Friday, August 19, 2011

Riots: More politics than I thought

Have just come across this article in last Saturday's Irish Examiner (13th Aug), by Mohammed Abbas, a Reuters journalist writing from London.

‘This law and order is dishonest. I get stopped and searched. You won’t’

There's more politics in here than I thought. Mohammed Abbas talked to some rioters in Hackney, and here are a few quotes:-

"The looting was done, not just because they can’t afford the stuff, it was done to show they just don’t give a shit... We’re here and not going away."

"It’s like the old days. It’s bringing the community spirit back. Even though it’s a sad way to do it, it’s bringing the community together."

"But if the riots kick off again, I’m going. It’s history, it’s a revolution."

"I loved Hackney during the riot. I loved every minute of it. It was great to see the people coming together to show the authorities that they cannot just come out here bullying."

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Giving rioting a bad name

‘If you’re not careful the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.’
- Malcolm X

First of all: you can hold disparate opinions about the riots if you want to. I can say that the causes of the riots are rampant consumerism, vast and rapidly increasing inequality, and thousands of lives without hope. And I can say that the looting perpetrated by the rioters was an amateurish affair compared to the industrial scale looting perpetrated year after year by bankers. Yet at the same time I can also say I should take it a deep personal failure if any grandchild of mine was mixed up in most of what I've seen on the screen and read about. I can say that some of the rioters were the scum of the earth. I can also pose the question: how did they come to be this way? All those things I can think simultaneously.

Yes. What happened in London and elsewhere in England has given rioting a bad name. The very word riot implies some sort of political consciousness which was notably absent. Not wholly so though. I did see one looter say to a reporter who challenged him ”these big shops can afford it”. But that doesn’t excuse indiscriminate (indiscriminate is the operative word here) looting, arson and violence.

The Spirit Level

If you haven't read The Spirit Level you should. It produces a wealth of evidence that inequality (not merely absolute poverty) causes shorter, unhealthier and unhappier lives, whilst functioning as a driver of consumption and depleting the planet's resources.

The full title is The Spirit Level - Why equality is better for everyone, 2009, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

Cameron can declare war on gangs but he needs to lose his attitude first. If gangs didn’t serve a purpose they wouldn't exist. He needs to work out what their purpose is. And why that purpose is served by gangs and not by more socially useful organisations such as work, trade unions, political parties, churches, youth clubs and the like.

Who were the rioters?

A few extracts from the newspapers.

From The Guardian Wednesday 10 August. “Who are the rioters? Young men from poor areas; but that's not the full story”. Paul Lewis and James Harkin reported that the crowds involved in violence and looting are drawn from a complex mix of social and racial backgrounds. As Lewis and Harkin followed a group of looters who had just finished ransacking a pawnbroker's, and had started cleaning out a local fashion boutique, they witnessed an angry young black woman berating one of the looters.

" ‘You're taking the piss, man. That woman hand-stitches everything, she's built that shop up from nothing. It's like stealing from your mum.’ A girl holding a looted wedding dress smiled sheepishly, stuck for anything to say. ”

The context suggests the angry young black woman was herself a looter, though the story doesn’t say.

Terry Prone had a piece in the
Irish Examiner 15th August “No easy answers as to why ordinary people were stirred into looting”. She mentions two cases that came to court. The youngest of the looters captured was an 11-year-old who had stolen a trash can. It might have been a wheelie bin. Or it might have been a static garbage container. The details didn’t come out in court. All that came out in evidence was that he had stolen this trash can. Outside the court, his mother turned to him and asked him the lethal simple question, to which she got no answer: “Why?”

The other case Terry Prone mentions was an aspirant social worker. Natasha Reid, aged 24, didn’t wait for the police to identify her from CCTV footage. She had nicked a TV set from one of the shops broken into during the rioting, and turned herself in, having, according to her mother, spent a couple of days in her bedroom, doing nothing but crying. This young graduate knew she was guilty, and was ashamed of what she had done.

Her mother, baffled by the three days which had put her daughter on the front pages of newspapers worldwide and put paid to any chance of getting a job as a social worker, told reporters: ’She didn’t want a TV. She doesn’t even know why she took it. She doesn’t need a telly.’ "

Looting in the London Blitz

A couple of pieces from the papers in 2010, the 70th anniversary of the Blitz. Duncan Campbell revealed how black marketeers, thieves and looters took advantage of the misfortunes of war, in The Observer 29 August 2010.

And then there's the Café de Paris incident, a nightclub hit on 8 March, 1941. Two bombs hurtled down a ventilation shaft from the roof and exploded in the basement nightclub right in front of the band. The carnage caused by the explosion in that confined space was dreadful. The Daily Mail online 9th April 2010 reports :

“The worst of human nature was in evidence that night too – amid the rubble and the chaos, unscrupulous looters were seen cutting off the fingers of the dead to steal their rings.”

It is also widely reported on the internet (but always in precisely the same phraseology which means it may be false) that on the same night "even the wounded in the Café de Paris were robbed of their jewellery amid the confusion and carnage".

Echo here of that prize scum of the earth incident, the Youtube clip of the bad samaritans, two youths pretending to assist a hurt Malaysian student whilst robbing him.


Red Pepper blog

Zoe Williams in The Guardian, Tuesday 9 August: The psychology of looting - she says the shocking acts of looting may not be political, but they nevertheless say something about the beaten-down lives of the rioters.

More Malcolm X quotes

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

How Midas and his ass’s ears spread around the world

A couple of months ago I was puzzling over two stories about a king with animal ears and a barber who couldn't keep a secret. They were the ancient Greek tale of Midas with his ass’s ears, and the Irish tale of Lowry Lynch with his horse’s ears. I was musing on their similarity. Each king hid his shame with long hair, and each was betrayed by a magical plant, to which his barber had unburdened himself. In the ancient Greek version we have talking reeds. In the Irish version, the barber tells a tree, the tree is made into a harp, and the harp sings out the secret.

In this bronze wall fountain, from a 16th Century original,
the artist has imagined King Midas's hair too short to cover his asses ears.
So. Is the Irish story an adaptation of the Greek one, or do they both derive from a common source, I asked myself?

Well I've been to the Boole library at University College Cork to find the answer, but first let me digress to reveal that both stories are folktales of type 782.

Yes, type 782 no less.

Uther's Types of International Folktales
It’s all in a 3-volume book called The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography by Hans-Jörg Uther, 2004. Hereinafter known as the yellow book. There's a broad category of folktale known as The Truth Comes To Light, and within that category, type 782 consists of tales about humans with animal ears or horns.

Cinderella, to anticipate your next question, comes in the category Tales of Magic, and is type 510A.

It seems this classification system is known as the Aarne-Thompson-Uther classification, and folklorists will say that the ATU number of tales about humans with animal ears is 782, and the ATU number of Cinderella tales is 510A.

Professor D. L. Ashliman seems to be big in the world of folklore and fairy tales. He lists on his website six instances of the tale about a king with animal ears and a barber. Starting with Midas, he includes Lowry Lynch, as well as stories from Wales, Serbia, India and the Philippines.

In the Welsh tale, the barber tells his story to the reeds, the reeds are made into a musical pipe, and the pipe sings out about the king’s ears. So that overlaps with Lowry Lynch (a plant is made into a musical instrument) and with Midas (talking reeds). In the Serbian version an elder tree is made into a flute. In the Philippine tale we have talking bamboo, and no musical instrument.

In three versions, the barber digs a hole in the ground and tells his story to the hole. Later a tree or reeds grow up on the spot. That’s how the reeds appear in the Midas story as told by the Roman poet Ovid; though in my telling of the story I have the barber telling the reeds just where they grow along the river bank, because that’s the way I remember it from school.

A hole occurs also in the Serbian version and the Philippine version. Which by the way, according to a note on Professor Ashliman’s website, is an adaptation of the classical story of Midas brought there by the Spaniards. (Disappointed? Read on it gets worse.)

The Indian tale is the only one of the six which doesn’t involve a plant; the Indian barber blurts his secret out to another person.

How are the stories related?

It turns out there are many more variants besides these. The yellow book lists 46 of them, from disparate languages, cultures and regions.

So back to the original question. Which now, with 46 variants, has become an even bigger question. How are all these stories related? How do we account for their worldwide distribution? I had rather hoped to discover that the tale had emerged spontaneously and independently in all these places, evidence for the existence of a Jungian archetype buried deep within the human psyche, involving shameful ears, a barber, and magic talking reeds. Failing that, I had hoped to find evidence of an oral tradition and a common human culture that was widespread long before the emergence of writing.

But no. The yellow book, having listed all the 46 variants, tersely informs us under remarks: “Classical origin, Ovid Metamorphoses (XI, 174-193)”. Ovid's version is very spare, as you can see from this translation.

So that’s that.

Categories of tales

A comment about the yellow book and how folk tales are arranged in it. The top-level categories are these: Animal Tales, Tales of Magic, Religious Tales, Realistic Tales (Novelle) and Tales of the Stupid Ogre (or Giant or Devil).

Every tale ever told fits, it seems, in one of the categories on that list. Equally surprising, Midas comes under Religious Tales; the sub-categories of which are God Rewards and Punishes, The Truth Comes to Light, Heaven, The Devil, and Other Religious Tales.

Stith Thompson's Motif-Index of Folk-Literature
Midas comes in the sub-category The Truth Comes to Light. Other tales in this sub-category include The Singing Bone, where a brother (or sister) kills their sister (or brother) and buries the body. From the bones a shepherd makes a musical instrument of some sort which brings the secret to light. Or the murder is revealed by a speaking tree growing from the grave.

Note that here we encounter a motif we have seen before. A secret being given away by a musical instrument or by a tree.

These motifs have themselves been listed, in another book, twice the size of the yellow one. It’s called Motif-Index of Folk-Literature by Stith Thompson, 1956. It comes in 6 volumes, and is dull green. (I've since found an on-line version, and a search engine for it, but it's worth the bus fare to Cork just to handle the real thing.)

A speaking musical instrument is motif D1610.34. A speaking tree is motif D1610.2. (They both come under Magic.) Motif F511.2.2 is a person with ass’s or horse’s ears (that's listed under Marvels). Motif N465 is a secret physical peculiarity discovered by a barber (under Chance & Fate).

Any given tale can be built up around one, or several, of the thousands of motifs listed in this tome.

So now we know how folklorists occupy their time.

A romanticised view of oral tradition

A final point. Until I read the yellow book I had a romantic notion that oral traditions had existed unchanged for centuries, and are somehow more to be valued than literary sources. It seems that folktale scholars generally held this view up until the 1960's, but have now abandoned it. According to the introduction, literary texts by such as the 14th century story-tellers Giovanni Boccaccio and Geoffrey Chaucer, are a major source of folk tales. So it seems that tales can weave in and out of oral tradition. We now know that many so-called oral narratives can be traced back to works of literature, indeed have a rich literary history. The Midas story would appear to be an instance of this. Written down by Ovid (who, let us assume, received it as oral tradition) and then spread around the world in a variety of forms, some oral, some written.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Morality is what you do when you think no-one is looking

Even, if this Youtube moment is to be believed, in Bern, Switzerland