A tribute to Clive Hart

What sense can we make of a life? Granted, there may not be any single meaning. But is it possible we might find something robust to hold on to? Perhaps a family of meanings?

These questions grip me as I reflect on the life of my step-father, Clive Hart, who died last week. He had one of the most searching minds of anyone I’ve known, and about the widest interests.

The parts of our lives that intersected were Clive’s middle and old age, and my childhood and early adulthood. A scholar, much of his energy was directed to research and writing. Until recently, I’d never read any of his books. What I picked up was something about his habits of mind, his way of being in the world.

It’s only now that I find myself – for want of any other way to communicate with him – looking through things he wrote. And asking my mother questions that I wish I could ask him.… This is what I’ve got so far.

‘the first riddle … when is a man not a man?’ [1]

In his youth, Clive was torn between interests in science and literature. Although he was recognized in his first year at the University of Western Australia as the most promising Physics student of his class, he ended up majoring in French. A scholarship took him to Paris in 1956-7. There he became interested in James Joyce, and this led to doctoral research on Finnegans Wake. But throughout this time, he sustained an interest in flying machines, and his first books on flight appeared around the same time as his first books on Joyce.

Hart 1962-67_Structure+Kites

Structure & motif appeared in 1962, and Kites: an historical survey in 1967.

In looking for clues to how Clive’s interests fit together, Joyce is not a bad place to start. In the attempt to understand Joyce’s work – especially his most experimental book, Finnegans Wake – one needed to know almost everything (at least, everything that Joyce knew). Allusive, playful, riffing on homologies in multiple languages, making inventive and subversive use of other ‘public texts’ such as the Bible, Shakespeare, and Dante; in describing this one captures a lot of Clive’s spirit.

But – to anyone who’s opened it, this hardly needs to be said – Finnegans Wake is hard to understand. Written in words that the author derived from some 20 languages; without stable characters or plot; with neither beginning nor end; it is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery. After decades of work, even tentative answers to the questions of how the book was structured, or what its central themes were, were elusive. “The student of Finnegans Wake needs to be a humble person,” Clive wrote in the introduction to his concordance to the book. [2] Those who claimed truly to understand it he viewed sceptically. In the mid-1980’s, he withdrew from Joyce studies for a while. As he confessed, “[I had a] general sense that Joycean studies, along with much recent criticism, had begun to lose sight of the artistic goals that mattered (to me).” [3]

Levitation and love

Around this time Clive’s research on art and flight entered a new phase. By paths I have not yet charted, he was drawn particularly to Baroque-cum-Rococo central Europe, where billowing clouds and levitating figures make up a large part of the repertoire. Several summers during my childhood were spent being dragged around Germany and Austria as he and my mum documented paintings on church ceilings in places like Würzburg and Melk. In his earlier works on flight, he’d ranged widely through space and time – through Chinese kites, Biblical representations of the creation of birds and fishes, and the escapades of eighteenth century balloonists [4, 5] – but now he was digging deep into the art and worldview of a particular historical moment. In another way too, it represented a sharpening of focus, as he came to concentrate most of all on flight as a metaphor for love. [6]



Tiepolo, Allegory with Venus and Time (c.1754)

After his formal retirement from Essex University in 1998, Clive continued to write, but from this time onward the majority of his intellectual effort went into translating or commenting on medieval and early modern tracts about women. [7, 8] A crude summary of his research interests might go something like, “kites > flying ships > imagery of flight > love > women” – with Joyce a more or less perennial concern. But rather than being a series of infatuations, his various interests were layered on top of one another. None of the new topics he fell in love with diminished his interest in those that had gone before.

Looking for patterns

In 2003 Cabinet magazine reprinted a compendium of ancient attempts at heavier-than-air flight that Clive had once compiled. [9] The issue, devoted to the theme of flight, was accompanied by an audio CD – music and recordings that reflect some of the romance of the topic: An audio recording of Yuri Gagarin broadcasting from near-earth orbit; a piece of choral music from Papua New Guinea, by a rainforest people invoking the spirits of birds….

Although I don’t think he had a hand in compiling the CD, the disc helps me think about how Clive’s interests in flight, visual art, literature, and women might be related to his other great passion – music. In his final years, as his eyesight was failing, and speaking and writing became more difficult, Clive spent more and more time listening to music. His tastes were broad, but the things he listened to most were (to my ears) challenging.

“It’s strange,” he’d sometimes say after listening to a piece by CPE Bach. “I don’t understand it.”

What stands out for me about Clive is his extraordinary curiosity about the world; and – what is, perhaps, almost the same thing – the tolerance he had for confusion, in expectation of eventually discerning some pattern.

But in trying to make sense of his life through his work, I wonder whether I’m looking in the wrong place – or looking (as in the story about the the drunk who lost his car keys) only where the light’s best. After all, life doesn’t necessarily obey the same rules as art; and making sense of it need not involve the same processes. Life is somewhat like text, somewhat like imagery; but that’s not all there is to it.

Clive’s first wife, Helen, died before him; he is survived by his second wife, Kay, and by three sons, a step-son, and four grand-children. As the messages that have poured in from colleagues and students in the past week attest, there were many others – some of whom never met him – who admired him, to whom he was meaningful.

“What were we looking for?” Clive once wrote of the years he’d spent analysing Finnegans Wake. “Were we looking for the wrong thing?” [10]

In trying to make sense of his life, I wonder as well.



Clive and Jed. Paris, 1987.



[1] Joyce, J. (1939). Finnegans wake. New York: The Viking Press, p. 170.

[2] Hart, C. (1963). A concordance to Finnegans wake. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. i.

[3] Hart, C. (1998). Fritz in the early awning. In R. Frehner & U. Zeller (eds.), A collideorscape of Joyce: festschrift for Fritz Senn. Dublin: Lilliput Press, p. 9.

[4] Hart, C. (1972). The dream of flight; aeronautics from classical times to the Renaissance. London: Faber.

[5] Hart, C. (1985). The prehistory of flight. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[6] Hart, C., & Stevenson, K. G. (1995). Heaven and the flesh: imagery of desire from the Renaissance to the Rococo. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[7] Hart, C. (2001). Genitalia: rhetoric and reticence in the early modern period. Clacton-on-Sea: Gilliland Press.

[8] Hart, C. (2002). A new argument against women, in which it is demonstrated that they are not human beings: the anonymous tract Disputatio nova contra mulieres, qua probatur eas homines non esse (1595): a critical edition with translation and commentary. Clacton-on-Sea: Gilliland Press.

[9] Hart, C. (2003 [1983]). An abridged directory of heavier-than-air flying machines in western Europe, 850 BC-AD 1783. Cabinet 11: 70-71.

[10] Hart, C. (1998). Fritz in the early awning. In R. Frehner & U. Zeller (eds.), A collideorscape of Joyce: festschrift for Fritz Senn. Dublin: Lilliput Press, p. 8.


The family invites donations in Clive’s honour to the following charities:



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Leave to Remain

Why I cried about Brexit.

eu stars tear

I cried about the referendum. Explaining why is hard.

It’s not that I was committed to the EU as such. I admire some of the values associated with the project of European integration: cosmopolitanism and community beyond boundaries. But these things alone don’t explain why I’ve been so moved.

Was it the drama of the referendum campaign?

No – in general, the campaign felt long, drawn-out, repetitive; the rhetoric of both sides reduced to terms that seemed almost meaningless: “the Economy versus Immigration.” I looked forward to it being over.

In 2014, I’d gone door-to-door in my neighbourhood in South London, urging people to vote for representatives to the European Parliament. “What happens in Brussels is important!” I’d said. This time around I did no such thing. Like many in the Remain camp, I was complacent.

So the result was a shock, and it has prompted some soul searching.

Elephants in the room

One of the  lessons is how powerfully social class continues to affect our lives and worldviews. The geographical and demographic patterning of the votes is widely acknowledged: London and Scotland – and the younger, more-educated and better-off – voting Remain; much of the rest of the UK – and the older, the less-educated and the poor – voting Leave.

What’s less widely acknowledged is how these patterns structure our daily interactions: “Across the UK, most people who voted Leave knew virtually no one who was voting Remain and vice versa.” [1]

There’s a kind of segregation at work here. Town and country, young and old, upper and lower-classes – all assort themselves into largely separate worlds of communication and interaction.

And then there’s the other elephant in the room – ethnicity.

Breaking point

When our son was diagnosed with cancer four years ago, my wife and I moved from her home country of Ethiopia to England so that he could receive life-saving treatment.

Together, we negotiated a thicket of UK Border Agency paperwork to secure her permission to stay. (The formal designation on her residence permit reads “Leave to Remain” – a phrase that now seems richly ironic.)

The idea of the foreigner as a threat to our collective security – an abiding theme of the Leave campaign – feels like an affront to families of mixed heritage like mine, families that are increasingly common in the UK, especially in our major cities.

breaking point

Nigel Farage and the poster he sponsored.  There are parallels with Nazi propaganda.


