The Trench

21st November 2017

Prologue
The story of a rock music venue – a cruel and shallow grave of artistic aspirations, a damp, dark hole in the ground in which pimps, bandits and swindlers run free, and where musicians with genuine talent are exploited without mercy, where those who might have become famous are lured into obscurity and where the scum of the town go to drink themselves into oblivion.

Riffkid of The Trench

Forward
The Trench is a work of fiction. It is about an imaginary live music venue set in the mid 1980s. The venue is set in the city of Portsmouth – the place where I was born and lived for my first sixteen years. Although I chose to place the story in the period 1983 to 1985, I was not personally involved in rock music in those days; neither did I live in Portsmouth. In order to write the story, I had to undertake quite a lot of research – into the music of that period and into the town as it was then. Having left Portsmouth in 1967, I could have no idea of what life there was like in the 80s. But my fiction has roots that run deep in the soil of personal experience. Having been to thousands of gigs over the years, I have collected together a vast array of memories through which I have trawled for inspiration. Even here in Leicester, I was not involved in live music until about 2001. Although The Trench is a work of imagination, I wanted it to be credible. There are still many people around today who were on the music scene in Pompey (as we locals call it) and for their sakes I wanted to give the story some credibility. I also have a horror of anachronisms, in both novels and films.

My description of The Trench draws together many years of going to clubs, bars and venues in various parts of Europe. I have mixed these together to form a cocktail of images. In this respect, The Trench is a confluence of personal experiences, just as are the people that I imagined in its dingy rooms. The Portsmouth depicted in this book is not an historically accurate place. The story of this book is a reflection of reality and not an attempt to portray it as it actually was. My novel tells a story and like a lot of stories it might be grounded in the real world but ultimately it only reflects it.

The lines of the Prologue to this work, are modified from a quotation attributed to the journalist Hunter S. Thompson (although various luminaries deny that he actually ever wrote it). I took the quotation and modified it to fit what my concept for this novel was.

#novels #TrevorLocke

St. Crispin’s Day Observed

25th October 2017
St. Crispin’s day observed

Saint Crispin’s Day falls on 25 October and is the feast day of the Christian saints Crispin and Crispinian (also known as Crispinus and Crispianus, though this spelling has fallen out of favour), twins who were martyred c. 286.’ Beheaded during the reign of Diocletian; the date of their execution is given as 25 October 285 or 286.

Most people who know of such a day are familiar with it through Shakespeare. ‘It is a day most famous for the battles that occurred on it, most notably the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Because of the St. Crispin’s Day Speech in Shakespeare’s play Henry V, calling the soldiers who would fight on the day a “band of brothers”, other battles fought on Crispin’s day have been associated with Shakespeare’s words.’

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Henry V. Act IV Scene iii 18-67
Here is Kenneth Brannagh’s version of the speech.
and here is Laurence Olivier’s version (in which the speech is almost drowned out by the background music.)

Painting of Archers at The Battle of Agincourt

These lines appear to be the source for the phrase ‘band of brothers’. So should we associate St. Crispin’s day with brotherhood? Do we want to celebrate brotherhood, or is today’s world too ‘unisex’ to permit that? It is a concept that focuses on the relationships of male siblings. Beyond that, brotherhood is an icon of masculinity and the relationship between men, even if they are not related. In contemporary times, the concept of brotherhood has been transmogrified into Bromance – love between men that verges on romance and simulates brotherhood. It is a genre that is fascinating for today’s audience – of both sexes. The male name Crispin has long been a signifier of effeteness – used to characterise unmanliness and ineffectualness. It is a name associated, traditionally, with curly hair – a feature that, for some, might suggest effeminateness. One website went so far as to claim that the name Crispin denotes ‘People with this name have a deep inner desire to serve humanity and to give to others by sharing money, knowledge and experience, or creative and artistic ability. ‘ What the origins of that might be defines imagination. Might we redesignate St. Crispin as the patron of anti-sexism? A step too far for many people, I would surmise.

So, does St. Crispin’s Feast have any meaning or relevance for today’s world? Is it an emblem of leadership? Does the band of brothers idea suggest manliness and masculinity? Do we want to celebrate glory and brotherhood? How would today’s orators inspire people who are downtrodden and despairing?

Henry V’s St. Crispin’s day speech has been described as ‘…one of the best inspirational speeches in literature.’ But is the speech about misguided loyalty? Do the brothers of Agincourt give their lives and their blood for the sake of the King, for Henry, and his glory? Is this speech a moment of calculation and cruelty? They are about to give their lives to make Henry a great man – not themselves. The speech is an icon of great men and their ambitions to glory. So, Agincourt is about winning; winning for its own sake. Henry V is urging his soldiers to win the war – for him. History now views the battle as inconsequential. As writer Guy Patrick Cunningham put it: ‘Henry’s triumph at Agincourt brings no benefit to the English nation. The whole reason his force is so small is because most of his troops are needed back home to prevent a split among the English nobles from turning into a full-fledged rebellion — a split that Henry makes no effort to heal. ‘

We remember Agincourt on 25th October. ‘The Battle of Agincourt was a battle of the Hundred Years’ War that resulted in an English victory. The battle took place on 25 October 1415 in the County of Saint-Pol, Artois, some 40 km south of Calais.’ It can be recalled as the victory of the English over the French – a nation, that now, we count amongst our friends and allies. History has seen countless thousands of Frenchmen slaughtered by English soldiers; and many thousands of Englishmen killed by the French. History has also seen the English dying to free the French from tyranny. The culture of France is deeply embedded in the heritage of England. The 25th October could be a day on which we commemorate the mutability of history; the way in which international relations change dramatically over time. The day we think about how yesterday’s enemies becomes today’s friends. And vice-versa.

Painting of a Shore-maker

So what should be observe about or on St. Crispin’s day, if anything? In the third act of Die Meistersinger, Wagner has the shoemakers’ guild enter singing a song of praise to St. Crispin. For me, I choose to celebrate shoe-making. ‘Saints Crispin and Crispinian are the Christian patron saints of cobblers, curriers, tanners, and leather workers.’ My paternal ancestors were shoe-makers. For my part, I prefer to associate St. Crispin with footwear. Oh happy band of cobblers.

Poetry 2017

Working on poems

Sunday 24th September 2017

Back in March this year I had my first poetry week – seven days during which I did no other work than editing and transcribing my poetry. It was a successful project and so I marked up another week –  from 18th September to 24th September. As with my last project, much of the work was about transcribing hand-written poems into word processing documents and printing them out for the Poetry folder. During the week I worked on 80 of my poems, transcribing them into the current anthology.

The project allowed me to become reacquainted with my early poems, just as it did last time. As before, I was impressed by the quality of some of pieces I composed in the 1960s through to the 70s; others I just left in place as a record and archive – having looked at them and judged them to be too poor to justify even the work of typing them. In those early days, my approach to writing was spontaneous; there was no planning, no premeditation. I just sat down with some paper and wrote. Whatever came into my brain I committed to paper. That is not something I can do these days. During the 60s I was very given to writing in decametres – lines with ten syllables. I loved the way the thing flows and its rhythms and I still do. It is, however, an outmoded style of poetry – a bit like a contemporary composer writing a piece of music that sounds like Mozart.

Reading through my teenage poems put me in touch with myself, the self I had some fifty years ago. Having edited a large number of pieces, I began to think like my teenage alter ego. A couple of pieces were turned into metrical versions just so they would fit more into the flow of the work of that period. In doing this I had to be careful not to alter what the piece was about or to add new material that was not in some way or other present in the original. An example of this is The ever dying men, 1968, where I gave each line ten syllables but took great care not to doctor the content. It is still the same poem; it is just presented differently.

Some pieces I looked at and thought it was not worth the effort of typing them; they were just so bad. A few poems were transferred to my Journals – these were written like pieces of prose and lacked either poetic form or content. Now much of the Poetry folder has been committed to type and only a small number of pieces remain in their hand written format. When I was working on some of the poems, I thought they were worthy of a complete re-edit and that I might one day compose them again, afresh. Several of my early works went though a number of versions before being placed in one of the anthologies.

Reserving time for a project – setting aside days for working on something specific – has been, I think, useful and beneficial. These two weeks of poetry time have seen a lot done that would otherwise not have been done. It is an approach I might use for other aspects of my work.

It might be some time before I work on poetry again. In a life spent doing many other things, there are few opportunities for making poems; there is little now that inspires me and rouses my passions. Too little in today’s life to be passionate about. I rarely write poetry these days because I cannot seem to find subjects, as once I could. I would not sit down and write poetry for the sake of writing poetry – I must have something to be poetic about. My youth was full of poetry; not something that one finds in old age, quite so much. I have one work in progress – The age of starlight – a poem that contemplates the history of the cosmos from its birth through to its final end and all that means for humanity and the world we cherish so much. It is the the last of my ‘cosmological poems.’

 

Character profiling

Writing a character profile for a film

18th May 2017

My character profile for Riffkid in The Trench†

Physical appearance of the protagonist

Riffkid is 18. He is somewhat short in stature. He has a mop of black hair and very bright blue eyes. His face is pretty. He dresses how he thinks rock musicians should dress. His choice of clothes portrays his identity. He is an unemployed teenager living with his parents on a deprived housing estate. He is a dreamer; he has passions and associates with the outcasts who don’t want to be like the other working class kids who have their lives mapped out for them by their parents and community. He sees punk music as his ideal and in it he sees his values. Riffkid’s strengths are his good looks and his passion for music; his weaknesses are his lack of knowledge and skills in guitar playing and his dreams that are out of kilter with reality.

Background note: Riffkid joins the music scene at a time when punk is the predominant style of rock; but rock changes rapidly and soon fans start to prefer the edgier sounds of post-punk. All this is thrown in the air by the generation of the new romantics who come in with their new sounds – the indie bands. Musical tastes are fickle and change rapidly. All the bands play at the venue called The Trench, a dismal, damp basement that traps young musicians and exploits them mercilessly. The bands are trapped in the Trench and only the best manage to escape from it.

The story

Actions taken by Riffkid (include wants and needs) [How he thinks] {affect – consequences}

Act 1.

Riffkid goes to The Trench music venue to ask if he can join The Howlers – a big and successful punk band. His mates have told him that this is the best punk band in Portsmouth. The lead singer likes him and invites him to come for an audition. (Riffkid wants to be in the band he idolises) [He thinks he has to skills to hack it.] {Riffkid goes to the audition but he fails to prepare himself for it. He fails to study the songs of the band.}

Riffkid attends the audition with The Howlers but he is torn to shreds by the musicians. He realises that the invitation was a fake. He’s been strung along. [He thought he had enough skills to do the job but they prove to him how little he knows.] {Riffkid is rejected by the band. He is devastated. His dreams have failed.}

His best mate tells Riffkid not to give up but to go back to The Trench and try to find another band to join. Riffkid is driven by his dreams; his best mate is more practical and realistic. Riffkid goes back to the venue and, by chance, meets Sean, the bassist from the post-punk band Distorted. Sean just happens to be looking for a new guitarist. [Sean thinks that Riffkid would fit in; realises he is not that good as a musician but his personality would fit and make up for his weaknesses as a guitarist.] {Sean does not bother with an audition; he takes Riffkid on and hopes for the best.}

Riffkid joins Distorted. He decides he needs to get a better guitar and people help him to do this. (He is desperate to be in a band.) [He thinks that trying to get into the much bigger band was a bad mistake) {He gladly accepts the offer to be in Distorted as the rhythm guitarist. He buys the new guitar he needs.}

Act 2

Riffkid’s new band is a great success. Everybody loves them. They enjoy considerable popularity in their home town of Portsmouth. (They want to be popular and in demand for their music.) [They think their music will attract people in large numbers.] {They get booked at all the major venues and play to big audiences.}

Two years pass. Riffkid and Distorted become a successful post-punk band. But the scene is changing and fans are beginning to like the new wave of music coming from the new romantics.

Riffkid has an argument about musical style in the band and quits. (He wants to be a success.) [He sees the band failing because it clings to outmoded post-punk songs when the fans are moving over to indie. He thinks that the world of rock is changing and the band must change with it.] {He sticks to his beliefs and leaves the band.]

Riffkid and Jennifer enrol on the music course. (They need to learn about music.) [They think that having skills and knowledge will get them where they want to be] {They are exposed to a lot of new ideas and experiences they never had before.}

Riffkid makes new friends on the music course. He also goes back to his old friends – the ones who supported him when he needed them. (He wants people around him that can help him; people he can depend on.) [He begins to realise the importance of comradeship.] {He visits his old mates from the band he was in.}

Act 3

Riffkid and Jennifer complete the music course. He now has the skills and the knowledge to become a professional musician. (He wants to make a success of himself) [He realises that music is more than just image and passion.] {They both realise that they will get nowhere if they stay in Portsmouth.}

Riffkid leaves Portsmouth with Jennifer; they go to London to start a new career in music and a new life together. They are free of The Trench at last. (Wants a new life) [Thinks about the future] {Chooses to be with Jennifer.}

† The Trench was my second novel.

Explanation

This character profile was written because I was doing a course about screen-writing for films. The course was led by Michael Lengsfield of the University of East Anglia, whose article ‘Thoughts on character’ set out how to compose the profile. I chose to write about my novel The Trench. The protagonist, main character is Riffkid. This provides my choice of story for the exercises to do with script-writing.

Rewording housing

Rewording housing

In this article I suggest that we should stop talking about ‘housing and starting using ‘homeing’ to describe how people live.

Housing. A word everyone uses. A familiar word. An everyday word. So familiar that we rarely stop to think about what it means. We all know what ‘housing’ is. But do we? Is it the right word for the modern world? The world of twenty-first century Britain.

My definition of housing is: accommodation in which people live. That does it for me. People live in accommodation, of various kinds. For a lot of people that means living in houses; but for an increasing number of people it does not. We all live in homes; some of those homes we make in houses. From that point of view, the whole idea is very simple. The problem I have with the word ‘housing’ is that it implies houses; living in properties that we think of as being houses. In fact, people live in all kinds of residential structures and units. Blocks of flats, caravans, boats, converted windmills, mobile homes, prefabs… there is a wide variety of things in which people have made their homes.

The word housing, to me, also implies status, ownership and tenure. Let’s stop, and  think what is known:

The property market is splitting Britain into two classes: Those rich enough to own their own homes, often outright; and those under 35, who pay twice the percentage of their incomes to rent in the private market. The split is new. Ten years ago, a majority of people under 35 owned homes, according to government data. Now, a majority under 35 rent. In fact, half of all renters in the UK are under 35.

Those are the words of journalist Jim Edwards, writing in The Guardian on 7th May this year. He talks about the ‘property market’ which is understandable and I have used to same term myself; it’s the collective known for man-made structures. Interesting to see his choice of words – that people who own their own homes are ‘rich.’ Not my choice of word. Wealthy or better-off perhaps, but rich? Behind the figures he refers to is the belief that rent forms a very high percentage of disposable incomes – for a lot of people.

More people than ever before are renting apartments from private landlords. In England we often call these ‘flats.’ Tenants tend to pay for a flat to live in on a monthly basis. A key datum is the ratio between rent and income; for some people, their rent takes up a high percentage of their monthly income.

‘…the average rental cost across the UK taking up 41 per cent of take-home pay, according to online letting agent Rentify.’

Reports the website This is money, in September 2015. Regional variations across the UK shows that the proportion of income swallowed up by rent varies between a third and a half. The proportion varies according to age group and to type of property; single people living in one-bedroom flats can pay a higher percentage and have to foot the rent bill alone.

There are an estimated 4.3 million tenants in the private rental market. Added to that there are people who live in what is called the ‘social’ market where their accommodation is owned by either the local authority or by a housing association.

For a high proportion of people the private rented sector is the default choice. These are people who cannot afford to buy their own houses. Statistics such as these obscure the diversity of the populating renting homes. Some of them are students. Some of them are transient migrants. Some of them are contractors who know they will need to move on after a few months. Some of them are young people who need to leave home and set up in a place of their own. A growing number of retired people are leaving their family houses and down-sizing to smaller units of accommodation but cannot obtained a mortgage because of their age.

The groups that concern me the most are those aged 25 to 35 who cannot afford a mortgage and older people, over retirement age, who cannot afford to keep a family home going just for themselves.

Figures like these get to the crux of the issue. People don’t live in houses any more. What people live in is a mixed economy of residential properties. This economy includes what has blandly become known as ‘social housing.’ I rejected this phrase when I said “All housing is social housing.” What I meant by that is that providing people with homes to live in is always a social function; not merely a commercial one. The distinction between private and social sectors is as artificial as it is obfuscation. Having a home to live in a social right and a social need. We don’t need to differentiate between the status of the property – by distinguishing between types of owners. A home is a home – who ever owns it and however they provide it to its occupants. If people live in it, then it is their home.

Almost half the adult in Britain these days live in rented apartments. And yet the government and politicians keep on talking about housing. Journalists keeping writing about the ‘housing crisis.’ We like to use words with which we are familiar; we like to think that familiar words will be understood by everyone.

The problem with the familiar word ‘housing’ is that it fixes our ideas; it formats our thinking in a certain way. It inhibits policymakers from thinking outside the box of everyday speech. We need to think differently about residential accommodation. The problem is: what word do we use that is short enough for everyday speech which means what we current mean by ‘housing’ but which does not just mean houses? Even in 2017, the kind of professionals who should know better, still see the private rented sector and its supply of apartments, as catering for temporary need. Just like the legislators of the 1980s did. But it’s not about short-term tenancies and temporary arrangements; it’s about permanent homes.

According to the website of lpcliving, in 2017,  just over half (51%) of private renters are under 35 years of age and 54% have no dependents, and so are unlikely to get social housing. Newspapers continue to wax lyrical about the increase in house prices – as though it was actually a good thing! In fact rising house prices is a two-edged sword – good for some but a disaster for others.

If we are to change the way that policies are made – about living accommodation – then the words used in those policies will have to change. The people who most need to start changing their choice of words, are politicians. They need to stop talking about housing as though it means only houses.

People in government, who control our lives, either limit or expand the choices we have available to us, permit or deny access to the resources we need to live ordered lives; they need to talk differently, change their dialogue, revise their mantras, re-gear their codes – about living. What people want these days are choices. They want to be able to choose where they live, what kind of property they live in, how they get access to that property, what they have to pay for it and how long it remains theirs to live in. They want to choose; to decide for themselves. They do not want to have choices forced on them by market circumstances.

People in government, policymakers, builders, landlords, local authorities – everyone needs to change the way they think about residential accommodation. The world is changing and our minds have to change to keep up with reality. In 1988 people talked about renting as being temporary. How times have changed! In the twenty-first century a large proportion of the British population has abandoned any hope of ever getting on the ladder of housing ownership. Renting a residential property is now the default for a substantial proportion of adults. This is why the law now needs to be updated. Politicians will be better able to deal with the current crisis in the provision of homes if they stop talking about ‘housing.’

More importantly, we must stop seeing the solution to the current crisis as lying with building. We cannot build our way out of this problem. Increasing the supply of newly built houses is not the way; too many people who need better homes simply cannot afford to buy them.

The sooner we stop talking about housing the sooner will be able to see solutions to the present problems. So what word should be using? It might be a neologism but my suggestion is to use the word ‘homeing’ – the supply of residential accommodation for people to live in. That changes the emphasis away from the type of property to the one things that all types have in common – being a home.

What people want is homes to live in; if they cannot afford to live in houses then they have to accept alternatives. If we start talking about homeing people then we can begin to think freely about the crisis that confronts us.

Trevor Locke, 12th May 2017.

Dating the past

Dating the past. When was 1066?

27th april 2017

The battle of Hastings took place on 14th October 1066. Just saying that seems to imbue the date with the quality of being an incontestable fact. I will go on to show that dating the past is not always as simple as it might seem.

But first. Let us recall some things that are known about the battle – which actually took place near to the bay of Pevensey, in what is today the county of East Sussex. The battle was fought between the king of England Harold Godwinson and William, Duke of Normandy. A few days earlier Harold had won a battle against invading Danes under the leadership of Harald Sigurdsson of Norway, known as Hardrada. This was the battle of Stamford Bridge. Harald was killed, along with Earl Tostig Godwinson, brother of the English king in a conflict that saw Harold Godwinson victorious.

William of Normandy’s fleet of ships landed at the bay of Pevensey, which is between the modern day towns of Eastbourne and Hastings. During the battle, Harold’s younger brother Gyrth Godwinson and his other brother Leofwine were killed. The battle was fought close to the place now called Battle – about eight miles from modern day Hastings; an abbey was erected to mark the conflict near to the site where it had traditionally been said to have been fought. The town of Hastings was first mentioned in the late 8th century when it was known as Hastingas. Clearly there was a settlement there during Anglo-Saxon times. Battle Abbey was built in 1095.

The earliest account of the battle is found in the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, written in the 11th century. Only a copy of it, from the early 12th century, still survives.

Following the battle at Pevensey, where Harold Godwinson was killed, the English nobles surrendered to William at Berkhamstead in December, after which William rode into London and was crowned, at Westminster Abbey, on Christmas day.

My interest in this event was kindled by watching the series on BBC2 television: 1066 – a year to conquer England.

So how certain can we be that dates given in historical accounts are accurate? Clearly, medieval writers know dates and could record any date on which an event took place. Our problem is in counting backwards and saying that an event took place x or y hundred years ago.

This problem stems from changes to the calendar that has been used over time. The calendar we use today, at least in the West, is the Gregorian Calendar which was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in the 16th century, in October 1582. That calendar was introduced because errors were discovered in the previous calendar – the Julian – which was based on an even earlier one – the Roman calendar. The Julian calendar introduced a very small correction to the length of the year. Not all European countries adopted the Gregorian calendar straight away – Greece did not adopt it until 1923. The Gregorian calendar was used to calculate the date of Easter, a very important festival for the Christian church. According to Wikipedia, ‘Since the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, the difference between Gregorian and Julian calendar dates has increased by three days every four centuries.’ This article goes on to explain variations between the two calendars in some detail. A table shows that the differences in days can vary between 10 and 14 days.

Great Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752. The Wikipedia article (see below for references) provides an example of the problems that can occur when dating important events: ‘So, for example, the Parliamentary record lists the execution of Charles I on 30 January as occurring in 1648 (as the year did not end until 24 March), although later histories adjust the start of the year to 1 January and record the execution as occurring in 1649.

So, when the scribes – who wrote about the Battle that took place in Southern England – gave the date as 14th October 1066, they would have been using the Julian calender.

Even today, various other calendars exist. The Islamic faith has its own calendar, which differs from that of the Christian church. There is a calendar for the Chinese which is based astronomical observations of the sun’s longitude and the phases of the moon.

Going back to the Norman invasion, how long did it take them, to fully conquer the whole country? In particular, when did they take over Leicester? William died in 1087. That marked a milestone in Norman Britain. He was succeeded by his third son, William who was crowned William II in 1087. He has become known as ‘William Rufus.’ The years of William’s reign were marked by sporadic insurgencies and the odd rebellion and by threats of invasion from mainland Europe. There was an uprising by the Northumbrians who captured Durham and lay siege to York. The 21 years of William’s rule were peppered with revolts and uprisings. After conquering England, William ousted the old aristocracy replacing it with his system of Earls and nobles. Although the Normans introduced a powerful aristocracy to the country they preserved some of the established Anglo-Saxon posts and positions of the local administrations, much as the Roman had done several centuries earlier. Just as Roman rule did not extend fully into Scotland, so too the Normans failed to subdue the Scottish tribes.

When did the Normans take over Leicester?

Robert de Beaumont was created the 1st Earl of Leicester (born sometime between 1040 and 1050, died 5 June 1118). He was a close associate of William. He fought at Hastings. He had four descendants all of whom were called Robert and they all became Earl of Leicester. Leicester castle was built around 1070 under the governorship of Hugh de Grandmesnil. It was constructed on the site of a much earlier Roman fortification. The castle still exists today and the mound of the Motte can be visited. It had remained in continuous use since it began though for several years it fell into a state of poor repair. The great hall was given a brick frontage in the style of Queen Anne. Before the coming of the Normans, Leicester had been a thriving Anglo-Saxon town. The town was mentioned in the Domesday book of 1086, when it was called Ledecestre. It was described as a small walled town surrounded by farms, fields and agricultural plots. There were four gates in the walls. William’s army had taken over nearly the whole of England prior to his being crowed, in London, on Christmas day 1066. Before the times of the Anglo-Saxons, the town was an important centre for the Romans, when it was called Ratae Corieltauvorum.

References

Marc Morris, The Norman Conquest: the battle of Hastings and the fall of Anglo-Saxon England, 2012. Random House.

Difference between Gregorian and Julian calendar dates, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregorian_calendar#Difference_between_Gregorian_and_Julian_calendar_dates

Dating the past, article in Science Learning Hub, https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/resources/1478-dating-the-past-introduction

Dating the past, chapter 4, in Archaeology an introduction, University of Newcastle Upon Tyne, 2002, https://www.staff.ncl.ac.uk/kevin.greene/wintro/chap4.htm

Chronological dating in Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chronological_dating

Dating the Past: An Introduction to Geochronology. FREDERICK E. ZEUNER. (xx, 495 pp.,
103 figures, 24 plates, $8.00. Third revised edition. Methuen & Co., Ltd., London
and Longmans, Green & Co., Inc., New York, 1952.)

Innovation in housing

3rd March 2017

Innovation in housing supply

England is not good at dealing with its housing crisis. The government has lacked imagination when it comes to thinking about how to deal with the under-supply of houses and what stands out about the response that it has been making is an almost complete lack of imagination.

Let’s looks at some of the ideas that could help to bring a quicker solution to the problem of meeting housing needs. Firstly, using imaginative methods to create places to live in.

Manufacturing prefabricated units at considerably less cost than building with bricks on site. Companies are already making living units in factories. These are transported in a nearly-finished form, put in place and services connected and all this can be done at considerably less cost than building houses with bricks and in less than half the time. Using modern materials and up to date methods of fabrication, the production of such units has already started and is proving to be successful.

Several British companies are now offering modular homes for as little as £80,000. Units of this kind are constructed to a high standard of energy efficiency, thus reducing their running costs. Because modern techniques and materials are being used in their manufacture, they can be tailored the needs of the clients. The key factor is that they can transported to site and finished very quickly. Sales of these unites have been good and the house-buying public as shown a real appetite for these innovative units.

Many of the units currently available require land; that can be a problem for many local areas where inner urban building land is in short supply. However, some of these units, designed for urban life, are stackable, making better use of the smaller inner city areas that result from site clearances. In fact, in some cities (where space really is at a premium) units have been placed on top of existing buildings. They are lighter than conventionally built penthouses.

The units are ready to have electricity, drainage and water connected when they arrive on site. Inside one of these units the accommodation is very similar to modern apartments. If you were to walk into one of these units you would think you were in a flat in a newly built apartment block. That is enough to convince many prospective buyers that these are viable living spaces. The size of units ranges from one bedroom to four bedrooms. On the whole, stackable units tend to be low rise projects, if they are stacked on top of each other. Providing three or four tiers of units does not involve much infrastructure.

Pre-fabricated units are a real alternative to traditional buildings and offer a serious solution to the housing crisis. They are affordable in a way that conventional brick-built houses are not. Prices are considerably lower than for the equivalent amount of inside space provided by conventionally constructed houses. Being comparatively light, they can be built on piers allowing car parking space to be provided at ground level. They can thus be erected over existing ground-level car parks. Some units have been designed that employ solar panels to supply electricity. The materials used to make walls and roofs use eco-friendly materials and allow modern materials made from recycled plastics to be used.

Not just cheap

Many of the units currently available offer cheap solutions to meeting urgent housing need. They can also provide homes for other sectors of the housing market, in areas where land is more freely available. If we can provide housing stock for the higher ends of the market (I mean units from £100,000 to £300,00 or more) it would lead to purchasers freeing up existing accommodation. That would also relieve pressure on demand at the lower end of the market. Some of the prefabricated units are clearly intended for the wealthier end of the market; people who can afford the land required and can afford to put services and drainage in place. Providing more units at this end of the market will enable movement to take place that would, I would argue, reduce the pressure on the lower-priced sectors and free up opportunities. Thinking back to what I said before on the renewal of existing urban housing stock, these units could be very useful on sites where redundant properties need to be demolished. Instead of replacing properties with brick-built houses, these prefabricated units could be installed at much less cost and in a fraction of the time. In urban areas, the challenge is not to create new land but rather to use existing land more effectively.

The goal of housing policy should not be to do things on the cheap but to provide housing that is of good quality at prices that people can afford – people who are desperate to have homes but who cannot afford to climb the ladder of conventional housing. When we look at the units being offered by the prefabrication suppliers, we see a lot of architectural and engineering expertise has gone into the design. Much more intelligence has been used by designers in the prefabrication sector than we see in traditional housing building.

So why aren’t we doing it?

The housing crisis is not that difficult to solve. The bigger problem lies in our members of parliament – the people who make the decisions. They are like an old record that got stuck – endlessly repeating the same old formula about building housing with bricks. I have argued before that brick-built houses are not the most viable option for the situation we have in this country. Until our policy-makers move away from that antiquated mantra, we are unlikely to make progress.

We need people with imagination to head up future housing policy. Not just in the palace of Westminster. Local authorities could do a great deal more to provide housing in their areas but this will require both elected members and officers in housing departments to change their long-established, entrenched, attitudes about to how to do things.

The goal is simple: provide quality affordable housing cheaply and quickly. You cannot do that with bricks and mortar.

Learning from failure

The housing acts of the last twenty years are widely regarded as being failures. Successive governments have failed to respond effectively to the growing problem inadequate housing supply. Recent responses by the present government looked very much like knee-jerk reactions that had been poorly thought through.

The housing White Paper of February 2017 achieved one thing: it recognised that the housing market was broken and needs fixing. Little else of worth was contained in it. But then a white paper does what a white paper does; it opens the door to consultation. The white paper realised that there is a need to encourage diversity in the housing market. It said:

Action to help small independent builders enter the market given including through the £3 billion Home Building Fund. Currently around 60% of new homes are built by just 10 companies.

Those ten companies are brick builders and they are part of the problem – not part of the solution. If we want diversification in housing supply we have to break that monopoly. In my view that means providing incentives for non-brick fabricators to do a lot more. If the Home Building Fund is in fact to provide much-needed scope to enabling new methods of construction, then we will be well on the way to dealing with the crisis in the supply of affordable homes.

Another thing that Sajid Javid said the White Paper:

The proportion of people living in the expensive private rented sector has doubled since 2000 and that more than 2.2 million working households with below-average incomes spend a third or more of their disposable income on housing.

If there are more people in the renting sector then we need to find ways of supporting them. I very much doubt that we will see a significant decrease in the rental sector over the next ten years – what ever else happens to housing supply. What would help the rental sector is to provide a much more diverse range of options and an robust increase in the number of apartments that are available to rent. Building high rise apartment blocks in urban areas is one way of increasing supply but it is not the only one. Policy-makers need to be much more imaginative; that means letting go of traditional methods of building construction and focusing more on innovative contemporary techniques.

The government consultation on planning policy and legislation in relation to planning for housing, closes on 2nd May 2017. From the Government website we see that:

Many of the changes involve amendments to the National Planning Policy Framework. The Government intends to publish a revised Framework later this year, which will consolidate the outcome from the previous and current consultations. It will also incorporate changes to reflect changes made to national policy through Written Ministerial Statements since March 2012. These are:

Support for small scale developers, custom and self-builders (28 November 2014), etc.

The statement about support for small scale developers is one of nine topics. It might prove to be one of the most important. Interesting to see the word ‘custom’ in there.

Turning things around

The history of housing legislation – in the past twenty years or so – has been littered with outmoded, poorly thought-through measures that have failed to make an impact on housing supply and that is why we now have the crisis that we see today.

It is not just the reluctance of policy-makers to embrace new methods of construction that leads of failure. It is also their inability to devise new methods of finance. We have known for a very long time that there has been a shortage of traditional mortgage finance. Tackling this issue probably does not lie in reforming banks and building societies; some of it might be but what is more likely is that we have to devise new methods of providing finance to prospective home buyers. We might well have to replace the mortgage with a new way of financing home ownership.

Sajid Javis is an old-school thinker; he is still chanting the mantra of building new houses and his record is clearly stuck in the groove of bricks and mortar.

Two groups of people are at a severe disadvantage in the housing market: the young and old. Young people have not been working long enough to have saved up enough money for a deposit. They are dependent on the ‘bank of mum and dad’ – if they are fortunate enough to be born to relatively well off or wealthy parents. Older people can often find themselves unable to access mortgages because of their age; mortgage providers frequently view retired people as being bad risks when it comes to paying off housing loans.

These two groups stand to gain from the introduction of new methods of construction. Because these units cost a great deal less, they are more affordable and much less capital is required to buy them. If smaller loans are required, existing mortgage providers might be more willing to lend, over a shorter period of repayment. This in itself will not solve the problem. What we need is a totally new approach to financing access to housing – one that is not based on lending large sums of money over twenty five years. We should rely on only the private sector to provide home loans.

Think of it this way – people are financing cars costing between £20,000 and £50,000 without facing the up-hill struggles they experience when trying to finance a home to live in. Cars do not hold their value as much as homes over a period of years. The chance of a car being written off due to an accident is considerably higher than loosing a home due to, say, fire or natural disaster.

Housing is an issue of fundamental importance; many other aspects of our lives are pivoted on having a suitable and satisfactory home. If our country is to become a better place in which to live over the next twenty years or so, we must be able to deal with the housing crisis that we face today.

References

February 2017. YMCA response to housing white paper.

February 2017. The housing white paper.

Language and Evolution introduced

An Introduction to Language and Evolution

In this article Trevor Locke looks at how language played a key role in the evolution of human species and in determining which species became extinct and which were successful.

A topic that is of fundamental importance to both anthropology and archaeology is the relationship between language and human evolution. The evolution of mankind – a social animal – is marked by the increasing size of the brain. If the size of a brain increases we assume that mental powers also grow. This is, however, an assumption about which we must be careful, as I go on to discuss below. Many groups of animals and insects communicate, some in quite sophisticated ways, such as oceanic mammals. Birds and bees are known to use a variety of methods to communicate with each other and with the group as a whole. Where the hominin (early humans) is concerned, it is likely that communication evolved into language as various groups and species developed. That transition from simple communication (largely non-verbal) to language was very likely to have been driven by changes in climatic conditions, migration to new and more challenging environments and by increasing sophistication in the fabrication and use of tools and artefacts.

Once spoken language became established, we can speculate that writing followed as well as art and ritual. The development of culture in hominid groups required language as a way of expressing and passing on cultural forms. The problem for palaeopathologists and archaeologists is that language leaves little or no evidence in the fossil record or in deposits and strata that provide us with our understanding of early hominin lifestyles. It is only when writing developed that archaeologists were able to find artefacts that confirmed that early people could inscribe symbols and icons on to wood, stone, bone or antler. Some examples of early ‘written language’ come from paintings made in caves, symbols carved into artefacts and the first creation of icons and totems on pieces of material.

Could the very earliest hominid species ‘talk’? Scientists have analysed human bones to see if they could detect whether such remains indicated the ability to speak. In humans, most of the mechanisms used for communication are soft tissues and cartilage and these are not preserved in the fossil record. The skulls and bones of the spinal chord might suggest the size and shape and where the soft tissues of the voice box might have been and the shape of the mouth, suggested by the jaw bones, and the nasal air passages within the skull are thought to provide clues about whether speech – as we know it – was possible in these early hominids. Looking at the bones and skulls of primates might give some clues as to what kind of sounds they made but not as to what gestures they made, posturing or hand and arm movements.

Talking about survival

We can also look at the way that modern apes and chimpanzees communicate and that provides more pointers to how early hominids communicated. Some communication would have involved gesture (including signing), facial expression and possibly touch as well as vocal sounds. Early hominid species, such as Neanderthals – Homo neanderthalensis – appear to have limited verbal capabilities, suggested by the bones and skulls that have been found. Some scientists think that Neanderthals were capable of language but this of course not clear whether this was a mixture of complex signing and vocalisations. The language in this case could be fairly advanced (compared to previous species) and (possibly) the larger brain capacity would have made it possible for there to be a proto-language and this would have supported both increasing technological capability and extensive migration into new environments. Survival in new lands would require early peoples to be able to share effective indications about where food can be found, what is edible and what is not and to give warnings about the approach of predators. Huntings parties would need to communicate in order to track and kill prey.

Once hominids had developed the ability to use words – as opposed to simply making calls or vocal alerts – the number of ‘words’ used in a group would increase and that led to establishing rules about how individual ‘words’ should be combined to communicate understandable thoughts. This requires rudimentary grammar and syntax. Bear in mind that this process probably took thousands of years. The origins of verbal words might have lay in increasingly complex gestures. In evolutionary terms, the species that were most adept at gestures and then verbal communications tended to survive and their communities prospered. It is possible that some hominid groups became communities of speakers. Some groups might have worked up a proto-language which they used amongst themselves. The spread of languages in areas like Africa, Europe or Asia would have required large numbers of people to engage in talking as a means of communication. Using language and talking went hand in hand with the gradual development of thought and culture; as some people thought using words and sentences and gradually developed the capacity to have abstract thoughts rather than just uttering names or directions. Words have meaning; just as gestures mean something to those that see them. It was grammatical speech that allowed abstract thought to emerge.

Talking for generations

For this to happen successfully the brain had to have the capacity to recognise meaning and to retrieve it from memory. That requires members of a language community to have been together over successive generations. Once a group had developed the capacity to share words and the syntax for combining them, the capacity is handed on from one generation to the next and the ability to use language becomes both cultural and genetic. Speaking a language over many generations led to changes in the skeletal and muscular morphology of the body. Language implies the ability to store knowledge and to have collective understandings of the environment and to share things of significance between contemporary members of a group and to pass this knowledge from one generation to the next. Once groups had to the ability to talk to each other, they could transmit their collective knowledge down the generations.

Talking fluently involves speaking words – in the right order and in the right way – and emphasising them with gestures or vocal tones. Modern speakers use spoken words amplified by facial expressions and hand movements and emphasise words or phrases with intonations of the voice. This could well have been true for early hominids making the transition, from communication that was very visually mediated, to proto-language with a more extensive repertoire of calls and signs. As brain power increased, so did the ability to organise sounds and gestures into rules that would enable a more complex level of communication. Groups that shared a common system of communication could speak to each other in more varied ways and share increasingly sophisticated ideas. Giving directions, making warnings and alerts, indicating where good food supplies were located, reacting to good and bad behaviour – all these could be shared among the members of group or tribe as well as taught by adults to their children.

Words and gestures are symbols; they mean something when they are used. They can be simple signals or they can indicate more complex thoughts. One of the key factors in the development of language was very possibly the ability to ask questions. ‘Have you seen any antelopes? Where can I go to collect ripe berries?’ Being able to give detailed and specific replies to such questions requires a more complex ability to communicate than simply pointing in a general direction and giving a sign for antelopes. Migratory groups had to learn what was good to eat and what was poisonous in a new habitat. The group needed to collect, store and share knowledge of the environment in order to live in it. Those that developed enhanced language skills stood more chance of survival than those who did not.

How can we study the evolution of language? Recent advances in the analysis of DNA has thrown light on the spread and distribution of Homo sapiens in various continents. Linguists have looked at modern languages in order to trace their roots in ancient tongues. It is not until we begin to find artefacts, artworks and carved iconographs and cave paintings that we can date anything. Pre-history can only be inferred from the fossil record and remains left in datable strata. There is a growing body of knowledge from studies of DNA about how early man spread out across the world from African origins.

Palaeopathologists have mapped the dispersion of hominids from Africa into Europe and Asia. This pattern of dispersion and migration would be roughly the same for the distribution of languages. Hominid groups that talked to each other had to have some process through which older members could teach verbal skills to children. Groups that broke away from their main migratory community would have settled in a place and their language would have changed to reflect the circumstances and ecology of their new local area. Clearly, even by the bronze age, many different languages were being spoken in various parts of the world. Over many thousands of years, humans would have developed genes for language. That went in tandem with changing skeletal and muscular morphology of the skull, lungs and nervous system that aided the ability to talk. Hominids evolved into talking man.

Passing on skills

Many early hominids made tools from stone, wood, bone and antler. The skills for making these implements were passed from one generation to another. This activity of ‘training’ in skills used to make things either involved fairly elaborate communication or led to the emergence of language. Some skill transmission was simply through imitation – this occurs in modern animals that watch a parent or other adult animal doing something and then copying what they see. No communication is involved in this. The Cro-Magnons tool kit was complex, varied and innovative. This reflects intentional design and planning which are the basis of complex mental processes and can be associated with language. The physical features associated with spoken language, such as the vocal tract, the structure of the brain and the size of the spinal cord, are identical between Cro-Magnon people and humans living today. This means that Cro-Magnon people would have been capable of producing the same sounds we use in speech.¹ Some scientists use the phrase ‘proto-language’ to signify the transition from sophisticated non-verbal communication to the beginnings of language as we know it. Any enhanced verbal communication requires breathing muscles to be controlled in order to vary pitch and tone with the voice box.

It is when we find symbolic artefacts in the archaeology that we can be confident that Homo sapiens had developed language. The existence of artefacts that had no obvious use suggests that they were works of art – connected possibly with the emergence of ritual or expressions of thoughts and feelings about the natural world. ARTefacts are created when people start to think in a abstract way about death, the existence of spiritual forces that control the world, the afterlife and shared reverence for ancestors. The development of symbolism requires sophisticated mental processes and any objects found that unambiguously portray symbols or icons and have no obvious use (as tools) strongly suggests that language has been established. Evidence of art prior to 40,000 years ago is limited and solid evidence of symbolism only occurs after this time. Artefacts were part of an increasing awareness of how the world and life could be interpreted, understood and explained. Art works, physical icons and totems played a part in handing on beliefs from one generation to the next.

This calls into question the meaning of the word ‘language.’ What is the difference between non-verbal communication and speaking using a language? We know from observations of animal communication that fairly complex patterns of communication exist, in some insects, oceanic mammals and the higher apes. Some have gone so far as claim that animals have a language. So, at what point does communication become language? The transition from complex communication to a fully-formed language did not have a clear threshold; the gradual development of verbal language took thousands of years and many generations and required a continuity of community capable to allowing successive generations to hand on language, beliefs and complex ideas used in interpreting the world in which they lived.

Life, death, natural forces, afterlife and ancestors are all highly abstract concepts and require language in order to be thought. Very early man might have had some emotions and intuitions about life and death and these inchoate impressions would have led to the emergence of more sophisticated beliefs, values and concepts; in this process there would have been a mutual interaction between thought and words. As people began to use a word for death, they could then begin to build icons for death and as they began to bury or burn dead bodies, rituals grew around this activity and that led to people using sentences about these things. This suggests that a group of people shared beliefs about death in common with each other and were able to pass on those beliefs from one generation to the next; the sharing of beliefs was not just for one group at one period but was inter-generational and language allowed belief systems to be shared both by the group and its heirs and successors.

When does complex communication become language?

Studies of gorillas’ and chimpanzees’ behaviours has revealed that a variety of methods are used in their communication. One writer used the term ‘the unfolding dance’ to characterise communications in great apes.³ Monkeys use a range of visual and auditory signals to communicate with others either individually or to the group as a whole. Calls are made to warn of danger, gestures are made with hands and arms, a gorilla might beat its chest as a signal, postures and facial expressions are all part of the varied armoury of signals that the great apes can use in communicating with others. Studies of marine mammals indicate that some – such as the Orca – give out calls which are specific to an individual – they call out another animals ‘name.’ A pod of killer whales uses a complex system of communications, particularly when hunting.

Here’s an interesting thought: can we think without words? I wrote recently that most of my thinking is done with language – I hear myself talking, silently, inside my head. I guess this is common for writers who are always figuring out sentences. Poets on the other hand probably think with symbols, images, feelings that occur to them in a non-verbal way. Eventually they have to capture that in the written word but a lot of the mental activity begins non-verbally. Painters probably spend a lot of time thinking with images, colours, scenes, layouts, shapes. Musicians might spend time thinking with sounds, tunes, melodies, notes, riffs, harmonies and rhythms. Artists have to use intuition. Without non-verbal thought our minds would not be agile enough to compose art. This leads me to wonder if animals think what they are to communicate before they do the communication or is what they do – calls, gestures, facial expressions, postures – simply reactive, in response to something they get from another animal or an event in their environment. I guess that is an unanswerable question, although some research on neural activity might throw light on it. A human walking through the jungle or across the plain, would have to feel the landscape intuitively. Some archaeologists believe that early man ‘felt’ the surrounding environment and that a bronze age man would see the landscape very differently to a modern human would see it. Visual recognition works sub-verbally; if we walk through a landscape where there is no written signage – a wood, a field, a lakeside – we ‘see’ trees, grass, water, catch sight of living creatures and we need to know and react to what we are seeing intuitively. Hunter-gatherers would have to react quickly to perceived risks and opportunities in their environment; they did not have time to think verbally, they have to go for it immediately. Otherwise they go home empty handed or become a meal for predator.

Do animals think about what they are about to communicate before they communicate? I think this is unlikely. Humans, on the other hand, with their large and more sophisticated mental apparatus, can premeditate what they are about to say. Premeditation is important to being successful when it comes to survival-related language and communication; issuing warnings and alerts, giving directions to food sources, indicating what is edible and what is not, giving instructions about how to male tools, teaching how to prepare foods – all require communication to be clear and unambiguous. If someone misunderstands what is being said to them, the consequences can be disastrous. Communities that can communicate clearly are more likely to survive and prosper than those than cannot.

The other thing that fascinates me is how people in China and Japan think; these are cultures that use a different, more visual and symbolic, language and writing set, to us in the West. Do Chinese people think differently to users of English? If your written language uses pictograms, does that make you think differently? Words, pictograms, icons, hieroglyphs and other visual representations of thoughts either promote or inhibit the development of culture and belief systems; those that allow sophisticated and complex thoughts are more likely to encourage beliefs and more fluid and flexible interpretations of the world than those that are limited and simplistic. How writing influenced the evolution of technology, culture and civilisation is clearly a very interesting topic but one for another time.

Pictures tell the story

Some of the earliest cave paintings were pictograms. In very ancient times, people would paint very stylised images of themselves or animals on the walls of caves. This might have led, over thousands of years, to the earliest forms of writing, such as cuneiform and hieroglyphs. These early pictograms represented an idea; they were usually mostly used to represent or signify things in the real world. It was much later that icons were drawn to represent an abstract idea – something that did not exist in the real world. That was some 9,000 years BC. Series of symbols that were the earliest methods of writing came into existence about 5,000 years BC. Carvings found on an obelisk in southern Turkey in the city of Göbekli Tepe, are thought to be around 12,000 years old. They could be the oldest ‘written’ language yet discovered. The carvings were pictographs – a series of pictorial images rather than writings that used an alphabet. It can be argued that the use of pictographs is an early form of writing. Written language, as it is known it today, probably appeared several thousands years later; Sumerian writing is known from 3,100 BC. In its earliest phrase it was a system of pictograms; these gradually became simplified into the system of wedge-shaped characters that we know as cuneiform script. Proto-writing (which preceded fully-fledged written language) employed ideographs and symbols. These were representations of things in the real world and did not relate to spoken words. These early pictograms and pictographs could be understood but not spoken. The correlation between written symbols and spoken words developed much later.

It is not yet clear why paintings were made in caves. They were sometimes left very deep inside the caves, where very few people would have seen them. This has led some archaeologists to suggest that cave art was ritualistic, possibly related to beliefs about death, ancestors or the spirit world. Early man was very visual; our ancient ancestors needed to be acutely aware of their surroundings; their safety depended on it as did their ability to hunt. Hunter-gatherers needed to figure out why some hunting expeditions worked well and others did not. Tribes in the Amazon jungle today say prayers or make offerings before going on a hunting expedition. It is possible that our early ancestors began to think that hunting was governed by supernatural forces. The act of painting an animal or a hunting scene on the wall of the cave might have a ritualistic significance, it has been suggested. Early people would have had a much more elaborate set of images than we do; images of their surrounding habitat, images that have significance for them when they see their environment. Psychoanalysts have suggested that dreams play a part in the formation of imagery. Aboriginal people understand a ‘dream world’ that interprets the real world for them. As our ancestors evolved they developed beliefs and this came with the introduction of abstract thought. Over thousands of years beliefs and rituals became religious systems. That happened when human societies became larger and more complex and power systems grew up through which communities were organised by the few to control the activities of the many. Well, that’s one way of looking at it.

How words are made

When I was at Manchester University I did a course in ethnomethodology. What I remember about that course was the way they broke words down into pieces – I think they called them phonemes – the units of sound that words are made from. The way phonemes are made depends on the shape of the mouth, lips, tongue and larynx and vary from one language to another. Language requires speakers to learn phonemes in order to make words; then it is a question of how to arrange words into phrases. When we listen to someone speaking we hear the phonemes and these allow us to distinguish one word from another. There are 44 phonemes in English. The are 26 letters in the alphabet and so some letters have to be combined together to form a sound – ‘ch’ for example. However, ‘ch’ can be spoken in different ways to make different sounds depending on which word is used. Chef, Choir and Cheese all contain ‘ch’ but are said differently. English can be a difficult language to learn because the way it is spoken and the way it is written do not always marry up. The way words are spelt is not always phonetic. English has it roots in many early European languages including Latin, French, Danish, German and now even Asiatic languages. In the Xhosa language of South Africa, a variety of sounds are made with the mouth, that do not occur in European languages, such as click consonants and different meanings that flow from using rising or falling intonation. The clicks are known as dental clicks, lateral clicks and post-alveolar clicks (made with the tip of the tongue at the roof of the mouth, and sound somewhat like a cork pulled from a bottle.)

Despite the many complexities in the way that English is spoken, it is possible for people to understand what each other is saying even if they come from widely different areas of the country. Providing they use standard English (and not regional dialect words) someone from Cornwall should be understand someone from Glasgow speaking in English. Not always the case of course. Almost every language has its regional dialects. There are however some phonemes that occur in other languages that are not present at all in English. Modern standard Arabic has 28 consonant phonemes and 6 vowel phonemes. Moreover, the way that these are pronounced can change in meaning. Some syllables can be given stress that would make them different in meaning those from that are not given stress but then that is true of many European languages. If we learn Latin we have to know how to emphasise or put stress on a syllable – we have to know if the last, penultimate or third to last syllable is stressed in order to speak a language correctly. Some speakers are clear in the way they pronounce words – they are articulate. Others have more sloppy and lazy approach to speaking, using words that are slurred or truncated. This is true of some dialects. English has changed a lot since it was first spoken. When I was doing my A-Level in English Literature I had to learn to speak middle English in order to read the works of Chaucer aloud in class. The English of Chaucer sounded very different to modern English but you could just make out some of it in the written text.

To make sense of the way that spoken language influences human evolution we need to use techniques such as phonemics and the tools provided by ethnomethodology. The way in which a language is spoken changes over time in response to cultural, political and religious trends and the variations in power between different indigenous and migrant groups. Changes in spoken language can itself lead to changes in power relationships and cause conflict within communities of speakers. It is not difficult to observe that process happening in medieval Britain; it might therefore be to safe to assume that similar processes went on in early ancestral tribal societies.

Brain size and hominin language development

As part of my course in the study of Homo floresiensis (human fossils discovered on the island of Flores in Indonesia), I posed this question:

A big, unanswered question is “how big was the brain of the hominin that founded the Flores colony?” We don’t really know what happened but with 700,000 year old tools we urgently need an early skull. This would help us to know how much the brain “shrunk” over a period of over half a million years. The point is that if the brain shrunk over a period of well over half a million years how did the nature of the stone tools vary over the same period. Were later tool-makers with smaller brains better tool-makers than their bigger brained ancestors? It raises an interesting question of the relationship between brain size and intelligence in hominins.

