Friday, 31 August 2007

What Annoys Me About ... Applying for a Job

I have always said that if moaning was an Olympic sport the UK would win gold every time. British people love sitting or standing around waiting and complaining about the service/the weather/foreigners/the cost of living/youth today, etc., etc. A very popular television series was 'Grumpy Old Men' which featured middle aged male celebrities facing a TV camera and complaining about things. This spawned the even more successful 'Grumpy Old Women' which amazingly has now also become a stage show. Yes, British people will pay to watch three middle-aged women sitting on a stage complaining about things. For the British it is not an issue of Schadenfreude it is the reverse more about proving we are actually worse off than other people, you could term it Schadenzorn. Perversely I think it gives British sense of being more moral, it is like flagellation in Christianity and Islam, the perception that those who suffer most are the more holy and this in turn allows them the power to judge those who are less holy.

Probably the best summing up of this attitude in the Monty Python sketch titled 'The Four Yorkshiremen', (northern English are probably the most accomplished complainers in the British Isles). In the sketch, four well-off middle-aged men seek to outdo each other in describing how bleak their youth was ending up with the following lines:

Right! I had to get up in the morning, at ten o'clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, eat a lump of cold poison, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill and pay millowner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our dad would kill us and dance about on our graves, singing Hallelujah!

Aah, you trying to tell the young people of today that, and they won't believe you!

Maybe Schadenzorn is wrong, it is not an anger about the suffering it is actually a pride in it: Schadenstolz. Sorry, I am getting well off track, this was not meant to be an analysis of the British psyche, rather I sought to contextualise this series of postings I am initiating today. I soon turn 40 which is the official start of middle age and as my life expectancy is shorter than average I see nothing wrong with starting my middle age a little sooner and indulging in the right to moan, that that status gives me.

Today I am going to look at things that annoy me, at times infuriate me, about applying for jobs. Since 1998 I have had ten jobs, so am averaging just over one per year at the moment. In the UK it is common these days to get short-term contracts and it is rare to be employed on any job for more than two years. I had three jobs for the same company over a two-and-a-half year period and was always on weekly contracts, they could lay me off at the end of each week if they chose; naturally this made it difficult to plan ahead and myself and the 100 other staff on such terms never dared take a holiday or fall sick. On average I get 1 interview for every 25 job applications I make and I get a job for every 120 applications I make, so I average around 4-5 interviews each time I am out of work. Only once in my life have I managed to get a job somewhere near where I wanted to live and that was with this current job and even then my house is 30 miles (48Km) from where the company is located, but that is a common problem in the UK as the rent is often highest where there are jobs. On all other occasions I have been buffeted from town to town as work has turned up which is why I ended up in Milton Keynes a town I otherwise would have stayed clear of. Obviously I recognise that I have very little control over my career or where I live, but in all this experience I have encountered a range of incompetent and unpleasant behaviour that just makes all of that worse, I will list a few of the incidents that I can remember.
  • Having to make 8 copies of the application form and pay for the postage to send them all in. I thought I was lucky when a company asked for only 4 copies. Do companies not have photocopiers of their own?
  • Companies, and this is very common, never telling you if you have got the job or not and being very vague about when the deadline has passed; conversely companies who wait 3-4 weeks before telling you that you actually have the job.
  • Companies who send out the wrong time on their letters for interviews so when you turn up they have all gone to lunch and you look stupid even when you have the written proof that they got it wrong; of course then they have no time to fit you in.
  • Companies who admit at the end of the interview that actually you never stood a chance of getting the job that you were simply there 'to make up the numbers' that their company rules require. [I was astounded that they were so callous as to admit this, I would have been happier to have been deluded that I was an actual contender.]
  • Companies who will not accept you because you do not use Powerpoint in your presentation even when it is not appropriate for what you are presenting.
  • Companies that tell you that you are over-qualified for a job. Who defines this? Anyway, maybe you are looking to downsize or have particular reason to want to work for the company (most people working in television and radio are over-qualified but want to be in the media) or in a particular town and surely, is it not a good thing for them to get a well qualified person at the standard rate. [Behind this is the widespread English (not Scottish) resentment of learning which is another topic for complaint].
  • Companies that tell you they are not certain if you will ever be a 'proper' lawyer/accountant/official/sweeper no matter how hard you try, as if there is an Elect that you are either born into or otherwise stand no chance of entering. [This was made clear to me at the company I had worked for on short-term contracts for 2.5 years after I had applied for 6 longer-term vacancies at the company. Though I had been doing the job it was felt I was told my answers were clever but I would not get the post as I was not a 'proper' worker for the company and should give up applying; with such attitudes I did. I heard them discussing another colleague in similar terms. They were uncertain if she was a 'proper' official and never discussed her skills or capability of doing the job.]
  • They tell you your CV was bad but never indicate in which way it is bad. If you ask them what was wrong with it they can never say. The weirdest incident of this was at a company which had employed me 2 years earlier on a 2-year contract and at the time said I was the outright choice. I applied for a job within the same company for another 2 years using the same CV as I had originally except with the addition of 2 years' experience working for them. They said this CV was terrible and when I asked why it was so much worse than it had been 2 years before when it had won me the job they did not know what to say and blamed it on 'fashions' in CV writing that I was oblivious to. Companies are supposed to give feedback on interviews and most promise it, but such feedback is frustrating and useless.
  • Your tie was not done up tightly enough in the interview (this at an internal job interview) so you did not get the job. Following this comment which was the only criticism and sexist as the women candidates did not wear ties, I actually had official training on how to tie a tie the British civil service way (and this was in the 21st century, not the 19th!).
  • Poor interviewing: people sitting so you have to twist around to see them; reading questions in a monotone from a list; paying no attention to what you have said; getting confused in themselves about their own roles in the company. People are supposed to be trained to interview. The interviewee has put a lot of work into performing at their best in an interview at least you can do is match it. Employers forget that the best interviewees are testing out the company too and may turn the company down even if it wants to appoint them.
  • Once you are in a post and ask if you will receive training now that new systems are being introduced being told that there is no need for you to be trained, they will simply employ someone in your place with the relevant skills. Again a very British attitude that training is always the responsibility of other people not the company and that staff are to be picked up and discarded with no concern for the human cost or the benefits of developing staff the company already employs.

