Eating people is wrong


I first entered the hallowed halls of a university a long long time ago. So long that my lecturers were monks in full monkish gear, there were theologians, we ate in a Refectory, wore gowns and mortar boards for graduation, and lived in “colleges” (well, some of us did, the wealthier ones); there were cloisters (sort of!) somewhere, and a tower where bells were rung for the call to prayers (no, made up the bells).

In those far off times a university was basically for training priests (no, I wouldn’t have fitted in well!) but, human nature being what it is, I’m betting an equally significant part of its function was status and networking. Third sons of noblemen, smart young fellows from provincial towns, illegitimate sons of bishops, mixing together (drinking and wenching in taverns as much as talking in tutorials or libraries), making impressions, building up useful contacts, planning careers. Oh sure, some religiously dedicated souls, but they were destined for caves on mountain tops, or small parishes in Cheshire, not the corridors of ecclesiastical and secular power.

And so it remained for hundreds of years. Oh the student body no longer comprised priests, and the courses were widened, a little, from theology to classics and law, but the networking function remained the same. The graduates of Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, Harvard, Sydney, Melbourne, with the old university ties to prove it, could be assured of welcomes from those of the same alma mater in Board Rooms and Cabinet Rooms, and the glittering prizes that resulted.

Not a case though of the piece of calf skin or parchment signalling merit, intelligence, ability, knowledge. Not a case of the best and brightest converging on centres of excellence, academic melting pots where the poor boy from the sticks competed on the level playing fields of Oxford with the rich boy from the home counties. Oh, no, the war for success in life had already been won on the very unlevel playing fields of Eton.

Oxford (and the others) was not there to demonstrate merit, but to confirm status. To have gone to university was not a demonstration of intellectual prowess but a demonstration of wealth, breeding, school history, correct pronunciation, correct dress, correct use of knife and fork when eating. The student ranks were drawn from the right kind of families and would become the right kind of people. Would become the next generation of rulers of society, under one title or another. Would eat the little people, from public schools, red brick colleges, alive.

Eventually though one or two people here and there realised that this closed shop education, while undoubtedly efficient, was producing ruling classes as inbred (intellectually and genetically) as the Egyptian Ptolemies. That there needed to be some infusion of new genetics into the courtyard pond, some little fish among the big fish. And, further, that universities should provide advanced education in a whole range of new disciplines more important to society than a little Latin and even less Greek. And, finally, most difficult of all, that, heavens, it is like confessing a murder, female persons might benefit from a higher education.

It also came to be realised that stirring up this rich educational stew with all its new ingredients would not only benefit the likely lads (and, shudder, lasses) from the boondocks, but would also benefit society as a whole. Not just because applying the best minds of a generation, irrespective of their breeding, to all kinds of scientific and other investigations in an intellectual ferment generated inside the ivied walls, would lead to great advances in many fields, but because those minds would question the unquestionable, provide new ways of thinking, looking at the world.

Oh bliss was it in that educational dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!

Couldn’t last of course. For two reasons. The kind of people who were still, recognising the right tie colour (light blue, dark blue, matters not the shade) among the born to rule, running things, had two strong objections to this new style of university (well, three counting its universality). First, if god had meant research to be free and open he wouldn’t have invented copyright. All this nonsense about science for science’s sake, “pure” science. Why, science is applied or it is pointless. And, furthermore, applied by the corporations run by boards of people like us to make money. Big money.

And second, the last thing people running a tight ship in which there is a place for everyone and everyone knows their place, stowed away neatly, before the mast, after the mast, and don’t you dare enter the wrong mess, the lower ranks have such unpleasant eating habits, is free-thinking. Goodness gracious, if the monks in the medieval universities had allowed free thinking there would have been atheists in the ranks in no time. Questioning of the order of things. Questioning whether kings were divinely ordained to rule, whether the poor were meant to be always with us, whether the Sun went round the Earth, whether it was really compulsory to vote Tory or die in foreign fields for king and country, whether it was possible to keep burning fossil fuels without destroying the planet, all kinds of dangerous questions. It’s what comes of people getting above themselves, trying to rise above their station in life.

A while ago a study by a major accountancy firm was released which concluded that Australian universities had to change their “business model” or most wouldn’t survive much longer. “Business model”? University? Do those words belong together again now as they did before? Oh yes.

Slash funding to Pure Science and the Arts. No more free university education, no more scholarships, huge loans which students must repay. More fee paying students from overseas who, paying big fees, expect a parchment at the end, guaranteed. Bring big business into universities, he who pays the piper calls the tune, and owns the music copyright.

We are back, in fact, to where we began. Training now for the priesthood of big business rather than the church, but still a religion, the religion of capitalism. No questioning that religion today, just as there was no questioning the religion of 600 years ago. And networking back where it belonged – between people wearing the right ties, using the right spoon, born in fact with the right spoon in the mouth. The Vice-Chancellor’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world again.

Big people eating little people is wrong. For one brief shining hour you could learn that in universities. But the simple folk don’t do that any more.

The nobles are back in charge.

Forget the unicorn


A classic atheist response to the incredulity of religious believers is -”I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours “

A variation of this might also help. All children believe in many imaginary creatures – Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, God, Imaginary Friends, Wizards, Dragons, Fairies at the bottom of the garden, Batman, Bogeyman, Abominable Snowman, Aliens, Unicorns – but as they grow up these fall away one by one as a child understands they are made up, not real.

So, religious believer, we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer imaginary friend than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible imaginary unbeings as you grow up, you will understand why I dismiss yours.

Ties that bind


People have always done odd things to their bodies, modifying them like petrol heads modify cars. Seems to be hardly a part of the body that some group at some time hasn’t chopped, or pierced, or removed, or tattooed. Done in the interests of group solidarity or distinction, or individual difference or status. At times done at the imaginary demand of imaginary sky beings, not infrequently involving some way of subjugating women.
…Read more

Books do furnish an MP’s room


Some years ago I wrote a piece in which I suggested a new form of swearing-in of a new Prime Minister of Australia, which included a choice of books on which the newly elected best and brightest could swear the oath instead of the bible – Origin of Species, Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, 1984, Catch-22.

This week I remembered those suggestions as the revelations of rorting of parliamentary allowances by Liberal MPs belatedly (ie safely after the election) came to light. Among the rorts were thousands of dollars worth of books purchased.
…Read more

Visigoths and Vandals


It is August*, and the citizens are aware of the barbarians at the gates of their civilisation. The Visigoths have a bad reputation, but they have been secretly chatting to the slaves and convinced them they are really good guys, big supporters of the Lower Orders in fact. So one night the slaves open the locked gates and in come the Visigoths who then proceed to rape, pillage and generally wreck the joint, just as their reputation had suggested. The slaves, and this will shock you, ended up worse off.

Forty five years go by. Not very long, really, sufficiently short for old codgers like me to have seen the Visigoths in action and to think, oh shit, not again. But yes, this time it is the Vandals at the gates. No shenanigans with slaves this time, no need, all sorts of silly buggers have been played by the rulers of the civilisation, the politics is a mess, and next thing you know “The Vandals are coming, the Vandals are coming”. Who proceed to try to outdo those wimps the Visigoths and thoroughly trash the joint, so thoroughly that the year 455 is generally considered to mark the end of the once mighty 500 year old Roman Empire.
Yes, Rome, what did you think? Oh, I see, you thought you could see analogies with the citizens of Australia terrified of the arrival of Coalition barbarians on 7 September? Well, I hadn’t thought of that but now you mention it…
…Read more

Field of dreams


Odd moment during the recent announcement and garbled discussion of education reforms in Australia. Chief Minister of the ACT, Katy Gallagher, was asked by parochial reporters, essentially, “what’s in it for Canberra?”

She said, perhaps bemused by the stupid question, that because most if not all Canberra students were already receiving support above what was being proposed, there actually wasn’t anything “in it” for the ACT.

In hunter-gatherer societies all children are educated equally – it would be suicidal for the society to do anything else. Same with the early agricultural societies. In both cases gifted individuals may specialise in particular areas of expertise later, but all will be educated.

We lost this equality of opportunity as the accumulation of wealth by a few created a situation where better education could be purchased, and that has remained the case, and been strengthened, ever since.

Indeed in Australia the Right, themselves, one and all, the products of the best education money could buy, decided they could do better as old boys (or girls) than merely denoting a few tax deductible dollars to the alma mater. They could, they realised, get their name up on the honour roll by getting the people of Australia to pay big bucks to schools already overflowing with swimming pools and polo ponies and acres of rolling playing fields. And they could lock in such payments permanently with a clever mathematical formula which achieved bias while appearing objective. A simple formula, always applied by conservatives, and always effective = The Rich get Richer. Genius eh?

So, it’s time for a reversal of fortunes. A simple formula = To each according to his needs. Identify the poorest public schools, give them more money to build up their resources to the level of the richer public schools. And then, whisper who dare, onwards to the levels of the private schools. Oh, sorry, getting a bit carried away there. Never mind, let’s get all students onto as level a playing field, playing fields, as possible. Cry havoc and let loose the dogs of class war.

But wait, there’s more. The other conservative legacy also affects equality of educational opportunity – religion. Separation of church and state? Yeah, whatever, but separation of church and school just as important. Yet John Howard unleashed the dogs of sectarianism. Loony tunes religious schools proliferated. Students taught curriculums in which garbage like creationism can be included, because religious freedom. “The more religion, the lower the quality of education” – write that on the blackboard 100 times Mr Howard

But worse is that schooling, meant to broaden horizons, introduce new ideas, allow children to mix widely, teach the ability to think and evaluate, to see a world beyond the walls of their home, has been narrowed. Religious fanatics have been allowed to carry out home-schooling in bulk. Allowed to make sure that no child raised in the closed little worlds of religious fundamentalism is allowed to discover that there is another real world outside.

So, equality of opportunity for all students? Absolutely, stuff of dreams. But understand that it involves more than just money. I have a dream of getting all students onto the playing field of secular education.

What’s in it for Australia? Only the next generation.

Read the news today, oh boy


I first became aware of “news” in 1956, which was, in retrospect, not a bad year to do so. My own personal news was that this was my last year of primary school, last year of childhood you could say, and 1957 would bring the first year of adulthood, the simultaneously frightening and exciting prospect of high school.

Unaccountably the rest of the planet seemed blissfully unaware that I was, at least in my head if not out loud, singing “Watch out World, here I come”. They seemed preoccupied with other stuff in that year of my awakening awareness of news that was to continue for a lifetime.

Plenty of other stuff had happened since I was born (the years known as AD for After David), small matters like the end of world wars, atomic bombs, Berlin Wall, Long March, Korean War, Indian independence, a new Queen of England, death of Stalin, the voting out and voting in of Churchill, and so on, but I had been too young to take much notice of (or understand had I done so) those interesting times I was living in.

But then came 1956, and my mind sprang to attention as the world seemed to erupt in serious, newsworthy events, most with long-term implications. Suez! Hungary! Olympics in Melbourne! TV in Australia! Elvis Presley! First commercial nuclear power plant! Black protests (Rosa Parks having done her courageous thing in December 1955) increasing in America!

From then on of course, year after year, newsworthy events kept happening until you felt like screaming “stop the world I want to get off”. There was Sputnik in 1957 (the whole world, it seemed, including me, stood outside their houses at night, getting cricks in their necks as they stared upwards at a tiny manmade star moving, it seemed unbelievable, through space. Or, almost as incredibly, it was possible to listen, on a radio, to the high-pitched beeping sound that was the star communicating with Earth. Advanced technology, completely indistinguishable from magic, and destined, though few of us knew at the time, to revolutionise communications among other things).

There was the election and killing of JFK, the build-up in Vietnam, the Beatles, Castro, riots in Paris, the Prague Spring, Woodstock, the assassination of Allende, the end of the Vietnam War, man on the Moon, and on and on as Sixties became Seventies and beyond.

All through these decades, as the world settled back into a new order after the end of World War Two (like a city rebuilding after an earthquake), serious news was related to us in serious ways. Morning newspapers gave sober facts, thoughtful editorials, expert analysis, on the significant events of the previous day at home and abroad. Television and radio had major evening news bulletins to do likewise. Oh, of course there was also frivolous stuff all through the media, but there seemed to be a recognition (especially from the ABC, but other media outlets as well), that there needed to be a core of seriousness for serious times. That there were things that an educated public needed to know.

But then, somewhere along the way to the 21st Century (and this won’t be news to any observant human being), everything changed. Oh, there was no shortage of significant world events, but the way they were, or weren’t communicated to the public changed.

On the pretext that there was more news to report, the “24 hour News Cycle” became a self-fulfilling description, and 24 hour news channels came into being. Instead of single major news bulletins in an evening, short news grabs were pumped out all through the day, and lasted no longer than a ay. And because when you got down to it there weren’t any more significant events than there had been, “news” had to be padded out with a white noise of trivia.

But by happy coincidence this padding served another function. Because so much “news” was being pumped out by the media it was hard to make people (whose parents and grandparents had once clustered eagerly around a radio to hear the 7pm Bulletin) take any interest in news bulletins. So they had to be turned into entertainment. Short snappy tabloid style reports replaced longer factual ones. Nothing could be reported that didn’t have video footage to accompany it. Analysis from experts was replaced by opinions from small numbers of regular ideologues (some employed, some on contracts). Sport dominated bulletins that had once kept it to a minimum, including at times running sporting stories as the lead.

Bulletins had to end on a happy note, so funny animals, whacky people, strange events, of a kind once restricted to tabloid newspapers or sideshow alleys, appeared, often taking more time than a report of, say, World War Three breaking out. And then began to be dotted through the bulletin to lighten it up. Conversely, to add suspense and interest, in the way of a lurid crime novel, the networks began including scare campaigns in which anything and everything in your kitchen could kill you, strangers could slaughter you, children be abducted, yellow hordes invade, aircraft crash, and so on. Every day some new thing to fear – keep reading/watching, we will keep you alert and alarmed, keep you warned about what to be fearful of.

So news bulletins, once so fundamental to a well-informed democracy, turned into glossy gossip magazines with moving pictures. And the “24 Hour News Channels” going the same way except at greater length with much repetition, and slabs of talking heads from right-wing think tanks or shock jock radio or Retired-Conservative-Politician-Land.

Then to compound (if ’twere needed) the problem, politicians, seeing the way the electronic wind was blowing, and realising that the days of thoughtful, longer, discussions of policy or events was long gone, began speaking in sound bites themselves to fit into the new news style. And, to be helpful, associating political stunts, as colourful and entertaining as possible, to go with the three word slogans and three sentence propaganda. There you are, a small package beautifully tailored for insertion straight into “news” bulletins 2013-style.

So a torrent of news noise washes across this land. Little or no information, in fact often deliberately misleading information through the stunts and slogans, just a scrap-book of sound and fury signifying nothing. And, as an unforeseen consequence, a view of the world promoted in which everything is of equal significance, or that nothing is of any significance. Wars and rumours of war of no more interest than skate-boarding dogs or surf-skiing hamsters. No ability of the public to distinguish what if anything is of concern and importance among all the fake fear campaigns and funny animals.

No way now that a child born in 2002 could see 2013 as a memorable year of great world events, or understand what they mean.

Nor could anyone else.

One journalist further


People passionately follow all kinds of things – Manchester United, the Catholic Church, Justin Bieber, Survivor, Capitalism, Communism, chess, guns, baseball, Islam, Formula 1, scouting, civil war (whichever) re-enactments, stamp collecting, Republican Party, Alan Jones … A comfort I suppose, a sense of belonging to a club, a sense of not having to think about stuff (MUFC is simply the greatest football club in the universe, obviously).

I sometimes wish… No, I don’t really. They all involve not only a willing suspension of disbelief, but a kind of willing acquisition of total belief. And total belief, or faith, is the antithesis of what should make us human.

Demagogues with crowds of cheering, saluting, marching, smashing, looting, killing, followers (even football fans!) are the example that everyone thinks of. But it makes no difference, ultimately, whether the great leader is spouting populism, anarchism, fascism, communism, catholicism, islamism or buddhism. The words are spread on the fertile culture medium of total belief and the mobs begin to rampage.

