Monday, 15 February 2021

 The world of today:

I love words and I love the English language, but one of my weaknesses is that I will always use a long word where an apposite diminutive would suffice. This makes me a stranger in our modern worlds where language seems to have suffered a reductio ad absurdum. The reductio arguments though are essentially fallacies and it is possible that “reductio ad txt-speak” or many of the other internet driven, often US inspired, changes in language use are developing a more international form of the English language, which is fine by me as long as I can still read Tolkien or Conan Doyle. One example of this that irritates me far more than it should is the now common-place use of the phrase (please excuse the capitals here.) “Train Station.” It is a Railway Station, a railway premises run by a railway undertaking for the purposes of railway operation. The train is a transit medium! But language moves on, as do the ideas that it describes. Today’s Transport for London “Tube Map” now displays not just the undergound of Harry Beck’s original 1931 idea, but the overgound and the south London Tramways. This is progress as they all “transport” people. And so to a sentence full of ludicrously long and complex words that refer to the ideal of thought and belief that almost everyone believes that they understand, but the more one examines this concept, the more it becomes apparent that almost no-one can describe it adequately, let alone demonstrate understanding.

I
have long pondered upon one of the ultimate philosophical or metaphysical concepts surrounding epistemology, the concept that underlies the simple English word “truth.” I do not wish to do more than mention in passing the ecclesiastical concept of truth, for I fear that has largely disappeared from contemporary life. I fear that modern “devout” men, such as Jacob Rees Mogg will find the eye of the proverbial needle forming the idealised gates of heaven that they one day hope to pass. Nor am I concerned simply with the factual truths of basic science or mathematics, they are largely fixed and understood, except that the definitions tend to fray at the edges when examined too closely. We also have concepts of legal truth, but the ancient British concept that “Law” is the will of God, by the hand of the Monarch through the power of Parliament exercised by an impartial judiciary, has been hard strained recently with a Prime Minister specifically suggesting that the law should not apply to Parliament. That Parliament is the law. Welcome to our new dictatorship. Will any repeat of the “Cummings goings” of 2020 result in a 10-year prison sentence for breaking lockdown rules? Or do “rules” only apply to the masses? The hoi polloi, perhaps including the bourgeoisie? They certainly do not appear to apply to our political elite. In 2019 we lived in a state that we thought of as “normal.” The etymology of this word would appeal to the Freemason as the Latin origin normālis is from the carpenter’s square, the nōrma, but has grown to be understood as conforming to a type, standard or pattern. If examined, we might be surprised at just how unusual this perceived normal of 2019 was. A decade earlier, the first Android smart-phones were coming onto the market a couple of years after the slightly earlier but highly expensive iPhone. Today, virtually all active members of society carry one everywhere. I am rather glad that in my youth one had to obtain a camera and film to record activity, not pull a high definition video camera out of your pocket. So where is the “normal” there? The concept of “something accepted by custom and tradition” has taken on a different meaning in the years of our current century. I was a fairly early adopter of the internet, long before Tim Berners-Lee had gifted us the World-Wide-Web, I used Cix and Compuserve, I used IRC, or internet-relay-chat regularly from the mid nineties. Windows 3 had begun in Seattle in 1988, but not until the 1992 release of Windows 3.1 did home computers with networking become available. Not until 1994 did Netscape release their web-browser, Bill Gates then responded a year later with Internet Explorer. Our “world” is less than a generation old, a mere 25 years. Granted that a mere fifteen years before I was born, England was enjoying a warm summer that would end with “The Austrian Corporal problem” one that changed, not only the world order, but the nature of Britain when in 1945 our illustrious war leader, without whom things might have been very different, was given such a sound thrashing in the General Election that Atlee was able, between 1945 and 1951 to implement the Welfare State, including the National Health Service, dramatically reform education, although that had been passed into law in 1944, it was his administration that laid out the free secondary education of all children up of the age of 15, to be extended to 16 as soon as reasonably practicable. This, of course, removed the idea of a boy, for there was societal sexism of a much more rigid kind universally in force, would leave school at 14 to enter into an apprenticeship to come of age at 21 as a journeyman worker. No-one really thought much about the girls, although the Colleges of Commerce were given a new lease of life. The industries, often heavily war damaged, were nationalised, the railways, the coal-mines, the energy and water services and much, much more. Rationing was to remain in force until after I was born by a week or two, but malnutrition became much rarer, milk was served in school, cod-liver oil and orange-juice distributed to mothers and young children. We gradually recovered the British spirit and got our industries going, but in retrospect, the Germans built new industry, we struggled on with the pre-war factories and practices. This was simply because the Nazi Luftewaffe bombed London and other cities with bombs ranging from 25kg to 250kg or 500kg, a heavy raid dropping just over 5,000 tonnes of ordnance. This caused widespread damage. By 1944 we had thousand bomber raids raining 10,000 tonnes of ordnance onto the city of Berlin every night and the USAF continuing through the daylight hours. This caused almost total destruction. Then, come the mid-sixties, the post-war world became the “swinging sixties” and Britain’s black and white post-war existence became full-colour modernity in a social revolution that lasted from roughly 1967 to 1972, by which time one Margaret Hilda Thatcher was Secretary of State for Education and soon to become leader of the Conservative party. Moving into the seventies, the country had also joined the Common Market and for many life was at least tolerable, although inflation rates in the teens of percent per annum was no joke. It was not decimalisation that doubled prices, this piece was penned on the fiftieth anniversary of decimal coinage, it was inflation, accompanied by devaluation of the pound, that brought us kicking and screaming into the Thatcher eighties where, although industry was forced to modernise, fiscal stability improved. It was now economics that drove the country not production. So how many “normals” have you lived through? How different will our post-pandemic world be? Will it be a “new normal” or will it be a new different, just as the post-war welfare state was?


I have a great empathy with a Welsh word and concept of hiraeth.” It is a concept of loss and memory, homesickness and nostalgia, but is, at the same time much more than any and all of those emotions. However, the current situation in Britain, I’ll leave the Republic and the Province out of this ramble, requires something a little more forward thinking, something less reflective. The Danes, who are quite private about their language, apparently, most speak English and German but dislike people trying to learn Danish, have a complex word relating to the concern for society being greater than individual concerns. Samfundssind appears to be the antonym for whatever moral framework drives most British politicians of the current era. They would no doubt twist the translation to suggest that the party comes before the people, which, I suspect, is far from the meaning most Danes would understand in the word. In Britain’s new and less than splendid isolation, it may be that we require a different Scandinavian concept, the Finnish idea of “sisu.” To those familiar with the web-comic “Scandinavia and the World” this is instantly recognisable in the stern and insular personality of the Finland character. To quote Urpu Strellman, a literary agent from Helsinki, as Finland became independent from Sweden, whose language was used by the state, the legal profession and the elite, and from Russia, the not-so-friendly bear that it shares important borders with, it represents the creation of a Finnish stereotype as “stern, modest, hard-working, God-obeying people who get through difficult times, taking upon them whatever [fate] throws their way. These are features that relate to honesty very closely.” Finns are too honest for the minds of many countries, especially the British who have been quoted, by Johannes Kananen of the Swedish School of Science at the University of Helsinki, as saying that “In English there is a saying that the truth is so valuable, it should be used sparingly. But in Finland, people speak the truth all the time.” I need to add a couple of riders to the preceding ideas. Firstly, the God that the Finns “obey” is unlikely to be the one that the Archbishop of Canterbury follows and secondly, a truly truthful Finn would probably question any information given by a Swede! “Sisu” describes the concept of grit, resilence and hardiness, probably reinforced by the vast rural landscape and the dark Arctic winters that control the lives of those outside of Helsinki and the handful of cities with population upwards of 100,000, cities the size of Aberdeen, Canterbury or Chelmsford.

So while I try not to lose myself in a hiraeth relating to our lost European neighbours, I suspect that a British, or possibly, quite soon, a little England, version of sisu will be required to steady our course across the dim windblown uplands as we try to construct a new type of society post-pandemic. Hopefully, one that contains some of the ethos of of the Danish samfundssind. A society where the well-being of all comes before personal glory and hopefully one where politicians will encompass at least a little of the Finnish respect for simple truth
born of sisu.

I’ll get my coat.

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