What Does Your Taste in Music Say About You?

“Oh I listen to a bit of everything”. 

Who hasn’t heard this or been guilty of saying it themselves when asked about their music taste? It’s a great way to let people know you’re not too uptight or closed-minded, especially at parties. But what does it actually mean? 

Not everyone listens to a wide variety of music. Some music fans are infamous for shooting down any style of music that isn’t their chosen religion, be it genre or band. While standing in the crowd of a Slipknot gig once I was confronted by a mask-wearing fan who was adamant that unless you listened to only the nine piece metal outfit exclusively, you couldn’t call yourself – and were not worthy of being called – a fan. Not just a true fan, but a fan altogether. This guy didn’t want me listening to Slipknot if I was filling my ears with frequencies other than vicious double-bass pedalling and Corey Taylor’s growling vocals. Other people can happily tolerate a polysonic existence when it means listening to the radio or background music but don’t really have such a strong opinion on what they would choose to listen to given the choice. 

The choice to listen to Slipknot, Spanish fandango’s or Vivaldi is at the end of the day, a choice and you can’t fault someone for not having the time to listen to them all equally. There’s just so much music saturating the world right now, vying for airwaves into your earholes that you’d have to be making a conscious effort to expand your horizons beyond what you know and get pleasure from. Listening to musical styles that you’re either unfamiliar with or don’t enjoy on first listen could be seen as an exercise in empathy. After all, good music can be a view through the eyes of someone in a different life or situation to you. A situation you may never have found yourself in and never hope to, but it shouldn’t mean you can’t understand.

Take Golden Era American hip-hop for example. To many it’s viewed as an aggressive, overly violent genre that exaggerates and idolises violence and criminality. But if you were to actually listen to some of the defining examples of the genre with just a little understanding about the role in society that young black americans felt pushed into by a stereotyping media, poor living conditions in projects and the introduction of laws such as the “three strikes” bill – used to incarcerate many black Americans for petty crimes – examples such as Mobb Deep’s Shook Ones pt II and Nas’ NY State Of Mind can be viewed as philosophy through the prism of a culture of violence they couldn’t not find themselves looking through. As Mobb Deep’s member Havoc says in verse two of Shook Ones;

“Thirteen years in the projects—my mentality is what, kid?”

Taking the time  to scratch beneath the surface of violent imagery and language reveals a deep philosophical aspect to most of the albums and songs that are valued by fans of the genre. Havoc goes on;

“…Sometimes I wonder, do I deserve to live?

Or am I gonna burn in Hell for all the things I did?”

With the right set of ears on and the ability to listen one starts to see that much of the rhetoric used, from Kool G Rap to Ice Cube, hides a philosophy on a struggle against a system that doesn’t want them. A philosophy that most people could understand and get behind, especially with what’s being revealed about American society in today’s world. As Nas describes in the 90’s;

Life is parallel to Hell, but I must maintain…

…Cops could just arrest me, blamin’ us; we’re held like hostages”

Not hearing the philosophy behind the way these artists choose to express themselves and describe their situation could show a lack of empathy to some. 

But then again, there are so many musical genres, who has the time to really listen when first impressions don’t land right with you, especially when they’re shrouded in offensive language and violent rhetoric. And you can’t blame anyone for that.

This approach to what we choose to listen to and how it defines us can be expanded to the current state of political thought. There are so many views, polarising and self-righteous, flooding the airwaves today, that it’s difficult to find the time or inclination to delve into the reasoning behind a statement if on the surface it seems so out of line with your own experience.

To truly listen to what a person has to say, regardless of whether you agree or not is an attempt at understanding a situation different from your own. It’s trying to listen to the anger of Black Flag when you’re a fan of Billie Holiday’s blues. You might not like what you’re hearing at first, but by delving deeper into the situation that created the music you might learn that there’s some similarities in the woes they both cry about. You might still not like the music but you now have an understanding and from understanding comes common ground, even appreciation.

Time is seemingly a valuable commodity these days, and yet we fill that time multitasking with nascent vacant tasks that stop us from pondering about others and their situations. Instead of daring to read an opposing view we choose to read articles that reinforce our bubbles of opinion and find new ways to pander to ourselves to make ourselves feel like a better person. 

I am not saying that every person spouting violent rhetoric and offensive views has a story to tell, but there’s usually a story as to how they got there.

The need to feel comfortable and listen to the same music is a stifling one, we should all try and listen to something new every once in a while.

You never know, you might surprise yourself.

Cádiz, Andalucía

At first glance, the Spanish city of Cádiz can seem not too different from the strips of the sunshine coast on the Mediterranean side of Gibraltar. The more modern part of the city seems centered around highrise lined boulevards and palms that stretch alongside the Atlantic. But continue along the Island to its northern tip and you find its true history – and beauty – plain to see.

Tucked away between the southern coast of Portugal and the great limestone monolith of Gibraltar, Cádiz lies at the south western tip of the Iberian peninsula, itself stretching thinly into the surrounding bay. It’s this location on the cusp of Europe that has made the area one of great importance for many cultures. First founded by the ancient Phoenicians as Gadir over 3,000 years ago, this tiny island strip has been fought over and prized ever since making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the whole of western Europe. 

The Bay of Cadiz in Antiquity; source wikipedia; Rodríguez.Gómez – self-made

Initially founded as a western trading post by the seafaring Phoenicians around 1100 BC, it soon became a port of great repute with many early explorations of West Africa and Europe setting off from it’s waters. Soon however the power struggles of Mediterranean antiquity soon caught up with Cádiz as it was taken as a military stronghold by the Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca for his first war against Rome. Named the Punic Wars, these were barbarous and viciously fought as the North African and European superpowers struggled for control of the Mediterranean and its trade routes. Hamilcar Barca’s son, the black general Hannibal who famously led elephants across the Alps to attack Rome in the second Punic War did so using the military depot of Gadir/Cádiz as his setting off point for his infamous crossing. 

Cádiz however was to change hands again before long. As Carthage eventually fell to Rome, so did the Iberian port. Under Julius Caesar and later Augustus it became a place for the wealthy to have sprawling estates across the island and surrounding area, with sources describing how the noble families would reserve box seats for Rome’s Coliseum, lavish themselves with music and art and indulge in amazing food. While the sprawling estates no longer stand – after being raised in raids by the Visigoths – the attitude towards food and culture can still be found lingering amongst the city’s narrow cobbled streets.

The gastronomy of Cádiz is well renowned throughout Spain, its famous fish market seemingly providing all of Andalucía with daily fresh produce. From tiny bar-service Cervezaria’s to Michelin starred restaurants like El Faro, the smell of cod croquettas and fried hake hangs in the air as if it were the sea breeze itself. But to truly experience the food, one doesn’t have to leave the market at all. Like many Andalucían towns and cities, the square of hectic haggling and propped up produce is surrounded by stalls and hole-in-the-wall style eateries that provide dishes made with ingredients you may have just walked past half an hour ago and Cádiz is no different. From sublimely fresh salads of roasted peppers and artichokes to delicately fried fish and shrimp, the surrounding stalls of Cádiz’s marketplace give you all you need and at such reasonable prices you’ll consider never leaving. 

Within the tiled walls of the market, sharp-eyed fish of all sizes stare back at you while prawns of various colours lounge over the sides of the stalls. Eager to be picked by the many people shuffling through, stuffing bags of seafood into their two-wheeled trolleys.

Luis A. Morales, poetry in hand.

Watching the world go by with a glass of white wine and a thinly fried prawn pancake (called a Tortilla de Camarones) is a simple pleasure but it’s always enhanced by the addition of culture, and Cádiz has plenty to spare. Meandering through the marketplace you may see the white bearded figure of a certain Luis Aranzana Morales, a poet more than happy to share a piece or two of Spain’s literary works – as well as some of his own – for no more than a true appreciation of his craft. And he is not alone, for Cádiz, despite being a place of wealth and nobility in the past, has a rich history of left-leaning commentators quick to point out the flaws in the system and the grievances of the people. 

While many carnivals centre around lively music and dancing, the Carnival of Cádiz has been doing this while throwing shade at the establishment since the fifteenth century. Using humour as its vehicle, the carnival allows its participants to “purge” their grievances through mockery and irony. These often come in the form of satirical songs to the point where the fascist dictator Franco officially banned the celebration in 1937. However in the spirit of true anti-establishmentarianism the practice was continued behind closed doors before eventually spilling out into the streets again in the 40’s, albeit without the use of the word “Carnival”. 

Residents get musical in the shadow of Cádiz’s cathedral, performing for themselves more than anybody else.

Thought to have originated with an influx of Genovese merchants, forced westwards by increasing turkish control of the Mediterranean, the carnival has a surprisingly Italian feel, with confetti, costumes and masks all being a mainstay of performance and participation. It’s beloved all throughout Spain and is a cultural pilgrimage for many, especially as it allows for somewhat controversial conversation in quite a staunchly conservative culture that is an unwelcome but often unspoken hangover from Franco’s long rule. This openness is reflected when walking around the cobbled streets or sitting in the evening air as the inhabitants of the city feel louder and more unhindered than in other cities of the mainland. A free-mind and an unwillingness to conform to a broken system could also go some way to explaining the levels of unemployment in the city, the highest in Spain, along with a shrinking population.

The differing skylines of Cádiz, from new (left) to old (right)

As you walk further through the streets of Cádiz’s Casco Antiguo, lamps jutting from beneath the ornately decorated facades, you could be forgiven for thinking all of the architecture before you harks back to the greatness of Spain’s colonial history. Much of its current aesthetic wealth does derive from the Age of Exploration, with Christopher Columbus setting sail on his second and fourth journeys to the New World from the city’s port and later endowing it with Spain’s Royal Treasure Fleet. It was such a jewel in fact that Sir Francis Drake, the English pirate-cum-privateer, chose to attack the city in the late 14th century in an attack later named “The Singeing of the King of Spain’s Beard” in which he captured several ships and occupied the harbour for three days. The attack was so disruptive to Spain and its economy that it delayed the Spanish Armada by a whole year.

But while much of it has indeed been around since Columbus’s time – so reminiscent of Spanish colonies such as Cuba that Cádiz was a stand-in for Havana in the James Bond film Die Another Day – there are few pointers to the previous culture that called this tiny island home, much of the old town being destroyed in raids by Barbary Corsairs before even Drake appeared in Cádiz’s waters. Like much of Spain, white Christians filled a space created by force during the 15th century* Reconquista, in which the Muslim Moors of al-Andalus – modern day Andalucía- were violently expelled from the Iberan peninsula they had called home since 711 AD. However if you look closely enough, distinctly moorish arches curve at the top of some facades but the most notable remnant lies in the shadow of the city’s cathedral.

As you walk along the promenade of Cádiz northwards, the catholic place of worship dominates the skyline. With its terracotta coloured basilica and rising towers it is hard to miss, but continue towards it and you will pass another stack of brickwork and domes that seems to replicate the grand building behind. In fact, this cluster of walls and whitewash is an old mosque, left over from before the largely muslim population were brutally removed from the area. Built before the cathedral (which was constructed between 1722 and 1838) the mosque gives a cultural clue to the diverse history of Spain’s south. Like many Andalucían towns and cities these clues are hidden in plain sight, such as the large cathedrals of Córdoba and Seville which were both previously grand mosques, repurposed or rebuilt as catholic constructions after conquest in the Reconquista. Much of Spain’s history owes itself to the advancements made by these moors, from architecture to agriculture and even the name Cádiz itself is derived from the name given to the island by the Moors; Qādis

However, this is not to take away from what Cádiz means to Spain and Andalucíans in particular. For every Spanish person that speaks of the city holds it in high regard, whether they are expressing their love of its beaches, its food, its historical importance or its comedy. Most often all at once. The winding narrow streets of the northern old town, found within its fortified walls mimic the islands meandering history, one of culture and conquest and a history that came to an important peak for Spain in 1812. Within these same fortified walls that stand today, the Spanish Cortes of Cádiz signed one of the most liberal constitutions of the time. While acknowledging the importance of and affirming the separation of power, the freedom of the press and abolishing corporate privileges it also granted universal voting rights to all male citizens (with some exceptions of course), a first in constitutional history. Its bold new ideas paved the way for later constitutions in both Spain and Spanish America, placing Cádiz once again at the centre of a changing world.

[All photographs copyright JR Sidhu Photography, 2020©]

Colston (Pt. II)– The Emergence of Englishmen & Economy

The Royal African Company’s coat of arms.

Despite the royal English charter granting trade in East Africa, England still found itself plagued by foreign ships in her own waters. The Dutch, having the most powerful navy of the time, had harassed British ships for decades by disrupting trade and were generally considered to be the leading European trading power. Control of Europe’s waters meant control of the bountiful trade routes that passed through them and this had been a priority for Cromwell as well as Charles II.

Cromwell had begun to expand Britain’s navy in hopes of better protecting Britain’s overseas colonies in the middle of the century, tightening up it’s ranks and building purpose-made warships that could hold their own against other European countries. The Dutch had actually started selling off their well-armed navy after their grueling wars against the Spanish Habsburgs on the European mainland which had vastly reduced their national funds as well as their naval might.

More importantly in England, the introduction of a series of Trade & Navigation Acts between 1651 and 1696 made it increasingly difficult for European countries to bypass Britain and her taxes on the way to the colonised lands of the New World. Strict “English Only” rules were imposed on any ships trading with British colonies meaning that the ship’s owners, over three quarters of a ship’s crew, and even the ships themselves had to be made in England. The introduction – but more importantly the strict enforcement of these laws – heralded the beginning of the British Empire’s power monopoly on trade as well as providing a key source of revenue. No one could do business with Britain or her expanding colonies without bureaucratic approval or the necessary bonds, both of which would cost you.

These Navigation Acts unsurprisingly did not sit well with the Dutch Republic. But faced with an increasingly powerful British navy and a succession of revolts by their Spanish subjects, the trading power of the Dutch began to dwindle. Over a series of three wars, spanning from 1652 to 1674, the British defeated the Dutch republic and captured important new-world colonies like New Amsterdam, better known by its re-branded British name of New York.

A scene from the first Anglo-Dutch War.
The Battle of Scheveningen, 10 August 1653, Jan Abrahamsz Beerstraaten.

Bolstered by the notion of commonwealth introduced in the first half of the century and the increasing power it had over other European countries, Britain’s national conscience in the years following the restoration in 1660 had become more orientated toward a sense of national wealth and colonial commerce. With this came an increased demand for the riches of Britain’s colonies, for which manpower was needed.  Colston family friend Prince Rupert’s newly discovered trade links in the Gambia had yielded not just gold and ivory, but cheap manpower too. With the Dutch recently defeated at sea, the path for exploiting this new highly profitable trade was wide open.

However, the Company of Royal Adventurers was not always a success. It’s failings and accrued debts eventually led to its absorption into the newly chartered Royal African Company (RAC) in 1672. That year also saw royal finances in such a dire condition that Charles II halted all repayments of crown owed-debt, leaving many London financiers who had sunk their money into Royally-backed companies destitute and angry.

With the RAC looking for new funding outside of the crown, the reliance fell heavily on private investors, not just for cash but for direction. In 1672 buying £400 worth of shares in the RAC could mean your appointment as a “company assistant”. While sounding meagre, these assistants were in effect company executives. They sat on boards to decide how the company was run, what it traded and how much it would pay for goods. The ruinous events of 1672 removed many of these assistants from the RAC as their fortunes disappeared over night, whisked away into the bowels of crown debt never to be repaid. This opened up new opportunities for assistants wanting to gain more sway within the company or new investors altogether (perhaps from the recently failed Company of Royal Adventurers) as more shares became available and new directions were set. With profitability high on merchants agendas, it comes as no coincidence that the year 1672 saw the RAC granted a legal monopoly on specifically the West African slave trade, with executive powers being granted to ensure its security.

By this time the Colston family, being traditionally royalist, had been trading with the RAC for some time and had been both well connected and fortunate enough to not lose any fortunes in their vested royal interests. This was a time before banking and most scrupulous merchants would be investing their fortunes themselves. Edward’s father had been selling goods to the RAC for a profit, recorded in 1674 as earning £3,000 for the sale of cloth to be used in the purchase of enslaved Africans. Edward’s brother Thomas as previously mentioned sold glass beads to the RAC, beads that by this time were solely used in the purchase of Africans from other West African tribes. In the late 1670’s Edward himself is reported to have sold in excess of £60,000 worth of textiles requested by West African tribes to the RAC for the procurement of human slaves. At the “conventional price” in the 1670’s of £3 a slave, that is enough to promote the removal of over 20,000 Africans from their homeland. This large-scale dealing was a normality for Edward Colston, who by the 1680’s had been elected to Bristol’s prestigious Society of Merchant Venturers after his father’s passing in 1681.

At this time Colston is described as a “mere merchant”, a term that held the opposite connotation of today being used for “large-scale dealers in overseas commerce”. The scale of his operations and fortunes only increased after his father’s death, with Edward and his brother receiving 40 ships in their fathers will as well as large estates. Furthermore the sudden illness and subsequent death of his brother left Edward as the sole male heir to the Colston fortune and the new 40-strong fleet which he soon put it to work.

In the 1680s Edward sat as a shareholding assistant on the RAC’s committee for shipping, where he encouraged the renting of ships by the company rather than the outright procurement of a its own fleet. As the new owner of 40 ships, this proved incredibly profitable for Colston. Freight charges alone could amass over £1,000 per ship, with a live slave fetching £5 at the end of the voyage. The only limit to your ambition as a merchant in human lives was how many of them you were willing to cram into the hull of a ship. It led to horrifically cramped conditions, with any slaves that died or suffered injuries being cast overboard into the churning waves of the Atlantic ocean, worthless to merchants like Edward Colston.

An example of how slaves were stored on ships like Edward Colston’s. Piled onto numerous shelves in order to make use of the space, many of the slaves had less than 3 feet between themselves and the shelf above. These cramped conditions led to the rapid spread of disease and bold, hungry rats would have no problem taking advantage of the immobile slaves.

By the 1680’s the Royal African Company had ceased to be Royal in all but name. While senior positions were held by royals, the running of the company fell to the businessmen such as Colston. With limited interference from the crown it had become a vehicle for the company’s assistants to enrich themselves by introducing restrictions on trade and concocting levies that consolidated their power and filled their pockets. Along with Colston, a shrinking number of London merchants involved in the core management of the RAC were able to promote practices similar to ship-hire-over-procurement that enabled them to make personal profits much higher than the profits obtained by the company.

According to historian Nuala Zahedieh the actions of those in power at the RAC in the late 1600’s “reflected pragmatism and splintered interests rather than any ideological commitment to free trade”, an approach described as “far from positive for growth”. A sentiment as applicable today as it was nearly 300 years ago.

In 1675, 7% of the RAC’s investors held over half of the 200 available stock options each. At £100 a share (equivalent to £11,445 in 2017) this was a sizable amount of control by a small number of  influencers. By 1688 this had been consolidated into upwards of £2,000 worth of shares held by just 2% of shareholders. This level of business-savvy – or a Machiavellian approach to business depending on how you see it – is not something we necessarily associate with people of the 1600’s, instead this is the type of thinking only modern businessmen and corporations partake in. In reality vast sums of money were changing hands all the time and those that found themselves in positions of power generally tried to enrich themselves while they were there. The table below goes some way to showing how much money was flowing through London at this time, with less than 1% of merchants trading over £217,000 worth of goods. In today’s money that equates to nearly £25 million.

Census of London Merchants and their trades. Note the 13 merchants of Britain and the 2 in North America that are bringing in huge portions of the total trade for the region. These highly valued cargoes are most likely black Africans from the West Coast of the continent, a trade worth millions in today’s money.
Source “Making Mercantilism Work: London Merchants and Atlantic Trade in the Seventeenth Century” – Nuala Zahedieh

The likelihood is that these high value trade items were black Africans, especially as they were traded with the plantations of the West Indies. The monetary figures in the table above represent just a fraction of the 74,085 human lives documented as tradable commodities by the RAC, earmarked for the West Indies. As Britain expanded her colonies, the demand for slaves increased and with this so did the fortunes of those involved. But with the financially liberating laws following the civil war being overturned after the restoration of king Charles II, these wealthy merchants needed a new way to protect their wealth from royal taxes and other leeches.

The plucky British victories in the Anglo-Dutch wars had proven Britain the ruler of the waves and opened up new colonies and supply lines. But while the British had defeated the Dutch at sea, they were still lacking their neighbour’s financial clout and intuition. Britain had been trying to get ahead of the money game for some time with the advanced workings of Italian accountants pulling the country forward, Lombardy Street being so named as it was the center of Italian financial business in London. However the swing towards nationalism and jingoism brought on by the Navigation Acts caused many to start viewing anyone other than Englishmen with suspicion.

In 1985 Charles II had passed away, leaving his brother James II to rule. Unlike his predecessor the new King was an outspoken Catholic and this had caused some consternation among the Anglican Parliament. A series of unwise decisions by the new Catholic king like the forced implementation of religious decrees and the prosecution of Anglican leaders, led to a rise in public unrest. This unrest meant the crown were unwilling to grant parliament any new powers, especially concerning money. Up until this point, interjections and intrusions from the crown had been put up with by merchants as royal companies still provided the framework for profiteering behaviour.

As the crown under James II became stricter and more of a hindrance to this “free trade” and profiteering the powerful merchants such as Edward Colston looked to remove the crown from the picture altogether.

Even if that meant looking towards a not-so-distant enemy. 

The Dutch were well-known for their financial system. Market-orientated and stable, it was good inspiration for the British merchants who wanted to base their new system around their increasing colonial trade. So, in the mid 1680’s a group of City of London merchants began to draw up a set of demands and decrees that would govern the financial state of Britain as they saw fit. However with the Catholic James II unlikely to give parliament any concessions, the merchants needed a new monarch to approach and inspiration is not all they wanted from the Dutch. 

While sounding like a general name, the City of London actually refers to the economic hub of English financial power. Today it is still the financial sector of London and is still legally separate from the rest of the city and country. It has its own laws, it’s own law enforcement and even it’s own mayor. For further information I recommend The Spider’s Web, an award winning independent film looking into the financial empire of Britain, that can be found on youtube and Netflix.

William of Orange, a protestant married to James II’s own daughter, had recently become stadtholder of the Dutch republic and had been in secret contact with merchants representing the City of London for some time. He was well aware of the growing discontent in Britain towards James II’s overly religious method of ruling and as a protestant stood in direct opposition to the increasingly forceful Catholic crown. In 1687 he penned an open letter to the British people urging against the increasingly Catholic rule of James II. Judging the public’s reaction, the merchants in London called for the Dutch stadtholder to invade Britain along with his wife Mary and in 1688, they did just that. James II – after a series of bumbling battles – vacated the British throne, leaving it open for the reign of William and Mary.

The presentation of the new Declaration of Rights by Parliament to William and Mary.
Notice how the new bill is given more prestige than the crown in the painting, being presented first.
The Lords and Commons Presenting the Crown to William and Mary in the Banqueting House 1688,
waterglass painting by Edward Mathew Ward
© Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 2606

But before William and Mary were jointly crowned, they first were presented with the Bill of Rights which included the Declaration of Right. This provision severely limited the powers of the crown while protecting the new “joint-stock companies” being formed by leading merchants. It would now be easier for parliament – made up of members loyal to City of London merchants instead of the crown – to use taxpayer’s money and it gave new increased protections to the companies and the profits of their shareholders. This was the final rung in a ladder that stretched from the early parts of the century, cementing a number of England’s elite merchants as oligarchs, ruling in place of the crown.

Continue the story with Part III: Cronyism & Capitalism

Colston (Pt. I)- The Invasion of Africa & The Birth of an Idea

The life of Edward Colston, the former favorite philanthropist of the city of Bristol in England has been written about a lot since he was dethroned from his plinth and hauled into the city’s harbour in early June of 2020 during Black Lives Matter protests. Many buildings in the city of Bristol bear his name despite his family’s involvement with the slave trade and the recent global BLM protests provided a lead up to an event many saw as inevitable for the public figure.

But beyond his associations with the slave trade, the surrounding politics and ideas of Colston’s time that allow us to see how such an amoral business became so profitable have escaped further examination. By looking into the seventeenth century of Edward Colston, can we say much has really changed?

Edward Colston’s statue is pulled down during protests in Bristol, June 2020.

Edward Colston was born on 2 November 1636 in the City of Bristol, England. At the time, Bristol was the second richest city in the country after London, largely owing to its large port and warehouses. Edwards’ father, William Colston, was a staunch Royalist and already a well-established member of the Bristol gentry as the Colston family had been since the 13th century, making their money in the import/export market of Bristol. By 1644, while the first Civil War of three was raging across England, the Colston Patriarch became the Master of Bristol’s Society of Merchant Venturers – a hugely influential group in the city that still exists today – as well as being the alderman and Sheriff for Bristol. However these last two positions of power could not be fully consolidated for as the war drew closer, the City of Bristol fell to Cromwell’s Parliamentary forces in September of 1645. The King’s own nephew, Prince Rupert, surrendered the City of Bristol and all supporters of the King were forced to flee to Royalist strongholds like London.

A map of “Brightstowe/Bridgestowe” as Bristol was then called, thought to be derived from what was then the heavily developed Bristol Bridge next to Castle Park.
“Civitates orbis terrarum, 1568” edited by Georg Braun.

Most of us know about the English Civil War and that it played an important role in Britain becoming the “Great” nation it was to become. At school we’re taught that in 1649 the useless King Charles I was overthrown, and in a national first, beheaded by an angry Parliament made up of the layman who’d had enough of the Crown’s unfair taxation and the stifling Catholicism that came with Stuart rule. It was an important moment for the English Public, with more power being given to them through parliament, as power was stripped from the monarchs and a Common-wealth was established. Many historians maintain that the Civil War was a class war between the elite royalists and the common parliamentarians but a closer look shows that this black and white picture doesn’t give us all the tones, as is so often the case. Many of the land-owning aristocrats supported parliament and many downtrodden peasants chose to fight for the king.

So what was it really all about?

To get a better perspective of the lead up to war, let us go back all the way towards the beginning of the century to 1618, ten years after the birth of Edward’s father. This was a time of the Royal Empire, when most of Britain’s global revenue flowed through the crown and any shares in these spoils were held by invitation only. King James I, father of the to-be-headless Charles I, had  just issued a royal charter for trade in West Africa. The Dutch and Portuguese had been in West Africa for some time, enslaving and shipping black Africans to plantations across the Atlantic. While some periphery traders were doing the same, the new English company consisting of merchants loyal to the crown mainly supplied weapons and textiles to the tribesmen of the African continent in return for valuable minerals. Much of the gold used in minting Britain’s sovereign coins – guineas – came from these trade routes, with their name coming from the Asante country of Guinea, now part of Ghana, where much of this gold was sourced. The ‘Guinea Companie’ as it became known held a monopoly on trade with West Africa for a number of years, but it fell short of it’s 31 year grant. By the early stages of it’s trade, parliament already saw the company as a way for royalists to get rich at the expense of private merchants, who were heavily taxed for their involvement or excluded from the trade altogether.

