NaNoWriMo 2020

It’s likely that this blog will go quiet for a bit as of tomorrow, because for the first time in a few years I’ve decided to do NaNoWriMo. This is a project where you write a novella (50 000 words) in a month, specifically November. People seem to find writing fifty thousand words in a month a challenge, but I dream of being able to write as few as that. I once proposed NaNoNoWriMo, which was a month during which one aimed to reduce one’s writing output by fifty thousand words. That is, one starts out with a first draft which is too long, and edits it over the month, perhaps rewriting, until it’s shorter by that number of words. One thing that bothers me about the project is that it seems to encourage verbosity, and that’s already a serious problem for me. I think of myself as exhibiting hypergraphia, which is the compulsion to write or draw and is sometimes considered part of a psychiatric syndrome. This has already been covered on this blog, and in fact this blog is one outlet for my hypergraphia. However, I wouldn’t medicalise it. I see it as a bad habit I could probably break myself of, but it’s been going on since at least 17th July 1975, so maybe I only think I can. Just as I wouldn’t medicalise nose-picking. But on the other hand, I wouldn’t photograph the contents of my nose and display them regularly on a blog, and now I’m tempted to Google for that, though I’d regret it were I successful.

I did do NaNo last year, but didn’t take it very seriously. Back in the early ‘eighties, I filled a page of a school exercise book with alternating “BLUE” and “ULBE”, which I attempted to arrange into a chessboard-style arrangement so that they alternated across a line but also in columns. This attracted the attention of a classmate, who asked me “Did I just see a whole page with nothing but ‘BLUE’ written on it over and over again?”, to which my technically honest answer was “no”. This formed the basis of my 2019 NaNo project, which I completed, of course, on the first day. It’s easy to automate most of this process. “Blue” is one word. Select all and copy-paste and you have two. Do the same a further fifteen times and the result is 65 536 instances of the word “Blue”. This turned out to be a little more fiddly than expected because the word processor I was using didn’t seem to be set up to copy-paste such large blocks of text, which is odd because block transfer was implemented in the Z80 processor in 1976 as a single instruction, I think in order to facilitate word processing apps, so at this point it ought to be a cinch. Anyway, this meant I had technically achieved the target and then some on the first day.

Album cover of ‘Good News’ by Cliff Richard for illustration purposes, fair use justification. Will be removed on request.

Of course, tens of thousands of instances of the word “BLUE” may not be very interesting or sell particularly well, but there is something you can do with it which could make it more productive and worthwhile. Cliff Richard brought out an album in 1967 called “Good News”, whose cover was set out like a newspaper with his photo on it, a banner reading “Good News” and text in columns consisting of nothing but the words “Good News” repeated over and over again. To some extent this was the inspiration for my 2019 project. If you stare at this album cover for long enough, it unsurprisingly starts to do strange things to you and the words “good” and “news” begin to look weird and cease to be English so much as part of some strange new language with a vocabulary of only two words. You might start to see patterns in the words like a Magic Eye picture of a dolphin with a thousand screaming faces, and of course dolphins are often blue so this could be quite relevant to my novel. Likewise, looking at something like ten dozen pages of the word “Blue” printed over and over again might lead to you imagining something. Perhaps a motorhome made of marshmallow and toffee driving across a park at a music festival or a shop that only sells stepladders made of newspaper, but something, although those are perhaps more inspired by a non-Cliff Richard album released the same year. And this is how you might approach novel writing.

‘David’ by Michelangelo
Jörg Bittner Unna

I think it was Michelangelo who once said that the key to sculpture was to start with a block of stone and chip away everything that wasn’t, say, David. In producing two to the sixteenth instances of the word “blue”, one has in a sense created an uncarved block of words. Staring at that block could lead one to see patterns which aren’t yet there and one can then proceed to chip away at that block of text to remove everything in it which isn’t one’s novel. If one does this in a fairly economical manner, one might end up with a story which focusses quite strongly on the colour blue in one way or another. I did start to do this. I had a character go into a shop which sold tubes of blue lube, all of slightly different shades. Another approach I took was to type anagrams of the word as I had written previously. A typical sequence might be “Blue ulbe bleu uleb lube bleu uelb uebl eulb eubl”, and this turned out to be quite fruitful as it provided a setting of an English speaker in a French-speaking country attempting to buy a tube of blue lube. It’s also possible to take a mathematical approach at this point by noting that there are two dozen possible arrangements of the letters in the word and 620 448 401 733 239 439 360 000 of those twenty-four words, which when multiplied by twelve takes one beyond one’s target word count. At this point it starts to resemble the Library Of Babel. One could perhaps write a story about someone trapped in a vast library which is not Borges’s library but merely consists of books listing all permutations of those two dozen four-letter “words” and perhaps their search for meaning in such an environment combined with their sadness and frustration at not having the good fortune to be trapped in a library of meaningful books. Assuming these books each had a thousand words on each double page and two thousand pages, and were to be arranged into a cuboid, it would be almost two and a half million volumes in each direction, including height, and assuming each book was lying down and five centimetres thick, that would make the stack one hundred and twenty-five kilometres high, which means it would officially extend into space. My point being that there is in fact something you can do with this exercise which provokes the imagination and provides a readable novel.

That would, then, be a first draft, and a genuine one at that. Fifty thousand instances of the word “blue” which need a bit of editing and processing, but it’s an honest and authentic first draft even if it’s unorthodox. It’s silly, in a way, but it does provide raw material to work with and deserves to be taken a bit more seriously than it might at first appear.

That, then, was my 2019 approach to NaNoWriMo and I stand by what I did. Part of my point was sarcasm of course. It’s easy to write fifty thousand words. I once defined a FORTH word which wrote endless nonsense words in Finnish, and I presume some of those would’ve made sense to a Finn. If I’d let it run long enough, and I probably did, it would’ve output fifty thousand words and achieved NaNoWriMo years before the first time it happened. There is a very small sense of achievement in writing what amounted to a pretty simple piece of computer code which did that. Writing a somewhat more sophisticated piece of code could lead one to producing a novel-writing program, and to some extent this has been tried through AI, and writers such as George Orwell and Roald Dahl have used that in their stories. Actually producing that code, which would usually consist of a series of words and other symbols in English, is in a sense NaNoWriMo. At one end there’s my Finnish nonsense word program or “FOR I=1 TO 50000: PRINT”BLUE “;:NEXT I”, and at the other is software which would make Earnest Hemingway redundant. There is in fact a peculiar series of books available from Amazon which are all written by machine. Philip M Parker has written eight hundred thousand books, all available from there, using a patented method of his own, including ‘The 2007 Import and Export Market for Thiourea Resins in Primary Forms and Urea Resins in Netherlands’, cost £82, and the £795 ‘The 2021-2026 World Outlook for Manufacturing Lime from Calcitic Limestone, Dolomitic Limestone, Coral, Shells, Chalk or Other Calcareous Materials’. I don’t understand why they cost so much and I presume he’s only sold a few of any of them, and that practically all of them haven’t sold a single copy, but they do exist. It’s all a bit depressing though. He has considered writing romance novels by this method, and although I’ve never read one I suspect this would be relatively easy. It also reminds me of J G Ballard’s apocalyptic novels written in the early ‘sixties which are self-consciously formulaic.

Having said all that, none of it bears much resemblance to my project this year. Although I’m expecting it to flow quite easily, it’s very much a conventional sci-fi novel including ideas taken from my actually published by someone else novel ‘Replicas’ and also my much earlier NaNo project ‘Unspeakable’. It hasn’t yet got a title, but it goes roughly as follows: Michael is a nerdy closeted gay teenager growing up in 1960s Letchworth who has a pretend girlfriend but a crush on his best friend, and is into astronomy, ‘Doctor Who’, the Beatles, amateur radio and hobbyist electronics. There’s a mysterious windowless concrete building in the town centre which is kept locked and only a couple of people go in and out of it. At the age of eighteen, everyone in the town has special classes and nobody is allowed to say what they are. He finds some surprising stuff in the attic, and hears his mother singing songs he’s never heard before which are later broadcast on Radio Luxembourg. He and his parents (he’s an only child) go on holiday to Hayling Island in a train whose carriages have boarded up windows. When he reaches adulthood, the shocking truth about his life is revealed to him and he resolves to run away from home. I can’t really say more without giving stuff away.

One of the big challenges in writing this is that I’m not really writing about what I know but I almost am. Iain M Banks once said “write about what you know” was terrible advice and he clearly didn’t follow it much of the time, and it never did his fiction any harm. I was born in Kent in 1967, so I can just about remember the ‘sixties but have a toddler’s memories of them. My 1960s are like West Sussex. The phrase “hinterland of my life” comes to mind. West Sussex I’d never visited until my forties, long after I’d left Southeastern England. I’m somewhat familiar with East Sussex and of course very familiar indeed with Kent. West Sussex is an odd place to visit because it has features one might expect to find in Kent and East Sussex such as flint walls, chalky soil and therefore chalk streams, and similar climate, but I don’t actually know it at all well, so it’s a stranger wearing a friend’s clothes. I noticed some time ago that to me East Sussex is compressed into a thin strip in my mind labelled “just outside the county”, but which is nevertheless familiar and I know my way around it. Surrey is considerably shadowier. The same applies to the 1960s. The period 1967-69 is my East Sussex to my 1970s Kent, because it’s vaguely familiar, but the earlier part of the decade precedes my birth. That said, the lag in my parents’ lives (we didn’t get a colour telly until 1980 for instance) and the fact that I lived somewhere rural means that I kind of had a ’60s childhood. To me the contrast between the ’60s and the ’70s is epitomised by two human-powered flight vehicles, the Pelican and the Gossamer Condor. At least I think it was called the Pelican. These were, as far as I can remember, pedal-powered aircraft, the Gossamer Condor being the first successful one to fly around a figure-of-eight shaped test course. I don’t recall the Pelican as such but pictures of it came across to me as almost “modern” but not quite, by contrast with earlier human-powered aircraft which all looked pretty antiquated to me.

One of the most frustrating aspects of my memory of the 1960s is how I remembered pop music. The first number one I remember specifically as that was Rolf Harris’s ‘Two Little Boys’. This was the last number one of the ’60s and the first of the ’70s, and given revelations since it’s quite unfortunate that I remember it at all. I don’t remember any Beatles number ones although I do remember ‘The Long And Winding Road’, though not the Beatles version – there was another by a very obscure artist whose name I’ve completely forgotten, and apparently there’s an interesting story behind that. I do not remember the Apollo 11 landing but I do remember later Apollo missions, including of course Apollo-Soyuz, which was the subject of the aforementioned 17th July 1975 writing – there’s also a diagram of the airlock in that entry. I can also remember small children’s programmes and first repeats of ’60s TV shows. My very earliest memory of music after my birth is the signature tune to ‘White Horses’ and a vague memory of the programme itself. I also remember decimalisation, ‘Sooty And Sweep’, ‘Tinker and Tucker’, ‘Bill And Ben’, ‘Andy Pandy’, ‘Thunderbirds’ but not ‘Fireball XL5’ or ‘Stingray’. Fashionwise I do remember Afghan coats and bell bottoms, and also teenagers who seemed to be heavily into flowers, peace and misty-looking films. Therefore it’s a case of almost but not quite, and the task I have is to push these memories back so that I am writing about what I know. Fortunately I have the very useful resource of Sarada, who does remember the ’60s, and also the fact that in real life time isn’t really neatly parcelled into boxes labelled ‘The 1960s’, ‘The 1970s’ and so on, and stuff that happens doesn’t just stop dead on 1st January 1970. But what I really don’t want to do is create a tired old clichéed ’60s with hippies and LSD, because for most people that wasn’t at all what the decade was like. Jimmy Savile presenting ‘Top Of The Pops’ with Jonathan King and Rolf Harris records on it provides a better impression, and the apparent sexual liberation of the time was pretty much a blunderbuss, meaning there was a load of sexual objectification and public harassment and even the acceptance of paedophilia as part of an alternative lifestyle. There were also probably rather a lot of women on tranquilisers for their mental health issues confined to domestic tasks, not being taken seriously and regularly getting beaten up and raped by their husbands, and also voting for the party their men voted for just because they saw it as their wifely duty, and that would include Labour as well as the Tories. I want a three-dimensional and convincing picture of the ‘sixties including all the nasty bits, but balancing that with more positive aspects. Jumpers for goalposts maybe.

That, then, is my task for the coming month. I don’t anticipate having any problem producing fifty thousand words by the 1st December and I have a fairly detailed plan in place, particularly of the first third of the novella. I have no idea how readable, engaging or page-turny it’ll be, but the first draft will exist by then and this time it won’t just be sixty-five thousand instances of the word “blue”, so that’s progress.

Birds, Nuts And Pluto

As a small child, and probably still, I was drawn to the exotic. Mammals were boring unless there was something strikingly odd about them, so cats, dogs and mice were boring but bats and whales were interesting. Like many children, I was very keen on dinosaurs as I saw them, and as they were understood, back then. Someone once explained their appeal to children as “big, fierce and extinct”, although to me an ankylosaur or Plateosaurus was as good as a T. rex. Contrast this with birds. Birds were boring to me because they were everywhere. Where I used to live, murmurations of starlings sometimes blotted out the Sun, there were loads of mute swans on the river, sparrows in the garden and rock doves in Canterbury, and even more of those in London. Not exotic: ubiquitous, and boring for that reason. I don’t think that’s the only explanation for my ennui in that direction but it’s probably something to do with it. It might also be my contrarianism. Everyone else liked birds so I didn’t.

I haven’t quite recovered from either. Dinosaurs still fascinate me and birds still bore me. But nowadays this is inconsistent and untenable, because since about the mid-1970s or so, birds have been considered dinosaurs. Not all dinosaurs are birds, but all birds are dinosaurs. Moreover, the distinction between non-avian dinosaurs and birds has been further eroded by discoveries such as the large number of dinosaur species with feathers, the likelihood that sauropods could get so huge because of bird-like air sacs linked to their lungs and even dinosaurs with beaks. And of course all of them, as far as I know, laid eggs.

