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A Bridge to the Neolithic

Long Barow

While procrastinating from doing an essay by going on reddit, I came across this article: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2003/10/13/jumpers about suicide jumpers from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. It’s an interesting article and a good read, but one particular sentence stuck out. When discussing the repeated requests for a suicide barrier to be installed, Gladys Hansen, apparently the city’s unofficial historian, argued that it’s “A monument, a monument to death”. The reason this piqued my interest so is because it’s eerily similar to what my essay’s on – Neolithic burial monuments. In the Neolithic period, people had very different ideas about how the dead should be treated, where they should be placed to rest etc. In that time the most important aspect was post-death. Whether they were concerned with grave goods – what the departed would need in the afterlife, what would most effectively portray them in material possessions etc. – or whether they were worried more about how they would be placed in the grave, or how they would dispose of the body, all the key decisions were about what would happen after they’d joined the choir invisible. In modern times however, a ‘monument to death’ isn’t a long barrow where the person rests indefinitely, but rather it’s from where they chose to end their life.

The Golden Gate Bridge in this context is applicable only to the heartbreakingly common suicides that it enables. Suicide as a death is an equaliser. Tragic in all cases, regardless of the wealth and social status of the person concerned. Perhaps this is why the ‘monument’ is about the death, and not the aftermath. The monuments built to the dead in the Neolithic had no such focus. They were grand structures, used for other purposes (does a bridge have a secondary use?) where their ancestors could be laid and celebrated. There’s a morbid fascination with the suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge, even stretching to a twisted celebration. What can we take from our interest, and how have our attitudes towards death changed from those in the Neolithic, spending 18 million hours on magnificent structures to commemorate?

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Garry Kasparov – the Lenin of the Twitter age?

History repeats itself. It brings in new people, new technology, and new surroundings, but it boils down to pretty much the same thing. One of the mainstays of history is revolution. According to Leon Trotsky, “war is the locomotive of history” and war isn’t always separable from revolution.

There’s a reason I chose a quote from Trotsky in that last paragraph, as he was a key figure in one of the most significant revolutions of the 20th century, the October revolution of 1917 in Russia. Without wanting to turn this post into a history lesson, I’ll give you a bit of background. 1917 was a year of turmoil in Russia, with a revolution in February resulting in the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, the last Romanov tsar (the Romanovs had ruled autocratically since 1613). Following that, the Provisional Government was set up. That was weak and unpopular and was in turn overthrown via the October revolution driven by Lenin. For an auditory representation of the happenings of 1917, I’d recommend listening to Shostakovich’s 1917, it’s really rather good, and I’m not a fan of classical music.

It was Lenin’s strong political views (Marxism) and oratory skills that persuaded enough Russian citizens to join his cause and seize power in Petrograd. There are people now that also have strong political views, and one such man is chess grandmaster, Garry Kasparov. Now, I’m not saying that Garry Kasparov is exactly like Lenin, that’d be far too bold for me, but I do think some interesting parallels can be drawn between them.

Lenin had to drum up support in and around Petrograd, giving speeches to those who would gather to listen and, through his April Theses, he yielded enough persuasive power to take power from the weak and unpopular Provisional Government. Kasparov is not pioneering a revolution against Vladimir Putin’s regime, but he is a strong and powerful voice speaking up against what he calls Putin’s “Police state”. The obvious comparison would be with Josef Stalin for the police state, and opposition under him was non-existent. But then again, Stalin was described as a ‘Red Tsar’, with his regime almost identical to that of the Romanov Tsars, whose policies were essentially continued by the Provisional Government, against whom Lenin rebelled.

Although both Lenin and Kasparov spoke without hesitation against their contemporary Russian Governments, they did it in very different ways, methods according to their times. Lenin’s was direct, speeches in public up to 7 months before power changed hands. He had a different aim from Kasparov, that’s clear, but would Twitter have been a channel used by Lenin? It’s a major weapon for Kasparov. He provides startlingly frank political commentary on Putin’s policies, condemning the likes of Edward Snowden for “praising a KGB dictatorship”, stressing the extent of Putin’s dictatorial nature, and questioning the moves made by Obama in the age-old troublesome US/Russia relationship.

Through Twitter, Kasparov reaches a worldwide audience. Proof of that is evident in this very blog post, as I don’t live in Russia. Obviously that means that theoretically, Kasparov could have the support of anyone around the globe were he to call for direct action, but I imagine even with the scope provided by the world wide web, there wouldn’t be the commitment or even the support that Lenin had from the residents of Petrograd.

The last major difference I wish to look at is the government that each was/is fighting against; Lenin was faced with an unrepresentative, unelected, temporary body with no secret police force and a world war to deal with, whereas Kasparov objects to a police state-based dictatorship that shows no sign of subsiding, regardless of Kasparov’s argument that dictatorships in this age, while domestically powerful, are internationally weak.

I don’t know how Putin’s Russia will progress; whether he’ll continue in the same vein, repressing the people of Russia and preventing progress, or whether we really will see a repeat of 1917 and a major turning point in world affairs. If the revolution does occur, I’m sure it’ll give future historians a lot to debate, Russia’s always been fruitful in that respect.

The Distinction Between Patriotism and Royalism

Patriotism and Royalism are two distinctly different concepts. My home country is England (not ‘Britain’ as Americans seem to think) and as such being a fan of the royal family is often misinterpreted as being patriotic. I’m not a particular fan of the royal family, but I do love England. I also hope I don’t get too accused of treason for the arguments I’m about to make.

Firstly, I don’t really care about the Queen any more than I care about anyone else. I care much more about my family and friends than I do about the royals, anyone who doesn’t is unequivocally wrong. The Queen doesn’t even have any power anymore, it’s not like in days gone by when the monarch was the leader of the nation, Liz is nothing more than a figurehead representing a system of government we no longer employ. Don’t get me wrong here, I don’t dislike the Queen, or the monarchy in general, I just don’t care. It was the Queen’s diamond jubilee last year, and that’s all well and good, staying in power for 60 years is indubitably impressive. But why does that achievement warrant the massively excessive celebrations that were held? Hint: it doesn’t, not even a little bit. In the day and age where opposition to the Queen’s position is far from dangerous and revolutionary, what the Queen has really done is not die in that time.

From focussing only on the pinnacle of British monarchy, I’d like to widen my view to the outer royals, beginning with Philip and extending through Charles, Will and Kate (+ the young’un), Harry and all the way to the more obscure members of the institution, such as Zara Phillips, who’s earned my respect more than many of the others. Charles’ major enterprise is high-cost biscuits, Will and Kate had the wedding and baby, Harry offers a plentiful supply of controversy while Philip’s main export is racism at the expense of world leaders. Funnily enough, Nigel Farage offers a similar output but is more reviled because his is within a political context and isn’t simply shrugged off with a chuckling ‘What’s he like!’

Will and Kate are the people’s royals it seems. William married a commoner, and they had a big bash where almost everyone in the country seemed to forget that William and Kate are just bags of flesh and bone the same as every other human on the planet, albeit from a more privileged background. Or, in Kate’s case, from a slightly-less-privileged-than-Will-but-still-not-working-class background. Then they went and had a baby! Ha! The thought that royals breed too! Crazy. And what was that little balling humanoid dubbed? The people’s prince. I know, he’s not done anything to invite either admiration or malice yet, and he’ll still be subjected to mammoth amounts of both.

As you may have gathered from those 4 paragraphs, I’m not a royalist. And if you haven’t gathered that, then you’re clearly not paying attention, I mentioned it enough, go back and read it again, before you continue please. Right, now that you’re fully aware of my disdain towards that lot, I can proceed in talking instead about patriotism. I don’t think I can fully explain why I love England, the history is incredible, the achievements almost unbelievable, the influence we’ve exerted on world affairs is truly staggering when you consider the size of the nation, and we have one of the most rich and beautiful cultures in the world (in my opinion). And yes, part of our culture is the monarchy, but why can’t we celebrate the social norms that make up our worldwide image? The tea drinking, obviously not entirely correct, but partly true, the stiff-upper-lip, the stereotyped awkwardness and the queuing. These are the things that define the nation, and we have no need to manifest the pride we may have in the royal family.

Weirdly though, it is often not the British who are most fond of our royals, the Americans seem to love them. Millions of them watched the royal wedding, they dominated magazine covers for weeks and they went mental when the little future king popped out of Kate. Not having their own royals, they often place their love onto their flag, which when you think about it, is a weird thing to celebrate that much. Be proud of your country, but do it in a sensible way, that way the next time a common occurrence like a wedding or birth of a child happens in the royal family we won’t have to be subjected to an onslaught of weeks of pointless media coverage about it.

Tomorrow’s Archaeology

The other day, or more accurately, one of the other trillions of days (how dare I single out that particular day as THE other day. Sorry other days!), a friend of mine suggested that I write a blog post about Archaeology.  As you might have guessed, this is that post. This wasn’t just a really weird topic to suggest as I hold a vested interest in it and am aiming to study it at university in the future. I thought this was a fairly good idea, so here I am, writing a post tangentially about archaeology, although by the time you’re reading this I’ll have written it. Maybe by then (now) I’ll be writing a new post, about a current event that’s yet to happen. Maybe Sir Bruce Forsyth will take to ‘twerking’ on Strictly come dancing and people will begin to warm to the dance. I could definitely write a post about that.

I might’ve deviated a bit there, maybe repeated myself too, but at least I didn’t hesitate. Now, back to archaeology. Or maybe we should go forward to archaeology. In, say, 1246 years’ time, what conclusions will contemporary archaeologists be drawing about our quaint little society? Let us focus on one particular future archaeologist. His name might be Wilberforce. For now, we’ll assume it is.

Wilberforce has just recently graduated from studying archaeology at Piddington University. In case you don’t know, Piddington is the Cambridge of Islandonia (formerly England, they’re much less inventive with names in the future) and thusly renowned as the second most prestigious educational institute in the world. Wilberforce’s former lecturer has invited him to come and dig a site that is believed to have been a school in days gone by. There’d be lots of exciting artefacts to find in a school. Imagine his excitement when his trowel hits metal and he brings up from the rubble a perfectly preserved Bunsen burner. Oh the magical possibilities of what this mysterious artefact could’ve been used for! Was it for cooking? Destructive purposes? Powering homunculi’s tiny hot air balloons? He may never consider the possibility that it was used only for heating up water to see if steam makes a particular substance change colour. How dull the truths of history!

Perhaps that’ll be the first Bunsen burner they find, and it’ll be equivalent in scale to the discovery of Richard III under a car park in Leicester. Clearly, in the absence of monarchs to dig up, the next most exciting thing is a Bunsen burner.

Everyone knows that the English monarchy collapsed in 2067 when it was discovered that H.G. Wells had subtly included instructions for a working time machine in his book War of the Worlds. You’d have thought it would have been in The Time Machine really. That’s why it took so long to find it out, he was a sneaky one, that Wells. Anyway, the inventor of the Wellsian Time machine brought Lenin in to lead the revolution against King George Alexander Louis (I don’t know why he insisted on using his full name, maybe he got too much unwarranted media attention as a baby). It was nice for Lenin to be able to lead a new revolution on the 150th anniversary of his first one. I imagine there’d have been street parties to celebrate, an ironic throwback to the days when people would throw street parties to celebrate the marriage of two people they’d never met and who couldn’t care less about their lives. And then the world as we knew it changed. Bunsen burners were as newsworthy as kings, and the X Factor was finally cancelled. There’s a world I’d like to see.

I do wonder why though, despite all the new and unimaginable technology they’ll likely have by then, archaeologists are still just using trowels.

Hitler vs Stalin

A blog post about Hitler seems pretty light-hearted. A blog post about Stalin equally so. A blog post about Hitler AND Stalin? You might as well be at a stand up show right now.

You may be wondering where this post is going now, but worry not, I’m not going to attempt to defend either of them, they’re both evil men who inexplicably killed millions of people. No, I want to ask a question about the two of them and the perception of their respective political views. Hitler and Stalin, Fascism and Communism. The go-to evil dictator tends to be Hitler. That’s perfectly understandable as he’s probably the highest-profile historical dictator, having ideas of, essentially, world domination, as well as igniting the worst war in human history and executing one of the worst examples of genocide anywhere in the world. However, Stalin was at least equally as terrible, despite fighting on the Allies’ side in the war, he had the Gulags, on the same level as the concentration camps and carried out the genocide of De-Kulakisation in which he killed over 15 million Kulaks, more than twice the number of Jews Hitler is said to have killed. If you don’t know, the Kulaks were a race of more intelligent, more aspirational peasants in Russia.

It has also been argued that this atrocity was, in some ways, worse than the holocaust as Stalin was exterminating his own people whereas Hitler (and this is in no way a defence or justification) was targeting the people he believed were ‘Untermenschen’, that is, Sub-human, and therefore he believed that he was not killing people, but rather animals. Stalin held no such delusions, his was a case of hatred, no more. The question I wish to pose, is why is Hitler viewed as the worse of the two?

Could it be due to which side they were on in the Second World War? Stalin fought alongside Britain to thwart Hitler and his domestic actions are then almost entirely overlooked? Maybe it’s because Hitler seemed so desperate to conquer Europe whereas Stalin appeared more interested in domestic matters. I’d like to postulate an alternative theory. Fascism as a political concept includes racism, as well is inbuilt unequal distribution of wealth, an unattractive idea to the majority. Stalin was the leader of the communist party. In reality, Stalin’s Russia was far from a communist state, being a dictatorship loosely masquerading as communism. So far was it from Marx’s original idea that Stalin has been referred to as a ‘Red Tsar’ due to the striking similarities his regime had to the autocratic rule of the Tsars who had ruled Russia before the rise of communism in 1917.

Despite the fact that Stalin didn’t rule in a communist manner, communism as a concept can often seem almost idyllic. A place where everyone is equal, there’d be no poverty as wealth would be distributed equally amongst the population, and it’s a system meant to be instigated by the ‘proletariat’, the working classes, rather than the upper and middle classes. Better, right? Could it be that this simple difference is why we rank ‘Der Fuhrer’ as worse than Lenin’s successor?

Maybe there’s far less to it than that, Hitler was simply more directly involved with us, giving us a front-row view of his crimes against humanity whereas Stalin was over in Russia, helping us rather than attacking us and keeping his interests to his own country.

Then again, maybe it’s just because we’re told about Hitler earlier in our lives. That could be all there is to it.

Or it might be the moustaches.

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