November, 2016

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The lies we tell

It seems that everyone is at it. Politicians, churches, history books. They are all lying to us.

Harsh? Probably? True? Maybe.

The Oxford English Dictionary (still my favourite) defines a lie as ‘an intentionally false statement.’

Just this week, we had the ‘president-elect’ of the US tweeting this:


Was his claim intentional? Unless the proverbial monkeys got loose on an infinite number of typewriters and happened to post only this from his Twitter account, I’d say it was intentional.

Was it false? Ah, well there it gets a little trickier, but not much. What is false? OED again: ‘Not according with truth or fact; incorrect.’ His statement does not accord with any facts that he has presented. In the absence of any facts, I’m going to go with it being false. I may yet be proven wrong, but only by facts, not wild assertions.

So intentionally and false = lie.

Saying, as we hear so often now, that we are living in a post-truth age, does not make it all right. Saying it again and again just starts to normalise something which we should never accept. We look back at history and shake our heads, saying how could they have been so stupid/naive/deluded/credulous/whatever. But are future generations going to look back at us and think, when did they decide that the facts stopped mattering?

Last week, we celebrated Thanksgiving. The great thing about having a half-Scottish, half-American, German-speaking family is we get to celebrate EVERYTHING! Christmas on the 24th and 25th of December, Santa Claus on the night of the 24th and Nikolaus on the 6th and the Easter Bunny always shows up on cue – the list goes on.

We probably think we know, at least roughly, the Thanksgiving story, but here’s the summary from the History Channel’s website (I think we are all aware of the danger of getting information from the internet and of the importance of using trusted sources):

“In November 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest proved successful, Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast and invited a group of the fledgling colony’s Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit. Now remembered as American’s “first Thanksgiving”—although the Pilgrims themselves may not have used the term at the time—the festival lasted for three days. While no record exists of the historic banquet’s exact menu, the Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow wrote in his journal that Governor Bradford sent four men on a “fowling” mission in preparation for the event, and that the Wampanoag guests arrived bearing five deer. Historians have suggested that many of the dishes were likely prepared using traditional Native American spices and cooking methods.”

Lovely. Nice story. But is it true? Or is it more akin to the Easter Bunny version of history?

Let’s see what the Huffington Post (also credible source, I think) has to say:

“The idea of the American Thanksgiving feast is a fairly recent fiction. The idyllic partnership of 17th Century European Pilgrims and New England Indians sharing a celebratory meal appears to be less than 120 years-old. And it was only after the First World War that a version of such a Puritan-Indian partnership took hold in elementary schools across the American landscape. We can thank the invention of textbooks and their mass purchase by public schools for embedding this “Thanksgiving” image in our modern minds. It was, of course, a complete invention, a cleverly created slice of cultural propaganda, just another in a long line of inspired nationalistic myths.

“The first Thanksgiving Day did occur in the year 1637, but it was nothing like our Thanksgiving today. On that day the Massachusetts Colony Governor, John Winthrop, proclaimed such a “Thanksgiving” to celebrate the safe return of a band of heavily armed hunters, all colonial volunteers. They had just returned from their journey to what is now Mystic, Connecticut where they massacred 700 Pequot Indians. Seven hundred Indians – men, women and children – all murdered.”

Right. Hang on. Was it 1621 or 1637? And are we remembering a generosity of spirit or inadvertently celebrating a massacre?

So now I am stuck. There are two, apparently conflicting, stories of the origins of Thanksgiving. Perhaps the ‘truth’ is that both of them are accurate, but unrelated, episodes in American history. I honestly don’t know now. It should not be that difficult to establish the relationship between these two accounts and the celebration we now know as Thanksgiving. But in the age of the internet, while we have vast quantities of data, finding what is true and what is false is not always easy.

If we look beyond the more obvious lies and deliberate distortions and can accept that in many cases there are different perspectives and that there is some merit to most of them, one of the problems we encounter today is shown in my opening paragraph above. Admit it, you thought I was going off on a rant, didn’t you? Our starting point is starting to become that someone is lying to us. Not making a genuine mistake, not offering a different point of view, just lying. And it’s hard for us to listen when we are shouting so loudly about how we are right (cue any number of clips of politicians ‘discussing’ a topic). So how do we try to avoid falling into that all so easy trap?

I’ll come back to that next week.








The allure of cemeteries

Last week I wrote about the now much easier way of going back in our family’s history, thanks to the technology available to us. For all that, there is still a fascination with the physical memory of a person’s life which a gravestone represents. In most cases, this is primarily of interest to that person’s family and friends, those who knew the individual personally and for whom there was and remains a direct emotional connection.

In some cases, such as Highgate cemetery in London, there are memorials to people who have had a much larger impact on the world. I have yet to make it to Highgate, mainly because it is not easy to get to, but one of these days we will get to Karl Marx’s grave.

