Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

The Creation Of Patriarchy by Gerda Lerner

For five thousand years humanity has suffered the many iniquities of patriarchy. Gerda Lerner’s groundbreaking book, published in 1986 to great acclaim, answers that most difficult of questions: why did patriarchy appear?

An established scholar, Lerner begins her story over 5,000 years ago, setting the scene – the problem of patriarchy, a few guidelines as to a possible solution – then in a series of mesmerising chapters outlining the evidence for her case. In her view, patriarchy evolved incrementally over at least five thousand years, as the conditions of living changed from those of hunter-gatherer groups to Neolithic settlements and eventually, around 3,000BC, to patriarchy itself. She looks at the actuality for women, including all the demoted identities: wife, concubine, slave and others. She also looks at the symbolic downfall of the Goddess and the worsening of patriarchy – already an extreme misogynist system – following the arrival of Hebrew monotheism.

For any person interested in why such a terrible institution should have appeared five thousand years ago, with such awful consequences for women – and some for men – this is an essential text. Lauded by many, Lerner puts all her wisdom into this superb book.

FCC Fictions fourth story

The fourth story in the FCCs series Fictions: Health & Social Care Re-imagined is published today. It’s by Liz Williams. Have a read of it, then join in the debate!

The Tree Wakers by Keith Claire

Following a chance conversation on one of Liz Williams’ facebook threads, I picked up a copy of Keith Claire’s children’s novel The Tree Wakers, which turns out to be a strange book indeed. This is a work set in Kew Gardens, a location I had transmuted in Monica Hatherley, so I was intrigued to see what an author of a different generation had done to the place.

Written in 1970, its age shows not through its attitudes or subject matter but through its language, which, for those not used to reading older works, will seem peculiar. Here’s an example:

“Harragong sat in a shimmering whirl of peacock feathers, with her chin on her knees. She was regarding them with tremendous, enthusiastic amusement. The warm brown eyes not only met theirs, but chuckled right through them. Alex felt that even when she sat still, she was moving.”

I’m not criticising this use of language, just noting its oddness…

The narrative follows two siblings, Alex and Brid, as they encounter the time-loop travelling Maborians. The author head-hops throughout the novel so that sometimes you have to read back to see who he is referring to. These two don’t do much until the end of the book – they’re essentially observers of the Maborian dilemma and the Maborian way – until, at the conclusion, they have to use themselves to create a time-bridge back to Maboria (the Kew Maborians are accidental exiles). Images and ideas are all wonderfully original. It’s a startling book, original, and with many charms. The language and writing style are old-fashioned and take a bit of getting used to, but it is worth the effort.

Fugitive Minds by Antonio Melechi

I picked this up second hand in Hay-on-Wye because it looked interesting, and parts of it certainly are… but alas not the whole thing. For all the fascinating cases described in Melechi’s tour of mental maladies and conditions, the book is essentially a list of them (most of the chapters are really short) with no overall thesis or even much by way of the author’s character. Adding shame and love at the end was a step too far. Though written in 2003, the majority of the cases hark back to the nineteenth century, though a few more recent are mentioned. I enjoyed a few chapters of this book, but I finished it wondering what the point was.

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.