Recruitment in the UK is handled very poorly and so wastes time and money for companies. There is a sense lingering from the 1980s that the companies that do best are those which can pick up and drop workers month by month, neglecting that countries like Japan which continues to prosper and upcoming economies like China and India, keep their employees and develop them, it is not only beneficial for your company but for your country's economy as a whole. As I age, it is going to get even harder to get and hold work and I envisage sitting here in 2016 having had at least another ten jobs and have seen a score more incidences of poor company behaviour when it comes to job applicants.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

The Murder of Dr. David Kelly, 17th July 2003

I recognise this blog awkwardly straddles the three blog genres: anger management, journal and scrapbook but its intention was always to get things out of my head and into cyberspace as somewhere to hold what I am thinking, a kind of 'brain dump' and because I felt (maybe arrogantly, you tell me) that other people might be interested in thoughts and opinions I have on various things. Early on I promised to say something about the murder of Dr. David Kelly in 2003. Now, for non-UK readers I apologise for what must seem a rather parochial British story, though there does seem to have been quite a lot of interest about it at the time in the USA. One reason for this, is that his murder can be seen as part of the real take-off of the steps to make the UK (and USA) less democratic and more authoritarian in nature. These steps, pushed on vigorously by President Bush and Tony Blair (and now by Gordon Brown) have all been linked to the war in Iraq (which was actually about controlling oil supplies rather than terrorism) and their sense that they needed to be in much stronger control of their countries so they could promote the conservative Christian attitudes that they subscribed to.

You may say that why am I blogging about a 'current affairs' event of four years ago? There is a lot of excellent material about the event on the internet and a number of good programmes about it have followed in the UK and elsewhere in the intervening years and continue to be made. My attention to it comes now because I feel that people need to be reminded about it. It certainly marks a milestone Britain turning its back on democracy, a process which continues now even though Blair has been replaced by Brown: legitimate protests are increasingly being suppressed by anti-terrorist legislation which followed the 11th September 2001 attacks in the USA and then the invasion of Iraq which UK and US politicians tried to link.

You might say that the world is full of conspiracy theories, no-one in the public eye is killed or dies naturally without people speculating about the cause. In the case of David Kelly though, evidence that he was murdered seems overwhelming. Accepting that he was murdered then demonstrates that the British state continues to use extra-legal execution (it has long done this against people like IRA operatives) but now not only against people who are clearly committed to violence, but also against its own employees (Kelly was a leading civil servant) who have done nothing violent. Kelly ironically supported the war against Iraq, he was just unwilling that that war be started on the basis of a lie that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, notably in the area of Kelly's specialism, biological weapons. (No-one disputes Hussein was tyrant who had and used chemical weapons; ironically the British were the first to use aerial bombardment of poison gas in Iraq in the 1920s, so-called 'punative missions').

How do we know Kelly was murdered? The Hutton Report of May 2004 made no attempt to even question the explanation put around that Kelly had killed himself. The Inquiry into the death only looked at 75 of the 300 statements taken from people about the incident. As it is, anyway, the evidence simply does not add up. It was clear to pathologists that the body had been moved between him dying and it being found; he had died lying flat on his back but was found propped against a tree. Local police set up the incident tent usually put over where the body was found, not around the tree but in a nearby field.

Kelly was supposed to have died through slitting a vein in his left wrist. Not only is this difficult to do, but the injury was not severe enough not to have clotted quickly (this is why most people who try to commit suicide this way do it in a warm bath to keep the wound open; trying to kill yourself this way is rarely successful anyway). Someone who has bled to death leaves a lot of blood around, there were very few traces around the body. He was also supposed to have over-dosed on 29 tablets of Co-Praxamol, but only half a tablet was found inside him; there was no evidence of vomiting and even taking 29 would not have guaranteed his death. Remember Dr. Kelly was one of the UK's leading microbiologist he was not an ignorant teenager. Co-Praxamol is only available on prescription in the UK (though freely available in the USA) and there was no record of Kelly being prescribed it. Numerous doctors have written to newspapers outlining while they remain unconvinced with the diagnosis of suicide.

So, if he was murdered why is this a problem and how does it relate to the government? Well there were three men found with his body led by a Detective Constable Graham Peter Coe, though it is believed that he actually works for MI5 (the UK's secret internal security force). The existence of the third person keeps on being denied though he was seen by many witnesses. He immediately went to Kelly's house and took away numerous documents that have never been returned. Interestingly in all that evidence no-one found a suicide note. Nine out of ten people committing or trying to commit suicides leave notes that can be found. Ironically when I asked a journalist I had seen in the company of (now Sir) Stephen Lander, (Director-General of MI5, 1996-2002; Eliza Manningham-Buller was the director-general 2002-April 2007), about whether it had been done by them, the journalist said if it had been then they 'would have done a better job of it'. We know that there are often rogue agents and units working inside all intelligence services, but if that had been the case, why did the government go to such efforts to quell speculation?

Why did Kelly have to die? Throughout his career Kelly had been involved in investigating biological weapons across the world from Russia to South Africa. He was a weapons inspector in Iraq after the 1990-1 Gulf War and visited the country 37 times. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize as a result. He went there again in 2003 and spoke to journalists that he was not finding evidence of weapons of mass destruction. In contrast, prime minister, Tony Blair was telling Parliament that there was evidence that the Iraqis not only had such weapons but they were in a position to put them into use within 45 minutes of attack. Much of the evidence came from distorting an essay they found on the internet rather than the solid evidence Kelly was bringing back to the contrary. Of course, no such weapons have ever been found in Iraq, but the British and Americans concerned about control of oil resources across the world, especially with the change in the Venezuelan government to being unsympathetic to the USA and vigorous Chinese efforts to secure oil resources across the world had to take control of Iraq. They knew they could not simply say this. They could not use a moral justification, i.e. that Hussein was a tyrant as that would oblige them to invade many other countries which are friends to the UK and USA, so they had to fall back on the approach they have been using since 2001, that there was a serious threat that needed to be staunched.

Kelly, apparently angered by the government distorting his evidence spoke to the journalist Andrew Gilligan. Kelly thought that he was not the only source of Gilligan's information and this may have in fact been the case as he had not been alone on his inspections which were UN run. The government released Kelly's name to the media as a way to dismiss Gilligan's story (and that of another journalist, Susan Watts) and in fact it had the opposite effect, bringing it more into the public view. However, Kelly had already been interviewed twice by his employers at the Ministry of Defence and then by the Intelligence & Security Committee, this is one of the so-called 'select committees' of the British Parliament made up of politicians from all parties which investigates events on particular topics.

Kelly was a member of the Baha'i faith. There are apparently 6000 believers of the faith in the UK, with a large percentage among civil servants, because it is quite an intellectual religion. It condemns suicide. It also emphasises truthfulness and for a man like Kelly, it must have been terrible to realise that despite his assurances to the Iraqi people he had met on many occasions, that if they complied with inspections there would be no war, that the country was still going to be attacked and tens of thousands of ordinary Iraqis would die as a result. However, Kelly never discussed suicide with his wife or friends he was in contact with on the day of his death. He did speak of 'many dark actors playing games'.

The involvement of the British government has been confirmed by former intelligence agents. It was known in the civil service that Kelly was in line to be killed and a security barrister (lawyer), Michael Shrimpton had been told this days before the killing. He believes that the murder was carried out by French external intelligence agency, DGSE, who are renowned for direct action, for example against Greenpeace protestors; seemingly President Jacques Chirac's government did not want Blair's sympathetic government in trouble. I am not convinced by the French involvement and think it was more domestic. It does seem clear that whoever carried out the killing, MI5 tidied up afterwards, though elements within the organisation were unhappy that it had been done. Lieutenant-Colonel Crispin Black, on the Defence Intelligence Staff until 2002, portrayed the Hutton Report account of things, as ridiculous.

We know Tony Blair was incredibly arrogant, he also felt himself to be on a mission from God. He may have had no qualms about ordering the murder of a non-Christian. He may not have ordered it directly, as Hitler is supposed never to have ordered the Holocaust. Instead he might have simply let it be known that Kelly was a pain to him. This is very similar to King Henry II and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas a Becket. He was killed by knights who felt they were acting on the king's orders though no direct command had been given. Throughout his time in office, Blair felt those that disagreed him were foolish and simply lacked the intelligence to understand what he intended. Someone with clear intelligence and evidence to back up his case, combined with a clear moral stance and a wish to treat the Iraqi people fairly might have been too difficult a concept for Blair to stomach. Above all, Kelly made Blair look a fool, I think the greatest offence Blair felt was against his vanity. In addition the killing of one British scientist, hundreds of British troops and thousands of Iraqis was nothing compared to a secure oil supply. Another fear, might have been, that Kelly not only knew about Iraq but many other countries' secrets that now that he had been thrown into the spotlight by his employers he may have chosen to bring into the open.

The thing is, to begin to operate in this way, killing a man who was simply telling the truth, is opening a door that it is difficult to close. Now the British regime has a taste for this, what is to stop them doing it again? It fits neatly with the rapid erosion of civil liberties. Now if you are too high profile to be locked up without charge they will murder you. It is clear that they need to practice more though, so at least they can do a convincing job of it next time. Though, given that they have effectively got away with it and the world will have soon forgotten Dr. David Kelly and what he stood for, maybe they will not bother. The 17th August 2003 is not the day democracy died in the UK, but it is the day a worthy man was murdered and so the day that liberty in the UK contracted a terminal illness.

P.P. 18/08/2010: There are very, very few things that the coalition government has done right, but one of these rare activities is to announce a re-investigation of the murder of Dr. David Kelly.  I imagine this is largely motivated more by a desire on David Cameron's behalf to embarrass the 'golden boy' Tony Blair as it is by any desire for justice.  According to tabloid headlines last week, only 1 in 5 of the population now actually believe Kelly committed suicide.  While I doubt any enquiry will actually get to the truth of what happened, I hope, at least, it may make those working for the government a little less confident about carrying out assassinations, at least of British citizens.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

An Atlas of Imaginary Worlds 7: Lands of Gulliver

I think I must be getting well into my middle-aged crisis, thinking of the saying 'After his child, the person a man most disappoints is himself'. I know that one day all fathers realise their children despise them, but before that time, they probably have come to hate themselves. So, to escape such sentiments I am busily burying myself away in my collecting maps of places that people have imagined. I thought that after all the stuff that some people on the internet believe is real, I would turn to some places which people all accept do not exist. I was also thinking about what I had written about Plato using Atlantis as a place he knew did not really exist but could act as a model for the kind of society he wanted and this brought me to Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) and his most famous work, 'Gulliver's Travels' [published as 'Vol. IV of the Author's Works Including Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts, by Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and Then a Captain of Several Ships'] (1726) which features a number of contrasting imaginary lands to make satirical points on contemporary society especially of Britain (at the time rulers of Ireland where Swift was from) and Europe more broadly as well as the long-titled explorers' accounts of the time. In turn, his character, Lemuel Gulliver travels to Lilliput where he is a giant (12 times larger than the people there), to Brobdingnag where is tiny (12 times smaller than the people there). There is satire on the reasons why people go to war (over which way to eat an egg) and about treatment of strangers: he gets better treated as a pet in Brobingnag than as a giant in Lilliput.

This map shows Sumatra in the North East and Van Diemen's Land (i.e. Tasmania) in the South, and as you can see, Australia which had only been partially mapped at the time is missing. Belfuscu was the rival to Lilliput which Gulliver seized the fleet of.

Brobdingnag is shown as being an peninsula of the West coast of North America. New Albion was a region of what is now northern California claimed for England in 1579 by Sir Francis Drake, putting Brobdingnag on the coast somewhere probably just into Oregon or the very northern part of California.

In the next book he goes to Laputa, a flying city where all the theoretical work, predominantly in linking music and geometry is not put to much good use, though they do bomb cities from the air. He is then lowered to Balnibarbi where people after having visited Laputa decided to reverse direction in science and the arts, especially agriculture and building, and have left the country a wasteland. On Glubbdubdrib Gulliver meets a man who can bring the dead back to life and he learns that many of the assumptions he made about history are wrong. In Luggnagg he meets a tyrranous king and immortal people called Struldbrugs who still age and so lose all their faculties though they cannot die.

This map is rather confused, but not too bad given the catography of the early 18th century. It puts Japan South rather than East and North East of Korea (here shown as 'Lesso') and the Japanese northern island of Hokkaido has been merged into mainland, unless the large island of Sakhalin which is North of Japan has been mixed up with the Korean peninsula.

Gulliver then goes to Japan with a Dutch ship and this bit of the book, though not actually based on any experience by Swift actually reflects on Japan of the time. The Dutch are shown as being compelled to stamp on a crucifix to demonstrate they are not trying to introduce Christianity to Japan. The Jesuits had been closely linked to the Spanish and Portuguese who had come to the Japan in the 16th century and had contributed to the instability of the country, partly through supplying guns and because as Catholic powers had sought the expulsion of the Protestant Dutch from Japan and the Jesuits also wanted the removal of their Catholic rivals, the Franciscans. Christianity was banned in Japan in 1587 and all Jesuits expelled. In 1614 all foreign priests were expelled, all churches in Japan destroyed and all Japanese converts had to renounce their faith. To prove they had done this they had to stamp on a crucifix. This was repeated in 1616 with military action against those who resisted. Foreign books and travel abroad were banned in 1633 and from 1635 onwards on the Dutch were allowed to stay with one small base on the island of Deshima, and to be allowed this they had to give up all show of Christianity. It is a Dutchman who tries to get Gulliver to stamp on the crucifix when he has been exempted from this by the Japanese authorities. Thus, this bit is far less satiricial and more reflective of East Asian geo-politics of the time. It may also reflect Anglo-Dutch relations as England had had a Dutch King William of Orange 1688-1702; he was renowned for his fighting in Ireland (notably the Battle of the Boyne) and a love-hate relationship with the Dutch who had been both economic and military rivals in preceding decades. Before turning to writing full-time, Swift had been a clergyman.
Gulliver's last voyage is to the Country of the Houyhnhnms who are intelligent, talking horses who walk on two legs (similar to the pigs at the end of 'Animal Farm') while humans in the land are reduced to barbaric Yahoos.