Audrey Niffenegger’s book (she of The Time Traveller’s Wife fame) Her Fearful Symmetry is set around Highgate cemetery and, as you would probably hope, contains a mixture of what we would regard as the real world, and the supernatural which we might associate with cemeteries in fiction. The book took me a couple of times to get into. It happens. Sometimes because I am distracted by something else, sometimes because I am reading too many things concurrently, sometimes because the book just isn’t my thing (not the case here!)

The story is of two American twins who inherit their aunt’s house overlooking the cemetery. The only condition of their inheritance is that they have to live there for a full year. The twins have never lived apart and one theme of the novel is the extent to which they can, or want to, change this and become independent of each other. Both twins form a relationship with the two men who live in the same building, one romantic (with the former lover of the aunt who left them the house) and one more of a caring friendship. And then the supernatural element comes in. (If you want to read the book, skip to the next paragraph – spoiler alert). The girls’ aunt Elspeth is indeed dead, but she is currently an invisible ghost trapped in the apartment. Valentina, the younger and weaker of the twins, begins to sense Elspeth’s presence and later to see her. When Valentina discovers that Elspeth has the ability to scoop out a person’s soul and put it back again, she thinks she has found a way to break free of the stifling relationship with her twin which has defined her life. And that’s as far as I will go with the story – if you want to know what happens and what secrets the family has been hiding for decades, you will have to read the book. I loved it. And the ending is beautiful. As is the ending in The Time Traveller’s Wife (if you have only seen the film of that book, forget the ending, it’s wrong, wrong, wrong!). I tend to cry at the end of her books. And find myself rereading the last few pages now and again.

Karl Marx might be one of the most famous Germans and a celebrity resident of Highgate, but Berlin has its own cemetery where a number of the great and the good from different walks of life are now gathered together. Seeing some of the graves is like walking through the story of Germany and of Berlin. I went armed with a mental list of all the ‘people’ I wanted to see, and managed to find almost all of them despite the lack of any kind of map and the impending darkness of a Berlin evening.

Bertolt Brecht needs little introduction, but I gained a different view of him – and of Anna Seghers, who was previously unknown to me – from reading another novel, Joseph Kanon’s Leaving Berlin.


We also have philosophers…



…one of the men who built Berlin (it took me ages to find this one!) …


…and a pastor who saw that the challenge of Jesus is to act and take a stand, not to stand by and wait for a miracle.


And just so you know, this is what I want for a gravestone. Just not for a while, I hope.


Going back in time

This week was the annual remembrance of all those who had died in the wars of the last century, and now even further back as some of the major battles of the First World War pass the hundred year mark.

My great uncle Harold died in the Battle of the Somme and we recently found some of our family history on a war memorial website (

What was particularly interesting was the information about the rest of his family. An older brother was mentioned, which we knew nothing about (and are still not convinced about) and my Grandma was listed as a possible younger sibling (which we, of course, knew she was).

She dictated her life story before she passed away a number of years ago so we have something a lot more interesting than the bare facts of names and dates, but the inconsistency in the information we found last week, combined with the 100th anniversary of Harold’s death earlier this year, set me off to find out more about the family.

When we were first married and on honeymoon, we spent a couple of days doing some family history, including meeting part of my new family who lived in Canada. That yielded a tour of their fruit farm, meeting some of the Kelman clan and a visit with an elderly relative who died shortly after we met her. She was able to tell some of the stories behind the names, reinforcing the value of recording those stories when you can.

In those days, family history was still a labour intensive activity, often including a lot of travel to the actual places distant ancestors lived and searching for gravestones which might include information on parents, children, or other family members.

How things have changed now.

I set off on Friday evening (as far as my desk) with two goals.

The first was to figure out our German connection (which we thought might have been a Polish one). Not that far back we had a Poduschnick in the family, but we didn’t know where they were from or when they arrived in Britain.

Now we do. Thanks to the power of the data now digitised and available on the internet, within less than an hour, I had found George Edward Poduschnick, born in 1847 in Saxony, whose first two names look remarkably anglicised so was probably originally Georg something. Not only that, but I had a photo of his gravestone:


The other goal was to see how far back I could go over a weekend (not, I hasten to add, spending all weekend on it.)

And here is the answer – 1510, back to my great great great great great great great great great great great great great great grandfather:

Mr. Turpie (1510 – )

14th great-grandfather

Alexander Turpie (1533 – )

Alexander Turpie (1555 – )

Thomas Turpie (1585 – )

Alexander Turpie (1600 – )

James TURPIE (1639 – )

Alexander Turpie (1676 – 1748)

Thomas Turpie (1698 – )

Robert Turpie (1725 – 1773)

Grizel Turpey (1766 – )

Alexander Duncan (1797 – 1869)

Catherine Duncan (1824 – )

Janet Duncan Durie (1859 – 1914)

Alexander George Duncan Durie McHaffie (1885 – 1945)

George Grant McHaffie (1920 – )

David John McHaffie

Jonathan McHaffie

On the other side of the family, we have multiple generations who lived on the Isle of Wight (total surprise to me), going back to 1545.

