Monday, 11 July 2011

What If The Sahara Was Still Green?

My views on this topic can be found in my e-book ‘Other Earths: Alternate Outcomes of Geological Developments & Prehistoric Times’ by Alexander Rooksmoor.  It is available for purchase on Amazon:  

Saturday, 9 July 2011

What If Latin America Had Developed Politically And Economically Like The USA?

This question is often simplified to 'what if South America had developed like North America?' though that leads to inaccuracies as people seem to forget that Mexico is in North America and that there are states in Central America and the Caribbean region which are considered to be part of Latin America.  This is generally taken to encompass states which have a culture based on that of Spain or Portugal, though in cases like Bermuda, Jamaica, Belize and Guyana they stemmed from British culture; Haiti, Martinique and French Guiana from French culture and Suriname and parts of Guyana from Dutch culture.  For this posting, I have considered 'Latin' America to be all states in the Americas that lie South of the USA; including states like Puerto Rico and US Virgin Islands which are actually controlled by the USA.

I was drawn to this issue by two other commentators, G.H. Kanowitz's Worldohistory blog that covers a number of counter-factuals which I have featured many times before on this blog and similarly Niall Ferguson's 'Civilization: Is The West History?' television series shown this year.  Kanowitz asked the following questions:
  • What if the American political and economic experiment was copied in South America after many countries on that continent gained independence in the 19th Century?
  • Would South America be a centre of power today?
  • Would the U.S. role in Western Hemisphere politics have been diminished?
  • Would the South American countries eventually have united to form a Federation?
Ferguson similarly asked why could the states created by Simon Bolivar: Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru and their neighbours, not have prospered both in terms of democracy and economically as the USA did in the 20th century?  There are geographic reasons.  Much of Latin America has hostile terrain with very high mountains, deserts and dense jungle and the diseases that go with the latter.  If you look at the USA regions such as the Everglades, the Rocky Mountain regions and the deserts of South-West USA (and Alaska only has as a result of oil) have never prospered.  However, the bulk of the USA sits across either fertile river valleys that are not too vast or prairie which can be turned to arable farming.  Even if South America had been a single state, the difficulty of running trains from the Atlantic coast, say of what is Brazil to the Pacific coast of Chile would have been immensely harder than cross-USA railways.  Even in Mexico the geography is tough to provide these multiple foci for industrial development.  Mexico might have been the Latin American state that could have prospered like the USA, but of course lost some of its wealthiest territories, Texas and California, to the USA. 

Part of the difficulty for Latin America was that the conquistadors too often encountered urban societies.  Their access to gold effectively made it too easy for the conquerors.  In the Americas North of Mexico, it was not possible for some noble or commander simply to roll up and make himself a millionaire through winning a couple of battles; prosperity really only came, especially up until the early 19th century in working hard in North America on agricultural produce.  Even the luxury item tobacco needed a great deal more work than looting a temple.  The fact that the Spanish colonies made a huge profit almost instantly rather than through long-term investment and work, distorted the establishment of these states.  If the urban civilisations of the Incas, Aztecs and Mayans were not there or had been in severe decline, then even accessing the gold would have been harder.  These states by centralising wealth made it too easy for the conquerors and so we see the development of effectively what is sometimes termed a 'gangster economy'.  This naturally favours force as the economic tool over business acumen and hard work.

Whilst Latin America does have resources such as gold, oil and many types of metals, as was found in Russia and China simply having these resouces was not much use by the time of 19th century industrialisation if you lacked the infrastructure and had to cross vast distances if you were to the raw materials to industry and to foreign markets.  Thus, even before we turn to look at the human factors that have made development along the lines of the USA challenging for Latin America, there are physical ones to consider.  Another aspect especially for smaller states of Latin America is that they have lacked the diversity of product that the USA was able to benefit from and in many ways even when not run by a metropolitan country have suffered a kind of colonial economy, heavily dependent often on single crops or minerals and often tied into supplying one market, notably the USA in exchange for finished goods.  Whilst the USA claims it has not been an imperial power, it has long been an informal imperial power.  As the British, French and Germans were to prove in the 19th informal imperialism was always far more profitable than formal imperialism, i.e. actually occupying and running a territory.  With the declaration of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, the USA, having snatched independence 50 years ahead of its Latin American rivals, effectively made all states South of it into its imperial region.  The geographical challenges made Latin American states vulnerable to be being exploited in a imperialistic way.  Though the Americans were dominant, the British too were heavily involved in informal imperialism in the region, notably in Argentina and Chile.

Ferguson did concede that Brazil, the former Portuguese colony, has now become one of the leading economies of the world, part of the so-called BRIC bloc (of Brazil, Russia, India and China), former second world economies that are now so vital to the global economy and in many ways driving it.  However, certainly in the 19th and 20th centuries all of the states of the region I am considering have battled to maintain democracy and have often fallen to dictatorship, typically of the military, but in some cases such as Mexico and Cuba and now Venezuela, also left-wing regimes.  Part of the problem has been foreign intervention, notably by the USA which undermined left-learning democracies such as Chile in the 1970s and Nicaragua in the 1980s amongst others.  The USA has always been more concerned in creating regimes that permit a cheap and stable supply of the raw materials that it has needed like fruit from Guatemala, sugar from Cuba and copper and nitrates from Chile than with supporting democracy.

Ferguson always seeks simple answers, his 'killer apps' [applications] to explain why the West, notably the USA prospered.  He feels that property ownership linked to voting rights were the reason why the USA was able to develop economically in the 19th century.  The nature of land ownership in the USA which allowed people from ordinary or even poor backgrounds in Europe to become prosperous, and vitally, to become voters in the USA many decades before people of their level of income or social class had such rights in Europe. In contrast the Latin American pattern of property ownership, rather than comparative small farms covering a few hundred acres instead had vast estates like the haciendas of Spain or latifundia of Italy.  In an age when property ownership was related to having the vote, in the UK, USA and across other burgeoning democracies, this meant that for many Latin American states voting was detached from large parts of the population long into the 20th century.  In its place was the caudillo and patron-client systems which so stultify democracy and successful capitalism.  Of course, to some extent such systems exist in the USA.  You only hvae to look at the poverty of so many people in the country and the dominance of a few leading families in business and politics to see that US commentators whining that it is only Hispanic immigrants bringing this culture to the USA are deluded.  The USA has had a stronger civil society and especially post-1945 this gave the impression that it was really a land of opportunity.  Ordinary people could progress further through education, business or the military in a way their counterparts to the South could not have done in as many cases.  However, US society does tend to ignore how many people lacked opportunity and distinguish themselves rather too sharply from the much of the Americas.

Democracy is not alien to Latin America, but if you simply look at the history of the region in the second half of the 20th century you can see that as a political system it has always struggled in a way that it has not in the USA.  As Ferguson noted, it almost comes down to the political framework that was put in place at the founding of the states.  Whilst what became the USA had been colonies of European powers, many of the settlers rather than being royal officials and their entourages were people actually seeking to break from the European powers.  Even if the political break did not come until the late 18th century there was already and ideological and religious separation.  Many of the settlers were Nonconformist in religion whereas in Latin America they tended to come from Catholic countries and practice standard Catholicism when in the colonies.  In additon, whilst countries like Argentina have seen immigrants from Britain and Italy, never formal colonial controllers, the USA drew people from countries which were not powers at all, from Ireland under British control, from rural Sweden and from fragmented Germany and Italy, which even when united were not colonial powers in the Americas.  Consequently they were seeking a different system to the hierarchies in Europe and had no affinity to those of the states which ruled or had ruled the colonies they settled in.  For Latin America, too much of Spanish and Portuguese society of the 16th-18th centuries was trasplanted to the Americas; from the start people coming to North America aimed to precisely leave behind British or French society and its practices.

Ferguson is correct to see slave ownership and the enduring legacy of racial tension it left as an obstacle to the USA becoming a modern industrialised state.  He contrasts this experience with the greater racial mixing of South America.  Whilst this is true, it tends to ignore the fact that the Atlantic slave trade in the period 1519-1867 saw far more slaves go to Latin America than the USA. Of course, some of the Spanish colonies were established earlier and some parts of the Spanish empire now form parts of the USA, for example Florida began receiving African slaves in 1581.  Of the 10 million Africans shipped to the Americas, 38.5% went to what is now Brazil and 17.5% to Spanish territories, admittedly including California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Florida, but predominantly to modern day Latin American states notably Cuba, Colombia, Costa Rica, Honduras and Guatemala.  The percentage of slaves going to British colonies outside North America, primarily Caribbean islands, was 18.4%; those to British-held North America 6.45%; those to French territories 13.6% and those to English-speaking American states, i.e. the USA after independence, 3.25%.  To some extent this was because the USA only came to slavery in an industrial way, more than two centuries after the Spanish colonies had been receiving slaves.  In addition, with slavery inherited, actual African slaves increasingly became a pool from which American-born slaves were descended, reducing the need quite quickly to import more slaves from Africa.