But there is a much commoner, more apparently acceptable form of belief, so common that people don’t see it as part of the same phenomenon. That is the belief that some particular individual – shock jock, sportsperson, journalist, politician, celebrity, hell even some religious people – is a role model, someone whose words, written or spoken, are to be taken seriously, accepted as, well, gospel truth.

Curiously a corollary of this touching faith in the one true prophet is often a belief that the rest of those in the cohort are fools and rascals. A typical sentence construction “Well of course most journalists these days are biased rogues, except so-and-so”.

This worries me (hell, everything worries me these days). It really is no different in kind, although obviously in scale, to the adoring crowds hanging on every word of the political demagogue. At both ends of the scale what should be important to us is not who is saying something, but what is being said. If we think so-and-so is the one true journalist, then our critical faculties are suspended and we are more likely to believe what we are being told instead of subjecting it to the kind of cynicism and fool-me-once-shame-on-you-fool-me-twice-shame-on-me disbelief that should serve us so well with everyone who is telling us stuff.

Think of it this way. When people say to an atheist “how can you not believe in god” the reply is “well, you know how you don’t believe in any of the thousands of gods except one, well I just take it one god further”.

So there you are. If you don’t believe in all except one journalist, take it one journalist further, politicians same, shock jocks, the lot. Belief, faith, has no place in politics or media.

Except blogs of course. No harm in you thinking this is the one true blog, the best blog, and casting your vote by clicking the Best Blogs 2013 blue button near top of right column (blog subscribers, don’t forget you need to visit the blog to vote, come on down). But you can show your critical faculties remain intact by leaving a critical comment or two.

Chicks Lit


For this post something of a look behind the scenes, a slight lifting of the curtain, on the process of blog post writing at Watermelon.

Sometimes I use objets trouvee to prompt a thought, perhaps a memory. The other day I happened to see one of my old children’s annuals. Do they still exist? Perhaps in relation to pop stars or movie spin-offs, not sure. But once upon a time they were very big and popular with children. Reflecting in turn the popularity of children’s magazines. Not comics, though these of course have also long been popular, but junior magazines, part of a spectrum of publications which went up to adults and indeed to old people. Magazines still popular of course, but nothing like what they were in their heyday, and probably destined to die out as they are totally replaced by the internet.

Anyway the children’s magazines, as a way of cashing in on their popularity, almost all (or perhaps it was all) produced an “annual”, aimed at the easy-Xmas-present-for-desperate-relatives market, and, I guess, providing a welcome cash boost to the publishers. But they were also eagerly awaited by children, containing, as they did, new stories about favourite characters, interesting facts, puzzles, games and so on.

The spectrum began with the very young, and the oldest example I have is the “Chicks’ Own Annual” of 1950, sent by relatives in England for a Xmas present in December 1949, my name carefully filled in in the space provided on a frontispiece which said “This Jolly Book belongs to…”.

Anyway. I looked at this, and its familiar front cover of a sack race by the popular characters, triggered the kind of memories other authors seem to get from eating bits of cake soaked in wine on a spoon. And I was all set to write one of those remembrance of times past, remembrance of times passed, kind of memoir posts that regular readers know and love. But then I thought I’d have a look inside.

And was suddenly plunged, unexpectedly, on page 19, into a new subject for the post.


You probably can’t read the text of the little poem, and so to avoid you missing the full flavour of the humour, here it is (note that the hyphens to break up longer words into syllables is house style throughout the book, presumably making it easier for young readers):

“When eb-ber I am making tarts,
De nigs soon find it out,
Dey creeps in-to my kitch-en and
start monk-ey-ing a-bout.

Dey eat de jam, dey tease de cat,
Near drive me off my head,
De on-ly time it’s safe to cook
Is when dey’se all in bed.

‘Why don’t I chase dem out”‘ you say.
H’m! Just yo’ come and try!
While I am catch-ing hold ob one,
An-nud-der eats a pie!

De mis-chief dat dem boys can do
Is plain for all to see,
Dat wo-man who lib-bed in a shoe
Was be-ter off dan me!”

It’s hard to know where to start with this page of totally forgotten (by me) humour.

Remind yourself that this is an English magazine for very small children (I was four), not an American one. Remind yourself that this was written by a white man (or woman, but I’m guessing a man, there is no indication of editorial team or writers anywhere). Remind yourself that although there were a few people of Caribbean (and African) origin in England for several hundred years by this time, this poem was being written not long after the 1948 British Nationality Act gave British Citizenship, and full rights of entry and settlement in Britain, to all people living in Commonwealth countries, and that as a result the first ship (the MV Empire Windrush) carrying 492 Caribbean immigrants had arrived in London on 22 June 1948.

So the presence of this “funny cartoon” in 1949 is a bit strange. As is its form. These, I presume, are intended to be some kind of comic idea of American blacks. Based on what? Some memory of Hollywood movies or American comedians doing a parody black voice? Why was it thought suitable for four year old English (or Australian) kids in 1949? And was the use of the term “nigs” really seen as jolly good fun and not offensive in that year?

Finally the big question. Was this sort of thing common in children’s comics, magazines, annuals of the day, and did it affect the racism of the public later? Caribbean migration began in 1948. Race riots and attacks built up in the 1950s. Twenty years later came Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, perhaps the most offensive words ever to come from a British politician. Were these public attitudes at least partly built on the playful pages of Chick’s Own and others like it? Many families try to restrict their children from playing with toy guns, concerned about the effect on their attitudes in later life. Should they also have been concerned about those harmless looking children’s annuals stuffed innocently into Xmas stockings?

Anyway, I thought I should check out the rest of this Annual, see if page 19 was just the tip of the iceberg, see if my young mind had been unknowingly but permanently warped by subliminal racism and turned me into the adult racist I so famously became (just as my cap-firing cowboy gun, proudly blasting away at about the same time, turned me into a gun fanatic blasting kangaroos in national parks with an AK 47).

And there we had it. Straight away on page 2 we have “Nigger” the black chick (one of the jolly chick chums of the title of the Annual) and later “Golli” the golliwog and “Golly” the golliwog, who seems to be a different character. All appear in several different stories. On page 26 “Neddy and Nellie Nigger” appear asking “some jolly riddles”. They are also cartoonish, but more humanised than the “Naughty Nigs”.

At one moment you think this is all quite innocent, reading too much into a long-ago children’s book. But then you think, just a moment. Why is the black chicken called “Nigger”? What’s with the golliwogs? Why is it “Neddy and Nellie Nigger ” who are asking “jolly riddles”? And, looming overall are those “Naughty Nigs” (note that, as if to underline connections, a golliwog appears in the scene, as one does on the front cover, falling over, and therefore coming last, in the sack race), as offensive, in retrospect, as caricatures of Jewish people would have been before the war.

But did any of it have an effect on me and my contemporaries, make us predisposed to be racists? I don’t know. It is just one of tens of thousands of influences on you as you grow up (and another time I will have a look at Lion Annual 1957 for what was going on in the big boy equivalent of Chick’s Own), and who knows what results in one prevailing over another.

It is worth noting the reverse though. That this kind of content was thought absolutely appropriate in a magazine for young children (remember that this Annual reflected content produced week after week, year after year) in an office in London in 1949. And by inference, by at least a good proportion of the population of England at the time. And that, this one little lone Annual of mine representing a very small tip of an iceberg, this kind of unconscious/conscious racism in publications must have been widespread in society. Therefore creating, in its representation of black people as definitely “other”, as not quite human even, fertile ground for the violent racism that was to come.

The Write Stuff


“…he lounged up and down the pavement, and gazed vacantly at the ground, the sky, the opposite houses, and the line of railings. Having finished his scrutiny, he proceeded slowly down the path, or rather down the fringe of grass that flanked the path, keeping his eyes riveted on the ground. Twice he stopped, and once I saw him smile, and heard him utter an exclamation of satisfaction. There were many marks of footsteps on the wet clayey soil; but since the police had been coming over it, I was unable to see how my companion could learn anything from it” … “… the murderer was a man. He was more than six feet high, was in the prime of life, had small feet for his height, wore coarse square-toed boots and smoked a Trichinopoly cigar. He came here with his victim in a four-wheeled cab, which was drawn by a horse with three old shoes and one new one on his off fore-leg …” Sherlock Holmes ‘A Study in Scarlet’.

When I was young I thought “Oh, if only I could write like Enid Blyton”. A little later it was “Oh if only I could write like WE Johns”. Then followed Charles Dickens, and a little later JD Salinger, and on and on through a life spent reading and writing. These days I will read some beautifully argued and written blog post or newspaper column and think, oh, if only I could write like that, perhaps I should copy their style, see what I can do.

But you can’t, really of course. Your writing style is born with you, grows with you, is the result of nature and nurture, is as individual as a fingerprint.

Or your track through a desert. It is often remarked (though I think much exaggerated and mythologised) that Australian Aborigines, Kalahari Bushmen, North American Indians, can identify not just which species of animal they are tracking but an individual, and the same when tracking humans. And what they were doing – here they paused to rest, here ate some food, there drank, at this point they were running, at that they were sleeping and so on. A track across a landscape becomes a history of an individual.

As does the track across your life of the things you write. We all leave behind not broken twigs, crushed leaves, footprints in soft mud; but letters, wills, academic research papers, letters to editor, books, post cards, theses, speeches, school essays, diaries, newspaper columns, poetry, book chapters, reviews, referee reports, and, more recently, emails, tweets, blogs. We don’t all leave all of those of course, but the combination of written works we do leave will also help to define our lives, define who we are, as much as the style and content of what is written.

Some disciplines impose strong frameworks not just on what is written but on how it is written. Law, Science, Medicine, Engineering, for example, impose style and content requirements that greatly reduce the individual footprint that can be produced in them. On the other hand writing history for example, or of course literature, is very much open to, indeed demands, that the writer develop their own style.

So you could, and people called biographers do, deduce a great deal about a person, their personality, ideas, creativity, influences, life story, from the written works they leave behind. A box, an attic, full of old papers doth a biography make. But for it to be a true, accurate, portrait of a lady, or gentleman, the record must be complete. There are many heartbreaking stories to the biographer or historian, of letters burnt after death on an author’s instructions (Dickens for example), of manuscripts lost in some way, of material discarded when a family moves house, and, these days, of crashed computers or damaged discs. The problem is not just that some detail is absent, some chunk of time not described, but that the missing material may well have totally altered our understanding of a life, a character, an achievement.

Material from which to cut the whole cloth of a life need not be actually physically lost, but can be merely lost sight of. A classic example in science is Gregor Mendel. He published the paper which showed how genetic inheritance worked in 1866. It was ignored for the next 34 years (and all his papers burnt after his death in 1884), during which time Darwin’s discovery of natural selection remained without a proper framework of genetic inheritance, until rediscovered in 1900. It was only after that time that modern genetics began to develop, and the genius of Mendel recognised. There have been many similar cases in all scientific disciplines I suspect.

This kind of failing is not just a thing of the past. Today the standard approach to “reviewing the literature” in an academic paper is to look only at the last few years, an event horizon at 5 years apparently prevents any further investigation. A literature review once was, should be, the following of a trail of evidence and argument back to its origins, in order to understand the life story of a theory or set of data. It only takes one or two literature reviews in which some papers are ignored for them to disappear into a black hole and never be referenced again (because future researchers will come to this point in their search and, not finding them, remain unaware of their existence).

Does it matter? Yes it does. If older works disappear from consideration then newer ones will keep reinventing the wheel, keep coming up with suggestions long ago dismissed for good reason (see my earlier post “The Burning Bush” for an example of this). Science is supposed to grow steadily as data and ideas accumulate, not keep slipping down to the bottom of the hill and start again the next day.

And for the individuals concerned (like poor old Mendel), ignoring work is as bad as having the maid burn a manuscript while lighting a fire, or work being done on a computer tape that can no longer be read by modern computers. Their life story, their achievements, their personal style as illustrated in the fingerprints of their writing, will be invisible to history, be incomplete. And we have no Sherlock Holmes now to decipher the biographical footprints scuffed out by policemen.

No one will ever know I smoked Trichinopoly cigars.