In some ways I identify with Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl whose earnest pronouncements about climate change have caused a media sensation. I remember so well when I was her age and I had strong political opinions. My concern was winning the Cold War—I was arrested at Moscow Airport for smuggling in leaflets stuffed down my socks, detained for 24 hours and then deported. As a Young Conservative, I attended meetings and conferences where I would impatiently question government ministers about their lack of progress.
Counterpoints Age discrimination by Harry Phibs
Precocious political utterances have the advantage of novelty and thus have a better chance of catching the eye of the media. I spotted that and had some modest success—although nothing like the impact Greta has achieved. On the other hand, there is the difficulty in “being taken seriously”. I suffered little age discrimination simply because people assumed I was older. I was never a teenager apart from in a literal sense—I went straight from being 11 to about 26.
My greatest memory is of arguing. People were most willing to tell me they disagreed with me and I thrived on it. Teachers at my comprehensive school were very interested in discussing my letters to the local paper demanding that their employer, the Inner London Education Authority, be abolished. CND was a great fashion at the time—many pupils and quite a few teachers wore badges. My dissent provoked astonishment and discussion.
How much of a challenge does Greta have from her classmates or teachers? She certainly didn’t get one from the MPs she met in Westminster recently. Yet much of what she said was either contentious or factually wrong. She mentioned being influenced by a film showing a polar bear starving due to climate change. Not only has the polar bear population been increasing, but the specific claims in the National Geographic video she referred to were false. Local sea ice had not retreated early that year. No other starving bears were seen. The bear’s condition was probably due to a form of cancer and was certainly unrelated to climate change. National Geographic issued an apology. Then Greta declared the “active current support” for the UK shale gas fracking industry “is beyond absurd.” But in the US the switch to shale has resulted in a significant reduction of CO2 emissions in energy production.
One way of insulting teenagers expressing concerns about political issues is to tell them to shut up and go away. It is far more damaging and patronising to nod along to everything they say and pretend to agree.
A better approach is to challenge errors. The biggest compliment we can pay to teenagers is to consider them up to vigorous and honest debate.
What’s in a word? BY Marina Gerner
On a normal day, every table inside the British Library’s lobby is taken. Students, academics and freelances are hunched over laptops, living illustrations of the latest method of writing. To their left, a new exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, on until August 27, harks back to the very invention of script, some 5,000 years ago. It promises to take us from Egyp-
tian hieroglyphs to emojis. Visitors are greeted with a limestone stele from AD 647. A sign says the stone’s Mayan glyphs describe a ruler and events from his reign, sadly without revealing any specifics. But in a nice touch, it adds: “Please don’t touch me, I’m not as young and stable as I used to be.”
Exhibition visitors line up and follow the displays around as if in a school cafeteria, while a soporific voice from a video drones on. The cafeteria queue makes the whole experience dull, but some of the objects are still worth seeing. The Mesopotamian “Jemdet Nasr” tablet records barley portions given out to farmworkers, revealing that an early function of writing was accounting, rather than something more romantic.
Mesoamerica was one of the first places, after Mesopotamia, Egypt and China, where writing first emerged. Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century, but the Chinese had clay type in the 11th century and Korea developed metal type from the 13th century.
As was often the case, women’s contribution to early European printing tended to go unrecorded. The first woman to print under her own name was Anna Röger in Germany in 1484. A book that Elizabeth Pickering printed in Britain in 1540 is on display.
There’s something very touching about an ancient piece of homework. A student tries to copy two lines written by a teacher, but misses a letter, runs over the right margin and tries again, only to run out of space once more. We see the result on a set of Greek wax tablets from the second century AD.
There’s a beautiful Japanese album from the seventh century, a Haggadah from the 15th century, and a handsome Thai folding book produced by Buddhist monks. But some of the other objects are just too recent—the “retro computer” and Bic pens. An activity trail for families recoups some playfulness—if this exhibition was about the invention of musical instruments, there would be no symphony at the end. It’s mainly technicalities. There should be more about what writing has done for civilisation. Without a way of visualising and recording our spoken words, our world would not be the same. Writing gave immense privileges to those who first mastered it. It rewired our brains. It enabled us to write history.
Snack attacks BY Louise Perry
It doesn’t take much to rile professional controversialist Piers Morgan, who famously accused the bakery chain Greggs of being “PC-ravaged clowns” for having the temerity to offer a vegan sausage roll.
It’s doubtful whether Mr Morgan is in the habit of picking up a savoury snack as he saunters down the high street or whether he has actually tasted Messrs Gregg’s vegetarian option (for the record, I can confirm it is very nice). But the spat—which prompted Greggs to tweet back “Oh hello Piers, we’ve been expecting you”—was never really about sausage rolls. It was about class and culture.
Nobody cares when Pret, Waitrose or some other fancy brand releases a new vegan product. But Greggs is special. Founded in Newcastle in 1951, it has a certain position in the British imagination: doughty, salt of the earth, unpretentious, and even a bit macho—unusual for a brand that specialises in pastries. The archetypal Greggs customer is the precise opposite of the stereotypical vegan, who is believed (quite accurately) to be young, affluent, metropolitan, left-wing, white, female, and Guardian-reading. Plus—and this is important—f