On the one hand, then, there were the boring birds and on the other the interesting dinosaurs, and the time came for the two to merge, or at least to blend in to each other. The lizardy past of the planet millions of years ago was pushed way back before the Jurassic, because half the dinosaurs were pretty close to being birds, meaning also that something around today such as a cassowary or an emu was much more like a typical terrestrial dinosaur than was previously thought. Thus the boring animals were the interesting animals, but not all of them. All the boring ones were interesting but not all the interesting ones were boring.

What, then, is a bird? Do we think of birds as more distinct because we’ve formed our ideas of them without knowing their history? And how similar is this to the mammal situation?

On the whole, if you asked someone what characteristics made a bird, they’d probably say wings, feathers, beaks, egg-laying and to a lesser extent flight. However, nowadays cladism infests all of our definitions. A clade is defined as everything more closely related to X than Y, i.e. with a fewer number of generations separating them. Species are often thought of as natural kinds, that is, categories which are true whether or not there’s anyone around to think about them. A clade is a family tree in the forest of life which exists whether or not there’s anyone to hear its fall. There may be other equally real natural kinds such as the wolf type and the anteater type which don’t reflect genetic relatedness, but today the clade is queen, and one definition of Aves, the bird kind, is every species more closely related to the birds who have lived in historical times (think dodo) than other prehistoric lineages. There is, though, a problem with this. It excludes Archaeopteryx, long regarded as the first bird. Archaeopteryx was more closely related to various animals we’re used to thinking of as dinosaurs than to modern birds, because there’s a huge series of Matrioska doll clades including all living birds which Archaeopteryx is completely outwith. There’s a whole other group of dinosaurs related to them which are more like living birds than Archaeopteryx is, with toothless beaks, feathers, wings and eggs, called the Microraptors. Thisses early forms had teeth but more advanced microraptors lost them. There was also a tendency for flight to be lost, sometimes in animals less like modern birds than other animals whose ancestors had never been able to fly. They could be defined in terms of feathers, but not all feathers are created equal. Downy feathers rather like bundles of hair occurred on the skins of all sorts of dinosaurs just as they do today, but the fern-like feathers from which quills were made are a special kind of feather, so just calling a bird a feathered dinosaur is quite vague. It also includes a load of dinosaurs very unlike birds, for instance Triceratops, who might’ve had porcupine-like quills and did have a toothless beak.

It’s difficult to be detached from one’s (okay, my) childhood vision of shrink-wrapped scaly-skinned dinosaurs. Some of them were undoubtedly like that, but many weren’t, and nobody even knows how they weren’t. If someone could travel back to that time, the chances are they’d see various birds, some of them flying and others living on the ground or in trees. They’d have feathers, often beaks, sometimes beaks surrounding toothed mouths, be quite colourful, have wings and so forth. They would, interestingly, tend to look quite a bit like pheasants, turkeys, hens and partridges. The reason this is interesting is that the most basal “flying” birds (they don’t all fly) are game birds and ducks, geese and swans, so it isn’t surprising that they’d look like that. The largest ever such birds weighed a ton and a half and pretty obviously didn’t fly. Also, the famous Velociraptor of ‘Jurassic Park’ fame and the Deinonychus which is what Crichton’s fictional version of the Velociraptor actually is, are in fact birds. They had all the trimmings. The renowned claws were versions of the backward-pointing toes found on perching birds’ feet. The eggs the oviraptors were supposed to have stolen and eaten were actually often their own eggs, sitting in their own nests. The past is not what it was.

I feel a sense of loss here. I don’t particularly want to face the parrot-like and chicken-like Age of Dinosaurs which has turned out to be the truth. Even some quite non-avian dinosaurs had a tendency to have bird-like features such as beaks. What we’re familiar with today is an accumulation of features which belong together in the birds we know, but they don’t “naturally” belong together. There was of course a whole massive great clade of dinosaurs which didn’t give rise to birds, the ornithischians – “bird-hipped”. The ones with hips like birds have nothing to do with them. It’s the other lot, the saurischians with the lizard-like hips, which include birds. Hence not all is lost, but it wasn’t like it was “supposed” to be at all.

This reminds me of three things: nuts, berries and Pluto. A nut, botanically, excludes peanuts, coconuts, almonds and a host of other things we call nuts, and oddly it even excludes many nuts people tend to be allergic to, but nut allergies often include sesame seeds but exclude nutmegs. Berries include bananas but exclude blackberries, strawberries and so forth. Pluto is, of course, not a planet. He isn’t a planet because a planet is an approximately spherical object orbiting a star in its own orbit, having cleared the neighbourhood of that orbit. Pluto is, though, a “dwarf planet”. This was done because of the potentially large number of objects which are either more massive or larger than Pluto out beyond his orbit. I personally don’t know what was wrong with the term “minor planet”, but that’s what they did. And there’s a sense of loss and sentimentality of course. The recent reprint of ‘After Man’ I mentioned in a recent post includes a chart of the solar system which, unlike the 1981 edition, no longer includes Pluto. Sad face.

There’s an attachment, then, to these cultural conventions which don’t reflect natural kinds the way we thought they did. The question then arises of whether there even are such things as natural kinds at all. This is a philosophical question, but it’s worth noticing that a lot of this seems to be about what matters to us and what we care about, and it’s hard to let go of this kind of thing. Presumably a new generation of people will grow up never having known Pluto as a planet and always having thought of dinosaurs as often being feathery and having wings and beaks, and that shouldn’t matter, but it does, because science is not just science even though it ought to be.

Social Media Budgeting

Given the current pandemic, it’s been suggested that we approach the risk of the virus in terms of a budget similar to the way we approach money. Imagine you get a weekly wage every Friday and you get groceries for the coming week with it. You also need to pay your bills, rent and maybe socialise. This is in the pre-Covid world of course and to be frank probably quite old-fashioned in other ways, but bear with me, my mind is currently stuck in the 1960s because of NaNoWriMo. The suggestion, so far as I can tell, is to imagine one starts off with a certain degree of credit and proceeds to “spend” it in various forms of close physical contact, with each incident being valued differently according to risk, both in the form of proximity or contact and an evaluation of the person concerned as a risk. Hence some people are more expensive than others and some forms of contact, one being multiplied by the other. When you’ve “spent” your credit, you can’t interact with anyone else in that way, presumably until it’s built up again after a fortnight or so.

Right now I’m pretty much neutral about that idea and its merits, but I can understand it. One of the first things which occurred to me about it is that it could be applied to another situation, and presumably already is, at least unconsciously, by some people. It isn’t easy for everyone to handle a lot of social interaction and they can find it very draining. When this happens, they need to spend some time alone to recharge, or perhaps need to sit somewhere quietly not talking to anyone. I suppose these people could be called introverts, bearing in mind that such a description shouldn’t carry any suggestion of social stigma with it. I am not one of these people but clearly there are plenty of them. I do have other somewhat similar issues, mainly about changes in environment, and I know that’s not just me, but essentially I’m a bit of a party person although it probably isn’t apparent.

Maybe, though, we are all introverts, but introverts lacking self-awareness. I’m thinking here of social media, and clearly Facebook comes to mind among many others. It’s been said that the sociability of primates correlates with their brain size, reflected by the size of their social groups. Once the size of a social group exceeds a certain point, it will tend to split. Our own brains, I think, are accustomed to around ten dozen contacts but I can’t quote you chapter and verse on that. Back in my early twenties I made a list of everyone I knew and it added up to about two hundred, which probably indicates the greater sociability of youth. I don’t know how many people I know face to face today.

Online interaction, particularly on social media, is notoriously abrasive. This is a stereotype and it isn’t always true, but all sorts of mental health issues arise from the likes of compulsive Facebooking. Whereas I’m sure there are various factors involved, it seems pretty much obvious that one of them is going to be related to the number of FB friends one has. I currently have four hundred and sixty FB friends. A few of those are institutions or duplicate accounts, but that number is something like four times the optimum number of acquaintances, and I’ve come a cropper particularly through not being able to remember, and sometimes not even being shown, everyone’s news. People have bereavements in particular which I’ve tended to miss, and this is very upsetting. That’s partly manufactured by cruddy FB algorithms which don’t show you the important stuff enough, but it’s also to do with one’s capacity to know people.

Here’s a thought then. We are meme carriers. This is “meme” in the original 1976 Dawkins sense of a cultural entity perceived to replicate. The very obvious example, considering this is Richard Dawkins, is evangelical religion such as Christianity, but there are loads of others. The way the word tends to be used today refers to the use of images with texts which tend to do something like capture the Zeitgeist and “go viral”, but it applies equally to something like BLM and “all lives matter”. Memes are quite similar to genes, and of course small collections of genes amount to viruses, hence the viral metaphor. Should we be budgeting our interaction on social media the same way as it’s suggested we should budget our contacts. It may be, also, that introverts have a built-in mechanism for budgeting their social interaction, at least face to face, which enables them to perceive when they’ve had enough and thereby avoid this kind of overload.

I have four hundred and sixty FB friends. Maybe it’s a manifestation of my hoarding tendency that when I look through them with a view to culling, I see the value of each individual and it pains me to have to do so, although of course I do often say that unfriendING needn’t be unfriendLY. Taking each example, I could unfriend person X or person Y, but I appreciate the merits of each and I want them in my online life. Very often my motive for unfriending is that I feel unworthy of them rather than seeing it the other way round.

But there is a problem with this idea of social media budgeting if you extend it too far, or at least a disquieting connotation. Just as there are people who are risky because of their behaviour and exposure to the Covid-19 virus (what’s its name? It isn’t memorable. I know it has SARS in it but that’s as far as it goes), there are also people who are risky because of their memes, and selecting people according to meme brings the danger of what used to be called “reality tunnels”, but nowadays are referred to as “bubbles” or “echo chambers”. I do note the interesting coincidence in the use of the word “bubble” there incidentally. However, we can also infect them, for good or ill. It does seem rather patronising and self-righteous to view oneself as some kind of pure positive social asset vaccinating everyone else against dangerous ideas though.

Maybe, then, it isn’t good to extend it that far, or maybe that aspect of it needs more consideration before being implemented. Nonetheless, I do think we can take a leaf out of the introverts’ book and perhaps ration ourselves. The quality of interaction would also be relevant there, e.g. scroll and click isn’t good enough and we need to be “real” on FB too (when I say Facebook I mean the whole lot). Different social media sites are also different in the details of their effects on the psyche, so it’s a sophisticated and complex area to consider. Nonetheless, as a start I think we can see these things as meme playgrounds and acknowledge that some kind of budgeting system is worthwhile.

Plugging The Gaps In Dougal Dixon’s Future

Notes on Dougal Dixon’s futures.

‘After Man’ is set fifty million years in the future. ‘The Future Is Wild’ covers three time periods: five million AP (After Present), one hundred million and two hundred million. The reason they’re separated and there’s no crossover is that the species in ‘After Man’ became the intellectual property of his publisher and when he came to do ‘The Future Is Wild’, which incidentally is a collaborative project rather than his own baby, he had to work round them to avoid transgressing on what they had the rights to. This is sad, but the restraints are his rather than those of anyone not involved in either project. To be honest I don’t know the legal position here but there are plenty of fan-based creations which don’t seem to run into any problems, for instance on the Speculative Evolution Wiki at Wikia. I would actually like to contribute to that site, but their criteria seem to be quite stringent, so instead you’re going to get this as a blog entry. I’d also like to add some of the content of Olaf Stapledon’s ‘Last And First Men’ and possibly ‘Star Maker’ to the site in question.

This is a big subject area and a single post can’t do justice to it, so instead what I’m going to do is outline a few thoughts and plug a few gaps in a fairly haphazard manner, as is typical for me.

I’ll begin by introducing the oeuvre.

Dougal Dixon is a palaeontologist hailing from Dumfries. He also managed a cinema in Dorset and has created claymation animations for his projects, including adverts. Although he’s worked on many popular dinosaur books, his crowning achievement is that he more or less established the genre of speculative evolution. He isn’t the first person to do this: as usual, Olaf Stapledon got there decades previously and H G Wells’s ‘The Time Machine’ also did a sketchy but nonetheless memorable job which ended up inspiring Dixon, and it would be a sin for me to omit Gerold Steiner(‘?)s famous rhinogrades, but to retain focus I want to concentrate on Dixon’s 1981 work ‘After Man’ and his later TV series ‘The Future Is Wild’, more specifically the first two time periods. ‘After Man’ tries to imagine what the world will look like in fifty million years’ time, long after the extinction of humans. Although we’re all long gone, I find it quite an optimistic work because it shows how life has bounced back from our onslaught in the present day and produced a load of new forms. My task here is not to parrot the whole range of wildlife involved, of which there are something like ten dozen species, including a few in our future who have since died out and also some incidental animals which are not explored in detail such as a particular kind of liver fluke and a coral fish living in reefs round a Pacific archipelago near the former Indonesia. Examples include an order of predatory rats and another of large grazing rabbits which look like llamas. Much of the time, Dixon seems to have used his inventions to illustrate points about biology and evolution, often convergent evolution, the process of unrelated life forms becoming similar over time because they occupy the same ecological niche – a good real world example is the anteaters, numbats, aardvarks and echidnas, some of whom used to be considered closely related until fairly recently, and also armadillos and pangolins. He also does a couple of homages to Steiner(‘?)s work.

Less speculative than the biology is the geography. The movement of the continents is fairly predictable over millions of years although it becomes vaguer as time goes by and it also feels like their positions in this book are the result of rather faster than realistic movement: his depiction of the world map in twenty-five million years time seems closer to where they will really be by the period in the book. In any case, the map of the world in the late Posthomic, as he calls it, looks like this:

Depiction (c) 1981, attribution unknown, will be removed on request.

