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Sunday, 28 July 2019

Do The Dead Have Any Rights?

Whatever rights the dead may have, they are secured for them by the living. A man writes a will disinheriting his children; they go to court to have the will set aside and a living judge decides the matter. Another man writes a will endowing a fund out of which lawyers can be paid to defend his reputation against all-comers. But in a jurisdiction where English law prevails, that would be pointless: there is no offence of libelling the dead. Only the living can be libelled. In France, the dead are protected too.

The living grant rights to the dead, no doubt guided very much by what rights they themselves would like to be accorded when they die. Rights for the dead are about anticipation, not retrospection. So in most cultures, maybe all, there are protocols for handling a dead body and disposing of it. Failure to observe those protocols is both shocking and probably a sign of some breakdown of the social order. If the protocols dictate at least a shroud and an individual grave, then something has gone very wrong if naked bodies are tipped into common graves, as often they are in times of plague and war. 

But does it make sense to say that the rights of the dead have been violated in such circumstances? After all, they know nothing of what is going on. And we can understand and criticise what is happening without invoking the language of rights. So, for example, we could say that if we don’t show respect towards the dead, we will soon cease to show respect to the living, to each other. And that is not going to be good news. This argument is a cautionary, prudential one rather than a rights-based one.

It is also the case that the language of rights seems inappropriate where there is constant flux in the protocols which set out the rights of the dead. It is only very recently in my culture that burning bodies has been accepted as an alternative to burying them; even more recently that it has been thought acceptable to harvest vital organs - with or without explicit consent -  from those who may have died only minutes beforehand. It doesn’t seem that “rights” come into it. It looks more like “needs must”.

Nonetheless, we do accord rights to the dead which are quite extensive and sometimes not always explicitly reflected upon. Most of these rights relate to property and reputation. Some deserve to be challenged.

An elderly widow with no children and a great deal of inherited wealth writes a will leaving the whole lot to a donkey sanctuary. She has every right to do so. There is no Public Advocate enabled to go before a judge and argue that the will should be set aside. There is no one who can stand up to say: Your Honour, the reality is that we have far too many donkey sanctuaries; donkeys are being bred to populate them; the sanctuaries are not much more than a lucrative scam for those who promote them. I urge you to divert the late widow’s wealth to the oncology department of her local hospital where, at public expense, she received extensive treatment for several years. It would be right for her estate to be put back into the community from which she took so much. Ditch the fake donkeys, Your Honour!

It would require a revolution in our thinking to find that argument compelling. I would welcome such a revolution, but as things stand, the imagined Public Advocate’s argument is nothing more than an open threat to property rights which - in our minds - are inextricably linked to the idea that those are things which can be passed on. Quite cursory analysis would show that there is really not much of a link between the idea of a property right and the idea of an indefinitely and indefeasibly transmissible property right. A practical demonstration of the distinction between property right and transfer right was once provided in traditional gypsy cultures where both the caravan and its contents were burnt on the death of its owner. But woe betide anyone who had thought to steal from the caravan during the lifetime of its occupant.

So much for property. What about reputation? Here there is a cluster of protocols which create or enshrine rights to externalised memory, to memorials. Someone dies, they are buried, and their grave marked with a tombstone giving name, dates, some personal details and maybe a Commendation, “A Kind Father to all His Children”; “She Loved the Donkeys”. All this involves several financial transactions, none of which guarantee that tombstone in perpetuity. In practice, grave furniture is quickly neglected by those who have paid for it; the weather takes its toll on soft stone; the graveyard fills up - and eventually everything is bulldozed to make way for new graves or simply public green space. The dead are forgotten. No one much minds because the protocol has allowed memory to be gradually, not abruptly, extinguished. Those who mourn have been given their time.

In contrast, when a memorial - a monument - to a dead person is erected in public space, whether at government expense or funded by public subscription, it seems to be some kind of assumption that they thereby acquire a right to stand or sit there, in stone or bronze, in perpetuity. There is no protocol for taking these things down, no equivalent to the protocol which allows graveyards to be cleared out. In the context of lively conflict over statues of controversial figures, it would actually be helpful to develop some kind of intellectual framework which would aid us in deciding when a statue’s lease on public space has run out. 

One criterion might be whether we still remember the name and history of a person memorialised, regardless of whether the memory is fond or hostile. Yes, for most of us, it’s still Nelson on top of the column in Trafalgar Square. But who are those characters who occupy the surrounding plinths? If you can’t so much as name them, why would you want them to remain there, in perpetuity? It’s not as if the hack work of monumental sculpture ever has any artistic interest and only rarely can it claim architectural merit. Without a protocol for removing the upright monumental dead, our urban public spaces are simply doomed to become more and more cluttered by forlorn figures, very rapidly forgotten by us and attracting the interest only of dogs - the reason for plinths in part to protect trouser legs - and pigeons.

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

The Bank Note Problem

In Ruritania, there are four denominations of banknotes. The Ruritanian Royal Bank issues them in unequal quantities, according to perceived need, and on a rotating basis changes the designs to make forgery more difficult and less remunerative. One design is changed every three years, and once changed the old notes for that denomination cease to be valid. So each design has a life of twelve years.

In the past, the designs comprised abstract and complicated backgrounds (so-called guilloché or burelage ) combined with unique fonts in mostly calligraphic styles, all designed to defeat attempts at forgery. But at the urging of a modernising Ruritanian government, some decades ago now, the bank changed its policy and all new designs incorporate representations of dead people who are remembered for their achievements. The modernising government wanted to see different kinds of people and different kinds of achievement represented, but did not bind the bank to any particular formula.

That posed the bank a problem. How many different kinds of people are there? How many kinds of achievement? Without answers to those prior questions it was very hard to know how to proceed. The Bank did not at first identify this problem and started out without any clear answers, rather hoping that obvious cases would present themselves, as indeed they did.  Mr Shakespeare, Ruritania’s most famous and acclaimed dead playwright, had his image uncontroversially placed on a twenty pounds sterling banknote in 1970. It was true but irrelevant that there have always been doubts about whether images of Mr Shakespeare look at all like the man they purport to represent and, indeed, whether Mr Shakespeare wrote his Works. Never mind, Ruritanian history has always been strong on fiction.

The lack of clear principles of choice immediately encouraged subjects of Ruritania to come forward with humble petitions addressed to the Governor of the Bank proposing that such and such a person, or group of persons, or achievement, or group of achievements, should be represented on the next banknote scheduled for replacement. In the common parlance of the United States, these humble petitions - however worded in terms of justice, fairness and representation not to mention Greatness - were necessarily instances of log rolling.

Anyway, the Bank had a new problem. Should it now respond to the biggest logs rolled its way or should it seek to establish some principles of fair representation? The Governor decided that Principles should be sought. A committee was formed to find them.

After the usual lengthy deliberations, the committee proposed that two categories of person should be recognised (Male and Female) and four categories of achievement (Arts, Science, Politics, War). The committee pointed out that these numbers had been arrived at having regard to the reality of four bank note combinations. All eight possible combinations of the categories (which they summarised as MA, MS, MP, MW; FA, FS, FP, FW) could be represented on four notes in just two complete banknote cycles. There would be no awkward remainders to deal with.

As for the actual personages to be represented, the committee concluded that (a) that they all be dead - there was no disagreement about that - and (b) that it was up to the Governor to decide between several possible selection procedures enumerated as follows:      a committee of experts and / or the Great & the Good to pick the person to be featured in any of the eight categories;  a simple lottery the tickets for which would bear names selected by some method or other;  a weighted lottery with the number of tickets for each name equal to the number of signatures on humble petitions submitted in favour of that name - this was seen as a concession to log rolling;

The committee also felt that a further accommodation of the public was possible:
·         A list of names, carefully selected by the Bank’s own committee, could be submitted to public vote according to one of the recognised procedures (first past the post, and so on).  This proposal neatly incorporated a guarantee against any possibility of an overwhelming public vote in favour of Banky McBankface. The name would simply not appear among the choices submitted for popular choice.

The committee did identify one unresolved problem. Since banknotes of the four denominations are issued in unequal quantities, it might be thought that the representational value of the image on them should be weighted according to the number of banknotes on which that image would appear. The committee noted that this would remove an element of simplicity from its proposals and would require assistance from someone able to do difficult sums.

The committee then took cover. 

When it learned of the committee’s recommendations, the government of Ruritania was appalled. There were far too few categories of person and it was not sure that “War” was any longer a category of achievement. What about “Entertainment” or “Sport” - perhaps these could be combined into “Culture”?  If “War” was then added to “Politics”, that would preserve the four categories of achievement. A neat counter-proposal.

But as for categories of person, the government felt it had a duty of special care for the Ruritanian Minorities of which thirty nine were currently recognised. How did the Bank propose to ensure that those minorities featured appropriately on the four denominations with only its Male and Female categories available?

The Bank replied humbly that it thought that it could cope with the increased complexity demanded by the government but would need a few extra mathematicians, a new computer, and an answer from the government to two remaining questions: Are the thirty nine minorities to be represented equally within the Person categories or in weighted form according to the number of persons identified as being members of those minorities? And if the latter, should the number be those actually living or the number who have ever lived within the borders of Ruritania? The second question was given its point by the twin facts that all Persons had to be dead in order to qualify and that today’s Ruritanian Minorities were not distributed in the same proportions or same aggregate numbers as the Minorities of yesteryear.

The government appointed a small committee of mathematicians to come up with its reply to these two supplementary questions and it is hoped that a Nobel Prize (possibly for Mathematics but preferably for Peace) will result.

Saturday, 20 July 2019

Boys from Slade Green are Under-represented in Hollywood films

Click on Image to Magnify

I was born in Dartford’s West Hill hospital, which once provided maternity facilities for those who lived in Slade Green. Slade Green was an area sandwiched between Erith (which was a Borough) and Crayford (which was an Urban District), both within the county of Kent.  But by the time I was born, this part of north-west Kent was really part of south-east London and is now legally so - Slade Green is within the Northend ward of the London Borough of Bexley. In other words, I lived in a place which had no real identity or boundaries.

I lived in Slade Green from birth until the age of eight when we moved to Dartford. So you might say that I passed half of my boyhood there, not quite a tenth of my life.  I could claim to be a boy from Slade Green which I think of as some kind of outgrowth of Erith rather than of Crayford.  The postal address was “Slade Green, Erith, Kent” - I used it frequently to head  Thank You letters to aunts and uncles - and the nearest town for shopping was Erith.

Google can’t find many people who claim to be or have been from Slade Green; Jade Anouka (1990 - ) was born there and that’s the only notable name I can find. For Erith as a whole, there are well-known people who were born there including the humanist and socialist comedian and writer Linda Smith (1958-2006) who joked that Erith isn't twinned with anywhere but it does have a suicide pact with Dagenham - the giant red neon Ford sign prominent on the opposite bank of the Thames. And another one: 

Erith is in Kent - the "Garden of England" - I can only assume Erith is the outside toilet because it is a shit house.[1]

A 2014 post on Reddit in answer to a question from someone thinking to move to my home territory has this to say:

“Erith is crime central, and Slade Green has absolutely NOTHING going for it.

That’s not untypical of what I can find and I doubt it’s untrue. Now to the point. 

Would it make sense to say in some selected context that people from Slade Green are underepresented in that context? If you enlarged it a bit, would Erith or Crayford or even north-west Kent make sense as things which could be underepresented? I suspect not, because there are thousands of Slade Greens in the United Kingdom, thousands of places with nothing going for them and  no special claim to be represented somewhere else. If someone from Slade Green became a Hollywood film actor ( Jade Anouka might) the fortuitous fact of coming from Slade Green would be of no relevance. If Jade Anouka got a part, no one would be asking the question, Are Slade Green actors under-represented (or over-represented) in Hollywood movies?

And yet if we generalise a bit more the question no longer looks absurd. I borrow a sociological category from Trump, D. 2018 and put it this way, Are actors from shithole places under-represented (or over-represented) in Hollywood films? Cleaned up to meet Sunday School sensibilities the question becomes, Are actors from under-privileged backgrounds …?

I don’t know the answer to that question for Hollywood, but do know that it is reckoned to make sense in many other contexts and that the answer is that those from under-privileged / deprived / poor backgrounds are often under-represented. Bankers, lawyers, politicians, museum directors …. well, they don’t come from Slade Green-like places.


My country has a state broadcaster which now has a website where every day there are feelgood stories of the form “ So-and-so becomes first X in Y” or (less satisfactorily) “first openly X in Y” and “first X in Y since …” . These stories often irritate me because so many assumptions are quietly smuggled in with the story. Why is it a good thing that the Church of England now has its first black female bishop? 

The Church of England is, from where I stand, a small but extremely wealthy (the bishops all live in what are called Palaces) religious organisation which attends to the needs of the highest in the land for infant baptisms (a reprehensible practice), weddings and funerals. And that’s about it. It has little to commend it. What is a black woman doing selling her soul to this organisation, I wonder? Why isn’t she - let’s say - a Quaker? (The BBC has not heard of Quakers; its website likes to keep things simple. There are Roman Catholics - the BBC is very much in their favour - there is the Church of England  - the BBC doffs its cap -  and nowadays there are Muslims - excellent chaps. But that’s it.)

The BBC would not feature a piece claiming “First woman to head the Institute for Torturing Political Prisoners” because it gets the point that torturing people is not very nice. The Church of England is not very nice, but it doesn’t get that.

You can experiment with variants: Cardinals elect first gay / first openly gay/ first…. since 1555 Pope.[2]

The context in which I am writing this is one in which there is endless chatter about representation, under-representation, diversity and so on but in which there seems to be very little thought about the categories X and Y which matter and what in the end counts as a satisfactory result. 

Even at the apparently simple level of male:female representation, there has to be some thinking about what counts as “gender balance” though I prefer “sex balance” since gender is a complicating factor. Fifty:Fifty looks like the right answer. But for a large organisation which has to deal with changes in the available labour force, the legacy of past training practices and so on, fifty: fifty is not a reasonable target. It would force employers to take on less qualified candidates just to keep the balance at a point in time. What might be a reasonable expectation and aim would be to keep variation in, say, the 45 - 55 range, either way, over a period of time. Affirmative action is then required if the actual figures gravitate to the outer limits of the range but otherwise everyone can just get on with their regular work.

Even then, there are difficult cases to consider. I offer just three: midwives, coal miners, primary school teachers.



Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Book Learning

How many books have you read? I count in books per week rather than day or month and I reckon that my average must be about two a week and that average probably holds up over sixty years now. 

Reckon a year at 50 weeks (easier math), then that’s three thousand weeks and so, six thousand books. I don’t count books which I skim or abandon early on and, in any case, I tend to be a dutiful reader who once started keeps going to the often bitter end.

Anyway, six thousand. A very small number. The best-selling among my own books in the Amazon ranking is currently in position 560 353. Lot of books out there, most of them desperately seeking readers.

Six thousand. If you locked me in a room for a week, instructed to write out the authors and titles, I would struggle. How many could I actually recall even at the entry level of author plus title? Maybe I could make a start with the books read in other languages which I am sure would number no more than a few hundred, nearly all in French. I have (for example) only ever read two books in Spanish, both by Eugenio Coseriu and in historical linguistics - easy enough to understand since all  the technical vocabulary could be guessed via the very similar French.

Those six thousand books have left me in possession of a great deal of book learning, though they have not made me learned because I have never been much concerned to achieve “chapter and verse” recall. I have never read biblically, and can’t quote you Shakespeare or Marx or Virginia Woolf, let alone the Bible. I don’t think of books as monuments onto which memorable inscriptions have been carved, but rather as things which develop or express ideas and feelings which can be put to use without it being necessary to recall the exact words used. Sometimes the exact words matter, but not often. I’m an active reader, but not a faithful one. 

All this book learning goes towards making me an educated person, and all this book learning dies with me, if not before - I think it is already slipping away. It can only exercise its effects in my conversation, in what I write, in how I conduct my life. And then it ceases to exist at all.

Will the young people in the street now permanently attached to smartphones eventually turn to books and catch up with my kind of score, a score which must surely be common among older people?

Friday, 12 July 2019

A Niqab and a Panama hat

Rational Dress

I don't know who invented high heels, but all women owe him a lot.

Marilyn Monroe


In summer 2019 I spent a week in Wiesbaden, working. I was helping to describe for auction a collection of nineteenth century documents and correspondence originally sold off in the 1970s to pay the bills of declining and defunct Russian monasteries on Mont Athos.  In lunch breaks and evenings I did my usual thing, strolling the city and taking in people and surroundings.

In a busy midday pedestrianised shopping area a woman appears out of the crowd coming towards me: tall, slender, dressed in an immaculately well-cut, dark blue and seemingly brand new niqab. The man walking beside her is considerably shorter, hunched over his smartphone, dressed according to regulations: a bit of stubble, tee-shirt, jeans, and trainers. My rapid visual profiling doesn’t take in the logo on the trainers so I don’t know if there is a brand he might favour.

The rules are sensible which permit young men to dress in ways which are practical for life in any European city. It means they can run after a bus, vault a barrier to cross a road. They can pick up children with ease, put them on their shoulders and, perhaps most importantly, kick a ball around.

I just wish the rules were a bit more considerate about female dress. The niqab can look very stylish; so too can high heels. But both are impractical. I guess the niqab can be very hot inside on a climate warming summer day and that reminds me of how on hot days in school, decades ago, we were always agitating for permission to take off jackets and ties. More importantly, the niqab is isolating. I will come to that.

I glance back at the woman. She is staring at me, intensely, her eyes a perfect study in black and white because those eyes are beautifully picked out with kohl. But I can’t place the look as angry or friendly or just inquisitive - there is no facial gesture to help out. I’m stumped to understand why I should be worth a very frank stare. She has only her gaze to work with and I can’t interpret it. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m wearing sunglasses that encourages a stare, since from her point of view there is no eye contact and so she can’t figure out my gaze either.

Then as we pass each other, a penny drops and I laugh. I’m old and male and pale and I’m wearing a Panama hat, a proper one with a broad black band. Hitherto I have understood the Panama as standard issue for bald-headed elderly gentlemen on sunny days. But I realise that on my stroll today I haven’t actually seen one. Maybe a Panama is not a German thing, even for elderly bald-heads. Perhaps it’s like this: she is my first niqab of the day and I am her first Panama. It’s the hat which causes the stare.

People do sometimes call out to me when I’m wearing a hat; there seems to be something about hats (or at least, my hats) which frees people to address you. In the central park, later the same day, a young woman sitting on a bench and making out with a boyfriend calls after me, Bonjour, though I am too slow to turn, lift my hat, incline my head, and reply - as one ought - Bonjour, Mam’selle. Anyway, it shows that there’s at least one other person in this city who reckons a Panama notable and, interestingly, French.

That brings me to the point I skipped over. We are often led to believe that in modern urban environments people walk around as if no one else exists, isolated monads who don’t interact. That is not quite right. A lot goes on, an awful lot. I give an example relevant to what I want to say.

If in the street a child is behaving in a way which is charming, delightful or just funny, I will almost certainly smile at whoever is doing the parenting. That is surely very common, not an eccentricity. It is also the case that the parent will acknowledge the compliment about the child which the smile implies - they will smile back. Some who are more bold will end up exchanging a few words, not quite “passing the time of day” but about things specific to the child, like age or name. If I smile at a parent who happens to be wearing hijab, she will smile back.

When women wearing hijab began to appear at shop tills in London and then where I live, I behaved at first in a correct but very restrained manner, as if attending a vicarage tea-party. I didn’t engage, thinking it might be unwelcome. Now I will pass the time of day, sometimes crack a joke, encouraged by the fact that there is usually a smile on offer and even a riposte. It’s quite a good idea for old white males in Panama hats to behave as if they might be ordinary human beings. We can at least try to Pass.

The woman in the niqab is pretty much excluded from the small change of everyday life. It really makes a very big difference that you can’t see a face and from the face gauge whether a compliment or a joke would be appreciated or has gone down well. Leave aside that the man in tee-shirt, jeans, and trainers might not approve. Leave aside that she is not going to initiate any exchange anyway. The face covering inhibits any exchange. I suppose that is its purpose.

The exclusion is not total: if there are women wearing hijab on the streets they do engage with women wearing the niqab and vice versa (I’ve seen this on strolls elsewhere). Perhaps the best hope for the future is that women who wear headscarves enable women fully covered to change their style, at least for everyday street life. Maybe the niqab would then become something reserved for special days, a reminder of the past, like the traditional dress that jeans-and-trainers males put on for formal occasions. It would cease to be a burdensome obligation of everyday life. In the same way, though I can't understand why anyone would want to wear impractical high heels for shopping or work - and most certainly should not be obliged - it’s understandable that someone might want to wear them for special occasions, even if they end up being kicked off and abandoned.

But there are more ways of bringing on cultural change than imagined in my philosophy. In that same lunch break stroll a five-abreast group of teenagers are coming towards me; in the middle a tall, smiling, noisy girl has combined hijab with bright yellow stiletto heels - or perhaps, vice versa.

This re-written version pasted in on 27 January 2023 replaces the original post. The substance is unchanged but the prose has been restyled.