Christina Patterson: From Neanderthal Norfolk to Iran today, a backward journey

The Saturday Column
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The Independent Online

Some people might be surprised to hear that Norfolk was once the cradle of British civilisation.

They might even think that those pictures in the papers this week of naked humans stuffing their face with giant kebabs looked faintly familiar. But if the pictures looked a bit like a family picnic in Great Yarmouth, it was one from a while back. From 950,000 years, in fact. Which is 250,000 years earlier than the oldest Brits so far.

Like Brits throughout history, they left their litter behind. The chip wrappers etc have sadly rotted, but what hasn't, and is almost as durable as the plastic bags we like to use to help future archaeologists, is a nice collection of flint. Found on the north-east coast of East Anglia, near a village called Happisburgh (which sounds like the setting for some kind of Big-Brother-in-Hollywood project, probably starring Jim Carrey), the flints, are, according to the Natural History Museum, "mint-fresh".

Dating from either 840,000 or 950,000 years ago (slightly precise figures, one might think, for what's clearly a bit of a margin of error), the flints apparently indicate that Happisburghers were around at a time previously regarded as too cold for human habitation. (A conclusion which won't surprise anyone who's glimpsed the bare flesh on view in the average British high street on a chilly Saturday night.) They also apparently suggest that these early humans "were substantially cleverer than modern chimpanzees".

Although we can't know whether they used their flints to dice roots, fillet fish or make bison bourguignon, we can be pretty sure that there's one thing they didn't do. They didn't take women they thought might possibly have had sexual intercourse with more than one man in a life, bury them in earth up to their chest, and invite a group of men to stand around and pelt them with stones until, bleeding, concussed, and brain damaged, they died. They didn't do this because it was about another 940,000 (or 830,000 depending on your starting point) years before humans started doing things "in the name of God".

In Iran, an awful lot of things are done "in the name of God". It's "in the name of God", according to the form I had to fill in when I was there last year, that journalists are quizzed and monitored. It's in the name of God that men tap you on the shoulder and tell you off if your headscarf slips an inch. It's in the name of God that you can't have a glass of Shiraz, even in Shiraz. And it's in the name of God that women accused of adultery are regularly stoned to death.

It's Iran, actually, and its neighbours, Iraq and Syria, which are generally understood to be "the cradle of civilisation". Anyone who's been to the national museum in Tehran, or the one in Damascus, will have gasped at the exquisite stoneware, china, early writing and early musical instruments, made at a time when British ideas of aestheticism started and ended with animal skins and woad. In Iran, you can feast on the beauty of palaces, sigh over the delicacy of Persian miniatures and savour the scent of roses in the soothing symmetry of a perfect garden. The Persian word for which, by the way, is "pardis". More usually known as "paradise".

It takes a particular kind of sensibility to take this paradise and turn it into hell. What it takes is a bunch of murderous misogynists who are clearly mad. They're mad not in the way that Raoul Moat, prowling the Northumberland countryside in his crazed battle with the police, is mad. They're mad in the way that Hitler was mad, mad in their creation, implementation and systemisation of a complicated code of violence, a code whose rules are set like Jenga or Scrabble. Article 104 of the penal code introduced after the Islamic Revolution, for example, says that stones should "not be large enough to kill the person by one or two strikes; nor should they be so small that they cannot be called a stone".

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani is lucky. A widow who has already spent five years in prison and received 99 lashes for supposed "adultery", she was set to join the scores of women who have suffered this fate since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. On Thursday night, the Iranian embassy issued a statement saying that Ashtiani "will not be executed by stoning", though it didn't clarify whether that meant she wouldn't be executed at all.

If Afghanistan is, according to Liam Fox, "a broken, 13th-century country", Iran is not. It's a country in which 63 per cent of university students are women, a country which pioneered the political possibilities of Twitter. You could say that it's a sophisticated country with a Stone Age government, if that wasn't profoundly offensive to our new not-quite Neanderthal Norfolk neighbours.

Maybe Ashtiani's reprieve, triggered by an international outcry, is a little chink of light. But away from the public gaze, I fear the atrocities will continue. Most of the time, there's nothing we can do, except write and weep and rage. Sometimes, the only way to honour the lives, and unimaginable suffering, of those who live under monsters who behave like gods is to bless, with every molecule of our being, the entirely arbitrary quirk of fate that means we don't.

Never mind football, try this

Not having watched a single match over the past month (or indeed ever), I can't comment on the cathartic properties of football. But if an improvement in male mood is some kind of gauge, I think we'd have to assume they're limited. I can, however, suggest an excellent alternative: Handel operas.

I'm not sure I knew that Handel had written operas until I saw Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne last year, and fell in love with the all-round silliness. If you like men in shorts doing fancy footwork on a field, you'll love men in breeches doing funny little jigs, men who trill away in trembly trebles. If you like hearing David Beckham as an ambassador for the game, you'll relish the fact that Caesar's sung by a woman. And if you like all those tables and rounds and complex calculations, you'll adore a Handel plot. I've seen three now, and I never have a clue what's going on.

The latest was Semele at the Barbican on Thursday. The story, which I printed out from Wikipedia and read five times, had something to do with Jupiter and Juno. The men – it was a concert performance – were bruisers in black suits. The women were divas in evening frocks and heels. When the sultry soprano Danielle de Niese simpered into a mirror and sung "myself I will adore", you felt she was singing from the heart. It was ridiculous, magnificent, and so mysteriously moving that at one point I thought I was going to howl. "Guiltless pleasures we'll enjoy!" sang somebody at one point. Hear hear! Pure heaven.

Lessons from the Schools Secretary

It was unfortunate that pretty much the only state-educated member of the Cabinet, perhaps getting in a bit of a muddle about the 25 per cent cuts, made 25 mistakes in the first bit of homework he handed in to the headmaster. The headmaster didn't expel him, but he did make him apologise to everyone he'd ever met. And, unlike the calculated-to-put-lesser-mortals-at-their-ease self-deprecation of his masters, poor Michael Gove's apologies do sound like proper grovelling, from one who's mortified – and, indeed, terrified.

Gove has reason to be terrified. Even Tory MPs have complained about the axed school building projects, and one of them, Ian Liddell-Grainger, is planning to march on Downing Street. "You've got," he said on the Today programme, "to look at the whole picture... We know the problems the Government has got. But this is not about politics. This is the future, which is our children."

Er, yes. All funding in schools is about children. Most funding in welfare is about children. All funding everywhere is about the future. Did you really think it was going to be about paper clips? What it comes down to, of course, and we've got five years of it, is Not in My Back Yard.