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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