In neglecting to see the amount of slaves who went to places other than North America Ferguson actually missed an element which could have strengthened his argument.  Whilst initially slavery was permitted right across what was to become the USA, by the 19th century it had become regionally focused and in fact in the rural areas away from the North-East which even now remains a cornerstone region for US industry.  Slavery stultifies a capitalist economy.  In many ways as Karl Marx would have said, it is a feudal hangover which prevents effective capitalist development, which needs people to believe that through their own efforts whether simply labouring, but certainly through innovating and creating new business, that they will be rewarded financially, and typically, in terms of status too.  As Ferguson noted, in semi-democratic USA property brought men a say in the running of their area and their country.  This worked even more in the USA where the class structure had been disrupted, than it did in the UK which also saw its democracy grow on the basis of property equalling voting rights.  In a slave society as a slave you know that however hard you work, you will always be a slave and that even your children and grandchildren will be slaves.  There is no opportunity for you to advance the capitalist system.  Even for owners and free people in a slave society, as the Roman Empire ably proved, there is no incentive to innovate or find more efficient methodologies when the prime source of labour is cheaper than any waged labour might be.  Thus, what was vital for the USA was that its industrial regions moved away from slavery even before it had been abolished nationwide and that they were able to assert their authority over the slave owning parts of the country, thus freeing up not only former slaves but the innovation and entrepreneuralism of the former free people of the southern states.

Latin America, whilst, like the USA finally freeing itself from slavery then had an experience like Russia rather than the USA.  Whilst retaining a great deal of inequality, in the USA people could get on in small business and factory work generally not held back by a rigid social class structure.  In Latin America and Russia even moving into virgin regions the rigid class structure remained, so that once slavery/serfdom was removed, though it released a potential force of industrial workers and business people they found their opportunities choked off by the hierarchy still firmly in place; the same applies to China in many ways too.  These countries had none of the tradition of breaking away from former structures, instead they either retained the structures that had been in place within the country for centuries (in the case of Russia and China) or found that they had imported almost wholesale those structures from the metropolitan countries and Spain and Portugal themselves were going to suffer industrially as a result of this, in the 19th century and fall quickly from the prime positions they had held up to the 18th century. 

Possibly the most extreme case was the future King of Portugal, João VI, leaving his country in 1808 and settling in Brazil.  In 1815 Brazil became a part of the Portuguese Empire on the same level as Portugal itself and in 1820 it became an independent country, but rather than a republic, in 1822 it became an empire in its own right with the crown prince of Portugal, Pedro, becoming emperor.  The replication of European monarchical patterns or at least the hierarchies around a land-owning aristocracy, was a model across Latin America that in many ways held back these states from developing capitalism successfully the way the USA and in fact the UK too, was to do.

These problems were not even shaken off by Latin American states in the 20th century.  In the 1950s Venezuela experienced the regime of Jimenez and it is under only semi-democratic rule now; Colombia that of Pinilla; Argentina that of Peron; Brazil that of Vargas; Cuba had Batista and then a Communist state under Castro which still persists; Mexico had a revolution in the 1910s but then had a de facto one party state up until present day; Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina experienced more than 25 coups or attempted coups each in the 1950s and 1960s; Peru is still suffering from civil war.  The involvement of the USA in Latin American states has helped fuel such conflict and give rise to regimes like that of General Pinochet in Chile after 1973 and General Noriega in Panama until the Americans themselves overthrew him. US involvement in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras has simply helped prolong unrest and violence in these states. The rise of drug cartels in the 1980s added an extra element to the corruption and unrest especially in Colombia.  The development of these states with rich landowners concerned with their own wealth and influence at the heart of everything they do and political systems that are not strong enough to survive coups has meant that the region has been plagued by instability and loss of life even if it had had socio-economic structures in place which would have helped promote a non-corrupt successful approach to capitalism.  The truth of this is demonstrated by the very rapid economic rise of Brazil in the 21st century when it has begun to reduce some of these harmful aspects.

Turning away from what actually happened to the counter-factual, it is apparent that Kanowitz's first question really starts too late.  It seems for Latin American states to have gone down the path of the USA would have needed very different structures in place right from the start of colonisation.  Those who went to Latin America from Spain and Portugal rather than being aristocratic land-owning military leaders would needed to have been businessmen with a desire to establish societies that would allow other entrepreneurs to succeed.  As the model of Dutch colonisation of North America shows, entrepreneurs can be as exclusive and as controlling as a conquistador, so this additional element would also have been required.  It would have needed more of the settlers of these colonies to be people at odds with the monarchical systems in Europe, perhaps with a different religion, so in some ways you can even trace the nature of Latin America back to the lack of success of the Reformation on the Iberian peninsula in the 16th century; Spain even lacked its equivalent of Huguenots.  Perhaps a later removal of the last of the Moors and Jews from Spain would altered Spain's colonies as these would have been the type of people who would have developed the kind of robust, distinct colonial society that the USA benefited from.  The Thirteen Colonies did not really prosper because they were like Britain but because they were different from Britain.  However, offering resettlement to Jews and Moors in America would have been blasphemy to the Spanish monarchs as there was a common view that South America somehow had gateways to Heaven, perhaps even that the Orinoco River led into Eden.

What the Latin American states would have needed, as Ferguson identifies, is both a social structure and land ownership that allowed ordinary settlers to 'get on' and to have a voice in the running of their state.  Replicating Spain/Portugal of the 18th century in the Americas, meant that there was as little chance for progression as there was back in Europe, thus choking off all the individual acts of capitalism that were necessary to lead to a property-owning democracy.  Coupled with this, too much of the area of these states had a slave economy.  In addition to the tens of thousands of Africans shipped to Latin America, in these regions, especially in South America, indigenous peoples were effectively enslaved or at least indentured, again draining off people who had the potential to develop the state.  Thus, too quickly Latin America became a region in which vast areas of property were in the hands of very few people and even on the 'virgin' frontier because of the prevailing socio-economic and political structures entrenched, ordinary people were never going to be able to rise much higher than their level on arrival in the country, in contrast to many of their counterparts North of Mexico.

In my mind only an uprising across the Spanish and Portuguese colonies at the time of the American War of Independence or the French Revolution, would have given these states the chance of adopting a system that would have allowed them to prosper in the long run.  Even before this, the states would have had to have been established on the basis that a single man could not simply own half a valley or at least areas would have to have been set aside for small holdings to exist, as the USA was not lacking in large landowners, it was just there were areas where smaller properties were always being opened up.  If the independence, say in 1791 had also ended slavery (though remember neither the USA nor revolutionary France did that) then it would have moved Latin American states to adopt different ways of getting labour and so would have promoted the immigration necessary to provide these states with the urban and rural free workers and small property owners necessary for a prosperous capitalist society.  Without these, whether they came from Spain or other states like the Italian and German states, the Latin American states were going to be condemned to the economic and political stagnation that was to plague both Spain and Portugal through the 19th and 20th centuries (remember they only became lasting democracies in the mid-1970s).  The more rapid growth of industrial cities and agriculture to feed the population as much as supply exports, would have helped develop a robust capitalist economy.  It takes decades to construct a robust democracy as countries like Russia have found.  However, with an educated, prosperous middle class with an interest in advancing democracy rather than turning themselves into the latest generation of aristocrats, it would have advanced as it did in France, in some ways similar, a country short on industrial raw materials and with a former very hierarchical society.  The American or French models or even the British model of the 19th century in new Latin American states would not have stood much chance without a social structure which permitted it to thrive.

In many ways, particularly in the case of Brazil, Latin America is a power today.  However, if the states there could have avoided the vast social gaps and had far more robust democratic systems, then they would likely to have had this role much sooner.  There was an anticipation that at least Brazil if not Argentina and Venezuela too would have reached this global standing back in the 1970s.  Then it was abortive, with the growth sapped by political unrest and corruption.  As with China, it is not really surprising that these states are becoming economically powerful now, rather why it took them so long to do so.  Of course, with a different political and economic path going back to the late 18th century, then it seems feasible that these states may have been spared the instability that weakened their status in the world.  Just as China was a genuine superpower in the 1950s and 1960s but this was not apparent because its people were being starved and fighting among themselves, so the real strength of many Latin American states has long been curtailed by conflict.  In addition, their economic strength has been overshadowed by the neo-imperial relationship with US companies.  The USA's difficulties with the Chavez government of Venezuela stem as much for his sale of oil to countries other than the USA as it does from his left-wing, increasingly less democratic, political stance.  The informal imperial relationship between the USA and Latin America has only ebbed to some extent and China is replacing the USA as a type of imperial exploiter of Latin American resources, notably in Brazil, however much China continues to protest (as the USA has too) that it is no colonial power.   A number of Latin American states can become powers with Brazil in the lead and probably Venezuela and Argentina in the next league down, but still as important as members of the G8 are today in terms of global politics.

Historically, I think if one of the larger states such as Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela or even Chile had managed to adopt a system closer to the USA that it would have faced more of a challenge, particularly if it had been a state with an Atlantic or Caribbean coast.  It seems feasible that this strong Latin American state would have contested US dominance in the Caribbean, with, for example Cuba and Panama coming under their control, the latter might have remained in Colombia, for example.  There seems a chance too that the USA would have had a rival for other former Spanish territories, notably the Philippines.  Given the weakness of Latin American states the USA was spared much rivalry in the Caribbean and Pacific.  The only country which came close was Mexico which the USA warred with and by the 1840s it had been decided in the USA's favour.  If Mexico had been able to retain the lands it was to lose to the USA then it would not have been as strong because of its weaker industrial base, but it would have been a regional power that the USA would not have been able to ignore.  If the USA had been unable to cow Mexico before the American Civil War or if the French and then Emperor Maximillian's intervention in the state had succeeded then the USA's almost absolute power in its own hemisphere would have been challenged at least to a degree.  Having to tussle more with a Latin American even second strength Power, may have distracted the USA from intervention elsewhere, notably the Pacific region.  It may have, conversely, brough earlier US intervention in Central America and the Caribbean to counter-balance the Latin American power.  This kind of scenario is envisaged to some extent in 'C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America' (2004) which envisaged the CSA in colonial wars in South America in the early 20th century. 

Globally, a stronger Latin American state would have meant that Hispanic culture would have been viewed differently.  Too easily, people make the assumption that it is all about poverty next to immense wealth and political unrest leading to dictatorship.  A Brazil or Argentina which had propsered with a democracy right through the 20th century would have shifted that view and made Latin American culture more influential than it has even become today.  In addition, it may have impacted on Spain and/or Portugal themselves, perhaps encouraging an earlier overthrow of their dictators, perhaps greater industrialisation.  Argentinian republican troops being shipped to help defend the legitimate Spanish Republic in 1936 would be one of the eye-catching outcomes of this scenario.

I do not think that the Latin American states would have become a federation, perhaps unless they had been formally colonised by the USA, especially in Central America.  Even then, if you look at what happened to French Indochina fragmenting into four states after the end of formal colonialism, even a US Central American colony may have broken up.  As for the Caribbean there is too much diversity in language and culture between islands and too many links to former colonies or in the past to one of the superpowers, for them to come together.  If you look at the conflicts just in South America over borders: such as the Buenos Aires region of Argentina becoming an independent state 1852-9; the Paraguyan War 1865-70 which saw Paraguay lose 70% of its population as territory was taken by Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil; Bolivia losing the nitrate rich Atcama province and its only outlet to the sea to Chile in 1879-83; the Acre free state formed on the border of Brazil, Peru and Bolivia 1899-1903; the dispute over the Oriente territory which now makes up the eastern half of Ecuador and Colombia losing Panama when it became an independent state under US influence in 1903 suggest that the region was doomed to experience fragmentation.  In part this comes back to the hierarchical societies of these countries in that to progress many of the elite saw success through promoting local interests which fragmented even the states we know.  With different twists in history, Bolivia, Colombia and Paraguay might be far larger than in our world; Argentina, Chile and especially Ecuador, much smaller and there could be other states easily the size of modern day Uruguay, that do not exist in our world.  Many of the states, like Brazil and Colombia were entitled 'United States of' anyway.  This reflects the geographical areas they cover and the diversity of territories which fall within their borders each with local interests. 

Of course, many Latin American states may have hoped to become like the USA.  However, we need to look at how the USA came together.  In effect it was a New England hegemony over other regions enabled by the industry that developed in this region and its hinterland, expanding along the southern side of the Great Lakes.  The main challenges to this hegemony were territories like Deseret and the CSA based on a different perspective to the liberal, bourgeoise North-East and these were only defeated by military action.  However, the toleration of a degree of federalism and distinctiveness in individual states took the sting out of opposition to the over-arching state, though even today a lot of tension against 'big government' comes from the same kind of irritation with this North-Eastern hegemony.  For a federation to have worked across South America would have needed a grouping which could address itself to all social classes and, as we have seen, that was lacking in any of the states anyway.  Secondly, it would have needed military success exceeding that of Simon Bolivar not only to unite the states but to keep them from fragmenting especially with the drive for particularism in the 19th century.  A key rift would naturally be around the Spanish/Portguese divide of Brazil and the other states.  However, given that many of the states called themselves 'united states' or 'empire' suggests that with communications of the 19th century the states of South America were deemed large enough and an even larger state, even if confederal, would have been too large, especially given the physical geography, to have seemed feasible.

It seems bleak to say that Latin America was condemned to the kind of development it has experienced from the moment the first conqusitador stepped ashore or even that it went back to the expulsion of the Moors and Jews from the Iberian Peninsula.  However, it does seem that pretty quickly, as Niall Ferguson has suggested, the basic structures of the economics of these societies and the political links to them did mean that it would be difficult for a different type of country to have developed in Latin America.  Whilst the USA tends to think it has followed a path of manifest destiny, in fact, only a few different steps would have seen the Thirteen Colonies and Louisiana ruled over by barons and marquesses (as John Locke wrote into his constitution for Carolina which also enshrined popular property ownership), commanding vast estates based on slave labour, with anyone between landowner and slave having no hope of ever owning land or having a political voice.  To some extent, though, North America like South reflected the different approaches of the metropolitan countries and even France before the revolution and Britain with enclosure tended to lack the haciendas of Spain and had tenancy rather than share-cropping.  The basis on which colonies were established coupled with the nature of the settlers drawn to them, often in what became the USA, deliberately turning their back on the European culture they were leaving, was the basis on which the successor states to the colonies functioned and consequently were able/unable to claim the wealth and power that their size and resources otherwise permitted.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

What If Sherlock Holmes Had Never Returned From The Reichenbach Falls?

Earlier this year I watched a rather confused and disappointing drama, 'Reichenbach Falls' (2007).  The one-off drama based on an Ian Rakin short story was set in modern day Edinburgh and initially appeared to be about a detective inspector, Jim Buchan, working in the city whose former lover, Clara, is now wife of a successful author, Jack Harvey.  The detective begins to see the ghost of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and it transpires that the detective himself is not real, but a figment of the imagination of real-life author Jack Harvey.  Harvey plans to kill off his long-running character the way that Doyle did with Holmes in 'The Final Problem' (1893) when Holmes fell to his death battling Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls.  Like Doyle, however, Harvey is encouraged to retrieve Buchan and so in his own mind, Buchan comes back to life, a life we see as if it was real.  Despite being based on an interesting concept, the drama was poorly made and left me very dissatisfied.  However, it did get me thinking about how literature would have been different if Doyle had not decided to bring Holmes back.

'The Final Problem' was the 24th Sherlock Holmes short story.  They had all featured in 'The Strand' magazine and had been collected as 'The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' (1892) and 'The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes' (1894), of which 'The Final Problem', set in 1891 is the last story.  There had also been two novels, 'A Study in Scarlet' (1887) and 'The Sign of Four' (1890).  Thus, quite an extensive collection which had attracted global popularity.  As I have noted before:  if you compare the Sherlock Holmes stories with most of its rival detective series, you see that the complexity of the mysteries combined with the amoral approach of Holmes made the character stand out.  However, you can also understand, why, after seven years, Doyle felt a need to move on to new characters. 

Interestingly in Michael Dibdin's story, 'The Last Sherlock Holmes Story' (1978), Holmes is a real man but turns out to have been Jack the Ripper and is killed at the time 'The Final Bow' is written.  Consequently the subsequent stories are 'made up' by Dr. John Watson, who in this book was also a real person.  I do wonder why authors are attracted to playing around with the reality/fiction of Holmes.  You see it again in the movie 'Without A Clue' (1988) in which Holmes is shown as a bumbling former actor who acts only as a figurehead for Watson's astute detective work.

Which stories would be missing, if after 1894, Doyle had not been persuaded to revive Holmes?  As it was Doyle took a break, not publishing a proper Holmes story until 1902, though the character was in the background of some short stories that Doyle wrote in the nine year period.  The main missing novel would have been 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' (1902), though it is set in 1889.  This is probably the best known of all Sherlock Holmes stories, certainly the one that has been dramatised the most.  Without it, a story which seems to sum up a Gothic flavour of Holmes and does not have the moral ambiguity of many of the stories, then Holmes would probably not be as accessible to general audiences, in particular in the USA.  The moral ambiguity has always set US audiences at unease, one reason why 'The Adventure of the Cardboard Box' (1892) which features adultery (and severed ears) was removed from US editions of 'The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes' (1894) and only appeared in 'His Last Bow' (1917), published 13 years later, when presumably American audiences could stomach it. 

With 'The Return of Sherlock Holmes' (1905) and the thirteen stories it featured would have been lost well known ones such as 'The Adventure of the Dancing Men' (1903) [often used as an introduction to ciphers] and 'The Mystery of the Empty House' (1903) [featuring an air rifle and the bust of Holmes as a decoy].  'The Valley of Fear' (1915) is not at all well known and there has been no live action adaptation of it, bar 'The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes' (1935).  'His Last Bow' (1917) features eight stories, none not that well known to the general public, bar perhaps, 'The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans' (1912) though more as a synonym for civil service inefficiency than for the story itself and to a lesser extent for relocating corpses in detective stories by dropping them on to railway carriage roofs.  In the final collection, 'The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes' (1927) among the 12 stories are ones like 'The Adventure of the Creeping Man' (1923)  [in which a man injects himself with serum derived from a monkey to keep himself young] which has fed into ideas of this kind; similarly 'The Adventure of the Illustrious Client' (1924) has informed many stories with its villain who misuses a string of women.

One interesting factor is that, given Holmes survived at the Reichenbach Falls, it is easy to imagine that Moriarty did too.  With 'The Final Problem' both Holmes and Moriarty were proven to be mortal and fallible.  Once this incident was recast by 'The Mystery of the Empty House', as different to what readers had been previously been told, then it opened up an acceptance of both heroes and villains who, despite appearing to have died or be killed, actually can re-appear in later stories.  I think if the Holmes sequence had stopped with the 'The Final Problem' then it would have been far harder for writers of everything from children's cartoon series to James Bond movies, to have a villain who keeps coming back.  A 'norm' of so much popular fiction of the 20th and 21st centuries would be missing with Holmes and Moriarty's clear deaths casting such a shadow.  Moriarty has become the basis of the 'super-villain' trope apparent in so much of our fiction.  It may be a stretch to see Holmes as the first 'superhero' (Superman did not appear until 1938, 11 years after the last Sherlock Holmes story) but his combat and intellectual skills and apparent invulnerability seem to have laid the foundations for such approaches being tolerated in popular culture.  With no resurrection for Holmes and the chance that Moriarty, some day, could come back too, then these elements would be missing from popular writing or certainly delayed.

Without these 35 latter stories, the Holmes canon certainly would be a lot smaller.  However, aside from 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' it would only have been particular fans of the stories who would have noted an overt difference.  There would have been a cultural impact as I have noted, because so many writers of books and movies have been influenced by elements of these later stories: the nature of villains, the use of ciphers and hazards of toying with nature.  However, I still think Holmes would be well known.  In addition, whilst the bulk of the Holmes stories appeared after Queen Victoria had died, we still tend to think of him as a Victorian detective (primarily as most of the later stories are still set during her reign).  It is clear that sensibilities were changing, particularly by the late 1920s, not least due to the brutality of the First World War.  This had a heavy personal impact on Doyle himself, turning him to spiritualism, a topic he wrote about 1918-30; it is believed his interest in the movement developed following the death of his wife in 1906, his son in 1918, his brother in 1919, and subsequently two brothers-in-law and two nephews in the early 1920s.

Without Holmes, much of Doyle's other work may be more prominent than it has been.  From 1889 onwards Doyle wrote 39 non-Holmes novels, but who has heard of Raffles Haw [E.W. Hornung, Doyle's brother-in-law wrote the Raffles, gentleman burglar, novels 1903-9], Stark Munro or Brigadier Gerard?  When have their stories been dramatised? The only other non-Holmes character who has received much attention has been Professor Challenger stories (5 novels 1912-29; one featuring spiritualism). Doyle also wrote 12 non-fiction books, though after 1918 these tended to focus on spiritualism and fairies rather than contemporary warfare and colonialism as they had 1900-16. 

Doyle killed off Holmes because he felt the stories were too much of a distraction from his historical novels, of which he wrote seven 1888-1906, the best known of which is 'The White Company' (1891), but even that is obscure compared to any of the Holmes stories.  Perhaps without Holmes to 'distract' him, Doyle would have developed other characters and written more historically-set novels, turning him into looking more like Sir Walter Scott than simply a detective novelist.  It is quite possible he would have written more non-fiction too. 

If Doyle had not killed Holmes off in 1894 and had a break of at least six years before returning to him, but instead had kept writing them through the second half of the 1890s, then the quality may have faded or by 1902, he may have been burnt out and we would have found Holmes killed once again.  The break probably did the canon good.  However, the story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's writing shows how one success can distort everything about the rest of his output.  In writing terms, Doyle was probably right to end Holmes in 1894.  As the makers of many television series today know, it is always best to go out on a high note.  This is not to say that the latter stories are of any lesser quality, and in fact, many tropes that we recognise in contemporary fiction originate, to a great extent, from many Holmes stories even though this might not often be recognised.  Thus, without these stories, whilst we might not notice it, many of the stories around today could be different.  

Even within the Holmes stories, the removal of 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' would have probably meant greater focus on the other stories, perhaps sanitised to give them a clearer morality.  Certainly without that single novel, we would have seen far fewer dramatisations of Sherlock Holmes stories in subsequent decades.  In many ways, I am ambivalent over whether Doyle was right to resurrect Holmes.  I am not a fan of 'The Hound of the Baskervilles', feeling it jars badly with the nature of the stories before and after it.  I guess I have to come down on the side of approval of the revival of Holmes per se, as I know that, without that return, we would have missed out on a sizeable number of excellent short stories.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Blogging the Blog 11: Online No-one Knows I'm A Dog ... Or A Man

As regular readers of this blog, assuming there are some, will know I have maintained an interest in the art of blogging itself and the forms of behaviour it creates or has imposed upon it.  Thus, you will not be surprised that I read with interest, last month, the exposure of two renowned lesbian bloggers, Paula Brooks of LezGetReal as a 58-year old male construction worker from Ohio called Bill Graber and then Amina Abdullah Araf al Omari of a Gay Girl in Damascus (a blog I had stumbled across) as Tom McMaster, a 40-year old male student from Edinburgh.  I guess people should not be surprised that these two men have provoked the wrath of the lesbian community and many blog readers in general.  It is always painful to feel that you have been duped, and in this case for a number of years.  In addition, people took risks trying to find out what had happened to 'Amina' in the upheaval that has been plaguing Syria.  Note the quotations used here, I have lifted from various articles in 'The Guardian' newspaper.

The extent of the anger was shown by many commentators, e.g.:  Judy Dlugacz head of Olivia, a lesbian travel company: 'This is really an outrage.  We all need to be aware that there are people out there who will abuse the blogosphere.' and 'Look at how much power he wielded controlling this. The fact that he created this illusion and that he enjoyed it so much, that he was perpetrating a hoax and had such a good time with it, that is pretty pathetic.'  Dlugacz almost answers her own questions.  If she has only now woken up to the fact that people are misusing the blogosphere then it has taken her a long time.  Of course, we know companies employ bloggers to promote their companies; universities now employ students to go into discussion groups to promote their university.  As with any media, you have always had to be careful about what you read/saw/heard.  To me it is surprising that people had more trust in blogs than they do in newspaper or television reports.  Is it simply the novelty of the medium which has won that trust.  Dlugacz is right, people love the power of pulling off the hoax, they can become addicted to power they wield.  All of us love to think that people listen to our views and value them, bloggers far more than the average person.  One interesting question is, if, rather than McMaster and Graber producing blogs they had written first-person novels from the perspective of the characters they created.  There would have been complaints, but I also expect that their clear ability to replicate the manners and language of an American or a Syrian lesbian would have been commended as skillful writing.  Men have written as women and even more often women have written as men in novels, this will not stop.  It is naive to think that somehow simply because something is a blog rather than a magazine story it has more truth in it.  This realisation, may be one reason for how angry commentators are.

Michael Triplett runner of the  National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association blog believes all bloggers would lose credibility. I think people are just going to be more suspect of people they don't know or people they don't have familiarity with.  Blogs are already being discredited as people sitting around in their pyjamas talking about news. Now you are talking about guys in pyjamas pretending to be women in their pyjamas it really makes it even more of a credibility concern.' and 'There is almost something pathological about it.  I really don't get the idea of wanting to take on an entirely different person, especially a group that you have no affinity with.'  This is a foolish view.  Bloggers will not lose any more credibility than they currently hold.  Again, I find it incredible that people that sophisticated web savvy people did not read these blogs without a greater level of judgement and now are furious that due to their lack of perception/thought/care (traits I admit I share) were deceived.  

Triplett also seems to move in very narrow circles if he thinks that wanting to take on a different persona is something peculiar.  He clearly does not get out much to bars or clubs of an evening.  I have encountered both men and women pretending to be something that they were not; how many celebrities fabricate their ages, where they were born, their tastes, etc.  There is a lot of pretending to be other people, just look at the quantity of online material produced by transvestites with names, clothing and mannerisms very different from what they truly are.  The internet including blogs is ideal as it allows sustained construction of a persona.  Very few people appear online with their full proper name, partly for security reasons.  The bulk of contributions use a name that is not their real one.  Even when people like celebrities do feature their names (or in fact their stage names) then they are still weaving a persona that can be far removed from the genuine person.  

Personas are always created in any online context and gain a mass of their own very quickly.  I am a 43-year old white British man and yet even here on my blog, that has been contested with people arguing that my views suggest I must be a teenager or not British.  Thus, even when you create a genuine persona online it can quickly acrete extra elements, some which you might foster, others which you might be powerless to halt.  I think if McMaster and Graber had not attracted as much attention and interest as they were then their blogs would have faded away.  Ironically the lesbian community in wanting these types of lesbian bloggers out there sustained the continuation of these fakes.

Melanie Nathan, previously involved in LezGetReal said 'In my opinion, what Graber has done, to be a straight man calling himself a lesbian, is tantamount to impersonating an entire community.'  This is a clear exaggeration and as I note below, this easy assumption that an individual can somehow carry the identity of a whole sub-set of people, or in turn harm an entire sub-set by their behaviour is dangerous; not least it pretends that every grouping, no matter how large, is homogenous.  I am sure lesbians would be the first to emphasise that even within their community/communities, there is wide diversity and that is good.  No-one can ever represent an entire community, we always only represent a tiny element, one person.  Neither of the bloggers claimed to be speaking for a community, and in fact made themselves a sub-set even of that sub-set of people.  What intrigues me is why was so much attention paid to these two bloggers rather than other lesbian blogs?  I cannot believe that there are not women who can write as well or as engagingly.  Again, that realisation, that the fakes were garnering more interest than the real members of these communities, is understandably frustrating.  I believe these faked blogs lay down a challenge to other bloggers to raise their game.

It seems that McMaster's motives were about vanity, seeing if he could pull off the deception.  Both Graber and McMaster had a misguided view that through blogging a particular character in a particular setting (a lebsian mother with three children in the USA, a lesbian woman in Damascus - McMaster's wife is a specialist in the economy of Syria) then they could voice issues that they felt were being neglected.  Ironically they did achieve this.  Their blogs were well written and engaging.  For 3-4 years many lesbians who you might imagine could spot a fake, as well as non-lesbians like myself, believed they were genuine.  This suggests that neither wrote anything that contradicted what even lesbians would expect lesbians to write online.

Louise Carolin, deputy editor of a lesbian magazine 'Diva' likened the blogs to faked cancer blogs. 'They remind me of the cancer blogs that have been revealed as hoaxes, some of which have been a deliberate financial fraud, and others just an emotional one. Many lesbian women feel very isolated – especially if they're from a minority ethnic or religious background where it's difficult for them to come out – and the internet is somewhere they go for support and a sense of community.'  She notes that the Gay Girl in Damascus 'blog tapped into a lot of very real experiences for people in Syria and the Middle East, and also people here [the USA] who identified with it. I think it's absolutely indefensible.'  She added that 'MacMaster and Graber are unusual in that they chose to operate with such a huge sense of entitlement at such a high level, not just for a brief kick but apparently under the delusion that they were doing something good for lesbians. And they weren't just infiltrating a website or forum run by lesbian or bi women, but actually running the operations themselves.'  What 'operations' were they running?  Surely it was better that they were blogging rather than penetrating discussion groups which all of us know has long been going on.  People can easily click away from a blog.  There was no financial fraud and at the stage when McMaster realised he was having real world impact he came clean.  To assume that the two men were led by some male dominance ethic that they had to get out and control every space seems highly exaggerated.  The motives are common: there is an intellectual buzz in creating a character which people believe is real; it is rewarding to know people are listening to you.

Susie Orbach a psychotherapist has said that in being lebsians online the men were engaging in a 'double inversion – exploiting the 'illegitimacy' of the person they were impersonating to give themselves legitimacy'.  This is an interesting element.  A lot of white men do not realise that they are the dominant socio-economic group in the world.  With the disappearance of class politics they have even been stripped of that 'tribe'.  When equal opportunities policies in UK companies emphasise the protected characteristics of gender, ethnicity, religion, sexuality and only recently race, white young and middle aged men can come out feeling that they lie outside all of the Venn diagram circles.  In addition, they seem by automatic default to be the wrongdoers in any scenario.  In the current economic climate men can feel discarded and at the back of the queue.  In the old days in the UK at least, they would have at least been able to link with others of their social class and complain about the greedy bosses or the lazy workers as appropriate, but with the 'me first' ethos, even that consolation has gone.  

All of us like to feel special, to have people pay attention to us, so I am not at all surprised that in a context in which you can pretend to be what you like that men adopt this 'double inversion' basically so that they feel they are being listened to.  The vast majority of men are not oppressors or sustainers of a patriarchical society but like all people they hate being ignored and having learnt or been taught which groups are focused upon right across companies, they see that to put themselves in that category, even only briefly can relieve their sense of uselessness or being ignored.  Ironically the decline of feminism and the sexualisation of society is not helping this as whilst women are being pushed into submissive roles and dress once more, men are being assumed to be the strong earners which of course conflicts with the current socio-economic pattern, making them feel even more redundant and keen to doubly invert that position, even in just one context, to find some relief for that sense of being discarded.

This fear by white men has been identified by the Pakistani female writer Iman Qureshi, though she sees it as stemming from egotism rather than a lack of ego.  She said 'I think the rise of identity politics – a concerted effort to give marginalised people a voice – has made some white heterosexual men a little paranoid or insecure, so they invent an oppression and position themselves as victims. I would assume MacMaster felt ostracised from his 'own people', as it were, and as a result took on a persona in which he felt he could be heard without criticism. This seems to me to be a hero complex that's really a very smug delusion – 'Look at me, look at how I'm standing up for oppressed people.''.  I do not agree that it is a hero complex, because neither blogger was really standing up for the people, they were seeking to situate themselves actually in that group.  Carolin feels that they were misguided allies of lesbians, but I think she misunderstands the need the men had.  Whilst their blogs did raise issues relevant to lesbians and in fact women in general, the driver was more that for once it gave them a context in which people would take time to read their words ironically without prejudice.  If they had done like me and created a blog with their true identities, you can guarantee they would have long ago been censured or more likely never attracted readers.

The irony is, that each white man seems to have to carry the burden of blame not only for the behaviour of every other white man in the world, but all of those throughout history, going at least back to 18th century slavery if not further.  This is one reason why people in this category are liable to seek a different identity as they know that whenever they challenge anything they can be simply thrown back by the charge of 'men are rapists', 'white men ran the slave trade' and so on.  This behaviour remains acceptable though it is no longer acceptable, for example, to blame all Germans, Japanese, Chinese, Mongolians, Spanish, etc., whether men or women, for the atrocities committed by their ancestors.  As a white man operating in the public arena, you can certainly feel you are carrying a kind of 'original sin' around with you, that you are complicit in every cruel action carried out these days, simply because of what you are.  No protestations or even demonstration of your sense of equality can scrub that stain off you.  It is important to recognise that we are all individuals and we are not even responsible for the behaviour of our parents let alone people of the same ethnic group/gender that we have never met. 

I do not charge every English woman with the horrors inflicted by Mary I or the warfare of Empress Matilda or all the colonial atrocities committed across the British empire during the reign of Queen Victoria.  Thus, why should I be charged with the offences carried out by British slavers or colonialists when no-one in my family was ever any of those things and why should I feel guilt because an American man decides to beat or rape a woman simply because he is of the same ethnic group as me and of the same gender?  I condemn all of these things and can understand how many men feel that the blame apportioned on them inhibits them speaking on any issue in a public forum. Yes, we need to be held responsible for our own behaviour but the crimes of others should not be used as a tool, as it is by default in Western blogosphere space, to effectively shut down white male contributions.

Where this tendency comes from can be seen from the comments of another female writer, Beatrix Campbell.  She has seen the blogs as typical of the desire by men to dominate all forms of media and get into spaces where they would not normally appear/be permitted and thus by such actions, in fact to continue to marginalise already marginalised groups in these contexts which would normally allow them status.  To Campbell, McMaster 'clearly doesn't have a clue about what the politics of identity has tried to reveal, which is, first, that we are not all white men, and second, that white men are always treated as the supreme identity. Here he is, doing the same thing – claiming the virtue of representing a repressed condition, in a repressed part of the world, deciding that he is the person who will give that voice. That is the supreme irony. Here we have a boundaryless white American boy absolutely habituated to a kind of supremacy, and reiterating that supremacy through his blog. It speaks to an omnipotence that doesn't understand its own limits.'  This entirely misses the point.  The motivations do not stem from any sense of 'supremacy' or 'omnipotence' in fact the complete reverse.  Here were men feeling left out for not having any of the stated protected characteristics who knew, that, as a consequence their writing would attract no attention, or at best, that of people, who as intelligent men they would not really want to engage with, found strategies that allowed them to be heard.  Clearly this massaged their egos.  In addition, there was probably a sexual frisson, as both men are straight and McMaster is married, they no doubt like the company of women and to engage intimately with them (and ironically flirted online with each other), so there could have been a thrill to brighten a dull day.

The false representation of yourself in the online context has long been noted. Tim Jordan noted in 1999 '"cyberspace will be liberatory because gender, race, age, looks or even 'dogness' are potentially absent or alternatively fabricated or exaggerated with unchecked creative license for a multitude of purposes both legal and illegal'; summarising views expressed by pioneer John Gilmore as early as 1996.  Furthermore, David Trend wrote in 2001 of the ability to 'computer crossdress' as well as the 'freedom to 'pass' as a privileged group'.  Whilst lesbians may not feel they are a privileged group, we all need to recognise that for many equal opportunities initiatives, whilst very necessary have a by-product of actually making marginalised groups, if not privileged, then at least more 'legitimate' than the white male persona.

I can understand the anger from lesbians, other women and other online readers to feel that they were successfully duped by not just one but two bloggers over quite a period of time.  I was one of those who was duped. However, to present the incident as some sinister conspiracy by men to control yet another media outlet so that they can sustain, even extend white male hegemony, misses so much.  What we have seen is very well constructed fictions that are worthy of a leading novelist.  They were probably done to pep up bruised egos feeling discarded by Western societies' focus on protected characteristics.  However, the criticisms that these two blogs have broken some unwritten code about online behaviour, especially the creation of personas, is incredibly naive and betrays an ignorance of how the online world, whether the blogosphere or elsewhere has operated right from its birth.  Peter Steiner's cartoon 'On The Internet No-one Knows I'm A Dog' appeared in 1993, yet, that simple observation seems to have been forgotten by people who through their professions, should know that principle even more than the average person.  What seems most incredible is not the original deceptions, but the response that has revealed that so many commentators who should know better, in their love affair with the blogosphere have forgotten lessons taught to primary school children about internet usage.

P.P. The criticisms continue to roll in even as I have been writing this posting, now McMaster and people who have supported him are condemned on the basis that one commentator noted: 'western audiences will only embrace Arab gay movements if those movements attempt to mimic western gay movements'.  This seems to go beyond the lesbian condemnation of the blogs and yet, again seems naive.  Of course, people flock to what is interpreted in a way they find easy to consume.  Few Westerners read Arabic (very few read Chinese or Hindi or know any language bar their own), so they are going to be attracted to something that is in a format they can consume. 

