A FORGOTTEN LIFE, REMEMBERED

There have been a few articles that have caught my eye recently about people who have either vanished intentionally, or who have disappeared some other way.  The first is this one, about a gentleman called Henry Summers, who lived on Easter Road in Leith.  Mr Summers was found dead in his flat, after three years in which nobody noticed or cared that he was no longer around in the neighbourhood.  It’s sad, and it happens sometimes – fortunately not too often, but for those lonely people who go undiscovered, it is a miserable death.  A former friend worked for a housing association, and they told me that sometimes, when they are asked to carry out an eviction, they turn up and discover that the rent’s not been paid for years because the tenant has died in the flat.  Not a pleasant discovery.

But Mr Summers’s story has a few twists, mainly in that people thought he was someone else, or two people, or that someone else was him.  It didn’t help that another Mr Summers, of a similar age, lived on the same road.  It turns out that that wasn’t too unlikely, as Summers was a common surname in the area.  Still kinda weird if you’re the other Mr Summers and everyone thinks you’re dead, though.

I had a similar problem in my 4th year at university.  I received a letter from the Student Loans Company informing me that my loan had been stopped due to me leaving my course.  Being an OCD sufferer, my brain went into overdrive.  What if I couldn’t buy food or pay rent?  What if I get evicted?  Have I been kicked off my course?  What did I do?  It turns out that someone else with the exact same name, date of birth, and in the same local education authority as me had dropped out of their studies at a college in Leicestershire.  I spoke with the SLC over the phone and convinced them that the had the wrong person.  Our names were next to each other on the list, and I can see how the mistake was made.

Something like this happened to a woman living in New York City, when somebody else kept stacking up driving offenses on her license!  Due to the way the system works (or doesn’t), the best thing she could do was pay the fines and hope she didn’t get any more (she did).  They did eventually meet, and the other Lisa Davis finally found out why her speeding tickets had mysteriously vanished off of her record so many times…

I find it more shocking that things like this happen so rarely, if you consider how many people share common names, and that coincidences around birthdates, hometowns, careers, etc. appear to occur quite frequently.  Maybe the system does work!

Mistaken identities aside, there are those who go missing and are never found.  Some intentionally, but not always.  The Missing Persons Bureau has people on their records going back over 50 years, and at present there are approximately 1,000 people on their database who remain unidentified.  As well as these, 250,000 people go missing every year.  Most are found, but many are not.

Here in Manchester, we had a recent local mystery, which could have been the plot of an Agatha Christie novel.  An elderly man arrived in Saddleworth, asked for directions to the top of the mountain, and was eventually discovered at the summit, dead from strychnine poisoning.  Just from those few facts, this looks seriously weird, and like there must be more to his story.  For months he went unnamed, until someone identified him as David Lytton, a British man who had lived in Lahore for many years.  Little else is known about him, and his death near to the Dovestone Reservoir remains a mystery.

In the town where I grew up, a young man was washed ashore, and found by passers-by, drenched in sea water and unable to speak.  While we were used to odd things happening there (it’s just one of those places, trust me), this was pretty epic, even by our standards.  He was taken to hospital, and given a pencil and paper.  He drew an elaborate sketch of a grand piano.  It was rumoured that when taken to a piano, he than played beautiful and complex pieces, but reports differ.  The local press dubbed him the “Piano Man”.  Eventually, he spoke, and was identified as Andreas Grassl, a 20-year-old German citizen who had gone missing four months earlier.  Today, little is known about how he ended up on Sheerness beach, although it is believed that he had planned to take his own life.

All of these tales are stories of intrigue, and sometimes tragedy.  While each of us considers our own life to be of high importance (whether we admit it or not), there is a chance that we may find ourselves in circumstances where there is no-one to look for us, or we cannot be found, or we cannot help ourselves.  If I went missing tomorrow, who would look for me?  And how likely is it that I would be discovered?  I have few living relatives, although I hope that at least some of my friends might enquire after my whereabouts.  What if I move abroad, or grow old alone?  That’s a more common scenario for today’s citizens than it has been at any other time for many centuries – who is going to keep track of the elderly millennials?  And what memories will we have to pass on to future generations?  I hope that I live an exciting enough life to get at least a full-page obituary, just not any time soon.

