Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Top Of My Head, Part V - The Lesson Of The Julio-Claudians

And so the first part of this series of essays draws to a grateful end, with the Julio-Claudians and their crappy ways soon to be despatched to the memory hole, just before I reach for the antiseptic handwash.

With one possible exception, that of poor, insane Caligula, they behaved in the way they did because they wanted to. They weren't very nice people, they knew what they were doing and they didn't mind behaving in particularly unpleasant ways. That is the bottom line about them all - as we say in Glasgow, they were a bunch of bad bastards, none of whom would have had the slightest difficulty fitting in with any group of modern bad bastards from people trafficking gangs to the pop music industry.

I had some other, desperately clever, neurologically oriented things to say sorted out in my head, but I think I'll leave it at that - with one afterthought. 

In the second book of his 'Confessions', St. Augustine wrote a remarkably robust critique of liberal education. In his youth, schools were really just shop fronts with veils drawn across the doors. Having later been a very distinguished teacher of rhetoric himself, St. Augustine's memories of that type of education were not fond. He described such schools as claiming to provide an education when in fact they were initiating their students in sin by teaching them of the lusts of fictional Greek gods. 

When one considers how many disturbed people seem to have been churned out by an English public school system that focussed almost exclusively on the teaching of classics for over a century, it is very easy to see the wisdom of St. Augustine's words. All education in the liberal arts, including the classics, must be conducted within a particularly firm moral context. If it is not, the teacher runs the risk of allowing the pupil to fall into moral dangers such as believing any member of the Julio-Claudian freakshow to have been in any way admirable. They were not. They were bad bastards, and good riddance to them.

Tomorrow's essays will push the timeframe forward over 1500 years. The first will concern a big man with big problems, the second a fondly remembered pixie of our own era. 

And I can assure you that it will all be in the best possible taste.

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The Top Of My Head, Part IV - Rock Star

He was the object of public adulation from early childhood. 

In his middle years he developed extravagant habits, including keeping exotic menageries. 

As time progressed, he descended into delusions of messianism. 

And, bizarrely, his life ended at the hands of one of his own household. 

If you thought I was describing the life of Caligula, you'd be wrong.

I was writing about Michael Jackson.

Although he was deeply unsavoury Caligula was also clearly mad, so although his excesses were extreme I do not think that he should be judged for them as harshly as Tiberius and Claudius should be judged for theirs. Indeed, of all the Julio-Claudians Caligula is the only one for whom I can summon a shred of sympathy. An unsuitably public upbringing in the public eye, exposed to the mass adulation of his father's legions in Germany almost from birth, caused an enormous degree of expectation for his subsequent solo career, and he couldn't handle it. 

History never repeats itself exactly, but if the act of crossing its great bridge in order to study the later life of a toddler who wore specially made miniature soldiers' sandals teaches us just one lesson, it is that young children need to be sheltered, not worshipped.

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The Top Of My Head, Part III - Monster

(Note - extremely adult themes)

How appropriate it is to be writing of the life of Tiberius on the evening of Halloween. I hopefully won't be too long, for I find writing about him even more distasteful than reading about him.

Tiberius was the most monstrous of the Julio-Claudians. In his 'retirement' on Capri, he was an active paedophile. In recent years, there have been some attempts to suggest that he was not, but I think the evidence suggests that he was not a mere victim of historical gossip and Flavian propaganda, and that the evidence of the guilt of his actions, and of the self-knowledge that he knew that what he was doing was wrong, was written on his face. 

Given that these essays are historical guessing games about the brain functions of four weirdos who have all been dead for two millenia, it seems only appropriate to alight on matters other than his disgusting perversions. As I noted last night, all of the Julio-Claudians drank like fishes, but Tiberius might have been the heaviest drinker of them all. Whether he felt the need to use alcohol as a dopamine regulator to help him get the quality of sleep he needed in order to perform to the standard expected of him or whether he was just a bog standard functioning alcoholic can never be known. However, Tiberius retired from public life more often than Frank Sinatra. On at least one occasion, his justification for doing so was his need to rest. Augustus worked Tiberius very hard, for sure (given the way in which his adopted son led his life during his own 'On Golden Pond' years, with the Golden Pond in question being Mare Nostrum, perhaps the old man knew what he was doing), but it is perfectly possible that he required significant rest periods, and that he eventually found exertion increasingly difficult with age - perhaps a marker of Parkinsonian illness.

In later life, he was reported as stooping. That might have been a function of mere age, but it might also suggest some sort of posture problem consonant with Parkinsonian illnesss.

There are two aspects of Tiberius's life which are of very great interest to the student of dopamine illness, and Oliver Sacks touches on both of them in 'Awakenings'. 

In that book, Sacks suggests that one of the most important aspects of treating Parkinsonism is for the Parkinsonian to establish even just one relationship wiith another human being that keeps them rooted in the real world. This was precisely the case with Tiberius. He had a relationship of the type that Sacks describes, having been extremely attached to his first wife, Vipsania, and was devastated when he was ordered to divorce her for political reasons. Suetonius records how Tiberius was devastated when they subsequently met in the street  - reading between the lines, it is not difficult to imagine that he engineered these meetings.

In my brief and not particularly illustrious career as a criminal justice professional, I once came across a child molester who had been convicted of those disgusting offences on two occasions. The interval between his convictions was nearly fifty years. He had married after the first one, and been widowed before the second. It was not difficult to imagine that the marriage had had a dampening effect upon a perversion that remained as deep-seated in his old age as in his youth. In light of that, it is perhaps pointless to speculate upon whether history might have taken a different course had Augustus not disrupted the marriage of Tiberius and Vipsania, but it sticks in the mind nonetheless. 

(It is interesting to note that two of the other three Julio-Claudians might have had strong grounding relationships of that type. Caligula, whose relationship with reality might be described as a passing acquaintance at the best of times, might have enjoyed one with his fourth wife Caesonia. Claudius might also have enjoyed that type of strong relationship with the prostitute Calpurnia. However, Claudius being the unpleasant, ambitious and duplicitous person that he was he had no hesitation in dumping Calpurnia when the prospect of a politically much more advantageous marriage to Messalina raised its head; and with that wife, he could at least be said to have met his match. Nero did not seem to have such a relationship, his strongest relationship being with his mother Agripinilla, whose murder he eventually ordered, the demented mummy's boy finally turning on the mother who might have done murder for him.)

The other aspect is Sacks's discussion of how the Parkinsonian's relationship with space is disrupted, and his speculation on how a Parkinsonian's wellbeing might be improved by placing them on a boat in the middle of the ocean. I think, I believe, that the need to be isolated in the middle of empty space that being on a boat in the middle of the ocean might serve could explain why Tiberius chose islands, first Rhodes, then Capri, as his habitats. 

They did, of course, provide ample means of engaging in his hobby of having enemies thrown to their deaths from cliff-top paths, a form of murder at which he was extremely proficient. However, it is easy to imagine that in some perverse way, the idea of not merely being on the ocean but actually living on the ocean, of being able to calibrate his relationship with the space around through maritime living in precisely the manner suggested by Sacks, could have given him some peace. 

However, as with so much else in these essays his real reasons for choosing island life can only be speculated upon. In 'I, Claudius', Robert Graves put his own speculation regarding Tiberius's choice of quarters into the mouth of Claudius - that living on islands enabled him to conduct his perversions in the open air. 

The life of Tiberius should be thrown in the face of every reductionist who states that human beings are mere creatures of instinct, nothing but guts and glands, and that right and wrong are nothing more than the constructs of a highly-evolved primate brain.  It is too easy on him to try to explain his behaviour by saying that he was a 'moral imbecile',  a phrase that was commonly used in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to describe those who exhibited extravagant, usually sexual and often sexually perverted, behaviour as a consequence of having suffered from what would now be recognised as some kind of dopamine dysfunction. Chroniclers of Tiberius should not try to medicalise his sexual behaviour; such efforts attempt to mitigate the actions of someone who I believe was a very bad man by suggesting that he might merely have been a mad one.

I think that Tiberius did behave in the manner in which he is alleged to have done, and that although there is perhaps some evidence of the existence of a neurological disorder being at work that might have been able to affect his decision-making processes, I think that he was perfectly aware of what he was doing and that he knew that what he was doing was wrong, but that he elected to keep on doing it anyway. One of the difficulties of suffering from chronic illness which all sufferers of chronic illness must face every day of their lives is not giving in to it; in other words, making sure that they are more than a collection of symptoms and pathologies, and taking responsibility for their actions, defining their illness in terms of themselves, rather than defining themselves in terms of their illness. If he was ill, we cannot know whether Tiberius was ever aware that he might have been ill; but I think that we do know enough to speculate with some confidence that he did know his actions were wrong, and if that is the case then he was the master of his illness; it had not mastered him, which makes his actions all the more terrible and horrible. As I wrote earlier, the reasons which enable me to reach this conclusion might just have been all over his face. 

Although other writers indicate that he wore bandages of some kind on his face, if memory serves Suetonius records that Tiberius was prone to pimpling. This could very well suggest that he suffered from 'seborrhoea', an effect which is very common in Parkinsonian illness and which is often the sign that the sufferer is under stress. Having done away with Sejanus, why would he be under stress on Capri? He had no political predators. He was living where he wanted, doing what he wanted, living the life he wanted. He ruled the known world. What could be wrong? 

In my opinion, he was under stress because he knew that the type of life he was leading was fundamentally wrong, but continued to do it anyway. In reading the life of Tiberius, the alcoholic, pederastic, murderous dabbler in black magic, one is so very grateful to live in days after his, his world blown away by the gentle breath of a Galilean carpenter. Tiberius was a bogeyman. He was a monster.

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The Top Of My Head, Part II - Claudius Britannicus Dystonicus Non Erat

(OK, OK, sorry if the Latin's wrong). 

The jolly boys.

The gang of four.

No matter what glib euphemism you attach to them, you can't really get away from their nastiness. That's what they were, just nasty. It gets into you eventually, and you realise that you're in danger of getting into serious moral trouble when you realise you've written four and a half thousand words in two and a half hours attempting to justify their actions in the light of the illness from which they might, just might, have suffered. When I realised that's what had happened I deleted it all immediately, and have never felt better about losing so many words in one go.

What is surprising about the recent analyses of the lives of the Julio-Claudians in the context of their respective neurologies is not that it is being done, but that something which now seems so obvious took so long to come to light. To the best of my knowledge and belief, the genius who kicked the whole thing off is a Canadian doctor with a literary bent named George M. Burden. Genius? No, it's not too strong a word. Burden looked at their histories and made the connection that some kind of dopamine dysfunction was at work, the truly original thought that nobody else had ever had before, leading him to publish a paper entitled 'The Imperial Gene' in 1996, suggesting that they suffered from Tourettes.

What might have impeded the issue coming to light was not the study of neurology but the study of history. Historians are accustomed to examining the Julio-Claudians in terms of the order of their reigns rather than in the order of their relationships. In terms of their reigns, Tiberius preceded Caligula, who preceded Claudius, who preceded Nero. However, in terms of their relationships, Tiberius was the uncle of Claudius, who was the uncle of Caligula, who was the uncle of Nero. To my understanding, this might make them one of the more important study groups in neuropsychiatry, if only because there are so many of them, they are all in the same degree of relationship to each other and all exhibited what might be different elements of dopamine dysfunction.

I have already outlined the reasonings for my belief that Claudius, the most obviously afflicted of them all, suffered from some kind of secondary parkinsonism at some length. However, in his recent book 'The Twelve Caesars' Matthew Dennison records how the American classicist Josiah Osgood has stated a belief that Claudius suffered from a variant of dopamine dysfunction named 'Dystonia'.

The principal paper making this suggestion seems to have been written by Dr. Jane Rice, and appeared in  The Journal Of The Royal Society Of Medicine in April 2000. It's entitled 'The Emperor with the shaking head - Claudius' movement disorder(.pdf). Do please read it. 

I would not seek to criticise Dr. Rice's excellent and thoroughly researched paper. However, one could make a few suggestions. The developed neck musculature shown on coins of Claudius might have been a function of 'hypertonia' seen in some Parkinsonians (Dennison refers to a statue of Claudius showing unusually well-developed chest muscles; this could be another example of the same phenomenon). My own view on his stammer is that it was common palilalia. In terms of the factors involved in the onset of his condition, the issue of birth stresses might be worth a look at - Claudius was born six weeks prematurely, apparently as a consequence of the shock his mother Antonia received at being present during an assassination attempt on his father, Drusus (birth stresses might also have affected Nero, who was a breech birth). Robert Graves paints a picture of Claudius having suffered from a litany of childhood illnesses - if true, he must have been possessed of a phenomenal will to live.

However, I'm disinclined to change my original view that he suffered from some kind of Parkinsonism, because he might, just might, have exhibited a feature of that illness which is still seen to this very day - Claudius gambled like nobody's business.


"Dopamine dysregulation syndrome (DDS), sometimes known as hedonistic homeostatic dysregulation in Parkinson's disease, is a dysfunction of the reward system in subjects with Parkinson's disease (PD) due to a long exposure to dopamine replacement therapy (DRT). It is characterized by self-control problems such as addiction to medication, gambling, or hypersexuality"

Where did he get dopamine from? From a diet rich in beans, as suggested by Oliver Sacks, who saw just about every single behaviour exhibited by the Julio-Claudians under hospital conditions in Beth Abraham in 1969? Claudius almost certainly drank like a fish (they all did), perhaps using alcohol in its perennial capacity of dopamine regulator of last resort. We don't and can't know. But friends and foes of Claudius alike all note his love of gambling, and to my utterly irrational, untrained mind, that clinches it. He was a Parkinsonian who was able to boost his dopamine levels in some way that pushed him into reckless, exorbitant behaviour. He might just have been a gambler - but to suggest that he was just a gambler when he appeared to present so many other symptoms and was a very heavy gambler into the bargain seems unreasonable. 

In no small measure on account of the work of Robert Graves, there is, to my mind, something of a cult of Claudius. There shouldn't be. His profound disability notwithstanding, he was a deeply unpleasant piece of work. The evidence of this is in the history of his involuntary movements, for by their involuntary movements shall you know them; ticquers have absolutely no capacity for artifice. Peter the Great's tics seemed to start once he became Tsar - Claudius's diminished markedly after Gratus pulled him from behind the curtain. After a lifetime of great stress in the sewer at the top of Roman high politics, Claudius was at last its biggest rat. This easing of his symptoms suggests to me that all the previous talk of love for the the republic was just cant, that he had coveted the imperial chair, and that once he had climbed on it the pressure was off and he could set about doing the job he'd always wanted. 

It is a pity that it has taken two millenia for history to mark his card in the manner it deserves. 





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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Top Of My Head, Part I - On Charcot's Straitjacket, And The New Neurological Dispensation

"As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool will repeat his folly"

Proverbs. 

I couldn't leave it alone. I had read and thought too much about it all to let it all just be forgotten, and my condition's recent recalibration has made the act of getting it all out of my system a little more urgent. 

So here goes, a series of posts concerning my thoughts on neurology, dopamine illness, figures from the past who may have been thus afflicted (a thoroughly pointless parlour game, but an interesting one nonetheless) and my own thoughts upon some things about some sufferers that seem to keep turning up again and again, and whether or not these might be considered symptoms. 

First off, it is rather surprising that in an age of reason we appear to know very little about the organ of reason. For the religious, it isn't surprising at all - the human brain is one of the most wonderful of all God's creations, and He will let us know how it works when He is good and ready, if at all. 

However, one of the downsides of living in an age of reason is that the irreligious can become prone to elevating reason into a godhead, and if you elevate reason into a godhead you must accord the same dignity to the organ of reason. For some of those who worship reason, Brain seems to have supplanted God, a remarkably poor trade in my book, but there's no accounting for taste. I recently heard a retired missionary father describe some British doctors he had come across as having been more obtuse in their refusal of religion than some unevangelised peoples he had encountered. If you're a rationalist doctor whose only concept of a trinity is Darwin, Freud and Dawkins, the temptation to completely exclude religion from your work must be very strong. However, the difficulty with worshipping reason is that its refusal to reveal itself can be as stubborn as the rationalist's refusal to believe in religion which has been revealed, which in turn means that the fruits of reason can never be enjoyed, if only because of the nagging doubts that they have not really been found. One way in which this quest for a truth waiting to be revealed rather than one which has already been revealed (without being glib, it seems to me that believing in a revealed religion seems to free up a lot of the believer's time, if only to let them get on with believing it) can manifest itself is to publish endlessly. 

In my view, the sheer volume of materials which are published on the working of the human brain actually impedes the study of it. Over twenty years ago, the late Arthur Shapiro stated, in my view quite rightly, that the volume of material being published about Tourette Syndrome was leading to overdiagnosis and making the study of the actual pure phenomenon very difficult indeed. With the best will in the world, it just might not be possible to keep up to speed with all findings that are being made, and making impossible any attempt to determine their actual scientific value. 

However, for the reasonable the temptation to approach the organ of reason with the utmost rationality must be very strong, perhaps leading some neurologists to bind themselves into a habit of thought best described as 'Charcot's Straitjacket'. 

Everyone's heard of Parkinson's Disesase. Everyone's heard of the Gilles de la Tourette Syndrome. Not everyone will be aware that they were both named by the same person, one Jean-Martin Charcot. Charcot's contribution to neurology was, of course, immense. However, the difficulty involved in studying the brain and its workings from a purely scientific, empirical perspective, expecting to see the same results in different patients, is that one can eventually slip into a mode of thought that says 'Bob's arms shoots out to the right. Jim's shoots out to the left. They have different conditions'. The clinician has then bound themself in Charcot's Straitjacket, and is perhaps, for whatever reason, confusing symptoms for illness (that some less scrupulous neurologists might be motivated by venality and actually want to discover a syndrome so that their name will forever be attached to an illness suffered by someone else is of course shockingly irrational and should be immediately discounted). 

The most egregious example of Charcot's Straitjacket that I have come across in print is, sadly, Arthur Shapiro's 'Gilles de la Tourette Syndrome', a monumental work which distilled the labours of many years, written by a clinician who clearly always had the interest of his patients at heart. However, as I wrote about that book earlier this year

"...to this reader it is very clear that the enormous variety of symptoms that he was presented with gave Shapiro a severe problem. A good Linnaen intent in adhering to the highest clinical and academic standards, and always conscious of that most American impediment to the advance of scientific knowledge – the prospect of being sued - to the lay reader he seems at times to be lost in a taxonomical fog, unable to see the wood of illness for the trees of symptoms in a grail quest for verifiable conclusions. Branches were hacked away and raised as trophies while the trunk was ignored, his findings becoming more and more specialised and over-evolved, with the prospect of diagnostic clarity eventually diminishing into a downwardly spiralling haze of Transient Tic Disorders (TTD), Paroxysmal Myoclonic Dystonia, With Vocalisation (PMD), until the final descent into a catch-all ‘Tic Disorder not otherwise specified’. Learning of the existence of PMD was an epiphany for me; I seemed to possess all the symptoms, and, most tellingly, they had appeared at precisely the same age, 21, as the patients reported by Shapiro; but that couldn’t be right, because they all had ADD and I didn’t. What I had was like PMD, but Shapiro indicates it couldn’t be PMD. Back to the drawing board".

The bottom line about the human brain seems to be that we do not know enough about it to expect it to do what we seem to expect it to do all the time. When reason is directed at the organ of reason, reason all too frequently falls flat on its face. The organ of reason's tendency to capriciousness must be extremely irritating for those engaged in studying it. However, if neurology is the secular dispensation some consider it to be, and Brain is your god, then Charcot's Straitjacket demands that practitioners of religious neurology must attempt to determine how many neurons can dance on the head of a synapse, transforming the means of enquiry, observation and analysis, into ends in themselves, liturgical acts, in the process. 

Science conducted in that manner is not any kind of science that will benefit humanity in the long term. It will, however, be science that is very good at establishing its own self-selecting, self-perpetuating priestly elites; those who observe the most and analyse the most, and, of course, publish the most, regardless of whether not their subjects are worthy of analysis or their output fit for publication. There is no method in a madness that distorts necessary method into a religious mania. They should all loosen up a bit.

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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Tough At The Top

Whether it be the resignation from the party of two of its MSPs over its thoroughly cynical U-turn on NATO membership or the bog that Alex Salmond has wandered into entirely on his own over his lack of clarity regarding the obtaining of legal advice on whether an independent Scotland would continue to be a member of the EU (in my opinion, the question of whether an earlier resort to litigation, ostensibly to avoid revealing the nature of advice received on that topic, might be considered an abuse of process, given that no clear advice on that matter ever seems to have been obtained, remains an open one), the impressions one has gained of the Scottish National Party's travails over the past few weeks merely affirm an existing prejudice that it is a group of people who are prepared to do and say anything in order to get what they want. 

It would be very interesting to know to just precisely what extent Salmond and other SNP ministers rely on their civil servants. One is sure that they at least are perfectly competent, but given that so much of their ministers' time seems to be devoted to the promotion of their sole policy you have to wonder just how much of a grip the ministers have on their ministries.

If The Tartanissimo seriously thought he could get away with fooling all the people all of the time, the only person he was ever fooling was himself, if only because he would then be assuming that the rest of are fools.

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Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Last Word On Mercy Killing

I have recently been reading and re-reading some works by the Venerable Fulton Sheen, a Catholic author who never fails to challenge while giving succour, shedding light on the world and its ways while affirming faith. 

It is a delightful suprise and affirming delight to see just how fresh and topical so many of Sheen's books are, suggesting to me that they will remain fresh and topical from now 'til Kingdom come. For example, take this passage on 'mercy killing', from the essay 'Nurses and Doctors' in 'Life Is Worth Living, Series I and II', published by McGraw-Hill in 1953 (p. 183) - 

"(The doctor) will be opposed to what is mistakenly called "mercy killing" but which in reality is "merciless killing". Merciful killing is a contradiction. It is like speaking of a painless toothache, a benign assault, romantic rape, honest robbery, hilarious income tax. Merciless killing is suicide with murder; a combination of the crimes of Judas and Cain, the two greatest crimes in the history of the world, despair and hate.  The assumption behind it is that suffering and happiness are mutually exclusive, which is not true. One of the happiest women that I ever met in my life was in a leper colony that I visited in the Caribbean. Noticing a radiant joy coming from her body already devastated by this disease, I remarked on her apparent joy, and she answered, "It is real: I am the happiest woman in the world". 

There's no answer to that. Sometimes you just have to try to be happy, whether you can still skydive or not.


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Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Needle In the Close

(Non-Scottish readers should note that the word 'close' in this piece has been given its idiomatic Scottish meaning as the common hallway of a block of flats, and should be pronounced in the same way as 'close' as in 'near to', rather than in the word's use as a verb synonymous with the verb 'to shut')

During the edition of 'Question Time' which was broadcast from Easterhouse on 18th October, the speakers were inevitably questioned on the legalisation of drugs. 

I have lived in and around Glasgow for over 40 years, and have been very fortunate never to have lived near intravenous drug users; yet a thought occurred to me while that show was on that might just be the ultimate rebuttal of those who call for the legalisation of drugs. It might be a mere restatement of the so-called 'broken window' theory, but it works for me. 

You can legalise drugs to your heart's content, but you will not satisfy me that they should be legalised until you can provide me with a rock-solid, cast-iron guarantee that when drugs are legalised intravenous drug users will not leave used needles in the common close. In libertarian theory, the individual should be able to do whatever they want, wherever they want, whenever they want. Drug users want drugs to be legalised because our current laws deem drug abuse to be a criminal act, and very few people, even most criminals, like to think of themselves as being criminals. That might be unfortunate, but it isn't really a strong enough argument upon which to legalise the abuse of heroin. While the core of all libertarian theory on any topic might be that the individual should be entitled to freedom, its consequence is that in order for the individual to achieve their freedom the law must approve of all the individual's choices, no matter how individually or collectively destructive they might be. State approval of your choices is not the same thing as freedom; ask any Soviet.

However, even if the supply of heroin for heroin abusers were to be nationalised (which would be the means by which drugs would be legalised, thus ensuring the British state's heaviest involvement with the narcotics trade since the Opium Wars), there would appear to be no guarantee that heroin abusers would then only contaminate themselves and their private spaces, miraculously stopping their contamination of public spaces like the common close, or the street, or the playground, or the football pitches, or, where they still exist, the park. To my mind, the balance of probabilities suggests that needles would still be left in closes, at one time, and perhaps still, a very frequent occurrence in areas of Glasgow like Easterhouse. While that risk remains, the possession and supply of drugs should remain criminal offences; these offences should be pursued far more vigourously than they are; and the punishments  for these crimes should be very much more severe than they are. 

When they inject, the junky abuses themself. When they leave a needle in the close, the junky abuses everyone around them. When they inject, they put something into their system. When they leave a dirty needle in the close, they leave something that they have drawn out of their system just lying around. Legalising the act will not cause its consequence to disappear. It was gratifying to learn that the SNP does appear to have a drugs policy, making it something of a pity that the resources which have been used to abolish double jeopardy and create a national police service were not directed towards combatting drug crime instead.

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‘Julian Assange – The Unauthorised Autobiography’

It seems to be my night for outlandish peripatetics. 

Julian Assange's surprisingly undemanding ‘unauthorised autobiography’ (a more than usually awkward oxymoron, but a wholly appropriate one nonetheless) was published after he had disrupted his relationship with Canongate with the words ‘All memoir is prostitution’ and then couldn’t repay his advance – so, holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy as he is, his version of the story of his life is out there, whether he likes or not.


A childhood spent on the move around Australia, peregrinations apparently motivated at first by some need of his mother’s for unconventionality then later by her need to escape from a boyfriend attached to a cult, seems to have been one of memorable purposelessness. His surname came from his, presumably adoptive, stepfather, who left the family when he was nine. It came as some surprise to learn that Assange is a very experienced, and therefore also presumably very skilled, beekeeper, having taken up the hobby in childhood and pursued it into his twenties. While remaining dependent upon their keeper, bees construct a whole society inside a wooden box, one that can be moved quite easily from place to place provided you know how to do it. The bees don’t mind whether they’re in Melbourne or on Magnetic Island. All that matters to them is that they are inside their box being bees, and that the beekeeper is keeping an eye on them. It is easy to imagine how a beekeeper could quite easily fall into the trap of looking at the creatures in their charge, that whole society doing its thing in its box yet depending upon them for its survival, and beginning to imagine themself as some kind of benign divinity.

His career as a hacker took off in his teens. When describing computing, Assange is fond of analogies involving pipes. The facetious thought that sprang to mind is that if the Watergate burglars were known as ‘The Plumbers’, perhaps he should be known as ‘The Pipefitter’. It is surprising to see just how conventional Assange’s thinking about that period in his life was, from, say, 1986 until 1991, when he encountered a guy at Nortel who was cleverer than he was and he ended up being busted. The plaintive request not to contact the Australian Federal Police sits very uneasily beside the soaring joy at finding himself inside some organisation’s systems and comparing it to being inside the Sistine Chapel. An intellectual constant that runs throughout this book is that the only concept of official privacy that Assange seems willing to adhere to might best be described as whatever Julian Assange considers it to be; if the doors of perception are not opened to him, he will kick his way through the firewalls. Law seems to be good if it enables you to do something in San Francisco (Knight to King 4) the consequence of which is that you can shelter under the ACLU's umbrella when the writs start flying (Bishop to Queen 3 - Checkmate!), to my mind a rather manipulative approach to the conduct of litigation of a type that Assange might be the first to criticise, were he ever to be on its receiving end; law seems to be bad when it wants you to stand trial.

What I certainly took to be the sociopathic impenitence of his attitude to his arrest in 1991 notwithstanding – the night the police came for him, he had forgotten to put his disks back in their usual hiding place in the beehive, an oversight I think Assange regrets, if only because that meant that he was the only person who got stung that night – what is remarkable about his observations on his hacking career is how closely they began to resemble the nostalgic ramblings of a saloon bar bore for the good old days that never were. At times he’s almost like one of ‘Monty Python’s Yorkshiremen. We’re all spoiled these days, you see, when we can buy PCs with programs already on them, and we don’t have to do the hard work of programming them ourselves. If he did ever turn up in a sketch with John Cleese and Michael Palin, one aspect of their Yorkshiremen shtick that Assange might relate to very easily is the incomprehensible nature of their sleeping habits. On page 68, Assange writes that,

“Virtual reality – which used to be a mainstay of science fiction and is now a mainstay of life – was born for many of us in those highways we walked solo at night”.

This sentence, as psychiatrically loaded as any I’ve come across in a book in some time, full as it is of funambulistic resonances, leads one to think that isolation is Assange’s preferred way of living – perhaps one reason why just about every significant relationship he has had with another person seems to have either ruptured, been disrupted by Assange or otherwise broken down. After the book was completed in draft form, he disrupted his relationship with those who had stood bail for him, potentially leaving them out of pocket. History suggests that it may only a matter of time before he disrupts his relationship with the Ecuadorean authorities, and then he may have nowhere else to go.

What is remarkable about that ongoing episode is that someone who has started their book with a description of unwanted imprisonment should then have entered a period of voluntary imprisonment, which for all practical purposes is what the Ecuadorean escapade is. Having experienced the rough edges of both the Australian and British criminal justice systems, his reticence at the prospect of becoming involved with the Swedish, never mind the American, is perfectly understandable. After all, American law is there for him to manipulate, not for him to be manipulated by. Yet it should never be forgotten that all of this has happened as a result of actions he undertook voluntarily. Nobody forced him to start Wikileaks. Nobody forced him to publish classified material. Nobody forced him to adopt his outlandishly peripatetic lifestyle. He did it all by himself on account of views on the freedom of information which he holds very fiercely and to which he clings very tenaciously. There was no actual sacrifice involved in the constant moving. That was how he grew up, and he deemed that kind of lifestyle to be essential to what he was trying to achieve. There seems to have been no loss, no suffering attached to it. Other than his relationship with his natural father, Assange certainly never hints at any regret at the loss of a disrupted relationship, so one assumes there isn’t any. 

There are the usual repudiations of religion, although these must be read along with the language he uses to describe Bill Keller of the 'New York Times', a figure whom Assange seems to regard as Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate and the Sanhedrin all rolled into one. The language that Assange uses to describe what he perceives to have been his mistreatment at the hands of the 'New York Times' suggests very much that he regards it as having been some kind of secular Passion, and must be read to be believed; if I quoted him, you might think I was making it up. However, that is not the most surprising thing that I took away from the book. 

What really surprised me is that for all its faults as literature, and whatever it might say about its author, there can be no doubt that Julian Assange is a relatively significant figure in recent history. Although he might not have the last word concerning the freedom of information, including the freedom to share information, it can't be doubted that the materials he has put into the public domain have caused a very great deal of debate, and the asking of many searching questions. I had the book on loan from the library, having picked it straight from the shelf. I had it out for nearly the whole term of the loan, and within that time was able to renew the loan without any request for it having been made. 

That the memoirs of such a currently prominent figure, authorised or otherwise, should appear to have generated such disinterest so soon after their publication perhaps says more about us than it does about him; and leads me to think that there might be merit in his cause after all, if it would help force the public to engage with what's going on around them even a little more closely. 

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On Deference

You have to wonder whether someone at the BBC was trying to make a point.

On Sunday 14th October, the movie ‘Nicholas and Alexandra’ was screened on BBC2. Released in 1971, this dramatisation of Robert L. Massie’s 1968 book on the last Tsar, his family and their fate is a work to which I am rather attached – in the Cold War’s dying days, my school used it as a teaching tool for Standard Grade History, to date the only formal qualification in history I possess. In particular, it is memorable for Tom Baker’s physically uncanny portrayal of Rasputin, that outlandish peripatetic whose long association with the Russian royal family caused such outrage. It seemed an odd choice when the BBC is under an even greater than usual onslaught for its failure to supervise Jimmy Savile, an outlandish peripatetic whose long association with the British royal family has caused no outrage whatsoever. 

Then again, the next head of that family is a man who seems to think that one of his most important constitutional titles should be amended to Defender of *The/Faith (*delete as applicable). His lawyers probably started working on that one the moment it became known that he talked to his plants.

A point that's perhaps worth making about the Savile business has occurred to me. A technical issue has kept me offline for a few days, so I'm sorry if it's already been made elsewhere. 

Savile came to prominence on the BBC's 'Top Of The Pops' at very roughly the same time that that organisation was broadcasting shows such as 'That Was The Week That Was', and 'The Frost Report'. Some social historians have indicated that shows such as these were instrumental in facilitating our decline into a less deferential society. It is strangely comforting to realise that while some in the BBC were preaching the decline of deference towards other institutions, the kid gloves with which it treated Savile showed that it most certainly didn't believe in the decline of deference itself.

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