it’s also the proverbial tree falling in a forest up to the point where it’s exposed, but for all I know, if you were to core a watermelon with a glass tube, maybe it wouldn’t look red at all. However, as I said yesterday, I am not a practical person and I’ve never done anything like this. Incidentally, not all watermelons are red anyway.

The reason they are red is that, like tomatoes, they are high in lycopene. Lycopene is a carotenoid, one of the bright red, orange and yellow pigments which the body can easily convert to vitamin A. As with many other vitamins, this indicates that the idea that a vitamin is a single, fixed compound is flawed. As a vegan all my vitamin A is in the form of carotenoids rather than retinol itself, as found for instance in liver to a sometimes toxic degree. The most efficient carotenoid for such conversion is the beta carotene found in orange carrots, and I presume this is my main source of “vitamin A”. Like vitamins C and E (and vitamin E is probably not a real vitamin either but that’s another story), vitamin A is antioxidant as well as performing other functions such as helping ward off measles and enabling the rod cells of the retina to work, and it does a load of other stuff such as prevent excessive keratin formation in wound healing. Watermelon flesh also contains vitamins B6 and C, and again I would question the idea that vitamin C is ascorbic acid, because it can’t be absorbed without flavonoids, but that’s another story. The flesh is almost completely free of fat, which is a problem for acquiring fatty acids, and also has very little protein, but only being on it for a couple of days shouldn’t do any harm unless someone has a protein-losing condition of some kind.

But the main reason I’m eating watermelon and nothing else right now is that it’s bulky. The pulp is 92% water, and as such is very filling at first without also providing much energy, which in my case will get stored away in adipose tissue a lot. My plan is to pursue the following dietary regimen for a few weeks. On Sundays and Wednesdays I shall prepare my usual pasta salad as illustrated on YouTube, although without the mozzarella since I’ve returned to a plant-based diet since I made that video. This salad, which I make in large quantities, usually lasts me two days each time I make it. My main concern about it is that the glycaemic index of the pasta is rather high, although I’ve recently switched over to wholemeal pasta which will help a bit. Then, on Tuesdays and Fridays I plan to eat just one large watermelon per day. I don’t know how long I’m going to be able to keep this up.

Unfortunately, the fact that I’m now a live-in carer has led to me becoming a bit sedentary. I’ve started to address that with Yoga and have also done a bit of dancing to help exercise. As a young adult, I weighed 61kg for many years. After the children came along, I found my weight crept up, partly for the positive reason that I was hefting them around a lot, pushing pushchairs and so on, but later on for the negative reason that toddlers walk incredibly slowly and require a great deal of patience, so that was a lot of aerobic activity out of the window. Later still, I engaged in a fair degree of comfort eating until some time in 2013 I realised I’d reached 85kg and really should address it. This I did by taking a few simple steps which I’d recommend to others. I mean, they worked for me but that doesn’t mean they are supposed to be a good or practical plan for anyone else. I returned to veganism, gave up frying food, reduced the size of my dinner from four spoonfuls to three, gave up sugar in coffee, cut down my meals to two a day and took up walking to see patients in their homes rather than having them come to see me, which incidentally works really well because you get a better idea of their lifestyle. I also drank carbonated mineral water a lot. I found that in a few months I got down to 69 kg. My lowest weight of all was 67kg, which I achieved in the police cells that December after being arrested in a case of mistaken identity due to not being fed for twenty hours or so.

Unsurprisingly, my weight proceeded to yo-yo back up again later on, largely due to the fact that I am now caring for my father and am therefore stuck in the house a lot not being very physically active. However, I have now come to address that, and in dietary terms that’s going to involve eating a lot of watermelon for a bit. It’s an experiment, but I currently have high hopes for it. I shall also commit myself to dancing more, and of course to Yoga.

Watermelons are members of the Cucurbitaceae, also including cucumbers, courgettes (zucchini), marrows, pumpkins, gourds, squashes, melons, chayote, karela and some odder species such as the squirting cucumber and the British native white bryony. They tend to be easily recognisable because of their large succulent fruits, and they’re often creeping vines. White bryony is quite invasive because of this, and is also poisonous. Being poisonous, it unsurprisingly does have a medicinal use but I’ve never used it personally. It’s a schedule three herb. Karela is also somewhat poisonous but is a useful bitter. At this point though I should remind myself that this is not homeedandherbs even though this post would kind of be at home over there. The cucurbitaceae are also apt for spoonerism: squtternut bosh and kerala come to mind. They also have separate male and female flowers, but on the same plant.

What I’m doing with the watermelon is similar to what I did with the fizzy water: occupying my stomach with volume which is low in energy. An advantage of the fizzy water was that it was cold, meaning that I had to expend calories heating it up to body temperature. The same applies to the watermelon provided it stays in the fridge, but it does contain sugar, though in itself that’s not a bad thing. The main problem with subsisting solely on watermelons would be that in the long term it would lead to kwashiorkor, which is what happens when you get enough calories but not enough protein. This leads to fluid retention because the concentration of protein in the blood vessels falls, and since antibodies are made of protein it also involves depressed specific immune response. Therefore it’s not a good idea to eat watermelons alone if you can avoid it, although apparently there are people who do for subsistence reasons. Kwashiorkor is the classic starving child image with the bloated belly and stick limbs seen in charity appeals. I’m not going to post a picture here because I feel I would fail to respect the people involved.

The idea of a pip germinating and becoming a watermelon inside someone is flawed for all sorts of reasons. One is obviously stomach acid. Most seeds would not survive being dunked in concentrated hydrochloric acid for five hours, which is what happens when you swallow one. Another issue is that a germinating watermelon seed would become a vine before it began to fruit. The inside of the body is also very dark. On the plus side, it’s also a tropical environment which is suitable for watermelon cultivation, which brings up the ethical and environmental issue of eating exotic produce from distant countries, and whereas I have chosen to do this for a bit, I have decided to compromise for now on this. Getting back to the germination issue, it does occasionally happen that seeds grow into plants inside people, one example being a tomato plant growing from a pip in someone’s dentures. I’m not sure why people tell children not to eat watermelon seeds. I can only think it’s to do with fear of intestinal obstruction.

In Victoria Wood’s ‘Mens Sana In Thingummy Doo-Dah’, there’s a character who says she eats raw eggs to help her lose weight, her idea being that the egg eats the food for her. This is the kind of half-remembered nutritional advice which is in a way quite similar to not eating the watermelon pips, and does have some basis in fact. Raw egg does in fact prevent biotin absorption. Biotin is a B vitamin which used to be called Vitamin H, and I find myself quite sad that it’s not still called that because the idea of vitamins corresponding to every letter of the alphabet is quite appealing. I don’t know if people still eat raw eggs as part of a dietary program or not, but one thing they definitely do do is swallow tapeworm eggs, which really do eat your food for you. One possible advantage of doing that would be that it’s likely to give your immune system something to attack, thereby reducing your risk of auto-immune and allergic conditions. Nonetheless most people prefer the idea of closer relatives living inside them than flatworms.

Watermelons are said to take about eighty days to grow from seed to fruit. The largest watermelon I’ve ever actually bought had a diameter of sixty centimetres, and was almost immediately dropped and fell to bits on the pavement due to our daughter and a friend carrying it between them and slipping. It occurs to me that the obstacles to growing a watermelon inside someone’s digestive system would be considerable, particularly one of that size, but I also wonder whether there is any prospect of genetically modifying a flowering plant so that its seeds grow directly into fruit rather than a plant in a hospitable environment. A perfectly spherical watermelon would have a mass of over a hundred kilos, and such watermelons do exist, but they’re generally prolate spheroids – rugby ball shaped. If watermelons could be induced to grow inside people, which is a remarkably far-fetched idea, they could have the advantage of working like tapeworms and absorbing some of the calories and nutrients the host would otherwise be consuming themselves. There would, however, still be a problem with photosynthesis and a suitable site for implantation, and the watermelon would grow around three times as fast as a pregnancy. Nonetheless the “yuck” factor of hosting a fruit is considerably lower than that of hosting an animal parasite. I’m not sure why this is.

Finally, the exhortation “Don’t tell me you know what this is like unless you’ve passed a watermelon”, as uttered by I think Rachel Greene in ‘Friends’ would finally have a comeback, although I suspect most such watermelons would end up being delivered by C section.


Bury My Heart At Pegwell Bay

Most people’s lives probably have incidents in them which are pivotal in one way or another, or maybe even in several ways.  In my case there are of course a number of them, as there would be in lots of people’s, but this one in particular sticks in my mind, much as I stuck in the mud there.


It can’t be denied that Pegwell Bay is an interesting place.  Situated at Cliffsend within a stonesthrow of Ramsgate, it marks the point of arrival of both the Roman invasion of Britain and Hengest and Horsa at the end of Roman Britain.  There used to be a hoverport there before the world decided not to bother being futuristic any more, and there was a time when it was near the Wantsum Channel, the estuary separating the Isle of Thanet from the rest of Kent when it was actually an island as opposed to merely being called one.  Thanet is allegedly called that because of thanatos, death, because the Greeks used to believe you went there when you died, i.e. it was one of the Islands of the Hesperides.  I can confirm that the Dreamland theme park does in fact give quite a good impression of Hell.  But I can’t be too rude about it because several family members live on Thanet, as does one of my friends from uni, partly because it gives him access to the live exports against which he campaigns.  I probably shouldn’t go on about him much either as we don’t get on.

