The Biggest Debate

OK, gotta brace myself for this one; it’s the gay marriage debate.

Even now, over a decade into the 21st century, it still isn’t too hard (if you’re looking in the right place) to find somebody to tell you that homosexuality is wrong/sinful/weird/unnatural/ARE YOU A FAG?!?!?!?! (apologies for using that word). Normally this blog does not go into my Views on any subject, but on this occasion I think I might relax these opinions to say that there is absolutely no justification for any of these opinions that is not a load of dingo’s kidneys. Yes, homosexuality isn’t exactly evolutionarily selected for and doesn’t produce babies; but given that it’s been observed in a range of animals from bats to swans, nature apparently doesn’t have too much of a problem with the idea, so anything along those lines is out of the window. Yes, homosexuality is kind of a weird concept for your average straight person and you might find the idea a bit ‘icky’, but unless someone of your own gender starts hitting on you then there’s no reason why this should affect you. And if anyone starts quoting the Bible at me, I’m going to start pointing out how Jesus was a socialist and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.

Ahem. Sorry about that.

Anyway, the point I was getting at is that any debate concerning homosexuality is generally confined to this group of people shouting very loudly at the gay community and the rest of the civilised world. And, in recent history, said civilised world has been doing a lot of the winning; the gay community is a well-recognised part of our society and now the sight of two dudes making out, whilst uncommon, isn’t exactly something to write home about. History will probably record the recent gay marriage debate in countries across the world as just another stepping stone along the road to sexual equality, but from my point of view one interesting thing struck me about the debate, or more specifically the debaters. Those opposing the idea of gay marriage frequently were, or at least came across as, people who didn’t have a problem with gay relationships or civil partnerships but who were specifically opposed to gay marriage as a thing, which I found quite interesting. I’ve actually been putting off writing this post for a while because, well… controversy is not my strong suit, but I haven’t really been able to get the thought out of my head so I guess you’re stuck with it now.

To me, this aspect of the gay marriage debate really centred on what definition of marriage the person in question was using. To those who think that marriage is simply a strong, legally binding before-God-under-oath etc. expression of binding love between two people who want to spend their lives together, then sexual orientation doesn’t really come into the picture; love is universal regardless of orientation, so according to this definition so too should marriage be. However, those opposed to gay marriage had some other idea of what marriage was meant to be, something that, by its very nature, made it something that could, almost by definition, only be between a man and a woman, and that civil partnerships exist for gay couples separately for a reason (incidentally, I personally think that the main bone of contention with the idea of a civil partnership among the gay community concerns the lack of cultural identity it carries, making it seem like a label more than a true, fundamental expression of love). Not being in this camp myself (and not having much first-hand experience of marriage), I thought I might investigate exactly what this definition of marriage might be, in order to get to the heart of the disagreement.

Since the only difference between a same-sex and straight relationship is, fundamentally, the bits of genitalia involved, it seems natural to begin from a standpoint of biology. Maybe the definition of marriage we’re looking for concerns itself with a bond consummated through y’standard heterosexual mating procedure? My mind is instantly drawn to the image of marriage proposed in ‘Game of Thrones’ (books, I haven’t seen the TV series’), in which the bride is publically stripped and ‘bedded’ on her wedding night in an elaborate piece of tradition that is mostly (the final act excepted) performed in front of a large, drunken feast. In any case, this definition falls at the first hurdle; heterosexual sex is, if we’re talking about the pure emotional link of mutual enjoyment, satisfaction and emotional bonding, no different from homosexual sex (or else… well why would they do it?), so on its own this doesn’t seem enough.

The end result of heterosexual sex, however, may point us in a better direction. Unlike homosexual relationships, heterosexual ones are biologically capable of producing babies (I will ignore for now the idea of sperm banks and such, which are a whole different business) and expanding the population, so maybe the basis for our alternative definition of marriage is a union through which to produce children, or something along those lines? This has some grounding in theology too; Adam and Eve were, according to the Bible, the first married couple (I think, anyway; I’m not too hot on my Bible study), and since God wrote the laws of  biology it makes sense that he’d start off with a pair capable of continuing the lineage of the creatures made in his image. Or at least, after he made Eve, he sensed the potential the idea could have. It is presumably for this reason that the Bible incorporates specific instruction for Adam & Eve, and the book’s subsequent readers, to ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28), and why the Church has such strong views on the concept of sex outside marriage. But anyway; really, the validity of this argument, of the idea of marriage as a vehicle to producing children, is a personal rather than religious one, although you do have to wonder what such people think of people who have sex and children out of wedlock. Or maybe such people don’t exist. I dunno, I’m speculating here.