 After seeing the restlessness of parliament, in 1631 the rights to trade with West Africa were sold to the ‘Company of Merchants Trading with Guinea’. While looking different on paper, this new company was made up of many of the same faces and the same pockets that profited from the previous ‘Royal’ company – including the lead organiser and profiteer of The Guinea Companie Nicholas Crispe – and was just a method of placating any ruffled parliamentarians. This new charter was again for 31 years and it kept the direct trade routes with Africa and their profits in the hands of a select few. By this point, even some royalists were becoming tired of the rules and restrictions imposed by the crown, which took vast swathes of income from merchants trading with her colonies in the form of taxes. Some scheming merchants began devising ways in which the riches of Britain’s Colonies could be opened up and kept by any interested merchants, not just the crown and merchants with royal connections like Colston’s father.

Elmina, Gold Coast, West Africa, in the late 19th century. Here you can see one of the many forts that Europeans built and tried to maintain along the long Gold Coast of Africa. Nicolas Crispe gained much royal support for his expeditions by funding the building of such trading forts in Komenda and Kormantin.
From The Countries of the World by Robert Brown, 1876

While direct trade with West Africa remained more-or-less a members-only club for Englishmen, this period saw increased industry around the English trading ports like Bristol and Liverpool as industrialists strove to manufacture the goods used for trade with Africa. These burgeoning industries included bead-making and brasswork, which Bristol had a major role in producing. Brass bracelets called ‘manillas’ were produced in large quantities so that they could be shipped to West Africa where they were highly prized for their copper content and used as currency. Glass beads were produced and used in Europe solely for the purpose of being used as currency on the African continent. Edward Colston’s brother Thomas would later make his fortune in the bead-business, but that was to come at a much darker time in the nation’s trading history.

The trade in human lives was always on the periphery of any company’s dealings with West Africa but it was not until after the Civil War that it became the true focus of British mercantile interest. At this time the Dutch were the main transporters of West African slaves and this would continue until a succession of restrictive Navigation Acts passed by English Parliament ousted them as the chief mercantile power of Europe. For now, in the early half of the 17th century, the English trade was largely in weapons, commodities and luxury goods. From this great increase in industry came a great increase in wealth for merchants and industrialists and they looked for new horizons in which to invest their new fortunes. For those with the capital, there was a growing interest in new “joint stock companies”, such as the Muscovy Company, which offered bonds with sometimes large returns; an ancestor of the modern corporation. Supposedly anyone could buy a bond, investing money into a venture, reaping the spoils of successful trade voyages without ownership of the ship or the goods. The crown too offered bonds, but the monarchy was increasingly viewed with suspicion as they repeatedly defaulted on debts-owed despite demanding high taxes from it’s subjects.

It was into this climate of increasingly free-market thinking and royal-distrust that Edward Colston was brought into this world. His father, having been a well-connected royalist, was involved with the first chartered companies to West Africa and continued to be involved after relocating to London in 1645. However the return of Charles II to England in 1660 after the death of Oliver Cromwell meant a return to pre-Civil War royalism for many, as the Convention Parliament established by Cromwell was dissolved and the crown retook control of the country’s finances. The Colston patriarch William was able to return to Bristol where he took up his old position as Alderman, however the young Edward chose to remain in London, forging merchant links with ports from Tangiers to Rotterdam despite the many violent wars raging through Europe at the time. He did however maintain close ties with his birth-city of Bristol, using it’s port and warehouses to store and transport textiles, wines and oils around Europe. His own very profitable trade in Spanish cloths and sherries saw him making Iberian connections that would prove useful later in his life and potentially paved the way for Bristol’s famous Harvey family to create their own sherry empire a century later, importing wine from the Spanish town of Jerez. 

Image of a young Edward Colston, potentially around the time of his appointment to the Royal African Company.

Yet the return of a king regent was not the only thing to happen in 1660. After the surge in interest in both West African trade and joint stock companies, 1660 saw the creation of the Company of Royal Adventurers of Trading to Africa. A precursor to the formidable Royal African Company (RAC), the Company of Royal Adventurers was founded after Prince Rupert – who had surrendered the City of Bristol to Cromwell in 1645 and still has a street in the city named after him – led a very successful mission to the Gambia, returning with both gold, ivory and Africans in the late 1650’s.

After some time seeking out financiers among City of London merchants and other royals, the Prince approached the newly reinstated Charles II with his proposition for a new company trading to the Gambia. Not wanting to waste an opportunity to procure more wealth for the state, in particular the virgin gold mines of West Africa, the newly reinstated Stuart royal family granted a charter for the trade of gold and ivory from the Capo Blanco to the Cape of Good Hope.

Thirteen years later the charter had been updated to include slaves, unwittingly setting the tone for the coming centuries.

Continue the story with Part II: The Emergence of Englishmen & The Economy

The Unspoken Leviathan

Published directly after the victory of Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians in the English Civil War, Thomas Hobbes’ treatise of man, Leviathan, was seen by many as justification for the past nine years of bloody battle. In it, Hobbes argues that to stop man descending into the selfish and wanton creature that is his natural state, a commonality must be found and a ruling power in place; found in the creation of a Commonwealth – or Parliament to some. Through his writings he describes how the larger needs of a commonwealth can lead to a greater richness of society, while also noting the pitfalls of sovereignty and religion. 

But what of his writings, 350 years later. What would Hobbes have to write about now? Has anything changed that much? The simple answer is no. Human-kind still longs for power and while corrupting, that tribalism holds us together through many things. But the tribalism of shared governance and sovereign nations has given way to a new Leviathan in today’s millenium. This Leviathan spans continents and governs many a life, but is seemingly beholden to no-one.

Big Business started coming on to the scene around the turn of the century, with monopolies for oil and other amenities bursting into existence with the birth of that capitalist breeding ground, America. While monopolies had always been around, they had largely been under the control of or belonged to the ruler of a nation or empire. A gradual change in Britain’s laws after the 17th century’s Glorious Revolution enhanced the rights of the shareholder and enhanced protections for businesses, laws that were heavily replicated in the US declaration of Independence in 1776. In America, the layman could become a holder of vast wealth seemingly overnight. The birthing of millionaires such as J.P Morgan (who had a monopoly on copper that ties him to the quiet downfall of Nikolai Tesla) and John D. Rockefeller (the father of the oil industry through the creation of Standard Oil) created webs of power that did not beholden these men or their morals to anything sovereign or religious. It could be argued that such power and influence attributed to a man with no ties could take him back to his most primitive; solely looking out for himself, as in the dawn of humanity Hobbes may argue. 

One hundred years down the line and business has become of number one importance to us as a society. We work to aid the turning of societies gears, and these turn because of a healthy economy which in turn responds to the demands of the market. We are beholden to the market. Sovereign leaders and elected governors make their decisions based on the markets more often than they do the will of their people. Just as in the past religion ruled conscious thought, so now business-acumen and adherence to the company line rule our thought processes. The public work and toil for the business they work for, with the wealth of the business coming before the health of the worker. With the rise of zero-hours contracts the threat of termination looms with every last-minute shift you’re thrown that you can’t do and the pressure to perform often outweighs the actual value of the work. 

This method of mental ransom isn’t too far flung from the methods of the church in Hobbes’ era of blooming parliament, where excommunication awaited anyone that spoke against the establishment. If someone were found to have been preaching against the churches teachings, or even extrapolating on religious thought without the churches consent, they could expect ostracisation from society. Public services would no longer be available to them, they could no longer apply for jobs and people would steer clear of them to avoid tingeing themselves. 

This may seem a bit far fetched but these methods of excommunication are already in effect in today’s world. Journalists in China, a country seemingly sovereign but increasingly taking over from the United States as a centre for commerce, are finding themselves unable to access healthcare, purchase tickets for travel out of or around the country and they are even finding themselves unable to buy groceries. This is not an accident, it is the expression of China’s social crediting system; whereby “good” behaviour in society is rewarded and “uncivil” behaviour is punished. In the most recent cases however it seems that punishable behaviour includes speaking against the government and attempting to call it to task. 

While this relates to the powers of government not big business, it is important to note that government was the new way forward when the church wielded these powers of excommunication in the time of Leviathan. Cromwell’s parliament was the savior of England, lifting the chains imposed on society by religion and providing new opportunities to the leyman. So if governments are now brandishing the sword only religion could previously lift, what’s the new Leviathan rising from the depths that we’ll be beholden to next?

In recent years, it could even be argued that people are affected socially by the culture of their business more than the geographical culture surrounding them in the city they live in. Work dictates the hours you sleep, who you socialise with, how you act with other people and moreover, how you see the world. A rise in sales-like jobs such as recruitment could aid a sense of opportunism for many. Great for them, not so great for the people that they are going to take advantage of, in a work setting or outside of it. A strong business culture encourages tribalism. Look at the best companies around the world and they are all described as having a strong sense of “culture”, like ExxonMobil and Apple which encourages its employees to act a certain way and think a certain way about their business dealings. The imperialistic nature of how Exxon conducts its business acquisitions is one of the reasons for their success, and why its former CEO Rex Tillerson was selected to serve in the White House as Secretary of State in 2017. He is not the only businessman to have found a senior position in the whitehouse but this trend has become even more apparent under Donald Trump with good and bad businessmen being given senior roles in US affairs. This says much about the direction of US interests and the spending of taxpayers money with the survival of business prioritised over people and citizens. However this is not just a trend in the US, countries all over the world are following the lead of maintaining a healthy economy over a population. Great Britain is a leader in choosing money over mankind and it’s recent decisions in regards to Coronavirus, namely allowing business’ to stay open while simultaneously telling people to steer clear and offering no help in law, have cemented this view in my mind. But with more and more countries beholden to the economic goals and deadlines of the IMF and World Bank, I fear that citizens coming second to economic growth is the new normal.