In response to this, a fellow student contributed his own thoughts on the matter; my reply to him was

I liked Christopher’s point until I came to the word ‘intelligence’. I am not convinced that brain size = enhanced intelligence. Because (a) I am not clear what is meant by ‘intelligence’ and (b) there are a lot of other mental activities going on inside the brain other than the kind of things measured by intelligence. The key question for me is whether there is any co-relation between brain size and the development of any kind of language. So far, I have not seen anything on this course which suggests that H.f. had developed language (as we know it.) There is no evidence of ritual or rudimentary religion, two things that go hand in hand with the emergence of language in early hominids.

My fellow student responded by adding:

Perhaps I should have put the word intelligence in quotes, as I quite often do. It is easiest to think in terms of a basic brain functionality, which we have in common with animals at a biological level, and cultural information which is exchanged between individuals. A number of animals apart from human share some cultural information (the great apes, orca, elephants) but we differ in that we use language to “speed learn” cultural information. I think all early hominins had a primitive language to handle social interactions, which developed very slowly over millions of years. There was a critical tipping point (perhaps about 150,000 years ago) when one group discovered how to use language to speed up the teaching of how to make better tools – and significantly you could use language to teach your children how to use language – and the cultural knowledge explosion began with no biological modifications being needed. While H.f. almost certainly did not use language as we know it, if it was alive today I suspect that we could teach it to use language!

This dialogue raises the interesting issue of the relationship between brain size and intelligence (if by that we mean mental capacities including reasoning and abstract thought.) The fossil record shows changes in the size of human brains as evidenced by the skulls that have been found. Simply increasing the size of the brain – as evidence by the capacity of the cranium – does not allow us to infer that the owner’s were smarter. There is no convincing evidence that there is a direct correlation between the total size of a brain and its capacity to think; too many other variables are at play.

My fellow course member went to say

I believe some early hominins developed a highly vocal communication language for use in hunting. It then started to be used to discuss the results of the hunt round the camp fire and young children started to learn about hunting without being put at risk. The language then morphed into a “speed-learning” tool for passing information rapidly from generation to generation. The more efficient the language became the more that could be taught … and human knowledge started to expand exponentially.

Imaginative thinking but it does pose challenging and important questions for palaeoanthropology. It suggests that language developed from life-style, from what early people needed to do to survive in their habitat and what they needed to do in order to survive and meet the challenges of the new environments into which they were migrating. Those species that did not die out and become extinct, were successful in coping with changes in climate, the need to settle in new locations and the demands brought about by slowly moving into new territories that were markedly different from where they had been living before. This process of adaption requires high levels of communication and communal co-operation. Human communication had to become more complex in order to meet the challenges facing the early humans as they migrated into new regions.

I concluded the dialogue by saying

‘we now know the modern humans were migrating through South-east Asia on their way to Australia ‘ Interesting enough but evidence that modern humans settled in Flores would be more important in conjecturing about possible interaction between H.f. and other humans. I speculate that prolonged interaction between species has consequences for both groups and that would leave behind evidence in the strata. Two things would stand out for me (1) evidence of transfer of skills in making artefacts and (2) cultural influences particularly those relating to language. Such evidence already exists from cross-fertilisation discoveries in other parts of the world for pre-historic communities. One last thing is whether species interaction spreads disease. We known from modern interaction between people from different continents that disease has catastrophic consequences for isolated tribal groups. Evidence of disease should be available from bone samples and teeth.

What are the timescales for all this?

By the time we get to the early bronze-age we get the picture of man (Homo sapiens) that indicates the existence of fully-fledged language. Bronze-age people disposed of their dead in a way that suggests they had symbolic concepts of life and death and practised rituals around the remains of the dead. People at this time had developed attitudes to death and attitudes are cultural and that means they must have had language. Intentional burial of human remains appears to have started in the Middle Palaeolithic period (250,000 to 40,000 years ago). Excavations indicate burial practices in Neanderthal and modern humans. In the Upper Palaeolithic period, Cro-Magnons were interring their dead sometimes also placing in the grave objects such as animal bones or ochre powder, tools and jewellery such as bracelets.² By the Bronze age, man had developed a full capability for spoken language, the fabrication of sophisticated tools and jewellery, had started to make clothing, had a variety of cooking methods and had developed conceptual thought to the extent that they could dispose of their dead using ritual, ceremony and the beginnings of religious belief.

People gradually changed from the lifestyle of hunter-gatherers to a settled way of life that permitted farming and agriculture. Human settlements took on long-term timescales in their activities and we see the emergence of buildings and other forms of construction that required high levels of co-operation and crowd endeavour. The construction of monuments and henges required the collaboration of hundreds of people over a long period of time. Art and craft became increasingly sophisticated and we see the emergence of trading, warfare, culture and religion. There is evidence that early communities had a knowledge of astronomy and could tell that changes would occur in the seasons, tides and the weather by observations of the moon. That required abstract thought.

That picture is the end point of the evolutionary process from very early hominids to modern Homo sapiens.

Evolution revisited.

If we look at the work of Charles Darwen and others writing at the time, we get some basic concepts about human evolution. One of the most widely known concepts in early theories of evolution is ‘survival of the fittest.’ Darwen did not have access to the vast array of scientific discoveries of the 20th and 21st centuries that have thrown light on our early ancestors. Our knowledge of the evolution of human species in pre-history has created much more evidence as to why some species became extinct and other survived. If the notion that the fittest humans survived if valid, then we have to ask why we mean by ‘fittest.’ Darwen’s writings focus on the evidence that he could observe, that of physical survival in the world of predators and the ability to hunt or to access natural resources. Those that were successful could multiply; those that failed to protect themselves or to eat well became extinct. Being fit to inhabit an environment, being able to transmit knowledge from one generation to the next, being able to interpret the landscape – these are all skills that relate to survival in early hominid communities. Changes in climate, the intrusion of immigrant groups, the disappearance of food sources, changing sea levels, territories becoming drier and arid, rivers drying up – are all changes that would kill off some communities but which could be survived by those that were adaptable. The capacity to adapt to fundamental change can be seen as being closely related to language, culture and the ability to modify belief systems.

The approach of this article is to try to work out the role played by language in the process of human evolution. I have considered what language is in order to begin to analyse the part it could have played in evolution. Not an easy task; we are dealing with something that does not survive in the fossil record and clues are few until we get to artefacts that represent linguistic behaviour. Much of this is guesswork and assumption. Trying to imagine how language shaped human behaviour is useful in as much as it gives some direction to how remains may be analysed. By looking at artefacts we can arrive at some understanding of the emergence of belief systems, culture and religion. If we make assumptions (in the absence of hard evidence) then they must be credible, accurate and verifiable by observations and data that are available.

Language gave early man the ability to communicate ideas and this aided survival and gave him an advantage over other species that were limited to complex but non-verbal communication. Being able to work with a toolkit of words increased early man’s conceptual powers. He began to think more clearly, use abstract ideas and employ a wider and more sophisticated battery of mental processes.

Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky (1896 to 1934) was a Soviet psychologist, the founder of a theory of human cultural and bio-social development commonly referred to as cultural-historical psychology, and leader of the Vygotsky Circle. Vygotsky worked on the relationship between language and thought; that is what I know him for most of all. His books – such as Thought and language, Mind in society, Thinking and speech – establishes the explicit and profound connection between speech (both silent inner speech and oral language), and the development of mental concepts and cognitive awareness. Since Vygotsky, many have worked on the relationship between language and evolution. As new and fresh findings have become available from archaeology and the fossil record, from studies plotting DNA dispersion from Africa, results from linguistics showing how modern language might relate to those of our ancestors, and many other sources, we are becoming aware of how much has been discovered and how much more remains to be discovered about this challenging relationship.

Feeding bigger brains

Life before the bronze age saw people living in small groups that moved around the landscape searching for food. For early man, life was an endless round of finding food, shelter and safety. The development of language gave people the ability to communicate knowledge of their environment and aided the process of passing on skills in the fabrication of tools and artefacts. At some point early man learned how to harness fire and the main use to which he put this was cooking. When our ancestors learned how to make fire and to cook food they gained a further advantage which took them another step up the evolutionary ladder. Being able to eat cooked food improved diet and nutrition and, some have claimed, aided the growth of the brain.

The evidence suggests that as our species learnt to make fire, rather than to just escape from it, we gradually ate more and more food that we had cooked. Over hundreds of thousands of year, the digestive system of Homo sapiens adapted so that it became efficient at extracting energy from food that had been cooked, more so than from food which was raw. Scientific papers have suggested that cooked food provides a higher level of energy, when digested, and this aided the evolution of a larger brain. As an organ, the brain and its activities uses high levels of energy. It was only through the development of cooked food that such large brains could evolve.