And whilst we’re on the subject, let’s talk about religion, a favourite point of reasoning from internet comments sections (yes, occasionally I make the cardinal sin of reading those things). There is an argument that runs roughly along the lines of ‘religion hates homosexuality, marriage is a religious ceremony, therefore the two are incompatible and a homosexual marriage is a ridiculous idea’. Proponents of this argument are less opposed to the introduction of a gay marriage bill than they are just thinking it’s kinda weird, and are the source of a hilarious turn of phrase that has cropped up all over the web ‘giving gay people the right to marry is like giving men the right to an abortion’. The second tenet of this argument is, however, rather a large assumption and the matter of considerable debate for, in modern society, marriage is technically a legal process. This is a concession made to respect those of other faiths (and quite right too), but is responsible for why a wedding can take place in a registry office just as easily as the church. It is also true that marriage was initially nothing to do with religion at all, but a matter of business; one family trading a woman to another in exchange for cash, and that religion rather inherited the concept as the idea of love in marriage became steadily more important over the centuries… but how you interpret this one is really down to personal debate. I happen to know for certain that this group exists, because I’ve seen plenty of arguments with them.

However, I personally think that the most likely reason a person would be against the idea of homosexual marriage but not homosexuality itself concerns the idea of ownership. The very idea of ownership is a quite strange and interesting one, but the thrust of the issue in this context is that human beings frequently feel a strange sense of belonging and ownership of a lot of things, be they objects, people or even ideas. A good example is patriotism/nationalism, where the idea of ‘belonging’ to a particular patch of land with a certain type of people can get so strong that they want to stop other people coming to their patch of land and ‘stealing’ their identity. And I think the same thing applies to marriage; married people have a sense of ownership over the idea, that it is fundamentally theirs and they don’t want to share it with other people. It sounds both a childish and bigoted point of view and, to an extent, it is; but hey, humans are irrational creatures in the end. I can only hope that holders of this view don’t feel quite so angry with it a few years down the line.

Oh, the weather outside is frightful…

At the time of writing, it is snowing outside (which should give some of you an idea as to the length of backlog I keep). All I see is some varying shade of white or grey, as the snow lies several inches deep in patches- and is still falling. Even the road is barely visible between its white dusting. All is calm, all is quiet, all sound deadened in that weird way snow does.

This has, understandably, somewhat altered my plans over the weekend. With all rugby-related activities off for the immediate future and a large repository of awesome awaiting in the hills near my home, I have spent around four hours over the last two days rolling around in, sliding over, throwing and falling into heaps of snow whilst wrapped in twice the layers of clothing I customarily wear; and loving every minute of it. Monday has come inconveniently early for me. I am a big child.

Of course, snow is not all great news. When the snow first fell I was stuck away from home and offered to give a friend a lift back to his; after I’d dropped him off I became caught in the worst traffic jam I have ever experienced, and took a total of three and a half hours to get to my house, eight miles from my point of departure. This is just one part of the minor infrastructure  meltdown that occurs whenever snow ends up where it’s unexpected; across Britain (where, incidentally, this decade has seen more serious snowfalls than the last half-century) roads have been clogged, schools have closed, airports have had to cancel flights and shops have shut. After a few days most people have basically got used to it and some aspects of life are starting to return to normal, but the smaller roads are still treacherous and flights continue to be cancelled across the country.

This of course inspires the usual parlance of “we are all a bunch of useless wusses, why is the country grinding to a halt, in Canada/Sweden/Switzerland/the mountain passes of Tibet they can deal with this pitiful dusting in their sleep”. This is generally an opinion put forward by a) raging pessimists who hate everything and b) people who are angry at having been stuck in traffic or similar for an extended period, and is somewhat stupid. In countries where snow is regular/predictable/all the year round, people have all the equipment (winter tyres, snow chains, snowploughs etc.) to make sure they can cope when the inevitable bad weather rolls in. In Britain however, snow is so irregular and unpredictable that to own all this expensive equipment is simply not financially viable to keep all year round, much less remember how to equip and use. If we just take the economic standpoint, despite the chaos it causes, we are better off in the long run having a few days every year or three of total mayhem than an expensive state of perpetual readiness that we really don’t need.

The fact that this sentiment exists, however, is indicative of the strange love/hate relationship we have with snow. On the one hand, we idolise it; we holiday across continents to spend weeks slithering around over a predictable supply of it, hail snowy landscapes as some of the most breathtakingly beautiful our planet has to offer, and every year as December rolls around we in the Northern hemisphere are greeted to endless images of snow in adverts, TV and everything else even remotely associated with Christmas. In this context, it is seen as a kind of wistful image; a wish for the snow’s beauty and the kind of landscape to make a crackling fire and time spent with the family seem even more attractive and like the perfect family Christmas that we all seem to aim for during the festive period. Snow is something to be lusted after, something we are willing to pay an awful lot for, and that has some kind of mystical quality to it.

