Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Ouroboros At Large

Nowadays, it seems impossible to work an entire week without encountering the weasel word that is ‘diversity’. Business corporations organize ‘diversity awareness courses’. Public sector agencies employ ‘Diversity Officers’. My daughter’s university holds an annual ‘Diversity Week’, as do, I presume, most others. This central plank of political correctness has become ubiquitous.

The first online definition I came across read as follows:

‘Diversity awareness is one’s ability to embrace the uniqueness of all individuals along several dimensions such as race, religious beliefs, ethnicity, age, gender, physical abilities, political beliefs, and socio-economic status.’

It sounds benign enough. Even so, such elementary human attitudes used to come under the heading of ‘common courtesy’. Anyone obliged to attend a ‘diversity training’ event would probably receive careful instruction regarding tolerance of others and of their respective opinions and beliefs.

So far, so virtuous – but let us scratch the surface a little. Imagine participating in a ‘diversity’ seminar, where the importance of mutual tolerance was repeatedly stressed. Now, suppose a fellow trainee introduced him or herself as follows:

‘My name is XXXXX. I am a racist. I believe racism forms the intellectual basis for the concept of the nation state. Furthermore, I am proudly xenophobic; although I do not like the word “xenophobic”, as it is a Greek word, and I cannot abide Greeks … or, for that matter, Italians; and the less said about most other Europeans, and more so non-Europeans, the better. Today’s young people are largely devoid of education; elderly folk have an unwarranted sense of entitlement; and religious devotees are delusional, possibly a consequence of undiagnosed mental illness. I reject entirely the multicultural ideal. This is particularly relevant to Islamic culture, which is pervasive and fundamentally incompatible with the established Western secular way of life. Oh, and lastly, owing to my unwavering belief in karma, it seems clear that disabled people, and the disadvantaged in general, had it coming to them.’

This is, of course, a deliberately controversial caricature, drawn purely to demonstrate a point. If such a case were made, it would doubtless go down like the proverbial lead brick. Jaws would hit the floor and eyes would pop out on stalks. Mine certainly would. We must, however, refer back to the obligatory ‘tolerance’ of others’ views. Should the aforesaid views, therefore, be tolerated? I would say so, however unpalatable they might sound. Would they be tolerated by ‘diversity’ advocates? I think you know the answer to that as well as I do.

Therein lies the inherent hypocrisy of political correctness. It recommends tolerance of only those views that it finds tolerable, and is intolerant of views that it considers to be intolerant. This misguided doctrine thus eats itself, rather like the mythical ouroboros in Egyptian iconography – a snake or dragon which devours its own tail (Figure 111.1).

Figure 111.1: The word ‘ouroboros’ is Greek: ‘oura’ = ‘tail’ and ‘boros’ = ‘eating’. The icon even has relevance in modern science, namely in organic chemistry. (Look up Kekulé’s dream.)

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The (intentional) consequence of this (unintentional) self-contradiction is a smothering of legitimate debate, rhetoric and argument. In an enlightened society, it ought to be possible to hold an unemotional discussion with someone who fervently disagrees (Figure 111.2). Much truth, after all, begins as heresy; whereas suppression of dissent allows the perpetuation of falsehood and absurdity. Irrational arguments can be contested and demolished only if they are permitted to be aired in the first place.

Figure 111.2: PC zealots would do well to remember the wise words of French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778), who famously declared: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but would defend to the death your right to say it.’

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Free speech is the charlatan’s nemesis. Sadly, it is not the norm worldwide. Most nations are run by autocrats, theocrats, fascists or barefaced gangsters. People risk punishment by speaking out of turn. We in the West have – for now – more rights than most. We must, therefore, decide: do we value freedom of speech and expression, even in their most repellent forms; or should the contemporary Orwellian ‘thought police’ be here to stay?

So, the next time you witness politically-correct, self-styled ‘anti-fascists’ striving to stifle debate (and true diversity of opinion), you might wish to remind them that they resemble the likes of Hitler and Franco more closely than they care to imagine.

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

Monday, August 21, 2017

Natural Born Allelopaths

The Sussex Downs after rainfall is as lovely as it gets. This is a lyric from ‘Forget’, an introspective track from Ben Watt’s 2014 alt-folk album, ‘Hendra’. This song has been buzzing intermittently around my head for almost three years, and I was recently given an opportunity to put the writer’s assertion to the test.

The South Downs Way (Figure 110.1) is a 100-mile (160-km) route across the southern English coastal counties of Hampshire, West Sussex and East Sussex. It is largely a combination of footpath and bridleway, although there are sections of road, weaving through the chalk hills towards the south coast. Cycling along, at my usual 10 miles per hour, midday sunlight filtered through the trees, traffic noise was negligible, and gently-sloping embankments were bursting with masses of delicate, hat-shaped flowers on tall red stems (Figure 110.2). Watt’s word picture seemed perfectly apt – until I looked more closely.

Figure 110.1: From Winchester to Eastbourne, the South Downs Way is contained entirely within a National Park.

Copyright © 2017 Britainexpress

Figure 110.2: A single plant species dominating a West Sussex roadside

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

I lay my bike on a grassy verge and inspected the one-and-only species of plant. Most of the flowers were pink (Figure 110.3), the remainder pure white (Figure 110.4). Its lanceolate leaves had serrated edges and gave off a sweet balsam scent after I had crushed a few between my hands and cupped them to my face. Everything about this distinctive plant was beautiful. I clasped the nearest three or four stems and ripped them from the earth.

Figures 110.3 & 110.4: In accordance with the Monohybrid Phenotypic Ratio, the pink variety outnumbers the white exactly 3 to 1.

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

You see, the plant species was Impatiens glandulifera, a.k.a. Himalayan Balsam, and a botanical thug. It is currently one of the most invasive plants in England and fast becoming a major headache for gardeners and environmental agencies alike. It was originally imported in the 1830s on the pretext that its rapid growth and spread would make gardening a less expensive pastime for the masses. If a single plant could yield hundreds of seeds capable of surviving up to two years, then what was not to like?

The Law of Unintended Consequences was waiting in the weeds. Within a decade, the impatient Impatiens had successfully negotiated the nation’s garden fences. The dispersal capability of its seeds was even more astounding than Victorian horticulturists had anticipated. Once its flowering period has ended, usually by early autumn, the seed pods literally explode with even the gentlest disturbance, producing up to 800 seeds which can be propelled as far as seven metres from the parent plant. Prolific does not begin to describe its propagation capacity. Riverbanks are particularly vulnerable to colonization, as seeds can be transported downstream as far as the water flows. The Downs are especially susceptible to unintentional seed transfer, by wildlife, ramblers and vehicles – including, I am disheartened to admit, my own bike tyres and boot soles.

This thuggish invader – the plant, not I – is, in a Darwinian sense, stupendously fit. It is the tallest annual presently growing in England, enabling it to impede smaller native species by depriving them of sunlight and attracting a greater proportion of bees for pollination. As if that does not provide sufficient evolutionary advantage, it has another, more subtle, weapon in its competitive biological armoury. There is evidence to suggest that the Himalayan Balsam exhibits allelopathy. This means that it can excrete, as a by-product of its metabolism, powerful toxins capable of inhibiting the survival and growth of neighbouring species.

Throughout England, volunteers of ‘balsam-bashers’ have begun to tackle the growing threat to public spaces (Figure 110.5). One method of control is to uproot whole plants before seeds develop; another involves chemical controls. Perhaps the most promising method, however, currently being researched, involves the parasitic use of rust fungi, which act by infecting fast-growing invasive plants.

Figure 110.5: Busy balsam-bashing

Copyright © 2017 Julio Lopez

It would seem impossible to know how problematic this plant will be, a decade from now. Will it be semi-controlled? Will it be everywhere? I cannot predict its fate, yet I am confident that the Sussex Downs, especially after rainfall, will remain as lovely as Ben Watt described.

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

Sunday, August 06, 2017

A Lakeshore Renaissance

I once assumed that, to experience a tiny, timeless paradise, where friendly, unhurried locals speak an incomprehensible language, an Englishman must necessarily travel across water. Not necessarily true; as I was happy to discover, a couple of days ago.

Llanuwchlynn – I dare you to attempt to pronounce it – is a small, quaint Welsh village (pop. 837). Had it not been for the construction of the Great Western Railway in the 1860s, it might have been condemned to eternal obscurity. A century later, though, the railway line was axed, thanks to the government’s infamous Beeching Report, but the local population refused to accept what many British people believed – rightly, in my view – was a monumentally short-sighted decision.

The village lies at the southern tip of the roughly rectangular Bala Lake, which is 3.7 miles (6.0 km) long and 0.5 miles (0.8 km) wide. It is an area of breath-taking natural beauty; and, naturally, the local population refused to accept the destructive diktat from central government, which decreed that their railway be taken from them.

In 1972, the tireless efforts of a local railway engineer called George Barnes came to fruition. The Bala Lake Railway opened, by means of a new, narrow-gauge track, a mile-and-a-half along the eastern lakeshore from Llanuwchlynn. By 1976, the line had been extended as far as the outskirts of the town of Bala (pop. 1,974), and a tourism renaissance was underway.

We set out from Llanuwchlynn at midday. The railway runs close to the water’s edge, in places no more than a few metres (Figure 109.1). Hauled by the refurbished 1903-built Maid Marian steam engine, the train’s carriages have open sides. It would be possible to hear the lapping water, were it not for the sound of the engine wheels and puffing steam. Partway along the line lies the semi-isolated hamlet of Llangower. Today, it is a haven for camping and water sports enthusiasts. Multicoloured kayaks, canoes and single-hander sailboats move smoothly on the lake surface. Across the water, on the western shore, there is what looks like a Scout Camp, with clusters of different-sized tents and two off-road vehicles with trailers parked in tree shade next to a pebbly shore.

Figure 109.1: View of Bala Lake from the train

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

The journey to Bala takes twenty-five minutes. From the station, it is a fifteen-minute walk into the town centre, which consists of a spinal main road packed with thriving cafés and small shops (Figure 109.2). All the pavement terraces are busy. Most of the townsfolk converse in Welsh. At one end of town lies the northern extremity of the lake. At the other, a grey-stone, four-arch road bridge spans the emerging river. The clear water is shallow around the bridge’s triangular cutwaters. Wading to the opposite bank would be a simple enough venture.

Figure 109.2: A statue of Thomas Edward Ellis (1859-99), a prominent Welsh nationalist politician, and son of Bala, takes pride of place on the town’s main thoroughfare.

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

The last train of the day leaves for Llanuwchlynn at 4:30 p.m. En route, the Llangower campers and daytrippers show no signs of packing up. A few wet-suited youngsters are attempting to flip a capsized kayak (Figure 109.3). Dinghies sail nonchalantly into the watery distance (Figure 109.4).

Figure 109.3: The view from Llangower

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

 Figure 109.4: Late afternoon on the lake

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

Back at base, the woman from the station shop wishes us well as we alight and depart (Figure 109.5). I say thank you in Welsh – diolch yn fawr – and she smiles and nods her head in return.

Figure 109.5: The Bala Lake Railway Trust has recently submitted ambitious, and fully-costed, plans to extend the line into the centre of town.

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I would not say that time stands still in Llanuwchlynn, but there is, thankfully, no rush.

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery