Dont buy the Sun.

Dont buy the Sun.
Hillsborough Justice campaign - Remember the 96.

Sunday, 30 March 2008

Civilization: Why ?

Actually, we don't know.

Those regular readers of this irregular series of communications might be aware that the question 'Civilization;Why?' has been the subject of intense investigation by yours truly for at least two years now. Aware of the possibility that the following advice will result in this post never being read by anyone except me and Toshack, the 18lb cat, I should warn regular readers that I do intend to drone on about this question in this post, proferring some observations on the matter. If not interested in the subject my best advice, at this point, would be that the reader logs onto Facebook and 'pokes' someone they hardly know. Caveat emptor provided, plunge on I will, sparing nary a single equine.

The question, expanded, is better framed as "Why, did Civilizations arise, why have they (with arguably one exception) all collapsed, and in what direction[s] might they proceed?". Equally interesting are the related questions of who is asking these questions and why, and what to do with the answer if there is one. The question also implies that there are some problems with civilization, some thing s that need to be fixed. Before we even start to answer the original question though, let alone the subsidiary and arising questions, there is a problem.

As it happens, the great question "Civilization; Why?" is being asked almost exclusively by Westerners, or those cultures allied very closely with the West. China, for example,officially, has virtually no research on the subject. The Chinese view seems to be that China was, is and will continue to be; questioning civilization, particularly Chinese civilization is not encouraged. India and Japan, for their part seem uninterested and Africa, despite being the cradle of humanity, has understandably other questions on the minds of most of it's scholars.

Why might it be that we cannot just get on with answering the question? The answer, it appears, lies in the basic assumptions underlying the question, and in the politics that arise from those assumptions. The basic assumption of the question is that Civilization arose after homo sapiens had mostly colonized the planet, spreading out from Africa in waves of migration. Most (western) scholars, and the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence support this view. China, however, does not. Even if there is no official opinion from the Chinese Government about the origins of homo sapiens, there is significant support in that country for the view that human evolution was multi-regional, with homo sapiens evolving seperately in different regions of the world from earlier hominid species. This is why the discovery of Peking Man was welcomed with such excitement in China, as some (Chinese) scholars saw it as evidence that the Chinese homo sapiens sapiens evolved seperately.

The implications of this are profound. If Chinese homo sapiens are different, then cultures arising in China are also, by implication, different than the rest of the world. If this is the case, then Chinese civilization is also unique, and cannot be measured against, judged by or compared to Western, African or any other culture in the world. Further, and also implicit, is that if there is a problem with past or present (other) civilizations, this has nothing to do with China. The West can learn what it likes from the mistakes of the past, but these lessons do not apply to China.

See :

for some accurate references on this political usurping of reality in the interests of politics.

See also :

and note:

The quxi leixing concept was intended to provide a methodological framework for the reconstruction of Chinese prehistory, as it shifted away from the center-periphery model to a multi-regional approach to the development of Chinese civilization (for the historical background of this trend see Falkenhausen 1995; Wang, T. 1997).

It should be obvious that this representation of 'China' describes the state of 'mind' of the current ruling regime in China, not the individual people, but I would argue that the ruling apparatus of China has remained essentially unchanged for thousands of years, with it's 'state of mind' unchanged, and that this has had a profound effect on the development of their civilization. While I would disagree with the rationale behind the semi-official Chinese attitude towards human evolution, I do believe that the retention of such a fundamental 'worldview' by a culture for so long, means that "Civilization: Why" can never be answered as if one set of explanations as to how and why civization arose apply. The economic theories of Tainter, the environmental explanations of Mr Jared Diamond, the humanistic idealism of organisations like the United Nations all fail to account for the massive influence of a set of very deeply held cultural beliefs (that saw China as "different" even before questions of the origin of the species came along) that have themselves shaped the civilization as much as any influences of resources, commerce or environment.

On that note, a note I may add which appears to result in the complete dismissal of the life work of most Western scholars on the subject, the first part of this investigation will conclude. Later this week, I'll try to work out how I argued myself into this position and how to best extract myself from it.

I think I'm being stalked...

This morning, another lazy breakfast with various Large-Nickersons : Calli, Tosh, self and Boffin sat round trying to wake up. We switch the tv on as background noise, and it's them again - The Sugarbabes or Girls Aloud or whatever they are called, performing an acoustic version of one of their songs. I think I'm being stalked because this particular product are everywhere right now.

