Tuesday, March 12, 2019

King Herod, a brutal ruler, a wily politician and a great builder

Temple remnant

King Herod, sometimes called "Herod the Great" (circa 74 to 4 B.C.) was a king of Judea who ruled the territory with Roman approval. While Judea was an independent kingdom it was under heavy Roman influence and Herod came to power with Roman support.

The Bible depicts Herod as a monster who tried to kill baby Jesus and, when he couldn't find him, killed every infant in Bethlehem. Historians today generally believe the story is fictional.

While Herod did execute one of his wives, and three of his children, he was also a prolific builder who renovated and expanded the Temple in Jerusalem, the most holy site in Judaism. He also helped save the ancient Olympic Games during a financial crisis.

Rise to power

While it's uncertain precisely where Herod was born, it's known that his father, Antipater (died 43 B.C.), came from Idumea (also called Edom), a region by the southern coast of the Dead Sea. His mother, Cypros, was from Nabataea, a wealthy kingdom in Jordan that included the city of Petra.

A Roman force led by a general named Pompey waged a military campaign in the eastern Mediterranean in 63 B.C. that forced the Hasmoneans, a Jewish dynasty that controlled what is now Israel, to agree to Roman rule. Herod and his father supported the Romans and they were rewarded for it with greater power.

By 43 B.C., Antipater, Herod and Herod's eldest brother Phaesael "exercised quasi-royal powers in the land with the agreement of the ineffectual and accommodating Hasmonean High Priest Hyrcanus II, who ruled only in name," Geza Vermes, who was professor emeritus of Jewish Studies at Oxford University until his death in 2013, wrote in his posthumously-published book, "The True Herod" (Bloomsbury, 2014).

However, the control the three men had was tenuous. In 43 B.C., Antipater was assassinated by poisoning. Then in 40 B.C., the Parthians, aided by a revolt, took over Jerusalem, killed Phaesael, installed a loyal regime and forced Herod to flee to Rome. After his arrival in Rome, Herod sought out the support of Octavian and Mark Antony, who were allied at the time. The two agreed to make him king of Judea. Herod returned to Judea and, by 37 B.C., he retook Jerusalem and other parts of the region with support from the Roman military.

Herod's position was still weak, however. Family members from the Hasmonean Dynasty, who had been in power before the Romans arrived, resented the fact that the Romans had made Herod king of Judea. Herod married Mariamme, the granddaughter of the former high priest, Hyrcanus II, in an attempt to bring family members from the Hasmonean Dynasty into the fold. "She bore him three sons, Alexander and Aristobulus as well as a third son who died young in Rome, and two daughters," Vermes wrote.

Herod executed Mariamme in 29 B.C. over accusations that she had committed adultery and had tried to kill him. Herod had at least 10 wives and believed that Judaism allowed polygamy.

The king also executed his sons Alexander and Aristobulus in 7 B.C., and Antipater II, Herod's oldest son (whom he had with another wife) in 4 B.C. Herod accused the three sons of trying to kill him.

Herod confiscated property belonging to those who he believed did not support his rule. "The confiscation of the wealth of the hostile Jewish upper classes made him exceedingly rich and provided Herod with funds to pay for the continued goodwill of his Roman overlord, Mark Antony," Vermes wrote.

Additionally, Herod found himself in conflict with Cleopatra VII, the queen of Egypt and lover of Antony. Cleopatra VII coveted Herod's territory and used her influence with Antony to persuade him to turn over some of Herod's territory to her.

The alliance between Octavian and Antony came to an end in 32 B.C. and the two faced off in a civil war, with Antony controlling the eastern parts of the Roman Empire and Octavian the west. Herod supported Antony and ended up on the losing side as Antony was defeated at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C, and committed suicide in 30 B.C.

Herod sailed to Rhodes to meet Octavian, not sure what would happen to him. When he met Octavian, Herod took off his crown and told Octavian that he had supported Antony to the end, the ancient historian Josephus (A.D. 37-100) wrote.

"I am defeated with Antony and with his fall I lay aside my crown. I have come to you placing my hope of safety on my unblemished character, and believing that you will wish to know not whose friend, but what sort of friend, I have been," Josephus wrote (translation by English classicist G.A. Williamson). Octavian was so impressed that he not only allowed Herod to remain king but gave him back territory that Antony had given to Cleopatra VII.

Herod the builder

"Without a doubt he [Herod] was the greatest builder in the Holy Land, planning and overseeing the execution of palaces, fortresses, theatres, amphitheatres, harbours and the entire city of Caesarea, and to crown them all, he organized the rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem," Vermes wrote.

The First Temple, which had been built by King Solomon, had been destroyed when the Babylonians captured Jerusalem in 587 B.C. While a Jewish temple was built on the site in the late 6th century B.C., Herod built a new temple that was far larger. Historians today often call it the "Second Temple."

Although much of the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70, a section of it still remains. "The monumental section that still survives is the famous Western (or Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem, a glorious memorial of the past for some, and the most holy place of Jewish worship for others," Vermes wrote.

Other famous sites Herod constructed include Masada, a clifftop palace-fortress decorated with beautiful mosaics; and the Herodium, a complex located 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) from Jerusalem that contains palaces, a bathhouse, a pool house and other structures that are constructed on top of a human-made hill.

Herod also helped save the ancient Olympic Games. He donated "a large sum of money for the financial support of the quadrennial Olympic games, the survival of which was threatened by lack of funds." Vermes wrote. And because of Herod's financial assistance, "the organizers of the ancient games elected Herod perpetual Olympic president and recorded it in inscriptions."
Did he kill Jesus?

Historians generally believe that Herod died in 4 B.C., although there have been arguments made that he died in 5 B.C. or 1 B.C. The Gospel of Matthew claims that he tried to kill baby Jesus and succeeded in killing all the other babies in Bethlehem in an event that is sometimes called the "massacre of the innocents." Today, historians generally regard these claims as untrue.

"The legendary 'massacre of the innocents' may reflect a Christian dramatization of Herod's execution of his own children," Peter Richardson, a professor emeritus of religion at the University of Toronto, and Amy Marie Fisher, an adjunct instructor of religion at the University of Edmonton, wrote in their book "Herod: King of the Jews and Friend of the Romans: Second edition" (Routledge, 2018).

Another story that mentions Herod, told in the Gospel of Luke, claims that Mary and Joseph (the parents of Jesus) had to be registered in a census at the time Jesus was born. This is also believed by modern-day historians to be untrue, as there's no evidence of a census occuring during Herod's reign.

