Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Ancient Greek Pottery and Glass

Pithos jar with rope decor
17th century BC

Although the gold of Mycenae was probably the most stunning of the exhibits in the National Archaeological Museum of Greece, it was the pottery and domestic items that brought home most forcefully the astonishingly high level of civilisation of the ancient world.

bronze age amphorae

I remember looking at one vase and thinking it was almost identical to earthenware produced in Staffordshire around 1750 -1800. Of course I’ve always known Greece was the source of Josiah Wedgwood’s inspiration, but I hadn’t realised quite how closely he followed three or four thousand year old patterns.

 bronze age amphora
 glass vessel, Thessaly, 2nd century BC
Glass Bowl 1st century BC 

It’s humbling to think that the same sort of pottery was in use during both the Trojan and Napoleonic Wars.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Mycenaean Gold

When Heinrich Schleiman excavated the ruins of Mycenae he telegraphed the emotional report: "I have looked upon the face of Agamemnon."

Death Mask of Agamemnon

Well now, thanks to the glorious National Archaeological Museum of Athens, so have I.

If there was one relic of classical civilisation that I always longed to see, this was it. And when I saw it, I couldn't help saying to myself, "I know you. I've seen people just like you."

In this wonderful place, the Trojan War happened yesterday.

Having read The Iliad, I've tended to regard the warlike Mycenaeans as essentially destructive. Here, preserved in the National Archaeological Museum of Greece are a few of the many examples of their remarkable craftsmanship that helped change my mind:
Gold cups and jewellery

Swords, two with golden hilts


Gold decorative items

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Around and About in Athens

The Parthenon is presently a giant building site

Although Athens boasts a fine new airport road, it seemed it was necessary for our taxi to leave it and plunge through tangled suburban streets which showed considerable evidence of the city’s current financial hardships. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen so much graffiti; hardly an inch of any ground floor wall seemed without. To the first-time tourist this is disconcerting; what exactly have I let myself in for here? Fortunately that was where the bad impression both started and stopped.

Monastiriki  Square
With just one and a half days to take in the sights, we began as we often do on the top deck of a circular tour bus. Whoever invented the hop-on/hop-off open-top bus performed a great service to tourism. In Athens that meant our first call was at Monastiriki Square (left) at the foot of The Acropolis where we browsed around the Flea Market and immediately encountered the vexing problem of attractive pottery and glass that had little or no realistic prospect of homeward transportation by air.

Excavations of the old Agora

It was surprising to find excavation of the old agora district (right) going on. For some reason I’d supposed central areas must have been explored long ago, but of course the level at which the archaeologists are working is well below the current city and our own country is always finding ancient sites when digging foundations for new developments too.

A tip for EU citizens visiting The Acropolis: take your passport or pictorial ID; you’ll get in for half price. It’s no good saying you left it in your hotel safe and anyway one can always tell an Englishman by the way he talks.

Odeon of Herodes Atticus

On your way up you first encounter the Odeon of Herodes Atticus (left), a superb ancient theatre still in use for modern performances.

The Propylaea, the monumental gateway to the temple area, is a remarkable building in its own right, as is the Erechtheion (below), the older temple at the summit, though of course all the crowds are flocking round The Parthenon (top). How sad that such a magnificent structure should have survived from antiquity only to be blown up in a relatively modern war, sadly an all too familiar spectacle to this day.


Surrounded by crowds one can only marvel at the colossal remains. I found it impossible to feel the spirit of Ancient Greece while being broiled in the sun on top of an exposed rock. In fact it was hard to feel anything but the urgent need for shade.

Neverthless, from the summit you can see great distances. Amongst the landmarks I picked out Lofos Likavitou, the site of one of my (sadly as yet unpublished) stories, along with the Theatre of Dionysus, the Temple of Olympian Zeus and the Temple of Hephaestus, all of which we had little choice but to pass by in the energy-sapping heat.

By this time we were ready for a rest in our air-conditioned hotel room and a very pleasant dinner in a penthouse restaurant overlooking the Acropolis.

Monday, 3 July 2017

The vexed issue of University Tuition Fees

A long time ago, when I attended university, barely 10% of young people did so. By contrast the Higher Education Initial Participation Rate (HEIPR) which estimates the likelihood of a young person participating in Higher Education reached 48% in 2014/15.

When the government decided that half of young people should go to university, it quickly became apparent that this target could not be practically combined with a continuation of the free university university education of my era. This would impose too great a burden on the taxpayer, particularly the half of each generation that would not receive direct benefit from the scheme.

The idea of so-called ‘top-up’ fees were floated. Ministers justified these on the grounds that graduates earned, over the course of their working lives, a substantial premium compared with non-graduates and therefore should themselves take more responsibility for funding their own courses.

Back then The Times (UK) was obliging enough to publish a letter from me criticising the economics that apparently underlay this thinking. Essentially, my argument was that graduate salaries were then high because graduates were rare and demand exceeded supply. Once the supply of graduates was substantially increased, the maginal wage of graduates would be forced down until the expected wage premium was reduced to zero or even beyond. These surplus graduates would then not be able to afford the repayment of their student loans. What I predicted has now come to pass.

Meanwhile well-trained craftsmen, artisans and technical operatives have not only seen no such government backing for an increase in their numbers, but have in fact seen numerous potential recruits to their ranks diverted into universities. Accordingly the marginal craftsman now earns more than the marginal graduate.

Apprenticeships are usually financed by employers, so there are no fees, though apprentices receive lower than normal wages to take account of the fact that in the early stages of their training their value-added is negative, (because experienced workers are diverted from production into training).

Whereas a graduate now enters adult life saddled with a debt of tens of thousands, a time-served craftsman has no such burden and hence is better placed to take on a mortgage and acquire his own home. He is also better placed to contribute to the necessary re-balancing of the UK economy.

I suggest that the commitment to excessive university education was unwise. Rather than attempt once again the failed past experiment of financing its cost from general taxation, we would do better to reduce HEIPR to a level the economy actually requires.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

The Tory / DUP Arrangement

I hold no brief for the Conservative Party. However if I were a Labour supporter right now I'd hesitate to accuse anyone too loudly of friendship with terrorists. Pots and kettles spring to mind.

As an economist I'm naturally concerned about the public finances. On the other hand in respect of the agreement between the government and the DUP we are talking about finding an extra £1b over an extended period as opposed to the Labour policy of finding £50b. Unsurprisingly I'm less exercised by the former.

The inescapable fact is still that the crash of 2008 ruined the public finances and since then we've only partially recovered. The National Debt is unmanageably high and we're adding to it every year rather than reducing it. The so-called austerity policy aims for nothing more dramatic than ceasing to increase National Debt by 2025, in other words we're already allowing ourselves another 8 years of living beyond our means for which we expect our children and our children's children to pick up the bill.

I accept of course that some debt-financed public investment will lead to growth, though usually public investment is less productive than private investment. A certain amount of public investment in NI would have been needed anyway in order to maintain a frictionless border after Brexit. At the moment I don't know whether that's included in the £1b or not.

I don't accept that large scale running up of debt to finance public consumption is a wise course. Like any public body the NHS for one has extended its remit well beyond treating and preventing sickness. When we can't pay nurses properly we have no business providing free fertility care for example. A reassessment of NHS priorities is overdue.

The same would seem to apply to local authorities which neglect basic housing yet seem able to finance all sorts of special interest groups.

We don't need more government, we need better.

Saturday, 24 June 2017


The Prophets of Baal
In the Smashwords Summer Sale you can buy 'The Prophets of Baal' ebook version at HALF PRICE!

All you have to do is follow this link to the book's Smashwords page:


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This offer Expires: July 24, 2017.

So here's your chance to help me reach the best seller charts.

I mean you would like me to make the best seller charts, wouldn't you?

Plot summary:

Young PI Toby cannot believe his luck. Two beautiful women compete for his affections. But when he falls for the younger one, he is enmeshed in an ancient struggle between occult powers. If the girl is to be saved from death, he faces not just a steep learning curve in witchcraft but a battle for supremacy. And unknown to Toby, both sides have picked him to play a leading role in the fight!

Friday, 16 June 2017

The Devil You Don't Know

I’ve been trying to think back to the old days. Were those of us who were enthused by Gene McCarthy’s ‘Children’s Crusade’ as ill-informed as the youth of today? Did we really think, back in 1968, that you could have everything for free?

Do you know, I don’t think we did. We did tend to remark that we’d rather be red than dead, which still chimes with Jeremy Corbyn’s attitude today, but in those days the Keynesian idea was that you really could restart economic growth by deficit financing.

Around 1976, as I recall, Jim Callaghan announced to the Labour Party Conference that spending your way out of recession only led in the long run to inflation. There are limits. You cannot indefinitely borrow money from your children to finance the living standards of today.

In the last twelve months we’ve seen Bernie Sanders in the USA, Jean-Luc Melenchon in France and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK each enunciate their conviction that these issues have not really been resolved conclusively, and we’ve seen a new generation of enthusiastic youth convinced they have found a new answer rather than a recycled intellectual blind alley.