Prefab Sprout said it best (as always):

All my lazy teenage boasts

Are now high-precision ghosts

And they’re coming round the track

To haunt me.

When you’re young, anything seems possible and indeed easy, and it’s only when you get to encounter those pesky niggling practicalities that you come to realise that maybe after all your life is not going to go as smoothly as you feel you have every right to expect.  All those claims you made about what you were going to do with your life come back to bite you on the bum when they turn out to be very difficult or impossible, often because you don’t know yourself as well as you might.

Photo by Pixabay on

My story ‘A Serious Case Of Hiccups’ is partly based on my experience at Pegwell Bay.  In it, a newly qualified marine biologist who has dreamt of scuba diving in Caribbean reefs comes to realise that she has to serve her time sieving through industrial waste from dye plant effluent into a canal looking for evidence of how the waste harms aquatic life before she can get to do the interesting fun stuff.  Each night she goes home purple and can’t scrub it off, but since she has a future in mind, she puts up with it.  Yeah, I’ve never really done that.

Probably my strongest subjects at school were Chemistry, English and biology.  Earlier in my childhood I imagined that I would become a biochemist as an adult, and I still believe I was easily capable of doing that.  However, since I dropped Chemistry just before I would’ve been due to start the O-level, that didn’t happen.  It also annoyed my teachers because I was top of the class by a long way.  Among other things, I had it fixed in my mind that I would never understand what molarity was.  It turned out that my fears were groundless:  a mole is just another name for a particular number, and the apparently daunting prospect of trying to learn about molarity was anything but.  My other motivations were to cover science more thoroughly by choosing physics and biology, the more and less fundamental branches of science whereof chemistry was in the middle, making me feel I could infiltrate it from either end, and to isolate myself from children I felt were a bad influence on me.  Consequently, biology became the only science I continued into A-level.

The trouble was of course that whereas I was fine with the theory, the nitty-gritty of getting down there in the mud utterly repelled me, because science needs to be fundamentally practical.  It’s no good just reading textbooks, and if you’re going to work in the field you need to get your hands dirty.  Getting my hands dirty is something to which I used to be exceedingly averse.  There would have been an issue later on regarding vegetarianism, but at that point I was not veggie.  Oddly, my biology teacher was.

Quick diversion into biochemistry:

Pegwell Bay is a muddy beach.  In the painting above, it can be seen that the upper reaches are sandy, and I find sandy beaches incredibly boring by the way as they’re basically deserts, but since it’s historically the estuary of the Great Stour, it’s mud further down, and that mud is NASTY.  It seems to be impervious to oxygen, and just below the relatively innocent-looking surface it turns black, sticky and stinky.  This is because of anaerobic respiration.  Sediment and decaying organic matter are rich in sulphates, which sulphate-reducing microörganisms use as electron acceptors.  In other words, whereas we breathe oxygen, they breathe sulphates, and they ultimately convert them into hydrogen sulphide as a waste product.  This is quite poisonous to humans and therefore stinks to us, so we avoid it and avoid dying.  It’s a good demonstration of why the sense of smell is so important, as if you couldn’t smell it at low concentrations you would just die.  Presumably the concentrations in Pegwell Bay weren’t high enough to be hazardous to us, but it was also cold and I got tarry mud all over my favourite sweatshirt.  So possibly if I’d had a wet suit on it wouldn’t have set me so much against it.  No, I do not know why I decided to wear my favourite clothes to wallow around in the cold mud, but I was only sixteen.  It did come out in the wash, thankfully.

Hence Pegwell Bay was a pivotal moment in my life.  It was the point at which I realised that I wasn’t cut out for a career in marine biology.  And I don’t know if it was in the teachers’ minds at the time, but the experience did at least teach me a valuable lesson about the contrast between theory and practice.  Another lesson ensued when the limpets who had been marked with nail varnish to track their daily migration up and down the beach, or not, got eaten by sea birds because they were no longer camouflaged, but that was not a particularly vegetarian lesson unfortunately.

“Heart Work” is not usually cardiology or open heart surgery for most people, although I would hope it is for actual cardiologists and open heart surgeons.  It’s occasionally borne in upon me that in an apocalyptic or emergency scenario when for some reason those kinds of health care professionals are unavailable because they’ve all been eaten by zombies or something, it might well come down to me having to operate using a craft knife, and this occasionally bothers me, because although it’s not a likely set of circumstances I very much doubt whether the person who needs me would come out of it alive.  This is because I do know more anatomy, physiology and medicine than the average person but I am very much not a practical person, and even if I were the fact that I haven’t practiced mitral valve repair or whatever would still mean that I’d probably kill them.  Anyway, heart work is what Sarada and I have attempted to pursue for much of our working lives, and is of course why we’re totally skint most of the time.  It’s meaningful work which is not just a job, and is what you’ve been put on this planet to do. Particularly fortunate people, who may though have made their own luck, both do heart work and make a living from it.  In another world marine biology might be my heart work, although I’d expect most marine biologists to be quite sporty people into things like scuba diving and potholing, which I’m emphatically not.  Also, this world is one in which I probably never went vegetarian, so I don’t know who this person is really.  But for me it would be nice work if you can get it.

I have no idea if this is really true or not, but if there’s any validity to the Noble Savage myth, indigenous peoples may primarily engage in heart work.  Not having money as such, they work to live in a much more direct way, and they’re also said to feel a much more direct connection to the land.  I’m wary of stereotyping here, but I too feel a connection to the land of East Kent and the seas around it, even the stinky bits, and of course Čhaŋkpé Ópi Wakpála, or Wounded Knee Creek is a tributary of a significant river just as the Wantsum is of the Great Stour.  The massacre which happened there when the US Cavalry decided the Second Amendment didn’t apply to Black Coyote is on an entirely different scale to a teenager getting covered in mud, but just as the name Wounded Knee has important negative connotations, to me, Pegwell Bay and the former Wantsum Channel was a place where the heart of a marine biologist got buried at low tide, and unlike people who were Indian In a Former Life, I know where I’m from and it still means a lot to me.

It only remains for me to quote Stephen Vincent Benet’s ‘American Names’:

I have fallen in love with American names,
The sharp names that never get fat,
The snakeskin-titles of mining-claims,
The plumed war-bonnet of Medicine Hat,
Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat.

Seine and Piave are silver spoons,
But the spoonbowl-metal is thin and worn,
There are English counties like hunting-tunes
Played on the keys of a postboy’s horn,
But I will remember where I was born.

I will remember Carquinez Straits,
Little French Lick and Lundy’s Lane,
The Yankee ships and the Yankee dates
And the bullet-towns of Calamity Jane.
I will remember Skunktown Plain.

I will fall in love with a Salem tree
And a rawhide quirt from Santa Cruz,
I will get me a bottle of Boston sea
And a blue-gum n****r to sing me blues.
I am tired of loving a foreign muse.

Rue des Martyrs and Bleeding-Heart-Yard,
Senlis, Pisa, and Blindman’s Oast,
It is a magic ghost you guard
But I am sick for a newer ghost,
Harrisburg, Spartanburg, Painted Post.

Henry and John were never so
And Henry and John were always right?
Granted, but when it was time to go
And the tea and the laurels had stood all night,
Did they never watch for Nantucket Light?

I shall not rest quiet in Montparnasse.
I shall not lie easy at Winchelsea.
You may bury my body in Sussex grass,
You may bury my tongue at Champmedy.
I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass.
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.

Korean Is The Answer To Everything

There was a time when I decided that the answer to everything might be Tyvek leggings, but then I realised they would need a drawstring, meaning that they weren’t the answer to keeping themselves up. Nonetheless I think a case can be made for this idea, although the details of it are now rather obscure to me.

Another view is that since 42 is the answer to Life, The Universe and Everything, it must therefore also be the answer to everything. It so happens that numbers are relevant to this post, but not very.

Winston Churchill is said to have had a dream where the answer to everything was that the whole world smells of turpentine. If he had acted on this answer, he probably wouldn’t have helped us win the Second World War, but who knows?

Thisses title makes a similarly ostentatious claim which could easily be shot down in flames. In fact I’ll do it myself. Korean is not the answer to everything. I don’t really even know any Korean in fact, so you might find yourself asking, why make that claim? The answer lies in shorthand and Lord Of The Rings, among other places.

Pitman Shorthand, apart from being the script used by Vogons, was probably the most popular form of shorthand for writing the English language. It has now been superceded, as have so many other things, by the onward march of Information Technology and is now a useless skill as far as I know. I tried to learn it back in the day, but found two things too hard to handle. One was the fact that it’s written on alternate lines, which made me feel like I was wasting paper. The other, which was far more serious, was that it involved light and heavy pressure with a pencil, and in the Before Time I found this impossible to achieve, so along with not being able to knit, I couldn’t write it. It so happened that my note form turned out to be faster and more economical than Pitman Shorthand in any case, partly due to the use of single symbols for words, borrowed from Blissymbols and formal logic, so the only problem was the illegibility of my handwriting to others, which in some cases would be a good thing as it would preserve privacy.

The basic ideas of Pitman shorthand are based on Arabic. Consonants are simple strokes and vowels are marks made near those strokes and can often be omitted. This is the same as the principles of Arabic script, although it’s a more suitable system for Arabic than English because vowels have a different role in that language. It’s already separated vowels from consonants, and is therefore, unlike Latin, a featural script. It’s also featural in that it distinguishes between voiced and unvoiced consonants with heavy and light pencil pressure respectively. To me, apart from this being impossible, this is counterintuitive because B is a softer sound than P and so on. The only difference between B and P, J and CH and so forth in Pitman shorthand is the pressure used to write them. Embodying this feature in the strokes themselves is a good idea. Doing it that way round, however, is not, and it made it unwritable to me. Nowadays I would be able to write it but this is not the Before Time, and in the After Time nobody needs to use it, so it would be pointless.

The interesting aspects of this are that the form of the marks on the paper are a clue to what they sound like. This is not true of our Latin alphabet, where for example vowels and consonants are each of the same form. They are historically all consonants, and before that ideograms – signs meaning words. For instance, O is the strangled sound found in Hebrew and Arabic and represents an eye, A is a former glottal stop and is an upside down picture of an oxen head, B is a house and M is the wavy surface of water. This would’ve been helpful in a language whose words for those things began with those sounds, and before it was an alphabet it would’ve been even more useful because the shapes would just have been simple drawings of the objects they represented, but it’s now been completely useless in that respect for something like three thousand years, which is a shame.

Isaac Pitman came up with his system in 1837.  Around the same time, inspired by both the Cherokee syllabary and Pitman’s script, the missionary James Evans invented a script to write the Ojibwe language, which had features in common with the shorthand.  It was designed to be easy to learn and looks like this:


The top row represents the vowels A, E, I and O from left to right and each row below that is a consonant followed by a vowel, the orientation determining the vowel involved.  It’s a neat script in a way but I imagine some dyslexics would find it very hard to use.  This script was later adapted for various languages spoken in North America, including Inuktitut and Cree, hence the name “Cree Syllabics”.

A fantasy version of a featural script is of course Tolkien’s Tengwar.  This is the script in which the inscription on the Ring is written:


Tengwar is so famous that it’s not necessary to go into how it works except to make the observation that it’s even more of a featural script than the others which I’ve already mentioned.  To be honest, while I respect people’s right to like what they want, I find the linguistic aspects of Tolkien’s work to be the only interesting part of it and feel the same way as C S Lewis allegedly did when on looking into Tolkien’s ‘Lord Of The Rings’ pronounced “Oh no!  Not another f****** elf!”.  That said, Tengwar, Quenya, Sindarin and the Cirth, whereof the last incidentally also have featural aspects although it’s a bit irritating that they look like runes but aren’t, are clearly works of genius and I understand the motive of wanting to give constructed languages a culture, which I feel Esperanto needs and could have in the form of the Galactic Association’s Genesis.

This finally brings me to Korean!  The western stereotype of Far Eastern written languages is that they all look like Chinese, and have characters for each word.  Although this has historically tended to be the case, and they do indeed look like Chinese in the sense that the penmanship is similar, but it’s also true historically, for example, that Chinese has itself been written using the Arabic script, that there was a secret syllabary invented by ladies at the Emperor’s court and that Chinese dialects frequently “cheat” by having words which can only be used together, which are therefore two-syllable words which are represented by more than one character, an example being 我們, meaning “we” (I use traditional rather than simplified Chinese incidentally, because I learnt it from books published in the first half of the twentieth century).  Japanese uses three scripts simultaneously, including 漢字 (kanji), arguably more.  Other languages are often completely Romanised nowadays, such as Vietnamese with its rather clumsy system of diacritics.

The history of Korean writing is rather interesting.  Although like other languages in the region it was formerly written using Chinese characters along with some other more phonetic scripts which I think used the sounds of the Chinese words to represent Korean words, this changed in the fifteenth Christian century when King Sejong the Great is said to have invented Hangul (한글).  I’m not personally convinced he invented it any more than I am that Henry VIII wrote “Pastime With Good Company”, but however it came to be, it’s a masterpiece of clarity and logic even compared to other featural scripts, for it is such.  Not only does it use features of the sounds it represents, but it actually uses the shapes made by the speech organs to represent them pictorially.  Although I’ve been aware of this for a while, recently something clicked and I now see a page of Korean writing as a series of pictorial instructions on how to pronounce the sounds intended.  This isn’t strictly true, but it’s more so than with most other alphabets.  Here, for example, are the lyrics for ‘Gangnam Style’:

오빤 강남스타일
낮에는 따사로운 인간적인 여자
커피 한잔의 여유를 아는 품격 있는 여자
밤이 오면 심장이 뜨거워지는 여자
그런 반전 있는 여자
나는 사나이
낮에는 너만큼 따사로운 그런 사나이
커피 식기도 전에 원샷 때리는 사나이
밤이 오면 심장이 터져버리는 사나이
그런 사나이
아름다워 사랑스러워
그래 너 hey 그래 바로 너 hey
아름다워 사랑스러워
그래 너 hey 그래 바로 너 hey
지금부터 갈 때까지 가볼까
오빤 강남스타일
강남스타일 오-오-오-오 오빤강남스타일
강남스타일 오-오-오-오 오빤강남스타일
Eh, sexy lady
오-오-오-오 오빤 강남스타일
Eh, sexy lady
정숙해 보이지만 놀 땐 노는 여자
이때다 싶으면 묶었던 머리 푸는 여자
가렸지만 웬만한 노출보다 야한 여자
그런 감각적인 여자
나는 사나이
점잖아 보이지만 놀 땐 노는 사나이
때가 되면 완전 미쳐버리는 사나이
근육보다 사상이 울퉁불퉁한 사나이
그런 사나이
아름다워 사랑스러워
그래 너 hey 그래 바로 너 hey
아름다워 사랑스러워
그래 너 hey 그래 바로 너 hey
지금부터 갈 데까지 가볼까
오빤 강남 스타일
강남스타일 오-오-오-오 오빤 강남스타일
강남스타일 오-오-오-오 오빤 강남스타일
Eh, sexy lady
오-오-오-오 오빤 강남스타일
Eh, sexy lady
뛰는 놈 그 위에 나는 놈
Baby baby, 나는 뭘 좀 아는 놈
뛰는 놈 그 위에 나는 놈
Baby baby, 나는 뭘 좀 아는 놈
(You know what I’m sayin’?)
오빤 강남스타일
Eh, sexy lady
오-오-오-오 오빤 강남스타일
Eh, sexy lady
오-오-오-오 오빤 강남스타일
오빤 강남스타일

This is the Korean alphabet:


Before I realised the connection between the forms of the letters and the shape of the mouth, I tried to learn this just as a series of symbols and didn’t do very well for two reasons.  One was that Korean Romanisation is very confusing.  There are several systems and they don’t represent the sounds of the language very well.  Then again, considering the near-perfect nature of Hangul, there’s every excuse for not bothering to do so.  The other is that one quickly runs up against the enigmatic second row of consonants, with the doubled forms.  You’ll notice that I haven’t written Roman equivalents of them next to them, and this is for a very good reason.  Amazingly, nobody really knows how they’re pronounced!  Koreans pronounce them perfectly well of course, but linguists can’t agree on what they’re actually doing to say this.  Whereas this might initially sound quite absurd, I think the English clear and dark L’s work well as an illustration of how this might happen.  The English clear L is the one which occurs at the start of a word and between vowels, as many residents of Leighton Buzzard would say the L in the name of their town and in the word “allegation”, and the dark L, which is often pronounced as a vowel nowadays in Southern English English, is the one in “Alldred” and “kill”.  Whereas it’s quite easy to work out that a P is an explosion of the lips after a build-up of breath behind them and an S is what you get when you place your tongue at the front of the roof of your mouth without touching your teeth and exhale through your mouth, I personally would’ve had no idea how either L was said, even though I could pronounce them perfectly well.  It’s feasible that linguistic knowledge has not yet advanced to the point where the tense consonants of Korean are actually known to science.  Anyway, the upshot of this was that I always ground to a halt after the second row in the above image.

Arranging them the way they are up there, though, illustrates the similarity between the forms which are pronounced in the same parts of the mouth.  For instance, G, which is not like the English hard G by the way but let’s not confuse things for now, shows a horizontal line representing the roof of the mouth and front of the tongue with the back of the tongue as a vertical line reaching up to touch it on the right.  N shows the tongue tip pointing up just behind the teeth.  D and G both show that the passage to the nose is closed with their vertical line at the top.  M shows a pair of lips closed.  S shows the tongue tip leaving a gap behind and in front which allows breath to escape in a hiss.  Incidentally, although this is the basis of the fundamental sounds on the first row, the script proceeds to do different things with these basic forms which are less representative, such as doubling them.  The O-like letter should also be mentioned.  At the beginning of a syllable it represents the absence of a consonant, but at the end it’s a “NG” sound as in “thing”.  Nonetheless it kind of makes sense that it looks like a zero – a circle around an empty space representing silence.

The vowels are a different matter.  The “I” is straightforward for speakers of languages written in the Latin script because it’s both the same sound and shape as Korean.  However, the principle of the vowels is a bit idiosyncratic.  The horizontal line represents “earth”, the vertical line a human standing up (in tadasana) and the tick, which used to be a dot, “heaven”.  These are combined to form the vowels, and although it’s systematic, with two dots for vowels beginning with what English speakers would call a Y sound and so on, they aren’t anything like as obvious as the consonants, which is a pity.

Although Hangul is written left to right like Latin is nowadays, its sounds are also grouped into syllables.  Hence it can be seen that the word “Hangul” itself looks as if it’s two complex characters next to each other:


The top left letter is an H, with the A to its right, upon an N.  To their right is a G, below which is a U (without rounded lips, so officially “eu”, and finally an L/R stands at the bottom.  The characters are grouped like the internal arrangements of Chinese characters.  Their strokes are also written top to bottom and left to right like those of Chinese characters, meaning that although this is an alphabetic script it retains the flavour of other Far Eastern forms of writing.  Although attempts have been made to turn Korean into a purely left-to-right alphabet, they didn’t catch on.  Mayan and Egyptian Hieroglyphics were also written in a similar way to this, so there clearly is something about the nature of writing which lends itself to being done like this.  The Elian constructed script also works like this, and it makes the writing very compact compared to Latin.