"As for the census, whose purpose was to prepare the introduction of Roman taxation in Judaea, it could not have occurred during Herod's reign. As a friend of Rome, a rex socius or allied king, he was exempt from such interference," Vermes wrote, noting that no census occurred in Judea until A.D. 6.

The fact that the Bible claims that Jesus was born before Herod died creates a problem that scholars have long been debating. Was Jesus actually born in 4 B.C, before Herod died? Or, did Herod live longer than the historical records suggest, and not die until closer to 1 B.C? Or, is the Bible's claim that Jesus was born before Herod died not true? The answers to these questions have been debated by scholars for well over a century.

Grim ending

Rebellion brewed near the end of Herod's life. Shortly before Herod died there was a group that tried to pull down an eagle, a Roman symbol, from the Second Temple. Herod had the people involved with the act executed. The expectation of his death "began to release the tensions buried just beneath the surface of a calm kingdom…." Richardson and Fisher wrote.

Josephus claimed that Herod was so despised in his final days and Herod had become so bitter toward his own people, that he asked his sister, Salome, to kill many of them after he died. He supposedly gathered the most eminent men of every village in Judea, locked them up in a hippodrome, and gave orders to his sister Salome to kill them when he died.

According to Josephus, Herod announced, "'I know the Jews will greet my death with wild rejoicings; but I can be mourned on other people's account and make sure of a magnificent funeral if you will do as I tell you. These men under guard — as soon as I die, kill them all….'" Salome disobeyed, and released the prisoners when Herod died, Josephus added.

After Herod's death, a massive rebellion broke out in his kingdom and Rome had to send in military reinforcements.

No surviving images of Herod exist today. Herod did not put his image on his coins and rarely built statues of himself out of concern of offending Jewish beliefs that sometimes opposed "the representation of human figures," Vermes wrote.


Friday, February 15, 2019

Life, liberty and the pursuit of property

Do the radical left’s ideas about “democratising” the economy make sense?

When the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, many consigned socialism to the rubble. The end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union were interpreted as the triumph not just of liberal democracy but of the robust market-driven capitalism championed by Ronald Reagan in America and Margaret Thatcher in Britain. The West’s left embraced this belief, with leaders like Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Gerhard Schröder promoting a “third way”. They praised the efficiency of markets, pulling them further into the provision of public services, and set about wisely shepherding and redistributing the market’s gains. Men such as Jeremy Corbyn, a hard-left north London MP as far from Mr Blair in outlook as it was possible to be, and Bernie Sanders, a left-wing mayor in Vermont who became an independent congressman in 1990, seemed as thoroughly on the wrong side of history as it was possible to be. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was not quite four weeks old when the wall fell. Her childhood was watched over by third-way politics; her teenage years were a time of remarkable global economic growth. She entered adulthood at the beginning of the global financial crisis. She is now the youngest woman ever to serve in Congress, the subject of enthusiasm on the left and fascinated fear on the right. And, like Mr Corbyn and Mr Sanders, she explicitly identifies herself as a socialist. Their democratic socialism goes considerably further than the market-friendly redistributionism of the third way. It envisages a level of state intervention in previously private industry—either directly, or through forced co-operativisation—that has few antecedents in modern democracies.

For the American generation which has grown up since the downfall of the USSR, socialism is no longer the boo word it once was. On the left, a lot of Americans are more sceptical than they used to be about capitalism (see chart 1 on following page). Indeed, what might be called “millennial socialism” is having something of a cultural moment. Publications like Jacobin and Tribune bedeck the coffee tables of the hip, young and socially conscious. No film has ever made trade unions look cooler than last year’s “Sorry To Bother You”, written and directed by Boots Riley, a rapper and activist. When Piers Morgan, a British television presenter, found it impossible to believe that a young interviewee might come from a left beyond Barack Obama, her response quickly turned up on t-shirts: “I’m literally a communist, you idiot”.

The fight you choose

This currency aside, avowed socialists are still a rarity in America’s political class. But when Ms Ocasio-Cortez or Mr Sanders speak of the need for radical change, the disappointments and damage experienced in the past 30 years give their words resonance across a broad swathe of the less radical but still disenchanted left. These people saw their third-way leaders support misguided foreign wars and their supposedly robust economy end up in a financial crisis. They feel economic growth has mainly benefited the rich (see chart 2 on subsequent page) and that ideologically driven spending cuts have been aimed at the poor. They are angered by a global elite they see flitting from business to politics and back again, unaccountable to anyone, as economic inequality yawns ever wider (though the picture is more complex than that: see chart 3 on next page). The presence of Donald Trump in the White House underlines their discontent—as does, indelibly, the unchecked rise of greenhouse-gas emissions alongside global GDP, endangering, in many young eyes, their very future.

In response to this mood on the left, some parties which once embraced the third way have tacked decisively towards policies that seemed inconceivable ten years ago; see, for example, the embrace of Medicare for All by America’s Democratic presidential hopefuls. Other parties are dwindling into insignificance, overshadowed by more radical alternatives. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a far-left candidate who championed a 100% marginal income-tax rate on high earners in the French presidential election of 2017, comfortably outpolled the country’s mainstream socialists. Indeed, in the first round he got a vote 80% that of Emmanuel Macron’s.

This swing within the left is not necessarily a new path to power. Indeed, many caught up in it fear quite the reverse. Having achieved a better result than many expected in the election of 2017, Labour still sits behind Britain’s chaotic Conservatives in opinion polls. Though some far-left parties may do well in the forthcoming elections for the European Parliament, they are unlikely to make up for the loss of support suffered by the centre left. Primary voters may be enthusiastic about the cornucopian environmentalism of Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s “Green New Deal” ; but many senior Democrats fear that it will scare away more voters than it entices.

Many on the right agree, with relish.

When President Trump asserted in his State of the Union address on February 5th that “America will never be a socialist country” it was not because he fears a socialist ascendancy. It was because he thinks that the majority of Americans, including many Democrats, will look askance at such a prospect. “America was founded on liberty and independence, and not government coercion, domination, and control,” Mr Trump told Congress. “We are born free, and we will stay free.” Socialism versus capitalism is still an easy call for most Americans; socialism versus freedom is about as done as a deal gets.

Millennial socialists, though, have their own ideas about freedom. They are not satisfied with the protection of existing freedoms; instead, they want to expand and fulfil freedoms yet to be obtained. Spreading economic power more widely, they say, will allow more people to make choices about what they want in their lives, and freedom without such capabilities is at best incomplete. Bhaskar Sunkara, founding editor of Jacobin, makes an analogy to India: what is the point of an ostensibly free press if a huge share of the population is unable to read?

