This week: What the *#@$ is this?! King Narmer, the history of now and Welsh Cakes...
And welcome to the 311th day of the 5520th year of human recorded history. I know it’s going back a bit, but do you remember, five thousand years ago, the furore surrounding the Pharaonic election of the unifier of Upper and Lower Egypt, King Narmer AKA The Raging Catfish?
Phew-ee! I mean, I know the mace-wielding despot brought reliable taxation to the civilisation of the Nile Valley and I know he re-established Egyptian military authority in the Lands of Canaan, but man!
Five gets you ten that there was a forgotten faction, a rival party, shoved to the sidelines in the pomp of Narmer’s coronation, drowned by posterity in the literal column inches of the King’s tomb inscriptions.
Humans have come a long way, baby.
I picked up this pretty rock from Bournemouth beach and took it home for my natural history display. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the rock wriggle...
What the *@#& is it?! Hermit crab?! Prehistoric arthropod?! Practical joke?!
Foiled co-writer Beth Granville launched a social media investigation and crowd-sourced the answer: it’s an American Slipper Limpet, basically four sea snails stuck together. The oldest and largest shell at the bottom is female and the males pile on top. The twist is that they are sequential hermaphrodites, so when the female dies, the next snail in line has a sex change.
(P.S. After shooting this video, we repatriated the poor blighter…)
Nowstory to history
What is most important in your life? And where do you actually put your attention? The answers to these two questions, ideally, would be the same. They rarely are.
For example, friends, family, creativity and larking about outside are pretty much the most important things in my life. But a disproportionate amount of my attention disappears into the screen, indoors, alone, fighting the swell of current events, the course of which I can’t even begin to control.
Without thinking too hard, what are the first things you remember from 2011?
If you’re anything like me, then it’ll be personal events, coloured with the purples of intense emotion:
Cycling around the coast of Britain.
Spending Easter in Shropshire with my then-girlfriend.
Dislocating my shoulder cycling into a dog (the dog was fine).
Playing guitar on stage for the first (and last) time.
Squatting the Gaddafi family home in West Hampstead.
The death and funeral of my nan.
Before doing any deeper interrogation of my memory banks, one major political event surfaced: the so-called riots after the murder of Mark Duggen by police in London. But even this traumatic national memory I saw as through a glass darkly.
Of course, a lot else happened in 2011 and perhaps you remember more than I did without prompts:
The UK voted to reject the Alternative Vote electoral system. The campaign put strain on the already uneasy Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition (remember them?).
The Arab Spring revolutions threw out three dictators: Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya (with some assistance from British, French and US airstrikes).
The Syrian Civil War began, precipitating the flight of more than 13 million people.
The News International phone hacking scandal dominated headlines and ended careers, newspapers and the life of one former journalist in a bizarre marquee erection accident.
Tony Blair finally appeared before the Chilcot Public Inquiry into British involvement in the Iraq War.
The UK severed diplomatic relations with Iran.
Barack Obama (remember him?) announced the killing of Osama Bin Laden.
Mobile internet use reached 50 percent of Britons (I waited another five years).
The UK enjoyed its second warmest year on record, in its warmest decade, on a globally warming planet. Yay.
From this list, 2011 looks like a disaster. At the time, it probably felt like a disaster. It certainly presaged disaster. And yet, in my own personal memory, it wasn't so bad.
Human beings see the world through two very different pairs of Experience Spectacles, and we switch between the two depending on whether we are thinking about current events or thinking about past events.
Our current experience spectacles tend to give us laser focus on the bad shit, while blurring out the good stuff. Our past experience spectacles have the opposite effect. They tend to filter out the horror, smooth over the ugly, and focus on the good shit.
We switch between these two very different prescriptions for excellent evolutionary reasons. After all, Bad News Now could imminently threaten our lives and livelihood.
(I won’t labour the obvious point about how modern communications technologies have radically altered the availability and quantity of Bad News Now, but suffice to say that, if we wanted, we could find a different awful thing to think about every minute of our lives. Whether you see that as a healthy contributor to your own experience is none of my business.)
Conversely, there’s not much evolutionary benefit to holding onto Bad News Then because we have, by definition, survived it. That’s why not many of us are still bitter about King Narmer’s Nile Valley power-grab in the fourth millennium BCE.
As with my memories of 2011, we are better off remembering things that make us feel good or continue to offer meaning to our lives: completing my first epic bike ride, a painful shoulder that still pops out on me, the kindness of my grandma.
The thing is that we all know that our experience of present and past is coloured by these two very different pairs of spectacles, but we could do a lot more to correct their alternately dystopian and utopian lenses.
On the one hand, we would do well to spend more time fishing upstream in the meandering river of history to modulate our Pollyanna memories. Reminding myself of the tribulations of 2011 not only reassures me that even awful events are survivable, but also offers understanding of what was to come, and of what is perhaps still to come.
In December 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron vetoed a European Union treaty that was designed to address the on-going eurozone crisis (remember that?). The Conservative party was behind Labour in the polls at the time and this anti-European veto gave him a popular bounce. However, Conservative newspaper The Sunday Telegraph ran an independent survey that found a majority of voters now wanted a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.
I’m not alone in my memory of the vote to leave the EU in 2016 being a surprise campaign of disinformation and violence. But five years before Brexit, the drums were already beating.
Equally, we should make much more of an effort to place Bad News Now into a broader historical narrative. We’re so wrapped up in 2020 that we forget everything that’s ever happened and everything that ever will.
The antidote is to check that whatever is important to you is where you’re putting your attention. Stay focussed on your place in history, not your gut reaction to Bad News Now.
2020 is a terrible year. Too many people won’t be here for the future. But, for most, even 2020 is a survivable moment if we stick to what we do best: community. What counts now is not the bad news, but how we help each other through, until our memories do their opiate work of erasure and we can hold hands again.
Unsponsored Content: Going Rogue
This week your humble newsletter is brought to you by the Rogue Welsh Cake Company, a mother and son hot-plating duo, flogging morsels of ‘is-it-a-bread-is-it-a-biscuit’ goodness to astonished foodies in the South Wales area.
The menu boasts nine audaciously rogue flavours, from coconut and mixed spice to Marmite and cheese. The young company’s Head of Fancy Dress, Mr Joseph Granville of Penarth, tried to explain what on earth they were thinking to a local newshound:
We’re all massive food lovers, literally everything revolves around food in our house. You know how some people taste with their eyes? We really do taste with our mouths. We care about flavours.
At a time when most people are really struggling, in life, love and laverbread, the Granvilles have become the nation’s undisputed Welsh Cake Barons, the hottest thing in baked goods since Mr Kipling first burnt the icing on his fondant fancies.
But the Rogue Welsh Cake Company’s despotic laughter is benevolent: over half term, the company have been doling out free dollops of doughy delights to frazzled families and their offspring.
But, Dave, what is the secret to the Rogue Welsh Cake Company’s meteoric success? I’ll let the company’s Y-chromosome mansplain:
It’s just me exploiting my mum’s talents really.
Now that’s what I call rogue.
If you would like to order some Rogue Welsh Cakes, DM the family on Instagram. Joe will come round your house dressed as a Welsh peasant girl and feed you cake. NOTE: Delivery currently only in the CF area—but they are experimenting with postal deliveries so if you swamp their DMs they’ll have no option. Class.
If you have any heartfelt products or services that you want to share with an audience of discerning and beautifully dressed mammals, then let me know by replying to this email.
⚽ Shankly’s Life and Death (30 October)
🍽️ Thought for Food #1: Making an Effort (23 October)
🌈 Swallow the Rainbow (23 October)
💥 Tintin Versus The Foo Fighters (16 October)
🧠 Stroke Values (9 October)
🌿 Britain: Dope Capital of the World (9 October)
🚴 Always available: the collected scribblings of my round Britain cycling adventures
Any more for any more?
First up, my friend and spectacular vocalist Priscilla Andersohn has launched a crowdfunder for her first solo EP.
By paying upfront for some beautiful music, we can help her cover the cost of mastering and distributing the EP and—importantly in this troublesome time for the arts—paying Priscilla’s musician friends for their time and talents. Priscilla says:
It has been an amazing journey to have learnt how to ask for help, especially this year. I’ve been blown away by the love and support—thank you for being my record label!
Stop using Amazon to buy your books. Help your local bookshop thrive. Use Bookshop.org.
FAQs on Protecting Yourself from COVID-19 Aerosol Transmission. A regularly updated Google Doc written by a cavalcade of aerosol scientists.
Which? Magazine’s best reusable face masks. I bought some of the Great British Designer ones and can report that they do indeed play nicely with glasses (and don’t shuffle off your nose while talking).
The Flight Free 2021 Pledge is open for business! Signing up to not fly in 2021 seems like a bit of a no-brainer for most people, given that flights are grounded again. This time around, you can choose to pledge no flights for your leisure travel only, no flights at all in 2021, and no flights ever again in your whole life.
What has pleasantly surprised you this week? According to this Vox pop psychology article, that kind of thinking might help you get through the winter.
Your Title: Catastrotunity
Your title this week comes courtesy of those hard-working satirists at The Bugle, specifically John Oliver.
Catastrotunity is the unmissable opportunity to profit from an awful catastrophe. For example, why worry about the deadliest global disaster in living memory when you could be using the market crash and crippling unemployment to pile on a few more billions?
In a world where outlandish political satire has morphed from marginal lefty virtue signalling into lunatic populist instruction manual, The Bugle is still very much the crumpled up line-drawn IKEA schematic of humorous social commentary. I don’t know what that means, but isn’t that half the battle?
Try using catastrotunity in your light-hearted conversation today.
This weekend is much more of the same: working on Series 4 of Foiled with Beth Granville, the finest writing partner since the codification of heiroglyphics five millennia ago.
Hello, I’m David Charles and I wrote this newsletter. I publish another newsletter about reading called Books Make Books. I’m co-writer of BBC Radio Wales sitcom Foiled, and also write for The Bike Project, the Center for International Forestry Research and Thighs of Steel. Reply to this email, or delve into the archive on davidcharles.info.
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