They are almost all just names and dates, I know next to nothing more about them. However – we are going to a class play at school tomorrow evening, A Man for all Seasons, about Sir Thomas More and King Henry. More was the lord chancellor while Henry was trying to get a divorce from Catherine of Aragon and when Henry established himself as ‘supreme Head of the Church in England,’ More resigned and triggered events which led eventually to him being executed in 1535.

This was when I realised that our ‘Mr Turpie’ lived through that whole period, albeit in Scotland rather than England. And my 11th great-grandfather John Hayles, born on the Isle of Wight in 1545, was born just a few years after that establishment of the Church of England.

Quite something. And all done online thanks to the dedication of countless numbers of people (some of whom I know) who have spent years digitising archives and many others who have used that information to create links back into the past.

I’m afraid I have not come across any rogues in our past (I think they are much preferable to royalty, even if connecting into the latter would make 1510 feel like just a hop into the recent past). That would add some colour to the exercise.

And I think I really ought to be keeping a journal again. Coincidentally I found one yesterday from around the time Abbi was born and it brought back a lot of memories.

The power of words

Remember the nonsense we were told when we were younger – Sticks and stones might break my bones, but names will never hurt me? Words hurt all the time. Of course, they can also soothe, comfort and inform, but they certainly have real power. Otherwise we would not have courses on better communication, would not get angry at poorly worded e-mails (hmmm, or blogs – I hope not), and there would be little point in literature. Words arouse emotions. And of course, they can be used for evil or for good.

Only last week, we had a number of headlines in British newspapers following a legal ruling. I think it’s fair to say that most court cases are of interest only to the parties involved, and normally we are oblivious to their existence, never mind the outcome. This one was different. I am not going to get into the case itself, but one headline in particular caught a lot of people’s attention.

The Daily Mail called the three judges involved “Enemies of the people” (all capitalised, of course) and has been widely, but not universally, criticised for doing so. One senior bishop, Nick Baines, said that “The last time we saw things like the photographs of judges on the front pages of a newspaper described as enemies of the people is in places like Nazi Germany, in Zimbabwe and places like that.”


Photo: The Independent

There is now a new rule that any argument on the internet will end up with an accusation of the other party being a Nazi, and labels like that and fascist are thrown about too much.


My immediate reaction on seeing the headline was exactly that parallel. The word which came to me was the German equivalent of “enemy of the people”, Volksverräter, a word used in Nazi Germany to describe essentially anyone in opposition to the Nazi state, including anyone who had sympathies with Jews. So when I saw this headline, I saw a British newspaper using the English language equivalent of a term used most prominently by the Nazis (and now being used again in right-wing movements in Germany).

And surprise, surprise, Nigel Farage intends to march with 100,000 like-minded souls to the court when the Supreme Court delivers its judgement on the government’s appeal. So now we have the threat of mobs descending upon our courts whenever a right-wing politician does not like the possible outcome. I’ve seen that before as well.

Fascism did not start with mass rallies in Nuremberg. It started quietly without anyone noticing. It fed on hatred of others, rather like the Daily Express’s barrage of demonising “migrants.”

Fascist leaders knowingly lied, rather like a significant proportion of politicians in the UK’s referendum campaign. And it hid behind a facade until it was too late.

Judges were not independent of the Nazi state. They were a part of it. I am thrown back in time when I hear a Conservative Party grandee say “Judges are out of their boxes these days and need to be put back in.” (Norman Tebbit, if you were wondering). And I thought we were proud of having an independent, qualified and experienced judiciary. (I still am, for the record.)

So how might fascism start in this day and age?

Perhaps with a man who likes to be photographed with a pint in his hand as he pretends to have anything in common with the people just beginning to feel the consequence of a collapse in his country’s currency while he stands on the sidelines making veiled threats against anyone who disagrees with him.

The leaders of the far-right parties in the UK, Germany, Austria and a certain individual in the US seem to share a worrying number of (negative) similarities, including some or all of those below. I would not be surprised if their counterparts in France and other countries showed similar traits.

  • They lie and lie and lie and simply do not care.
  • They allege that elections they think they will lose are rigged against them.
  • They have a clear view that (some) foreigners are the problem and less of them is the solution.
  • They claim to speak for “the people.”
  • Threats of violence are usually worded in such a way that they do not – quite – constitute a criminal offence, but the audience knows what they mean.

But there are alternatives. At its most basic, imagine what the world would be like if, instead of looking to far-right politicians for solutions which are no solutions, we simply treated others (or just tried to treat others) as we would like them to treat us? The behaviours we are seeing from these politicians would stop. Nobody wants to be lied to or threatened. There are plenty good principles out there, coming from many different sources, which can transcend politics, centuries and countries, and – I hope – enough good people who will oppose the evil being dressed up and sold to us at the moment. Because we all know what can happen if we do not.

In the meantime, maybe don’t buy these newspapers. There are others which still have principles and a sense of professional ethics.