Seizing power

Much of what the centrist left believed in the 1990s and 2000s has since been abandoned, not just by vanguardist millennial socialists, but by a broad swathe of left-wing opinion. The median supporter of left-wing parties is increasingly sceptical about free trade, averse to foreign wars and distrustful of public-private partnerships. What they still like is the income redistribution that came with those policies. They want higher minimum wages and a lot more spending on public services. Mr Sanders and Ms Ocasio-Cortez have energised young Americans by promising free college tuition; Labour promises the same in England and Wales.

Many entirely non-socialist Europeans will see nothing that remarkable about publicly paid-for health care and education: America starts from an unusual position in such matters. But almost any country would be staggered by a government initiative as all-encompassing as the Green New Deal resolution that Ms Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey, a senator from Massachusetts, have introduced into Congress.

As well as promising emissions-reduction efforts on a scale beyond Hercules at a cost beyond Croesus, in framing global warming as a matter of justice, rather than economic externalities, it promises all sorts of ancillary goodies, including robust economic growth (which some hard-line greens will have a problem with) and guaranteed employment. It abandons the economically efficient policies that have been the stamp of America’s previous, failed attempts to bring climate action about through legislation, most notably those in the cap-and-trade bill Mr Markey sponsored in the late 2000s. This is hardly surprising; the most popular text on global warming in left-wing circles, Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate”, derides such market-based mechanisms.

Millennial socialists want to do more than boost the incomes of the poor, create better public services and slash emissions. “Keynesianism is not enough,” in the words of James Meadway, an adviser to John McDonnell, Mr Corbyn’s shadow chancellor. It is also necessary to “democratise” the economy by redistributing wealth as well as income.

In part, this is an economic argument.

Having a wage but no wealth increasingly means settling for a lower standard of living. In recent decades and in rich countries the share of total income accruing to owners of capital (in the form of profits, rent and interest) has risen, while the share paid to labour (in the form of salaries and benefits) has dropped. This means the incomes of people with lots of capital will diverge from those who have none. If the predictions made by Thomas Piketty, a French economist noted for his studies of wealth inequality, prove correct—something that many economists doubt—the total amount of capital in the economy will continue to rise relative to GDP, further compounding the advantage of wealth-holders.

But the argument for redistribution of wealth goes beyond economics—and its roots spread far beyond the socialist canon. James Harrington, a political theorist of the 17th century, wrote that “Where there is inequality of estates, there must be inequality of power.” He saw a reasonably even distribution of wealth and the freedom of democratic politics as two sides of the same coin. His ideas were a strong influence on America’s founding fathers. John Adams wrote that “Harrington has shewn that Power always follows Property.” Though Thomas Jefferson plumped for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as the rights to be mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, he was inspired by John Locke’s trinity of life, liberty and property, and his love of the yeoman farmer stemmed from his belief that those who produced their own food never needed to bend to the will of another, and thus were truly free.

Well before Karl Marx started to write about alienation, the idea that people treated only as factors of production would not only lack true freedom, but also other opportunities to reach their full potential, was a mainstay of Enlightenment thought. Adam Smith worried that the factory system, where workers simply turned up and followed the instructions of capitalists, would make its participants “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.” John Stuart Mill, who valued political freedom above all else, also predicted that under capitalism people would become passive, dull wage-slaves; he wanted to see many more working in cooperatives. The echoes of Harrington, Smith and Mill are clear in the works that articulate the views of today’s left, from Mark Fisher’s “Capitalist Realism” to David Graeber’s “Bullshit Jobs”. Globalisation, in their eyes, is less an engine for prosperity and more a generator of insecurity, unfreedom and unfairness.

Share-taking democracies

On this reading, today’s task is to redistribute the economy’s stock of wealth—and thus political power, freedom, self-worth and prosperity.

How best to do this is hotly debated.

Some are keen on a centralised path. Matt Bruenig of the People’s Policy Project, a crowd-funded think-tank, touts “social wealth funds” through which the state could accumulate stakes in equity, bond and property markets, subsequently disbursing a share of the resulting income as a “universal basic dividend”. Norway and Alaska already have something akin to this, though funded by oil wealth. Others are sceptical of such measures. A policy paper commissioned for the Labour Party argues that such state-planning risks creating “a small private and corporate elite”, resulting in “little democratic scrutiny or debate”. Receiving a monthly cheque from the state social wealth fund would be nice, but would ordinary people feel empowered?

That concern is one reason why the left, generally well disposed to welfare spending, is divided on the question of universal basic income—despite, or perhaps because of, the support such schemes also have from some on the right. Mr Graeber and Andy Stern, an American trade unionist, are among those who have expressed support for the idea. Others worry that under such schemes “we gain ‘free time’, but we lose the historical agency we have as workers...we are seen as passive, alienated, taking as given a world shaped by others,” as John Marlow, an economist, argues in a recent edition of New Socialist, a journal.

A possibility for the centralised redistribution of wealth more compatible with the dignity of labour might be endowing all children with “baby bonds”, a policy Gordon Brown tried in Britain and which Cory Booker, another senator running for president, champions in America. But many see a stronger case for transfers of wealth at a sub-national scale, such as through the expansion of worker-owned co-operatives, which at present form a small proportion of firms in America and Britain.

Die Linke, Germany’s most left-wing party, has promised “to create suitable legal forms to facilitate and promote the joint takeover of enterprises by the employees.” In the Accountable Capitalism Act offered by Elizabeth Warren, another Democratic hopeful—though not, she insists, a socialist—workers would elect 40% of the members of corporate boards. That is not the same as seizing a chunk of the firm’s capital. But Senator Warren has other plans for redistributing wealth. She has proposed an annual tax of 2% on the wealth of Americans with a net worth of more than $50m, 3% on those worth more than$1bn. Perhaps the most radical detailed plans for the “democratisation” of an economy put forward by a mainstream party are Labour’s. It says that it will double the size of the co-operative sector if elected, and that private firms of over 250 employees will have to transfer 10% of their shares to a fund managed by “workers’ representatives”. Staff would be entitled to dividends from the shares; the representatives would have a say in how the company was run.

Modern times

As far as public services are concerned, shareholders of England’s water utilities would be bought out and “regional water authorities” created in their place, to be run by “councillors, worker representatives and representatives of community, consumer and environmental interests”. Similar steps would encourage local energy provision. Proponents of such reforms speak glowingly of Paris’s municipal government, which a decade ago brought its water companies in-house and has created a mechanism for enabling local people to hold the new operation to account.

