Saturday, September 15, 2012

On Hydronyms

The river that flows through the village is called the Alarconcillo. The river we went to to look at the salt mines a few days ago is the Pinilla. They both play a role in feeding the lakes and their two lines join up near the start. A couple of weeks ago I went to a village further south, on the river Cañamares. There is a stream that flows into the lower lakes, called the Magdalena, one of many that appear on the maps in the innumerable little valleys that the crumpled scenery here creates. This one is particular well known because it gives it name to a stretch on hill on the road to somewhere else where a lot of motorcyclists have met an unhappy end. It tempts you to go faster than the curves will allow.

All of this makes for a verdant-sounding countryside filled with the chatter of babbling brooks and the mating calls of happy and abundant fish. But all these rivers are dry. None of them deserves the name of river at all, as they are little more than mud channels baked in the sun. On the occasions when they do have water in them, it is a kind of sludge so narrow you can jump across it.

The city I live in is on the Guadiana, which at least is a proper river you can get wet in. It flows north-east, through Mérida and Badajoz, then goes south, forming the border between Spain and Portugal for about 70 miles and flowing into the Atlantic at Ayamonte. The name is Arabic and it somehow manages to keep its identity for several hundred miles, despite joining with many other rivers and passing through complex multi-feed drainage systems.

You would expect most people to call the river that waters their town or village ‘The River’. Why would you need a name for it at all? ‘And even if you did, to distinguish it from some other river that passed nearby, perhaps, why would the people in the village a few miles downstream give it the same name? There comes a point where the distance is so great, and it needn’t be more than a dozen or so miles, that it is not even recognised as the same river.

People identify their local river with some divinity, or event, or specific feature that characterises it, because they like giving an identity to the important things in their lives. Geographers give themselves the task of tracing rivers, then they need to define criteria for choosing names and deciding which has precedence, so the idea that a river has an identity over hundreds of miles is an invention of modern academia.

A neat explanation, if I do say so myself, but unfortunately it isn’t true. Hydronyms, and to a certain extent toponyms more generally, are extraordinarily durable. They are handed down from tribe to tribe, from conquered to conquerors, from those who left to go West to those who moved in to replace them. Most of the place and river names of Greece are not Greek. They have survived not only three thousand years of Greek culture, the Turkish conquest/semi-replacement of the 17thC, but they even survived the original occupation of the land we know as Greece by those who came from the East and displaced those who gave them those names.

There are countless river names in Spain that are Arabic, Visigothic or Celtic in origin. Why do people who share no language or cultural identity with the namers, nor any real cultural continuity, continue to use names that mean nothing to them?

Names are sounds. The meaning of the sounds is less important than the symbolism of the thing we attach them to. I am certain there is a great deal of information about human history in the human mind contained in the way we preserve and re-interpret names that have become meaningless, but try as I might, I can't find it.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Niche Narratives

Rereading some short stories by O Henry, I was struck, as I often am, by the desire to have written some of them myself. If I could excise him from history, hide the tales from the world for long enough for them to be forgotten, then produce them as my own, I think I would do it. Or possibly not. His style is not mine, his life was not mine, his characters can never be mine, but many of the ideas behind the stories are universal, at least, they are once they’ve been thought of.

Last night I read ‘The Last Leaf’. I am certain I remember the story from another setting, involving a couple of Frenchmen. I don’t know which is the original, or perhaps it comes from some folk tale, or a source older than writing itself, and O Henry and others have taken it and given it a new world and new flesh to live in. His story may be overdramatised, and I would have given it a different title, but the composition is perfectly balanced, and the whole thing is gathered together by its own coherence.

It made me think about other unusual idea which have been repeated (or copied) in writing and in song. I have a little list (now that line rings a bell, too, for some reason) of particularly striking cases:

I’ve always thought that Thomas Hardy pinched the entire plot of The Mayor of Casterbridge from Les Miserables. The story of a man reacting against his own weakness and stupidity, trying to make up for them, rising to achieve great things, and finally losing the daughter who was his main inspiration is common enough, but there are too many similar details for it to be purely chance. I would have to read them both again to explain it more fully, but I am sure there is some influence.

Lope de Vega once wrote a sonnet which is a description of the process of writing itself. (It’s called Soneto de Repente, if anyone wants to look it up). And Leonard Cohen wrote a song called Hallelujah, a rather splendid song if you like that sort of thing, the first verse of which describes its own musical theme (It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift) very cleverly.