But then we consider the inverse; what happens when it arrives. Across the country, news bulletins offer us stern warnings of icy roads, treacherous conditions, the occasional serious incident (this year four people were killed in a hiking incident during the worst part of the cold weather) and, of course, the thousands of parents facing childcare problems as little Timmy’s school has shut and he wants to go play in the snow. When it comes around, the number of people who say they hate snow grows rapidly; it traps us in traffic, riles our tempers, messes with our schedules. The snow itself, so pristine when it first falls on fresh, cold ground, rapidly becomes compressed down to slippery, dirty ice, before turning into a messy slush. For many, there is no option but to wrap up warm, stay indoors and curse the day God invented the ‘cold rain’ (as a mate recently described it).

To an extent, this is an age thing; when young, we yearn for the snow that is so often promised but never comes, and without the responsibilities of adulthood we are fully equipped to make the most of it when it comes round. To an adult, being unable to get to work is frustrating and inconvenient; but a closed school is a child’s paradise, and offers an excuse to spend the entire day messing around doing as you please. And not only that, but the weather has also provided the best playground imaginable; not only is snow soft and relatively harmless, but it can be easily compacted into a harder, more solid form, allowing it to form snowballs, snowmen and even makeshift igloos. Even better than that, snow is mighty slippery stuff, allowing us to go flying down hills far faster than we could hope to even sprint, whilst still being soft enough to break our fall and clean enough that we don’t have to worry about ruining clothes, adding sledding to the ‘snow play’ repertoire.

Perhaps children are simply those best equipped to enjoy the snow; they don’t have to worry about the roads or work, and have none of the adult responsibilities that so weigh our older selves down. Or maybe they just have the correct mindset to deal with it, because in all honesty, snow is really good fun; a form of entertainment that is great precisely because it comes around so rarely, and provides so many opportunities. Maybe I’m just a big kid, but to me snow is a chance to forget a few of my responsibilities for a while, and just have fun bouncing off the trees. To return to the mind of a child one again, but with the adult body that allows me to get the absolute most out of it.

What the @*$!?

WARNING: Swearing will feature prominently in this post, as will a discussion of sexual material. Children, if your parents shout at you for reading this then it is officially YOUR PROBLEM. Okay?

I feel this may also be the place to apologise for missing a week of posts; didn’t stop writing them, did stop posting them. Don’t know why

Language can enable us to do many things; articulate our ideas, express our sorrow, reveal our love, and tell somebody else’s embarrassing stories to name but a few. Every language has approached these and other practicalities of the everyday life they are designed to assist in different ways (there is one language I have heard of with no word for left or right, meaning that they refer to everything in terms of points of a compass and all members of the tribe thus have an inbuilt sense of where north is at all times), but there is one feature that every language from Japanese to Klingon has managed to incorporate, something without which a language would not be as complete and fully-fabricated as it ought, and which is almost always the first thing learnt by a student of a new language; swearing.

(Aside Note: English, partly due to its flexible nature and the fact that it didn’t really develop as a language until everyone else had rather shown it the way, has always been a particularly good language for being thoroughly foul and dirty, and since it’s the only language I have any degree of reasonable proficiency in I think I’ll stick to that for the time being. If anyone knows anything interesting about swearing in other languages, please feel free to leave them in the comments)

Swearing, swearwords and bad language itself generally have one of three sources; many of the ‘milder’ swearwords tend to have a religious origin, and more specifically refer either to content considered evil by the Church/some form of condemnation to evil (so ‘damn’, in reference to being ‘damned’ by Satan), or to stuff considered in some way blasphemous and therefore wrong (the British idiom ‘bloody’ stems from the Tudor expression ‘God’s Blood’, which along with similar references such as ‘Christ’s Passion’ suggested that the Holy Trinity was in some way fallible and human, and thus capable of human weakness and vice- this was blasphemy according to the Church and therefore wrong). The place of ‘mid-level’ swearwords is generally taken by rather crude references to excrement, egestion and bodily emissions in general (piss, shit etc.). The ‘worst swearwords’ in modern society are of course sexual in nature, be they either references to genitalia, prostitution or the act itself.

The reason for these ideas having become sweary & inappropriate is a fairly simple, but nonetheless interesting, route to track. When the Church ruled the land, anything considered blasphemous or wrong according to their literature and world view was frowned upon at best and punished severely at worst, so words connected to these ideas were simply not broached in public. People knew what they meant, of course, and in seedy or otherwise ‘underground’ places, where the Church’s reach was weak, these words found a home, instantly connecting them with this ‘dirty’ side of society. Poo and sex, of course, have always been considered ‘dirty’ among polite society, something always kept behind closed doors (I’ve done an entire post on the sex aspect of this before) and are thus equally shocking and ripe for sweary material when exposed to the real world.