There is no evidence, as far as I know, of any other animal species using fire. Several species use tools of various kinds but it is only our species that had learnt how to start fires and then use them. Cooking food using fire goes back many thousands of years in the archaeological record. The remains of cooking appear in nearly all excavations of human settlements in modern times and also occur widely in the fossil record for early hominins. Having more energy meant that early man could think more and that aided the develop of both language and of conceptual capacity. Man being to have abstract thoughts. That led to the construction of ritual and religion to the creation of culture and art. By the time we get to the bronze age we see how far this whole process had come.

It could be said that what characterises modern humans is their ability to cook food before eating it. No other species can do that. The implications are profound. Recent studies found that people who chose to eat only raw food, either meats or vegetables, had a lower body mass than those who lived on a normal (cooked) diet and often became malnourished. Our digestive systems have adapted over tens of thousands of years to eating cooked food. A consequence of this is that we are more able to turn food into energy by cooking it and this provides an ample supply of energy to our brains. Cooking is such a fundamentally important aspect of archaeology and history. We cannot fully understand the lifestyles of human communities without making reference to the way they get their food – either by hunting, scavenging or by farming – and the way they prepared it before eating it. Food preparation gives rise to many cultural characteristics and in some cases to religious rituals. Whether we are studying the fossil record or digging in the period of recorded history, looking at farming, agriculture, food distribution and cooking is completely necessary to understanding the life of any community.

Death – finding the right words

As human species developed, towards the bronze age, their life styles became increasingly complex. Their technologies were becoming ever more sophisticated and varied, they had an increasing awareness of their environment and they began to treat death differently. By the time of the bronze age, people were burying their dead and placing ritual objects in the graves. It is likely therefore, I would argue, that they developed words and thoughts that represented how they felt and thought about the processes of funerals and how the present generation of people related to those who had gone before. Language was being more sophisticated and that created a further element in the advance of their evolution. Funerary arrangements had become increasingly complex by the bronze age and the practice of mummification had become established in Egypt and the British Isles. [Mike Parker Pearson, 2005]

The technology of making bronze would have required new words, I think. It was an activity that had few parallels in anything else that people were doing at the time. Being able to extract ore, smelt it and work it into tools is a fairly complex process and this suggests, I would argue, that people had language and could talk to each other about this process. It would have been very much harder, if not impossible, had they not had language. This would have been between 2150 BC and 1700 BC. [Stockhammer, 2015]

The ability to start and use fire was a major factor in the evolution of early man and is seen as a major adaptive advantage to people in the late neolithic period. [Wrangham, 2010] Newspaper reports on the discovery of a bronze age settlement near Peterborough

Almost 3,000 years after being destroyed by fire, the astonishingly well preserved remains of two bronze age houses and their contents have been discovered at a quarry site in Peterborough. The artefacts include a collection of everyday domestic objects unprecedented from any site in Britain, including jewellery, spears, daggers, giant food storage jars and delicate drinking cups, glass beads, textiles and a copper spindle with thread still wound around it. [Kennedy, 2016]

The site was in use 3,000 years ago. Excavations of the site produced examples of cooking pots and well-preserved metal artefacts. By this time the evidence suggests that these people were farmers. I have already argued that the life style of hunting and gathering required knowledge of the habitats that people moved in. The transition to the kind of settled existence required for farming demanded increasing knowledge, skills and technology and that would have led to a larger number of words and increasingly sophisticated language.
Notes and references

¹ The description of a Neanderthal hyoid from Kebara Cave (Israel) in 1989 fuelled scientific debate on the evolution of speech and complex language. Gross anatomy of the Kebara 2 hyoid differs little from that of modern humans. However, whether Homo neanderthalensis could use speech or complex language remains controversial. Similarity in overall shape does not necessarily demonstrate that the Kebara 2 hyoid was used in the same way as that of Homo sapiens. The mechanical performance of whole bones is partly controlled by internal trabecular geometries, regulated by bone-remodelling in response to the forces applied. Here we show that the Neanderthal and modern human hyoids also present very similar internal architectures and micro-biomechanical behaviours. Our study incorporates detailed analysis of histology, meticulous reconstruction of musculature, and computational biomechanical analysis with models incorporating internal micro-geometry. Because internal architecture reflects the loadings to which a bone is routinely subjected, our findings are consistent with a capacity for speech in the Neanderthals. [from http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0082261%5D

² Mesolithic (10,000-6000 years ago). At this period, there was still a hunter-gatherer culture, but a change in technology can be seen in the archaeological record. A different tool kit was now in use compared with that of the later Palaeolithic. For example, the bow and arrow were increasingly used. This is related to a change in the environment to a more temperate climate with increased woodland and disappearance of large grazing herds. Increases in the exploitation of aquatic resources and small game are also evident. Seasonal camp sites such as Star Carr (NE England) and Kelling Heath (Norfolk) have been excavated. Local adaptations to climate can be seen. Burial in the Mesolithic is characterized by a shift from single or small groups of burials to larger cemeteries in the open. No British examples of Mesolithic burials have been identified, with one possible exception. A disarticulated burial in a partially burnt log boat found at St. Albans has been dated to c.4,700 BC, so this could be late Mesolithic or Early Neolithic. … Burial practices in this period, although in open air flat cemeteries rather than caves, seem to continue the later Palaeolithic traditions of burial with the apparent importance of red ochre, ornaments of shell and teeth, and provision of tools and food. Does this mean that spiritual traditions also remained unchanged despite a change of lifestyle? [From http://www.spoilheap.co.uk/burial.htm%5D

³ Alan Fogel referred to in The Dynamic Dance: nonvocal communication in African great apes By Barbara J. KING, Harvard University Press, 30 Jun 2009

References

Mike Parker Pearson, Andrew Chamberlain, Oliver Craig, Peter Marshall, Jacqui Mulville, Helen Smith, Carolyn Chenery, Matthew Collins, Gordon Cook, Geoffrey Craig, Jane Evans, Jen Hiller, Janet Montgomery, Jean-Luc Schwenninger, Gillian Taylor and Timothy Wess (2005). Evidence for mummification in Bronze Age Britain. Antiquity, 79, pp 529-546.
Stockhammer PW, Massy K, Knipper C, Friedrich R, Kromer B, Lindauer S, et al. (2015) Rewriting the Central European Early Bronze Age Chronology: Evidence from Large-Scale Radiocarbon Dating.

Wrangham, R. & Carmody, R. Human adaptation to the control of fire. Evol. Anthropol. 19(5), 187–199 (2010).

Maev Kennedy, The Guardian,  A bronze age Pompeii’: archaeologists hail discovery of Peterborough site, 12th January 2016.

John Novembre, Nature 522, 164–165 (11 June 2015), Human evolution: Ancient DNA steps into the language debate.

Kendra Lechtenberg (2014) writing in Stanford Neurosciences Institute, https://neuroscience.stanford.edu/news/ask-neuroscientist-does-bigger-brain-make-you-smarter

Alexandra Horowitz, 2013, Smithsonian Magazine, Why Brain Size Doesn’t Correlate With Intelligence – We can nurture growth, but never really control it. [from: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-brain-size-doesnt-correlate-with-intelligence-180947627/#KbJqgMbq8G7W60cK.99

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, 2015, Is There an Association Between Brain Size and Intelligence?  from http://brainblogger.com/2015/11/22/is-there-an-association-between-brain-size-and-intelligence/

Christopher Bergland, June 2016, Superfluidity: Fluid Intelligence Goes Beyond Brain Size  – Fluid intelligence has two facets that rely on brain size and energy production –  Psychology Today. From https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201606/superfluidity-fluid-intelligence-goes-beyond-brain-size

See William S-Y Wang, Language and the Evolution of Modern Humans, City University of Hong Kong,  from  http://www.ee.cuhk.edu.hk/~wsywang/publications/lang_evo_mhuman.pdf

Subjects

Articles I have written

ordered by subject

I have written about a lot of different things. In this list I have created a number of subjects under which I have placed links to pieces that are available on this blog.

This list is work in progress – further items will be added soon

My works

My novels

The Trench. A novel about bands, rock music and a venue.

My non-fiction books

Housing: approaches to policy, 2016.

Art

Lord of the Flies, Golding, play review

Business

Working with the web-o-sphere

See also ‘Internet and Web’ below

Economics

The economics of ageing

Films

Reviews of films

Brighton Rock

Finding Richard (2014)

The Black Swan

The Martian

Writing a character profile for a filmscript

History and archaeology

Brain size and evolution

Food in the 21st century

History of music in Leicester

Local music:  does it matter?

Housing

A place to live: a place to work

Buy-to-let schemes

Homelessness

Housing policy (My book)

Housing: approaches to policy (book)

What is a home?

Internet and web

Digital democracy re-visited

A place to live, a place to work.

Music

American Idiot (Green Day musical) review

An X-Factor for bands?

Band promotion

Bands and singers

Editorial bias in music journalism

Music education

New bands starting up

Thoughts on singing

What makes a good band?

Politics and policy

Referendum on the EU

Work in the 21st Century

Housing policy

Transport

Transport and cars

Urban transport