Sunday, 28 February 2010

Ironic?

My kitchen was revamped last year, and now I need a blind for the window. I have a bit of a horror of naked windows. I write fiction, and I keep getting the urge to write a story about something peering at me from the darkness beyond the glass. I think it’s my dark side made manifest, come to complain about my attempts to get rid of it. It has me feeling sympathy for my dark side. How odd.

The Fairer Sex.

This actually happened. Admittedly, it was some way back in the mists of my little life, but it happened.

I was on a training course in Winchester. I was lodging at an old inn that had a long history going back into the Middle Ages. It had two bars – the public bar at the front of the building, and the lounge bar at the side. Although there was a wall and door between them, a single, right angled counter connected the two. I was sitting in the lounge bar, alone and minding my own business, when a very attractive young blonde walked in. She came purposefully towards my table. I don’t remember what she said, but she clearly wanted to make my acquaintance.

We sat and talked for some time – maybe a couple of hours. I was a libidinous twenty three-year-old at the time, so it seemed that Christmas had come early. Needless to say, I bought all the drinks. I had high hopes. Eventually, she said

“I think I’d better go now. My boyfriend’s waiting for me.”

I looked over to the public bar. A young man was standing at the counter, frowning at me.

“Hope you don’t mind,” continued the blonde as she walked towards the door. “We’d had an argument and I wanted to make him jealous. Thanks for the drinks.”

That's fair? Ladies, what would we do without you?

Oh, Salem

The relationship between the witch and the western world has changed considerably over the last fifty or sixty years. There is still a tendency sometimes to fall back on the old stereotype of the wizened and wart-bedecked crone - enveloped in black, committing the unspeakable, and denying the true God - but it’s becoming rarer. We have now moved away from invoking the alleged commandment that ‘thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’ We are much more tolerant these days; we don’t execute them any more.

And yet there are still places in the west where followers of any pagan tradition, but especially those who call themselves Wiccan, continue to be reviled and ostracised. The religious fundamentalists continue to peddle the lie that Wiccans worship Satan, and they claim that the general tolerance towards paganism is one more symptom of the western world’s descent into ungodly decadence. In saying this, what they are actually doing is distorting the facts to suit their own prejudices. That’s what fundamentalists do.

For it does seem to be an inescapable truth that decadence is now running rampant in the ‘developed’ world; but it isn’t being driven by the growing acceptance of alternative spiritual roads. It’s being driven by the big money interests of global capitalism. It is true, I’m sure, that part of the reason why paganism is tolerated is that a high percentage of people simply don’t care any more. We have developed a highly materialistic society, and materialism has no place for spiritual searching. Any nod of acceptance towards ‘spirituality’ is confined to the harmless dogma and superficial practices of the regular churchgoer.

But there’s another, much better, reason for that growing tolerance. Increasing numbers of people are searching for some meaning beyond the material. Unfortunately, the New Age movement has attracted its own set of commercial hangers-on, but there is a core of real substance within it, and that core is moving us towards a more enlightened future. Or so I fervently hope.

I’m not a pagan; I’m not an anything; I’m not even an atheist. But I have encountered a fair few pagans in my time, and I’ve found them to be among the best of people. They are far more likely to honour and nurture ‘God’s creations’ than the fundamentalists are; and they usually embody more ‘Christian values’ than a good many Christians I’ve known.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Pictures
















Somebody asked to see a few pictures. Being a bear-of-slightly-bigger-brain than I thought I was, I worked out how to do it. I'm posting a few here. I have to point out that these pictures are still contracted to a picture library and not available for publication except through them.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Totally Off Post.

I want to say hello to the ladies at the eWitch blog. I've tried to post comments on that site several times (complimentary ones!) but I'm prevented from doing so by a half-formed comment box that won't let me type in the code letters. Are you trying to tell me something?

Nature, Dressing.

I spent six years as a professional landscape photographer once. It was the best occupation I ever had. Can you imagine driving around the country to the most beautiful places and getting well paid to take pictures of them? There was another benefit, though. It taught me to notice the detail in landscape that I had previously missed. Unfortunately, my career was truncated by the recession of the early nineties, but the eye for landscape never left me.

