An old Jedi mind trick

An old Jedi mind trick

Our guardians in the press are up in arms and all a-fluster in shock that Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway has decided to start referring to blatant lies as “alternative facts.” She was defending the Comical Ali press conference by Trump’s spokesperson, Spicer, which apparently lit up Twitter because of its obvious stupidity, and his blatant yelling attempts to pretend that the Trump inauguration had a greater audience than the 2009 Obama inauguration was presented as “alternative facts” rather than bald-faced bullshit. Spicer even claimed that Trump’s inauguration had the most people ever or something; and this after Trump apparently attempted to get a military parade organized, with tanks and missiles. He also apparently pressured the head of the National Parks Service to find flattering photos that would confirm what he and his crew already knew to be “fact” – that he had a bigger audience than the Kenyan Socialist, even though he obviously, clearly didn’t. It’s telling that having gone looking for evidence to support their view, and having found none, instead of making excuses they simply decided to front up and lie.

The media are shocked and pearl-clutching about how blatantly Trump is rejecting reality. I’m not sure why they’re surprised. The only surprising thing about the whole sordid affair is that Conway was smart enough to come up with a new term for what the Republican party has been doing for years – making up its own facts and expecting the media to swallow them whole, or at least take them seriously. The most obvious example of this is their ongoing project of blatant climate denialism, which the media have abetted for years by allowing the liars, con-artists, grifters and spooks of the GOP denialist wing and all its “think tanks” to come on to shows discussing science and present their bullshit denialism as “balance.” Since the GOP have been coddled for years into believing that complete lies need to be given airtime for reasons of “balance,” why would they not expect the media to give Trump’s view of the inauguration just as much weight as the photographic evidence? The GOP have been denying the temperature curve for years, and sure some of them have gone for a more sophisticated “humans aren’t causing it” line but a large part of the denialism has focused around denying that temperature exists, denying that the curve is rising, slicing the curve up into small parts and claiming cooling, using a different curve (see e.g. Breitbart with its recent attempt to claim the globe is cooling), using a curve that doesn’t measure the earth’s surface, or claiming that the data is all fraudulent. These are surely just as much “alternative facts” as disputing exactly how many people are in two separate photographs of the national mall.

If the media blessed the last 15 years of abject denialist bullshit with the halo of truthiness, why would they expect the GOP to stop there? And it’s not just on matters of policy that they know the GOP lies: Paul Ryan – who the media insist on pretending is a serious policy thinker – has been caught out lying flagrantly about his own marathon times, no doubt in order to burnish his manly credentials for his far right base and to keep the media hanging onto his strange, blank-eyed granny-starving charm so they can keep pretending he’s not just another shallow tax fetishist. The GOP were also pretty good at pretending that the national debt Clinton inherited was not Bush’s fault, and that the national debt Obama inherited was not Bush’s fault – and the media pretty much let them have that as well. Which has also enabled the GOP to keep up their image as the party of serious deficit reduction and concern about “inter-generational equity” when in fact they are the biggest culprits for the ballooning federal debt, and only ever take deficits seriously when a Democrat is in charge. And wasn’t it the PNAC that said that the only limits to American power were their imagination, just before they fucked up and invaded Iraq?

The GOP and the rarified “thinkers” in “think” tanks like the Heritage foundation associated with this clan of grifters have pushed a whole bunch of other lies and deceptions over the years that are easily just as blatant as Spicer’s recent “alternative facts”: more guns means less crime, the Clean Air Act didn’t work, Barack Obama was born in Kenya, the Laffer curve, abstinence only sex education works, the Empire were the good guys (seriously there is a dude at National Review who runs with this particular shtick). They also peddle in a sideline of hypocrisy that would get a Democrat sunk in a moment – most obviously the wide array of “family values” candidates like Gingrich and Trump who’re onto their third marriage, and the rogue’s gallery of anti-gay lawmakers who have been caught adopting a “wide stance” in public toilets. They’ve been able to get away with this mixture of blatant denialism, straight-up lies, prevarications and half truths, and rank hypocrisy for the past 30 years because the media have been noticable lax about confronting them on the obvious con they’re running. Now the media have a president who really genuinely hates them and they’re suddenly starting to notice that taking facts seriously matters. But they’ve done the GOP’s work for them, allowing every single important issue of the past 30 years to be turned into a matter of opinion and “balance”, making every single basic fact underlying public policy into a debatable issue, and now Trump and his team of rich ingrates have decided they don’t need to pay lip service to the truth anymore. Having shown themselves to be willing enablers of GOP lies for 30 years, it’s going to be a little difficult for the media to back away and start pretending that facts matter.

I’ve been saying for a long time now that the GOP cannot behave like a serious political party while it denies global warming, and that the effort required to deny global warming has corrupted the entire intellectual structure of American conservatism. This is why now the GOP has become the home of vaccine denialism, with Trump considering appointing an open denialist to the vaccine safety committee, and why the GOP cannot come up with a health care policy or a strategy to contain gun violence: The effort of denying the facts of global warming has required such a complete and overwhelming rejection of the basic tenets of modern intellectual activity that they have had to walk away from reality to manage it. Just as the torturer in 1984 forced Winston to lie about the most basic things in order to rebuild his ideology, so the GOP have developed in themselves the ability to lie to themselves about anything, no matter how obvious and simple, and now it’s easy for them to believe anything they want to believe. To convince a Republican of the wrongness of vaccination policy or the fact that homeopathy can cure AIDS you don’t need to sell them on pseudo-scientific waffle – you just need to show them how it matches their ideology, and they’ll automatically believe the rest. This is what happened with anti-vaccination ideology, and it happens by default with any environmental issue. In time it will happen with everything else, because the GOP is intellectually rudderless, has built an entire intellectual structure on no foundations.

Over the term of this presidency that means that the president, all his sycophants, and most of the GOP congress are going to present us a range of ridiculous ideas that are clearly wrong, and yet believe them wholeheartedly: Trump will be “ever more popular” even as his popularity plummets; their Obamacare replacement will be enormously successful even though it is a dismal failure; crime will plummet even if it goes up; the economy will be going great even as inflation and unemployment rise. They have finally and completely severed themselves from reality and even though the rest of us have seen this coming for 30 years, their compliant operatives in the media have just noticed just how far gone the whole screaming mad mob are. But by the time they try to start dealing with it, Trump will have cut them off completely and withdrawn into his Fox news bubble. After all, once you completely reject all facts, you don’t need the media to report anything, do you? You can just make proclamations of the truth, and the more pesky fact-checkers you cut out of the process the easier it is to promulgate the truth.

This day has been coming for 30 years, and we scientists have been warning of it for a long time. I fear it is going to be a long time before America can drag itself back from this state, and that it will do a lot of damage to itself and the rest of the world before it finally recovers. Let’s hope the damage isn’t fatal …

What the American people have to look forward to

What the American people have to look forward to

We’re a week away from the inauguration of the 45th President, but the Senate and House seats have changed so that the Republicans now control both houses of Congress, and one of their first actions has been to begin repealing Obamacare. They’ve been salivating over this prospect for six years and making a big fuss about it, as have all their adjutants in think tanks and conservative media, so you would think they would be ready to roll with a coherent plan. Unfortunately it appears that they don’t, and the first week of their attempts to begin the process have been rather shambolic. Since they don’t control 60 Senate votes they are trying to enact the repeal through some arcane process called reconciliation, but that is just the start of the rolling drama that is coming; Vox has an explainer about the whole process, and is running a fairly good series of articles watching as the Republicans attempt to wreck Obama’s signature achievement.

