This week: the horror, the horror; new transport systems threatened for Scotland and Yorkshire; and what makes a continent, exactly?
Some things I am worrying about this week
There's a certain Groundhog Day quality to the news of late, which would be a great reference if only I'd started this newsletter a week earlier but we are where we are. England's current lockdown has been going on for just over a month, except in the capital and certain equally lucky regions, in which it's been going on since shortly before Christmas. Either way, it isn't very long.
But the repetitive nature of the process has done weird things to the brain. Even though it's only a few weeks since it was possible, in a limited way, to visit the outside world and see other people, it's begun to feel like lockdown has continued, uninterrupted, ever since this started last March. Despite the fact that the vaccination programme has, both surprisingly and objectively, gone quite well, there's still no end in sight, either. Like Narnia before the lion showed up, it's always winter and never Christmas. And until either the weather or the news improves, that impression doesn't seem likely to shift.
(I apologise for the depressing nature of this bit, incidentally. I promise that I'm consolidating my internal Munch's Scream into a really angsty opening section, all the better to free me up to keep the rest of this thing comparatively cheerful.)
Another way in which it feels like we're stuck: Michael Gove is talking about renegotiating the Northern Ireland Protocol. He didn't quite utter the phrase “renegotiate the backstop”, but you can tell he had to stop himself. To quote the great man himself:
“If people put a particular type of integrationist theology ahead of the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, they are not serving the cause of peace and progress in Northern Ireland.”
God forbid anyone involved in Brexit might put ideology ahead of the public interest, eh? More from Reuters here.
Elsewhere, we're already seeing calls for sector-specific visas to make life easier for touring musicians. The good news is we're likely to see pressure for the return of any number of benefits that being part of the single market brought us, as it gradually dawns on the British public exactly what's been lost. The bad news is that Brexit will be dominating our politics for a very, very long time to come. Remainers really missed a trick by never campaigning under the slogan, “Just make it stop”, didn't they?
Some things I am delighted by this week
West Yorkshire – the Leeds/Bradford conurbation – is the least coherent of England’s big metropolitan regions, and is (one suspects this isn’t a coincidence) often described as the largest urban region in Europe without any fixed public transport system at all. It’s pretty cool, then, to see the West Yorkshire Combined Authority come forward with a plan to build a network of nine(!) different mass transit routes.
Don’t get too excited, though. The region will need Treasury funds to make this happen, and in recent decades plans for both a trolleybus network and trams have fallen by the wayside because of a lack of government support. Also, not all the region’s politicians think trams are actually a good idea. None of this should stop you from enjoying this map, however.
Image: WYCA. Please excuse the shadow down the middle, it’s a sort of electronic page fold, I believe.
That’s not the only bit of “exciting urban transport developments (if only someone would fund them)” news of late, because last week Transport Scotland published its strategic projects review. Proposals on the table include a new light rail Glasgow Metro, the first line of which would connect the currently rail-free Glasgow Airport to the city via Paisley Gilmour Street; and more mass transit lines covering both northern and southern Edinburgh, and possibly even extending across the Forth to Fife. The Scotsman and Glasgow Evening Times have more details.
As a source of joy, however, all that pales in comparison with the names Traffic Scotland has chosen for its Trunk Road Gritters. Some of the highlights include Oor Chilly, Robert Brrrns, I Want To Break Freeze, and (two for the price of one, this time) Lord Coldemort & You're A Blizzard Harry. You can see more on the live tracking map here.
Some continents, old, damp and unfamiliar
The idea that there are continents you haven’t heard of probably strikes you as either ridiculous, or pleasingly surreal, like suddenly discovering a new colour. There are seven: of course there are seven, and you’ve known their names since early childhood.
But, as with so much of what we teach children, this number turns out to owe as much to social convention as to actually existing reality. If you looked at a map with no preconceptions and nothing to guide you but a dictionary (“continent, n.: any of the world’s main continuous expanses of land”), you’d probably conclude there were somewhere between four and six continents. You certainly wouldn’t see seven, on the grounds that there’s no logical reason whatsoever for cleaving the landmass straddled by Russia in two.
So how did we get here? And what other continents might you find if you looked afresh?
It was ancient Greeks who first came up with the notion that the world could be divided into continents; but, having little idea of exactly what they were dividing, they simply split the known world into the bit to their north, which they called Europe; that to their south; and that to their east.
Thus it was that the original Africa lay not in what is now seen as the continent's sub-Saharan heartlands, but on the Mediteranean coast. Asia, meanwhile, lay not on the Pacific but in western Turkey: it was treated as a body of land distinct from Europe because, from the perspective of your ancient Greek sailor, it was.
Nearly two thousand years later, the fact that the peoples of Europe generally worshipped the same god, and shared a habit of nicking other people’s countries, compounded their sense of specialness. And so against all rationality, the idea of Europe persists.
It certainly has a weaker claim to continent status than India: a patchwork of different peoples, languages and cultures, which, unlike Europe, sits on its own tectonic plate, whose gradual drift northwards is responsible for the Himalayan mountain range that separates it from the rest of Asia. But Europeans made the rules and cursed it with the half-hearted label “subcontinent”; and no one except a few purist geographers seems to think the whole of Eurasia should count as a continent, and so here we are.
If we take the dictionary definition to its logical extreme then Cape Town, Cambodia and Cadiz are all on the same continuous landmass and thus should be all considered a part of the same continent, sometimes termed Afro-Eurasia. Even the most revisionist of geographers rarely push this line, however – a system that treats a block of land that’s home to 85% of the world’s population as a single unit is not a useful subdivision – and instead refer to it as a “super-continent”.
America, by the way, is considered a single unit in the six-continent system taught in much of southern Europe or Latin America, and which still treats Europe and Asia as separate. Eurocentrism gonna Eurocentrist. The five Olympic rings also represent five of the continents included in this system: the one that doesn't get a ring is Antarctica, which is almost exclusively populated by penguins and has, alas, yet to send a team.
Then there’s Zealandia: an area roughly half the size of Australia, which some geologists like to refer to as the “eighth continent”, but which everyone else ignores because 90% of it lies beneath the Pacific. The tendency of those geologists to come from New Zealand, which makes up most of the other 10%, has not gone unnoticed.
Lastly, there are Pangea, Gondwana, Baltica, Laurentia, Vaalbara, Atlantica, Laurasia, Kenorland and Ur: a selection of supercontinents believed to have existed at some point as today's landmasses shuffled themselves about over the last 4 billion years or so, included here largely to highlight the imaginative effort that has gone into finding them names.
Atlantis, alas, seems never to have existed at all. But does that really make its claim to continent-status that much weaker than Europe's?
Map of the week
The excellent Stephen Jorgensen-Murray – who not only contributing some excellent CityMetric pieces, back in the day, but got his wife Danni and his dad John writing for the site, too – has produced this lovely map showing, roughly, which bits of Great Britain and associated islands are closer to other European countries than they are to London.
(I don’t quite know why I put “European” in that sentence, now I read it back. They’re hardly going to be closer to New Zealand, are they? You hear that, Lord Hannan? You hear that?)
Anyway. It shows, roughly, that the easternmost edge of East Anglia is closer to the Netherlands; much of the West Country, eastern Kent, and parts of East Sussex (such as, well, Hastings) are closer to France; and the Shetlands are closer to Norway. “There might also be a tiny, tiny patch of beach near Ipswich that’s closer to Belgium than either the Netherlands or London,” Stephen added in a follow up tweet.
But the really interesting bit to my mind is that arc dividing the bit of Britain that’s closer to London from the bit that’s closer to Ireland. The latter includes most of Wales and Scotland, as well as England’s north west, north east and a large chunk of Yorkshire. This may be a coincidence or confirmation bias at work, but: that feels to me like a pretty good working definition of the bits of England most disaffected with “English-ness”.
Links and housekeeping
Some other things I have done of late:
My latest New Statesman column is a howl of rage about how the pandemic has exposed the idiocy of the UK’s decades-long ideological addiction to outsourcing (of course Dido Harding studied PPE at Oxford).
And, last but not least, my first book, The Compendium of (Not Quite) Everything, is not out until September. But I’m going to be banging on about it a lot for the next seven months, and helpfully enough you can pre-order it now.
This is my first attempt at this thing and I am a) aware I probably haven’t got it right, and b) open to changing it to make sure that somewhere down the line I do. So. Questions? Comments? Suggested topics? Email me.