Encouraged by a rare day of clement weather recently, I took a walk around the lanes near my house. The scenery around here is typical of rural middle England, and there are a lot of copses dotted around the gentle panorama of the middle Dove valley. Viewed as a mass of trees from a distance, they have a particular look at this time of year. They take on a soft, feathery appearance as the first buds appear and begin to mask the harshness of the naked winter branches. They get their first hint of colour, too – mostly light buff and dark red – and you know that Mother Nature is up and getting dressed.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Happiness and Economic Growth

It doesn’t require the possession of very many brain cells to realise that happiness has nothing to do with having things. Happiness is about being comfortable with who you are, where you are, and what you’ve got. So how does that square with the modern mania for economic growth? It doesn’t.

Economic growth requires that people constantly want more. In order to achieve that, the marketing system bombards us with messages subtly telling us that we must have this, that or the other in order to fit in and be fulfilled. It requires that we be uncomfortable with who we are, where we are, and what we’ve got. It forces the gullible into a perpetual state of discontent. It even glorifies fatuous phrases like ‘retail therapy,’ so we can smile and not realise that we’re being conned into what is the greatest addiction in the history of mankind. It mercilessly grinds down the poor, and leaves the better off in a constant state of wanting. The only ones who escape the process are the tiny number of mega-rich people who have more money than they can ever spend. And even some of them fall into the trap of pointlessly coveting even greater riches.

I groan every time I hear the politicians and economists tell us how wonderful everything is because the economy grew by X% this year. And when the economy goes the other way, the consequences are hideous to behold. They’re just two sides of the same problem.

The human animal has only four material needs: food, fuel, clothing and shelter. If we have those, all we need do to be happy is convince ourselves that it's enough. Anything else is a bonus. Simple!

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

The Glories of Empire.

OK, before I sign off the blog for the day, let’s have a go at British imperial attitudes and behaviour.

Between the 1920’s and the 1960’s, 130,000 British children were shipped off to former British colonies under a scheme engineered by the British Government. These kids were told they were going to a better life. In fact, many of them – maybe even the majority – were being transported into a life of cruel exploitation and routine abuse. The government knew what was going on and chose to turn a blind eye. Today, Gordon Brown apologised to them, calling it a ‘shameful’ episode in British history. Another one? Should we perhaps also recall Amritsar, Croke Park, the British concentration camps in South Africa during the Boer War, the murderous labour camps in British India – the slave trade?

And before my American friends settle into an attitude of self-righteous smugness about this, may I suggest that they remember their own involvement in the slave trade, their treatment of indigenous peoples, Vietnam, Nicaragua – not to mention one or two things I would consider it injudicious to make reference to online.

Enough. My equanimity is slipping.

More Free Market Iniquities

There was a major scandal in Britain last year. One of the NHS hospitals not far from where I live was found to have an unusually high rate of patient deaths. An independent inquiry was begun, and today they reported their findings. They said that patients had been left ‘sobbing and humiliated,’ and that there had been ‘unimaginable distress and suffering.’ This situation, they said, had been caused by the NHS Trust responsible for the hospital having become ‘driven by targets and cost-cutting.’ The NHS used to be entirely public-funded, but one of the legacies of the Thatcher/Blair years has been the part privatisation of the service. This is the result.

On a less upsetting note, I bought a Post Office phone card in January to make some calls to America. The advertising literature said that calls to the US and Canada would be free during January. I’d done it before, and the offer had been true to its word. Not any more; the British Post Office is now also part-privatised, and they’ve changed the charging system. In order to access the service, you have to call one of two numbers, both of which make charges. So the claim that the calls will be ‘free’ is, quite simply, a lie.

There is no decency or ethical dimension in modern, large scale commerce. It isn’t about providing goods and services for a fair price any more. It’s about wheedling as much money out of people as possible, by any means they can get away with. If ever there was an argument in favour of communism, modern commercial practice is providing it.

And should I talk about the troubles the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow is having since the Russians embraced the free market? Maybe not; I think I’ve said enough.

Equanimity

We’ve had a long, cold winter in Britain this year. I’m growing tired of snow, and find myself feeling impatient for the spring to start. I try to stop myself seeing it that way because, in this context, negatives attract more negatives. The more we dislike winter and long for spring and summer, the more likely we are to regret the onset of autumn and dread the impending winter. Nature is cyclical, and we do well to accept the fact graciously. Winter is a resting and cleansing time, and should be valued as such.

The same holds true for that well meaning practice of appreciating the things we have, because we know there are less fortunate people who have less. It sounds good viewed in isolation, but it means we are judging our lives by comparing them with others. Thus, it produces the inevitable corollary: if we value what we have by the process of comparison, we are also likely to regret what we don’t have by the same principle. In other words, we are more likely to envy those who have more.

Surely, the only way to achieve inner peace is to strive for equanimity, accepting the road that unfolds before us and valuing whatever benefits it confers. This does not mean we shouldn’t strive to achieve things, as long as we are comfortable with the fact that we might not succeed. Failure is an attitude of mind that need not be allowed to impress its negative illusion into a false notion of reality. Ultimately, there is no failure; there is only the road.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Beware Terrorists Carrying Sesame Seeds

Today’s offering has to be brief, because I have a new short story that is itching to get out of the blocks.

A friend of mine was returning home to Prague on Sunday. When she checked in at Birmingham Airport, they confiscated her pot of houmous because it was ‘liquid.’ Her protestations brought only the threat of arrest.

Now, maybe there’s some arcane logic at work here, but it still seems a bit...well...silly. I’ve just finished reading Kafka’s The Trial, and a certain resonance, albeit diluted, pressed itself upon me. (By an odd coincidence, The Trial is set in Prague.) Some critics are wont to interpret the novel as a black comedy, and I suppose there is something lightly amusing about having your pot of houmous confiscated. Maybe it belongs more appropriately in Becket’s theatre of the absurd, of which I’m also a fan. Nevertheless...

More on the subject of (1) God, and (2) the disturbing road our culture is taking, in a day or two.

Monday, 22 February 2010

This Blogging Business.

I’ve only been blogging for about a month, but it really is quite enlightening. Browsing through lots of blogs late at night, with a double scotch no more than six inches from my right hand, is becoming a compulsive activity.

(Oh dear. Am I allowed compulsive activities? Yup! I can do whatever I like when I have a double scotch no more than six inches from my right hand.)

I could be an alien life form, plucking people randomly out of a crowd and then viewing the collection as a microcosm of the human species. Unfortunately, it’s only the English-speaking specimens that count, since I’m one of that breed of inadequate Englishmen who only speak their native language. So it isn’t really a microcosm, but never mind. It will do until the next life, when I will constantly remind myself that the best people are multi-lingual and I don’t have to apologise to my English-speaking Czech friend because she speaks my language but I don’t speak hers.

So anyway, there they all are: people I would dislike intensely, people I would find terminally boring, people I feel I would get on well with, and people in whose company I would struggle, but who come across as really interesting nevertheless.

I frequently make comments on some of the blogs I find interesting, and it’s encouraging when the blogger posts something back. Two-way communication is a rewarding activity. What I find slightly irksome is when my comments don’t make it through the self-moderating option, but never mind. It’s their blog, their choice. And it’s intriguing to get a follower or two about whom I can find out absolutely nothing. They don’t have blogs themselves and the ‘send a message’ button never works. (I would love to know more about Cat Priestess, Kaetlyn, and Charlotte Tigwell, but if you don’t want to tell me, that’s fine.)

So there you have it, a little hiatus among the outcries and asides. Some time soon I’m going to get down to the post I’ve been promising for a while: the one about people who ask me ‘Do you believe in God?’ It’s complicated.

A heartfelt ‘thank you’ to anybody who has bothered to read any of my ranting so far. Not that it matters, of course. I’m just letting off steam.

Addendum to the last post...

I’ve found a better one: ‘God.’ Interests: God.

Now, maybe I shouldn’t find this funny, but I do. If this much-vaunted Being were to exist, I wonder how he would feel about being placed in line with ‘my husband,’ ‘taking my dog for a walk,’ and ‘brass rubbing.’

May I be excused for falling off my chair?

The Good Wife's Interests

I find it slightly bemusing when women bloggers list among their interests ‘my husband.’ I wonder what the point of being married would be if a person didn’t find their spouse interesting.

But then a second thought occurs to me. Could this indicate some level of gender insecurity, or even be a subconscious (or maybe even conscious) role affirmation. I spent my childhood being a devout Christian, and I well recall being taught that a married woman’s first responsibility was to her husband, her second to her children, and her third to herself.

