Although I have seen screen adaptations of Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol before, A Tale of Two Cities was the first of Charles Dickens’ novels I’ve read. I picked the book up after reading the gushing praise, via tweet, directed at it from the historian Tom Holland as he also read it for the first time. Tom Holland, one of my favourite historians and, no less, one of my favourite people to follow on Twitter, never misses the mark in his reading recommendations, so with intent I sought out a copy of Dickens’ most popular book according to Goodreads.
I was not disappointed. A Tale of Two Cities is a beautiful story of two lovers and their circle of loyal friends and family in the time of the French Revolution. There is a diverse cast of characters from varying classes, ages, professions and ideologies across two nations. Although the maiden Lucie, her father Dr Manette, and her husband Charles Darnay, are the central characters of the plot, the narrative sweeps back and forth between Paris and London, from character to character, giving you an intimate feel for the diversity of people’s experiences and lives in the world of the 1760s to 1790s.
The most extraordinary and captivating character’s story is of course the story of Dr Manette, who was imprisoned for 18 years in the Bastille and close to lost his mind in the process. His character’s arc, from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs (and, briefly, rapidly down again), is the most satisfyingly plotted in the novel. Other characters won my heart in their several ways, most of all the heroic Sydney Carton (who, in his early appearances in the story, reminded me uncomfortably of myself, so I am glad he was redeemed), but also the wonderful pantomime villain, the terrifying Madame Defarge. Some characters, though, could have done with being given more attention and development, such as Barsad and Cly (I never did work out who they actually were).
The book also evokes its setting in the time of the French Revolution quite expressively. It exposes the injustices and outrages of the ancien régime, and then lays bare the horrors of the French Revolution and its bloody, fevered Reign of Terror. A roguish Revolutionary Tribunal condemns scores of the denounced to the Guillotine daily. Drunken, liberated Citizens dance the frenzied Carmagnole through the streets of Republican Paris. The cream of the overthrown nobility—gentle men, women and children—are corralled in La Force Prison like cattle awaiting slaughter.
It’s a simplistic, picture book representation of the pre- and post-Revolutionary conditions in France, but it’s what the story calls for—A Tale of Two Cities is, after all, basically a Victorian YA novel penned by a consummate writer and storyteller, not a serious work of literature (which is not a bad thing). It’s also very much the picture of the times an (English) writer from 1859, informed both by 19th Century Romanticism and Victorian English chauvinism, would paint. Dickens’ historiography is also picture-book (and reflects his own political predilections): he makes clear his view that the horrors of the Revolution followed the injustices of the ancien régime as inevitably as night follows day, and would reappear anywhere else the conditions of the pre-Revolutionary society reproduced themselves:
Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seeds of rapacious licence and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.
My only criticisms of the book would be that the dialogue of some of the characters is somewhat contrived and unrealistic, although this is forgivable in pre-modern, Victorian literature. The Second Book (of three) also drags a bit, but the Third Book (which includes the storming of the Bastille and Darnay’s imprisonment and trial) more than makes up for it.
I was not ready for it, I was not expecting it, but the final line of the book is one of the most powerful and moving I’ve read in any book: “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Those who’ve read the book know. As the climax of the events leading up to that line, and as the climax of the arc of the character who spoke it, it just hits the right spot. Since I finished the book yesterday I’ve been reciting it over and over in my head, so perfect it was. The perfect, if tragic, ending to a wonderful story.
Visiting Amsterdam does things to a person. It’s one of the most socially liberated cities in the world, and its varied sensual attractions can come as a shock to those of us from more repressive English-speaking cultures. There’s a street in Amsterdam where you can purvey curvy, scantily-clad young women dancing behind windows and, should you be inclined, pay them to have sex with you. There are so-called coffeeshops dotted around Amsterdam’s streets where you can buy and smoke legal hash there on the premises, like Victorian opium dens but not as dingy and disreputable.
What stayed with me when I visited Amsterdam, though—and not just Amsterdam (I use Amsterdam as an exemplar), but many old European cities—wasn’t the libertine attractions that tourists ogle at, but its charming old-world good looks, its convenient compactness and elegant density, the pleasurable experience of walking its ancient streets and canals, and, not least, the omnipresence of bikes and the relative absence of cars.
Amsterdam, I’ve come to understand, is a case of urbanism par excellence. It is compact, it is convenient, it is beautiful, it is a pleasure to live and work in, it is efficient, it is walkable, and its main modes of transport are bikes and feet—not cars. These are the things that make a city liveable, and make the experience of living in a city happier, easier and better, in quality of life terms. They are the things that make a city the kind of city people want to live in and move to. Amsterdam is the most well-known example, but it is by no means the only city that scores high on the “urbanism” metrics—see also: Copenhagen, Oslo, Tokyo, Taipei, Singapore.
Let’s be honest, Amstedam’s urbanism factor, as well as its famous canals, are the reason it is the massively popular tourist destination it is, not the Red Light District and the coffeeshops (although no doubt they also contribute to Amsterdam’s draw). Amsterdam, and other such cities (especially European ones), is so removed from the urban experience of those of us in English-speaking countries, speaking as an Australian but this also applies to Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders and even some cities in Britain, whose cities are invariably sprawling, ugly and car-choked, that when we visit a place like Amsterdam, we marvel at how it is possible for a working, thriving modern city to be this way. Is not a tangle of asphalt and a glut of cars the only way?
It certainly never entered my head, before I visited Europe, that my experience of living in a city, namely, Brisbane, Australia, was not the only possible experience, that Brisbane was not the only way a large, modern city could look and function. Like most large cities in Australia and the United States, Brisbane sprawls for thousands of kilometres, is carpeted by roads, requires a car to get practically anywhere (unless you live in the inner suburbs), and its public transport options are neglected, inefficient and underutilised. If this is your whole experience of urban life, as it was mine, a place like Amsterdam, or even London, is going to open your eyes.
I never had anything to compare Brisbane to before, but, now that I had, my home city, and life in it, felt lacking next to London, Amsterdam and Oslo. I felt that the inhabitants of those cities had a fuller experience of urban life that we Brisbanites were missing out on. It’s not that space, and the privacy that comes with space, doesn’t have its own attractions and advantages over compactness and density, but the advantages of space are inversely proportional to a community’s geographic size and population. Suburban-like space is fine when you live in a small town with a population of 5,000, but not so much when you live in a metropolis of 2 million.
What I came to understand is that what is wrong with Brisbane can be put down to the fact that Brisbane is dominated by, and built for, cars. Cars are so omnipresent in a place like Brisbane that they practically blend into the landscape. Asking a Brisbanite if he thinks his city is too car-dominated is like asking a fish to describe water. It’s only when a Brisbanite visits places that aren’t car-dominted that he begins to see the cars in his own city. They’re simply everywhere, and they take up so much room in the city, as do the infrastructure built for them (roads, parking space), that it’s staggering and absurd when you think about it, and the economic and social consequences that result.
The result is that only in very small, expensive pockets can you find something resembling the urban experience of places like Amsterdam, or in multi-storey indoor shopping centres such as Westfield, which consciously imitate the European pedestrian shopping street, but are poor substitutes for it. Or in kitsch imitations in places like Disneyland and Warner Bros Movie World. The rest of our cities are mostly asphalt-carpeted, car-strewn, sprawling suburban wastelands. We tolerate it, even embrace it, because, frankly, we don’t know any better.
Cars destroy cities. They destroy communities. They turn cities inside out and make them places designed primarily for the movement of cars through them and storage in them, rather than living human communities. In the car-dominated city, humans are an afterthought, pushed, literally, to the peripheries: cars are the basic unit of society, around and for which everything is planned and built. The lion’s share of space in the car-dominated city is given over to roads for hundreds of thousands of cars to drive on and parking space for them all to sit idle. Preposterously, we space out our cities over thousands of kilometres because we plan and build for the service of cars and car travel, not humans. Car-dominated cities are not places where humans live and work, they are places humans drive and store their motor vehicles.
Here’s the excellent Lewis Mumford in The City in History on cars:
By allowing mass transportation to deteriorate and by building expressways out of the city and parking garages within, in order to encourage the maximum use of the private car, our highway engineers and city planners have helped to destroy the living tissue of the city and to limit the possibilities of creating a larger urban organism on a regional scale.
I might be accused of being too harsh on my home city, which is, after all, a relatively young city that grew up with the motor vehicle. I disagree. There was nothing inevitable about Brisbane becoming as car-dominated as it is. Building infrastructure and planning the city in a way that facilitates and subsidises car transport over all other options was a conscious policy decision made when cars were but one of many transport options. Building roads for cars, and planning the city in a way that forces people to use cars, was, and continues to be, a conscious policy decision.
The city’s authorities, at the critical moment at which they plumped for cars, could easily have made a different policy decision, one preferencing more efficient mass transit, such as public transport, bikes and, above all, pedestrians, and built the infrastructure and put in place the regulatory framework designed to facilitate those options. For one thing, the potential of ferry transport on the Brisbane River is woefully underexploited. Brisbane would be a very different, and better, city if different policy decisions had been made in the past.
Lewis Mumford again:
Our highway engineers and or municipal authorities, hypnotized by the poplarity of the private motor car, feeling an obligation to help General Motors to flourish, even if General Chaos results, have been in an open conspiracy to dismantle all the varied forms of transportation necessary to a good system, and have reduced our facilities to the private motor car (for pleasure, convenience, or trucking) and the aeroplane. They have even duplicated railroad routes and repeated all the errors of the early railroad engineers, whie piling up in the terminal cities a population the private motor car cannot handle unless the city itself is wrecked to permit movement and storage of automobiles.
If technical experts and administrators had known their business, they would have taken special measures to safeguard more efficient methods of mass transportation, in order to maintain both the city’s existence and the least time-wasting use of other forms of transportation. To have a complete urban structure capable of functioning fully, it is necessary to find appropriate channels for every form of transportation: it is the deliberate articulation of the pedestrian, the mass transit system, the streets, the avenue, the expressway, and the airfield that alone can care for the needs of a modern community. Nothing else will do.
