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The Politics of Place Names

I suppose that by now everyone is familiar with the way the names of the Indian cities of Mumbai/Bombay and Kolkata/Calcutta, or Beijing/Pekin in China, have been returned to their local designations.

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The city of Mumbai – image via http://media2.intoday.in

Many African cities, and even whole nations, are now similarly referred to by their African names in preference to those conferred upon them by the colonial powers.

And in the former Soviet Union the names of places have changed as political upheavals evolved.

People outside of the British Isles might be less aware of the political minefield that surrounds the use of certain place names and geographical terms in Ireland.

One reader of A Purgatory of Misery recently took me to task over my use of some of the place names and geographical terms in that book.

I’ll begin with the one I just used. To me, and to many people, including the compilers of the Wikipedia entry for the term, “The British Isles” simply means the group of islands on the western edge of Europe that includes Britain and Ireland. However, in Ireland the use of the term is anathema because of the fraught relationship between the two largest members of the archipelago as documented in my book. So is any reference to the larger island as “the mainland”.

In the book’s description on Amazon I mistakenly referred to the 1845-52 famine as “the worst man-made disaster to afflict Great Britain”, forgetting that Ireland is not, and never was, a part of Great Britain. The full designation of the kingdom is “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. Between 1800 and 1922 it would have been “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland”.

But my biggest mistake – and it is one I ought never to have made – was in referring to the city of Derry as Londonderry.

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The Peace Bridge over the River Foyle in Derry, N.I. Image via startacus.net

I will not go into the history of the dispute over that name, rather I will refer you to this Wikipedia entry, this report of a Judicial Review, and this news report about a debate in the city that took place as recently as 2015.

These will give you a flavour of the problem, as will this quotation from a Unionist Politician during a debate in the British Parliament in 1984: “Until the 1960s there was a happy use of both Londonderry and Derry. I am a member of an organisation known as the Apprentice Boys of Derry, and it is proud to have that name. The Protestants, Unionists and Loyalists who come from that area are happy to call themselves Derrymen. It was a matter that did not provoke excitement and it certainly was not taken as being an offensive remark to say that one was from Derry.”

No wonder the question of the border between the two parts of the island is a deal breaking issue in the negotiations over Brexit.

And the book? I’ve made the requested changes, and added a note at the beginning:

The use of the term “British Isles” throughout this book is intended as a shorthand description of the group of islands that lies at the Western edge of Europe. For reasons that will quickly become apparent to the reader, many Irish people have a deep resentment for any use of the word “British” in connection with their homeland. No offence is intended. This book is aimed at an international readership and we trust the term will be acceptable to the majority of such readers.

The same applies to the use of the expression “mainland” to distinguish the largest member of the group, including England, Scotland and Wales, from the island of Ireland.

I’m pleased to be able to report that the book continues to garner five star reviews. Even my harshest critic, in his private communication, said it was “[a] well written and extremely intelligent . . . short, succinct guide to the Famine”, and said it deserved to succeed.

There may be more good news about it early in 2018 – stay tuned!

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The Poor Law Inspector – Update.

I can’t believe it is 6 months since I first posted about this project of mine. If anyone is interested, here is an update on my progress since then.

First of all I need to explain that this is part of a long term project which includes a non-fiction book about the Great Irish Famine, as well as the historical novel based on the activities of Capt. Arthur Kennedy and Colonel Crofton Vandeleur in Kilrush between November 1847 and 1851.

I have been working hard on the non-fiction work over the summer and have what I consider to be a decent draft ready for sharing. I am looking for beta readers but, meanwhile, I intend to publish it here in installments over the coming days. It will appear as pages rather than posts and those pages will be collected under a new menu item ‘Purgatory’ – see it in the menu bar above. I will post about each new page as it is created. A few elements of it have already appeared here as posts.

Why ‘Purgatory’?

Charles Wood, 1st Viscount Halifax. Chancellor of the Exchequer during the Great Irish Famine. Image from wikipedia

Well, I have chosen the working title of ‘A Purgatory of Misery: How Victorian Liberalism Exacerbated a National Disaster’. The words come from the following quotation: “except through a purgatory of misery and starvation, I cannot see how Ireland is to emerge into anything approaching either quiet or prosperity.” said by Charles Wood, Chancellor of the Exchequer in Lord John Russell’s Whig government, approving the harsher measures contained in the Poor Law Extension Act of June 1847.

Today’s installment consists of the preface and introduction and you can read it here.

I have now recommenced work on The Poor Law Inspector and signed up to produce 10,000 words during October on Tim Pike’s ‘Chapter Buzz’ site. Why not follow my progress over there and join in by commenting?

If Writing is not Political, What’s the Point?

A recent blog post from Allison Maruska highlighted the dilemma that some writers face when exposing themselves via their blogs and social media. If potential readers get wind of my political beliefs will they decline to purchase my books?

Do the people I hope will buy my books need to know my thoughts on Donald Trump or just how many cups of coffee I drink whilst working on the next novel in the series? My views on creationism or climate change, or only how my latest research trip is going?

My question to people who struggle with these dilemmas is: “why do you write?” Because the truth is that all writing, if it is to mean anything, is of necessity political.

Is anyone in any doubt about Dickens’s politics? Or Orwell’s? Did Wells’s well known Socialism put people off his writing?

Of all genres, Science Fiction is, perhaps, the most obviously political. It’s basic plot involves an individual or group struggling against a regime with which they disagree. However the author chooses to present the two sides, which one is portrayed as the embodiment of evil and which as all that is good and just, he or she is making a political statement.

Neither the writer nor the reader can relate to the situation in an imagined world except by comparison with parallels in our own world. And it is how the author handles those parallels, how, for example, he portrays fear of “the other” as natural or irrational, that reveals his or her political stance on problems in the real world.

Which features of an invented religion are based on the beliefs of certain religions in our world? Are they shown to offer clear benefits to those who practice them, or are they revealed to be the cause of unnecessary suffering?

Even in romantic novels, which might be deemed by some as trivial, the protagonists have conversations and disagreements. The nature of those disagreements reveal, whether intentionally or not, the author’s world view.

When it comes to blogging, if your aim as an author is to show your readers the kind of person who wrote the book or books that you are publicising; if, in doing so, you hold back some essential part of yourself, are you not being dishonest? And if the reader discovers, through reading your book, a set of beliefs he despises is he not just as likely to reject you and your writing as if he made the discovery through your blog?

You might think you are protecting your “bottom line”, and, by extension, the welfare of those who depend on your income for their own security. The truth is, I contend, that you are not being true either to yourself or to your hoped for readers. If you are afraid, as Frank Sinatra put it, in Paul Anka’s words, to “state [your] case of which [you are] certain”, perhaps you are not meant to be a writer.

Saturday Sound-off: Religion and Politics

I had planned to write a piece about austerity. Out of deference to the people affected by the terrible event in Kensington this week I have decided to hold that over to a future date.

There was another event that caught my eye however. Barely noticed among the hours of TV coverage and reams of newspaper reporting and comment about Grenfell Tower, came Tim Farron’s announcement that he was resigning the leadership of the British Liberal Democratic Party.

Mr Farron is a devout Christian who has made it known that he regards homosexuality as sinful. Despite that, on every occasion when laws about sexual behaviour and orientation have been under discussion in the House of Commons he has supported the right of individuals to make their own choices.

And yet, during the recent General Election campaign he was pursued relentlessly by certain elements in the media over his religious beliefs. At times in the past he has been guilty of evading such questions. He has explained this by stating that his Christian beliefs are irrelevant to his role as a legislator. His voting record confirms this.

His resignation statement makes plain his sometimes conflicting belief that, in a nation whose people observe many different religions and none, it is inappropriate for law makers to impose restrictions based on a single interpretation of the holy book of just one of those religions. It also demonstrates the anguish he feels as a consequence of that internal conflict.

I have written before about the suffering caused by religious fervour in the past. And we see it still, almost on a daily basis, in parts of the Middle East.

Across most of the UK in the 21st century we have removed the majority of those laws which were motivated by religious belief. The same is true of most modern democracies, although in some there are people with power and influence who still seek to have ancient explanations granted the same weight as scientific reasoning in schools.

I say “most of the UK” because there is a small part of the Kingdom where a fervently religious political party still insists on imposing restrictions on the rights of its citizens in matters of sexual orientation. Where, I wonder, is the media harassment of the leader of that party? Especially now that she is in a position to influence the governance of the whole Kingdom over the next five years.

You could say that, as an atheist I am seeking to impose my personal beliefs when I insist that religion has no place in politics. But, like Tim Farron, I have no desire to deny anyone the right to live by whatever doctrine he or she chooses to adhere to, so long as their behaviour does not harm others. And that is why I have such great admiration for this decent man who has presided over the re-birth of his party after the disastrous collapse in support following their performance as coalition partners from 2010 to 2015. I may not share his religious beliefs but I have nothing but praise for his honesty and integrity.

Do you agree that religion has no place in politics in a modern democracy or should our laws be determined by ancient beliefs? And, if so, which ancient belief system would you impose?

Saturday Sound-off: Weak, Unstable and Disunited

Once again Britain has shown itself to have become a divided society. Polarised between young and old, between those who see the advantages of being a part of the European Union and those who don’t, between those who believe in the entrepreneurial spirit and those who think the state should provide for all their basic needs. Long gone are the days when Labour and Conservative parties did well to achieve much above 30% of the vote, with the middle-of-the-road Liberal Democrats snapping at their heels with a vote share above 20% and ‘New Labour’ adopting many of their policies.

Mrs May gambled and failed to win. But nor did she lose, still receiving the greatest share of the votes cast and the largest number of seats in the House of Commons. She wanted “strong and stable”, a majority large enough to overcome what she saw as the flakiness of those of her colleagues who were less committed to her vision of post-brexit Britain. She hoped for a resounding endorsement of that vision from those she described as ordinary people “just about managing”. Now it is she who is just about managing to hold onto the vision. She now hopes to continue just abut managing for the next five years. That shows a degree of optimism verging on the arrogant.

Warning Signals

The people she will be relying upon to sustain the vision, the DUP, certainly share some of that vision. But already there are warning signals. Thursday’s result for the Tory’s was achieved in large part because of the success of their campaign in Scotland, masterminded by an openly gay woman, who is engaged to a catholic Irish woman. The fiercely protestant DUP have resolutely fought to maintain Northern Ireland as the only part of the British Islands in which same sex marriage is still not permitted.

It could be argued that the DUP are responsible for the breakdown of the power sharing arrangement under which Northern Ireland has been governed for since December 1999. The refusal of their new leader to step down whilst an enquiry takes place into the failings of an alternative energy project over seen by her when she was Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment was the catalyst for the initial breakdown. Talks aimed at restoring the agreement have failed to reach a conclusion with the two parties to the agreement, the DUP and Sinn Fein, at loggerheads.

What this means for the rest of the UK over the coming months which will inevitably be dominated by the Brexit negotiations is hard to predict. The DUP oppose a so-called hard Brexit. Moreover, if, as seems to be the case, Thursday’s result was driven by an increase in the number of young people taking part when it is also true that young people are more disposed to remain in the EU, then it is reasonable to argue it represented a softening of opinion on membership of the single market. So, too, did the collapse of support for UKIP.

To many outsiders it seems as though May has spent most of her tenure as Prime Minister trying to put off a decision about how to approach the negotiations. She apparently made her decision to call the election whilst climbing a mountain in Wales. She still has a much more important mountain to climb. The election has not made that climb any easier for her.

Saturday Sound-off: The False God of Nostalgia

I watched something on television earlier in the week about Josef Herman, the Polish born artist who settled in South Wales where he produced iconic paintings depicting the lives of miners. The presenter and his interviewees, who included actor Michael Sheen, were full of nostalgia for the lost communities of the heyday of Welsh industry. I could not help recalling earlier works like “How Green Was My Valley” and “Rape of a Fair Country”, which deplored the destruction of the landscape brought about by industrialisation. It struck me then, how misguided is our love of nostalgia.

“How Green Was My Valley” has been exposed as a fraud, a novel written by an Englishman whilst serving in the British army in India and turned by Hollywood into a sentimental movie that created “a myth, a never-never land of pristine innocence ruined by the discovery of coal. His myth has generated more myths, of pits and singing miners and explosions, but it’s a good yarn.” [Meic Stephens, creative writing lecturer at the University of Glamorgan, quoted in an Observer article in 1999]

Last evening I attended a concert by The Black Family. For those who may be unfamiliar with this group of Irish musicians and singers, it consists of five siblings who achieved considerable success in the 1980s before going their separate ways as solo artists. Few will not have heard of either Mary Black or Frances Black. Once again, we were into the realms of nostalgia doubled; for the audience the songs with which the Black siblings achieved their original fame brought back memories of their own youth, whilst the songs themselves often recalled even earlier periods in Irish history, especially growing up in inner city Dublin in the 1960s and holidays on Rathlin Island, where their father was born.

All this reminded me, too, of that Python sketch in which three men vie with each other with stories of childhood hardship in working class homes.

Our whole political discourse seems to be imbued with this kind of false nostalgia. Britain’s decision to exit from the European Union was driven by it. The appeal of Jeremy Corbyn’s rhetoric is in large part because it harks back to an age when the gap between rich and poor was less marked than today. That, too, is something of a myth. It is true that the gap has widened significantly in recent decades but that was after a rare period of narrowing. Compared to, for example, Victorian times, the poor throughout the developed world are immeasurably better off than they were. Much better off in fact than the characters depicted in either of the novels referred to above.

Even terrorism, such as that which erupted in Manchester at the start of the week, seems to be driven by nostalgia; a desire by misguided young men to return to a time when people were cowed into obedience to a god who required them to deny their natures, when women knew their place as the chattels of men and those who dared to resist were subjected to humiliating punishments.

The truth is that you can not turn back the clock. The past was never as rosy as it is sometimes painted and was often a dark place where evil reigned supreme.

Vast numbers of people are far better off than their ancestors. Much of the prosperity we enjoy has been bought by mortgaging our future, by much greater environmental damage than either Richard Llewellyn or Alexander Cordell could ever have imagined. By all means let us learn from the mistakes of the past, but let’s stop looking back and remember that the future belongs to our children.

Saturday Sound-off: Mixing Politics With Other Work

This recollection is provoked by the news that the MP for Tatton, George Osborne, has been appointed to edit the London Evening Standard whilst maintaining his seat in Parliament and his other highly lucrative, if part-time, jobs.

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My 1981 election leaflet

In the 1980s I decided that, if I wanted to change the world, it was time to stop moaning and get involved in politics. I joined the Liberal Party and stood for election to the County Council. I didn’t make it at the first attempt but four years later – in May 1985 – I was successful. I became one of four Liberals holding the balance of power between 36 Labour and 35 Conservative councilors.

It was a large county. About a quarter of the population of over 800,000 resided in the city of Kingston-upon-Hull. Grimsby and Cleethorpes formed the next largest centre of population. Scunthorpe was also included within the county boundary as were three other sea-side resorts, the port of Immingham and eight or so medium sized towns.

Back then the County Council had responsibility for Education – schools, colleges and adult education; Social Services, including childrens’ homes and old people’s homes; Economic Development, which included responsibility for a small airport; Libraries, Police and Fire Services, Weights and Measures inspectorate and the maintenance of major roads. The Authority employed in excess of 20,000 people in these important activities.

The four of us decided from the outset that we would not form a coalition with either of the other two parties. Instead we insisted that every decision must have the agreement of a majority of members. It didn’t matter how that majority was constituted so long as two of the three parties were in agreement. Of course, that meant we had to be represented on every committee, sub-committee, and ad-hoc panel or consultative body.

Airport management

To begin with it didn’t look as if the commitment would be too heavy. The council worked on a 3-monthly cycle during which each main committee and the full council met once. So, two committees plus full council would mean twelve meetings a year, one day a month to take off from my job. But the Education Committee had two large sub-committees, one dealing with schools and the other with everything else. And there was a sub-committee of Economic Development to deal with management of the Airport. So that doubled the commitment to two days a month. Still quite doable.

But Schools Sub-Committee members were expected to meet with the governors of the schools in their area. If a school was facing a possible upheaval of some kind there would be meetings to be had with governors, teachers’ representatives and parents. If an employee was accused of some misdemeanor he or she had the right of appeal to a panel including councilors. Recruitment to fill vacancies in senior positions in the Authority was undertaken by a panel including members. And I’ve posted elsewhere about the panel of members, advised by staff, who determined which young people could and which could not receive a grant for their third level education.

Severance

Before long I was taking two, sometimes three, days off every week. My employer was remarkably generous in granting me this much time off for what the contract of employment defined as ‘public service’. The deal was that I continued to receive full pay so long as I returned to the company any allowance I received from the council for carrying out those duties. After a year and a half I was asked if I’d prefer to leave. I was offered a very generous severance package which I am still reaping the benefit of 30 years later.

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Aerial view of Grimsby docks. Image from Cycling Weekly

The council embarked on the full scale reorganisation of the schools in Grimsby which involved closing every existing school and opening a bunch of new schools covering different age ranges. Every teacher in that part of the county had to accept early retirement or apply for a job in one of these new schools. The process began soon after I was elected with a consultation exercise in which the nature of the proposed change and the reasons for it were explained at a series of meetings. Feedback from the consultation was debated and the proposal document amended accordingly. Once the plan was approved by the Department of Education at Westminster it had to be implemented. Councillors sat in a long series of meetings with governors to choose heads and deputy heads for the new schools.

The work of a councilor, in these circumstances, did indeed become almost a full time job, for a while at least. For the first 6 months after leaving my job I worked unpaid for the Party, as election agent for the District Council election and the General Election that followed a month later. My wife and I decided to find a shop – a disastrous venture the details of which have no place in this post. I got a part-time freelance job as a feature writer and advertising sales agent for a regional business magazine.

All of this recollection is provoked by the news that the MP for Tatton, George Osborne, has been appointed to edit the London Evening Standard whilst maintaining his seat in Parliament and his several other highly lucrative, if part-time, jobs. He is the same age as I was when a county councilor. Several former editors of the Evening Standard were interviewed on the BBC last night. At least one suggested that the job could occupy up to 100 hours a week. I dare say the job that Osborne has taken, though described as Editor, is much reduced from what the person with that title formerly had to undertake. Even so, I don’t envy him trying to juggle the demands of both roles. He has to survive until May 2020 unless he decides to resign from one or other post before then.

Will he last three years? I’m not a betting man, but I am inclined to think that he will not. What do you think?