Being neither married nor a woman, I really wouldn’t know; but I would be interested to have a woman’s comment on the matter.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Conspiracy Theory and the Silliness of Reductionism

The term ‘conspiracy theory’ is a surprisingly emotive one. It engenders a strong reaction in people and, like most unknowables, opinion has become polarised. Human society seems to need to do that; it makes life simpler, I suppose. It attempts to force us to choose between one of two categories: either you’re a conspiracy theorist and believe everything going, however outlandish it might be, or you’re not a conspiracy theorist and believe that everything is above board and the whole truth is there on the surface for everybody to see. This is narrow minded reductionism, and amounts to the same thing as a Christian Fundamentalist telling you that unless you worship their version of God in the way they prescribe, you must be a follower of Satan and are on a certain track to hell fire and damnation.

It is true that some conspiracy theorists do believe everything going, and it has to be admitted that such a position is clearly neurotic. But the other extreme is just as farcical. You only have to be a modest student of history to see the truth in the old dictum that ‘Power tends to corrupt; absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.’ Human beings are obsessed with wealth and power, and thousands of years of experience have shown that they will do anything – absolutely anything – to gain and protect those advantages. Why should today’s people in power be any different? Because we have a democratic political system in which the Richard Nixons can be brought to account for their misdemeanours? No. All that means is that they have to be a bit more careful. And is it so ridiculous to believe that the system might be so geared as to protect itself by keeping the worst excesses hidden? I don’t think it is.

Of course there are conspiracies. Of course the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is not there on the surface in plain sight. To believe otherwise is naïve. Of course there are questions attaching to Kennedy’s assassination, the moon landings, the 9/11 attacks et al, that sometimes make the official view seem unsustainable. The problem is this: if there are conspiracies going on they will be deeply hidden, and the chances of getting to the truth are negligible. All we can do is approach the theories with an open mind, accepting that we’re never going to know the whole truth and so there’s no point in worrying about it.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Morality, the Media, and the Mindless Ones.

So, a tearful Tiger Woods has broken his silence and apologised to the world for his wayward libido. Half of me wants to ignore this as simply too silly to take seriously, but there are issues involved which are nagging at me.

Even the BBC TV news ran this as ‘today’s top story.’ What!? I’ve been going off the BBC for some time, but this clinches it. Even they now seem prey to the spurious opinion that celebrities are somehow public property whose private life must be an open book on which every Tom, Dick and Harry has a right to pass petty judgement. Let’s remind ourselves that it’s the public who create celebrities to fill a void in their otherwise uneventful lives. Or at least, it used to be; these days it’s mostly the media who create them on the public’s behalf in order to have something to sell to the mindless masses. That doesn’t give the public a right of ownership, any more than it would be right to breed puppies in order to torture them.

Then they come out with the second excuse: these people are public figures and therefore role models to the young. No, this argument doesn’t hold water either, because if the media kept its nose to itself, a celebrity’s private life would remain private and the role model issue wouldn’t arise. This is just a repugnant form of self-deluding sophistry.

Of course, it would be different if the celebrity was behaving badly in public, but the public and the media are remarkably hypocritical on this issue. British footballers frequently behave violently on the pitch and in public places. Sanctions are placed on them, but they don’t receive anything like the vilification that sexual indiscretion arouses. Why? Because violence isn’t a moral issue; sexual indiscretion is. And then there are the celebrity super models who promote an ideal of super thinness and lead countless young people into eating disorders. They receive no sanction at all, because that isn’t a moral issue either. And isn't it interesting that a prostitute is villified for being an 'immoral woman,' whilst the arms dealer is an upstanding citizen? It seems that getting rich by making the means for people to kill other people isn't a moral issue either. That's just good business.

I’ve long been coming around to the view that morality is a measure of mankind’s weakness. Morality is a loose concept. It varies from culture to culture, from time to time, and is usually based on each culture’s interpretation of one religion or another. It has no fibre, and is often manipulated to suit the interests of the moralist. At that point it becomes gratuitous. I wonder why Christians are often the ones baying the loudest for the blood of a moral transgressor, when Jesus himself instructed his followers not to judge – or so the Gospels tell us. The human being is born with an inbuilt sense of ethics, and that’s something that is far more universal. If only we would mature to the point where we took this as our guiding set of principles, we wouldn’t have to rely on an arbitrary set of ever-changing rules strutting their self-righteous notions under the guise of 'morality.' Good behaviour would be automatic.

As for Tiger Woods, the only thing that annoys me is that he doesn’t have the courage to tell everybody to mind their own damn business. But then, he’s rich, and maybe he has to follow the advice of his agent in order to stay that way.

