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 inreasingly 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

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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.

~ ~ ~

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…

~ ~ ~

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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