Why we should abolish almost all research grants in the arts and humanities

Abstract: the UK should deal with casualisation in arts and humanities academia by abolishing almost all arts and humanities research grants. It should instead distribute the same money in the form of research leave, more or less equally, to all arts and humanities academics on permanent contracts. This would lead to replacing the majority of fixed-term roles with permanent ones, improving staff wellbeing, teaching, and research.

NB: this post only attempts to talk about the arts and humanities in UK higher education. The hard sciences, medicine, etc., have their own ecosystems and I don’t claim to have intelligent opinions on those.

It’s also a largely off-the-top-of-my-head thing rather than the product of plunging into whatever secondary literature might be out there on the subject. I want to see if there’s any prospect of kicking off a conversation, because I’m not seeing anyone talking about what I see as the elephant in the room regarding casualisation.

Research grants cause casualisation

Cover of a University of Leeds 'Guidance on the Employment of Researchers' document, with oak leaves on.

Oaks only actually give their best timber after the first three hundred years…

Over the last couple of years, the UK’s University and College Union has made a lot of noise about the casualisation of higher education employment (including unprecedented strikes in 2019-20 that, at the time of writing, have been overshadowed by the Coronacrisis).

What UCU mean by ‘casualisation’ is that a growing proportion of academic teaching and research is being done by people on fixed-term contracts (or, worse, paid by the hour). Moreover, the number of people with PhDs is growing relative to the number of academic jobs, so the chances of graduating from a PhD into a steady row of fixed-term contracts that lead to permanent employment has diminished sharply.

I won’t linger on the painful instability that fixed-term contracts create for the precarious staff who try to patch together a career out of these gigs, since most people I know have some understanding of the many consequences of insecure contracts for individual wellbeing, for equalities, and for students’ education. Most sensible people get that casualisation is bad news.

And I won’t linger on the incremental but important improvements that can be made by individual departments and universities to ameliorate this trend. (Respecting the letter and, better still, the spirit of the law that people should be made permanent after four years’ continuous employment would be a start…)

What bothers me is that I see so little discussion let alone questioning of what I think is the main cause of casualisation: research grants.

Just for the benefit of any non-higher-education readers: various agencies grant fixed-term funding for particular research projects, usually of around one to three years. Money is distributed through competitions where perhaps 5-20% of applications succeed. This funding is used to employ a fixed-term academic to do their own research; for a permanent academic to hire a fixed-term academic to do research on their behalf; or for a permanent academic to do their own research while a fixed-term academic is hired to cover their teaching.

This system surely accounts for most fixed-term contracts in UK arts and humanities Higher Education. (Some fixed-term staff are hired to fill other kinds of genuine, short-term need, like parental leave or long-term staff sickness, and I’m not objecting to that here.)

Research grant money could be distributed more effectively

So I suggest that the UK should scrap almost all research grants and the fixed-term contracts associated with them, and just distribute the money to departments proportionally to the number of their permanent staff to increase the amount of time that staff can routinely spend researching.

To put this another way: just imagine that everyone in your department currently on a research-grant-funded fixed-term contract (either doing research or filling in for someone who’s doing research) was made permanent tomorrow, and that their research time was shared out around your department in the form of regular statutory research leave.

Obviously I know that, since I have not yet achieved world domination, this is merely a utopian idea, but if we keep talking about casualisation without talking about the underlying problem then we’re not going to get far. So let’s at least talk about the elephant in the room.

I’m pretty sure that UK academia wasn’t always like this. But UK academics have certainly grown habituated to the culture of competitive research grants: league tables rank universities by grant income, so universities see grants not as a means to the end of advancing knowledge but as an end in themselves; departments encourage members to gain grants in order to increase staffing levels; universities make ‘grant capture’ a criterion for academics to be promoted (or even to pass probation); and academics also seek grants out of a sense of duty to their particular fields, to give opportunities to junior scholars in their area and to enable that area to flourish in competition with other ones.

So when I suggest that we should abolish research grants, my friends — in addition to telling me I have my head in the clouds — often think that I’m suggesting that their disciplines should wither and their departments shrink; that the careers of permanent staff should stall and that fixed-term staff should be thrown to the wolves.

But wouldn’t the redistribution of research grant money be a good thing? The money that is currently keeping people on fixed-term contracts would instead flow into permanent teaching-and-research contracts: hallelujah! There would be no fewer jobs than there are now, but people graduating from their PhDs would generally either get a permanent job fairly soon after graduating or realise that it was time to switch to plan B — rather than going down the brutal path of attrition that they do at the moment. Permanent staff would no longer waste time writing elaborate applications for competitive research grants that they have at best a 20% chance of getting. Money that universities currently spend employing people to help academics get research grants could now be spent on the salaries of teachers and researchers. Departments wouldn’t have to keep hiring at short notice to patch gaps left in the curriculum by staff getting grants and disappearing from the teaching team: they would hire a stable body of staff and could plan their research leave rota reliably. Correspondingly, students would get a better education, from better organised and happier staff including some permanent staff who were still young enough to function as plausible role-models.

My admittedly brief searches haven’t produced precise figures on how many UK arts and humanities staff are paid via research grants (23% of all UK academics are at least partly funded in this way), but I had a quick look at the stats for the monetary value of research grants disbursed in 2017-18 by the main UK arts funders. Since in the arts we don’t spend this money on large hadron colliders, almost all this expendituate ultimately pays the salaries and overheads of people doing research:

Funding body Funding disbursed, £million
Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) £63
British Academy £45
Leverhulme Trust £109
Total £217

In the same period there were around 30,000 full-time-equivalent academic staff in what the Higher Education Statistics Agency call ‘humanities, language based studies, and archaeology’ and ‘design, creative and performing arts’ on contracts not described as ‘atypical’. This is a decent proxy for the number of permanent and fixed-term arts and humanities staff in the UK.

By sharing £217 million between 30,000 staff, we could make all research-grant-funded staff permanent and allot each staff member £7233 per year. With average UK academic pay at £40,500 (probably lower in the arts and humanities), that might allow each staff member to have one semester’s research leave for every five spent teaching (if you assume direct salary replacement rather than assuming that the money also has to pay for imaginary overheads like hiring their office from their own university).

I assume here that all departments are treated equally: unlike current research grants, which are concentrated in a few ‘research-intensive’ universities, I’m assuming that everyone gets an equal share. So if you’re in a department where you don’t have statutory research leave, now you would. If you’re in a rich department that has a generous five-semesters-on, one-semester-off research leave scheme, you’d roughly double your research leave time.

Even if you assume that research leave really costs staff salary × 2, to account for overheads, I reckon this would still be a good deal. What would you rather have: an occasional long shot at winning some big grant that wins the applause of your bosses and employs people on precarious contracts, or guaranteed research leave every few years in a department where nearly everyone was permanent?

But what about my grand research projects?

Sometimes when I talk about this, people say ‘but I need grants to do the research I want to do’. This is potentially a fair objection. But do we?

There are some massive, long-term projects of really major importance national-level intellectual-capital investments, you might say that truly might need dedicated funding. Things like making a dictionary of a whole language, digitising the entirety of a large archive, or cataloguing every book published in the eighteenth century. Moreover, these are the kinds of projects which, running for decades, can provide secure, long-term jobs. That’s fine! Let’s put some money aside for those.

But most research funding goes into making monographs, articles, smallish databases, and the like. We can do these at least as well if we have regular, predictable research leave rather than scrapping over occasional big grants.

What about collaboration with other researchers? OK, so you might not be able to get a grant that would pay for a bunch of people all to work together at the same time. But with decent planning of predictable research leave, people at different institutions who wanted to collaborate could plan projects to fit with their research leave cycles, and arrange with their departments to synchronise leave, rather than just having to hope that they’ll get that shot-in-the-dark research grant.

Of course, everything I’m imagining here assumes that UK research does not benefit from the competitive distribution of research grants. I doubt that many humanities academics really think the nation gets more bang for its buck because we’re competing with each other for big chunks of scarce funds. We care about our research: we want to do it and to do it well. We build up ideas and enthusiasm while teaching, and when research leave comes around we make the most of it, before returning to teaching and refilling the ideas tank. This article caught my eye a few years ago: it found that ‘impact was generally a decelerating function of funding. Impact per dollar was therefore lower for large grant-holders’. That is, if you give everyone a little research time you get more and better research than if you give a few people a lot. If you disagree, I’m happy to debate it.


Casualisation in the arts and humanities in the UK is driven by the development of a counterproductive culture of competitive research grants. The money could be better spent, producing happier staff, better teaching, and more efficient use of research time. The AHRC, British Academy, and Leverhulme Trust should just pool most of their cash and distribute it equally to staff on permanent contracts. There would be no fewer jobs in UK academia, but a lot fewer precarious ones.


Just as a bit of historical/autobiographical context, these musings are (for better or worse) quite deep-rooted in my academic formation. In 2000-2004 I was a postgrad at Glasgow, and in 2003-4 and 2005-7 I studied and worked in at Helsinki. People older and wiser than me might remember otherwise, but the way I understood it at the time, the UK ecosystem was much closer to what I propose than it is now (albeit with the government research money being distributed via the hated Research Assessment Exercise).

Meanwhile, a more extreme form of the situation we’re experiencing in the UK held in Finland. Research foundations poured money into bloated but temporary research units, while university departments seldom had mechanisms to give their teaching staff statutory research leave. This created a two-tier system of researchers who had the track record to keep winning research funding and teachers who never had a chance, depriving staff of a rounded career and undergraduates of research-led tuition. Getting a permanent lectureship in your twenties was unheard of and people would be happy to land one in their forties; again, undergraduates were deprived of tuition by young, permanently-employed staff whom they could identify with. As well as the fixed-term postdoctoral researchers, there was a proletariat of precariously employed sub-doctoral research assistants whose names seldom if ever appeared on the papers for which they did the research.

This (anecdotal) historical experience emphasises that the UK’s arts and humanities research ecosystem could be worse than it is and worse is what it will be if current trends don’t change. But it also emphasises that the UK’s ecosystem could be much better, and, if I understand things right, it has been. It could be again.

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What’s the lowest-carbon way to get between the UK and Iceland?

As most people know by now, air-travel is really bad for the environment. So land-travel is, environmentally, almost invariably the best way to get between Britain and continental Europe. With the help of the invaluable advice of the man in Seat 61, I take the bus or train, accept that it takes a bit more time and money than a plane, and both enjoy the journey and get on with work as I travel.

But what do you do if, like me, you live in the UK and your work takes you to the Atlantic island of Iceland—or, worse, if you live in Iceland and want to go elsewhere in Europe?

That’s what this blogpost tries to work out.

Why aviation is a climate disaster

But first, in case you missed the memo: aviation may only account for 2-3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but that’s largely because few people in the world fly (so far). For those of us who do fly, air travel makes up a large proportion of our carbon footprints. The average UK person’s greenhouse-gas emissions are around 15 tonnes CO2-equivalent per year; one economy-class transatlantic return flight emits about 1 tonne per passenger. A few years ago, it was common to say that emissions of 2-3 tonnes per person per year might be sustainable. So even by that reckoning, a tonne of aviation emissions should be a once-in-a-lifetime kind of luxury. These days, though, we’re talking about the urgency of sucking more greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere than we put in, which makes a tonne of emissions look even worse.

Moreover, the effect of aviation on climate is greater than burning the same amount of fuel at ground level. How readily those problems can be avoided by better aircraft design is not yet clear, but the 2016 UK government guideline (here, §8.39) is that aviation emissions correspond to heating the climate nearly twice as much as the same emissions at ground level. So that transatlantic trip with its one tonne of greenhouse gas emissions actually has the same effect as emitting two tonnes at ground level.

Although increased efficiency, electrification, airships, and biofuels or synthetic fuels are all noisily touted possibilities for cleaner aviation, there’s no likelihood that per-passenger aviation emissions will fall sharply in the foreseeable future. And don’t imagine that spending extra money on ‘carbon offsetting’ will do anything to make things better (for a little bit on why, in the real world, offsetting will probably do nothing to ameliorate the impact of flying, see here on Delta Airlines’ greenwash and here on Amtrak’s greenwash).

So travelling by land is virtually always better than by air: check out these average figures for greenhouse gas grams per passenger-kilometre expressed as a CO2-equivalent from the fabulously useful Finnish emissions data-centre Lipasto.

  • Petrol car, 2016, 1 occupant: 140
  • Diesel train, 2016: 76.4
  • Coach, 2016, average occupancy 14 people: 41
  • Electric intercity train, 2007: 15
  • Scheduled flight (Europe, ≤ 463 km), 2008: 260 direct emissions (494 counting high-altitude effects)
  • Scheduled flight (long-haul), 2008: 135 direct emissions (257 counting high-altitude effects)
  • Charter flight (long-haul), 2008: 68 direct emissions (129 counting high-altitude effects)

(In case you’re wondering, I assume that charter flights have much better per-passenger-km emissions because they’re always full, and don’t waste space on large first-class seats.)

So should I go to Iceland by boat instead of plane?


Leaving the Faroes on the Norrøna, 2001. Back when boats were the budget travel option, and you had to stick your panorama shots together with sellotape.

Unfortunately (from the point of view of low-carbon travelling), you can’t go to Iceland on an intercity train. Is it better to go by boat than plane?

Clearly, taking a proper, wind-powered sailing boat would be ideal: virtually zero-emissions. Such trips do exist commercially: €4,000 and twenty-three days of (no doubt wonderful) touristic island-hopping will get you from Cumbria to Iceland. Maybe I’d do that if I was on my way to a year’s research leave in Iceland, had the time to spare, and could somehow get a funding body to pay for it… But it’s not viable for most work trips.

Ferry travel between the UK and Iceland used to be easy: you could sail from Aberdeen to Shetland, from Shetland to the Faroes, and from the Faroes to Iceland. At 4-7 days each way, that journey was a long time for work travel, but within the range of what I think we should start to view as normal.

Unfortunately, the rise of cheap airlines in the 1990s (promoted by perverse incentives from governments) has encouraged the collapse of UK passenger shipping. The only scheduled sailings to Iceland these days are from Denmark. Getting the train from Britain to Denmark in order to sail to Iceland may sound wildly inefficient, but the carbon cost of overland travel is so small compared with air and sea travel that, from an environmental point of view, it’s an almost trivial detour. On the other hand, although shipping can be very efficient, passenger ferries usually carry a lot of weight per passenger (think duty-free shops and swimming pools) and run on dirty fossil fuel. So it’s not self-evident that sailing to Iceland is a good option climate-wise.

As far as I can see, Smyril Line, the one relevant ferry operator, doesn’t publish per-passenger-km emissions data, but the master’s student Viðar Jökull Björnsson has published figures that look plausible (though they seem not to account for a proportion of Smyril Line’s business being freight rather than passengers). Viðar reckons that Smyril Line emissions are 180 grams CO2-equivalent per passenger-kilometre.

This allows some back-of-envelope calculations for three different itineraries from Leeds to Reykjavík. I’ve put the actual data-sources and figures in the .xls spreadsheet here. Counting the effects of high-altitude emissions, the ultimate findings—which are rough, but surely in the right ball-park—are:

  • Maximum boat travel. Train from Leeds (UK) to Hirtshals (Denmark); ferry from Hirtshals to Seyðisfjörður (Iceland); coach from Seyðisfjörður to Reykjavík: 408 kg CO2-equivalent.
  • Maximum air travel. Train from Leeds to Edinburgh (UK); flight from Edinburgh to Reykjavík (Iceland): 422 kg CO2-equivalent.
  • Plane/Boat mix. Train from Leeds to Edinburgh (UK); flight from Edinburgh to Tórshavn (Faroe Islands); ferry from Tórshavn to Seyðisfjörður (Iceland); coach from Seyðisfjörður to Reykjavík: 384 kg CO2-equivalent.

This is not good news. However you look at it, a trip from Leeds to Reykjavík and back is getting on for a tonne of CO2-eq greenhouse gas emissions. Ouch.

Given the uncertainties in my calculations, there’s no clear winner here. It might be that with more precise data (e.g. real data for the actual airlines and routes, information on the percentage of the Smyril Line business that is freight, better data about coach-emissions in Iceland, more nuanced reckoning of high-altitude effects, etc.) one itinerary would pull clearly ahead. If anyone can contribute on this I’d love to hear it!

Really, this analysis brings into focus that we should minimise travel from the UK to Iceland: in my world that would involve e-conferencing, looking at digital facsimiles of manuscripts, and aiming for a really substantial, worthwhile visit once a decade or so, rather than hopping over for conferences once or twice a year.

The least worst travel option

But if we are going to travel between Britain and Iceland, it’s probably right to promote sea-travel. Fossil-fuelled sea-travel is bad, but seems to have far more scope for efficiencies than air-travel. Admittedly technologies like electric or wind-powered ships might be little nearer at hand than similarly exciting aviation technology, while there seems to be no sign of nuclear propulsion making the jump from military shipping (where it is routine) to civil shipping. But if consumer demand shifted from planes back to boats, there would surely be potential for a virtuous circle whereby the Smyril Line ferry, the Norrøna, would take lots more passengers per trip (there’s certainly the space for them), for lower ticket prices per passenger. Embarking passengers who would otherwise have flown on board the Norrøna would only marginally increase its fuel consumption, but would dramatically reduce aviation emissions. And increased demand would increase the likelihood of old routes, like the Shetland-Faroes one, reopening.

So, on the present calculations, the next time I do really have to go to Iceland, the best combination of a manageably quick journey, minimal carbon cost, and positive exertion of consumer pressure is probably to fly from Edinburgh to Tórshavn and get the boat onwards from there.

But if anyone actually can tell me how to sail to Iceland on an actual sail-boat, do!

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Why I’m standing to represent Beeston and Holbeck, with the Green Party

Alaric in a group holding 'Vote Green Party' signs

I’m the one in the stripy jumper!

On 2 May 2019 I’m standing for election to Leeds City Council as the Green Party candidate for Beeston and Holbeck.

For the avoidance of confusion: in 2018 I stood alongside the amazing Ed Carlisle for the next-door ward, Hunslet and Riverside. This year, Ed’s standing there on his own and I’m standing for Beeston and Holbeck. I live right on the border between the two areas, so I’m equally committed to both! For example, I’m currently the secretary of the St Lukes Tenants and Residents Association, lobbying our councillors and working closely with Council officers to improve this patch of Beeston and Holbeck.

I’ll update this post as we get closer to the election, but for now, here’s the Green position on a few of the key issues in our area…

  1. Holbeck’s ‘managed zone’ for sex-work. Outdoor sex-work has been a long-standing problem here. Labour’s ‘managed zone’ approach was bold, but was introduced without proper consultation or resources, and it has blighted residents’ lives. Through the St Luke’s TARA I’ve been involved in the reference group that’s been co-ordinating some of the grassroots challenges to the Zone. I can take very little credit for the group’s achievements, but it’s given me a good understanding of the issues and the ways in which we can push the Council to seek solutions with the community rather than bypassing us or ignoring us. The Greens in South Leeds have always argued that the Council needs to get far better at working with people here. If elected, we’d step up our current work seeking better solutions from within the community, especially tackling drug abuse.
  2. Clean air. We have some of the UK’s worst air pollution, which is shortening the lives of people in South Leeds. Leeds’s air pollution levels have reached illegal levels under a Labour council fixated on accommodating cars rather than providing good alternatives, and South Leeds has been excluded from the new Clean Air Zone. Leeds Greens are central to the Clean Air South Leeds campaign. Progress here is a win-win — for our health and our children’s health right now, and, in the bigger picture, for Leeds to play its part in staving off catastrophic global climate change.
  3. Community cohesion. We need robust political debate in Beeston and Holbeck. But the tone of discussions online is often vitriolic, and this is doing no-one any favours. Everyone in this election needs to be working to encourage thoughtful and fair-minded discussion. At the same time, we all need to do more to build up community ties from the grassroots. Whether it’s community gardening, kids’ fundays, or litterpicks, I and the Leeds Green Party are active in bringing people together for the greater good.

Our Labour councillors in Beeston and Holbeck are good, hard-working people. But they’re expected to toe the line set by the Labour council. Beeston and Holbeck has been a one-party ward for far too long, and we need independent, alternative voices. The Green Party are ready to offer that voice.

For more about me and my views, see:

Promoted by Alaric Hall, at 514 Greenhouse, Beeston, Leeds LS11 6AP, on behalf of Leeds Green Party.

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A vegan’s food diary

Since it’s Veganuary, I thought it’d be interesting, as a long-standing vegan, to do a food-diary, and just in case it provides a useful perspective for anyone else, I thought I’d share it here.

Bakery 164 sandwich during dissection.

Bakery 164 sandwich during dissection. (They look prettier if you don’t take them apart!)

I more or less became a vegan in 2011. (I say “more or less” because at the time I cut myself various kinds of slack, like if I was travelling.) But I’ve never actually checked what my nutrient intake looks like. (Except a precautionary check one time to see if my vitamin B12 levels were okay, since vegans can only get B12 via supplements. The levels were fine 🙂 )

I managed to measure macronutrients in my diet quite accurately for five days before I lost momentum. Those five days were straightforwardly representative of what I eat. (Except that I didn’t have any peanut-and-banana toast during the survey. Not sure how that happened!) I mostly didn’t measure nutrition from drinks, but as these were mostly water and tea this won’t have made much difference.

Nutritional information was taken wherever possible from the packets of the food consumed. Otherwise, it was mostly taken from www.eatthismuch.com, though I also had a look at other sources, such as Wikipedia. I weighed ingredients as I went along, and even dissected my staple lunch, a humous and falafel sandwich from the Leeds institution that is Bakery 164, in the name of science.

Since I don’t know much about nutrition, I don’t actually have any very intelligent musings on these figures (informed comments welcome below!), but the average figures for the five days set against the UK recommended daily amounts (RDA) were:

RDA actual
Energy kcal 2000 2124
Fat g 70 103.4
(of which saturates) g 20 12.7
Carbohydrate g 260 212.2
(of which sugars) g 90 62.5
Fibre g 41.5
Protein g 50 79.6
Salt g 6 3.5
5-a-day fruit and veg g 400 401.8

And here are a few of my vital statistics for context (according to our common-or-garden bathroom scales):

weight kg 65.3
height cm 175
BMI 21.3
fat 14.60%
water 63.60%
age 40

I was mostly interested to see that I’m getting plenty of protein and not taking in too much carbohydrate in doing so–something people always worry about with vegan diets. Tons of fibre (though there’s no RDA for that). The 401.8 grams of fruit and veg looks uncannily like I planned it, but I didn’t (and someone told me that I should really be aiming for eight-a-day). And who knows, maybe the extra fat and protein make up for the dearth of sugar?

WordPress seems not to cope well with big tables, so click here to view the five-day food-diary of a vegan as a pdf file, and here to download it as an .xls spreadsheet.

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Thoughts on the ‘managed sex-work zone’ in Holbeck

Since I first stood to become a Green councillor for Leeds City Council, I’ve frequently been asked about the ‘Managed Zone’ (MZ), which is (to cut a longer story short) one of the UK’s first decriminalised sex-work areas. (If you’re not a local and are wondering what this is all about, check out some of the coverage from the BBC, Vice, the Yorkshire Evening Post or the indefatigable South Leeds Life.)

The zone itself is in Beeston and Holbeck ward, whereas I’m standing for the next-door ward, Hunslet and Riverside. That said, I do go past or through the zone almost every day; I’ve have seen some antics I shouldn’t have had to; and I’ve been involved in some intense discussions about the MZ as a member of my local tenants’ and residents’ committee. So it’s right that people should ask me about it, and me and the Green Party’s lead candidate in this ward, Ed Carlisle, have the following stance on it.

I think we have to start with three facts:

  • People were complaining about outdoor sex-work widely across South Leeds, and certainly in Holbeck, long before the MZ started.
  • The Council seems to have done okay prior to the MZ at moving most Leeds sex-work indoors. Certainly when the MZ began, the women working there were about 40 very troubled women who were in such a bad situation that getting them to work indoors just wasn’t possible.
  • So we have to accept that we can’t just magic outdoor sex-work away. (There’s a rumour you sometimes hear that Ipswich has cracked the problem, and I must find out more about their strategy, but it’s a very different town from Leeds and outdoor sex-work there hasn’t completely gone.)

The bad effects of the MZ for people in and around Holbeck have been dramatic, and created a political momentum that I’ve never seen in this part of town before. Together, we need to use this momentum to create good outcomes for the area.

The Green Party is consistently much more committed than Labour to devolving power down to the lowest possible level, and we’d push for a much more consultative approach to local government. The Council should have consulted much more widely and thoroughly among Holbeck residents and businesses before rolling out the MZ. Better for everyone that people give the Council a hard time before a scheme starts than after. Better consultation would have helped the Council foresee a lot of the problems that have since arisen, e.g.:

  • The policing and clean-up teams weren’t adequately funded.
  • Media attention might attract extra sex-workers/punters to the area.
  • Putting CCTV cameras in the MZ might encourage the workers to operate outside the MZ.
  • The MZ would expose how mental-health support for the sex workers is inadequate.

But now that the MZ is there, the question is what to do about it. It would be simple to close it and disperse the sex-work back across the ginnels of South Leeds, preventing any single, big group of residents from opposing it, and therefore giving the Holbeck and Beeston councillors a quieter life. But I don’t think anyone wants that.

I would be wrong to say that I have ‘a policy’ to solve the problems, and there are two reasons for that:

  • Solutions need to arise from proper consultation with all parties (Save Our Eyes, other residents’ groups, businesses, the sex-workers, chariites, police, etc.), so there’s no point me declaring from on high some strategy I’ve invented.
  • We need better data: for example, I want reliable information about how far the MZ has attracted extra sex-workers from elsewhere, and how many. I haven’t had time to go through all the data that’s available — though I’d take a fine-toothed comb to it if I was elected. But at the moment, Save Our Eyes don’t trust the police’s data, the police don’t (I believe) have access to Save Our Eyes’s Facebook page, charities helping the women are wary of putting them at risk, so no-one has a full picture. We’ve got to improve this situation!

Overall, then, this is my current pitch for what we (the Greens in Hunslet and Riverside) would offer about the Managed Zone in the ward next to ours (but I’m learning more all the time):

  • We recognise that many people’s lives are being blighted by the managed zone and it needs to change.
  • We’d bring a properly involved, consultative approach to finding better outcomes, by councillors who live in the area and are personally affected by the issues.
  • We argue generally that South Leeds hasn’t been well looked after: this is part of the background to the sex-work issue. We need to make sure the older neighbourhoods next to the planned, redeveloped ‘South Bank’ all benefit from the regeneration and economic stimulus there.
  • We know that money spent preventing/resolving drug addition, and providing better mental-health support in relation to sexual violence, repays itself many times over. We’d push for these longer-term policies.

Finally: this is an issue for another day, but eventually, somehow, Leeds also needs to have a grown-up conversation about drug policy. Drug dealing and abuse is linked to the sex-work problem and is a real blight for many of us here in South Leeds. Everyone who actually lives here recognises that drug use/abuse is far too common for the police to enforce the law. Precisely what we can do about this is harder to say, and the Council can’t change national drugs policy. But a big, serious, open-ended conversation about drugs in this city would be worth having.

Promoted by Alaric Hall, on behalf of Ed Carlisle, Eunice Goncalves, and Alaric Hall, all at 20 Harlech Avenue, Beeston, Leeds LS11 7DT.
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Why am I standing to represent Hunslet and Riverside? (Beeston Hill, Hunslet, and Leeds City Centre)

So, parties are naming their candidates for the May Leeds City Council elections.

These will be quite a big deal this year because the areas that councillors represent (called ‘wards’) have changed. This means this year’s Council elections are ‘all out’—and since every ward has three councillors, we all get to cast three votes, for whatever three candidates we choose. You can vote for three people from the same party, or for your preferred candidates from a range of parties.

In Leeds Green Party, we’ve been working hard for several years to get the excellent, hard-working, local candidate Ed Carlisle elected in the area now called Hunslet and Riverside (basically Beeston Hill, Hunslet, and Leeds City Centre).

But this year, we get to stand three candidates, so I’m delighted to stand beside Ed and the excellent Eunice Goncalves.

In our patch, the Green Party is the only serious contender to Labour. There’s no risk whatsoever of voting Green and ‘letting the Tories in’. We think we need a change here, and we’re ready to deliver it.

Wherever you lay your heart is home

I don’t have a particular desire to be a politician. But I’ve moved around quite a lot in my life and learned that places become your home when you make them your home. I don’t love Leeds because I was born here or because it’s a perfect place. I grew to love Leeds because I decided to work with my neighbours to make it better. Now I’m standing for election to take this work up a level.

I moved here in 2007, when I got a job at Leeds University—just in time for the UK’s first bank run since 1866, and to see my students graduate into a recession which most economists agree the Con-Dems prolongued through their cuts, and into stagnant wages and growing insecurity. For most of my twenties, I’d lived in Scotland and Finland, which gave me a chance to see very different ways of organising politics and society from what we have in England, but I hadn’t been politically active. Now, though, I saw that I couldn’t ignore politics.

I was also ready to put down roots, so I helped set up the residents’ committee for the flats I live in (Greenhouse, in Beeston). This gave me lots of experience of the tough task of building community in tower blocks. I’ve worked to make sure developers, building managers, landlords and letting agents fulfil their responsibilities; I’ve run social events; and I’ve supported small businesses around the building. I’d love to help people in the sometimes impersonal blocks in Leeds City Centre do the same.

But I also wanted to get involved with my neighbourhood, so I became the secretary and then chair of a new tenants and residents committee in the Beeston Road/Dewsbury Road area, working with councillors to identify and fix local issues—from fly-tipping and traffic congestion to drug-dealing and other anti-social behaviour. I’ve learned a lot there from watching Angela Gabriel and Adam Ogilvie, Labour councillors from the ward next to ours: in their different ways, they’ve been proactive, hands on, and good at getting people involved in making their city better.

I also became a governor at Park View Primary school by Cross Flatts Park, and for several years volunteered to co-run an after-school debating club for Leeds secondary-school pupils. So I understand the pressures our schools, parents, and students are under.

So I’m running for the Greens, with Ed Carlisle and Eunice Goncalves

I first met Ed when me and some neighbours were making planters to improve Beeston Road. Characteristically, he’d heard what we were doing and just came along to lend a hand. Getting to know him, I was impressed by the huge amount of energy he puts into community work, and when he began campaigning to improve how our area is represented in Leeds City Council, I was keen to help. That’s how I first met Eunice, who besides doing her own hard work in Hunslet was also rooting for Ed.

There are some great councillors in Leeds, but the councillors for Hunslet and Riverside don’t live locally and are too hands-off. This is no surprise, as this part of Leeds has given Labour massive majorities for time immemorial. If we’re going to get councillors to be more proactive, we’ve got to give them some competition (and don’t forget, your vote in council elections has no effect on who’s in Parliament nationally).

We have to be realistic about what councillors can achieve. Most councillors are working people putting time aside to make things better for others—not superheroes. Councils in England have less power than anywhere else in the western world—a problem which both the Tories and Labour have made steadily worse over the last four decades. Funding for local government has fallen by more than a fifth since 2010. The Green Party can’t wave magic wands. But precisely because of this, we need to be bolder and more creative than ever, and find ways to make the city we want despite what goes on in Westminster.

Everyone needs an advocate

A lot of being a good councillor comes down to the little things in life that make a big difference: cracking down on fly-tipping, arranging for grit bins, or simply—but importantly—making the place we live in more beautiful.

I’m a union rep in my workplace, and one of the most important lessons I’ve learned there is that people will do for others what they would never do for themselves: so everyone needs an advocate. This is a crucial role for councillors: people will put up with a lot and get by without complaining. So councillors need to be proactive, to find the opportunities to improve their areas and help people help themselves. Going out and talking to people to develop the Green Party’s brilliant manifesto for our area over the last four years has been awesome, and we’ll be able to make those plans happen that much better if we’re on the Council.

And when people do come to councillors for help, councillors need to take on that casework vigorously and help their constituents get results that they wouldn’t have achieved alone. Leeds City Council is a big organisation and voices from poorer areas easily get drowned out. I’ve advocated for neighbours on issues from anti-social behaviour to leaking windows to parking problems. Progress is usually slow, but we’re persistent and we get there.

And it helps if you live in the ward you represent—which all three of our Green candidates for Hunslet and Riverside do. Rather than driving to the area for meetings or walk-arounds, you notice the fly-tipping, parking problems or drug-dealing because they’re on your own doorstep. And you do something about them!

With ever poorer funding of local government and growing demands on essential social care, councillors have to do better to inspire, organise, and lead our communities to work together on the little things. We can help people take pride and ownership of their streets. I’ve run social events, gardening days, and litter-picks—and we need more of this in Hunslet and Riverside.

BUT we still need vision!

Rocognising that there are limitations on what councillors can do doesn’t mean we should be timid. On the contrary, we need to be all the more creative.

If you’ve been wondering what I do in the day job, I teach Icelandic—and amongst other things I’ve been researching how Icelanders responded to the Crash in 2008. That gave me the opportunity to see some amazing grassroots organising that led to dramatic changes in municipal government, a swift economic recovery, and has even set the country on a path to a new constitution. Seeing what people have achieved abroad shows me that we can do more here.

A century ago, it wasn’t Westminster that was leading the way to the NHS, electric tramlines and underground systems, or affordable housing for all: it was our city councils and the voters who elected them. In these tough times, we need to retread their steps. Lately, our area has seen some amazing successes from people who have dared to attempt the seemingly impossible. I’ve been proud to support Leeds Community Homes, which is not only building affordable housing fit for the twenty-first century, but using innovative covenants to make sure those houses stay affordable forever. Hunslet has a new factory making prefabricated eco-houses, unparalleled in the UK, and in my community work I’ve worked closely with Citu, the company behind this. And behind the scenes, Leeds Green Party has been doing lots of innovative work to improve Leeds’s transport, waste, and housing policies. Vote for us and help us bring these ideas to the table.

Promoted by Alaric Hall, on behalf of Ed Carlisle, Eunice Goncalves, and Alaric Hall, all at 20 Harlech Avenue, Beeston, Leeds LS11 7DT.
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The Kindness of Strangers

One Day Without Us logo
Today is the UK’s One Day Without Us, a day in celebration of migrants in the UK.

Virtually everyone who’s been a migrant has found themselves reliant on the kindness of strangers at one point or another. Today, I invite people to share their stories of the kindness of strangers, as an inspiration to extend the same kindness to others in future.

Migration happens in radically different circumstances, and in some sense we are all migrants. Migration happens within countries as well as between them, and even within countries it can be hard. And, then, some UK emigrants think of themselves as ‘ex-patriots’, but they’re still migrants!

Conditions range from arriving in a new city to a flat and car that your company has arranged for you, with fridge pre-stocked; to arriving with nothing but your right to asylum; to arriving without even that, and finding ways to make a life anyway between the cracks of a hostile system. My migration experiences have been at the privileged end of the scale. But even then I’ve often found myself reliant on others.

  • Me and my ex are on a boat from Stockholm to Helsinki, the last leg of moving to Finland for me to be an exchange student. I meet a guy who’s just returning home after hitch-hiking round eastern Europe with nothing but a sleeping bag, a toilet roll, and a thick Dostoyevsky novel. He has evidently learned the art of kindness on this trip! Discovering we don’t know where we’re going to live, he invites us to stay at his for our first week. Moreover, as soon as we arrive, he gives us the keys and then says, actually, I’m going up north to stay with my parents for a bit — and just leaves his flat to us.
  • Among the same cohort of exchange students are an impecunious Dutchman, who will scrape by in expensive Helsinki; and a Bulgarian who is relying on a small Erasmus grant that hasn’t yet come through, who has no idea how he’s going to put bread on the table. Although they’ve only just met, the impecunious Dutchman lends (gives?) his even more impecunious friend money until he’s on his feet. I ask myself, ‘would I have done that?’
  • I can’t even remember quite how this transpired, but while in Helsinki I wind up meeting an American PhD student who’s supposed to be in the UK but somehow never is. It comes up that he’s out of cash; we put him up and lend him a few hundred Euros. I ask myself, ‘would I have done that, if it hadn’t been for the impecunious Dutchman?’

Just a few stories of many, and hopefully an encouragement to others to share theirs or their friends’ 🙂 And if you don’t have a story like this of your own yet, you have lots of opportunities ahead of you to make them!

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Why am I a medievalist?

Racism and medievalism

The recent swell of publicly expressed racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and other forms of prejudice in western democracies has led to redoubled calls for professional students of the Middle Ages to address the role medieval history has in supporting racist views of the world. That’s ‘medieval history’ both in the sense of professional research and in the sense of wider understandings of the medieval past. (I’m thinking of things like Sierra Lomuto’s ‘White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies’, Donna Zuckerberg’s excellent ‘How to Be a Good Classicist Under a Bad Emperor’, Sarah J. Pierce’s ‘ “Both Sons of Spain”: Medieval Jews and Muslims in the Imagined Nation’, and a prominent more-heat-than-light Twitter spat about migration in late Antiquity. This post also owes a lot to the PhD research of Vicki Cooper at Leeds.)

If I have a contribution to make at this point, it’s to offer an autobiographical account of how neatly linked medievalism and racism can be. It’s easy to google our way to self-confessed fascists toting isolated bits of medieval culture in notional support of their inhuman politics. But as a professional Anglo-Saxonist, I’d like to sketch out some of my own ideological commitments at the soft end of the same spectrum. (And I do (so far) think it is the same spectrum.)

Here’s a (selective but meaningful) sketch of me and my relationship with medieval stuff at two points in my life: twenty-five years ago, and now. My relationship with medieval stuff has (I’m grateful to report and my colleagues will be grateful to hear) changed so much in between these points it’s in some ways bizarre to talk about the two together. Yet the relationship between twelve-year-old me and medieval stuff still feels intimately familiar to thirty-seven-year-old me today, and utterly recognisable in the public discourses around me. I’m not suggesting many medievalists got into their subjects as young as I did or in the same way. But I do hope that my autobiographical musing might be stimulating for other people as they size up their own implicit ideological commitments within medieval studies.

Me aged 12-14, in sub-rural Buckinghamshire (one of the wealthy counties in the London commuter belt)

If at this point in my life you’d given me a Cambridge University prospectus and said ‘which degree do you want to do?’ I’d have chosen Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic — the degree I was lucky enough to do, and the subject from which I now make a living.

  • I have to do a school project about a foreign country. I ask my teacher why I can’t do Britain; he explains it might be healthy to learn about somewhere else. I choose Norway — I’m not sure why, but at least it seems a clean, upstanding sort of place.
  • I go to see Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves for my twelfth birthday (I think it’s great, but I take it for granted that Morgan Freeman is only in it for political correctness).
  • I have to rank my preferences for what foreign language to study at school; I write a screed in and beyond the ‘any other comments’ box about how much I hate romance languages. German would be okay (although the accent is ugly). (But I don’t really like modern languages at all and really want to do Latin, the deadest language on offer.)
  • I take myself for walks in the pretty countryside, wondering if it looked this way a thousand years ago.
  • I read The Lord of the Rings.
  • I try to read the Penguin translation of Beowulf, which is baffling, but I pretend it’s good anyway.*
  • Although I know that living in the eleventh century would be rubbish, I can’t help thinking it would be kind of cool.
  • I feel like I don’t have an accent or a particular identity. It doesn’t occur to me that, in a global context, my whiteness, Englishness, southernness, or even masculinity are actually quite distinctive. I think it might be cool to have an identity; Saxon yeoman would do fine.
  • I have hardly any idea what a university is and no idea at all that you can get paid to teach at one, but that doesn’t stop me educating anyone I can get my hands on about medieval stuff.

The short version, then, is that I got into medieval studies (at least partly) as a small-n nationalist teenager because it offered me an alternative view of my identity while not raising any really serious challenges to me assuming that white men are the default variety of human. And in lots of ways, twelve-year-old me is still a companion to my older-and-wiser self a quarter of a century later.

Me aged 37, in Leeds (one of the wealthy cosmopolitan cities of northern England)

I know now that I have an accent! But there are still some significant continuities between my work now and my prior self.

  • I have gone out with people from, and lived in, a few different countries; I enjoy trying to speak their languages; I now have close family on three continents. My partner’s a person of colour and articulate about the consequences that has. These people and experiences have made it obvious to me that I do have distinctive identities — intricate and mostly enjoyable variations on Southern English, British, European, and Citizen of the World. I have some idea that my whiteness is not just a blank normality, but is itself a distinctive identity (which also happens to afford me a lot of privileges).
  • I teach in a country with the lowest or nearly lowest social mobility in the OECD, whose education system functions primarily to replicate the social hierarchy (though of course I’m honoured to have taught people who were exceptions): I am, mostly, paid by my already well educated students to polish them up a bit more and help them keep competition from further down the social ladder at bay. I am the biggest earner in my household, which is in the UK’s 93rd percentile by income (much lower by wealth, but on the way up). I now have no desire whatsoever to live in the eleventh century. But would this be true if I was still living with frustrations and limitations comparable those I had as a teenager?
  • My main claim to fame (apart from the Old Norse Magic Sheet!) is a book about Anglo-Saxon elves. It’s really scholarly and I’m proud of it, but it’s perhaps not coincidentally also on a topic twelve-year-old me would have approved of. Quite a lot of people have bought it, some because they’re neo-pagans seeking an authentic English identity through nostalgic invented religion (which is okay as far as it goes — live and let live). Some of them also think that England has too many migrants, that it should be reserved for white people, and/or that Islam is an inherently dangerous religion (all of which is very much contrary to a live and let live philosophy, so I find it alarming that my research has for some people been a brick in the wall for these attitudes). I spend a lot of time explaining to my students that writers don’t determine what readers make of their texts … But I am aware that twelve-year-old me would have read the book through a white nationalist prism — perhaps the acorn didn’t fall far from the oak.
  • My top dinner party introduction is that I teach Icelandic for a living. I am proud to get to promote a language with only 300,000 speakers. But I’m aware that Icelandic is probably the best supported and most thriving language of its size in the world — indeed, it’s much better supported than many far bigger languages. At least 6,000 languages — 85% — are both smaller and worse served. So why am I devoting so much effort to Icelandic? The main reasons are: (a) Leeds’s institutional commitment to the subject, dating back to the 1920s; (b) the fact that my younger self chose to invest time learning Old Norse rather than, say, Konkani; and (c) current students’ enthusiasm for learning about the land of Björk and the Vikings. The students are often unsure why they want to study Iceland, but it seems a clean, upstanding sort of place.

So for all my right-on politics, my work as a medievalist is embedded in much deeper, conservative and often xenophobic ideological structures, both in my own biography and in the biographies of my institution and my students, which lock me into political projects far beyond my immediate control. My twelve-year-old self remains oddly influential, or at least still feels at home.

Which is not the end of the world…

I’m not saying this to beat myself up (much) or to suggest that twelve-year-old me should already have been a fully rounded human being or to imply there’s no point trying to change things. Rather, I’d like to see more colleagues and students reflecting deeply on their ideological commitments to the medieval in order to change things. Some of us can I’m sure conclude that we’ve come to the subject without any significant baggage. But it’d be wise to check, and perhaps revealing!

Happily, by facing these ideologies head on, I make my subject more interesting for me and my students (whatever our politics might be). Here are a few examples:

  • It’s traditional to teach Old English and its literature alone (or perhaps alongside Old Norse and/or Middle English). I’m now teaching it with extensive reference to the multilingual, multi-ethnic culture in which it was spoken — which also makes for a richer palette of primary texts to draw on. (As the populist and perhaps heavy-handed tone of this module description suggests, this is still a small step, but it’s a start.)
  • Our field has never really got on top of the post-modern crisis in historiography (which posits that the past is all just stories — a proposition that suggests that ultimately you can tell any story about the past you like). I haven’t cracked this problem, but I should always discuss it with my students now. The key political challenge of our day is right there at the centre of my subject.
  • Sierra Lomuto emphasises that globalising your scope without addressing the politics of your subject doesn’t do any good for a progressive political agenda. But globalising your scope while also addressing politics opens up exciting possibilities on lots of fronts. One (with hindsight) obvious point for me is that lots of early medieval north-west European verse has really interesting contemporaneous comparisons in the Arabic-speaking world. Surely the only reason no-one’s ever worked on this is the old Eurocentricity of medieval studies, that tacitly defines today’s Europe as modern by giving it a medieval past, and defines the borders of today’s Europe by excluding the Islamic world from participating in that medieval past. I’m not going to become a proper Arabist any time soon. But by stretching my teaching, I might inspire some students to.