I do hope I’m wrong, but I have a nasty feeling the dragon of inflation is not slain but only sleeping.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Minority Government Options

I understand the distaste in some quarters for a government to be supported by the DUP. But consider please what Scots would have to endure if Labour were to do a deal with the SNP. 63% of us have just voted against the SNP, sending a very clear message that we don't want another referendum. Would Labour give them one anyway in order to get into government?

So far as I understand it there is no threat of a CON + DUP coalition, the proposal is for a 'confidence & supply' arrangement. This does not involve importing DUP social policy into mainland Britain. Almost certainly, I should have thought, the price they will exact is a soft border with Eire after Brexit.

When eating with the devil, use a long spoon. Of the two deals with two devils likely to be on offer in the short term, I'm inclined to feel one of the alternative spoons needs to be substantially longer.

Fortunately the Northern Irish peace process has two referees not one. The role of the second referee is automatically strengthened when the NI Assembly is suspended and I suspect that any error by referee one would very speedily result in an appeal to referee two.

Secondly the price likely to be demanded by the DUP (see above) is not politically controversial in NI as far as I know. No-one is likely to complain if they extract this concession. Note that it is a big concession. If you must have agreement on the NI border then you cannot carry out any threat to walk away without a deal.

Thirdly, should anyone ask why Unionist Scots are afraid of another referendum given they should win it easily, I reply that no-one who did not experience the gut-wrenching unpleasantness of our last referendum can possibly understand. We are trying vainly to rebuild our community with the threat of another vitriolic campaign constantly hanging over our heads like the sword of Damocles.

Fourthly, as I've said before, referenda settle nothing. The losers never accept the democratic verdict and go on campaigning as though nothing had happened in the hope of wearing down the majority will by sheer importunity. Frankly I'm with Brenda from Bristol. We've had enough!

What we actually need is a grand coalition in which the two large parties come together for the duration of the Brexit talks and sort out a common British negotiating position. 

Sunday, 28 May 2017

People who made things to last: An Appreciation

  1. Chain Harrows. Probably the earliest form of grassland maintenance implement of the modern era. Still as good as the day they were made back in who knows when. To you, gentlemen, thank you for your skill and work.
  2. My Ford 3000 Super-Dexta tractor. Probably produced at the Ford Tractor plant in Basildon Essex in 1967. Gentlemen, your machine has today put in a seriously good shift in the fields fifty years after rolling off the production line. She still runs beautifully and pulls beautifully. My salutations, sirs, you knew how to build tractors.

We hear a lot of complaints when things are done wrong but I don't think we hear enough congratulations when things go right. So my grateful thanks to you both.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

A dry spell

My writing output in April was similar to the weather - a long dry spell. However a downpour in mid-May coincided with another burst of writing productivity. I've recently finished my first new story in two months and I received an acceptance from the respected Third and Starlight anthology for a reprint of 'The Waiting Room.'

In the meantime I as usual turned to writing poetry. By this, of course, I mean formal poetry as opposed to free verse. For some reason I find the discipline of metre and rhyme helpful, even though the output is not saleable in today's free-verse dominated poetry market. I suppose the modern fashion really is poetry because the market tells me so, but personally I prefer prose properly punctuated. If you'd like to see some of my recent work, there are some new pieces on this blog's poetry page.

One strange result of the freak weather has been the may blossom blooming in May high up on top of Sliabh Mannan rather than as it more commonly does in June.

camellia (unknown variety)
To my surprise and pleasure a camellia bought cheaply in a car boot sale years ago has produced its first flower (left.) I had suspected it would turn out to be Japonica rather than Williamsii. The former, it seems, just don't flower at this altitude. However it has just about the most sheltered spot on the place, so it does have its best chance. It was anybody's guess as to the variety, so if anybody happens to know, I'd be pleased to hear from you.

The early season butterflies have been out in good numbers, particularly orange tips and green-veined whites. A red admiral turned up in the garden this week.

At least one pair of greenfinches seem to have taken up residence in the garden this year too. We have chaffinch every year and bullfinch occasionally but greenfinch are a novelty. Siskin have also turned up this year and there are grey wagtail down by the burn. Wrens also seem to be on the increase and the local greater spotted woodpecker has also been visiting the garden.

For the amateur photographer a woodland summer is so frustrating. The summer visiting birds are all displaying their brightest colours, but the shade and the leaf cover make it so hard to get a good picture!

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

I tolerate, you overlook, he neglects ...

I'm the most tolerant person on Earth.

Except that I can't tolerate intolerance. Lots of social media comments are intolerance disguised as tolerance. And I can't tolerate that either. 

And while we're on the subject I can't tolerate people who can't tolerate people who can't tolerate intolerance. 

And I can't tolerate anyone who can't tolerate my tolerance. 

