Anthony Bruton

I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

China’s rising stars

Population, income and life expectancy by province

China’s ascendancy is common news fodder, but going beyond the headlines reveals a mixed picture of life in this emerging power.

Fortunately thanks to the efforts of the public-minded statisticians at www.gapminder.org, it’s very easy to access the data which reflect life in the world’s second largest economy. The numbers show that, outside the main commercial centres, China’s population is not so well off. Mainland China’s average GDP per person is around $5,000. This is boosted by the much wealthier coastal provinces, particularly Shanghai ($22,000). Half the provinces have GDPs per person of $3,000 – $5,000. Guizhou lingers in last place, its inhabitants earn on average only $1,900 each per year.

While the communist state shows surprising income disparity, life expectancy data show that its centrally planned health sector appears to provide a more uniform service. Tibetans are expected to die youngest, at 66; while wealthy Shanghainese lead the mainland with a life expectancy of 80. However, these outliers are not representative and the vast majority of provinces have life expectancies of 70-77.

Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao each have populations that are far healthier and wealthier than on the mainland.

Overall, while we commonly think that Africa is a country, we should think of China as if it were as varied as a continent.

Stars of Africa

Africa is big. It’s the second biggest continent.

Given it’s vast size, why does any discussion of the place often differentiate no further than “Africa” and sweep everything from the Canary Islands to the Drakensberg into one mental compartment labelled “poor” and “AIDS”? Overlooking the staggering variety of this continent is a fairly unflattering display of our ignorance. We should bother to make sure we know whether Guinea borders Ghana or Equatorial Guinea and have a rough idea of the state of the individual countries: is Guyana’s per capita income $700 or $7000? Stats-lover Hans Rosling does a good job of showing that Africa is not a country and explaining the pitfalls of assuming it is with his groovy animations of demographic data. This kind of factual grounding is vital if we’re to make a positive impact on people’s lives on this emotion-evoking continent.

Stars of Africa is a simple representation of countries’ locations, populations, life expectancies and HIV prevalences. It boldly shows where people are – the east and west are more crowded than the north and south – and how long they’re expected to live. The stars’ points represent life expectancy; each point is one expected complete decade of existence. So in most countries, the big 5-zero is expected to be the last -zero. The lowest life expectancy, 48, is in Sierra Leone. North Africa fares generally much better, with the highest life expectancy, 75, achieved by pre-revolution Libya.

The stars’ shapes represent HIV prevalence in adults: the more pointy, the more HIV. At a glance, South Africa (18%) is a lot worse off than Nigeria (4%). HIV is most common in the south and is not a continent-wide disaster as we often assume it is.

Guinea borders Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Atlantic Ocean. Ghana’s on the other side of Côte d’Ivoire and Equatorial Guinea is 2,000 km to the south east. Guyana is in South America, its GDP per capita (PPP) is $7,000!

Put out more flags

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This year marks the 60th anniversary of what? The Queen’s coronation was in 1953; so it’s not that. The nation seems to be torching garden trash and going boating in celebration of the death of George VI or Colin “Stammering Bertie” Firth as he’s now know to the modern age. Hoorah.

But why bother even to celebrate that?

Monarchy is a phenomenon that can reduce normally intelligent people to spouting utter nonsense. Her Majesty’s 60 years of aloofness punctuated by ribbon cutting somehow constitute a service that the public in Britain and elsewhere are revering with a complete suspension of any rational analysis. So it is that the social media are brim with “God bless the Queenie!”, seemingly with full regard to Forster’s warning “that it is the height of impropriety to consider what it does connote”. The likes of “Your service makes me proud to be British” are also difficult to fathom. Johnson’s dismissal of “pretended patriotism” as “the last refuge of a scoundrel” comes to mind and I am left wondering what “cloak for self-interest” underlies the bunting, mawkish blathering and barbecues.

There are many reasons, increasingly historical, to feel proud to be British. Feeling a connection with the innumerable Britons who have achieved so much throughout history should spur Her Majesty’s subjects to great deeds. However, the Queen’s most notable achievement of the last 60 years seems to have been not to have gaffed while all about her gaffed like crazy. Her abstention from It’s a Royal Knockout, which killed the credibility of the peripheral royals, is a major reason we’re having this four-day weekend and not some other presidential festivity.

Her not falling into or contributing to the torrents of sham public emotion that fuel the confusion between genuine and voluminous responses are something to be revered. In an increasingly image obsessed society, her achievement of realizing that a public figure should also be a private individual is a worthy example. Even Prince William has a Facebook page. Given the obsequious fawning it has attracted, we the people are credulous of this piece of image management and don’t for a moment think that perhaps it is nothing more than an attempt to give an appearance of keeping in touch with the proles managed by a valet.

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Big with a bulbous top: Victorians knew how to celebrate

But the monarchy is a powerful symbol. Those favouring its abolition would say it’s a symbol of halted progress but they overlook its history. Nearly a century before the French and Americans thought they were blazing trails in modern state building, England had had a revolution, decapitated its king, tried out being a monachless Commonwealth and thought better of it. The interregnum lasted 11 years from 1649 to 1660 and monarchic service resumed, de jure unbroken. When Louis XVI lost his head, France followed. The country only righted itself after a century of chaos which saw the Terror and the rise and Waterloo of the 19th century’s proto-Hitler. America admittedly fared better but did base many of its founding principles on the concessions granted by the parliament-muzzled, post-restoration William and Mary a century before. So the British monarchy’s survival is not necessarily symptomatic of a politically lethargic populace.

But what does the monarchy symbolize that makes people go periodically nutty for bunting and cold chicken in mayonnaise and curry powder? And what has let people be content with the austerity-laden spectacle of this diamond jubilee, when the last saw monuments of triumph erected throughout the empire. In 1897, phallic Victorian timekeepers sprung up across the continents (Penang pictured). The best today’s MPs can muster is the rather limp proposal to rename the long-standing clock tower at the Palace of Westminster.

Perhaps the cloak of self-interest is simply narcissism. The Queen represents a distorted and glorified reflection of her subjects. So the bling, fortune and unassailable authority attached to her position are surely worth celebrating if we can claim them as our own, even if the nation and its inhabitants are broke, insecure and downtrodden.

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