In search of feral apples and underground men

My village, just outside Barnsley on the A635, used to supply the workers for lots of coal mines: Darfield Main, Grimethorpe, Houghton Main, Dearne Valley Drift, Goldthorpe, Barnburgh, Cortonwood; names of closed pits ringing like bells.

It’s a Sunday evening in late, late November and I’m just about to walk down through the village with my wife to her mother’s for tea. There will be homemade pies and celery sticks in a jug. I’ve got my thick coat on and my lucky Barnsley FC hat, and I’m carrying my carrier bag and my stick. Actually, it’s not really my stick: it was the one my mother had for the last few years before she died, the one she hung on to in the hope she might walk again.

The sky is clear as we set off and the full and insistent moon lights up the field behind the high wall; the herons are there, four of them sitting on the bare earth like constructions, like toys. We stand and watch them not moving, being still. Behind the field the Grimethorpe bypass is lit by passing cars, and the huge ugly Asos warehouse glows beside the hill that used to be the Houghton Main pit stack.

I’m pointing with my stick at the stars. I wish I knew more about the names of the constellations. Maybe I could just make some up: Uncle Frank’s Cap. The Unravelling Muffler. Somebody did it once, after all. Beyond Asos is the RSPB site, the ducks rising and falling from the water to the air and back again beside the double-glazing place.

My village, just outside Barnsley on the A635, used to supply the workers for lots of coal mines: Darfield Main, Grimethorpe, Houghton Main, Dearne Valley Drift, Goldthorpe, Barnburgh, Cortonwood; names of closed pits ringing like bells. Winding gear and slag heaps were slapped on to landscapes that had hardly changed over decades and miners like my father-in-law walked to work down a bridle path that had been there for centuries.

There was a persistent rumour of a mandrake growing in the swampy patches near the river; “When tha pulls ‘em up they scream!” Jim Marsden said one afternoon as we stood together in the drizzle at the top of the hill listening for sounds of the men working in the mines underneath. Jim insisted that some days you could hear them. “Blokes coughing” he’d say, “and blokes swearing.”

I walk this route every morning at the crack of dawn and I tweet about it; I see the most amazing things and I struggle to squeeze them into 140 characters, like the time I saw that man in a camouflage jacket walk by that man in a hi-vis jacket and as they passed they cancelled each other out.

The owner of the big house put a wall up some time in the last century so that he wouldn’t be able to see men like my father-in-law walking to Houghton Main, and now the workers from Asos stroll that way too, a historical continuation with boots and snap bags. I never found the mandrake but there are three or four plum trees down there, grown from spat stones; the jam glows (metaphorically) at the back of my pantry.

Now we’re at the top of the bridle path and I pull the carrier bag out of my pocket and get my stick ready. This is the reason for the stick – the apple tree by the wall, still full of fruit even this late in the year. Us hunters of the feral apple know what a good year 2013 has been: that mini orchard by the roundabout at Junction 37 of the M1, that huge crop of green beauties across from Tesco’s at Stairfoot near the fossil bank that my kids used to dig in, those heavy cookers that fall to the ground beside the fishing tackle shop in Low Valley.

And these: Yeats’s “silver apples of the moon” hanging just out of reach. Potential crumbles that I poke with my stick until they tumble and I catch them in the carrier. Some are as small as marbles but I’ll take them home anyway. Some roll into the road and a car passes and somebody beeps their horn and gestures to me. It’s either a thumbs-up or a raised pair of fingers. You can’t tell round here, in this Barnsley of the mind where layers of history cover the ground like fallen apples. I’ll just keep poking with my mother’s stick.

 

This season has ssen a bumper crop of British apples. Photo: Nicolo' Minerbi/Luzphoto/Redux

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The North

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Back to the future – mankind’s new ideas that aren’t new at all

Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas by Steven Poole reviewed.

When Steven Poole writes a book review, he likes to lie to himself. His only conscious decision is to jot down a few notes as the deadline approaches. There is no pressure to think deep thoughts, he tells himself, or to reach the required word count. Then invariably, in a few hours, he has written the entire review. This happens time and again. No matter how many times he convinces himself he is merely jotting and thinking, the result is a finished article.

Human beings are extraordinarily good at deceiving themselves and possibly never more so than when they think that they have had a new idea, as Poole makes clear in this fascinating compendium of new ideas that aren’t new at all. He digs deep into subjects as various as cosmology, economics, health care and bioethics to show that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it (long before Poole), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is demonstrated in the re-emergence of ideas such as therapeutic psychedelic drugs, inherited traits that aren’t programmed into the genome, cognitive behavioural therapy, getting our protein from insects, and the multiverse.

Poole explores these propositions deftly enough, but they are not what interest him here. Rather, his subject is the way that we have seen them all before. He ties together what he concedes is a “highly selective snapshot of the looping evolution of ideas” with the observation that: “Any culture that thinks the past is irrelevant is one in which future invention threatens to stall.” Originality, he argues, is overrated.

The book might be something of a downer for those who like to gaze at “progress” with wide-eyed admiration. The starkest takeaway is that we are clearly hopeless at putting good ideas to work. In his discussion of artificial intelligence, for instance, Poole mentions the emerging idea of a universal basic income, which is likely to become a necessary innovation as robots take over many of the least demanding tasks of the human workforce. Yet he traces it back to 1796, when Thomas Paine first published his pamphlet Agrarian Justice.

Maybe this tells us something about the limits of the brain. It has always innovated, thought through its situations and created solutions. But those solutions can only be drawn from a limited pool of possibilities. Hence we get the same ideas occurring ­inside human skulls for millennia and they are not always presented any better for the passing of time. Richard Dawkins and his ilk provide a salient example, as Poole points out: “Virtually none of the debating points in the great new atheism struggles of the 21st century . . . would have been unfamiliar to medieval monks, who by and large conducted the argument on a more sophisticated and humane level.”

So, perhaps we should start to ask ourselves why so many proposed solutions remain unimplemented after what seem to be thousand-year development programmes. It is only through such reflection on our own thinking that we will overcome our barriers to progress.

Sometimes the barriers are mere prejudice or self-interest. After the Second World War, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist in the US navy, created a language that allowed a computer to be programmed in English, French or German. “Her managers were aghast,” Poole writes. It was “an American computer built in blue-belt Pennsylvania” – so it simply had to be programmed in English. “Hopper had to promise management that from then on the program would only accept English input.”

It is worth noting that Hopper was also a victim of postwar sexism. In 1960 she and several other women participated in a project to create COBOL, the computing language. Critics said there was no way that such a “female-dominated process” could end in anything worthwhile. Those critics were
wrong. By the turn of the century, 80 per cent of computer coding was written in COBOL. But this is another unlearned lesson. A survey in 2013 showed that women make up just 11 per cent of software developers. A swath of the population is missing from one of our most creative endeavours. And we are missing out on quality. Industry experiments show that women generally write better code. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers only accept it as better when they don’t know it was written by a woman.

Solving the technology industry’s gender problems will be a complex undertaking. Yet it is easy to resolve some long-standing difficulties. Take that old idea of providing a universal basic income. It appears to be a complex economic issue but experimental projects show that the answer can be as simple as giving money to the poor.

We know this because the non-profit organisation GiveDirectly has done it. It distributed a basic income to an entire community and the “innovation” has proved remarkably effective in providing the means for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Projects in Kenya, Brazil and Uganda have made the same discovery. As Poole notes, even the Economist, that “bastion of free-market economics”, was surprised and impressed. It said of the scheme: “Giving money directly to poor people works surprisingly well.” You can almost hear the exclamation “Who knew?” – and the slapping sound of history’s facepalm.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt