Sunday, 30 June 2013

Seasick Steve, Locusts in Brussels and Beware! Ofcom is watching

Oh, all right, I give up, I capitulate, I surrender, I submit, I am throwing in the towel.  I have to share the highspot of the year so far (last post); Seasick Steve at Glastonbury with the awesome J P Jones* on bass! It is strange that every generation seems to throw up one act that is an absolute must if you are organising a music festival. My generation had the Edgar Broughton Band** and, later, Rory Gallagher; it seems that this generation has chosen Seasick Steve. Not quite as good as Rory (who is?) but he plays a mean bottleneck all the same! Anybody that can play bottleneck on a guitar made from two hub caps*** and a garden hoe deserves respect! He also has the best song title that I have come across in a while; "I started out with nothin' and I still have most of it left".****

In the UK, in line with most other western democracies, there is an enormous fondness for legislating the hell out of anything and everything; making rules about how we behave or others behave towards us. Nowhere is this love of rule-making so adored as in the European Community (EU) where vast hordes of bureaucrats, like locusts in a grain field, populate Brussels in an orgy of legislation, proposed.legislation, pipe-dream legislation, pie-in-the-sky legislation; the world's pine forests are seriously under threat from this avalanche of paper which descends, unbidden and largely unread, from Brussels. The only job market which is expanding in the EU is for 'Compliance Officers', those charged with reading this guff and explaining clearly in words of one syllable to just about anybody what it all means and how you avoid running foul of the law.

Mocking the flood of legislation is easy; an April Fools prank by a newspaper a few years ago which reported that the EU was proposing legislation, to limit the curvature of bananas which could be sold, was widely considered not to be beyond the pale. However, whilst they may go over the top on occasion, the legislation is after all drafted by lawyers who, as a profession, are not renowned for either their brevity or their unwillingness to dot 'i's and cross 't's, the legislation does genuinely provide, in the main, genuine and much needed safeguards for the population as a whole. Employment legislation, protecting the rights of the downtrodden workforce; safety of medicines, it does what it says on the tin; the right to a fair trial, however much the media try to scuttle it; the protection of basic human rights, we, in the UK at least, do not have a formal, written constitution or Bill of Rights as in the US.

I was reminded of this by a casual perusal of the 'OfCom Bulletin' and a post I wrote earlier in the month about journalists (here). OfCom, OFCOM or Ofcom, ofcom,***** whatever, is an independent, quasi-government body which was established to regulate, inter alia, broadcasting, in its myriad of forms, and provide advice and adjudication on the various items of legislation which relate to broadcasting; it is similar to the Press Complaints Commission but scarcely has the same air of 'lap-dog subservience' that the employer-led PCC has. It is also has the responsibility of licensing companies providing such services; no licence, no broadcast!.

So what has got me mildly warm under the collar? A television documentary (in Channel 4's usually excellent 'Dispatches' programme) about the NHS and the effects of cuts in 2011, when the programme was broadcast. In common with all documentaries about the NHS over the last thirty years, it was somewhat critical of the health service in general and one Health Trust in particular. So far, all fine and dandy; one of the prime benefits of good journalism is that the population as a whole get to learn about things which they do not want you to know. A major feature of this documentary, which it shares with other programmes in the same series, is its use of undercover reporters and secret cameras which not only elicits information not readily available from 'official sources' but makes for good, impact-rich television.

The documentary made use of a number of secretly recorded conversations with staff, two nurses in particular. The reporters had been told prior to their investigation that they were not 'to lead' people, not ask 'leading questions', which from transcripts they seem not to have done; these 'interviews', for that in essence is what they were, took the form of  'idle gossip around the water cooler', It is a truism to suggest that employees, especially in such a demanding a job as nursing, do, on the whole, have certain 'issues' with their employer; everybody, no matter how good your employer, whinges from time to time.

These two nurses were not shy about voicing their opinions on what was wrong with the NHS, this Trust and especially the Accident and Emergency Department at that hospital; basically too many bureaucrats performing useless tasks in order to satisfy a Minister who was more concerned with numbers and cash then patient care. As anyone who is familiar with the NHS, this sort of criticism is almost universal among the medical and dental professionals and endemic in ancillary staff (porters, cleaners etc). So what is my beef?

They broadcast the show, it airs at 8.00pm and so has a high 'potential' audience, with all of verbal criticisms intact, although they tried to make the speakers anonymous by blurring the faces which is fairly pointless among people you know or work with every day. Good, you say; the general public has a right to know of staff concerns, the so-called 'public interest defence'. Only the two nurse in question were not asked whether, in the light of their ignorance of the purpose, they were happy for their comments to be broadcast. It surely begs the question; are journalists (and programme producers) so arrogant of their purpose that they cannot see that they might be putting the two nurses at risk from the very people they were critical of? However, it is very unlikely that the two would have agreed; the NHS can, at times, be a capricious employer!

In the event, both nurses were disciplined, both nurses with suspension and one with a 'written warning' and one with dismissal. Anyone who has undergone 'disciplinary action' or the threat of it knows that, even in a trade unionised environment providing support, advice and representation, it is a traumatic situation. To put those nurses through that without even asking for consent, well words fail me!

This tale has a sort of happy ending. The nurse who was merely warned subsequently left of her own accord; I can well imagine why. The nurse who was dismissed subsequently won her case for 'unfair dismissal' and got her job back, although I am unable to find out whether she is still at the same hospital; doubtful I would have thought. And OfCom?

"Therefore, on balance, and given all the factors referred to above, Ofcom concluded that the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression and the audience’s right to receive information and ideas without interference, in the circumstances of this particular case, did not outweigh the legitimate expectation of privacy that Mrs Millington had in relation to the surreptitiously filmed footage of her broadcast in the programme without her consent. Ofcom concluded that there had been an unwarranted infringement of Mrs Millington’s privacy in the broadcast of the programme."

The full text of the adjudication is here. It starts on page 61 of the downloadable pdf.

* Yes, that John Paul Jones; he of Led Zeppelin fame. He sure looked like he was having a lot of fun.
** And who managed to get thousands of people to chant in unison, "Out, Demons, Out!" In deference to the Fugs, from whom the EBB stole the song, few people in the UK had heard of the Fugs let alone heard them. The 'demons' were the occupants of the Pentagon and the White House; this was the height of the Vietnam war..
*** From an old Morris Minor, one of the few cars you could buy in 1950's Britain. Here's what the cash conscious motorist was driving back in the days of austerity:

And here's the racy convertible; 0-60mph in about 2 minutes. I once saw a black one at a local park's weekly 'classic car drive thru' which was decorated with US style 'hot-rod' 'flames' all along the sides.

**** Although the best song title in history must go to Charlie Mingus' "The shoes of the fisherman's wife are some jiveass slippers".
**** In the wake of the deregulation (de-nationalisation) which was so much a feature of Margaret Thatcher's tenure as Prime Minister, the Brits embarked on a wave of 'Of's, ('Office of'); Ofcom (the communications industry including broadcasting and the phone companies); Ofwat (the water supply and treatment industry); Ofgem (the gas and electricity industry including the National Grid) although in Northern Ireland, in deference to their Irishness, they have a separate body called Ofreg, Office for the Regulation of Electricity & Gas. By the nineteen nineties such acronyms had largely fallen out of favour and the Office of the Information Commissioner (which performs the regulation of the Data Protection Act (1998) and the Freedom of Information Act (2000) is known as ICO, Information Commissioner's Office. I still prefer Ofdat!

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Internet Dating, Glory Box and Cupid Stunt

Don't you just love it when advertisers totally miss the point? Fakebook displayed a 'sponsored ad' for me today: "A woman nearby secretly followed you and sent you a dating request! see (sic) who she is now! (clickable link)" I do not have to tell you that it is an ad for a dating site! I assume that such ads are routinely posted on anyone's 'home page' who lists their 'status' as 'single'. 

I have nothing against Internet dating, for sex or romance, but isn't it just a mite presumptuous to believe that I, or anyone, would be interested in hooking up with someone who secretly follows you home? I mean, potential stalker material, anyone? Bunny-boiler* in waiting? Who on earth follows people home? In secret? And why would I think that such a person would have the slightest interest in me, or for me? One can only assume that such ads are disseminated on the basis that the average mental age of a Fakebook user is three.

Perhaps I should give it a go, this Internet dating lark. (I did attempt to follow the link but when it came up with a dialogue box requesting access to my profile and such friends and emails that I have, I decided strongly that 'Cupid plc' was not a company that I wanted to do business with!) 

It is, however, strange that we, by and large, consider 'Internet dating' or the 'dating agencies', video or otherwise, that preceded it as somehow smacking of desperation, not normal; using a third party to find a potential partner. I find this strange because, in essence, it is no different to the ways in which we choose friends or lovers in the absence of such 'dating' arrangements.

We seek out a ready pool of possible candidates in nightclubs (discos when I was young), in pubs, in the office, at social events and make a choice as to who we would like to get to know better. How is that any different from trawling through a bevy of 'profiles' to find one or more that seem interesting, that you might be attracted to? Photographs are a necessary part of the 'Internet dating' process only because that is invariably how we make that initial choice; how the most attractive invariably attract the most 'suitors', male and female alike.  I lost count of the number of times, in my rare forays into the 'cattle market', that I always seemed to be in direct competition, and make no mistake it is a competition, with at least one other person!

But people lie on the Internet? Of course they do but people lie in any social interaction when meeting someone for the first time, even afterwards sometimes; it is rare for people not to exaggerate their job, their social life, or status, or skills in an effort to impress the other party. It is what we are most accomplished at, telling stories and, like as not, often stories with only a vague and tenuous grasp on reality! 

But the Internet is full of the weirdest bastards imaginable? Get used to it! 'Life' in general is just as adept at attracting weirdos as the Internet.  We have all met a 'bunny boiler'; a nerd who lives his life by and for IPSec and the TCP/IP protocols; the woman so obsessed with her physical appearance that it is a wonder that she finds the time to venture outside the house; the Tiddlywinks World Champion; the religious nut-job more interested in 'saving' you than in your tales of debauchery and wild abandon in the 'swinging sixties'.  

There is of course one advantage to this view of 'Internet dating', this sense that it is somehow mildly abnormal, not the way you are supposed to do things; it allows us to disengage from prospective 'partners' much more easily. If you are not likely to meet again the individual that you got talking to in pub last night, before you made a fool of yourself, then how much more unlikely is it that you will meet again an individual snared by trawling the Internet. Even though it is self-deception of the highest order, it does nonetheless provide a modicum of comfort.

Highlight of the year so far: Portishead at Glastonbury with the amazing Adrian Utley, 'Glory Box' is truly awesome, and Beth Gibbons who has so far managed to make an entire, and lucrative, career out of a feminine angst like no other! Not to be listened to if you are at all depressed; it will tip you over the edge!

Useless factoid #437 : Apparently, according to Wiki, the Kenny Everett character 'Cupid Stunt' replaced the similarly 'Spoonerism' named Mary Hinge because the BBC found the latter too controversial; how weird is that? Hairy Minge** is too risqué for prime-time TV but Stupid Cunt is not! Perhaps the BBC executives just did not realise that the 'Spoonerism' formula was being applied again?

* Perhaps it is just me but the term 'bunny boiler' has now surely well and truly entered the vocabulary of English speaking nations in that no-one who speaks the language can have any doubt as to what it means; the power of popular culture, the might of the ephemeral and disposable for all that Glenn Close gives a wonderful performance as the jilted lover! What is strange however is the fact that I have just had to look up the name of the film in Wiki because, for the life of me, I could not remember it! It's 'Fatal Attraction' if you are interested.
** Vulgar and often derogatory UK slang for the pudenda. Possibly the source for the word 'minging', meaning foul, bad, uncool,  and which is so beloved of young females everywhere nowadays.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

The Penguin returns, disasters and why you shouldn't pitch your tent on ice

The Penguin writes:

Since my return onto the sea-ice at the end of March, I have allowed MG to dominate this blog. Initially I was ill-disposed to inflict more of the same, the quotidian routine of a penguin's life in which one year is so very much like any other, a year in which the cycle of sex, egg, hardship is endlessly repeated throughout the years. We do not even bother to prepare a little show for the chicks and the newbies anymore, not since Cozy left in that first year of my little blog and disaster struck. Cozy has not returned and I must assume that, in the intervening years, he has succumbed to that great leveller, death, or that he is now so very far away, New Zealand perhaps, that he no longer feels the need, or the desire, to make one last, long trip to see his friends, or what remains of them.

The very worst of the winter now seems to have passed us by and it has been possible to catch up on MG's sterling efforts these past few days and peruse a few of those other inanities and co-incidences which make up the world-wide-web; Fricka is not due back for another three or four weeks and there remains only the hope, not the certainty, of her return. As each successive year rolls along its merry path, I find myself increasingly less, not more, hopeful that we will raise another chick, In many ways, I find myself more in tune with Cozy, less comfortable with the prospect of another winter here in this bleak desolation and, perhaps, should I live to see another summer, I too may not return next year. I am becoming old and perhaps this is something that every penguin must face, although Havelock never seemed to, that eventually the languor overcomes the desire, the urge, to breed and we merely let ourselves quietly slip away; one long, last, slow journey into the ever-beckoning dark of night, into oblivion.

However, this is really rather gloomy, not what I should be writing about. Where is the biting wit, the trenchant humour, the coruscating barbs of old; where is the joie de vivre of the penguin's existence, the life blood of our desire to succeed? When it came, it came from an entirely unexpected quarter today; a gift from God, although, as I am sure you will know by now, He does not exist and is merely a figment of the wildest imaginations of men. (It has to be men, no woman would be foolish enough to put her very existence in the hands of a male figurehead, albeit one that is supposedly omnipotent. All-powerful or no, He would surely fail when the going became tough!) However, it was indeed fortuitous; another day and I would have missed it and the joy, more Schadenfreude really, would have gone a-begging.

Once I got into my stride, around April 2008, I found it easy to mock, ridicule, even despise the actions of human beings. How, in your over-weening superiority complexes, you seldom paused to consider the repercussions of your actions, the damage that they might do; you believe that you are supremely adaptable, no situation is beyond your grasp. Penguins, on the other hand, know what we have become adapted for, adapted to, know our limitations, have an intimate knowledge of how far we may 'push the envelope' and this gives us, our collective egocentricity notwithstanding, a certain humility; a certain modesty in the face of the overwhelming power of Mother Nature.

As a result I read with glee the tale of the stranded Canadian tourists whose 'camp site' wandered off into the Arctic Ocean recently. The researchers here, for all of the newbies' stupidity, have some experienced members in the station; people who understand that disaster can strike at a moment's notice near the poles, where conditions are so extreme. They have become even more careful now that the effects of climate change appear to be more manifest with every passing year. So what do these tourists do? They pitch their tents on a patch of sea-ice which is in the first stages of breaking away from the main body ice, although to be fair, ten hunters who should have known better, were caught up in the same debacle. It does make you wonder about the supposed wisdom of the human race, that you would willingly go on an expedition so fraught with possible danger, the Arctic is so much more prone to break up and melt than the ice sheet down here, that it is surely an accident, merely biding its time. A little like the tourist 'on safari' in Africa, who decides to leave the safety of the Land Rover 'to get a better look at that pride of lions.'

I genuinely hope that the members of the party are rescued without mishap, the weather is too dire apparently to attempt it at the time of writing, but it occasions nonetheless an inner glow to my demeanour today; despite the chill here, there is a definite warmth to my surroundings here in the rookery.

Necking, Giraffes and Just So Stories

One of the things that half-decent site analytical software does is to capture the parameters of Google searches as an integral part of its 'referring page' analysis. This is obviously a necessary feature if you want to maximise the traffic through your website; it enable you to look at what end users, those people at the blunt end of a browser, are searching for and thus tailor your site more closely to the search terms. I have no such requirement and, by and large, have no real desire to expand my audience; I do not even bother with filling in the 'key words' on each blog. For me, having such analyses is a by-product of using a counter, I am seldom if ever going to make use of it. Except........

The post about huias earlier in the month got 'hit' by someone from an Australian Academic Network (probably something akin to an Oz 'JANET'*) and in amongst the 'referring page' details were the search parameters 'Why do male and female huias have different bills'. This type of question is very common in biological circles which is perfectly understandable given the weight Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection carries in the community; if there is 'selection' then 'something' must be selected for and, by extension, against. While it is actually the genes that are selected, it is the phenotype, the bodily manifestation of those genes, that influences which genes are selected. As a result, the question of an organism's success, or otherwise, is generally couched in such 'why' orientated terms. Why do cheetahs' claws not retract like all other cats? Why do beavers dam rivers? Why does the osprey have 'spicules' on the undersides of its toes? These all have answers which relate, in some way, to the animals 'fitness' profile in their environment,**

However, I do sometimes wonder whether these types of question are in fact valid. Is there in fact a reason, or multiple reasons, for an animal's success or otherwise. Do the 'why' questions actually provide answers or are they simply a more logical and (pseudo)scientific 'just so story'? A good example might be: 'Why do giraffes have long necks?'

Well, why do they? The 'party line' would suggest that there is some advantage to the animal in having such a ludicrously long neck and make no mistake, it is ludicrously long. As a child, I was taught that such a long neck allowed the animal to graze on tree tops which no other terrestrial could reach; as a species they had no competition for their food source and this was to their advantage. Unfortunately, this is just not true or, at least, is hotly disputed.  While it is true that the neck coupled with the long legs do enable the giraffe to browse at far greater heights than do their competitors, kudu, steenbok and impala, they do not do so exclusively and they are often to be seen grazing at a much lower height, well within the reach of their competitors.

The other main 'contender' in the 'why' stakes is 'sexual selection'. As bizarre as it may sound, males engage in extremely violent fights with other males in competition for mates using their necks and heads as weapons. Effectively, the male 'winds up' his extremely flexible neck, the vertebrae have 'ball and socket' type joints to them, and 'punches' his rival with his head in the other male's neck and head; such fights can, and on occasion do, lead to death. (A clip of males fighting is here) However, this poses a number of problems. In animals where this form of sexual competition occurs, only the males tend to have the defining characteristics; stags and antlers, the size dimorphism of primates, the development of the kype in salmon. In addition, a giraffe's neck needs to be long to engage in this kind of fighting; therefore how did the process, elongation of the neck, actually get started? There is also some evidence to suggest that, in fact, giraffes with the longest necks have the highest mortality in periods of drought, presumably because the longer the neck, the larger the animal and, therefore, the more food required to sustain it.***

So, we have two competing answers to the 'why the long neck' question and both have some merit but also some problems. I would therefore like to throw a third option into the ring, namely that there is no answer to the 'why' question because it is the wrong question to be asking. As mammals go on the African plains, giraffes are relatively successful. Their size mostly precludes predation, except among very young calves, and they do not need to be particularly fecund to ensure their collective survival. Acacia trees, on which they almost exclusively feed, are relatively abundant and so ensure a steady food supply. As a result, one could imagine that a giraffe with a much shorter neck, all other things being equal, would still be as successful; the okapi, a near relative with a 'normal' neck, is.

We like to pose 'why' questions because a basic human trait is to want to understand the world, find reasons for the way that it is how it is. From quantum mechanics to the existence of God, we seek such answers to the 'why' question because for us, as a species, there must always be a reason for everything; it is how we live our daily lives. What if the reason for the giraffe's neck, the peacock's tail, was just a genetic blip which conferred no advantage but, conversely, no debilitating disadvantage? What if they just were?

However we do not like to think that things can just be, do we?

PS Of course, it might be that the genetics that 'switched on' the elongation of a giraffe's forelimbs also 'switched on' the elongation of the neck and there was selection pressure for animals that were better able, because of long necks, to drink; not to have to sit down to get at water which would  make them much more vulnerable to predation. Although the giraffe's solution is not ideal by any stretch of the imagination, its splay-legged posture it is still better for a quick 'getaway' than sitting down would be.