I would imagine that Korean children learn to read and write more quickly than most children using the Latin alphabet, although I don’t know if this is the case, and the question arises of whether such an apparently simple and logical alphabet can be used for other languages.  In fact, Korean is used for two other languages.  On Jeju Island (제주도), the largest Korean island south of the peninsula, a dialect is spoken which some regard as a separate language.  For instance it uses an O sound as found in Southern English English “hot”, represented by a dot.  There’s also an Austronesian (same family as Malay, Maori and Hawai’an) language spoken in Indonesia called (Bahasa) Cia-Cia, 하사 찌아찌아, which is sometimes written in Hangul, although the project to adopt it wholesale foundered.  It’s also been suggested that it should be used for the language of the indigenous people of Japan, the Ainu, because currently Ainu is written using the Japanese kanas which are oriented towards alternating consonants and vowels, such as “Yo-ko-ha-ma” and “ta-be-sa-se-ra-re-ru”, whereas Ainu words often end in various consonants.  However, Ainu is now practically extinct and has fewer than twenty speakers and about three hundred people who can understand it, so it’s a moot point really.

There are substantial practical difficulties in using Hangul with other languages because Korean seems to be a linguistic isolate, i.e. it’s unrelated to any other languages unless Jeju is counted as a language.  This part of the world seems to specialise in linguistic isolates in fact, because Japanese, Korean and Ainu all seem to be unrelated to any other language.  It doesn’t necessarily follow, but in the case of Korean this has meant that the sounds of the language are quite unusual, although there’s also an overlap with other languages spoken in the region.  In fact, startlingly, Korean actually shares a very unusual vowel sound with Southern English English.  The name of the company “Samsung” was Romanised using an older system than the current one (actually there are two due to the failure of North and South Korea to agree on a final draft of the standard, but they’re very similar), and the U in it might be expected to be pronounced either as it would be in Romanised Japanese, with a flattened “oo” sound, or as a short or long U sound as found in many other languages such as German, Russian, Italian and so forth.  In fact it’s pronounced with a U as in the Southern “cut”, and in fact this is as far as I know the only other widely spoken language which has that vowel.  The current Romanisation system would have insisted on it being spelt “SAMSEONG”, but personal names and the names of older companies are exempt from this standard.  The presence of the short O in Jeju, again as found in Southern English, and what I’m calling the “flattened” U sound written as “EU” in the Romanisation, again brings Hangul into harmony with Southern English, since the long “u” used in “moon” and “room” by two members of my family among others, though not in my accent, is that “Japanese” U.  I presume this has something to do with maintaining enough distinctions between vowels for the languages to be understood properly and that it’s a form of convergent evolution, like Tasmanian wolves and the placental wolves of the Northern Hemisphere.

This convergent evolution phenomenon also seems to apply to Korean in other ways.  It has long vexed comparative linguists how to fit Korean into the scheme of world languages.  For a while, Japanese and Korean were seen as two members of a family which had no other surviving representatives.  There seems to be some historical evidence for this, as the speakers of the ancestral Japanese language do seem to have lived on the Korean peninsula before they left for Japan (and displaced the Ainu).  This was sometimes made into part of a greater scheme where the two languages were themselves seen as part of the larger Altaic language family, which included Turkish, Mongolian and Azerbaijani, among others.  There have even been claims of a bigger language family labelled Ural-Altaic, which also includes Finnish, Saami and Hungarian.  However, all this has now gone down the tubes because it turns out that although Mongolian, Turkish and Manchu seem to share similar words, sounds and grammar, their oldest forms were less similar than they are today and both Manchu and Mongolian and Mongolian and Turkish share features with each other but not Manchu and Turkish.  Therefore Altaic languages are now seen as a Sprachbund – a group of unrelated languages which have grown closer together through contact or the influence of other languages.  This means that Altaic is more like a tendency for languages in general than genetic relationship.  I suspect, for example, that the Quechua language, as spoken in Peru now and formerly by the Inca civilisation, could have been squeezed into the Altaic family if its location in South America as opposed to Asia was ignored.

This means, though, that Korean not only has a remarkably logical and straightforward alphabet but also is close to what might be termed the “standard human language”, which, for example, puts verbs at the ends of clauses, has no grammatical gender and uses postpositions rather than prepositions, which weirdly means that this language isolate is actually one of the most “normal” languages.

Something like sixty percent of Korean words are borrowed from Mandarin Chinese, which again makes it difficult to classify because most of its original vocabulary has disappeared, although it also makes it easier to learn for someone who already knows some Mandarin or Japanese, which like Korean has borrowed many Chinese words.  This has led to some unusual features, such as having two separate counting systems used in different circumstances.  The numerals derived from Chinese, known like the rest of Chinese vocabulary as “Sino-Korean” are used to count some items and the native Korean numerals are used to count others.  This is reminiscent of the numerical coefficient system widespread in Far Eastern languages, where a special word is used to indicate different classes of objects when they’re counted, which exists in English in a basic form with phrases such as “fifteen head of cattle”, and in fact the use of a phrase such as “a dozen eggs” is similar to this system – we use a French word for “twelve” when we count eggs.  Now because I don’t know much Korean, I don’t know how these circumstances differ.  Google Translate tells me that the Korean for “forty-two” is “마흔 둘”, which is from the native Korean set of cardinal numbers.  The Sino-Korean version of that might be something like “사십 이”.  So my Ultimate Question now is:  “Which form of ‘forty-two’ does the Korean translation of ‘The Hitch-Hiker’s’ Guide To The Galaxy’ use and why?”.  Because that’s the answer to everything in the “perfect” Korean language.

The Hitch-Hiker Galaxy

Having looked at a few aspects of the real Milky Way Galaxy, I got the impression that it’s actually quite an alien place to me even though it’s our home galaxy. One reason for this is probably that one gets comfortable with the circumstances of one’s youth and as one ages, things begin to irk one as an affront to the natural order of things. To some extent this is not at all good because ideas and developments shouldn’t be rejected just because they’re new. I expect there’s an evolutionary reason for this happening though, in the sense that we are supposed to acquire wisdom as we get older in order to be able to advise the tribe as to what will or won’t work. This is probably why the menopause exists, for example. Grandmothers need to be in an advisory capacity.

Douglas Adams made this observation himself in his inimitable way:

1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

When I was young, various things had yet to be discovered about this Galaxy, such as the supermassive black hole at its centre and the probability that it was a barred spiral. I don’t think the satellite galaxy known as the Sagittarius Dwarf Spheroidal Galaxy had been discovered either. Then again, maybe it was just me who didn’t know about all that stuff, because for example it’s been suspected that we’re all living in a barred spiral since the 1960s, but I had little idea about that.

Knowledge abhors a vacuum, at least in my case, and consequently imagination tends to try to fill in the gaps. Regarding the Galaxy, Asimov was the first person to provide me with this service in the form of the then ‘Foundation Trilogy’ and its associated fiction, which at the time of reading was mercifully nothing more than the three books. Asimov is known for tending to exclude aliens from his fiction, partly to avoid conflict with his perhaps rather racist editor John W Campbell, and consequently his Galaxy has only two species of intelligent life form in it, humans and Cepheids, the latter of which were moved bureaucratically and surreptitiously into the Magellanic Clouds. Asimov’s galaxy is rather boring. It has plenty of habitable planets but most of them are devoid of complex organisms and it eventually emerges that this is because time travellers have manipulated history to find a possible galaxy without aliens because humans were excluded from interstellar travel by them owing to it taking such a long time to develop efficient space travel that the aliens had filled it by the time we managed to escape our Solar System. Nonetheless he did manage to create some points of interest in his Galaxy, notably the completely city-covered planet Trantor which was the capital of the Galactic Empire. Oddly, the stats for this planet don’t work out because it has a population of 40 thousand million and a land surface area of 194 million square kilometres, giving it a density of about two hundred people per km², about that of Italy today. All the city states have around ten times that density or more, so this doesn’t work out.

In ’78 ‘The Hitch-Hiker’s’ Guide To The Galaxy’ came along. At first I was most unkeen on it because I took things so seriously back then and hated the idea of humorous science fiction. This is a theme at this point in my life, and probably that of many other children. Within a year and a half, however, I’d become totally taken by the series and proceeded to revise my fantasy projection of the Galaxy to Adams’ version. There are limits to this because he was no scientist and was writing P G Wodehouse-type comedy, and Rule Of Funny conquers much in his universe along with a strong satirical element, but even so, the Hitch-Hiker Galaxy has discernible features which can be taken relatively seriously. It’s a consistent universe whose various aspects can be scrutinised.

Unlike some other fictional universes, Douglas Adams is worthy of the name because it is an actual universe, though mainly focussed on this galaxy. It’s probably worth looking at his depiction of the Universe first, and there are obviously going to be spoilers all the way through this so you have been warned, though the chances are you have long since been exposed to the series in one incarnation or another.