* It IS good. It’s amazing! But it was later in life that I come to this conclusion with any confidence, and for different reasons…

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Why I think we should vote Green in May 2015 (FAQs)



This blogpost mostly arises from fragmentary conversations with members of my family over the last few months: they know who I want to vote for but not necessarily why; on the rather infrequent occasions I get to catch up with them, we don’t necessarily want to spend our time chewing over Westminster politics. So I’ve written this. It’s kind of a Green Party FAQ focusing on the things my family (who vote in England and Wales) tend to ask me. But of course anyone’s welcome to read it!

If this stuff doesn’t convince you, that’s totally fine; at worst you’ll have a better sense of where I’m coming from 🙂

I know you’re really busy! And I know this is looooooooong: so I don’t expect you to read it all: just to cherry-pick the FAQs that interest you. Maybe if they tempt you, you’ll want to read more in the 2015 manifesto. If not, fair enough.

Discussions with my family tend to focus on the economy (as they would with most voters), so that’s what I’ve focused on here: why would a mainstream Con/Lib/Lab voter switch to Green? Everyone knows that if environmental concerns are at the top of your list, you’ll vote Green. Almost everyone I know in school-teaching (I know a lot of school teachers!) reckons Green education policy leaves the Tory/Labour mainstream standing in the dust (basically because the Greens follow scientific advice and are serious about cutting back on government micromanagement). Friends with expertise on gender or racial equality, or fair treatment of immigrants (not forgetting that most of my close family have lived/worked abroad), see the Greens as well ahead of the Big Three. So the economy is the obvious area where sensible people might wonder how viable the Greens are.

I’m writing this on a long journey, which means that I don’t have the books and internet connections I might like to check my claims and facts; the Green Party’s 2015 manifesto came out during the journey and I’ve only had a chance to glance at it so far. And I’m not an economist or a political scientist. But I am a voter, and I’ve been reading and thinking about this stuff quite hard. And I’d be really grateful if people make corrections/ask for clarifications in the comments!

Why bother voting for a small party with no chance of gaining a seat in my constituency?

You might well ask! This is a widely voiced objection to voting for small parties in the UK’s first-past-the-post system.

Actually, in most constituencies, the sitting MP has a strong enough lead that their victory is certain. So really, the question is usually not so much whether it’s worth voting for a small party, but whether it’s worth voting at all. (Over a third of Britons figure it isn’t.) The best you can usually hope for is that your vote will become part of a long-term trend, or convince a jittery party that they should adapt their policies to win your support next time.

A Green vote can do that: by voting Green we can send a much needed message to the big parties that we support greater equality and sustainability in Britain.

But this election is the most exciting in my lifetime for a different reason: despite the Westminster voting system, the UK electorate has at last started behaving like other European electorates, granting substantial support to five or six parties. Because of the archaic first-past-the-post system, support for these parties mostly won’t translate into MPs in Westminster, and in two months the House of Commons will look much like it does today (just with Scotland’s Labour MPs partly replaced with SNP MPs). But the legitimacy and practicality of the system that elected the Commons will be seriously in question for the first time. By voting for the parties/candidates we genuinely most support, we can help show what a representative government should look like, and so apply pressure for an electoral system that delivers representative government in future.

What are the key points I’d be making if I voted Green?

I don’t think we want to get too distracted by the flickering, who-slept-with-whom, whose-speech-tomorrow-will-say-what, what-the-Yen-did-yesterday-against-the-dollar coverage that dominates media representation of politics.

What are the key social questions of the early twenty-first century, which really underlie the political debates on the front pages? Here’s my suggestion:

  1. The environment. Humans are living around the limit of what the planet’s finite resources can provide (and beyond the limit of what they can provide sustainably). We can accommodate our growing species partly by consuming more efficiently, but we also have to consume less.
  2. Inequality. The mid-twentieth century saw humans, in almost all countries, growing both better off and more equal than ever before. However, in recent decades inequality has been growing steadily—in the UK since about 1979, the year I was born. The rich (particularly the wealthiest 1%) are getting much richer and the poor—and recently in the West everyone else—are getting poorer. On current trends, few parents can assume that their children will be better off than they are. NB: if the government actually collected all the tax it should be getting, it would be spending well within its means; and the vast majority of tax avoidance/evasion is by very rich people and corporations. A more equal society would also be more able to afford to care for its people.

The Green Party is properly committed to tackling these issues, whereas we can see from its actions that the post-Thatcher New Labour/Condem concensus is not. Every year since 1979, the richest have got richer; mostly the poorest have got poorer; and non-rich Britons in general are presently markedly worse off than they were in 2007. Out of my siblings, cousins, and non-retired uncles/aunts, almost all are worse off than if they’d been doing the same job in 2007—and I’d naturally encourage any pensioners to consider the world from our point of view!

If you don’t already agree that (1) is really important, me spelling out the evidence is probably not going to help, so let’s assume you do… But British people are often a bit uncomfortable with (2) (perhaps because it sounds a bit French-revolutionary?) so that’s the next FAQ 🙂

The two themes go together of course: one way to achieve sustainability for the species is for some rich people to continue or increase their consumption and to plunge the majority of people into growing poverty and wretchedness (NB this is partly happening at the moment: the world’s poorest have been getting poorer for several decades). The other way is improve the lot of the majority of people by evening out wealth, hopefully making sure that the happy mean that emerges leaves everyone comfortably off. It seems a no-brainer which option we should seek. And there’s no better place to start than at home.

If you have a different top issue for the early twenty-first century, I’d love to hear it and muse on the Green Party’s stance on it.

Why are you so wound up about equality? What about meritocracy for example?

Let’s just get a few facts on the table: the richest 1% of UK people own more than half the UK’s personal tradeable wealth. Counting earned and unearned income, the top 1% take in £110bn per year: the government deficit is £75bn. If you’re in the second-richest percentile in the UK, you’ll own property worth a bit under £1m; if you’re in the richest percentile, you’ll own property worth around £15m. And this situation is getting more extreme, not less. (I get these figures from the work of Danny Dorling, who’s an Oxford human-geography prof., not from some random internet source!)

Liquid wealth in the UK: inequalities in worth of disposable assets. From Danny Dorling, Inequality and the 1% (Verso 2014), p. 22.

Liquid wealth in the UK: inequalities in worth of disposable assets. From Danny Dorling, Inequality and the 1% (Verso 2014), p. 22.

Once you’ve met people’s basic needs, there’s a good case that more equal societies are happier ones. Even if you’re at the top, you don’t really want to be in a society which consigns its poorest to rubbish education and poverty—not least because most serious crime is committed by people with very little to lose. A more equal Britain is also consistent with a more solvent government. I do recognise that absolute equality is not possible (because humans are all different) and probably not desirable. But the UK has a long way to go before it’s in the ‘too equal for its own good’ zone! The UK’s top 20% of earners make about 7 times as much as the bottom 20%; Scandinavia’s more like 4 times and is on almost all measures a more pleasant place to be. And their governments are less prone to economic and debt crises. We can be like that if we vote for it.

People often say to me that inequality of income/wealth is okay as long as there is equality of opportunity—rewarding success generously is fine as long as the success is earned. Fair enough, in theory. But in real life, equality of opportunity correlates closely with equality of outcome: it appears that you can’t get one without getting the other. This is probably partly because the more unequal a society is, the bigger the incentive for the rich to hold on to their place at the top, by hook or by crook. So it’s no accident that Britain has almost the highest inequality and the lowest social mobility in the developed world: if you’re born poor, you stay poor. If you’re born rich, you stay rich. Britain is not, presently, a land of opportunities.

People also often say that it’s fine for the rich to get richer as long as everyone is getting better off in finite terms. So it’s worth noting that, at the moment, they aren’t—either globally or in the UK: the poor, and recently the middle classes, are getting poorer. (Besides that, there’s a fair amount of evidence that once your basic needs are met, actual human happiness is more about relative wealth than absolute wealth, and the more equal a society, the happier its members: the poorer are less envious of the rich and the richer are less fearful of the poor.)

One reason why greater equality is good is that if you raise the wages of the poor, you substantially increase the tax base (and therefore funding for social goods like universal healthcare, education, and infrastructure). As poor people’s income improves, they pay more not only in income tax but also in indirect taxes (e.g. sales taxes); and they generate business for producers of goods and services, who also pay tax. Moreover, if you’re poor, a little more income makes a big difference, giving you much better chances for staying healthy, staying in education, staying married, and staying out of debt or crime. So raising the incomes of the poor saves the exchequer money in the short term and improves the UK’s human capital in the long term.

By contrast, if you raise the wages of the rich (particularly the super-rich, within the top 1%), they don’t spend more in the real economy: there are only so many meals you can eat in a day, no matter how posh the restaurant; only so many Porsches you can be bothered to fit on your lawn. So when we increase the incomes of the rich, they use the extra dough to speculate on property or other assets, fuelling bubbles and making things more expensive for everyone else. Meanwhile, the rich are generally good at finding ways to keep their money from the tax-man. Rich people have spent a lot of money and effort in recent decades to convince governments and voters that if the rich get richer, everyone gets richer (the so-called ‘trickle-down effect’). This just isn’t supported by sensible data; it’s a way to convince people to vote against their own self-interest.

Indeed, for capitalism to work, you need markets: people who can afford to buy the goods and services capitalists bankroll. Otherwise you get a Great Depression-style spiral of falling demand leading to falling production leading to even fewer people with jobs leading to even less demand leading to even less production, etc. That’s fine if you want to end up in a non-capitalist feudal society. If not, you probably want to be like post-War governments, which, scarred by the experience of the Depression, were keen to redistribute wealth. Thus, for example, the post-War US government poured money into reconstructing Europe and Japan—so that people would be able to afford American products.

The Green Party’s policies look left-wing, or just freaky. Can I really vote for these weirdos?

Even I look at a list of Green Party policies and, while liking them individually, am, like, blimey, this looks weird. (A line of thought epitomised by the memorable Telegraph headline ‘Drugs, brothels, al-Qaeda and the Beyonce tax: the Green Party plan for Britain’.) That certainly puts off voters, but does it make them bad policies?

Most Green Party policies only look weird relative to the UK’s very narrow post-Thatcher mainstream. By this measure, even 1960s Harold-Macmillan-era Tory policy looks like radical leftism (support for nationalised utilities, full employment, negotiation with unions). I’m reminded of Noam Chomsky’s aphorism that ‘the smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum’. I think that describes UK political culture nicely, and partly explains why Green policies often sound so unimaginable.

When we look at Green Party policies, I suggest we should ask not ‘Can I imagine Westminster doing this?’ but ‘Which sociey would I rather find myself born into: Germany or the USA?’ The Green Party’s policies/intended outcomes look much more German than American; the Condems are presently making us more like the USA. Answers will vary according to the precise issue, but I’d mostly much prefer to live in Germany. Germany has a strong economy based on skilled manufacturing by smallish (not too big to fail) companies (including the world-leaders in sustainable energy, which sounds like a good investment). It has lowish crime; good healthcare and decent social security; virtually free higher education; relatively cheap housing; consensus-led government that gets things done at a national level and increasingly abroad; plenty of power devolved to government at a regional level; a national recognition that its history of invading other countries has not been good for human wellbeing; and foreign policy focused on patience and diplomacy that improves the world slowly rather than on imperialist adventurism that messes up the world quickly. Germany has football teams owned by their fans, not by speculating oligarchs and sheikhs. Germany is still no utopia. But is it so weird to have policies like Europe’s economic and political powerhouse—rather than like the most unequal and violent society in the rich world, with the highest rate of incarceration of almost any country?

Another version of this is to look at Britain in the 1950s-60s. Although I could list huge numbers of horrific events around the world during these decades, most people in the vast majority of countries grew better off in absolute terms, and at the same time those societies grew more equal—whether in the UK, Russia, Nigeria, the US, Argentina, or China. The richest were on the back foot, having lost huge amounts of wealth through the Wall Street Crash, and through both the physical destruction and the monetary inflation of the War. Meanwhile, voters (in the West) and their subjects (in the colonies) had all suffered enormously through the World Wars and knew that the elites on whose behalf they’d fought owed them big time. Western elites, seared by the experience of the Crash, knew better than to let private finance create bubbles and leave the taxpayer to pick up the tab. The economic boom of wartime America taught them that state spending was effective in stimulating economies and keeping the treasury healthy; governments introduced serious wealth taxes and discouraged companies from diverting daft amounts of money into executives’ salaries with high taxes on excessive salaries; they recognised that state education and healthcare for all was an efficient way to maximise the wellbeing and productivity of their people.

It was this ‘great levelling’ of the 1950s-60s that helped to give my parents their upward social mobility and secured my own wellbeing. As elites found their feet again around the 1970s, this progress started to be reversed. I have watched the opportunities for my family and my students narrowing: paying ever more for their education, they have increasingly been expected to scrap over pay-to-work internships. Rather than reducing everyone’s workload a bit, technological progress has been accommodated by reducing a significant minority to permanent unemployment or semi-employment.

I’m not saying we can just go back to the 1950s (nor would we want to start over fighting the battles against racism, sexism, and social conservatism that people began to win then). Nor can we just replicate old industrial policies. What I am saying is that the innovative and interesting policies that the Green Party is suggesting to promote equality are trying to achieve a kind of society that we’ve had within living memory and which we benefited from hugely at the time.

National debt

Everyone agrees that under the Condem government, the economy has been rubbish. But they fear that it would have been even more rubbish under any other government! The most looming issue in the minds of most of my family is the national debt: like a lot of people, they reckon the last Labour government should have been saving rather than spending during the boom.

Lots of my left-leaning friends argue this is a red herring. But let’s assume that it would be good to reduce the national debt, if only to avoid giving creditors too much say in how the country is run (since their interest is not in the citizens’ wellbeing but in their own short-term profits). As far as I know, all parties are promising to stop spending beyond the Exchequer’s means by 2020, and the Green Party is no different.

So the question is why trust the Greens’ plans to remove the deficit over the Big Three’s?

Let’s be clear that in the 2010 election campaign, all the main parties made ridicuously optimistic assumptions about economic growth: the Green Party’s more cautious estimate was also over-optimistic, but more accurate, than its competitors’. (Maybe because the people behind it were scholars rather than spin-doctors.) The Green Party is also making more cautious predictions this year, and I’d put money on them being right. So I think their planning is unusually trustworthy. (The last few pages of their manifesto also provide quite detailed costings, unlike the other parties’.)

And let’s be absolutely clear that despite its 2010 promises, the current government has not reduced national debt one penny: it is still increasing the national debt every day. David Cameron announced in 2013 that the country was ‘paying down its debts’ and was reprimanded by the Office for National Statistics because this was a bare-faced lie (all his government had achieved was to reduce the amount of the government’s overspend.)

What went wrong? The Chancellor has, year-in-year-out, cut government spending, while predicting that this would not reduce the tax-take. Meanwhile, he reduced taxes for the richest, and (following the policy of the last government) raised the value of their assets through quantitative easing. But these policies have hammered the economy: government cuts have led to poorer citizens, and so less spending, and so a reduced market for private-sector goods and services, and so a recession, and so a plummeting tax-take. (Employment is picking up, but a lot of it is part-time or insecure, making the UK economy structurally more fragile.) The exchequer has seen little return on its gifts to the rich—only a new property bubble as the wealthy try to find something to spend their gains on.

And it’s not just teachers, nurses, and undergraduates who are feeling the pain: even a sandal-wearing peacenik like me worries about what the armed forces and police will look like by 2020. (The Greens would cut Trident, but not conventional defence spending.)

Even the Economist, which is generally very keen on reducing the government’s share of GDP, reckons Osborne’s policies have needlessly prolongued the UK’s recession. When the Economist agrees with my lefty friends that the government should be spending more, you know something’s really wrong in the Condem camp.

So I at least trust the Greens’ economic predictions more than their competitors’.

Rather than trying to cut government spending even more, the Greens are serious about collecting the tax we’re owed: tax avoidance and evasion (the vast majority by rich people and corporations) loses us £120bn per year, way more than the Government’s annual overspend (around £75bn this year). Rather than cutting HMRC and Companies House staff, then, the Greens would invest in more (and better) tax-collection, and they have innovative ideas for changing tax to be less avoidable/evadable (e.g. taxing land, which is hard to hide; obliging banks to provide relevant information about companies to HMRC; simplifying the tax regime). They’d also tax more, though the focus there would be to enable a bit more spending, which would partly stimulate growth: see next FAQ.

Overall, I think the Greens are both more up-front and realistic about how to end the government’s deficit, and they deserve credit for this.

The Greens and taxation—such as the land-value tax

I think a really important point here is that the Greens have lots of genuinely innovative, interesting ideas for changing how taxation works in Britain, picked up from serious academic research. I’m not a taxation or economics expert, but I think it would be really valuable having more votes for the Green Party and/or a few more Green MPs just because it would put a lot of fresh, interesting ideas more firmly on the national agenda. The more saleable ones would be scrutinised and maybe picked up by the main parties; ideas that didn’t look workable to the experts would be dropped. So you can vote Green in the knowledge that it would stir things up in Westminster without committing yourself to a radical rethinking of UK taxation.

But let’s imagine the Greens formed a government. They would tax more overall (an extra £150bn by 2020). But I don’t see this as empty ‘tax-and-spend’ politics. The party has lots of sensible, but also innovative, rethinking of taxation to (probably in their perceived order of importance):

  • Shift the accumulated wealth of the richest to ensure a fairer, more productive society.
  • Incentivise environmental sustainability.
  • Close the deficit.
  • Enable more spending on socially desirable things.

I think a lot of the proposals are intelligently designed to produce sensible economic incentives: they’d reduce taxes on employing people (primarily employers’ National Insurance contributions) in favour of taxing wealth; they’d reduce VAT (which the poor pay proportionately more of than the rich) in favour of taxing environmentally damaging activities. They’d tax income a bit more, but mostly for really high earners; they’d focus on taxing wealth instead, discouraging people from resting on unearned laurels and encouraging them to work in the real economy.

The traditional Tory response to higher taxes on anyone but the poor is to say ‘arrrgh, but then all the rich people will run away and we’ll have no-one to run our companies, and no rich people to tax!’ But the people who say that are also the people who say that giving the rich more money benefits us all, and we have thirty years of evidence against this. There was no exodus of the wealthy in the 1950s—and even if there was now, a society which invests more evenly in its people enjoys stronger human capital overall than a society that focuses its investment on a small elite, as the Scandinavian countries keep showing.

I won’t go through the Greens’ taxation policies here (this blogpost glosses them a bit). But here’s one example of a policy which I think is interesting and worthwhile. You don’t have to know that it’s right for Britain to want to see it discussed at a higher political level than this blog!

UK council tax is a farce: even in the early ’90s, when it was introduced, it was a desperate patch after the collapse of Thatcher’s Poll Tax idea, and it’s based on property values from 25 years ago. I, for example, pay way less council tax than my property ought to, just because I live in an area that was very cheap in 1991. So the Green Party would switch council tax to a land-value tax, set by local councils. Even in our digital-age economy, most wealth ultimately rests on ownership of land: without land, you can’t have factories or docks or theatres or internet servers. Making money renting out or speculating on land isn’t an inherently productive activity: it just piggy-backs on other people’s productive activities. So taxing land discourages people from just sitting on property portfolios and being rentiers and encourages them to do something useful instead: it targets wealth rather than work, and discourages property speculation. Meanwhile, you can’t hide land in a tax-haven.

Property wealth in the UK: net positive equity by wealth percentile (from Danny Dorling, Inequality and the 1% (Verso 2014)

Property wealth in the UK: net positive equity by wealth percentile (from Danny Dorling, Inequality and the 1% (Verso 2014), p. 95.

Just another example of a policy worth hearing more about: putting the money supply under democratic control

So this is just another example of worthwhile, innovative thinking which the Green Party can help put on the agenda. This is quite spacy and I’ve spent a while trying to learn about it (but might be wrong on some of the below). Of all the FAQs here, this is the most mind-bending so you might especially want to skip it!

Money is a commodity: people want it as a useful medium of exchange. When it is scarce, its value rises (deflation); when it is abundant, its value falls (inflation). But unlike mutton or cars, money is entirely a social creation: it has no inherent value, and the only point of society believing that a ten-pound note is worth a joint of mutton or a few litres of petrol is that this fiction benefits society. But as with a lot of social goods, the production of money can be captured by a limited section of society, which then uses it for its own benefit at the expense of others’.

The government has made itself the only body allowed to issue cash. Since a pound coin costs a lot less than a pound to make, the exchequer gains almost a pound for every pound coin it issues: the monopoly on creating cash is a useful revenue stream for government. Private banks are not allowed to create cash, but they are allowed to create electronic money—basically, as much as they want, as long as they can stay solvent (or rely on the government to bail them out). Banks also make a profit on creating money. Let’s say I get a £100,000 mortgage from a bank. The bank creates £100,000 of electronic money out of thin air (I swear! I read up on this! and this is legal and normal!) and give it to the house-seller, who suddenly has £100,000 in her current account that she can spend on real goods and services. Meanwhile, the bank declares that I owe them £100,000 plus interest—perhaps another £50,000 by the time I pay off the mortgage. A handsome profit! Moreover, the bank considers my debt to them an asset, which they can borrow against (seriously). 97% of money in the UK is created by banks in this way. Banks like profits, so they create as much money as they can get away with, which again tends to encourage bubbles (property bubbles again), and leaves the government/Bank of England with little control over how the economy grows. Meanwhile, the government doesn’t make a profit on this electronic money (at least not directly), but someone, somewhere, is paying interest on 97% of the UK’s money, which goes into bankers’ (shareholders’) pockets.

If the government made itself the only creator of electronic money as well as cash, it could regulate growth better, and benefit from a lot more income. Basically, just as they presently have to get cash from the Bank of England before they can put it in a cash machine, banks would have to get electronic money from the Bank of England before they could lend it to you to buy a house.

A real-life example of how this kind of rethinking could have worked in the last five years is ‘quantitative easing’. This is the weird name for a process whereby the government tried to spend its way out of the 2008 financial crisis. Over three years, the Labour and then the Condem governments basically created £375bn of electronic money (bing! Just like that!). But just sitting on a pile of electronic money doesn’t get you out of a recession: you have to put the money into the economy somehow. So they used it to buy (to cut a longer story short) intangible assets like shares. The act of buying these assets amounted an increase in the demand for these kinds of assets, so by buying them the Bank raised the value of all assets: share prices rose by 20%, so anyone who owned shares was now wealthier. Obviously the people and institutions that own shares are pretty wealthy to start with, and the richer they are the more they own, so this directly benefited the rich. The idea was that they would then spend this money in the real economy, lending it to small businesses or paying the local builder to make extra duck-houses on their estates. But they didn’t. They hoarded and speculated (partly on property: the property bubble again…).

There’s no reason why the government couldn’t have decided to put this £375bn into the economy by spending it in ways that benefited ordinary people: for example, by paying small businesses to install insulation in more of the UK’s housing stock. (I know because Caroline Lucas checked with Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England.) Suddenly builders would have more money in their pockets, some of which would return to the exchequer as income tax; they would spend the rest on real things, like a new bike for the kids—which would put VAT into the economy. Meanwhile, the guy in the bike shop would also now be paying more income tax, and spending more money on, say, going to the cinema (more VAT), etc. And the government would have more money to spend on nurses or teachers or diplomats, and the people in the insulated houses would give less money to big energy companies funelling their profits to shareholders and would again spend their saved money in the real economy (new bikes for the kids again). People who know more about this than me (but who no doubt some other people disagree with) reckon that for every £1 created by the government, you’d get more than £2 of GDP growth.

I’m not qualified to say whether this is right. If it all sounds too freaky to you, maybe just go and vote for one of the Big Three. But to me it sounds a lot better than lining the pockets of the rich to little public benefit. Either way, would I have liked to have more voices in Parliament demanding that our representatives debate the merits of this alternative approach? You bet.

The other Green policy I think is really important: constitutional reform

The Green Party would institute a democratic constitutional convention to rethink how Britain’s governed. Fiddling around with constitutions can sound like an abstruse endeavour when people can’t afford homes, national debt is rising daily, and there’s civil war in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. But there’s a good argument that Parliament won’t become responsive to its voters’ desires and needs without change.

If you were planning how to run a country, would it look anything like this?

  • The number of a party’s MPs is only tangentially related to the number of votes cast for that party; it is possible for one party to get more votes than another but to get fewer seats in Parliament.
  • Before laws are passed, they are vetted by (a) the Church of England’s bishops (who until last year were all men); (b) some random aristocrats; (c) and a bunch of other people chosen by an obscure process of horse-trading by MPs, partly on the basis of who has given them the most money.
  • MPs (about 650 of them) vote by physically walking through a door. This takes at least fifteen minutes per vote (plus time spent getting from elsewhere in the large, crumbling building to the relevant door; anyone want to do a back-of-envelope guess of how much that costs the taxpayer?).
  • Economically, the most important borough in the country is the City of London, whose democratic representatives are chosen by the CEOs of companies with offices in the borough. Unlike anyone else, the City has a constitutionally appointed, permanent lobbyist in the Houses of Parliament (called the Remembrancer), whose constitutional role is to promote the City’s (CEOs’) interests.
  • If you’re from almost any ex-British colony and live in Britain, you can vote in the General Election. But not if you’re from anywhere else.
  • The constitution is a patchwork of common law dating back at least a thousand years; no-one has ever bothered to write up a single document that ordinary citizens can read explaining what their rights are.
  • And let’s not start on the relationship with the devolved national parliaments!

You might think that one or two of these are actually good ideas, or at worst lovable quirks. But all of them?! These systems make the workings of government obscure to voters, and insulate government from the real experiences and needs of citizens.

Caroline Lucas’s recent book Honourable Friends? has a vivid sketch of Westminster by someone who’d had a career outside politics, and then worked in the EU parliament, before entering Westminster: she’s polite, restrained, but scathing about the ‘Westminster bubble’. I’ve never had anything to do with Westminster directly, but Lucas’s sketch rings true because it sounds so much like my old college at Cambridge (no surprise, given that a quarter of MPs studied at Oxbridge). Magdalene was basically run by old men who thought it was a boarding school; they couldn’t see where charming traditionality ended and damaging inefficiency and archaism began; and they thought that taxpayers should fund their exceptionally inefficient practices Because They Always Had (or at least since the taxpayer started paying for higher education, in the 1920s). Likewise, by Lucas’s account, and whatever their best intentions, MPs are muffled in a bubble of privilege and tradition that tends to go to people’s heads.

The Tories will do as little rethinking as they can get away with; Labour only marginally more; the Libdems more again; but the Green Party are really serious about a comprehensive, democratic process of constitutional reform.

Who’s this Ed Carlisle guy you’re always going on about?

This one is really just in case anyone from Leeds reads this blog, as it’s not really about Westminster politics at all (and since the UK has the most power-hungry central government in Europe, local councils have hardly any real power, so there’s little point choosing council candidates on the basis of parties’ Westminster policies). In fact, although my friend Ed Carlisle is standing for the Green Party, he’d have stood as an independent if it weren’t even harder to get elected as an independent than as a Green—or if he wasn’t convinced by the party’s policies.

Still, Ed’s part of my Green Party story, because I’m helping him with his campaign and because I think he says something about what the party’s candidates are like, so he belongs in this blogpost. Here in my South Leeds ward, all our councillors are Labour, and it’s been a safe ward for them for time immemorial: our councillors are effectively chosen by the local party committee, not by the voters. None of the councillors live in the ward, preferring leafy North Leeds, and they basically just turn up for statutory meetings with the few people who know about these things—and at election time. You couldn’t say they’ve been proactive for us; indeed, on the few issues regarding my street where I’ve seen the Council in action, they’ve been pretty half-baked.

But now I have a convincing alternative. I met this guy Ed a couple of years ago, before he was planning to stand, just because he heard that people in my building were planting stuff to improve the look of the street and he chose to walk down and help us out. Then he got me involved in governing his local primary school, where he heads up the board of governors. He lives in the ward in a back-to-back; so he knows where the potholes are, whether the bins get collected, what a heating bill here looks like, and where you might want traffic-calming measures. Moreover, he’s always busy helping out with/running this or that community event: the sort of councillor you’d meet and air your views with just because you turned up to the local school fete, not because you’d (a) found out about and (b) found time to go to a residents’ meeting or clinic.

And more inspiringly, he has cool ideas, achievable even by the kind of emasculated body that a UK council is, and the like of which I’ve never seen from my incumbent councillors. Although a glance at his manifesto will be too local to be of much interest to may readers, it shows the to-do list you can develop when someone really knows their area, and makes a proper effort to ask around about what’s bothering people. But it also includes cool ideas of more general interest, like establishing coalitions of residents for collective bargaining for cheaper energy and telecoms bills; a not-for-profit scheme to employ and train people to install insulation in our awful housing stock; promoting public art (every damn city I go to seems to have more and better murals than Leeds); an annual ‘meet your neighbour’ day. A lot of this has just been about knowing/finding out all the really interesting grassroots ideas for improving the area and proactively getting the Council to support them, rather than holding them back.

As I say, few readers of this post will have a chance to vote for Ed, and a lot of Green candidates, for local and Westminster government, are ‘paper candidates’—people who can’t campaign actively but have stepped forward to give you a chance to express your preference for the Green Party anyway. But people like Ed give us a sense, I think, of what a Greener politics might look like.

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Úr Hálendinu eftir Steinar Braga | From Steinar Bragi’s Highlands

Af hverju er þetta blogg svo illa skrifað?
Af því að ég er að læra íslensku. Enda ég veit að opinber vansæmd er, því miður, beinasta leið til fullkomnunar. Ef það verður of leiðinlegt að lesa bloggfærslur á illa skrifaðri íslensku þá er það alltaf hægt að lesa bloggið á ensku neðri! Og leiðréttingar eru alltaf velkomnir: bara skrifaðu neðri.
Scroll down for English text

Dagur 165 | Day 165

Hér stendur þáttur úr nýlegustu skáldsögu eftir Steinar Braga, Hálendinu, sem er orðin ein af mínum uppáhaldskreppubókum hingað til. Þátturinn birtist í sögunni þar sem einhver persóna flettir nokkru þjóðsagnasafni (bls. 198–200). Ég hef ekki svo mikið að segja um þáttinn (en ég skrifa dálítið um hann neðri), heldur fannst hann mér klár og svo vildi ég einfaldlega þýða hann á ensku og deila hann.

Here’s a tale-within-a-tale from Steinar Bragi‘s most recent novel, The Highlands (referring to the volcanic wastes in the interior of Iceland), one of my favourite Icelandic financial crisis books so far. The story appears when one of the characters finds herself leafing through a book of folktales (pp. 198–200). I don’t have much to say about it here (though I do say a bit below anyway!): it just caught my eye and I mostly just wanted to translate it into English and share it.

Í sögnunni sagði frá manni sem villtist í hríð uppi á Hofsjökli og varð viðskila við ferðafélaga sína, meðlimi gönguhóps úr bænum. Eftir að stytti upp gekk maðurinn niður af jöklinum og óttaðist ekkert þar sem hann var ágætlega búin. Brátt kom hann að djúpum, grösugum dal á jaðri jökulsins, sem maðurinn mundi ekki eftir að hafa heyrt um áður. Dalurinn var gróðursæll og á rann eftir honum miðjum. The story was about a man who got lost for a while up on Hofsjökull and became separated from his companions, who were members of a hiking group from town. After the weather cleared the man walked down off the glacier and, being well equipped, he wasn’t too worried. Soon he came to a deep, grassy valley at the edge of the glacier, which he didn’t remember ever hearing about before. The valley was verdant, with a river running down the middle.
Maðurinn gekk niður í dalinn og fylgdi ánni þar til hann kom að bæ þar sem hann knúði dyra. Tvö horuð börn opnuðu fyrir honum og leiddu inn í stofu þar sem sátu enn horaðri hjón ásamt með litlu kvikindi sem var í óðaönn að éta sig ofan í mikla kjöthrúgu á diski. Hjónin buðu manninn velkominn, settu fyrir hann disk og skömmtuðu glærri súpu, eins og þeirri sem þau átu sjálf með börnum sínum en sem var mjög frábrugðin þeim gerningi sem kvikindið hafði. The man walked down into the valley and followed the river until he came to a farm, where he knocked at the door. Two thin children opened it and led him into the main room, where an even thinner couple were seated, along with a little creature which was intent on eating through a huge plateful of meat. The couple welcomed the man and laid him a place, and then served him some thin soup like they and their children were eating, and which was far short of the deal the creature had got.
Kvikindið var undarlegt bæði í útliti og háttum, hæð þess var litlu meiri en barnanna en bakið bogið og andlitið eins og á gamlinga. Það leit aldrei upp frá diskinum en þó var eins og það sæi allt í kringum sig þar sem augun tróndu óvenju hátt á enninu. Það klæddist litríkum fötum, rauðum, gulum og bláum, svo björtum að óþægilegt var að horfa á þau. Þegar grannt var skoðað sást að húðin hékk skökk utan á kvikindinu, næstum eins og henni hefði verið fleygt yfir það í skyndingu, og hér og þar glitti í rjött, gljáandi kjöt, sem rifnaði og lak út á húðina ef kvikindið hreyfði sig. Lyktin af því var römm, líktist blöndu af saur og úldnum fiski sem lagði um allt húsið. The creature looked strange and behaved as strangely: it was hardly taller than the children, its back bent, and its face like an old person’s. It never looked up from the plate, and yet it was as though it could see all around it because its eyes were perched so high up in its forehead. It was dressed in colourful clothes—red, yellow, and blue, so bright that it was hard to look at them. If you looked closely, you could see that the creature’s skin hung loosely on it, almost as if it had been thrown on in a hurry, and here and there glimmered red, shining flesh, which burst and slid through the skin if the creature moved. It had a pungent smell, like a mix of excrement and rotten fish, which hung over the whole house.
Maðurinn tók til súpu sinnar og reyndi að komast að því hvar hann væri staddur, en augun drögust alltaf aftur að þessu litla, viðurstyggilega kvikindi við borðsendann, einsog dáleidd. Eftir að hafa hreinsað af diskinum hvarf það út og maðurinn spurði hver þetta væri. Hjönin sögðu „litla manninn“, eins og þau kölluðu hann, hafa komið til þeirra nokkrum vikum áður, hann væri þeim mikill aufúsugestur og þau vildu allt fyrir hann gera. Manninum blöskraði þetta og þreif til sín annað af börnunum, kleip um handlegg þess sem var ekki nema bein og spurði hvort þau sæju ekki að börnin þeirr[a] syltu, rétt eins og þau sjálf, og hvers vegna þau létu kvikindið ganga fyrir. Þá svöruðu þau einum rómi: Það hefur svo fögur klæði. The man started on his soup and tried to work out whereabouts he was, but his eyes kept being drawn back to this small, vile creature at the end of the table, just as if he was hypnotised. After clearing his plate, the man asked who this was. The couple said that the ‘little man’, as they called him, had come to them a few weeks before and that he was very welcome guest, and that they wanted to do everything they could for him. The man was horrified and pulled over one of the children, pinched at its arm, which was just skin and bone, and asked if they couldn’t see that their children were starving, as indeed there were themselves, and why they let the creature take priority. Then they all answered together: it has such beautiful clothes.
Daginn eftir um kvöldverðartíma endurtók sami leikurinn sig; kvikindið birtist við bæinn, settist í stofuna og heimtaði sitt, án þess þó að nokkuð væri sagt. Kúffullur diskur af feitu kjöti var lagður fyrir það, meðan fjölskyldan og maðurinn átu súpu. Nú gat maðurinn ekki lengur orða bundist og skammaði kvikindið en það svaraði engu, og eftir að það kláraði af diskinum hvarf það á brott. At dinnertime the next day the same performance played out: the creature appeared at the farm, sat down in the main room, and demanded dinner, without anyone speaking up. A plate heaped with fatty meat was put before it, while the family and the man ate soup. Now the man couldn’t restrain himself any longer and scolded the creature, but it didn’t reply, and after it had emptied the plate it went away.
Manninn tók að gruna ýmislegt um ástand mála og hét því að fara hvergi fyrr en fjölskyldan væri leyst úr vanda sínum. Nokkrum dögum síðar gerðist það svo að kjötið í dalnum var uppurið, enda hafði það allt verið étið af kvikindinu. Um kvöldið þegar ekkert kjöt kom á disk þess—við mikla örvæntingu fjölskyldunnar—byrjaði kvikindið að baula hátt þannig að lömun sló á viðstadda. Fyrr en varði hafði það þrifið til sín börnin tvö, fyrst drenginn, svo stúlkuna, og étið sig inn í kvið þeirra, upp í gegnum lungun og hjartað og smurði blóðinu yfir föt sín svo að þau virtist skína sem aldrei fyrr. Að þessu loknu hvarf það út um dyrnar. The man had begin to get a bit suspicious about this situation and vowed that he wouldn’t leave until the family had been freed from this misery. A few days later, it happened that all the meat in the valley was gone—it had all been eaten by the creature. That evening, when, to the utter despair of the family, no meat appeared on its plate, the creature began to roar so loudly so that everyone who heard it was paralysed. Before they knew it, it had grabbed the two children, first the boy and then the girl, and eaten its way into their bellies and up through the lungs and heart, and smeared the blood over its clothes so that they seemed to shine like never before. And after that it disappeared out through the doors.
Þegar maðurinn fékk aftur mátt til að tala krafðist hann þess að húsbóndinn vopnaðist og þeir færu saman og eltu uppi kvikindið, en húsbóndinn og húsfreyjan sögðu: Það hefur svo fögur klæði, og neituðu aðhafast nokkuð fleira. When the man regained his power of speech, he told the husband to arm himself so that they could go together and hunt the creature down. But the husband and the wife both said: it has such beautiful clothes, and refused to do anything more.
Kvöldið eftir birtist kvikindið á ný, settist við borðið og enn heimtaði það sitt. Þegar ekkert kjöt kom á diskinn byrjaði það aftur að baula, klifraði svo upp á borðið og gekk rakleitt að húsfreyjunni, lagði munninn þétt á augum hennar og saug þar til heyrðist smellur þegar augun hlupu úr tóttunum, fyrst öðrum megin og svo hinum megin. Því næst fletti það frá brjóstum húsfreyju og át þar til ekkert var eftir af þeim, og smurði blóðinu yfir klæði sín þar til þau ljómuðu skært. Að þessu loknu hvarf það á brott. Þegar maðurinn spratt á fætur og heimtaði að þeir fyndu kvikindið og dræpu sagði húsbóndinn sem fyrr: Það hefur svo fögur klæði. The next evening, the creature appeared again, sat down at the table and once more demanded dinner. When no meat appeared on the plate, it began to roar once more, climbed up on the table, and went straight for the woman, set its mouth tightly over her eyes and sucked until there was a pop, and the eyes came out of their sockets, first on one side and then on the other. Next it carved off the woman’s breasts and ate them up leaving nothing, and smeared the blood over its clothes until they shone brightly. And after that it went away. When the man jumped up and demanded that they find the creature and kill it, the husband said, as he had before: it has such beautiful clothes.
Maðurinn sá að við þetta mætti ekki una. Fyrir kvöldverð daginn eftir dreypti hann vaxi í eyru sér og lét storkna, svo töfrarnir verkuðu ekki lengur á hann. Þegar kvikindið settist og upphóf baul sitt spratt maðurinn á fætur og lagði til þess með hníf, en þá bar svo við að kvikindið hvarf. Við nánari aðgæslu sá hann að það hafði breytt sér í litla svarta flugu sem maðurinn elti marga hringi í kringum húsið og aftur inn, þar sem hann datt örmagna í gólfið. Þá hnitaði flugan hringi yfir borðinu, þar sem húsbóndinn sat og át nær gagnsæja súpuna, lenti á súpuskeiðinni og hvarf með henni upp í munn hans, þar sem kvikindið tók aftur á sig sína fyrri stærð. Við þetta sprakk höfuð bóndans og kvikindið birtist aftur, sat klofvega yfir herðum hans og laugaðist heitu blóði, klæði þess svo skínandi björt að maðurinn var nauðbeygður að líta undan. The man could see that this wouldn’t do. Before dinner the next day he dripped wax into his ears and let it solidify, so that the magic wouldn’t work on him any more. When the creature sat down and began roaring, the man jumped to his feet and attacked it with a knife, but at that moment the creature disappeared. On closer inspection, he saw that it had turned itself into a little black fly, which he chased out and around the house, over and over, and back in again, whereupon he fell down exhausted on the floor. Then the fly circled the table where the husband was sitting, still eating the almost transparent soup, landed on his soup-spoon, and disppeared with it into his mouth, whereupon the creature resumed its previous size. The husband’s head burst apart and the creature appeared again, sat on the husband’s shoulders, and bathed itself in his hot blood, its clothing so glaringly bright that the man was forced to look away.
Eftir þetta fór maðurinn burt, enda var nú enginn eftir á lífi í dalnum. Hann fylgdi ánni og gekk lengi niður í móti þar til hann kom til byggða, þar sem hann sagði söguna af púkanum sem kastaði yfir sér mannshúð og sveipaðist litum sem voru bjartari en nokkuð af þessum heimi. After this, the man went away, leaving no-one behind him alive in the valley. He followed the river and walked down a long way until he came to a settlement, where he told the story of the demon that put on human skin and covered itelf in colours brighter than anything in this world.

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Þess þarf ekki hér að umræða svona vel orta sögu, en hún fannst mér sérstaklega merkileg af því að fáar af kreppubækunum sem ég er búinn að lesa skrifa svo kröftugt um hegemóníu (eða forræði): aðgerðirnar þar sem einvalalið sannfæra annað fólk að stígveldið er rétt og náttúrulegt.

Mér finnst líka áhugavert að frekar margir íslenskir höfundar nota þjóðsögur (eða réttara sagt í þessu falli yrkja „þjóðsögur“) í skáldsögunum þeirra um kreppuna—til dæmis Árni Þórarinsson í Morgunengli eða Kári Tulinius í Píslarvottum án hæfileika. Ég veit að ég hef verið að uppfæra bloggið alltof sjaldan, en kannski get ég skrifað um þetta nokkurn tíma snemma…

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There’s no need for me to talk at length about this neat little tale here: I just hope you enjoyed it! But I found it especially interesting because so few of the financial crisis novels I’ve been reading write so incisively about hegemony: the business whereby elites convince the people they oppress that the oppression is actually right and proper—the natural order of things.

I’m also interested in that fact that quite a lot of these Icelandic crisis-novels I’ve been reading include (pseudo-)folktales—for example Árni Þorarinsson’s Morgunengill and Kári Tulinius’s Píslarvottar án hæfileika. I know I’ve been updating this blog all to seldom, but perhaps I’ll manage to get something written about that soon…

In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed this bit of Hálendið. If you read French or Swedish, it’s also available in translation: see the English Wikipedia entry for details (but don’t read the synopsis!).

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Why aren’t there any elves in Hellisgerði any more? Elves and the 2008 Icelandic Financial Crisis

Af hverju er þetta blogg svo illa skrifað?
Af því að ég er að læra íslensku. Enda ég veit að opinber vansæmd er, því miður, beinasta leið til fullkomnunar. Ef það verður of leiðinlegt að lesa bloggfærslur á illa skrifaðri íslensku þá er það alltaf hægt að lesa bloggið á ensku neðri! Og leiðréttingar eru alltaf velkomnir: bara skrifaðu neðri.
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Dagur 117

link to article about elvesLoksins er ég búinn að klára drög yfir grein um kreppubækur!

Því miður er hún grein um álfa. >:-|

Egill Helgason sagði nýlega að

Ég verð að segja eins og er að ég hef aldrei hitt Íslending sem trúir á tilveru álfa eða huldufólks – eða hefur nokkurn áhuga á slíkum verum.

En ég er kannski ekki í réttu kreðsunum.

Kannski er huldufólk gott fyrir ferðamannaiðnaðinn – það er eiginlega búið að þröngva upp á okkur þeirri ímynd að við séum þjóð sem er í nánu sambandi við alls kyns dulmögn.