PPS A curious fact. The spell-checker that comes with the blogspot blogging software does not recognise 'blog' (or 'google')

* JANET - the Joint Academic NETwork; one of the biggest networks in the UK, currently in its SuperJanet5 incarnation (a mere 100Gbs).
** The cheetah's claws help it to run faster and be more manoeuvrable, much like an athlete's 'running spikes'; beavers build dams to create a 'larder' outside their lodge; the osprey has rough undersides to their toes to ensure a good grip on a slippery fish.
*** Mitchell, G.; van Sittert, S.; Skinner, J. D. (2010). "The demography of giraffe deaths in a drought". Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 65 (3): 165–68. Download as a pdf here.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Self, myself , non-self and a soutien-gorge of boobies

Whence comes the sense of 'I'; where is the wellspring of my consciousness; what is the seat of both my Self and that knowledge of myself; what drives the certainties of my beliefs about the tangible world around me and my beliefs about the intangible world within; why would I possibly entertain the notion that a God exists or that Quantum Mechanics says something fundamentally correct about the world or that I should base my ability to remain alive upon a largely empirical but nonetheless instinctive knowledge of Newtonian Physics.*

The Penguin and I have spent a great deal of time thinking about these issues in line with those other time-wasting good-for-nothings, professional philosophers, and, although we may not be as smart, cultured or knowledgeable as they, we see no reason to refrain from a joint effort today. This is in keeping with our new-found aim, since the Penguin came back on line to me yesterday, of developing a philosophy by which both man and penguin can live in true harmony.

So where does this idea of Self come from? (We do not propose to become embroiled in speculations about the soul, spirit, djinn or whatever and so will consider only the strictly biological in our deliberations; we totally reject the 'Cartesian hypothesis of duality' as being unworthy of our consideration and a pile of dingos' do-dos to boot.)

The first question to answer therefore is: 'what is the brain for?' Quite obviously, it is not a pre-condition for life as many species of the biosphere have no brains but are considered alive, bacteria and plants to take the two most obvious examples. In fact, the Sea Squirt, a sister member of the subphylum Vertebrata, to which we also belong, at the end of its free-swimming larval stage settles down on a rock and promptly eats its own brain and nervous system! Daniel Wolpert et al make a good case for defining a brain's purpose as a means to control movement and, as a result, allow the organism to interact in a more pro-active, and therefore successful, way with its environment than a 'passive' plant or bacteria could do.

If Wolpert is right, and even worms have a nervous system and a rudimentary brain, then, by extension, the brain of any moving 'animal' must not only have the ability to differentiate self from non-self, otherwise it cannot move in its environment and there would be no environment if this distinction is not made, just an extension of self, but also the brain must be able to differentiate between the brain from the rest of the body; your brain does not move, only your arms, legs, heart etc do.

Therefore it can be relatively safe to assume that any creature possessing a brain is, to some lesser or greater extent, self-aware. The hindbrain (the part of the brain that sits directly above the spinal column) is responsible for many of the autonomic responses and activities such as breathing, heartbeat and also to mediate the signals coming into and exiting the brain via the central nervous system. However damage in one distinct section of the hindbrain (the Reticular Formation), as a result of a stroke for example, results in coma, no motor control and no self-awareness. If any of the rest of hindbrain is damaged, conscious, but not autonomic, control is lost but all other basic functionality remains intact; the so-called 'locked-in syndrome'.

Lying atop the hindbrain, roughly bang in the middle of your entire brain, is the midbrain which is largely responsible for mediating such basic functions as vision, hearing, motor control, sleep/wake, arousal (alertness), and temperature regulation and can be seen, in conjunction with the hindbrain, as a part of a basic 'brainstem' having no higher functions. On a basic level, this 'brainstem' forms the fundamental notion you have of 'yourself'; self as opposed to non-self. Unfortunately, this brainstem is almost completely closed off to access from the higher functions of the brain contained in the cerebral cortex; the convoluted blancmange which makes up most of the contents of your skull. We have no more internal and conscious idea of exactly how our brains mediate temperature control, our breathing, endocrine production or heartbeat than a sea squirt has.

Layered on top of this basic, primeval concept we have of ourselves as distinct entities, surely the part that allows us each morning to wake up from 'unconsciousness' and into the same person you remember from yesterday, we have all the memories of what we did, what we thought, what we learned, what we believed which have come out of the natural process of neuron-firing; the very process of thinking. In one very real sense, you can change what you think or believe but you cannot change who you are.

I may be a philandering, conservative, selfish, violent, egomaniac but I can change into a faithful, liberal, altruistic, benign, self-effacing and modest individual at the drop of a hat merely by changing the outward manifestations of my behaviour; these are all secondary characteristics, subject to rational analyses, subject to choices. However, I cannot hibernate over the winter; I cannot ask my body to produce less or more testosterone; I cannot stop the feeling of overwhelming tiredness after orgasm,***  I cannot prevent fear or a desire for flight, only attempt to master it; I cannot prevent myself from loving (or for that matter, hating) someone.

And so, in the end, who we are is fixed for all time; what we are is subject to change at a moment's notice.

* The chances of you, or I, successfully negotiating walking from one side of the street to the other is severely compromised without a basic knowledge of the fundamentals of physics; you, or I, are apt to be run over by a bus.**
**Although it may not be quite as simple as that. Some research on gannets (boobies*** are of the same family, Sulidae) a few years ago suggested that diving gannets know exactly when to fold their wings prior to entry into the water, by the size of the image of the waves on their retinas, they do not compute the trajectory; we may perform the same 'neat trick' when assessing whether it is safe to cross the road when in the path of an oncoming moving car (or bus).

The extent to which a gannet's wings are folded back on entry is below:

*** The booby's name is probably derived (not from that, dum-dum) from the Spanish 'bobo', meaning 'stupid' due to the bird's fondness for landing on ships where they were easily caught by nineteenth century sailors for food. They are, in fact, probably the least adept at landing of any bird, often cartwheeling head over heels when alighting on the ground;. The most famous of the boobies is the blue-footed booby, which genuinely has bright blue feet, which it uses in a version of the hokey-cokey (Am. Hokey-Pokey) in its courtship dance.

A blue-footed booby doing the Hokey-Cokey - you put your left foot out, 
you put your left foot in, in-out, in-out, shake it all about...

*** Despite our best efforts, we males have simply no way of preventing the flood of endorphins which course through our veins after ejaculation. We'd dearly love to cuddle up and whisper sweet nothing into your ears afterwards but it is impossible except by a massive act of will which our hormones are seldom prepared for; even if you do all the work, cowgirl style!

PS In the spirit of attempting to give names to all groups of birds which do no not currently have silly names like 'a parliament' (of rooks), 'a murder' (of crows), a murmuration (of starlings), an exaltation (of larks) etc, I give you 'a soutien-gorge'^ (of boobies)

^  French for brassière

Saturday, 22 June 2013

A rare comment on the news, inappropriate relationships and 'Is this really worth losing your livelihood for?'

There's a big story in the UK at the moment about a massive cover-up of 'negligence' in an NHS Trust responsible for care in the Morecombe* area. An article by Julian Patterson on NHSNetworks is the best description that I have read over the various bodies' actions in its wake. The article is here.  What is so alarming is that Patterson in this and other 'blogs' does not have to twist the reality very much to lampoon the NHS, which due to all of the petty infighting, political manoeuvring, changes in political and economic philosophies, reorganisations and proposed reorganisations is in a pretty sorry mess from which it may never recover. Still, what's new? In the end, I suspect, the NHS has now grown so large and the population has such over-optimistic expectations of both the service and what can be achieved from such a 'free at the point of delivery' provision that it is in fact in some manner completely 'unfixable'. Mired as it has been for the last thirty or so years in whatever the management consultants have decided is this year's buzz word', it is probably destined to lurch from one crisis to the next as the management consultants are once again, and as they have been so many times in the past, proven wrong.