A quick social analysis of these themes also reveals the reasons behind the ‘hierarchy’ of swearwords. In the past hundred years, the role of the church in everyday western society has dropped off dramatically and offending one’s local priest (or your reputation with him) has become less of a social concern. Among the many consequences of this (and I’m sure an aggressive vicar could list a hundred more) has been the increased prevalence of swearing in normal society, and the fall of Church-related swearwords in terms of how severe they are; using a word once deemed blasphemous doesn’t really seem that serious in a secular society, and the meaning it does have is almost anachronistic in nature. It helps, of course, that these words are among the oldest swearwords that have found common use, meaning that as time has gone by their original context has been somewhat lost and they have got steadily more and more tame. Perhaps in 200 years my future equivalent will be able to say dick in front of his dad for this reason.

The place of excrement and sex in our society has, however, not changed much in the last millennia or two. Both are things that are part of our everyday lives that all of us experience, but that are not done in the front room or broached in polite company- rather ugly necessities and facts of life still considered ‘wrong’ enough to become swearwords. However, whilst going to the loo is a rather inconvenient business that is only dirty because the stuff it produces is (literally), sex is something that we enjoy and often seek out. It is, therefore, a vice, something which we can form an addiction to, and addictions are something that non-addicts find slightly repulsive when observed in addicts or regular practitioners. The Church (yes, them again) has in particular found sex abhorrent if it is allowed to become rampant and undignified, historically favouring rather strict, Victorian positions and execution- all of which means that, unlike poo, sex has been actively clamped down on in one way or another at various points in history. This has, naturally, rarely done much to combat whatever has been seen as the ‘problem’, merely forcing it underground in most cases, but what it has done is put across an image of sex as something that is not just rather dirty but actively naughty and ‘wrong’. This is responsible partly for the thrill some people get when trash talking about and during sex, and the whole ‘you’ve been a naughty girl’ terminology and ideas that surround the concept of sex- but it is also responsible for making sexually explicit references even more underhand, even more to be kept out of polite spheres of movement, and thus making sexually-related swearwords the most ‘extreme’ of all those in our arsenal.

So… yeah, that’s what I got on the subject of swearing. Did anyone want a conclusion to this or something?

The Slightly Chubby Brigade

As the news will tell you at every single available opportunity, we are living through an obesity crisis. Across the western world (USA being the worst and Britain coming in second) our average national BMI is increasing and the number of obese and overweight people, and children especially, looks to be soaring across the board. Only the other day I saw a statistic that said nearly a third of children are now leaving primary school (ie one third of eleven year-olds) overweight, and such solemn numbers frequently make headlines.

This is a huge issue, encompassing several different issues and topics that I will attempt to consider over my next few posts (yeah, ‘nother multi-parter coming up), but for many of us it seems hideously exaggerated. I mean yes, we’ve all seen the kind of super-flabby people, the kind the news footage always cuts to when we hear some obesity health scare, the kind who are wider than they are tall and need a mobility scooter just to get around most of the time. We look at these pictures and we tut, and we might consider our own shape- but we’re basically fine, aren’t we. Sure, there’s a bit of a belly showing, but that’s normal- a good energy store and piece of insulation, in fact, and we would like to have a life beyond the weight-obsessed calorie counters that hardcore slimmers all seem to be. We don’t need to worry, do we?

Well, according to the numbers, actually we do. The average height of a Briton… actually, if you’re stumbling across this at home and you consider yourself normal, go and weigh yourself and, if you can, measure your height as well. Write those numbers down, and now continue reading. The average height of a Briton at the moment is 1.75m, or around 5’9″ in old money, and we might consider a normal weight for that height to be around 80 kilos, or 170 pounds. That might seem normal enough; a bit of a paunch, but able to get around and walk, and certainly no one would call you fat. Except perhaps your doctor, because according to the BMI chart I’ve got pulled up a 5 foot 9, 80 kilo human is deemed clinically overweight. Not by much, but you’d still weigh more than is healthy- in fact, one stat I heard a while ago puts the average Briton at this BMI. Try it with your measurements; BMI charts are freely available over the web.

This, to me, is one of the real underlying causes of ‘the obesity epidemic’- a fundamental misunderstanding of what ‘overweight’ consists of. Whenever our hideously awful everyone-dead-from-McDonalds-overdose etc. etc. diet is brought up on the news, it is always annotated by pictures of hanging bellies and bouncing flab, the kind of bodies that make one almost physically sick to look at. But, whilst these people certainly exist, there are not enough of them for the obesity issue to be even worth mentioning in everyday society; whilst the proportion of morbidly obese people is significant, it’s not seriously worth thought for most of us.

No, the real cause for all the chilling statistics we hear on the news is all the people who don’t look to be overweight. The kind whose diet isn’t appalling (no 24/7 McDonaldses), who are quite capable of exercise when it suits them, and who might take a rough glance at the dietary information of the stuff they buy in the supermarket. But these people are nonetheless hovering on the overweight borderline, pulling up the national average, despite the fact that they don’t consider anything to be wrong; in fact, some women who are according to the evil numbers overweight, may consider it almost dutiful to not become obsessed over shedding every pound and to maintain their curves. Having a bit of excess weight is, after all, still better than being underweight and anorexic, and the body image pressures some young women are coming under are just as much of an issue as national obesity. Even for those who don’t have such opinions, many of the slightly overweight feel that they don’t have any weight issues and that there’s surely no significant health risk associated with a ‘bit of meat on your bones’ (it’s actually muscle, rather than fat, that technically forms meat, but ho hum); as such, they have absolutely no motivation to get their weight down, as they don’t think they need to.

I won’t waste much of my time on all the reasons for this statement, but unfortunately even this slight degree of overweight-ness will significantly increase your risk of major health problems somewhere down the line, particularly that of heart disease (which is going through the roof at the moment); diabetes isn’t likely to be a risk for the overweight unless they’re really overdoing things, but that’s also a potential, and very serious, health hazard. The trouble is that many of us find it hard to make this connection if we basically feel healthy. Despite what the doctor says and no matter how much we trust them, if we are capable of going for a nice walk and generally getting about without getting out of breath or feeling bad then we probably feel justified in thinking of ourselves as healthy. Our heart doesn’t seem about to give out, so why worry about it.

The thing to remember is that the heart is just a muscle, so if it isn’t stressed it will degrade just like any other. You know those triceps that haven’t done a press up in five years? Feel how small and weak they are? Yeah, that kind of thing can quite easily happen to the muscles that are responsible for keeping you alive. Your heart might be pumping all day long and be a different type of muscle, so the process will be slower, but give it twenty years and you might start to see the effects.

But anyway, I’m not here to lecture you about your health; that’s far too depressing and dull for my liking- the only point I was trying to make is that many of the accidental contributors to ‘the obesity epidemic’ are probably unaware that their health is in any way a problem, and not really through fault of their own. So whose fault is it then? Well, that one can wait until next time…

Goodwill to all men

NOTE: This post was meant to go up on Christmas Eve, but WordPress clearly broke on me so apparently you get it now instead- sorry. Ah well, might as well put it up anyway…

 

Ah, Christmas; such an interesting time of year. The season of plenty, the season of spending too much, the season of eating too much, the season of decisions we later regret and those moments we always remember. The season where some families will go without food to keep the magic alive for their children, the season where some new feuds are born but old ones are set aside, and the season where goodwill to all men (and women) becomes a key focus of our attention.

When I was young, I always had a problem with this. I had similar issues with Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day even more so (I don’t know how I came to know that it was an entirely commercial invention, but there you go), and whilst Christmas was awesome enough that I wasn’t going to ruin it by seasonal complaints, one thing always bugged me about ‘the season of goodwill’. Namely, why can’t we just be nice to each other all the time, rather than just for a few weeks of the year?

A cynic might say we get all the goodwill out of our systems over Christmas in preparation for being miserable bastards for the rest of the year, but cynicism is unhealthy and in any case, I try to keep it out of my bloggy adventures. Plus, we are capable of doing nice stuff for the rest of the year, even if we don’t do so much as some might think we should, and humans never cease to be awesome beings when they put their mind to it. No, it’s not that we give up being nice for the rest of the year, but more that we are quite clearly eminently able of being more nice but not, seemingly, all the time.

Goodwill to our fellow man is not the only seasonal occurrence that seems more prevalent over the festive period for no obvious reason; many of our Christmas traditions, both old and modern, follow a similar thread. Turkey, for instance; whilst it’s never been Christmas fare in my household for various reasons, I know enough people for whom a turkey dinner plus trimmings is the festive standard to know that these same people never have the bird at any other time of the year (I know you Americans have it on Thanksgiving, but I don’t know enough about how all that works to comment). I saw a comment online a couple of weeks ago about eggnog (another seemingly American-specific thing), and mentioning how this apparently awesome stuff (never tried it myself, so again can’t comment) is never available at any other time of the year. A response soon followed courtesy of a shop worker, who said there’s always a supply of it tucked away somewhere throughout the year in the shop where he worked, but that nobody ever bought it outside of December.

We should remember that there is something of a fine line to tread when we discuss these ideas; there are a lot of things that only occur at Christmas time (the giving of gifts, decorations, the tree and so on) that don’t need any such explanation because they are solely associated with the season. If one were to put tinsel up in June, then you might be thought a bit odd for your apparent celebration of Christmas in midsummer; tinsel is not associated with anything other than festive celebration, so in any other context it’s just weird.  This is particularly true given that tinsel and other such decorations are just that; decorations, with no purpose outside of festive celebration. Similarly, whilst gift-giving is appreciated throughout the rest of year (although it’s best to do so in moderation), going to all the trouble of thinking, deliberating, wrapping secretively and making a big fanfare over it is only associated with special occasions (Christmases or birthdays). Stuff like turkey and eggnog can probably be classified as somewhere in the middle; very much associated with the Christmas period, but still separate from it and capable for being consumed at other times of the year.

The concept of goodwill and being nice to people is a little different; not just something that is possible throughout the rest of the year, but something actively encouraged as being a commendable trait, so the excuse of ‘it’s just a feature of the season’ doesn’t really cut it in this context. Some might say that quite a lot of the happiness exuded at Christmastime is somewhat forced, or at the very least tiring, as anyone who’s looked at the gaunt face between the smiling facade of a Christmas day Mum can tell. Therefore, it could be argued that Christmas good cheer is simply too much work to keep up for the rest of the year, and that if we were forced to keep our smiley faces on we would either snap or collapse in exhaustion before long. Others might say that keeping good cheer confined to one portion of the year makes it that much more fun and special when it comes round each year, but to me the reason is slightly more… mathematical.

Human beings are competitive, ambitious creatures, perpetually seeking to succeed and triumph over the odds. Invariably, this frequently means triumphing over other people too, and this is not a situation that lends itself to being dedicated to being nice to one another; competition and the strive to succeed may be key features behind human and personal success, but they do not lend themselves to being nice to one another. Not infrequently, such competition requires us to deliberately take the not-nice option, as dicking on our competition often provides the best way to compete with them; or at the very least, we sometimes need to be harsh bastards to make sure stuff gets done at all. This concept is known in philosophy as the prisoner’s dilemma, which I should get round to doing a post on one of these days.

However at Christmas time achievement becomes of secondary importance to enjoyment; to spending time with friends and family, and to just enjoying the company of your nearest and dearest. Therefore, comparatively little actually gets done over the Christmas period (at least from an economist’s point of view), and so the advantage presented by mild dickishness to some others for the rest of the year disappears. Everything in life becomes reduced down to a state where being nice to everyone around us best serves our purpose of making our environment a fun, comfortable place to be. At Christmas time, we have no reason to be nasty, and every reason to be nice; and for that reason alone, Christmas is a wonderful thing. Merry Christmas, everybody.

An Opera Posessed

My last post left the story of JRR Tolkein immediately after his writing of his first bestseller; the rather charming, lighthearted, almost fairy story of a tale that was The Hobbit. This was a major success, and not just among the ‘children aged between 6 and 12’ demographic identified by young Rayner Unwin; adults lapped up Tolkein’s work too, and his publishers Allen & Unwin were positively rubbing their hands in glee. Naturally, they requested a sequel, a request to which Tolkein’s attitude appears to have been along the lines of ‘challenge accepted’.

Even holding down the rigours of another job, and even accounting for the phenomenal length of his finished product, the writing of a book is a process that takes a few months for a professional writer (Dame Barbara Cartland once released 25 books in the space of a year, but that’s another story), and perhaps a year or two for an amateur like Tolkein. He started writing the book in December 1937, and it was finally published 18 years later in 1955.

This was partly a reflection of the difficulties Tolkein had in publishing his work (more on that later), but this also reflects the measured, meticulous and very serious approach Tolkein took to his writing. He started his story from scratch, each time going in a completely different direction with an entirely different plot, at least three times. His first effort, for instance, was due to chronicle another adventure of his protagonist Bilbo from The Hobbit, making it a direct sequel in both a literal and spiritual sense. However, he then remembered about the ring Bilbo found beneath the mountains, won (or stolen, depending on your point of view) from the creature Gollum, and the strange power it held; not just invisibility, as was Bilbo’s main use for it, but the hypnotic effect it had on Gollum (he even subsequently rewrote that scene for The Hobbit‘s second edition to emphasise that effect). He decided that the strange power of the ring was a more natural direction to follow, and so he wrote about that instead.

Progress was slow. Tolkein went months at a time without working on the book, making only occasional, sporadic yet highly focused bouts of progress. Huge amounts were cross-referenced or borrowed from his earlier writings concerning the mythology, history & background of Middle Earth, Tolkein constantly trying to make his mythic world feel and, in a sense, be as real as possible, but it was mainly due to the influence of his son Christopher, who Tolkein would send chapters to whilst he was away fighting the Second World War in his father’s native South Africa, that the book ever got finished at all. When it eventually did, Tolkein had been working the story of Bilbo’s son Frodo and his adventure to destroy the Ring of Power for over 12 years. His final work was over 1000 pages long, spread across six ‘books’, as well as being laden with appendices to explain & offer background information, and he called it The Lord of The Rings (in reference to his overarching antagonist, the Dark Lord Sauron).

A similar story had, incidentally, been attempted once before; Der Ring des Nibelungen is an opera (well, four operas) written by German composer Richard Wagner during the 19th century, traditionally performed over the course of four consecutive nights (yeah, you have to be pretty committed to sit through all of that) and also known as ‘The Ring Cycle’- it’s where ‘Ride of The Valkyries’ comes from. The opera follows the story of a ring, made from the traditionally evil Rhinegold (gold panned from the Rhine river), and the trail of death, chaos and destruction it leaves in its wake between its forging & destruction. Many commentators have pointed out the close similarities between the two, and as a keen follower of Germanic mythology Tolkein certainly knew the story, but Tolkein rubbished any suggestion that he had borrowed from it, saying “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases”. You can probably work out my approximate personal opinion from the title of this post, although I wouldn’t read too much into it.

Even once his epic was finished, the problems weren’t over. Once finished, he quarrelled with Allen & Unwin over his desire to release LOTR in one volume, along with his still-incomplete Silmarillion (that he wasn’t allowed to may explain all the appendices). He then turned to Collins, but they claimed his book was in urgent need of an editor and a license to cut (my words, not theirs, I should add). Many other people have voiced this complaint since, but Tolkein refused and ordered Collins to publish by 1952. This they failed to do, so Tolkein wrote back to Allen & Unwin and eventually agreed to publish his book in three parts; The Fellowship of The Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of The King (a title Tolkein, incidentally, detested because it told you how the book ended).

Still, the book was out now, and the critics… weren’t that enthusiastic. Well, some of them were, certainly, but the book has always had its detractors among the world of literature, and that was most certainly the case during its inception. The New York Times criticised Tolkein’s academic approach, saying he had “formulated a high-minded belief in the importance of his mission as a literary preservationist, which turns out to be death to literature itself”, whilst others claimed it, and its characters in particular, lacked depth. Even Hugo Dyson, one of Tolkein’s close friends and a member of his own literary group, spent public readings of the book lying on a sofa shouting complaints along the lines of “Oh God, not another elf!”. Unlike The Hobbit, which had been a light-hearted children’s story in many ways, The Lord of The Rings was darker & more grown up, dealing with themes of death, power and evil and written in a far more adult style; this could be said to have exposed it to more serious critics and a harder gaze than its predecessor, causing some to be put off by it (a problem that wasn’t helped by the sheer size of the thing).

However, I personally am part of the other crowd, those who have voiced their opinions in nearly 500 five-star reviews on Amazon (although one should never read too much into such figures) and who agree with the likes of CS  Lewis, The Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Times of the time that “Here is a book that will break your heart”, that it is “among the greatest works of imaginative fiction of the twentieth century” and that “the English-speaking world is divided into those who have read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and those who are going to read them”. These are the people who have shown the truth in the review of the New York Herald Tribune: that Tolkein’s masterpiece was and is “destined to outlast our time”.

But… what exactly is it that makes Tolkein’s epic so special, such a fixture; why, even years after its publication as the first genuinely great work of fantasy, it is still widely regarded as the finest work the genre has ever produced? I could probably write an entire book just to try and answer that question (and several people probably have done), but to me it was because Tolkein understood, absolutely perfectly and fundamentally, exactly what he was trying to write. Many modern fantasy novels try to be uber-fantastical, or try to base themselves around an idea or a concept, in some way trying to find their own level of reality on which their world can exist, and they often find themselves in a sort of awkward middle ground, but Tolkein never suffered that problem because he knew that, quite simply, he was writing a myth, and he knew exactly how that was done. Terry Pratchett may have mastered comedic fantasy, George RR Martin may be the king of political-style fantasy, but only JRR Tolkein has, in recent times, been able to harness the awesome power of the first source of story; the legend, told around the campfire, of the hero and the villain, of the character defined by their virtues over their flaws, of the purest, rawest adventure in the pursuit of saving what is good and true in this world. These are the stories written to outlast the generations, and Tolkein’s mastery of them is, to me, the secret to his masterpiece.

The Price of Sex

This is (probably, I might come back to it if I have trouble thinking of material) the last post I will be doing in this mini-series on the subject of sex.  Today’s title is probably the bluntest of the series as a whole, and yet is probably most descriptive of its post’s content, as today I am going to be dealing with the rather edgy subject of prostitution.

Prostitution is famously quoted as being the world’s oldest profession, and it’s not hard to see why. Since men tend to have physical superiority over women they have tended to adopt overlord roles since the ‘hitting other people with clubs and shouting “Ug”‘ stage, women have, as previously stated, tended to be relatively undervalued and underskilled (in regards to stuff other than, oh I don’t know, raising kids and foraging for food with a degree of success often exceeding that of hunting parties, although that is partly to do with methodology and I could spend all day arguing this point). In fact it can be argued that the only reason that some (presumably rather arrogant) male-dominated tribes didn’t just have done with women as a gender is purely down to sex- partly because it allowed them to father children but mostly, obviously, because they really enjoyed it. Thus the availability of sex was historically not a woman’s most valuable asset to her male peers, but since it was something that men couldn’t/would rather not sort out between themselves it took on a great degree of value. It could even be argued that women have been ‘selling’ sex in exchange for being allowed to exist since the earliest origins of a male-dominated tribe structure, although you’d have to check with an actual anthropologist to clarify that point.

Since those early days of human history, prostitution has always remained one of those things that was always there, sort of tucked into the background and that never made most history books. However, that’s  not to say it has not affected history- the availability of pleasures of the flesh has kept more than one king away from his duties and sent his country into some degree of turmoil, and even Pope Alexander VI (a la, among other things, Assassin’s Creed II) once famously hired 50 prostitutes for a party known as the Ballet of the Chestnuts, where their clothes were auctioned off before both courtesans and guests (including several clergymen) crawled naked over the floor to first pick up chestnuts, and later compete to see who could have the most sex. In fact, for large swathes of history, prostitution was considered a relatively popular profession among lowborn women, whose only other choices were generally the church (if you could afford to get in), agriculture (which involved backbreaking toil, malnourishment and a generally poor quality of life), or serving work if you were lucky. It was relatively well-paid, required no real skill, was more exciting than most other walks of life and far less risky than a life of crime. Even nowadays sex workers are held with a degree of respect in many countries (such as The Netherlands and New Zealand) as being people stuck in a difficult situation who really don’t need the law trying to screw over (if you’ll pardon the pun) what little they have.

However, that doesn’t mean, and never has done, that prostitution is just some harmless little sideshow that we should simply ignore. The annual death rate among female prostitutes in the USA is around 200 per 100,000, meaning that over a (say) 10 year career one in fifty are likely to be killed. Compare that to a rate of 118 per 100,000 for America’s supposedly most dangerous profession, being a lumberjack. Added to this is the fact that prostitutes, many of whom are illegal immigrants, runaways or imported slaves, are rarely missed or even noticed by society, so make easy victims for predators and serial killers. Prostitution is often seen as a major contributory factor in the continued spread of STD’s such as HIV/AIDS, and is often targeted by women’s rights groups as being both degrading to women both directly involved and indirectly associated as well as slowing the decline of chauvinist attitudes. Then there is sex tourism (aka travelling to somewhere like Thailand to hire prostitutes because at home people might see you coming out), which is rapidly becoming one of the most distasteful, as well as dangerous & counter-productive, aspects of 21st century tourism. And then, of course, there is sex trafficking, perhaps the lowest of the low as far as all human activities go. Sex trafficking is the practice of abducting young women to sell into slavery as prostitutes, both within a country and across international borders, which would be morally repugnant enough if it wasn’t for the fact that a significant proportion of those trafficked are children, sometimes sold even by their own families. Around three-quarters of human trafficking today, the largest slavery operation in the history of the world, is concerned with the global sex trade, and is the fastest growing criminal activity on the planet. Much of it is connected to other aspects of organised crime, such as the drugs wars in Mexico, and can therefore be directly linked to large-scale theft, murder and smuggling, amongst other crimes. In India & Bangaladesh, some 40% of prostitutes are thought to be children, many of whom use a highly addictive drug linked to diabetes and high blood pressure to make them seem older & fatter (research suggests that men find fuller physiques more attractive when under stress or hardship). Looking through some of these figures & reading some of the stories surrounding them, it’s hard not to be struck by how low humanity has the potential to stoop when it ceases to think or care.

Over the last 100 or so years, as life has got less hard for the average woman and job opportunities have expanded, prevailing attitudes towards, and the prevalence & amount of, prostitution have declined heavily, and it is now frequently seen more as a rather distasteful sideshow to modern living that most would rather avoid. But to contrast against this we have the fact that the industry is both very much alive across the world, but could even be said to be thriving- the ‘labour’ of slave prostitutes is worth tens of billions of dollars worldwide. The trouble is, because it is an inherently seedy sideshow, it is impossible to get rid of, with legislation usually causing it to merely go underground and leading to further degradation in living conditions and welfare of sex workers, and regulating it is similarly tricky. Thus, it’s very hard for governments to know what to do about an industry that they recognise will always be there but is immensely prone to crime, human rights abuse and health issues. Unless the world, in a rather unlikely twist learns to live largely without prostitutes, a black stain is unfortunately likely to remain on our pride and dignity as a race. Exactly how this should be dealt with is still a little unclear.