The case of Brisbane is the case of every city plagued by the pestilence of the motor vehicle. In every of these cities, bad decisions were made in the past, with the result that we have ended up with sprawling, ugly, soulless, anti-human car-dominated cities which are the opposite of what a city should be. I don’t want to ban cars or eradicate them entirely from cities—I think there is a legitimate and needed place for cars—but I think they should be one of many transport options, and should be at the bottom of the heap in terms of which options are preferred, facilitated and subsidised. Transport options should be preferred proportionately to how efficiently they move people, with pedestrians and bikes on top, public transport in the middle, and cars at the bottom.
As to how we get from here to there, there has been so much damage done that needs to be put right. It’s a tremendously formidable job, and, frankly, I have little faith in short-termist democratic politicians to seriously take it on. There have been some promising moves in the right direction (e.g. in Brisbane, the Cross River Rail and the Brisbane Metro projects, and the construction of protected bike lanes on some inner city roads), but these are feeble moves in the scheme of what needs to be done.
In my libertarian fantasy world, of course, all public land would be privatised, and all planning and building regulations repealed, overnight; and the market would rapidly reshape our urban landscapes into the cities we want to live in. In the world we have, though, all I can do is exhort our politicians: Go to Amsterdam! Go to Tokyo! Look at what makes them the liveable, attractive cities they are! Imagine how we can be like them! Follow @ScootFoundation, @createstreets and @BrentToderian on Twitter! Now, come home and get to work!
I recently took an abortive holiday in Canberra, the majestic and much-maligned capital city of Australia. In this time of plague, border controls and quarantines, holidaying in one’s own country is really the only option left for a summer getaway. Why an “abortive” holiday? Well, as it turned out, I couldn’t avoid virus-related border chaos even within my own country! Read on to find out.
I was supposed to be visiting a friend on this trip to Canberra. An old school friend: we’d both gone our separate ways (to live in separate cities) after we finished high school together in 2012. I’d seen him only once since we left school eight years ago—I visited him when he was studying in Melbourne, which was my first visit to the delightful and now much-beleaguered city of Melbourne.
As it turned out, he would be in self-isolation for the entire duration of my visit. He had unwittingly gone to visit family in Sydney for Christmas, unbeknownst to him that a cluster of coronavirus cases would break out in Sydney, leading to much of the rest of the country, including the Australian Capital Territory (wherein Canberra is located), to impose border controls against people arriving from Sydney, requiring them to go into self quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.
Ho hum. I wouldn’t be able to see my friend (apart from maybe through a window), but I decided to go ahead with my trip to Canberra anyway; a holiday is a holiday, even one spent on my own. I had the better part of a 3 week break from work anyway, what else was I going to fill it with? I don’t mind solo travelling. On balance, I prefer to share my travel experiences, but solo travel comes with the advantage of being completely free to do what you want with your time.
The departure terminal was completely packed. That sounds like an uninteresting observation to make about an Australian airport at the beginning of January, at the height of summer holidays. But it’s an interesting observation to make when a pandemic made the idea of travel, for most of 2020, an out-of-reach mirage. Look at all these people, I thought: like me, choosing to holiday in Canberra of all places, they’re desperately trying to claw back as much of normality as they can. They’d rather be flying to Japan or Italy (so would I), but Canberra, or Melbourne, or Cairns, is a tolerable substitute while Japan is impossible. It’s just nice to be travelling somewhere again.
I picked up my hire car after I flew into the city. This was the first time I had ever hired a car while travelling—I thought it was probably a good idea when visiting an Australian city: our cities sprawl over dozens of kilometres, their public transport tends to be inefficient and unreliable, and, in any case, all the most interesting things to see and do in our cities are outside rather than inside them, being outdoorsy and nature things.
My hire car, a Mitsubishi Eclipse, came with a long set of terms and conditions prescribing the many circumstances in which I would be required to pay thousands of dollars in dubious compensation to the hire car company. I was utterly petrified about anything happening to it as I carefully steered it out of the airport.
As I drove toward my Airbnb, though, the prettiness of the city became apparent to me. Grand, broad avenues lined with hundreds of big old trees on the sides and down the middle made Canberra a very pleasant city to drive through. This was not Brisbane, practically devoid of any greenery on residential streets; this was a city where care and planning had gone into making the feel of the city and the experience of moving through it as pleasant as possible. The architecture of the city, too, set it apart from Brisbane: few concrete apartment blocks and brick bungalows, but attractive, traditional styles, even on low-cost social housing, everywhere you looked.
After I had settled into my Airbnb (nothing to write home about—comfortable enough, but I got what I paid for for $290 for 7 nights), I decided to take a drive up to the peak of Mount Ainslie, a small mountain protruding out of the suburbs of eastern Canberra, and a favourite lookout for locals. The view from the top was impressive, and seeing Canberra from above really underlines why it’s given the nickname of the “bush capital”. Canberra is compact for an Australian city, and encircled by bushland which also creeps into its streets and green spaces. From above it looks like a large country town, not the national seat of power. It was, after all, a city planted on what was practically untilled bushland (there was a small hamlet there, I believe) for the purpose of putting the national capital somewhere neither Sydney nor Melbourne would be jealous of.
For dinner that night I went to a little, family-owned Chinese restaurant in Dickson, where I was staying. It was called The East Kitchen and I’d recommend any Canberrans reading this to check it out: an unassuming place both on the outside and the inside, looking a little daggy next to the glitzy, Instagrammable Korean BBQ’s, sushi trains and dumpling houses around it, but the food was the kind of authentic, mouth-watering fare you’ll only get from a rinkydink little Chinese restaurant run by a toothless old Cantonese couple who’ve been cooking the same dishes for 60 years. If, like me, you get the Sichuan Kung Po Fish with a side of steamed rice, you will be immensely grateful for the recommendation.
I was the only guest in the restaurant other than a table of four: a young couple and an older couple. The younger couple were possibly the most bourgeois people I’ve ever seen. They were dressed like hippies (dreadlocked hair, baggy clothes), but it was clear from their voices that they were privilege personified. They spoke with the kind of genteel, sophisticated Australian accents that, in Brisbane, tend to be heard mostly among graduate students and members of humanities faculties. If I had to guess, I’d say they worked in academia or some nook of the Department of Human Services.
I don’t say this to disparage these people: I have the same kind of Australian accent. I’m every bit as bourgeois as them—it’s the only reason I took any notice. I only mention this because Canberra, unlike Brisbane, seems like the kind of place where these kinds of people—young, trendy, bright, a bit bohemian, lefty—tend to cluster and breed. The kind of people who, in London, would live in Islington and Clerkenwell. It makes sense when you think about it: Canberra is essentially an artificial city built to house the federal government and its gigantic bureaucracy. The public service, as opposed to potentially more lucrative careers in the private sector, attracts graduates and young professionals with this profile. According to this hypothesis, Canberra is a little enclave of the most middle class people in Australia. It actually does remind me of the social profile of parts of London I frequented when I was there.
On my second day in Canberra, it was time to see some of the big sites.
Parliament House was first—the building housing the Commonwealth Parliament of Australia. From the outside, it’s an impressive and somewhat unorthodox structure. It’s like no traditional parliament building, which tend to be built in some form of traditional architecture such as Gothic or Neoclassical (as Australia’s Old Parliament House was); it looks like something Howard Roark in The Fountainhead might build in the way it seems to be an outgrowth of its surroundings, while at the same time being shamelessly a man-made structure. It seems to hug the earth, like a gigantic starfish. I’ve never been all that fond of Australia’s Parliament House, but, standing before it in person, I can’t deny it’s impressive.
Inside, I toured the House of Representatives and Senate chambers, in addition to a central committee room and a large “Great Hall” built for hosting receptions and functions. The chambers were obviously the centrepiece of the building. Seeing the loci of federal legislative power up close, a place I had only ever seen before on television, is certainly something to take in.
Next was the Australian War Memorial. The War Memorial is a great, stone, domed temple-like structure directly opposite Parliament House across Lake Burley Griffin. In my opinion, it’s one of the more impressive buildings in Australia, a fitting tribute to Australia’s war dead. The commemorative area, an open area featuring a pond with the names of Australia’s war dead across various wars carved onto the walls, lined with poppies, was particularly poignant, apart from the rather naff recording of a child reading out the names of the fallen one by one—the silence of a graveyard would be much more affecting.
The museum itself is enormous, detailed and informative. I’ll be honest, I’m not a museum person. Never have been. Like every other museum I’ve visited while travelling, I started off exploring this museum by reading every blurb and looking at every display. I ended, sick with severe museumitis and sore feet, merely scanning the displays and heading in the direction of the exit with as much dignity and tact as I could bother to muster.
It didn’t help that wars and military history don’t really interest me that much. It’s not that the displays were not high quality—I learned a lot, and many displays were very interesting (particularly the very detailed dioramas of battles)—it’s just that the nitty-gritty details of battles and weapons and campaigns and the like has always gone over my head. Wars and military history has only ever interested me insofar as it was an extension of politics and political history. So the displays that grabbed my attention most were those concerning the high-level political machinations: what was happening in Germany in the 1930s? Why were the Japanese steamrolling their way across the Pacific? Et cetera. While it’s good to collect that information in a museum like this (and many visitors will be learning this stuff for the first time through looking at the displays), it’s not the kind of thing I can’t read in a history book.
So my appraisal of the Australian War Memorial (the museum bit at least) is that it’s a fantastic attraction and a high-quality museum—just not for me.
That evening I found my way to a little pub in the suburb of Ainslie, close to where I was staying in Dickson, called Edgar’s. It was consciously mimicking the look and feel of a British pub, albeit with touches and a menu that catered to the tastes and dining habits of Australians, particular the kind of Australians who live in an affluent, trendy suburb like Ainslie, Canberra. I was glad, in any event, to have at least found an Australian pub that consciously tried to replicate the experience of a British pub, something Brisbane is unfortunately deprived of.
I knew that Canberra was located in a beautiful part of the world, and wanted, at some point in my trip, to go out and see some of the countryside, preferably by way of a hike. After some research about hiking trails around Canberra, I settled upon the Gibraltar Peak walk in the Tidbinbilla Nature Conservation Park, a climb up to the peak of what is either a large hill or a small mountain called Gibraltar Peak.
I had designated my third day in Canberra for a hike. That’s because (conscious of previous experience), if I was going to spend a whole day walking uphill, I wanted to do it before, not after, I had spent several days back-to-back wearing out my legs walking around Canberra.
