Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Sproggis - a further argument for nature vs nurture

I have in the past seen fit to blog on the subject of Margaret Mead, Samoa and the standard social science model; and how it held nurture to trump nature in the formation of character.

Looking back, I was predisposed to be sceptical because of a boy whom we shall call Sproggis (not his real name for reasons which will soon become apparent), who was with me through primary and comprehensive schools from the ages of 10-16.

Sproggis was from a street which we shall call Carlsberg Avenue (not its real name). Being from Carslberg Avenue carried an instant air of "bein' 'ard" around our parts. This was because our local council, for reasons best known to themselves, put all the council house rent defaulters into Carlsberg Avenue. This meant that over time the entire road filled with the kind of people who appear on the Jeremy Kyle show - dads absent, unknown or in prison; divorced mothers with kids by several different fathers, alcoholics, drug abusers, the long-term unemployed. It was a street down which nicely-brought up kids from up the hill (like me) Did Not Walk, for fear of being ambushed for fun and left tied to several different lampposts. At once.

Sproggis put the fear of God into the other inhabitants of Carlsberg Avenue from the age of seven. He was not large and imposing - most large imposing people I know are actually softies inside. Sproggis was a skinny, rat-faced ginger with scarily light blue eyes, which had no hint of human softness to them. Regarding his face was like staring into twin pools of smoking bleach, and was unadvisable at the best of times anyway for fear of getting a "What are YOU looking at?" beating.

By the age of 10, we all knew to treat him with circumspection. Sometimes he would be friendly, and you would enjoy those times like a brief interval of sunshine between thunderstorms. Inevitably, something would set him off; and senseless violence and the infliction of pain would follow.

Sproggis was not stupid - his intelligence frequently manifested itself in acts of devious larceny requiring considerable forethought and planning. The problem was that he was utterly without empathy. I still believe that he was - and is - a genuine psychopath. No morals, no remorse, no feelings for the pain inflicted on others. And recall that this was all apparent by the age of ten.

If you had come into our classroom in the third year of junior school (that's year 5 in new money) and said "Now then kids - which child in this class will be convicted of murder before their 25th birthday?" There would have been but the briefest of intervals before we all swivelled round and pointed our jam-smeared digits in Sproggis's direction.

A brief interval of hope appeared when he became quite a proficient break-dancer in his late teens; I remember reading in the local free paper that a judge had let him off a shoplifting charge because he was trying to turn his life around.

The judge's confidence was misplaced. Not long after he was arrested for burglary - carried out to feed what by then was a serious heroin habit. While in prison, he murdered his cellmate, and act that was covered for a day or so by the national press. I've always wondered how you could possibly come up with a plausible alibi, having been locked in a cell with one other person, who is then found brutally murdered the next morning. But then, this is psychopath territory - "he annoyed me so I killed him".

Bizarrely, he was released after serving 10 years or thereabouts. Still on heroin, he turned up at Carlsberg Avenue to call on his ex-girlfriend. His ex-girlfriend's mother answered the door, and refused to let him in. Upon which he beat her (the mother) so severely she ended up in hospital and will carry scars for the rest of her life.

As I write, he is back in prison.

Now the point of all this is not to impress you with what a hard school I went to (it wasn't that bad; Sproggis was a glaring exception to the general rule), but to point out that by the age of 10 we, his classmates, had already worked out what a professor of sociology would presumably deny - it was in his nature to be bad. Nurture didn't come into it.

Had they but taken our advice, he would have been preemptively locked up, saving at least one life and a whole lot of pain and anguish. Discuss.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Understanding international relations through British comedy. 1 - North Korea

Lou and Andy from 'Little Britain' explain Beijing-Pyongyang relations:

Lou (dressed as Hu Jintao): Now you've got a bit of money to spend from all that dog fur you sold to the Russians to make furry hats.
Andy (who does bear more than a passing resemblance to Kim Jong-il but with lanker hair: Yeah I know.
Lou: So what would you like to spend it on?
Andy: Nuclears.
Lou: Are you sure?
Andy: Yeah.
Lou: Why don't you spend it on economic development? You like economic development.
Andy: Yeah I know.
Lou: So what will you spend it on?
Andy: Nuclears.
Lou: But you always say that nuclear ambitions are the mark of the imperialist warmaniac bent on oppressing the world's progressive people and stifling the desire of all compatriots for peaceful reunification.
Andy: Yeah I know.
Lou: And besides, if you have nuclears again the IAEA inspectors will want to inspect them and will call for UN sanctions if you defy the ban, and that's a right kerfuffle.
Andy: Yeah I know.
Lou: And nobody will give you any food aid for your birthday.
Andy: Yeah I know.
Lou: And you like food aid.
Andy: Yeah I know.
Lou: You're absolutely sure you can do without food aid and will have the nuclears instead?
Andy: Yeah.
Lou: So what are you going to spend it on?
Andy: Nuclears.
Lou: Well if you say so.
Andy: [Leaps out of wheelchair while Lou's back is turned and starts enriching uranium]
Lou: So what do you want for your birthday?
Andy: Food aid.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

I was outside this hotel in Catalunya at 4 am when the police arrived...

This title is entirely true, yet curiously may need some background explanation:

We have an old friend called Henry, with whom we occasionally keep in touch. Henry recently e-mailed me to announce that he was getting married, and invited us to his wedding. We agreed to go to - as we thought - Spain for this happy event, so we said yes, booked a hotel room, tickets with RyanAir (air transport's equivalent of really bad beer - you hate it but you keep going back for more), packed black tie/ evening dress as per the dress code and so on.

On or shortly after arrival we were disabused of several things - we were not in Spain, we were in Catalunya*, a totally different country which has never had anything to do with Spain, good Lord no! Whatever gave you that impression? Also, Henry was marrying into a seriously wealthy aristocratic family who know how to throw a serious party, and are also full-on Catalan independence supporters (the bride wore a separatist flag at one point. Over her wedding dress, I hasten to add).

Young Guthlac, meanwhile, discovered a previously unsuspected taste for being picked up and cuddled by glamorously dressed Catalan ladies, and at his age (16 months) was easily able to achieve this end by holding his arms out, adopting a cute expression and saying "Ek?" to them.

At 3am we decided to leave, as Guthlac's dancing and flirting were starting to show signs of tiredness. I duly returned to our table, scooped up a dinner jacket that looked plausibly like mine and joined my family in a taxi back to the hotel. On arriving there, I removed the dinner jacket and suddenly realised that various items were missing from my pockets. And that the sleeves were too long. And that it was a different style from mine.

Although it is undoubtedly an advantage of male evening dress that it's all pretty much the same and therefore doesn't require a new outfit to be bought for each event you go to, and that you don't lose any time or suffer any stress working out what to wear, it does leave open the possibility that you pick up the wrong jacket, especially when stuffed with 26 courses of food (yes, twenty-six, 22 of which were tapas-style appetisers) and addled with a selection of outstandingly good wines.

I staggered downstairs and asked the charming and suitably unflappable lady on night duty at the reception desk if such a thing as a taxi was available at this time of night. It was, but I had to wait a while. I opted to go out into the fresh air, where the receptionist joined me for her smoke break and a chat.

At which point, as per the title of this post, a police car pulled up to find me hanging around at 4am outside a hotel with a lady other than my wife in what, strictly speaking, was a stolen jacket.

"This can mean one of two things" the receptionist remarked. "Trouble, or coffee."

The cops sauntered over in the "I have all the time in world" manner common to cops the world over. As in the collapsing Uzbek lamppost incident, one could instinctively understand the entire conversation which transpired:
"Good evening officer. I trust all is well."
"Oh yes, just doing our rounds to check..."
[Expectant pause]
"Would you like a coffee?"
"Ooh - it hadn't occurred to us that you might have some coffee again this morning as on every other morning for the past year, but now you come to mention it that would be very nice!"

*Previously known to me only from George Orwell's book about his experiences importing French cheese to Barcelona, as detailed in his book "A Fromage to Catalonia".