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Don’t Reign On My Parade

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II en route to St Paul's Cathedral, 5th June 2012. Photo: Defence Images

The Queen on her way to St Paul’s Cathedral

As a metaphor, the image of the whole country going down the river for the Jubilee is so appropriate, I’m surprised more wiseacre commentators haven’t picked up on it. It is galling enough that a country in such dire straits — with high unemployment, a double-dip recession in progress, a failing health service, and its myriad other problems — can afford to splash out on celebrating the one person in the nation who never need worry about the spectre of poverty or work (the Queen is, after all, permanently underemployed) not dying.  But that the manner of this spectacle should be her sitting idly while a pageant of her subjects float past on what might as well be a river of tears, in barges crafted from their dashed hopes and dreams, is nothing short of cheek.She stood watching this flotilla of filthy followers for hours, we are told, as if that was enough to justify her privileged position. The time, money and effort of thousands of people was evident, while all she had to do was put on her best hat and watch them pass in their little boats with the rain beating down upon them, giving them the appearance of drowned rats. It must have looked like something out of a postmodern Wind in the Willows.

I wonder, as she stood there, undoubtedly bored, whether she was aware of what some of her subjects had to endure to enable this event. The Guardian reported that a number of long term jobseekers were forced to work as stewards without pay during the event. That, in itself, doesn’t count as out of the ordinary in this Tory Britain, but the details revealed a sequence of uncaring treatment that was described as akin to slavery. They were bussed in from Bristol in the early hours of the morning and abandoned, told to camp under a bridge like common trolls, made to change into their uniforms in public and had no access to toilets for the whole day. I don’t expect the unemployed to be treated like royalty, but I’d demand at least they be treated like human beings.

A Celebratory Message for the Queen. Photo: jordi.martorell

Celebrating the Jubilee

I tried my best to avoid coverage of the Jubilee, but the signs and signifiers were everywhere. I reached a point where I swore that, if I saw another Union Jack, I would wrap myself in it and immolate myself in Trafalgar Square. Displays of excessive jingoism only seem to manifest during royal events, football tournaments and wars; the rest of the time, most citizens couldn’t give two patriotic shits about the country. But stores have done a roaring business in red, white and blue tat – from bunting and tableware to clothing and cushion covers – so every home can look like the venue for a BNP rally. The only theme that I’ve found more annoying is constantly being confronted with the litany that I should ‘Keep Calm and Carry On,’ on posters, mugs and T-shirts. In the current political and economic crisis, that’s the equivalent of saying ‘What iceberg?’ when the ship is already sinking. I, for one, will be donning my T-shirt featuring the slogan ‘Time To Panic and Set Fire to Things’ any day now.

I’ve nothing personal against the Queen. As run of the mill old ladies go, I suppose I find her inoffensive enough. If I were in a post office queue, she’s the kind of person I’d rather was behind me than in front of me, as you know she’s going to try to engage the person serving in conversation about her various aches and pains, the doings of her million grandchildren, and what her husband said to the Chinese ambassador this time. I’m also not going to let this article descend into an over-reaching republican diatribe, in spite of that being the general thrust of my opinions. My issue here is with the misplaced and mystifying adoration of her social position.

In 2002 a BBC poll revealed the country’s preferred list of 100 Greatest Britons, which placed Elizabeth II at number 24. Two monarchs beat her: Queen Victoria and her namesake, Elizabeth I, the only crowned head to reach the top ten. But, tellingly of the contrary nature of all of us, Oliver Cromwell, who chopped off a King’s head and briefly turned the country into a republic, beat all monarchs bar one. Three Prime Ministers and a man who tried to blow up parliament with a King in it also placed nearly as highly, or higher than, our present Queen. The rest of the top of the list was completed by notable scientists, authors, explorers, mathematicians, military leaders and musicians – in other words, people who actually contributed to the betterment of the nation and its people, not just someone who got to where they are merely by being born. So do we really love our monarchy as much as all the pomp and trumpeting would have us believe?

Tradition was you’d rid yourself of a troublesome head of state by divorcing their head from their body. Now, any policy passed by parliament must be signed into law by the monarch, meaning they would have to sign the law removing themselves from the constitution, and finding any monarch progressive enough to throw themselves from the royal gravy train is as likely as finding a stone that bleeds blue blood. The truth of the matter is that we still have a monarch because this system is set up in such a way that no government would make so radical and potentially unpopular a proposition as to abolish the monarchy, and no monarch would put themselves out of a job. It’s a classic elephant in the room dilemma. Everyone knows the role of the monarch is entirely ceremonial and symbolic, but no one is prepared to take the steps to cut away the dead flesh. It’s tradition, but that’s just another way of saying we do something a certain way because that’s the way we’ve always done it. I’m not sure that our adoration, bordering on religious idolatry, doesn’t come about largely because it’s expected of one.

I also wonder what the rest of the world thinks when they see the footage on their evening news. Undoubtedly the royals are good for tourism, they’re a spectator sport. But so are the Hunger Games, and if the country needs a distraction in these troubled times I would rather the O2 Arena was rechristened the O2 Thunderdome and the privileged few would be forced to duel until only one was left standing, and in that way at least they would have earned my respect, and any right to parade.

Does the Pope shit in the woods?

PM David Cameron this week, at a speech in Oxford commemorating the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, made the world shaking announcement that the UK was a Christian country. This astounding peroration was made in support of his claim that a return to the country’s Christian values would stop its “moral collapse.” If this were true, then bears are Catholic and the Pope shits in the woods.

Religious Ursidae and defecating pontiffs aside, this would be the kind of meat Christopher Hitchens would relish sinking his sharp teeth into, but in his place lesser moral philosophers will have to chew on it the best they can.

My two main issues with this statement are that I do not believe the UK is as much a Christian country as the Prime Minister makes out, and, even if it were, we do not get our morals from the Bible and should hold any individual who does in deep suspicion. There are lengthier dissertations on just this subject, such as The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and End of Faith by Sam Harris, but I’ll make a brief summary of the main points as I see them.

According the the 2001 Census, 72% of the UK population describe themselves a Christian, and 16% as having ‘no religion.’ This doesn’t give an accurate sketch of the actual religious beliefs of the country. There is an increasingly secular movement within the population, which isn’t reflected by these figures. Technically, I am a Catholic, and I’m quite sure when my father filled out the form ten years ago he would have marked me down as such. However, when old enough to decide for myself what I did and didn’t believe in, I decided I most definitely did not believe in a personal god and confidently describe myself as an atheist. ‘Atheist’ was not an option on the census a decade ago, nor was agnostic, nor secular. Yet these combined describe a large slice of the opinions of the population. We’ve all filled out forms and know that if your preferred choice is not represented you pick the closest option. The majority of people of voting age and above – i.e. those legally eligible to take part in a census – will have been at least born into if not actually brought up in one or other version of the Christian faith and so would pick that. But given the current falling church attendance figures they could not in all fairness be described as practising their religion.

According to a 2008 survey by the Office of National Statistics, only 38% of the population professed a belief in a personal god, and 45.8% considered themselves to have ‘no religion.’ Take into account that that 38% includes other faiths with large representations in the UK – Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism etc. – which it can generally be said are less secular than British Christians and combined account for at least 6% of the population in the 2001 census. In the 2010 British attitudes survey, only 43% described themselves as Christian, with just over 50% choosing the option ‘no religion.’ That’s half the population last year. This shows a distinct trend of increasing secularism. If democracy is meant to represent the majority of opinions, then the majority of opinions are that the UK is not currently a Christian country.

On the second point, that we do or should get our moral values from the Bible and the Christian religion, I would like to make David Cameron – a man confessedly a non-practising Christian – aware of some of the more morally reprehensible qualities in the Bible. According to the King James Bible it is morally acceptable to do the following: Commit genocide against non-Christians; give up your daughter and/or wife (it doesn’t matter, as, according to the Bible all women are the property of their parent or spouse) for gang rape; slay any individual caught worshipping another deity; and to persecute and execute homosexuals. Anyone who suggests the world would be a better place if we followed the values prescribed by the Bible has, I suspect, not read it.

But things are better now, a religious apologist might argue. No one pays much attention to the Old Testament any more. Are they better? The current Pope – apologies if it seems I am picking on Catholics, but I was brought up one so they receive the majority of my ire – is a man who is known to have shielded paedophile priests, and instigated the lie that condoms spread HIV/AIDS and has refused Vatican financial aid to African nations that hand out free contraceptives. Hardly a worthy example of ethical behaviour.

The most strongly religious countries at the beginning of the 21st century are undoubtedly the so-called Islamic-fundamentalist nations, such as Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Recent legal judgements in these countries have included the handing out of death sentences – to be carried out by methods ranging from stoning to having a tractor push a wall over and crush the convicted – for such ‘crimes’ as homosexuality, blasphemy and for being the victim – yes, the victim – of rape. As good an example of why religion should be kept out of politics and the law as any.

The United States – a country more strongly Christian than probably any other – has a per capita prison population of 743 per 100,000 (0.743%) – the highest in the world. The United Kingdom, for all its ‘moral collapse’ comes in at 89th of the 216 on the ICPS (International Centre for Prison Studies) list with 155 per 100,000 (0.155%) – about a fifth as high.

To be frank, if these facts and figures are an indication of the benefits of a Christian nation, I’ll take moral collapse any day.

The Font of Knowledge

“Wouldn’t it be interesting if there were only one typeface in the world? Designers would really have to think about the idea behind their designs instead of covering it up with fancy typefaces. One, universal typeface would really strip away all the flashy emptiness in design. And, of course, that one typeface would have to be Helvetica.”

Erik Kessels

The best is definitive by definition, but in some cases is an abstract concept. What is the best album ever recorded? You may have a favourite, or be able to compile a list of worthy candidates, but that list would be entirely subjective. What is the best food? It may be possible to conceive of some ideal consumable, perfectly nutritionally balanced yet satisfying every craving and taste bud, at the same time involving no environmental impact and minimal guilt. You might as well try eating Scotch Mist on toast.

But what is the best typeface, and why should you care? I would argue it is important that someone should care.

Just My Type by Simon Garfield makes the case for the latter question quite brilliantly, being a lengthy love letter to type – its form, its history and the culture that surrounds the little letters. BBC Radio 4 selected the book as their book of the week for the week beginning 5th December 2011, and serialised it in an abridged form read by Julian Rhind Tutt. The five programs only cover the first five chapters, and those are just a taster of a subject that has risen to a kind of geeky, obsessive cultural prominence.

I am a graphic designer by profession, and, due to my dogmatic adherence to the rules of type, I have been described by some as a ‘font Nazi.’* There is an unspoken etiquette regarding the use of typefaces. Comic Sans for example – a typeface that receives coverage in the very first episode of the Radio 4 series, which gives you an idea of how much these cartoon characters split opinion – would not be suitable for use on a funeral notice, or wedding invite. It is a jaunty font, that looks like it has been formed by a child with a felt pen. As this slideshow illustrates, out of context it looks vulgar and awkward. Although I shirk at the request to use it by a client, this most loathed of letter forms does have its place.

It comes down to appropriateness of use. Typefaces are more about right and wrong than good and bad, and all the grey areas in between. But, as Dutch artist Erik Kessels proposes in the above quote, if there were only one typeface – an idea, in itself, that I wouldn’t support – it would have to be the Swiss Helvetica.

I am more in favour of standardization rather than uniformity. We can understand the importance of standardizing something like time, as happened in 1840, so one o’clock in London is the same one o’clock in Newcastle or Manchester. But we wouldn’t go to the extent of making it also one o’clock in New York and Tokyo. Standardization benefits us in the case of expectancy: If we buy a Big Mac in a McDonald’s in Los Angeles, we know that, barring regional variations, it’ll be the same as Le Big Mac in Paris.

The great patriarch of sans serif type is unquestionably Akzidenz-Grotesk, and it is its descendants that dominate the practice of type standardisation. It began in the first half of the twentieth century on the transport networks, just as standard time did. The London Underground kicked proceedings off, with Johnston Sans adorning their signs from 1916. The names Jock Kinnear and Margaret Calvert may mean little to the average reader, but their typefaces Motorway and Transport are seen by millions of motorists and pedestrians every day in the UK. They are the typefaces of all UK road signs, specifically designed to be legible from distance with bold spacing, and have been adopted in Hong Kong, Iceland, Italy, Greece, Denmark, Portugal and in the Middle East.

However, Helvetica’s use has now reached such a climax that it is impossible to avoid, unless you’ve lived in a cave for the past few decades. As Just My Type recounts – Episode 3 of the Radio series – New York resident Cyrus Highsmith tried to spend a day without Helvetica. It was harder than you would expect. He couldn’t eat anything that had Helvetica on its packaging, nor use transport that used it – which includes the city’s subway – but that didn’t matter anyway as he struggled to even spend money, as new US bank notes use it, as did his credit cards. Add to that list BMW, Jeep, Kawasaki, Microsoft, CNN, Panasonic, Motorola, Mitsubishi and NASA to name but a few which utilize it extensively, and you’ve got some idea how much its familiar characters inhabit our lives.

So, by extent of use, you could argue that Helvetica is the best typeface. But ultimately preferring Verdana or Univers is as much a choice as is liking certain food, music, cinema, literature or anything else about which it is possible to have an opinion. There are rules – some of them unspoken – but a flexible and practical designer knows that they are more guidelines.

*For clarity, there is a difference between the terms ‘type’ and ‘font’. A typeface is the name for the family group, such as Helvetica or Times New Roman. A font refers to a specific weight and point size of the typeface, for example 12 point Helvetica Black. The distinction comes from the time when the letters were cast in moulded lead alloys for printing. Each set of characters of one typeface grouped in the same weight and size was called a ‘font’. In the digital age, the boundaries are less rigid and even professionals often now use ‘font’ as the less specific term.

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