I recently finished reading a novel called Ice & Lemon, which was given to me by my mother for Christmas (my reading list is quite long at the moment; I’m only just getting close to catching up!). I could tell you about what I liked about the book – and I will, in a moment – but before that I’d like to mention what makes this book personally so spooky to me, as a reader.
My mother got it for me because the coincidences apparent on the front and back cover appealed to her:
The author’s name, Pete Hartley, is remarkably similar to my father’s name, Peter Huntley.
The strapline contains a date, and that date is my mother’s birthday.
The protagonist of the story is called Daniel, which is – prior to that point in the late 1990s when I started going by Dan among virtually everybody – my name.
The front cover shows a picture of a baby’s hand, and Ruth‘s expected delivery date of New Year’s Eve was thus a hot discussion topic for us all around Christmas-time.
Okay, so – that’s a handful of quirky coincidences, certainly, but I’m sure if you looked at every volume in a bookshop – in the right frame of mind – you’d find a dozen other novels that seemed similarly fortuitous. But as I began to read the story, I discovered that I shared a lot more in common with the story’s Daniel than I could have possibly predicted. It was almost as if I were reading an alternate-history version of my own life – it’s incredibly easy to see how believable choices made in the early 2000s could have lead to a reality that even-more closely paralleled with my own:
Daniel’s partner is called Claire. In 2005, when the story is set, I too had a partner called Claire.
Daniel grew up in, and lives in, Preston, near to the football stadium and his local supermarket, the Deepdale Road/Sir Tom Finney Way Sainsburys. I grew up in Preston, and my parents houses are both within sight of the football stadium. My father used to, and my mother still does, do their shopping at the Deepdale Road/Sir Tom Finney Way Sainsburys.
Some time after an apocalyptic event takes place, Daniel joins a group of survivors who call themselves “Camp Q” (no explanation is given for the choice of name). Some time after the date of the event as it appears in the story, I changed my surname to Q.
There are about a hundred smaller coincidences in Daniel’s story, too, but after a few of them you stop looking objectively and you can’t help but see them, so I’ll spare you the list. If I wanted to, I’m sure I could find plenty of things that definitely didn’t fit me: for example, Daniel’s significantly older than me. That sort of blows the alternate history idea out of the water. But nonetheless, it was a disturbing and eerie experience to be reading about a protagonist so much like myself, travelling around a post-disaster area that I personally know so very well. I feel like I ought to reach out to the author and check that he’s not just pranking me, somehow. His son features in the book, but somehow the coincidences that naturally occur as a result of this are less-impressive because they’re pre-informed.
The book itself is pretty good: a soft science fiction story full of a thorougly-explored post-apocalyptic grief. Very human, and very British, it exemplifies that curious sense of humour that we as a nation exhibit in the face of a disaster, while still being emotionally-scarring in the sheer scope of the tragedy it depicts. The science of the science-fiction is… questionable, but it’s not explored in detail (and it’s only treated as being speculative by the characters discussing it anyway, who aren’t scientists): this is a story about people, suffering, and survival, not about technology nor futurism. There are a handful of points at which it feels like it could have done with an additional pass by a proofreader; while occasionally distracting, these typos are not problematic. Plus: the book contains the most literal deus ex machina I’ve ever encountered (and thankfully, it doesn’t come across as lazy writing so much as general wasteland craziness).
It’sunder £3 in ebook format, and if I didn’t already own a paperback copy, I’d be happy to pay that for it. Even if it didn’t make me feel like I was looking at an alternate version of myself.
While you’re tucking in to your turkey tomorrow and the jokes and puzzles in your crackers are failing to impress, here’s a little riddle to share with your dinner guests:
Which is the odd-one out: gypsies, turkeys, french fries, or the Kings of Leon?
In order to save you from “accidentally” reading too far and spoling the answer for yourself, here’s a picture of a kitten to act as filler:
Want a hint? This is a question about geography. Specifically, it’s a question about assumptions about geography. Have another think: the kittens will wait.