I needn’t have worried because the Gibraltar Peak walk, although classed as a “challenging” hike by the National Park authorities, was a fairly comfortable and gentle climb, certainly unlike other hikes of similar length I had done which were steep uphill ascents the whole way. An advantage of hiking in the ACT, unlike Queensland, is that it’s cool, even in the middle of the day in the middle of summer. There was plenty of pretty scenery to gaze at and snap photos of along the way, and the views became more and more breath-taking the higher I climbed.
It was when I came back down from Gibraltar Peak that my trip to Canberra really took an eventful turn. I checked my notifications (I had no internet connection or phone reception on the peak), and saw a news notification: something along the lines of “Scott Morrison announces new coronavirus restrictions”. An ominous feeling came over me.
You see, I was aware, before going on my hike, that a case of the “more contagious” UK variant of coronavirus had been detected in Brisbane that morning. Annastacia Palaszczuk, the Premier of Queensland, had made the decision to put Greater Brisbane and surrounding regions under a snap 3-day hard lockdown to prevent any spread of the new variant (unnecessarily, as it turned out), and had unilaterally declared Brisbane a “coronavirus hotspot”—again, over one case.
I knew all this before I set out for Tidbinbilla in my rental car (some 45 minutes’ drive from my Airbnb in Canberra). And I did the due diligence: before I set out for Tidbinbilla, the directions from the Premier’s office in Brisbane were that, if you were a Brisbane resident currently elsewhere in Australia, you could return to Brisbane as long as it wasn’t during the 3-day lockdown period. “Well, that’s that, then,” I thought. “I don’t plan on coming back to Brisbane in the next 3 days anyway, I’ll just stick around Canberra and fly back to Brisbane the following Wednesday as I planned. No need to worry. Actually, it’s quite lucky I’m in Canberra and avoided the lockdown!” So satisfied, I set off for the drive to Tidbinbilla.
Between setting out on my hike up Gibraltar Peak, though, and returning three and a half hours’ later, a National Cabinet meeting of all the Australian heads of government had been held and Brisbane had been unanimously declared a national coronavirus hotspot (did I mention there was still only one case?). This was the point I saw the ominous notification on my phone: “Scott Morrison declares new coronavirus restrictions”. Had anything changed while I was up that mountain/large hill?
The reason for my feeling of dread was that the nation had watched, over the last two weeks, the quite shocking spectacle, after a spike in coronavirus cases in Sydney, of the State of Victoria slamming its borders shut to New South Wales, including to its own citizens who happened to be visiting New South Wales at the time. They were given barely 12 hours to get back to Victoria and, if they missed the deadline, were effectively locked out of their own state, out of their own homes and properties. So followed a mad scramble for the border in which a large number of Victorians didn’t make it across the border in time and were thereby effectively rendered refugees in their own country.
I sure as hell didn’t want something like that to happen to me, which was why I was already apprehensive about leaving Queensland for my holiday. So when I saw that notification on my phone, a feeling of dread came over me. In the Tidbinbilla Visitors Centre, I was frantically Googling the status of the border between ACT and Queensland, to check whether anything had changed since that morning. With a pang of painful resignation, I quickly found what I was looking for: the ACT Health webpage about Queensland had been updated. “If you have visited any hotspot areas in Queensland (i.e. Brisbane) since 2 January 2021, you must immediately quarantine for 14 days. You may return to Brisbane, but must do so immediately.”
“Immediately”. A little more detail would have been appreciated (such as “by 12:00pm tomorrow”), but I got the picture: I needed to get out of ACT and back to Brisbane as soon as possible, or I would be legally required to quarantine for 14 days in Canberra. Did I mention that this was all over one case?
I tried seeing if I could log into the Virgin Australia website, on my phone in the Tidbinbilla Visitors Centre, to change my Wednesday flight to that evening, but was having trouble navigating the website on my phone. I gave up and decided to drive as fast as I could the 50km back to my Airbnb in Dickson, to my laptop.
It took me about an hour, but I managed to book a new flight with Virgin back to Brisbane at 7:50pm that evening. I couldn’t change my flight: the Virgin website seemed to be struggling to process a large volume of flight change requests at the same time, and the call centre was being bombarded. So I ended up just buying a new flight for that evening (Virgin’s website seemed to handle that easily enough…)
So I packed my bags and scrambled out the door (forgetting to take with me a six-pack of Asahis in the communal fridge I had bought the previous night). I was quite concerned about making the flight on time, given that I had booked the flight only 2 hours in advance. I calculated that I’d have enough time to make the flight, providing there were no delays returning my rental car at the airport or dropping my luggage off. As it happened, there weren’t, and my decision to take a detour into a petrol station to refill my rental car’s tank didn’t waste critical minutes (I didn’t want to lose my $400 deposit over a couple of litres of fuel). The rental car return took barely 2 minutes, and, despite having trouble locating the departure terminal, I was through check-in and security within another 15 minutes.
What I felt after walking out of the security screening, my carry-on luggage passing the x-ray examination, with about an hour and a half to spare until my flight, was a mixture of relief, adrenaline, and the self-congratulatory feeling I had dodged a bullet with remarkable ease. It’s worth stressing that the unfortunate stories of the Victorians locked out of their own state had been close to the front of my mind for some weeks (I had been keenly on the lookout for signs that something similar might happen to me), and I really didn’t want to quarantine in Canberra for 14 days if I could help it. That’s why I was feeling the way I was at that moment, when I realised I had avoided what, given a few hours’ difference, may have been an unnecessary and unfortunate fate.
I bought myself a toasted salmon bagel at an airport café (I hadn’t had time to eat lunch in my scramble for the airport), and a beer—I needed one. I had time to people-watch what looked like a lot of other stressed-looking Brisbanites who also booked same-day flights back to Brisbane, escaping the prospect of 14 days’ quarantine in the place they were supposed to be taking a holiday.
The flight itself was delayed some 30-40 minutes. A flight from Brisbane had arrived at the gate our flight to Brisbane was departing. Australian Federal Police were at the gate, checking off, one-by-one, every passenger, escapees in the opposite direction from the impending Brisbane lockdown, all with that same look of mixed stress and relief we were sporting.
Finally we were on the plane. The mood was surreal; we were glad to be on the flight, but at the same time not glad. This was the first flight I had been on full of passengers effectively fleeing a state. I expect the mood in hotel quarantine facilities would be similar: we were all on that flight, not necessarily because we wanted to be, but because events outside our control and the arbitrary actions of governments gave us no other choice. That we were all returning to a city under lockdown was also a dampener on the general mood. In any event, I opened my copy of The Brothers Karamazov and spent the duration of the flight reading.
I touched down to a Brisbane in its first hours of lockdown: a real, hard, Victorian-style lockdown, where we were not even permitted to leave our houses except for certain permitted reasons. Not like the half-hearted lockdown we experienced in early 2020, which most people treated as a holiday if they weren’t blatantly flouting the barely-enforced rules. Appropriately, it was dark and wet, and, as I looked out the window of the taxi taking me back to my house, I thought that my city had the tense, fearful atmosphere that came through palpably in the historical photos of London during the Blitz.
Three days later
Three days later, with zero new cases over the weekend, lockdown was lifted on schedule. The ACT announced that, not only would it now be accepting flights from Brisbane again, but visitors from Brisbane quarantining in the ACT no longer had to quarantine the remainder of their 14 days. My reaction was along the lines of: “Are you fucking serious?”
Something that’s been part of my life for a while now (some 5-6 years I’d estimate) is the personality type system variously called Myers-Briggs, MBTI, Jungian typology, or just “typology”. You know, INTJ’s, ENFP’s, ESTJ’s, etc. When I say “part of my life”, I mean “stuck in my head”. I used to be extremely interested in typology, reading deep into the theory and spending a lot of time trying to figure out the personality types of every person I met and fictional character I watched. Read my previous post about why and how I use typology.
My interest in typology has waned, but it’s something that sticks in my head. I still type people (and fictional characters). At this point it’s like a reflex rather than a conscious thought process. Once a user of typology, always a user of typology, etc.
If typology interests or has ever interested you, I’m writing this post to give you a crash course in the theory and practice of typing others and yourself. Why? That it’s an amusing trainspotting exercise aside, understanding typology is worthwhile for the sake of understanding how people’s brains work differently, exactly how other people’s brains are different from yours, and why people act the way they do. Ultimately, by better understanding others and yourself, you can use it to improve your relationships—which is an eminently worthwhile end. Also, it’s really fun to guess the Twelfth Doctor’s MBTI type.
This post ended up being a lot longer than I anticipated, so here’s a table of contents of sorts to signpost what’s ahead:
What’s this about
The cognitive functions
Function preferences & the dominant function
The function stack
The four-letter code
What the cognitive functions do
Typing yourself and others
What’s this about?
The typology system I’m talking about here is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) system which derives from Carl Jung, was developed by Katharine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, and was perfected by teenagers on Tumblr. It’s dangerous using the term “personality type” (although I use it anyway for convenience) because what we colloquially undersand by “personality” are things that MBTI has nothing to do with: characteristics, attributes, traits and behaviour.
MBTI is not about behaviour, but cognition, which can be boiled down to two things: how you gather information, and how you make decisions, referred to in MBTI terminology as perceiving and judging. As you’ll appreciate, perceiving and judging have little to do with a person’s sense of humour, gregariousness, confidence, snobbishness, excitability and other attributes and behaviours we colloquially associate with “personality”.
Remember: this is about how a person gathers information and makes decisions.
The cognitive functions
If you have a passing familiarity with typology, you would know about the four-letter code that represents each of the 16 personality types: INTJ, ENFP, etc. For each of the letters in the four-letter code, there are two alternatives:
Introversion (“I”) or Extraversion (“E”)
Intuition (“N”) or Sensing (“S”)
Feeling (“F”) or Thinking (“T”)
Judging (“J”) or Perceiving (“P”)
You may have learned, or been told, that you pick which of the two alternatives for each of the four letters matches you, and that’s your personality type. While that’s technically correct, and for practical purposes will be accurate 70% – 80% of the time, that’s not actually how it works. In type theory, the letters in the four-letter code are not actually what make up a personality type; they are actually shorthand for something else: the function stack.
Every type has a function stack. A “function stack” is a set of four “cognitive functions”. It is the cognitive functions, not the actual letters in the four-letter code (and the concepts they represent, e.g. Introversion, Sensing, etc.), that are what make up a personality type. The cognitive functions are the central concepts of typology.