All I ask of the NHS is that when I am ill or have an accident, they do their best, with whatever resources they have, to prolong my life. If their best, whatever it may be, is not sufficient then I will die; perhaps a little sooner than I would wish but no-one lives forever. Should I die tomorrow and not in twenty or thirty years time, there will perhaps be a few people who will be sad at my passing but it is scarcely an issue about which I will have any concern once I am dead. I am not going to be looking down from heaven, or up from hell, thinking I could have done this or I could have done that or the doctors should have done this or that or the system failed me. There is no heaven and no hell from whence I could mourn my own passing; there is only an infinite night in which I will sleep and never wake. It is starting to sound good already!

Not content with the NHS, the other 'fairly big' story for the nationals to get their teeth into and perform the usual histrionic loops through hoops was over the trial of the teacher accused of abducting a, then, fifteen year old female pupil and running away with her to France! As an example of male thirty-something lunacy, it almost beggars belief in its sheer stupidity; the fact that he was caught by the French police in Boulogne, where the ferry docks, is a clear indication of where this particular teacher's brains lie.

Although this kind of event is rare in the UK, and few charges are brought for 'inappropriate behaviour' (ie sex) between teachers and pupils, whether consensual or not, it is extremely difficult to know whether the problem is indeed relatively insignificant or whether a far greater problem, than the statistics would demonstrate, lies beneath the surface of the nation's education system. According to a YouGov survey in 2007 (of 2,200 adults), they found that about 17%, one in six, claimed to know of someone who had had an "intimate relationship" with a teacher while at school, although how far this was based on a respondent's 'personal knowledge' and how much on schoolyard gossip and rumour is difficult to tell; I was certainly aware of one such rumour, which the rumour-mongers assured everyone was 'straight from the horse's mouth' but which was blatantly untrue, in spades!

In the past, such charges were usually only bought for consensual sex between a teacher and a pupil, whether male or female, if the pupil was under the legal age of consent, ie sixteen; obviously non-consensual sex would be dealt with under the existing rape laws. However, in 2003, the UK government amended the sexual offences act to make it a crime for any teacher to have sex with any pupil, irrespective of their age (up to eighteen), consensual or otherwise, if the teacher was employed by the same school which the pupil attended, whether or not the pupil was actually being taught by the teacher.

As a adolescent of the sixties, I grew up in the first flowering of the permissive society and tend to find restrictions on people's sexual behaviour decidedly not desirable.  As a result, I initially found this extension to age eighteen in the case of pupils not really to my taste and I could see little wrong in using the legal age of consent as the benchmark. Most women that I knew were reluctant to engage in sex at age sixteen, let alone any younger. However, on reflection, this must be seen as a positive move.  Teachers, like doctors, social workers, policemen, hold a semi-privileged position in western society; respect is automatically granted to them by most people by default, they are trusted not to undermine that respect and trust in any way. If such legislation is required to keep those, who to all intents and purposes are 'in loco parentis', on the 'straight and narrow', if only through fear, then so be it.

Unfortunately, if we are honest, pupils and teachers, especially the younger and more attractive ones, engage in a 'game'; not necessarily a conscious one, but a game nonetheless. Pupils, once they have attained a certain age and a semblance of maturity, wish to be treated as adults, not children. Teachers, because it is infinitely more satisfying, wish to treat those same pupils as adults. How many times did one hear, as a schoolboy or girl, the teacher exclaim in exasperation, 'if you insist on behaving like children, I shall treat you like children!' If both sides seek to engage in 'adult' relationships then sex is, at some point, whether benign or otherwise, going to rear its ugly head; in the end it is what people, adults, do, they flirt, they act the coquette, the Lothario, often without realising it. The danger, from both sides, comes when the game is not recognised for what it is, a game, and one side or the other, or both, start treating it as something else.

The teacher, being more experienced, even if they are not more mature, should have a more profound sense of responsibility, a greater sense that one, whether one likes it or not, should be in control of the situation, be in the driver's seat, and behave accordingly. Unfortunately, I have a sneaking suspicion that some teachers only become teachers to wield 'power'; the ability to mould young minds in their image. Inappropriate relationships are merely one manifestation of that.

At root, I just do not get the behaviour; perhaps I am weird. When I was eighteen, I was attracted to seventeen year olds, by my mid-thirties anyone under twenty seven appealed not at all and now that I am much older, the idea of even being attracted to anyone without a commensurate degree of life experience to myself is just out of the question. Is it really just a question of a quick fuck in the back seat? 

* A seaside town on the North West coast of England and from where Eric Morecombe, the comedian, acquired his stage name; he was born John Eric Bartholomew.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Städte, hitch-hiking and the Hanseatic League

Thinking about 'Ulrike' the other day reminded me of a curious factoid; the Germans are awfully kind to hitch-hikers. By that I do not mean that they always pick you up, although the longest I was stranded on my first trip to Germany was five hours, but rather you can have a fairly good idea of where the car is heading by the number plate. the 'Kraftfahrzeug-Kennzeichen'. In that first year, I had little in the way of an itinerary and was merely out to see as much of the country as I possibly could. As a result, I would mentally run through a map of West Germany (this was 1972 and pre-unification days) to see if the car's 'town of origin' was anywhere that I was interested in visiting and amending my 'destination' accordingly. This probably accounts for my success in securing rides, including one from a real-life member of the nobility, to wit, 'Der Baron von Gemmingen', although what he was doing living just outside Aschaffenburg instead of in Baden-Württenberg to the south is anybody's guess. I wonder if the Fair-Isle jumper that my mother knitted is now handed down as a priceless family heirloom? I left it on his central heating boiler to dry and promptly forgot to retrieve it!*

At that time, and now, the first letters on the vehicle registration plate denoted the city, town or district in which the car had been registered. Many countries have a similar system, although it can be hard to decipher the 'code', but the Germans made it laughably easy; There was a single letter for large cities, 'F' for Frankfurt,  'K' for Köln (Cologne)**; two letters for smaller towns, 'EN' for Essen, 'BA' for Bayreuth; three letters for districts centred on even smaller towns, 'GAP' (Garmisch-Partenkirchen and the surrounding area). This is, however, not foolproof, in a modern society people move around a lot, but the Germans, hyper-efficient to the last, overcame that minor bugbear to the hitch-hiker; in Germany you have to change your car registration plate if you move out of the area covered by the coded prefix to your existing plate!

So, depending on the time of day, you could have a pretty good idea of where someone was going; in the morning a car carrying 'F' going south along the Autobahn was likely going to Würzburg*** or beyond, in the evening, going north, it was likely heading back to Frankfurt.

Interestingly enough, when the system, which had been in existence since 1906, was reactivated in 1956 (it had been in abeyance during the period of occupation****), the West German  'Bundesregierung' (government) included the cities and districts of what had become the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik - East Germany) which surely showed an optimism and a belief in a 'pipe-dream' which was almost unheard of at the time.

There are just three 'exceptions' to this 'rule'. Fortunately, from a hitch-hiking perspective, they are in the same area of the country, to the north, just below Germany's puncture wound into Denmark, Schleswig-Holstein. They are 'HH' (Hamburg), HB***** (Bremen/Bremerhaven) and HL (Lübeck), all major cities deserving of the single letter prefix. So why are they not accorded the same status as Frankfurt or Köln? Simple. The cities are named for this purpose, 'Hansestadt Hamburg', 'Hansestadt Bremen' and 'Hansestadt Lübeck', something the cities chose for themselves in memory of the Hanseatic League.

The 'Hanse' (Hanseatic League) was a loose economic and political grouping founded by merchants along the North Sea and Baltic coasts in the thirteenth century, a medieval 'Bilderberg' group, although wielding a great deal more muscle! It developed out of a loose alliance in the twelfth century between Hamburg in the west, with access to the North Sea via the navigable River Elbe and Lübeck in the East with access to the Baltic Sea, primarily to counter the hold the Vikings had on trade throughout the Baltic region and inland as far as Novgorod, which lies on the River Volkhov between Moscow and St Petersburg (formerly Leningrad).

The League, which numbered over one hundred and fifty cities at the height of its power, was never an overtly political grouping, although its member cities had managed to wangle considerable concessions from successive Holy Roman Emperors, Princes and Kings, who effectively controlled much of Western Europe at that time. They enacted their own laws and raised their own armies, even going so far as to sack København (Copenhagen) in 1358 to ensure their trade rights in the Baltic and, subsequently, control over the Scandinavian economies.

They were, at first, admired for their wealth and the power it gave to them, not least by merchants who were forced to compete with them. However this did not last, Their presence in London, which was vehemently opposed by English traders, was only ended in 1598 by Elizabeth the First's forcible ejection of the League and the closure of its main trading post, 'Der Stalhof',****** 'the steelyard', an isolated and walled community as in other foreign cities in which the League had a presence. It was reopened by James I but was burnt down in the Great Fire of London and was never re-built. The London site was where Cannon Street (railway) station now stands and is commemorated by the appositely named street, 'Steelyard Passage'

The first sign of cracking in the League's power probably stems form the 'Dutch-Hanseatic war of 1438–41 when the merchants of Amsterdam sought and eventually gained free access to the Baltic and broke the League's monopoly. Those trade routes were probably not the only bone of contention between the League and the Dutch; the Hanse were the leading shipbuilders in the Middle Ages and Amsterdam was keen to hook into that market for its own burgeoning shipbuilding industry.

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the writing was on the wall for the Hanse. The growth of the Swedish Empire and their subsequent dominance over large areas of the Baltic; Nürnberg's (Nuremberg) growth as a major centre for overland trade into Poland and Russia beyond, in direct defiance of the League; Amsterdam's, and by extension the Duchy of Burgundy's, fuelled by the support of Prussian and Livonian Hanseatic cities, rise to dominance in the Polish and Baltic grain trade;******* the League's failure to adopt the Italian banking practice of 'Bills of Exchange' in preference to silver coin; the rise in political power of Germany's ruling Princes and the creation of new States. Finally, the Hanse were unable to adapt to the changing political landscape of Europe and its ever increasing, and ultimately fragmenting,  reliance on the self-interest of its member cities, as opposed to the interests of the League itself, caused its ultimate downfall.

There is an interesting footnote to this which I gleaned from Wiki (so I hope that it is true). Lübeck was by far the most powerful city in the League; for some eastern Baltic member cities, the right to appeal did not stem from the Holy Roman Emperor but from the city council in Lübeck! Hamburg,  Lübeck and Bremen have always styled themselves as 'Free (and) Hanseatic' cities. However, in 1937, the National Socialists revoked this privilege, so Wiki recounts, "after the Senat (city council) of Lübeck did not permit Adolf Hitler to speak in Lübeck during his election campaign. He held the speech in Bad Schwartau, a small village on the outskirts of Lübeck. Subsequently, he referred to Lübeck as "the small city close to Bad Schwartau."

* The jumper was a bit like the picture below (left). Not de riguer for the 'hippie' that I was, all loon pants, tie-dye T shirts and hair half way down my back, but still a feat of my mother's knitting skill.
** Which is why the German for 'Eau de Cologne' (perfume) is 'Kölnisches Wasser' (Cologne Water - a direct translation of the French phrase or vice versa, I never knew which.)
*** Where I first tasted the deliberately sour wine from the Rheinland and which I have never found again since that last bottle with 'Ulrike'. It was actually very nice and not a bit like 'white wine gone off' which you would imagine from the name.
**** A fact, occupation, which is often forgotten by modern day Europeans.
***** Also a well known brand of cancer-stick in Germany.
****** Probably Middle Low German for 'steel yard, as opposed to Middle High German, in which Stal means 'Stall', as in cows; Modern German is Stahl(hof) from MHG 'Stahel'.
******* So important was this to Amsterdam's subsequent prosperity that it was called 'Moedernegotie', the 'mother of all trades'

PS I promise to go back to 'all English' titles for the next post. 'Städte' is the plural of Stadt, city. 

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Män som hatar kvinnor, Flickan som lekte med elden, Luftslottet som sprängdes and a poem

Two foreign language blog-titles, one after the other! Literally. They are of course the three novels by Stieg (Stig-Erland) Larsson; 'Men who hate women', 'The girl who played with fire' and 'The castle in the air that exploded/was blown up', better known in English as 'The girl with the dragon tattoo', 'The girl who played with fire' and 'The girl who kicked the hornets' nest'. I hope that you are paying attention to the subtle differences in the translations of the first and the third books in the trilogy; the emphasis changes in translation and the books' titles in Swedish are more indicative of the broad contents.

I try, wherever possible, not to read in translation if I can help it, although it is course unavoidable if you do not have a good command of the native language. As a result, I seldom read 'genre' novels, such as detective or crime fiction and Sci-Fi, written by authors for whom English is not their primary language. The exceptions are confined to, as far as I remember: 'Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne' (Miss Smilla's feeling for snow') by Danish author Peter Høeg; most of the 'Maigret' novels by George Simenon and the three detective stories by the Swiss playwright, Friedrich Dürrenmatt; 'Der Richter und sein Henker' (The judge and his hangman), 'Der Verdacht' (Suspicion) and 'Das Versprechen' (The Pledge*); these were all read in the original languages. This is not snobbery, merely that there are so many good  'genre' type novels actually written in English that it seems somewhat wasteful to spend time on a translation of a common or garden thriller or space opera, no matter how good the plot might be.

However, I have no such compunction when it comes to translation in a different medium. I am quite happy to view Wallander in the Swedish TV version, with sub-titles switched on, even Branagh's English language version is tolerable, or Larsson's trilogy in the Scandinavian version. (Why Hollywood had to go and remake 'The girl with the dragon tattoo', I will never know; surely Noomi Rapace's 'Lisbeth Salander' is as iconic as Bogart's 'Sam Spade', performances which define the character. At least there was scope after Adam West's and Michael Keaton et al's lamentable performances as Batman to think that rebooting the 'franchise' made sense; even more so after Frank Miller's 'Dark Knight' comics which turned a very 'DC hero' into a virtual Stan Lee creation.)

Strangely, I bought the three disks of the Swedish TV version of Larsson's trilogy about three and a half years ago, not long after my stroke, but for some reason, I never watched the final instalment; perhaps in knowing the ending to the third book I was prematurely disappointed at Larsson's 'cop-out' in providing a 'happy ending'. Well, I finally got around to viewing all three in sequence last week and it seems to me that there is a steady decline from beginning to end, especially in the third programme. Although I have not read the books, I doubt that the fault lies with the director or the actors in the TV programmes, they were shot back to back in the manner of Jackson's 'Lord of the Rings'; it is far more likely to be the source material which is at fault. A lack of editing or revision on the part of the author perhaps, Larsson died of a heart attack not long after the books were completed but unpublished, and it is notoriously difficult to posthumously publish a book for the first time. The absence of the author leaves no scope for dialogue between editor and author, however copious the notes which remain. One only has to witness the mess made of Frank Herbert's 'Dune' legacy to see that; Christopher Tolkien has at least had the wisdom to see his father's posthumously published writing as unfinished works or works in progress and has edited them accordingly..

For all of Larsson's in-depth knowledge of the murky world of 'investigative journalism' and its role in laying bare the dubious nature of the soft under-belly of Swedish society which makes the character of Blomkvist at least believable, Lisbeth Salander, on the other hand, may almost have sprung fully formed from the pages of a comic book. Labelled a Paranoid Schizophrenic by her corrupt psychologist, a label she and the books deem inappropriate, she nonetheless borders on the clinically sociopathic. While she is dysfunctional in the extreme, she still manages to be far better then perhaps she has a right to be at a few, isolated skills; computer hacking, kick-boxing, sex. Only Rapace's skill prevents her from degenerating into an archetypal 'Hollywood superhero' with all of the depth of a cardboard cut-out, as so many of the characters, Blomkvist aside, are; ciphers without any real character..

Nonetheless it passed a sometimes engaging six hours, although it was not immune to predictability, and Rapace, for all her 'tom-boy' appearance still knocks the spots off of 99% of Hollywood both in looks and in skill. In the end, I suppose, I end up measuring any 'crime' or 'detective' novel or film by the yardsticks of Nicholas Freeling**, P D James*** or Georges Simenon**** in the same way that I measure Sci-Fi by Isaac Asimov and (the first three novels) Frank Herbert. Unless the alternatives measure up, not necessarily in the same way, I find it hard to engage.

I was about half way through the second of the trilogy of films when a unbidden thought struck me. I do not know what made me think about the person or that particular evening; she, in no way, resembled Lisbeth or Rapace, either in character, in experience or in appearance. However, the memory refused to fade and, oddly because I so rarely do it, I wrote a little poem about it. Quite why it came out in this form, I have nary a clue, it is a prime candidate for another 'Young Princess', another 'Faerie Queen' or another 'Nostalgia'***** type tale. Anyways, I append it here for your mockery or criticism; one day I will attempt to make my seldom written poetry rhyme but it always seems such a waste of effort.

For Ulrike******

In a fumbling ecstasy of panic and dread, I sit;
A cross-legged, chequered harlequin on the wooden floor.
There is but only a bed for homely comfort and yet,
Wrapped in shrouds of your stark, eburnean probity, 

You sit there and, out of fear, I cannot.

I drink the dregs, the bitter lees of the grape, leftover wine;
A vinegared sponge to test and torment the faithful.
Sour, faintly green, it dances around my tongue and yet,
Little of Terpsichoré remains in this moonlight 

And in my mind, I yearn for Carolina. 

Your tousled, mousy hair frames your delicate, button nose,
Those long, ivory legs, your toes’ gentle inward curl,
They sing to me in voiceless contraltos, beckoning yet;
Mute Circe tempting, once more, noble, brave Ulysses

And perhaps I, too, should now be leaving. 

For it is past-midnight late and I am no longer fun;
It is past the time for laughter, Plato, Socrates.
Coffee would be welcome but I fear I must decline yet;
Alone abed,  Argus lies dozing, awaiting me; 

You still wear propriety as a caul.

I’d happily trade Xeno for nights of unbridled passion,
Pay any price to lie in your arms, damning the dog.
It would take but a single move, white knight to queen three, check
But I lack the courage for boldness, to gamble all

And any excuse is better than none.

None better, the final, only resort;
Unremitting, terminal aloofness.

* Made into a Hollywood film by Sean Penn in 2001 which starred Jack Nicholson. Well worth a watch if you have not seen it.
** Freeling is a much more accomplished writer than the TV adaption of his most famous creation, Van der Valk, would lead you to believe.
*** Surely the ageing Queen Mother of crime fiction.
**** Simenon almost invented the intelligent, cultured policeman with Commissaire Maigret.
***** Ultimately, perhaps that is its derivation. Nostalgia (by Emily Barker) is the theme for Branagh's 'Wallender'. Ulrike came from Hamburg; a short hop across Schleswig-Holstein to Lübeck and thence by ferry to Malmö. I love joining the dots in this way! Any passing allusions in the poem to Wilfred Owen (‘Dulce et decorum est’), Steven Stills (‘Helplessly hoping’ and ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’), Melanie Safka (‘Leftover wine’), James Taylor (‘Carolina in my mind’). Cream (Disraeli Gears*******) and Greek philosophy are entirely deliberate and merely reflect an evening of poetry, music and idle discussion with no impolite distractions, however welcome they would have been!
****** The names have been changed to protect innocence, mine and hers!
******* Which a friend of mine would habitually call a bicycle's 'Derailleur gears'. 

Sunday, 16 June 2013

The Pub Quiz, English language hegemony and Nid wyf yn y swyddfa ar hyn o bryd

"Each separate language throughout the world represents the accumulated history of the people who speak that language; their concepts, their lives, their emotions and their ideas; the thoughts of their ancestors, their influences from outside, both present and past; even their dreams. In many ways, any distinct language is the very embodiment of a people, which in spite of the increasing globalisation and the spread of English, and more specifically American English, as a lingua franca in scientific circles, in trade and commerce and even into the realms of diplomacy and economics, still that unique language continues to define a people.

As Eugene Nida, the great American Biblical scholar and translator once made clear; there is a dynamic relationship between the words spoken, or the words written on the page, and the concepts being expressed. Each separate language is not a set of easily transposable symbols, one must consider both the words used and the concepts being discussed; context is everything." 