What is intriguing on this basis is that they were drawn to a lesbian supposedly in Syria, a country that means very little to most people in the West, it does not even have oil!  I accept that gays in Arabic countries might not want the support or even the interest of Westerners, but that goes against the sense of shared community that ironically blogs and other internet communication fosters.  To some degree, I feel that this incident highlights that ultimately whilst people may be interested in a blog because they feel an empathy (however much that empathy is stimulated by a fiction), a curiosity or a frisson, but that people stay with a blog due to good and stimulating writing.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

I Am Not The Eggman Or The Walrus But I Am The Tooth Fairy, The Easter Bunny And Father Christmas

The nine-year old boy who lives in my house has been losing his milk teeth intermittently for the past four years.  His mother introduced the tooth fairy immediately when this began to happen.  Unfortunately, it is me who not only funds the tooth fairy's payments but also is behind her activities, creeping around at night collecting teeth from shoes or the paws of soft toys, responding in tiny handwriting to written requests, leaving the money and making sure the tooth is well flushed away down the toilet.  These rules have been set by the child's mother and looking back it seems ironic that she has set the rules but it is me who has to fit with them. Fortunately the going rate she has set for each tooth is not overly high, even for an unemployed man, £2 per tooth.  There have been some gripes from the child that this is below the going rate which at his school is £5 or £10 per tooth, making something like £140-£280 for a whole mouth of teeth, if my knowledge of child dentistry is correct.

Some other rules have come from other sources.  The most notable one was either Horrid Henry or Charlie and Lola, the television series featuring young child characters.  In one or more stories, a child lost the tooth that they were putting out for the tooth fairy but still received the money all the same, because, apparently the tooth fairy can see inside children's mouths and note when a tooth is missing.  The nine-year old who distributes all his belongings all over the house, unsurprisingly lost one of his teeth that had come out before he could pass it on to the tooth fairy.  I was apprehensive as a result.  Under what I will term Lola's Law, I had to pay up because the tooth fairy must know it had fallen out (though usually she has to be emailed to be told to come and collect a tooth that has come out), but I feared the tooth would be found leading to the need for more complex fabrications.  Searching for a lost gecko toy, the tooth did reappear fortunately just in front of me, mixed in with some gravel that had been walked in, and I was able to palm it before it was spotted, saying there were stones that I had to chuck out, then making a quick diversion to the toilet to flush away the evidence.

I have other roles, back in April as the Easter Bunny.  The Easter Bunny was again introduced by the child's mother when he was much younger, but as yet has not died.  This child is intelligent enough to ask, if the pharoahs were in Egypt in 3200 BCE and there were stone age people before them and dinosaurs died out 63 million years before humans even appeared how could the world have only been created in 4004 BCE as they tell him at school.  In fact, given that God has not responded to any of his prayers he has rather given up on him and told me the other day he believes people when they die come back as other people or animals, suggesting at 9 he is moving more towards Buddhism or Hinduism rather than Christianity, which leads me to wonder what they are teaching him in RE (Religious Education) and Worship, two lessons he does at his Church of England faith school.  He can discuss black holes and white holes and is familiar with the DNA double helix and yet believes that a rabbit produces chocolate eggs that are available in supermarkets and distributes them around the garden for him to find.  Anyway, so I was again slated with the role of not only buying the eggs, keeping them secret and then staying up to distribute them around the garden (two years running, foxes got to some of them before the child).  As the child gets older I have to stay up later and walk around in fear of being heard or seen. 

Some fiction adds to the feasibility. Having watched 'Hogfather' (2006) in which Death replaces the Hogfather (the equivalent of Father Christmas in Terry Pratchett's Discworld universe), the boy knows that characters such as Death and Father Christmas work in parallel universes with a different flow of time to ours so they can get around the whole world. Condoning this I added that many countries in our world do not celebrate Christmas, some countries in Europe have the gift-giving earlier in December than the 25th traditional in the UK, and given the time zones, it is not Christmas night simultaneously across the whole world.  I was concerned when I first met the boy, that thinking that Father Christmas brought all his gifts, would make him unaware of the money and effort expended by his family in giving him presents.  Thus, in this house, most presents come from named individuals, but Father Christmas tops this up with special gifts. 

Two years ago, enjoying relaxing, I forgot to buy these special gifts and was left to run from newsagent to convenience store trying to buy what I could on Christmas Eve to make up the special package.  Of course, I eat the mince pie and drink the milk (fortunately he does not get brandy in this house, something I dislike) and last year even ate the carrot left for the reindeer, making sure to leave the stub in the garden where the reindeer would have touched down.

Ironically, having some Pagan relatives has added more characters to the mythical cast, though fortunately, as yet, I have not been compelled to dress up as the Green Man and do whatever it is that he does or delivers, but we have attended fires at Winter Solstice to ensure that the Sun comes back.  Fortunately we have never had a case in which the fire has been put out by a typical rainy day in a British December, as I did worry the child may be concerned that we would be condemned to eternal darkness as a result.  He also has avoided being in on the interpretation of the nature of the fire in predicting the year ahead.  Interestingly, though Pratchett's Hogfather is seen as the Father Christmas equivalent, in fact the origins he is portrayed as having sit far closer to the Pagan solstice rituals than anything Christian.

Now, the effort and expense involved in being all these anthromorphic characters is not what concerns me.  It is more that at special times of the year both I and the boy's mother lie to the boy.  We go to great lengths to support the lies.  I have a suspicion that given the boy's intelligence, his knowledge of world history and basic science and a lot of astronomical science, he has already seen through the lies and only plays along because he gets presents as a reward for continuing his side of the pretence.  However, the day will come when he no longer believes and I worry that that day will be soon.  I do worry that I will be caught at one of these activities and so will have to face both the ire of his mother for disrupting the fantasy and from the child disheartened by the revelation that myself and his mother, have clearly been lying.  How then will he be able to trust us when we tell him other things like he needs to clean his teeth, get a decent amount of sleep, do his homework, not bully other children, etc.? 

The alternative seems to be to select a certain date, say when he starts secondary school in September 2013 and tell him then.  However, even then, whilst avoiding the immediate heartbreak of discovery and having a standby that we will still give him gifts at Christmas and Easter (I assume all his teeth will have been replaced by then), the fact of our lies will still be there.

You might suggest I go on discussion boards and see how other parents deal with it.  However, I seem to be surrounded by parents who appear to want to keep their children locked into some idyll.  It does not help that he attends a school that teaches that the world was created in 4004 BCE (and yet ironically often gives toy dinosaurs as rewards to boys) and many of the parents believe that Genesis is the truthful portrayal of how the universe was created.  Of course, there is no date given in the Bible, this date was calculated by Sir Isaac Newton who spent a lot of his career not discovering gravity or laws of motion, but trying to decode the Bible.  In addition, they seek not only not to talk about the various mythical gift givers but also about other things like sex, swearing, alcohol and drugs. 

In the modern world it is a difficult line to tread in not terrifying children about the world out there, but also informing them sufficiently with the information that is necessary to cope with it.  I decided to keep in step with what his school was teaching in its PSHE (Personal, Social & Health Education) which is laid down by the National Curriculum.  However, finding out what they cover in that from the child or the school has proven impossible.  It is a faith school and I know sex is taboo, but they are supposed to get a basic introduction at the age of 8, something his school appears to have neglected.  This is despite the boys discussing openly things being 'sexy' and referring inaccurately to sexual activity.  It is unavoidable when you can see scantily clad women even on Marks & Spencer's posters and almost sexual activity in pop videoes.  In addition, as always, there are elder siblings who begin discussing these things. 

The boy in my house also fell in love with a girl in his class and wrote her cards and things.  Not only is he ill-equipped to deal with sex, but everything else that leads up to it.  Now, I could have sat back and blamed the school for its negligence.  It walks a fine line between OFSTED which seems to inspect it very regularly and the diocese which inspects it too, on very different criteria.  Some parents run a mile from even the mention of the word sex and see it as something that should not be discussed in school coming up with spurious claims that homosexuality is being 'taught' (as in practical instruction) in Scottish schools as a basis for avoiding all sex education. 

Others argue the innocence of the child needs to be protected.  This seems ironic given that these children already have named girl/boyfriends, surely if you combine that with an unwillingness to talk about sex and relationships you are just setting them up for teenage pregnancies with the man walking away.  Once the boy reached 9, I gave him a brief technical talk about 'seed' and 'egg'; 'willies' and 'fannies' but also things like the fact you cannot have 2 girlfriends and sometimes you will love someone who has no interest in you.  This took all the giggling away from talking about girls and things he saw as 'sexy'.  Have I stripped him of his innocence or have I empowered him with accurate rather than distorted information?

Now, given that I have been the source, along with his mother of life information, how is this ever going to be reconciled with the fact that I have also been pedalling a whole range of fantasy characters and going to great lengths to sustain a false belief in them?  How will it impact on his view of God and will he get expelled from his school if he begins to question God's existence?  It seems to me that parents want to have it all ways: to create a fantasy to make the child feel special, to engage them with major annual festivals and overcome fears (such as the loss of teeth).  Yet, in turn, this then seems to ultimately undermine the child's faith in the fact that their parents tell them the truth. 

I think it would have been better from the start to be honest with the child and tell him he gets Easter eggs and Christmas presents because people love him and want him to be part of a happy celebration and that tooth money is to help him forget the discomfort and worry of losing teeth, rather than creating a pantheon of mythical creatures whose role has to be acted out, in this case by me (and, I imagine, predominantly by fathers or pseudo-fathers when they are available).  In many ways I do not think ultimately it 'protects' the innocence of children. 

A staged approach to addressing life's issues rather than cottonwooling children is the way to do that.  In addition, it does not undermine the child's faith in their parents telling the truth just at the time when you are about to tell them things which they need to believe in to keep them healthy, solvent and safe in the years to come.  The parents I have asked about all this have proven worse than useless and I do really worry in their rush to pad their children against the world how ill-equipped they will leave those children when they face up to genuine challenges.  So, are there any practical, pragmatic parents out there who can advise on when it is time to pull off the Easter Bunny disguise and come clean?  I fear that it was a path that was doomed to failure the moment the boy-in-my-house's mother first promised him that Father Christmas was going to bring him a gift and, as a result, we may be still be picking up the pieces of those sustained lies, many years from now.

P.P. 05/09/2011
Suddenly it all fell apart.  Forgetting to pay for one tooth, two nights running, led to the utter collapse of faith in the tooth fairy and then with her both the Easter Bunny and Father Christmas too.  Then came the allegations of lying on our behalf.  Fortunately I was away from home when most of this happened, but the investigation and the accusations from the boy seem to have been quite severe, even down to trying to determine precisely which pen had been used to write responses back to his letters to the tooth fairy.

In many ways, all my fears have come true.  Not only have we come abruptly to an end of what was a delightful phase of his childhood, something which was inevitable as we moved quickly towards him starting secondary school (he goes into Year 5 this week), but the sense that the two people he trusted the most had been going to extensive efforts to deceive him over the space of six years, has clearly cut hard.  I do fear it has damaged his faith in anything we tell him from now onwards.  I know you can never keep a child in their 'cute' phase indefinitely, but now the price for not being honest from the start is that we have damaged our relationship with us just at a time when we need him to believe what we say especially about drink, drugs, sex, violence, etc. is completely true.

I would advise all parents, do not be tempted no matter what grannies and grandads say or aunts and uncles advise, to stay away from creating the false hopes of the tooth fairy, Father Christmas, the Easter Bunny and any other anthromorphic creations.  Instead tell the child that they are getting gifts because people love them; they are getting money for their teeth to soothe the discomfort and the worry that losing a tooth can bring to a child.  You can still wrap up everything nicely, you can still have a hunt for the chocolate eggs, just simply do not pretend that some spectral being has dropped them.  Tell the child that you have done it because you love them.  Without seeming too sentimental, this gives them a second gift, because too many children are not aware of how much they are loved, especially in the UK where we do not talk about these things.  To weave fantasy in the place of real love as a motive, will backfire severely just at a time when you need the child to be taking what you say seriously.

Personally I mourn not only the passing of time, the loss of innocence, but also the fact that I have been accomplice to handling the situation so badly with an impact that may echo down the years.  I know lying to children can sometimes not be avoided, but certainly stay away from the sustained lies that these creations bring.  I feel terribly guilty for messing up this boy's life in this way and am glad to be spared the responsibility of having my own children if this is the consequence of my complicity in deception.

Friday, 1 July 2011

The Life Your Parents Forgot

Back in 1992, when I was a mere 24, I attended a wedding back in my home town.  Two of my friends who had been dating since they were at school had decided to get married.  I am a big fan of weddings and went to at least one per year 1991-2002.  Anyway, it was also a good opportunity for meet up with other old friends; I was living in Oxford at the time and saw those who had remained in the town where I grew up, only occasionally.  I agreed to walk to the church which was only 3.2 Km from my parents' house with another friend of mine.  It was a bright sunny day and we intended to drink, as it was neither of us had a car anyway.  He and his brother lived with their parents, this being Surrey where rental accommodation is rare and house and rent prices are well beyond the means of young men doing ordinary jobs (he was a computer programmer; his brother worked in metallurgy).  My friend's brother, who was two years younger than us, decided that walking would take too long and he would cycle.  Whilst it is against the law to be drunk while cycling, you tend to get away with it much more and can stick to back routes where you are unlikely to encounter the police.  In addition, I am not aware of any drunken cyclists killing anyone, unlike even sober car drivers tend to do pretty regularly.  If you are that drunk you tend to fall off the bicycle and end up doing more harm to yourself than others. 

What struck me was the how alarmed my friend's mother was about us going to the wedding on foot and by bicycle.  It was in the middle of the sunny day, in suburban Surrey, not really a scenario that you feel has a high level of risk.  We were going to a wedding rather than a bare-knuckle boxing match and yet she seemed to believe that we would necessarily come to harm and tried to persuade her two sons to not attend.  They had known the groom since early childhood, yet she seemed to weigh her concern about their welfare above any thought of manners.  Both the men decided to go against their mother's wishes.  Of course, we all got there safely and had a very nice day all round.  We drank at the reception but no-one was incapacitated and we came home by taxi and bicycle.

That incident was a minor if peculiar one.  What I did not really take on at the time was what it signalled about how parents handle their adult children.  At 24, I have been a writer with a growing reputation; I could have been the ticket man at Fulham Broadway Station; I could have been in the Army, being shot at in Iraq; I could have been in prison; I could have had a wife and children of my own; I could have been running a business; I could have owned a house.  Okay, so I had not done any of these things.  I was, however, training to be a teacher, which suggested that the state, a school and numerous parents saw me as sufficiently adult to teach a class of pupils, up to 18 years of age.  I was fortunate that after I started the course, I only had to spend another few weeks when looking for a flat in London, living with my parents, so, perhaps I escaped being treated like my friend and his brother, somehow as if we were frozen at the age of 15 forever more. 

Part of the problem in the UK is that accommodation is so expensive.  When you have businesspeople looking for rooms to rent as lodgers in houses, how can a young person working in a shop or a call centre able to get even space in a shared house.  The only answer is parents.  This is why the average age for people leaving home in the UK is now 36, an age when back in the 1960s you would have been expected not only to have your own place (rented or otherwise) but also a wife and children, and be on the verge of middle age.

I think the attitude of parents to their adult children is not only shaped by the economic necessities of trying to live in the UK.  We live in a far more juvenilised society than even the 1990s, let alone the 1960s.  People seem unwilling to take responsibility for any of their actions and baulk against anyone limiting what they do; the speeding issue is a case in point, huge credit card bills is another.  Thus, parents who grew up in an earlier era (and remember someone born in 1981 is now 30), when people had to take more responsibility for their actions see their children ill-equipped.  However, ironically, that is because we have all been hammered by media pressure to protect our children for the apparently ominpresent threats out there.  By fearing all that might happen to our children we actually make them unable to cope when anything out of the ordinary, let alone genuinely dangerous occurs to them.  In addition, by padding them from the hazards of the world, we give them a false illusion that they face no risks and that driving dangerously or spending without thought will never have any serious consequences, or certainly not ones that the parents cannot resolve.

Naturally, I am sure, many children like the extension of the adult safety net.  This approach can be condemned as being a middle class attitude, but you only have to meet with families in poor parts of London or any other city to see, in fact, even among those on the minimum wage and on benefits this attitude of trying to insulate adult children from the world persists.  I have seen parents divide up their own bedrooms so their grown up children can continue to live in the house.  I have seen women go round to the houses of their daughters' boyfriends and shout at them from the street to stay away, often as a result of cross-racial relationships.  You might argue that the motive here is that the poorer population know how really hard life can be; the middle classes just want to protect their children against the potential of having a hard life.  The motives may vary, but the outcome is pretty much the same: treating adult children as if they were frozen in their teenaged years.

I suppose it is natural to perceive family members at a certain fixed position.  You do not see your parents as they age.  You see them everyday when they are growing up and these days when middle age seems to start when you are sixty, and people in their forties wear teenage fashions, your parents look much the same from 30 to 50 and sometimes beyond; my parents in their 70s look better than they did 20 years ago, the pressures of work having been shed from them.  It is the same with your grandparents you tend to fix them at a certain age and forever remember them as that and it can be a shock to realise as an adult that they are 25 years older than when you first knew them.  The trouble comes when we associate certain modes of behaviour with the age we have fixed our family member at.  It can be hard as your parents' faculties begin to fade as they age because you probably still default to thinking of them how they were at 45 rather than 75.  You are usually quickly brought back to reality when you see them again; it can be sad, but you generally adapt and begin quite easily to treat your parents the way you used to treat your grandparents.

The problem is that they too have frozen you in time.  In my experience they tend to think you are somewhere between 15-17.  You look like an adult to them, but they know that in fact you are very inexperienced of the world and are likely to make mistakes.  You have to be warned about these things.  Whilst you may resemble an adult, in their eyes, in fact you lack the ability to make adult judgements and you will make lots of mistakes.  You can be talked to as if you have no knowledge or expertise or experience of the world, no matter how high-flying a post you might hold (especially if it is an industry your parents disapprove of or never felt was right for you) or how many lovers you might have.  I must say, that in fact, this perception is not limited to parents.  Back in 2002, my brother and I got into an argument in a Belgian street.  He started bellowing at me about incidents that had occurred when I was 15 and he was 13, i.e. back in 1982.  Since then the Cold War has ended, AIDS has been a global problem, apartheid has ended in South Africa, home computers had grown from 48k to many Mb capacity, we had been through years of Thatcher and Blair, and yet, he still saw the tensions between us as they had been as teenagers.

Maybe I am unlucky, I do seem to meet people who whilst not having shining careers themselves are surprised that everyone else is not more successful and again blame laziness.  I had one friend who could not understand why I was not studying Korean (he would allow me to learn Japanese at a pinch) and was not making thousands of pounds writing history articles for magazines.  He had no understanding that these things do not happen.  The number of Britons who can understand Korean must be very limited and even those who are successful at article writing (and they are a select band who get lucky breaks) never earn the sums he assumed.  He took his assumptions to be the truth, so any argument against him just showed up how cunningly lazy you were, trying to get out of easy ways to make money.  It is people like this who must have been the witchfinders of previous centuries.

As you can guess, at 43, I am still facing the 'frozen in time' kind of attitude from both my brother and my parents.  It has been exacerbated by me being unemployed for 12 months.  Despite decades of mass unemployment, the default attitude for British people is that being unemployed is the fault of the jobless person; the economy and the attitudes of employers have nothing to do with it.  If only the jobless person applies him/herself, then they will not be without work. 

Being unemployed seems to give everyone a licence to tell you how to live your life, not least your parents.  However, the advice is not restricted to job hunting.  I have a girlfriend, she is the same race as me and the same religion.  She is aged 5 years younger than me.  She has a child that is not mine.  She is not an alcoholic, she is not a drug addict, she is not involved in any criminal activity, she is not violent, she runs her own retail business.  However, the attitudes of my father and brother towards her are as if she was stealing from me on a daily basis or plunging me in crime.  I cannot stand people who stop members of their family linking up with people of a different race or religion, though I can understand the basis of their disapproval.  Yet, in my case, there is not even this excuse.  I could understand even if she was 20 years younger than me or 20 years older, but we seem to be very well matched, and vitally, makes me happy. 

What gives parents and other family members the right to police the relationships that other adults in their family have?  I would be frustrated if I had been 16 or 18 and was told I should not be seeing someone I was attracted to, let alone one I loved and who loves me back, and treats me incredibly well.  How come, in our 30s and 40s, we cannot be left alone to form the relationships we want and maintain them, especially when they are as positive as the one I am in at present?  I am now old enough to have potentially had grandchildren myself and yet I am treated by my family as if I am still not mature enough to run my life.  I think it is somewhat an issue of discrimination against particular members of the family.  As it took me many years before I had sex and did not keep my family informed about every short-term relationship I had; because my girlfriend had a child by a man who fled the country once it was conceived, both of us have been branded by our families as feckless and incapable of making our own decisions.  This seems ironic considering that I have managed offices controlling thousands of pounds and my girlfriend runs her own business.  Yet, clearly this is not enough to warrant us being treated like adults. 

If these people were not family members I would have told them to back off very harshly and in fact, as it is, the persistence of my father and brother in trying to keep running my life has led me to break ties with them both.  The picking on one member of a family seems common.  My girlfriend has two sisters, one of whom is also a single parent.  I have my brother who does not get treated the way I do, despite the fact for many years he settled to no career and spent months travelling, getting drunk and stoned, but now somehow is allowed to be an adult when I am not. 

One friend of mine when living at home in his 20s was compelled to do the ironing and other domestic chores that his brother, only two years younger, was not compelled to do.  His brother, having attended university was deemed to be above those things, yet has flitted from job to job, entered a marriage in which the woman two-timed him even moving her lover into their house and drained him of money before emigrating with yet another lover.  It appears that some of us are marked out as 'black sheep' for our entire lives, on criteria which, objectively, would not suggest such labelling.  It means that no matter how old we become we are never free of being treated as if we are incapable of running our lives without active family intervention.  If I was an alcoholic, a drug addict, regularly in prison, then I could understand it.  My own crimes have been being unemployed and falling in love with a single mother.

I had a friend who married in the late 1990s to a stunningly intelligent and beautiful woman.  He was well-educated and had movie star looks.  They shared a love of travelling to remote places and living adventurously.  However, both had very good university jobs, were healthy, of the same age and were not involved in crime or addicted to drugs or alcohol.  They seemed very well suited.  Yet, from the start her parents disapproved of him and hounded the couple so much that they fled the UK for Belgium.  Ultimately the pressure was such that they divorced.  To me, given how rare happiness is in this world, to drive a couple that way seemed evil.  Alright, there may have been a personality clash, but once your child is an adult you have to accept their choices.  Destroying something that brings them happiness without harm, is perverse.  However, I guess that these parents are not only frozen in time but also cannot see beyond their own petty concerns.

I have no idea who sets the rules.  I have had one male friend who has been physically abused by one girlfriend and robbed from by another; I have one female friend who is always publicly disparaged by her husband, and yet no-one ever seems to speak out or criticise what is going on with them.  Clearly myself and my girlfriend are in some category which allows people to tell us how to live our lives.  Before coming to visit us, her father told her bluntly that she had to leave me.  There was no reason given.  I accept I am unemployed, but then are hundreds of thousands of men in the UK.  I worked hard to try to get a job and having been to 28 interviews in 12 months, I finally secured work.  It may not be the greatest job I could have got, it pays £7000 per year less than I received in my last post, but it is permanent, it uses my skills and those things are not to be ignored in the current economic climate.

I have never attacked my girlfriend (I have never attacked anyone) and am like a father to her child.  We argue far less than is the apparent national average despite me spending the bulk of the day with her.  I am not a drug addict, an alcoholic or a criminal.  I do all that I can to make her and her child happy.  Yet, it is not enough, she has been told repeatedly to leave me as I have been told repeatedly to leave her.  There is no sense that I am an adult, that I can make my own decisions, make my own mistakes indeed, and live with the consequences.  I cannot predict the future.  Looking back there was little I could have done to spare myself from redundancy.  Yet, somehow, I am expected to have prescient powers that would have allowed me in the 1980s to know what careers and which employers within those careers would be safe bets in the 2000s.

Remaining with my girlfriend then opens me up to further charges (and she has experienced very similar on her side from her father), that I am naive, that I have no idea what I am doing and need to be guided.  Mistakes dating back decades are raked up for both of us.  For me it is joblessness, for her it is having a child as a single parent, that seem to be the clinchers, the things that rule out us being able to shape our lives properly or to make decisions.  I am not even permitted to say I am going for a test for Asperger's (let alone doing it) without being ridiculed at length by my father. 

I am a man, I have run offices, I have made financial decisions, I am trusted by the state to drive on the roads, to vote, to pay taxes, to obey the law, yet I am not deemed capable of taking decisions on my own health and above all on my own relationships.  My girlfriend and I have been utterly loyal to each other, we have had no other sexual partners since being together and yet our parents see the other as being reckless and bad for their child.  If they knew how hard it is to find someone who you are compatible with, I would hope that they would be pleased for us that we have managed to find someone who makes us happy.  Even if my girlfriend had all those bad characteristics, it would be up to me and her to decide whether the relationship should continue. 

We have been facing so much anyway, that I would just beg for her and my family members, if they cannot tolerate the partner we have chosen, just to stay quiet.  If you cannot say something nice, say nothing at all is what I would say.  However, any attempt to get them to back off elicits even more patronising criticism from both sides that even at ages 43 and 38, we are not capable of making our own choices and have to have parental intervention to show us where we have gone so wrong.

Parenting is not about ensuring that your children live their lives very precisely the way you have set out, even if that was possible (and, of course, parents, whatever they might think, are fallible; my father lent me money so I did not have to pull out of the house purchase and now says, three years on, that that was a big mistake on his part and I should have continued renting).  Parenting is about equipping your children to deal with the world out there and what it might throw at them.  Yes, you will act as a fall back, a safety net as far as you can, for many years.  However, once your child is an adult you have to recognise that the state views them sufficiently mature to do all the things like vote, have sex, die for their country, go to prison, whatever and live with the consequences.  You may disagree with how they live their lives, but if they are happy and are not making other people unhappy, it is not your place to intervene. 

You can never control another person's life, even your partner's and to try to do so ends in bitterness and failure.  As a result of my brother and father and my girlfriend's father constantly haranguing us to end the relationship, we feel large chunks of our families have turned their back on us. 

Men take it harder than women which is why I have ceased contact with my brother and father over their repeated criticism of my relationship.  Ironically, my girlfriend keeps trying to get me to make it up with them.  However, being an Asperger's sufferer (however much my father denies it), I remember all the insults and shouting as if it occurred hours rather than weeks and months ago, so it makes it that much harder to move beyond.  In addition, all the signs are any attempt to re-establish contact from my side will be seen as me admitting I was wrong and apparently giving them the green light to harangue me further in an attempt to direct my life in every aspect.  To accept that is to give up any standing as an adult and to accept the view that I am incapable of living my own life and making my own decisions.  I do not know what their motives are but clearly they seem to be very far from any kind of love.  For practical reasons, I have to maintain contact with my father, but unfortunately it comes at a high price. However, I have no such connection with my brother and I anticipate that the last time I will see him is at my father's funeral.