Og ég vildi aldrei verða útlendingurinn sem skrifar að allir Íslendingarnir trúa á álfana… Ég ætlaði ekki að skrifa meira um álfa eftir 2007, og alls ekki um álfa í nýíslenskri menningu. Kannski er það álög, eins og Kári Tulinius segir: „Anybody who writes about Iceland in English has to write about elves.“ Mér finnst eins og Örvar-Oddi þegar hann sagði spákonu „Spá þú allra kerlinga örmust um mitt ráð“. Eða kannski er það mitt sak af því að ég var að skrifa greinina á ensku, heldur en á íslensku. Ég lofa að skrifa næsta grein ekki um álfa, heldur um hryðjuverkamenn eða bankalán eða svona alvörugefið efni!

En… Það er samt satt að ég er búinn að lesa frekar margar kreppuskaldsögur og aðra texta sem tengd eru við hrunið og maður hittir álfana ekki eins sjaldan og ætli. Gæska eftir Eirík Örn Norðdahl (uppáhalds kreppubókin mín hingað til) getur álfanna ekki minna en fjórum sinnum. Bíomyndin Sumarlandið er um álfatrú og hún sýnist mér líka augljóst tengd við kreppuna; skáldsagan Tofrahöllin eftir Böðvar Guðmundsson vitnir í Kvæði af Ólafi liljurós og meira að segja held ég að Böðvar var líka að draga innblástur frá ljóðinu Der Erlkönig eftir Goethe, sem sjálft dró innblástur frá dönskum sagnadans sem svipaður er og Ólafur liljurós. Álfanna er getið í Draumalandinu, og jafnvel krimminn Samhengi hlutanna eftir Sigrún Davíðsdóttur notar ímynd af álfkonu einu sinni. Brynja Björg Halldórsdóttir vitnaði í Völuvísu eftir Guðmund Böðvarsson þegar hún sagði sig úr forystusveit vinstri-grænna, og Davíð Oddson hélt að Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir „lítur út eins og álfur“. Fólk þetta var ekki að tala eða skrifa fyrir ferðamenn, og ég efast að allir textarnir fengu álfímyndirnar þeirra frá ferðamannaiðnaðinum.

Sjálfsagt meinar þetta alls ekki að Íslendingar trúa á álfa. Heldur held ég að fræðimenn og blaðamenn, hérlendis og erlendis, sem hafa verið að spyrja um álfatrú eru kannski ekki að spyrja gagnlegustu spurninguna. Greinardrög mín rökræðir að það sé betra að pæli í orðræðu (discourse) um álfa í íslensku eða á Íslandi heldur en álfatrú. Eins og Stuart Clark sagði um illa anda í brennuöld, hér á landinu virðast álfar „good to think with“.

Hugmyndin fyrir greinina kom reyndar frá skrítlu sem ég heyrði þegar ég bjó hér í 2010. Ég heyrði hana á íslensku en mundi henni bara á ensku; ef ég þýði hana aftur á Illa Skrifaða Íslensku™ væri hún svona:

Af hverju eru það ekki álfar í Hellisgerði lengur?

Þeir eru búnir að flytja til Kópavogs til að lifa í friði.

Jæja. Kannski hafi hún verið fyndnari ef þú sagðir hana? Því miður man ég ekki frá hverjum ég heyrði skrítluna og enginn sem ég hef spurt síðan hefur heyrt hana. (En ef þú HEFUR einhvern tíma heyrt nokkra skrítlu um álfa, mig langar að vita og hafðu samband!) En samt þykir mér skrítlan áhugaverð: hún talar um sjálfvitund í Hafnarfirðinganna, pirrandi ferðamenn, og kannski jafnvel tómar blokkir í Kópavogi, og svipað efni finnst líka í skáldsögunum sem ég hef verið að lesa.

Ég hef aldrei skrifað grein um nýíslenska menningu áður og kannski er hún bara röng eða hef ég yfirsést einhverjar mikilvægar heimildar eða misskilið texta, en samt vildi ég deila drögin ef einhver út í netlandi vildi kíkja í þau. Þótt sem drögin séu frekar löng og á ensku…

Greinin ræðir líka meira eða minna um Atómstöðina eftir Halldór Laxness, Mávahlátur eftir Kristín Mörju Baldursdóttur, Starálf eftir Sigur Rós, Ríólítregluna eftir Kristín Helgu Gunnarsdóttur, Bankster eftir Guðmund Óskarsson, Konur eftir Steinar Braga, og Bókasafn ömmu Huldar eftir Þórarinn Leifsson. (Þótt sem ekki öll geta álfa.) Greinin bendir til þess að, eins og Valdimar Hafstein hefur sagt, fólk talar oft um álfa til að tala um áhyggjur um breytingar í samfélagi og menningu (eins og fólk hefur gert á landinu síðan kristni kom). En stundum notar fólk álfa, meira að segja, til að láta eins og nokkur ný hugmynd er reyndar hefðbundin, eins og þjóðernishyggja í 19. öld eða kvenfrelsisstefna í 20. öld í Mávahlátri.

Umræðurnar mínar benda líka til þess að stærsta áhyggju eftir hrunið hér á landinu sé kynferði. Það var ekki nóg pláss að skrifa mikið um það efni en ég vona að halda áfram að pæla í því í framtíð. Mér finnst áhugavert af því að ég hef tekið eftir að við höfum ekki talað mikið um kynferði í kjölfar kreppunnar í Bretlandi. Og það er líklegt ekki af því að allt er í lagi með kynferði hjá okkur heima í Bretlandi en allt farið á hausin á Íslandi! Kannski höfum við í Bretlandi bara ekki byrjað að hugsa eins mikið og við ættum um samhengið kynferðis og hrunsins okkar.

Maður getur þýtt „credit crunch“ á íslensku með orðinu lánsfjárkreppu, en líka, samkvæmt translate.google.com, trúnaðarmarri. Kannski er þessi ekki svo slæm þýðing. Álfarnir virðast hafa lifað af trúnaðarmarri þeirra ansi vel.

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Day 117

link to article about elvesAt last, I have finished a working paper about these financial crisis novels I’ve been reading! Woo!

Unfortunately, it’s another bloody article on elves. Sorry world! Egill Helgason, a prominent cultral commentator here in Iceland, was recently complaining that despite the fact that the international media are always going on about Icelanders believing in elves, he himself has never met any Icelander who believes in or cares about believing in elves, and he suggested that Icelanders have worked so hard to try and sell themselves as elf-believers to tourists that they’re starting to believe their own hype.

Certainly I never wanted to become one of those foreigners who turn up here and write about how everyone believes in elves. I thought I was done with elves back in 2007—and certainly never planned to have any truck with the modern Icelandic ones. Maybe it’s a curse, like Kári Tulinius says: ‘anybody who writes about Iceland in English has to write about elves’. Reading Kári’s words, I’m reminded of Örvar-Oddur’s response to a visiting prophetess in Örvar-Odds saga: ‘of all the old bags out there, you’ve prophesied the most miserably about my career’. But then perhaps it’s my fault for writing about elves in English rather than Icelandic… I promise that my next working paper will be on some weighty matter like terrorism, bad loans, or some like topic.

But. I’ve been reading all these Icelandic financial-crisis novels and you do bump into elves more often than you’d think. Gæska, by Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl (my favourite crisis-book so far), mentions elves no fewer than four times. The film Sumarlandið is about people believing in elves and also seems pretty straightforwardly crisis-related; and the novel Tofrahöllin by Böðvar Guðmundsson alludes to one of Iceland’s most famous and most elftastic ballads, Ólafur liljurós, and moreover seems also to have drawn inspiration from Goethe’s poem Der Erlkönig, which was itself inspired by a Danish relative of the Icelandic ballad. Elves find mention in the cracking documentary Draumalandið. Even the crime thriller Samhengi hlutanna by Sigrún Davíðsdóttir at one point wheels out the image of an elf-woman. When Brynja Björg Halldórsdóttir resigned from the Left-Green Party she alluded to this elftastic poem Völuvísa by Guðmundur Böðvarsson, while the disgraced former prime minister and central banker Davíð Oddson complained that Iceland’s post-Kitchenware Revolution PM Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir ‘looks like an elf’. These people weren’t writing for tourists and I don’t imagine, for the most part, that their elf-musings have been much influenced by the tourist industry.

Obviously this doesn’t mean that Icelanders actually believe in elves—far from it. My argument rather is that both scholars and journalists, in Iceland and abroad, have been unduly hung up on the belief question, and I argue in the working paper that rather than talking about ‘beliefs in’, we’re much better off thinking about ‘discourses of’ elves in Icelandic language and/or culture. Just as Stuart Clark said about demons in early modern Europe, people in Iceland presently find elves ‘good to think with’. And you don’t have to believe in elves to think with them.

This is my first ever article on modern Icelandic culture (or modern any culture for that matter), and it might turn out to be well off track and moreover I might have missed some dead important sources or tragically misunderstood some Icelandic or something. But I wanted to put it out there as a working paper because I’m sure it’ll be a while before I can give it a final polish and submit it, and in case anyone fancies looking at it in the meantime (even though it’s rather long…). Needless to say, any comments would be most welcome! To a greater or lesser extent, the article also takes in Atómstöðin by Halldór Laxness, Mávahlátur by Kristín Marja Baldursdóttir, Starálfur by Sigur Rós, Ríólítreglan by Kristín Helga Gunnarsdóttir, Bankster by Guðmundur Óskarsson, Konur by Steinar Bragi, and Bókasafn ömmu Huldar by Þórarinn Leifsson. (Though admittedly not all of these mention elves.) The article argues that, as Valdimar Hafstein has said, people in Iceland often use elves to express anxieties about cultural or technological change—much as they have in Iceland since Christianity first arrived and people were wringing their hands about that. Prominent issues which I see elves being associated with at the moment are nationalism, the post-crisis tourist boom, local identities in a country where more and more wealth and power is shifting to the capital, and gender. But people also sometimes try taking new ideas and wrapping them in an elven sugary coating to make it look like they’re actually traditional ideas and so worthy of support, a trick I argue was performed with nationalism in the nineteenth century and feminism in the later twentieth.

All these musings lead me to suggest (tentatively) that in the wake of the crash, gender has been a markedly bigger topic of discussion here in Iceland than back in Britain. Maybe people here in Iceland are just weirdly worked up about this, but I suspect that their anxieties about gender arise because Icelanders have realised to a degree that British people haven’t how much sorting out gender equality—including resolving the crisis of masculinity that growing gender equality has provoked here—might help society to deal with the crisis and avoid others. Though these are just early-days musings…

The credit crunch hit Iceland hard. But the elves seem to have weathered their own credit crunch pretty well.

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Are you an academic who vandalises Wikipedia? Then stop it!

Af hverju er þetta blogg EKKI á Íslensku?
Af því að það er langt og ég er of upptekinn í dag: afsakið! En ég hlakka til að uppfærsla aftur á íslensku snemma!

Day 80

How popular is Charlemagne?

How many visits, per day, do you reckon the English Wikipedia entry for Charlemagne gets? 150? 400? 2000? I’ve been asking lots of (medievalist) friends lately and these tend to be the sort of guesses they give. (Though they ranged from 5 to 3,000,000, so perhaps the main conclusion is that no-one really has a clue!) It’s actually 4,000: about 3 per minute; 130,000 visits per month. And no, it’s not because people are hoping Charlemagne will run for the EU parliament: Charlemagne has a steady track record (with a slight dip on weekends: even Holy Roman Emperors need time off!).

To me, 4,000 visits per day is quite a lot. Infamously, I once wrote a book about elves, which for an academic book has sold pretty well (even though you can download it for free here and here): about 900 copies over seven years. The English Wikipedia entry for elf, however, gets 950 visits per day—and unlike my book is also available in 48 other languages. Obviously an encyclopedia is a different sort of thing from an academic monograph, but as Dorothy Kim writes in her ad for the Medieval Feminist Wikipedia Write-In at Kalamazoo, Wikipedia has become the way to get feminist (or any other) scholarship into the mainstream.

Are you an academic who vandalises Wikipedia?

But you didn’t need me to tell you that Wikipedia has revolutionised access to information. If you’re reading this blog, there’s no question that you use the sixth most visited site in the world, that runs on a smaller income than the Faculty of Arts at the University of Leeds. And even if you somehow never read Wikipedia itself, you read journalism, information on Google Maps, books, or a heap of other things that are all better because of the information it provides.

If you’re an academic, you also won’t need me to tell you that it’s annoying when students lift chunks from Wikipedia instead of getting educated. Nor that despite their ostentatious Guardian-waving, academics are generally a conservative and occasionally reactionary bunch, and often take pride in dissing Wikipedia (while, of course, using it all the time). I don’t generally bother arguing with these people: while I would love it if they contributed to Wikipedia, it’s continually getting bigger and better without them. And while I also wish they would publish their research free-access, ultimately they are harming themselves by keeping it locked away.

Last week, though, I was checking Facebook and what should I see but a fellow scholar proudly posting a screencap showing how a colleague of theirs—a well established academic at an elite institution—had anonymously vandalised a Wikipedia entry with a puerile ‘Queen Eliabeth, also known as Lizzy’ type comment. The lecturer had made this edit in front of their students to demonstrate that any old idiot can edit Wikipedia. Six minutes (and perhaps twenty views by innocent encyclopedia-readers) later, of course, some upstanding member of society fixed the page (which to me is the real take-home point for this individual’s students). But what the Facebook post and my subsequent conversations (online and real-life) revealed was that several other academics at this elite institution and others like it have also vandalised Wikipedia to demonstrate to their students that any idiot can write crap on it.

I’m used to Wikipedia being vandalised by, for example, mischievous schoolkids, bigots, or agencies trying to hide the bad press deservedly accruing to certain rich people and companies. These are all serious problems, but no cause for surprise. Moreover, on the whole, Wikipedia proves better equipped to resist capture by propagandising oligarchs than large-scale print media. But I was shocked to find academics—people whose job is supposed to be the promotion of knowledge—messing it up. This is not big and it’s not clever.

Some of the people I’ve talked to suggest that it’s okay to vandalise Wikipedia to make a pedagogical point: that the ends justify the means. Implicitly the inconvenience to a few (or, as the case may be, more than just a few) readers and editors is legitimate collatoral damage in the pursuit of the lofty goal of undergraduate education. I have a few objections to this, but my main one is the selfish solipsism this view implies—one which I see around me, in different forms, every day in UK universities. When it comes to accessing scientific knowledge, being a native-speaker of English with internet access already puts you in a pretty privileged position, but being at a UK or US university with a decent library (in hard copy and subscriptions to online resources) means you have better access to knowledge than almost anyone else on the whole planet. How is it ethical to degrade a source of knowledge for everyone in order to benefit these few? Moreover, of course, vandalising Wikipedia in front of students encourages not a sense of critical engagement, but a sense of disrespect for the efforts of millions of hard-working, mostly anonymous editors (4,000 in Charlemagne’s case); people like the late, fantastic feminist editor Adrianne Wadewitz.

So stop it.

Wikipedia as part of the research-writing process

I could go on about the discussions I’ve had about academics vandalising Wikipedia (further arguments for this practice have included ‘it’s okay to vandalise Wikipedia because Wikipedia makes it possible for me to’ and ‘seeing obvious mistakes reminds people that there may be hidden lies’), but I hope I’ve made my point.

I would, however, also like to talk about how integral Wikipedia-editing has become to my research.

I made my first Wikipedia edits in 2005, just after I put my PhD thesis online, before I even had an account, on a few small points where I was confident I had finally become a world expert. One of the first entries I created, ‘History of mentalities’, has since been edited by 26 people, and gets 25 hits per day—perhaps 20,000 over the life of the article. It’s no Charlemagne biography, just a little explanation of what the term means, but I hope it does a reasonable job.

Once I’d learned how to do it, of course, my compulsion to correct every bit of bad punctuation I ever see was gloriously fulfillable. (If only I could do it on the Guardian website…) Then, when there was a fact I was looking for but couldn’t find on Wikipedia, I’d add it once I found it: not much extra effort for me, but it saves people (usually including me) effort later. (Mostly this happens when I’m preparing teaching or doing research, but I’m perhaps most proud of adding the data on the greenhouse gas emissions of aircraft). As I started to learn about Wikipedia’s systemic biases—a lack of coverage of women, and the non-Western world, for example—I started making a habit of creating new entries for women if I found one missing (e.g. Mrs Brown of Falkland or Ida Gordon), and in the last year or so have developed a bit of a hobby of making biographies for Arabic-language women writers. I’ve even decided to teach about a few of the medieval ones next year (e.g. Ḥafṣa bint al-Ḥājj ar-Rakūniyya and Nazhun al-Garnatiya bint al-Qulai’iya). Haukur Þorgeirsson is now one of my research collaborators (and generally favourite people), but he is someone I first encountered via his online teaching resources—and he first got to know me via my Wikipedia edits.

My point here is to explain how, without me noticing it, editing Wikipedia became an integral part of my research-writing process. This was an accident, but it was a happy one, and I wouldn’t go back.

So here I am, working on the Icelandic financial crisis and trying to get my head around various issues, people, and texts: businessfolk like Björgólfur Guðmundsson and his son Björgólfur Thor Björgólfsson or Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson and his wife Ingibjörg Stefanía Pálmadóttir; historical figures like Thor Jensen and Tony Jonsson; authors like Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl and Bjarni Harðarson; phenomena like Islam in Iceland, Iceland–Palestine relations, and Icelandic constitutional reform, 2010–13; novels like Gæska; and lots of other things that I haven’t done entries for yet! I could just be storing notes on all these on my computer (or even on pieces of paper), and obviously I still have lots of notes that aren’t appropriate to Wikipedia entries (but don’t worry! I’ve been putting them online since about 2006). It certainly takes extra time to make notes in a presentable and balanced format as encyclopedia entries. But I find that I save time in the long run, because editing encyclopedia entries pushes me to organise my thoughts and references properly, and because they’re easy to find again later. And because on a good day my efforts attract the efforts of others, they’re even an investment.

Meanwhile, I know I’m helping other people; maybe not very many, but a lot more than none (and more than 900!). Very often I’m making information available that’s only accessible in subscription-only journals, or making available in English information that’s only accessible in Icelandic. One example is my entry for Iceland’s (probable) first person of colour, Hans Jonatan.

I’ve been making all my scholarly publications available free-access for years now (cf. blogpost), increasingly by publishing in dedicated free-access journals, and whatever I publish from my current research will be no exception. I haven’t quite worked out how I’m going to do it yet, but I’m planning to make the citation of (selected stable versions of) Wikipedia entries a pretty central part of the referencing in this work. Very often they are the best encyclopedia entries on these subjects in existence; they have also been central to my research. They deserve citing as much as any other work that I or others do. And who knows, maybe it will nudge a few people into paying a bit more respect to the efforts of all those people.

Hey, this sounds useful! Or at least worthwhile. Can I do it?

See a typo in an article? Just click ‘edit’ at the top and fix it! And little by little, you’ll get used to being a Wikipedian.

To make editing REALLY, even-your-granny-can-do-it easy there are a couple of simple steps to take first. These are available out of the box in some languages (like Swedish), but not presently in English.

1. Go to Wikipedia and click ‘create account’ top right.
2. Then, when you’ve created your account, either follow this link or click on ‘preferences’ top right and choose ‘Beta features’.
3. Tick the box on ‘VisualEditor’ to enable it.
4. Scroll to the bottom and click ‘save’!

This ‘Visual Editor’ option makes editing Wikipedia as easy as writing a Word document. Now when you want to edit a page, don’t click ‘edit source’ but click ‘Edit beta’ and, lo and behold, you can just click on the entry and fix those typos just like you’d fix a Word document you were writing.


Are you a white, western, male Anglophone techie who prevents people from working on Wikipedia? Then stop it.

If you’re wondering why this even-your-granny-can-do-it option isn’t available automatically in the English-language Wikipedia, it’s Wikipedia politics. The problem with running an encyclopedia democratically is that (a) most people don’t like change and (b) the people who in this case don’t like change are mostly white, western, male, anglophone techies, who’ve found a mode of knowledge dissemination that suits them and don’t want other people to start disrupting it. Sound familiar? Yeah, ironically they are in their way the same kinds of people as academics who smugly vandalise Wikipedia because they already have a mode of knowledge dissemination that suits them and don’t want other people to start disrupting it.

So if you’re one of those people, stop it!

And if you aren’t one of these people, start editing Wikipedia!

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Bananalýðveldið Íslands | The Banana Republic of Iceland

Af hverju er þetta blogg svo illa skrifað?
Af því að ég er að læra íslensku. Enda ég veit að opinber vansæmd er, því miður, beinasta leið til fullkomnunar. Ef það verður of leiðinlegt að lesa bloggfærslur á illa skrifaðri íslensku þá er það alltaf hægt að lesa bloggið á ensku neðri! Og leiðréttingar eru alltaf velkomnir: bara skrifaðu neðri.
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Dagur 51

Það kemur upp í hausinn minn að ég er nú búinn að vera á landinu næstum tvo mánuði og ég hef ekki skrifað neitt ennþá um rannsóknina um hrunbækur sem ég er kominn hingað til að gera. Ég verð að byrja að segja hvað ég er að pæla í! Og það væri mjög áhugavert mér að heyra ef niðurstöður mínar þykja líklegar…

Síðasta viku komu auga mín á grein í DV um viðtal Steinars Braga við sænska dagblaðið Dagens Nyheter. Viðtalið var um bók hans Hálendið (sem ég hef ekki lesið ennþá, en ég hlakka til þess). Títillinn greinarinnar er: ‘Ísland er „norrænt bananalýðveldi“ ’. Og þannig stendur í DN (21.3.2014, bls. 5):

När man läser Steinar Bragis böcker och talar med honom om hemlandet förefaller han vara den sämste isländske turistambassadören sedan Eyjafjallajökull.

(Augljóst hefur blaðamaðurinn ekki heyrt um Sigmund Davíð.)

Han får Island att framstå som en nordlig bananrepublik med en liten skräpvaluta som snarast borde kastas i havet och ersättas med euron.

Cover of GæskaLíklegt hefur Steinar Bragi rétt hjá sér, en það er orðatæki ‘nordlig bananrepublik’ sem finnst mér áhugavert. Í sömu viku byrjaði ég að lesa Gæsku eftir Eirík Örn Norðdahl, og á bls. 14 lesum við um Alþingismenn:

Þeir skakklöppuðust einhvern veginn áfram yfir að Alþingishúsinu, pípandi, æmtandi og skræmtandi, andsetnir á heljarþröm vanhelgra daga einsog smákrakkar í spreng eða apakettir að bítast um síðasta banana lýðveldisins.