The Republicans’ first plan seemed to be “repeal and replace”, in which they would unravel all the key parts of Obamacare now but put some kind of deadline on when they would take effect, then begin working on a replacement plan in the meantime. Unfortunately this was patent madness, that they were warned about for months, which would tip many insurance markets into a death spiral and create chaos for both insurance companies and millions of insurance holders. Trump stepped on this with the announcement that repeal and replacement would happen simultaneously and soon, which is something of a problem for the Republicans since they don’t have a plan and working one up in a couple of weeks is going to be kind of challenging (Obamacare took about 15 months to happen, I think). Even more challenging for the Republicans is their lack of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate – they can repeal the law’s components with 51 votes, but they can only put in place a replacement with 60 votes. If the Democrats decide to act in exactly the same way that the Republicans have for the past 6 years, they will prevent any replacement plan for the next two years, and unless the Republicans can hold them responsible in the mid-terms, potentially kill any future replacement. This would be a disaster for the Republicans, since they would create an insurance death-spiral with no ability to legislate a repair, and go to the mid-terms with several million people suddenly losing their insurance. Given this their choices all seem very unpleasant.

This is incredibly irresponsible politics. Health care reform has been a Democratic party priority – and part of national debate – since the 1990s, and Obamacare was passed in 2010. The Republicans have had 25 years to think about this stuff, and have tried more than 50 times to repeal Obamacare while they were in opposition, yet over that whole time they haven’t come up with a single plan that will do anything to improve health insurance coverage. One Republican even admitted that the plans they have tried to pass during Obama’s administration were only pushed because they knew they wouldn’t get passed – they aren’t serious plans. Paul Ryan has been saying the Republicans will release a plan “soon” for years, and although there are a couple of different ideas floating around out there none of them is near the level of a properly designed plan – and none were pushed during the election. The Heritage Foundation was able to scour the whole country looking for complainants in a Supreme Court case – and fight that case – to gut one part of Obamacare, but didn’t appear to have time to come up with an alternative plan that was worth putting to Congress. The Republicans have known this day is coming for at least six years and they have nothing coherent to offer the American people. We all know the reason for this, of course – Republican political ideology simply cannot produce a reform of the American healthcare system that will give more people affordable coverage, because the Republicans’ fundamental position is that government should not be interfering in healthcare markets, and it is impossible to make healthcare affordable and accessible without extensive government interference in markets.

As if that were not bad enough, their president-elect campaigned on a promise not to cut medicare or medicaid, and recently his spokesperson said that no one would lose their existing plan (a promise that has been held against Obama by Republicans for six years!) Trump has also said he likes Obamacare’s provisions on pre-existing conditions. So now the Republicans have to come up with a free market plan that somehow keeps Medicaid in place, doesn’t take away anyone’s insurance, and forces insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions, while bringing prices down and giving individuals greater choice (the latter two points being raised by Paul Ryan recently as part of what he described as a “rescue mission” to make health care more affordable than it is under Obamacare). And if they follow Trump’s timeline they have to do it in a few weeks or months.

It’s not clear what colour everyone’s unicorn will be, but we know it will be a free market unicorn.

So what can we expect this plan to contain? It’s not clear, because there have been multiple Republican “plans” or “policies” in the past couple of years, but based on the major ones that have floated around and some of the major policy discussions we have seen, the plan will likely include some or all of the following.

  • Abolishing the mandate: The mandate is the Obamcare rule that hits people with a tax penalty if they do not take out health insurance, in an attempt to force young and healthy people to take up insurance. This mandate is key to Obamacare, since forcing young and healthy people to take up insurance will ensure that the insurance risk pools are large enough to keep costs down and keep insurance companies viable. The mandate hasn’t been as successful as its planners envisaged, probably because the plans young people are likely to choose to take up are “Bronze” plans with very poor benefits, and many young people probably don’t think they’re worth the effort of filling in forms, given the size of the tax penalty. Republicans hate the mandate and want to get rid of it but of course don’t have an alternative method for forcing people to take up health care. If you abolish the mandate but force insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions then they have to raise prices for everyone else – which means the care won’t be affordable, a key goal of Ryan’s “rescue mission.”
  • Deregulating insurance markets: Trump was big on allowing insurers to operate across state lines, and most Republican plans want to see some kind of reduction of conditions on insurers. In the repeal of Obamacare this will likely involve removing the restrictions placed on plans that can be marketed on exchanges – when Obamacare was introduced, a set of minimum standards was established for insurance plans which guaranteed people buying them would get a certain minimum level of benefits, and enabled people to choose between plans that were rated as either Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum. By deregulating markets and the rules on how insurers market their plans, the insurance companies will be able to return to the pre-Obamacare era of selling absolutely shonky packages at a low price – which, if they’re required to offer coverage to people with pre-existing plans, is the only way they’ll cover their costs. Many Republicans also think insurance companies should be able to compete across state lines, ostensibly because this will increase competition in smaller states and rural areas where currently only one insurer operates, and also to allow more mergers. This is unlikely to encourage competition in the long-term, but will lead to large insurers merging and creating multi-state monopolies – monopoly pricing being another way to cover costs. There is no universal health coverage system in the world which operates successfully with a deregulated private market, and it’s not going to magically happen in the USA.
  • Reforming subsidies: Another aspect of some Republican plans has been to change subsidies so that they are not income-based. Currently under Obamacare anyone with income below a certain level receives a subsidy towards the cost of their health insurance, with the subsidy growing as income decreases, to ensure the plan remains affordable. This is the natural compensation for the mandate, and is one of the pillars of Obamacare. Republicans like Tom Price have proposed replacing these income-based subsidies with age-based subsidies, which means Bill Gates gets the same subsidy as a minimum-wage 61 year old labourer in Louisiana. This policy is part of a new rhetoric the Republicans are developing based on “equality of access” rather than equality of coverage. The natural consequence of this will be that poor people will decline to take up insurance, since the subsidy won’t be enough for them – especially in a deregulated market with no mandates.
  • Block-granting medicaid: As part of Obamacare the Medicaid program was expanded, with states being offered financial support to extend Medicaid to a larger pool of people (Medicaid is the USA’s free health coverage for very poor people). Republicans hate this because it’s straight-up welfarism, and the Heritage Foundation ran a successful challenge in the Supreme Court that enabled states to refuse the expansion. Unfortunately for the Republicans a lot of states – including some Republican-ruled swing states – took the expansion, and about 5-12 million people gained health coverage through it (estimates vary). If the Republicans take away this expansion they will piss off a lot of people, including people in Republican swing states that could damage them in future elections, so they need to find a way to take away the Medicaid expansion from safe Democrat and safe Republican states, and enable swing Republican states to keep it. Their answer is block-grants, in which the money for Medicaid is granted to the states but not earmarked for Medicaid only. Since some deep Republican states like Kansas and Louisiana are in big financial trouble, they can then use the Medicaid money to bail out their failing state finances, and pare back Medicaid in their states; while swing states can keep using the money for Medicaid and avoid creating a large pool of angry voters. Even then it is likely that the block grants will be smaller than the funds currently available so all states will have to cut Medicaid coverage or reduce the quality of care offered – but the Republicans don’t care because Medicaid is for poor people, so just need to make sure they don’t cut it away from so many people that it swings an election.

Any single one of these reforms in isolation would probably be enough to radically roll back recent gains in insurance coverage in the USA, but it’s likely that whatever misbegotten, evil plan the Republicans come up will have all of these reforms to some extent. This is why Republicans have started talking about equality of access rather than coverage, because if everyone theoretically has a subsidy and the right to purchase healthcare, then you can blame them if they decide they can’t afford it. In this rhetorical model they will force insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions, abolish the mandate, deregulate the market in such a way that insurance companies can offer absolutely shonky products at inflated prices, cut subsidies so that no one takes them, and then blame poor people for “choosing” not to take up the healthcare they had “equal access” to.

It remains to be seen whether the Republicans will be able to get away with this – either because Trump takes a personal interest in a reform that actually works, and vetoes anything they offer, or because the Democrats drag out the replacement strategy until they can again win control of Congress. In any case it’s going to be fascinating to watch the Republicans try to behave like responsible adults now that they have the levers of power, even though for the past six years they have shown themselves pathologically incapable of dealing with the contradictions and challenges their ideology has thrown up.

Of course, what’s “fascinating” to those of us who live in countries with sane governments and universal health coverage, is going to be very terrifying to a very large number of poor and chronically ill people in America. Good luck to all of you!

(This review is a little pointless because the exhibition closes tomorrow).

Yesterday I visited the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills to see the Universe and Art exhibition. This exhibition attempts to show the relationship between artists’ and scientists’ attempts to explain the cosmos and the human relationship with the stars. It incorporates artistic visions of the cosmic order, scientific explanations of space over time, and artistic interpretations of science, from many different cultural perspectives. To do this it displays a wide array of art, items, scientific objects, film and video art. These objects have been drawn from many different cultures – Indian, Asian, Europe and the Americas – over several thousand years, with a particular emphasis on Japanese material from the past and the present. They include mandalas from India and Japan, star charts from China and Japan, and early stories about space from Japan and Europe. It also includes film, photos and objects from the space programs of several nations, science fiction art and stories inspired by these programs, and visual art that either glorifies or critiques or reinterprets them. Some highlights that I particularly enjoyed are listed below.

The meteoric iron katana

Blade of coolness +5

Blade of coolness +5

What can I say? Apparently Okayoshi Kunimune made two swords from meteoric iron, which took three weeks to craft and required several trips to the local shrine for prayer. One of these is on display, and it is quite impressive. It has all the fine lines of a classically-forged katana, but the metal is kind of darker and less shiny, more sinister-looking. Also the scabbard has “Meteor sword” written on it, which just says it all really. This blade was forged the old-fashioned way in 1898, which was after the samurai era, but was forged in the traditional way, which means that it has that slight rippling pattern in the metal around the blade. Viewed end on it looks wicked sharp. The photo I took is just a snap and overstates how dark the blade is, but I do think it is darker than a normal blade (I haven’t seen many of these artifact blades so I don’t know how dark an original samurai blade is). One of these blades ended up in the possession of the Taisho Emperor, which means that he was decked out in a sword made from a meteorite. I think that makes this a kind of unique artifact and it genuinely is very cool, just sits their heavy with its own sense of foreboding awesomeness. Everyone was impressed by this sword.

Bjorn Dahlem’s Black Hole (M-Spheres)

Space!

Space!

This installation is large and imposing and when viewed in detail kind of naff – it’s just a bunch of fluorescent lights stuck onto some wood – but viewed from afar with that kind of disfocused gaze that you have to take with certain kinds of art it suddenly becomes much more imposing and abstract. In the centre is supposed to be a black hole, with what I guess are galaxies or some kind of star tracks circling around it. A single sphere of black metal somewhere in the middle is, I guess, the black hole that it all is meant to be built around. It’s surprisingly cool (though the windows at the far end of the room give a view of Tokyo from the 52nd floor of this building and are kind of more awesome in their own way). It doesn’t move or anything, unlike …

The God Machine

It watches and waits ...

It watches and waits …

This monstrosity is set up in its own room, and is basically just a series of robust metal arms circling slowly in rings of different size and speed, with brilliant lights on the arms. The lights themselves move in simple planar orbits but the whole structure is set at an angle to the floor surrounded by walls of white, and the motions of the shadows of the arms on the wall are complex, occasionally threatening, and frustratingly close to predictable. The size, clarity, depth and position of the shadows changes as the arms complete their loops, and depending on the direction you look you see a very different system of shadows interacting. A single spike sticking up from the floor casts a complex pattern of shifting triple shadows on the floor. The whole thing is a simple set of ordered moving parts, but it carries this sense of immensity and brooding threat that makes it really cool. I think it’s by Wolfgang Tillmans, who contributed a few beautiful images as well. His website gives a sense of some of his other art, which is quite striking.

The great books

Original history

Original history

The exhibition also featured first editions of Newton’s Principia, Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, and the first works of Copernicus and Kepler. Kepler and Copernicus’s books are open at centre pages so you can see the quality of their work, while the Principia is open to the frontispiece.

On the shoulders of giants ...

On the shoulders of giants …

I studied physics in my undergraduate years, and then statistics, and so for me even just the frontispiece of Newton’s original work (shown above) carries an enormous weight and power – this is truly a book of vast importance in the history of science, and to stand in front of a work that is so close to the original hand of one of science’s greatest and most influential minds is really a great privilege. This book is over 300 years old, heavy and worn with the weight of history, and everything in my career and everything I love about the science I do is built on what is in its thick and fragile pages. So it was really great to stand looking at that frontispiece and revel in the significance of of those three words: Naturalis Principia Mathematica. I imagine if one were an evolutionary biologist one would get the same feeling from Darwin’s Origin of the Species, which was also on display, but for me as someone trained in physics this book is a great treasure and it was the first (and I guess, the last) time I will be in the presence of this original piece of history.

The exhibition had other contributions from the scientists of that era, including an excerpt from da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus that described the movement of the planets (his handwriting is incredibly beautiful, every letter a work of art), armillary spheres and beautiful navigational tools made in intricate and beautiful detail out of brass, and a replica of Gallileo’s original telescope (also, his Sedereus Nuncius and his sketches of the moon, that he made with that incredibly primitive telescope). It’s really humbling to stand in the presence of so many of the original moments of modern science, and to think that almost everything we do now depends on the work these men put into these humble books, or that once people had to find their way to Tokyo using nothing more than one of those brass navigational instruments. It’s quite incredible to see them and realize just how primitive it all was – these scientists really were fumbling around the universe, making guesses on the basis of almost nothing, when you think about what we can do today. And almost everything we can do today depends on their fumbling efforts … So it was quite amazing to see all this stuff in one exhibition, and also to see some of the wild, amusing and speculative ways in which artists of that time and since have speculated on the implications of those scientific endeavours. It’s also obvious when you see that early work that there is no barrier between science and art – those scientists were technicians but they approached their work with a religious zeal and an obvious sense of aesthetics, a joy in the beauty of maths and physics as well as in the discovery of the unknown. For all the challenges of that era, for these men it must have been a very exciting time to be alive.

The Crows and the Insects in Amber

Some of the video installations weren’t so great but there were two amazing works. The first was a high resolution high magnification video exploration of a piece of amber with insects trapped inside it. Set to eery backing music, it moved through the amber filming different parts of it in such a way that it produces spacescapes and scenes like starscapes, nebulae or distant galaxies. In between these strange galactic visuals it zoomed in or out on the insects themselves, so that they loomed in the camera like Cthulhoid monsters, alien horrors, or strange planetary landscapes. This installation was probably 4-5 minutes long (or at least the part I saw was) but it was a fascinating way to turn a piece of something ancient, terrestrial and tiny into something vast, timeless and cosmic. A brilliant idea.

The second was a video work by teamlab, Crows are Chased and the Chasing Crows are Destined to be Chased as well, Blossoming on Collision–Light in Space. For this you enter a large dark room and stand in a specific spot in the centre of the room, then the entire room begins to shift and move as the video covers all the walls, floor and ceiling. From your central spot you watch crows take flight and then you chase them along the lines of their flight, and then they burst over you and disappear and suddenly you’re chasing new ones. I don’ t know why crows, I don’t know why we’re chasing them, but it’s really good. It’s a kind of mixture of video game and interactive exhibit, I guess, but all through a movie. It probably wasn’t entirely suited to this exhibition – it could easily be the open sky rather than space that these crows are flying through – but it was still a splendid experience.

This exhibition finishes tomorrow so there is not really any point in recommending that you, dear reader(s), rush on down to see it, but at least now you know what you missed. This was a really interesting attempt to combine two fields of human endeavour that are often seen as at odds with each other or unconnected, and it did a really good job both of merging the two and also of introducing me to some genuinely cool modern artists working in this field. It also serves as a good reminder of how space exploration, from its earliest beginnings, has been not just an engineering and physics endeavour, but an artistic effort that expresses something about what it means to be human and what our position is in the cosmos. As we watch new and modern efforts to explore our solar system – and, possibly, to colonize it – it’s worth remembering that they are always about more than just science, which makes them simultaneously both a luxurious waste of money, and an essential attempt to understand the core of what it is to be human. I hope in the future other museums and art galleries will attempt a similar exhibition to this, so people outside of Japan can share this unique insight into how art and science have worked together over thousands of years to bring humans closer to the stars, both physically and spiritually.

She'll tear your heart out, and store up the pain for next time

She’ll tear your heart out, and store up the pain for next time

With the Spiral Confederacy campaign rolling to a close my regular gaming group is about to embark on a new campaign in a setting called Undriel, using a variant of World Of Darkness rules with Ars Magica type magical system. Undriel is high fantasy with a strong flavouring from Irish folklore. This is my character for the new campaign.

Xenobia was born the second daughter of a noble family in Garias, that rich and fated kingdom on the shores of the western isle that is rumoured to have had a long dalliance with dark magic and the Fomori. The particular name of her noble family is of no matter, because she has been cast out from them. Raised with the expectation that she would marry young, promised to a much older man in a marriage of convenience and politics, Xenobia rebelled against her gilded cage and ran away from home in her teens. Tricked by a handsome, mysterious older man from a lower-ranked family, she was lured into eloping with him with promises of adventure and love. Finding herself alone in his remote and cold mountain castle, she slowly began to lose her confidence and her happiness, as he set about systematically degrading and debasing her. Finally she discovered that all of the abuses and cruelties he visited upon her were part of a great ritual, in which he intended to break her innocence and then sacrifice her life on a dark altar to some great evil. At the last she slew him, but the backwash of dark magical energies released in his ineffectual and incomplete ritual washed over her and cursed her, soaking into her so that she suddenly became magically endowed.

Unfortunately this magical awakening was not a pleasant one. Stillborn in a dark ritual interrupted by murder and flight, her magical powers manifested themselves as necromancy and death magic. Xenobia is cursed so that she cannot easily cast any magic that is not based on death, fear, pain and darkness[1] – she is an unwilling necromancer. She can destroy flesh, conjure the spirits of the dead to fight for her, shroud herself in shadows and drive her enemies away in fear, but in order to heal an ally or to conjure a light spell she must suffer the pain in her own flesh. Over time Xenobia came to understand this curse, and during her sojourn in the lonely tower she crafted two magic items to help in her work. One, the burnt eye socket of her cremated former lover, stores damage or essence that she drains from others, that she can use it to restore wounds or injuries in herself or her allies; the other, a battered necklace of emerald, stores the pain she causes to others as a flash of light inside the gem, which she can then call upon the next time she casts a non-necromantic spell. By unleashing this stored pain she can, for that one spell, avoid the penalty of her curse. But if she does not harm others, she cannot store their pain, and must instead suffer that pain herself.

Xenobia has long since been cut off from her family, but she has retained the resources her dead lover had hoarded to himself, including his tower in the remote mountains of Garias. She carries herself still as a noblewoman, dressing elegantly and in the latest fashions and always acting with the etiquette and formality her status demands of her. Those who spend time in her company might notice that she lacks some of the airs and accomplishments of her fellow noble ladies, having missed finishing school and the finer lessons of court life while she wrestled with her curse and the awakening of her powers. Xenobia is also scarred, one side of her face permanently damaged by fire; every moon she casts a spell to renew the perfection of her appearance, and uses make up in the latest courtly fashions to ensure she remains perfect in form. When she casts her dark magics that scar briefly shows through the transformed flesh, revealing the ugliness beneath her courtly demeanour. However, aside from those times when she must hide away to recast the spell, Xenobia is to all outward appearance a normal minor noblewoman. She is pretty, young, slim and small, physically unopposing and apparently mostly harmless. This apparent weakness enables her to insinuate herself into positions where her rougher companions might not go – and belies the ferocious, destructive and unsettling nature of the magic that she carries into battle with her.

Xenobia travels the lands of Undriel seeking a cure for her curse, and a renewed purpose to carry her life forward now that she has been cursed with magic. Will she find that purpose, or will the dark nature of her magic overwhelm her, and draw her into the same evil that consumed her ex-lover? Only the Gods can know …


fn1: Manifesting in game terms as a 3 point flaw that causes her to suffer wounds, increased difficulty or greater spell use costs if her spell does not have one of these features, with the costs growing with the essence cost of the spell.

Save

Thongor say smash!

Thongor say smash!

Late last year I ran a one-off session of Barbarians of Lemuria, a simple and stripped down sword and sorcery RPG. The session report for that adventure is here.

Barbarians of Lemuria is intended to provide rules for sword and sorcery adventuring in the style of Conan, the Lankhmar series, and Thongor, in a light and easy to play style. The game comes with its own setting, the mythical land of Lemuria, which has a long tradition in fantasy writing and film and is also the name of a great southern continent that the Victorians imagined existed somewhere in the southern hemisphere. This land is mentioned in the Strange Tales fantasy magazine and is the setting for the books about the barbarian Thongor by Lin Carter. Barbarians of Lemuria expands on these vague historical and literary references with a map and setting information, so that in addition to rules for a quick and simple sword and sorcery RPG it comes with background information on a classic setting sufficient for running a whole sword and sorcery campaign.

The game is definitely light on rules and written for brevity and ease of use. In just 211 pages it manages to encompass all the usual RPG rules plus wargaming rules, setting, monsters, a brace of sample adventures, a random adventure generator, summary tables and character sheets. All the rules for task resolution and combat are squashed into 8 pages and are perfectly sufficient to cover most scenarios you need them for. Sample adventures are typically 2-3 pages including maps and background, and are really only rough sketches for a wide array of free form approaches to the general ideas laid out in them. Wherever possible the game attempts to capture the seat-of-the-pants risk taking approach to adventure from the sword and sorcery setting through loose rules and quick and dirty approaches to problems. For example, in the section on equipment they write:

… there are no rules for encumbrance. Heroes can go around with what they can carry. They live for the day. You never know what you will need on an adventure and you can’t take everything, so why bother? Use your hero points instead. That’s what they are for. If you want backpacks full of adventuring gear, a weapon for every occasion, three spare suits of armour and a pack animal to carry it around on, then play another game. If all you want is a breechclout and a sturdy blade, play on!

I think that might be the best encumbrance rules I have ever read, and it gives a good summary of how normally picky technical details like armour, healing and so on are handled in this game. It’s a game to unleash your barbarian on the world, not to fiddle with spreadsheets.

The rules are very straightforward. Your PC has four attributes and four combat attributes plus four careers, all of which are ranked from 0 – 3 at the start. Skills are resolved with 2d6+attribute+career vs. a target number of 9 with simple difficulty modifiers; combat is the same with combat attributes in place of careers. Careers are things like slave, noble, barbarian, hunter, priest etc. and offer a bonus equal to the rank of the career in attempts to perform activities that can plausibly be related to the careers. PCs also start with a boon and if they want flaws and more boons; these give a bonus or penalty die on the 2d6 roll (like advantages/disadvantages in D&D5e), and Hero Points that have a versatile range of possible uses to make your character more effective. Some of the boons are classic sword and sorcery – for example Battle Harness turns your loin cloth or chainmail bikini into medium armour without the combat penalties of medium armour, while Missing Limb is exactly that, and comes with the rule “the game master will penalize you where appropriate.” In combat weapons do d6 damage, sometimes with a penalty or bonus die, and armour absorbs a bit of that.

Those are the whole rules – now you don’t really need to buy the book. Unless you want to enjoy the full richness of the boons and flaws and the deeply entertaining magic system, which really makes this game stand out. Magic is divided into four levels: cantrips and level 1-3 spells. Wizards have about 10-14 arcane power to spend, and spells come at increasing cost, ranging from 1-2 points for cantrips up to about 15 for level 3 spells. Wizards can reduce the cost of spells by meeting requirements, such as visible technique or taking a wound. These requirements grow in seriousness as the level of the spell increases, until at level 2 they encompass things like human sacrifice and serious injury. Level 3 spells (which can include making mental slaves and causing earthquakes) require a permanent point of arcane power to be lost. The spells themselves aren’t described – they’re up to the players and GM to negotiate – but examples are given to help with deciding the appropriate level of the spell. Also different levels of spell recuperate lost power at different rates – cantrips twice a day, level 1 spells at midnight, and level 2-3 spells just once a lunar cycle. This means that a wizard can start the game with a stupendous amount of power, but can’t use it often across a campaign. In my adventure our wizard used a couple of cantrips, one level 1 spell, recovered some of those points at midnight, then burnt all remaining points on a single level 2 spell. This means that having started the adventure with 14 points of arcane power he finished it with 0 points, and would only regain 8 of them within a day – another four would take up to a month to come back, and the remaining two up to two months. He also finished the adventure with the name of a demon tatooed on his chest and arm, seriously wounded and guilty of human sacrifice – all to power a great spell that failed.

There are also similarly simple but flexible rules for alchemists (who build things) and priests (who get divine favour). It’s perfectly possible to play these classes together too, so you can be a priest of some dark god, conjure evil magics, and build fire oil all at the same time. Monster rules are simple enough that four or six monsters can be fit into a two-page spread, including pictures and descriptions, and they are super easy to grasp. This makes the game really easy to pick up and run with in a short period of time – we started at 1pm, created characters from scratch and got through the entire adventure by 5:30 pm or so, going at a leisurely pace with lots of description and fluff.

This light-hearted and concise approach to rules really forces GM improvisation and encourages players and GM alike to plunge into the heroic, fast-and-loose style of sword and sorcery adventures. With very little time devoted to calculation, dice rolling and rules-faffing (even when new to the game) there is a lot of time and space for players to describe and improvise their PCs actions, and lots of time also for them to make heroic failures, make mistakes and retry things or go on different routes through the adventure. It really is a very good rule set for sword and sorcery, and a really good example of a game in which the rules, the writing style, the graphics and the setting all work together very well. This makes it a completely useless game if you want to pick it up and use the rules for anything else – you’d need to do some significant work to make a different setting feel right – and definitely not a game for people who like lots of crunch and detail in their gaming. But if you simply want to get rolling on an adventure with a barbarian, a druid and a beastmaster, then this is the game for you. It’s a refreshing, exciting contribution to the RPG world and a great sword and sorcery game, and I definitely recommend testing out if you want to play a swashbuckling barbarian campaign in a classic setting.

Strange summer lands

Strange summer lands

On the 30th December I ran a one-off session of Barbarians of Lemuria, a sword and sorcery RPG with a simple engine and stripped down rules that I wanted to try out. This is the game report.

There were three PCs:

  • Kazaam, hunter and assassin from the lost Bone-Eye clan of the Beshaar desert
  • Batiz, shaman of the Bone-Eye, an alchemist, beastmaster and magician too old for combat or any vigorous activity beyond cursing, accompanied on all his adventures by his faithful skorpider
  • Zeddek, mercenary-physician from the Pirate Isles

The group of them had previously been on adventure, Kazaam and the Sea of Evil, in which Kazaam was sent to rescue a farmer from the lair of the Wise, where he had been taken for nefarious purposes by a merchant, who held the Sword of Hideous Death. Kazaam received this challenge simply because he was Kazaam; however, he managed to succesfully rescue the farmer, only to find the reward was less than he had hoped, but he was marked by the Gods for his deeds[1]. After this adventure, the PCs went carousing together in Malakut, and had been carousing for 9 days before finally they became bored and found themselves at a table in the tavern called the Red Empire, pondering what deeds of glory to attend to next.

Thus do adventures start: Batiz plucked his bone eye from its socket and shuffled over to the fire pit, over which a large lizard roasted on a spit. Squatting near the ashes like a savage, he dug into the skull of the beast with his knife and tore forth its roasting eye, which he stuffed into his own gaping eye socket and, with a roar of fear and joy, fell backwards to spasm on the floor, whereupon he suffered one of the rare visions his god sends him. He saw a rich woman and her bodyguard walking through one of Malakut’s many spice markets, strolling down an alley lined with sacks of spices in many colours, the floor a dusty carpet of variegated shades of powder. Suddenly men lunged from the shadows, throwing clouds of spice in the eyes of the bodyguard and dragging the woman away into the darkness beyond the stalls, tipping over a barrel of cardamom and pushing through a curtain of hanging saffron threads as they did so. The vision snapped away and with a squeal of pain Batiz pulled out the burnt lizard eye and hurled it into the fire. He returned to the table, pushing his bone eye back into its socket, to tell his fellows of his vision[2].

Recognizing a woman who needed to be rescued, the characters asked around, finally identifying the spice market where the attack had taken place by the hanging threads of saffron and the cardamom barrel. They rushed there through the narrow streets of Malakut on their war-ostriches[3], arriving in time to find the bodyguard, a woman called Damaya, standing despondent at the entryway. She told them that the woman was Raemis, daughter of a rich merchant who would reward them handsomely if they could rescue her from her abductors before a ransom demand was made. They needed no further prompting, and began searching the market. Finding no evidence of the footprints of the abductors despite the abundant spices scattered around all the floors of the markets, they asked amongst the stall holders. Finally one told them that there was a war ongoing between the Ragged Knaves and the Brotherhood of Shadows, and it was likely one of those groups had abducted her. The Ragged Knaves knew everything that happened in the markets, perhaps they should ask? So they asked around for the Ragged Knaves until finally they met a man called Juss who was willing to lead them to the Knaves’ leader, a beggar-king known as Jandor Hookhand.

Hookhand told them he had heard rumours already that the Brotherhood of Shadows had abducted Raemis, and he would tell them where the Brotherhood’s headquarters were for free, in hopes of receiving help in his war against the Brotherhood, who were slowly strangling his guild of beggars and street urchins. Perhaps they could reason with the Brotherhood leader, Zolat the Scimitar. The PCs headed off to the Brotherhood headquarters, a tavern called the foaming mug. On the way they were ambushed by brotherhood assassins, all six of whom they dispatched in short order before proceeding over the Bridge of Sorrows to the quarter in which they could find the tavern. As they neared, Batiz cast a spell on Kazaam’s hawk to enable him to see through its eyes, and Kazaam hurled his hawk aloft. They found a safe pathway to reach the headquarters without being noticed by its watchmen, and settled in an alley near the rear entrance of the Foaming Mug. Soon a messenger entered the tavern through that back door, emerging again accompanied by a man in a scarlet hooded cloak, who carried a scimitar over one shoulder. Guessing this must be the leader, they trailed him at some distance. Kazaam took the lead, following close to the pair. In fact his stealthy desert movements were so skilled that not only could he follow them closely, he could listen to their conversation and even sneak close enough to steal the keys on the messenger’s belt[4]. Listening to their conversation, he learnt that they were heading to a shop, that there was a demon guardian in the shop, but it would not attack them if Zolat stayed close to the messenger.

Kazaam followed until they were near the shop, taking a position with a view of the door. The messenger opened the door and Zolat entered first, the messenger stepping in behind him, at which point Kazaam shot him with an arrow. One shot killed the man, who fell dead inside the doorway. Kazaam ran forward and slammed the door shut, locking it from without using the keys he had pilfered. From within came yells and roars, strange flickering lights, and then silence. With one arrow Kazaam had slain two, and possibly three opponents. The rest of the party joined him and they opened the door, charging in to take on any survivors of the battle.

Zolat the Scimitar was dead, parts of him scattered around the shop. In his death throes he had overturned a shelf of herbs, and in the battle the decorations and contents of the apothecary had been damaged, but the demon had not been killed. It swarmed towards the characters, a horrific beast with the head of a carnivorous ape and a cylindrical body ringed with disgusting tentacles, the whole thing covered with a thick slimy apes fur. It was Vul’Mazzanlu, the Ape-Thing! Fortunately for the PCs it had been injured in the fight with Zolat, and they were able to kill it quickly. Batiz tore out its hideous tongue and they proceeded to the back of the shop, where stairs led down into a basement from which emerged the sound of chanting, and a flickering light. They had found their kidnappers, surely!

They descended the stairs to see a terrible sight: A large room with a magic circle in the centre, within which lay Raemis’s unconscious body. A triangle was drawn inside the magic circle, and at each point of the triangle stood a chanting acolyte. Smells of incense drifted out of the room along with the droning chanting of the acolytes, woven in with the strident calls and song of the master conjuror: Valtriz of Ill-Omen, who no doubt intended to use Raemis as a human sacrifice to draw forth some hideous demon from beyond!

Before they attacked Batiz consumed the demon’s tongue and used it to cast a cantrip of misdirecting sound, the screams and yells of an angry demon, to confuse the participants and delay the ritual. Then they charged into the room, to find themselves facing 9 more acolytes, Valtriz himself, and an evil assistant. Truly, a battle worthy of heroes!

They fought, Zeddek laying about himself at the acolyte rabble with slaughterous intent while Kazaam fired arrows at the tougher assistant, and Batiz threw acid at the chanting acolytes. However, they could not disrupt the ritual: after they had killed all the rabble defending the ritual Valtiz of Ill-Omen cast a paralyzing spell on all of them – twice! – and they were forced to watch in horror as the shadowy form of a greater demon began to manifest in the circle over the supine body of the helpless woman. Finally they were able to free themselves of the paralysis, and Zeddek killed Valtiz of Ill-Omen. Unfortunately he was too late, and though they managed to disrupt one of the acolytes it was not enough, and the horrifying demon Mazallakos of the Severed Veil appeared in the circle as the Acolytes called his name in adoration and fear. The magic circle snapped, and Mazallakos was free in the world!

They grabbed the nearest ritual weapons they could find and attacked the non-corporeal monstrosity, Zeddek hacking at it with a silver sword and Kazaam firing silver arrows. As they did this Batiz fell to his knees, tore off his shirt, and carved the name of the demon on his body from his chest along his arm; he called to Kazaam, who slew a fleeing acolyte and drained the blood onto Batiz’s shoulder, that he might work this human sacrifice into the carven name like tattoo ink; having done this he then consumed the eye of the Ape-Thing from upstairs, and called forth a mighty spell in the name of all the gods to bind this demon Mazallakos in place[5].

The great spell did not work! The demon was immune to even Batiz’s most desperate spells! But they did not give up, hacking at it with rage and abandon. The demon, perhaps not realizing how close they all were to spent, looked about itself at the dead conjuror and the room strewn with the dead bodies of acolytes, saw a mad mage eating a demon eye, felt the stabbing pain of silver sword and arrow, and perhaps decided that on this day discretion was the better part of valour. It disappeared in a thunder clap, preferring to retreat to some subterranean lair to nurse its wounds and gather followers, that it might decimate the living world in its own time.

They carried Raemis forth from that vile place and returned her to her father, who paid them handsomely despite the discovery that his daughter’s mind was partially lost from the demon sucking her life essence before they could drive it away. They left the compound of the merchant on their war-ostriches as dawn coloured the minarets and rooftops of Malakut with its first pink light. Burdened with treasure and exhausted from a night of battle, they paused at the heights to look over the town, and turned their faces to their next challenge: To find Mazallakos, and restore the rightful order of things by slaying him and any who followed him.


fn1: The Barbarians of Lemuria rulebook has a random generator for sword-and-sorcery adventures, and rather than try to figure out why the PCs were together I just decided they had adventured together before, and had them roll up the details of the adventure they had been on. I was going to give them advancement points for that adventure but decided not to bother; given the flow of events once the adventure started, I probably should have.

fn2: This was a level 1 spell, with the bone eye and the visible effects of the spell-casting counting as requirements to reduce the cost of casting it.

fn3: Actually called sandrunners, but you get the picture

fn4: The player rolled a 12 on 2d6 and used a Hero Point to upgrade from Mighty Success to Legendary Success, which proved incredibly useful a moment later

fn5: Batiz only had 6 arcane points left and binding the demon I decided was a second level spell, which costs 10 arcane points that can be reduced to 6 with requirements. For Batiz this was a) human sacrifice, b) permanent focus (tattoo), c) eating the demon eye and d) doing d6+1 wounds to himself [this is almost enough to kill Batiz].

Lynsey Hanley’s Respectable: The Experience of Class is a book that, in many respects, is about me. Hanley was born on a working class housing estate in Northern England in 1976, which makes her three years younger than me, and unlike most of her peers she left her working class origins to become middle class, by dint of getting a university education and a middle class job – just like me. In this book, Hanley describes the challenges of getting from there (the working class housing estate in 1980s Britain) to here (her current middle class position and lifestyle), and the challenges of living middle class when your upbringing was working class. Both aspects of this story are very important to me: escaping the bonds of working class life is a kind of cultural version of getting into orbit, requiring a huge personal effort and risk to get a single shot at hitting escape velocity, but the journey doesn’t end there. Getting into a new class, whether stolid middle class or some internationalist transcendental state, is not necessarily enough to free you from the old bonds of working class culture, and you can spend a long time – for me, perhaps a decade or more – feeling like a stranger in a new land, and even after you become to some extent familiar with the rules of your new world, you still feel like a fraud, and you still are stalked by this fear that it can all be taken away from you in an instant, that you’re just there on sufferance.

Hanley describes the social, cultural and spiritual challenges of both stages of this journey in rich and stunning detail in this book. She does not just describe the general challenges, though, but pinpoints specific, stunningly accurate details about the process that speak so powerfully to me of my own experience that it feels as if she has reached out from the pages into my own memory, and crafted an explanation for feelings and memories that I couldn’t pin down and understand until she shaped them. In both the general issues and in these details, she captures the essence of Britain’s class problems brilliantly.

On generalities, she describes the social and cultural barriers to a proper education for working class people in Britain, both those imposed on the class from outside (such as sub-standard schooling, economic barriers to progress, the difficulty of getting into grammar school for working class people) and those imposed on the working class by the working class – things like the way that working class children punish any of their own who show too much interest in school, the way that working class families don’t push their children to achieve or don’t consider the possibility of sending them to better educational opportunities (like grammar school) outside of their own experience, and the punishing assumptions they have about their own limited futures. For example, in describing the general atmosphere of working class culture in Britain in the 1980s, Hanley writes

Casual violence – symbolic, domestic and public – was endemic in the place and times in which I grew up. Casual racism was part of the fabric of daily conversation. Casual cynicism pervaded: a consequence of casual exploitation and casual displacement, which fed into people’s souls and manifested in their treating everything like one great frigging joke, because that’s how they felt they’d been treated their entire lives.

She follows this with a discussion of one of the motivating factors underlying this atmosphere, loss:

You may wonder what led to this collective conviction that there was no point. It might be argued that another primary aspect of working-class experience, a feeling which most defines a certain way of being in the world, is loss. Loss is everywhere: the loss of optimism as experience victory-laps hope; the loss of loved ones too soon to war, workplace accidents or to ill-health; the loss of a sense of home, going back generations as families move repeatedly in search of relief from poverty; the loss of close ties as families are broken up in a similar way by moves down south, to America, Canada, Australia; and the loss of a sense of place as families attempt to remain rooted in a changing environment, such as when a local works that once employed just about everyone in the area closes down.

This really struck at my own understanding of growing up poor in Britain – we were always moving looking for a better job or opportunities, then our family ties were broken by moving to New Zealand (and then Australia), and finally my older brother was taken from us by the state because of his continued involvement in crime, no doubt partly because his constant sense of dislocation stopped him having any sense of responsibility to the community he was victimizing. Hanley’s description of the economic, cultural and educational environment of England in the 1980s is exactly how I remember it, and her piercing insight into working class culture of that era really closely mirrors my own.

On the details, Hanley has a remarkable ability to isolate small incidents and moments that bring to life the challenges of trying to grow out of working class culture, and trying to get an education that will matter in an environment that is so inimically opposed to anyone standing out, as well as so committed to its own failings. For example, she describes a simple moment in her day like this:

While working in the library I go downstairs to Greggs to get a cup of tea … In the time takes to reach the bottom of the staircase I overhear a total of two sentences: one, by a woman speaking into a phone, is ‘FUCK OFF about your rizlas, I don’t wanna hear it,’ and the other, from a young man to a young woman, is ‘I can’t hear a FUCKing thing you’re saying with you walking ahead of me.’ My bones turn to glass again and I remember that often things do seem terrible just because of where you are. I’m thrown back into a world of ignorance and everyday violence – and if that sounds extreme, you needed to hear the way in which those ‘fucks’ were said: the desperation and life-fatigue of the first and the casual aggression of the second.

This is such a perfect, crystal clear description of an ordinary moment in the working class world that it might have been grabbed straight from my own everyday life. And it’s a reminder of how hard it is to operate in a different world – a world where people only swear when they’re surprised or angry, and never with the same venom – that you didn’t grow up in and have no familiarity with. Somehow you have to negotiate an entirely new set of manners and norms you don’t know anything about, at the same time as you’re still traumatized by and accustomed to an entirely different set of behavior that marks you out as trouble to everyone else.