The outfits are perfect, the make-up is immaculate, the backing musicians are note perfect. There has obviously been a lot of time spent on presentation in this performance. In contrast, and stripped bare of the over produced backing track, the lyrics of the piece stand alone to be judged on their merit:

"If I could get to you
I feel it in the air
My world don't make no sense
If I'm without you in it "

Saturday, 29 March 2008

Pillars Of Wisdom Part 2

A lazy Saturday morning found us observing "The Sugarbabes" or "Girls Aloud" on MTV or some other channel introducing their favourite musical tracks. The middle one of the identikit Barbie dolls was asked about her favourite artist. This is what she said:

" I really loved Michael Jackson when I was young and I really used to love his album "BAd" and the song "Liberian Princess". I thought the song was about me, because I'm a Libra, but it was'nt until I joined the band "[nods towards colleagues] that I found out it was a country, or whatever. In Africa or somewhere, or whatever".

The human race is doomed.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

A Word to the Wise

I bought a bottle of water for my trip home tonight on the (delayed) 18.38. The advice on the label included "Store in a Cool, Dry Place. Keep away from direct Sunlight." and, to my surprise "Do not Freeze."

Yes, I know its probably something to do with expansion and contraction of H2O as it freezes/thaws and the effect this might have on the container, but all the same....

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Through the wind and the rain.. ..Barcelona and back

It has been said by at least one drunken Marxist Revolutionary that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single footstep. In our case, a journey to the heart of Anarchist Spain(in the 1920's) began with a train journey to Newcastle and ended with one of the scariest landings either of us have ever experienced, as we returned to gale-force England.

En-route we witnessed some magnificent architecture, experienced an attempted mugging, (re)met Nel's cousin Chris and his partner Celine, watched Liverpool cruise serenely to the last eight of the European Championship and bizarrely met up with an old friend, who was (is) now selling crisps across Europe (chips to you Naughty Americanos) as well as eating our way through tons of tapas in the Gracia area of the city, and as millions before us have done, wondered at the magnificent architecture of the city. Oh, and we decided , once and for all, that we're definitely NOT city stompers.

Street scene in Barcelona: Magnificent architecture and McDonalds. Click on the pictures for a bigger view.

We arrived in the city to be met at Barcelona Norde, the central bus station by Chris, Nel's cousin, and hopped into a cab to Chris and Celine's apartment. I first met Chris about fifteen years ago on a hiking holiday in the Scottish Highlands, one of many excellent trips planned by the great Meg, that re-introduced me to the pleasures of extended family. These Scottish holidays will never be forgotten, as anyone was welcome - parents, cousins, my band ( at the time) and my family all experienced a week or two of hiking, mountain bike riding, star gazing, communal cooking, card games, swimming in some of the remotest lochs in Scotland and the occasional foray to the pub or the local stores. The only qualification was to not be an asshole, and breakfast would see my spliff-smoking drummer making fried egg sandwiches for all (he'd never 'cooked' before!) or getting beaten that night at canasta by Nel's eighty year old card-cheat nan. We met Chris then and although we have'nt 'stayed in touch' directly (ie sent eachother Christmas cards), we hoped that his, and our memories of each other were accurate. Thankfully, this proved to be so: Chris, and his partner Celine, have travelled, formed their own opinions and acted on them. They're both good company.

Nel and I spent two days in the city, wandering, as we determined to do, with no fixed agenda. We went hither and thither, from the area of Gracia to Gaudi's famous Familia, down through the old town to the horrible modern marina and back to the apartment in the Gracia. Barcelona has stunning architecture, but perhaps most striking is way the city's living accomodation is democratised. Barcelona completely lacks private houses; it is a city of apartments, some slightly bigger than others but none the less we did not see (and later found there is no) private houses anywhere. The result of this is that these Catalonians live almost entirely in public. The local square is the football pitch, dog park, marketplace, romantic rendevous for all Barcelonic experiences. It is great to watch, life passing by, unchanged for centuries, and on our second day, I spent the hours from five to seven pretending I was Catalonian, sipping beer and coffee, reading an newspaper at a cafe in the square by Chris' apartment. If I had to live there it would drive me crazy.