Reading the newspaper this weekend, I was moved by a letter written by a voter who used a postal ballot to vote Leave, but on Thursday night, as the results came in, had a change of heart, and in desperation called the Electoral Commission to ask if his vote could be withdrawn. (It could not.)

“It feels rotten now that it’s done,” he wrote.

The by-line: Habib Abdur-Rahman, from London. [2]

Habib, whom I assume to be a second-generation immigrant from Asia or Africa, felt British enough to waver on whether staying in or leaving the EU was in his best interests.

That’s as it should be – I’d like people like him to feel fully at home in this society, and subject to the same kinds of ambivalence as the rest of us. Because my wife and son don’t fit the standard stereotype of Britishness, I feel this yearning keenly. This is where the abstract political values like cosmopolitanism intersect with the personal, the intimate.

Perhaps that’s why I cried.

But there’s also something powerful I feel that relates to the place of this event in history. Some commentators are calling the referendum the most significant event for Britain since the fall of the Berlin wall, or even the second world war: “a choice to turn [our] back on the great effort to heal Europe’s historical divisions.” [3]

Those divisions run deep. Placed in the context of the brutality and violence that have marked our common history, this event appears all the sadder.

Turbulence ahead

In the final days before last week’s vote, I told myself I didn’t care which way it went. I tried to detach from it.

Then, the night before voting day, a huge storm swept through London, and as I lay in bed, the rolling thunderclaps went right through my body.

Now our body politic has been convulsed, split in two.

Yesterday, at the Quaker meeting I attend, I asked Friends to pray for everyone who stands to be affected by the referendum, but especially for those who’d voted Leave – to recognise that, whatever else they were expressing, it was a cry of protest, and a call for help.

In a real sense, the Leave vote was a rebellion against the status quo: not only against the remote-control decision-making associated with Brussels, but also against a political system in Britain that continues to prioritise the interests of the wealthy and secure over those whose lives are more precarious. It’s this sense of disempowerment and insecurity, I believe, that Farage and his ilk are successfully tapping into with their talk about the threat posed by immigrants.

Unless the shockwaves generated by the referendum precipitate a much longer-lasting, wider engagement with our collective life; unless reforms to our relationship with Europe are accompanied by much more thoroughgoing changes to our system of representation at home, we’ll continue to suffer the same problems as before – or worse.


In the end, the best explanation I can give is that my tears reflect a complex mixture of emotions.

Foremost among them are anger at those who led us to this.

And sadness at the opportunity we seem to have squandered: to work together with our brothers and sisters in Europe to improve a flawed system, rather than tearing it – and our communities – apart.



[1] “Younger generation vents fury at older voters.”  FT Weekend, 25/26 June 2016, print edition, p. 8 (my italics)

[2] “I tried to withdraw my postal vote to leave.” Letter to the editor, FT Weekend, 25/26 June 2016, print edition, p. 16

[3] Martin Wolf. “The decision to leave Europe will be costly.” FT Weekend, 25/26 June 2016, print edition, p. 14


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The end of alchemy?

Is it prudent to orient our societies around the goal of achieving ‘20 years of growth and prosperity’ if, in the process, we are causing catastrophic climate change?

 That’s the question I asked Mervyn King, former governor of the Bank of England, at a forum at UCL this week.

King was promoting his new book, ‘The end of alchemy: Banking and the future of the global economy’.

The goal of a central bank, as he sees it, is to help facilitate economic growth. He’d had his fingers burned during the financial crisis of 2008, which happened under his watch.

When the crisis hit, King said, “I began reading things from the 1930s” – specifically Keynes’ ‘General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.’ Keynes had lived through the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and had learned the hard way that the market economy is not self-stabilizing.

As King put it: “Stuff happens.”

“The crisis,” King said, “brought home the idea of radical uncertainty: the unknowable, unpredictable. The most sophisticated economic modelling in the world falls down when radical uncertainty is involved, because people aren’t optimizing, they’re just coping.”

Given this history, how was it that during the 1990s and early 2000s, most economists – himself included – didn’t see that global capitalism was on the brink of another crisis?

The answer, he suggests, is that economists were focused on how successfully these same policies had reduced volatility. “Inflation was under control. We confused stability and sustainability.”


The Bank of England, with First World War monumne in the foreground. “Finance, like war, suffers from the fact that almost all who have technical competence also have a bias which is contrary to the interest of the community.” (Bertrand Russell)

The only way of regaining stability now, King argues, is through regulation. The measures necessary would include increasing interest rates, which would prompt saving-for-tomorrow over spending-today. This, he said, might usher in a period of 20 years of stability and economic growth.

But it’s hazardous to raise interest rates unless everyone else is doing it too. King likened it to the Prisoner’s dilemma: It pays off if everyone does it, but if you’re the only one to stick your neck out, you suffer. “And there’s no available mechanism to coordinate the measures necessary.”

Meanwhile in another universe…

There are uncanny similarities between the work that King feels we should do in the financial sector and what needs to be done in the management of our ecological affairs.

In terms of carbon emissions too, we face a Prisoner’s dilemma. Despite the agreements in Paris, there’s no global mechanism for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, only ‘voluntary contributions’. Without concerted action, cheaters will profit in the short term, while in the long-term we all burn.

During the Q&A after King’s talk I asked about the prudence of the goal of “20 years of growth and prosperity” in light of climate change, the premier source of radical uncertainty in the world today.

King dodged the question.

“I suggest you invite my friends Nick Stern and Nigel Lawson to debate climate change,” he said. (This got a laugh from the audience – Stern’s views are well known, and Lawson is a notorious climate sceptic.)

To me this was a disappointment. King is right to advocate a broader take on economics, and the importance of attending to history. But in disclaiming any engagement with climate change, he was retreating into a disciplinary cul-de-sac: ‘That’s not my business.’

Admittedly the business of banks is largely to lend money. But in doing so, they effectively create money that didn’t previously exist: It comes into being in the form of debt. As the pressure group Positive Money have argued, if financiers are left to their own devices, they’ll continue to issue debts, and rake in payments; indeed, if they’re ‘too big to fail’ they’ll continue to do so indefinitely.

While the ecological predicament we face is new, the tendencies of financiers to act this way is not. In the 1930s, Bertrand Russell recognized that “throughout the world, not only in Great Britain, the interests of finance in recent years have been opposed to the interests of the general public.

“This state of affairs,” he added, “is not likely to change of itself.” [1]

The title of Mervyn King’s book, “the end of alchemy,” alludes to the idea of bankers  possessing the magical ability to turn base metals into gold. But in fact it’s we who grant them this power.

Finance (like politics, and war) is too important to leave to the financiers. If they’re not subject to democratic pressure – if they go on “confusing stability for sustainability,” and are allowed to explain away crisis as simply due to “stuff happening” – we all suffer.



[1]  B. Russell, ‘The Modern Midas’ in: In praise of idleness (1935), p. 77




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Spring mixtape

My stock-in-trade is ideas (mostly other people’s). As reflected in the book lists I’ve posted the past few years, many of them come from reading. But books aren’t the only place I find inspiration. Art and film are important too – as is music.

For some years I’ve exchanged music compilations with friends and family at Christmas. Originally the compilations were on audio-cassettes, then on CDs; now they can be shared online. But the memory of the audio-cassette medium persists: they’re still roughly 90-minutes long; they could still be called mixtapes.

This year, Christmas came and went, and I still didn’t have a tape to share. It came together late. When I finally got things together, I thought: Why not share it more widely?

Here, then, is a track-list for the Spring.

1.  Which was the son of… Arvo Pärt (performed by the Tallis Scholars)
2.  Picture 1 Jack deJohnette
3.  Jamm Cheikh Lô
4.  Green rocky road Kathy & Carol
5.  Besebara folle Aster Aweke
6.  Nagasaki Django Reinhardt
7.  Some other guy Richie Barrett
8.  Mademoiselle Mabry Miles Davis
9.  Ezekiel saw de wheel Louis Armstrong
10. Redemption song Bob Marley
11. Just Radiohead
12. Didn’t it rain Louis Armstrong
13. Peace piece Bill Evans

Much here reflects personal interests and taste – my fascination with Africa (Aster Aweke, Cheikh Lô), with scripture (Arvo Pärt, and the tracks by Louis Armstrong), and with the great social movements and upheavals of the past century; as well as those internal upheavals of the heart and soul that we all go through. The soundtrack to those is diverse.

Below I provide some annotation – snippets of information that’s enhanced my appreciation of some of these pieces; for others I have no comment. The musicians speak for themselves.

After all, if we could say it all in words, there would be no need for music!



  1. Which was the son of…. Arvo Pärt (performed by the Tallis Scholars), from ‘Tintinnabuli’ (2015)
    “Commissioned by the City of Reykjavík, Pärt allowed himself to poke a little fun at two idiosyncratic aspects of local life: the way family names are organized, and the way the Icelanders pronounce their ‘rrrs’. From the former came the desire, perhaps it was even a dare, to set the entire genealogy of Christ; and from the latter the stipulated rolled ‘r’ in the name of ‘Er’. The overall result is an astonishingly effective piece of writing, forced from the least tractable of texts, as witty as it is unlikely.” (Peter Phillips, 2015)
  1. Picture 1. Jack deJohnette, from ‘Pictures’ (1976)
    “DeJohnette doesn’t play drums; he paints with them.” (Miran Epstein, 2015)
  1. Jamm. Cheikh Lô, from ‘Jamm’ (2010)
    “Lô is a member of the Baye Fall, a movement within the Mouride Sufi order of Islam. As such, he has dreadlocks, which is part of the order’s customs. The reggae influence in his music, along with his dreadlocks, often leads to the misinterpretation that he is Rastafarian.” (Wikipedia)
    “Jamm means ‘peace’ in Wolof.” (liner notes)
  1. Green rocky road. Kathy & Carol (composers: Len Chandler & Robert Kaufman), from ‘Back to Love’
    “Len Chandler and poet Robert Kaufman penned [this song] on the bones of a traditional folk song collected in Negro Songs From Alabama by Harold Courlander.” (Dan Kimpel,  2014)
    This version is by California duo Kathy & Carol, and was included in a Mojo Magazine ‘Back to Love’ compilation of tracks released by Elektra in the 1960s. Another version of the song is featured in the Coen Brothers’ film ‘Inside Llewelyn Davis’
  1. Besebara folle. Aster Aweke, from ‘Aster’s Ballads.’ (1995)
    Aster emigrated from Ethiopia in 1981, and lives in the US. She’s among the greatest Ethiopian singers alive. Besebara folle means “a broken vessel” in Amharic.
  1. Nagasaki. Django Reinhardt, from ‘La Légende de Django Reinhardt’
    This song, recorded in 1936, refers to the Japanese city when it was simply a place with an interesting name — before the US Air Force dropped an atom bomb on it. Django was born in Belgium, and spent most of his early life in Romani (Gypsy) encampments near Paris.
  1. Some other guy. Richie Barrett, from ‘Songs the Beatles taught us’
    Written and performed by Philadelphia R&B artist & manager Richie Barrett in 1962; a song later covered by the Beatles.
  1. Mademoiselle Mabry. Miles Davis, from ‘Filles de Kilimanjaro’ (1968)
    Recorded in the year of the My Lai massacre and the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. (This is the only piece of music on my tape that’s not easily available online.)
  1. Ezekiel saw de wheel. Louis Armstrong, from ‘Louis and the Good Book’ (1958)
    “The song recounts the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel’s divine vision, at the start of the eponymous book.” A flaming wheel floating in the middle of the air. This is one of my son Asa’s favourite songs at the moment.
  1. Redemption song. Bob Marley, from ‘Uprising’ (1981)
    Contains quotations from a speech / essay by Marcus Garvey (1937): “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery….”  The song was recorded a year before Marley’s death. I learned to play this song on the guitar this year.
  2. Just. Radiohead, from ‘The Bends’ (1995)
  3. Didn’t it rain. Louis Armstrong, from ‘Louis and the Good Book’ (1958)
    An account of the biblical Flood, with beautiful Gospel harmonies from 10 singers. From the same album as ‘Ezekiel saw da wheel’. Throughout this album Armstrong – “the first jazz virtuoso” – pays tribute to the roots of jazz music in spirituals as well as work songs and the blues.
  1. Peace piece. Bill Evans, from ‘Everybody digs Bill Evans’ (1958)
    I first encountered Bill Evans through Chick Corea’s documentary series ‘Piano Legends’.


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Books of 2015

It’s taken me until Easter to get my stuff together. Here in any case are some of the books that made an impression on me this past year.


  1. A room of one’s own, by Virginia Woolf

A beautifully written feminist and humanist polemic, this book is also a reflection on the conditions that make great writing possible. The image that sticks with me is of gold and silver being poured in through the roofs of the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. As someone tying to make a living through service to universities, I’m increasingly called to ask: How (and wherefore) are these institutions supported?

  1. In praise of idleness, by Bertrand Russell

Russell argues that everyone should have access to the kind of leisure enjoyed by Oxbridge dons (the Greek root for leisure [schole] provides the root for our word ‘school’). The stand-out essay in this collection, ‘On useless knowledge,’ challenges us to think about what we mean when we say that knowledge is useful – and to whom.

  1. Sites of memory, sites of mourning, by Jay Winter

Just about every village and town in England lost men to the Great War, and most bear a memorial to them. This book explains the work these monuments performed for people back then, and why they look as they do. In the process, Winter raises questions about how families and societies come to terms with horror and loss.

  1. Rule of experts, by Timothy Mitchell

This book opens with an account of one of the major battles of the Great War – Rommel’s Africa campaign – seen from the point of view of a mosquito … or a Plasmodium (the malaria parasite) which arrived with soldiers from West Africa, and took advantage of a hungry, disrupted human population. The ambitious aim of the book is to explain modernity without assigning to capitalism a life or force of its own. Mitchell’s focus is Egypt (and a good part of the book is devoted to tracing how Egypt – and by extension most other nation states – came to be constructed as unitary geographical and social constructs).

  1. How to see the world, by Nicholas Mirzoeff

Nation states have become so much a part of our mental landscape that it’s difficult to see the world as if they didn’t exist. This book explores various ways of seeing the world – starting with the Blue Dot / Earthrise photograph, the first photograph of the earth from space, taken by astronauts in 1968, and comparing it with a composite image of the world pieced together from multiple satellite images in 2012. If (like me) you’re a visual thinker, you may enjoy this.

  1. Eaarth, by Bill McKibben

This book too is about seeing the world differently. It begins: “Imagine we live on a planet. Not our cozy, take-for-granted earth, but a planet, a real one, with melting poles and dying forests and a heaving, corrosive sea, raked by winds, strafed by storms, scorched by heat. An inhospitable place.

“It’s hard,” McKibben admits. And yet that’s really the planet we inhabit. We’ve left the old one behind, and we better adjust to the new one.

  1. Advice and queries, by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain

To meet the challenges we face, we will have to draw on sources beyond any particular framing of religion (e.g. Laudato Si) or science (e.g. the IPCC). And so the Quaker emphasis on receiving “light from wherever it may come” seems fitting here. As do the Quaker testimonies of simplicity, peace, integrity, and stewardship.

  1. Ten million aliens, by Simon Barnes

This book is a sort of hitchhiker’s guide to the animal kingdom – a catalogue of some of the life forms we share the planet with. But catalogue is too dry a word: These creatures are more wonderful than anything science fiction could dream up!

  1. ‘The end’ and ‘The end, unless…’, by Isaac Asimov (In: Today and Tomorrow)

Business-As-Usual has already decimated the kinds of life with which we share the biosphere, and is leading inexorably to the destruction of our forms of sociality. In ‘The end, unless…’ Asimov identifies ‘wrong thinking’ as a principal cause of these problems.

  1. A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula le Guin

Though it is fantasy, there’s something about this story that rings truer than many a work of non-fiction.

Le Guin, whose parents were anthropologists, draws on Argonauts of the Western Pacific and other sources to conjure the archipelago of Earthsea. Within it she traces the coming of age of a young man getting to know himself and the world.

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Rebooting democracy

In the New Scientist, Niall Firth channels a frustration with the democratic process that many in Britain are feeling in the wake of the general election.

The system’s broken. Nothing changes. All politicians are the same. Why vote? It’s a popular refrain, particularly among the young. People feel cut off from the political process and unrepresented by the political elite. [1]

The internet, Firth argues, offers possibilities that could be used to reinvigorate democracy; and he profiles several cases in point, including the Spanish Podemos party, which makes extensive use of online forums for policy debates.

But even as the internet opens up the opportunity to take part in debate, some old problems persist. As the World Bank’s Tiago Carneiro Peixoto points out, there’s the challenge of “pick[ing] the most representative cross-section of decision makers”. [2]

The ancient Athenians devised a solution to this problem, based on a principle that is familiar to scientists: Selection at random from the pool of eligible citizens. In Athens it was only men who were eligible, but the principle could be tweaked in various ways — for instance, selection could be weighted so that an equal number of men and women were included, or an equitable proportion of ethnic groups.

In the late 1990s, when a commission was reviewing proposals for reform of Britain’s House of Lords, Anthony Barnett and Peter Carty published a pamphlet detailing how “the Athenian Option” might be used in place of either hereditary Lords or conventionally-elected politicians. [3]

As part of an experimental approach to democracy, selection of representatives by lot deserves wider consideration — whether as a way of populating conventional ‘face-to-face’ parliaments, or in conjunction with newer, internet-based forms of political participation.

It’s ironic, but true, that a process akin to a lottery could produce a much better — more diverse, less partial, altogether fresher — set of representatives than the current system, the essentials of which we inherited from the 19th century.


[1 & 2] Firth, N. (2015). Better than a ballot box: Could digital democracy win your vote? New Scientist, issue 3018, April 23. [Full text available by subscription.]

[3] Barnett, A., & Carty, P. (2008). The Athenian Option: Radical Reform for the House of Lords. Exeter: Imprint Academic. [Original published by Demos in 1998]

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Remembering Adwa

The defeat of a European invasion force by Africans 120 years ago presents challenges for how we remember. How are historical memories kept alive? And what meanings should we assign to them?

Jed Stevenson

This week in 1896, an army under the command of Emperor Menelik defeated an Italian invasion force at Adwa, in Ethiopia. In the previous decades most of Africa had been conquered by a handful of European states: French, British, German, Belgian, and Portuguese. Ethiopia stood out, unique within Africa as country ruled by an indigenous monarch. If we want to understand how Ethiopia retained her independence, we must consider the decisive events surrounding this battle. How can we understand what happened on that day in Ethiopia? What lessons can we derive from it?

Africa 1932

Africa circa 1930. Ethiopia (labeled Abyssinia) was at the time the only country in sub-Saharan Africa ruled by an indigenous government. [1]

Understanding and remembering are linked concerns — Knowing that something happened in the past is a precondition for understanding it. But what does it mean to remember something that happened 120 years ago? The way most of us remember such things is in that special sense of the term reserved for events that we haven’t actually lived through, but learned about from others: collective memory. This kind of memory depends greatly on the way events are represented in history books, of course, but also in art, in monuments, and in conversation.

Personal and collective memories

As it happens, 120 years is about the maximum length of time that any human being has ever lived. Jeanne Calment, a Frenchwoman, died in 1997 at the age of 122 — she had been born in 1875, and her birth was recorded in the 1876 census. [2] Nobody now living is verifiably older than 117, but it’s worth considering the possibility that there may be people still alive who were born before the battle of Adwa took place.

Jeanne Calment, at approximately 20 and 120 years of age (circa 1896 and 1996)

Jeanne Calment would have had memories from 1896 (she would have been 21 years old). Many of the men and women at Adwa would have been her peers, or her juniors. Though she wasn’t in Africa, she would have heard about the battle; it was big news at the time. But it would have been, for her, one memory among many — something she might easily have forgotten; like some distant conflict we could read about in today’s paper; something that might have been less important than the memory of, say, her first cigarette, or her first kiss.

For those who actually fought in the battle, or who served as porters; or who saw the armies passing through their homelands; or who lost sons or brothers in the fray, the events would have been etched deep into their memories. [3] For Menelik’s subjects and for Italians it would have had a special relevance, even if they were far away. And for Africans in general, and for the diaspora — including slaves and descendants of slaves — it would be a source of inspiration. It came to symbolise the possibility of victory over forces of racism and colonialism that sometimes appeared invincible.

But to the extent that Adwa becomes a symbol, its meaning is also changeable. What we see in it depends in part on the events that have occurred in between then and now, and the meaning we assign to them. I’d like to draw a comparison between the way we remember Adwa and the way we remember what at the time was called the Great War — what we now refer to as the First World War, which began 100 years ago, in 1914.

Comparisons with the First World War

The parallel with the First World War points up many contrasts: Adwa was a battle, lasting just one day, in one location; the First World War dragged on for years, was fought in multiple theatres, and incurred not thousands but millions of casualties. Other contrasts are more subtle. The aims of the conflict at Adwa, for example, were clear: for the Italians, to subdue and colonize Ethiopia; for the Ethiopians, to expel the invader. The aims of the First World War, by contrast, were not at all clear; indeed, they were not publicly articulated by the British government or her allies until almost four years into the war, after millions had died. [4]

There also commonalities between the two conflicts. The most relevant of them for our purposes is that both the First World War and Adwa present us with challenges in how to remember, how to commemorate.

The First World War is remembered in many ways: In the work of soldier-poets like Wilfred Owen; in novels; in paintings. [5] The most prominent, however, are the monuments. Before the centenary of the war last year, I barely noticed them, but since then I’ve come to see plaques and statues in almost every public place I visit in England. Sometimes these consist of no more than a list of names, and the words Lest we forget; other times a crucifix, or martial imagery such as a soldier standing to attention or poised for attack. The imagery is meaningful: Christian symbols suggest sacrifice, martial ones courage or chivalry. Depending on the imagery, different aspects of the war are privileged — the sacrifice of those who lost their lives, or the heroism of the fighters. [6]

The profusion of statues and plaques commemorating the First World War in England contrasts with a paucity of memorials to Adwa in Ethiopia. In Addis Ababa there are monuments recalling Magdala and Emperor Teodros’ honourable death there; statues of Menelik (near St George’s Cathedral in Piassa); and a stela at Sidist Kilo honouring those who resisted the Italian occupation of 1936-194. But to my knowledge there are no memorials devoted to Adwa.

Representing Adwa

The most common medium in which Adwa is commemorated is painting. Conventionally these paintings show the Ethiopian and Italian armies facing each other on the battlefield, with the flags of each country flying above them. Between the two armies lie the dead; and in the sky above, St George, patron saint of Ethiopia, presides over the battle. The faces of the Italians are usually depicted in profile and the Ethiopians in full face. (In Ethiopian church art, full-face depictions are used of saints and other figures of virtue, while profile views are reserved for the devil or sinners.)


The Battle of Adwa. Painting by an unknown artist. The British Museum.

Just as First World War monuments highlight one side of the reality of that war and hide others, we may ask: what do these conventional paintings of Adwa privilege? What do they omit?

At least four things:

  1. The forces are conventionally represented as equal in number; but in fact the disparity was at least 4:1 — approximately one-hundred thousand Ethiopian soldiers versus twenty-thousand Italians.
  1. Soldiers and generals are shown, but not the camp-followers, those who provided victuals, the villagers upon whose production the army depended, or the women who supported the army.
  1. The good versus evil framing renders the soldiers on each side into stereotypes. This obscures the motivations of individual participants, which were almost certainly mixed — some were doubtless motivated by patriotism, and others by fear, or desire for personal glory, or profit; or some complex combination of these.
  1. St George’s rôle suggests that destiny was on the side of Ethiopia.

My aim in analyzing the painting this way is not to show that it’s wrong (No single image can show all sides of a story, not least a complex event like a battle.), but to get you to consider it afresh.

Interpreting and understanding

Adwa is glossed over in many Western history books in part because it doesn’t fit a dominant narrative of European dominance, or because it’s seen as a temporary setback (Italy would later succeed in colonizing Ethiopia, in 1936). This is unfortunate: The battle deserves to be remembered. But in celebrating it we should be careful not to set up a simplistic counter-narrative of Ethiopia’s manifest destiny. [7] The battle might better be interpreted as an example of the power of multitudes to prevail even when their opponents have access to superior weaponry; or of the capacity of groups with diverse motivations to come together to achieve common goals.

But perhaps the greatest lesson we could derive from Adwa is that history is contingent — that no Master Narrative may apply at all. That might be an unwelcome message; we like to see clear morals in history. But it can also be interpreted optimistically, as a sign that, if we try, we might break free from the chains history seems to forge for us. One of the most powerful ways in which the past affects the present is by influencing our sense of what is possible in the future. In how we choose collectively to remember historical events, we make possible new understandings of our history. And in doing so we lay foundations for the building of new worlds — one book, one monument, and one conversation at a time.

This is an adapted version of a talk given at the Victory of Adwa Memorial Celebration in London, at St George and All Saints Church, Tufnell Park, on February 28, 2015.


[1] George Philip, ed. (1932). Philip’s Handy-Volume Atlas of the World. London: Philip & Son.

[2] Craig Whitney (1997, August 5). Jeanne Calment, World’s Elder, Dies at 122. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/1997/08/05/world/jeanne-calment-world-s-elder-dies-at-122.html

[3] Raymond Jonas (The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2011) provides an engaging and readable overview of the Adwa campaign, and the cast of thousands who contributed to the victory.

[4] Timothy Mitchell (2010). Carbon democracy: Political power in the age of oil. London: Verso (p. 79).

[5] “Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War” brings together many of the paintings (showing at the Imperial War Museum, London, until March 8, 2015). See also Sacha Llewellyn and Paul Liss, eds. (2014), The Great War as recorded through the fine and popular arts. London: Liss Fine Art.

[6] Jay Winter (1998). Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History. Cambridge University Press. As Winter relates, one of the best known monuments, the Cenotaph (literally, “empty tomb” — a monument to the dead whose bodies were never identified) is vaguely Classical in style, but contains no explicit imagery; in a sense it’s a blank canvas on which you can project your own feelings about the war, whether or not you feel it was justified.

[7] On ‘manifest destiny’ in writing on American history, see for example David Kennedy, Lizabeth Cohen, and Thomas Bailey (2010). The American Pageant (14th edition). Wadsworth / Cengage Learning.

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