Skip to content

Jeanneke Pis: a role model?

An all too common sight at public events such as pop concerts, ‘fun runs’ and so on are the long lines of women queuing to use the toilets, whereas there are seldom if ever such queues outside the men’s facilities. And the reason is obvious. Equal numbers of toilets are generally provided for both sexes, whereas anatomical differences dictate that women not only need more space but also take more time to perform their bodily functions (which in their case include menstruation and its attendant complications). Add to this women’s surely unnecessary habit of tending to their makeup while they’re in a public toilet (something you could do anywhere with the help of a small hand mirror and some baby wipes, assuming you need to wear makeup in the first place); this takes up even more space and time in the already confined premises by forcing other women to wait to wash their hands (a hygienic necessity) while the preeners fiddle around with their lipstick and mascara in front of mirrors which are invariably placed above the washbasins, blocking access to them. A built-in recipe for an abiding problem.

You might just think, in these days of high technology (as I write this, the remnants of an abandoned Chinese space vehicle are about to fall back to earth) and increasing sexual equality, that a solution would have been found long ago. But I’ve just asked the female staff of the bar where I regularly work, and it actually turns out that there are fewer facilities here for female customers than for male ones: simply one lockable cubicle and one washbasin, whereas the men have a urinal, a lockable cubicle and a washbasin. Uniquely, room has even been created in the gents’ for a nappy-changing table that can fold up against the wall – which has the undoubted benefit that fathers rather than mothers have to deal with the messy business of cleaning up their babies’ physical outpourings.

But the presence of a urinal (and in many cases several) in men’s toilets points to the ‘root’ of the problem, if I may term it thus. Men have the biological advantage of a single appendage that allows them not only to have sex (and if necessary reproduce) but also to urinate, whereas women have separate orifices for these functions, without a directable ‘hose’ – though it must be admitted that men do not always direct theirs as well as they might, as witness the signs in British men’s toilets: ‘We aim to please – you aim too, please!’

Since using toilets thus requires women to remove more of their clothing and expose more of their bodies than public decency and their own dignity demand, they have to use lockable cubicles for everything – whereas most of the time men can simply unzip or unbutton their trousers at a urinal, use their ‘directable hose’, and vacate the premises swiftly, often without even bothering to wash their hands. Since the men are then facing away from prying eyes (especially if the urinals are separated by partitions), the urinals can be located in surprisingly public places. When I visited France as an adolescent in the 1960s, it was by no means uncommon for bar and restaurant toilets to be divided into two parts, without separate facilities for men and women (the single door was simply marked Toilettes): two rows of urinals on either side just inside the entrance, and at most a couple of lockable cubicles for use by either women or men (so women had relatively even fewer facilities than men, and were forced to make their way to the cubicles past the backs – or leering eyes – of peeing men).

More recently, in an effort to counter the antisocial male habit of peeing on walls or even in doorways whenever the urge takes them at large-scale public events, Holland has introduced plaskruizen (literally ‘peeing-crosses’, a pun on paskruizen, the crosses on printer’s proofs of books that help to ensure illustrations are correctly aligned on the page). These are plastic sets of four urinals in the shape of a cross-head screwdriver, where four men can urinate in public at the same time, with a run-off hose to the nearest roadside drain. The lightweight plaskruizen can be simply and easily installed every few hundred metres; and, given a choice between that and the nearest wall or doorway, most men are public-spirited enough to use them.

But once again, for the obvious reasons, women can’t use them. So while new solutions are being provided for men, none are being provided for women, who are still forced to queue up for limited indoor facilities, or more expensive, cumbersome and above all scarce outdoor ones that they also have to share with men who need to do more than pee.

Enter the FUD, or ‘female urination device’. There are now a variety of these on the market (under names ranging from ‘She-Wee’ to ‘GoGirl’), which in one way or another give women an equivalent of men’s ‘directable hoses’. Some are disposable cardboard, and so add to the environmental burden; others are reusable plastic, but require washing with soap and water; some are elegant, others less so; but all have to be taken along with them by their users and (if reusable) packed away again, perhaps unwashed. Not all of them fit to the average woman’s body well enough to prevent leakage; and users must be careful to control the rate of flow or else risk the contents backing up, and out. Finally, the sight of a woman standing at a public urinal and ‘peeing like a man’ is something even Western society still has to get used to, and not all women feel ready to break that taboo. In many countries it would get them killed.

Some people might claim – and some men have certainly done so – that all this is ‘further’ evidence of women’s biological ‘inferiority’. And that takes us back to psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s silly concept of female ‘penis envy’, with little girls brought up to believe little boys have something important that they lack – and little boys brought up to believe it too.

Indeed, the whole idea of little boys (and men) peeing in public as an acceptable social phenomenon is reflected in the 400-year-old public sculpture near Brussels’s Grand’Place that shows a naked young boy with a stream of (presumably) water issuing from his penis, which he is holding in both hands to direct the flow. Manneken Pis (Dutch-influenced Brussels dialect for ‘little fellow pissing’) has become one of the city’s main tourist attractions, especially for visitors who could never dream of seeing such a thing in their own countries.

But just over 30 years ago the Brussels city authorities decided the time had come for a female equivalent. So now, admittedly in an obscure side street, we have the chubby Jeanneke Pis (‘little Jeanie pissing’), who is shown squatting down and peeing on the bare stones, with a wonderfully challenging ‘so-what’ grin on her face.

A pity she still has no equivalent in everyday life.


Will the real Robin Hood stand up?

I don’t know if the Robin Hood tales I enjoyed as a boy still have much appeal to today’s children. I daresay the notion of a forest-dwelling avenger clad in ‘Lincoln green’ and armed only with a bow and arrow could easily seem ‘lame’ and incomprehensible to anyone brought up on video games and other forms of ‘virtual reality’. All I remember is that as late as the 1960s the dashingly handsome outlaw was presented as England’s greatest folk hero simply because he ‘took from the rich and gave to the poor’. And he was backed in his endeavours by one of children’s literature’s strongest female characters: his ‘paramour’ (girlfriend) Maid Marian, who fought bravely at his side, her duties by no means confined to cooking and doing the laundry. How the outlaws actually came by their food and a change of socks and underwear was never specified, but it seems it wasn’t exclusively women’s work; among their number were trained bakers, butchers and brewers; they could bring down the ‘king’s deer’ with their well-aimed bows and arrows; and rinsing out their clothes in the forest streams cannot have been beyond their manly abilities.

And none of this was for their own personal gain. They continued to live simple lives in the ‘greenwood’ of Sherwood Forest, while making sure that the tyrants and ‘fat cats’ of the time – including the cruelly arrogant Sheriff of Nottingham and Bishop of Hereford (even church dignitaries were portrayed, not unjustly, as oppressors of the weak) – were deprived of their ill-gotten riches, and that these were distributed to the downtrodden poor.

In short, Robin Hood and his ‘band of merry men’ made it their business to redistribute wealth.

To many in today’s United States – and countries that have embraced its current neoliberal ethos – the very idea of redistributing wealth is anathema. It is equated with socialism, and by definition with communism, and hence is deemed a threat to the ‘American way of life’, to be fought tooth and nail by all true patriots.

This widespread American tendency to treat ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ as synonyms is a blinkered, self-serving distortion of the truth. Here in Europe, much of which has experienced communist rule at first hand, we are only too aware of the differences. ‘Communism’ was the umpteenth stalking-horse for Russian hegemony over its immediate neighbours: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Albania, Mongolia, the Caucasus and the Islamic regions to the south of Russia, and (on a more minor scale) Finland.

But we also have a stout European tradition of socialism that gave birth to the liberating welfare state, above all in the Scandinavian countries, but meanwhile also in much of Europe. We call it ‘social democracy’.

Whatever resemblance Soviet communism bore to socialism, it did not include political freedom and the right to choose another form of government; and so it became synonymous with tyranny.

And when the system collapsed under the weight of its own internal contradictions in 1989, a triumphalist capitalist West was only too eager to claim that it had ‘won the Cold War’, with the fatuous US economist Francis Fukuyama even saying this was the ‘end of history’ – the whole world would now be capitalist, and ‘by definition’ democratic, forever and ever amen. Fukuyama later back-pedalled, but will always be remembered for this first inane statement – some things are so flabbergastingly stupid they can never be unsaid.

Which brings us, 30 years later, to Donald Trump.

Without him saying it in so many words, his election campaign in 2016 was essentially based on an appeal to the Robin Hood legend. He brazenly told the (relatively) poor whites of the USA that he would finally free them from their ‘oppression’ by the ‘wealthy East Coast elites’, who voted Democrat but did not, supposedly, put their money where their mouths were. In a shocking denial of political reality, he presented the Republicans as the champions of the downtrodden poor and the Democrats as the defenders of entrenched wealth (almost as unconvincingly, Theresa May is trying to revamp her Conservative Party’s image in Britain, saying it is no longer the ‘nasty party’, an embarrassing nod to the long-standing accusation that the nationalistic, profit-obsessed Conservatives are in fact modern Britain’s ‘Nazi party’ – most Brits know better).

The joke in the US is that the would-be Robin Hood does not live a simple life in the ‘greenwood’, but spends most of his time among the super-rich, of which he himself is one, and attempts to run the country as though it were simply one of his many businesses (which have earned themselves a reputation for appalling labour relations). From time to time he makes outbursts against people even richer than himself – such as this week’s ludicrous attack on the Amazon online empire, run by Jeff Bezos, who is currently the richest person on the planet. Whatever you may think of Bezos’s extreme wealth, it is surely not for the likes of Donald Trump to take him to task for it.

But Trump has had the audacity to accuse Amazon of destroying American jobs in independent retail outlets such as bookshops by offering cheaper goods online. Audacity, because Trump is also a defender of the ‘free market forces’ that have enabled Amazon to impose its hegemony on a wide range of sectors.

He can’t have it both ways. Either he is a real Robin Hood – which lays him open to the accusation of wanting to redistribute wealth (eek – socialism, and worse, communism) – or else he couldn’t give a damn about American job losses, in which case he is betraying the people who voted for him.

In short, he doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing, and is making it all up as he goes along. But a real Robin Hood he isn’t. And, while we’re about it, Melania Trump is hardly Maid Marian.

Lucky island

Just (or all of) seven years ago, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake – the fourth-strongest ever recorded in the world, and the strongest-ever in earthquake-prone Japan – occurred 70 km east of the Tōhoku peninsula in the north-east of Japan’s main island, Honshū. Since the epicentre was in the Pacific Ocean, the shock set off a tsunami (a Japanese word that has come to replace the formerly common English term ‘tidal wave’, since the phenomenon has nothing to do with tides) that devastated many towns along Japan’s north-east coast and left thousands dead; the estimated wave height at one point of landfall was 40 metres (about as tall as a 12-storey block of flats – again a Japanese record). The tsunami radiated out in all directions, and 2-metre waves were measured even in Chile, 17,000 km away (i.e. almost halfway round the world). Icebergs were broken off in Antarctica. A Japanese motorcycle is said to have washed ashore in western Canada, and a Japanese soccer ball in Alaska.

But, bad as all this was, worse was to come. Given that Japan is so prone to earthquakes (with 23 of at least 7.0 magnitude in the 20th century alone), plus the fact that the first – and so far only – two nuclear bombs were dropped on Japanese cities at the end of the Second World War (so the Japanese knew the destructive potential of nuclear power at first hand), its decision in the 1960s to make nuclear power one of its main energy sources (by the time of the Tōhoku earthquake it accounted for 30% of the total, supplied by over 50 reactors) may seem foolhardy – ‘tempting fate’ with a vengeance.

For 50 years Japan kept managing to dodge the bullet; but in 2011 its luck ran out.

People around the world, including in Japan, had been persistently reassured by the nuclear lobby that nuclear power plants were designed to withstand earthquakes far stronger than could ever occur. But, to be on the safe side, the power company Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) immediately took several plants out of service – including the one closest to the Tōhoku epicentre: the 11-reactor Fukushima No. 1 near the city of Fukushima (whose name means, of all things, ‘Lucky island’).

But scientists had failed to reckon with a major tsunami. The huge waves crashed over seawalls near Fukushima No. 1, causing enough damage to set off several explosions and release radioactivity into the atmosphere – things that could supposedly never happen, so Japan was already in uncharted territory. 200,000 people were evacuated from the area. The supposedly indestructible cooling system failed, and three reactors suffered the dreaded ‘meltdowns’, which duly released even more radioactivity into the environment – 1000 times the permitted norms within the plant and 8 times outside it. Radioactive substances were detected in local tapwater, as tsunami damage had allowed the local groundwater to come into contact with radioactive water from the plant – something else that could supposedly never happen.

There had already been major nuclear plant failures in various places around the world. Two of the worst had been in the Soviet Union, whose paranoid fear of revealing breakdowns in its allegedly flawless sociopolitical system led it to conceal – even from its own citizens – news of air crashes, forest fires and of course nuclear disasters. Back in 1957 there was a catastrophic radiation release from a plant near the city of Chelyabinsk, then officially ‘closed’ to foreigners and even most Soviet citizens. Rumours began in the West from the following year onwards, but it was not until 1976 that a Soviet dissident spilled the shocking beans. Ten years after these revelations, just when Mikhail Gorbachev was introducing his policy of glasnost (‘transparency’), it was put to the test by the explosion of the Chernobyl reactor near the Ukrainian town of Pripyat. Measurements outside the Soviet Union had indicated greatly increased radiation levels in the area; and this time the Soviet government bit the bullet and revealed the full extent of the disaster. Over 30 years later parts of the area are still too radioactive to live in, and there has been a dramatic increase in radiation-induced diseases.

But (of course) all this could so easily be put down to a mixture of Soviet secrecy and above all incompetence – they simply didn’t have the technical skill to build or run a nuclear power plant safely, or to take appropriate action when things went wrong (ingrained fear of challenging decisions by superiors undoubtedly played a part here). The dreaded ‘meltdown’ occurred in Chernobyl too, but this seemed almost symptomatic of the imminent collapse of the whole Soviet system, which occurred just five years later.

So the shock was all the greater when something at least as bad happened in – of all places – Japan. The country had astonished the West by emulating its scientific and technological achievements from the late 19th century onwards. In 1905 it destroyed much of the Imperial Russian navy in a brief sea battle, it was soon building its own submarines and aircraft, and in 1941 it challenged US might by bombing its key harbour in Hawaii (and took another four years to defeat, and that only by dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

In the years since the Second World War it at first built up a reputation for producing cheap but poor-quality imitations of Western products; but before long it had full-fledged industries of its own that could more than match what the West had to offer. Since the 1970s it has been launching its own satellites.

So this was hi-tech Japan – and not only had it failed to build a nuclear power plant that could, as promised, withstand the impact of a major earthquake off its coasts, but the response to the emergency by the Japanese authorities and the operating company TEPCO left much to be desired. In the chaotic evacuation from the Fukushima area many elderly residents of nursing homes are believed to have died from neglect; TEPCO’s initial instinct was to deny that there was a serious problem at all (let alone any risk of meltdown); and the Japanese government also dithered, seemingly paralysed by the shock that such a thing could have happened in the first place, and by fear of what it might do to Japan’s reputation abroad (the proverbial ‘loss of face’?).

Seven years on, 100,000 people are still unable to return to their homes, for much of the area is still too radioactive to live in. Perhaps even more scary, the disaster occurred a mere 300 km from the teeming capital Tokyo (the island of Honshū is 1300 km long). It seems that radioactivity from Fukushima was measured in beef sold in Tokyo markets. But what if the earthquake, and the tsunami, had occurred just off Tokyo Bay, as it so easily could have done?

The disaster that even Japan failed to foresee – and deal with when it happened – was enough of a wake-up call for at least one major industrial power, Germany, to decide that nuclear power would be phased out there as a source of energy by the year 2022. There was not much public protest, and Germany is making huge strides in the introduction of solar and wind energy as alternative fuels – after all, they’re here (courtesy of nature), they’re demonstrably safe (we’ve been living with them since history began), and they just as demonstrably work. Wind energy already supplies Denmark with over a third of its power.

A contributing factor to the Japanese disaster turns out to have been decades of collusion between largely unchallenged profit-minded governments (the LDP party has remained in power essentially since the Second World War) and the nuclear industry to promote nuclear energy to the public as the ‘clean, safe’ power source. And Japan is starting to wake up to the fact that it is not as democratic a society as many of its people thought.

Fukushima, Lucky Island, has provided the long-needed prima facie evidence that (1) government and industry have been systematically lying to us for years just to maintain short-term profits, and (2) humans can no longer presume to challenge, and defeat, the forces of nature. When nature strikes back, as it did in Japan in 2011 and continues to do all round the world (from floods in Bangladesh to wildfires in California), it will do so ruthlessly – for it could not care less whether or not we survive. That’s entirely our problem.

Flag of peace

It might look a typical piece of modern ‘iconry’ of the kind that started to appear in the innovative 1960s as a way not only of saving space on public signs, but above all of dealing with language problems in places frequented by large numbers of people from different linguistic backgrounds: airports, mainline railway stations, international sports events and so on. Perhaps the best known examples are the now ubiquitous ‘Exit’ and ‘Entrance’ signs: a square with one side open and an arrow pointing either out of it or into it (I still always have to give these a closer look to make quite sure which is which, but the basic idea is a good one).

One particularly striking set of such pictograms was devised by the Japanese designer Masasa Katzumie for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games to identify each of the competing sports: a valuable aid in a country where, for the second time in modern Olympic history, the local language of the host city was not written in the Latin alphabet (and this case not in an alphabet at all, but in an impenetrable system of ideograms that gave non-Japanese athletes and other visitors no clue to their pronunciation, let alone meaning).

So a white flag with a small, thick-barred red cross in the centre could be seen as the white flag of surrender – but also truce, and hence peace – with two adhesive plasters applied crosswise over a wound (hence the red colour): surely an apt piece of symbolism for the International Red Cross, set up to provide immediate medical aid for combatants in the field as well as civilian victims of battle. But the flag was designed a century earlier, long before the days of international pictograms; and the design was based simply on a reversal of the Swiss flag, a white cross on a red background. The founder of the Red Cross was a Swiss businessman called Henry Dunant, who perhaps wanted to boost his country’s image as an eternally neutral state with a growing reputation for peace initiatives.

After seeing the ravages of the 1859 Battle of Solferino near Lake Garda in Italy, Dunant returned to Switzerland determined that the wounded in battle should no longer be deprived of decent medical care, and began to rally support for his idea among European governments. Before long the Red Cross organisation was up and running, and to this day medics in the field often wear white armlets with a red cross, and field hospitals have large red crosses painted on their roofs.

But not everywhere. In choosing the flag of his own country as the model for the new flag, Dunant failed to heed what was to become an increasingly acute problem in international relations: religion.

Switzerland happened to be just one of a relative handful of independent European countries whose flags then featured some form of cross: the others were the Nordic countries, Britain, Italy and Greece. And the cross, of course, stood for Christianity – which at the time was Switzerland’s undisputed national religion. The country had recently experienced a minor domestic war between its Catholic and Protestant cantons, but this was soon resolved, among other things by assigning each canton its own official religion, or at a pinch two; and any idea that a Swiss canton might not be Christian at all simply did not arise.

The Red Cross, with its headquarters in Geneva, pursued its illustrious humanitarian career through the 20th century; but, as the organisation spread to other parts of the world, the implicitly Christian character of its symbolism began to rankle. In 1929 it was agreed that Muslim countries could instead use the ‘Red Crescent‘ symbol, with a red crescent and star on a white background.

Just as the Red Cross was supposedly based on a reversal of the Swiss flag, so the Red Crescent was supposedly based on a reversal of the former Ottoman Empire flag (which has survived almost intact in the modern Turkish flag): a white crescent and star on a red background. But this emphasis on the political rather than religious connotations was disingenuous – for it was quite clear to all that both the cross in the Swiss flag and the crescent in the Ottoman/Turkish flag were only there to symbolise the dominant religions of the two countries concerned. Not all Muslim countries had flags with crescents on them, so this time the choice was quite deliberate: the Christian cross had to go, and be replaced by something clearly Islamic. And the obvious choice was a crescent.

But there was another problem. The concession to the Red Crescent was already a break in the united front, and hence visibility, of the organisation; and the last thing anyone (?) wanted was for all kinds of other religious groups (of which, ‘God knew’, there were only too many) to demand their own versions of the flag. And what both Christians and Muslims surely had in mind was the other ‘religion of the book’: Judaism.

After the state of Israel was founded in 1948, the Israeli government began to pressure the Red Cross/Crescent to admit their own ‘Red Star of David’ organisation’s symbol alongside them, on the grounds that if Christian and Muslim symbols were allowed, then surely a Jewish one should be. For the rest of the century the Red Cross/Crescent continued to insist – against all logic – that the Red Cross and Red Crescent were not based on religious symbolism, and so refused to accept the Red Star of David on an equal footing. It was itself an adaptation, if not a reversal, of a national flag – Israel’s, with its blue Star of David on a white background – but Israel’s whole existence was so clearly predicated on Judaism (it referred to itself as ‘the Jewish state’) that it would have been even more absurd to invoke the ‘purely political’ argument in this case.

What did it in the end was money. For four years the US Red Cross withheld its substantial contributions until, in 2006, the Red Cross/Crescent backed down. But since the Muslim members would not accept the Star of David on any account, a whole new symbol, a hollow lozenge nicknamed the Red Crystal, was devised; the Israeli organization agreed to display this flag, and US contributions resumed.

The symbol is a meaningless fudge; but if it allows Israel to work alongside other countries, then it can only be a good thing.

In fact, since the symbol is so meaningless, it’s rather a shame Henry Dunant didn’t come up with it back in the 1860s – for then we’d have been spared the whole unedifying wrangle (complete with financial blackmail) over religious or other significance, and the Red Crystal (or Diamond, or Cough Drop, or whatever) flag could simply have been the universal symbol of medical aid in wartime all round the world. The flag of peace.

But of course any attempt to impose that now would run into objections from Christians and Muslims – who have never been in any doubt that the cross and crescent symbols are religious rather than political, and could even claim this was giving undue influence to the Israeli organisation whose unique symbol it now is.

We could keep on like this forever – and, if the rest of world politics is any guide, we probably will.

What about a new flag showing a broken arm in a sling? The Red Sling, anyone?

A party by any other name….

Today the right-wing (there is still a difference between left- and right-wing, today perhaps now more than ever, despite frequent facile comments to the contrary, often by people with an axe to grind) French politician Marine Le Pen, still smarting from her defeat in last year’s presidential elections that swept her largely unknown opponent Emmanuel Macron to power, announced that her Front National (‘National Front’) party should be renamed Rassemblement National (translated quite accurately as ‘National Rally’). Those attending the party conference accepted her decision du bout des lèvres (‘by the tips of their lips’, i.e. very grudgingly – just 52%, precisely as in the Brexit vote), and now it must be put to a national postal vote of all the party’s registered members. It is thus far from certain that the decision will be approved, for most of her supporters are further to the right than she now claims to be, and may now have realised they’re unlikely to achieve power if they cling to their convictions.

For one thing, the party – as so often with populist parties – is riven by internal divisions and hatreds. Since Le Pen’s defeat in her bid for the presidency, several leading members have left (including her own niece, once tipped to succeed her – though some are saying she’s just biding her time for a subsequent bite at the cherry, and would make her aunt look like Florence Nightingale if she ever did). But family rifts are nothing new to the Front National. It was founded by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, who acquired such an unsavoury reputation for ‘Holocaust denial’ and racist remarks that she felt he was damaging the party’s chances of success among middle-of-the-road voters – so she threw him out. And today’s conference set the seal on this by taking away his remaining ‘honorary membership’. Not surprisingly, he has thundered back that changing the name would be ‘political suicide’.

Daddy may or may not be right. Much depends on whether French voters can actually be taken in by a purely cosmetic change to the name of the party, whose policies are now essentially the same as they were on the eve of the 2017 election. Marine Le Pen says she hopes the change of name will help erase (by which she means ‘blur’) the party’s image as a hotbed of racism and anti-Semitism, so embarrassingly highlighted by her father’s repeated outbursts. But some of her own comments about immigrants and the supposed superiority of people of ‘pure French’ descent – an attitude eerily similar to the Nazis’ Blut und Boden (‘blood and soil’) symbolism – suggest she has sufficient contempt for the French electorate to suppose that large numbers of them will fall for the trick.

For a trick it clearly is – and not a clever one. By dropping the word Front from the party’s name, she seems to think she will make it seem less extreme, less traditionally ‘right-wing’, more centrist, more moderate. But Front is not the problem. In the 1930s France itself had a Front populaire (‘Popular front’, or ‘People’s front’) led by the socialist president Léon Blum – so Front is not automatically associated with the right. Le Pen seems not to know the political history of the country whose views she claims to reflect.

What is automatically associated with the right is a name that includes the word National, which she has chosen to keep. The history of the 20th-century European right wing is replete with such names: Italy’s Alleanza Nazionale (‘National Alliance’), Holland’s Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging (‘National Socialist Movement’), Latvia’s Nacionālā apvienība (‘National Alliance’), Slovakia’s Slovenská národná strana (‘Slovak National Party’), Portugal’s Partido Nacional Renovador (‘National Renovator Party’), Spain’s Democracia Nacional (‘National Democracy’), Cyprus’s Εθνικό Λαϊκό Μέτωπο (‘Ethnikó Laikó Métopo’, ‘National Popular Front’), Slovenia’s Slovenska Nacionalna Stranka (‘Slovenian National Party’), Germany’s Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (‘National Democratic Party of Germany’), Lithuania’s Lietuvių tautininkų sąjunga (‘Lithuanian Nationalist Union’), Britain’s British National Party, Poland’s Ruch Narodowy (‘National Movement’) – and of course the mother of all such parties, Hitler’s Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (‘National Socialist German Workers’ Party’) – known to history as ‘the Nazis’.

In other words, Marine Le Pen’s attempt to cast off the perceived image of her party as intolerantly right-wing and nationalist has focused on the wrong part of the name. I suspect she hopes her choice of Rassemblement (‘Rally’) rather than Front will garner support among other right-of-centre – but not extreme – voters who once supported General de Gaulle’s Rassemblement du Peuple Français (‘Rally of the French People’), which he set up in 1947 in the wake of France’s defeat and subsequent liberation, and its ostensibly ‘Gaullist’ successors – who just happen to be her most immediate rivals in the pursuit of the right-of-centre vote (no-one left-of-centre is likely to vote for her). She might well have wanted to use such a ‘unifying’ name – ‘Rally of the French People’ – and so avoid the N-word; but borrowing such an iconically Gaullist name, with the implication that she sees herself as the modern De Gaulle, would surely have been too politically risky and laid her open to mockery. A friend who lives in France has now reminded me that president Jacques Chirac’s party was called Rassemblement pour la République (‘Rally for the Republic’).

She’s treading a thin line – for, as someone astutely pointed out today, the name Rassemblement National has already been used in recent French history, and not in a way that would suit Ms Le Pen – yet more evidence that she doesn’t know her own country’s history. Rassemblement national populaire (‘National Popular Rally’) was the name of Marcel Déat’s collaborationist French party during the Second World War. When the southern half of France was more or less annexed by Nazi Germany under the ‘Vichy’ government, whose leaders cheerfully assisted in the arrest, deportation and murder of thousands of France’s Jews, Roma, homosexuals and other innocent victims, Déat’s party was a key member of it. Although he was convicted of treason and sentenced to death by a post-war French court, he managed to escape justice and die a natural death in 1955 in (surprise, surprise?) formerly Fascist Italy.

In short, renaming the Front national as Rassemblement national makes no difference – and the politically motivated attempt at disguise is in fact worse. Ms Le Pen is only too aware that French voters rallied (!) round her hitherto unknown opponent Emmanuel Macron if only to keep her party out of power. Since the party’s policies have not essentially changed, why should a mere change of name make voters think differently?

But, as we all know, elections – and election slogans – can produce absurd results. Although Jean-Marie Le Pen may not be right to predict electoral suicide for the party he founded, with luck he will be – and we’ll be rid of the Le Pen dynasty (a bunch of Breton immigrants anyway) at least for the time being.

Please don’t axe me

Heard it again this morning – someone on TV repeatedly saying ‘axe’ where most English-speakers would say ‘ask’: ‘I axed him straight out’, ‘Don’t axe stupid questions’ and so on. I say ‘most English-speakers’, since as far as I’m aware this pronunciation is only heard in North America, perhaps only the USA – and by no means everywhere there. In fact, it tends to be looked down on as uneducated (though people who consider themselves educated often describe it as ‘illiterate’, which isn’t the same thing).

The odd thing is that it only seems to affect the word ‘ask’. You don’t hear ‘axers’ saying ‘max’ for ‘mask’, or ‘tax’ for ‘task’, let alone ‘ricks’ for ‘risk’ or ‘decks’ for ‘desk’. So what’s going on? Why is this pronunciation so persistent?

It isn’t just an occasional slip of the tongue – people either say ‘axe’ all the time, or never say it all. Nor is it the kind of error young children tend to make when still trying to get their tongues round difficult groups of consonants. For instance, the word ‘wasp’, with its long sibilant ‘s’ followed immediately by an abruptly plosive ‘p’, tends to get mispronounced as ‘wops’ – putting the long sibilant at the end of the word, rather than in the middle, requires less breath control, which in turn depends on control of the muscles in the upper body. Such pronunciations are evidently so common at an early age that the British children’s poet A. A. Milne wrote the following about The three foxes:

They didn’t go shopping in the High Street shopses,
But caught what they wanted in the woods and copses.
They all went fishing, and they caught three wormses,
They went out hunting, and they caught three wopses.

Young Dutch-speaking children evidently have a similar problem with their own word for ‘wasp’ (wesp), for I have heard adult Dutch-speakers jokingly say weps instead. And young Slovenian-speaking children are seemingly well known for uttering the word for ‘uncle’ (stric, pronounced ‘streets’) with an l instead of an r (stlic – ‘stleets’, which I imagine most English-speaking children would find even more difficult). I’m reminded here of Donald Duck’s little nephews calling him ‘Unca’ Donald – ‘ncl’ being another unmanageable group of consonants.

Some languages do not make a clear distinction between the l and r sounds even in adult speech. Japanese, for instance, has a sound that is usually transliterated into Western languages as r, but involves so little tongue vibration that it can easily be mistaken by Westerners for l: Hiloshima, oligami and so on. And Western words borrowed into Japanese use this sound for lrondon for ‘London’, itaria for ‘Italy’ (Italia) and о̄sutoraria for ‘Australia’, with the same letter used for both the r and the l (groups of consonants are generally avoided in Japanese, hence the extra u and o).

And there’s a tendency even in European languages to swap l and r when they occur together in the same word. Thus the Spanish name for ‘Algeria’ is Argelia (a similar inversion occurs in Portuguese); and the Latin word for ‘tree’, arbor, has evolved into albero in Italian, àrvulu in Sicilian, árbol in Spanish, arbre in French and Catalan, árvore in Portuguese, arble in Mirandese (a minor language spoken in north-eastern Portugal), arbore in Romanian, arber in Romanche, and even åbe in the French-based Walloon language of southern Belgium (here there is no longer any trace of either the l or the r). Also note the variation between b and v, with v occurring specifically in languages that – unlike Spanish – do make a distinction between the two sounds.

But back to ‘ask’ versus ‘axe’. This difference can hardly be attributed to consistent differences in dialect, since – as I said earlier – it doesn’t seem to affect other similar words. One commentator on the Internet has said that criticising the ‘axe’ pronunciation as uneducated or ignorant is tantamount to criticising Scots for pronouncing ‘house’ as ‘hoose’; but that surely doesn’t hold water, since Scots make such sound changes consistently (‘oot’ for ‘out’, ‘doon’ for ‘down’ and so on). And, once again, ‘ask’ is the only word in which this change regularly occurs.

So the sk consonant group does not seem especially hard for English-speaking adults to utter – or is it? As I read back the opening sentences of this post, I noticed that in my own version of English the k sound in ‘asked’ almost disappears. Since I pronounce a long closed a (‘ah’) in the word, it comes out as ahssed – and since the slang British word for the backside is ‘arse’, with a silent r, you can’t help thinking of it. In American English the slang word is ‘ass’, with an open a as in ‘at’, so ‘asked’ could similarly come out as assed.

Is what we have here an attempt to avoid repeatedly using what sounds like a taboo word in everyday speech – in other words, to sound more educated rather than less? Saying ‘axed’ instead of ‘asked’ would be an instinctive way to avoid the supposed problem. And if you say ‘axed’ in the past tense, it’s only natural to extend the same pronunciation to all forms of the verb: ‘I’m only axing’, ‘he axes’, ‘why axe?’ and so on.

But then there’s strong evidence that the ‘ask/axe’ alternation has existed in the English language for well over a thousand years. The Old English (Anglo-Saxon) verb from which ask has come down to us was ascian – but there was a common alternative form acsian, with the s and k (c) sounds inverted. The use of axe rather than ask has been traced to texts by the mediaeval English author Geoffrey Chaucer; and it seems that ‘axe’ was a common pronunciation of the verb as late as the sixteenth century.

So is this a survival of two dialectal uses of the same word? With the spread of universal education, the ‘ask’ pronunciation supposedly became established as ‘standard’. But did ‘axe’ continue to be used in certain social groups – and, if so, which?

And this brings us to the crucial issue of who the ‘axers’ actually are – and, presumably, the reason why this usage is restricted to North America. For saying ‘axe’ rather than ‘ask’ has become an identifying feature of black American speech. Uneducated white speakers of American English may say things like ‘jiss’ for ‘just’, ‘hisself’ for ‘himself’ and ‘et’ for ‘ate’ (although the ‘et’ pronunciation is in fact still perfectly standard in British English, and an American friend of mine was surprised to hear me apparently talking like a ‘hillbilly’) – but they don’t say ‘axe’ for ‘ask’.

Much has been made recently of the supposed existence of a separate variety of American English spoken only, and consistently, by black Americans (sometimes called ‘Ebonics’, because of the black-hued wood ebony). Obviously there are certain terms that they use with a specific meaning, such as ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ for other black Americans; and some black Americans feel entitled to use the ‘N-word’ (invariably pronounced as ‘nigga’) in situations where most white Americans would nowadays hesitate to do so (‘we can call ourselves whatever we like – but you can’t’). But very many black Americans speak a form of American English that hardly differs from what most of their compatriots speak – especially those from the former ‘slave states’.

I can’t help thinking that the surprisingly persistent use of ‘axe’ for ‘ask’ – which has been criticised as a sign of ignorance and lack of education by black Americans as well as white ones – is becoming a badge of identity in an age when many social groups are increasingly looking for one. If I say ‘axe’, you know I’m a ‘brother’ or ‘sister’; if I say ‘ask’, I may be an ‘Oreo cookie’ (black on the outside, white on the inside). And if it pisses ‘educated’ white people off to hear me ‘axing questions’, I’ll surely have made my point. If, being black, I’m dismissed as uneducated because of how I talk, that just shows how snobbishly racist white folks are, deep down. And comments on the Internet suggest that this is a common interpretation.

Hard to say what the wisdom of all this is. But, for good or ill, there is still such a thing as a standard form of every language; and diverging from it, deliberately or by chance, inevitably leads other people to draw their own conclusions. So, for now, please don’t ‘axe’ me – I’d sooner stay alive.



On my second three-month trip around Greece, almost 20 years ago, I found myself in conversation with a man of about my own age who lived in a village on one of the country’s many islands. At one point, referring to another man in the village, he described him as σπανός (spanós) – a word I didn’t yet know, so I asked him what it meant. He replied ‘Well, there are men who can’t grow beards, and that’s what we call them. In fact, we have six of them here. I expect you have the same thing back in Holland.’ I thought about this, and told him ‘No, I don’t think we do. We certainly don’t grow as much hair on our bodies as you do here’ (I pointed to his dark moustache and the sexy black curls sprouting at the neck of his shirt) ‘but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man without any body hair at all’. It didn’t seem the time to reveal that I’d almost certainly seen more naked, or half-naked, men than he or most of his fellow male villagers ever had – so I wasn’t just talking about beards.

But then something interesting occurred to me. That weekend there was going to be yet another grandiose wedding between a woman and a man from two of the leading families, whose surnames accounted between them for at least 30% of the local people (a handful of other names were also extremely common there). It seemed almost inevitable that there was a great deal of inbreeding in the village: people having children with people who were more or less closely related by blood.

It has evidently been known since very ancient times that having offspring with close blood relatives involves an increased risk that they will suffer from physical or mental defects, and even be unable to reproduce in turn. When, many thousands of years ago, humans began to domesticate animals for their own purposes (transport, food, hunting or defence) they must soon have realised that some breeding strategies worked better than others, that some imposed an unacceptable burden on their communities – and that this applied not only to livestock, but also to human beings. The result was an ‘incest taboo’ that appears to be one of the most firmly established taboos around the world: don’t have sex with your own children or parents, or anyone closely related to you by blood. Not that it never happened; but, when it did, the results tended to be bad.

The royal houses of Europe have provided many classic examples of this. Perhaps the most shocking one is the Habsburg dynasty, in which princes and princesses from various parts of Europe intermarried and interbred simply on the grounds that they were all ‘of royal blood’, even if they came from different countries and did not speak each other’s languages. This inevitably meant that they were often each other’s cousins, aunts, uncles – and at worst parents, grandparents, children and grandchildren. Quite simply, institutionalised inbreeding.

This produced a vast number of shocking mental and physical aberrations that were passed on from generation to generation throughout the dynasty – from the Spanish queen Joanna’s insanity (she was dubbed Juana la Loca, ‘Mad Joanna’) to the Spanish king Charles V’s undershot lower jaw that prevented him from eating his food properly (he presumably had royally bad breath).

But then on that Greek island I found myself wondering why six out of a mere thousand local men were beardless – whereas in my own country none were. And not only were they beardless, but they were unable to father children. The man I was speaking to quite simply told me ‘το σπέρμα τους δεν είναι καλό’ – ‘their sperm is no good’.

Since he was a sheepherder, and knew very well about breeding animals, I dared to ask him if there might be a connection between the frequent local intermarriage and the unusually high prevalence of beardless men in an otherwise very hairy male population. It was almost as if a light bulb had come on in his head. He turned to his fellows in the bar, and began to talk about αιμομιξία (‘aimomixía’, literally ‘blood mixing’), something they were all aware of from livestock breeding. Was that why their village had such a high proportion of beardless men who could not father children?

Who knows? But I can’t help wondering.