1.Nameless in Basingstoke
2. King Arthur’s Round Table
3. Who shall be the scapegoat?
Difficulties have emerged with the British government’s Onomatic system, introduced six months ago in partnership with Hugh G Megasystems inc., to ‘bring greater efficiency and immediacy into the business of nominal update’ (that is, changing one’s name). By some oversight the wish of a private citizen to do this has not yet been made illegal. The aim stated was to allow those who needed for whatever reason to change their names to do so at minimal cost (to the government; and with all the inconvenience of following the byzantine regulations left to the citizen), at the same time ensuring by means of a grossly intrusive question sheet that as many details as possible on as many citizens as possible would be entered into governmental and EU archives, to serve as legal ammunition if at any future point the citizen has a difference of opinion with the authorities. Also, with a truly professional disregard of the fact that procedures planned by a committee of experts normally function to produce unpredicted problems in practice, the new system makes it difficult to change a name a second time. In some as yet unexplained way this restriction, it is said, enhances ‘security’. In accord with new ‘default’ policies it is no longer possible to change one’s name in the traditional way by deed poll. Unfortunately one middle-aged inhabitant of Basingstoke, who was inexperienced in the use of computers, but tired of being teased for years about his original family name of Onions, decided to take the risk. However, his first attempt somehow led to him being called Next, and he therefore had to attempt a second change. He successfully avoided becoming Code (unlike two other users of the system) but through taking excessive care not to fall into any of the other pitfalls, he found a week later (having struggled with his computer an hour or so each evening until he developed a headache) that he had finished the process and had no computer option except to click on the button ‘finish’ – yet doing that left the choice of new name posted on screen as a blank. (When he realised this he took a hammer and smashed his computer.) A government spokesman confirms that he is now officially nameless, but insists that since he has engaged with Onomatic twice he cannot go through the process again even if he wanted to. (He now refuses to touch a keyboard.) While friends are generally sympathetic no one has been able so far to offer any practical help except for a lawyer who suggested that he might be able to claim to be the intended recipient if he came across a cheque signed but not completely filled in. A ministry representative thought it might now be impossible for him obtain a new driving licence, or to be treated under the NHS, but there was no reason for him to fail to pay income tax, or to complete other official business since he still bore the relevant reference numbers.
Berthold writes. I had been musing on the UK government’s attempts to make rules for ‘psychoactive substances’ (actually almost everything we eat down to coffee and lettuce, but by some bizarre reasoning not, according to said government, including alcohol – now why ever could that be?) when I came across this from a book of Sayings of the Fifteenth Century : ‘This folk of Briteyne hath great craft in the devysing of riwles, but the wit of an old henne in the dealings that depart thereafter
Question of the week : Why was the great Table of the knights of King Arthur round?
This is a very reasonable question. A round table is fine if you have a small number of guests as it gives a good chance to every one of them to try out their talent at social enterprise above or below the table on all the others, if they dare. (Hosts should bear this in mind when preparing invitation lists.) But King Arthur’s table was no boutique tea-shoppe object. We know this not because we have seen the table shown to tourists in Winchester, since that is a fourteenth century fake (though it suggests that six hundred years ago they already had a sharp nose for what would pull the bored and gullible tourist in) but simply because of the number of knights who were seated round it. We shouldn’t imagine that meetings of the Round Table were like modern democratically run municipal committee sessions. These were serious warriors equipped with the most lethal gear available in those days to inflict physical harm on other humans (as extolled in maudlin ballads composed by court minstrels) . There is no way any of these warriors with their testosterone-powered battle rage could have tolerated being in the bottom half of a longitudinal table. This immediately decided the shape (and the urgent need to keep a bit of space between each one and his two neighbours decided the size).
A reader’s letter (from Volodya Jenkins, Toulouse)
It is easy to see that the human species adds to its many other terrible inadequacies a deeply embedded assumption that the natural order of a society has the shape of a pyramid, on much the same pattern as in a pack of wolves. (By the way, is there any truth in the rumour that scientists are discovering increasing numbers of packs where the leader is, if I may so put it, a lady wolf? Yet another sinister effect of global warming perhaps acting on mammalian endocrine systems?) The assumption certainly does not lead to a perfect society, though as I often saw in my years in West Africa, it generally works even less well when half-witted Western politicians throw dollops of democracy into the mechanism. (In the final years before my retirement it was my task to officially record the numbers killed and injured in elections in those nations.) However, I only wish to note here an oddity which shows itself when a human society is arranged around some sporting activity. In sport, experience shows repeatedly that those engaged will organise themselves into tiers. There will of course be an ‘inner guard’ who believe they are the ‘élite’, the officials who enjoy writing rules, supervising events, issuing prohibitions, fixing penalties, orating, and standing in front at ceremonies, occasionally also seen plumbing the depths of vacuous platitude on television interviews. They are thus something like the Praetorian Guard (and in many cases may be equally corrupt) which surrounded the emperors of the later Roman Empire. But there will also be a single individual who for most purposes is recognised as the leader, even if not so called. Yet from one sport to another there is no agreement on the position of this leader, as we see when a team has done badly enough for long enough that a scapegoat is needed, who is of course that leader. In America, in both ‘football’ and baseball when a team fails, it is the coach who is dismissed. In European football it is normally the manager, though as money tightens its grip on society’s neck it has in some recent cases been the owner of the club. In other sports there are captains of two sorts. In golf (if indeed that can count as a sport) it is a non-playing captain, that is Head of Public Relations, who leaves his or her post. In cricket, it is the playing captain who has been out on the field facing the ferocity of the Old Trafford rainstorms who has to go. In the interests of stability and job security it might be better for clubs to ignore all those and instead to buy a couple of dozen tailor’s dummies, who could be designated as official club ‘leaders’, maybe dressed in some colourful uniform, and discarded one after the other as bad results accumulate over the decades. But the scapegoat leader does seem to be a specifically human phenomenon. Contrast horse-racing. It could be argued that in horse-racing either the jockey or the owner of the horse is actually the leader. Either can be, and often is, reported in the media as having ‘won’ the Grand Plexiglass Tankard or whatever it is, no matter what efforts the horse put in. But if disaster strikes and a horse falls at the last fence, it is the horse and not the jockey, nor the head of the stables, let alone the owner, who is put down.
Late News : the Brazuelan government proposals to privatise crime are being put on hold after, it is reported, strenuous opposition from members of the ruling party