This switch in background and norms is hard to adjust to, but it’s made even harder by the discovery of how much you were being held back from, and how much your own class is despised. Early in the book Hanley observes

The interesting thing about entering the middle class is that everything you have known is turned on its head. You go from being invisible to society, and yet at the same time the object of constant scrutiny and mistrust, to being at once anonymous and in possession of a voice. You are trusted to get on with things, and encouraged to go on endlessly about the way in which you do them

Everything about this sentence speaks so clearly to my own experience of growing up a working class boy and then stepping out to middle class life, and the different assumptions and expectations that are made about and of you when you are in one group compared to another. These changes can be like a slap in the face sometimes, in those moments when you realize just how much you were being denied. For example, when I first attended university – my big chance to step out of my class, though I didn’t realize it then – I was surrounded primarily by the children of the wealthy middle class in Adelaide, and I was shocked at the casual wealth of their lives and their casual assumptions about their rights and what they could and couldn’t do in public. These same middle class children refused to believe my achievements in high school, which were far superior to any of theirs, simply because my presentation as a poor kid from the country did not match their stereotypes. These children who had sailed through high school to an assumed berth in university, with the minimum of effort because their high quality schools ensured they got a good education and they had been groomed for progression from birth, were unable to comprehend that in my struggle to escape a terrible school I had worked hard every day and as a result got vastly better marks than them and won coveted awards – simply because of where I was from and what the signifiers of social class attached to me said about my potential. Eventually, of course, as I became more comfortable with the middle class world, I stopped wearing my working class history on my sleeve – changed my clothes, moderated my accent, dropped the swearing and rough language – and people stopped assuming limits to my achievement based on where I was from. Once I became more comfortable navigating the particular landscape of middle class life, people started assuming I was one of them, and a new world of opportunities and possibilities opened up to me.

But as comfortable as you become, you never truly forget or overcome that upbringing, and in discussing this Hanley brings up a recurring image that I think very well describes the crippling limitations the working class places on itself: the wall in the head. This is the barrier you build inside your own soul that stops you properly appreciating, and properly navigating, the middle class world you have entered. It can manifest in little ways, like an unwillingness to spend more than a certain amount of money on certain things, or in big ways like a fear of debt or an inability to manage money the way rich people do. It can also stop you grabbing opportunities that your peers take for granted, because it holds back your confidence and makes you timid about your own possibilities, and I think (Hanley doesn’t say this) in some ways it acts as a kind of PTSD, making you subject to a kind of existential fight-or-flight syndrome that makes you fearful of change and easily cowed into not taking risks. This is also part of the second trait of people who have moved up, which Hanley identifies: a fear that it will all be taken away from you in a moment and that you are living in your new, freer world on borrowed time. I think I still carry this fear inside me now, and I think most who have risen out of poverty to the middle class carry this feeling inside them. It can be a positive reminder of how far you have come, but it can also be a whip that strikes to stop you taking risks, or doing things that other middle class people do, because of a fear that you might be pushing your luck. This, for example, is why I did not travel in most of my 20s, even though most of my middle class peers had. Too risky!

Hanley manages to combine this political and economic analysis of the conditions facing the working class with an almost anthropological understanding of how these conditions manifest at a personal level to give a really engaging and powerful description of the process of social mobility, and its consequences for those who are able to climb the ladder. She combines her own insights and stories with the work of a wide array of sociologists who have studied class, in particular a book by Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy, that describes the same phenomena in an earlier age, from a similar standpoint. In updating this book for the modern era she incorporates more pop culture, and I guess tells stories that are more relevant to people like me. But in weaving all this together she tells a story that is almost perfectly about me, and I guess about people like me. It is the first time I have ever seen anything about the experience of poor people taking advantage of social mobility, that combines a sensitive and genuine respect for the class she has left with a scathing criticism of that class, without blame or sneering. For that alone, this book was like an awakening for me, the first time I ever thought that my experience of fighting so hard to become a scientist was unusual or challenging or rare, and exactly what forces I had to overcome to do what I unthinkingly did when I was just 17 years old. There are, of course, some differences – she grew up in the industrial north while I grew up in the rural southwest, and she never had the good fortune to migrate to Australia, a country that determinedly set out to make sure that the economic and political barriers to social mobility were lowered considerably (at least for my generation). Australia doesn’t have the same class structure or the same rigid divisions as Britain, and it’s possible that for people who were born and raised in Australia this book has nothing to say. But for someone like me, with an experience grounded strongly in British class barriers, this book was a powerful and eye-opening attempt to describe my own life story – an amazing experience for anyone who sees their story told by someone else, in a sympathetic and detailed account of their own life that mirrors yours. It’s the first time it has ever happened to me, and I will always be grateful for it.

The book does have some flaws, and for me the main one is its poor structuring. The book as a whole and the chapters within it don’t really have a strong introduction/body/conclusion structure, so that at times it comes across more as a rambling series of anecdotes rather than a coherent story. Some chapters end abruptly without anything resembling a review or conclusion, leaving you wondering exactly what Hanley was trying to say, and then the next chapter doesn’t really flow from the previous one, starting almost on a completely separate topic without any coherent structure. For me this was not a problem, since I was reveling just in having my story told, but for someone reading from a more dispassionate or disinterested perspective it might render the book far less readable than it might otherwise have been. Also, for someone reading from outside the class – i.e from the perspective of a middle class person who might influence policy – the lack of coherence might conspire to hide any possible conclusions that can be drawn about what needs to be done. This is particularly problematic when combined with the book’s other main flaw – its lack of recommendations. I would have loved to have seen a conclusion that gives concrete ideas about what needs to be done to make social mobility easier, political and economic recommendations on the one hand for weakening the stultifying grip of Britain’s class culture , and on the other hand a kind of self-help guide for those of us who have managed to climb the ladder. I don’t know how we can climb that wall in our head (or break it down) or how to escape that cloying fear of failure that haunts us, and I wonder if Hanley does either – but if she does, I’d love for her to have shared it with me. These flaws mean that while the book may be a powerful explainer for those coming from inside the experience, and potentially a powerful guide to understanding barriers to social mobility for those in other classes who are trying to break them down, it may only provide a limited guide to what can be done, and may turn off others who aren’t already approaching the problem with a sympathetic ear. Coming from inside the story, I can’t really say how much damage these two flaws do to the book’s overall mission, and I hope that they aren’t too overwhelming for other readers.

I was recommended this book on the left wing blog Crooked Timber, in a post by Chris Bertram, who turned to it as part of his attempt to understand Brexit. I don’t know how much it would help with this but I think it definitely provides a strong insight into how people in the working class experience class, and how hard it is to escape. I have written before on this blog about how I think social mobility is not the solution to inequality that many people hope, and have instead suggested we need to make all work rewarding and dignified. Hanley seems to have absorbed the same lessons from her own experience of changing class, writing in the conclusion of the book

I hope that by using elements of my own experience I have illustrated some of the shortcomings of a political narrative that places the onus for social mobility – for ‘getting out’ of the working class and into the middle class – on to individuals, rather than making it possible for everyone, regardless of occupation, to live comfortably.

I agree with her on the importance of this, and I hope that in reading this book others – especially from those classes that actually influence policy – will see how challenging it is to be ‘socially mobile’, both in taking the chances offered and in living with the consequences, and will rethink the way British society is organized to stop people at the bottom living comfortably, and to force them to climb so high and so hard to get out of the class they’re in. It’s not exactly a manifesto for revolution or social change, but I hope if more people read this book they will come to understand through its eloquence and insight just how hard they make things when they demand that everyone in the working class be respectable, and the impossibility of making Britain a better place by social mobility alone.