Extracted from the "Translator's Notes" to "You will believe a penguin can fly or A simple diary of a (very) simple Penguin" by 'Dai'.

I have been fascinated by language ever since I first ventured outside of the realm of my native tongue and climbed the giddy heights of  "Va te faire enculer (chez les Grecs)"* or "Die Ohrtrompete meiner Grossmutter wurde vom Blitz getroffen"**  or 'Om jeg hamrer eller hamres, ligefuldt så skal der jamres!' *** or even "Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus, rumoresque senum seueriorum, omnes unius aestimemus assis!"**** As I learnt to speak and read other languages, both modern and ancient, I begun to delve much more deeply into the roots of my own native language; etymological dictionaries were a favourite in my youth.

I have been prompted to put my metaphorical pen to paper by the decidedly weird feeling I had while watching a simple quiz programme. A quiz programme built around that typically British pastime of the 'Pub Quiz'; a team quiz, often of a hundred questions or more, divided into categories such as 'General Knowledge', History', 'Music', 'Sport' etc. The object is for one's team to answer as many questions correctly as possible before you all fall under the table in a state of extreme inebriation. The highest scoring team receives a cash prize or free drinks, whichever is more appropriate.

The programme was made by the BBC and the questions were not too difficult; the only problem was that they were not in English! The entire programme was in Scots Gaelic!***** As accustomed as I am to seeing sub-titles in foreign language films and the deluge of Scandinavian TV crime dramas which have appeared in the last few years in the wake of  'Wallender' and 'Män som hatar kvinnor' ******, it was a distinctly odd feeling to watch such a commonplace format, involving British contestants, but in a language that I could not understand a single word of. I was then struck by a thought which I have not had for a while but was insistent nonetheless. The roots to much of the world's common languages lie in Asia, at least according to current thinking in linguistics. The history of the globe's languages lie in successive waves of migration, invasion and ultimate displacement.

Most European languages ultimately stem from the so-called 'Indo-European' family; the exceptions to this are the Finno-Ugric based languages in Finland (Suomi) and Hungary (Magyar) which followed a wave of migrations from, probably, Western Siberia and the various dialects of the Basque country (between Spain and France) and language which is currently believed to be the last surviving member of a language group present in Europe before the Indo-European 'invasion'.

Out of that initial 'invasion' of Indo-European languages came five basic well known groups (there are others but for our purposes these are the most important from a modern European perspective). These are Hellenic (including Greek), Italic (including Latin and the modern 'romance' languages), Slavic (including most of the languages in Eastern Europe and Russia), Celtic and Germanic.

The Hellenic is largely confined to Greece and I find that, despite a Roman occupation lasting nearly five hundred years, from the Battle of Corinth in 146BC until the time of the Emperor Constantine in 330AD and the subsequent fall of the Empire in the west, Italic did not displace Hellenic as the language; Italic certainly supplanted all languages in the western Empire. The Germanic and Slavic languages reigned on a broad, east/west geographical basis in areas in which the Romans did not dominate. 

Following the Roman invasion of Britain in 43AD, the Celts retreated to remote parts of Wales and Cornwall but did not return, or at least were unsuccessful in doing so, in the wake of the Roman withdrawal in 410AD; the Gaels had remained behind Hadrian's wall for the duration and only made minor forays thereafter. It was barely a hundred years before the Germanic tribes of Angles, Saxons and Jutes, and subsequently the Danes, Norwegians and Swedes, invaded Britain, bringing with them the Germanic language group which supplanted whatever was left of the Celtic or Italic languages that remained. It was left to the Norman French in the eleventh century to complete the bastard chimera that was the basis for the English language thereafter; part Germanic, part Italic.

The Celtic group, comprising the Brythonic group, Cornish and Welsh, and the Goidelic group, Scots and Irish Gaelic and the Manx language of the Isle of Man, were confined to the outer reaches of what is now the United Kingdom as English predominated, politically and socially, both in written and spoken speech in Cornwall; in Ireland, following successive attempts, with varying degrees of success, at occupation from the thirteenth century; Scotland, following the Act of Union in 1707.******* The entire language group went into serious decline after the eighteenth century in all of the regions in which had once prevailed.

However, Gaelic is now taught in all state-funded schools in Ireland, although English is the second official language under the constitution of 1937 and there is no longer a requirement to speak both languages as a prerequisite for public service; in Scotland, Gaelic is not an official language and is not uniformly taught in schools; however Welsh is an official language in Wales but not in rest of the UK and is now taught in school across the board until the age of 18. The Manx and Breton scions of the family dwindled to almost zero but, like Cornish, there has been recent revivals of interest. The legacies of the Celts would appear to appear to be slowly awakening from the long slumber of dragons.

Despite the fact that, in general, fewer than 2.5% of 'potential Gaelic speakers' in Scotland and Ireland (and the Isle of Man) actually are fluent, although about 20% are able to passably speak fluent Welsh in Wales, mainly in the north, the languages are now largely protected by a European treaty, 'the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages' which is designed to promote and preserve such minority languages. While the inexorable rise to dominance of the English language continues, it is reassuring to note that, in the midst of the rapid decline in the number of languages spoken around the globe which may, in fact, be increasing, at least something is being done, in however small a way, to preserve the unique language and literature of such minority cultures and thus perhaps turn back the tide of centuries of English language 'colonialism' and cultural hegemony.

Of course this is not without its small problems as the following road sign in English and Welsh makes clear; without any knowledge of Welsh someone merely pasted a reply to an email which was requesting a translation into Welsh of the English instruction to HGV drivers:

Unfortunately, the reply was not quite what the hapless and clueless recipient expected. The Welsh reads:

"I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated." 

That'll teach the bilingual to be smart with their 'Out of Office' replies in Outlook.

* Literally, 'Go bugger yourself (with the Greeks)', although it is perhaps better rendered in English as a simple 'Fuck, or bugger, off!' 
** 'My grandmother's ear trumpet has been struck by lightning'
*** 'Whether I batter or am battered, there will be moaning all the same.' Henrik Ibsen, Peer Gynt. PG is bemoaning the fact that he is buggered whatever he does.
**** 'Let us live, my Lesbia, and love and value not a jot the talk of crabbèd old men.' The beginning of one of Catullus' most famous poems; the one in which he keeps on asking for a thousand kisses so that he and his lover (and the  crabbèd old men) may lose count  The 'Lesbia' of the poem has no connection whatsoever with Sappho or the island of Lesbos!
***** The programme is called 'gun sgot' which, as far as I can determine, means 'clueless' ('without reckoning')
****** 'Men who hate women' better known in English as 'The girl with the dragon tattoo'.
******* I have purposely omitted 'Breton', that other Celtic language, spoken in Brittany, France, because I believe it is a much later derivation from Cornish, rather than from the main Celtic stem, although perhaps the same might be said of Scots Gaelic (derived from 'Old, and possibly Middle, Irish'.)