This world is imagined to have a substantially similar climate to the pre-industrial climate of the Holocene, with a couple of minor exceptions. Chief among these is that the Arctic ice cap is larger because the Arctic Ocean is almost landlocked due to the collision of Siberia with Alaska and the conversion of Iceland into an island chain, leading to the water being less saline due to rivers discharging into it without the sea water mixing with the Atlantic and the Pacific quite as much and therefore having a higher freezing point. This would have a feedback effect due to the whiteness of the ice reflecting the Sun’s radiation back into space. There are other consequences not so much explored. For instance, the gap between the Americas has re-emerged, meaning that the Gulf Stream will be either weaker or completely absent, which would reduce precipitation in northerly latitudes and lead to the latitude of the former Boreonesia (“British Isles”) and Western Europe in general having a colder climate, more like southern Alaska. The former Boreonesia itself has once again become a peninsula, though at the same latitude as it is now, meaning its inner reaches would have a less maritime climate. El Niño comes to mind too, because I know this was persistent in the Pliocene and is likely to become so again in the near future, but I don’t really know anything about how that works. It is feasible, though, that this will also have changed the climate.

Certain things can be asserted fairly definitively about this world. One is that the Atlantic has widened and the Pacific narrowed, though not to the extent that the latter is now the smaller ocean. Since the Atlantic spreads at two centimetres a year, it’s easy to calculate that the distance from Liberia to Brazil has become roughly 3850 kilometres and North America to North Afrika around 5800. Indonesia to Colombia is now 18 800 kilometres. It seems anachronistic to refer to these places by the names of present-day nations as these are so ephemeral compared to the deep time being considered here. Australia is mainly tropical rainforest. Antarctica is pretty much the same as it is today.

Leaving ‘After Man’ for a bit, it’s now in order to consider ‘The Future Is Wild’, more specifically the five million and one hundred million AP settings. In the first of these, Earth is once again in an ice age, particularly Europe. The Mediterranean has once again dried up, as it did during the Miocene, and is now a vast salt flat. This is because the Straits of Gibraltar have closed due to Afrika moving north. Due to the reduced amount of water in the water cycle, since the ice age has locked a lot of it up, the planet is less humid than today and the Amazonian rainforest is gone, replaced by extensive pampas. For the same reason in North America, there is a large cold desert as is currently found in Nevada, though it’s become much larger over the past few thousand millennia and stretches as far as Kansas.

The second period is one hundred million years hence and is very different. Sea level is one hundred and fifty metres higher than pre-industrial level, partly due to the melting of almost all ice, which would account for ninety metres and partly due to the expansion caused by heating. One reason the ice has gone is that Antarctica has left its polar position and now straddles the equator. This is almost certainly going to happen, but its exact direction of movement is currently unknown, which makes the exact state of affairs by this point very uncertain apart from the continent’s position in the tropics. In any event, Antarctica has a large belt of tropical rainforest. The mountain range stretching around the Pacific, already very high, is now even higher, up to twelve kilometres above , and includes a plateau formed partly from northern Australia. Meanwhile, Lemuria, the continent in the process of calving from East Afrika along the Rift Valley during our time, has crossed the Indian Ocean and collided with Southeast Asia, blocking off the rivers flowing from the aforementioned plateau and forming a large swampy area very like the Carboniferous ones which gave rise to the coal measures, in this case having an area rather larger than France. The average surface temperature at this point is around 40°C. Finally, there are large shallow seas, another biome relatively rare today but widespread at other times, notably during the Mesozoic. This is partly because the sea level is so high, and it includes Northern France so it can be presumed, perhaps, that the former England is also largely below sea level as well, particularly southwest of the Tees-Exe Line if that still has any meaning by this point. Water temperature is 30°C and the sea bed is only up to fifteen metres below the surface, making it much shallower than, for example, Loch Ness. Water coverage has increased from today’s 71% to 75%, an area larger than any current territory, Antarctica or the Southern or Arctic oceans. Effectively the world has an extra ocean.

The shallowness of the sea (and there are also oceans of course) means that all of it, including the bottom, is well within the euphotic zone, allowing plants to carry out photosynthesis all the way down. Oceans are mostly dark and rely substantially on food falling from above to support life. This is entirely different and red algae have become reef-building organisms. The red variety of seaweed, an example being the delicious dulse, can photosynthesise at a greater depth than brown or green seaweed so it makes sense that if shallow water coral were to die out, which sadly is what seems to be happening, red algal reefs might arise to fill the gap. Personally I’m somewhat dubious about this thought as there are already cold water corals living beyond the reach of sunlight and, though I know little about marine ecology, it seems to me that they’re better placed to colonise the shallower reaches of the sea as reef-building organisms than red algae are. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Regarding the specifics of the life forms in the two periods, unsurprisingly the ice age, being only five million years ahead, has substantially more similar species to today than the rest of Dixon’s work considered here, and these can be easily traced to animals alive today. Going in the other direction, the animals of five million years ago who have left descendants are often very similar to those around in historical times. Taking humans, horses, wolves and cats as examples, the genus considered to be our immediate ancestor lived at that time, the ancestor of horses, zebras and donkeys were mainly single-hoofed with some three-hoofed “throwbacks”, the genus containing the wolves and therefore domestic dogs already existed, as did the genus of the domestic cat although they were more lynx-like at that time. Consequently, wildlife five million years from now wouldn’t be that different either, although of course there is often sudden change and the impact we’ve had on the environment could be expected to do that. The ice age depicted is likely to be one of several which have occurred between now and then. The last ice age seems to have been the fifth of the current batch. It also doesn’t follow that the current phase of anthropogenic climate change will eliminate the possibility of ice ages in the near future. In the early 1980s it was noted that the instability of Antarctic ice could lead to a sudden collapse of the ice sheets there, producing a large total area of icebergs reflecting heat back into space because of global warming, which could trigger a new ice age by causing the planet to cool as a whole. It’s anthropogenic climate change, not global warming as such. Then again, it could very much just be runaway global warming, leading to all these scenarios being ruled out because the only life left would be in thermal vents at the bottom of the ocean, if that.

On a cheerier note, Dixon has a talent for coming up with good names for his inventions. In this case they include the gannetwhale, spink, desert rattleback, carakiller, deathgleaner, cryptile, gryken, scrofa, babookari, snowstalker and shagrat. Some of these may be close to, or actually be, the ancestors of some of the species in ‘After Man’ and others may have descendants in that time which are, however, not mentioned. The snowstalker, for example, is a tundra-dwelling descendant of the glutton. In Dixon’s timeline, carnivores (the group, not the dietary adaptation) are ill-fated because their ecological niche is very sensitive to changes in their prey, and since the likes of horses and gnus died out around the anthropocene they don’t generally fare well. This reflects the reality that carnivores were at their peak shortly before humans evolved and are even now in decline. Now there is a big cat-like carnivore descended from mustelids (the glutton and badger family) living in the mountain ranges which arose from the old Mediterranean in ‘After Man’, called the shurrack, Oromustela altifera, explicitly stated to be related to the pamphret, Vulpemustela acer, of the northern coniferous forests which cover much of the higher latitudes of the Northern Continent which has formed from the fusion of Eurasia, North America, Afrika and Australia. It doesn’t stretch credibility at all to posit that as the ice receded and the mountains rose, one population of snowstalkers followed the ice northward and another took refuge in the newly icy mountains of the former Med. Alternatively there’s a more shurrack-like species actually native to the karst in the Mediterranean which is perhaps a better candidate for this lineage.

The snowstalker’s main prey is the shagrat, which is unlike any rodent or rodent relative in ‘After Man’ and can perhaps be assumed to have died out, or maybe to have followed their predator in dividing into two types which are simply not mentioned in the book. Shagrats are the descendants of marmots. They are in fact really just very large musk ox-like marmots, and as such are entirely feasible animals in this setting.

Gannetwhales are clearly amphibious animals descended from gannets and somewhat resembling avian seals. They’re also quite large, perhaps walrus-sized. Although these occupy the same niche as the rodent-derived distarterops of ‘After Man’, which is even more walrussy in form, and therefore seem to be extinct by that time, the Southern Ocean, and in fact probably all the oceans of the later Posthomic, contain whale-like penguin successors. Of these, the porpin is a kind of living fossil, and it can easily be surmised that at the time of the earliest period of ‘The Future Is Wild’, there would’ve been very gannetwhale-like ancestors to these animals. They might even be responsible for their extinction if they turned out to spread throughout the world and compete with them, although of course penguins are thoroughly Southern Hemisphere birds in our time and it isn’t clear how the pytheron, a kind of rat-seal, would’ve been able to outcompete them. However, these don’t appear until about twenty million years from now so maybe it’s a question of gannetwhales losing out to penguin seals and penguin seals being pushed out of the way by pytherons. This is quite neat because it takes one all the way through the Posthomic.

‘After Man’ includes a North American desert rodent called a rootsucker, Palatops, of whom there are several species. This is a large recumbent rodent with armour evolved from hair who digs up and eats roots using spade-like feet and a head shield. From the perspective of continuity, this animal is remarkably like the rattleback, two species of rodent originating from the South American agouti but spreading into the Northern continent. This also eats roots, lives in the desert and is heavily armoured, although it rattles the plates of the armour together as a warning. Desert rattlebacks eat root vegetables referred to as “desert turnips”, which are in fact Brassicaceae, i.e. in the cabbage family (which is the turnip family). I’d be prepared to bet that rootsuckers are directly derived from desert rattlebacks.

One of the problems with reconciling the five million year setting in Europe with the broadleaved forest denizens of ‘After Man’ is that the latter seem to be depicted as evolving relatively smoothly in situ from what’s here now, such as rats and rabbits, but this cannot be smooth progress in that scenario because of the ice sheets. That said, it’s fairly simple to suppose that rather than evolving directly in what’s currently western Europe, rabbucks, falanxes and the rest (see the book) in fact evolved rather further southwest in what’s now the Arabian peninsula and the Middle East. This would have been cooler and wetter at this time due to the ice age, and in fact be rather similar in climate to the likes of the North European Plain and Boreonesia now.

I’m now going to take this the other way and look at the hundred million year AP setting and its relationship to the world of ‘After Man’. The animals and plants depicted in this far future world must of course have their ancestors in the late Posthomic, perhaps in forms which were slowly evolving into their later states as depicted. The swampus and toraton come to mind here. The swampus is an amphibious cephalopod living in the Bengal swamps. Swampodes differ in appearance from octopodes in that four of their tentacles have developed into a kind of treaded foot which they get about on on the land. They can be seen as following a similar path to fish emerging onto the land and becoming our amphibian ancestors. As such, I would conjecture that at the fifty million year mark there are swampus ancestors living in shallow deltas and estuaries in the Bay of Bengal where oxygen is scarce and they have responded by breathing air, and like the first four-footed animals, they use their appendages to scoot along the bottom of large, crowded and very shallow areas of muddy bay which will eventually become the Bengal swamps.

The toraton is a brachiosaurus-like derivative of the tortoise, and the largest animal ever to walk on land at that point. Adults weigh 120 tons, heavier than most whales, and are somewhat heavily armoured, not to protect themselves as an animal that size has no predators, but to support their bodies. As for their ancestors in the ‘After Man’ world, I’ve chosen to approach it as follows. Assuming an unrealistic mass of zero in the present day, which in fact amounts to the relatively negligible mass of living non-giant chelonians such as the Greek tortoise, and assuming a cube law of growth such that the mass of an animal halfway between today and a hundred million years in the future has a mass of approximately the cube root of the tonnage of a toraton yields the value of around four tonnes at that point. Bearing in mind that the Bengal Swamps arise as a consequence of Lemuria colliding with Southeast Asia, there’s no reason to suppose that toraton ancestors were Asian, so my conclusion is that they are from the desert at the northern tip of Lemuria. By the time they weigh four tonnes, a complete shell would interfere with their movements and possibly be crushingly massive, so instead I imagine their backs are studded with separate plates, and in fact the animal I have in mind would be remarkably similar in size and shape to an ankylosaur, perhaps even with a head shield and a clubbed tail. There is a precedent for this in the form of the extinct South American glyptodont, which was basically a mammalian ankylosaur.

Mammals are almost extinct one hundred million years from now. It isn’t clear why. The only surviving species of mammal is the poggle, who used to be a hamster. These live in the Great Plateau in colonial spider nests, eating the seeds of the grass trees and then being eaten by the spiders. It’s entirely feasible that the last mammals would be rodents, or at least the last placental mammals, and the greenhouse world depicted would wipe out many of the advantages of having a higher body temperature as the climate over most of the land involves a year-round temperature above the healthy body temperature of most mammals. In such circumstances, mammals would be burning calories just to keep their body temperature close to the ambient conditions or even below them, without accruing any advantages compared to reptiles or other animals whose body temperatures conform to their environments’.