If writing it now, I have no doubt that Hobbes would include business and its role in society in his treatise Leviathan. How he may write about it though I could not tell, as he would no doubt see the burgeoning wealth and good grace that it would bring along with the social advancements and economic growth. But would he also see the darker side, of monopolies and cheap labour, of manufactured debt and bankruptcy? Maybe he would, but unfortunately that’s just up to you.

Building a House or a Home? – The UK Needs to Decide

The UK, we are constantly being told, is in the middle of a housing crisis. In some cities it’s worse than others with local councils making pledges to build thousands of affordable homes all over the place. A House of Commons report from March 2020 estimated a need for 345,000 new homes per year, a figure not reached in the previous year despite 2019 being the strongest year for house building since the financial crash of 2008. But with an ever increasing rate of house-building occurring – 2018/19 was up 9% on the previous year – who wants to buy them?

The percentage of UK homeowners has gone down by 10% over the last decade and the buying power of young adults is diminishing. As property prices increase at astronomical rates of over 250% in some areas, wages for young adults have increased by a meager 19% causing a drop in interest and of trust in the nation’s housing market by 25-34 year olds. The UK is focused on building houses for a generation that won’t be able to afford them and doesn’t necessarily want them. The high deposits needed for a mortgage are another reason for decreasing home ownership, even when the payments themselves amount to savings of thousands of pounds compared to rent, even in London. Couple this with a host of other factors such as confusing and constricting planning laws and it’s no wonder The UK is falling behind the rest of the world. Across the English Channel in France the number of homeowners is steadily increasing. Germany is seeing the same trend and it’s not all to do with who’s buying or building them. 

It’s about how. 

The Right To Home

In the UK building your own home is not something we generally consider. Only 10% of homes in the UK are self-builds. Instead we have large estates of homogeneous housing drawn up by large developers which people are then expected to buy – straight from the shop floor as it were. This is not the case elsewhere. 

In the rest of Europe, self-builds account for an average 50% of housing with Austria topping it at 80%. In the USA it’s 45%. These are not necessarily houses that people have built with their own two hands, but they have been involved from the very beginning in the design, functionality and development of their home. In many European countries, this is actively encouraged with the introduction of Serviced Plots in areas of towns and cities. 

One such example city is the Netherlands’ fifth largest city Almere, which recently gave up a huge zone of land exclusively for around 3000 self-build homes. Serviced Plots are areas of land that are connected to a central infrastructure; water system, sewage system and an energy grid, but other than that, they are undeveloped. Plots are bought and developed by those wanting to live there with the help of consultants and because the buyers are involved from the beginning, the home they build is exactly as they would like it to be in regards to space-usage, energy-usage and design and is often subsidised by the local government to some extent.

As well as government subsidies, help and support is always available from organisations like banks because this method of building is key to their economies and the social health of the populace. The development is usually done by small-to-middle sized, often family run local developers with close ties to the local community and council which in most cases ensures a mutual trust about what goes up in the area. These homes also often use green energy, have lower waste from the construction and because many opt to have gardens, more biodiverse than if that plot were a field.  Sounds great right?

So why can’t we do this in the UK? Even if it’s not for everybody it sounds like a great option to have. The UK’s National Self-Build Association cites the “availability of land” as the main obstacle to this type of housing in the UK. The Joseph Rountree foundation and the DCLG Select Committee back this up saying the population density in Britain is higher than places in Europe. But both Belgium and the Netherlands – two countries with a tradition of self-builds – have a higher number of people per km². A more likely reason is the difference in rights allowed to a landowner.

Behind The Curve

In European countries like Germany, it is a constitutional right to develop land that you own and the Americans have similar things written into their constitution. In the UK however no such written constitution exists and the current planning laws make it extremely difficult to develop on land, even when you own it (as explained by Mark Brinkley who literally wrote the book on it). In most cases only certain types of buildings are allowed – named “permitted developments” – and even these can be extremely hard to acquire permission for or even understand. This is in part, down to the method of applying for permissions. In the UK, an application can be put in for “permissions” with a much lower level of planning and thought than you can elsewhere in Europe. In many EU countries for example a Building Regulation Application is applied for, which ensures the proposed building fits with the character, local energy goals and any other criteria the government and more importantly local councils have set for new builds. Because the rules about what can be built and what can’t are so clear, proposed buildings must be thoroughly planned and designed before the development is even OK’d. This ensures everyone knows what they’re getting into, from developers and homeowners to the locals and soon-to-be-neighbours. Couple this with a society that encourages discussion between neighbors in order to settle development disputes instead of getting the council involved everytime and you have a society more geared towards mindful development instead of mindless devolution. 

NIMBYism (or Not In My Back Yard) is rife in the UK. With large-scale developers constantly acquiring contracts for large-scale housing estates it’s hardly surprising the English jump every time they see a crane or a rubble remover. Once again, because so much can change after the initial permission is given in the UK , people are rightly paranoid about what is being built or could be built on land “in their back yards”. The level of permissions also means that once permission is granted for one kind of development, the land is often sold on again at a much higher price due to the granted permissions and the cycle begins again. Meanwhile local councils have little say over what happens on this land. With only policy documents to hand not regulatory documents, they can do little more than try and influence the path of development. By the time the land is developed, what started as a proposed quaint shopping arcade could be a high-rise of student accommodation.

This may not end up being true in all cases but the paranoia of this happening is in the mindset of the British neighbor, precisely because it has happened elsewhere. By giving local councils little-to-no power over proposed developments and encouraging the contracting of larger developers, the government make it increasingly difficult to oppose and change land use development once it’s in motion. Plus why give some land over to a group of 30 people wanting to build homes when you can falsely claim you will build 200 “affordable homes” on the same land, before saying none of them are affordable and that if they are to be affordable, the taxpayer needs to “contribute” out of their own pocket, pocketing a tidy profit for yourself. I’m looking at you Galliford Try.

This kind of corrupt development is rife in the UK and unless regulation surrounding the ability to own and develop land is changed, it won’t change. 

The UK has a reputation for having the smallest and the densest housing in Europe. It also has the most capitalist and commercialised housing market. These two things are not a coincidence. In the UK there is a tendency to equate development with concreting over the countryside, when in fact residential areas where people self-build tend to be greener and more biodiverse. People don’t want to live in a concrete jungle, they want to live in what makes them happy. And all that stands between the UK and happiness is the freedom of choice.

A Young Solution

Young adults stand at the heart of this issue. In the 1990’s 65% of 25-34 year olds with a  middling income owned a home. Now that number stands at 27% and it’s constantly decreasing. Studies by Santander show this isn’t due to the rate of mortgages, it’s mostly down to not having enough savings to pay for the deposit. In fact in London, the average rent is £289 more a month than a mortgage would be on a comparable home. That would be a saving of £3,500 a year if you were allowed to buy that house rather than just rent it. In areas of the UK without such ridiculous house prices the savings are lower, but they’re still savings. The amount needed for a deposit however is much more bank-breaking. In the last 20 years, the proportion of young adults that would need to spend over 6 months income for a 10% deposit has risen from 33% to 78% and isn’t decreasing. These sort of numbers show how disenfranchised with the housing market young people in the UK are becoming, but with no real alternative to renting or buying already-built-homes nothing is likely to change. 

Some steps are being made in the right direction. The relaunch of England’s Homes and Communities Agency as Homes England in 2018 has given new and vital support to those looking to build themselves a home as well as financial help for new home-buyers in general. Working with them are a range of different local grassroots groups looking to change policy around land-use and development so that more people today and generations of tomorrow can have the choice to build a home rather than buying a house. One such group is the Bristol Housing Festival, which has helped bring together like-minded individuals and people of great knowledge on self-building such as TV’s Charlie luxton and Richard Bacon MP to talk and raise awareness of just how easy it can be; the latter being keen to create “a world where making the choice to build your own house, is a perfectly normal thing to do”. By holding expos which show off the newest technology and up-to-date prefabricated housing groups such as BHF are slowly but surely building a base of people asking, “so, why can’t I build my own home?”. 

The real answer is because current laws won’t easily let you, if you live within the UK. But by raising awareness of the Right to build your own home and keeping an eye on advancements in the field we can hopefully someday, with the help of outspoken individuals and groups, get these restrictive laws changed to better reflect the needs of the nation. We need an end to the laughable “affordable housing” push that our government is on, which is little more than cronyism and pure profiteering. Local MPs can be questioned if housing developments are going up in your area, awareness can be raised. In a recent poll by Ipsos MORI nearly 30% of British adults showed an interest in building their own home compared to buying, with a further 1 in 7 saying they’d like to do or have done more research into self-building their home.

We may not have the answer just yet, but the writing is on the wall.

[To give you an example of what’s possible, here are some examples of self-built housing in the UK on a range of budgets].

