Cancel Culture Isn’t New and Free Speech Isn’t in Danger

You may have read the news some time ago that some writers aren’t happy. A broad range of figures, including JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood have complained about the “restriction of debate” that has apparently recently occurred. There is, their letter claims, “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favour of ideological conformity.” It goes on: “the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.”

Well now. This is quite the accusation. It is in line with a very strong recent current of complaints from famous people that they’re being repressed, and that “Cancel Culture” is new, on the rise, and bad. That is, people can see events cancelled, works retracted, even jobs lost because of things they’ve said or done in the recent or not-so-recent past that were bad.

Before I get going, I want to say that I am definitely not saying that, when properly defined, there are no instances where cancel culture hasn’t existed, and hasn’t been bad. There are three examples here, though as with everything, there may be some who see those as perfectly reasonable. I disagree. Nonetheless, there are plenty of problems with the Harper’s letter, which can broadly be summarised as:

  • Cancel culture isn’t new
  • Cancel culture is poorly defined
  • When it does happen, it isn’t always bad
  • “Cancelling” happens everywhere
  • Cancel culture is itself a mass expression of free speech
  • Cancel culture is a natural result of democracy and capitalism

Cancel Culture Isn’t New

The anti-apartheid movement began in 1959 calling for a boycott of SA products, and gained a certain amount of following. The fact that it gained so much ground early on within the UK was significant, as following incidents such as the Sharpeville Massacre, SA was expelled from the Commonwealth in 1961. In 1962 the UN General Assembly passed a motion calling for all member states to impose a trade boycott (this was almost universally ignored in the West). In 1963 the UN Security Council called for an arms ban against SA.

In 1965, nearly 500 British academics signed a declaration protesting against Apartheid in South Africa. Two progressive academics, Jack Simons and Eddie Roux, had been banned from teaching and writing in South Africa because of their political beliefs. In solidarity, the declaration announced that, in protest, none of the academics would apply for or accept positions in South African universities. This widened to refusal to collaborate, publications refusing to publish, conferences refusing to host in SA or invite attendees from there, and refusal to allow SA scholars to use international university facilities.

The cultural boycott extended to sport: in 1964 SA were uninvited to the Olympic Games, and in 1968 the IOC’s initial willingness to relent was overcome by a threat of withdrawal from other African nations. In 1970, SA were expelled from the IOC. Boycotts followed in cricket, football, rugby, and tennis, plus other sports. Music was impacted too – many Western bands refused to play in SA, and those who did were sharply criticised.

The boycott only ended in the 90s after Nelson Mandela was freed, apartheid was ended, free democratic elections were held and Mandela became President. I appreciate that there were those in the UK Conservative Party who thought Nelson Mandela was a terrorist, even those who though he “should be shot“. Nonetheless, boycotting South Africa because of its stance on apartheid was widely supported, and was most certainly an example of cancel culture.

Away from the issue of Apartheid: in 1976, a competition called Cook of the Realm was held, which a farmer’s wife called Gwen Troake won. On the strength of this, Troake was invited by the BBC to partake in its show The Big Time, which gave talented amateurs the chance to be involved in a large, important event. In Troake’s case, she was asked to organise a banquet for, amongst others, Earl Mountbatten and the former Prime Minister Edward Heath.

Fanny Cradock, the famously snappy but experienced TV cook was one of the panel of admired experts hired to advise Troake. Unfortunately, Cradock acted in an enormously objectionable manner, eye-rolling, fake gagging, pretending that all British cuisine (such as Yorkshire pudding) came from France, and that all of Troake’s ideas were awful and wouldn’t work.

The public were outraged at Cradock’s rudeness, and interpreted her behaviour as ruinous of Troake’s big day. The Daily Telegraph wrote that, “Not since 1940 can the people of England have risen in such unified wrath”. Although Cradock wrote a letter of apology to Troake, two weeks later the BBC cancelled her contract and she never hosted a cookery programme again. You can see some of the details here.

Both of these are pre-internet versions of cancel culture. One of an entire country, the other of a rude celebrity. In the case of South Africa, change, apology and repentance led to the “cancellation” being rescinded. In the case of Cradock, it did not. In both cases, commercial interest prevailed.

Other examples of historical cancel culture exist. The Montgomery Bus Boycott inspired by Rosa Parks. The lesser known Bristol Bus Boycott too. There are active boycotts of Israel. The Nestlé boycott is well known and still going. In the racist early days of MTV, the threat of removal of major label CBS Records’ artists from the channel led MTV to finally show Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video, which was seen afterwards as a watershed.

Cancel culture isn’t new. The clash between the freedom of (usually elevated) people to speak and others to choose to listen, decry or respond is old. The challenges of deciding whether the good deeds a person does override the bad things they’ve said or done or believe is a very old philosophical problem. This excellent essay by Dorian Lynskey does a great job of looking at our tendency for “chronocentrism” – a bias towards recent events, and believing ourselves more advanced than those of the past. So, let’s cast aside the idea that we’re living through some uniquely, existentially concerning era. We aren’t.

Cancel Culture is Poorly Defined

What even is cancel culture? For some, it is an abhorrent mob-like reaction calling for someone’s loss of a job or income. For others, it’s a mass, collective expression of justified anger over something that someone has said or written. Referring to someone as “cancelled” implies that their career is now over – that authors can no longer be published or read, comedians no longer command an audience, film stars no longer get offered auditions, and so on. Sometimes it affects products which portray past bigotry – TV shows or films are removed from availability or scenes edited, old articles taken down, etc.

The term “cancel culture” has its origins in black culture, coming to prominence via a show called Love & Hip Hop. The phrase, “you’re cancelled” started to get picked up by the show’s audience, both as a joke and as a wry commentary on celebrities saying daft things about racism, sexism and homophobia. That sense of using the power of protest and boycott to feed back to people who had gone too far – which we also saw with the #metoo movement – has, according to the article above, a rich history within black American culture. We obviously know of that use against corporations, but this applies to people – a very different proposition. But as the article makes clear, any acts of individual “cancelling” are ranged against an entire societal structure which works against black people, women, gay people and trans people. And yet, according to some, a small level of push back in the opposite direction is a terrible threat to our society.

According to this excellent article, cancel culture is actually two things, and those two things should be considered separately. The existence of two separate definitions also drives the arguments over whether it’s a good or a bad thing. I’d argue that, in reality, “cancellations” have two main expressions. The first is a mass avoidance of a prominent person or their works due to things about them that have come to light. Our first instinct here is to think of people such as JK Rowling, Louis CK or Michael Jackson. JK Rowling has recently revealed herself as a transphobe, Louis CK sexually harassed women and Michael Jackson was a paedophile. (JK Rowling is, of course, one of the signatories of the Harper’s letter). All of them have, to one extent or another, been described as “cancelled“.

Except, let’s be honest, none of them have been cancelled. JK Rowling is the most famous and richest author in the world, a billionaire, with three films remaining of a 13-film franchise, an enormously popular stage show, 14.3m twitter followers, and, of course, is responsible for one of the most beloved, purchased, read and discussed book series of all time. Compared to this, the removal of her photos from some fan sites, and some actors from the films she helped create contradicting her opinion on transgender people is not really “cancellation”. JK Rowling has suffered mountains of abuse, which I condemn, though I’ll hazard a guess that this was also the case before the trans stuff blew up, and which is a function of twitter in particular being a terrible platform which celebrates abuse of women and minorities. And, let’s not forget, Rowling herself celebrated an abusive transphobe.

Louis CK was genuinely cancelled, for a time. TV spots were cancelled, films refused distribution, gigs dried up. But, 9 months later, he was back on small stages again. Many other comedians weighed in on whether the timing was right, with lots supporting him. A few months after that, he announced an international tour. In April this year, he released a stand-up special. None of these things are possible for the likes of you and me – we don’t have the platform and I’m a terrible comedian.

Michael Jackson is dead, so he doesn’t get a right of reply to the recent allegations of paedophilia outlined in a documentary. Nonetheless, he saw several allegations during his life, and remains one of the best-selling music artists of all time. He is incredibly famous, his music is instantly recognisable, and his loyal fanbase reacted with outrage and disbelief when the documentary came out. Many radio stations did pull his music, but lots still play it. And maybe that’s right? After all, he is no longer in a position to profit from it directly, and his music is excellent. The separation of art from artist is an ongoing philosophical debate and isn’t going to be solved any time soon. That’s not to say at all that those who choose not to listen to his works any more are wrong, just that doing so, or not, doesn’t necessarily reflect acceptance or condemnation of the man himself.

The second expression, subtly different to the first, is a sense of public shaming or “calling out” of someone, enlisting mobs of people to go on the hunt against someone. It is this expression which is more likely to be directed at people without a strong platform, without the ability to fight back or respond well. It is this which is the more dangerous of the two, for the person suffering it, if they have no privileged position, but is more survivable for those with sufficient resources to ride it out. And this expression is just as likely, if not more so, to be dished out by right-wing mobs as by left-wing ones.

What does the phrase “cancel culture” mean, then? A removal of a place of honour in society (whether temporary or permanent)? A loss of publicity? The loss of an audience? The loss of a part of an audience? How much of an audience, if so? And for how long a time? How about the loss of sponsorship money, advertising money, or other income? The loss of a job or a career altogether, perhaps? Or is it simply having to face the opposition of a group of vocal people for a time?

Wikipedia offers a definition:

a form of boycott in which someone is thrust out of social or professional circles – either online on social media, in the real world, or both. They are said to be “canceled”.

Dictionary.com feels similarly:

Usually public figures are said to be canceled after it has been discovered that they have done something offensive. It involves calling out the bad behavior, boycotting their work (such as by not watching their movies or listening to their music), and trying to take away their public platform and power. This is often done in a performative way on social media.

A boycott, then. Other people freely voicing their concerns. “Freely voicing”… maybe we could call this “free speech”. That same free speech which is in danger. Hmm.

Cancel Culture Isn’t Always Bad

Harvey Weinstein got cancelled. He raped and abused women for years, ruined their careers and got rich from being a pathetic, petulant bully, and used NDAs to suppress their voices.

Bill Cosby got cancelled. He drugged and sexually assaulted women for years.

Rolf Harris got cancelled. He indecently assaulted various young women over an 18 year period.

Roseanne Barr got cancelled. She wrote a series of racist tweets about an adviser to President Obama.

There are more. Of course there are. But these ones are pretty well known and seem justified to me. Some people acted like monsters or idiots, and didn’t get away with it. That’s a good thing.

Now, to be clear: I’m not arguing here that cancel culture is always good. A fair set of complaints about instances of it are that it is frequently over-reactive, unforgiving of long-past errors, features a certain amount of mass hysteria and shallow consideration. My friend Sarah Hearne has documented one such sad example. I’d certainly like it if people could calmly approach these topics and hear each side before taking action. But nonetheless, that doesn’t make cancel culture a universally bad thing.

There’s also a fair discussion to be had about the concept of forgiveness and allowance for past transgressions before any “Cancelling” happens. Does someone recognise the wrongs of their past actions, and are they sorry for them? If they are, then great, let’s move on. (Note, even the relatively small step of apology is a step too far for some who describe themselves as anti-woke – apologies are for cissies, after all). Was it a genuine mistake? Is there an explanation which makes sense? If so, good. But often the process of allowing someone accused of something the chance to explain is minimised or bypassed, and that is a problem. However, if we’re going to give a chance and a listening ear to someone on the cusp of cancellation, then it is also incumbent on those who decry cancel culture to listen to the cries of anguish from marginalised parts of society – those same parts of society who tend to be most sensitive to perceptions of racism, sexism and so on. And if the naysayers refuse to do that, as they so often do, they are in no position at all to start complaining about hysteria.

An additional complaint would also be “but what about the abuse?!?!?!“. What indeed. Abuse is everywhere, unacceptable, obviously, and anyone arguing any point which incorporates abuse should fully expect their point to be ignored or, most likely, deliberately opposed. Abuse has been directed in all directions (though, weirdly, the abuse by my side is always, in my view, lesser both in volume and vitriol than the abuse by your side, no matter which side you and I are on). But abuse is generally recognised as being a step beyond normal free speech in almost all contexts. It is the responsibility of platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to mediate and remove such abuse, when it is reported. Their repeated and deliberate failure to do so is not a comment on cancel culture specifically as on all culture generally: especially so when abuse is common to all people with any kind of platform, any opinion, anywhere. Being female, gay, trans, an ethnic minority or any combination thereof will naturally intensify that abuse. Again, it remains irrelevant to cancel culture.

Cancelling Happens Everywhere

“There is no tendency across the entire political spectrum which does not engage in boycotts of some variety, governed by their specific ethical red flags” writes Tristan Cross in a stunningly good article on cancel culture. Indeed, we saw that just this week when 15,500 definitely un-racist people decided to complain to Ofcom because some people did a dance about George Floyd.

Or consider Dominic Cummings. When he decided to break lockdown, break the law, endanger his children, jeopardise the faith of the people of the UK in the government, and just generally act like a self-centred moron, the country rose as one – from each side of the political spectrum – to email their MPs, complain to media outlets and so on. Some decided that this was just fake media outrage, but it wasn’t. It was hurt. Many of us, myself included, demanded he be sacked – cancel culture writ large. He wasn’t sacked, and the trust of the people in Government sank low as a result.

Or consider Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand. Eleven years ago, they left a series of distasteful, lewd answerphone messages for the elderly actor Andrew Sachs which ended up (eventually) causing some consternation. Demands for sackings came in, commentary was voiced from all over the place, particularly the right-wing. Both men ended up leaving the BBC.

Everyone, from whatever point of the political, ethical, religious, moral, philosophical or cultural spectrum, has things which they believe should be deemed Too Far. And when those red lines are breached, people get angry and Do Stuff. Cancel culture isn’t just for the “woke”.

Cancel Culture is Free Speech

What we are dealing with when it comes to cancel culture is the ability of a mass of people to collectively agree that something is bad, to express their anger about it and then act further if they so desire – whether to complain, demand resignations, boycott or whatever else. Now, you or I might disagree with the thrust of their argument – and I certainly do when it comes to over fifteen thousand absolutely-not-racist people complaining to Ofcom because some other people pointed out through the medium of dance that US police murdering a black man is bad – but they have the right to say it.

Our culture has come from a place where the power of free speech, whilst it is a right for everyone, has been concentrated in the hands of a few privileged people. Usually white, male, straight, old people, with access to an audience to whom they can say what they think.

Previously, the opinions of these people in high places, whether they be racist, sexist, homophobic, or whatever else, could be published but wouldn’t receive a lot of blowback. The main reason for that is that any complaints which did get sent were reasonably hidden, or dealt with behind the scenes. Occasionally, as with Ross & Brand above, a newspaper might pick the story up and run with it, leading to considerably more attention on a situation. But again, the power there lies behind closed doors, in the hands of the media moguls who wield it in as discriminating a way as they like. And if they decided that, say, a blond-haired old Etonian shouldn’t see much career harm from being a repeated racist or a serial cheat or having xenophobically insulted a wide array of places or frequently lying, or being utterly untalented, then those media outlets will see to it.