Perhaps surprisingly, mammals have been considered to be in decline already. Even before the advent of Homo sapiens or their hominin predecessors, the number of fossil mammalian taxa is lower in more recent epochs of the Cenozoic than earlier ones, although their peak was relatively recent. This is nothing to do with human activity as it began to happen before we appeared, although our presence is bound to make things worse. It should also be borne in mind that more recent strata are likely to preserve a larger variety leading to inflation of diversity just because they’ve had less time to be damaged, destroyed or otherwise lost, so the situation may be even worse than it seems. Mass extinctions, such as the one we’re currently perpetrating, can paradoxically be good for biodiversity because they empty out opportunities for organisms to take and evolve into. Around ten million years after the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs, there was a huge variety of mammals although many types died out soon after that. Consequently the plethora of mammals portrayed in ‘After Man’ is probably broadly feasible, since our own action might well provoke such an increase of variety. Perhaps after the end of the Posthomic, the decline would return to its previous profile as the legacy of human influence on the planet fades into time immemorial, even without climate change. One thing which is unclear about this global warming, incidentally, is whether there’s any scientific basis in supposing it would happen at that point or whether Dixon et al simply threw it into the mix to provoke evolutionary change. Nonetheless a steady decline makes sense. There are currently six and a half thousand species of mammal either still around or recently extinct, which is fewer than either amphibians, birds or “reptiles” and therefore the smallest class of land vertebrates of all. Making the conservative assumption that the late Posthomic has the same degree of mammalian diversity and the rather unwarranted and naïve projection of a linear decline from that level to one fifty million years later, the total number of mammalian species would be down to that of just the rodents (of whom there are a huge number) by about ninety million years hence, and given the currently most diverse orders the last surviving mammals are likely to be primates, bats and rodents, with primates a poor third as we are now and therefore likely to disappear first. This leaves the world in a similar state to how we tend to imagine the Age of Dinosaurs, with tiny mammals under the feet of enormous reptiles and dinosaurs, this time in bird form. This makes the history of land vertebrates on this planet an eerie palindrome. Mammaliforms appeared before the dinosaurs but the evolution of mammals themselves was accompanied by the rise of the dinosaurs along with increasingly diverse reptiles. After non-avian dinosaurs became extinct there was an often ignored relative plethora of giant flightless birds, both predatory and herbivorous, along with remarkably large reptiles such as the nine metre long monitor lizards of Australia who were still there when humans reached the continent and the largest crocodiles ever elsewhere in the world. Nonetheless, mammalian diversity peaked sometime more than halfway between the K-T Event which wiped out the giant dinosaurs and the present day, then started to go into decline, and at some point in the future, assuming the biosphere survives us relatively intact, the time may come when dinosaurs in the form of birds once again dominate the land, sharing it with giant reptiles and tiny mammals, now in their final days. Presumably shortly after the hundred million year mark, even the poggle dies out.

Mammals as we understand them today have a minimum size, unlike insects which have a maximum one. Insect size is limited because they breathe using tubes communicating with the atmosphere, or bubbles of air if underwater. The bulkiest insects today are goliath beetles, whose larvae weigh up to a hundred grammes and whose adult forms are twelve centimetres in length. The larger an insects get, the more tubes they need until they would effectively be spongy, floppy things who would suffocate anyway as the weight of their bodies crush their breathing tubes. Some insects get around this by becoming long rather than large. The longest living insect is the walking stick insect, who is about a cubit in length. The very largest insects lived during the Carboniferous and Permian, when there was more oxygen in the atmosphere and therefore less need for quite so many tubes. These were the so-called giant dragonflies, in fact not technically dragonflies but “griffinflies”, who were the size of herons. Another way insects get round it is to be in large swarms such as locusts or termite colonies: the total mass of insects and other arthropods is something like ten times that of all land vertebrates, which in turn rather depressingly is almost all farm animals and completely unnecessary, and beyond that the total mass of all wild mammals is less than the total mass of all humans. But this is a digression. Mammals have a minimum size, which probably contributes to why there are so few of them. Because they generate their own heat nowadays (I’ll come back to that), mammals have to eat more and more the smaller they get relative to their weight, as is true of birds. Ironically this means “eat like a horse” and “eat like a bird” are the wrong way round. Horses have very small appetites relative to their size and weight and birds very large ones, and even larger if they are flying birds. Getting back to mammals, shrews need to eat something like five times their own weight in a day because their surface area is very large compared to their volume, meaning that they radiate more heat. Having said that, the annual growth rings on early mammalian teeth suggest that they lived about as long as reptiles of the same size do today, rather surprisingly suggesting that the first mammals did not generate internal heat. In reality, as opposed to in Dixon-world, maybe this will happen again one day if Earth gets really warm and the warmth of the Eocene didn’t seem to be a problem at all for mammals at the time. But for today’s mammals the point comes when they simply couldn’t eat enough to maintain their body temperature and they’d just starve to death.

If I haven’t already bored you senseless and you’re still reading, thanks for your patience and this is relevant to ‘After Man’ because of the pfrit, Aquambulus hirsutus. This is basically a mammalian pond skater – a tiny shrew relative who can walk on water. Pfrits manage this by being very small and having profuse long hairs on their feet and tails. The lightest known mammals are the Etruscan shrew and Kitti’s hognosed bat, Suncus etruscus and Craseonycteris thonglongyai respectively, both of which weigh about 1.8 grammes. European pond skaters approach the problem of size the other way, because for an insect it’s easier to be small than large. They weigh up to about half a gramme each, and in some parts of the world there are giant pond skaters who are presumably a lot heavier. but can still walk on water. There is a mathematical way of approaching this which is currently rather beyond me, so I’m simplistically going with the idea that the pfrit is at the minimum mammalian size, which seems to be 1.8 grammes in weight, and so needs four times the area of hair to support it. This is divided between four legs in the case of pond skaters, the front pair having no weight-supporting function and instead being used to grab food, and four legs plus a tail in the case of pfrits. In the absence of much more information, that does sound feasible although I wonder how much heat a pfrit would lose to the water, the feet and tail, however, being insulated by the hairs.

Then there’s the parashrew, which is a shrew which parachutes down mountains using a hair canopy on the end of the tail, but that might be, as they say, “left as an exercise to the reader”.

Why Is The North More Liberal?

One of the puzzling things about the nature of governments and possibly peoples in different parts of this planet is that, looking at it from a North Atlantic-centred viewpoint, the further north one goes, the more left wing things tend to be. Canada, for example, has a more liberal reputation than the US, the northern US states tend to be more liberal than the southern ones, Scandinavia is more liberal than the Northern Mediterranean which is in turn more liberal than the Maghreb and Scotland is more liberal than England. These are of course generalisations – the northern Midwest and Alaska don’t have a liberal reputation and the 2019 British general election destroyed the Red Wall of Labour seats north of Watford in England. The Isle of Man is similarly not known for its life and let live attitude. Even so, there seems to be a tendency here which definitely seems more than coincidental. Why?

The first question to ask about this would seem to be if the situation is mirrored in the Southern Hemisphere. Are the southern states of that half of the planet more “lefty” than the northern ones? I don’t think they are, although the picture is somewhat clouded by the fact that eighty percent of the land is north of the Equator and the whole of Antarctica is practically uninhabitable. Of the roughly two hundred nation states on Earth, only thirty-two are completely in that hemisphere. The population is also lower at eight hundred million, which is significant because the number of governments doesn’t indicate the population, India and China both having a larger population than that. Is it, then, that there isn’t so much a tendency for liberal countries and attitudes to gravitate towards poles so much as for them to be northern attitudes?

The problem here is that it doesn’t compare like with like. The southern circumpolar countries are, and this is a guess, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Only the first two have any part more than fifty degrees south and the islands in the Southern Ocean are largely uninhabited. Hence another question arises. Could it be something to do with the crowded nature of the land near the Arctic?

Oddly, this is close to being the opposite to the spread of what became Western civilisation in Europe, Northern Afrika and Western Asia. Agriculture, the use of metals and writing in the Old World spread from Egypt and the Fertile Crescent outwards, and in Europe and the Maghreb this implies that the more northerly cultures were less materially advanced than the more southerly ones. All of the innovations mentioned started in what to us is the south and moved to our north, which I think was a factor in the oddity of the East of Great Britain being more southern than the West in cultural terms and attitudes – because it’s on the fringe of a radial movement of culture and technology starting in the Middle East and Egypt. I’ve mentioned this on this blog before, and I think the reason for that is to do with having more “free time” in climates more hospitable to raising food. The closer to the pole you get, the more time you spend scratching a living, particularly if you’re doing it by farming, and there simply isn’t time or head space to come up with labour-saving ideas. Hence the best climates yield cultural innovation. Eurocentrism would then lead one to believe that the north is more “primitive” than the south, but away from the northwesterly radiation of culture this might be expected to proceed in the opposite direction, but this in itself sounds pretty racist as it suggests that Afrikans south of the Sahara are primitive when in fact they invented invention itself, and all the things which enable civilisation to exist or develop at all such as tools and fire. In European terms these are southern inventions too.

But is a political system an invention? To me it seems it is, although here conservatism comes into play. It’s possible that organic, emergent processes give rise to a political system which works and it’s been suggested, for example, that the market is a natural system which arises from the condition that people need goods from each other which are not immediately available to them, giving rise to barter, then money and eventually capitalism, without anything actually being invented. If this is so, it seems fair to ask if progressive politics and liberalism are a further advance on this or a flawed form of politics which won’t work. I obviously believe the former but in less political realms have some sympathy with the latter. For instance, I’m a herbalist and I feel that Esperanto doesn’t work as well as natural languages. How far can this apparently valid idea be extended?

Here’s a hypothesis then. There’s a process going on in Western countries which for the sake of argument I’m going to consider from feudalism onwards. As feudalism became replaced by capitalism, European powers began to be able to invade the rest of the planet and set up empires which were initially about providing cheap labour via slavery and resources unavailable in Europe such as cotton and tobacco. As time went by, these colonies rebelled against the centre, changing social conditions in both places and leading to apparently more liberal and progressive social orders in the course of time, although sporadically. Because the northern areas are geographically closer to the centre, they progressed more rapidly and are now more liberal because the dominant culture follows the same path.

A big problem with this is that it’s very “White saviour”-y. In fact it appears that there were quite a few more tolerant and socially equal societies in these places before Europeans came along and spoilt everything, and even today Western interference in many parts of the world is mainly about making them more despotic and tyrannical, as with Afrikan homophobia instigated by American fundamentalist missionaries and American destabilisation of egalitarian regimes in Latin America. On the other hand, positive things do sometimes happen such as the Raj banning the tradition of sati. Incidentally, I haven’t looked into this and for all I know the situation isn’t as it’s presented to us.

The explanation I cleave to most is that of interdependence in harsh conditions. It’s easier, other things being equal, for individuals to fend for themselves in milder climates where a wider variety of food is available and easier to grow and where the weather is less likely to kill you. This too, though, is a very simplified position because of the existence of dangerous wildlife, natural disasters and the like. One of the “good” things about the British Isles is that they’re really boring, with mainly mild earthquakes, moderate climate and few dangerous animals. We have tornados, but they too are relatively benign. Then again, the milder parts of Great Britain tend to be less liberal than the harsher bits. Anyway, my possibly naïve understanding of what’s going on here is that harsher conditions and greater difficulty in raising food lead to more coöperation. Another factor here might be sparse population. It’s been well-established by psychological experimentation that urban environments discourage people from helping those in distress and rural ones encourage them, possibly due to the idea that nobody else is available to take responsibility for those in trouble. If your car breaks down on the A9, I suspect someone will come to your aid more quickly than if it broke down on the A23, although maybe I’m wrong. Conversely, people might feel the need for more personal space in such surroundings than in the city, where they’ve become accustomed to other people being nearby, and to me this sounds like it would foster a more conservative attitude and more focus on possessions such as land rather than people. If this is so, however, one might expect the same kind of thing to happen in harsh tropical habitats such as the Sahara, and whereas I’m sure a lot of mutual aid does go on there the countries involved certainly don’t seem very tolerant or liberal.

When it comes down to it, I neither know whether it’s really true nor what the explanation for it is if it is so.

The reason I’m thinking about this today is the dream I had last night concerning a planet where there are three continents near a pole: Faith, Hope and Charity. Of these, Charity was circumpolar. These are of course the virtues mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, where Charity, or Love, is the best of all. In the dream, the continent of Charity can be imagined to be some kind of icy socialist utopia, like Sweden only more so. This is a Sweden of the mind rather than the real country I suspect, which I imagine has the same problems as the rest of the world such as anti-Sami racism and compulsory schooling.

It’s clear that in my mind, kindness and progressive politics are closely associated. I feel somewhat guilty about this because I honestly don’t believe compassion or its lack is necessarily associated with either left or right wing politics, or perhaps even with libertarianism versus conservatism. It might be, for instance, compassionate to side with the victims of violent crime and obey their wishes to impose harsher sentences even though this ignores the social causes of such crime and doesn’t work as a deterrant or rehabilitation. My rationalisation for this is that the truly compassionate position even for a victim is to stop the crime from happening in the first place by not putting people in a position where they resort to it, although this doesn’t remove the problem of psychopathy. I don’t know what the answer to this is.

Getting back to the question of northern countries and regions being more liberal, there is a body called the Arctic Council, which includes eight nation states as voting members (plus a number of observer states as is usual with international bodies of this kind). These are the US, Canada, Denmark, Russia, Norway, Finland, Iceland and Sweden. Of these, Russia would be widely recognised as the political outlier, with the US being the least liberal of the rest. They are of course the nations which have territory in a vaguely defined Arctic area. The definition is not based on bordering the Arctic Ocean since Sweden does not. Nor does it seem to be based on having territory north of the Arctic Circle since Iceland has only a single island, Grímsey, five square kilometres in size, partly north of the Arctic Circle, and this to me sounds like a technicality which wouldn’t be enough to qualify the country. Rather, membership seems to be currently defined by something called the AMAP Line, which is a compromise between several features, none of which seem to be necessary conditions: the Arctic Circle, the tree line (the edge of the habitat where trees can grow at all, as opposed to the timber line, where trees can form a closed canopy) and the line north of which the sea temperature in July stays below 10°C. This leads to a rather uneven closed line which includes the Aleutian Islands off the coast of mainland Alaska, which again are the part of Alaska stretching south of most of Britain, if not all of it.

Boris Johnson said a few weeks ago that the UK is the northernmost country not part of the Arctic. Rather than this being an expression of his own findings, although it could be, I suspect that this is from a researcher and may in fact refer to the Arctic Council itself. What it actually seems to mean is that Britain is the northernmost country whose northernmost point is not in the Arctic, and this of course requires Iceland to be in the Arctic. The region is not officially defined. If it was about the south of Great Britain, or perhaps the Channel Islands, the UK is very much not a northern country because for example the Netherlands are entirely north of the southernmost parts of this island if one excludes Dutch territory overseas. Continuing to consider northern criteria, even John O’Groats is further north than any other country which is not in the Arctic Council.

