The oldest story in the World

The oldest story in the World, intriguing… How many ancient tales survive among our own nation? Very few.

Once there would have been more, but while printing saved stories, it lost them too by its silence, so the first printers gave new life to the Canterbury Tales, they ignored peasant stories, which have been lost. One 15th century writer said he would pass over in disdain such traditions ‘Concerning Wade and his bote called Guingelot, and also his strange exploits in the same’ but what is this lost tradition?  Soon came the Reformation, and old, heathenish stories were cast out deliberately.  It was a blessing to the nation overall, but incalculable loss to our folklore.

Writing discourages the oral transmission of stories, perhaps because we look to the page for confirmation, perhaps because those written down lose their vitality when nailed to paper, perhaps because the old is drowned in the huge volume of new, printed stories. Many of our traditional fairy takes survive only because the Brothers Grimm hunted them down in the forests of Germany and Walt Disney committed them to film. We have a lot to thank Mr Disney for if the opposite of ‘Disneyfication’ of stories is losing them entirely from our consciousness.

The oral tradition is stronger than a book-bound people can imagine.  The Book People at the end of Fahrenheit 451 are a fantasy suggested by oral stories but are actually celebrating the written word. We are Book People. Beyond our paper culture, the story long handed down is a phenomenon.

For bookless people, a story is more immediate.  When John Ross moored his ship further north in the Arctic than any ship had hitherto sailed, the local Eskimos told his crew of another fleet which had visited them, and recounted all the detail as if it had been yesterday: but it was Martin Frobisher’s fleet of three hundred years before.

Britain has some older stories surviving from a distant age, like those of Beowulf, and the lively tales of the Mabinogion, which would have been lost if not written down. Ours is a young nation, of just fifteen centuries or so.  Beowulf is but a youngster, and the older stories it recounts, of the Volsings and of Waldere reaching into pan-Germanic legend, are wet behind the ears compared with the classics.  We have some older snippets – the legend of the Lady of the Lake, who wed her suitor on condition that she be touched with no thing of iron, may come from the collision of the Bronze with the incoming Iron Age.  Even this story is young.

The Trojan War reaches deep into the Bronze Age.  The names of Graeco-Roman deities can be traced to the early Indo-European languages, but not their legends. The Bible reaches back to Creation itself, but the earliest actual stories are of the Bronze Age, and in parallel the earliest written stories from Babylon and the east tell of the great flood, which happened millennia ago in many places across the world.

We can tell stories that are written in the landscape, as Rudyard Kipling did of his beloved Sussex, and wind yarns about the bits of history we know and the castles, the carved hillsides and the ancient standing stones, but this is not a living story of those times.

See you the dimpled track that runs, All hollow through the wheat?
O that was where they hauled the guns That smote King Philip’s fleet!…
And see you, after rain, the trace Of mound and ditch and wall?
O that was a Legion’s camping-place, When Caesar sailed from Gaul!
And see you marks that show and fade, Like shadows on the Downs?
O they are the lines the Flint Men made, To guard their wondrous towns!

In Australia there are tribal tales that have no dates and were not written down, until white anthropologists passed by. We may think of Australia as young, but its native people had the place for untold ages without interference.

There is in Victoria a mountain called Mount Eccles with a slot-like crater lake in its heart, and around it a wet landscape, inhabited since tie beyond estimation by the Gunditjmara tribe, and they have a creation story of the High Head emerging from the earth, spreading his blood and teeth across the landscape and creating the wetlands, just as the lava did when Mount Eccles erupted. Stone tools have been found buried in ash from that time, so the people were already here.  The thing is, the scientific data for the eruption puts it at 36,900 years ago, when even in Europe the Old Stone Age hunters were still wandering an untamed continent.

It is unimaginable that a story could be told uninterrupted since Palaeolithic times, but somehow among a tribe in a once forgotten continent there is proof of a form of immortality of the spoken word.

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Oh the things we said in dark corners….

I blush to think of those long yarns in college rooms or the corner of a pub, of all we said and did not think, of the ribald, the shocking, the plain disgusting, geeing each other up to exceed the heights of sick-mindedness.

All with smiles on our faces, and meaning not a word of it. I don’t recall any either, and was not meant to. How many wars we declared on innocent countries for minor slights or just to smash-and-grab I cannot remember, and how many tyrannical laws that would make Genghis Khan quiver. Maybe someone lauded eugenic slaughter at one point (I’d rather not think about it) just out of audacity to turn our stomachs, or spoke of race theories that not even the worst nutcase believes, against his own race (though maybe that’s not far off modern identity politics).

You will have to believe me when I say that not one of those foul-mouthed souls has in his matured life celebrated South American culture by decorating his house as he said with shrunken heads still warm, nor declared war on Greenland for having a dishonest name, nor urged the reintroduction of suttee to reduce the social security budget, nor the introduction of slavery based on IQ tests.  Not one of them has married three wives at a time, each for a service in a different room of the house, nor introduced a punitive sliding scale of income tax for taxpayers with dissenting political leanings, nor built gulags in the ice of South Georgia. Neither have I thought again about any of the things I might have advocated in jest, thank goodness.

Are the French lucky that we conspirators have not, as we plotted, invaded their land and seized back Calais and Normandy, and Brittany while we are about it?  Somehow, no.  What is spoken in a confidential circle of friends playing the young idiot for all it is worth shows no more intent to follow the words spoken and no more belief in it than Jonathan Swift really thought of having Irishmen eat their children.

So why do young men speak that way in dark corners? For one word they do believe: Freedom.

We are bound by decency and politeness and the opinion of others. It is stifling. Soon we will be grown and given new responsibilities, and seeing that coming there is a burst to claim one last freedom, to speak nonsense unrestrained. It is a joy to be free at last for an evening to act and speak with no responsibility nor need to carry through. It means nothing beyond that circle. Who can begrudge that of young men when they can?

It may build strength and resilience, and joy in the moment and fills that sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, and that is exactly what a man needs to shoulder the burdens of manhood in later life, when the shutters have come down. I slept and dreamt that life was beauty; I woke and found that life was duty. So it is to be a man maturing to bear his load.

We had the sense of course and decency not to record any yarning we made, and what is spoken in dark corners strays not a yard from those corners. It is not a thing for social media nor a blog – which is why all the examples I have written are entirely fictional and very mild compared with what was actually said, even if I had remembered it.

You can see where this is leading: offence-mining, a curse of the age. Too many careers have been felled by it, for words which harmed no one and had no intent to do so. The real harm is done by those who seek to destroy those who have spoken too freely. I can tell you that the pen may be mightier than the sword, but even the sharpest tongue is no more than flaccid flesh. It is not though about offence, is it? It is about power, about keeping away from all influence those who disagree, and any excuse will do. The Long March is not to be turned back. They know, these social-justice warriors, that a provocative tweet is no more that a word hurled in the darkness, but that is not the point.

Then there is the Pelagian Puritanism about which Dr Giles Fraser wrote recently.

Really though, are the open discussions of Momentum types any different? There are discussions involving mass theft from unfavoured classes, destruction of nations, gulags and ‘re-education’, criminalisation of dissidents, praise of mass-murderers, dismantling the whole nation. I have even read serious suggestions of inducing deadly epidemics to reduce the population. The difference is that the speakers of these free ideas are in deadly earnest. That is what should frighten us. Thankfully there are some of us still left to stand against it from our own histories of speaking shocking twaddle.

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Geoffrey Cox: an appreciation

Stentorian – the word that will always be connected with Geoffrey Cox QC, and whenever he speaks, there speaks Stentor of old.

You must remember that speech which he gave at the party conference in October 2018, as newly appointed Attorney-General.  He first began as if he had to apologise to the angry party members for accepting office under Mrs May, but he spoke as an unwavering Brexiteer and won the floor, which rose at his conclusion.

I have not met Geoffrey Cox, despite staying frequently in his constituency. If I ever meeting him, pounding the precipitous inclines of its streets, I will be sure to shake his hand warmly.

His departure from the government was something of a surprise, except apparently to those with inside knowledge. Maybe when you lose too many cases you will consider changing your barrister, which is essential what the Attorney-General is: the Cabinet’s own chief legal adviser and advocate in court. It seems harsh though at our Stentor, for his advice on the Cherry / Miller case (as far as we may discern what it was) could not be faulted by other lawyers, and the Supreme Court’s ruling was surprising to say the least.

Then again, maybe there was a gnawing resentment at his forcefulness in trying to press through the Commons Mrs May’s deal, rebuking the doubters “we are not children”.. and that insult stings when spoken with a commanding voice.

Or maybe it was the inevitable rise of another with a pointed agenda.

A new Attorney-General

Now we have a new, and no doubt talented Attorney-General, Suella Braverman. She may find it a thankless task if she is held responsible for every wild decision by a court, and the clock is ticking for the changes which she herself presaged and will be expected to carry though. She wrote, a fortnight before her elevation that she wanted Parliament to take back control, against “a chronic and steady encroachment by the judges”. This article may have won her the post.

At the same time though she must be the voice of moderation and advice as to the legal points now, not those after any future reform.

A legal adviser is in a poor position, as she must say what the client does not want to hear. Maybe this is why the tenure of an Attorney-General has been so short these last years. It used to be a long-term, non-political position but that seems untenable now.

What then is the job before our new Attorney-General? Possibly to be an activist to rein the wild decisions in, as she has expressed herself on this issue previously. That may be why indeed she has been called forth to be Attorney-General in place of Geoffrey Cox. He advises sagely and cautiously, as a barrister will do, when the order of the day may be active reform.

She has already been attacked cautiously by the heads of the legal profession: the President of the Law Society has rebuffed the idea of encroachment, saying that: ‘The role of the judges is to give effect to the will of parliament and the role of judicial review is to support parliament not to undermine it.’ The two are not incompatible opinions.

The Attorney is also nominally in charge of prosecutions, which has become a sore topic with change in the air.

The Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission

The Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission is coming and its member will have to be appointed. (Did I leave my card? You mean you don’t have it? Let me give you my details again…)

It was thought that Geoffrey Cox would be involved as Attorney-General but now it is unlikely that he will be appointed to chair it, and again it may be that the previous speeches by Suella Braverman lined her up to do the job. I wish her luck.

I have commented before on the care that is needed to run the Commission’s task properly. It should not just be a place for activism, in fact it must not even primarily be for activism. Active ideas are needed to push anything forward, but any changes to the constitution must be fair, even-handed and democratic but more than that, they be seen to be so without question.

Back to where we were

Tavistock still has a fine Member of Parliament and I trust will do so for many years, and a member too with a great deal to contribute, perhaps on the new Commission, which would benefit from his experience being entangled in the cases they are tasked with straightening out, or at least informing in the House.

The nation needs a steady adviser as it stretches its wings to look over the world. As it was once put:

Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks. Methinks I see her as an eagle mewing her mighty youth, and kindling her undazzled eyes at the full midday beam; purging and unscaling her long-abused sight at the fountain itself of heavenly radiance; while the whole noise of timorous and flocking birds, with those also that love the twilight, flutter about, amazed at what she means, and in their envious gabble would prognosticate a year of sects and schisms.

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Blood on the carpet

The dust is just settling. Those who were once staunch Boris allies are now cast down and new faces, some unknown faces, raised up.

There are rewards for those who were for Boris Johnson from the beginning, but that is not a pattern, and some former Remainers have been raised up. Really, there are no Remainers and Leavers now, and we hear that the very word ‘Brexit’ has been banned from Whitehall, which is commanded henceforth to look forward, not back.

Sajid Javid was once introduced to me as the future Prime Minister. I think we can pass over that now. That is a deadly position to hold, is it not?  Solomon began his reign by righteously slaying all those who threatened his position, including his own brother, Adonijah, Joab the general and Shimei, who had taunted Solomon’s father David during Absalom’s rebellion. The advantage of democracy is that political change can be effected without bloodshed, as long as everyone follows the rules.

Jeremy Hunt is not back in the government, I see.

The fate of the once-great was a constant theme of the Middle Ages. Often the scion of a Welsh princely family dreamed that if it had not been for circumstances he might have had lands and a coronet himself, so he raised an army and to all who should follow him he promised gold, they receiving graves instead. Then there were the tangled family successions of the grandsons of Edward III tearing England apart over theoretical rights to estates, duchies or the Crown itself.  In the modern Westminster system, no one has a right to office, but that does not stop the natural feeling in the breast of the deprived man that something of his own has been unjustly taken from him.

(The law makes it clear that an office under the Crown is at the whim of the Queen with no right to notice or compensation. Mind you, the law also makes it clear that the Queen may prorogue Parliament and that did nor stop the Court of Session and the Supreme Court from interfering.)

The question now is whether the ousted ministers will sit quietly, looking wistfully at their broken career paths, or will plot amongst themselves a startling coup, from which they would either triumph or be cast into the depths of deselected Tartarus, like other tortured, Grieving souls of the past who now lie forgotten men. Those who went with good grace may find a place again, or not. There are too many talented Members of Parliament to find them all a salaried job.

As I observed during the Last Days of May, “Whoever then stands on the steps of Downing Street, they will make enemies, from those they have not favoured as they believe they deserve.” As Clifford says in Henry VI Part 3:

“The smallest worm will turn, being trodden on.”

Maybe Sajiv Javid is dreaming of riding triumphant again through the barred gates of Downing Street like Warwick:

“Tell him from me that he hath done me wrong, And therefore I’ll uncrown him ere’t be long.”

– but his is no kingmaker. Boris drives all before him, as long as he keeps that momentum going.

One pattern just emerging is the rise of ‘blue wall’ members. Grand infrastructure schemes to connect the neglected North are one thing, but promoting their new Members begins.  A senior job cannot fall to an MP in place barely more than a month, but northern MPs are appearing – Simon Clarke of Middlesbrough for one. It helps too that the PM’s senior adviser is from County Durham.

The headline news has been the downfall of Sajiv Javid, attributed to his refusal to merge his SpAD team with that of Number 10. It also came just days after Javid had been relentlessly attacked by Conservative members and the Tory-leaning press for suggesting tax increases.  Only future days will tell whether the latter suggestion was a Number 10 or Number 11 initiative. His fiscal rules, of a steadily reducing deficit and limits to capital spending, were important and should survive.  Promises to shower the North with gold do not sit well with this though.

If asked to paint the picture emerging from the new ministry, I am stuck for description. All this is speculation, and I must leave the detail for those who actually know what they are taking about.

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By Boris Johnson:

By others

The Ulster Bridge

Is it then to be a bridge? A tunnel? A floating tunnel? For cars, or trains, or bicycles?

In one of the richest nations of the Earth, such an endeavour is not beyond consideration, but for over a hundred years the idea of a fixed bridge across the North Channel to join Great Britain to Ireland has always been in the ‘too hard’ tray. Now it is being looked at again, and I should emphasise ‘being looked at’ not ‘being done’.

The Channel Tunnel works because it was built with private funds with a view to profit from the services running through it.  Spaffing taxpayers’ money at a project is the best way to ensure wastage, overruns and a poor quality build. The Ulster Bridge or Ulster Tunnel (more of which later) will be too important a piece of infrastructure to leave it in the government’s ham-fisted paws.

Has anyone asked Elon Musk?

The Chinese would whack something across the sea with barely a thought, and hope it does not fall down when a Party official was driving over. We would expect the job to be done properly, the penalty for failure being fines from the Health and Safety Executive or, worse still, financial loss.

It does seem strange that with all the vast engineering projects spanning the world and in fact going  beyond it, all the millions of miles of tunnels, viaducts, cable networks, trans-continental pipelines and buildings that reach the sky raised in merely months, that our own little ditch is not bridged. Many longer tunnels have been built.

It is not as if the idea has not been considered before. In the 1890s there was a serious proposal published for a submersed floating tunnel anchored at Whitehead (south of Larne) and at Portpatrick.  Every generation since has seen ideas come and go. Today we are told to think of a bridge; tomorrow it may be a tunnel.  Engineers tell me that this idea is one which the large civil engineering companies will have as concept pieces in back drawers somewhere, and the sort of thing they hand to trainees as exercises. More than a few back drawers will be rattling open now.

The unique qualities of the North Channel, both natural and man-made, make it a new challenge.  The tunnel beneath the English Channel is just as long as one beneath the North Channel would need to be, but it is a bore largely through sand and under a shallow sea: the North Channel has hard rock and a deep sea trench with possible geological instability. Beaufort’s Dyke right in the course of where a tunnel or a bridge would go, dives to a thousand feet below sea level (although it may be possible to find a point “only” 500 feet down) and, just for further amusement, after the War more than a million tons of unused ordnance was dropped into it: you do not want a million tons of unstable shells and bombs beside the footings or a bridge or above a deep tunnel.

This assumes that the tunnel or bridge would cross the North Channel at the main ferry point, between the east coast of Antrim (or Down) and the Rhinns of Galloway, which is a twenty-two mile crossing (one I have sailed in a dead calm and in a storm). Another route is from the north coast of County Antrim to the Mull of Kintyre. That is so short a distance that I could stand on the Argyll side and watch the cars in Antrim, and the Beaufort Trench is not there. Once there was a ferry (with a Brussels subsidy, naturally) sailing from Campbeltown to Portrush – it closed because there was no custom, and that is the problem with this route – not just that it would wreck two beautiful, peaceful spots, but it is from no commercial place to no commercial place.  Maybe a twelve-mile Argyll-Antrim tunnel would create its own dynamic, but it is just the wrong place.

Back to structures, and I said it was a choice between bridge and tunnel; the mock-up used in the press release has a remarkable variant:  a tunnel from Larne beneath the main shipping lane, emerging in the sea to rise up onto a bridge! That is reminiscent of one of the odder plans for a road crossing of the English Channel, with bridges out into the sea ending in spiral ramps down to a tunnel.

The plan in 1890 was a serious one, for a rail link using a tunnel, a submerged tubular bridge or a solid causeway, or it might be a mixture, and the engineer who proposed it was no dreamy student but the great Luke Livingston Macassey, who created Belfast’s fresh water system, and he had been working on it since the 1860s. An article can still be found somewhere in the archives, and it is recalled in a book ‘Mapping the Railways’ (see below).

It is an intriguing thought: a tunnel carved in the normal way until the sudden 500-foot deep then carried on an undersea bridge. The bridge would be subject to the corrosion of the sea and to the deep-sea currents for which the North Channel is known, but not to the tides or storms, as an exposed bridge would be, and having been tossed about in those storms myself, I would feel more comforted being carried snug beneath them.

Modernity finds solutions for unusual engineering solutions. Those proposing new manned landings of the Moon or a base on Mars have suggested first sending autonomous robots to build substantial accommodation ready for the star-sailors who will follow. If it is possible to have robots build complex structures in extra-terrestrial locations, without needing rest, undaunted by time, then to send them tunnelling beneath the sea and building a causeway across the trench seems no great stretch. If they take twenty years, well, we have been waiting a hundred and fifty already. I am no engineer, but it seems reasonable to assume that if ‘bots could build and shore-up even a narrow tunnel and place rails within it, that provides a transport link that can start earning its keep, and the link necessary to dig a wider tunnel.

As to the unexploded munitions, that is another puzzle. Is there a market for deep-sea mining of the iron and chemicals constituted in those discarded weapons? Here too robots have a place as they may be more disposable than flesh and blood miners and do not have to come up for air.

The economics prescribe that the tunnel or bridge would most probably be for a railway not a road (a foot and cycle tunnel beside it would be appreciated by vigorous travellers, but we didn’t get it in the tunnel to France). A practical point though: the railways of Great Britain and of most of Europe are all of the same rail gauge, 4 feet ​8 12 inches, which is why the Channel Tunnel can enable a train to run from Inverness to Constantinople, but the Irish gauge is 5 feet 3 inches. That then would require a transhipment port at one end or other of the tunnel, or some dual-gauge track to such a node, or tearing up and relaying all the railway lines across Ulster and Ireland, or a curse on both their houses and doing it as an vacuum-tunnel maglev system.

There are many intriguing ideas to be thrown about in the next few years and many dead-ends, but it must be considered.

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