Buying up chunks of the economy at the same time as greatly increasing public services would be a costly undertaking. Some on the socialist left try to wave this aside by invoking “modern monetary theory” (MMT), which holds that the primary constraint on government spending is not how much money can be raised through tax or bonds, but how much of an economy’s capital and labour the state can use without sparking rapid inflation. Adherents of MMT note the lack of inflation seen since the financial crisis, despite big deficits and governments printing money to buy bonds through “quantitative easing”. Many on the left have come to see the concerns that the right raises about deficits—which tend to surface only when it is not in power—less as economic prudence than a partisan politics of impoverishment.

Scholars such as Stephanie Kelton of Stony Brook University, who has the ear of various left-wing Democrats, suggest the very notion that spending must at some point be paid for by tax should be scrapped. Only when government spending pushes an economy beyond its capacity to produce goods and services should it be cooled using spending cuts and tax increases.

Let the billionaires bleed

Resistance to millennial socialism comes in various forms. Critics may believe that the socialist goals are bad ones; that, as a matter of fact, their policy ideas will not achieve those goals; that, even if the policies were to work, they would be too illiberal to stomach; or that, whether they work or not, they will cost the critic money. It is possible to hold all four of these positions at once in various degrees.

Take MMT. Most economists strongly resist the idea that governments can spend so freely, and such disagreement can easily be found on the left as well as the right. They also doubt that governments would, in fact, be able to cut spending or raise taxes when called on to do so by the tenets of the theory. And if a government were to do so, its actions could be quite regressive. Jonathan Portes of King’s College, London, points out that under MMT a country facing a combination of weak growth and high inflation, as Britain did in 2011-12, would require spending cuts rather than the increased stimulus called for by Keynes. The Labour Party, which was at that time decrying government austerity, has none of the sympathy for MMT seen in some of its fellow travellers across the Atlantic. “MMT is just plain old bad economics, unfortunately,” says Mr Meadway.

The non-MMT answer to “how to pay for it all” is usually to soak the rich. This is not always as popular a policy as some imagine, but today it does look like quite an easy sell in America. Unfortunately it yields less money than many on the left suppose. The best estimates of the extra revenues Labour might raise through the tax increases it plans for high earners suggest there may be none at all, in part because the rich may simply work less. The party is ignoring more reliable revenue raisers, like taxes on consumption and property. Yet its policies call for lots more government spending.

Ms Ocasio-Cortez has suggested a marginal tax rate of 70% on incomes above $10m; one estimate puts the extra annual revenue at perhaps $12bn, or just 0.3% of the tax take. The original New Deal cost a great deal more than that. Even if ambitious new steps were taken to stop the rich from hiding their lucre in tax shelters, a broader tax base would be required. There would be little help from Ms Warren’s wealth tax, which would discourage those whose wealth was the business that earned them their income and would be immensely hard to administer. Mr Sanders’s policy of increasing the inheritance tax, which introduces much less distortion, is a better one. But it would still be a hard sell for relatively little return.

Higher taxes on the rich can be about more than revenue. Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, two economists, argue in favour of Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s tax plan on the grounds that shrinking top incomes is necessary to prevent America from sliding into oligarchy. Such plans can be read simply as punitive populism: billionaires are not very well regarded on the left, and thinning their number has an appeal all its own. The rich are well aware of this. It would be wrong to assume that Michael Bloomberg, a businessman and former mayor who may run for president, was motivated by the threat to his considerable personal wealth when he recently suggested that Ms Warren’s wealth tax threatened to make America a new Venezuela. Though, taken at face value, his hyperbole shows a profound pessimism about the durability of American institutions, his broader point is that once you start saying some people are just too rich, where do you draw the line?

However paid for, efforts to “democratise” the economy have their own problems. It is possible for companies partly controlled by their workers to raise capital. The German principle of “co-determination”, which aims to give shareholders and employees an equal say in the decision making within firms, has not hit the country’s international competitiveness. But some investment will surely either be scared off or rationally choose other destinations, depending on the circumstances and/or your perspective.

There is also a risk of capture. A lot of people may feel they have better things to do of an evening than discuss metering policy down the water company. Trade-union officials and government lackies may feel differently. Experience suggests that firms run by people close to the state may come under pressure to give contracts to political insiders rather than to the best supplier, and that they will often give in. A worry from the left is that workers on boards might, in self-interest, behave as badly as they think capitalists do.

Even if there were not so many legitimate causes for concern, and even setting aside their own interests, many liberals and conservatives would still be against policies explicitly aimed at appropriating private wealth for the common good. They see the confiscation of private property as an infringement of liberty just as sincerely as some socialists see it as the road to a wider popular freedom. That is a powerful argument, all the more so if it is offered alongside its own set of more acceptable approaches to empowering those currently without the capacity to exercise all their freedoms.

The possibility of the Green New Deal being enacted in all its pomp is nugatory. Seeing the full range of Labour’s schemes for worker empowerment established is unlikely. And therein lies a paradox facing millennial socialism. An unremitting pursuit of radicalism could easily contribute to defeat for the broader left. A more incrementalist approach will be too slow to deliver for the impatient young, not to mention their elderly leaders. Unless, that is, precipitating events as head-over-heelsy as the fall of the Berlin Wall intervene. Judge them, then, in decades to come, when Ms Ocasio-Cortez is either forgotten—or the grande dame of a Washington risen again from the waves of sea-level rise through monumental public works.


Thursday, February 7, 2019

Cafe owner turns down job applicant because 'British people have a poor work ethic'

He's right.  We see a lot of British workers in Australia and a normal comment about them is that "They wouldn't work in an iron lung -- JR

A Hove cafe owner has faced criticism after admitting he turned down a job applicant because "British people have a poor work ethic".

Jullian Preston-Powers, who is a supervisor at Intenso Espresso in Hove, East Sussex, went even further on his remarks after they were uncovered.

He said that the "very poorest type of employee is a British one, full stop".

Job applicant Victoria Atkins, 22, was scheduled to come in for a trial shift but sent a text to Mr Preston-Powers asking to reschedule after she was "soaked" in the rain on the way in.

He responded by rescinding his offer of a trial shift and adding that a "poor work ethic... is highly synonymous with being British".

The cafe owner sent a series of messages to Miss Atkins, including one where he championed one staff member who hadn't had a day off in three years because that was normal for "thin, healthy people who don't eat bacon".

He wrote: "Sorry you are having a stressful morning. It's probably better you did not succeed in getting the job because you can never be late for or miss work at our business. Ever.

"We are British, but generally cannot ever manage to hire British due to poor work ethics."

The Trades Union Congress has condemned his attitude and defended British workers, who the organisation claims "put in some of the longest hours in Europe".

Ms Atkins from Brighton, East Sussex, said: "He is very rude and nasty.

"I'd had a really bad morning and just asked if I could rebook the trial shift.

"I'd taken the bus and left plenty of time, but due to delays I soon realised I would be late.

"By this time I was soaking wet because the bus only went half way, and my friend lives on the same road as the cafe so I went there to shower and dry off.

"I was already a couple of hours late so asked if I could go at a later date, which is when he said no.

"Don't get me wrong, I understand why he didn't let me just do another shift, but his comments about British people having no work ethic were shocking."

She added that the comment about eating bacon left her "very, very offended."

Mr Preston-Powers defended  his remarks. He said: "Our experience of running a small, private, family-run coffee shop in Hove is that the very poorest type of employee is a British one. Full stop.

"The last candidate you want to take on - and we try ardently to hire everyone - is British.

"It is true, comprehensively, that every single one of the British employees that we've had will call in and have some issues, or be late.

"But when you have someone who comes from a country where there are no jobs and appreciate they have a job, they work every single hour.

"It's just a preference and making it very clear and being honest about what genre of people have the best work ethic."

A TUC spokesperson said: "If he's looking for the title of Britain's Worst Boss, it sounds like he's going about it the right way.

"It's illegal to discriminate against job applicants based on their ethnicity.

"Britain's workers have a very strong work ethic. They put in some of the longest hours in Europe and billions of pounds worth of unpaid overtime each year."


Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Mistakes are the engine of language’s evolution

“I believe the children are our future,” sang Whitney Houston, making an obvious fact of life sound like a bold claim. Children will of course not only inherit the world, but shape it. And in their linguistic mistakes, their parents can get a sense of how.

Take the child collecting different kinds of animals in a video game: “I got a new specie!”, he cries. The source of the mistake is obvious. The child has heard the slightly rarefied word “species” and assumed it was the plural of something called a specie. Children do this kind of thing all the time as they learn language; generalising from things previously heard and rules previously mastered is the only way they can progress with such speed. In most cases, errors disappear on their own.

Yet tempting, specie-type mistakes happen not just among children, but their parents too. Some survive, and even thrive, until they displace an old form and become the new standard. Few English-speakers today know it, but there was once no such thing as a pea. People ate a mass of boiled pulses called pease. But just as with specie, at some point English people misanalysed pease as a plural, and the new singular pea was born. The same thing happened with cherry, from the Norman cherise, and caper (the edible kind), from the Latin capparis, both singular.

Another kind of confusion happens at the beginning of words. People once worked with a protective bit of clothing called a napron. But enough heard it as “an apron” that apron eventually supplanted napron completely. Other words beginning with vowels and preceded by “an” went through the same process: nadder became adder and nauger, auger (a tool for boring holes). In other instances, an n was added, not subtracted, by a mistake in the opposite direction: a newt was once a ewt, and a nickname was once an eke-name. (Eke is an old word for “also”.)

Not all such forms survived: while neilond, nangry and nuncle appear in older English texts, they never did replace island, angry and uncle.

Foreign borrowings are also a source of error-induced change. The French la munition was misunderstood by English-speak-ers with shaky French as l’ammunition, giving rise to the English word. Englishspeakers are not the only people who do this kind of thing, nor is French the only victim. The Arabic al-, meaning “the”, has been taken as an integral part of words borrowed from that tongue. So European languages are filled with alkali, algebra and the like. It is as if English had swallowed la munition whole as “lamunition”.

Sometimes borrowings are mangled not because their structure is misunderstood, but their meaning. A chef de cuisine, as it was originally adopted from French, was boss of the kitchen. Chef still means “boss” in French, but the English eventually took a chef to be a cook. Pariah trod a similarly improbable path: the word means “drummer” in Tamil, becoming the name of a downtrodden ethnic group which often performed ceremonial drumming. That “downtrodden” element of the meaning then became the only one in English.

The “pariah” example is instructive. This isn’t so much a word born of a single clear-cut mistake, as one that emerged from a gradual transformation: from drummer to outcast drummers to outcast, each step is short and intelligible. Only to Tamils might the English sense of “pariah” seem wrong. In English, “outcast” really is its meaning.

Every word is changing a little bit, all the time. Look at a few lines of Middle English, and it is nigh impossible to find words that have not altered in spelling, pronunciation, meaning, grammar—or all four. Consider Old English, and those rare examples become nearly zero. Even Shakespeare requires some practice to understand fully.

Many of the tweaks that have made those bygone Englishes into modern English could be seen as an “error” of some sort. Some such changes were systematic: all words with the same vowel gradually being pronounced with a different one, say. Others have affected just one word at a time, and so tend to be too subtle to catch the eye.

The naprons of the world are notable, then, not because they are exceptions, but because they are instances of a common phenomenon—language change through “error” —that happened conspicuously enough to make a tidy example. But modern English is deformed Old English and degenerate Middle English. In other words, like any living language, it is “error” all the way down.


Friday, January 4, 2019

Blue-Eyed Immigrants Transformed Ancient Israel 6,500 Years Ago

Thousands of years ago in what is now northern Israel, waves of migrating people from the north and east — present-day Iran and Turkey — arrived in the region. And this influx of newcomers had a profound effect, transforming the emerging culture.

What's more, these immigrants not only brought new cultural practices; they also introduced new genes — such as the mutation that produces blue eyes — that were previously unknown in that geographic area, according to a new study.

Archaeologists recently discovered this historic population shift by analyzing DNA from skeletons preserved in an Israeli cave. The site, in the north of the tiny country, contains dozens of burials and more than 600 bodies dating to approximately 6,500 years ago, the scientists reported. [The Holy Land: 7 Amazing Archaeological Finds]

DNA analysis showed that skeletons preserved in the cave were genetically distinct from people who historically lived in that region. And some of the genetic differences matched those of people who lived in neighboring Anatolia and the Zagros Mountains, which are now part of Turkey and Iran, the study found.

Ancient Israel (then called Galilee) belonged to a region known as the southern Levant, part of a larger area, the Levant, which encompasses today's eastern Mediterranean countries. The southern Levant experienced a significant cultural shift during the Late Chalcolithic period, around 4500 B.C.E. to 3800 B.C.E, with denser settlements, more rituals performed in public and a growing use of ossuaries in funerary preparations, the researchers reported.

Though some experts had previously proposed that cultural transformation was driven by people who were native to the southern Levant, the authors of the new study suspected that waves of human migration explained the changes. To find answers, the scientists turned to a burial site in Israel's Peqi’in Cave, in what would have been Upper Galilee 6,500 years ago.

Unraveling an ancestry puzzle
Peqi'in is a natural cave, measuring around 56 feet (17 meters) long and about 16 to 26 feet (5 to 8 m) wide. Inside the cave are decorated jars and burial offerings — along with hundreds of skeletons — suggesting that the location served as a type of mortuary for Chalcolithic people who lived nearby.

However, not all of the cave's contents appeared to have local origins, study co-author Dina Shalem, an archaeologist with the Institute for Galilean Archaeology at Kinneret College in Israel, said in a statement.

"Some of the findings in the cave are typical to the region, but others suggest cultural exchange with remote regions," Shalem said. The artistic styles of these artifacts bear closer resemblance to styles common to more-northern regions of the Near East, lead study author Eadaoin Harney, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, told Live Science in an email.

The scientists sampled DNA from bone powder from 48 skeletal remains and were able to reconstruct genomes for 22 individuals found in the cave. That makes this one of the largest genetic studies of ancient DNA in the Near East, the researchers reported.

Blue eyes and fair skin
The scientists found that these individuals shared genetic features with people from the north, and those similar genes were absent in farmers who lived in the southern Levant earlier. For example, the allele (one of two or more alternative forms of a gene) that is responsible for blue eyes was associated with 49 percent of the sampled remains, suggesting that blue eyes had become common in people living in Upper Galilee. Another allele hinted that fair skin may have been widespread in the local population as well, the study authors wrote.

"Both eye and skin color are traits that are controlled by complex interactions between multiple alleles, many — but not all — of which have been identified," Harney explained.

"The two alleles that we highlight in our study are known to be strongly associated with light eye and skin color, respectively, and are often used to make predictions about the appearance of various human populations in ancient DNA studies," she said.

However, it is important to note that multiple other alleles can influence the color of eyes and skin in individuals, Harney added, so "scientists cannot perfectly predict pigmentation in an individual." 

The scientists also discovered that genetic diversity increased within groups over time, while genetic differences between groups decreased; this is a pattern that typically emerges in populations after a period of human migration, according to the researchers.

A dynamic past
By presenting DNA from the distant past, these findings offer exciting new insights into the dynamic ancient world and the diverse human populations that inhabited it, said Daniel Master, a professor of archaeology at Wheaton College in Illinois.

"One of the key questions of the Chalcolithic has always been to what extent the groups in Galilee were connected to the groups in the Be'ersheva Valley or the Jordan Valley or the Golan Heights," Master, who was not involved in the study, told Live Science in an email.

"The publication of the artifacts from Peqi'in has shown many cultural links between these regions, but it will be interesting to see, in the future, whether those links are genetic as well," Master said.

The researchers' results also resolve a long-standing debate about the pivotal factor that changed the trajectory of the Chalcolithic peoples' unique culture, Shalem said in the statement.

"We now know that the answer is migration," she said.

The findings were published online Aug. 20 in the journal Nature Communications.


Thursday, January 3, 2019

The great Texas emu bubble: An investment that never took off

What if tulips had been six feet tall and ran at 50km an hour?

The sun is a giant, gleaming emu egg in the sky, and if you gaze long enough at the Milky Way, you can see the long body of an emu formed from the stars. The world’s second largest bird after the ostrich, the emu is native to Australia and has long been a source of mythical inspiration—and sustenance—for Aboriginals. The big bird claims a place on Australia’s coat of arms, stamps and 50-cent coin. It even sparked a military deployment, the Great Emu War of 1932, when soldiers were sent to Western Australia to kill them and thereby save the farmers’ crops. The emus won.

From the 19th century, the three-toed bird started to spread its flightless wings and became a prized oddity in zoos worldwide. A century on, the emu was also seen as a potential source of red meat—a healthier version of beef. It was in this guise, as livestock, that the emu came to Texas in the 1980s. It did not end well for most of the emus, or most of their owners.

Enthusiasm and emu-friendly regulations saw the price of a breeding pair of emus, just a few hundred dollars in the late 1980s, rise to a whopping $28,000 by 1993. The next year it doubled again. The American Emu Association, an industry group, saw its membership rise 27-fold between 1988 and 1994, to 5,500 members, most of them in Texas.

The rationale for bringing the emu to Texas was that Americans wanted healthier meat, that the state has a long history of raising cattle for slaughter, and that, heck, it was the 1980s, and all sorts of weird stuff was happening. Some boosters also heralded the potential of ostriches, but emus won out over their ratite cousins. In its fundamentals, though, the Texas “emu bubble” of the 1990s was, like all investment bubbles, stoked by exuberance and greed. “Men, it has been well said, think in herds,” wrote the Scottish journalist Charles Mackay in 1841 in his book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”. Had Mr Mackay travelled to Lubbock or Midland a century and a half later, he would have believed that men think in mobs, as groups of emus are sometimes known.

From flowers to feathers

As in all bubbles, from 17th-century Dutch “tulipmania” to 21stcentury bitcoin, word of the wonders of the emu spread by all the social networks available, from word of mouth to small ads in local papers. Their boosters were keen to point out that there was more to emus than steak. They provided oil for lotions, skin for leather, feathers for clothes and enormous emerald eggs for four-person omelettes. Best of all, in terms of inflating a bubble, emus provided you with more emus, and thus an incentive to spread the word yet further and sell emus on to other would-be ratite-ranchers.

The state government also played a role in helping the emu market take flight. Between 1992 and 1995 the Texas department of agriculture reportedly gave out $400,000 in loans to encourage emu ranching. The state also offers tax breaks to people who use their land for agricultural purposes, which is enough of an incentive for some people to find animals to graze on their property even if they have no intention of farming; emus fitted the bill. And Texas law was, and is, extremely lax when it comes to the import of exotic animals. The state is believed to have more tigers living in captivity in backyards than exist in the wild worldwide.

The new emu owners were not experienced investors—or emu raisers. “We were clueless. We had never even raised chickens,” says Gina Taylor, who bought a pair of emus with her husband in 1995, soon after they moved from Dallas to a rural town called La Rue. They used a laundry basket with a heat lamp over it to incubate eggs in their kitchen.

Such a rough-and-ready approach seems quite appropriate for emus, which are somewhat scruffy beasts. But even if not sleek, they do have some redeeming features. They need much less land to graze than cows. They are quieter, too, except during the breeding season, when the females make booming noises and males grunt. Though this was not necessarily a selling point in Texas, the birds have a powerfully proto-feminist attitude to the patriarchy. Females choose males, rather than vice versa, sometimes going so far as to fight over them. Males take on the responsibility of incubating the eggs, refusing to leave the nest to eat or drink for weeks at a time, and then raising their chicks as single parents.