For once I’m going to grace you with the luxury of an illustration, which will of course be removed on request:

It can be seen from this that of all the boundaries marked, most of them are quite a bit north of Britain, but one of them isn’t. I can’t tell whether this is the EPPR or the AHDR Boundary, but the one which loops round the Faroes is claimed in various places to be the AMAP line and seems to include their territorial waters, and is actually south of about half of the Shetlands. If the Shetlands were to become independent or a Crown Dependency like the Isle of Man, Guernsey or Jersey, it would effectively become an Arctic state.

Why am I focussed on this with respect to progressiveness and liberalism? Well, as it stands the situation in Scotland, the mainland, has much in common with that in various Arctic states. The Highlands are one of the most sparsely populated parts of Western Europe and suffer from the loss of population between the ages of fifteen and nineteen. It has many of the same environmental and ecological concerns. It has small populations speaking an endangered language. The Scottish government recognises this and participates in some Arctic organisations, though not as a member. And looking at Scandinavia in particular, with which Scotland has many links since parts of it were territorially part of Scandinavia until the fifteenth century CE and a Scandinavian language was spoken in the isles, Caithness and Sutherland. The conditions in Scotland, being rather Arctic although I’m not just referring to climate, suit themselves to a progressive northern political system better than they do to the system they’re currently under, and considering Scotland as a territory, it works as a socialist country. Of course, although I would also say that socialism is suitable for everywhere, it’s particularly appropriate for a country with large, sparsely-populated areas where essential services can’t be run for a profit and is also in the mindset of people who know they really need each other and are willing to help. Of course there are many areas of England and Wales and many people for whom this is also true, and it’s mainly the selfishness and materialism of Westminster that drags the rest of England down, but an independent socialist, and perhaps Arctic, Scotland would be able to sit north of the poor exploited Sassenachs as a beacon of hope and a good example to be emulated, so it would benefit England for Scotland to become this.

And I’ll leave it at that.

Iain Banks In Drag

This might belong on the other one but here it is.

This morning I trepidaciously inquired as to Sarada’s opinion on my favourite author, Iain Banks with and without the M, so IB and IMB. Gentle though her reply was, since she knows this, she hesitantly replied that she found him “blokeish”. This later made me wonder how to spell “blokish”, but looking past that, is he?

I’m tempted to say no, but she may have a point, although she wasn’t forthcoming as to how this was the case. It was more a general impression. This is fair enough, but since I’m more or less writing realistic prose which is mostly supposed to be taken literally and I wish to spare you from any attempts I might make to write poetry. . .

There is a table over there
There is a chair close by it
There’s someone sitting in the chair
It’s true, I can’t deny it

I’m looking at a comb’s blue teeth
Some of which have fallen off

. . . apart from those from 1984 (and it shows), I hereby commit myself to going into this. There will probably be vast and terrible spoilers so BE WARNED.


I think of blokeishness as either laddishness or laddishness’s close companion. I occasionally use the word. For instance, I regard leggings as blokeish compared to tights and stockings because they’re footless, which I hope I don’t need to explain. Possibly my version of the concept is somehow awry. “Indulging in or relating to stereotypically male behaviour and interests”. Well, she has a point, especially what with the big spaceships thrusting through the void and Orbitals the size of solar systems, but is an Orbital a phallic symbol and is a spaceship with a Mind? I’ll deal with these first.

An Orbital is IMB’s take on the Ringworld, so I should probably explain that. Earth orbits at 150 million kilometres from the Sun, where she’s able to maintain a friendly environment for life as we know it. In 1970 as part of his ‘Known Space’ series, Larry Niven came up with the thought that if there was a band of superstrong material stretching all the way round such an orbit, it would provide a prodigious amount of habitable land. It would in fact have a surface area three million times that of this planet. If it were possible to make such an artifact, it might be thought unnecessary to go anywhere else, although various things would have to be done such as clearing the solar system in question of anything that might crash into it, something the Ringworld engineers didn’t quite manage to do with the result that it has a massive mountain called the Fist Of God where an asteroid crashed into it and tested the prodigious tensile strength of the scrith from which it was made to destruction by stretching it thousands of kilometres before it actually broke. The novel ‘Ringworld’ more or less exists to show off this Big Dumb Object, as these things are known. The biggest engineering issue by far with an Orbital is how to provide the unobtainium from which it’s made, since no atomic matter is strong enough to make such an object.

IMB took the Orbital and applied it in spades to his Culture, a post-scarcity society which one can gradually piece together is around nine thousand years ahead of us technologically, although it’s reached a plateau and there isn’t much technological change in at least the past seven hundred years or so. The Culture is, however, contemporaneous with mediaeval and modern human society, whose first novel is set in something like the time of the Crusades and extends well into the future with practically no change because technology is almost perfect.

Orbitals are not really Big Dumb Objects though. Big Dumb Objects are there to be explored. They drive the plot. Louis Wu and his crew in ‘Ringworld’ go out and explore the Orbital and that’s mainly what the book’s about. IMB’s Orbitals are just part of the scenery. They casually indicate how advanced the civilisation is and don’t often take centre stage. The destruction of Vavatch Orbital is probably an exception to this, but that only happens over one chapter and a character who enthuses over the spectacle of its destruction is ridiculed by the central character. I would definitely say that making a non-sentient object a central theme of a story is blokeish. It reminds me of people loving their cars or computers and showing off how wonderful they are, and going further back, honing their flint arrowheads and fish hooks, which we project onto the past as typical male activity. Literally, an Orbital can’t be a phallic symbol because it’s a ring. I suppose it could be an anal symbol, but not enough is going on with an Orbital for it to be so. It’s just one of the houses the Culture people live in.

The ships are characters. They are the least dumb big objects you can think of. They’re sentient and vastly more intelligent than any human being could ever hope to be. They’re also the abode of most of the Culture’s population. They don’t disappear into the background like Orbitals. So: is it blokeish to imbude an artifact with a personality? I would say not. Dolls are, for example, stereotypical playthings for girls and they are people to them. Maybe vehicles with personalities are different though. Giving a car a name is a fairly “male” thing to do, although my friend Elaine at school named all of her possessions, including her Dragon 32 computer, and another friend of mine in Canterbury also calls her computer a girl’s name. I haven’t met anyone male who named everything he owned, and I can easily imagine that if Elaine ever got a car, she would’ve named it too. In fact it would’ve been a bit weird of her not to considering that she’d named everything else up until then. I don’t know, though, if Elaine’s gender has any relevance to this practice. It’s idiosyncratic but not more feminine than masculine to me.

The Culture is basically Anarres writ large. Ursula K Le Guin wrote a series of books called the Hainish Cycle, in which one of the planets was a post-scarcity civilisation where everything was scarce. The people living there just preferred freedom to capitalism. The world is most intensely explored in ‘The Dispossessed’. Ignoring scale and technology, you can’t get a cigarette paper between the Culture and Anarres. A friend of mine once said that the novel reads like Ms Le Guin has never met anyone who hasn’t been to university. I don’t know how he’d react to IMB, but what he meant by that was that the University of Life would’ve educated her out of the belief that peaceful anarchism was possible. To that I would say that there are points in some people’s lives when they haven’t had to address the cognitive dissonance caused by having to sell out, and Le Guin and Banks are both people whose politics never sold out or compromised so far as to be pointless except as a form of comforting self-deception which stops you from having to admit how horribly right wing you have really become underneath. Leaving that aside, I don’t know that being left or right wing is a particularly gendered thing but the fact that the Culture is so similar to Anarres, invented by a woman, must surely mean you can’t level the accusation that the setting is socially blokeish at these stories.

Before I leave the Culture series, I want to make a few final points. Nobody in the Culture is really male or female as we understand gender. Although they do seem to be born girls or boys, they can simply decide to change gender at any time and over a period of about two years they will transition. It’s also routine that that will happen – most people will alter their sex at some point in their lives at least once. Consequently, no Culture person is literally female or male except inasmuch as they happen to be at the moment. Although this is clearly facilitated by advances in medical technology and genetic engineering, it isn’t clear that the ability to change sex routinely didn’t already exist in some of the original species making up the Culture, because in many species on this real planet this is in fact common, although in humans the non-technological form of sex change is confined to a very small number of people living in South America, and I do mean sex change – these people are all boys and become men. Not gender confirmation. Hence most protagonists in this series of stories are in a sense all women or all men. The question then arises of whether these characters are behaving in a stereotypically, or perhaps typically, masculine or feminine manner in the stories. Is IMB in fact writing a load of stories where everyone is male but some of them have female bodies? Is he in drag? What would I mean by that? Well, because we unfortunately live in a patriarchal society, readers often consider it distracting or rhetorical if an author doesn’t ascribe gender to a character, so it feels like someone is making a statement if they don’t. Many people also consider their own gender identity to be important to them. In fact I suspect that people aren’t really divided into cis and trans gender people at all, but people for whom their gender identity is significant and those for whom it isn’t. In the Culture, this isn’t so on the whole, and for all anyone knows this has always been the case. Another Ursula Le Guin novel comes to mind here of course, and now I’m wondering if IMB was strongly influenced by her work.

Having said that, gender does come up a lot in IMB’s stuff. There’s a male character who notices at one point that many of his former female lovers have transitioned, and wonders if there was something wrong with his sex life that they were provoked into doing so. Most of ‘The Player Of Games’ is set on a planet where the fact that there are three sexes has had a major influence on society, and the book goes into great depth about the sexism in that society. Gurgeh, the central character, feels ashamed at one point when he can’t remember the name of a female guest at a party because she was introduced as someone’s husband rather than a person in herself, and also finds it odd because he’s from a non-patriarchal society. Moreover, the most persistent and prominent character in all the Culture stories is Diziet Sma, who is a woman at least most of the time – I can’t actually remember if she’s male at any point. There are many other touches. Finally, for the Culture universe, the very first story I read, ‘A Gift From The Culture’, recounts how a woman who transitioned left the Culture for another place because she found it grittier and more authentic is blackmailed into committing an act of terrorism because she’s in a gay relationship with another man, and homosexuality is illegal where they are.

Before I leave the SF stuff, ‘Against A Dark Background’ has a female central character, Lady Sharrow.

Here come a bit spoiler for the IB novels. I warned you before. If you don’t want ‘The Wasp Factory’ ruined, skip this next bit.

We are misled all the way through ‘The Wasp Factory’ that Frank is male. We assume his account of his life is correct – that he was castrated when he was a small child and is now a eunuch. We further conclude that his sadistic attitudes towards the wasps and others is due to a misplaced masculine destructive instinct arising from frustration at not being able to become a “real man”. This all turns out to be, so to speak, bollocks. In fact Frank is a woman who was given testosterone in his food all the way through his adolescence and the supposed pickled testicles in his father’s study are made of wax. ‘Canal Dreams’, ‘Whit’ and ‘The Business’ all have female central characters, one of whom becomes a mass murderer as a result of being raped. I can’t remember much about ‘Transition’ but I don’t think the protagonists in it have fixed gender, sexes or sexual orientations.

The question really is, then, well there are several. There is a lot of macho stuff in IB’s and IMB’s works in a way. It’s easy to read them that way. But there are also plenty of strong central female characters who aren’t just adjuncts to male characters. If one concentrates on the idea that “a woman wouldn’t do that” or something similar, i.e. is that person a convincing depiction of a woman or man to the reader, the issue to some extent is whether any lack of conviction arises from one’s own cultural milieu rather than a fixed set of gender characteristics or tendencies. However, there is something else. Whereas IB/IMB both write stories with oodles of strong female characters, moreover in the first person most of the time, it’s still possible that his themes and the events are still blokeish. I have the impression that he saw a lot of oil rigs in his youth and this is probably what inspired a lot of his stuff. There’s also a lot of violence, but what are we to make of that? Surely it’s sexist to assume that violence is a male prerogative? Why would it not be relatable that a rape survivor wouldn’t go on a killing spree in revenge against her rapists? Is that a particularly male thing to do? It doesn’t seem like it to me.

Nor is his writing emotionally dead or unrealistic. I would defy anyone who categorises all science fiction as lacking in emotional depth and three-dimensional characters to read ‘A Gift From The Culture’ to be able to continue to assert that assessment honestly. SF may not be your cup of tea, but IB is not a science fiction writer, IMB is, and his stuff is far from emotionally unengaging, unrealistic or shallow.

For me, the standout theme in IB’s and IMB’s work is justice. As atheist and non-religious, they lacked the option of believing that the scales would ever be rebalanced after death or that anyone would receive their just desserts in the end, but he really, really wanted that to happen. Much of his writing seems to be about how justice can be served in an indifferent world. I don’t look at his stuff and think about the explosions and spaceships. I do think about chairs a lot of course, but that’s another story and that particular chair isn’t exactly an object, is it?

I dunno then, what do you think? Is he a typically male writer or not, and what does that mean?

An Ocean Apart

I’m not particularly big on geology, although it used to fascinate me. I know the basics, but it occurred to me recently that I had no idea why Great Britain is the shape and size it is, or why its topography takes this particular form. I know the basics of course: Doggerland sank a few hundred centuries ago, there was an area of marshy lowlands where the Irish Sea is and the Thames used to be a tributary of the Rhine, but I don’t know why Leicestershire is so geologically mixed or whether that has anything to do with being in the middle of this island. Why, for instance, does the Tees-Exe Line divide the higher land from the lower? How often has Boreonesia (what I’ve decided to call the “British Isles”) actually been an archipelago? It’s well-known that Great Britain only became an island seven thousand years ago, but I’m aware that this part of Earth’s surface has been fluctuating between being islands and a peninsula for millions of years before that.

One of the best-known things about the history of this planet is that over two hundred million years ago or so, almost all of the land was joined together in a single landmass, a supercontinent, now known as Pangaea. There is in fact a cycle lasting hundreds of millions of years during which the planet’s land breaks up and comes together, each time in a somewhat different arrangement. Pangaea is easy to reconstruct because the current landmasses, particularly Afrika and South America, fit together like a jigsaw, another example being the south coast of Australia and part of the Antarctic coast (I almost said “the northern coast of Antarctica” but that’s all there is!). Pangaea broke up as the Mesozoic (“Age of Dinosaurs”) proceeded, splitting into two near the Equator and forming a world-girdling ocean called the Tethys, which due to its position shares characteristics with today’s circumpolar Southern Ocean and whose remnants now include the Med, the Gulf of Mexico and the Black and Caspian Seas. Another thing which happened was the formation of the Atlantic Ocean. Before that, Boreonesia was in the middle of a continent and therefore not a “nesia” at all. Greenland was immediately to our west and there was a mountain range stretching from what is now the West Highlands southwest into today’s Appalachians in North America. This particular mountain chain is very old indeed, which is why it’s been worn down so much, to the extent that Ben Nevis is somewhat less than impressive. The current farthest point from the sea in Great Britain is near here, and tends to wander around a bit because of things like tides and cliffs falling down, but is currently Coton-in-the-Elms near Swadlincote, twenty kilometres from where I’m sitting right now. It’s 113 kilometres from the coast. In the late Permian, when Pangaea was still together, assuming no major changes in relief, which isn’t true of course, it would’ve been a whole megametre from the Tethys, the nearest sea or ocean, and wasn’t even the furthest point in “Great Britain” from the sea at the time. That would probably have been somewhere on the west coast of Scotland. I’m guessing it would’ve been desert back then too, partly because of the rain shadow from the then higher Cairngorms and partly because it was further from the sea and closer to the Equator.

Although I’ve never been to America, I have seen the Appalachians and they do in fact look quite similar to Ben Nevis. I assume they’re the same height. I also confess to not really understanding the nomenclature of the different mountain ranges in Scotland.

The Atlantic Ocean is named after the Atlas Mountains in Northwest Afrika, which are in turn named after the Titan Atlas of Greek mythology, who held up the sky and was transformed into a mountain. It also lends its name to Atlantis, which oddly also existed in Aztec myth as their Urheimat and was called Aztlan but the continental drift just mentioned rules out its existence as far as I can tell. His father was Iapetus and his brothers Prometheus, Epimetheus and one other whose name I can’t recall. Consequently, the ancient ocean which preceded the Atlantic is called the Iapetus Ocean. Incidentally, I’m resisting the temptation to discuss Saturn’s fascinating moon of the same name at this point but I will mention the oddity that we spell the name with an I but Jupiter with a J, and note that Arthur C Clarke used to call it “Japetus” – the two letters used to be one and the choice seems rather arbitrary.

Before Pangaea, the continents didn’t correspond exactly to the ones which exist now. Pannotia was a previous southern polar continent existing around 670 million years ago which broke up due to rifting, forming the Iapetus Ocean in a similar manner to the formation of the Atlantic in the later Mesozoic with the breakup of Pangaea. The two pieces of land which collided later, Laurentia and Baltica, were separated by this ocean for a long period of time, which saw the disappearance of the “quilted” fauna of the Ediacaran period, the evolution of animals with hard parts, the Cambrian explosion, the appearance of trilobites and orthocones (large, slim cone-shelled squid-like animals) and then vertebrates, all living in this ocean. As Laurentia and Baltica got closer, the ocean became a sea, which got shallower and sand was laid down to become sandstone, and the sea bed ended up above sea level in the form of the Scottish borders and Dumfries and Galloway. Thus was the future island of Great Britain formed. Scotland and England, though, used to be an entire ocean apart.

A weird thing I’ve mentioned on here before about this island is that “the east is south of the west”. Possibly because influences, species, peoples and so forth tend to move in from the continent to the southwest of here, a map of this place with north and the top and the east on the right is riven with various diagonal lines running roughly northeast to southwest separating characteristics of all sorts. The most obvious one in England is probably the Tees-Exe Line sundering the higher and lower ground. There are also linguistic lines. Rhotic accents of English are spoken towards the northwest and non-rhotic (silent R after vowels and before consonants) ones towards the southeast, and Celtic languages are also spoken to the west and north. The more reserved and standoffish attitude of the southeast is also found in East Anglia even though that region stretches as far north as Nottingham, and all the way to Yorkshire if Lincs is included. The island also slants to the west as one travels north. This is reflected in the border between Scotland and England, which doesn’t by any means run east to west. The southernmost part of Scotland, the Mull of Galloway, is on exactly the same latitude as the traditional northern border of Yorkshire, the mouth of the River Tees, meaning that there are portions of four English traditional counties north of parts of Scotland and something like eleven (!) traditional Scottish counties south of parts of England. The diagonal division of Scotland continues into the mainland part of the country and beyond, with each fault running closer to a north-south direction as one goes further north. The southernmost fault divides the Southern Uplands, consisting largely of sandstone, from England. A second fault forms the border with the central belt, which includes Glasgow, Edinburgh and Stirling – incidentally there are parts of Greater Glasgow which are more southerly than Berwick-Upon-Tweed in England. The third fault ends the Midland Valley and begins the Highlands, and the best known fault, Glen Mòr, contains Loch Ness. I’m probably wrong about this but I’ve looked across the loch from the southwest side and imagined I was looking at North America, although it’s probably better to think of the area as the West Highlands. This region and the next together form the Gàidhealtachd, the Gàidhlig-speaking area, traditionally though because it’s now a lot smaller than it was. However, it’s left its mark on the English spoken there. What I think of as Scots is not spoken in the Highlands, although it is most definitely spoken immediately east of them. The final division precedes Na h-Eileanan Siar, the islands off the west coast and the only part of the “U”K with no official English name although of course a lot of people call it the Outer Hebrides or the Western Isles.

Obviously I’ve not mentioned the Orkneys or Shetlands here. Of these, the Orkneys are the most genetically interesting from a human viewpoint because they are the most distinctive part of this political entity. Compared to them, the White population of Great Britain along with its associated islands is pretty uniform. Geographically the Orkneys and the Shetlands are just northwest of a line passing through Glen Mòr. Similarly, the Isle of Man is on the line marking the border with England.

If you wanted some kind of algorithm for generating Scotland then, it would involve a series of radiating fault lines drifting gradually from a slightly off-kilter west to east to a slightly off-kilter north to south. You could presumably continue that series of lines into the North Atlantic, but since it would be off the continental shelf that wouldn’t be realistic. That said, there are a couple of sea mounts in appropriate positions and beyond a trench there’s the Rockall Rise, so it’s slightly sensible.

Scotland and England, of course, are in the same part of the world nowadays. However, politically speaking the Iapetus Ocean may as well still be there because of the vast gulf between attitudes dominating England and those characteristic of Scotland nowadays. Moreover, it seems that Westminster wants to treat Scotland as if it’s a distant colony of the British Empire rather than the land to the northwest of England which provided it with a royal family back in the day. Hence the geological history of Scotland’s and England’s separation is still very real and still has consequences.

Life On Venus?

I used to live in a house which was a complete, um, poo-hole? There was an unhousetrainable dog in it and we used to warn each other about the floor first thing in the morning. My own room had a leaky cistern in the corner and I had £7 a week to live on after the rent was paid, in 1988. It was horrible, so I got together with some of my friends, including a housemate, and found a new house which was, in my estimation, bloody brilliant. I eagerly anticipated the opportunity to get to live with like-minded friends and met up with one of them on the way back to Leicester at St Pancras. However, the prospect seemed too good to be true and I couldn’t believe it was really going to happen, to the extent that he ended up saying “we haven’t even moved in yet and already I can’t stand you!”. It is sometimes hard for people to believe something good, to the extent that they’ll go to extraordinary lengths to deny that it’s real.

This is how I see the situation regarding xenobiologists (students of alien life), although the reasons for it may be somewhat different. I first noticed this in 1976 after the Viking lander on Mars produced a positive result from the Labeled Release Experiment (sorrry about the single L – there’s an extra R to compensate for it). At that point I didn’t really understand the scientific method, so I didn’t realise how they would try to find other explanations for the result, which at the time was that there were oxides and superoxides in the soil which reacted with the radioactively labellled nutrients and released them into the atmosphere in the reaction chamber. There do in fact seem to be many bleach-like substances in the Martian sand, but kludges can be made to biochemistry as we know it which could work round the problem, such as using hydrogen peroxide, so the problem isn’t insoluble although the question arises of whether there’s a process which could lead to the coëxistence of a biological system with hydrogen peroxide from non-living origins in the conditions as they existed on Mars at the time.

As the years went by, other evidence emerged. This included the seasonal release of methane into the atmosphere from an unknown source which in fact was hard to explain without evoking biochemistry, and changes in cracked-looking terrain near one pole which also seemed to be explicable via the waxing and waning of colonies of microörganisms in the cracks, if that’s what they were. Nonetheless scientists have persisted in their doubt, which is a professional thing to do, but there comes a point when this should probably stop.

Now for Venus. Quite some time ago now, two separate pieces of evidence emerged regarding the possibility of life in her clouds. One of these was the existence of carbonyl sulphide, a compound consisting of linear molecules of oxygen, sulphur and carbon which was found in the Miller-Urey experiment to create biological compounds from a primordial soup and can catalyse the formation of proteins from amino acids, and may therefore be crucial to the origin of life. The crucial thing about carbonyl sulphide is that it’s mainly associated with biochemical processes and is unlikely to have appeared by other means, although its occurrence in the Miller-Urey experiment does suggest otherwise. The other piece of evidence is that when seen in ultraviolet, there are dark patches in the clouds on Venus which influence the climate in the upper atmosphere and are, again, hard to explain without evoking the possibility of them being microörganisms. This is a particularly interesting example because it calls the Gaia Hypothesis to mind: are there organisms in the Venusian atmosphere controlling environmental conditions and keeping it relatively comfortable for them. Perhaps not for us though.

Yesterday, a third piece of evidence was announced: there is phosphine in the Venusian atmosphere. Phosphine (officially “phosphane” by analogy with methane and other germane compounds) is a phosphorus hydride analogous to other hydrides such as ammonia (nitrogen hydride) and methane (carbon tetrahydride). It’s used to kill rodents as it’s highly toxic and it’s also highly flammable. The interesting thing about it in this context is that given the conditions in the atmosphere and below on the planet’s solid surface, there is no known mechanism for its formation other than life. Moreover, it’s unstable in the atmosphere so some means of replenishment must be taking place.

Just to answer a few questions about this:

Yes, Venus is hellishly hot on the solid surface. However, higher in the atmosphere there’s a layer where conditions of pressure and temperature are identical to Earth’s at sea level, meaning for instance that liquid water could exist there. There’s a conceptual blind spot about Venus which concentrates on the solid surface, which is like saying Earth is hostile to life because the interior consists of red hot magma. Yes it does, but there’s a lot more interesting stuff going on here on the surface. Venus is in a way like a gas giant, in that the real surface can be thought of as the cloud tops rather than the rocky bit. It reminds me a bit of a litchi if you know what I mean.

Yes, there are animals from this planet who could survive the journey to Venus if some non-technological process was taking them there, notably the small caterpillar-like animals called tardigrades. It is indeed possible that tardigrades have reached Venus and survived, but they don’t produce phosphine so it isn’t from them.

Yes, humans have sent spacecraft to Venus and presumably these did have a few microörganisms aboard, but although in planetary terms the phosphine concentration is very low, it’s way higher than those few organisms would’ve been able to produce. Having said that, I don’t find this argument very convincing as it could turn out that there’s a food source of some kind in the atmosphere which they have begun to exploit.

All of this reminds me of my “Womanned Mission To Venus” idea on the Halfbakery by the way.

For the sake of completeness, I want to mention a few other places in the Solar System where there might be life. Like Mars, one of Saturn’s moons Enceladus produces methane, and with a water ocean within it there’s a chance of life there. Europa is famously a good candidate for life, and in fact the film I mentioned the other day, ‘Europa Report’, is about that very possibility. The reason Europa is a particularly good candidate is that it’s practically certain that its icy surface is a frozen crust over a salty ocean covering the whole moon, which is however not so deep that hydrothermal vents couldn’t provide energy and nutrition to possible organisms living in it. Ganymede and Callisto, two other large moons of Jupiter, are also possible but less likely because their own putative oceans would be a lot deeper and therefore any hydrothermal vents would be deeper and less likely to be able to provide enough warmth in the upper layers of their oceans. The same situation applies to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, which of course also has a thick, cloudy atmosphere and is the only other body in the Solar System with rivers and lakes like Earth’s. Finally, it’s even possible that Pluto has an internal ocean with life in it.

One of the most interesting things about this to me is scientists’ reluctance to accept that there is life on Venus and Mars, and even elsewhere than the inner Solar System. I do understand that science is very cautious and uses Ockham’s Razor to ensure that the most boring explanation is always sought and promoted, and in fact as I’ve mentioned before I have that characteristic myself. It is a useful one to have because it helps me to be a better clinician. Despite what some people say, it takes a huge amount of evidence for me to have confidence in a proposition, particularly if it’s extraordinary, but the point does come, as it did with the prospect of moving into that house, when it becomes delusional to reject a proposition rather than accept it. And a delusion needn’t be a sign of mental illness. We all have them. For instance, we believe there are solid objects when a lot of the stuff around us is mostly empty space with a few electrons whizzing about in mainly empty atoms with relatively minute nuclei.

