Friday 24 July 2020

Rape, grouse, and the pathology of power

Red Grouse
Red Grouse (source)
I got into a foolish Twitter dispute last night, and ended up saying something I fundamentally think to be true. People will say, and with good reason, 'oh, Simon's gone off on one again. He's mad, you know'. And, of course, it's true. I am insane. A really frustrating consequence of that is that sometimes my judgement is seriously wonky. But it also means I can say thing that other people are too sensible to say. Let's explore this idea.

Firstly, to roll back a little, I do not believe that anyone is irredeemable. 'Evil' is not a word that should be applied to people. And, I believe, usually, people who do evil things do so because evil has been done to them.

So this is an essay about the pathologies of power.

I want to examine a number of things:
  1. The Bulingdon Club, and Alpha Epsilon Pi
  2. Grouse moors
  3. Jeffrey Epstein, and child sex abuse
I will argue that these are on the same spectrum.

To demonstrate huge wealth is not difficult. One merely has to drive a gold plated Lamborghini. To have power, one has to be able to use it. One has to be able to do things which other people, people with less power, cannot do. And one has to be able to do these things with impunity. To show to others that one has power, one has to actually do things which other people cannot do: one has to use power performatively. And, indeed, this is the only way one can answer the question, 'how much power do I have?'

The Bullingdon Club is a club for very rich young men at Oxford University, it has been in existence for more than two hundred years, and with very much its present reputation for at least one hundred years. The reputation of the club is for extremely bad behaviour, with records of extreme destruction of other people's property from as early as 1894 to as recently as 2010.

Apart from wrecking country houses and restaurants, notorious Bullingdon practices include

1. Forcibly removing the trousers of members of the public;
2. Burning £50 notes in front of homeless people;
3. Bestial necrophilia.

Alpha Epsilon Pi is not quite as elite as the Bullingdon Club. It is a 'fraternity' of university students at a number of universities, originally in the US, but including, specifically, St Andrews in Scotland. The chapter at St Andrews in particular has been associated with a startling number of allegations of rape. (Dani Garavelli wrote a very good piece which refers to the Alpha Epsilon Pi allegations in Scotland on Sunday this week)

All just young men's high spirits, don't you know? Or a systematic way for rich young men to explore just exactly how much bad behaviour they can get away with?

Very well. Let us move on to child sexual abuse and the sexual exploitation of very young women; and the very large number of allegations around it which centre on rich and powerful men.

Not all allegations of child sexual abuse are associated with powerful people, of course; that's not what I'm arguing. What I'm arguing is that the pathology of power draws people to explore what they can get away with. Child sexual abuse is the crime which in our modern society is most reviled and most stigmatised (and with reason). If you want to demonstrate that you can get away with anything, this is the Everest, the pinnacle.

What I'm arguing here is that the attraction of child sexual abuse to very powerful people is not (at least mainly) an erotic attraction to very young bodies, just as the alleged sexual act between a former prime minister of the United Kingdom and a dead pig was not primarily about the erotic attraction of pork. On the contrary, both are, at least in part, a pathological need to explore the limits of power.

Corpses of grouse, pheasants and geese left to rot in a pit on a shooting estate.
Corpses of grouse, pheasants and geese
left to rot (source)
Which brings us on to grouse moors. Grouse moors represent the environmental destruction of large areas of countryside in order to provide an opportunity for a very few people to slaughter a large number of birds - birds which are not particularly good eating and which are in fact largely dumped and left to rot for this very reason.

The grouse, like the child sexual abuse victims and the dead pigs, are not being shot for their intrinsic value; they're being shot for their trophy value: to prove that the shooters can get away with it.

So what is it they're 'getting away with'? Shooting a few wild birds does not seem so shocking, surely? Well, no. But in order to create the environment in which birds can be shot in such numbers, hundreds of people must be driven out of their homes and off their ancestral lands.

Enclosing commons was how the powerful of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries demonstrated their power. They had the power to drive the common people out of their homes and off their land, and they did. Having enclosed the commons, of course, they could then farm the most productive parts more intensively (or at least, rent them out to farmers, who would do so, at high rents) and make profits.

But a large part of the lands from which they had driven the subsistence farmers could not be farmed profitably in any other way, so what to do with it? The answer was to create vast deserts on which to slaughter small birds.

Just as, as feminists keep saying, rape is not (mainly) about sex, so enclosing the uplands is not mainly about improving agriculture - the new 'improved' agriculture could make no use of such marginal land. What had been, from April to September, the summer shieling of tens or hundreds of thousands of subsistence farmers, became an arena, for a few days in August, to display the power of the few.

Solitudinem faciunt, bona appellant.

Birds of prey - especially large birds of prey - are the most visible of the iconic species of our wildlife. Wildlife is not the 'property' of anyone: rather it is a commons for us all. Birds of prey eat meat. Not huge amounts of it, but it is what they eat. I find the idea that eagles or red kites significantly predate on red grouse improbable. Hen harriers, of course, will do so, where grouse are abundant.

There is a certain bitter rationality to gamekeepers slaughtering hen harriers, wild cats, foxes and stoats on grouse moors: the gamekeepers are paid to provide plentiful easy targets for their employers to take aim at. Predators which predate on ground nesting birds will necessarily reduce that plenty. This is how ecosystems work, after all.

Mountain hares killed on a single day on
a single estate in the Angus glens (source)
But the fact that eagles, kites, pine martens and mountain hares are also slaughtered indiscriminately on grouse moors is evidence that this isn't about bitter rationality, or any rationality at all.

The fact that ordinary people - people who are not powerful - take pleasure in seeing eagles, kites, hen harriers, ravens, wild cats, foxes, stoats and mountain hares - mountain hares! - is the only reason to exterminate them. It's a naked demonstration of power over the commons. Power to steal, to desecrate, to destroy, and to do so with impunity. Wanton and blatant destruction of common goods. Bad behaviour performed solely for the purpose of showing that you can get away with bad behaviour. And this, I claim, is evil.

Wherever you find rich and powerful people wishing to demonstrate their wealth and power, you'll find others who make their living by enabling it. The Oort cloud of lawyers and estate agents who orbit Londongrad are an example.

So Ghislaine Maxwell was, in effect, Epstein's grouse moor manager. She organised the provision of plentiful easy targets for him and his friends to take aim at, and managed the arenas in which they bagged their trophies.

What I'm arguing here is not that grouse moors are 'as bad as' child sexual abuse - clearly, in terms of direct harm to specific individual people, they are not.

But I am arguing they are on the same spectrum, driven by the same pathology.

And the reason that this matters - the reason that I believe we should look on the owners of grouse moors with the same eyes as we look on those people in the other categories I've discussed - is that it people have a propensity for performatively extremely bad behaviour in one aspect of their lives, it is highly probable that they are exhibiting equally unacceptable behaviour in others.

Saturday 4 July 2020

The Ranger's sword hilt

Aragorn of the Dunedain, as
portrayed by Viggo Mortensen
My blog posts are often somewhat geeky, but this one may just be the most bizarrely geeky ever.

Consider the Dungeons and Dragons character class, the Ranger. The class is (in my opinion) essentially based on Aragorn of the Dunedain from the Lord of the Rings. The ranger is an often solitary wanderer of wilderness areas, away from inhabited areas for weeks at a time. Therefore, everything which the Ranger carries must be strictly necessary; they will have to make compromises to keep their entire pack light enough to manage. The ranger is skilled at observation and tracking, but also at concealment and at moving quietly. Consequently, when faced with potential opponents they cannot beat, the ranger will probably remain in concealment and avoid conflict. The potential opponents in the wilderness are likely, in any case, also to be travelling light; the chances of meeting a heavily armoured opponent are slim.

The ranger must carry a bow, since a lot of their subsistence will come from hunting. They must be very skilled with it. When faced with an armed human (or anthropoform) enemy, the bow is likely to be the first and primary weapon, since if you can do  injury to your enemy before they are close enough to do injury to you, your chances in combat are that much better. However, when the distance closes sufficiently that melee weapons can be used, the bow ceases to be very useful, either for attack or defence. So a sword as a secondary weapon makes sense (an axe might make more sense, since it can do dual duty in gathering firewood, but the preponderance of swords over axes in medieval weaponry implies that, in a fight between a sword and an axe, the sword must generally have won; and it's clearly a more nimble weapon, so this is understandable). A quarterstaff - a fairly stout pole of hardwood a little longer than a man is tall - might make sense for reasons I'm going to come to later, but like any pole arm it's an awkward thing to carry (although it could do double duty as a walking stick). In any case, I'm going to assume my ranger carries a sword.

A shield is a large, awkward, clumsy thing, as well as probably quite heavy. It cannot readily do double duty as anything else. I'm going to assume my ranger does not carry a shield. A buckler is possible but in the moment of throwing aside the bow and equipping melee weapons, it's one more thing you would have to be carrying and would have to equip; so I'm going to guess that my ranger doesn't carry a buckler, either. That means that, in melee combat, the ranger has both hands free to handle weapons.

Two styles of fighting are possible. One is sword and dagger, in the renaissance Italian style, where the sword is something probably approaching a rapier. But the rapier is not a versatile sword: it is primarily a thrusting weapon. It could not be used for cutting firewood, or opening a path through a thorn thicket. The other is a cut and thrust sword.

Our ranger is necessarily lightly armoured, since lugging heavy armour through the wilderness for at best very occasional use doesn't make sense, and it's noisy and takes a lot of maintenance, and you almost certainly wouldn't be wearing it on the very rare occasions when you needed it. If you're not armoured, then you don't want your enemy to get close enough to make effective use of their weapons, so you want as much reach as you can achieve (sorry, Arya Stark, that Needle won't help you much - and this is also where the quarter staff might make sense). So a longsword, or at least a 'bastard', hand and a half style sword, is the most appropriate sword. It has greater reach and, wielded with two hands, can land a more powerful blow than a single handed sword. In keeping with this argument, Aragorn's sword, Anduril, is a longsword. However, for the ranger in the wilderness, the slightly shorter bastard sword may be a better compromise, given that it is a (hopefully) infrequently used secondary weapon.

OK, so that solves the problem, nothing more to think about.


Well, no, I don't think so. Because our ranger's primary weapon is the bow, and, when an enemy closes to melee range, the change from bow to melee weapon has to be quite swift. Medieval swords from Christian Europe generally had straight crossguards, which offer little or no protection for the hand against a thrust. I suspect part of the reason was that the sword with the perfectly straight crossguard at right angles to the blade made an extemporary Christian symbol - could be used as a portable temporary altar for a quick pre-combat prayer - was part of the reason for this very simple design, but another reason is that the sword was expected to be used with gauntlets.

The quillons - arms - of the guard are there to prevent your opponent's blade sliding up yours and either cutting into your hand, or, if deflected from the hand, entering another part of your body. Therefore it makes sense in a non-Christian culture to have quillons at least somewhat angled or curved towards the opponent, and, unsurprisingly, the quillons of many Islamic swords of the period are made precisely like this - but that's an aside.

The main point I want to make here is that an archer cannot wear gauntlets - certainly not on the hand used to draw the string, typically the user's dominant hand, which will typically be the hand closest to the enemy on the haft of the sword. So the classic medieval two handed sword with its simple cross guard leaves our ranger's dominant hand unprotected in a vulnerable position. This is precisely why small swords - gentlemens' dress swords, used on social occasions when armour wouldn't normally be worn - have much more elaborate hilts from the late medieval period; and why, by the time firearms had become the primary weapon of most soldiers, all swords had more elaborate hilts. The protection had migrated from the hand to the weapon.

Reproduction Swiss-style
hand-and-a-half sabre with simple
basket hilt.
So the guard needs to be extended at least to some degree. A basket hilted two handed sword is possible - examples (mainly from the sixteenth century) exist in both Switzerland and Germany, both with a basket protecting only the primary hand, and with a basket extending the full length of the hilt; and many of these, also, have finger guards. A basket hilt, of course, offers only limited protection against thrusts towards the hands; examples with shell guards also exist from Holland and Scotland, again around the sixteenth century, with the Dutch example having both a shell and a basket. Another interesting hilt design which might be considered is the 'Sinclair hilt', a (probably) Scottish design comprising a simple basket with a finger bar in the plane of the quillons and blade, with a plate metal loop at right angles to the quillons protecting the back of the hand.

Reproduction Sinclair hilt
More protection on the hilt necessarily makes a sword heavier, all other things being equal. Obviously, it adds the extra weight to the hilt, bringing the point of balance of the sword back towards the hand and reducing its angular inertia in cutting; it tends to orient the blade more towards thrusting than towards cutting. And a symmetrical basket hilt is said to be awkward to wear, because part of it necessarily projects in towards the torso when worn on a belt. However, if the basket is to cover both hands it must be to an extent symmetrical, at least sufficiently to be awkward in this way. So I think what we're looking at something between a Swiss hand-and-a-half sabre hilt, and bastard sword with a Sinclair hilt protecting only the primary hand, but the haft and pommel extending beyond the basket to allow grip by the other hand. Of the two, the Swiss sabre style would be lighter; the Sinclair style would offer more protection. My instinct is that the ranger would prefer the Swiss style, both for lighter weight and for better cutting.

It's worth noting here that once a basket hilt has evolved, one edge is always the primary edge of the blade, and most swords then quite quickly evolve towards single edged and subsequently curved; but straight double edged swords with basket hilts were in use in Scotland for at least three hundred years, and aesthetically (knowing very little about practical sword fighting) I prefer the look of a straight symmetrical blade.

Having said all this: in a fantasy environment we are not limited by what has been used historically. However, one thing we know about historical designs which were in use for a significant period is that they work and are practical.

So my ranger will carry a straight, double edged hand-and-a-half bastard sword, with an asymmetric half-basket hilt derived from the Swiss sabre illustrated above.


Schiavona by Vladimir Cervenka

Since writing this I have been won over by this extraordinarily beautiful and graceful (and protective!) Schiavona hilt by Vladimir Cervenka.

A hand-and-a-half sword with an (obviously, for me, left handed) variant of this hilt is now an object of desire.

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The fool on the hill by Simon Brooke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License