Divorced from the mob

However, those who anticipated a life of gentle emu-care and handsome profits found themselves disappointed. One challenge was that emus were not easy to handle. They are as tall as human beings, growing up to 190cm (6 feet 2 inches) and easily weighing 55kg (120lb). Being the only birds with calf muscles helps them sprint at up to 50kph (30mph), prompting some dramatic highspeed chases when they escaped. They can also kick. A young Hispanic man who had crossed one came into an emergency room in Austin in the mid-1990s with bad cuts and bruises shouting “Pollo gigante!” (Giant chicken!).

And raising the birds was not cheap. People ploughed tens of thousands of dollars into it. The emus required fencing and feed. The most forward-thinking emu owners bought expensive equipment to microchip their flocks, because emu rustling became a problem as values rose. So did emu fraud. Some retirees and speculators put their savings into emus that were sold to them but never delivered, sparking lawsuits over avian Ponzi schemes.

A few dozen restaurants in Texas briefly added emu to their menus, including Dunston’s, a popular steak house in Dallas, but consumers were hard to win over. Emu claims lower cholesterol and fat, and higher iron, but it is more expensive than beef and less familiar. Small farmers never co-ordinated to get the distribution or quality control they needed to make it a profitable, large-scale enterprise. Even emu enthusiasts did not make the meat a staple of their diets. “We occasionally ate an emu burger, but never ate any of our own,” says Ms Taylor.

As the hoped-for demand failed to materialise, the supply continued to increase. Emus lay 5-15 eggs in each clutch and can keep doing so for more than 16 years. With 12 surviving chicks a year, a single breeding pair can spawn 133 breeding pairs within five years and nearly 36,000 within ten years. The population boomed at precisely the moment it was becoming clear that Americans had no appetite for a new red meat.

The bubble popped painfully. By 1998 emus were worthless. Rather than keep paying to feed them, many owners just abandoned them. Some farmers cut their own fences, hoping their emus would leave and become someone else’s problem. When Parker county, west of Fort Worth, auctioned off 211birds it had rounded up in 1998, they fetched only $2-4 each. You can sometimes find emu-burgers at Twisted Root, a chain in Dallas, alongside elk-burgers. But not often.

One result is that there are mobs of feral emus in parts of Texas—farm survivors and their descendants. Occasionally they show up in small towns or nearly cause crashes as they cross country roads. Animalcontrol officers and police struggle to catch them. When they do, they often have no way to transport them, because they are too tall to fit into dog kennels.

Your correspondent went to visit a female emu that had been successfully corralled and now resides at the Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation, a non-profit centre outside of San Antonio. This one is probably descended from a farm emu hatched in the 1990s, but no one can be sure. Emus can live 30 years. She has been there for several years and spends her days walking the perimeter, like a watchman making constant rounds, although she is shy and does not want to come close, even for a treat of a sweet pumpkin offered freely through the fence. She seems to know that humans are fickle and untrustworthy.

The emus that were freed were the fortunate ones.

Some despairing farmers simply stopped feeding them, starving them to death. Others shot them. Two brothers outside Fort Worth decided to eliminate their emus with baseball bats to the head. They had killed 22 of their 100-strong mob before the police came, summoned by appalled neighbours. Some lobbied to charge the brothers with animal cruelty, but no charges were ultimately filed. “Texas likes to think of itself as the wild, untamed West, where man can do what he wants to do, to hell with who he’s doing it to,” explains Lynn Cuny, founder of Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation. “Animals are viewed as property, which people can discard or destroy like old pieces of furniture.”

The emu was not the last species to fall foul of human greed. Since the 1990s, many Texans have pinned their hope for riches on new animals, such as whitetail deer and long-horn cattle. And just as Texans have not learned from their experience with emus, nor has the world. More recently India experienced its own emu boom, with farmers piling into raising the big birds. They made the same mistake Texans did by focusing on hatching new birds instead of creating demand for the meat. The market collapsed in 2013.

From the human point of view, this is a tale of never learning. From the emu’s, it is adaptation in action, every economic fiasco an evolutionary opportunity. From the plains of Texas to the streets of India, emus are flapping those tiny wings they do not really have and making the most of wherever it is they find themselves. Let the wild emus roam.


Sunday, December 9, 2018

Kate Mulvey: A life of foolish optimism

The latest installment of the life of Kate Mulvey. She seems to specialize in bad decisions. Her search for the ideal has ruined her life

My dad stands in the kitchen, angrily telling me to ‘put the butter back in the fridge’. I roll my eyes and mutter ‘whatever’, under my breath, then harrumphing loudly, storm off into my bedroom, slamming the door as I go.

I am not an hormonal 15-year-old. I am a middle-aged, menopausal woman. How did it come to this? How on earth did a successful writer, once engaged to be married and living in a beautiful home in West London, end up living back with her dad at 55?

To say I feel cross, hemmed in, a failure, would be an understatement. My life was never supposed to be like this. I couldn’t wait to leave home. When I went to university, I never, for one moment, thought I’d ever return.

Looking back at my mid-20s, I lived a glamorous life. A roving reporter, constant parties and a dating diary full of eligible bachelors, I was footloose and fancy free. In my 30s, the landscape started to change. Friends either got married or tightly clutched the hand of a potential husband-to-be.

In hindsight, I should have started to think about settling down and making serious plans for the future, but I was young, idealistic and lived in the moment. And I loved being single.

To make matters worse, when I got my first book deal in the late Nineties, I had the chance to buy a London flat. But even though I found the perfect place, I changed my mind and spent the money on holidays instead. That flat is now valued at about £1 million.

Then nine years ago, aged 46, I met Josh through friends at a dinner party. It was an instant mutual attraction. He was a handsome banker and we lived together in his house in Barnes, South-West London.

On Sundays, we’d curl up together and watch black-and-white movies in bed, drink green tea and say how much we loved each other.

When he proposed to me one summer in Italy, I was over the moon. I saw us enjoying a life of comfortable companionship. Just the two of us — neither of us had children.

Josh bought me a beautiful gold ring with a turquoise stone, but somehow, whenever I dared to bring up the subject of marriage, the reality seemed to scare him rigid. One Christmas in Barbados, as we were lying in bed, I told him how lovely it would be if next year we could do it as man and wife.

Josh completely clammed up and changed the subject.

For the next 18 months, we carried on the same as we always had. Then, one day, just shy of my 50th birthday, after four years together, something inside me snapped. I realised that Josh was never going to commit and told him the relationship was over.

Although heartbroken, I packed up all my stuff and moved out there and then. I don’t know where I thought I was going to live. I spent a few months sleeping on friends’ sofas, while looking for a flat of my own.

But the sheer awfulness of my situation soon became apparent. The property market had sky-rocketed. The stark reality of what I could actually afford on my own came as a huge shock. Buying wasn’t even remotely possible, but neither was renting — a bedsit in London could set you back £1,000 a month.

When my father suggested moving back to my parents’ three-bedroom flat in Chelsea, I jumped at the chance. It was to be a temporary arrangement.

My mother was suffering from dementia and Dad was glad to have some help. I would live there rent-free, but contribute to the bills.

I thought it would be for a few months at most. Certainly, on the day I lugged my 37in TV and other belongings from my adult life back to the spare room in the flat I last lived in as a teenager, I never anticipated that I would still be here four years later.

The first thing I did was put my stamp on the bedroom; I got rid of the old single bed, bought a new double one, and gave the walls a magnolia makeover.

And to begin with I was happy to be back with my parents, in a lovely flat where I didn’t have to label my milk in the fridge.

My father is an artist and pretty laid back, but what I failed to appreciate is just how difficult it is to adjust to life with your parents when you are an adult.

My naive dream that we would be two generations co-existing in a stress-free home proved to be just that — naive. Life as I knew it came to an abrupt halt.

After years of running my own house, hosting lavish dinner parties with my ex, not having my own space to do what I want and the lack of privacy was something I found hard to adjust to.

Forget a leisurely cappuccino and reading the newspapers. Every morning, all I could hear was my father’s TV blaring. (He is an avid watcher of current affairs programmes. Like a lot of older people, he likes the TV on extra loud, a noise that makes my nerves jangle.)

But it did feel good to be able look after my mother. Dealing with her illness could be harrowing. She would scream out at night if her covers had fallen off or if she thought it was daytime and no one was there. I would pat the duvet reassuringly, telling her everything was all right. At those times my eyes would well up and could feel my heart breaking.

She died a year after I moved in. After that it was just me and Dad rattling around in the flat. My father was consumed with grief. ‘I’ll never see her again,’ he would say, clutching a photo of her when they were younger.

Overnight, I went from being the naughty middle child to surrogate parent. There was a role reversal and for the first time in my life, Dad was leaning on me for support. Two years on and it is still nice to be able to be there for my dad, who is 77.

But what I now realise is that it doesn’t matter if you are 15 or 55, the child/parent dynamic never really changes. I may see myself as an independent career woman, but my father still sees me as his little girl, who has to live by his rules.

‘Please don’t ask me what time I am coming back,’ I grumble, when he starts to quiz me.

And over the years Dad has become a lot more set in his ways — as have I. There is his bizarre kitchen behaviour. He accumulates large piles of old tea bags and coffee grounds destined for the compost in our small back garden and lines them up on the marbled kitchen countertop.

This has clearly become an issue. But then it is his house and I have to tow the line.

I am not naive enough to think I do not irritate him. He quite rightly complains about mess I leave in the kitchen, the clothes drying on the radiators and the way that I leave the cupboard doors open.

On a sweltering day this summer, as I was happily plucking leaves off the basil plants in the garden, he came out and shoved a pair of scissors in my hand.

‘You have to cut them off at the stems,’ he said, witheringly.

Did I respond with calm maturity, did I heck! My inner teen raised its ugly head. I sighed heavily, rolled my eyes — again — and told him in no uncertain terms that I would get the basil my way.

I love Dad dearly and it is my fault I am back under his roof, but sometimes, I find myself lying awake at night wondering where it all went wrong. It has impacted on my confidence and self-esteem.

There is still a stigma about a grown woman living back home. Being middle-aged is hard enough. But when you are middle-aged, unmarried and living with your dad, it’s a thousand times harder.

Somehow, without even realising it, I have slipped into the role of maiden aunt, that derided central figure in large Victorian families, who gave up on marriage to devote her life to looking after her ageing parents, without complaint.

Only this is 2018. Back in the 19th century, a spinster living at home was part of the social fabric. Nowadays, women are supposed to be super-efficient, independent creatures, with their own flats and high-flying careers to boot.

My friends joke that I am the oldest teenager in Britain. Who can blame them? What could be sadder than a woman in advanced middle age who can’t even bring a boyfriend back for a glass of wine or — God forbid — to stay the night.

My two sisters, one older and one younger, find my situation utterly hilarious. Once a month they all come round for Sunday lunch. And every time the doorbell goes, childish resentment smoulders within me as my sisters waltz in, laughing and content, eat, then leave — to their homes and families. Back to their busy adult lives.

It’s all right for them, I think as I sulkily stack the dishwasher, I am not only burdened with the lion’s share of looking after Dad, I feel as though I have been left behind.

This is the stage of life when many of my friends are watching their offspring going off to university, and I am still stuck at home!

I don’t want to be ungrateful or drown in a vat of self-pity, because there are many unexpected benefits in this new living arrangement.

Unlike many of my friends, who are one pay cheque away from the bailiffs, I go to sleep deeply secure that I have a roof over my head. Unlike a bank or a landlord, Dad is hardly going to evict me.

Besides, Dad and I have always got along, sharing the same fiery Irish temperament and sense of humour.

I have introduced him to the pleasures of Netflix — we are both addicted the American series Designated Survivor — and he will listen patiently whenever I launch into a boyfriend rant. But most important of all, we have found that we have been able to give each other support.

He was always on hand throughout my childhood with sound bits of advice to do with life and love.

It is reassuring to feel that shoulder to lean on once again. And, I am on hand when his grief about Mum overwhelms him.

Earlier this year I heard a muffled noise coming from the kitchen. There was Dad, clutching a couple of bracelets that Oskar — my youngest nephew — had made for Mum. Tears were plopping into Dad’s sandwich.

I took his hand, understanding there was nothing that I could do, except be there when he needs to talk about things.

So what next? While I feel happy to have this chance to get to know my father again, I certainly hope to be moving on at some stage. Of course, one glance at the property prices and I can’t ever see that happening.

On the plus side, I have started seeing a wonderful man, who lives down the road in Fulham. I told my father the other day, how much I liked him.

‘OK,’ he said, absentmindedly, ‘but put the butter back in the fridge before you go out.’


Earlier versions of the Mulvey story as under: