Decline and Fall of the English Murder

January 14, 2008

The front page of today’s Daily Mail asks: Why was wife killer [Garry Weddell] bailed? This is also the first day of Steve Wright’s trial for killing five prostitutes in Suffolk.

We are just as fascinated with violent and untimely death as we were in 1946, when George Orwell wrote his great essay Decline of the English Murder.

The question is: has the quality of our murders improved since then?

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Why changing reading habits could spell the end of empathy

December 5, 2007

The way we read is changing. Could this affect our ability to empathise?

Reading used to be something done with care and dedication, and over long periods. Now, if it happens at all, it is more likely to happen briefly, and with a ruthless eye for relevance.

We used to get married to the things we read; now, we have one night stands.

So what?, I hear you saying. Yes, some people lament the decline of old-style reading: hence the chorus of disapproval greeting the report of the International Literacy Study, released last week. Saner voices see that “youth literacy isn’t actually decreasing; it’s just moving into arenas that the fogeys don’t know about or understand”.

But what if the changing reading habits also changed the way we thought about liberty, equality and fraternity: our most fundamental mental concepts?

Reading historian Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights, such a possibility doesn’t seem that remote.

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Rumi: a true modern

November 11, 2007

Two little known facts in the UK. First, the most popular poet in the United States for many years is a 13th century Persian mystic in the Islamic tradition named Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi. Second, such is his reknown and status that UNESCO has declared 2007 to be the Year of Rumi to coincide with the 800th anniversary of his birth.

What is it about Rumi and his poetry that can explain their 21st century popularity? Two answers emerge. Firstly, if one could point to an overarching trend in development of Western spirituality in the last 3000 years, it is the movement away from the necessity that Man’s relationship with the Divine be by intermediaries to the possibility of Man’s direct facing.


The classical era of the temple materially exteriorised the internal separation of human from divine. Sacred knowledge was located in the inner sanctum of the temple and accessible only through ritual to a highly-practised spiritual elite, who would then act as media in the transmission of the sacred message into the profane world beyond.

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Time to think again about food

November 3, 2007

Fascinating and slightly terrifying article in The Guardian today about global food shortages brought on by a surge in commodity prices:

Record world prices for most staple foods have led to 18% food price inflation in China, 13% in Indonesia and Pakistan, and 10% or more in Latin America, Russia and India. Wheat has doubled in price, maize is nearly 50% higher than a year ago and rice is 20% more expensive, says the UN…Global food reserves are at their lowest in 25 years and that prices will remain high for years.

Two major themes seem to be emerging out of this. Firstly, the importance of tackling the renewable energy challenge through multilateral agreements. It is not the case that all action taken to reduce fossil fuel consumption is a public good. In a world of global markets, solutions must be coordinated. Unilateral approaches can have deleterious international consequences:

Last year … US farmers distorted the world market for cereals by growing 14m tonnes, or 20% of the whole maize crop, for ethanol for vehicles. This took millions of hectares of land out of food production and nearly doubled the price of maize … Maize is a staple food in many countries which import from the US, including Japan, Egypt, and Mexico. US exports are 70% of the world total, and are used widely for animal feed. The shortages have disrupted livestock and poultry industries worldwide.

Secondly, that food security is a serious issue once more. Most debate in Europe has focused on the iniequities of the CAP, with the implication that European farming is a bloated and outmoded industry that retards development in the world’s poorest countries. Justice requires that it be dramatically scaled down. It is questionable whether this argument was ever true – structural problems heavily limit the ability of the poorest LDCs to compete in international markets; agricultural liberalisation would benefit Brazil, Australia and the USA far more – but it is an argument that now feels increasingly myopic.

The detail of the CAP aside, farming is THE fundamental strategic industry. Nothing matters more to a polity than its ability to feed itself. The assualt on farming in Britain has meant that, where the UK was 87% self-sufficient in products that can be grown here in 1995, it is now 60%. Farms can’t be switched on and off overnight; this is a productive capacity that it would take us years to recover if we needed it again. Britain has voluntarily left itself vulnerable to the vagaries of international markets. Potential consequences are already visible in dairy farming. A sector on its knees from supermarket pressure has suddenly found itself unable to meet a new surge in global demand. Nobody factored in a billion new consumers in China wanting milk as they watched the herds disband. And now we have a global shortage. As Melanie Reed puts it:

If a Martian had landed, we might struggle to explain why we let this situation develop. Why did no one see this coming? We spend billions keeping Trident as a domestic insurance policy against global war, but we do nothing to protect a primary food source against the risk of global shortage. When that shortage comes, we will be defenceless.

Mobile phones: it must be love

November 1, 2007

I wrote on 26th October about our increasingly bizarre relationship with mobile phones, reporting the findings of a MORI/LSE report claiming that, for many people, mobile phones have become a kind of “imaginary friend”.


Now, watching the Graham Norton show (and enjoying it, to my eternal shame), I find myself being alerted to this news story from last year. More people than ever, according to the BBC, are asking to be buried or cremated with their mobile phones when they die.

Norton: “Listen darling. Your grandchildren didn’t call you when you were alive. They’re not going to start doing it now”

Mobile phones: better than friends

October 26, 2007

The Carphone Warehouse and the LSE have released an interesting report into the impact of mobile phones on European life, based on a large survey by polling company MORI. The report compares mobile phone usage in Spain, France, Germany, Sweden and the UK.

Here are a few key quotes:

The sociological idea that mobile phones have become a kind of “imaginary friend” or “interactive cyberpet” was given credence by the fact that a substantial minority of Brits [25%] now use them as a convenient barrier with which to resist the intrusion of strangers in public places”.

The purchase of a mobile phone by a parent for a young adult is akin to a rite of passage in the contemporary family.

Western Europeans, and particularly the British, emerge from this survey as endowed with an almost neurotically intimate attachment to their phones. A full one in ten respondents admitted that they felt “addicted” to their mobile phone, and an equal number claimed that their mobile phone was their most prized possession. The mobile phone has now become a kind of “pacifier for adults”.

The report also notes that “style is significantly more important to the French than anyone else when choosing their mobile”.

Some things never change.