However, nowadays, places such as Twitter, as much as I loathe it and refuse to join it, have allowed for the democratisation of free speech – I can join, if I choose, and tell Piers Morgan that I think he’s a fanny. And he can tell me in response that he thinks I’m a fanny, if he so desires. Happy days.

The privilege of an audience that so many famous people have is not immutable – the audience have minds and can remove their membership of it if they so desire, for whatever reason they want. That is free movement, free assembly, free association. They can vocally discuss why they have done so, on blogs, or facebook, or twitter, or anywhere else. That is free speech.

So, if some people believe that the author of a children’s book series has written things which are transphobic, they have, these days, both the right and the platform to say so. That is, after all, free speech. If some of those people are famous, that right remains, and the platform is somewhat bigger (though not necessarily bigger than the author). The Laurence Foxes of this world might believe that famous people having starred in a film adaptation of those children’s books means they no longer have a right to speak their minds on the matter, because they owe their careers to the author, but he is wrong. Even those poor, damned souls still have the right to free speech.

If those people get organised, work out their arguments and voice their opinions in argument against that, that is free speech. If they call for removal of sponsorship, that is free speech. If they write letters demanding resignations, that is free speech. If they state they will refuse to work for the company unless they act, that is free speech. If they arrange a protest, that is free speech. If they remove photographs from their website, that is free speech. Even “public shaming and ostracism”, to quote the Harper’s letter, are free speech. Not necessarily tasteful or just, but free speech nonetheless.

Demanding, as the Harper’s letter does, the ability to publish an opinion “without the threat of reprisal” is a suppression of the free speech of the audience. No one has that right. No one has the right to demand silence from their audience. No one has the right to universal acceptance of their opinions.

As Tristan Cross writes,

Opponents of ‘cancel culture’ don’t appreciate all free speech, though – particularly if it might cause real-world adverse consequences for them. It’s all ‘open debate’ until it becomes ‘cancelling’, then it’s too far.

Free speech isn’t in danger. If anything, it’s flourishing. It has finally got into the hands of people who have never had it before, and they are using it. And those who have always had an audience who, crucially, will silently nod along, don’t like that. They hate it. They hate the idea that their speech has consequences, whether for them or others. They hate that other people can dare to join together to condemn something they have done or said. They hate that there is a medium – which they freely chose to join, without having to pay – through which others can reach them with replies. They hate that people can call for them to be boycotted, or for their resignation, or for sponsors to withdraw their support.

An important point here is that those people who have that audience, generally speaking, still have it. They can still say what they want. They still have freedom of speech. They can still proffer their opinions to the world. They will typically continue to have a platform much larger than those calling for their “cancellation”. How many of us get to have a letter published in Harper’s? How many of us get to revitalise our failing acting career by deliberately being a disagreeable bellend and getting booked onto Newsnight as a go-to contrarian, like Laurence Fox?

What these people don’t have, and never did, is the right to speak in a vacuum, without response. But they do want that. After all:

If you’re able to convince people that it’s a far greater abuse to point out your transgressions, than it is to commit them, you can act with total impunity.

The writers of the Harper’s letter claim that “the way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.” I’d suggest that this is itself arguable, especially so when it comes to debating the relative humanity of particular groups of people, or their rights. We shouldn’t need to have debates about, for instance, racism or homosexuality any more. And whilst it might work in certain cases, in other worst cases, allowing exposure to these ideas allows them to breed and spread. The same people complaining there about the shocking gall of these plebs, daring to question their intellectual superiority, are also the ones who dominate those debates, crowding out or shouting down voices attempting to outline, for example, the subtleties of the impact of microaggressions, or what it’s like to live under a cloud of cultural bigotry. The tendency instead is to approach these topics from a distance – high decoupling – without the emotional connection which makes it so vital to those fighting it every single day. If they feel less willing, more timid, to voice their uninformed spleens on whatever subjects pass through their brains, perhaps that’s a good thing. Perhaps it creates room to listen to people who know what they’re talking about, if anyone can be bothered to give them a platform instead.

So free speech isn’t under threat. But, if anything, there is an argument that free speech flourishing as much as it is, particularly on social media, is nonetheless doing damage to our society. Discussions on WhatsApp and private Facebook groups allow considerably wider spreading of conspiracy theories and far-right nonsense than has been possible up to now. The bullshit that is QAnon has thrived in these conditions. Anti-vaccine groups or those opposed to Covid-19 pandemic interventions such as mask-wearing can spread their dangerous ideas to much larger portions of society than ever before. Once we declare our position on a topic, we are easily able to filter out those who disagree, on whichever platform. Anti-immigrant or “Incel” groups can form, debate ideas, become ever more extreme the longer their echo chambers exist, and then do some real damage. These groups have plenty of time to inoculate themselves against the cold light of reality shining on them – they can spread their ideas much faster, and do much more damage in a short space of time than can be alleviated by some famous writers holding forth in a newspaper column, book or blog.

Cancel Culture is a Result of Democracy and Capitalism

Ultimately, who is responsible for editors being “fired for running controversial pieces”, books being “withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity”, journalists being “barred from writing on certain topics” or heads of organisations being “ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes”? It isn’t those who demand resignations who actually make those decisions – it is employers, organisations, corporate entities who ultimately are concerned about company reputation (and therefore profit) and being seen to support potentially damaging things. I’d agree that it’s true that such corporations are more sensitive to negative feedback than they once were, but that isn’t the fault of those providing the feedback. They are as entitled as anyone else to voice their opinions – whether anyone listens is a different matter entirely.

Take an example cited in the Tristan Cross piece. James Marriott, a deputy editor at The Times, wrote some articles, and people responded with disagreement and comments on the shape of his head. He kept his job (telling a wide audience of people what he thinks), if anything he gained work, and all that happened was some mild criticism. And yet this is, according to him, being “nearly cancelled“. He wasn’t, though, was he? The Times had no interest in sacking him, not when there were a full 25 articles to be published that week on cancel culture, so cancellation was not on the cards.

Commentary has become much more democratic now – I can vent my spleen on Twitter or Facebook and every now and again might have my views taken note of by a substantial amount of people. In turn, the vast array of commentary that is now out there makes this exceedingly unlikely, unless I already have a substantial platform. And if a hundred or a thousand of those people decide that they don’t like the cut of my jib, they can try to find out who employs me, contact them and demand my resignation. What then? Well, my employer can choose to heed those demands or not. The power lies in their hands, not those of the complainants. Sure, such a situation won’t be fun – it’ll be horrible, distressing and upsetting. Nonetheless, it remains ultimately the concern of the employer to deal with.

An employer choosing to heed angry views will stem from simple modern-day capitalism – concern for the bottom line, for reputation, for relevance. This is nevertheless the same capitalism which right-wing people angry at cancel culture frequently accuse left-wing people of trying to undermine. The interaction of both democracy and capitalism is one which has some interesting consequences at times, but this is one which is entirely a result of broadening the ability of people to speak and of corporations to listen to their views. Most would think of that as a good thing.

And there’s the rub – ultimately, the main force of cancel culture is not the voices of marginalised “woke” people on the left, it is the reactionary nature of employers who choose to acquiesce to the demands of a few complainants, rather than be careful, take their time, support their employees and make a balanced, thoughtful decision. If people think the limits of that acquiescence are widening further than they should, their ire should be directed at those companies, not those who carry opinions and act on them. If people think employees are sacked too easily, their call should be to improve employment rights – an idea which, again, right-wingers tend to shun due to their supposed fervent love of capitalism.

Those fighting against cancel culture, ultimately, are concerned only for their own privileged positions being maintained. They aren’t interested in debate, they don’t want to consider others’ views, and they are blind to examples of people other than “wokies” behaving in exactly the same way. Their only concern is being allowed to continue to have a cultural communication system where they voice their opinions and everyone else has to listen and shut up. It is a way of shutting down opposition to some really quite toxic views – opposition which is now centred in the hands of those who have suffered all manner of cultural and societal damage and abuse over the years. It is nonsense.

My thanks to Stephanie Davey and Sarah Hearne for their help in writing this.

Stop Using Population to Compare Covid-19 Cases

I saw a Facebook post the other day which attempted to defend the British government and its handling of the Coronavirus pandemic. It had two key claims:

  • If you compare Covid-19 deaths accounting for total population, then we’re not that bad.
  • If you compare Covid-19 deaths accounting for population density, then we’re even better.

This blog post is mainly about the first claim. National population isn’t (yet) a particularly meaningful or useful metric with which we can normalise – that is, compare more fairly – the number of deaths that we’ve had in the UK.

Hopefully most of you have heard of exponential growth. This is what happens when you say that the growth rate of something is related to the number of it that exist. The more of it there are, the higher the growth rate of it, so the faster the number of it rises. If you imagine the population of a species (let’s say unicorns) living in a vast, unbounded world with infinite space and resources, and no predators killing them off, then the population of it will rise and rise and rise, with the rate of growth getting faster and faster, like in the graph below. Unicorns mate regularly, have a whale of a time, make baby unicorns, who then grow up and soon enough are trying it on themselves. So both their population and the rate of growth is always accelerating, all the time.

covidgraph1

The chart shows what happens if the unicorn population increases by 10% every year, starting from a base of 100. It takes some time to really get going – but by year 40 we’re at 4,000 and rising very fast. That rate of growth every year is equivalent to the population doubling roughly every 7 years. By the end of the 50 years, we see the familiar tick up with the acceleration of the growth.

This chart is similar to what would happen with coronavirus if people were unlimited in number, and no one did anything at all to try to stop the spread of the disease. Each person infected would infect more people, and the number who have been infected would grow and grow, taking the rate of growth with it in the process.

However, we don’t live in a world where this happens. There are, believe it or not, limits. The supportable population is finite. Space is limited. There are only so many resources. And our population of unicorns can only get so big before those resources are used up; there are only enough magic rainbow beans to support a particular size, and if you’ve not eaten your magic rainbow beans, you just don’t feel like getting it on tonight, and that idiot Alan got there before you and gormlessly ate them all, and the mating season ends tomorrow.

So, what happens if we limit the growth? Well, let’s imagine that the Unicorn Forest can only support 5,000 hornèd beasts. The closer we get to that number, the fewer unicorn babies there are, and across the whole Forest, each birth gets to a point where it only replaces a unicorn that dies, possibly by being fed on by a proto-Voldemort:covidgraph2

We see, firstly, that it takes a much longer time now to reach that limit – by around 70 or 80 years we’re getting quite close to the maximum population. By 100 years we’re at 4,990 tired, grumpy unicorns. If only there were infinite space – a common complaint – they’d be at nearly 140,000. But, instead, we see at first that the exponential rise seems like it’s kicking into gear, but as they live through the Amazing Era 30-50 years along the line, the population starts to get too big, and can’t sustain many more creatures*.

This is not a million miles away from what would happen if Covid-19 moved through the population in a country to such a level that there aren’t many more people to infect. In this case, the rate of growth slows because there aren’t enough people around who haven’t yet had it. For this to happen, we need to assume, crucially, that people can’t get reinfected with the disease. This is the “herd immunity” idea – the more people who have antibodies to the disease, the less it can grow to a point where they infect others.

If this happened in every country, we’d see the number of cases reach a maximum level. The number of deaths would be huge, of course, but we’d see it go only so far. At that point, it would be possible to look at each country in turn and compare the number of deaths. The fairest thing to do would be to look at the total population and divide the number of deaths by that, to see how each country had fared.

As far as it’s possible to know, though, this hasn’t happened yet. We haven’t seen the disease infect everyone. We haven’t seen what would happen if it could run its course in each country. The number of deaths isn’t anywhere near the total it could reach if we didn’t control this pandemic at all.

The reason that the number of daily deaths is slowing down in the UK and the rest of Europe is because we are artificially suppressing its growth rate by locking down, limiting the opportunity for the disease to be passed on. We all know this – we’ve been sat in our houses organising our pens or stopping our children from stabbing each other for seven or eight weeks, for heaven’s sake. But that means that accounting for total population in each country is a really rubbish way of comparing the number of deaths. Population density or percentage of the population which is urbanised is more important at this point, because obviously, the more people you live nearby, the more people you’ll come across, and the more likely you are to infect others. But, the urban populations of western European countries are all enormous, and much greater than the total number of infections or deaths.

Around three weeks ago – a lifetime in this period, admittedly – the WHO estimated that only 2-3% of the population worldwide had had the disease. But instead, let’s try to reach a slightly more local estimate for the UK.

Some Italian scientists estimated the infection fatality rate at 1.29%. Some German scientists instead estimated it at 0.37%. Sir Patrick Vallance stated yesterday that around 4% of the UK population are estimated to have antibodies to Covid-19, as of two weeks ago, which is around 2.6m cases. That puts the death rate, incidentally, at around 1.2%-1.7% in the UK.

Alternatively, if we try to reach the highest number we can for the total number of people who’ve been infected in the UK, let’s take that Italian 1.29% level. Chris Giles, Economics Editor at the Financial Times has estimated that the number of excess deaths is currently around 57,000. These are not by any means all due to Covid-19, as it will include people who died of other causes, because they didn’t get hospital treatment or surgery when they needed it due to the pandemic. However, again, let’s get the biggest number we can and assume they are all deaths due to Covid-19: 57,000 deaths with a fatality rate of 1.29% means there have been 4.4m infections in the UK to this point.

The UK has around 67m people in it. That estimate of the number of infections – certainly far higher than in actuality – is only 6.6% of our total population. A deliberately pessimistic (optimistic?) minimum of 93.4% of people haven’t had it yet. If the lockdown ended tomorrow, and people went back to normal here, as before the middle of March, they would see the growth of the disease start to rise again, something like in that second graph.

The disease isn’t being controlled by naturally-achieved herd immunity, it’s being controlled by the lockdown. So total population is unimportant right now. What’s important when trying to make fairer comparisons between countries is:

  • when did we lock down?
  • to what extent did we lock down?
  • how many people stuck to it?

So, what does all this mean, then? Well, accounting for total population is a nonsensical way to compare Covid-19 deaths in different countries, unless the majority of that country has already been infected. This is similar for population density. We haven’t seen enough people infected yet for total population size to make the slightest difference to the numbers. Instead, if we’re going to try to fairly compare the number of deaths in different countries, we should be looking at the variables around the thing that has controlled the disease up to this point – social distancing.

There are some big issues with using the official numbers coming from each government to compare different countries against each other. The counting of something as a death from Covid-19 seems like a simple exercise, but it isn’t – do we count only deaths confirmed with a test? Only deaths where it was tested and it made a known and meaningful difference? Deaths where it was strongly suspected by a medical professional? Deaths where it was suspected by family members? There are too many differences between how countries count these for us to make fair comparisons at this point. That will come in time, but not until much later.

covidexcessdeathsMay11

Excess Mortality, shown in the charts above, from here, is an available statistic which is much more comparable between countries, because it essentially compares each country against itself a year ago or against the average of the last five years. Even then, there are some issues. However, overall, it’s the best metric we currently have. And, when you use it by itself to compare against other countries, the UK doesn’t look good. And nor should it: we could see what was happening in Italy, two weeks ahead of us, and should’ve locked down far sooner. We didn’t. Our lockdown was considerably less restrictive than in Italy or Spain or France. The population did, generally, follow the rules, which is to our credit. But in the last couple of days, the UK government’s communications about it have been truly awful, and confusion over what the rules even are may well cause huge issues in the near future. 