It’s worth going off on a bit of a tangent here to explain that we are in fact all delusional and it may even be healthy to be so. I’ve often mentioned the phenomenon of depressive realism. Non-depressive people, a category which I feel confident I don’t belong in although I’ve never been officially diagnosed as depressive, often have the false belief that they have control over situations where there is in fact no control, and this, being a delusion, is a very persistent belief which doesn’t change in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This kind of delusion is very useful and positive, because it stops people from giving up in despair, and of course sometimes people do have control over things and can create opportunities by perceiving them. Note that this particular phenomenon is confined to accurate lack of control and other negative truths. It is over-applied in depressive thinking and means that we (I assume I am depressive) are also delusional. We aren’t paragons of uncluttered and accurate thought. Nonetheless we lack this useful, helpful delusion, and it might even be useful for us and give us insight which non-depressive people lack.

More recent research suggests, however, that delusion tends not to be a good thing. Although it’s widespread and not sensibly diagnostic of mental illness as such, most people, doubtless myself included, lack self-awareness in one area or another and are also unconscious of how others see them.

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!

What, then, is going on here? Is it mere caution about not wishing to make an assertion which could destroy a career if it gets falsified? Are people concerned about what they might unleash if they do publicise the fact that they’ve established that there is life which didn’t originate here? It seems to me not. Up until the ’60s it was more or less assumed that there was life on Mars and Venus. Mars apparently had his canals and Venus was either covered in ocean or had a load of steamy rainforests all over her. Even when I was a child, it was asserted confidently that the moving patterns of dark and light on Mars which could be seen through telescopes were the result of melting water feeding Martian algae or lichens on the surface, which later became dormant with the arrival of winter. There was even a competition once to attempt radio contact with aliens from which Mars would be excluded because it was considered too easy! Thus society has lived with the confident, if mistaken, belief that there was life, even intelligent life, elsewhere without the sky falling in on us.

That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t of course. Society has changed a lot and we may be more psychologically fragile today. Or maybe it would be perceived as more of a threat by religious fundamentalists. Maybe the real reason is more boring – Ockham’s Razor says it should be. Maybe the risk-averse mindset common today has made scientists afraid to assert certain extraordinary claims. But they seem to have been doing this since 1976, a way less risk-averse time.

Looking at various news websites, today’s Guardian requires me to scroll through FOURTEEN screenfuls of text before the news story is mentioned. It isn’t on the BBC news page at all. I wonder if we’re too insular about this nowadays. When a potentially Earthlike planet was found orbiting Proxima Centauri, it wasn’t treated as the Earth-shattering news it obviously was, and I’m thinking that we are nowadays so wrapped up in our own stuff that we aren’t supposed to care about what’s going on out there in a Universe which wouldn’t even notice if the whole planet just blinked out of existence one day. And I find this depressing and unhealthy, and as I’ve said, depressive people can be less delusional than people who aren’t depressed, so I’m sticking with that reaction.

Spirit Of Place

This is going to be short on fact-checking and a bit of a stream of consciousness thing, except that real stream of consciousness writing probably isn’t real but carefully crafted in one way or another. It involves my attempt to think of Scotland in a new way.

Although my family originates from Glasgow, I was myself born in South-East England, East Kent in fact, which is a very long way indeed from Scotland. Canterbury is, as the crow flies, five hundred kilometres from the Scottish border. Presumably if you burrowed it would be a bit less, but you might get hot and cause volcanic eruptions so it’s probably best not to. As a child, the furthest north I’d ever been up until 1984 was Woburn, then I went to see Keele University getting on for the Northwest of England but I’d never been to Scotland. Nonetheless I felt a sense of familiarity with the country. Stories of the Loch Ness Monster, for example, thrilled my child’s brain not just because of the possibility of a surviving plesiosaur but the “fact” that if it did exist it was in Loch Ness, which I felt a sense of ownership and localness for. As is usual for me, my childhood idea of Scotland was very high concept. It was where my family came from and it seemed somehow familiar.

Just to clear something up I’ve mentioned on here before, I’m fully aware that there is no giant prehistoric reptile living in the loch, partly because there isn’t enough food in it to support a sustainable population and also because if anything like that had survived the asteroid hit it would’ve refilled the oceans pretty quickly and would probably be all over the place. It is just about possible that Greenland sharks get into it but they’d have to do it by going through the River Ness, which goes straight through Inverness so it’s pretty certain that doesn’t happen either. That said, it’s possible that they could survive in it and also possible, though I very much doubt it’s happened, that there’s an offshoot shark species in the loch which got there in the distant past when it was more open to the Moray Firth.

Simply identifying with the idea of coming to Scotland does not make one Scottish of course. This kind of thing is reputed to happen a lot in the US, where people think of themselves as Irish, Polish and so forth when the connection may be rather weak and many generations back. That said, there are populations and ethnicities very much known for the fact that they are now scattered across the planet, and one of these is of course the Scots. We’re also all mongrels and the mere fact that so much of my genome passed through Glasgow is not hugely consequential. It may be that there are non-genetic features of my life which are more closely associated with the country but even there the link is flimsy, partly because there was never a strong sense of identity on that side of the family. It’s there in my surname of course, but does that matter? Compare and contrast ethnicity and gender identity.

The thing about being from Kent is that you don’t really have any practical need to go anywhere beyond London. London has everything you need, administratively and commercially and even touristically. On the other side there’s the English Channel, and one might think there’d be a gradual blending of national identity from English to French, Belgian, Dutch, Frisian or whatever, but this does not happen, and in a way that’s sad. What happens, in fact, is that people dig their heels in and are EVEN MORE ENGLISH than elsewhere in the country. Hence my perception of being from East Kent is that many people are not really from it because that suggests they might leave at some point. There are lots of things to like about the area, such as biodiversity and climate, compared to much of the rest of Great Britain, but it’s got to mean something that Nigel Farage almost became MP for Thanet South. There’s probably a more positive way of looking at this but to be honest the only thing remotely like an ethnic identity I have a sense of is Northwest European, and although I only support the EU very reluctantly that’s because of its neoliberal leanings, not because it’s European, which is just what we are in these islands. I’m from Kent though, and that makes me insular to some extent.

One way in which that insularity manifested itself when I was about to leave the county as I came of age was the nature of the architecture and building materials there. Kent consists substantially of chalk and flint, as do many of the older buildings. Many of the houses are clad in wood, and actual red brick Victorian terraces, the kind of homes which I would say dominate or are at least characteristic of much of the rest of England north to at least Blackburn weren’t something I could ever imagine feeling at home in. Nonetheless I ended up living in such houses for more than half my life up until I left Leicester, and clearly I did adjust and they now seem normal to me. But there’s more to homes in these islands than that. Apart from anything else, a lot of people live in high-rises, another type of building with which I was unfamiliar when I lived near Canterbury because local by-laws forbid the construction of buildings more than four (five?) storeys high so as to avoid obscuring the Cathedral. The landscape of East Kent, interrupted by the Channel, continues into Hauts de France on the other side, the chief difference being the bits we humans have decided to stick on top of it. At the time the areas concerned were referred to as Nord and Pas de Calais, which is how I still think of them. It was in fact more routine to travel to France than beyond London when I was a child, and there’s clearly been some cross-fertilisation because there do seem to be more French surnames, and sometimes first names, in East Kent than the English Midlands. East Kent is of course also very, very White. This fact obscures a disturbing past which can be pieced together, but is hard to find any records of: there was a genocide in the Kentish Dark Ages. The well-known division of Kent into “of Kent” and “Kentish” separated by the Medway, no longer as markèd as before due to the growth of the London conurbation, is in fact based on the fact that East Kent was settled by Jutes, the people from Jutland before the Danes, who came over as Rome fell along with the Angles, Saxons and Frisians. They also settled on the Isle of Wight and along the Solent, but are no longer in evidence, the apparent reason for that being that after conversion to Christianity the other ethnicities massacred them as pagans. This is somewhat odd because Augustine came to Canterbury, so it might be thought that they would’ve been the first to convert. It really isn’t clear what happened, at least to me, but it was quite possibly very grim indeed.

I’m familiar with most of Kent and East Sussex, but not so much with West Sussex. Being in West Sussex is a slightly odd experience to me because it looks as if it’s supposed to be familiar but isn’t. By this I mean that the buildings, geology, agriculture, flora, fauna, climate and the like is all similar to what I’m used to, but I don’t actually recognise anything there except insofar as I’ve become familiar with it since I left the Southeast of England. The same tends not to apply outside that small area stretching from the Chichester Channel eastwards into France, after which it seems to extend for a surprisingly long way before it actually starts to seem properly foreign. Portsmouth and Southampton kind of feel almost local. Beyond that, Bournemouth, Winton, Poole and Christchurch all have family associations for me and I spent a lot of time in those areas as a child because my grandmother used to live there and my mother worked in Poole. Dorset, incidentally, is bloody awesome for wildlife. Whenever I’ve looked for species usually associated with continental biomes which live in England, the place they are most common turns out to be Dorset. The place is amazing. Probably not appreciated by the people who live there but even so. Northern France and Brittany feel a bit like Southern England only more so to me. They don’t so much feel foreign as kind of suave and sophisticated versions of the parts of England I associate with my childhood. I was once sent out of a geography class for saying “France doesn’t fit in with the rest of Europe”, but the teacher later apologised to me. I stand by that statement, at least as far as the coastal areas down to about Brest as concerned, and the countryside inland from that. A friend of mine from the Midi once observed that Hauts de France, Normandy and Brittany “weren’t really France”, and I kind of agree with him except that I wonder if that reflects an idealised view of the country. But some of it is called Brittany, which is exactly what it is: Britain-y.

Although I’m very attached to Leicester, I still find the English East Midlands disappointing, primarily because it’s kind of brown and sludgy, and a bit of a wasteland. I’m not maligning the people in any way, but it has the lowest biodiversity of any of the English reasons. There’s so much missing from the fauna and flora here it’s just sad. One species there is a lot of is of course Equus caballus – the horse. But this is enslaved by humans. It’s also more or less devoid of a coastline. Incidentally, I have a habit of calling what most people here refer to as “the Midlands” as “the English Midlands”. This is because there’s more than one set of midlands in what I want to call Boreonesia. There’s Mid-Wales of course, but since that extends to both the coast and England, I don’t think of it as midlands. Central Ireland, on the other hand, is definitely the midlands to me. I have no idea what they call it there, but it’s definitely possible to draw some kind of roughly circular line around the centre of the island and call that the Midlands if you wanted to. Athlone would be an example of a Midlands town, although Ireland has got the whole provinces thing going on so I doubt they think of themselves like that. The main reason I call it the “English Midlands”, though, is that I think of the Scottish Midlands as including Stirling and the surrounding area, and there’s also the Central Belt there.

And so I come to Scotland. As you travel northwards through Great Britain, the buildings change from predominantly red brick in the south of Northern England to an increasingly monochrome tone. Scotland varies of course, but it’s notable that the buildings are very often greyish, whiteish or brown, and are more likely to be made of stone of various kinds than those of the English Midlands. Were I to go and live in Scotland, I previously thought it would be hard to come to terms with this because I’m now very used indeed to red brick Victorian terraced housing. Then it occurred to me that I’d done this before, and that there is a possible Gestalt shift here, which also extends to other aspects of Scotland and Southeastern England on the one hand versus the English Midlands on the other. Scotland and the Kent-Sussex area can be grouped together as using building materials which are relatively unchanged since they were taken from the earth. Kent has its chalk and flint, both the remnants of microörganisms at the bottom of Cretaceous seas over which Loch Ness monster-like reptiles swam. Scotland, on the other hand, has the likes of granite and sandstone, and in the case of sandstone, this too was once at the bottom of a prehistoric ocean, namely the Iapetus in Silurian times, so no prehistoric reptiles there, but on the other hand maybe there were orthocones and sea scorpions. This is of course a generalisation and I’m sure there are plenty of red brick buildings in Kent, although not so many in Scotland I suspect.

There are a few other things. The biodiversity in Scotland is clearly greater than in the English Midlands, because this region is an artificial desert. Parts of Scotland have issues of their own of course, such as coniferous monoculture, and there’s a more serious concentration of land ownership in Scotland than in England. It probably goes without saying that the climate is really quite different. Kent is also one of the few English counties with a Celtic name, and there is one further feature of Scotland/SE England vs the rest of Great Britain which has long baffled me: the pronunciation of short U. For some reason, both the Scots and the southern English pronounce the same short U words with an /ʌ/ sound, which is in fact a very unusual vowel sound in global terms. I don’t understand how this has happened, as it’s a feature of accents spoken at opposite ends of the island but not in the middle. The previous sound doesn’t seem to lend itself to becoming this vowel either. Another feature shared to a lesser extent is the replacement of intervocalic /t/ with a glottal stop, which I presume is one aspect of my accent which has been handed down unchanged from my family’s Glaswegian roots, along with the aforesaid /ʌ/ sound.

This, then, has been a bit of a meander, but it marks an attempt on my part to get my head round Scotland as a very large, general country. Like everything else, you become more aware of differences within the category after a while and I’ve long been conscious of that with Scotland, but it really lies outside the scope of what I’m aiming at here. I was going to go on about fault lines at this point but that’ll have to wait until later. For now, then, that’s that.

How Scots Is a Language – A Demonstration

The Scots Wikipedia is currently undergoing a bit of a scandal, which also exposes some of the issues with user-generated online content, and I could go there at this point but won’t. It has emerged that something like two-thirds of the articles on the project were composed by a single teen in South Carolina who didn’t know the language. What he seems to have done is go through English Wikipedia articles and simply replaced the English words with Scots ones using an online Scots dictionary. People are consequently left with the impression that Scots is simply “funny English”. Looking at it myself before the truth emerged, with my own limited knowledge of Scots, it did seem a bit peculiar. This was incidentally with no malice at all. It’s yet another example of Dunning-Kruger – if you don’t know much, you don’t realise how much there is to know, and are therefore likely to overestimate your competence. He thought he was trying to be helpful but he really wasn’t. There are bound to be many other examples, both on Wikipedia and elsewhere, and not just in the linguistic area but all sorts of others. I don’t know how many articles you’ve contributed to the place, or elsewhere online. I’m guessing I’ve initiated about two hundred plus many times as many minor edits, ranging from and to and , in addition to a large number of articles on herbs, unsurprisingly. I hope they’re accurate. By the way, I find other users of Wikipedia to be quite “arsy” in a similar way to other people’s behaviour on the internet. I was recently looking at the archived IMDb message board for the 2014 film ‘Europa Report’ and it seemed to consist largely of point-scoring and people who were so poorly informed that they were, as the phrase has it, “not even wrong”. Inductive inference would seem to suggest that I may be such a person too, but I try not to be.

One issue this has raised is the question of what Scots actually is. I’ve been into this before on this blog, but I’m coming at this from a somewhat different angle this time. Another precipitating factor in my thoughts was the recent BBC Scotland documentary on Scots, ‘Rebel Tongue’, which I watched with Sarada. She came away with the understandable impression that it didn’t really count as a separate language so much as a dialect. However, it is a separate language and in order to illustrate why this is, I plan to take some other examples of separate languages and undertake some kind of primitive and probably poorly-thought out approach to the issue.

Scots is, like English, a pluricentric language. This means it has no single standard. English has as its main standards Commonwealth and American English, with Canadian English a kind of mixture of the two. This is not to disrespect the other standards such as Australian, Indian, South African, New Zealand and Irish English, and in fact taking these too into consideration reveals the complication of pluricentrism – there is no such thing as “proper English”. This is even more so with Scots, partly due to its loss of prestige in recent centuries. The separate standards of Scots are spoken by fewer people than English on the whole, and they’re geographically closer to each other than those of the world language which is my own mother tongue. English has no equivalent to the Académie Française, but it has standards defined in various ways such as the Oxford English and Merriam-Webster dictionaries and manuals of usage whose titles temporarily escape me. Scots has something like these too but not to the same extent and without anything like the same proportionate sway. There’s also Scottish English, which blends into the register which could be said to amount to Scots. Until the Union of the Crowns with James VI in 1603, Scots was a respectable language in its own right but fell from that status from that point on, presumably exacerbated by the Act of Union in 1707. Like Welsh and Gàidhlig, the language was frowned upon by the authorities and children speaking it were punished by beatings at school. Unlike the Celtic tongues, Scots has not risen in status. To some extent it shares this with Gàidhlig, which was long considered just to be badly pronounced and ungrammatical Irish rather than a language in its own right.

Scots has been said to be further from standard English than Castilian and Catalan, the continental Scandinavian languages, Serbian and Croatian and Czech and Slovak, and also Hindi and Urdu, all of which are officially separate languages. However, so far this is just bald assertion for me. I’ve accepted this claim without testing the evidence. It is true that Serbian and Croatian and Hindi and Urdu are written with different scripts, which underlines their identities, but I’m not terribly familiar with them. I do know that with my rather limited Swedish I sometimes don’t even notice that someone is not speaking it but Norwegian, and in fact it’s the Scandinavian languages which I’d like to compare to the Scots-English situation.

As we perceive them today, though not historically, there’s a division between the insular and the continental Scandinavian languages. The insular ones are Icelandic and Faroese, which are uncontrovertibly very different from the others but whose written forms are quite similar to each other. This is, however, because Faroese spelling bears very little resemblance to its pronunciation, unlike Icelandic which is largely phonetic. The two other insular Scandinavian languages were Orkney and Shetland Norn, both of which are extinct, though Shetland Norn was spoken in the early nineteenth century. These still show traces in the dialects spoken in those isles, notably, in Orcadian at least, retaining the distinctive intonation of Norwegian and Swedish. The other three languages, Norwegian, Danish and Swedish, spoken on the Scandinavian peninsula and nearby islands, are clearly very close to one another. There is also debatably a fourth language, Gutnish, spoken in Gotland and the Baltic island of Fårö, and the reason for that debate is of course political, i.e. some speakers of Gutnish wish to assert it as a separate language. This is quite important in defining what counts as a tongue in its own right.

Norwegian is also complicated by having two standards: Nynorsk and Bokmål. The former is an amalgamation of dialects of colloquial Norwegian, with some asserting a third standard sometimes called “High Norwegian” by analogy with High German which don’t conform to that standard. Bokmål is a more conservative written-only language whose pronunciation varies when spoken. Hence Norwegian is also pluricentric, which considering that it’s spoken along the fjord-riddled Atlantic coast of Scandinavia is not surprising – lots of almost isolated communities. Norway itself is very narrow over much of its length.

Swedish is somewhat complicated too, not only by the issue of Gutnish but also by the fact that it’s spoken in Finland and Estonia. In these countries it’s a non-tonal language, and the vocabulary is somewhat different. Finally there’s Danish, which is perhaps a slight outlier compared to the other continental Scandinavian languages, though emphatically not compared to Faroese and Icelandic. Danish is entirely non-tonal, but replaces the tone variation with the insertion of a glottal stop in some words, and is also kind of mumbled, like English is in a way. One of the standards of Norwegian is really Danish standards imposed on Norwegian, I’m guessing Bokmål. All of this I’m describing as an outsider.

These languages are all recognised as foreign to one another but also as very similar. I first noticed this when looking at the instruction manual for the game Mastermind as a child, also noting the marked similarity between Spanish and Portuguese. They’re even named similarly: monosyllabic words ending in “-sk”: Norsk, Svensk and Dansk. I am of course an outsider with respect to them, but have been aware of and interested in comparing them for a long time.

What I propose to do now is to reproduce translations of the Lord’s Prayer in each language for comparison’s sake. The Lord’s Prayer is not chosen for religious reasons but because it’s such a widespread text that it makes it very easy to compare. That said, individual translators and translations will doubtless make different choices which may make the languages seem closer or less similar than they really are. I’ll start with Norwegian Bokmål:

Vår Far i himmelen!
La navnet ditt helliges.
La riket ditt komme.
La viljen din skje på jorden slik som i himmelen.
Gi oss i dag vårt daglige brød,
og tilgi oss vår skyld,
slik også vi tilgir våre skyldnere.
Og la oss ikke komme i fristelse,
men frels oss fra det onde.
For riket er ditt og makten og æren i evighet. Amen.

Now for Nynorsk:

Vår Far i himmelen!
Lat namnet ditt helgast.
Lat riket ditt koma.
Lat viljen din råda på jorda slik som i himmelen.
Gjev oss i dag vårt daglege brød,
og tilgjev oss vår skuld,
slik vi òg tilgjev våre skuldnarar.
Og lat oss ikkje koma i freisting,
men frels oss frå det vonde.
For riket er ditt og makta og æra i all æve. Amen.


Vor Fader, du som er i himlene,
helliget vorde dit navn.
Komme dit rige;
ske din vilje,
som i himmelen, således også på jorden.
Giv os i dag vort daglige brød,
og forlad os vor skyld
som også vi forlader vore skyldnere.
Og led os ikke i fristelse,
men fri os fra det onde.


And finally, Swedish:

Vår fader, du som är i himlen.
Låt ditt namn bli helgat.
Låt ditt rike komma.
Låt din vilja ske,
på jorden så som i himlen.
Ge oss i dag vårt bröd för dagen som kommer.
Och förlåt oss våra skulder,
liksom vi har förlåtit dem som står i skuld till oss.
Och utsätt oss inte för prövning,
utan rädda oss från det onda.
Ditt är riket. Din är makten och äran i evighet.

The immediate issue here, apart from translational choices, is in spelling. Although Swedish spells the verb “är” differently than the Danish “er”, they are in fact the same word, as are “vår” and “vor”. These differences strike me as very like those between British and American English rather than real stumbling blocks to comprehension when spoken. Moving on to the Swedish use of “låt” compared to what seems to be a subjunctive in Danish, that seems to be a definite difference. The use of “himlene” is plural and becomes “the heavens” in English, a translation which also occurs in the Old English version of this prayer. Danish seems to have reversed “on Earth as it is in Heaven” compared to the Swedish and English versions, which strikes me as a stylistic choice. This differences continue, making it hard to compare the two. I also suspect, though I don’t know, that the Swedish version is newer than the Danish one, so we’re not comparing like with like here. The Norwegian versions also use what I’m thinking of as the “let” constructions rather than the apparent subjunctives of the Danish. The Norwegian versions also use a synthetic (inflected) passive compared to the Swedish. One thing to note, though, is that although both Norwegian versions are accepted as being officially Norwegian the degree of difference between them isn’t much less than the differences between what are universally accepted as different languages.

Listening to recordings of them, I have to say I’m not really aware of listening to different languages, which is usual for me to the extent that I can understand Swedish. Even as a native English speaker who is fluent in German, I feel I don’t need to use specific knowledge of continental Scandinavian languages to understand them.

Now for the two familiar English versions:

Our Father, Which art in Heaven
Hallowèd be Thy name.
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
On Earth as it is in Heaven
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us
Lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil
For Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory
For ever and ever

In more or less present day English:

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins

as we forgive those who sin against us.

Lead us not into temptation

but deliver us from evil.

For the kingdom, the power,

and the glory are yours

now and for ever.


There are of course variations in this too, such as the use of the word “debtors” rather than “those who trespass against us”, and the word “sins” in place of “trespasses”.

Now for the three Scots versions on the dubious Scots Wikipedia. First Lorimer, who died in 1967, known for his translation of the New Testament directly from Koine Greek into Scots:

Our Faither in heiven,
be hallowt thy name ;
thy Kíngdom come;
thy will be dune on the yird, as in heiven.
Gíe us our breid for this incomin day;
forgíe us the wrangs we hae wrocht,
as we hae foríen the wrangs we hae dree’d;
an sey-us-na sairlie, but sauf usfrae the Ill Ane:
for the Kíngdom, the pouer an the glorie ar thine for ivver an aye.

A Doric version (Northeastern):

Faither o us aa,
Faa’s hame is Heiven,
We haud up Your name.
Lat Your Kingly wark gyang forrit,
An lat Your wye win throwe doon here amang hiz
The same as it daes abeen.
Gie us this day the mait we need.
Gin we hae deen wrang, dicht aff the sclate agin’s
Like we wid dee for een anither.
Keep’s airted awa fae faar we’re like tae tummle,
An rax us free o coorseness:
For Your’s is the CroonAn the MichtAn the Glorie,Aawye an aawye.
Sae lat it be.

And finally an anonymous version:

Wir Faither in Hivin,
Yir name be keepit in awe,
Yir ring begin, i the warld as in Hivin.
Gie us ilk day wir breid for the day,
An forgie whit we are awin tae Yirsel,
As we forgie ithers whit is awin tae us.
An dinna trachle us sairly,
but free us frae the Deil;
fur the Croun is yir ain,
An the micht an the glorie,
Warld upo warld.
Sae be it.

All of these seem to be rather freely translated. There has in fact never been a complete translation of the Bible into Scots, which when one considers the full versions of the Bible into languages with very few speakers indeed, is quite remarkable. Scots is, incidentally, said to be spoken by a million and a half people, making it Britain’s second language, three times as common as Urdu, which I’ve understood to be our second language before, although this may have changed and has its own issues because of the distinction, or otherwise, from Hindi.

I think you can see for yourself, given the above examples, that the variation between the continental Scandinavian languages is if anything less than that between the English versions and Scots. It’s been said that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy, which makes me wonder about languages spoken only in landlocked countries or perhaps very peaceable cultures, but then of course such languages might be vulnerable due to that peaceability. I hope not. Another issue is mutual intelligibility: languages are distinct if their users can’t understand each other. This ignores the very common phenomenon of linguistic continua. The northernmost speakers of Norwegian on the Scandinavian peninsula can understand their neighbouring Swedes fairly well. Likewise the southernmost Swedish speakers can understand the Danes, the southernmost Danes the Low German speakers across the border and so on, all the way down to Northern Italy, where the southernmost border of the continuous Germanic-speaking area is located. Likewise, the Walloons of Belgium understand the French just fine, who in turn get what the Occitan speakers are saying, who can make out the meaning of their neighbouring Catalan speakers, and all the way down to Ceuta on the Mediterranean coast of Afrika. This even applies to the Q-Celtic of these isles, whose Irish, Manx and Gàidhlig once formed such a continuum, though Galwegian Gàidhlig is no longer spoken. On the whole, though, English speakers seem not to expect this. In most of the Anglosphere, English is not an originally indigenous language and therefore although it may have something of an accent or dialect continuum, it’s usually sharply delineated from other language communities. Tok Pisin is clearly partly derived from English but as far as I know people who live in Darwin don’t speak anything like it. We can capture some of the experience by looking at old texts in Middle and Old English, but we’re not used to it. That said, it’s been said that the sharpest isogloss (line separating areas where speech is different) in the English-speaking world is along the Solway Firth. Speakers from either side of the bridge over the Tweed into Coldstream from England use very different words, although it’s notable also that to me, the residents of Berwick just sound Scottish. Maybe they don’t use “wee”, which strikes me as almost diagnostic.

Ultimately it probably comes down to two things. One is assertiveness. If you’re at peace with the way you speak and value it, it’s your language. Scots has very much been undermined in this way, even within families. The other is how seriously other people take you when you speak in that manner. And this has a parallel in all sorts of other identity issues. I’ve said before that a floral dress isn’t so much women’s clothing as a costume you put on which tells people not to take you seriously. Similar things can be said of coming across as a hippy, having a notably different skin tone, being differently abled, being “too young” or “too old” and all sorts of other things. If we are to respect Scots the people, it would help to respect Scots the language. Therefore, it is a language. Scots is one of several Ingvaeonic languages, also including English, Yola, Tok Pisin, Bislama and Frisian. Of that list, only Frisian has a history of being fully accepted as different from English, but they really all ought to be.