Ég varð að viðurkenna að þótt bókin þykir mér mjög vel ort, málið sitt er ekki auðskilið, og ég er ekki búinn að lesa bókina. Ég ætla alls ekki að fordæma hana! En þótt þessi er ljóslifandi gagnrýni á þingmenn, samt varð ég vandræðalegur: ímyndin er of lík gömlum og alkunna rasískum ímyndum af fólki í Afríku. Og svo vildi ég skilja betur hvað er að hér. Stutt rannsókn í timarit.is bendir til þess að Ísland var kallaður bananalýðveldi í fyrsta sinn árið 1981.

Og Ísland er ekki bara bananalýðveldi. Ég man að þegar ég heimsótti landið árið 2009 reyndi einhver að útskýra mér að Ísland var ‘Sikiley norðursins’: lítil ey þar sem raunveruleg yfirvöld eru mafían. Sjálfsagt er þessi máltæki skemmtilegur orðaleikur: það er eldgömul og ansi fáránleg ferðamálahefð að nefna borgar í norðurlöndum ‘einhver norðursins’. Sankti Pétursborg er ‘Feneyjar norðursins’ (eða er það Stokkhólmur?), Tampere er ‘Manchester norðursins’, Tromsø er ‘París norðursins’ (!), og svo framvegis. Þannig er hugtakið að Ísland sé ‘Sikiley norðursins’ áhrifamikil: stutt, innihaldsrík, og fyndin. Það er ítarlegt dæmi hér eftir Val Gunnarsson (sbr. þetta) og ímyndin birtist í Meltdown Iceland eftir Roger Boyes (bls. 49, 220). Elst dæmi sem ég fann í timarit.is kemur frá 1993. Þannig grunar mig að flestir hafa heyrt orðatækið. (Hef ég það rétt?)

Cover of Reykjavík Grapevine, October 2008Og það er líka til hugtakið að Ísland hefur verið undir valdi ‘fjölskyldnanna fjórtán’, sem er orðatæki sem upprunalega var notað um El Salvador. Loksins má geta forsíðu blaðsins The Reykjavík Grapevine frá október 2008: ‘Welcome to Icelandistan’.

Þannig er það augljóst að það er hefð hér á landinu að gagnrýna stjórnvöld með því að bera saman Ísland við önnur lönd sem hafa ekki verið eins heppin í sögu þeirra, sérstaklega lönd sem voru nýlendur: í sovétríki, Afríku, eða Rómönsku Ameríku. Þess konar orðatæki eru vitaskuld ekki notuð bara á Íslandi (sbr. Absurdistan til dæmis) en þau sýnast mér að vera mikilvæg hér. Kannski geta þessar notkunar verið kraftmikil og gagnleg gagnrýni, en mig grunar að eitthvað annað er (líka) að. Orðatæki sem ég týndi eru áhrifamikil og meira eða minna fyndin. En þau eru áhrifamikil af því að þau koma óvænt. Það er augljóst að lífið á Íslandi er einmitt alls ekki eins og að búa, til dæmis, í Hondúras, eða Austur-Kongó, eða Túrkmenistan, eða jafnvel Sikiley. Og notkunin bendir til útlendingahaturs: til að segja að Ísland er eins slæmt ríki og El Salvador er að kasta rýrð á lífið (og þjáning) fólks þar.

Og svo grunar mig að orðatæki eins og bananalýðveldið Íslands og ‘fjölskyldurnar fjórtán’ eru ímyndar sem maður notar (kannski óviljandi) til að láta svona að gagnrýna Ísland án þess að gagnrýna hana í alvöru. Formlega séð er það gagnrýni að kalla Ísland ‘en bananrepublik’, og er vonað að lesendur í DV verði reiðir að Steinar Bragi hæði landið svona. En þótt sem Ísland hefur oft treyst á fáar stórar tekjulindar (til dæmis fiska, Bandaríska hermenn, eða fjármögnunarfélag), það er eins augljóst að landið er ekki í rauninni bananalýðveldi og að Steinar Bragi er ekki í rauninni ‘„versti sendiherrann fyrir íslenskan túrisma“ erlendis síðan Eyjafjallajökull gaust’. Heldur þýðir máltækið að Ísland er nákvæmlega ekki bananalýðveldi—eins og lesendur í DV vilja heyra.

Ef ég er réttur, þá held ég að Katrín Loftsdóttir útskýrir þessa notkun vel. Hún hefur skrifað margar fínar greinar um íslenska menningu og efnahagshrunið, og segir til dæmis að

simultaneously with resisting their position as a Danish dependency in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Icelanders participated in perpetrating and enforcing stereotypes of colonized people in other parts of the world, positioning themselves very carefully as belonging with the civilized Europeans, instead of the uncivilized “others”. (2012, 57)

Hún hefur rætt um það að þetta er ennþá mikilvægt efni í íslensku sjálfsímyndinni (t.d. 2010). Kannski getum við sagt að ef Steinar Bragi vill hvetja landsmenn hans til að gagnrýna eða endurbæta landið sitt, enda hæða ekki önnur fórnarlömb heimsvelda, ætti hann að segja eitthvað annað en að Ísland er bananalýðveldi. En kannski er ég bara rangur: mér væri áhugavert að heyra um skoðun þína!

Mér þykir að Bjarni Bjarnason hefur verið að pæla í málið þetta í bók hans sem heitir Mannorð, og ég vona að skrifa færslu um hana snemma…

Day 51

Eek! I’ve been here nearly two months now and still haven’t actually posted anything about this research on post-financial crisis literature that I’m supposed to be doing. So here’s a post on some of what I’ve been musing on. Comments would be very welcome: it’d be interesting to hear if any of this sounds plausible…

Last week my eyes lit on this article in one of the papers here, DV, about an interview with the Icelandic author Steinar Bragi that appeared in the Swedish paper Dagens Nyheter. The interview was about his book Hálendið (which I have yet to read but which I’m looking forward to). And the article’s entitled ‘Ísland er „norrænt bananalýðveldi“ ‘ (‘Icelandic is “a northern banana republic” ‘). Sure enough, DN (21.3.2014, p. 5) says

När man läser Steinar Bragis böcker och talar med honom om hemlandet förefaller han vara den sämste isländske turistambassadören sedan Eyjafjallajökull. Han får Island att framstå som en nordlig bananrepublik med en liten skräpvaluta som snarast borde kastas i havet och ersättas med euron.

When you read Steinar Bragi’s books and talk to him about his homeland, he seems to be the worst ambassador for Icelandic tourism since Eyjafjallajökull. He portrays Iceland as a northern banana republic with a minor and useless currency which ought to be chucked into the sea and replaced with the Euro.

Cover of GæskaSteinar Bragi may well be right, but it’s this phrase ‘nordlig bananrepublik’ (‘northern banana republic’) that caught my eye. The same week I started reading Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl’s novel Gæska. It seems to be really good, but it’s also bloody hard to understand, so I hope my translation here is in the right ballpark! Page 14 descibes how the Icelandic MPs

skakklöppuðust einhvern veginn áfram yfir að Alþingishúsinu, pípandi, æmtandi og skræmtandi, andsetnir á heljarþröm vanhelgra daga einsog smákrakkar í spreng eða apakettir að bítast um síðasta banana lýðveldisins.

careered down the road across to the Parliament, shouting and squawking, perched on the precipice of violated days like little kids bursting to piss or monkeys scrapping over the last banana in the republic.

I haven’t finished the book yet and have no wish to prejudge it, but while this image is a vivid critique of Iceland’s MPs, I also found it uncomfortably close to well established and well known racist images of the good people of Africa. So I wanted to understand better what’s afoot here; a quick look on timarit.is suggests that Iceland was first called a banana republic around 1981.

Nor do local commentators only present Iceland a banana republic. I remember coming here in 2009 and someone trying to explain to me that Iceland is the ‘Sikiley norðursins’ (‘Sicily of the North’): a little island where the real people in charge are the mafia. This is a fun turn of phrase: there’s a surprisingly ancient and rather ridiculous tourist-bureau tradition of calling northern European cities the ‘somewhere of the North’. Depending on who you ask, St Petersburg or Stockholm are the ‘Venice of the North’; Tampere is the ‘Manchester of the North’ (funny, I’d always thought that Manchester was the Manchester of the North); Tromsø is the ‘Paris of the North’ (!); and so on. So the image of Iceland as the ‘Sicily of the North’ is arresting: short, resonant, and amusing. There’s a detailed example by Valur Gunnarsson here (cf. the Icelandic version here) and the image appears in Roger Boyes’s Meltdown Iceland (pp. 49, 220). The earliest example I found in timarit.is is from 1993. So I suspect that most people here will be familiar with this phrase. (Can anyone tell me if I’m right?)

Cover of Reykjavík Grapevine, October 2008And then there’s the concept that Iceland has been under the control of a mafia-like group of ‘fourteen families’, a phrase borrowed from commentary on El Salvador. And how could we forget the front page of the October 2008 number of ‘The Reykjavík Grapevine: Welcome to Icelandistan’? (To an English-speaking audience this probably looks like it’s aligning Iceland with Islamic terrorism, so it’s worth noting that the paper was published before Britain used anti-terrorism legislation to freeze Icelandic assets: the image The Grapevine was aiming at was more bankrupt ex-Soviet oligarchy.)

So it’s clear that there’s an Icelandic tradition of criticising the country by comparing it with other countries which have been less fortunate in their history, and particularly ex-colonies, whether in the Soviet Union, Africa or Latin America. And of course this kind of usage isn’t just found in Iceland (check out Absurdistan for example). But it seems particularly prominent here. And perhaps it serves as a powerful and effective critique; but I suspect that something else is (also) afoot. The phrases I gathered up above are striking and to a greater or lesser extent amusing—because they’re unexpected. Fundamentally, it’s obvious that life in Iceland is very different from living in say Honduras, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Turkmenistan—or Sicily for that matter. The usage is predicated on xenophobia: saying that Iceland is as bad as El Salvador is to be ruder about the people (and their tribulations) there than about Iceland itself.

I suspect that phrases like ‘the banana republic of Iceland’ or ‘the fourteen families’ are actually used (perhaps unconsciously) to make a display of criticising Iceland without actually really criticising it. Superficially, calling Iceland a banana republic is a criticism, with the expectation that the readers of DV will grow suitably indignant at seeing Steinar Bragi dissing their country. But although Iceland has indeed been over-reliant on a few large sources of income (fish, the Cold-War airbase at Keflavík, and finance), it’s as obvious that Iceland isn’t actually a banana republic as it is that Steinar Bragi isn’t actually ‘the worst ambassador for Icelandic tourism since Eyjafjallajökull’. (I can think of plenty worse than either!) So actually what the phrase really says is that Iceland is precisely not a banana republic—which is what the readers of DV ultimately want to hear.

If I’ve got this right, then I think Katrín Loftsdóttir has a good explanation for the usage. She’s been one of the leading cultural commentators on the crash and says, for example, that

simultaneously with resisting their position as a Danish dependency in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Icelanders participated in perpetrating and enforcing stereotypes of colonized people in other parts of the world, positioning themselves very carefully as belonging with the civilized Europeans, instead of the uncivilized “others”. (2012, 57)

And she’s discussed how this is actually still an important theme in Icelandic discourses (e.g. 2010). I’m inclined to suggest that if Steinar Bragi wants to impel his countrymen to a critique or improvement of their homeland—and to avoid making light of the sufferings of the victims of imperialism elsewhere—he’d do better using another turn of phrase.

I also think that the author Bjarni Bjarnason handles this issue interestingly in his novel Mannorð, so I’m hoping to get a blogpost up about that soon…

References (both of them!)

Kristín Loftsdóttir, `The Loss of Innocence: The Icelandic Financial Crisis and Colonial Past’, Anthropology Today, 26.6 (December 2010), 9–13, DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8322.2010.00769.x.

Kristín Loftsdóttir, ‘Belonging and the Icelandic Others: Situating Icelandic Identity in a Postcolonial Context’, in Whiteness and Postcolonialism in the Nordic Region: Exceptionalism, Migrant Others and National Identities, ed. by Kristín Loftsdóttir and Lars Jensen (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012), pp. 56-70.

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Reikult og rótlaust stemma | My first conference paper in Icelandic!

Af hverju er þetta blogg svo illa skrifað?
Af því að ég er að læra íslensku. Enda ég veit að opinber vansæmd er, því miður, beinasta leið til fullkomnunar. Ef það verður of leiðinlegt að lesa bloggfærslur á illa skrifaðri íslensku þá er það alltaf hægt að lesa bloggið á ensku neðri! Og leiðréttingar eru alltaf velkomnir: bara skrifaðu neðri.
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Dagur 30

Hér stendur stærsta bloggfærslan sem ég hef skrifað hingað til á íslensku. Ég vona að hún er ekki eins illa skrifað og hún er stór…

Í dag, í framhaldi af árangri mínum að tala á íslensku á útvarp fyrir tveimur vikum, hélt ég fyrsta erindið mitt á íslensku. Spennandi! Eða spennandi mér í öllu falli. Kannski ekki svo spennandi fyrir þau sem áttu að hlusta á það. Og svo ákvað ég að skrifa um sviðið hér til að æfa mig. En vonalega er það líka áhugavert… Erindið þetta kemur frá rannsókninni sem við Ludger Zeevaert og margir hanritanemendur gerðu í the Arnamagnæan Summer School in Manuscript Studies síðasta ár: þú getur lesið drög af greininni sem við skrifum á ensku hér.

Hvað er rótlaust stemma?

Hvað er stemma, og hvað, meira að segja, er rótlaust stemma? Orðið stemma í íslensku getur verið kvennkyns og sjálfsagt þýðir hún ‘kvæðalag’. En orðið getur líka verið hvorugkyns, og það er vísindalegt lánorð sem þýðir ‘handritaættartré’. Áður enn fólk voru með prentaðar bækur, þá áttu þeir sjálfsagt að skrifa handrit. Og ef ég skrifa sögu, og þú vilt eiga hana, svo eigir þú að lána handritið mitt og afskrifa það. Og ef vinir þínir vilja líka eiga söguna sem ég setti saman, þá eigi þeir að lána handritið þitt. Við getum sagt að handritið mitt er eins og ‘amma’, og handritið þitt er eins og ‘móðir’, og þau handritin sem vinirnir þínir skrifuðu eru ‘dætur’: og svo höfum við handritaætt.

Alaric í Stemma meeting roomNánast enginn afskrifar sögu án þess að breyta hana, stundum óviljandi, en oft viljandi (líklegt, í þessu dæmi, af því að ég skrifaði sögu mína svo skelfilega illa). Þannig eru afritin nánast aldrei samhljóða; í hverju handriti er einstök gerð af sögunni. Afritin, sem vinir þínar skrifuðu, innihalda breytingarnar sem þú gerðir, og hver bætir öðrum breytingum við. Mörgum árum seinna safna sögufræðimenn handrit þessi, og þá geta þeir getið að handritin vina þinna eru líklegast dætur handrits þíns og ekki míns, og svo geta fræðimenn handritaættartré gert. Og við köllum það stemma. Hvorugkyns.

Og tré verður að vera rótfast, og í hefðbundinni rannsókn gerum við stemma til að uppgötva hvað handrit stendur (eða hver handrit standa) næst frumgerð sögunnar: til að uppgötva hvar liggur rótin. Eins og Einar Ólafur Sveinsson skrifaði árið 1953,

in the present work I intend to examine the text of the parchment manuscripts of the Saga. Besides these, there are many paper copies, which have been studied only in part. Most of them will presumably not contribute much to the understanding of the problems, though there is always the possibility that some of them might fill gaps in the textual history of the Saga, but that task awaits another investigator.

Einari Ólafi sýndist það ekki mikilvægt að rannsaka handrit sem voru ekki sjálfstæð vitni í töpuð frumgerð sögunnar. En, eins og einn af forverum mínum við Háskóla í Leeds skrifaði,

He was interested in roots and beginnings; he dived into deep pools; he burrowed under trees and growing plants; he tunnelled into green mounds; and he ceased to look up at the hill-tops, or the leaves on trees, or the flowers opening in the air: his head and his eyes were downward

—og þetta er ekki alltaf svo góð vera.


Hver gerð er áhugaverð. Og svo skrifuðu Deleuze og Guattari í bók þeirra Mille Plateaux (Þúsund sléttur, eða Þúsund flekar, eða jafnvel passlega Þúsund lög) að „við erum orðnir leiðir á trjám“. Þeir sögðu að, heldur en að hugsa um tré, þar sem rætur eru mikilvægari en greinar, verðum við að hugsa um rísóm eða rótarflækju. Gott dæmi af rísóm er þangin í ættkvísl Caulerpa, sem gerir netkerfi þar sem hvert rísóm er jafn mikilvægt og hitt. Og svo getum við talað um reikult og rótlaust stemma: hver handrit inniheldur eins mikilvægan texta og hitt.


Ég er ekki alveg sammála Deleuze og Guattari.* Mér finnst gagnlegt að skilja framþróun og svo er það gagnlegt að rótfesta stemmu—en ekki til að uppgötva eða endurgera frumgerð sögunnar, heldur til að læra hver var að afskrifa texta af hverjum, hvenær, hvernig, og kannski jafnvel af hverju. Stemmað verður ekki bara handritaættartré en líka myndrænt uppsetning yfir félagsnet.

Flott, en hvað hefurðu lært um Njálu?

Við skoðuðum bara gögn frá kapítula 86: annars hafi það verið of erfitt að klára verkefnið! Og við gerðum geðveika rótfasta stemmað sem stendur hér.

Stemmað sýnir hvað flókin er Njáluhandritaætt. Og sýnir bara kapítula 86! En við vitum áður að stemmað var flókið. Þannig er mikilvægasta uppgötvunin okkar að flest pappírshandrit eru í ætt týnds handrits sem við vitum var Gullskinna nefnd. Sjálfsagt bendir nafnið til þess að Gullskinna var skinnhandrit. Hún var sjálfstætt vitni í frumgerð Njálu, og er nú týnd. Frá 17. öld til 19. höfum við 27 handrit í ætt Gullskinnu (og 10 sem mun hafa verið til), en bara 16 í ættum annarra skinnhandrita (og eitt sem mun hafa verið til). Ef maður var að lesa Njálu í Íslandi í tímabili eftir miðöldum og fyrr en Ólafur Ólafsson gaf út Njálu árið 1772, maður var líklegt að lesa Gullskinnugerð.

Hún er umtalsvert styttri en önnur Njálugerðar frá miðöldum. Við getum hana borið saman, til dæmis, við Oddabók:

Oddabók (AM 466 4to)
Nu snýr Kári í moti Melsnata jarli hann skaut spjóti til Kára. Kári skaut aftur spjótinu og í gegnum J[arlinn]. Þá flýði Hundi j[arl] en þeir ráku flóttann allt þar til er þeir spurðu til Melkólfs Skottakonungs að hann dró her saman í Dungansbæ. Átti Jarl ráð við vini sína og sýndist það öllum ráð að snúa aftur og beriast eigi við svo mikinn her. Snúa þeir þá aftur og er Jarl kom í Straumey skipti hann þar herfangi. Siðan fór hann norður til Hrosseyiar. Njálssynir fylgðu honum og Kári. Jarl gerði þá veislu mikla…

Kári snýr þá á móti Melsnadda jarli og skaut spjóti í gegnum hann. En Hundi jarl flýði þá. Þeir ráku þá flóttann allt til þess, er þeir spurðu að Melkólfur dró her saman. Sneru þeir þá aftur til Straumseyjar og skiptu þar herfangi. Fór jarl þá til Hrosseyjar og gerði þar þá(?) veislu…

Þannig getum við lítið lært frá Gullskinnu um hvað Njáluhöfundur skrifaði í 13. öld. En ef við viljum skilja viðbrögð þeirra manna sem skrifuðu um Njálu á átjándu öld (til dæmis Magnús Einarsson, skáld og prestur í Svarfaðadali sem annar forveri minn, Andrew Wawn, hefur verið að rannsaka), þá verðum við að lesa Gullskinnugerðina.

Við vitum ekki af hverju var Gullskinna svo vinsæl. Var það bara að hún var stutt? Menntaskólanemendur sem eiga að lesa söguna væri kannski sammála að Njála geti verið styttra! Eða hefur ástæðan samhengi við það að Gullskinna er töpuð? Kannski hún var lesið og lánað og loksins töpuð meðan önnur handrit voru bara geymd í skápum? Við vonum að við getum þessar spurningar svarað, smátt og smátt, með því að rannsaka handritaætt og uppruna handrita.

Eitt gott dæmi er ættin handrits sem heitir Vigursbók (NKS 1220 fol). Hún var afskrifað árið 1698 fyrir Magnús Jónsson í Vigur, sem var kannski ríkasti maðurinn á Íslandi í þeim tíma. Vigursbók inniheldur Njálugerð sem sameinast Gullskinnugerð og Oddabókargerð:

Kári snýr þá á móti Melsnata jarli. Hann skaut spjóti til Kára [en] hann henti á lofti og skaut því aftur og í gegnum jarlinn [en] Hundi jarl flýði þá. Þeir [ráku] nú flóttann allt þar til þeir spurðu að Melkolfr skotakonung dró her saman í Dwngalsbæ. Átti J[arl] þá ráðstefnu við vini sína og sýndist það öllum ráð að snúa aftur og berjast eigi við svo mikinn líðsmun. Sneru þeir þá aftur til straumseyjar og skiptu þar herfangi. Fór Jarl þá norður til Hrosseyjar og gerði þar veislu mikla liði [sínu].

Og við getum séð frá stemmaútdrátt hér að handrit þetta stendur í áhugaverðu félagskerfi. Við vitum ekki hvar Gullskinna var skrifað, en við getum séð að NKS 1220 fol notar Gullskinnugerð sem er tengd við Vestfirði, en líka Oddabókargerð sem var notað sunnanlands en kom seinna til Vestfjarða. Það er miklu meira sem maður vilji læra um fólk sem afskrifaði og átti handrit þessi, en vonalega er það augljóst að stemmað bendir á þess sem við þurfum að rannsaka.


Rótlausar vinnuaðferðir

Og svo getur það verið skemmtilegt að nota stemmu til að rannsaka félagskerfið í þátíðinni og til að skilja betur bókmenntir og bókmenntasögu.

En eins spennandi mér var það, að við gerðum stemma okkar með því að nota rótlausar aðferðir. Hver nemandi við sumarskólanum uppskrifaði handrit af kapítula 86. í toflureikni á Google Docs, þar sem allir nemendur bætti afritum við. Allir unnu saman til að undirbúa tóflureikninn til að nota forritið til að gera stemma. Við Ludger áttum að vinna ansi mikið síðar til að staðfesta og bæta stemmað, en það er ólíklegt að við höfum unnið so hratt án þess að nota gögnin sem við nemendur skipulögðum.

Þessa reynsla bendir til þess að við verðum að reyna ‘crowdsourcing’ (kannski ‘fjölvistun’?), eins og the Transcribe Bentham project eða Phylo. Það getur verið róttækt rótlaust stemma.

Day 30

So having appeared on the radio in Icelandic, I moved on to giving my first conference paper in a foreign language. Woo! It was no doubt pretty grisly to listen to (and in a country where everyone can speak English better than I will ever speak Icelandic, mostly done for the sake of showing willing, and for the challenge obviously), but everyone was very nice about it, and I came away with my pride mostly intact. When your ambition is usually to be interesting at minimum, and at best inspiring, being pleased with merely being comprehensible is in a way a bit of a comedown! But still, I was pleased.

I was also very impressed with the conference, which perhaps goes with the theme of the merits of small universities (and their importance in small communities) discussed on Day 17. The University of Iceland has this annual event called the Hugvísindaþing, or Humanities Conference, where anyone around the university in the humanities business can give a paper. It’s a really nice way to find out what different people are up to across the University. I went to an interesting paper about the emergence of Arabic women’s writing in the Ottoman Empire, for example, which inspired me to do some work on the pretty rubbish Wikipedia coverage of these women. Moreover, while I saw plenty of staff and students around, a large proportion of the random people I met over the two days of the conference turned out to be civilians: probably graduates of the University once upon a time, but just back for the conference out of interest. I reckon we’d struggle to get this kind of turnout at Leeds; but then it doesn’t help that we’d probably be trying to wring cash out of people rather than just spending a hundred quid out of petty cash to lay on some bread and cheese and kleinur and opening our doors.

And I met another of the authors I’ve been working on. Funny business, writing about people who aren’t dead. Nice though.

Alaric í Stemma meeting roomThe actual paper was about these damn stemmas I’ve been posting about ever since about 2009 (cf. this post). I’ll spare you further gory details, but if you’re really interested, a working paper on the research, this time about the stemma of Njáls saga is up here, and the current stemma itself here.

There’s a reasonably interesting story behind the research itself though. My hosts here at the Árnastofnun and their counterparts in Copenhagen have for a decade or so now been organising the Arnamangæan Summer School in Manuscript Studies, which brings crazy people together from across the globe to learn how to read and research these tatty old manuscripts which are stacked up in the libraries of Iceland. In summer 2013 they roped me in to help, which I felt quite honoured by given that I’ve never actually turned up to the summerschool myself, and me and my noble partner in crime Ludger Zeevaert took on teaching the poor lambs how to make stemmas. Ludger’s in the midst of this project that’s going on here called The Variance of Njáls saga. Njáls saga is, like, the most canonical of all these medieval Icelandic sagas—so much so that it even wins a rather astute allusion in episode 27 of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, as Njorl’s Saga (the saga features a lot of courtroom drama…). But despite its fame, no-one’s really looked at what happened to the saga as people copied it from the end of the Middle Ages into the nineteenth century, changing it as they went, so the project’s been analysing the saga’s many post-medieval manuscripts to see what was what.

me_at_summerschoolBut what was really fun about the summerschool was that the project team and the summerschool folks were able to set things up for the students to work collaboratively, with each other and with us, so that they not only learned how to make stemmas, but also produced new research. It was pretty spacy watching twenty people all transcribing manuscripts live into a shared online spreadsheet and preparing the data for software analysis, watching new readings flicker into life on the data projector screen in the classroom. Six hours but about 120 man-hours later we had the first ever nearly-complete stemma of Njáls saga. With some effort, me and Ludger have over the last six months or so built on our findings to get a proper article together, which we’ll publish as a co-write by all the participants. A nice souvenir, we hope, for the people who, from their various directions, traipsed across the Atlantic to come to the summer school.

It also makes me realise that we could make a proper fist of doing crowdsourcing of manuscript transcriptions and analyses. People at UCL have been doing this in the impressive Transcribe Bentham project, and there’s this cool computer game to crowdsource data comparing the DNA of different species Phylo. Mostly this kind of crowdsourcing is a pretty lost cause for people in medieval studies because you need a lot of specific linguistc skills to be able to read medieval manuscripts. But if there’s anywhere in the world where Joe Public can read medieval texts, it’s Iceland. Moreover, they’re probably ahead of almost everywhere in digitising their manuscript collections and making them available to allcomers, via the brilliant http://handrit.is. So I’m sort of trying to start plotting some kind of citizen science thing here. Not sure what will come of that yet, but I’m quite excited by the idea.

But I’m also quite excited that, having got through my first ever paper not in English, I might actually be able to turn my attentions to learning to be a folklorist at last. (Depends a bit how much the doctoral students are writing back home in Leeds…) We’ll see how I get on!

* Raunar hvöttu þeir mig til fyrstu vísu minnar á frónsku. Sem er sjálfsagt mjög pretentious en vonalega passlega svona. Þótt má geta að bókin þeirra er kannski réttara talið ansi gott prósaljóð heldur en ansi geðveik heimspekiritgerð.

Deleuze—oui—je délire:
ton livre descend comme givre
quand feuilles sont vertes en fleurs,
il fend, s’en prend aux arbres.
Tes plateaux brumeux taisent;
les montagnes gagnent, je crois.
J’évite d’être ton Gylfi.
C’est la vie, Guattari.

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Aftur á Íslandi. Og í útvarpi. | Back in Iceland. And on the radio.

Af hverju er þetta blogg svo illa skrifað?
Af því að ég er að læra íslensku. Enda ég veit að opinber vansæmd er, því miður, beinasta leið til fullkomnunar. Ef það verður of leiðinlegt að lesa bloggfærslur á illa skrifaðri íslensku þá er það alltaf hægt að lesa bloggið á ensku neðri! Og leiðréttingar eru alltaf velkomnir: bara skrifaðu neðri.
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Dagur 17

Jæja. Ég ætlaði að blogga önnur hver viku (eða meira…), og ég hef ekki skrifað neitt í sextán daga. Kannski geti ég mælt þessu bót, því ég gerði ekkert mjög bloggsvert fyrr en á fimmtudag. En ég geti ekki vonað að bæta mig á íslensku án þess að skrifa eitthvað…

Og ég ætti sem minnst að hafa sagt hvað það er flott að komast aftur til landsins! Mér finnst skrýtið, en rosalega gaman, hvað það er orðið auðvelt að bara rölta inn í Árnastofnun, og fólk segir bara hæ, velkominn aftur, og ég fæ mér te og spjalla, og síðan bara byrja að vinna, eins og ég hefði aldrei farið þaðan. Þrátt fyrir að ég var svoldið hræddur þegar ég fór þangað í fyrstu: Guð blessi Róbert Cook, sem alltaf tók eftir nýkomið fólk. Ég er ánægður að Árnastofnunin er svo hrifin af gestum: við Leeds eigum við alltaf að spyrja fyrst og fremst ‘getum við hagnast á þeim?’ Eins og við eigum að spyrja um nemendur líka.

Íslenskt orð háskóli tæpir ekki á því, en orðið universitet bendir til þess að háskólar umfaðmi öll rannsóknarsvið. Mér finnst þetta spennandi hugtak, en meir spennandi í rauninni er oft að vinna við heimsins miðpunkt einhvers sérstaka sviðs. Eins og við Skotlandssagnfræðideildina og Keltneskudeildina við Háskóla Glasgow (uppáhaldsdeildir mínir í heiminum!)—eða Árnastofnunina eða þjóðfræðisskorina hér. Að vera stór fiskur í litlu vatni virtist mér frábær vænting í lífinu. Íslenskfræði er sjálfsagt lítið vatn, en í þessu vatni er allt í gangi hér: fyrirlestrar frá fræðimönnum frá mörgum löndum; áhugavert fólk að spjalla við; margir meistaranemendur sem, meira að segja, koma til fyrirlestranna; flott bókasöfn, og svoleiðis. Ekki als gott ef maður vill lesa um eitthvað annað en íslenska bókmenningu eða eldgos, enn vafalaust frábært fyrir mig.

Það hjálpar, auðsýnt, að fólk við Stofnunina hittast daglega yfir kaffi. Nú hef ég reynt tvær annir að safna starfsfólk við enskudeildina í Leeds til að borða saman bara einu sinni í viku, en án árangurs. Ég kann að meta samstarfsmenn mína, en lífið þar er svona að við eigum alltaf bara að éta yfir lyklaborð. Eða í fundum. Og hér býður fólk bjór í stað fyrir heimsfrægvond vín eftir fyrirlestra.

Og veðrið hefur verið ofsalega fallegt. Þegar ég var í Indlandi yfir jól sá ég næstum ekkert veður nema heiðbláa sólríka vindlausa himna, sem var frábært en ég viðurkenna að eftir sex vikur byrjaði ég að sakna raunverulegt veður: Vind og skúrar og snjó og regnboga og svoleiðis. En ég kom hingað til lands breytilegasts veðurs í Evrópu og ég hef séð ekkert meira en þrjú snjókorn í tvær vikur: bara meira sólríkt, fallegt veður. En maður ætti ekki að kvarta yfir því! Og norðurljós hafa verið ljómandi.

Og sjálfsagt er það risaflott að hitta vini og vinkonur og flytja aftur til Mávahlíðar. Uppáhaldsfyrirlesturinn mánaðarins var Hauks Þorgeirssons ‘Bragtaka og brageyra’, meðfram af því að fyrirlesturinn var svo áhugaverður, en líka af því að hann var haldinn í stofu Íslenska esperantosambandsins, síðast endurnýjað kannski 1960. Kannski ætli ég að læra esperanto hér bara til að hanga þar!

Þá var Dagur 14 mjög áhugaverður, fullur af nýjum reynslum. Ég hélt fyrirlestur við Miðaldastofu um skáldsögur sem tengjast efnahagshrunið 2008, sem var sjálfur minn fyrsti fyrirlestur um nýbókmenningu, en líka hélt ég viðtöl við Útvarp Sögu og RÚV. Fyrsta beina útsending mín, fyrsta viðtöl á íslensku. Ég var ánægður, en ég man ekki hvenær ég hef verið hvumpnari! Ég talaði eins og fífl við Útvarp Sögu, en hann Markús sem ég spjallaði við var ofsalega þolinmóður. Og ég talaði svoldið betur við Sigríður Stephensen hjá RÚV, og eftir hún klippti viðtalið gat ég ekki vonað að hafa hljómað betur. Fyrirlesturinn virtist að hafa gengið vel, þótt einn höfundur var við hvers bók ég ræddi um. Eek! Á íslensku! (Ík?) En við samþykktumst að hittast í þessari viku. Skemmtilegt. Og önnur tengingar hafa byrjað líka frá fyrirlestrinum. Dagur 14 var góður dagur!

Day 17

Okay, so I promised to update this blog every week or two, and now it’s Day 16 and I still haven’t. I might try to excuse this by muttering that until Thursday (Day 14) I didn’t do anything blogworthy anyway, but the bottom line is that if I don’t post on the blog then I’m never going to force myself to practice my written Icelandic…

And in any case I should at least have said how cool it is to be back here! As I think I’ve said before, it’s kind of strange, but certainly very pleasant, how easy it is just to turn up at the Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, the Icelandic language and literature institute here, and people are just, like, hey ho! Nice to see you again! And I wander in and have a cup of tea and just settle down to work as if I’d never been away. Even though I did used to be a bit scared of the place when I first came here: God bless old Bob Cook, who always used to take newcomers under his wing. I’m lucky they’re so fond of having guests here: in Leeds, the first question you always have to ask about having an academic come and stay is ‘can we make a profit on it?’ Same with student recruitment.

So the etymological meaning of the word university, right, is all about bringing every research area under the sun into one place of study. Or at least it is in English: in Icelandic the word is háskóli, which, less ambitiously, means ‘high-school’. And I find the concept of the university a really amazing one: kind of like a real-life version of the Internet. But in practice, it’s often actually more exciting to be somewhere which focuses on something ridiculously specific, but which is a real world centre for that thing. That’s one reason why my favourite departments I’ve ever hung out in were the Celtic and Scottish History departments at Glasgow. And the Árnastofnun and the folklore departments here are much the same. If there’s one thing being an academic has taught me, it’s that being a big fish in a small pond is actually a pretty great way to spend your time. Icelandic studies is definitely a small pond (or, as it more optimistically comes out in the Icelandic version of the phrase, lake), but there’s no question that the University of Iceland’s a world centre for it, with the liveliness you’d expect. Papers from visiting scholars from around the world; interesting folk to talk to; lots of MA students who, moreover, tend to turn up to these papers; groovy libraries; etc. Admittedly the place is less good if you want to study something other than Icelandic literature or volcanos, but I can’t deny that suits me okay.

Of course, it helps that the folk at the Árnastofnun all convene twice a day for coffee. I have worked pretty hard for two semesters now to get my colleagues in the School of English at Leeds to hang out together for lunch once a week, and have totally failed. We’re a good bunch, like, but lunch at Leeds seems irrevocably to be a crumbs-on-the-keyboard or sandwich-during-meetings affair. It doesn’t help that after research seminars, the UK custom is to break out some really bad wine: here they sensibly offer beer.

And then the weather’s been amazing ever since I arrived. When I was in India over Christmas, I really started to miss weather. Six solid weeks of clear blue skies and no wind is amazing but, well, it’s not weather! So I was actually (improbable though it might seem) looking forward to Icelandic weather: wind and squalls and snow and rainbows. But here I am in arguably the most weatherous country in Europe and I don’t think I’ve seen more than three snowflakes and the odd picturesque cloud for two weeks. Not that I should complain! And there have been some brilliant northern lights.

Most of all it’s been great to catch up with old friends here, and move back to my old haunt on Mávahlíð. My favourite paper of February was Haukur Þorgeirsson giving this paper on how children learn metre—partly because it was itself really interesting; partly, I must admit, because it was in what I fear I can only describe as the front room of the Icelandic Esperanto Society (!), which appears last to have been redecorated in about 1960. It was great! I may have to take up Esperanto while I’m here just to have an excuse to hang out there…

And then Day 14 was quite special: a day of firsts for me, which here at the midpoint of life’s path doesn’t happen so often. I gave my first paper on literature by people who aren’t dead, about novels relating to the 2008 financial crisis, at the Centre for Medieval Studies here. I was asked to speak on a couple of radio stations, starting early in the morning with both my first ever live interview and my first interview in Icelandic. Eek! I haven’t been so nervous in years. Fortunately the interviewer at the aptly named Radio Saga, Markús, was very patient and helpful; I still talked like an idiot though. Fortunately I’d got my act together a bit by the time I did the next one a couple of hours later for the national station, and with a bit of editing my interviewer Sigríður made it sound as good as one could have hoped for. And the paper seems to have gone okay too (after all that radio stuff I was reminded what a difference it makes talking in your mother tongue…). But in another first, it was not only my first paper about living authors, but my first paper which a living author has actually attended. Eek! But I seem to have got away with it (so far). We’re meeting later this week. And other connections have arisen too, so regardless of how good the lecture actually was, it’s done me good service. Day 14 was a good day!

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Ferðabloggið Alreks byrjar aftur! | The Travelblogue is Back!

Af hverju er þetta blogg svo illa skrifað?
Af því að ég er að læra íslensku. Enda ég veit að opinber vansæmd er, því miður, beinasta leið til fullkomnunar. Ef það verður of leiðinlegt að lesa bloggfærslur á illa skrifaðri íslensku þá er það alltaf hægt að lesa bloggið á ensku neðri! Og leiðréttingar eru alltaf velkomnir: bara skrifaðu neðri.
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Síðan fór ég til Íslands í 2009 hef ég stundum bloggað um ferðirnar mínar á landinu og annarstaðar. En nú fer ég aftur til Íslands til að búa þar frá 13. febrúar til ágúst og, meira að segja, til að rannsaka íslenska menning. Þótt sem ég sé í rauninni sérfræðingur um miðaldir… Og ég ætla að blogga um rannsóknina hér.

Ástæðan fyrir því að rannsaka nýíslenska menning er sú, að ég var ánægður að fá rannsóknarpeninga frá The Leverhulme Trust (borið fram eins og ‘lífahjúm’). The Leverhulme Trust er bresk rannsóknarsjóð (tengd við fyrirtækið Unilever) og er þekkt fyrir að styðja góða, hefðbundina rannsókn sem virðist einfaldlega að verða áhugaverð. Slóðin veitir styrki sérfræðingum til að fara útanlands og, meira eða minna, bara læra að gera eitthvað nýtt–einmitt það sem breska ríkisstjórnin styrki aldrei 😉

Og svo lofaði ég að koma til landsins og verða þjóðfræðingur (við þjóðfræðisskor hjá Háskóla Íslands) og svo að fara aftur til Leeds, þar sem ég (reyna að) kenna íslensk mál og menning, sem sérfræðingur í íslensk fræði (!). Og ég lofaði líka að endurgera íslenskunámskeið sem ég gerði fyrir þremur árum. Ég er þakklátur að margt gott fólk hjálpaði mér að skrifa umsóknina, meðal annars Terry Gunnell, Matthew Driscoll, Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir og Andrew Wawn.

Ég veit ekki örugglega einmitt hvað eða hvernig ég ætla að rannsaka, en það verður örugglega skemmtilegt að uppgötva. Ég lofaði upprúnalega að rannsaka kreppuna en ég veit ekki örugglega ennþá. Ég hef verið að lesa skáldsögur um hrunið og frá þeim birtast frekar margar óvæntar spurningar: af hverju, til dæmis, eru íslamskir hryðjuverkamenn frekar oft getið í kreppuskáldsögum? Mér finnst áhugavert að svo mörg börn fæddust í kreppunni: á móti tilhneiging í Evrópu. En mér finnst umhverfismál líka mjög áhugavert. Og álfar líka—og þó að ég er þreyttur að vera þekkt sem álfafræðingur, þó grunar mig að ég geti eitthvað áhugaverðara sagt um álfa enn er venjulegt… Og þá heyrði ég að eftir kreppunni þrefalðuðu þjóðfræðinemendur á landini. Áhugavert.

Og ég hlakka til að halda áfram með rannsókn um söguhandrit frá miðöldum við Árnastofnunina og Landsbókasafnið líka.

Ég vona að uppfærsla bloggið hverja (eða önnur hver) viku, og ég vona að það verður skemmtilegt að fylgjast með! En ekkert mál ef það er of leiðinlegt. Ég veit sem minnst að ég bæti mig á íslensku!

~ ~ ~

So, I’ve been accustomed on and off to write travelblogues, inter alia about my trips to Iceland. Maybe you’ve had the dubious fortune of being accustomed to reading them. But I haven’t written a dwellingblogue before. Now, however, is the time, because on February 13th I will start living in Iceland again for the first time since 2010. Woo! Moreover, rather than my usual diet of dusty manuscripts, I’ll be there to study modern Icelandic language and culture.

The explanation for this departure is that the Leverhulme Trust, a foundation noted for being willing to fund good old-fashioned ‘just because it sounds interesting’ research, has this brilliant funding scheme that basically pays for UK academics to go abroad to learn to do things they don’t already know how to do. Which is totally cool, and exactly the kind of thing that (as all my friends have heard me say before) government-funded schemes would never pay for.

So, being keen to get back to Iceland, I conjured up this plot to learn to be an ethnographer and, instead of studying dead vikings, study living Icelanders. And the Leverhulme paid up! (In no small part because of the efforts of the noble Terry Gunnell, Matthew Driscoll, Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir, and Andrew Wawn.) I’ve promised to return to Leeds in August having remade my beginners’ Icelandic mp3 course, and generally transformed into an all-singing, all-dancing teacher of modern Icelandic language and culture. (Whereas at the moment my metaphorical singing and dancing is at about the same level as my literal singing and dancing.)

I’m not actually sure precisely what I’ll research or how I’ll go about it, but I’m looking forward to following my nose and working it out. I originally said I’d study the financial crisis, but then there are lots of other unexpected areas that have caught my eye. I’ve done a lot of reading of Icelandic novels relating to the crisis, but they provoke some unexpected questions: they have a quiet but odd and rather insistent interest in Islamic terrorism, for example. Or then there’s the curious fact that Iceland’s crisis witnessed a baby boom, which is the opposite of what most European countries have seen. Icelandic environmentalism is pretty interesting too. And the inevitable elves, which I have long been trying to leave behind me; but they get around and I think I might not be able to resist weighing in on the subject once more, in a new context. Or what about the curious fact that with the crisis came (I hear) a trebling of enrolments at the University of Iceland’s folklore department (my imminent and honourable hosts)?

And of course I’m also still looking forward to nosing around some dusty manuscripts on the side at the Stofnun Árna Magnússonar and the National Library.

I’m hoping to update the blog every week or two. And I hope the adventure proves interesting enough for some other people to read along!

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Life in Greenhouse: my carbon footprint

I put quite a lot of effort into trying to live in a way that reduces my contribution to global warming. But it can be hard to feel you’re making much of a difference, or to know where you should focus your efforts, especially since good quality information about carbon footprints is so hard to come by.

So when the brilliant Leeds institution Bettakulcha came to the spacy eco-building where I live, Greenhouse, I decided it was not only time I gave a Bettakulcha presentation, but high time that I worked out the carbon footprint of one of the inhabitants.

Here’s the actual presentation, but you’ll probably find it quicker and better to read the written version below. I know I’m no expert in this stuff so I’ll welcome any feedback in the comments! But I hope it’s an eye-opening post all the same.

Knowing the carbon footprint of the human race is pretty easy: count up how much coal, oil and gas we burn per year (we have pretty good figures for that); work out how much forest we’re destroying and methane our waste and agriculture is releasing (trickier but pretty guessable); and throw in a few other factors, and you’re roughly there: about 50 billion tonnes carbon-dioxide equivalent (CO₂eq) per year above and beyond what the earth would be putting into the atmosphere if there were no humans around.


But working out a more specific carbon footprint is trickier. What’s the UK’s carbon footprint, for example? Again, it’s pretty easy to measure how much greenhouse gas we produce here (a billion tonnes CO₂eq per year). But a lot of oil is burned abroad on our behalf, producing food, cars, TVs, or whatever for us to import. European and American government figures tend to omit this and pretend that the emissions are on China’s tab, but obviously it belongs on ours.

All things considered, it looks fairly clear that the UK’s carbon footprint is about two billion tonnes CO₂eq per year: about 16 tonnes each. At the moment, though, the average which might be sustainable without changing the climate drastically seems to be about two tonnes per person (as, for example, in India).

But I don’t just want to know the average carbon footprint of a denizen of the UK: I want to know my carbon footprint, and then measure whether I’m reducing it.

That’s much harder to work out: while it’s easy to see how much oil the human race burns overall, it’s much harder to work out how much is to be accounted to each item produced or individual person. Take a fifteen-second powerpoint slide at Bettakulcha for example. (Yes, even a powerpoint slide has a carbon footprint!)


The slide’s carbon footprint is not just the electricity used to project it. It’s the electricity used while making the slide—and not just the electricity for my laptop, but the electricity powering the internet servers I used when researching it; a share of the energy that went into making my laptop; a share of the energy that went into making my breakfast; even a small share of the energy that went into making the software that I used. The fact that I showed the slide at a Bettakulcha event which people paid to attend probably even means that the slide contributed to economic growth—and in our world, all economic growth means more energy consumed, which means more carbon emissions.

The same problems go for working out a person’s carbon footprint: where do you draw the line in deciding what emissions they’re responsible for? So it’s really hard to work out precisely what an individual person or item’s carbon footprint is.

This also shows how deeply interconnected our carbon footprints are. I can’t unilaterally reduce my carbon footprint to 2 tonnes CO₂eq per year, because it’s actually the consequence of so many other greenhouse-gas emitting activities that are out of my control.

But I can make a reasonable overall guess about my greenhouse gas emissions, using a methodology suggested by Mike Berners-Lee, How Bad are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything (London: Profile, 2010) (from which I derived the figures above). I know (more or less) what I spend my money on, and I can find out roughly the carbon emissions per pound spent in different sectors of the UK economy. So I went through a year’s worth of bank statements (October 2011–2012) and came up with…


Of course this is still going to be a pretty blunt instrument. I usually make quite a big effort, for example, to buy food with low food-miles or environmentally-friendly consumer goods, but the measurements I’m using are just sector averages. Nor was I quite sure what I spend my cash on (though it’s mostly spent in pubs…). So this graph isn’t hugely revealing, but it’s a start.

Your expenditures almost certainly doesn’t look like this: I don’t run a car; I don’t have kids; I live in a groovy eco-flat; maybe you actually save money rather than just paying off your mortgage; etc. But hopefully you can guess from this what your picture might look like.

Now here’s how these different expenditures contribute to my carbon footprint:


Perhaps the most striking thing here is that the monetary cost of something is a pretty rubbish guide to its carbon cost (except, as it happens, in the case of goods and food). The next most striking thing is that one return flight from the UK to the US makes a HUGE difference (for these figures I followed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reckoning that aircraft emissions have 2.5 times as much effect as the same emissions at ground level). Other travel and energy use are also pretty significant.

Something this graph omits is the carbon footprint of Greenhouse itself—the emissions caused by making the concrete and steel, running diggers, etc. (I’ve only included the mortgage. Yes, mortgages have carbon footprints! They include things like the energy used by banks’ servers, the flights their executives take to broker money-laundering deals with Mexican drug-barons, etc.) It’s really hard to get good data on the carbon emissions entailed by building (and alas, the developers didn’t work out figures). And obviously a building that stands for a long time has a smaller footprint per year than one that stands for a short time, but it’s hard to predict how long a building will stand for. Greenhouse is partly renovated from a 1930s building and is partly new build. After some surfing around I got figures suggesting that a new-build 50m² ecotastic flat might have a footprint of 10–50 tonnes CO₂eq. Let’s say the building stands for 100 years: if so, that’s 0.1–0.5 tonnes per year.

Then there’s where I work, Leeds University. We don’t know the University’s carbon footprint, but for comparison, Berners-Lee reckons Lancaster Uni’s emissions at 8 tonnes CO₂eq per staff member/student per year. In the mode of accounting I’ve used, none of Leeds University’s carbon footprint is really my problem: it goes on the tab of the people to whom I sell my labour—once the taxpayer, but these days mostly my students. (As if £27,000 of debt (and counting) wasn’t disincentive enough to come to university!) But of course I still have a moral responsibility to reduce carbon emissions at work. (Actually, some of the train travel which I counted was on university business, which for this year probably cancels out the tab of building my flat.)

And finally there’s the government. Assuming that each citizen deserves an equal share of the carbon footprint of the NHS, armed forces, schools, rubbish collecting, etc., that’s another 1.8 tonnes or so per person.

So all told my carbon footprint for October 2011–2012 was up to about 15 tonnes CO₂eq, a shade under the UK average. I did well with zero-emissions commuting, low domestic energy use, and low expenditure on goods, which just about absorbed the impact of doing REALLY BADLY on flying.

So what can I do?


before you ask, offsetting, whereby I pay a company to plant trees or invest in low-carbon technology is almost certainly a rip-off (cf. Delta Airlines’ greenwash and Amtrak’s greenwash).

Obviously transport and domestic energy are the biggies. In my case, cycling saves me a lot of emissions. In theory I can make a huge difference by avoiding flying. This is hard in a job where international travel wins you prestige, and hard when you have a far-flung family, and when prices are so low relative to environmental cost. But I definitely need to campaign for less flying in professional life.

Cutting domestic energy use is hard for me because I’m already living in a building that’s more or less as green as you can get in the UK, and I use markedly less energy than the average for a one-bed flat even in Greenhouse. But ridiculously, Greenhouse doesn’t use a green energy supplier, so I’m working on changing that. If you live in any normal sort of UK accommodation, much bigger savings will be possible (and necessary) in your energy efficiency.

The finding I expected least is that if you’ve got money to burn, on average you’re better off spending it on services than goods. Don’t go shopping to pass the time: go to a film or a gig. Don’t buy an i-pad: employ a house-cleaner for 40 hours. Don’t buy five Primark jumpers: pay someone to knit one special one. Directing consumption from goods to services would probably be good news for the UK in lots of other ways too.

I can be careful in my choices of consumer goods, and I must switch my mortgage to an ethical bank. And I can adjust my diet: a thoughtful vegan diet might yield a 25% saving on a UK average diet (and a lot more if the agricultural land saved by this more efficient way of eating was reforested), so since moving to Greenhouse I’ve embraced veganry (and even some admittedly rather ineffectual but very low-carbon allotmenteering).

Doing all these things is important and worthwhile, even though there aren’t many big wins: I might hope to get my emissions down to 9 tonnes CO₂eq per year if I can only get out of those damn planes.

But the other really big thing I can do is to convince you to make similar incremental changes. Because that way we will start to have a networking effect: if I cycle to work, that’s less carbon on my students’ tab; if, when my students graduate and become bankers, they cycle to work, that’s less carbon on my mortgage. Everyone wins!

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Days 12-14: Aarhus-Andalusia, and the carbon footprint

Oh no! After all my smug desciptions of the ease of international train travel, in the interests of being less environmentally disastrous, it went kind of all wrong when I tried to get from Aarhus to Andalucia! And, I regret to announce, I won’t even be able satisfactorily to conclude the tale of my earlier encounter with the useless Eurolines.fr!

The travel

Heading back south, I get the train from Aarhus to Kolding (didn’t see much of it, but it was sunny and had a nice lake, so fair play); the Cologne train rumbles in and I step into my compartment, and explain in Bad Swedish, Bad German, and English, who I am. You know, hoping just to put people at their ease. And these five women who are already in there all just stare at me like I’ve just beamed down from the Starship Enterprise. I actually thought I must have accidentally booked into a women’s only compartment or something. But the conductor, when he comes by, doesn’t kick me out, and gradually it dawns on me that nearly everyone in the carriage is Dutch, and the train’s ultimate destination Amsterdam, and bit by bit they thaw until around lights-out we’re actually at the point of having an actual conversation. Maybe the Bad Swedish derailed them. I realise the next morning that the other person’s French, also changing in Cologne, and once we’ve got that sorted out we get on fine, with me dredging up my best Small Talk French for the occasion. The conductor switches to French to talk to her too; ‘Blimey, hard work talking in French when it’s, like, your fourth language’ he says to me afterwards in German, except that he says it in about four times as many sentences with, to judge from his expression, much greater elegance and wit. Lost for a suitably witty response I simply nod with the enthusiatic wryness of a total idiot.

What the conductor was explaining to the French passenger is that we’re four hours behind schedule; we have to get out at Dortmund (hello Dortmund! I have now seen platform 11 of your railway station!) to get a different service to Cologne; but I’ve got plenty of slack in the timetable, and they put us on a new train to Paris, and I’m still feeling pretty train-smug. And at somewhat less than 12kg of CO2-equivalent emissions from Aarhus to Cologne, I’m not doing too badly. I get talking to a Rwandan footballer-turned-football coach with an enormous cardboard box in addition to a superfluity of large sports bags, whose legs, as he tries to fold them under the table where we’re sitting, look long enough to belong to a giraffe.

The train grinds to a halt in Eschweiler. No, I hadn’t heard if it either. Apparently there’s a forest-fire, which the German lady at the opposite table says could only be due to arson (‘I mean, this is Germany, you just don’t have forest fires in Germany’); and we’re going to have to get out and wait for some coaches to drive us to Aachen so we can carry on. At this point my train-smugness is diminishing.

Though I do kind of like it when train-services go to pieces. One of the first times I took a long train journey in the UK, I was delayed and I was sitting there going ARRRGH, I’m going to be LATE. ARRRRGH! And then I realised that the beauty of train travel is precisely that if you’re running late, you can’t do anything about it. It’s one of the few situations where I really manage to sit back and let life take its course. And it’s when you get down to properly hanging out with people. Emboldened by my 25% comprehension of the German conductor earlier in the day, I attempt to ask if anyone would like some of the nuts I’ve got stashed away as emergency supplies. ‘Oh, I love nuts’, says the German lady, and goes on to eat them all. I am too polite, and embarrassed at my own language-hubris, to intervene. I help the footballer move his stuff off the train and chat to a French school-leaver about François Hollande and Scottish devolution, and in a couple of hours I’m on a new train in Aachen (hello Aachen! I have now seen your railway station!) and on my way again.

By the time I fetch up in Paris, my Eurolines coach from Paris to Madrid–no, Eurolines never did reply to my emails, or call me back–is long gone. So I never did get to rave at them in Bad French until they let me onto the bus. Last time I took a European trip this long–when I went to Hungary–I got an interrail pass and just told my host in Budapest that I’d arrive somewhere with a 48-hour window. This time I had a more specific appointment and found myself squeezing, heavy-hearted, into a metro train to Charles de Gaulle airport to try and get a flight to Málaga, along with an American postgrad making a desperate, low-budget bid to catch her flight home from Madrid so as not be stranded, penniless, on the wrong side of the Atlantic. It wasn’t that expensive to fly to Malaga nor that difficult to arrange it, even at such short notice; and as for my Madrid-Malaga train journey, although the Spanish train company website is RUBBISH, you can, bless them, cancel your ticket and get a lot of the money back. But it was a sad defeat of my environmentalist efforts. Lesson learned: give yourself more slack on two-day European train journeys!

The carbon consequences

The journey I should have had:

journey distance CO2-equivalent emissions per passanger-kilometre
(click on link for source)
emissions, CO2-eq putative 2.5 multiplier for high-altitude emissions
Paris-Madrid (coach) 1,253km (shortest route on Google Maps) 20g 25kg 25kg
Madrid-Málaga (train) c. 550km (based on Google Maps) 26g (p. 8) 14.3kg N/A
grand total 39.3kg N/A

The journey I actually had:

journey distance CO2-equivalent emissions per passanger-kilometre
(click on link for source)
emissions, CO2-eq putative 2.5 multiplier for high-altitude emissions

Madrid-Málaga (plane) 1456km (Mapcrow) 155g) 226kg 565kg

The average UK citizen has an annual CO2-eq footprint of about 12 tonnes per year–and my flight probably accounted for about half a tonne of emissions. The sustainable carbon footprint per person might be up to about 2 tonnes–so this flight alone probably accounted for a quarter of my annual allowance.

Why was Alaric going to Andalusia anyway?

Well, for various reasons I wound up on a traditional, sedentary holiday. I did a few travelblogueworthy things, but not that many! But it was fun. If I had fewer emails to deal with I’d tell you more, but for now I’d better leave off bloguing. Look out, though, for an assessment of the year’s carbon footprint around the end of September!

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Days 7-11: the International Saga Conference

So, I’ve been very quiet this week because I was busy being at the FIFTEENTH INTERNATIONAL SAGA CONFERENCE here in Aarhus.

As a rule I don’t consider conferences very travelblogworthy but since my adventures over the last five days haven’t entailed much else, I figured I’d better do my best to make the conference sound exciting. So here are my FIVE FAVOURITE PAPERS of the conference, one for each day.

We can take it for granted of course that the best papers were by my noble supervisees, so out of courtesy to other participants, I have excluded these from my rundown.

DAY 7, Monday 6th August

Christine Schott introduced me to the scribal activities of Tómas Arason, scribe of one of our main early manuscripts of rímur (on which more anon). As well as copying all these poems, right, Tómas writes all these comments in the margins. Sometimes they’re just stuff like ‘vont er skrif því veikt er blek’ (‘the writing’s rubbish because the ink’s weak’), but he also has loads of proverbs, which I really liked. It’s great when you get these little slices of life appearing around the edge of literary fantasy; they remain pithy, wry, and true; but at the same time unselfconsciously transport you into another culture–its preoccupations; its materiality; its humour. I should know more proverbs than I do. So here, for your edification, are some of Tómas’s words of wisdom (lifted, with adaptation and thanks, from Christine’s MA thesis):

Oft veldur lítil þúfa þungu hlassi
Often a little turf-tuft tips a heavy cartload

Fátt sér á kinn hvað í brjósti býr
What dwells in the breast shows little on the cheek

Ýmist er best gott eður létt
Good and easy are best by turns

Skíts er von úr rassi
Shit’s to be expected from an arse

Oft bítur það gramur, sem gæskur sparir
Anger often eats what kindness doesn’t share

Seint er heimskan að snotra
It takes a long time to make a fool wise

Við rangan staf má styðjast, ei við öngvan
You can lean on a crooked stave, but not on nothing

Leiðinlega er skrifað lífið gott
Good lives are boring to write

Auðsén er saur annars nefs en ekki á sjálfs síns
Dirt’s obvious on another’s nose but not on your own

‘Ei skal bogna’, kvað karl, og skeit standandi
‘Never shall I bend’, said a man, and shat standing up

Don’t think I’ll have too much trouble finding opportunities to use those…

DAY 8, Tuesday August 7th

Today there was a session by a bunch of people running a project on the various manuscripts of Njáls saga (that’s ‘nyowls saga’). I liked it for its form, which was lots of pithy presentations rather than a few big ones, and its content, which included cool stuff about linguistics, manuscripts, techy stuff–and pictures in a memorable nineteenth-century incarnation of the saga. Also, they have been disproportionately nice about that article I was banging on about last year, and invited me to their Njálu partý (that’s Icelandic for Njáls saga party) later in the conference! Woo! AND, unlike in Njáls saga, no-one tried to burn our accommodation down while we were in it. Winner!

DAY 9, Wednesday August 8th

This was excursion day, where we got to go on trips to see cool old stuff. And lots of cool old stuff there was, and I had some interesting scholarly conversations too. But CHECK THIS OUT!

Thermal future box!

Thermal future box!

Okay, it’s not actually a paper. And it might look like the polystyrene box which the packed lunches came in. But it’s actually a THERMAL FUTURE BOX! Is that a thermal future-box, or a thermal-future box? I don’t know. But maybe if you open it, you find the FUTURE! Or even the THERMAL FUTURE!

DAY 10, Thursday August 9th

Today there were POSTER SESSIONS, which they have a lot of in the hard sciences but not much in the humanities. Instead of waffling on for twenty minutes in front of people, folk make big posters describing their research. You read them and then chat with the authors about their posters. I thought this was cool. I was particularly excited by Tilly Watson’s project to study the medieval manuscript fragments of Norway and Sweden (and Finland). Most medieval manuscripts in Continental Scandinavia were cut up after the Reformation for use in book-binding, so now people mostly just have these vast hoards of fragments which they’ve found when rebinding early modern books. But we can still use them to see what people were reading, and where they were learning their handwriting from. And maybe even use spacy software to scan the fragments and then to try and spot fragments which were once joined together. The project’s hoping to find out more about where Scandinavia was getting its literacy from, when Scandinavians got into writing manuscripts in the eleventh century. Cool!

DAY 11, Friday August 10th

Whew, LAST DAY! Already by Tuesday I was finishing the day with my head all full of half-finished thoughts and nascent plans, so I was TIRED by Friday. My favourite thing on Friday was the plenary lecture by Matthew Driscoll, which was about rímur. Right through the Middle Ages, anyone who’s anyone in Europe writes in verse: only Latinists and losers write in prose. Then in the early modern period Cervantes and his ilk get going and before long people are writing prose narratives all over the shop; and by the nineteenth century the decline of the Western narrative art into the obese, word-processed novels which lurch their way into your Amazon basket every Christmas is already nigh. Of course, Iceland does it differently (oh, and Wales and Ireland, but the conference wasn’t about them). Icelanders totally lead the field for vernacular prose narrative through the Middle Ages, and then suddenly around the late fourteenth century, verse narrative takes off, and before long everyone’s composing these enormous, arcane poems called rímur. These rhyme (as the name suggests) but also sustain the tradition rules of alliteration. They’re totally neglected and I’ve had my eye on doing something with them ever since I read about them as an undergrad, but they’re really hard to read and I still don’t think my Icelandic’s really up to it; but maybe the time is coming…

The thing I liked best about Matthew’s paper was that he enjoined everyone to go off and compose ríma stanzas, so during the conference dinner I composed my FIRST EVER ríma stanza (with some help from passing friends), about the argument my two table-neighbours were having over dinner.

Unnur munnar austur bjó;
út fór baunstöng vestan.
Konan orðum krullhaus sló:
kvað hún texta mestan.

The Unnur [=woman] of the mouth dwelt in the East;
Bean-Pole travelled from the West.
The woman walloped Curly-Cranium with her words:
she uttered the greatest text.

It’s a pretty terrible stanza, but it’s grammatical (I think) and it’s metrical, and that, as any serious poet will tell you, is the main thing. I’m very excited! If you’re hideously unlucky, I will actually start doing this travelblogue in ríma form.

Various of my friends also composed stanzas, in English and Icelandic, and we also did a Faroese circle dance. With a proper Faroese person and everything! (Admittedly reading the ballad off his i-phone, but still…) I trust my associates wouldn’t mind me quoting their ríma stanza on the occasion (this time in a different ríma metre). As you can see, I had a bit of trouble reading (and, er, understanding) the first line–I did ask what it said at the time but forgot (sorry!). Can létti be an adverb? Emendations/retranslations in the comments box please!

Leiðir fótinn létti(?) nótan lærdóms glósum
Stígum rauðan dans á rósum
raustin hljómi í Árósum.

The note on the glosses of learning leads the foot lightly(?);
we tread the red dance in a ring.
The voice rings in Aarhus.

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When my Mum recalls the temperament of my younger self, she explains with vividly recollected exasperation how I would argue the toss about anything whatsoever: ‘you’d argue that black was white’. I can’t deny that this is pretty consistent with my own recollection and I don’t doubt I was very annoying; it took a succession of girlfriends to (mostly) iron out this crease in my personality. But when I find myself in a boring conference paper, or quite often even in an interesting one, I can’t help thinking about how, actually, black IS white. (Not just to prove my mum wrong! But because it’s really spacy!) Even though if I’d engaged my brain I’d have known this ever since my first year of physics at secondary school, if not before, I never really appreciated it until I was sitting in a particularly boring seminar back when I worked at Helsinki, and I was looking at the black writing on the white powerpoint slides, and I realised that in fact the slides were entirely white. Ever since then, I have found this a source of unending fascination, and the time when you can really appreciate it is when you’re at a conference, because you look at a lot of powerpoint slides.

A few people are instantly okay with this concept, but most people are, like, what are you talking about you nutter?

So, imagine you’re looking at a white powerpoint slide with black writing being projected on a screen. The writing’s black, the slide is white (put them together and you learn to read and write). It’s obvious to anyone who looks at it. Anyone you ask would say the writing’s black. Some of the rooms being used at the conference have blackboards and everything, and if you compare the colour of the black writing with the black blackboard, they both definitely look black.

Or say you’re at the cinema watching the opening sequence of Star Wars, and the camera is panning along that vast grey Imperial star destroyer against a backdrop of Space. There’s no-one alive who wouldn’t at that moment tell you that Space is black.

But the writing on the powerpoint slide is white. When you watch Star Wars at the cinema, Space is white. Darth Vader’s helmet? It’s white! Look away from the powerpoint slide to the screen it’s being projected onto–unless the projection happens to fit the screen exactly, you can see the screen’s colour around the edge, right, by the ambient light of the room. Or, if they give you a chance, look at the cinema screen before they switch on the projector. It’s white. The screen is white. You see? You can project white light; you can project red, orange, yellow, green, blue and whatever colour light; but you can’t project black. It’s just the absence of light. The black writing, Space, Darth Vader’s helmet, those are all just bits of the screen where the projector isn’t casting any light. Those bits are where the screen is just left to be its normal, everyday, innocent colour: white!

It doesn’t matter how boring a presentation is: as long as there are some powerpoint slides with black on I can look at them all day in wonder and astonishment. I can see full well that the screen is white. The writing is black. But the writing is the same colour as the screen. White is black, black is white.


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