OLD MONEY

The Conservative press are currently doing everything they can to pander to the irrational beliefs of the Brexiters.  This week’s hilarious piece of rose-tinted nonsense is the possibility of bringing back Imperial weights and measures for consumer transactions.  In spite of the fact that we no longer buy all of our food from local shops where they weigh it out in front of us, and that most people don’t even think about pack size in more detail than “big”, “small” or “serves 4”, the desire of the blue-rinse brigade is to take our shopping experience back to the 1950s.  And who can forget those halcyon days when we had polio, an outside loo, and no telly?

Apparently there are also rumblings about restoring pre-decimal currency, and since we’ve already begun devaluing the pound by voting for economic hari-kiri, we might as well go one step further and properly screw things up by taking the economy back to the 1970s.  My dad often claims that imperial weights & measures are simpler to use, and that “old money” is easier to understand.  The argument goes along the lines of:

“Well, when I was younger, that’d cost two-and-six.  You can’t get that in new money, eh?”

“You can, it’s 30p.”

“Well, that’s devalued because there used to be 240d in a pound and now it’s only 100p.”

“The two systems use different base units and you also have to take account of inflation.”

“You’re talking a load of mumbo-jumbo there, it was all a con, old money was worth more, etc, etc.”

and then…

“But how can decimal measures be more accurate?  I used to go to the butcher’s and ask for 2lb of lamb chops and now they sell me 908g, or 902, or 976 – what’s accurate about that?”

“Well, that’s more accurate….”

Anyone who’s grown up with the metric system, or works with it every day in their study or employment, will know that YOU LITERALLY JUST DIVIDE AND MULTIPLY EVERYTHING BY TEN; IT’S THAT SIMPLE.  But apparently it’s easier to work in a combination of base 12, 14 and 16, than base 10 in which you add or remove zeroes.  Well, obviously this isn’t true, but there’s a reason older folk are clinging to pounds, shillings pence, feet, yards, and furlongs.

Well, a few reasons.  But look at how they see the problem.  Up until 1971 (and for a good while after), they were using a familiar system that had “nice” round values, like “roughly 1lb of jam”, or “just over a quarter of humbugs”.  And then they had to change to a system that turned their simple approximations into intimidating not-whole numbers.  Even though the quantity was exactly the same, this new degree of precision came across as an unnecessary complication.

And it was a change foisted upon them.  I don’t know much of the popular public opinion in the early 1970s, because I wasn’t born then – so the fuss may not have been as great as legend makes it out to be.  I know plenty of older people who are quite happy with the metric system and decimal currency, but there’s a sizeable amount of older people who aren’t.  Articles like the one I linked to in the first paragraph serve to garner sentiment that the old ways were better, and so we end up with the situation we have now.  It makes little sense to those of us who think the metric system is so wonderful, but it’s become an emotional argument out of a practical one.  Initially, it was a change that took time getting used to, and was probably met with some resistance.  But now its become a movement to restore things to the way they “should” be, tied up in rhetoric about the The Good Old Days that never really existed.

From a business and scientific perspective a return to Imperial weights & measures, and pre-decimal currency, would be an expensive mistake.  But we know exactly what the British public think of experts (as evidenced by the outcome of the referendum, among other things), and so that argument carries little weight.  While I disagree with their views, I do think it’s important to listen to the Blue Rinsers thoughts on this, and have conversations with them.  Much of the EU referendum campaign was people from both sides yelling into the void and not engaging in discussions with their opponents.  Changing people’s minds is really bloody hard, and ultimately you have to allow them to do it themselves.  But our present tactics failed us, and we’re in a bit of a pickle now, aren’t we?

NOTES FROM A SMALLER ISLAND

A while back, I posted about UK immigration policy (this was pre-Brexit, before Brexit was a twinkle in Boris Johnson’s eye, even) and I mooted the idea that our government might be steering the UK towards a lower, and hopefully sustainable, population with a correspondingly smaller economy.  Well, recent events suggest that this could be a possibility.

I attended an event held by GMSS, on “Misrepresenting Reality” – a critique of the information provided by the Leave campaign (most of which turned out to be lies and/or appeals to nostalgia).  Well, I say attended, what I mean is that I missed the whole talk but snuck in during the extended Q&A (hey, I have a demanding job).