Plants & Particles – The mystery behind photosynthesis

Plants are all around us. They grow and thrive, all without apparently moving from their primary position in the soil (apart from banana plants that “walk” along). So how do they do this without getting around to look for food like us? Their trick is to let their food come to them, or flow over them more precisely. 

You have probably heard of photosynthesis, the process that plants use to turn just water, carbon dioxide and glorious sunlight into useful energy and sugars. This is a remarkable process that provides the plant with all the energy it needs (and in some cases some to spare) while also providing us with the incredibly useful waste product of oxygen so that we can breathe and continue with our own processes. But the intricacies of how plants do this have been hidden from scientists for quite some time, and only with advancements in the mysterious field of quantum physics have some answers become decipherable, if not complete. So just how do plants use quantum physics and why is this so amazing?

Let’s start at the top. Photosynthesis begins with photons, high energy particles emitted by the sun, being absorbed by the plants. These photons vary in wavelength and therefore energy, with the plant absorbing only the red, longer wavelengths. The other wavelengths like blue and yellow get reflected which is why plants mostly appear green. This absorption of light and energy happens within the leaves, in special cells called chloroplast. These chloroplast cells in turn house tower-like structures called thylakoids that are stuffed with molecules of chlorophyll. Think of the thylakoids as the power stations and the chlorophyll as the generators. Just like generators, these chlorophyll are the source of energy creation for the plant, and this is due to their unique structure.

Chlorophyll are mostly composed of a hydrocarbon backbone, just like most sugars you will find. While there are a few different variations of these chlorophyll, all chlorophyll contain something called a chlorin magnesium ligand; a magnesium atom bound to surrounding molecules so that it has just one lone electron left on its outer ring. This lone electron is the key to producing energy in all plants, as it is unstable enough that a photon passing  through the chloroplast will hit this electron and knock it out of its orbit. Normally this would just create a positively charged magnesium ion but in this instance, the lone electron does not get knocked away entirely. Instead it still orbits the magnesium atom, freer than it was, together with a now positively charged space where the electron was in orbit. This strange state of inferred polarity, with both a negative electron and a positive charge present, is called an electron-hole pair or exciton and it is this polarity that allows it to store energy as a battery does and provide energy for the plant. 

But the exciton cannot provide energy while ‘attached’ to the chlorophyll, instead it must get to another part of the cell called a reaction centre and undergo a process called charge separation. The positively charged space, the ‘hole’ of the electron-hole pair, is important to this as it is this space that allows the exciton to move. Think of this new hole being created as a seat being freed up in a packed row of football seats you need to get out of. With an empty seat available everyone can now shuffle along  and you can get to the end without having to lose a seat as it were. But while it does this, the exciton is losing energy so it must do this as quickly as possible. To get to a reaction centre where the exciton’s energy can be released means crossing any number of other chlorophylls which are tightly packed into the chloroplast like sardines in a can. Think of the route as hundreds of stepping stones on a lake and you are the exciton, trying to get from your stepping stone to the shore. In your cupped hands is some water and this represents the energy the exciton holds, which leaks away a little more with each step you take. There are hundreds of possible paths and to limit the amount of energy lost, the exciton must take the shortest route to the shore. But the only thing is the exciton doesn’t know where the reaction center is. Furthermore the energy conversion rate in photosynthesis is pretty much 100% efficient. So how do these excitons find the path to shore so quickly, while blindfolded, and still retaining all of the water in their hands? 

It was previously accepted that the free electrons just bounced from one chlorophyll to another seemingly at random, but this would be way slower and less efficient than the near 100% efficiency we know photosynthesis to be capable of. One theory is that the exciton takes all possible paths at once. All in a fraction of a fraction of a second. This may sound odd, and that’s because it is, as physics in the quantum field usually is. It relies on a principle called quantum superposition which says that particles can be in more than one place at the same time, and it’s this principle that scientists now think plants use to create energy so efficiently.

A rudimentary explanation is that in the subatomic world things usually act as either a wave or a particle. A wave such as light is able to cover multiple areas as it spreads; for example if an ocean wave hits a sea wall, the whole wall gets wet. A particle on the other hand represents a singular point and direction; like a bullet fired at a wall, it would leave just a single mark. Sometimes though, just to make it confusing, particles can act like waves. The most famous example of this is the Double Slit Experiment that some may remember from their school science lessons, where a single laser source passed through two slits in a card should produce a pattern representing a particle, with only two ‘bullet hole’ locations appearing depending on which slit the particle passes through, but instead an interference pattern indicative of a wave is produced(fig.1). This suggests that the particles are not acting as they should, but instead acting like waves, accessing the possibility of all possible landing locations. This wave like property in the excitons case allows the particle to spread out and explore the probability of pathways ending at the reaction centre, passing along all routes at the same time, all in one millionth of a billionth of a second (called a femtosecond). This probability of a particle being in a specified place is an underlying basis of this theory, as much like Schrodinger’s cat, the particle could be in place A, place B or place C, but the fact that you cannot see where it is means that it is in all of these places at once. Much like the unseen cat in Schrodinger’s box which is both dead and alive until you open the box to see, at which point it becomes whichever of those two you observe.


Just like the cat, the possibility of a particle’s location is removed once you observe it. An example of this is a variation on the Double Slit Experiment, where photons are fired one at a time through one of two slits at a piece of photography paper. If one were to just look at the photography paper after the experiment without knowing which particles went through which slit the paper would show an interference pattern indicative of a wave, suggesting the particles are ‘experiencing possibility’, for want of a better phrase and this is called quantum coherence. However, if a device is placed by the slits to observe which of the two gaps the particle passes through, the photography paper will show a pattern indicative of particle behaviour. The act of observation is enough to change the particle’s behaviour. (The double slit experiments have a few variations, which can blow your mind even further like this one which implies particles can change the past.) 

While this sounds unbelievable enough, some scientists argue that this behaviour under observation is exactly why this process can’t happen in nature. Observation in this sense also includes any type of interference in the process, meaning any other particles the exciton comes across would force it to act like its true particle self and not a wave. This is called quantum decoherence and is the reason why all the experimenting in pursuit of quantum computers is done behind closed doors in sterile vacuums. From our understanding particles will only act like waves if nothing can ‘see’ it doing so at the time. So this makes plants – that typically live in non-sterile places that have things like weather – very unlikely candidates as nature’s quantum computer. A way to test for quantum coherence in a system is to look for what’s known as a ‘quantum beat’. If a system is fully coherent then firing varying pulses through the system would show interference patterns as the pathways cross, just like the pattern you get when light waves cross in the double slit experiment, or when two different sound frequencies played together appear quieter at intervals as they cancel each other out. Greg Engels at the University of California was the first to test for coherence in chlorophyll by firing three different pulses through them. After a night of staying up and piecing together his results, he saw the pattern that changed the way scientists think about plants. He could see the interference pattern clearly, indicating that the pathways crossed yet remained active instead of being interfered with. In other words, quantum coherence!

While we have increasing evidence of how plants are able to utilise quantum physics we are still struggling to figure out how. The ability to ensure quantum coherence in a volatile and unsterile environment is a feat that physicists cannot currently emulate, as they still struggle to keep coherence under the most stringent conditions. Hopefully further research into just how plants maintain this coherence will give us new knowledge we can utilise to create cleaner, more efficient energy among other things. Until then, we can only wonder what other surprises they hide. One such recent surprise is that they create and utilise electromagnetic waves to communicate with bees. Maybe the production or presence of EM waves helps them maintain quantum coherence somehow too? With any luck, the answers are just around the corner.

Is There Any Truth In Ents?

The importance of trees has been well known to most for some time, from their role in producing the air we breathe to their role as important habitats for other creatures, creatures that included us in the past. Now however, as climate change weighs more heavily on the public consciousness and the amazon burns, more focus is being placed on just how trees are key players in their ecosystems, with some trees being the MVP of their game.

“My name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very, very long time,

so my name is like a story.”

– Treebeard; from The LOTR

In J.R.R.Tolkiens’ Lord of the Rings, there are long-lived shepherds of the forest that look over and protect their ancient ecosystem. Wise in their extreme age and not prone to quick decisions, these “Ents” may not be too different from what scientists are calling “Long-lived Pioneer trees”. Found in large old forests – mostly studied in parts of Central and South America but thought to be all over the world – these trees are often the first true trees to take root and grow rapidly in a young forest. They are usually seen towering above the rest of the canopy and they can account for nearly 40% of a forest’s biomass as they put all their energy into growing upwards and expanding their trunk outwards. These trees are often species such as Oak, Pine, Mahogany, Brazil Nut; all fast growing and can live for centuries and maybe longer if left to their own devices. But why do they take up this role of shooting for the stars before their cousins, who still root around (pun intended) on the forest floor?

The answer may lie in the relationships these trees have, not necessarily with other trees of their forest, but something a bit more low-down and dirty. 

A tree’s roots delve deep into the ground, in some cases reaching 2 to 3 times the breadth of the tree’s canopy in just as many years so one can imagine the range of a tree decades old. While a good complex root system is important for the uptake of nutrients and water, sometimes it’s just not enough. If the soil is poor, or the water table too deep down, the tree – no matter how tolerant – may not take by itself. This is where the secret relationship comes in. Biologists have understood for some time now about the importance of Mycorrhizal fungi in aiding plant growth. These specific fungi will use the plants’ roots as a host, growing and forming a “sheath” over the roots of the plants (Ectomycorrhiza; EM fungi). In some cases the fungi will even penetrate the root system, forming bladder-like structures and areas of fine-haired cilia called arbuscules and vesicles within the root itself (Endomycorrhiza; AM fungi). 

This may sound incredibly invasive bordering on parasitic, but believe it or not the root system finds this all beneficial, as does the fungi. You see this is the start of a codependent relationship, with the tree providing its surrounding fungi with carbon, glucose and sucrose – products of its photosynthesis – and the fungi provides nutrients, water and carbon from the surrounding soil. In AM fungi, the vesicles and arbuscules that some fungi form within the root are used as sites of exchange, increasing the rate this occurs and upping efficiency. These nutrients are found and brought along to the host trees by means of hyphae; long filamentous strands which extend out from the fungi into the soil. Often at only a few microns in size – or no more than the width of a cell – these hyphae can extend more easily through the soil therefore reaching water tables and pockets of nutrients that would take the root system an age to get to in comparison. As these fine hyphae travel through the soil, they also increase the porosity of the soil, aerating it and increasing its quality, making it easier for less tolerant plants to take root. The actual filaments used in the hyphae have also been found to increase the number of polysaccharides and glycoproteins in the soil, creating a richer “humus” and helping the soil bind together more thereby increasing its structure and complexity – important stuff for new saplings and seeds.

Ever-evolving new research is expanding what we thought we knew about this already important relationship between mycorrhizal fungi and tree roots. The highly complex networks formed by the hyphae of EM fungi have been found to not be specific to individual trees. Instead using genetic markers, scientists have discovered huge mycorrhizal networks that connect hundreds of individuals within an ecosystem. More impressively however, these networks show evidence that the fungi facilitates the movement of nutrients, water and even chemical signals between individual trees. These trees do not even have to be of the same species, they just have to be a part of the same ecosystem and connected via fungal hyphae at points called “nodes”. Even more amazing is the discovery that multiple networks occur within the same soil, recognising each other but not competing, instead providing different services. Some mycorrhizal fungi networks, composed of more EM fungi than AM, seem to favour the roots of young saplings. The fungal sheath created over the root system of the young trees provides a physical barrier between the root cells and any pathogens in the soil, increasing the plants disease resistance while still providing the nutrients the tree needs to grow by means of the hyphae. As the tree matures and produces more nutrients of its own the fungi is replaced by more carbon-hungry strand-forming fungi. Although this is a larger drain on the tree, there is still a trade-off happening; this new fungi is able to extend deeper into the soil, providing a deeper depth range to the tree’s roots and often procuring more water and nutrients as a result.

The extent of this mycorrhizal network and it’s inclusion of all ages “implies a diverse and secure energy source” according to Dr Beiler, author of a study into the network surrounding Douglas Firs. The prevalence of the same genets (the same fungal genes so implying the same network) among the networks also implies that the fungi involved in forming such networks is also a “late-stage, perennial species” that spreads “primarily through vegetative growth”; growing slowly and steadily over a long period of time. In his study, Beiler also noted something that following papers have since corroborated; the older the tree, the higher the number of “nodes” or connections to this underground network. 

A map showing the connectivity of Douglas Firs within a forest via shared mycorrhizal networks. The darker the green, the older the tree; the larger the circle, the larger the tree; each line represents the straight-line distance between individuals. The arrow points towards the most highly connected tree (which happens to be one of the oldest).
Source: https://nph.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1469-8137.2009.03069.x

Is it possible that some fast-growing long-lived trees in ecosystems kickstart the process of building this forest-wide network, named the Wood Wide Web? It’s highly possible as “hub” trees, to give these large important overstorey trees another name, can provide up to 100% of all the carbon a mycorrhizal network might require for it to service a whole network of trees. That’s one tree providing enough energy for the whole hyphae network to transport nutrients to dozens of trees, maybe much more. If these trees such as oak, pine and mahogany do form the centrepoint for these mycorrhizal networks it would explain why they have the highest number of genets and nodes, connecting them to far more networks and trees than any other individual. It has been noted that these taller overstorey trees which make up the early canopy don’t produce as many offspring in their initial growing years, instead putting their energy into forming biomass. By placing themselves at the top of the forest first, they ensure themselves a good source of sunlight for photosynthesis – producing plenty of sugars – while other species and siblings reproduce and die back quickly on the forest floor. This prioritising of sugars would be of benefit to any mycorrhizal fungi taking root (pun not intended) which would in turn aid the quick decomposition of leaf litter produced by the other species and siblings near the forest floor. More recent studies are beginning to show that a healthy mycorrhizal network aids the quick growth of these reproducing individuals by providing nutrients while the carbon is sequestered away in the larger trees where it possibly acts as a storehouse, perhaps as insurance against future conditions such as drought or even forest fires. This gives me thought on two rumours heard about large ancient trees; the first is that when they are cut down, they purge most if not all of their nutrients back into the earth (there is some evidence of this happening in regards to the mycorrhizal network receiving an influx of nutrients and carbon when a large connected tree is chopped down); the second is that such giant trees disappear once a forest reaches maturity, presumably as the forest has a suitable biomass to be able to sustain itself. The last rumor makes me slightly sad yet learning about how these giant trees could operate, it sort of makes sense. These large trees put all their energy into providing for a young forest, nurturing it and providing for it until it matures and no longer needs looking after. At which point these ancient shepherds of the forest become hidden by the density of their own nursery and fade into the soil and time.

Even thinking about it is like a spot of Shinrin-yoku.

The Loss of Liberty in an Age of Freedom

Recent changes in abortion laws aim to disenfranchise women on a massive scale.

For some republican states it’s been a dangerous political tool that’s been laying the pipeline for decades.

(Article written March 31st 2020)

As some of you may remember, the 2000 presidential election between the Al Gore and George W. Bush came down to an extremely nail-biting finish, where votes cast in the final state to declare its results would decide the entire election. The state was Florida, (the Republican Governor of which was none other than John Ellis Bush, GW’s younger brother). As the ballots were counted, the news networks gave their predictions before backtracking and casting them the opposite way as different counties pushed and pulled the result between Bush and Gore. As the result was repeatedly “too close to call”, various recounts were instigated across the state. Then, with Bush 537 votes ahead in the recount – a slither of a margin – the counting was stopped. 

At the time eyebrows were raised and questions were asked, but in a short time the true complexity and importance of the recounts came to light. The types of ballot used, some say, encouraged voters to mark their choice for more than one candidate, producing ‘under-votes’ and ‘over-votes’ which were included in some recounts and not in others. This was further backed-up by the later revelation that sample ballots had been sent to some constituencies with candidates stretched across multiple pages (called caterpillar ballots) and instructions to “vote every page”, however this was neither the ballot or the instruction on the day. This was one of the reasons why in punchcard counties, 1 in every 25 ballots were uncountable compared to 1 in 200 in counties where computers were used, which allowed voters to correct ‘spoilt’ ballots. Funnily enough most states using the old-school punchcard ballots were comprised of African-American and other minority communities – demographics typically more likely to vote for Democrats – and an investigation by the United States Commission on Civil Rights found that even though African-Americans made up 11% of the voting population, 54% of those votes were not counted due to these irregularities. 

Another major issue with the Florida election was the reworking and use of so-called “scrub lists”. At a cost of $4.3 million, two state senators, Sandra Mortham and Katherine Harris – the latter also being the co-chair of the Bush campaign in Florida – had contracted the data mining company DBT Online – who’s CEO is a major donor to the Republican party – to create a list of felons who under Florida state law, would be barred from voting in the upcoming election. In the list, released in May 2000, 57,000 potential voters were identified and struck-off the voting register without being informed, many only finding out they could not vote after being turned away at the polling booths. This is entirely legal under Florida’s Disenfranchisement laws that disallow convicted felons from voting. The problem was that an estimated 15% of those names on the list handed out to county authority were not or had never been felons and once again seemed to target minority, largely democrat-voting communities. But what does all this have to do with abortion laws almost two decades later? For that we have to look at the pattern of disenfranchisement in America.

Like most other US states (except Maine and Vermont) Florida does not allow convicted felons to cast their vote from prison. Only 12 states though continue this curbing of rights through to post-sentence, meaning that once convicted, a citizen can never vote again. Ever. Half of these states have such strong ties to their disenfranchisement laws that over 7% of the voting age population are not able to cast their ballot. In the majority of states this percentage hovers around 0.2%-1.5%. These percentages come from 2016 and rates are increasing rapidly. In 1976, the total number of disenfranchised in the whole of the USA was 1.17 million. In Florida as of 2016, the population of disenfranchised citizens stood at 1.5 million; 10.4% of the state’s population. As criminal justice supervision has increased in the USA, so has the rate of disenfranchisement with more people being put behind bars. The rise of the privatized prison market in the 1980’s should also not be ignored and may have increased the “need” to keep prisons full, increasing the amount of felons convicted for relatively minor misdemeanors (further worsened by Clinton’s three-strike-rule). Once again this seemed to systematically target demographics that are historically more likely to vote for Democratic candidates. But as more and more notice is drawn to issues of false incarceration as a result of the often systematic racism in the US – such as Ava DuVernay’s eye-opening documentary 13th which details the amendments made to the US constitution after the abolition of slavery, effectively legalizing the practice – it is increasingly important to use what we learn to spot any more curbing of civil rights, in whichever direction they may lean.

The six states previously mentioned that have a disenfranchised population of higher than 7% are all Southern States. Of these six, three announced bills in 2019 that make it a felony offense to get an abortion. In the case of Mississippi and Alabama this includes abortion in the instance of rape and incest. If you were to expand your view to include states that allowed disenfranchisement up until the end of parole, you would find all the states that have recently tried to pass aggressively restrictive abortion bills. Including the state of Georgia which has attempted to pass the now infamous “Heartbeat Bill” – which makes it illegal to attempt an abortion after 6 weeks, a period of time in which the majority of women won’t even realize that they are pregnant – and the state of Texas, which is looking to remove the current exemption for abortions in it’s homicide laws, marking any woman seeking an abortion as a felony level offender.

The combination of the increasingly aggressive targeting of often vulnerable women with the harsh and excluding disenfranchisement laws in these states makes for very disquieting reading. Women are suddenly at risk of jail time by even discussing or showing uncertainty about their unborn child, a feeling that many mothers-to-be will suffer from as shown in the case of Christine Taylor.

A single mother of two, Taylor was arrested after confiding in a nurse that she wasn’t sure about continuing her pregnancy due to the lack of financial and emotional support in her life. This is not a defined act and should surely be allowed under the United States’ constitution as freedom of speech, however the life of the fetus now comes before the life of the mother in many states. 

In the past, most states taking an anti-abortion stance have done so in a soft way. For example introducing the need for abortion clinics to have admitting privileges to a local hospital or making it a requirement for providers of abortions to give out misleading and inaccurate information to their clients. This allows the state to say it hasn’t made abortions illegal, but in practice often makes it near-impossible to obtain one. Many hospitals don’t want to get embroiled in the abortion argument for fear of upsetting financial donors or attracting anti-abortion activists, often leaving women to travel hundreds of miles for a procedure. The US Supreme Court is currently considering a law requiring admitting privileges in Louisiana, a law that would leave just one clinic able to perform procedures in the whole state. A similar law has been previously considered by the Supreme Court in Texas 2016 but was struck down as causing an “undue burden on women seeking abortion”, with the now critically ill Ruth Bader Ginsburg playing a pivotal role in the ruling – even going as far as to lay heavy criticism on the legislation at issue.

The past year however has seen a dangerous change in the wind regarding the type of legislation being that is being pushed for.

2019 saw a surge in outright bans and calls for the outlawing of abortion procedures instead of the usual preventative and disruptive legislation usually called for – some even laughing in the face of Roe vs Wade. This could be seen as prodding the US Supreme Court, providing ample opportunity to undermine or overturn the long-standing constitutional protections currently in place by passing harsher laws that are more likely to result in a court case, allowing for new precedents to be set.

Nine states including Alabama, Kentucky and Mississippi have passed restrictions that are “unconstitutional” according to Guttmacher, leaders of reproductive policy. These unconstitutional restrictions can only be written into law if Roe is overturned, an event that many would have thought unlikely. But with the aggressiveness of policy making in this area increasing – including eight more states with bills set to enter law in the event of Roe being overturned – it might signal that it may not be long before that motion is before us. 

So what does this mean for women in these states? Even if they do not receive Mississippi’s life sentence for having an abortion, the uncertainty of what women can control in regards to their bodies is thrown wide open. Not to mention a short stay in jail could rescind a woman’s voter rights in these states for the rest of her life. It could even be compared to the now shown-to-be racially-biased stop and search laws in maintaining a sense of control over a certain group of citizens. Not to mention that even if convicted for a short time in some of these states, these women, often from minority backgrounds, are relieved of their right to vote and thus their opportunity to change the direction of the political landscape, including the chance to overturn the bills that put them in this position in the first place. 

This brings us to today. Election year 2020 when President Donald Trump has said in an appearance on Fox & Friends, that if proposed voting reforms were introduced into the US system “you’d never have a Republican president again”. While much of his statement is about how Democrats are using a bill supposed to help fight Coronavirus to get more of their agenda across, it could also be a slip as Freudian as a Trump aide in 2016 being on record as saying “traditionally it’s always been Republicans suppressing votes in places” and conservative activist Paul Weyrich’s statement that “our [Republican] leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down”. Such admissions of vote manipulation should be regarded as the new Gerrymandering and a recognition of this pattern is needed as well as a solution. Democrats trying to push too much of their own agenda through in a bill supposed to help the country in a time of national emergency may do them more harm than good, especially at a time when so much hangs in the balance for the civil rights of so many American citizens.

The State We’re In Vs The State We Need

In his 1995 book, The State We’re In, which looks at the legislative choices of the UK’s main political parties, political journalist and author Will Hutton makes some eerie predictions about the world we find ourselves in as of 2020. The foreshadowing of the dominance of recruitment as a business model over the training of new talent and the rise of Chinese and other far eastern economic models to name a few. However one point he touched on felt more like a blow to all I knew about this democracy we call Britain; we do not have a constitution. We have no bill of rights protecting our citizens or our resources. 

Now I knew that we weren’t quite on a level with our Anglo-Saxon friends across the pond, spouting numbered amendments and right of this and right of that, but I thought there was some concrete paperwork to stop any amoral pillaging that might occur – by landed gentry in the past or by big business now. The majority of Sovereign states do. Instead we have a fluid – and at times hypocritical – lawbook that can in-turn be interpreted depending on the skill of the lawyer. This leads to a system where often precedents are set by landmark legal cases or just when and where they’re needed, cases that shouldn’t necessarily be ‘the norm’ but required enough of a legal shakeup that the changes stick. This seems like a fairly liberal, free flowing way to do governance, but in practice it leads to a one-sided system where the state often comes before the individual. In today’s world of globalisation and Big Business, this has been extrapolated to ‘Growth’ comes before the individual. 

But what is growth? In terms of the economy, it is the ever expanding ball of imaginary digital currency that needs to keep on growing lest we realise the sham and it collapses in on itself. But that’s just my humble opinion. The more widely accepted definition is that economic growth is “the increase in the amount of goods and services produced per head of the population over a period of time”, measured by the change in gross domestic product or GDP. At a time when public services are down to the bones and Britain’s industrial and manufacturing sectors are barely groaning along, never mind ‘great’, how can our economy be “healthy” and “growing”. If we go by it’s own definition, our economy should be classed as “sick and in need of urgent self-isolation”, which ironically is one thing we as a country have decided on, much to the Hutton of 1995’s bemusement.

Today’s businesses operate by the same laws the population do and this is fair when a business represents someone’s livelihood, as it does in the case of middle-sized businesses and local shops. Shops similar to the German Mittelstand, the name given to the independent and medium-sized businesses which operate under a web of protecting laws providing a safety net in times of economic drought. However when the threat of a company being shut down or plants closing looks like it will have more of an impact on its employees than the company itself, they should be held to different laws than the individual. The laws in place today allow large global companies that have not played the market well to ask for bailouts, paid for, among others, by the taxed independent business owners who are expected to just go under in times of economic stress or find their own way out of the quagmire. 

The recent effects of COVID-19 on this country have shown just how committed the Tory government has been to the British Mittelstand. Which is to say, not at all. Accused of “throwing independent businesses under the bus” the government consistently refused to give useful advice, or any inclination of a plan that business owners could follow to minimise risks and damages while telling potential customers to “steer well clear”, causing many businesses to slump to the point of bankruptcy. Meanwhile the government are throwing stimulus packages at larger businesses, businesses that with some tactful auditing and reshuffling of cash flow could probably survive this mess. But that’s not what they do and that’s not how they got there. Scruples where it counts and bailouts when that fails seems to be the name of the game for many, including Richard Branson who has asked for £7.5 billion cash injection to save the airline industry. The taxpayers would be footing this bill of course, and while we all would love to see some foreign shores again some time soon, I’m sure we’d also rather be giving our money to those that need it locally first. 

So where’s the piece of paper we as the citizens can point to like our American cousins when ailing businesses come begging, one that reads “The rights of the living come first over dying businesses”? We should use this COVID scare as a chance to see what our governments really prioritise, and if it’s not something we can agree on, maybe it’s time for a change in the rules. Maybe it’s time that we come together and draw up a bill that sets up an adequate network of interdependent funds so that in time of need, our health service, food outlets and other essential services can keep running at full pace. Maybe it’s time we set up a national economic system that is set up to offer long term loans to businesses, so that the banks themselves have a vested interest in the health of a sector beyond reclaiming the buildings it occupies. Maybe it’s time we put more reliance into creating skilled workers and have sectors investing in these education programs instead of relying on a whole new business of poaching employees from elsewhere.

These may all sound like a Keynesian fever dream of Jeremy Corbyn in the run up to the last election, but they have all been done by other countries. Some in Europe, some in Asia.The truth is we were at the forefront of industry and business when it took off so we didn’t need a proper system, we just needed growth. Now that others have had time to catch up, maybe it’s time we stopped to look around at how they developed. We need to accept that we’re not so Great anymore and maybe just be Grateful.