Are ye going to Tewkesbury Fayre?

dog face bascinetI spent last weekend at Tewkesbury Medieval Festival helping my brother promote his new book, Kings Man, the third in his series The Outlaw Chronicles about Robin Hood. The festival is held to commemorate the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471. This was the final battle of the Wars of the Roses in which Prince Edward, the heir to the House of Lancaster, was killed.

During the festival, the whole town is decked out in medieval flags and the streets throng with knights in armour and medieval re-enactors. It all culminates with a big battle down by the river on the historic battleground. A riot of cannons, men at arms and pikes as the Lancastrian and Yorkist armies clash. It is a big festival which has been going for 25 years but there are plenty of others which are popping up all over the place; not just in Britain but in France, Belgium and Eastern Europe too.

Historical re-enactment is a booming market these days. At the Tewksbury festival there are countless traders stalls selling medieval gear; hauberks, hose, vambraces, gauntlets, broadswords, smocks and jerkins. Fancy something special for the weekend ? How about a dog faced bascinet? There are so many different stalls it finally dawns on you that this is a big business. You have stumbled upon an underground fetish scene; not sexual but cultural. And it’s coming out of the closet to a town near you!

Tewkesbury Medieval Festival
Re-enactors at the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival

The big question is this: why is it suddenly so popular? The answer, although an oblique one, is in the title of a new exhibition that has just been announced at the V&A Museum: Postmodernism – Style and Subversion 1970 – 1990. Yes – notice that last date! This is a retrospective exhibition. That means postmodernism is officially over.

Post modernism was always a difficult concept since it sounds like something “after the future” and how can some thing be after a future that has not happened yet? The best way to explain it is like this. Modernism, as an artistic movement, had a tremendous sense of earnest optimism about the future. It believed that art could morally improve people; that a modernist skyscraper could improve your life. Postmodernism went in the opposite direction, not optimistic but ironic, not earnest but mocking. So where can you go next ? What is post postmodernism? After the earnest futurism and then the ironic futurism what is the next stage in the cycle? Logic dictates it must be the earnest past.

And lo, the pop charts are filled with folk music again. Mumford & Sons and The Arcade Fire are the hot new groups. And the streets of Tewkesbury overflow with people dressed in medieval tunics seeking community in the past: a secular commonality from a shared history to soothe the fits and agues of the modern world. Anywhere else, you would be arrested for wandering the streets after dark with a four foot blade in your hands. At the Tewkesbury festival, the pubs are welcoming you in for another drink.

You may be wondering where the catataxis comes in. Well, there I am in a pub dressed in a monk’s habit with a Spanish guy dressed as an elegant nobleman to my left and a French bloke in a man at arms outfit to my right. I am pointing at my costume and trying to explain a joke about ‘dirty habits’ but it does not come out so well in the translation…and suddenly it hits me. I am in a pre-national Europe. In 1471, there were no nation states. There were powerful barons, principalities, duchies and territories in a complex patchwork throughout Europe. Henry VI, King of England was also, for 30 years, the King of France too. Countries, as we know them today, did not exist. The Nation State, level four in the hierarchy that goes up from individual to family to community, does not yet exist.

And right there, in the beery good cheer of a friendly pub, surrounded by Europeans in fancy dress it strikes me that there is nothing to fear about a federated Europe. Maybe the time has come for the post Nation State, a return to a complex patchwork of entities under an EU umbrella. The resolution of the Greek Debt Crisis will be to push us all in that direction. Maybe the V&A museum will soon hold a retrospective exhibition called The European Nation State – Power at the 4th degree 1648 – 2018. After all, we do share the same values, the same history, and since I got the phone number from the elegant Spaniard, the same medieval outfitter too…

Phone Hacking? Catataxis!

Light brigade and phone hackingI remember when at university having a heated debate about the ethics of photojournalism. This was the issue. Imagine you are a photographer covering the Vietnam War. You see the slumped body of a dead GI on the road beside a paddy field. The sun is setting. You can’t resist the temptation to reach out and pull up the collar of his shirt to make a tableau of exquisite dishevelment ….and SNAP….in the dying rays of the sun you capture that perfect picture. One beautifully composed frame that says everything you could ever want to say about the horror and futility of war.Now comes the ethical question. Is it morally right to pull up that shirt collar? Some say yes. If that helps to get the point across then it is perfectly justified. The art of photography is act of visual selection. You force people to isolate and focus on what you decided they should focus on. You are using all the tricks of aperture, exposure and depth of field to make them see what you want them to see. Where is the harm in a little set dressing. Is that not just the natural extension of your other camera techniques. Every photo is just a subjective moment of reality captured on celluloid, after all.

But some say no. The point of photojournalism is objectivity. You are there to report the facts not to tamper with them. So pulling up the collar on the dead GI breaks the solemn compact between the journalist and the readership. Your role is to silently observe and document the facts, not to mould reality until it fits the contours  of your personal perspective. You must be veracity’s evangelist; the unobtrusive monitor of truth.

Technology changes things. William Russell (1820-1907), the world’s first war correspondent with The Times covered the Crimean war. His dispatches from the front had a huge impact on the public who were shocked and outraged by what they read about the appalling treatment of the troops. A huge public backlash demanded that something should be done. But, of course, there were no photographs. It was artists who visually immortalised the Charge of the Light Brigade. Painted several years after the fact, their heroic pictures bore little resemblance to the reality of what had actually happened.  It was not until the invention of light portable cameras that photojournalists could capture the brutal glamour of World War 2 as it really was. Later, TV cameras captured the horror of the Vietnam War and delivered it charred and bloody like a rare T bone steak to the voracious homes of the American public. That public was, yet again, shocked and horrified and demanded that something should be done. The ethics of the new technology were clear: monitor unobtrusively, record the facts, edit them sensitively and show the public the tip of the iceberg.

Now we have newer technology. The internet, social media, mobile phones and twitter. What should a journalist do when observing this vast digital shunting yard of packet switched data? Maybe the same as before: monitor unobtrusively, record the facts, edit them sensitively and show the public the tip of the iceberg.  If so, then phone hacking is morally acceptable. Silent monitoring in the background to establish the truth; is that not what we want our journalists to do? Ever since Watergate did we not anoint them as the watchdogs of liberty. Politicians have their secret services to ‘protect’ us. But we want our journalists to keep a check on the politicos. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who guards the guardians? Why, the journalists do. If Secret Services can monitor phone calls, then why not the journalists too.

Ah yes, you might say, but what about the principal of privacy? Is that not an essential human right?  To put the question in another way: is information in the ether in the public or private domain? Can cyberspace ever be personal? My answer is this: to believe so is to make a catataxic blunder.  Cyberspace occupies a realm beyond the personal. Information wants to be free, and Wikileaks wants to liberate it. Every mobile phone call, text or tweet you make is a geo-located pinprick of emotional luminance. Step back and marvel at that galaxy of starlight. Should not the journalists chart those heavens like the early astronomers at their telescopes. We are stardust, and our mobile phones calls even more so.

To end, we return to where we first started. The quintessential Vietnam movie is Apocalypse Now: a fusion of Joseph Conrad, helicopters and paddy fields. In my view, the information age obliterates the personal, but this is not a bad thing. In the mighty torrential Congo of digital effluvient, we are not battling upstream to a ‘Heart of Darkness’ but downstream to the open ocean and, beyond that, to a glorious far horizon of freedom, which is a freedom beyond bounds…

Husserl’s missing bits

Take a look at this advert for Fentimans Ginger Beer. Fentimans is a botanical brewery based in the North of England which produces a range of unusual drinks based on vegetable roots like burdock, dandelion and ginger. Their advertising is unusual too. When you first see the ad on the left, you think some one has made a mistake. Your eye is drawn to it. Then you realise that it is a deliberate cropping which is quite cunning. Although they only show a quarter of the bottle our minds fill in the rest. So they are effectively getting a full page ad for the price of a quarter of a page. Even better,  they are making us interact imaginatively with their brand in the act of completing the picture. And they are even able to make a joke out of it. So that is a triple plus in my book.

This  “missing part” trick seems to be becoming more popular. A lot of corporate logos these days seem to be a portion of a letter. Look at the three below. The first is the logo for Global Radio, the owner of several radio stations such as Heart, Capital and Classic FM. It’s a ‘g’ with the bottom part cropped off. Then look at the blue logo next to it for Bestway, a London based cash and carry chain. It’s the same trick but with the cropping at the top. The red logo at the end is for Adecco, an employment agency. They have taken the final ‘o’ of their name and only shown a quarter of it. It is so heavily cropped that it is almost an abstract figure. On the other hand,  if you were to reconstruct the whole word in your imagination you would get a sign 24 times bigger sticking way out into the street. Now that’s bang for your buck!


These logos echo the thinking of Edmund Husserl (1859 – 1938), the founder of a philosophical movement known as Phenomenology. In the long running debate amongst philosophers about whether the real world actually exists or is just a figment of our imagination, Husserl had an interesting conclusion: it’s both. I can  crudely paraphrase this deep thinker with the following example. If you are standing in the street looking at a house you can only see the front of it, but you believe that the back of it exists even if you can’t see it. In other words, you think  it is a real house rather than, say, a flat piece of scenery from a film set. So the reality of the house arises partly from our direct experience and partly from our inference. As with the Fentimans advert, the world is half real and half filled in by our imagination. It is a fusion between two different levels, the tangible and the intangible. That is catataxis.

Trial by Catataxic Jury

Trial by Jury Trial by jury is one of the underpinning notions of justice. Juries, made from 12 people chosen at random from the community, inject a societal element into the legal system. They act as a check against the power of the state, and were one of the key principles established in the Magna Carta which curtailed the power of the King. Juries are proof that justice arises from the community. While judges concern themselves with issues of law, juries are responsible for determining the facts of the case. In other words, they are there to decide who is telling the truth: juries are a 12 body community lie detector. The only problem is that this time worn mechanism for establishing truth has a lie, or at least a fiction, concealed in its own heart.

The lie is this: the unanimity of the juries verdict. Twelve people of different backgrounds are expected to coalesce together into a single viewpoint. This is a catataxic transformation. Twelve individual voices on level 1 merge to form a single, representative community voice on level 2. This magical mutation happens in private; nothing must disturb the seclusion of this sacred metamorphosis. Anyone who violates this will be severely punished. Just look at today’s news that a juror who facebooked the defendant has been given a eight month sentence. Social networking can be criminally dangerous!

When touched at their weakest point , the strong react with disproportionate violence. Maybe the reason for this excessive reaction from the judicial system is that their vulnerable underbelly has been poked. The protective veil drawn around the jury’s deliberations conceals a fatal weakness: it is not possible for twelve people to speak as one. Not without a lot of back room bullying, threats, posturing and other social unpleasantness.

The inherent conflict of a jury’s deliberations had been exploited to dramatic effect in the movie 12 Angry Men (1957) and to comic effect by Tony Hancock in a TV episode of the same name. Recent research shows that jurors often feel intimidated and do not speak out in a group as large as 12. A better size for a proper, balanced group discussion is a group of four. This implies that a smaller jury , or a “best of three system” based on subgroups of 4 might give a more representative result. To traditionalists, suggestions like this which tamper with the fundamental rock of justice is anathema. The catataxic transformation of individuals to a single community voice is sacred. It should not be messed with even if it pushes the bounds of credulity. In fact, it may be sacred because it pushes the bounds of credulity. It is an article of faith just  like the transubstantiation of bread to the body of Christ at the heart of the Christian ritual. Or the belief that anointing with sperm whale oil transforms a mere mortal to a monarch. This is the only part of a British coronation that is so sacred it has never been photographed or televised.

Nestle and the Sugarbabes

Jelly baby playtime #2 front focus

In 1988 Nestle bought Rowntree, the UK confectionary company famous for its fruit gums and jelly babies. It paid £2.5 bn which was three times more than the market thought it was worth. Nestle then had a big problem with its accounts.

Traditionally,  accountants would only look at the value of tangible assets; physical things like equipment and buildings. The difference between what you paid for a company and its tangible assets was called goodwill and had to be written off. Rowntree at the time had tangible assets of £0.5 bn. So according to the accounting principles of the day, Nestle had just blown £2 bn on intangible assets that had no true recognised value.  It faced having to declare a huge loss.

Nestle argued this was nonsense. The intangible assets were not worthless, in fact they were very valuable. They were consumer brand names that had cost many millions in advertising  investment to build up. Moreover, they were more valuable than physical equipment. Machinery wears out  and breaks down in the end; it depreciates in value. Brand names don’t. They last for ever.

This debate about accounting policies ran on for over a decade. The proper accounting treatment of brands was not settled until 1999 in the UK and 2002 in the US. Nestle’s view won out. Brands do have financial value and don’t depreciate.

Brand valuation is an example of catataxis. It’s the value of a concept rather than a physical object. Beauty is in the eye if the beholder. Brand is in the mind of the consumer. So accountants are now valuing things one level higher than the physical.  They are pricing emotions in your head. How you as a consumer feel now has a recognised monetary value. That is catataxis.

The ultimate expression of a brand is a pop group. Rowntree’s jelly babies is a physical product with some warm consumer associations. But a pop group is not a physical product at all. Its pure concept. So a band is the ultimate brand. It can exist without its physical parts. Forget jelly babies, look at the Sugarbabes.

The Sugarbabes formed in 1998 with three members: Siobhan Donaghy, Mutya Buena and Keisha Buchanan. One by one, all three of the original members have left the group. The line up in 2010 is Heidi Range, Amelle Berrabah and Jane Ewen. The constituent parts are completely different from ten years ago, but the band is still the same. It is still selling out big arenas so clearly the fans don’t mind. The band is not its members. It exists at a higher level. A catatactic success story.

Cynics can point out that this is a manufactured girl band. It is run by Crown Management, so of course the members are mere interchangeable components. This view is unfair. Organically formed bands who write their own material have similar problems.  The Rolling Stones as a band (and brand) is still as strong as ever. But the solo albums by the members are embarrassing flops. Mick Jagger released a solo album in 2001 which sold only 954 copies on its first day. A few years later the Stones “Bigger Bang” tour played to 3.8 million people and grossed $500m. So when Mick writes songs and releases them under the Stones banner its completely different from releasing them on his own. That is catataxis.

Consider Pink Floyd. This band lost its creative mainspring  not one but twice. Syd Barrett left in 1968 and Roger Waters left in a very acrimonious breakup in 1985. Roger Waters wrote almost all of the The Wall which has sold 20m copies worldwide. His first solo album was “The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking”. This is very similar to The Wall, even down to the artwork by Gerald Scarfe. It was written at the same time as The Wall and at one time could have been recorded by the band. It was an embarrassing flop.

A big dispute followed about the ownership of the Pink Floyd name.  Roger Waters lost out and the remaining three band members kept ownership of it. They have since released two successful albums and had three sellout tours. Roger Waters is touring “The  Wall” right now – though not under the Pink Floyd name. Is it any good? I’ll tell you next year. I am lucky enough to have tickets to his May shows in the UK….


( the show was great by the way – and I had seats right at the front – see pics below) 

Inception: Celluloid Catataxis

Just finished watching Inception. I loved it. It reminds me of the first time I saw the Matrix. I had no idea what the movie was about – I just walked in off the street and saw it. I was completely blown away. The ad campaign had just been “What is the Matrix?”. It was the ‘not knowing in advance’ that made the impact much greater. Its almost impossible to have an experience like that these days, since everything is trailed so far ahead of time.

It was almost like that with Inception. They had done a pretty good job of keeping the plot under wraps. But I had seen the two most impressive visual scenes already in the trailer – ‘Paris bends back on itself’ and the ‘floating in the hotel corridor’. The latter is an example of Catataxis… plot spoiler alert …the bodies are floating in the corridor scene  because they are being influenced by the reality one level below. So this is a beautiful, balletic visual representation of level confusion. Celluloid Catataxis!

To see a really cool explanation of the movie Inception and a visual guide to its levels see this link

General McChrystal’s catatactic blunder

General Stanley McChrystal, the most senior military commander in Afghanistan, was summoned to the White House last week and  sacked by President Obama following a candid interview in Rolling Stone magazine. What does this demonstrate? Well, one conclusion is all is well. Here is proof that the military is subordinate to politics, just what a healthy democracy needs. Another conclusion is they are both subordinate to the media. This is also probably healthy. But its not new. Journalists got the President sacked in the Watergate scandal. Rolling Stone Magazine are probably very happy though. Its a triumphal moment for the leading counter cultural monthly to take a general’s scalp.

What did General McChrystal do wrong? Is it really news that a bunch of soldiers when relaxing in a bar bitch about politicians? Is the public really shocked? There has been a scene like that in almost every war movie. Its so commonplace that it can’t be news. A soldier fighting a war thinks the politicians on the other side of the world are out of touch. Thats such a cliche…

So what did he do wrong? It was a catatactic blunder. It was a level confusion. It was a breaking of the barrier between the private man and the public role. There is no problem with an individual having those thoughts. There is a problem with the leader of the armed forces disagreeing with the President in public. Rolling Stone is also guilty here. General McChrystal did not call a press conference and announce to the world his misgivings. His aides were making in appropriate jokes getting drunk in a bar in Paris. We have all done that. It was Rolling Stone who took it across the barrier from the private to the public.

You may say it is foolish to air your true feelings when there is a journalist lurking around. Its only a small step from there to believing that public officials should routinely lie to the press. That is not a good result. The real fault lies with us – the reading public. We are not able to hold in our minds the difference between the private person and the office he occupies. Those two are one for us. We collapse the one into the other. That is catataxis.

The myrmecologists debate

Adam Tofilski studies ants. In particular, he is interested in Forelius pusillus, a Brazilian ant. He spends three years videotaping a sandy patch of dirt at the edge of a sugar cane field at Fazenda Aretuzina in Brazil. Such dedication deserves a reward, and in this case it pays off. He finds something extraordinary. Some ants are deliberately sacrificing themselves for the sake of their colleagues. Ants forage in the daytime but at dusk they return to their nest. As they go back into the hole, they deposit sand particles around the entrance. This make a flat eliptical pile of sand, partially sealing the nest.  A few ants are left outside to kick sand from this pile over the entrance to disguise it. These few are left stranded outside the colony and die of cold in the night. Greater love hath no ant than to lay down its life for a friend.

Dr. Tofilski from Krakow University in Poland publishes his paper in “The American Naturalist” in Nov 2008. He rightly points out that other insects show sacrificial behaviour. Bees leave their stinging barb in the flesh of attackers and then die. Some termites rupture their abdomens to release a sticky fluid that entangles enemies. But these suicidal defences are only used when the nest is under attack. The Brazillian ant, Forelius Pusillus, is sacrificing himself preemptively to close the entrance of the nest each evening. Even without an enemy present, they are laying down their lives to die outside in the cold. It sounds as noble as Captain Scott of the Antarctic.

Ants are social insects, related to wasps and bees. Ant societies have a division of labour, communicate amongst individuals and have an ability to solve complex problems collectively. It is these similarities to to human societies that make them so fascinating to the myrmecologists who study them. There are over 12,000 species of ant. They have colonised every part of the Earth and are arguably the most successful creature on it. They account for 20% of the total weight of all land animals.  But the most fascinating thing about them is this: they are so social that no one is sure whether to classify the individual ant or the whole colony as the key organism.

Its easy to see a colony of ants as a creature in its own right: a super-organism. Ants have specialised roles such as workers, soldiers, foragers, drones and fertile queens. This division of labour means that the ants are working for the good of the colony. They are doing what the super-organism wants. The colony as a whole exhibits a form of intelligence and is able to do things that the individuals can’t. It behaves like a living creature: it moves, it metabolises, it grows and reproduces. With the army ants of South America, the colony itself is constantly on the move through the jungle attacking large prey en masse. When the colony gets too big, it “reproduces” by splitting in two. Leafcutter ants have four different castes of workers producing food in an elaborate chain. Leaves are cut, cleaned and fed to a special fungus that grows in gardens in their nests. The ants eat the fungus not the leaves. This is a super-organism with a complex digestive system.

Let’s shift perspective and view the colony as the organism rather than the ant. What then shall we make of Forelius pusillus, the Brazilian ant? It is no longer a poignant story of self sacrifice. They are just a few disposable cells sloughed off by the organism. Its a bit like exfoliating with a pumice stone in the bath. Do you shed a tear when you pull out your nail scissors? Do you feel sorry for the clippings when you throw them away? Its not really suicide…