There are eight cognitive functions in total, and of those eight, each type has four cognitive functions, but not the other four. The eight cognitive functions are:
Extraverted Intuition (or “Ne” for short)
Introverted Intuition (“Ni”)
Extraverted Sensing (“Se”)
Introverted Sensing (“Si”)
Extraverted Thinking (“Te”)
Introverted Thinking (“Ti”)
Extraverted Feeling (“Fe”)
Introverted Feeling (“Fi”)
These functions can be grouped into two categories: “perceiving” and “judging” functions:
The perceiving functions are the intuition and sensing functions (Ne, Ni, Se, Si). Perceiving functions are about information-gathering. They determine how you take in information, and what kind of information you take in.
The judging functions are the thinking and feeling functions (Te, Ti, Fe, Fi). Judging functions are about decision-making. Once you’ve gathered information via the perceiving functions, the judging functions interpret the information and come to conclusions about it & make decisions. What kind of judging functions you have determines the basis on which you make decisions.
You need both perceiving functions and judging functions, otherwise you can’t function properly. As mentioned above, each type has a “function” stack comprising four of the eight functions: two perceiving functions and two judging functions. The two perceiving functions you have will be opposites of each other: for example, you will either have Introverted Intuition and Extraverted Sensing, or you will have Extraverted Intuition and Introverted Sensing. Ditto for the judging functions: you will either have Introverted Thinking and Extraverted Feeling, or you will have Extraverted Thinking and Introverted Feeling. I’ll explain what the “introverted” and “extraverted” part of the functions is later on.
The two perceiving and judging functions you have are opposites because, in addition to needing to be able to both perceive and judge, you need to both intuit and sense, and both think and feel. That’s because, as a human with an evolved human brain, you have the capacity to do both; it’s not one or the other.
To use an example, take my type, INTP. My cognitive functions are Introverted Thinking, Extraverted Feeling, Introverted Sensing and Extraverted Intuition. I have both thinking and feeling functions, and both sensing and intuition functions.
Function preferences & the dominant function
However, while each person has the capacity to use thinking, feeling, intuition and sensing, in reality you will prefer one of either thinking or feeling, and one of either intuition or sensing. One will feel more comfortable than the other, and you will use it more than the other and become better at it than the other. It’s similar to the way you are either right- or left-handed: you still have two hands, but through preference and greater use of one hand over the other, one becomes stronger and more dextrous than the other.
In addition to preferring one of each of your perceiving functions and judging functions to the other, you will have a function you lean on significantly more than the other three, called your “dominant function”. It’s probably the function you took to first, or most, when you were a child, and interacted with the world predominantly through the use of that function, drawing on your other functions only when you needed to. Even as you grow up and develop your other functions with increased use of them, you still lean heavily on your dominant function over the others, both through habit and because it becomes the function that’s most comfortable and effortless for you.
Not only is your dominant function effortless, you scarcely notice yourself using it—it becomes like a sixth sense, and you don’t understand why others can’t use it as effortlessly as you do; it’s the lens through which you experience the world, and the water you swim in. It’s absolutely central to your identity.
The function stack
This brings me to the “function stack”. It’s called a “stack” because the functions in the function stack are grouped in order from strongest to weakest, as if they were stacked on top of each other. Going back to my type, INTP, my function stack is (in order):
Introverted Thinking (Ti)
Extraverted Intuition (Ne)
Introverted Sensing (Si)
Extraverted Feeling (Fe)
Introverted Thinking (Ti) is my dominant function. You’ll see that its pair or opposite, Extraverted Feeling (Fe), is at the bottom of my function stack. The pair/opposite of your dominant function will always be your weakest function and at the bottom of your function stack; therefore it’s called the “inferior” function.
The pair of your dominant function is weakest and “inferior” because, with such heavy use of your dominant function, you scarcely exercise its pair. That’s because you can’t use two types of judging simultaneously, or two types of perceiving, because they are diametrically opposed ways of judging or perceiving. Using one function at a given moment necessarily means you are not using its pair, and so the more you use one of a pair, the less you use the other. If you use a function so much that it’s your dominant function, its pair, your “inferior” function, will be severely underused, weak, underdeveloped, immature, and you will be extremely clumsy and uncomfortable in using it.
The second and third functions are known as your “auxiliary” and “tertiary” functions, respectively. If your dominant and inferior functions are judging functions, your auxiliary and tertiary functions will be your pair of perceiving functions, and vice versa. Your auxiliary will be the preferred function of that pair, and the tertiary the non-preferred. So, for INTP again, as my dominant and inferior functions are judging functions, my auxiliary and tertiary are perceiving functions: Extraverted Intutition (Ne) and Introverted Sensing (Si), respectively.
The role of the auxiliary function is to support the dominant function. Because, in interacting with the world, you need to both judge and perceive, if your dominant function is a judging function, your auxiliary function will be a perceiving function (and vice versa). And because you interact with an external (objective) world and an internal (subjective) world, if your dominant function is an extraverted function, your auxiliary function will be an introverted function (and vice versa).
The latter is the reason your auxiliary function will always be the opposite orientation to your dominant function—your dominant and auxiliary can’t be both introverted functions, or both extroverted functions, because you need to relate to both the external and internal worlds, both the world of things and people outside you, and the world of ideas, impressions, thoughts and feelings inside you. As your dominant function already does one (either extraversion or introversion), your auxiliary will do the other.
So, your dominant and auxiliary functions together will be your primary ways of both perceiving and judging, and both extraverting and introverting. The role of the tertiary and inferior functions is to supply the needs that the dominant and auxiliary can’t supply. I’m an INTP, I mainly judge with Introverted Thinking (Ti) and perceive with Extraverted Intuition (Ne); but I also sense and feel, albeit less and not very well. For my sensing and and feeling needs, I use Introverted Sensing (Si) and Extraverted Feeling (Fe).
The four-letter code
So, the function stack converts into the four-letter code you’re familiar with, as so:
The 1st letter (“E” or “I”) represents the orientation (extraverted or introverted) of the dominant function.
The 2nd letter (“N” or “S”) represents which type of perceiving function you use primarily: intuition or sensing.
The 3rd letter (“T” or “F”) represents which type of judging function you use primarily: thinking or feeling.
The 4th letter (“P” or “J”) represents which category of function you primarily extravert with: perceiving or judging.
So, for an INTP, my first letter is “I” because my dominant function, Ti, is introverted. My second letter is “N” because I primarily use intuition over sensing. My third letter is “T” because I primarily use thinking over feeling. My fourth letter is “P” because I primarily extravert with a perceiving function: Extraverted Intuition (Ne).
Taking any type, you can reverse-engineer its function stack. Let’s take ESFP, for example:
The “S” and “F” indicate that ESFP uses sensing and feeling as its modes of perceiving and judging, respectively.
The “P” indicates that ESFP extraverts with a perceiving function, which will be its sensing function, so, ESFP’s sensing is extraverted: Extraverted Sensing (Se).
The “E” indicates that ESFP’s dominant function is extraverted. Since Se is ESFP’s extraverted function, ESFP’s dominant function will be Se.
As ESFP’s dominant function is an extraverted perceiving function (Se), its auxiliary function will be an introverted judging function. ESFP’s primary mode of judging is feeling, which makes its auxiliary function Introverted Feeling (Fi).
ESFP’s tertiary function will be the opposite of its auxiliary function: Extraverted Thinking (Te).
ESFP’s inferior function will be the opposite of its dominant function: Introverted Intuition (Ni).
ESFP’s function stack, therefore, is: Se-Fi-Te-Ni.
What the cognitive functions do
So, after all that, the fun part: this is where I explain what the cognitive functions actually do.
First, I need to explain what sensing and intuition, and thinking and feeling, are. As you now know, sensing and intuition are two ways of perceiving (information-gathering), and thinking and feeling are two ways of judging (decision-making).
Taking the perceiving functions first, sensing gathers information that can be gathered with the five senses, and information that is “concrete”, material and verifiable. Intuition gathers information that is abstract and conceptual, and relies on seeing patterns and making connections between data points. Sensing takes things as they are in reality and focusses on the material, “real” facts and data in front of it, whereas intuition attempts to peer around the corner, see how things relate to other things and envision the possibilities of what things could be.
As for the judging functions, while thinking and feeling can be (not unfairly) stereotyped as “logic” versus “emotion”, it’s not as simple as that. It’s really the difference between evaluating things, and making decisions, based on standards that are impersonal and empirical/system-based (thinking), or standards that are values- and people-based, i.e. values about how people should relate to each other (feeling).
As foreshadowed above, the “extraverted” and “introverted” aspects of the functions is about whether, in using the function, you are directing your attention and energy toward the objective world of people and objects outside of you (extraverted), or toward the subjective world of thoughts, ideas, feelings, impressions, memories, consciousness and personal experience inside of you (introverted).
So, here we go:
Extraverted Sensing (Se) is highly attuned to the physical and material world around it. It takes in sensory information from its physical surroundings in real time—objects and people, and changes in its surroundings—and reacts fluently and confidently in the moment. Se seeks out stimulation from the physical and sensory world, which is why you will find many Se-users among sportsmen, artistic people, cooks and foodies, outdoorsy types, party animals and accomplished flirts.
Types that use Se as a dominant function are ESFP and ESTP. Types that use Se as an auxiliary function are ISFP and ISTP.
Introverted Sensing (Si) is highly attuned to its own, personal, subjective experience, i.e. how an experience is affecting the Si-user personally & how it is making the Si-user feel. Si then takes these subjective impressions and stores them, and creates a vast store of such subjective experiences, impressions and memories. It uses that store as a framework for interpreting new experiences, by way of comparison and reference. Because of this, Si-users tend to develop a very unique and personal way of looking at the world, because they view present experiences through the lens of their past experiences. This can make them hidebound and tied to what they know, and uncomfortable with new things and things that challenge what they know from their past experiences.
Types that use Si as a dominant function are ISFJ and ISTJ. Types that use Si as an auxiliary function are ESFJ and ESTJ.
Extraverted Intuition (Ne) sees new possibilities and opportunities about what can be. It does this mainly by seeing connections and patterns between ideas. It is always seeing new patterns and throwing up new possibilities for how reality can be changed. Ne-users tend to generate a lot of novel, unconventional and original ideas, and quickly see unexpected and apparently random connections between ideas and things.
Types that use Ne as a dominant function are ENFP and ENTP. Types that use Ne as an auxiliary function are INFP and INTP.
Introverted Intuition (Ni) stores subjective patterns and interpretations in much the same way Si stores subjective experiences. This store of patterns and interpretations creates a framework for interpreting new events and phenomena that the Ni-user encounters. Ni-users are therefore highly attuned to (how they interpret) things will play out, and (what they interpret to be) the “essence” and “deeper meaning” of things. They use their tendency to visualise the future in order to guide their actions.
Types that use Ni as a dominant function are INFJ and INTJ. Types that use Ni as an auxiliary function are ENFJ and ENTJ.
Extraverted Thinking (Te), a judging (decision-making) function, evaluates and makes decisions based on objective rational standards, being rules, procedures, external systems, empirical data, and results. Ultimately Te asks “what works? what gets the best results?” Te wants to organise and rationalise the external world by imposing procedures and systems, and Te-users will often be meticulously organised in their own personal and work/study lives.
Types that use Te as a dominant function are ENTJ and ESTJ. Types that use Te as an auxiliary function are INTJ and ISTJ.
Introverted Thinking (Ti) evaluates and makes decisions based on its own, subjective understanding of how things work. Whereas Te asks “what works (in practice)/gets the best results?”, Ti asks “what makes sense (to me)?”. Ti wants to boil things down to first principles and understand on a conceptual level how things work. Ti constructs a logical framework for understanding things/the world that is ultimately based on its own subjective reasoning (“what makes sense to me?”) rather than objective standards and evidence.
Types that use Ti as a dominant function are INTP and ISTP. Types that use Ti as an auxiliary function are ENTP and ESTP.
Extraverted Feeling (Fe) evaluates and makes decisions based on interpersonal standards, i.e. what promotes interpersonal harmony, what makes everyone feel good, what’s best for others. Similar to the way Te puts stock in external impersonal systems and procedures, Fe attributes importance to external personal systems and procedures, such as social norms and rules, forms of social organisation and status, social traditions and social authorities, because such things, Fe sees, promote interpersonal harmony and reduce conflict. Fe-users tend to be highly attuned to the way other people feel, and tend to be naturals at empathising, dialogue, bringing people together, and leadership.
Types that use Fe as a dominant function are ENFJ and ESFJ. Types that use Fe as an auxiliary function are INFJ and ISFJ.
Introverted Feeling (Fi) evaluates and makes decisions based on the Fi-user’s own personal values and understanding of good and bad & right and wrong. Fi-users are highly in touch with their own feelings and will always know how they feel about things. Authentically expressing one’s own feelings, values and identity, and remaining true to one’s own values, is extremely important to Fi-users. Fi-users will not care for interpersonal harmony and social norms and organisation the way Fe-users do if those things conflict with the Fi-user’s personal values.
Types that use Fi as a dominant function are INFP and ISFP. Types that use Fi as an auxiliary function are ENFP and ESFP.
Typing yourself and others
Now that you know what goes into a personality type (cognitive functions in a particular order), and what cognitive functions go with what types, you should be equipped to go out and do some type-spotting (starting with yourself!). To be fair, there’s more to type theory than what I’ve written in this post—this is “MBTI for dummies” after all—but, with a knowledge of the basics, you should be able to type people with decent accuracy.
What you’re looking for, above all, is a person’s dominant function. What’s the function that dominates their personality? What do they do so effortlessly it’s like a sixth sense? With extraverts, whose dominant function is extraverted, it shouldn’t be difficult to determine this, as their extraverted dominant function is out there in the open for all to see. With introverts, whose dominant function is introverted, it can be a bit trickier. The side of themselves introverts show to the world will often be their auxiliary function, which is extraverted, whereas their introverted dominant function can be quieter in their interactions with most people. It’ll take getting to know some introverts to see their dominant function more clearly.
One way to determine an elusive dominant function is to look for a person’s inferior function, which you do by asking “what do they really suck at? what do they suck at so much it causes them anxiety and stress? what’s the thing they run away from because of how uncomfortable it makes them?” Once you’ve pinned down an inferior function, you can deduce their dominant function (which is the inferior function’s opposite).
Determining between intuition and sensing can sometimes be a source of confusion. To be clear, not every person who has ever had an abstract thought, or enjoys talking about abstract things, is an intuitive. Sensors can intuit and intuitives can sense. Look for what they’re better at and more comfortable with. Look for how they express themselves: in concrete, straightforward language (sensors), or in generalisations and analogies (intuitives). Look for what they’re interested in: abstract things like personality theory, particle physics, philosophy and Doctor Who fanfiction, or sensory things like sport, arts, food, fashion and all-night raves.
Also don’t make the mistake of assuming that being intellectual means a person is a thinker, or that being emotive means a person is a feeler. Thinking and feeling (judging) is about a person’s underlying motivations for making decisions and evaluating things, rather than their abilities or behaviour. Do they make their decisions based on impersonal, “rational” standards, or with reference to people, their feelings, and people-focussed values.
Ultimately you can get away with using the “dichotomous” method of picking which letters in the four-letter code most applies to a person, which will be accurate 70-80% of the time, but it’s best to verify by identifying a person’s cognitive functions. Moreover, “extravert sensor feeler perceiver” just doesn’t tell you much. Knowing how the cognitive functions work allows you to understand so much more about why a person is the way they are, than the dichotomous four-letters method.
If you’re interested in reading my thought process in identifying a person’s type, you can look at any of my Typing Doctor Who blog posts, where I type Doctor Who characters and show my reasoning. So far I’ve done Clara Oswald, the Eleventh Doctor, Sarah-Jane Smith, Rose Tyler, Amy Pond and Victorian Clara.
Part 2 – Going deeper
When I began writing this post, I didn’t intend it to be more than a single part. However, in the process of organising all this information in what has hopefully been a clear and simple way, I was reminded of how much more there is to type theory. To properly accurately type people, and genuinely understand how they work using type theory, requires knowledge of the deeper aspects of type theory.
I’m going to go deeper into type theory in a Part 2 post. This will cover subjects such as inferior grips, dominant-tertiary loops, function dynamics, type maturity and growth, the significance of types of functions in different positions, and anything else relevant I think of in the meantime.
No one is more surprised than I am that I managed to read a round 50 books in 2020, almost certainly more than double what I’ve ever read in a year before, but if any year has been the year for reading, it’s 2020.
I read a lot of excellent books in 2020, so it was hard to pick my top 10, but here they are. Here’s to another 50 great books in 2021!
10. The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux
In a year when all my exciting travel plans were unexpectedly binned, this book went some not inconsiderable way to whetting my appetite for foreign adventure. It’s popular travel writer Paul Theroux’s most acclaimed work, a report of his journey by trains, big and small, across Eurasia, from London to Tokyo and back. He rides the Orient Express and the Trans-Siberian, but also the Khyber Mail, the 16:25 from Galle and the Hikari Super Express to Kyoto (among many others). It’s not all about trains, though: the trains are the vehicles that bring him to the obscure and exotic sights and sounds that feature in this book, and are the scene of his many interesting and often comical interactions with other passengers. A great read for travel junkies.
9. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
As someone who avidly read the Goosebumps books when I was a kid, it’s no small thing for me to say that Nineteen Eighty-Four is the scariest book I’ve ever read. No, I’m not one of those excitable people in the comment sections of articles about government surveillance and the like who think we’re living in Nineteen Eighty-Four or that Nineteen Eighty-Four is just around the corner. No, this book frightened me because the overreach of state power frightens me, and it’s easy to see how we can get from here to there. Every totalitarian device and institution in Nineteen Eighty-Four exists in contemporary Western democracies in germinal form, and that’s what’s scary. In some places—North Korea, China—society is much further along the road to Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s a book that will stay with me, for sure.
8. Dominion by Tom Holland
The hypothesis of this book by ancient world historian Tom Holland is that the Western mind and psyche is fundamentally shaped by Christianity. So much so that we modern Westerners, even in our secular, irreligious contemporary society, don’t even realise the extent to which our values and our mindsets are defined by Christianity. This isn’t a Christian screed, but a genuine and extremely readable historical study by a celebrated historian of the ancient world. Among the more controversial (yet persuasively argued) ideas presented in the book is that notions of human rights and individualism are rooted in Christianity, and would have struggled to emerge in non-Christian cultures. The book is packed with information and interesting historical detail, and is one of the books on this list I feel I definitely need to read again.
7. History Has Begun by Bruno Maçães
This is a captivating book. It is a “theory of America” that describes the way American culture is moving away from its European colonial roots and becoming something new and unique. The primary driver of this cultural shift is the forms of screen storytelling Americans have perfected and which have come to permeate their culture: film and television. America is becoming a postmodern civilisation, a “land of stories”, where Americans yearn for narrative meaning both in their own personal lives and on the grand political stage. Donald Trump’s presidency can be seen as the beneficiary and the ideal of this phenomenon: an unlikely President who saw himself as the star in a TV drama, one Americans just couldn’t stop watching (no matter how much they disliked him).
6. A Mencken Chrestomathy by H.L. Mencken
H.L. Mencken was a prolific American journalist and writer of the 20th Century. He wrote, it seems, on every subject under the sun, from women, men, morality, the death penalty, politics, Southerners, Northerners, Calvin Coolidge, the Greeks, chiropractors, the Ku Klux Klan, to Brahms. This is a collection of Mencken’s “choicest” writings, on these subjects and many more. Mencken is an utterly riveting writer, witty, intelligent and clear, a testament to which is that he caused me to find myself enjoying his writings on such unlikely subjects as a boxing match from 1921 I’d never heard of, Charles Joseph Bonaparte (whom I doubt anyone has ever heard of), and zoos. The appeal of this book really is the brilliant writing of Mencken: the kind of writing that really inspires me to practise my own neglected skills.
5. The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom by James Burnham
To use a contemporary term, this book is an instant “redpill”. Ostensibly, it is about the theories of four Italian Neo-Machiavellian political theorists: Gaetano Mosca, Georges Sorel, Robert Michels and Vilfredo Pareto. In synthesising their political theories, this book elucidates a framework for looking at political institutions and phenomena which is radical, subversive and fundamentally anti-statist, if not anarchistic (although none of these thinkers were necessarily anarchists or proponents of any particular ideology, but rather political “scientists”). Even as a political radical sympathetic to such ideas myself, I found my thinking challenged by the ideas in this book, which are original and penetrating. Anyone reading this book would find it difficult to look at the world the same way again.
4. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
At nearly 1,300 pages, Atlas Shrugged is easily the longest book I’ve ever read. That itself feels like a major achievement—it took me two and a half months to finish, mostly reading during my lunch breaks at work. At no point, though, did it feel like making progress with this book was a chore because, even though it moves slowly (with one or two 50-page speeches by various characters thrown in), it’s an absorbing and exhilarating read (with as much sex and gunfights as turgid, self-indulgent monologues). The worldview propagated in this book (pro-capitalism, pro-egoism, anti-“altruism”) is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I can’t see how it can fail to at least make anyone think, given how compellingly Rand’s ideas are presented in narrative form.
3. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Now, I’ve actually read this one before. However, as it’s my favourite ever novel, and I found an audiobook version narrated by Jeremy Irons (who played Charles Ryder in the excellent TV adaptation), how could I resist a re-read (albeit via Audible)? I don’t really have a very interesting answer for when I’m asked why Brideshead Revisited is my favourite ever novel. I simply love the characters and I love the story. The characters, particularly the “main” character Sebastian Flyte, are beautifully realised in Waugh’s writing, and Waugh has a gift for riveting and often hilarious dialogue. The first half of the book, set in aristocratic 1920s Oxford among plover’s eggs and claret and country houses, is delightfully sumptuous. It’s an emotional read full of tragedy, though, and the climax is a gut-wrencher. I highly recommend it.
2. Modern Times: A History of the World From the Twenties to the Nineties by Paul Johnson
I was prompted to read this book after hearing it praised by Tom Woods on his podcast as being the must-read, most penetrating history of the 20th Century. Oh, was he right about that. At 800 pages, it’s a long trek (but that’s a given with history texts), but Johnson’s prose is so lucid and pleasing as to make it a leisurely read.
What distinguishes this book, for someone who enjoys reading history, is that Johnson goes into a level of detail about historical events that rewards your effort for persisting on every page. To say you learn something new on every page is a cliche, but if it’s fair to say about any history text, it’s this one. All this, without allowing the narrative to become bogged down in detail: Johnson researches and analyses like a historian, but writes like a journalist (which is a good thing).
Johnson frequently, and quite openly, inserts his own subjective interpretations of events, some of which are unusual or controversial, but I find this adds to rather than detracts from the text. After all, it is impossible to analyse historical data without taking a subjective interpretation of that data at some level.
Highlights of this book, for me, were the chapters on the early years of the Soviet Union, interwar France and Germany, America in the 1920s, the Great Depression, the Chinese Civil War, the rule of Mao Zedong, and postwar Britain and Germany. There’s also much interesting material on parts of the non-Western world that wouldn’t normally be covered in a 20th Century history text.
Easily the best history book I’ve ever read.
1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
What to say about Crime and Punishment that hasn’t already been said? It’s simply a masterpiece. It’s an utterly engrossing read that transports you into the disturbed mind of the main character, Raskolnikov, and leaves you there for quite some time after you’ve reached the end of this book. The genius of Crime and Punishment is that, while the murder that is the main act of the story takes place over only a few pages, Raskolnikov spends the rest of the book psychologically stuck at the scene of the murder, brooding over his horrific crime and the warped philosophical idea that inspired him to commit it. Despite being a long read, the story moves quickly, and introduces a cast of interesting and eccentric characters. The writing is luminescent, at least as rendered in the David McDuff translation that I read. This one will stay with me for sure, and has gone straight back onto the “read again” list!
Some of my most popular posts on this blog have been my “Typing Doctor Who” posts, where I assign a Myers-Briggs (MBTI) type to a Doctor Who character and show my working. A couple of years ago I was completely absorbed in everything MBTI, and those posts were the product of my obsessive habit of typing everything that moved.
My MBTI mania has abated since then, probably for the better (it’s not wise to place too much stock in any personality theory). However, when you’ve been as immersed as I was in MBTI and its progressive levels of theoretical convolution, you can never really let go of it. MBTI is still very much a tool I use in my day-to-day life, to understand myself and the people around me, and how I relate to those around me.
It’s the kind of theoretical tool that helps you understand, for example, what’s going through your partner’s head when you’re locked in an argument and you’re both frustrated that the other can’t just see things the way you do. You would use MBTI to understand why the people in your office (or class, team, etc.), who annoy you and perplex you and who couldn’t be more different from you, are the way they are.
Personally I use MBTI partly as an amusing train-spotting exercise (“Jack’s an ENFJ, interesting.”, “Ooh, Amy’s an ISFP, haven’t met many of those.”), and partly as a genuine tool to understand what Jack’s being an ENFJ or Amy’s being an ISFP means for how I relate to them, how we can best get along, work together, and avoid misunderstanding and conflict. That is, I use MBTI to improve my relationships with other people. And, partly, I use MBTI to understand myself, my strengths and weaknesses, what it means for me in various facets of my life, and where I need to grow as a person.
Katherine Briggs and Isabel Briggs-Myers
No one who uses MBTI, though, can ignore the charge that it is nonsense. A quick scan of the Wikipedia page for the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator will reveal that it has been criticised by some Very Serious People as “unscientific” and a “pseudoscience”, if not outright refuted. It also can’t be ignored that Katherine Briggs and Isabel Briggs-Myers, who developed the theory in its modern form, were not qualified psychologists, but more like amateur hobbyists and Carl Jung devotees (who developed the theory in its rudimentary form). Real psychologists don’t take it seriously (I’m hesitant to mention my devotion to MBTI to my friends with psychology qualifications), and its adherents consist mostly of hobbyists on the internet – like me – and corporate HR departments.
The critiques are fair, and should be taken seriously by anyone who wants to place any reliance in the theory. They can be answered to some extent by pointing out that practically all scientific critiques of MBTI refer to the “official” Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® test administered by the Myers & Briggs Foundation, which is considered by most adherents of MBTI theory (which would better be described as Jungian typology) who aren’t corporate HR departments as unreliable and based on a butchered and considerably watered-down version of the fuller, far more sophisticated theory. Moreover, scientific opinion even on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® is hardly uniform.
But it’s true enough that MBTI lacks the empirical scientific validation one would need to make use of it with confidence. I’m perfectly conscious of that. Why use it, then? To put it simply, I use it because it works. I find the categories and functions of MBTI to be accurate and useful for describing what I see in other people and making sense of others’ decisions and thought processes. I find that it is a system that helps me understand how people (and fictional characters, no less) work.
The idea of different personality types, variously called in different places “archetypes” or “temperaments”, is nothing new. Katherine Myers and Isabel Briggs-Myers (or Carl Jung, for that matter) didn’t invent the idea of personality types, which has a venerable intellectual pedigree going back to the ancient world. It’s this that makes me think, despite the lack of enthusiasm from the academic community, that there might just be something in the most sophisticated and enduringly popular attempt to explain and systematise personality types yet developed.
I’m hardly a scientist – I dropped all science subjects after 10th grade (a mistake) – but it wouldn’t surprise me if MBTI is not something that can be tested emprically, and should be better placed in the realm of social science or philosophy than the natural sciences. It seems sensible: in typing people we’re simply putting a name on traits and patterns we observe in ourselves and others. We don’t require the aid of scientific testing to observe that some people are more outgoing than others, or that some people are highly in touch with how they feel about things but have poor powers of dispassionate logical judgment (and vice versa). Or that some people enjoy nothing more than spending hours discussing type theory while others find this unutterably boring and would prefer to go bike riding or photo shooting.
Those differences and those patterns are there. Postnominalled scientists don’t need to tell us that Jess is outgoing and free with her feelings, or that Josh is reserved and cerebral, or Noora an unfocussed free spirit, because our experience tells us that they are. We construct mental archetypes and character traits (“outgoing”, “scattered”, “analytical”, “principled”, etc.) to describe and make sense of personality differences in other people, which in turn inform how we think about and treat different people. Personality types exist because we make them exist, not because they’re biologically inherent in us. MBTI is no more than an attempt to systematise this very human process of assigning constructed archetypes and traits to other people.
There is therefore a fundamental difference between how MBTI and how scientific psychology would treat the subject matter of human personality differences. MBTI is about observing the personality traits and patterns that are there and putting names on them: the “what”. Psychology would explain “why” those traits and patterns are there, and “why” different people have different sets of traits and patterns, the “why” being what is actually going on at a biological level in the brain.
Ultimately, though, MBTI is just a tool. The utility of a tool should be judged by how effectively it helps you do what you’re using it to do. In other words, how well it works. For me, MBTI works for what I’m using it for. It gives me a frame of reference for understanding how the people in my life think and act differently. It helps me empathise with others and improve my relationships. And it helps me understand myself and my own brain. It helps me practise self-awareness and identify areas for growth. To me, it doesn’t necessarily matter whether MBTI is, or is even capable of being, endorsed by peer-reviewed psychologists. I’m using it positively in my life, and that’s enough for me.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t like Brutalist buildings. I think they’re eyesores and blights upon the urban landscape. I would hate to work or learn in a Brutalist building, let alone live in one. I’m actually a frothing architectural reactionary who thinks nothing built after 1930 is worth the (cheap) material it was built from, and that the colonisation of our cities by Brutalist concrete monstrosities, and the accompanying destruction of priceless architectural heritage, was a heinous crime.
I don’t need to give a lecture on the ills of Brutalism, which are plain enough. Not only are Brutalist buildings ugly, they’re designed to be ugly. Or, rather, they’re designed to eschew any and all notions of beauty and aesthetic appeal in favour of pure functionality. Which, really, is the same thing as being designed to be ugly. Beauty is elitist and oppressive, you see, and by rejecting conventional norms of beauty we reject elitist, oppressive bourgeois society. By tearing down the spires and arches and ornate façades from the past and replacing them with featureless concrete blocks, we create a just new society atop the ashes of the oppressive old, where none are beautiful or ugly, rich or poor, gentle or common, great or small; where all are equal, and all the same.
Brutalism, then, is not just ugly, but deliberately anti-beauty. It is designed to reduce the built environment to the lowest common denominator, levelling down the physical world we live in just as we level down the human world itself. Brutalist buildings are also depersonifying in the way egalitarian ideology is: their monumental proportions make the individual feel minute and insignificant, except as one tiny, indistinct cog among millions in an enormous, inhuman social machine. Brutalist buildings, therefore, are erected as physical symbols of the brave new world; visual egalitarianism.
