Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Kindred by Rebecca Wragg Sykes

I’ve been fascinated by human evolution for a long time, so Rebecca Wragg Sykes’ new book Kindred was a must-buy for me. Subtitled Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, it’s an up-to-date, wide ranging, in-depth look at everything we know about the Neanderthals as of spring this year.

As the author observes, following a decade of new discoveries – mostly in the field of genetics – this new decade is shaping up to be a good one for our long lost cousins. The author covers everything Neanderthal – discovery, fossilisation, site mechanics, species assessment and reassessment – before heading off into fields needing more nuance and interpretation: love, death and art. The chapter on death is particularly good. Sykes is a keen observer, stating probabilities where that is necessary, elsewhere unafraid of giving her own personal interpretation. The impression is of an author on top of her material, possessed of humanity, experience and insight.

The book overall is well written, albeit with a tendency for an occasional lapse – poor puns, for instance a particularly jarring dental one. Also the footnotes which litter the first half of the book become irritating quickly. These notes, most of which are incidental if not irrelevant, should have been numbered and relegated to pages at the back of the book. But overall, the style is okay.

I very much liked the author’s reassessment of the terrible masculine lapses of earlier archaeology. Not for her a male, Western view. The end of the book is a highly commendable look at how Neanderthals skills, minds and lives should be assessed from a human vantage, not a male, white, Western one. Non-Western hunter-gatherer individuals have for instance reinterpreted archaeological evidence, and in fact have found new evidence simply by looking at Neanderthal sites with “new” eyes.

An excellent book, highly recommended.

The Grotte du Mas d’Azil spear thrower

I listened to a very interesting programme on Radio 4 today summarising what’s known about Palaeolithic cave and portable art. Three experts in the field gave their views, including Paul Petitt, who wasn’t shy about voicing his opinions. One contributor, when describing portable art, alluded to the famous spear thrower from Grotte du Mas d’Azil, describing it as an example of an image of defecation. But, as has been noted variously in the archaeological world, animals don’t look backwards when defecating (see public domain photo below), whereas they do when giving birth. The depiction of the Grotte du Mas d’Azil spear thrower is far better interpreted as an image of a deer giving birth, upon which a pair of birds – probably corvids – perch. This avian behaviour is commonly seen in the wild, when corvids or other birds feed on the caul etc. The humour in the image is definitely there though, since the corvids’ beaks are the hook upon which the spear would be anchored.

Life’s Lottery discussed

Future Care Capital’s Peter Bloomfield discusses the themes of Keith Brooke’s story Life’s Lottery.

FCC Fictions: Third Story

Keith Brooke’s new story Life’s Lottery has just been published as part of the ongoing ‘Fictions: Health & Social Care Re-imagined’ series. Have a read, then join the debate!

The Extraordinary Voyage Of Pytheas The Greek

The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek by Barry Cunliffe

I picked this book up in Hay-on-Wye over the summer. In recent years I’ve bought quite a few books on remarkable voyages of exploration, and when I worked at Waterstones I had a similar historical phase. There’s something about tales of exploring the little-known planet which fascinates me.

Barry Cunliffe is an author well known to students of archaeology, his field of expertise focusing on north and west European areas. This book takes the reader back 2,400 years to the age when Greece was dominant in the Mediterranean and Rome was yet to rise in any significance. Pytheas was a residence of Marseilles, then a vital Greek trading settlement. The extraordinary voyage refers to a years-long exploration which Pytheas undertook of France, England and Scotland, including various Scottish isles, Iceland, then the north European coast possibly as far as the Baltic sea. Motives offered include the spirit of exploration and the search for sources of tin and amber.

What’s so admirable about this book is that, as it tells an exciting tale of ancient enquiry, it never fails to lose sight of the fact that our knowledge of Pytheas comes via a chain of many sources, some of whom believed Pytheas and some of whom did not. Thus the entire field of classical enquiry is thrown into an appropriately sceptical light. Cunliffe is particularly good when trying within reasonable limits to disentangle guesswork and authoritative source. On the whole though he is a Pytheas believer (unlike the grumpy Strabo, whom he regularly quotes).

Highly recommended to all fascinated by tales of exploration, whether ancient or relatively modern.

Towards Dystopia

A fascinating article in yesterday’s Guardian previewing the new Netflix film The Social Dilemma outlines the scale of the problem humanity faces in the internet:

“… the tech industry’s tools, most predominantly social media, aren’t promising tools but too-powerful entities fragmenting attention and rewiring brains by design; that addiction to phones and social media is a function of their business model; that this divisive, degrading status quo is driving us straight to dystopia.” (The Guardian, 9/9/20)

Over the last five years I’ve pondered more and more the qualities of the internet, and become more and more dejected about it. My novel The Autist hypothesises a grim future, while other as yet unpublished works do the same. I’m not optimistic. An encounter with an ex-colleague in my local park a couple of days ago confirmed this mood, my friend, in his sixties, remarking that because of his decade of birth he felt he had lived through a golden age of liberalism and humanism – roughly the beginning of the 1960s to 2010. His hasn’t been the only voice I’ve heard making this observation.

I now think the great danger of social media in particular is the question of belief. The mushroom-like rise of conspiracies is just one symptom of the state we find ourselves in. Other symptoms include 50/50 polarisation, the rise of the anti-Science and anti-expert movements, and the proliferation of absurd cults amplified by the particular qualities of the internet, qualities so well summarised by Dr Mary Aiken in her book The Cyber Effect.

Human beings derive meaning about their world from the stories they tell. In millennia past, those stories were broad and monolithic: spiritual traditions and religions. What was believed by the masses came from particular sources: Buddha, christianity etc. The latter, religious, were dogmatic and enforced, but they were simple and fairly constant. The former, spirituality in prehistoric times, were local meaning frameworks; lack of understanding about the natural world’s laws, for all that prehistoric people had phenomenal environmental knowledge and powers of interpretation, led to belief in spirits, souls, spiritual realms, mystical beings and so on. All these beliefs were promulgated by stories – origin stories, moral stories, stories about behaviour, fate, the sky and the land.

In the 1960s in the West religious faith began to decline, as liberal, humane views spread – the liberal story, as Yuval Noah Harari observed, was the only tale in town. But now, as he went on to say, humanity has no story.

The internet has created a human social environment which by virtue of its particular qualities – immediate response (i.e. active as opposed to traditional passive participation), the potential for anonymity, its overly visual style and the parallel reduction in the value of the word and therefore reason – has allowed any individual to choose what they believe. This is, therefore, a startling and exceptionally dangerous moment in human history. There being no overall ethical authority in their lives, people have diminished to herd mentality, either following whims or disbelieving everything except their parents’ fundamental values.

This, then, is the danger. As Bertrand Russell pointed out, believing in a christian god has all the sanity of believing in a teapot orbiting the Earth. Neither belief is based in the truth of the natural world. Both are human belief systems that are attractive because of the narrative they tell – that the world was created by him on the cloud, or that teapots can fly. Such narratives appeal variously: to Westerners, to hippies.

The internet has become a vast, fragmented, semi-random, whimsical collection of belief stories. Everybody needs a meaning framework to survive – to live without one is to go insane. Lacking any other obvious ethical source, and seduced by the exploiters of the internet, the majority have chosen whatever out there takes their fancy. But those belief stories are lies. Worse, they are trite, semi-random lies.

Facts won’t mend this disaster. The only option is to tell the real human story based on our truth, which is itself based in the natural world. We can understand ourselves and the origin of consciousness. We can make sense of the human condition in a rising tide of chaotic digital noise. Unfortunately, such stories aren’t attractive when compared with life-ever-after or teapots in space.

A shame. The real thing is wonderful.

It’s All In The Mind by Julie Warren

It’s All In The Mind: the Life & Legacy of Larry Stephens by Julie Warren

As a fan of the highly esteemed Goon Show, I was delighted to see that a biography of Larry Stephens – a name I only knew from the Goons, and whom I’d assumed to be a minor player in the Grafton Arm scene – had been written and published. I bought it with some anticipation. But it turns out that Larry Stephens was far from being a bit part in the Goon Show story.

This biography – published by Unbound after a crowdfunding scheme – and written by Julie Warren, a family relative, is in two parts, the first of which covers Stephens’ childhood and WW2 experiences, the second of which covers his life as a comedy scriptwriter.

The first part is quite interesting: vivid, well researched and well written. But for me the book really comes into its own after the war, when Stephens, a talented pianist, discovers his aptitude for writing comedy. And he was in with the Goon crowd right from the beginning, along with Tony Hancock, Graham Stark and many other notables. In fact, the main message of this book is that Stephens’ contribution to post-war comedy has been greatly undervalued, mostly through lack of representation. Julie Warren’s final line is a paean to that: ‘He deserves to be remembered.’

In my novel Hairy London I exploited my own silly sense of humour, so similar to that of Spike and the Pythons, and until now I’d assumed that Spike was the main “crazy” of that crazy gang. But he was not. Yes, there was a difference in writing style – Spike chaotic but inspired, Stephens’ inspired and ordered – but Stephens’ imagination was almost as feverish as the man who gave us Eccles & co.

This biography is highly recommended to any Goon Show fan, but also to anybody interested in the history of British post-war comedy. Congratulations to the author for her excellent work!

Escape To The Shire

Many people, myself included, find themselves increasingly repulsed by the modern world. This could in my case be a consequence of age – I’m in my fifties – but I think it’s true of many younger people also. When I see unchecked pollution, the razing of nature to make space for livestock to feed thoughtless consumers, the destruction of pristine environment for no humane reason, and the overall attitude that this planet belongs to human beings and is theirs to do what they like with regardless of the implications – a message reinforced in the West by its main religion – I feel revolted. I visualise too many fellow human beings as thoughtless devourers, uncaring, lacking even the most basic understanding of the consequences of their actions. Having said that, corporations are the main problem – with modern corporations humanity has written itself a story so dangerous it could ruin the planet. Corporations mesmerise too many.

As regular readers of this blog will know, one of my summer rituals is to listen to the 1981 BBC adaption of The Lord Of The Rings, and often to read The Hobbit and The Fellowship Of The Ring, or to listen to Rob Inglis’ excellent narration of the novel (something I’m doing at the moment). Last night I found myself wondering why I do this, and whether the qualities of the two aforementioned books have a specific meaning for me.

I think they do. Tolkien was a lover of all things natural. He loved his West Midlands countryside, and, as is well known, the Shire is a fictional version of those fields, meadows and hills which he personally knew. Most Tolkien fans will say that nature – the land, the country, the weather, the geography of Middle Earth – is its foundation. Tolkien’s love of nature shines through his tales. Middle Earth, from dell and stream to mountain and ocean, is the heart of his creation as a whole. The Ents, to take just one example, symbolically stand for his love of trees.

So I think many people find themselves soothed by the lack of industry and vast open spaces of Middle Earth. Those people, like myself, appalled and disgusted by what humanity is doing to the planet, perhaps find themselves soothed by the bucolic, pre-Industrial qualities of The Fellowship Of The Ring. It’s the early chapters of that book – everything up to the arrival at Rivendell – which I find myself returning to time after time, especially the third chapter ‘Three Is Company.’ I don’t do this to reacquaint myself with the story, I do it to re-experience the soothing qualities of meadows walked at night under a sky of stars: unpolluted meadows, crossed beneath a sky unspoiled by sodium light pollution…

Many psychologists observe that human beings have a deep, intrinsic need for nature. It’s hardwired into us. Some cultures know this – I’m thinking of the Japanese art of forest-bathing. I think Tolkien knew this too, which gives deeper significance to the part at the end of the novel where Sandyman’s proto-Industrial Revolution is underway. I think this section, integral to the whole work from the beginning of its writing as Tolkien himself said, expresses Tolkien’s disgust at the pollution of the land and the ruination of nature. His sensitivity was shaken by such destruction, if not shocked by it. Though the section serves to deal with Saruman and Wormtongue, that is only the narrative aspect. The deeper aspect is the Mill and its black effluent.

I will continue to use Tolkien’s work to soothe myself at those times in which I need soothing – to escape to the Shire. His love of nature chimes with my own; and through it, I see the deeper qualities of his extraordinary creative achievement.


Nothing Is True Any More

Today social media delighted in a row of books behind Boris Johnson as, at Castle Rock School, he mouthed Tory propaganda and absolved himself of responsibility. I very rarely share political stuff on Facebook, but this story (perhaps because it featured lots of dystopian novels) tickled my fancy, so I shared it. A couple of hours later it turned out that the school librarian had made the display months before Johnson’s visit, as he departed his place of employment. The social media story was untrue. The message of the book titles had been left by the librarian for school managers.

My reaction was to share the Huffington Post correction and delete the original story, but the response of various of my friends was enlightening – and frightening. Many of them thought the original post appropriate, ironic, amusing etc. All a good joke at Johnson’s expense – opposing Tories more important than actuality.

Also shared yesterday was The Independent’s video of the great Sacha Baron Cohen speaking passionately about the dangers of social media. I’ve written and spoken a few times about these dangers, but I’m becoming aware now that more people are just giving up on resisting (the main theme of my novel The Autist, which features a Thai anti-internet group called Fri – i.e. Free). So here are some thoughts on what’s happening and what those dangers are.

It’s a combination of two things – the intrinsic narcissism of most of us, which leads both to irrational belief and deliberate propaganda, and the peculiarities of the digital life, which allow immediate response, bypassing reasoned, “slow” (as Daniel Kahneman put it) thought. This then is the danger: by creating an environment which human beings interact with as if it’s real, yet which is abstract and able to fool people using a number of simple psychological methods, we’re tearing ourselves from our roots in the real world. If millions of people come to the conclusion that – especially if the internet is their main source of active participation in life – they might as well give up bothering to find out what’s true and what’s propaganda, then humanity is doomed as a sane species. We literally are tearing ourselves from our own minds, either by creating alternate realities which the majority of people accept as real and true, or by inculcating a sense of disbelief so profound the concepts of reality and fantasy merge into one thing – a mess of cynical disbeliefs too complex to untangle.

As Daniel Kahneman observed, people are usually too lazy to take the time to reason. As Erich Fromm observed, narcissism operates through self-delusion. And as Yuval Noah Harari observed, most people don’t know themselves. Yes: so far, the human race hasn’t covered itself in glory regarding its understanding of the real world – oh, except, of course, over the last five hundred years… “One of the saddest lessons of history is this: if we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken.” – Carl Sagan, scientist.

For me, narcissism is the fundamental metaphor of the human mind. Overcoming it through life is our main task. The internet, and social media in particular, is an environment which facilitates and amplifies that narcissism still remaining in the human species. In ethical terms, it is a retrogressive entity. Personally, I think it’s a very dangerous entity. But I seem to be in the minority in thinking so – and in acting as I think. I deleted the untrue post and posted the true one. How many others did likewise? And how many of my friends laughed off the original post?

Well, maybe I’m too serious. But, then again, we are creatures of narrative. The human narrative for 100,000 years has been one lie after another, promulgated by religion and spirituality. But those lies were passive; and they were essential at the time, serving to explain the otherwise inexplicable. The new lies are far more dangerous because they’re active. Suddenly everybody can participate in what they believe. And ninety-nine times out of a hundred they believe whatever takes their fancy.

To paraphrase something else Yuval Noah Harari said: what’s so dangerous about our times is that, having discarded the stories of Socialism and Fascism, and now even Liberalism, the human race has no story. I think the human race needs new stories based on reality and humane ethics before it’s too late. But perhaps it’s already too late.


In Wales

Had a successful day yesterday recording more incidental shots for the Condition: Human films, this time in Wales (my favourite country).

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