One of the questions asked of the speaker (who is a Professor in European Law, so they know their stuff) was whether they had heard any good arguments in support of Brexit.  They said no, but there was one possibility that no-one has mentioned – that Brexit would result in the UK’s population and economy reducing in size and resulting in a smaller, sustainable nation with comfortable living standards but no aspirations to be anything greater.

Personally, I don’t think that would be a good thing, but it would be an argument that actually held some water, in comparison to jingoistic ranting and slogans painted on buses.  It seems that there are decisions happening as to where our country is headed.  I see it as being in one of two broad directions:

  1. Economic growth, high population, high output – We aim to keep producing, innovating, and competing as a first-world player.  We take an active role on the world stage, with diplomatic and military influence and an international outlook.  In order for this to happen, our infrastructure and population need to consistently grow, and we have to be able to maintain this growth against competitor nations who may have an advantage in terms of efficiency in terms of production and labour costs (I’m looking at you, China and India).  High immigration is necessary to bolster the population, due to the below-replacement birth rate of indigenous Brits.
  2. Declining economy, low population, low output – we accept that other countries will overtake us, and we make the decision to go quietly.  We reduce our population by curbing immigration, and continuing with policies designed to discourage people from having large families.  We maintain a decent quality of life by relying more on our own industries, with some overseas trade in specialised products and services.  We maintain a foothold in international politics, but our role is far less significant.  The capacity of our armed services is whittled down even further and take a more ceremonial and/or peacekeeping role.

You may decide that you prefer one or other of those options, or neither, or you might not have any strong feelings on it.  But one thing we do know is that this was not the Brexit Britain we were promised.  We’re not going to bring The Empire back – and I’m sure there will be many disappointed Leavers who feel they got sold a pup.

F*CK YOU, 2016.

One thing that pretty much everyone can agree on is that 2016 has been universally shite.  All the best celebs have died, we voted for Brexit, and Donald Trump was elected President.  I’m almost convinced that there could be a God after all, due to 2016 looking like an elaborate practical joke contrived by a mischievous overlord.  And that’s just a brief summary of all the terrible things that happened last year up until the beginning of November (I’ve probably missed a few, so much bad shit went down last year).  Also, these are things that were of note in the white, middle-class, Western world.  That’s just the frame of reference that I have.  Things might have looked a lot rosier in other cultures (every cloud, etc).

On 12th November, Twitter user @christhebarker created a Sgt. Pepper-themed montage of all those that 2016 had stolen from us (although 2016 really wasn’t done by this point).  Hover over the picture for more info about those in the image.

Denise Robertson Ed Stewart Carla Lane Garry Shandling Johan Cruyff Prince Buster Sir George Martin Anton Yelchin Howard Marks Leonard Cohen Arnold Palmer Harper Lee Pierre Boulez Gareth Thomas Erik Bauersfeld Glenn Frey Keith Emerson Burt Kwouk Sir Jimmy Young Paul Daniels Sir Terry Wogan Cliff Michelmore Jean Alexander Muhammad Ali Frank Kelly Caroline Aherne George Kennedy Maurice White David Gest Gene Wilder Lemmy Kilmister Prince David Bowie Pete Burns Alan Rickman Zaha Hadid Ronnie Corbett Victoria Wood Robert Vaughn Jo Cox MP Sylvia Anderson Kenny Baker Tony Dyson The Toblerone Travesty Donald Trump PEOTUS Leicester City Premier League Champions 2016

 

But after that, we needed to add another whole damn row, because 2016 is a right bastard, apparently:

blub

Is 2016 all that unusual?  Yes and No.  The number of celebrity deaths, international incidents, wars, and other human-induced clusterfucks is no more than in any other year, proportionally.  But as I said at the start, the events that have caught our attention have been skewed to the Western middle-class span of interests, and so it looks like we’ve been particularly hard done by this year.  And there are other confounding factors.  Think about when we started to define people as “celebrities” by modern standards – it was around the time that television really took off, from the 1950s.  People who made their name in early TV are well into old age now, and those household figures who have become so familiar are just like any of us, mere mortals.  So this might be the start of a wave of well-known figures dying off.  Which would make 2016 seem less exceptional in a few years from now.

Some of those celebrity deaths have been of relatively young people – Carrie Fisher, Prince, George Michael, David Bowie – but even though most of us will make it into old age, there is a sizeable minority of any population that is just unlucky and dies young.  I know people who’ve died in their 20s, 30s and 40s.  All of these deaths are tragedies, but they’re not as unusual as we think.