Which is all very well, but such high-minded ideals don’t spare much sympathy for the people who actually have to live and work in these drab concrete eyesores. No one should be surprised by the revelation that the physical world around us affects our mood, our productivity, and even our mental health. Sunlight, warmth, greenery, pretty buildings and other people make us happy. Grey skies and cold, grey surroundings devoid of humanity make us anxious and downcast. Few people like living and working in cold, grey, concrete environments. The proliferation of Brutalist buildings in the 1960s and 1970s was an instance of building for ideology rather than for people.
So much for what’s wrong with Brutalism. And yet—and yet—there’s a small part of me which can’t help but admire Brutalist architecture, in all its cold, nihilistic ugliness. No, I will never think Brutalist buildings are pretty, but no one could deny they’re impressive. Brutalism isn’t supposed to be pretty, but it’s designed to impress and to awe, with its gigantic proportions, its stark, straight lines and geometric shapes, and its overpowering cold, barren greyness. When you approach a Brutalist building, you feel increasingly diminished as the sheer, bleak façade towers over you. When you are inside one, you are awed by the dimensions, which are exaggerated by the ostentatious lack of any feature or ornament whatsoever. Brutalism is an aesthetic experience designed to dominate the senses.
And this is by no means a characteristic unique to Brutalism. Many of the great buildings of the past were also constructed to create an awesome impression. What were the great European cathedrals but edifices and spaces designed to make the believer feel small and supine before the divine majesty of God? What was the feudal lord’s towering castle on the hill but the Brutalist eyesore of its day, designed, in part, to intimidate and awe the oppressed local peasantry? And we don’t think of the Tower of London or St Peter’s Basilica as anything other than priceless artefacts of our historical heritage.
And while Brutalist buildings may not be pretty (in the sense of Instagrammable), if you squint really hard and tilt your head a bit and look at them in just the right light, they do, I’ll admit, have a certain avant garde glamour to them, in a sci-fi, Ayn Randian sort of way. You could compare Brutalism, for example, to Vaporwave (or its forerunner, Surrealism), which is to art what Brutalism is to architecture. No one thinks Vaporwave art is pretty, but, with its faux-nostalgic imagery, hyper-saturated pastels and incongruous Roman busts, it has its own weird, evocative allure that has nothing to do with conventional notions of beauty.
In the same way, Brutalism’s stark shapes, hard lines and bare surfaces exercise the aesthetic sensors of the brain. Not in a pleasing, endorphin-producing way, but it exercises them nonetheless. If sufficiently open and receptive to aesthetic experiences other than the pretty, pleasing kind, people are drawn to the visual impression created by Brutalism in the same way they’re drawn to Vaporwave, or Black Metal music, or skydiving, or very spicy food, or whisky. Our senses and our bodies are not made to enjoy these things, but once we overcome our instinctive repulsion to them, we can enjoy the experience of exciting our senses with things they instinctively reject.
And for my part, at least, it’s also hard not to admire an architectural style propagated so boldly in the service of its guiding philosophy, whatever one might think of that philosophy, over other relevant concerns such as aesthetic appeal and fitness for human habitation. It’s hard not to admire buildings which were, in part, designed as physical symbols of such a bold and ambitious social philosophy. One can appreciate and admire the impressive intellectual edifices crafted by Nietzsche, Marx, Plato, Stirner and Rand despite being justifiably repulsed by those thinkers’ worldviews.
So, on balance, if I could, would I knock down all the Brutalist eyesores that blot our cities? If it meant replacing them with the kinds of beautiful buildings that were themselves invariably demolished to make space for the new concrete horrors in the 1960s and 1970s, then I would. Little satisfies more than putting right an old wrong.
But, let’s face it, they’re not going to be replaced by beautiful Victorian train stations and Georgian pubs, but, if possible, by even blander, less interesting buildings that blend seamlessly into the rest of the featureless, unexciting modern urban landscape. Brutalist buildings, at least, have the decency to be offensive and ugly, if they’re not going to be pretty. I think I would rather a building that is proudly, shamelessly ugly than one that, although it tries to avoid being ugly, still can’t bring itself to be pretty. The former is something to be looked at, to be reviled or admired, depending on your taste. The latter won’t even be looked at, or thought about at all. It’s just there. Brutalism, at least, is not that.
Hello, it’s been a while. There’s a very good reason for that: in February I started a full-time job. For the last five months I have been putting in forty-two and a half hours a week at a solicitors’ firm and earning an honest living (of sorts). That’s not to say I’ve had no time at all to blog. I just preferred to spend my drastically reduced leisure time variously relaxing with my good friend Netflix or numbing the trauma of becoming a “real adult” with copious volumes of alcohol. ’90s kids get it.
In any case, the other reason for my absence is that a new addiction has taken hold of me: Korean language TV dramas, a.k.a. “K-drama”. And addicting they are. Since I decided, in a fit of mixed boredom and curiosity, a little less than a year ago, to start watching something called Moorim School on Netflix about a K-pop idol who goes to a secret martial arts school, I’ve finished nine K-drama series and am set to soon finish my tenth. My after-work evenings, then, for the last five months, have mostly been spent curled up on my bed with Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo or What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim? on my laptop.
I don’t know if watching K-drama is supposed to be a guilty pleasure or not. That’s coming from someone who has more guilty pleasures than is entirely decent. It seems like it should be–it’s lots of maudlin, tropey romance and not much else. I just don’t know if K-drama is sufficiently prominent on the radar of even the average pop culture savvy Western Millennial to warrant any embarrassment over watching it. Although, with the increased, not entirely favourable awareness of K-pop and in particular a certain K-pop idol group with a three-letter acronym for a name, K-drama’s reputation may be about to depreciate by association.
No matter. Guilty pleasures are guilty pleasures for a reason. It’s not inaccurate to compare the guilty pleasure of K-drama to the guilty pleasure taken in watching trashy Hollywood chick flicks. The two genres are cut from the same stylistic cloth. There’s a fairytale, fantastical element in both that takes you out of the mundanity of ordinary life and transports you into a live-action fairytale. Not magic and witches (although K-drama is more comfortable with putting fantasy elements in love stories than Hollywood is), but not entirely realistic and over-dramatised love stories worthy of the screen. It’s trashy, sure, and most of it deserves the derision the Hollywood chick flick genre gets, but the best K-drama is well worth the 16-25 hours you’ll spend glued to your laptop screen.
Of the series I’ve watched, I’m Not A Robot and What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim? fall into the trashier category—although I’ve been trying to watch better-rated series, and both of these are nonetheless worth the binge. I’m Not A Robot is about a reclusive, socially awkward young corporate director with a severe allergy to human contact, who falls in love with his “female” robot assistant (who is actually a real woman pretending to be a robot to save the blushes of the robot’s creator over the actual robot’s faultiness).
This one is a good example of K-drama’s willingness to entertain weirder, unrealistic story concepts that require you to suspend a lot of disbelief for the story to take you with it. It’s all part of the charm and appeal of K-drama. It’s all part of what makes K-drama the addicting, heartstring-tugging escapism it is. And as I said, a lot of K-drama, unlike its Hollywood stylistic cousin, traverses into actual fantasy. W is about the daughter of a comic book artist who travels into the world of her father’s comics and falls in love with the main character (who is being hunted down by a mysterious, faceless serial killer).
That said, my favourite K-drama, Hello! My Twenties (or Age of Youth) is perhaps the realest, least fairytale of the series I’ve watched. It sports all the usual stylistic and aesthetic trappings of K-drama (romance, comedy, coming-of-age themes featuring unreasonably attractive Korean youths), but unlike a lot of K-drama, it doesn’t shy away from grittier, more “real-life” themes. It’s less a fairytale than a K-dramatisation of the lives of real people, with their real problems and concerns. Unlike most K-drama, or even Hollywood, it isn’t afraid to confront the reality that a lot of people don’t get happy endings. Hello! My Twenties is a K-drama that wants to be something more than entertaining but ephemeral fluff—a K-drama that has something to say and lessons to teach, which makes it the best that K-drama can be.
Hello! My Twenties — the loves and lives of five very different young women in a share house in Seoul.
Reply 1997 — follows the lives of Korean high school students in 1997, set against the backdrop of the advent of the K-pop craze
Reply 1994 — follows the lives of the young residents of a boarding house in Seoul as they fall in love, adjust to a new environment and grow into adults.
Uncontrollably Fond — love story between two separated childhood lovers, now reunited as adults, one a wildly famous K-pop idol, the other a struggling documentary journalist.
My First First Love — the quintessential K-drama. College students, new friends, new love.
Pinocchio — a young boy is adopted by a rural family after unscrupulous journalists destroy his own family. Years later, he becomes an intern at a television studio to vindicate his family.
Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo — coming-of-age story about young athletes at a sports university, featuring weightlifting “fairy” Kim Bok-joo, who looks far too slight and delicate to lift anything heavier than a shopping bag, but, hey, it’s K-drama.
I’m Not A Robot — top corporate director with severe allergy to human touch obtains a state-of-the-art robot assistant which looks suspiciously like a sexbot. Little does he know his actual robot malfunctioned and the creator’s ex-girlfriend has been posing as his robot assistant the whole time.
W: Two Worlds — love story between a comic book character and the daughter of the comic book’s creator, with serial killers.
What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim? — an egotistic, socially awkward young corporate CEO tries to stop his indispensable (and attractive) secretary (who resents him) from quitting, ends up falling in love with her.
Some months ago I started a series of posts on my travels around Great Britain and Europe while I was studying as an exchange student in London. I started with Oxford, my first foray out of London—but have since neglected to continue the series. That changes today.
On my second jaunt out of London, I visited the White Cliffs of Dover and Canterbury on a one-day round trip. Again, I made the trip with the two of my new acquaintances who would become my fastest friends for the rest of my time in London. As someone who has done a great deal of both solo travel and travelling with others, I much prefer having company when I travel. I think the experience of travel is invariably made even better and more memorable by sharing it.
Our first stop was the White Cliffs of Dover. It was still early February, the depths of winter, and it was freezing. All the more so because the cliffs, being on the coast, bear the full brunt of the icy sea winds. Pity me, a poor Australian traveller who almost never has to endure temperatures lower than 10°C where I come from. I think my friends got sick of my incessant complaining about the cold after a while, and were sorely tempted to throw me off those cliffs.
The first challenge that faces visitors to the White Cliffs is actually getting down to them. This endeavour requires an arduous trek over mud-strewn country that will leave your shoes caked in wet earth, and the rest of you, too, if you’re unlucky enough to slip over in the very slippery mud. I didn’t slip, unlike some unfortunate members of our party (we came on a student coach trip), but I don’t think my poor Converses ever forgave me for what I put them through that day. It wouldn’t surprise me if many mud-soaked visitors to the cliffs don’t give up and turn back without ever catching a glimpse of them.
The second challenge is actually catching a glimpse of them. It’s not easy finding a good view of something you’re clambering around on top of, no matter how close to the edge you stand. Eventually we managed to find a good vantage point by performing some particularly daring feats of cross-country that, I think, deterred many of the others. Have a look:
What cliffs, eh? What marvellous cliffs. To use any adjective less superlative than “majestic” in connection with the White Cliffs of Dover, I think, would be to do them an injustice. They really are a sight, once you actually get to see them.
And yes, in that photo above, I am sitting about one metre away from falling to my death. I did it for the ‘gram. Sorry, mum.
Was it worth it? Was it worth drenching every part of me from my knees down in muck and fighting my way through furlongs of hostile countryside? To see some cliffs? Oh yes. But I wonder if I hadn’t had friends to share the experience with, my answer would have been “no”. Wading through mud in the biting cold is certainly less irksome when you’re laughing with equally mud-soaked friends all the way. What might not have been a very enjoyable trip, apart from a glimpse at some—admittedly breathtaking—cliffs, was turned into one of my most memorable experiences from my 6 months’ abroad by the presence of great company.
Next we went to Canterbury, site of the eponymous Tales and charming medieval town par excellence. The rain had really set in by the time we arrived, and our experience of Canterbury was a wet and gloomy Canterbury. “Don’t worry,” a local told us cheerily, “it’s always like this!”
Gloomy and rain-sodden though it was, it was hard not to appreciate the charm of the studiously-preserved medieval town. Cobbled streets, beamed houses and Gothic spires abound in Canterbury. Maybe cobbled streets are a bit passé for Britons and Europeans whose countries have cobbles coming out of their ears—but, for this Australian, walking down Canterbury’s cute old lanes was like walking through Diagon Alley.
Soon we settled down for lunch. Skipping the tourist-infested pub on the high street, we found ourselves in a smaller, more out-of-the-way pub packed with cackling locals. As I watched them drinking and laughing I thought of Anglo-Saxons in their mead hall, and it struck me that, in some ways, not much had changed since Hengist and Horsa had arrived on the shores of Kent, not far from that pub, sixteen hundred years ago. Even my pub lunch of a steak and kidney pie and warm Kentish ale was probably not so different from what those pub-goers’ Saxon ancestors ate and drank all those centuries ago.
After lunch we swung ’round Canterbury Cathedral, seat of England’s top archbishop. Again, the Gothic cathedral and its grounds reminded me, an Australian Millennial whose only reference point is Harry Potter, strongly of Hogwarts. But, to be fair, all centuries-old Gothic cathedrals do. What made this one special was its historical significance as the site of one of the most famous murders in history, that of Thomas Becket. Here you can see me roleplaying the “turbulent priest”, about to be struck down by four of Henry II’s dagger-happy knights, at the very spot it happened:
Yes, my friends gave me very strange looks when I told them I wanted a picture kneeling on the spot a medieval Archbishop of Canterbury was gruesomely murdered. But what matters is that I got a picture kneeling on the spot a medieval Archbishop of Canterbury was gruesomely murdered.
Don’t worry, I did my penance by buying two postcards sporting Justin Welby’s face—Thomas Becket’s current successor in the See of Canterbury—in the cathedral gift shop on my way out. I got strange looks for that, too.
My history teacher in high school once recommended me a book called Montaillou, written by the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. In it, Ladurie examines the lives of the residents of a small Occitan village in the early 14th Century from the records of a local church register. Through examining the lives and beliefs of the villagers of Montaillou, who were broadly adherents of the medieval Christian heresy known as Catharism, Ladurie takes a microscopic look at the much larger historical episode of the Albigensian Crusade, the Catholic Church’s medieval inquisition against the Cathars which resulted in the movement’s all but complete annihilation. For its time it was a novel method of historical analysis, examining events and movements at the sweeping macro level by plunging down to the micro level and looking at what was happening “on the ground”, where the people were.
In what it was trying to do, Demons of the Punjab reminded me a bit of Montaillou. Demons of the Punjab was about what happened when Yas’s grandmother tried to marry a Hindu man at the frenzied height of the Partition of India. But it was also about the Partition of India itself. Prem, a Hindu living on the newly-created Indian-Pakistani border, got himself killed for marrying a Muslim woman. His Muslim widow, Umbreen, fled to England. There were many, many more Prems and Umbreens – up to 2 million people died in the Partition of India, and 14 million were displaced. The point is that the hate-fuelled violence that erupted along the new border wasn’t confined to Yas’s grandmother’s farm in the Punjab – what Partition did to Umbreen’s family is a microcosm of what was happening millions of times over all over that border.
There are surely many ways Doctor Who could tell a story about the Partition of India, including ways a lot less subtle and gentle than the approach taken in Demons of the Punjab. But I think the Montaillou approach to historical storytelling tends to work much more effectively than the sledgehammer approach of driving the Tardis straight into the thick of the action, given that Doctor Who is a show so focussed on individual human lives. And, as writer Vinay Patel told Radio Times, fifty minutes isn’t enough time to do justice to the full trauma and magnitude of Partition – but, for a look at the microscopic level of the effects of Partition on one family, Demons of the Punjab is a pretty solid effort.
The history teacher who recommended Montaillou to me also taught me about the Partition of India when I was 15. I was fortunate enough to have had a history teacher who thought such historical episodes were worth teaching to Australian schoolchildren – to whom the relevance of such episodes is tenuous at best – simply because they were interesting. I think I was one of the few outside the Indian Subcontinent who actually learned about the Partition of India in school – certainly in Australia, where most of us at school are nourished on a bland and uninteresting historical diet of Australian history, World War I, World War II, and, if we’re lucky, a bit of British history.
No Australian school student has ever enjoyed the experience of learning about Australian history – and the history teacher I’m talking about once told me he thought Australia was the country with the most boring history in the world. Being taught by this teacher about Ancient Rome, the reign of Ivan the Terrible, the Albigensian Crusade and, yes, the Partition of India, made me a much keener student of history than did learning about Lyndon B. Johnson’s visit to Australia in 1966 (no offence, LBJ). Which is why I think it’s a good thing that Doctor Who is taking up the mantle of teaching the interesting and important history those in the audience who never had the fortune of being taught by Mr McRoberts never learned in school, but who instead had to endure soporific lessons about Australian foreign policy in the 1930s.
Anyway – could you tell that this episode was the first of Series 11 written by someone other than Chris Chibnall? It feels different to what we’ve been watching for the past few weeks, which, as I’ve been complaining, has felt, somewhat disappointingly, much like the same show Steven Moffat produced for the previous eight years. It seems like it took a debutant Doctor Who writer to do what the showrunner wouldn’t and make a Doctor Who that feels distinctly different. It’s not a radical shakeup, but the pacing, the plotting, the tone and even the dialogue makes this feel like a different kind of Doctor Who. It feels more earnest, and somehow more human than what we’ve been seeing so far. This, I’m sure, is due to how Vinay Patel sees this as a story about the Partition of India first and a Doctor Who episode second, and this is actually the closest Doctor Who has come to a pure historical since Black Orchid in Peter Davison’s first season: neither the Doctor nor the otherworldly intruders in this episode actually did anything other than passively observe historical events happening, which put those historical events themselves under the spotlight in this episode.
So, the “monsters” in this episode – spooky, terrifying, wraith-like beings called Thijarians – weren’t actually the monsters in this episode. The monsters in this episode were humans, prejudiced and radicalised into committing acts of evil. It’s not the hottest of takes, but there’s no doubt it’s always worth repeating. Because this was the angle the episode decided to take, I wondered if it wasn’t also partly a predictable dig at Brexit, given that it was all about how awful it is to divide people up along ethnic and religious lines and how silly all these divisions between people and imaginary lines on the map are anyway. But, no – perhaps Brexit was floating somewhere in Vinay Patel’s mind when he was writing this script, but it’s clear this is supposed to be a story about the Partition of India long before it’s anything else, by a writer who has clearly wanted to write this story for a long time. Even Remembrance Sunday got a more prominent look in before Brexit, in the form of those Thijarians whose sole mission and purpose in life is to honour the forgotten dead of the universe (which was a nice touch to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of hostilities in Europe, even if you could hardly call this a “Remembrance Day special”).
Yas gets a lot of screentime this week, which I’m hardly going to complain about. And it’s about time, too – she’s been most likeable companion of the bunch (I can see Graham becoming irritating) but also the least developed. What we learn about her isn’t especially staggering – nothing on the level of a broken home or a dead wife: she loves her family and admires her grandmother, which is boring, but it’s also refreshingly wholesome. It’s refreshing to have a companion who’s just normal and healthy and happy and boring, for once. Because even Steven Moffat’s attempt at introducing a boring, “normal” companion somehow still left the fandom asking whether Bill Potts was a regenerated Susan Foreman. Yas is properly boring (which, again, is a good thing), as we learned in this episode. And this is, really, all we needed to see to tick Yas’s “development” box, at least for now.
I think this is the strongest episode of the series yet, overtaking the previous favourite of The Ghost Monument. Like that episode, Demons of the Punjab thrusts in the direction of a very original interpretation of Doctor Who, and a very fresh vision of what this show can be. None of the six episodes we’ve seen of Series 11 so far have been weak, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the scripts that have been the strongest, in my opinion, have been the ones that have done something ambitious and different. Strong but otherwise unambitious scripts like Arachnids in the UK and Rosa, which might have topped the series ratings as late as Series 8, just don’t do it anymore. I’m sorry to keep repeating this point every week (frankly, it’s getting boring on my end, too), but Doctor Who has to do things differently if it wants to survive. Demons of the Punjab, therefore, is an assured step in the right direction.