In fairness, lockdown in the UK was more restrictive than in Sweden, which has generally refused to be as harsh as other nations. Their death levels do appear to be slowing down, and they appear to have avoided any significant hospital catastrophes. However, they do have a fairly-sized excess mortality rate. There are arguments for each side in the “did we do badly compared to other countries?” debate which essentially boil down to “yerbut Germany” and “yerbut Sweden”.

Nonetheless, it is no surprise overall that the UK has high numbers, given how the disease was handled in the beginning. That is on the government. It’s under their control. The reasons are many and varied, and some are understandable in a difficult and changing world. But our numbers are large. No matter what you might think, our deaths from Covid-19 are big. We have done poorly in this crisis.

And make no mistake – this disease isn’t done yet. Easing the rules on social distancing will cause a second wave, or require a second lockdown. Until there’s a vaccine, things will start to tick up again. The UK government was far slower than some other countries were, and thousands of people have died as a result, who needn’t have done. Let’s just hope that lessons are learnt quickly to keep the numbers down until the vaccines are available.

* This is not what people who model populations do, by the way – these are just basic, elemental introductions to the topic. I am not a population modeller, I do not model epidemics and I am not trying to forecast what would happen specifically with Covid-19. There are many, many complicating factors which make it a job for the true experts. This is just a guide to some of the simpler concepts. If you’re an epidemiologist, then you’re brilliant but please stop kicking me.

Conscious High Decoupling

I am, for those who don’t know, white, straight, and male. I work in a STEM-y line of employment, have an engineering degree and help to run a science forum. Naturally, all of this means that I am top of the pile when it comes to expressing my opinion on all manner of topics: economics, politics, climate change, feminism, Love Island – no topic is so remote from my experience that I don’t feel confident sticking my oar in whenever I damn well want to.

This puts me into a happy band of fellow travellers: people with a large mound of accumulated privilege, who (strangely) also happen to be white, straight and male. It is possible for me and anyone else like me, out of nowhere, to decide what opinions we hold, express them, and sit back smugly as all around bask in our wisdom and magnificence.

So, then, imagine the depths of Richard Dawkins’ utter confusion when his expression of the obvious regarding eugenics met with a fiery and immediate backlash. “But I said, ‘It’s one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political, moral grounds’!”, he will have thought to himself. “This is ridiculous! I wasn’t saying I approved of it!“. Following this, he felt the need to clarify that, “A eugenic policy would be bad.” Indeed, Richard. Indeed it would be bad. And thanks for lending your weight to that side of the argument – the cavalry were flagging.

This post isn’t about eugenics. Not really. Despite my obvious natural leadership on the issue (see above for demographic qualifications)*, it actually doesn’t need me to weigh in to give some variant of “eugenics are bad, mmkay”. There are vastly more qualified people out there to talk about the matter, whether from a philosophical or biological perspective. What it is about, though, is the ability of people like Dawkins to take a controversial topic, put it into a neat little glass box, and consider its merits. Isolated, sterile, free of contamination.

Tom Chivers is a columnist and science writer who has written for, amongst other publications, The Telegraph. Like me and Richard Dawkins, he is in a genetically perfect position to write about whatever he wants to. He has written an essay which tries to pick apart the reasons why Dawkins’ twitter post blew up so hugely. In it, he posits that there are two sorts of people, “High Decouplers” and “Low Decouplers”. Read it – it’s an interesting take on the matter, at least to those of us clever people who can consider these things dispassionately and not drench everyone with irrationality all the damn time.

Essentially, Chivers says, there are those people who can separate an idea to stand on its own, free of any history or application in the real world. That idea can then be debated or discussed without any worries about condemnation. These people are “High Decouplers”. They break an idea from its context early on, at a high level, and proceed from there. An example of this from my own background are times when someone has asked what the most effective terrorist attack might be. One can debate the impact of bombing infrastructure, attacking people and so on, feeling out where society’s weak points might be, without ever condoning terrorism. If anything though, the whole topic is simply a way to prove one’s superiority and intelligence compared to ridiculous idiots who think terrorism is a good idea in the first place (see Four Lions for more details).

In the theory, “Low Decouplers”, on the other hand, struggle to isolate matters such as eugenics from their contexts. Chivers describes the tendency of High Decouplers to use magic spells such as “I’m not saying X is good, but“. Those rituals don’t work on Low Decouplers. The exercise of logic which High Decouplers put themselves through isn’t just an exercise to Low Decouplers. The topic means something. It does have a history, and ignoring that is pointless. Particularly when it comes to cultural history, there are strong sensitivities to bear in mind when thinking about things like this. It’s all well and good me having Thoughts on a topic like racism, but my beard-stroking and philosophy means bugger all on the ground, to someone who lives through it day in, day out, in matters both big and small. I have almost no real connection to that, no knowledge of it, so what do my thoughts really mean?

Chivers chalks up the fall-out from Dawkins’ tweet to this clash of approaches. But I think he’s missing something from it. This paragraph, I think, starts to get to the heart of the matter:

Dawkins, to my knowledge, never explained why he suddenly brought up eugenics out of a clear blue sky, but the word is in the news at the moment because Dominic Cummings hired the weirdo he wanted to hire, a man called Andrew Sabisky. Inevitably enough, the media has gone through his old social media posts and found various things he’s said, and he has since quit.

Although in his tweet there was an unreferenced connection to matters in the news right now, Dawkins raised this out of nowhere, and he did it on Twitter. Before he raised the topic, I’m not aware of anyone claiming that eugenics wouldn’t work, though there is now actually some debate over that, once the word ‘work’ is suitably defined, which it tends not to be. (And I should point out, there are lots of things I am not aware of, so maybe that debate was indeed raging good and hard). But his tweet basically stamped a Big White Man Foot and flew a big flag from on high saying, “am I not a clever, clever man?” Simply by raising a question which no one was asking, he lends legitimacy to the worth of having the debate. Previously, most would have considered that legitimacy to be nil. The debate was done, finished, out of bounds except to a few far-right goons on tiny corners of the internet. Dawkins, a man with 2.8 million followers, just broke it out into the big leagues.

Secondly, there is a time and a place if you’re going to do it. I don’t personally believe that there should be limits on the right to discuss this stuff in general, but I think that if you are going to, do it with care and sensitivity. Me sitting with friends, discussing the most damaging plausible terrorist methods is acceptable if we do it between ourselves, away from others, but if we were to do it openly in, say, a pub in Omagh, it would be appalling. Being careful that everyone involved is happy to discuss something difficult and complex with a dark history, and are happy with the way it’s being discussed is important. That’s impossible in certain places, and amongst the worst is Twitter.

I could write a long essay on the terrible qualities of Twitter, but at the top of the list is its capability for encouraging good quality debate. It is horrendous at it. It is a medium limited, by its very nature, to 280 characters maximum. Brevity does not encourage complexity or nuance. Putting something chin-strokey up on it as a hand-wavy “aren’t I so clever” statement, about something with a terrible history, is a stupid, mindless thing to do. It doesn’t matter if you’re a High Decoupler. Do it in your own space, somewhere where the rules are clear and the terms of debate acceptable to everyone. Don’t do it where the entire world can see your branespeak, you pillock.

And that moves onto the last, probably most important point. If there was a debating panel of people from a range of backgrounds – black people, women, Jews, and so on – who were being asked to talk about eugenics in that High Decoupler way, then them doing it dispassionately might be a more interesting debate. You’d miss out on a hell of a lot of interesting information about history, impact, biology, and so on, but it would still have something for it. But that never happens. It’s always the same old people. Being a “High Decoupler” is itself a privileged position. If you’re able to take a topic like terrorism or racism or poverty or eugenics and stand back from it, observe it without any personal feelings, then you’re bloody lucky to have had a life where those things were unimportant to you, didn’t affect you, mean nothing to you. It’s not really surprising then when the type of person who can do it also happens to be the kind of person with the most to gain from society.

From that, to then stand in front of a random mix of people (whether virtually, as Dawkins did, or in real life) and display your privilege, your utter lack of connection to a topic that really, really matters to people, is the height of distastefulness. To say, in effect, “I don’t care if you care, because science doesn’t care!” is to make it absolutely clear that you have the option of not caring. And that’s fine by itself – lots of people do have that option. But for heaven’s sake don’t rub it in the faces of the people who don’t.

Instead of persisting with sterile, pointless debates, which lead to no meaningful outcome – maybe try shutting up, putting Twitter down, and listening to those who can tell you something worthwhile about it.

I don’t really have anything worthwhile to say about eugenics or race science myself, but the book Superior by Angela Saini looks like a good place to begin.

If you’d like to join our science forum, you can find it at https://scrutable.science.

 

*Just to try to absolutely squish any doubt, I’m not being serious here when I say this.

I’ve Removed All News From My Facebook Feed

On Saturday, last week, I got annoyed. I was staying with some lovely friends in Belfast for the weekend, and in a moment of downtime, I went onto the Facebook app on my phone to see what was going on. The feed ran approximately like this:

Guardian article; BBC article; Guardian article; Guardian article; advert; IFL Science article; Guardian article; BoredPanda article; BoredPanda article; post from a friend; Guardian article; BBC article; advert;

And so on. I scrolled and scrolled and scrolled until I hit another post from a friend. It took me a long time. So, I got pissed off and hid all of them from my feed.

I got annoyed at the Facebook algorithm deciding what I should see. Yes, I can prioritise certain people, certain feeds, if I want, but that takes a lot of time and besides, I like to see what’s happening with everyone. Partly because I’m nosey, but partly because it makes me happy to see that someone I’ve not had much contact with in years is enjoying life and getting on with things. Maybe they’ve had a child, or got married, or started a new job, or gone on holiday. Alternatively, if someone I know is struggling, I can leave a supportive comment.

Facebook jumbles everything up every so often as well, so that if I am on a particular page – maybe a friend, maybe an article – that I’m not finished with yet, it will back right out, go to my feed and refresh (read: randomise) everything. Thus, I can’t now find what I was looking at. Great.

I got annoyed about the way in which the articles are promoted by the BBC, Guardian, and so on. There’s a tone of voice, a style, which subtly mimics the frequent hysteria – positive or negative – that one sees in tweets. I’m not on Twitter largely because of that style of interaction. I just can’t be doing with it.

It’s hard to describe, as well. There’s the “10+ epic text FAILS” style of description, which is innately infuriating. There’s also the “Man gives BEST REPLY EVER to rude waiter” style (to give a made-up example); the humblebragging, “it’s nothing much, just a full-scale replica of the Titanic” style; and the “something big is happening, we don’t know what it is yet, but it’s BIG” style. Whatever it is, that off-hand, lazy way of referring to stories is fairly common and specific to social media, is targeted at Millennials, of which I am one, and is really irritating. You see it when the headline is unambiguous and straight-laced, but the comment on the Facebook link is a slack, hand-wavy reference.

It’s bad enough that there are so many news articles now which lazily copy and paste what people have said on twitter about something. Obituaries, big news items, funny events, memes – whatever the subject, usually someone in a news office who can’t be arsed to do their job properly anymore will fill a page with this garbage. Most of them should be titled, “What the Common Man Thinks”, to get across the low-lying, half-baked condescending cynicism that underpins it.

I got annoyed at the comments underneath. Oh, the comments. I know that the golden rule of the internet is “never read the comments”, and some people have made great comedy from taking the piss out of them, but still, sometimes one can’t resist looking. They are always completely ghastly. And when it’s a story about whatever evil Trump has spurted today, or whether Theresa May has inched closer to the end of the plank, or global warming, or #metoo, or whatever, there are always dickheads around. Always. Like flies around a mouldy pear, they just can’t help themselves. I don’t need that on my feed.

Mostly, though, I got annoyed at the fact that I just couldn’t easily see what’s going on with people who make me feel happy. These get pushed out and interrupted with negative stories about all the bad things happening around the world, and there’s more than enough of those. It feels like an intrusion of these things into areas where I don’t need them. If I want to read the news, and overwhelm myself with 95% pessimism, I’ll go to their websites or buy a paper. If I don’t, I’d like a place where the news is far, far away.

Ignorance is bliss. I don’t advocate total ignorance, but it’s good to have somewhere you can be blissful for a short while. Even if bad things are happening, there’s so little I can do about them that it doesn’t usually matter if I know.

So, they’re gone. I’ve hidden them from my feed.

And now? It’s wonderful. One of the best decisions I’ve made recently. I feel like a weight of stress has been removed, and I can see people, things, stories I actually like for a change. I can scroll down and not feel oppressed by the apparently imminent end of the world. I’d recommend it to everyone.

News is good, but you don’t need it everywhere you go.

An Open Letter to People who Write Open Letters

Dear People Who Write Open Letters,

Please stop writing open letters. Open letters are shit. They very rarely achieve anything.

Open letters change very little. They are typically a passive-aggressive way of signalling opposition or intent at an audience that’s already on your side. They’re preaching to the choir. They change no one’s mind, affect nothing.

Open letters aren’t actually read by the people to whom you address them, only those who already think the way you do. And in doing so, they are a deliberate attempt not to sway the argument of those who disagree or are undecided to your point of view, but rather to invite congratulation on being just so fantastic and wonderful for having rebutted something or fought something. You made an effort. Well done you. Aren’t you brilliant? Give yourself a biscuit.

That effort, though, is usually wasted, I’m sad to say. The most you can really be congratulated for, perhaps, is marshaling lots of arguments into one place, in an easy-to-read way. Of course, you could have done that in a simple article or blog, without the words, “An open letter to…” in the title, the words “Dear …” at the start and “Yours [ironically],” at the end.

Open letters are an interesting form of writing. In allowing such a wide use of the second-person, typically accompanied by an accusatory or perhaps righteous and smug tone of voice, they usually give themselves away. They are a vent, a piece of theatre, a performance piece, not directed towards those with an opposing perspective, but simply awaiting the applause at the end.

You could make an argument for certain examples, where the wide circulation of an open letter makes sense, and where the writer cannot be accused of self-interest: here is one such, though perhaps can be more accurately described as a standard article, topped and tailed with lettery parts – nonetheless, its purpose is clear. The use of “you” allows us to witness a one-to-one connection. Sometimes the need for a vent is absolutely understandable given the circumstances described. More often than not, though, open letters are self-indulgent, unnecessary bilge. Frequently they aren’t even letters – they’re just blogs which are titled as letters, but contain no direction to anyone, no sign-off, nothing lettery in the slightest. Often, the tone shifts through the letter, as the writing becomes less directed at the flagged “recipient”, and becomes more just a rant about a thing.

Obviously, I am knowingly and smugly aware of the nature of this open letter in the light of all this. I am, quite clearly, writing something I know to be self-indulgent pish. In reaching such a level of irony / hypocrisy (delete as appropriate), I am of course fishing for shares, wanting my great glory to be spread as wide and far as possible. Similarly, I am aware that this letter will, like most open letters, be read by very few people, most of whom may respond, unseen, in a mildly appropriate way and then move on with their busy lives. But I just have to vent, you see.

Under everything, one can’t help but feel that with the rise of social media and the need to share everything, open letters have become an accompaniment to the standard clicktivism trend of believing that things you do on the internet achieve something. Rarely is that the case. Open letters are, in almost all cases, pointless, indulgent, and facile. Please stop.

Yours ironically,

Sam

The Worst Mug In The Entire World

I was given a present late last year. It is a mug. Here is the mug:

Mug1

It was a lovely, thoughtful present, from my sister-in-law and her husband who, on a trip to the Cotswolds, saw it and thought that it looked like a really nice novelty gift for me, a man who likes his tea and biscuits. I really do ♥ biscuits. It was gratefully received.

The mug is quite big, mind. It’s a hefty size. And that’s a bit of a problem because our kitchen is very wee and we don’t have much room for mugs. This fact combines poorly with my wife’s awesome ability to continually bring home more mugs, rather like a cat’s heart-warming yet seemingly urgent need to share its latest decapitated sparrow carcass with you. Not that the mugs themselves are as ugly as a decapitated sparrow carcass – they are beautiful mugs, all of them. There are just quite a few of them. And yet, this mug, with its awkward semicylindrical shape and greatly protruding handle, needed to squeeze its way into the already packed cupboard.

This fact, plus laziness and lack of access to biscuits, led to me not really using the mug for a while. It remained at back of the cupboard during the early part of winter, lurking like a  hibernating bat.

In the new year, I spotted that we had a spare digestive biscuit, and decided to give it a whirl. Whilst it may not be the best looking mug in the world –  I thought – by jove it looks handy for a heavy tea and biscuit session.

However, I was very wrong. It is only when you try to use the mug that its design flaws come to the fore.

It is terrible.

Really terrible.

To understand why it is terrible, turn your attention once again to the picture above. You can see that the biscuit pouch isn’t quite big enough for a digestive biscuit, which as we all know, is laid down under law as the default biscuit for dipping, and therefore sets the standard for how big your biscuit pouch should be. Surely you would make this pouch big enough, no? Even if you’re not so much of a digestive fan, hobnobs and rich tea biscuits are roughly the same size, so presumably wouldn’t fit in either. Not that you’d have a rich tea biscuit, of course, seeing as they are Satan’s wank-wafers.

I actually tend to drink my tea with my left hand, mainly because it leaves my right hand free for more important tasks, such as changing channel, browsing the internet on my phone, or scratching my bollocks. You can see, though, that the digestive sticks out above the lip of the mug, meaning that only people holding the mug with their right hand can drink, unless you sip from the nearest corner, which makes it look as if you have a problem with your joints.

However, at least the biscuit is easily retrievable. If one put a smaller biscuit in there that actually fits in the pouch, such as a Maryland chocolate chip biscuit, I imagine that the biscuit would leave just a small segment sticking out above the pouch top, making it difficult to grab and use for dunking.

The biggest problems, though, can be seen in the following picture.

Mug2

There are several things to note. The most important thing to note is the little hole above the tea-line where the handle is. Do you see it?

Unforgivably, as part of the cheap Chinese manufacturing process, the handle is hollow. This might be fine to have in the design when thinking how to create a cheap mug, but then people buy mugs at all sort sof price ranges, and none I have seen have this feature: it is not, after all, a watering can. In the real world, people put hot drinks inside a mug. And then the hot drink fills the handle. And then the handle gets hot. And then a chap, dutifully carrying his mug of tea and biscuit into the lounge from the kitchen, feels his hand burning and starts swearing like a bastard whilst trying to find a coaster to put it down on.

Next, there is a lip on the mug. Most mugs, you’ll find, don’t have lips, because they make it difficult to drink stuff. I can only imagine that the lip on this mug exists as an artefact of the manufacturing process, like the hollow handle. The result of the lip is that you either have to give maximum suction, and slurp your tea really loudly – something that has, when heard in others, driven me to visions of homicide – or you allow hot tea to gently trickle down your chin. Being forced into a choice between wearing a napkin to drink tea or being noisily uncouth is not something I am happy with.

Then, onto less important things, you can see that it’s already chipped in the nearest corner. There are a couple more chips as well. Also, the mug is not dishwashable, and it’s not very easy to wash up by hand – the lip gets in the way of cleaning the main cavity, whilst the strange shape, with its various corners, holes and pockets, make it very difficult to clean properly. A dishwasher would do a good job, handwashing doesn’t. Eventually, over time, you’ll build up a brown patina which can’t be removed. Plus, bacteria would very much enjoy the handle hole, and the biscuit pouch, and the chips, and the lip, and the corners.

The conclusion is that it’s not really meant to be a mug for actually drinking out of. There isn’t enough good design and thought underpinning it to make it properly usable, which is a shame. But neither is it a mug that sits easily on a display shelf – especially not in a house which, like ours does, sees a constant battle between aesthetics (my wife) and function (me). If you did let it sit there as a trinket for people to comment on, people would ask, “oh, that’s brilliant, isn’t it? Have you used it?”. My innate honesty would lead me to respond with the truth, at length.

The saddest part, though, is the story of how it was bought. My wife eventually explained all this to my sister in law, and whilst she was disappointed that it hadn’t been very good, she also explained its cost. A standard novelty mug would set you back perhaps a little more than a normal mug. This, however, was purchased from a little gift shop for roughly double the price of a normal mug.

I honestly didn’t think it was possible to create a mug with so many design flaws. We have, through trial and error, ended up with a modern, 21st century Britain with mugs that have no hollow handles, lipless rims, and symmetry through the axis defined by the handle, so that lefties and righties can all use the mug with equal vim. Never, ever take your mug for granted again. They are all tiny examples of the wonder of good, simple design.

Terry Pratchett and me

I was thirteen years old when I got my first Terry Pratchett book. Thirteen years to the day, in fact – my godmother Rosie had bought me The Colour of Magic in paperback for my birthday. Pratchett books were one of those things that, as a child, I had noticed in bookshops but had always ignored or even disdained because I didn’t like the look of the covers. They seemed a bit… removed, distanced. Uninviting. A thing for Other People. I have rarely been more wrong.

Terry Pratchett, 1948-2015

The gift of the book broke that mental barrier, and after waiting a month or so until I had finished whatever book I was reading at the time, I began. I don’t remember when I grew past Blyton’s Adventure, Secret Seven or Famous Five series, though it may have been around that time. I was still of an age where I would often wander down to the library and pick up Asterix or Tintin books. I think I came to the Lord of the Rings a couple of years later.  I was a pretty voracious reader: the excitement and wonder and passion that could be passed onto me from the mind of some of the wonderful authors whose works enthralled me opened up my mind more than any computer games or music or play.

I remember, after reading the first few pages, being rather disappointed that the opportunities of fantasy fiction had been discarded – non-humanoid dominant life-forms, the creation of strange creatures and unexpected behaviours. Instead, a human Wizzard called Rincewind ate some chicken and ran away. Nonetheless, I persevered.

It turned out that any reservations were so much horse elbows – the Discworld quickly had me hooked. My sister got married the month after I got that present, and I remember being bored, as many children will be at weddings, whilst the photographs were being taken after the service. Leaning against a tree, I read the book that I had put into my suit jacket pocket and escaped into another world, only resurfacing when I was required to stand still and smile at a lens for a short time. I ignored everyone and hungrily absorbed the story until the food arrived.

The adventures of Rincewind, Twoflower, the Luggage, and all the other incredible characters brought me in and held me captive. The delight was of the existence of a fantasy world where magic could make anything possible, yet had to follow rules; where the practical held sway over and above the fantastical, where realism dominated over unhinged invention (though where unhinged invention, in the guise of Bloody Stupid Johnson, could be described so hilariously that you would be giggling and chuckling for hours), where characters were described with a flair and a technique that made you love them. That was as a teenager – there were still more wonders to come. On the Discworld, things worked.

My sister’s wedding is one of my fondest memories of being 13, and one lovely thing I remember is my new brother-in-law’s brother, James, noticing that I was reading TCoM and kindly lending me the next in the series, The Light Fantastic. I unwittingly stole the book, inasmuch as I loved it so much I failed to give it back. That was devoured in a few days as well.

Mostly I read the books in order, though Hogfather jumped into the fray early on, being released that year in hardback – I enjoyed it, but for obvious reasons it made more sense on a re-read after stories introducing many of the key characters, such as Mort and Soul Music. I acquired the books in whatever ways I could – borrowing off friends and family (TLF, Pyramids, Guards Guards), borrowing from the library (Mort, Wyrd Sisters), asking for them for Christmas (many of the later books after Hogfather in hardback) or buying them myself with my limited pocket money. My books, in turn, got lent to other people. I’m not sure where my Colour of Magic has gone, nor several others. Recently, I rescued several Pratchett books not in my collection from the inside of a skip at our local tip, sacrilegiously discarded by someone else. I still have nearly two whole shelves for Pratchett:

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Each story came to be a half-yearly treat, a little golden nugget of warmth and beauty and treasure that I could absorb into myself to hold on to over the years. Only rarely did each book last more than three or four days in the reading, though those days would be spent apart from other people. I would be so esconced in the Discworld that it was hard to come back to the Sphereworld to keep my body going with pesky things like food and water, like some odd version of the Matrix.

As I read on into the series, Pratchett’s world firmed up – the Colour of Magic described a brutal proto-Discworld in a way, a chaos of ideas that had not yet solidified in Pratchett’s mind. Only later did he develop it into a satire of our world, rather than a satire of fantasy fiction. This satirical bent – with a keen eye for the absurdities of our lives – reflected and warped threads or ideas on a range of topics including film, opera, football, Australia and music, into hilarious mirror images, teasing out conclusions about their importance and purpose.

Many is the time that the hairs on my neck have stood up and my spine has tingled due to the build-up and release of tension authored so perfectly. I have cried deeply, laughed for hours, and understood so much about the world around me because of the made-up world in Terry Pratchett’s head. Sam Vimes being too angry to punch the wall in Men at Arms, or screaming “WHERE IS MY COW?!” in a frenzied panic at being unable to fulfil his promise to his son in Thud!; Esme Weatherwax defeating the elves or the vampires through “headology”, or shoving her arm into a torch to set fire to the voodoo doll of her being pinned; Magrat Garlick finally uncovering her strength when donning a “magic” hat in Lords and Ladies (spoiler: the hat wasn’t magic, it was just a hat); the magic computer Hex jumping into life in Hogfather, with its Anthill Inside, a mouse and various other parts that just turn up one day but without which the machine refuses to run; the stupidity of war in Jingo.

One of the joys of the Discworld I only really came to much later was the allusions and hints. The detail of the Discworld is absolutely littered with hilarious vignettes, ridiculous names and silly allusions to the real world. The L-Space website attempts to document these. The musical genius Imp Y Celyn (Bud of the Holly) from Llamedos (read that backwards) in Soul Music is described as looking a “bit Elvish”, and plays “music with rocks in” – he ends up working in a chip shop; Vimes is carefully stone-faced when his new dwarf recruit to the Ankh-Morpork City Watch in Feet of Clay turns out to be called Cheery Littlebottom; Mrs Palm (with her daughters) is a “very respectable lady” in Ankh-Morpork whom Nanny Ogg is shocked to discover Granny Weatherwax is friends with; meanwhile the “Seamstresses Guild” of Ankh-Morpork is a carefully euphemistic establishment which does, on occasion, have to cater for those poor souls who have mistaken it for a Guild of Seamstresses. Probably my favourite one of these was the moment that I realised who the little fairy folk called the Nac Mac Feegle, with their blue tattooed skin, tiny homes and rare females were parodying. I have only read Equal Rites once, and before I read LotR – lines such as ‘Hmm. Granpone the White. He’s going to be Granpone the Grey if he doesn’t take better care of his laundry.’ make me chuckle with understanding now.

This level of detail is something that can get you going back to the books again and again and again. As I see more movies, read more books, understand more of history and see more of life, I can enjoy more and more of the little peppercorns of brilliance that Pratchett packed into his writing.

Pratchett has also been the source of some wonderful friendships. At university, in the first year of my doctorate, I met a friend of a housemate, who was nice and lovely to sit in whilst her and my housemate chatted. A few days later, passing her house, I decided to knock and see if she was in. The front room was her bedroom, and seeing the Discworld Mapp on her wall (I had it merely in jigsaw form) and her collection of Pratchett books, I knew that we would become friends, and eleven years later, we still are. Every time I meet someone who is a Pratchett fan, I know that I am on safe ground with them, that I can trust them. His fans are a wonderful array of weirdos and nerds, people who may have felt on the fringes of life prior to his writing, but who, thanks to him, discovered others of a similar bent, who came to feel less alone, who gained the confidence to feel comfortable being odd.

I still haven’t read all of his books – many of the earlier ones or non-Discworld ones have passed me by, though I shall now make an effort to read them. I also haven’t read Raising Steam, the last full Discworld novel published before his death. Whilst it is remarkable that he was able to write so far into his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, his later books lacked a certain je ne sais quoi, a certain punch, that was so important to the earlier ones. I shall certainly give it a go though – one thing I have learnt from him is to relax a bit more about these things, not to deify people or forget the context. Each one of those later books, whether punchy or not, was a miracle that we should be deeply grateful for.

I am devastated by his death. I have read again and again and again from fans of his who, despite the diagnosis and Pratchett’s openness about it, despite knowing that it was coming, still didn’t really think he would go, still hoped in spite of themselves that he might somehow just keep on. I feel the same way. It has stunned me. I have cried lots of times, sometimes in inappropriate places, about his passing (in some ways this makes up a bit from the many times of laughing heartily in inappropriate places). I have spoken to friends about it who are similarly reduced. For me, it is only the second time I have grieved the passing of a celebrity (the other was Robin Williams), but it is the deepest and most difficult.

The thing is, I mentioned getting the Colour of Magic for my thirteenth birthday. It came less than four months after the death of my father from a heart attack. It is only now, on reflection, that I can see how much Pratchett has embedded into his work his deep anger, his deep sense of politeness and ethics, his hatred of sexism and racism, his love of culture in all its myriad forms. These have been thus passed onto me. The spirit of generosity that weaves its way through his books, his understanding of the importance of the institutions that he reinstated in Ankh-Morpork, his disgust for evil, or “treating people as things”, have taught me so much and stood me straight in the world. I never met the man, but he was like a father to me. Had I ever met him, I would’ve been treated with time and dignity – he felt it very important to connect with his fans. He spoke about the importance of listening to them – though perhaps not necessarily heeding them.

I have read no author’s works as much as Pratchett. No author has had more impact on my life, or got me more excited about a forthcoming book. No author has taught me more, made me respond as strongly to a book. It now feels as if the door to his world has closed, as if our knowledge of its future will never now develop. We shall know no more of the Witches or the Watch or the Wizards (unless, as Pratchett is said to want, his daughter Rhianna takes up the mantle – but one could forgive her for leaving it well alone), but we can go back again and again to his works and remember good times. I cannot, though, describe the pain of losing contact with those friends like Vimes and Nanny that I had come to love. Their ship has passed over the horizon.

Goodbye, Terry. Thank you for everything. I hope you knew how much your fans loved you, how truly sad we all are that you have gone, and how deeply we will miss you.

To finish, my favourite quote of his:

“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”

REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

“So we can believe the big ones?”

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

“They’re not the same at all!”

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”

MY POINT EXACTLY.”
― Terry Pratchett, Hogfather