We had been warned about pickpockets in Barcelona, and on our second day met the phenomenon up close and personal. Nel and I were strolling through the Metro, Barcelona's underground, and were surprisingly, not completely lost. A long passageway funnels rows of commuters between the two lines in the station of Passeig de Gracia and we had joined the commuters, eager for our own siesta after a hard day of wandering around. Mid-conversation, Nel emitted a mighty cry of "THIEF!", simultaneously slapping the hand of a young girl as she did so, a girl who's hand was in Nel's bag. Nel's wallet, stuffed with crisp Euro's came flying out of the bag and landed on the ground. I stooped and heroically picked up the wallet, while Nel glared at the offender. There was a stand-off for a millisecond, then the girl disappeared back into the crowd, looking terrified. We stood still for a second, had a quick look round, but somehow the perp. (as we call them in the Law and Order business) had disappeared. Fantastic reactions from the Boffin, combined with a look that coud literally kill, gave Nel instant hero status, but she failed miserably later that evening relating the story to our friends, as she told it exactly as it happened.

The friends we were dining with were Karl and Pugsy, entrepreneurial masterminds behind "Crips", an invention of Pugsy's dad. Pugsy's dad actually invented several well known foodstuffs, including Angel Delight, a manufactured dessert that contains so few nutrients it originally had to be sold in stores as a chemical along with substances such as potassium permanganate and silver nitrate. The new invention is healthier, containing wheat and natural flavourings. It is a type of crisp. Karl and Pugsy were in Barcelona at a food trade show at the same time we were, and we met up for Dinner on two nights. All the boys told Nel off for her complete lack of exaggeration when re-telling the story. I believe she has no Celtic genes whatsoever.

The best bits of the visit were socializing, in a city that I think is more built for adults than children, as the streets are narrow and hard, with no sidewalks, and motorbikes, cars and trucks roar down them, giving every impression that there are no rules of the road here. The green spaces are few and far between and crowded. The architecture is stunning though, and there are about a million restaurants per person.


Seeing Celine and Chris was great, and having a very small taste of somewhere so different from Hull was in a way refreshing, but on our last day we agreed that we had seen enough brilliant architecture and were looking forward to going home to Hull's post-industrial wasteland. Not in any sense disappointed with Barcelona - I'm sure we'll be back, but next time we'd probably take a pension up the coast and stay for longer, with just occasional forays into the city.

A really good holiday should tell you something about yourself, and this one did for us. Barcelona's population density is reminiscent of the bigger cities in the UK, despite the different architecture. We talked about a few cities we know including Toronto, London, Liverpool, Birmingham and I realized that we concluded that we just do'nt like big cities that much. Fine for a visit, as they say, but over the last few years we've evolved into small town people. I found myself pleasantly surprised.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

A very busy day

Toshack and Calli have had a wonderful time recently, as they have had a human to annoy practically full time. A normal day starts at about 8.00am when Nel gets up for work. She'll shower, make a cup of tea then take the cats out for their first walk of the day. "First walk of the day?", the cry goes up, "For cats?". Well yes actually, our cats have become accustomed to being accompanied on their exterior excursions by a human, and they make it obvious that this is their preferred system.

During my continuing absence from work due to the broken arm, the fact that the cats have had permanent access to the wilds around our house has not changed their preferences, as I hoped it would. Despite a permanently open kitchen window through which they can hop, they limit solo excursions to the minimum, except of course when I have to go out. Due to our rental agreement, we cannot have a cat-flap, so when I leave the house, I need to make sure that the kitchen window ( the cat's doorway) is closed. I also need to make sure that the cats are back inside, safe and sound. Naturally, this is when the cats decide to go out on their own. Cat wrangling ensues, with me chasing the cats round the car-park, and the more frantic I becuome to get them in (in the cases where I have a fixed appointment), the more fun the game of chase becomes.

Cats at play

Naturally, the consequence of both 'walking' the cats regularly, and our constant games of chase have led to a certain perception in the neighbourhood that we are eccentric. Personally, I would strongly refute this charge. I prefer the term, 'individualistic'.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Liverpool vs West Ham

Liverpool vs West Ham

As is hopefully evident from the pictures, last night I went to Anfield, spiritual home of football and Mecca to me and the 45,000 other people who attended. This was the first time since our return to the UK that I had been to a match, as tickets are like gold dust and obtaining a ticket was sheer luck.

Sometime last week, I spotted that tickets had been released for general sale, by the club, and immediately bought two. I called my younger brother and told him he was off to "the match". Football is so universally watched, analyzed, loved and passionately followed in England, and especially in great footballing towns like Manchester and Liverpool, that practically no-one either city will ask "What match?".

I arrive in Liverpool and head for the ticket office to pick up my pre-ordered tickets. Since I last visited a football ground in England, football has changed. It has become a worldwide corporate, 'brand' led mega-business. Outside Anfield, coaches are delivering parties of Chinese, Korean, Indian and German fans, and even at 4.00pm the street round the ground are full. Another, welcome, change to footballing culture, is that the atmosphere on the streets is pleasant, anticipatory, happy, in contrast to the unhappy period in the early Eighties when intense local and national rivalries in England and Europe, (especially for young men fuelled by drink and often inflamed by extremist political groups of the right and left) meant that going "the match" was physically hazardous on a weekly basis.

I head to my parent's house for dinner, a potentially awkward affair, as my parents do'nt really approve of my lifestyle choice, even though we both "came out" to our parents when we were about eight years old. My parents, you see, are lifelong Evertonians, Everton being the older of the city's two clubs. Everton are the club that my family, my whole family including cousins, uncles, aunties, dogs and cats, traditionally support. I emphasize traditionally, because it really does run that deep; supporting a football club is a part of English tradition, often dictating where you lived in a city, who you might marry and sometimes what job a person did. Some families have split up over football. My parents are not fanatical, but the tradition does provide valuable continuity, so last weekend my parents took their grandchildren to Goodison (Everton's ground) to watch their club. Three generations of family watched 22 men kick a pig-skin round a park, the only abscences being the two younger sons. It is clear from my father's pithy remarks about the preferences of my younger brother and I, that he is determined that his grandchildren will not go off the rails the way Richard and I did.

After dinner, Richard and I embark on our walk to the ground, and our own tradition is quickly remembered as we debate which pub to go to before the game. This is where it might get confusing, so a brief explanation follows for people who do'nt have an encyclopedic knowledge of the city of Liverpool. Liverpool, the city has two football clubs,Everton FC and Liverpool FC. The home ground of each club is virtually visible from the other as they face eachother across Stanley Park. Everton's ground is located in the suburb of Everton, while Liverpool's ground is located in Anfield. Unfortunately, we approach the ground via the suburb of Everton, and most of the pubs are hostile to us, (although not in any physical sense), and wearing our colours we would possibly be asked to leave, so make our way straight to the stadium and take our seats.

The match itself is an event. Unlike hockey there are no tunes played over the PA, all the atmosphere is created by the crowd of 45,000, of which 43,000 are Liverpool fans. Humour among football crowds in the UK is one tradition that has'nt changed and when one opposition player who is noticeably burly runs for the ball, the crowd in my section, about 8,000 people, start singing "Nellie the Elephant", substituting the player's name for "Nellie". This seems spontaneous as one guy sitting behind me, who attends every week, remarks "That's a new one". Similar exchanges continue throughout the game, and for one ten minute period a mass comedy festival breaks out as a block of Liverpool fans and the adjacent opposition supporters engage in a "sing-off", trading good humoured topical insults.

After the match we do get a pint in a local pub, and I'm very happy that the atmosphere continues to be excellent, fans from both teams mix freely, chat about the game and wish eachother safe journey's home. It is a far cry from the image of English football that still pervades in North America, where the spector of crowd violence still persists as a characteristic image of the sport.

As for the match itself, I can report that the 4-0 victory by the magnificent Red Men of Anfield was in no way a flattering scoreline, it could have been six or seven zero, but dubious decisions by the referee and his assistants allowed the cowardly, cheating tactics of the Southern team to go unpunished, while our valiant Red heroes, each and all embodying the spirit and passion of the beautiful game, played the weazeling opposition off the park in a breathtakingly brilliant display that saw our team, nay Gods!, teach the dark forces of East London a footballing lesson. In my unbiased opinion.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Yorkshire Moors

Sutton Bank, White Horse at Kilburn and Gormire Lake

The Nickson arm is out of plaster, and finally it is time to resume normal activities (apart from work). One of the too-easy-to-forget things about a broken limb is how a couple of little fractures, probably less than 10 mm long can restrict all normal activities. It is only this weekend, six(?) weeks after my bike accident, that while I still cannot pick up Toshack and hurl him across the room (he is a very heavy cat) without sudden pain (I have tried, repeatedly,to throw the feline, usually at 6.00am when he pokes my nose with is paw in order to inform me that it is now playtime and the day is a-wastin') I feel confident enough to drive and therefore go somewhere interesting to hike.

We head for the Yorkshire Moors and Roulston Scar, an incredible line of limestone cliffs, 300m high that gaze westwards over a heavily farmed glacial landscape. The walk has several highlights, the amazing Gormire Lake, hard to get to, and therefore silent, which has no in, or out-flowing streams above ground. It is very spooky, limestone sand filling the bottom, and it exudes age. Thankfully there are no boats, picnic areas or fishermen (sorry,Canada, I believe 'fishers' is the politically acceptable term) allowed so the lake has preserved it's atmosphere, which is completely primeval. I could happily picnic here, after a quick spot of gender neutral fishing from my canoe.

The walk is circular, four miles along the cliffs of Roulston Scar and four miles in the forest below. This landscape has been settled for over 5000 years, with a line of Mesolithic Hill forts along the top of the Scar looking out over the rich (even then, wheat was grown here) farmland below. As we climb back up from the valley from Gormire Lake to reach the top of the Scar, two things happen. Firstly, the ancient earthen banks are everywhere, and I point them out to Nel breathlessly, excited by this find. She replies equally breathlessly, "I'm friggin knackered" as we clamber up the better than 45 degrees slope. We've gone off track, and this is where the second thing happens. I cannot properly complete the scramble with only three limbs fully operational, and the gammy elbow is getting pretty badly jolted, so we make one of those "That could have been really bad" decisions that I'm sure we'll laugh about in years to come. We decide to go completely off track and climb straight up, in order to get the thing over with as quickly as possible. We begin our climb, 180 metres straight up, scrambling trees roots and rocks but we get to the top, amazingly no more (new) broken limbs. It could have been a really bad decision though.

Later on in the day, we come across another really stupid decision, the White Horse of Kilburn. The horse "was the brainchild of a local Victorian schoolmaster, John Hodgson" who wanted to create a figure 'similar' to the Famous Neolithic White Horse carved into the chalk on the South Downs of England. I've visited the 'real' White Horse and it is truly amazing, beautiful and in my opinion, badly overlooked in NOT being a World Heritage site. The same cannot be said for Mr Hodgson's horse. It is simply crap. It is so crap in fact that it is worth visiting just to see how crap it is. I sincerely hope Mr Hodgson did'nt teach art. Needless to say there is an ice cream van in the carpark below the horse(ice cream vans being de-riguer in England at any attraction, no matter the weather), but in the freezing temperatures we eschew the cold stuff, and make tracks for home. It has been a tough 8 miles, and we've seen some great landscapes, some excellent wildlife (including a pond of frogs, mating noisily) and a crap White Horse.

My new, partially regained mobility has also allowed several museum visits recently. Hull's museum is fascinating, mostly because it is so old, and in serious need of renovation. It attracts almost no visitors, but the peeling heavy red wallpaper, badly typewritten descriptions and dusty displays make it feel like one of those private roadside museums from North America . The only acceptable day to visit this type of museum is Wednesday afternoon, it just would'nt work on any other day of the week.

The building is magnificent 'they just do'nt build them like that anymore', but inside, two semi-uniformed employees do crosswords, and I ask them if the museum is open. The guards look surprised, but advise me to take a look at the ship models. Accordingly, I do; there are at least forty exquisite models of boats, unseen by anyone this afternoon apart from me and whoever owns the footsteps that I keep hearing, echoing spookily two galleries behind me. Whale tusks are nailed to walls, weird chairs made from Right Whale ribs and a small, but complete Right Whale Skeleton are crammed into the space without any of the 'interpretation' that is deemed so necessary in recently built exhibits, but the saddest exhibit is a mouldy stuffed Polar Bear,the fading fur full of holes, shrunken to be no bigger than a large dog. Another sign of the age of this place are the displays of trawling, this time with commentary, which enthusiastically describe the efficiencies of drag netting. As with Nova Scotia, drag netting has killed Hull's fishing industry with an efficiency that was probably unpredicted when this museum was built.

Museum day out

On the way out, moving quickly because I've started to get spooked by the footsteps that seem to echo behind me, I ask the guards if anyone else is in the museum. "Did'nt see anyone, mate," says one of the guards and goes back to his crossword.