Another O Henry story is ‘The Tainted Tenner’, narrated by a ten-dollar bill. The Guy Clarke song, ‘Indian-Head Penny’, is not narrated by the coin, but it tells a similar story of its birth and adventures, and all the places it ends up and the jobs it has to do.

Country music has many niche narratives. Although every second country song ever written is about some guy getting drunk over some girl, among the songs which find other aspects of life there are some unusual themes. Girl who turns to prostitution out of despair is common enough (Townes van Zandt’s ‘Tecumseh Valley’ is one of the best). But there are a couple of songs which refine it further, as ‘mama was a whore because she had to be but she was always good to me.’ ‘Hickory Hollow Tramp’ and ‘Lily of the Alley’ aren’t great songs, but they take a very specific and unusual theme and do something with it.

There is even room for a, very small, ‘Jesus Christ on the highway’ genre. I forget the name of the song in which a truck driver meets Jesus out jogging on the road. He explains that Heaven isn’t a good place for running so He comes down to Earth to do His jogging. And there is the brilliant, and very funny, Terry Allen song ‘Gimme a Ride to Heaven,’ which is worth 5 minutes of anyone’s time.

This has been a series of random thoughts. Indulge me. In a couple of days I must return to the city, where I shall have to think, get up in the morning, organize my mind and my life, and pretend that what I do has a serious purpose. The riffing on odd things seen in the mountains will have to end. But today I can still think random thoughts.

*The photos are of the salt works I wrote about last week. I couldn't upload them then.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Las Salinas de Pinilla

A couple of dozen miles east of the farm on a dried-up arm of one of the streams that is partly responsible for feeding the lakes, lie the remains of what was once the biggest salt works in Spain. I knew nothing about them, not even that they existed, until my brother-in-law the retired colonel told me he had seen them while out riding his Harley one day. Knowing my taste for visiting new places on the bike (mine has no engine), he mentioned it to me. They stand beside a road, clearly visible, but one I have never taken, as it’s beyond what I think of as my maximum distance. But my b-i-l the r-c thought there was path that would take nearly twenty miles of the route, which brought it within not only my range, but that of Mrs Hickory as well, who said she wanted to see it. He was right, there was a path, through a large vineyard and a forest of ‘sabinas’ (Juniperus sabina), an attractive-looking green tree with soft, needle-like leaves and a very pleasant smell. We have a few on the farm, and some of the rooms are lined with its wood, but here there were dozens together. Most of the foliage you find on this dry, rocky ground is a cold, hard, dark green, which is why it’s always a pleasure to find a group of these trees. They are usually found together with thyme, which also adds to the smell. The Salinas are just below the point where the path joins the road again. As you come out of the wood onto the road you can see the flats below you, and the dry, white bed of the stream as it continues on. It's just possible the Romans made salt there, but beyond one of the pools, which might have had a Roman-type floor made of stones, it was all much more recent. Probably late mediaeval. They seem to be from the 15thC when they were controlled by the Austrias and later monarchs and supplied salt for much of Spain. It was a crown monopoly, of course, as it was in many countries until relatively recently. The area was controlled by a governor appointed by the crown who lived in a large house overlooking the salt beds and had absolute power over the workers (so they say). There was one building, basically housing a well, that was older and well preserved. The rest were relatively recent and ruined. There were a dozen or so flat-bottomed pools, for want of a better word, of different shapes, sizes and flooring, but more or less rectangular, 20/30/40/50x20m, and with flat floors of found, unworked stones. These were separated off by low brick or stone walls, and some were contained by wood. I tried the salt where it still adhered to one floor and it was very salty. They were at different levels. I wonder if they belonged to different people or villages, or were worked at different times, and improved. It is all long abandoned. Along the stream you can see what appears to be the natural riverbed caked in white salt. There were birds and rabbits on it. The water and the channel it runs through is not exactly a branch of the river, but is channelled from a spring, which then runs into the river Pinilla a mile to the south west. I wouldn’t say the place is worth a special visit but if you pass by, then stop and look. It was once an important centre of industry, and has its part in the economic and social history of the Empire. You learn that there is money in salt, there is money in providing what people want, but most importantly, there is a lot of money in controlling the trade in what people want. Trade is, after all, just work. Monopolizing trade, on the other hand, is wealth and powee.

Monday, September 3, 2012

What do Children Need to Learn?

In the end it comes down to this- what do children need to learn and how can they best learn it.

It depends first of all on their parents (yes it does, those who think the state should control the minds of children are wrong). Parents may choose to send them to a school with a particular ethos, philosophy, ideas, whatever, and they are right to do what they think they should for their children and to pay others to do it for them.

Those who can educate their own children will do so. Why should they let ideologues control them? In Spain they are not even allowed to do that, although there are ways, if you are prepared to take risks.

If we start without preconceptions we would never, now, reach the conclusion that they need to be locked into semi-slavery eight hours a day throughout their childhood.

Once you assume they must be together for long periods doing things they don’t want to do you immediately see a need for discipline which means authority, which means rules which means enforcement and punishment and teaching becomes more about force of character and the assumption of authority than the ability to communicate knowledge, or better still, to inspire a thirst for knowledge.

Assume the point of education is to prepare children to take the greatest advantage of the world they will live in as adults. This means economically, psychologically, socially, culturally. It doesn’t mean preparing them to fit into one of a number of pre-ordained niches that our handlers seem to think must exist (most people involved in education would find this rather shocking, but it is my starting point because it seems to be the only legitimate purpose education can have) then certain conclusions can be reached and arguments made.

Reading and writing fluently and naturally are still essential skills and will, I think, continue to be in the future. But this can be achieved comfortably by the age of 6 or 7.

The understanding and manipulation of numbers is also essential to adult life, if only because of money. For this reason, a basic understanding of economics, and of what money is, should be provided at the same time.

IT is essential, but fortunately it’s also quite easy to learn to the basic level most people require, and easy to practice. Because of the speed with which technology is evolving, a very free curriculum is required, and in any case it would be part of a broader area of learning whose aim would be to ‘understand the world and how to function in it, how to obtain and evaluate knowledge’

We are trying to prepare children for the future, to make them useful to themselves and to the rest of us, in some combination, and so far as each is able. We are not trying to make them feel good about themselves.

There is no point studying a foreign language unless it’s done properly. If children aren’t going to become fluent in a useful language before they leave school it’s a waste of time trying to teach it. Half a language is no good to anyone. It is well worth saturating children with a specific foreign language from an early age. All primary schools should be genuinely bilingual, but in which language? For those who already speak the international language, the choice is not clear. The great advantage of knowing a second language is that it makes learning further languages much easier when the need arises, and it also enables the mind to work and think more productively (it provides new analytical tools). But it isn’t obvious that, for native English speakers, it is worth the time involved. Even so, I would, I think, recommend it. Possibly Chinese, just for the hell of it.

It is very important that children understand who they are and their place in the world, by which I mean the history of the world and of their country, the geography of the world in as much detail as is reasonable, the nature of the solar system and indeed the known universe. In short, they need to have the information, sufficiently processed, to have perspective about themselves and the world. It puts wise and stable heads on shoulders and is part of maturity.

They need to be exposed openly to many fields of knowledge and activity. They must find as early as possible what stimulates them, what they enjoy, what they may be good at, what they can themselves add to those fields.

It is a terrible waste of resources to have sport (and to a lesser extent art) taught in schools. It requires dedicated facilities and staff, replicated unnecessarily many times over, and seems to originate, like many of the great failings of state schools, from a misguided or simply lazy desire to imitate public and private schools, which do what they do for entirely different reasons.

Municipal facilities, available to and organised for children, would be far cheaper and much more useful and enjoyable for the children. They could freely choose the activities that interested them, they would not associate such activities with the boredom and authoritarianism of school, and they would have a lot more time to do them. Those children who can, do this anyway, but if there were more facilities and they wasted less time at school more could do it, and much more profitably.

A lot of this comes from a slavish imitation of the practices of the public schools, which have a purpose quite different from that of state education. Such schools take over the formation of most aspects of the child, because the parents want them to. State schools should have no such control.

From here (about 8-10 years, let’s say 10) it becomes largely technical things, and choices have to be made. It may seem very early to make choices about which route to take, about what kind of future to prepare for, what kind of job the child is capable of doing, but the alternative is to waste years learning, or probably not learning, ultimately useless things. A good grounding in the basics, an efficient system for identifying possibilities to work towards, while excluding as little as possible, is what is needed here. Many people are at University learning things they should have learnt years before, or things which will be of no use to them.

All of this assumes that they are there because they want to be. The first and most important thing is to STOP FORCING CHILDREN INTO SCHOOLS. The job of the state, insofar as it has one, is to provide the opportunity for a good education (the fact that the state clearly has no idea what a good education is suggests that it shouldn’t be directly involved in educating at all). Children (or their parents) will decide if, when and how to take advantage of those opportunities. Some of them will make a mess of it, some will realize too late what they have missed. Education is a privilege, one treated with contempt by governments, who are more interested in keeping potentially disruptive young people off the streets than in guaranteeing that potentially successful young people prepare themselves well for the future.

What is the point, I mean really, what the hell is the point, of filling classrooms with people who don’t want to be there, or who can’t benefit from where they are. No form of education, however conceived and structured, is going to work unless each child is somewhere where they can actually learn. Those who don’t want to learn cannot learn. And those who are with them will not be able to. Get rid of them. Those who are not able to learn much or quickly might learn little and slowly. But if they are with those who learn much and quickly one or other group is not going to learn anything like what it could. Once you remove the politics from education this is blindingly obvious.

How many millions of clever children have achieved little because the ideology of education, the ideology of a school or a teacher, or just the stupidity of all of them, was obsessed with trying to get someone else to achieve a little?

There is no need for age groupings, artificial identities or obligations. Offer a large variety of options, open and fluid; choose teachers who understand, communicate and inspire; let children choose where and whether they want to be.

No one will learn less than they otherwise would. Many, most, will learn far more, and will be far better prepared for the world.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Does Freedom have a Social Function?

Or is it one more by-product of consciousness and intelligence?

Freedom is clearly different from certain other concepts arising from the uniqueness of the human mind, in that it exists. Morality, right and wrong, justice, religion, pride, self-respect, though it is useful to have them, need to be defined- in an essentially arbitrary way- before they can be put to any use. On the other hand, we really can make choices about our actions, and understand our own motives for making them, but it is less clear what the social benefit of it is, if any.

An individual acting freely is a problem for the group. Such an individual may choose not to contribute to the needs of the group, and may actively harm it. Such an individual will be constrained by the group to act in its interests, or expelled from the group. Our biology has little use for freedom. Nor are we alone in this.

Most primates are social, and the group has a leader who exercises complete control until successfully challenged by another. But most primates are herbivores, and herbivores tend to live in groups because it’s safer. What of the red meat brigade? Well, we also find that quite a few of the higher carnivores, though by no means all, also live in groups, controlled by a single male. Animals like lions and leopards presumably need to hunt in packs because of the nature of their prey and the places where they live, and so they need a powerful and intelligent leader to direct the hunt and keep everyone doing their job properly. Tigers and American felids, on the other hand, are much more solitary, again presumably because of the conditions in which they hunt. (Hedgehogs, by the way, have no leaders, and obey no one but ourselves. We know what freedom is for.)

In such groups, only the leader has any real use for intelligence and freedom of action. The only choice the rest have to make is when is the best moment to kick him out. All of this sounds very familiar.

Humans are capable of analysing their options and choosing an action at will. It may not even be the action that our analysis indicates is the best one. We are intelligent enough to be perverse.
It is beyond question that Homo sapiens is a social creature. And for that reason our ability to act freely needs to be repressed, or channelled, by the group. Individual identity continues to exist because societies at the higher end need to be constantly structured, restructured and controlled, and chemicals may be good enough for insects, but they don’t seem to work above a certain level of complexity (complexity of the organism and of the society).

Saturday, September 1, 2012

To What extent are we Responsiblr for Others?

Another justification for restricting the freedom of others is that we are responsible for them, and therefore have a duty to protect them from themselves. I think we can take as read that this true in certain cases, and to differing degrees. The question then becomes one of where, in any given case, the boundary lies, and who decides whether it’s been crossed.

I have no children of my own, but in my professional life I am regularly responsible for the children of others. I restrict their freedom by requiring them to follow certain guidelines, sometimes made up on the spot in reaction to some particular circumstance. I do this partly for their own safety, partly because a certain kind of order is necessary for them to learn well which is what they’re there for, and partly, to be honest, for my own convenience. They are used to being told what to do and so, broadly speaking, they accept it.

If I came across a man in the street, on a cold night, insensible with drink or drugs, I would think it my responsibility to look after him until he could take care of himself, get himself home, or someone else could take charge of him. This, despite the fact that he has freely got into that state, knowing the consequences. If a friend, neighbour, relative were damaging his health and affecting his life through drink, drugs, gambling or any other behaviour, I would consider it my responsibility to be regularly told to bugger off and mind my own business.

I have done all of these things, most of us have, I imagine, not because I am an interfering busybody but because I recognise that there are times when we are responsible for others. We are, I repeat once more, social animals. It is in our instinct to help those around of us who are need of help. As moralistic beings, we translate it into the language of morality, but it comes to the same thing. I should feel that responsibility because in general we do feel that responsibility.

But we are speaking of personal responsibility. Why is it the task of government to take over this responsibility in so heavy-handed a way? There is nothing personal about government, everything is done by force, from behind a barricade. This is as far from the human instinct of looking after your fellow man as it is possible to get.