And even if 2016 is a statistical blip (which it probably isn’t), such is the nature of chance.  If all deaths occurred at a uniform rate, then THAT would be unusual. So whatever it is; more celebrities getting to an older age, more people being recognised as celebrities, better media reporting, whatever – we are just going to have to accept that Shit Happens.  And 2016 was really shit, wasn’t it.

TWO MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT

This post isn’t about global Armageddon, so I’m sorry to disappoint if that was what you were looking for.  No, this is about my adventures on New Year’s Eve, in one of the closest “cutting it so fine as to be graphene-thick” moments I’ve ever had.

My OCD got the better of me, and I was stuck in a loop of complete inertia.  I needed to complete my chores to perfection, but knew that it wasn’t possible.  And so I collapsed into a mess of mental compulsions and avoidance.

Who else remembers ‘Allo ‘Allo?
I had been invited to a close friend’s New Year’s party, and there are certain expectations that one will be present at the required time.  Well I tried to hard to leave my pit of procrastination, and finally summoned the energy at 2330.  I got in a taxi at 2337, and had a lovely chat with my driver, who was quite pleased that I’d chosen him, as my route took him to near his home – so he could look in on his family just after 12 (I love beautiful coincidences like this).  Trouble is, neither him nor my friend live particularly near to me, so this was literally going to be a race against the clock.

Let’s just say that the driver got me there rather, ahem, efficiently.  I wasn’t keeping my eye on the speed, but it felt an awful lot like the 88 mph needed to transport me to the correct dimension to wish a happy new year to my mates.  Regular text updates on my location were sent en route, and Google’s ETA fluctuated between 2359 and 0002.  I was going to miss it.

But no.  I rang ahead as we turned on to my friend’s road, and I was greeted at the front door with a glass of prosecco and ushered in to the kitchen just in time for the obligatory snog and Auld Lang Syne. 2358.  Two minutes to midnight.

LOSING MY RELIGION

Maybe the title of this post is a little inaccurate.  I never really had religion inside my heart or my mind, but it was very much a part of my life as a youngster.  I grew up in an isolated community in which the church played a big role, and even though I attended non-faith schools, religion was still ubiquitous.  In my first two schools, the legal requirement for an act of daily worship was strictly adhered to; we regularly had visits from church groups to teach us dubious moral lessons, and religious dogma permeated the syllabus.  And this was in an ordinary, non-faith school system.  I’ve heard of the experiences of those who did attend religious schools, and their stories range from the casually harmful to the downright monstrous.  In addition to the formal aspects of education, the ethos of the schools was very much focused on discipline and shame.  We were not educated about drugs, alternative lifestyles or sexuality, or even about our bodies and sex in anything but the most clinical and limited terms.  I think the idea was that if we were shielded from it, we wouldn’t do it (this presents a kind of magical thinking about the teenage brain).

My family were incredibly religious, attending church at least twice a week.  My childhood was overseen by good old-fashioned Christian discipline, with certain topics off-limits for discussion (anything about the human body, sex, or social injustices), and certain viewpoints the unquestionable truth (homosexuality = bad, nuclear family = good).  The way this was instilled within us was by fear.  Disobedience or blasphemy (yes, as a child I was instructed to limit my speech, and by extension, my thinking) were punished by a beating, or at the very least by being yelled at.  No opportunity for reflection was given, so that I could figure out what I’d done wrong – I just learnt to know what I could get away with around whom.

Throughout my school career, there was a noticeable divide between those who had religion, and those who didn’t.  Although our community was cut off, plenty of families were more outward-looking and didn’t get caught in the trap.  At the time, I thought that the children from those families were mean and spiteful and bad.  So it was a difficult dance to perform at school – I wanted to have friends, but I also knew that the kids I wanted to hang around with were prone to taking the piss out of the religious, and it made me feel really small.  Even though I didn’t believe in it, there was a feeling of “wrongness”, like these words were a personal attack on me.  In these situations I just kept my mouth shut and hoped they would stop, and (please, please, please!) not turn their attention on me.  Not having anywhere to turn while trying to leave religion behind was so awkward for me.  I wish that I’d discovered atheist groups before my thirties, my formative years could have been so much more enjoyable.

In my late teens, a family friend encouraged me to get confirmed.  By this point in my life I was unsure how I felt about religion, but it was something that we just “did”, so I went along with it.  Unfortunately this then imposed all kinds of expectations on me, that I would attend church more regularly, that I would take communion (I felt so uncomfortable about this – like I had been coerced into a ceremony I felt no connection to), that I would live my life in a certain way, and most insidiously that I would “find some new friends”.  I toed the line up until the first opportunity arose that gave me a chance to leave, which was going to university shortly after I had turned 18.  My parents were dead against it (it’s a dangerous world, there are all sorts of bad influences out there, etc, etc), but I already had a reputation for being headstrong (I wasn’t really, I was just normal, but my parents didn’t want to have to deal with “normal”).

So by the time I arrived at uni almost 20 years ago (I know!), I was simultaneously glad to be free, and quite fearful of the myriad opportunities for transgression that were available pretty much as soon as I was left alone in a strange city for 5 minutes.  I wasn’t good at making safe choices, or controlling my impulses, because I’d never been allowed to make mistakes as a child.  Religion may well keep its adherents on the straight and narrow, but only because it prevents them from figuring things out for themselves.  Take someone out of that environment, and they have a LOT of catching up to do.  I was all sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, and very little study.  I learnt so much about myself that first year away, but I did it the hard way.  I made all my social mistakes at once, and got myself into some rather sticky situations that I found it difficult to extricate myself from.  I discovered that left alone to develop my own morals and beliefs, I was becoming quite a different person to what my parents had told me I was.  My year 1 flatmates didn’t really like me, and one of the reasons we didn’t get on was that I just wasn’t at the same stage of development as them.  I went it alone a lot of the time, and didn’t always reach the healthiest conclusions.  I would never have wanted to admit at the time that I was vulnerable, but I was.  I wasn’t self-aware or resilient enough – if I had been, I’d have dropped religion a lot sooner.

By this time religion was just something that one did, I certainly didn’t feel an attachment, or find meaning in any of it.  There had been times in my teens when I had enjoyed the collective euphoria of a religious service, or the community aspect, but I never really believed it.  I assumed that other people at church must have felt the same way, but I’ve since met many people of whom it is clear that they really do believe (I try to understand their views, but it’s almost like the “religion” part of my mind doesn’t really work.  The “philosophy” part, however….).  I wonder if the first red flag occurred with Santa Claus.  See, I hear of many stories when someone first realised that Santa wasn’t real.  Well, I don’t have that memory.  Santa was spoken of in our house, I was told the stories about him delivering all the presents on 24th December and sneaking in down the chimney to drop them off, and many of my Christmas presents were “From Santa”.  But even my 4- or 5-year-old self knew it was a crock of shit.  I clearly remember knowing while that age that Santa was just a story.  As was the tooth fairy.  But the thing to do was to play along because it was kind of fun, and involved getting presents.  This could well have laid the foundations for my shallow acceptance of religion growing up.  I knew that with non-religious peers and adults, I could do and say one thing, and with my family or at church I must do another.  It was complicated by the overtly religious nature of my schooling, because the lines between religious instruction and the real world were blurred.  I had to discern which role to play in which circumstance, so while I lacked some social skills, I became very good at reading people’s intentions.  I also knew how to give people what they wanted, which became dangerous as I also learnt that I should always please others.  That’s a hard one to shake, and I’ve still not really got there.

One thing that I really struggled with was that adults who knew the family, even if they weren’t religious themselves, had expectations of me being religious.  I had to act out scenes which I really didn’t believe in.  It felt hypocritical.  I felt uncomfortable going through the motions, because I knew it wasn’t me, but I also couldn’t tell my parents how I felt – they totally lost it if I repeated a religious joke, so telling them I thought it was bullshit was probably not going to go down well.

So I was away from home, feeling gratitude that I could live my life the way I wanted, but also still holding on to some “god-fearing” beliefs.  To this day, I have anxiety about taking the Lord’s name in vain, even though I know it’s entirely inconsequential.  It’s like I retained all the bad bits and lost any good bits from religion (fortunately there aren’t that many).  Over the years my confidence grew, and I’m a lot more outspoken about my beliefs.  I also don’t put up with other people’s false assumptions about me.  I only wish I’d managed this quicker than I did.

I used to hold some really objectionable opinions that were completely baseless when I actually thought about them logically (for example, I inherited – and subsequently disinherited – homophobia from my parents, while also knowing that it was a stupid and harmful belief.  That’s cognitive dissonance for you!).  And that was one thing that changed in my mindset – I had no problem logically seeing that the religion itself was a fantasy, but the baggage that came with it went unquestioned until I was out of the bubble.  Deconstructing these beliefs and opinions also took time, but it was a necessary process.  My politics and views on oppressed minorities are so changed that my personality is unrecognisable now, and I cringe at some of the views I held up to be true.

Actually leaving religion – that was the hard bit.  I had no resources to safely get away, or to prevent well-meaning family from trying to rein me back in.  Leaving home was the only way that I could do it, and it had to be far away.  Living just down the road would not have been enough distance.  It’s one thing that makes me wary when people mock the religious: like at school, when kids from the more enlightened families would poke fun at religion.  I shared their views, but I could also tell that they saw me as one of the religious types.  The joke kept me in my place.  Having met many people who’ve desperately searched for a way out, I exercise caution in this respect.  Sure, it’s one thing to ridicule from afar, but how many closet atheists are we preventing from finding freedom?  We have to be welcoming to those who retain their faith, to those who question it, and to those who we have no idea of their intentions.  Leaving religion is a journey, and there’s no set course.  Assumptions harm, and as skeptics we should be especially wary.

I WENT TO CHURCH AND I LIKED IT

“I went to church and I liked it;
hope my boyfriend don’t mind it”

Is what I’ve had going round in my head for the last 24 hours (thanks, OCD!).  But at least it helped me to remember to write this post.  I’m pretty sure that Mr. Science Gentleman will be concerned about my Skeptical Muscle after I confided in him by text that I actually felt really positive about attending a church service.

The occasion was a family funeral, and I felt strongly that the local church was the right place to hold it. My relative had been a regular attendee, and part of the “family” in the church community. Their funeral was well-attended by people from many parts of the community – turns out that my relative was something of a social butterfly (amongst the pious, at least). The service was conducted by the old vicar who was brought out of retirement for this funeral. They knew each other well, and the vicar’s family was almost like a distant branch of ours (I may be the first instance of an atheist being on first-name terms with the local clergy). And I felt it was totally appropriate for him to conduct a traditional Church of England ceremony in a church that I’d not set foot in for almost 20 years.

The experience really reinforced the attraction to religion for both those who are strong believers, and those who are not.  The church back home has over 1000 years of history (I grew up in a place that was pivotal to British history in almost every era – it’s kinda cool, here‘s a good starting point if you’d like to find out more), and that history is a part of what made me who I am.  Even though my relative’s funeral was a religious one, it was highly personalised and because the minister knew them well, he relayed some anecdotes about them in the sermon – some of the stories were things that I didn’t even know about them.  Even though I have a lot of anxieties about churches and religious figures (again, thanks for that, OCD) being inside The Abbey felt comforting and safe.  It was a known quantity, and a place of familiarity after so many years away.

So what now?  Am I going to convert back to Christianity?  Not likely.  I still feel strongly that a church is not a place for me, and not only do I not want any of my milestones celebrated in a church ceremony, I also feel that I would be a hypocrite if I did.  The experience has alerted me to the role that humanism can play in meeting the needs that religion often caters for.  A need to celebrate and affirm life events, a sense of togetherness, something to identify with.  I don’t buy into the idea of a humanist congregation, or feel that my humanism is part of a faith group, but I like the fact that humanism is flexible enough to accept everyone without forcing a set of rules on those it serves.  For me, losing religion was about leaving behind the shackles that chained me to a limited life.  As a result, I don’t like the ideas of the “humanist community”, or “sceptical community”, even though I participate in both.  I am a humanist, and a skeptic, but that’s not all I am.  Defining me only as that would do an injustice to the exciting, varied, and unrestricted life I have chosen.  You don’t gain freedom by choosing a new captor.

I would strongly recommend a humanist ceremony to anyone who wants the experience of a formal ceremony, but without the “God” bit. I’ve not attended any humanist funerals yet, but I have been to a few humanist weddings. These were a far better reflection of the couples’ aspirations and beliefs about marriage than a rigid, religion-based ceremony could ever be. My relative’s funeral was a perfect send-off because it shared with humanism so many of the aspects that made the ceremony appropriate and memorable; not because it was in a church.

CLUBBING IN YOUR 30s – SANKEY’S SOAP

During my undergrad days, Sankey’s was touted as The Place To Go on a night out.  If you were serious about House Music (yes, yes I definitely am), this was your sanctuary.

Unfortunately, during my initial time at university, I was a bit of a Shrinking Violet (hard to believe, I know), and I didn’t really end up with the type of flatmates I actually got on with (or even liked, tbh). It was a self-perpetuating cycle: not going out because I didn’t have many good friends; not having many good friends because I didn’t go out. I finally decided to do something about my miserable predicament in my mid-twenties (more on this in another post), and started exploring the awesome city I’d lived in for Ten Damn Years.

I found some friends (in the office – who says it’s all work and no play?) who did want to go on a proper night out, and so we embarked on an adventure.

Now in my uni days, it wasn’t the case that I never went out, it was more that I went to the safe, pedestrian venues that all the other preppy clones were going to.  There was plenty of bad behaviour and fun to seek out, but it was in a controlled environment, never straying too far from the interests and venues of the predetermined middle-class student experience.  I craved more, but didn’t have the boldness to go out and get it.

In my thirties, the opportunity for adventure aligned with my spirit for novelty, and I joined the heaving, sweating masses at Da Club.  Most of the patrons are younger than me, but there is a substantial minority of thirty-somethings trying to capture that last flush of youth prior to middle-aged spread.

But there is one Universal Truth:

In the club environment, there are exactly two topics of conversation.  Due to the fleeting nature of our interactions, and the audibility of nothing except some dirty beats, brevity is essential.  These talking points are:

  1. “Have you got any drugs?”
  2. “Do you fancy a f%&k?”

And that is it.  No great philosophical debates to be found here – save these for the pub or the after-party.  But it actually suits me as a clubber in my thirties – in my more naïve and non-confrontational guise, I had a severe aversion to the word “no”.  In some respects, it gave me some incredible experiences, in others it led me to some icky and dangerous places.  But now, at this time of my life, I just want to go and dance, and coexist in indifference with my fellow humans.  No, I don’t have any drugs, and no, I’m not going back to yours.  I’m just here to dance.

HOW WILL THE UK VOTE IN TOMORROW’S EU REFERENDUM?

We’ve already seen evidence of what happens if you allow the Great British Public to vote on anything important, with the RRS Sir David Attenborough saga. (Click here for an article taking itself waaaaaay too seriously)

How many spoiled papers are going to be for "Votey McVoteface"? I feel an FOI Request coming on!

So why are we even voting on one of the most politically destabilising issues of our time?  Both sides have made good points and bad, and some downright hilarious ones too.  But if we are to believe the Remain campaign (and our own Prime Minister), then leaving the EU is a terrible idea.  And this question has been put to a population that cares more about a cake contest than who will run the country for the next four years.  Even if you’re politically opposed to the EU and would like the UK to be “independent”, it makes no sense to vote “out”, because we’d still have to obey EU laws and pay the fees, but we’d have no say on those laws.  So we’d be literally choosing taxation with no representation – unless the UK goes totally renegade (and who knows what would happen with This Guy in charge).

But I have heard so many “Brexit” voices, all believing the same untruths, ignoring the facts and complex details of how the EU actually works (who wants to listen to the workings of the Council of the EU, when the Daily Mail’s going on about straight bananas and bent cucumbers?), that I’m scared it’s a genuine possibility, nay, probability.

So, you’ve probably guessed that I, like a lot of other EU scientists, want to remain in the EU. On a purely selfish level, I want to keep my EU citizenship, and I may have to go live abroad and become a citizen of somewhere else if we vote to leave. Mind you, if we become a miniature version of the Empire, with our own tin-pot Trump as leader, it might not be worth staying anyway.

I love to discuss this issue with people I know, both pro- and anti-EU types, but I know that it’s very unlikely that I will change many people’s minds – those who have decided are fixed in their opinions, and for those who are undecided, I am just one voice in a sea of many.  Most ordinary citizens (and even those working in sectors with outcomes affected by the vote) don’t know all of the issues, and I’d be hard pressed to find anyone who can say with confidence that they know what is best for Britain (except for John Major, who is in a better position to advise than pretty much anyone else).

Either way – get out there and vote!  Whether you think the EU is about democracy or dictatorship (again, I bet that 99% of the UK population can’t define these terms), your vote matters.  Do you really want to not even make it on to the losing side, because you were sat about on the substitute’s bench?  At the very least, do your research on the issues and become more politically aware.  There’s no excuse – more information is available to us than ever before.

Take care, All.

AND VOTE!

30 DAYS HATH SEPTEMBER,

30 days hath September,
April, June and November.
All the rest have 31,
Except for February alone,
Which has 28 days clear,
And 29 in each leap-year.

This is a handy little poem that seems to have been phrased in this way just so that it rhymes nicely. No-one talks like that.

“Hey, how many days are there this month?”
“There are 28 days clear”

But a cool (yet kind of obvious) fact about today in particular is that not only do we only get a February 29th once every four years, but every February 29th has a guaranteed five of one particular day, and just one. Every other year, all the other months get at least two fives of something (because 30 divides by 7 four times with a remainder of 2), and February does not. But in leap years it does. It’s not left out anymore! Hurrah! Unfortunately this month we’ve had five Mondays, but in 2020 we get five Saturdays, so at least we have that to look forward to.

Something a bit more unusual: I wanted to write something on blue moons, and whether or not February can have them (you’d think not because a lunar cycle is 29.53 days, and February can’t go on for longer than 29 days exactly – not even a little bit), but discovered that my understanding of the term “blue moon” was incorrect! This is pretty cool, and should definitely be on QI sometime (are we up to Series ‘M’ yet?)

A Blue Moon isn’t actually the second full moon in a calendar month, as everyone seems to think it is. It dates back to medieval times and refers to an intercalary month (there’s more info on what that word means and on Blue Moons generally here). A season would normally have three moons, but if a season has four moons, the third one is a blue moon – and these occur once every 2.7145 years.

Winter runs officially runs from about 21st December to 21st March (Winter solstice to Spring Equinox), although it varies by year – I did not know this (it makes sense, what with a solar year not quite equalling a calendar year, but I never really thought about it), and so it is actually possible for February to have a blue moon!

Just to confirm the numbers:

21 Dec – 21 Mar = 90 calendar days in non-leap years, and 91 in leap years.

Winter is approximately 89 days in actual scientific terms (position of Earth in relation to Sun, etc.)

3 lunar cycles = 3 x 29.53 = 88.59 days

So it’s possible, for either a year with 365 or 366 days, but it’s less likely than for other seasons, as Winter loses a few days compared to Spring, Summer and Autumn.  It also depends on the moon’s cycle lining up with the 89-ish day window, which happens very rarely.

The last time we had a February blue moon was in 2000, and it also happened in 1981 and 1905, as shown in the values below (all times GMT):

Winter 1904/5 Full moons

1904 Dec 22 18.01
1905 Jan 21 07.14
1905 Feb 19 18.52
1905 Mar 21 04.55

1904 Winter solstice 22 Dec 06.14

1905 Spring equinox 21 Mar 06.58

Winter 1980/1 Full moons

1980 Dec 21 18:09
1981 Jan 20 07:40
1981 Feb 18 22:59
1981 Mar 20 15:23

1980 Winter solstice 21 Dec 16.56

1981 Spring equinox 20 Mar 17.03

Winter 1999/2000 Full moons

1999 Dec 22 17:33
2000 Jan 21 04:42
2000 Feb 19 16:28
2000 Mar 20 04:46

1999 Winter solstice 22 Dec 07.44

2000 Spring equinox 20 Mar 07.35

I got my data from timeanddate.com and http://home.hiwaay.net/~krcool/Astro/moon/fullmoon.htm#09

It won’t happen again this century, so it really is a unique thing.  While blue moons in any season occur once every 2.7145 years, we’re looking at a little over one per century for the February blue moon.  Interestingly, neither of those in the 20th Century fell in leap years.

Curiously, it’s also possible to have a season with only two full moons; this is also dependent on the moon’s cycles lining up so that a full moon happens just before the Winter solstice and one straight after the Spring equinox.  These are also super-rare, and can only happen in Winter (because it’s the only season short enough to permit it).  We last had this in the Winter of 1961/2, and there won’t be another until 2314/5.  Wow!