Throughout the journeys Gulliver becomes increasingly bitter and rather depressed about the state of humanity. This may reflect the increasingly bad treatment he receives from the different crews who ship him around in each of the books, though in each location he meets at least one decent human. He is thought to have become mad by the end (something Swift was suspected of himself at times). In 'Gulliver's Travels' you see lots of discussion of the time, such as the use and application of science in an era of discovery, and its comparison with religion. In addition there is the whole 'nurture vs. nature' debate about human behaviour and whether the world is likely to become more civilised or more barbaric in what was a very turbulent time, often termed the Age of Enlightenment. Cook's voyages around the Pacific only occurred 1768-1779 and whilst there had been people crossing the region since the age of Magellan and Drake, it was still pretty much uncharted as was the West coast of North America and so ideal for locating the imaginary countries Swift puts in the books. Note that he travels on Portuguese and Dutch ships, these two countries and to a lesser extent Spain, being dominant Western imperial powers in Asia at the time.

These maps are produced by the contemporary illustrator Kim Coles, see the imwithsully blog on this site:
This map shows the Country of the Houyhnhnms as due South of South Africa.

A partial contemporary of Swift's was the German satirist Johann Andreas Schnebelin. No-one seems to know when he was born but he died in 1706. He published a book in 1694 called (which if I translate correctly) 'Maps explaining the Miracle Lands of the Utopias'. From this comes a continent around the land of Schlaraffenland. It is an idyllic world with good food and other luxuries easily available; there is a land of alcohol, an island of tobacco, a Great Empire of the Stomach, lands of games, the miserly, sluggardly, spendthrifty, the young, the old, the fools and of swearing amongst others. Schlaffen means 'to weaken' and given that there are the 'Unknown Countries of the Pious' on the edge of the map, the suggestion is that this an allegorical one and that these lands are what lead you away from piety. The best known map of these lands was produced by Johann Baptist Homann in 1716:

This probably shows more imagination than you find in the bulk of fantasy maps produced these days. Note the presence of not one but two inland seas! What also struck me was the style of this map which reminded me greatly of John Speed (1551/2-1629) a leading English cartographer responsible for maps of all sorts of places but probably best known are his map of England and Wales and of individual English and Welsh counties which you will find on the walls of middle class households across the UK. I include some examples below. They easily fit the style of fantasy maps, though they were accurate in their day. The ones shown are England & Wales as a whole, Buckinghamshire, Brecon (which is now part of the county of Powys), Anglesey (now Ynys Mon county) and the Isle of Man. The Isle of Man looks rather distended in this map. It is quite a bizarre place even now. It is a tax haven, it claims to have the oldest continuous parliament in the world, it has an annual motorcycle race on public roads which habitually kills people (riders and spectators), homosexuality is illegal on the island but corporal punishment is not and cats from the island naturally have no tails.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

An Atlas of Imaginary Worlds 6: Atlantis and Lemuria/Mu

It is funny to think that I really only got led down this route of seeking out imaginary maps, initially by looking up counter-factual history images and then finding out about how people are trying to censor things on the internet. I think it has also revealed a kind of geek side to me as well, now going round looking for images and comparing different maps. One thing that has struck me, especially with all the Hollow Earth stuff, is that there are maps of places from stories, like Narnia or Middle Earth, ones that are related to fantasy computer games or role-playing games (whether on paper or 'live action' - some of these will feature in a future posting) and then there are maps of places that some people feel are equally as fantastical and yet other people believe they show real places or at least ones that actually once existed. The most prominent of these are Atlantis and Lemuria (also known as Mu). Searching for maps of such places is complicated by the fact that authors, notably of the Conan stories, and role-players, often put these continents on their own fantasy maps. However, as with the Hollow Earth, there are numerous websites of people who believe that there were these continents on our world at some stage, that they have numerous incidences of historical evidence to back them up and that these lands were inhabited by advanced races that have now died out or gone somewhere else.

The location of these continents is disputed among even those who believe in them, but generally, because the ancient Greek philosopher wrote of Atlantis as being beyond the Pillars of Hercules (i.e. the Straits of Gibraltar) it is thought to have been somewhere in the mid-Atlantic Ocean, with varying interpretations of how close it was either to Africa or South America as you can see from maps below. Plato believed Atlantis had been destroyed 9000 years before his time (Plato lived in the 4th-3rd centuries BCE so this timescale fits with the end of the last Ice Age) and had been as big as Libya and 'Asia' (probably in the sense of Asia Minor) combined with influence stretching right through the Mediterranean to Egypt. Though his views of Atlantis as a continent disappearing (it is now felt to have existed covering what is Indonesia and the mainland of South-East Asia) his description of the culture is more like that of Santorini as I discuss below.

Spot how many inland seas appear in these maps. I am beginning to think that inland seas are to imaginary worlds as airships are to alternate history.

This one has North at the bottom of the map.  The convention of having North at the top (as opposed to the direction of Jerusalem) only came to Western Europe from 1400 onwards when Ptolemy's 'Geography' again became available as part of the Renaissance recovery of Classical works which had been maintained in Islamic libraries and universities after the fall of the Roman Empire.

The locating of Atlantis in the Black Sea:

I imagine seeing Atlantis here is because the Bosporus Straits can be likened to the Pillars of Hercules.

Despite the Asian location this is also thought to be Atlantis:

Another inland sea noted!

For Lemuria/Mu which is supposed to have been around at the same time and may have been a rival to Atlantis, it is generally shown as being in the Pacific with many of the islands North-East of Australia seen as being parts of it. James Churchward (1851-1936) writing in 1926 felt it was a continent which housed 64 million people and stretched from Hawaii to Fiji and to Easter Island. However, some feel it may have been smaller and located South of India, centring on what is now Sri Lanka. There are texts in both Hindu and Tamil writings talking of lost continents and from these people have derived Lemuria. Again it is supposed to have housed an advanced civilization, which begs the question, why did they not move to those continents which we have now? Why did they stay on two continents which for some reason have disappeared beneath the sea? What seems most likely is that writers in historic times were picking up on legends that had been transmitted orally about the end of the Ice Age and the great changes it had brought to the climate. Of course any lost civilization has to have been a golden one, what point is there in recounting the legend of a mundane place? In addition, unlike civilizations around you, no-one can disprove whatever you might say about a lost one.

Two phases of the Lemurian Empire:

Sea levels do fluctuate; 5 million years ago the Atlantic was lower and the Mediterranean a desert. They have continued to fluctuate in far more recent (in geological terms) In Roman times there was the flooding of the Zuider Zee which has been subsequently reclaimed as land. There was a land bridge linking Britain to France. Once the last ice age ended 12-14,000 years ago the sea levels rose across the world. Beneath the North Sea must be loads of remains of animals and human existence from that period that will probably never be found. So it is possible that large areas of land could now be beneath the sea.  A world with extra continents as large as the ones speculated upon in these maps would have been a far drier place, which is the fact during ice ages when far more water is held in ice sheets.  However, if the Atlantic or the Pacific oceans had been this full of land, let alone both, I believe the who climatic system of Earth would have differed greatly.  Having a planet which is predominantly water-covered is important for life.

In about 5600 BCE, the Black Sea which had been a freshwater, inland sea, something like the Caspian Sea is today, then the Mediterranean Sea which was some 130 metres higher and rising in level broke through. The break through is still apparent from the currents that flow throw the straits between the seas. The land around what is now the Crimea and the Sea of Azov, very fertile, was submerged, about 155,000 Km2 was inundated. The change in level of the seas at the time moved the East coast of North America back by 75-150 miles (120-240 Km). This geological event is the background for the Deluge or Great Flood which features in the Bible and in many other legends of the Middle Eastern region notably those of Gilgamesh of Babylonia.

As you can see from one of the diagrams above , people think 'Atlantis' might have existed somewhere on what is now the northern edge of the Black Sea and the Pillars of Hercules were rather the Dardanelles or Bosporus Straits rather than the Straits of Gibraltar.  The straits into the Black Sea were later the 'clashing rocks' in the myth of Jason and the Argonauts when Jason travelled to what is now northern Turkey to take back metal-working techniques as 'the Golden Fleece' (fleeces with their greasy hair were used to trap gold particles flowing down streams much in the way the American and Australian prospectors of the 19th century panned for gold).

Amazon Basin also as an inland sea.

One thing that should be noted is that we now know about plate techtonics which means that whilst areas of continents may go below or rise above sea levels and volcanic activity can lead to large areas of ground sliding (such as the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah both of which existed and slide into the Dead Sea on a surface made slick by seismic and volcanic activity) who could not lose a whole continent into the sea unless the Earth was basically cracking apart.

A possibly more feasible explanation for Atlantis rather than being a huge continent is what actually happened on the island of Santorini (also known as Thira or Thera) in 1640BCE. This seems to have supplied the model for the culture of Plato's Atlantis, if not the geography. We now know that Santorini was part of the rich Minoan civilization, most easily seen in the wonderful palaces of Crete remains of which are visible today. Santorini is built on a volcano which erupted very violently in 1640BC on a scale to rival Krakatau (also known as Krakatoa) in Indonesia in 1883. It threw so much debris into the atmosphere that it affected the sunsets in London. We have seen how much damage tsunamis can do, in 2004, to modern civilizations. From the remains of Santorini which is about a third of the size of the island as it was before the eruption, immense wealth has been discovered and remains of expensive houses that rivalled or probably excelled the Minoan settlements on Crete.

Santorini sat at the crossroads between Greece, Asia Minor, the Levant and North Africa, particularly Egypt. It seems the Minoan civilization, a naval based empire, was centred there until it was literally blown to pieces in an eruption. Even those who escaped by boat may have been overtaken by the tsunami that followed the eruption and which brought sea water far inland on Crete (70 miles; 112Km away) damaging crops there and smashing their ships. The Minoans on Crete went into steady decay over the next decades as their capital was effectively gone, their trade routes disrupted, coastal fields infertile and a climate suffering colder weather due to the cloud of dust thrown into the atmosphere (think of a kind of 'nuclear winter' of the kind predicted in the case of even a limited nuclear war). This destruction of a rich, wealthy civilization seems to match what we 'know' about Atlantis.

There are other connections too. The city of Atlantis often portrayed as having a structure of concentric circles, well, Santorini even today has the partial outer ring of the caldera with islands in the centre. It is thought that at its height the bulk of the population lived on a flatter island in the centre of the caldera rather than on the outer rim where there are remains and that there was a break in the caldera rock allowing ships into the centre and providing a naturally very safe harbour in terms of both severe weather and any attack. It is difficult to know what pre-eruption Thera looked like because so much was changed though much debris settled back into the base of the caldera and that may have been roughly in the same place. Undersea contours ring out from this area. Traces of the pre-eruption island are in the South-East corner of Santorini and volcanic activity remains both on the Kameni Islands and there is the undersea Columbo volcano to the North-East too. However, there are some speculations below of how it may have appeared assuming that the caldera was in the area it is now and this gives an image which may fit Plato's description. The channel at the northern end is much deeper: 300m+ compared 100m-200m around the rim elsewhere.

Plato lived 427-347BCE, so 1250 years after the explosion at Santorini. He mixed up Santorini as it was reported in his time with Santorini as it had been before the explosion. Of course, sitting on a caldera it may have looked pretty similar with a flooded bowl shape with islands in it. It probably would have been a little more to the South-East of the current island as that is where the remains of that previous island remain. Certainly the economy of Santorini was very wealthy and sophisticated even when compared to the rich civilisation on Crete of which it was probably part, so it is easy to see why someone could easily envisage something like Atlantis out of those memories.

The time gap between the event and Plato writing about it is like me commenting today accurately on an event that occured in the early 8th century before the time of the Viking raids on England. There is no wonder he got some details wrong. The trouble is that people have focused on what he got wrong, i.e. the location of Atlantis in the Atlantic, rather than what he got right, was a recounting of geological changes when the ice age ended, something he got accurate in saying it had happened 9000 years before him and also he mixed in with it historic memory of a very rich and cultured civilization living in a unique setting. It is a perfect package for any writer looking to stimulate people's interest. Bear in mind Plato also wrote 'Republic' which outlined a 'utopian' world of social justice and without crime, so it is clear that Plato had an interested in such societies and Atlantis as somewhere already lost in the mists of time in his era provided an opportunity; the bulk of his writing on Atlantis is about its culture rather than its geography. It is very much like when people in the UK today refer to the Victorian period or the 1950s, they are not aiming for an accurate history of those times, rather using them as an example of how people should behave now which in theory carries more legitimacy than just saying 'this is what you should do because it is a good way to behave'. To some degree the modern believers in Atlantis with their emphasis on its peaceful existence, justice, etc. of the people of Atlantis, have it right, it was always a conceptual thing rather than an actual place.

As for Lemuria/Mu, off the coast of Okinawa and Yonaguni in Japan, since 1985, remains of eight ancient cities with terraced stone buildings and roads visible, have been found. Japan is renowned for earthquakes and volcanoes and the sites are thought to have been submerged around 8000 BCE (though some think it is closer to 10000 BCE), so at the time of civilizations of similar sophistication in the Indus valley (now in Pakistan) and Mesopotamia (now Iraq). They sit 20-33 metres beneath sea level.

To some degree the idea that these were somehow specially advanced or even alien cultures is patronising to our ancestors. You only have to think of the original Seven Wonders of the World to think what they could build basically for ornament let alone for practical purposes, though I guess the Lighthouse at Pharos fell into both categories. Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002) in his voyages in boats built on the lines of ancient craft such as the Kon-Tiki which sailed 4,300 miles (6,880 Km) across the Pacific in 1947, the two papyrus Ra boats 1969-70 to sail between America and Morocco and back, and then in 1978, the Tigris, to prove that there was the possibility of links between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley. It also seems likely that there was some trade between Ancient Egypt and South American civilizations bringing tobacco and coca (as in cocaine rather than chocolate) to Egypt. None of this needed any technology beyond what we know people of the time had. There was no need for advanced races to help out, humans are that advanced race.

P.P. 06/10/2010: I have just watched a very convincing documentary in the 'Timewatch' series shown on BBC2, about Santorini/Thera and its relationship to Plato's portrayal of Atlantis.  Interestingly, from archaeological excavations on Santorini (which so far have unearthed 10,000m2 of city, but it is believed this may only be 1/30th of the total)  it has come to light that some of the detail that Plato includes in his descriptions of the city of Atlantis, notably the use of white, red and black stones in the architecture, have been uncovered in Santorini just as he described.  We also know from excavations on Crete that the Minoan civilisation there, which was in contact with the Theran one and shared a lot of common culture in terms of customs, dress, artwork and culture worshipped the auroch (a cattle that stood 2m tall at the shoulder, which is now extinct) and men performed ritualistic dancing with them; vaulting the auroch bulls.  Plato describes something similar happening on Santorini. 

It does seem now that we need look no further than Santorini for Atlantis.  It had a vast seaborne, economically very wealthy empire centred on a island on top of a volcano, that by Plato's time probably looked like the concentric-ringed settlement that he portrayed in his story and perhaps looked pretty similar before, given that it may have been in the crater of previous eruptions.  The volcanic eruption was vast, we now know, throwing up 60Km3 of ash compared to 6Km3 at Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE which covered Pompeii or the St. Helen's eruption in the USA in 1980 which threw up only 0.5 Km3.  The tidal wave that hit Crete ended the Minoan civilisation there over the following years.

This story of the loss of actual civilisations that were incredibly advanced for the Bronze Age (you only have to visit the Palace of Knossos on Crete to know that) is a fascinating one in itself.  Plato used a mix of fact and fiction to provide a homily about the demise of maritime-based economies that became too proud to warn the Greeks of his era about making the same mistakes especially in a region that even today is prone to earthquakes and has passive rather than inactive volcanoes such as on Nisyros.  It is annoying that rather than pursue the truth of the real Theran civilisation, people have spent years and probably millions of pounds fantasising about vast continents and in some cases searching for them.  Perhaps our world would seem less magical without Atlantis, but if this effort had gone into exploring Thera and other lost civilisations we would know a lot more about our real world.  I hope now that a line can be drawn under all these maps, however wonderful they might be.  They should be left to fiction and people should not try to make them appear fact.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

An Atlas of Imaginary Worlds 5: Worlds Beside Our Own

Having span off into the world of the Hollow Earth, there remain a couple of worlds set on or rather beside the Earth we know that I thought were worth mentioning. The first comes from the movie 'Time Bandits' (1981). This was produced by former Beatle, George Harrison and written by Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam (who also directed it) who had been in the cult comedy 'Monty Python's Flying Circus' and in spin-off movies like 'Jabberwocky' (1977) and 'The Life of Brian' (1979 - which has gone from being condemned by Christian groups as ungodly, to now since even the early 1990s having clips used in children's history programmes about the Romans). Most of the 'Pythons' attended with Oxford or Cambridge university, one of them, Terry Jones, since 1984, has been writing books such as 'Chaucer's Knight' (1984) and producing programmes on medieval history and Palin has gone on to be a successful adventurous travel writer with books and programmes amongst others, 'Around the World in 80 Days' (1991), 'Pole to Pole' (1992), 'Sahara' (2002) and 'Full Circle' (2004) so their historical facts tend to be very solid as can be seen in their films).

Anyway, 'Time Bandits' is a popular blog topic. It is really a children's film about an English boy from 1981 called Kevin and 6 dwarfs who work for the 'Supreme Being' and have a map of flaws in the universe which allow them to jump through time and space on Earth. Portals open up for a limited amount of time, giving an urgency to their explorations as seen in this blurred image from the movie:

They are supposed to be repairing them, but use them to go round stealing treasure. The map they use is bigger than any one of them and I think some of the appeal of it, is its aesthetic. It looks as it should, cryptic and mystical, but practical too, though with potential for misinterpretation. Below are some images of the map as seen in the movie and now available to buy. The fact that people still want it 26 years later, suggests it has a pretty iconic status. Like a lot of Gilliam's work, notably 'Brazil' (1985), 'The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen' (1988), 'The Fisher King' (1991) and his abortive Don Quixote film, it is about preserving fantasy and excitement in a world obsessed with rationality, and especially in 'Time Bandits', consumerism. In Gilliam's view, it appears such ability to engage with the unreal is what keeps us free.

The map as seen in the movie:

This one was a similar map produced by the artist Jennifer Diane Reitz in the early 1980s. See: for more about her and her work, a lot of which falls into fantasy categories:

I had hoped to be able to find a Neverwhere map. 'Neverwhere' (1998) was by Neil Gaiman, the (graphic) based on a television series by him (and the comedian Lenny Henry) of the same name in 1996. It envisages a parallel world within London; London Below. All those mysterious doors you pass that no-one ever seems to open or those windowed spires on the top of Victorian buildings, actually go into this different world, inhabited both by tribes of homeless people and by fantastical creatures. All the places on the London undeground map relate to real things so an earl has a court at Earl's Court, there is a black smith at Hammersmith, there are black friars from Blackfriars (and the female vampires, the Velvets come in, as in The Velvet Underground) and there is an angel at Angel Islington and so on. I know there are lots of closed down stations on the London underground, but I suppose Gaiman's Neverwhere map would be the same as the London Underground one anyway. So I found some other unusual or faked underground railway maps, including one for the planet Gallifrey the home planet of the Doctor in the television series 'Doctor Who' (intermittently 1963- Now). The first is a map which shows the geographical rather than schematic map of the routes which usually is seen. Another one to look out for is 'The Great Bear' (1992) by Simon Patterson a conceptual map based on the traditional London Underground map outline:

The final one for now is a 'map' that seems to be all over the internet maybe influenced by the very speculative ones drawn by explorers in the 19th century, but certainly one which could provide a model for those seeking to create fantasy world maps now. Note both the inland sea and the northern mountains and wastelands:

On reflection, though, I think that this was not supposed to be satirical in the way it now seems to be portrayed, rather it was probably an aide-memoire for Victorian children to show them the generic elements of what they would find on a map. However, it would be tempting to write over the labels and use it as a fantasy world.