Okay. Let’s have a look at each of the candidates, shall we? And learn a little history as we go along:
The Romami are an ethnic group of traditionally-nomadic people, originating from Northern India and dispersing across Europe (and further) over the last millenium and a half. They brought with them some interesting anthropological artefacts of their culture, such as aspects of the Indian caste system and languages (it’s through linguistic similarities that we’ve been best-able to trace their multi-generational travels, as written records of their movements are scarce and incomplete), coupled with traditions related to a nomadic life. These traditions include strict rules about hygiene, designed to keep a travelling population free of disease, which helped to keep them safe during the European plagues of the 13th and 14th centuries.
Unfortunately for them, when the native populations of Western European countries saw that these travellers – who already had a reputation as outsiders – seemed to be immune to the diseases that were afflicting the rest of the population, their status in society rapidly degraded, and they were considered to be witches or devil-worshippers. This animosity made people unwilling to trade with them, which forced many of them into criminal activity, which only served to isolate them further. Eventually, here in the UK, laws were passed to attempt to deport them, and these laws help us to see the origins of the term gypsy, which by then had become commonplace.
Consider, for example, the Egyptians Act 1530, which uses the word “Egyptian” to describe these people. The Middle English word for Egypian was gypcian, from which the word gypsy or gipsy was a contraction. The word “gypsy” comes from a mistaken belief by 16th Century Western Europeans that the Romani who were entering their countries had emigrated from Egypt. We’ll get back to that.
When Europeans began to colonise the Americas, from the 15th Century onwards, they discovered an array of new plants and animals previously unseen by European eyes, and this ultimately lead to a dramatic diversification of the diets of Europeans back home. Green beans, cocoa beans, maize (sweetcorn), chillis, marrows, pumpkins, potatoes, tomatoes, buffalo, jaguars, and vanilla pods: things that are so well-understood in Britain now that it’s hard to imagine that there was a time that they were completely alien here.
Still thinking that the Americas could be a part of East Asia, the explorers and colonists didn’t recognise turkeys as being a distinct species, and categorised them as being a kind of guineafowl. They soon realised that they made for pretty good eating, and started sending them back to their home countries. Many of the turkeys sent back to Central Europe arrived via Turkey, and so English-speaking countries started calling them Turkey fowl, eventually just shortened to turkey. In actual fact, most of the turkeys reaching Britain probably came directly to Britain, or possibly via France, Portugal, or Spain, and so the name “turkey” is completely ridiculous.
Fun fact: in Turkey, turkeys are called hindi, which means Indian, because many of the traders importing turkeys were Indians (the French, Polish, Russians, and Ukranians also use words that imply an Indian origin). In Hindi, they’re called peru, after the region and later country of Peru, which also isn’t where they’re from (they’re native only to North America), but the Portugese – who helped to colonise Peru also call them that. And in Scottish Gaelic, they’re called cearc frangach – “French chicken”! The turkey is a seriously georgraphically-confused bird.
As I’m sure that everybody knows by now, “French” fries probably originated in either Belgium or in the Spanish Netherlands (now part of Belgium), although some French sources claim an earlier heritage. We don’t know how they were first invented, but the popularly-told tale of Meuse Valley fishing communities making up for not having enough fish by deep-frying pieces of potato, cut into the shape of fish, is almost certainly false: a peasant region would be extremely unlikely to have access to the large quantities of fat required to fry potatoes in this way.
So why do we – with the exception of some confusingly patriotic Americans – call them French fries. It’s hard to say for certain, but based on when the food became widely-known in the anglophonic world, the most-likely explanation comes from the First World War. When British and, later, American soldier landed in Belgium, they’ll have had the opportunity to taste these (now culturally-universal) treats for the first time. At that time, though, the official language of the Belgian army (and the most-popularly spoken language amongst Belgian citizens) was French. The British and American soldiers thus came to call them “French fries”.
The Kings of Leon
For a thousand years the Kingdom of Leon represented a significant part of what would not be considered Spain and/or Portugal, founded by Christian kings who’d recaptured the Northern half of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors during the Reconquista (short version for those whose history lessons didn’t go in this direction: what the crusades were against the Ottomans, the Reconquista was against the Moors). The Kingdom of Leon remained until its power was gradually completely absorbed into that of the Kingdom of Spain. Leon still exists as a historic administrative region in Spain, similar to the counties of the British Isles, and even has its own minority language (the majority language, Spanish, would historically have been known as Castilian – the traditional language of the neighbouring Castillian Kingdom).
The band, however, isn’t from Leon but is from Nashville, Tennessee. They’ve got nothing linking them to actual Leon, or Spain at all, as far as I can tell, except for their name – not unlike gypsies and Egypt, turkeys and Turkey, and French fries and France. The Kings of Leon, a band of brothers, took the inspiration for their name from the first name of their father and their grandfather: Leon.
The Odd One Out
The Kings of Leon are the odd one out, because while all four have names which imply that they’re from somewhere that they’re not, the inventors of the name “The Kings of Leon” were the only ones who knew that the implication was correct.
The people who first started calling gypsies “gypsies” genuinely believed that they came from Egypt. The first person to call a turkey a “Turkey fowl” really was under the impression that it was a bird that had come from, or via, Turkey. And whoever first started spreading the word about the tasty Belgian food they’d discovered while serving overseas really thought that they were a French invention. But the Kings of Leon always knew that they weren’t from Leon (and, presumably, that they weren’t kings).
And as for you? Your sex is on fire. Well, either that or it’s your turkey. You oughta go get it out of the oven if it’s the latter, or – if it’s the former – see if you can get some cream for that. And have a Merry Christmas.
A strange package appeared outside of the door to my office, some time this morning, wrapped as a gift and accompanied by a card.
It turns out to have been my colleagues at the Bodleian Shop, whose newly-relaunched e-commerce site I was drafted into at the last minute to iron out a few technical hitches in time for them to start making online sales before the Christmas rush. There were a few somewhat-stressful moments as technical folk from disparate providers worked together to link-up all of the parts of the site (warehouse and stock level systems, order and payment processing, content management, and of course the web front end), but it all came together in the end… and I think a lot of lessons were learned from the experience.
So that was a very sweet surprise. I knew that they’d appreciated my “hopping department” in order to firefight the various problems that came up during their deployment, but it was still really awesome to get an alcoholic, chocolatey thank-you and a cute card signed by their team, to boot.
I’ve just had a phone call from a very confused courier. My mother (who many years ago for reasons both too long and silly to go in to I nicknamed “Crusty Pasty”) texted me last night to say that I was to be delivered an early Christmas present that would arrive today, and that she’d given the courier my phone number so that he could ensure that I was in when he came around. My mobile rang:
Him:Hi, is this Dan… Q? Me:Speaking. Him:Hi: I have a delivery for you from a… I just want to make sure I say this right: Crusty Pasty? Me:That’s correct. I’m expecting it. Him:I think there might be something wrong with your landline: I called and got a strange robot voice. Me:Oh, that was you? That phone is never answered. Best to call this number.
Him:I just wanted to double-check the address: [number] Corpse Lane? Me:Copse Lane. Him:Oh yes, sorry. Just my bad handwriting. I’m on the M4 right now; I’ll be there in about an hour: is that okay? Me:Yes, I’ll be at that address all morning. Him:Okay. See you at about 11.
Codenames? Mysterious parcels? Phone numbers that always go unanswered? Yes, that’s right: I’m about to be treated as being part of some kind of terrorist cell. If my “early Christmas present” is something that can be used in the construction of an explosive, then the jigsaw will be completed and this will probably be my last ever blog post… until I’m released from Guantanamo Bay.
I believe that it is ethically wrong to lie to children about the existence of Santa Claus. And, as it’s a topical time of year – and because I know that this view brings me into conflict with the views of many others (I’ve certainly had more than a couple of arguments about this before) – I thought that I’d explain my thinking.
Bias of background
I probably ought to come clean, first, about my own background. There’s a certain bias that people can have towards their own upbringing: the implicit assumption that the way one was brought up is somehow the best or the most-correct way. I’d like to think that I’m speaking from a position of rationality as well as morality, but I can’t deny that my judgment may be clouded by my own childhood.
I never believed that Santa was real, and was never encouraged to. My family played out a whole variety of modern, secular Christmas traditions, such as leaving out a mince pie for Santa, hanging stockings, and decorating a tree. But these were always understood to be what they actually were. There was never an illusion that the mince pie wasn’t being eaten by my dad just minutes after he’d checked that I’d finally managed to curb my excitement get to sleep (even without a belief in the patently mythological, Christmas can still be an exciting time for a child).
What’s the harm?
When I was growing up, I came into contact with many children for whom the Father Christmas myth was very real. I gather that they’re still remarkably common… and who can blame parents: perpetuating the Santa lie can provide a very easy and pervasive way to control the behaviour of their children!
For the vast majority of these children, the revelation of the lie was a harmless experience: over time, they developed doubts, from the childish (“We don’t have a chimney? How can Santa slide down radiators?”), to the logical (“Reindeer can’t fly! And how big is a sleigh that can carry presents for every good child on Earth?”), to the profound (“Why does Santa give the children of rich parents more expensive gifts than the children of poor parents?”). They’d hear stories from other children about the falsehood of the Christmas stories when they spoke to other children or, often, older siblings. Many would eventually challenge their parents on these lies, and most of these parents would then come clean, correctly judging that the lie had run it’s course. So what’s the harm?
There are some children who didn’t come off so well. I’ve seen children bullied at school and in social settings as a result of clinging to their belief in Santa. One kid I knew – bolstered by his mother’s ongoing lies (she would later claim that she thought he knew, but was just “playing along”) – genuinely believed in Santa until he was 14 years old, defying all argument to the contrary, and suffered so much that he ceased to gain any enjoyment at all from the festival for years to come.
I’ve spoken to parents who have attempted to justify their decision to lie to their children by dismissing it as only “a white lie”, something which does more good than harm, and I can see their argument. But for some children, as we’ve seen, this lie can spiral out of control, and even if this were to happen with only one in a thousand children, I wouldn’t personally want to take the risk that it was a child of mine.
That Magical Christmas Feeling™
A common response to my claim that lying to children about Santa is ethically wrong is that there is something particularly special (or “magical”, it is often said) about being able to believe in Santa. Those who make this claim invariably come from a background in which they were encouraged to believe in him, and they frequently talk of wanting their children to be able to have the same experience as them. (I would speculate that there’s a large crossover between this group of people and the group of people who would rather their children were brought up with their religious beliefs, or lack thereof, than be given the opportunity to make their own choices, too).
Having experienced life as an a-santaist, I can say that there never for a moment felt like there was something missing from my childhood Christmases. Children have a rich and beautiful imagination and a way of looking at the world which will find wonder and magic, if they want it, regardless of the untruths they’re told. Imposing false beliefs as truths on healthy young minds does not result in a net addition of “magic”. At best, all that is achieved is that the child fantasies about a specific lie, perhaps one that the child’s caregivers can relate to. We’ve discussed a couple of the worth cases already, and these aren’t isolated incidents.
Christmas can be a magical time anyway. There’s time away from school (for children of schoolgoing age), a chance to see distant relatives, the giving and receiving of presents (how can I have left this until third in the list!), following unusual and exciting traditions, eating special food, the potential for snow (at least in this hemisphere), and a time for telling special stories and singing special songs. Special events are magical, and that’s true whether or not you subscribe to any particular religious or secular holidays. For a child, birthdays are magical, bonfire night is magical (ooh! fireworks!), the summer solstice is magical: whatever you’ve got can be magical when you’ve got a child’s imagination.
Think back to whatever family traditions you had as a child, especially the ones you had to wait a whole year for. They’re all special, all by themselves. You can enjoy eating delicious chocolate eggs without believing in either a magical rabbit with a confusing reproductive system, the crucifixion of the embodiment of a deity, or spring coming forth thanks to the earned favour of the fertility gods. Sorry, what were you saying? I was still thinking about chocolate.
So, no Santa at all, then?
If you were paying attention, you’ll have seen that I said “telling special stories and singing special songs”. My childhood was a secular one, certainly, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t full of stories of a jolly red man, songs about cervines with nasal photoluminescence, and so on. I enjoyed stories about a gift-giving magical man, just like I enjoyed stories about anthropomorphic talking animals: and it’s okay to understand these things for just what they are: stories! There’s perhaps something a little special in stories about Father Christmas in that they’re told pretty-much exclusively at Christmas time (and, perhaps, a little much – how many Christmas-themed movies are scheduled for television broadcast this winter?), but we don’t have to treat them as if they’re real.
My rules are pretty simple. If you (a) know something to be false and (b) teach it to a child to be real with (c) the intent for them to believe it wholeheartedly and for an extended period of time, you’re abusing the position of trust in which that child has placed you. (a) provides an exception for religious upbringing, (b) provides an exception for relationships in which there is not a disparity of power, and (c) provides an exception for whatever so-called “white lies” you feel that you need: that’s a pretty hefty lump of exceptions, if you need them – but still people raise objections.
Here’s what Santa means to me. To me, “Santa” is, and has always been, the embodiment of anonymous gift-giving: the genuine “spirit of Christmas”, if you like. And given my way, that would be what I’d want to teach my children, too. I’m not for a moment denying anybody the magic of the season, I’m just saying that there’s a big difference between Santa as an abstract concept (like a storm “wanting” to break) and Santa as a real, albeit magical, being (like Poseidon sending the storm†).
It’s a matter of trust
For me, this all comes down to trust. I don’t want to lie to my children. It’s not a difficult concept to understand: the only difference between me and a large number of other people is that they choose a different definition of “lie”. For the virtually all children who discover that they’ve been deceived about Santa, their trust in their parents remains fundamentally unharmed. For some, it’s dented for a short while but then comes back. But this still doesn’t make it right.
I want to be somebody who my children will always know that they can trust. I want them to know that I will not lie to them or deceive them. I want to be somebody who they can turn to for advice. I want to be somebody who they know will put them first, even in spite of tradition and convention.
That’s where I stand. Let’s here what you guys think.
But first, there’s one more argument…
…that I’ve heard recently. I’ve heard it put that it’s beneficial to lie to children about Santa because it teaches them not to trust everything they hear, teaches them to be critical thinkers, etc.. That being taught a lie will toughen them against other lies that they will be given to them later in the big, wide, and cruel world.
This argument holds no weight with me. Do these same parents like to beat up their children “just a little” so that if they get into a fight at school, it won’t be so bad? Do they lock up and abuse their kids so that if they’re kidnapped and raped that it isn’t so hard on them?
In my mind, a lie that you keep up for years on end is no longer a harmless lie. When I want to teach my kids about deceit, I’ll perform magic tricks for them. The first time you perform a magic trick for a child, they genuinely believe it – how did he make that coin appear from behind my ear? Leave it for a minute or so (a minute can be an eternity when you’re a kid). Then I’ll show them how it’s done. I’ll teach them to do the trick themselves, and they’ll see for themselves that magic is an illusion. Plus, they’ll have learned a cool trick.
The world is full of many very clever illusions and tricks, and often you can’t see how they’re done, but that doesn’t mean that they’re magic. There’s no shame in not knowing all the answers, but looking for answers is a noble and beautiful thing. I want to foster in my children a natural suspicion of magic, so that they’re better-able to avoid being conned by those who would do them harm. And I can achieve this without lying to them for more than a few minutes at a time. Shove that in your stocking, Santa.
DISCLAIMER: THIS BLOG POST CONTAINS SPOILERS ABOUT THE NATURE OF SANTA CLAUS. IF YOU BELIEVE IN SANTA CLAUS, PERHAPS YOU SHOULDN’T HAVE READ IT.
† No offence intended to those who genuinely believe that Poseidon is the master of storms, naturally.