The Hitch-Hiker Universe is described as having been “created” in the Big Bang, which we can probably presume took place around twenty-five thousand million years ago. There is a restaurant at the beginning of the Universe called the Big Bang Burger Bar at which Max Quordlepleen entertains guests. It isn’t clear how this works, and I’ll come back to that after I’ve recounted the history of the Universe. A few nanoseconds after the Big Bang, all deities come into existence. Then there’s an apparent contradiction because the Universe is described as infinite in extent but nonetheless originated in the Big Bang, so it’s unclear how this works either. Various other things happen, such as the Silastic Armourfiends of Striterax, who lived about twenty thousand million years ago, implying that the Universe is older than current Earth science says it is, and eventually the Galactic Empire appears and has planets manufactured for it by the Magratheans. Then the mice commission Earth from them to calculate the Question to the Ultimate Answer, it gets colonised by the Golgafrinchans, demolished by the Vogons to prevent happiness from breaking out, reappears a few years later and is finally destroyed again a few years after that. Then, after most of the stars have burnt out when the Universe is 576 thousand million years old, the Restaurant At The End Of The Universe is established on the ruins of Magrathea and the Universe collapses in a Big Crunch.

A few issues emerge from this. One is the probably deliberately flawed treatment of infinity by the series. Infinity is seen as simply one more than the greatest finite integer and there is also a highest prime number. This is probably for humorous effect. It comes up twice. Once the Infinite Improbability Drive runs at an improbability factor of (2^∞)-1, and once the population of the Universe is said to be zero because not all of the infinite number of planets are inhabited, so there are a finite number of inhabited planets. There’s fun with maths in various other ways as well, such as the ability for accountancy to prove that space is bent rather than just curved and the behaviour of numbers on restaurant bills as a new branch of mathematics. Incidentally, space in Hitch Hiker’s’ is multidimensional but also appears to be Euclidean, since it’s infinite. This is not like Einstein’s universe.

Now for the Galaxy itself, where most of the action happens. This has two arms and a diameter of half a million light years, which is not like the real Milky Way with its multiple arms and diameter of “only” a hundred thousand light years. The Western spiral arm is less trendy and more of a backwater than the Eastern, and is the location of Earth. However, there are still trendy places in the Eastern arm such as Ursa Minor Beta. From this the question arises of how there can be western and eastern ends of a galaxy. There are in reality Galactic North and South Poles. The real Galactic North Pole is in the constellation Coma Berenices, or “Berenice’s Hair”, and the South Pole is in Sculptor. However, east and west don’t really work and would be arbitrarily allocated although it suggests the arms originate a semicircle apart and each describes at most 180 degrees. The problem with that, though, is that they cease to mean east and west at that point and therefore the Babel Fish is kind of lying to us.

Speaking of the Babel Fish, I’ve noted before that Star Trek’s explanation of the Universal Translator is similar to how the Babel Fish is said to work. I have had thoughts about the Babel Fish and once wrote an essay about it. In said essay, I decided the Babel Fish is from Santraginus V, and that there is a gigantic brain in the planet’s ocean whose brain “cells” are individual corals in reefs. The Babel Fish act as neurotransmitters in this ecosystem, conveying nerve impulses between corals, which is why they feed on brain wave energy. The sea water of Santraginus V is one of the ingredients of the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster, and I choose to conclude that it’s high in alcohol, probably ethanol. The question is whether it’s possible for a planet to have oceans with a high alcohol content, and oddly the answer may in fact be yes, although it may or may not include ethanol.

There are various clouds of unusual composition in the Milky Way, including one in the constellation of Aquila which is mainly methanol, that is, wood alcohol, the stuff that makes you go blind because there’s an enzyme in the retina which converts it to formaldehyde and pickles your eyes, another called Sagittarius B2 which is again mainly methanol, and one surrounding a stellar nursery which is raspberry flavoured and smells of rum. I’m not kidding. Just as there are lots of water molecules, carbon monoxide, cyanide ions and other fairly simple molecules in clouds in space, so is there methanol, a simple compound made up of six atoms, and to a lesser extent ethanol, composed of nine. It doesn’t stretch credulity too far to imagine a planet forming in the vicinity of one of these clouds whose ocean would be high in alcohol of one kind or another, although it would be more likely to contain methanol than ethanol and also to contain a mixture of other simple substances, many of which could be highly poisonous such as cyanides and formaldehyde. However, since we’re talking alien biochemistry here that may not be a problem for any life found on that planet. Incidentally when I say “planet”, I’m including large moons in that. Nonetheless, alcoholic sea water seems possible.

Like many other works of science fiction, H2G2 has a tendency to refer to well-known stars. The problem with this is that they are usually well-known because they’re large. Real stars mentioned include Alpha Centauri, Barnard’s Star, Sirius, Vega, Arcturus, Algol (Algolian Suntiger tooth being another Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster ingredient), Betelgeuse, Aldebaran and probably Beta Ursae Minoris, which is of course Ursa Minor Beta in the wrong order. Most of these stars are unsuitable for life-bearing planets, but authors often have a quandary because they want to name well-known stars in their stories and the famous ones are usually also the brightest, which often means they’re too powerful or short-lived to have time for life to appear and evolve in their systems. Beta Ursae Minoris is four hundred times as bright as the Sun, for example. Then again, it is portrayed as very sunny! It’s possible that artificial environments could have been created and stocked with life, perhaps by the Magratheans, but this is not what we’re told. Alpha Centauri and Barnard’s Star, however, are entirely feasible. Golgafrincham is also probably fairly close since space arks with frozen people on board is primitive technology by Galactic standards and they were probably not travelling faster than light. The other thing is that when a planet has a strange name it’s likely not to be near us, even within a thousand light years, and we can safely assume, for the sake of balance, that its primary is a Sun-like star because who is there to contradict us?

Then there’s the question of life forms. Mercifully, although most of the intelligent beings we meet are humanoid, many aren’t, including the Vogons. Some of them are exceedingly exotic, such as the Hooloovoo, who are a superintelligent shade of the colour blue. There’s also a running joke about Arcturan megafauna: everything on Arcturus seems to be an Arcturan Mega-something. It’s actually possible to make an educated guess about this. Kakrafoon Kappa is probably in the Arcturan system. Two million years ago, the Belcerebron people of that planet, which I presume is the tenth planet in that system as Kappa is the tenth letter of the Greek alphabet, held a Disaster Area concert in order to wipe out their ability to hear each others’ thoughts, and one of the uses of a towel listed is to shelter from Arcturan Megagnats in the desert of Kakrafoon Kappa. This makes it very likely that the sun into which Disaster Area plunged its spaceship was Arcturus, which is a red giant star in the process of moving through this galactic arm and previously part of the Halo. Arcturus used to be a Sun-like star so maybe the Belcerebrons were spiritually very enlightened because they were a very old race which had had a long time to evolve. It’s still mysterious why all the animals are so big.

Clearly I’ve overthought all this (and incientally I even have an Ultimate Question which I think works) but I’ve had a long time to do it.

Avenue Of Stars


(Buy this album here).  I think I had a minor epiphany this morning regarding the phrase “Avenue Of Stars” which is the title of the eighth track on the above Prefab Sprout album.  I realised I’d read it before as a child of about seven in a copy of ‘Puffin Post’.  For probably the majority of people who don’t know what that is, in 1967 Kaye Webb of Puffin Books, the children’s imprint of Penguin, started this book magazine for children, which continued until 2009 although intermittently in latter days.  It had all sorts of interesting stuff in it as well as being a shop window for Puffin publications, including a comic strip which was entirely in oghams in one issue (the Q-Celtic script which looks like this:


), another strip with a character calleROYGBI and a planet called Sosij, which was naturally sausage-shaped.  My memories of it are a little faded but I do know I was seven when I started receiving it in 1974 and continued to do so up until at least 1977.

Part of its remit seemed to be the encouragement of future authors and poets, which it did by publishing readers’ work in its pages, including poems.  This morning I had a sudden flashback to a poem I read in it, not sure when, about stars and galaxies.  In it was the phrase “Avenue Of Stars”.  For some reason, in spite of my considerable keenness on Prefab Sprout and the other activities of their front man Paddy McAloon, it’s taken me nineteen years to make the connection between the occurrence of that phrase in that poem and its cropping up on ‘Andromeda Heights’.  I’m now wondering if that poem is by him, but it’s very unlikely I’ll ever know for sure, which indicates that although we may have the internet at our behest nowadays, it can’t answer everything.  However, as the guy is exactly eight days older than Sarada he would’ve been at least seventeen when he wrote it, which doesn’t sound right, although he might have stolen the phrase, or it could just have been coincidence.

There are a lot of Prefab Sprout songs which refer to astronomy and celestial and heavenly bodies.  ‘Life’s A Miracle’ and ‘Technique’ spring to mind as well as ‘Andromeda Heights’ itself and the aforementioned ‘Avenue Of Stars’.  However, his references to the sky are unlike those of astronomy as such, and usually take a more romantic route, and as I’ve mentioned before we tend to project all sorts of stuff onto the stars, having done so for millennia.

Nevertheless there are avenues of stars other than and more literal than the one in Hollywood or the songs of Prefab Sprout, and in this poem the avenue was also meant more literally.  Here’s the Grand Design Whirlpool Galaxy:

Those arms are the poem’s avenues. In my mind, when I read the poem I imagined an avenue punctuated by stars like street lamps, which is probably the poet’s (Paddy’s?) intention – galaxies as vast cities with starlit streets spiralling into their hearts.  Then again I find it tempting to push McAloon, like Bowie, in directions he doesn’t want to go, usually accompanied by excess literalism.

At the time the poem was written, astronomers seemed to believe that our own Milky Way was a Grand Design spiral like the one above.  The Whirlpool Galaxy, M51, crops up in popular culture a number of times, being quite charismatic, such as in the Homeworld series of video games.  The ‘Star Wars’ Galaxy also resembles it quite closely although there are many such spirals in the Universe.

The Milky Way, it was recently found, is actually a barred spiral like NGC 1300:


which is 69 million light years away in the constellation of Eridanus.  I’m not sure when astronomers changed their minds about the shape of the Milky Way although I suspect it was this century.  The evidence is as follows:

  • The brightness of the Milky Way is asymmetrical in the sky in such a way as could be explained by a bar.
  • Gas velocities towards the centre don’t change smoothly along a graph curve as would be expected if the spiral carried on all the way into the centre.
  • Stars near us move at a velocity which suggests their orbits round the Milky Way are influenced by the gravity of a bar structure of this kind.

Now might be a good time to introduce the “Tuning Fork” diagram:


This is not supposed to be a temporal order, with younger galaxies becoming older from left to right, but simply a way of classifying them.  Edwin Hubble came up with this, and it indicates a fact about what kind of galaxies are generally seen.  There are two main types.  One tends to have lots of blue stars and stars are still forming in them, and to be spiral-shaped.  The other is elliptical, larger, full of red stars and without new stars forming.  Spirals are thin, have closer-packed stars and rotate fast like Catharine wheels, although it should also be mentioned that that rotation is the clumping of stars rather than the actual rotation of stars in arms.  Elliptical galaxies have randomly distributed star orbits, so they are basically fairly formless swarms of stars moving in ellipses of different tilts, sizes and eccentricity.  They seem to form by swallowing up other galaxies, and are less dusty or rich in gas than spirals.  They can also be incredibly sparse compared to them.


If we were on the other side of the Milky Way, this galaxy, Maffei 1, would be the brightest and largest in the sky to us.  As it stands, it’s near the Zone Of Avoidance, which is the cone extending across the Universe where we can see nothing due to the dark clouds towards the centre of our own Galaxy, which make it more than seventy times dimmer than it would otherwise be.  It’s an elliptical galaxy so sparse that if Earth was in it we’d only be able to see about three stars in our sky.  All the rest would be too far away.

Our own Milky Way is thought to be an SBc-type galaxy as shown in the Tuning Fork Diagram.  Being a spiral it will tend to be dustier, have more gas and have more new stars forming than in an elliptical one.  This raises the question of whether there’s anything else special about our galaxy, since it’s the only one known to have life in it.  The lack of dust, gas and new stars in elliptical galaxies means there aren’t many planets in them and the orbits could also mean that the stars are passing in and out of hostile zones where there is too much radiation for life to survive, or at least life as we know it.  Another question might be what this galaxy being more hospitable to life would actually mean.  Does it mean that it’s lucky enough in that respect to have one world in it with life on it, or does it mean that there might be one world in Maffei 1, for example, with life on it but countless such orbs here?

A Grand Design spiral galaxy, whereof about one in ten spirals is, has the neat property of its arms being Golden Spirals.  This means they are based on this plan:


This is based on the Fibonacci sequence, each of whose numbers is the sum of the two previous numbers, so it goes: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 and so on.  A Golden spiral can be drawn on graph paper thus.  Take a 1 x 1 square near the centre and draw a quarter circle between diagonally opposite corners.  Do the same again with an adjacent square of the same size to form a semicircle.  Then do the same with a quarter circle 2 x 2 units in size which shares an edge with the first two squares, then with a 3 x 3 square next to those, then a 5 x 5 one and so on.  This will produce a Golden spiral, whose construction is probably clearer in the above diagram.  Hurricanes are another non-living example of a structure with these spirals in them, and so are the 10% of spiral galaxies which are of the more swirly form.  Clearly this isn’t an exact representation because there would be “kinks” in such a shape due to the fact that a quarter circle of, say, radius 5 is not going to transition smoothly into one of radius 8, but a neater way of doing it exists based on the Golden Section and the constant φ.  Φ is the number equivalent to one divided by φ plus one, in other words it’s 1.6180339987…, and the reciprocal is 0.6180339987…  .  This means the position of a galactic arm can be predicted if one knows the distance to the centre of a Grand Design spiral and is in one of the spiral arms.  If we were in such a galaxy, and in one of the main arms, we could easily do this calculation.  We’re currently about 27 000 light years from galactic central point, as the song has it, meaning that one quadrant away from us in one direction the galactic arm would be about 16 200 light years away from it, and one quadrant in the other direction it would be about 43 700 light years from it, making it near the edge of the Milky Way because it has a diameter of around 100 000 light years.  That would also mean that the arm has sunk into the dark clouds on the other side, since they are 7 000 light years inward from us.


There are a few problems with this.  One is that, as I’ve said, we’re a barred spiral and another is that we’re not on a main arm but the Orion-Cygnus Arm, formerly known as the Orion Spur due to it being a branch of a larger arm, and here known as the “Local Arm”.

A region of massive star formation about 6,000 light years from Earth in the Perseus arm of the Milky Way.
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Another issue is what a superimposed Golden Spiral would actually indicate.  Would it be the centre of an Arm, one side of it or would the Arm tend to wander about a bit, being mainly on one side in some places and another in others?

Barred spirals are a sign of ageing in galaxies.  Early in their history, spirals tend to be Grand Design and they gradually develop bars as time passes.  Therefore they could be seen as a sign of entropy and it might be expected that the initial Fibonacci neatness of a spiral would start to decay as this happens.  Rather than pontificate about it, the way to address this is quite simple:  measure the spirals.


This is a ratio of exactly 2.  Over 180° it ought to be about 3.2, and the roughly horizontal nature of the line means there’s no significant foreshortening influencing the results here.  In other words, it doesn’t work on NGC 1300 and therefore wouldn’t work on the Milky Way either.  In both cases it would’ve worked thousands of millions of years ago, but that’s not very useful.

It would, however, work in the central nucleus of a barred spiral because they retain the Fibonacci spiral structure formerly found in the arms.  Zooming into the nucleus of NGC 1300 yields this image:


This actually is a Golden Spiral and there’s probably one at the centre of the Milky Way too, so the dimensions and angles here can be measured using the Fibonacci Sequence and the Golden Ratio quite clearly.

Just to finish off then, although it’s not as simple as measuring the angles and distances of a Golden Spiral superimposed on our own avenue of stars, the Fibonacci Sequence can be applied at least to the centre of the Milky Way and there might be a way to modify it so it can be used to predict the course of the unseen parts of the arms of our galaxy.  Given the difficulty of getting to grips with this issue, it is perhaps understandable that Mr McAloon just ended up writing songs about stars and galaxies in an arty kinda way rather than what I’ve done here.  But in my defence, I would quote another of his songs:

Some expressions take me back,
Like Hair of Gold and
Sweet Mary and Running to Me.
The sweet sweet songs
That cloud your eyes nostalgia supplies.
Loredo Highstreet buried me
Beneath an oak tree.
As this is to me, then so to you
Is something else, that keeps you up
Long past your bedtime, tearing hair.
The sweetest moment comes at last
The waitings over,
In shock they stare and cue fanfare.
When Bobby Fischer’s plane
Plane plane touches the ground
Plane, plane he’ll take those Russian boys
And play them out of town.
The sweetest moment comes at least
The waiting’s over,
In shock they stare and cue fanfare.

I’m not going to explain that.  Listen to it and I hope you’ll see what I mean.


Aquatic Latin?

Latin was historically the language of the victors.  It was the speech foisted upon the Celts, Germans, Jews and other people in the Roman Empire, which at its greatest extent looked like this:


By the way, this image is a lot bigger than it looks and it’s a really impressive effort, so it’s worth studying in more detail.  This depicts the empire at the time of Trajan, whose statue was responsible for one of the most important fonts in the Latin alphabet, which even influenced the letters you see before you right now.

After the fall of Rome, Latin fragmented into smaller and more vulgar forms throughout the Roman Empire.  Some of these did really well later on.  French, Castilian and Portuguese in particular became the languages of new empires elsewhere on the planet and only recently did these empires fall.

My own knowledge of Latin is a bit peculiar.  I never studied it formally at school and although I’ve made peremptory attempts at trying to pick it up from text books and the like, I always joke that I’ve mainly picked it up colloquially.  By this I mean that although I have a working knowledge of Latin, most of that was picked up by, well, working.  It substantially originates from botanical and other Latin binomial names, the language of pharmacy and terms used in medicine.  Nonetheless my Latin is passable, appropriately for a language which acts as a pass into academia.

Long after the fall of the Roman Empire, Latin continued to be used and to develop, along two different lines.  One path led into Mediaeval Latin, which has its own history and was adopted in places where Latin had never been spoken such as Ireland and Northern Europe.  The other strand is in the speech of the mass of the population where Latin had formally been spoken, and became Romance languages such as Italian, Romanian, French, Castilian, Catalan and Portuguese.  This style of speech uses words which reflect the decline of the material civilisation and the circumstances of the people.  For instance, caballus, the ancestor of the French <<cheval>> and other words for horse, previously meant “nag”, the Castilian “calle” meant “dirt track” rather than “road” and casa meant “hut”, not “house”.  Modern Romance languages are the words of peasants and none the worse for that.

Latin is still usable as an international auxiliary language.  I’ve succeeded in communicating with foreign herbalists using Latin to advise which prescriptions someone should take, and another herbalist I know managed to get medical help for someone in Bulgaria with what looked like anaphylactic shock by using Latin as a means of communication.  However, it’s hit and miss.  I also went into a herbal shop in Rome once and asked for something in Latin, my Italian not being good enough for it, and was not understood.  Ironically, the herb I asked for was Viburnum opulus, whose name is one of various words in the Latin vocabulary from Etruscan rather than a native Indo-European word, so maybe they disapproved of me using a foreign word, or maybe not.

Dark Ages Britain had the reputation of using the best Latin in Europe.  British Latin during the time of the Anglo-Saxons was the only variety of the language, exempli gratia, which didn’t change the pronunciation of C and G before E and I.  The reason for this, however, was not because our predecessors on this island all spoke really good Latin themselves so much as that it had become completely extinct by the time Augustine turned up in DLXXXXVII, so there was no similar language being spoken which could “corrupt” the pronunciation.  Even so, if you think about the history of the period between the fall of Rome and the arrival of Augustine, it isn’t actually that long and it’d be rather surprising if Latin had completely died out as a vernacular during that time.  The Romans withdrew from this island in 407.  Some time between 446 and 454, the “Groans of the Britains” was written.  This was an appeal to the consul of the Western Roman Empire Aetius, referred to as “Agitio”, for military assistance against the Scots and Picts, and is traditionally regarded as the end of the Roman Empire here.  It reads:

Agitio ter consuli, gemitus britannorum. […] Repellunt barbari ad mare, repellit mare ad barbaros; inter haec duo genera funerum aut iugulamur aut mergimur.

which translates as:

To Agitius, thrice consul: the groans of the Britons. […] The barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians; between these two means of death, we are either killed or drowned.

As far as I can tell this looks like proper classical Latin except for the name of the consul, whose spelling and therefore pronunciation seems to be different.

Augustine turned up around a century and a half after this, which is only two lifetimes, and of course life expectancy was shorter then even for those who survived childhood, but there would have been people in Britain at the time of the Groans whose great-grandchildren were still alive when the King’s School was established in Canterbury and the Latin alphabet had been reintroduced.  Whereas the above text may have been written in a foreign language to those who composed it, clearly there were people who could still speak Latin at that time, or at least a language derived from it.  It seems unlikely that the language completely disappeared over that period, considering that elsewhere in the Roman Empire it had clearly become the language of the common people.

Various parts of the former Roman Empire retained their Latin-derived languages for a while without them ever getting written down in ways which survived to the present day or becoming official languages of any kind.  These are known by terms similar to “Romance Submersa”, meaning languages which became “submerged” by conquest and the other languages spoken by the people around and above the native speakers, and it’s difficult to get much access to how they would have looked and sounded.  Examples are Moselle and Pannonian Romance, spoken respectively along the fringe of Roman territory in western Germania and in modern day Hungary, and African Romance, which was the Latin-derived languages of the Northern Sahara which may have been rather like Spanish or Sardinian in some places and whose words occasionally surface in the speech of the Berber people.  African Romance is a particularly sad loss because the chances are there were several distinct languages spoken on the southern shores of the Mediterranean as different from each other as Spanish and Italian were at the time.  Moselle Romance survived into the eleventh century and left a few words used in viticulture in the area, plus the occasional inscription in Latin which shows evidence of being influenced by an unknown but still Latin-like language.  Pannonian Romance may not have existed at all but some have suggested that the placename Keszthely is connected to the word “castle”.  There are also Dalmatian and Istriot, which are not submerged Romance languages but were spoken in the now-Slavic gap between the Romance-speaking Romania and Italy and died out when its last speaker, Tuone Udaina, was killed in a roadworks explosion on 10th June 1898.  It was a little similar to Romanian.

Back to Britain.  It stands to reason that there was a submerged Romance language here in the fifth and sixth centuries, which would’ve originated earlier among the poorer and perhaps richer members of the populace.  There would of course also have been Welsh speakers aplenty as well as Pictish speakers, and it also seems likely that the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians were not the first Germanic language speakers on this island since there are runic inscriptions in Roman East Anglia.  In fact it’s considered a bit of a mystery why we don’t all still speak Welsh since it was so widespread at the time and in other places where a language has been that successful it has generally survived.  Oddly, the earliest written Welsh was found in Scotland because before that part of the island was colonised by the Irish, it was spoken there.  Strathclyde was once known as Ystrad Clud.

In a way the period between the Groans and Augustine looks like a bit of an anomaly in British history.  Roman Britain used the same script as we use today to write, it had concrete structures, there would’ve been relatively wealthy Black Africans and there were mixed-ethnicity people in Yorkshire, homosexual activity among men would’ve been accepted and the country would’ve been substantially Christian for the final century or so of the Roman period.  After the mid-fifth century, the Latin script ceased to be used, homosexual activity would probably have been punishable by death (if the German tribes are anything to go by), there would have been dilution of Black complexions by the genes for fair skins, concrete was replaced by wood and mud and the religion became pagan.  Some of these trends then reversed with the introduction of Christianity from Ireland and the continent in the sixth century.  Incidentally, since the Black people would have been from the Roman provinces in Africa the kind of accents and dialects they spoke could’ve been ancestral to African Romance.

Although British Romance clearly existed, it was quickly marginalised by the Germanic tribes and ended up being spoken in the so-called “Celtic Fringe”, probably dying out by about the year 700.  There are a fair number of Latin words in Welsh, such as “pont” for “bridge”, Latin pons, but these are thought to have been introduced by Christians after the end of the Roman Empire.  The same problem applies to possible Latin words adopted directly into Anglo-Saxon.  Nonetheless, there seems to me to be some kind of residue left in Old English, meaning that it did have some Latin vocabulary even before the Norman Conquest, and these words are not much like the later French loanwords or deliberately adopted classical Latin words.  Incidentally there are a few words in Anglo-Saxon borrowed directly from Old French, including the word “prud”, meaning “proud”, which gave rise to the abstract noun “pride” via “pryd”, but on the whole Old English, if it was in fact the true ancestor of Modern English, was thoroughly Germanic.

Due to the fact that this was a collapse of civilisation, it’s not surprising that records and other data from the era are very sparse, and because of that it’s all too easy to project almost anything one wants onto the period.  There are, nonetheless, a fair number of Latin words in Old English.  Many of them are probably later arrivals because they’re ecclesiastical terms, often borrowed in turn from Greek into Latin, such as “bishop”, “church”, “pope” and “monk”.  The originals of these words, however, do show something of the history of the language, since they were “biscop” (episcopus), “cirice” (kyriake), papa (same) and munuc (monachus), which show, for example, the palatalisation of “K” sounds into “church” and the rounding of the long A in “papa” into “pope”.

Probably the most glaring example of a Latin word in Old English is “ceaster”, meaning “city”.  Although this is nowadays only found in place names such as Caistor, Manchester and Leicester, all showing variations due to the differences in English dialects, there was a time when it was the normal English word for “city”, I think uniquely among Germanic languages.  It’s well-known that it originates from the Latin castra, plural of castrum, meaning “fortified plot of land”, in other words “town” (like the Dutch word “tuin”, meaning “garden”).  Although we had our own word in the form “borough” and “-bury”, I get the impression this was used more rarely, and I think this probably means that the Roman remnants managed to hold out in fortified settlements for some time after Hengest and Horsa turned up, and I think furthermore that this probably means that this was in fact British Romance for “city”.

With a little scratching around I’ve managed to find forty-odd words of Latin origin in Old English.  A few of these are place names such as Rome, Thames, Kent (actually a Celtic name originally, meaning “edge”) and London (again Celtic).  Many of the rest are ecclesiastical, but some of them don’t seem to fall into either category.  These include:  mus (mouse), Læden (Latin), casere (emperor, i.e. Caesar), dihtan (appoint, from dictare), draca (dragon, from draco), gimm (gemstone, gemma), meregrot (pearl, margarita), munt (montem), olfend (camel, but from elephas!), stræt (street, strata), spadu (spade, spatha), tigele (tile, tegula) and a number of others which I’ve left out because they’re place names or religious terms.  An ambiguous one is win – wine, from Latin vinum, which could refer to communion wine but is nonetheless interesting because it clearly uses the classical “W” sound for “V”, which Latin did but no other languages descended from it today.  This is clearly another example of the positive reputation of the pronunciation of Latin in Dark Age Britain.

Some of these words have undergone the same kinds of changes as occurred to Germanic words when they came to be spoken in England.  For instance, there are examples of a process called “i-mutation”, also known as umlaut.  This is where an “I” sound in the next syllable causes a vowel in the stressed syllable to change, and is of course marked in German by two dots.  The actual I may have disappeared or changed by the time the language is written down, but it can sometimes be found in related languages.  In English it can be seen in some plurals, such as “man” becoming “men”.  In the examples above, it’s shown in the change of Latina to “Læden”, which may actually give us the name of the language which was spoken here at the time.  Here, four things have happened.  The final vowel has vanished, the T between two vowels has become a D and the I has become a schwa sound – the ubiquitous murmured, perhaps murdered, vowel which is all over the place in our language, as found for example as the A in “urban”.

There is a language called Ladin, spoken in Switzerland and of course descended from Latin like all Romance languages, and Jewish Spanish calls itself “Ladino”.  It doesn’t stretch credibility at all that this would be called “Ladden”, as it would be pronounced today.

The appearance of the D in that and some other words, as with the “abbod” for “abbot”, previously the Latin “abbatem” (which is accusative, and I’ll come back to that), parallels the tendency in Spanish to turn T’s between vowels into D’s.  For instance, Latin catena – “chain” – becomes Spanish “cadena”.  It seems that if “Ladden” had survived we would still be doing that.  It doesn’t occur at the ends of syllables though – strata became “stræt” and eventually “street”.  However, it’s most unlike modern Spanish, Portuguese and French despite being a Western Romance language in that it palatalises C rather than turning it into an S (or in Castilian later a “TH”) sound, and sometimes even leaves it as a K sound – “casere” rather than the Italian first name “cesare”, pronounced with a “CH” sound, but this is before the back vowel A.  Unlike Italian, it tends to lop off the endings of words, so for example there’s “abbod” rather than “abate”.

I mentioned the fact that the nouns derive from the accusative.  There’s a tendency for the inflections of languages to diminish as time goes by, and one of thisses manifestations is that words like “thisses” tend to disappear and be replaced by the simplest forms of the words – “of this”.  In the case of Romance languages this operated in most of the West via the forms of nouns being used as direct objects (the thing done to) becoming the only forms.  This is found in French words such as <<cabbage>>, <<courage>> and <<dragon>>, as opposed to “cap”/”cab”, “core” and “drake”, and also in the Spanish “cabeza”, “corazon” and “dragon”.  “Ladden” was in fact ahead of French in this respect because clearly this process had occurred several centuries before it had completed in French, many of whose dialects still had separate nominative (subject – “doer”) and oblique (everything else) forms in 1066 and even later.

Another trace is found in the treatment of the Latin C before a consonant, as can be seen in “Wight” (Vectis, becoming “Wiht”) as in Isle of Wight and “dihtan” from dictare.  H in these positions was pronounced like the H in “human” and “humour”, and is probably influenced by the occurrence of the front close vowels I and E.  To modern ears this sound is rather “Unromantic”, and another process a little foreign to Romance occurs with the plural of “mus”, originally meaning “rat” in Latin but becoming “mouse” in Anglo-Saxon, which is “mys”. whose Y is like the modern French pronunciation of U.  To me, though, this seems a thoroughly Germanic thing to do and suggests that it’s the influence of the folk from Angeln and the like.

The fact that “mouse” now means what it does is an example of semantic drift, where words change their meaning over time.  It happens with the same meaning in French, where the Latin sorex, which means “shrew” has now become <<souris>> and means “mouse”.  Other examples are millia, originally the thousand double strides of the Roman mille passus but now the word “mila”, meaning “mile”, the word “ceaster” as described above and strata, originally meaning “bed covers” but now having become “street” due to its meaning “pavement”.  “Street” is also a plural become singular, something which happened a lot in Italian.  The most startling example of this is the word “olfena”, which is from the Latin elephas but has somehow ended up meaning “camel”, suggesting that both species were entirely unfamiliar to the Dark Age inhabitants of Great Britain.  I suspect the source in this case is the Vulgate Bible rather than anyone speaking “Ladden”, but I do also wonder if the Black Africans who used to live here in ancient times gave us that word, although it probably meant “camel” to them too.

I’m not at all saying that any of this is certain.  All of this is filtered through Old English and for all anyone knows these words may have entered the language via the Church after the re-Christianisation of the kingdoms of Great Britain.  If it didn’t, these are clearly distinctive features of a language which was spoken here between the fourth and eighth centuries which was, for once, not the language of the oppressor but very much an underdog, and both like and unlike French, Spanish, Italian and the rest, possibly even influenced by the almost as obscure African Romance.  I think it’s a shame it didn’t survive.

Harlan Ellison

We’ve all seen a loved novel or short story ruined by adaptation to the silver screen. But what if that story was yours? What if you’d slaved away at the keyboard into the night, perhaps frantically toiling to meet a deadline, then submitted it only to find the studio or producers had butchered your masterpiece and carefully filtered out all everything which had made it good? You might be forgiven for a considerable degree of miffage.

Such was the lot of Harlan Ellison, who died yesterday. So common was this experience for him that he had a series of pen names which allowed him to cock a snook at his paymasters while extricating himself from the besmirchment which handling the turd they’d made of his delicacy. One such name was Cordwainer Bird. A “cordwainer” is apparently a cobbler and if he felt his writing was strictly “for the birds”, Ellison would often have it written into his contract that he be allowed to attach this name to it, and he did that a fair bit. After all, as Douglas Adams once astutely observed, birds have little need for shoes and all Ellison’s cobbling was rendered futile by the onslaught of the blue pencil. There’s also a Cordwainer Smith, although his writing was entirely identified using that pseudonym and only after his death was it revealed that the author’s real name was Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger.

Despite his tendency to disown his works, Ellison was responsible for what’s widely ccepted as the best Star Trek TOS story ever: ‘City On The Edge Of Forever’, which I’ve reviewed here. He also wrote a long book about how the script and production were totally wrong and in what ways they’d ruined it, but nonetheless its quality shines through. The question arises of whether authors really know best about these things. One of the issues with Star Trek is that in order to fulfill its duty to be progressive and enlightening to a large audience it had to walk a very narrow line and that line would often have to be drawn outside the realms of good writing, of necessity.

Another of his works, possibly the best-known of his short stories, was ‘I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream’, in which a computer has destroyed the world and now maintains a handful of humans in eternal agony, ultimately making the narrator unable to kill himself by turning his body into jelly. This was apparently partly a reference to the idea of the arbitrary whims of a deity, and it’s a brilliant read which I strongly recommend. He also wrote a poorly-executed Canadian SF TV series which was cancelled after one series.

As I mentioned in that review, I’m not enormously familiar with his work and when I heard he’d died I realised I had him mixed up with Harry Harrison. That said, his personality is very much to the fore compared to many other SF writers. He once posted 213 bricks and a dead gopher to a publisher without paying postage, an act which my younger self could very much relate to as I used to send kitchen waste in jiffy bags to political organisations I strongly disagreed with. Unfortunately he had an extremely dodgy record of poor behaviour towards women. He once grabbed the breast of a particular fantasy writer on stage during a science fiction convention, and he was married I think four times, once to a woman less than half his age. Rather than make excuses for this, I would prefer to go a different way. Creative people are of course often “difficult” people and experience mental health issues. Philip K Dick springs to mind here as another example, which rather makes it seem that male science fiction authors were often extremely sexist and problematic individuals. In context I would put that creativity and originality down to what in another setting is frank neurosis or psychosis, but there’s nothing unusual about that and you can’t filter out the “greatness” of someone’s work from other very worrying aspects of their personality. This often means that they will be self-defeating and their actual output rather small compared to what they could produce. This did not, however, apply to Harlan Ellison.

Ellison estimated at one point that he had published something like 1800 works of fiction and non-fiction – he was also responsible for the ‘Dangerous Visions’ series. Writer’s Block was not a problem for him, and I can relate strongly to that because for me too my problem is not so much writer’s block as its opposite. This might put my tendency to graffiti as a teenager into perspective. Getting back to Ellison, I can perhaps unfairly see a link between the fact that he was rather short physically and his dissatisfaction with what people did with his work. Just as a disability makes the world a frustrating place to live in, which he may have chosen to escape via science fiction, it might become all the more galling that his world, over which he wielded near-absolute control while he was writing would then be trashed by others.

Like many authors, and perhaps surprisingly SF authors are no exception to this, Ellison used a manual typewriter to produce his stories. He was also anachronistic in his keenness on being paid for his work, saying that not being paid demeans the author, the craft and the reader. Although I’m keen on doing things for free myself I also note that rather a lot of online content is provided for free and this not only crowds out people who might otherwise have been paid for producing similar content in newspapers or books in the past, but also includes a lot of people who would have ended up being able to do it for a living in the past. It’s rather similar to big businesses refusing to pay performers because their opportunity to perform for free is “exposure” as they put it, which is of course why McDonald’s gives Big Macs away for free. Having said that, I do believe in free content. It’s just that it implies a kind of contract with the rest of society that if you work for free, you ought to be able to expect to get what you need to survive for free as well, and that’s the world I want to exist, and someone has to take the first step, but it often seems to be a very asymmetrical relationship in that respect.

Despite his apparent misogyny, Ellison was in some respects quite committed to radical causes. As well as participating in the march to Montgomery organised by Martin Luther King Jr, he was one of the many SF authors who signed the declaration against the Vietnam War that appeared in a 1968 edition of Galaxy Science Fiction alongside a declaration supporting it also signed by a large number of SF writers, and ‘Repent Harlequin Said The Ticktockman’, which positively depicts civil disobedience in a society where not being punctual is ultimately punishable by death, an idea which I’m afraid I can feel some sympathy for on some level. This idea, I think, was pretty clearly stolen by the movie ‘In Time’ and Ellison sued the producers for this although the court did not find in his favour. He also sued Paramount for not paying him sufficient royalties for his Star Trek episode, Fantagraphics the comic book publisher and also pursued another case claiming that the idea for ‘Terminator’ was stolen from a story he wrote for the TV series ‘The Outer Limits’. Again, I feel sympathy for him here although the ideas do sometimes seem to be floating out there somewhere and it may often be nobody’s fault and just coincidence.

In conclusion then, the world has lost a very spiky person, but spikiness goes with the territory. Sometimes you get lucky enough that your spikes mesh with the cogs of society, and sometimes your spikes stop you from engaging with it at all. Harlan Ellison was intermediate in this. Although he was sometimes able to be a cog in the machine, there was also a degree of slippage which stopped his ride through life, or those of the people with whom he came in contact, from being entirely smooth. It’s still encouraging to see that it can be done though.