In fact, when you get right down to it, I'm not only the most tolerant person on Earth, I'm the only tolerant person on Earth. 

The rest of you are just so intolerant I absolutely cannot tolerate you.  

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Spring Forward

I'm told that the depreciation of sterling following the Brexit vote has compelled consumables
manufacturers to make their products smaller in order to avoid putting their prices up. Well, they would say that, wouldn't they? But what, I wonder, is the explanation for years getting shorter? Almost before I'm certain that winter is over the seasonal migrations are under way.

Last week the over-wintering geese of Sliabh Mannan were packing their breeding plumage and heading for their summer nesting grounds in Sweden. Like normal families they set off on the journey arguing with each other about who should lead the way and what direction they should be flying. Down on the ground we humans just look up and wish them bon voyage.

Meanwhile the grey wagtails (above) have been arriving for a couple of weeks along the course of the Culloch Burn and today I saw the first house martin (left) of the season. He's timed it nicely again, because a cloud of midges were out in the sunshine yesterday evening.

However it's early yet for most of the swallow family and I've noted before that a single martin has arrived a week or so in advance. I'm not sure whether he communicates telepathically with the main flock about the climate or whether he's just determined to grab the best nesting site.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Enemies at Home and Friends Abroad

The Steamer Waverley
Setting Sail
One might have hoped the UK's  triggering of  Lisbon Article 50 would at least put a stop to Cassandra-like prophecies of doom at home. Surely the country would come together to make the best of the situation, like it or not?

Too much to hope for, I fear. The Scottish Government still wants to undermine the UK's negotiators with plaintive noises off, while many Remainers seem far more anxious to be proved right than they are for the country's wellbeing.

It might help if Remainers remembered the referendum campaign featured a dodgy prospectus on both sides and that Leavers weren't all ignorant and gullible; in fact we included several high-powered economists. The surging exports and solid economic growth since last June don't really resemble the catastrophe Remainers predicted, nor was a punishment budget required.

Moreover it would make more sense complaining about the Brexiteers' failure to deliver if the Brexiteers actually controlled the government, which they don't.  When did Theresa May promise loads of money for the NHS?

Let us consider the two biggest projects of the EU. (Since we opted out of both of these, we could only ever have been peripheral members henceforward anyway.)
  • The Euro is an economic disaster which can't be admitted because of the political fallout that would result, so they just let it cause thirty percent unemployment and chronic financial crisis in southern Europe instead. If we lived in Greece we might learn what it really means to have something to feel pessimistic about.
  • The Schengen Agreement is collapsing under the weight of uncontrolled migration and frontier fences have gone up all over Eastern Europe.
I have said before that political will is not enough to support a project to link so many economies by a common currency. The fudging of membership criteria did not begin with Greece, it goes right back to the foundation of the single currency when Italy's debt was almost twice the permitted percentage of GDP and France only qualified for the fiscal deficit criterion by a one-off privatisation of Thomson.

The point politicians failed to appreciate then and now is that the Eurozone membership criteria were not mere inconveniences to be circumvented but genuine economic convergence indicators. If you link divergent economies by a single currency you deprive weaker economies of the disequilibrium-corrective possibilities offered by the balance of payments and by currency devaluation, leaving only rising unemployment to provide a quite inadequate escape valve.

This is why it is not just Greece that has experienced severe dislocation but also Cyprus, Italy, Spain, Ireland etc. Even France has suffered. Although Germany has seen benefit from an undervalued currency it is now paying the price in terms of ever-increasing transfers to the hopelessly indebted zone members.

Does anyone really think the EU will return to being an economic powerhouse anytime soon? On the other hand outside the EU we have huge potential to develop new trading relationships with parts of the world that are enjoying rapid growth. The UK is not trying to make enemies or wishing ill to the continuing EU. We are simply seeking a wider circle of friends.

Though peevish voices in Europe may declare the UK must suffer 'pour encourager les autres' it is to be hoped that economic sanity will be allowed to prevail over political pique. Beggar your neighbour is not a good strategy for a continent that needs all the boost from trade it can get. 

And really - can they think of no better arguments for membership of the EU than to show how horrible they can make it for those who want to leave?

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

We Are The People

Anthropologically speaking, it is not at all uncommon for a primitive tribe to call itself 'The People' or sometimes 'The Human Beings'.

By definition in a tribal society, everyone who is not of 'The People' is an enemy. The tribal leaders are able to achieve a high degree of loyalty from their members, on the one hand by claiming that they know from their experience and wisdom what is best for 'The People' and on the other by maintaining an implied threat to exile any dissident, cutting them off from 'The People' and sending them out into an alien and hostile world.

Important problems present themselves for tribal leaders as members grow more sophisticated and begin to interact more with other tribes, for example by trading with them rather than just fighting them in the traditional way.

First, alternative sources of authority and alternative truths will be presented to members of the tribe. It will become obvious that other tribes have contrived to prosper without necessarily following the methods prescribed by the leaders of 'The People'.

Secondly, the tribal territory may become less precisely defined.

In the early tribal period of course nomadism precluded any notion of owning land. Once the tribe settled down to a more sedentary agricultural existence it was necessary to introduce at least a communal land-ownership concept in order that those who worked to grow food should also be able to enjoy eating it.

However once tribes begin to mingle then there arises the problem of whether anyone who lives within the territory of 'The People' should be regarded as a member of 'The People' or not.

Perhaps however of greater concern is the members of 'The People' who gradually lose their subservience to their traditional leaders and begin to suspect that peaceful mingling with other tribes is potentially better than enmity.

At this point, in order to defend their power, the tribal leaders will usually try and start a war.

Sadly it seems the SNP administration have declared war on a very large segment of the population of Scotland, probably still the majority. Whatever the outcome, it will not be good.

Monday, 13 March 2017

No to Another Referendum

For those in Scotland who despair at the thought of having to go through all the misery again so soon after the last independence referendum:

The Holyrood petition against it is at this URL.

The UK petition against it is at this URL.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Truth and Error

It's always easy to critique our opponents because, of course, they're always wrong. If they weren't wrong they wouldn't be our opponents,would they? Unfortunately our critical regard has to look both ways.

It's a lot more difficult to critique ourselves. I write as someone who once stood for election to the UK parliament as a Liberal.

The intolerance of dissent displayed by large numbers of self-styled liberal people today is about as far from classical liberalism as it's possible to get.

From the very inception of liberal philosophy it has been a fundamental principle that everyone has a right to his or her view and a right to express that view without being subjected to ostracism or vilification. The liberal response to perceived error is calm, rational argument, not howling, bullying abuse.

The totalitarian response to perceived error is to ban and suppress. You can never persuade anyone by these means, you can only alienate and increase social division.

If we want people to hanker even more for the good old days when, in rose-tinted retrospect, life was relatively comfortable and stress-free, then the way we are most likely to achieve it is to keep making the present as unpleasant for them and as unlike those fondly-remembered old days as we possibly can.

Which is pretty much exactly what we're currently doing.

Error cannot be overcome by stifling expression or shouting down; it only withers when exposed to rationally-demonstrable truth.

Truth, by contrast, cannot be destroyed by exposure to error, it can only be strengthened.

In fact, truth that is unwilling to listen to error and show error why it is wrong will soon itself become a mindlessly-recited dead letter.

The current attempt to deny any platform to error and protect us from each and every exposure to it will, perversely, conclude by destroying truth.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

A cast-iron mandate

Nicola Sturgeon today claims she has a cast-iron mandate for another Scottish Independence referendum.

That mandate presumably dates from the 2016 Holyrood election, when her government lost overall control and became dependent on The Greens for a majority.

Yes, I know The Greens favour independence, but I'm inclined to wonder whether their voters had it top of their agenda when marking their crosses on the ballot paper. Presumably, if it had been their priority, these voters could just as easily have voted SNP.

Needless to say her mandate does not date from the 2014 referendum, where the nationalists lost by a 10% margin. At that time they claimed referendums were a 'once in a generation' event. It now appears that referendums will only cease once the SNP wins one, or alternatively when they are no longer maintained in power by The Greens.

Looking at the catastrophic mismanagement that ten years of SNP rule has brought to Scotland's economy and basic public services, we can well understand the need for another bout of tribalist shroud-trailing to distract the electorate. Nicola Sturgeon's own popularity is at last begin to flag too.

On the other hand the SNP has still not come up with an alternative plan for a national currency. Surely they won't try and run the busted flush of sharing the pound sterling for a second time?

Moreover the oil price on which the last projected independence budget relied has halved and it is now reckoned that an independent Scotland would have a fiscal crisis worse than that of Greece.

In the Middle Ages it was traditional for the Scots to invade northern England whenever the English were distracted by a European war, but reviving this opportunistic policy during the Brexit negotiations is doubly inappropriate.

Firstly it prevents Scottish voters having a clear idea of what relationship with the EU would be the alternative to independence. It still seems probable that Spanish and Belgian vetoes would be deployed to prevent Scottish membership either as a new member or a rump continuing member, so Scots would be voting for a pig in a poke on both sides of the ballot.

Secondly it complicates the position for UK and EU Brexit negotiators, neither of whom could be clear whether the UK government was negotiating for the whole island.

The truth is that the uncertainty caused by the Damocles sword hanging over the Scottish economy will deter inward investment until the threat of another referendum is removed.

And, perish the thought, should the separatists ever gain their hearts' desire, the outrage they claim to feel over being dragged out of the EU against their will is likely to be as nothing compared to the outrage of half the Scottish population dragged out of the UK against their will.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Just Slaying A Couple of Dragons

1. By far the biggest threat to the Scottish economy is Brexit. (Source: the SNP, in resonse to virtually every economic bad news story for the last six months).

FALSE. The EU accounts for 15% of Scottish trade. The rest of the UK accounts for more than 60%. Even if Brexit resulted in the complete destruction of Scotland's EU trade, and there's no obvious reason why it should, it would do less than a quarter of the damage that Scotland leaving the UK Single Market would do.

Probably the biggest threat to the Scottish economy at the moment is the perpetual political uncertainty engendered by the SNP's determination to threaten a second independence referendum at any conceivable opportunity. Unlike the Scottish government, foreign investors can do sums. They know an independent Scotland would be a lot poorer and no-one really wants to invest in a shrinking economy.

AND if that weren't bad enough, Scotland is now the most heavily-taxed part of the UK. We have a lower level of income at which you start paying higher rate income tax, a higher level of big business rates and a higher tax on purchase of more expensive houses. Sure. Come and invest. Come and live in Scotland all you high-fliers. We guarantee you'll pay for it.

2. There are many possible forms of Brexit. The Government has no mandate to take the UK out of the EU Single Market / Customs Union / Euratom etc. etc. (Source: anyone who voted Remain who can't accept the result of the referendum and is still trying to keep the UK subject to one or more EU institutions.)

FALSE. The mandate was quite simple. LEAVE THE EUROPEAN UNION. In spite of which the determination to keep the UK subject to one or more EU institutions, and especially the European Court of Justice, continues undiminished.

Will the Remoaners please explain how the UK can cling on to vestiges of EU membership without being subject to the ECJ's power to arbitrate on all disputes?

Or how we could remain in the customs union and still negotiate independent trade deals with non-EU governments? 

No? Didn't think so.

There. That's those dragons dead. (I don't think).

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

The Hard Stuff

I'm delighted to report that the anthology Unbound II, Changed Worlds includes my science fiction short story THE HARD STUFF.

This is a story about a female-dominated future where men are excluded from senior posts because of their tendency to aggressive behaviour.  Our frustrated hero becomes an alcoholic. But what happens when his female superiors have no choice but to trust him?

You can find out now by purchasing either the print version from bookstores or the ebook version.

The anthology includes ten other stories, including one by its editor, M J Moores.

The Hard Stuff is the first of my stories to make it into print in 2017. I've had a few tales knocking firmly on the door without quite getting in, so I hope the drought has now ended and this may be the start of a positive run.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

The So-Called Single Market

Right, let's be clear. There's no such thing as The Single Market. The other EU members call it The Internal Market.

Now if you're no longer a member of the EU you are, by definition, no longer internal. Therefore you cannot be a member of The Single Market.

Scotland cannot remain in the EU because Scotland, as such, is not a member at present. Scotland cannot therefore remain in The Single Market when the UK leaves.

What matters, to both the UK and to Scotland, is not membership but free trade. The UK has offered continuing free trade to the EU. This means the UK has offered the EU exactly what Scotland has asked for.

It is nonsensical doublespeak to suggest that Scotland's voice is being disregarded.

Moreover, since we already enjoy free trade with the EU and have offered to continue it, it is up to the EU, if it is determined to act against its own interests, to erect the first tariff barrier. No-one is suggesting that the UK, or Scotland, should make the first move.

Meanwhile several powers currently held by the EU will revert to the UK and it will make sense for some of these to be further devolved to Scotland. Fisheries is an obvious case in point.

In the worst case scenario, the EU may choose to raise tariffs against the 15% of Scotland's trade that is conducted with it.

How by any stretch of economic logic does it make sense for Scotland to respond to such a piece of stupidity by leaving the UK Single Market which is responsible for over 60% of our trade?

The oil price has already halved. How poor are we determined to be?

Monday, 16 January 2017

Preditors & Editors Poll

 Poll Result

Here's a nice piece of news, just received. My story Time's Winged Chariot was ranked equal fifth in The Steampunk section of  Preditors and Editors Readers Poll 2016.

Since this is the first time my work has featured in such a list I'm really very pleased. Thank you to all those who voted for my story and I'm so glad you enjoyed it.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Centenary - The Jesus Problem* by J M Robertson

This week I bought two books about King Arthur; one of them was recommended as the best of those arguing Arthur really existed and the other the best of those arguing the opposite. By the time I've read both I hope to be in a position to make an informed judgement on the question. Like many people I'm tempted by the romantic notion that the hero's origins are based on real history, but I'm also bound to acknowledge the world's mythologies are full of tales about the exploits of heroes who turn out to be historicised demigods of antique religions rather than real people. I want to know which argument is the more persuasive in Arthur's case.

Palace of AugustusIt is just such a question about historicity – in this case of Jesus - that J M Robertson examined one hundred years ago. Naturally this question aroused much stronger passions than King Arthur. Nevertheless, though Robertson cannot restrain his annoyance with commentators who employ poor scientific method, he gives due credit to scholars whose careful analysis reaches different conclusions from his own. He himself disclaims prejudice. “The present writer,” he says, “reached the myth-theory not by way of propaganda but as a result of sheer protracted failure to establish a presupposed historical foundation.” He arrives at the conclusion that the subject of his enquiry is the product of reverse Evemerism.

Evemerism or Euhemerism is the process of turning a real person into a demigod by the accretion of myth. Reverse Evemerism or historicisation creates a factitious human history for a mythological deity, and this is what Robertson claims to have found here.

Either mutation poses problems for scholars seeking knowledge of the distant past. Oral re-tellers and subsequent writers of history are unlikely to advertise their embellishment of the record or even to judge such behaviour immoral. Particularly before the invention of printing, documentary copyists' mistakes, interpolations and downright forgeries coincided with accidental and deliberate destruction of alternate written versions. Today we need a whole science of textual analysis aimed simply at discovering what an ancient document originally said.

Fragments of New Testament documents dating to the Second Century AD have been found, but the earliest whole books date from around 200 AD and the earliest complete testament from the fourth century. These are, in short, copies of copies. We don't have originals.

There are similar difficulties attached to the copying of old secular writers such as Josephus or Suetonius. In addition it's difficult to judge whether these are describing history based on impartial records or deriving their material directly or indirectly from a Christian tradition already widespread at their time of writing. Hearsay could be taken as history at the time, and where even that was lacking a historian would simply make it up. Tacitus, for example, could have had no idea what Calgacus said to his army before the Battle of Mons Graupius but quoted more than a page of the Scottish leader's harangue anyway.

In addition it was normal for a famous person to be credited with things done subsequently by other, anonymous, people. Nearly every great work of civil engineering beside the Euphrates came to be ascribed to Semiramis, who may herself be legendary.

It was generally assumed in Asian and Hellenic cultures that intervention of the gods in the world of men was a common thing. Naturally such interventions would often be attended by miraculous events, but if none appeared in early records they could easily be interpolated later. Sexual relations between gods and humans gave rise to demigod offspring such as Achilles or Heracles who possessed great powers. In addition the gods themselves would take human form. Some, for example, fought and were even wounded in the Trojan War.

Among the figures brought to us by Reverse Evemerism seems to be the early Israelite leader Joshua. There is little evidence of any reality behind his military campaigns. However there is evidence of his cult in Samaria and elsewhere. Yehoshua, or Yeshua, is the same name ('God Saves') that comes down to us by a different linguistic route as Jesus. Even if his Old Testament book dates only to the Babylonian captivity it predates the putative historical dates of Christ by half a millennium. Robertson emphasises this evidence of a pre-existing Jesus cult.

Another possible cult involved the annual sacrifice, later symbolic, of a figure called Jesus Barabbas (Jesus, son of the father). The custom may well have involved investing a private man with the insignia of royalty for five days and then putting him to death, a tradition which could explain the apparent rapid change of mood of the Jerusalem mob in the biblical account of Holy Week.

The ancient tradition of propitiation of the gods by way of human sacrifice initially often involved the sacrifice of kings, but this practice soon evolved into sacrifice of king-substitutes such as Barabbas. Associated with the sacrifices was frequently an initially cannibalistic, later symbolic, meal. The custom may have evolved all the way from its bloody origins to a harmless masque or mystery play.

Interestingly, Robertson hypothesises that the lost Q source of the gospels may in fact have been just such a play. For the illiterate masses a play might have communicated better than readings from a book. Moreover a play performed in secret would enable early Christians to avoid having incriminating documents in the possession of their churches.

Not only was the invention of monologues, as we've already seen, a part of writing history at this time but several scenes from the gospels make a lot more sense when viewed as transcriptions of scenes from a play rather than records drawn directly from life. This is especially true where there is no obvious way for the gospel writer to have had access to witnesses. The temptation in the wilderness, the prayer in Gethsemane and the trial before Pilate are all examples.

“What inferribly happened,” says Robertson, “was a dramatic development, by Gentile hands, of a primarily simple mystery drama, consisting of the Supper, the death, and the resurrection, into the play as it now stands transcribed in the synoptics, with the Betrayal, the Agony, the Denial, the Trials, and the dramatic touches in the crucifixion scene. At some point, probably by reason of the Christian reaction against all pagan procedure, the play, which in its present form must always have been special to a town or towns, was dropped.”

The reasons for the Gentile interference with a movement which originated as a Jewish sect and continued to use Jewish synagogues for much of the first century was firstly the Pauline schism, which eliminated aspects of strict Judaism in order to preach to non-Jews, and secondly the collapse of the Jewish branch of the movement following the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 AD and the failure of the second coming to materialise. The Ebionite survivors of the Jewish branch were in due course attacked as heretics by the gentile branch because of their refusal to accept the divinity of Jesus.

Roman Forum
Meanwhile the gentile myth makers drew heavily on existing myths to give flesh to the bones of their reverse Evemerism. The equivalent of the Temptation, for example, where a goat-legged figure stands beside a young god on a mountain-top is found in Babylonian culture (the goat-god and the sun god) and in Greek (Pan and Zeus, Marsyas and Apollo); the turning of water into wine is an annual Dionysiac rite and so on.

Because the mythical accretions arose in many different cult centres there were many different versions of the gospels which could never be fully harmonised. Not only does the alleged teaching of Jesus accordingly contain internal contradictions but it all has precedent in earlier Jewish thought, with the exception of the imminence of the Kingdom of God. The alleged facts and events of Jesus's life are also incompatible with each other.

The central point of the story, however is the ancient ritual. “The main ethical content of the Christian system,” says Robertson, “the moral doctrine by which the Church has lived down till the other day, is the ethic-defying doctrine of the redemption of mankind by a blood sacrifice — a survival of immemorial savagery.” 

In the subsequent century mainstream academic thought has moved away from the myth theory espoused by Robertson, insisting that at least some episodes of the life of Christ are historical. Traditionalists who insist that all are historical are however fairly easily confounded. It is not unreasonable to say that when once we begin to pick and choose the parts we will sustain, Robertson's principle is necessarily conceded. If we readily accept Apollo or Ishtar as mythical figures, despite the fact that they were worshipped as gods and that many stories were told of their doings, it is not enough simply to assert the same cannot be true of Jesus.

However, my research is not finished. Having read what I consider to be a first class negative argument I am now looking for a first class positive one. I stress that by first class what I mean is a scholarly, well-researched work that proceeds from the evidence to a conclusion and not vice-versa. The world is full of people who can work backwards from their preferred answer, selectively choosing evidence that suits it. I am looking for a demonstration of historicity worthy of the challenge that Robertson presents. If you know of one, please tell me about it.

*The Jesus Problem by J M Robertson is downloadable from from Project Gutenberg

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Treading on Dangerous Ground

Why is religion such a touchy subject? What's the problem with having a rational discussion of religious matters?

Maybe it's that religion is introduced to children before they're able to think. By the time they reach the age of reason they've lost sight of the fact that religion doesn't stand upon the same precautionary foundations as parental warnings that knives cut you or fire burns you. Neither is it in the category of practical advice such as encouraging you to obtaining a good education and a rewarding job if you want to support a family or achieve social status.

As a result, accustomed all his life to treat historical documents, newspapers, broadcast or social media and other purveyors of second-hand information with proper scepticism, the well-educated religious adherent may never even notice his inconsistency in failing to apply similar stringent appraisal to his chosen holy book or priestly dictum. (I certainly didn't until relatively recently.) If it should be brought to his attention, his instinctive reaction is often, at least initially, hostile. After all, what part of his world view is more fundamental than his faith?

Unquestioned certainties are rare and precious in a world full of shifting political, social and scientific sands. They are something firm to cling to, a source of support in time of trouble. Of all the stories he was told as a child, these religious stories alone have retained their power to cheer the adult. Their very familiarity is comforting.

Yet an outsider might see in the believer's antipathy to challenge or close scrutiny a subconscious insecurity. A good debater is always aware that to lose his temper is to lose the argument; anger can be an outward manifestation of an inner uncertainty. Can he marshal sufficient grounds of rebuttal to unwelcome questions?

He must know that what is accepted on authority rather than upon rational grounds would not be expected to stand up to examination in any sphere other than religion. Why in this one respect should critique not be allowed? It seems to me that a simple willingness to engage in discussion rather than resorting to angry denunciation and brute force would solve so many of the world's problems. What is there to be afraid of?

As J S Mill pointed out more than a century ago, if you're right you can't be proved wrong.