So needless to say, I’ve been busy! The giveaway might have been that I haven’t blogged much – here’s a short summary of some of the things I’ve gotten up to:
Yeah, it really has been a while. So we had a “Fake Christmas”: this year – well, last year, I suppose – many of us Aberites planned to spend Christmas with our families, so we had an extra celebration a little earlier while we could all see one another. There was food and (lots of) drink and an exchanging of gifts, followed by copious quantities of Guitar Hero: World Tour, which Ruth, JTA and I had bought for Claire.
Claire and I went up to Preston to see my folks for Christmas. Many board games were played, including the truly terrible Wost-Case Scenario Survival Game (it turns out, the survival challenge is sitting through this dull, uninspiring game). Was good to see my family for the first time in ages, though, give my sister Becky her long-belated birthday present (I’d always expected to be visiting “any time now”… for the four months or so previous since I’d gotten it), etc.
Because I’d been so busy (see Lots of Work, below), I actually took Nena, my main home desktop PC, up to Preston with me in order to get on with some more work over the Christmas break. My dad commented that there’s no shortage of computers at his house – I didn’t need to bring one! – but I pointed out that it was simply faster to unplug mine and bundle it into Claire’s car than it would be to set up my development toolchain, environment, etc. onto any other computer… by a long way.
Between Fake and Real Christmas, I found myself gifted a variety of fabulous board games, cookware (still haven’t found an opportunity to use my blowtorch yet – except to play with it, that is! – but my blender consistently proves useful), computer bits, clothes, books, and booze – which was all quite rapidly consumed.
Back to Aber for New Year, and counted it down at The Cottage with friends, including a proper countdown using a little Ruby application I knocked up for that purpose. I was dis-satisfied with the exclusion of the positive leap second (which I planned to take advantage of) in any of the official televised countdowns, as well as with the fact that the transmission and digital-decoding delay would throw off our accurate appreciation of midnight by about five seconds, so I developed a tool that should have been accurate to closer to a quarter of a second and ran it in a nice, huge font on my monitor (and counted midnight twice, of course).
For the second time (the first time was in 2000), I’m taking a break from alcohol, and this time Ruth is joining me, and so I stopped drinking at midnight. I’d originally planned this to be a year-long break, like last time, but I’m no longer sure: needs more thought. In any case, it’s certainly working well thus far, and I’m saving money and theoretically reducing my (previously, frankly ludicrous) alcohol tolerance without impacting my social life, so it’s a win regardless by this point.
I turned 28 with a minimum of hoo-hah. Birthdays are fine and all, but I’ll wait until my thirtieth before I find an excuse for a party.
In a form on Yet Another Fake Christmas, Claire and I visited her dad and his wife. They’ve just gotten themselves a Nintendo Wii with Wii Fit, which we played with a little and loved so much that we’ve since gotten a copy ourselves.
It’s a lot of fun, although it’s hard to believe that the “exercises” it has you perform are particularly effective unless you do no other physical activity whatsoever. However, it does a good job of teasing you if you’re overweight, which I suppose is worth something.
Lots of Work
I hadn’t realised quite how busy I’d been for the last four months – and particularly for the last month and a half – with a web application I’ve been working on. It’s been a pet project benefitting a variety of organisations for the last six years or so, and my team and I have been slogging away at it for the last few months to make it suitable for a far wider audience. Suddenly, following the deployment of the latest version, almost a fortnight ago, I’ve found myself with a surprising amount of free time. The other day, Claire and I hung out with JTA and just sat and read the paper and discussed what was going on in the world for about half an hour before I started thinking, “Hey, isn’t there something I’m supposed to be working on right now?” before realising “No, no there isn’t!” Sheer bliss.
And Catching Up
Which has finally given me time to catch up on my neglected RSS reader. I finally feel like I’m up-to-date! All that remained was to post a blog entry – this one, in fact – to let everybody who hasn’t seen or heard much of me of late know that I’m still alive!
So, that’s the last month and a bit for me! How’re you doing?