The Question of Reality

Inclining as I do towards Vedic and Taoist philosophy, I often come across the assertion that all material reality – and that means the whole physical universe – is just one of many levels of illusion. The first difficulty here is that you need to define ‘reality.’ It could be said that anything with which we can engage in any objective way is, by definition, real. That seems reasonable, even if it does raise the difficult question of whether things like abstract thought and emotional reaction are objective; and , if they’re not, whether that disqualifies them from being regarded as real. I think this is merely a matter of semantics. What I find more intriguing is another question.

We make a distinction between dreams and waking reality. One is a psychological phenomenon which has no substance; the other is the real thing. Should we be so certain of that? How do we know that waking reality is real? The only bases for that are our self-awareness and the evidence of our five senses. But we are aware of ourselves in dreams too, and we can experience the same subjective reaction to sensory input. Dreams can be tactile; we can even ‘die’ in dreams. Whilst we are dreaming we are convinced of the reality around us, however irrational it might seem later.

So how do we know that our waking state is any more real than a dream? In other words, how do we know it isn’t just one more level of dreaming, and that we won’t wake out of it one day and then be convinced that we are now in the ‘real’ world?

Thursday, 18 February 2010

New Millennium Commerce

I was wondering what the most irritating and oft-used phrase is in the English language of the new millennium. I think the winner would probably be “We are currently experiencing a larger volume of calls than usual.” In other words, they don’t have enough staff for the workload; which is probably why they made the mistake that led to your call in the first place. Another one, which often follows it, is “Your call is important to us,” which roughly translates as “Tough! So shop around and see if you can find another company that has more scruples than we have. You won’t, so why bother?”

I’m old enough to remember a time when somebody picked up the phone and said “How can I help you?” And then they did. That was pre-Thatcher, of course.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Infinity

I watched the programme about mathematicians and the matter of infinity (see Wed, 10th February.) It was quite entertaining, a bit of an eye opener, and mostly comprehensible. It seems that mathematicians are at each other’s throats over the question of whether infinity is conceivable as an objective reality, or only as a theoretical concept. Personally, I think they’re questioning the nature of existence a little too narrowly, but that’s another story.

What amused me was being told that one brilliant mathematician went insane, such was his inability to cope with the dilemma. Poor bloke should have been a bricklayer. Is standard bond or Flemish bond best? Oh dear; maybe not.

When I get to that point at the edge of the continental shelf where logic simply doesn’t function, as I do occasionally, I usually take refuge in the Tao. I recommend it to everybody.

A Brief Reverie on Hearing an Irish Song.

Ah, me. I’m lost to Ireland and the Gaelic maid.

Dark, braided locks and purity of tone; and eyes that speak the sense that has no words. Silently weaving the language of deep knowing, too subtle for the tongue.

The coast of Connemara’s but a synapse and a woman’s voice away. The crash of surf, the smell of whiskey and of burning peat. The shadow-painted walls. Comfortable, safe and peaceful world, where hands and single consciousness entwine. The crackling turf, the simple song, a dozen hearts beat quiet and in harmony.

A dozen souls. Together. Strong. Soft. Certain and inseparable.

The world is at an end and endless.

(Just thought I’d like that to go out into the ether. It grew into a favourite short story, which is due to come out in an anthology by Drollerie Press some time - JJ)

Sunday, 14 February 2010

A Reason to be Cynical

It’s only over the last few years that I have learned just how sophisticated the historical cultures of sub-Saharan Africa were. It came as something of a surprise, because I had been conditioned as a child to see black Africa as a dark, dangerous place populated by barbaric people who were somewhat short of being as fully human as we white people in the civilised world.

My culture lied to me. Now I discover that sub-Saharan Africa had sophisticated cities built of stone. It had art and artefacts as good as any in Europe and the Middle East, and contemporary with those places. In many cases, its cultural sophistication even pre-dated European development. Its pottery, for example, is as old as the oldest pottery found anywhere in the world. Some of it dates from the time when Europe was just emerging from the last ice age. My conditioning was nothing new, of course. It was merely a continuation of the Victorian practice of keeping Europeans in the dark (if you’ll excuse the pun) about the culture of black Africa. The knowledge was considered inconvenient to the interests of imperialism.

This is just the latest discovery of many I have been making over the last few decades. I have learned to stand outside our culture and look back into it with open eyes, and I have seen just how much the bastions of our system control the mechanisms, and control us, with lies and the denial of knowledge. Politicians lie to us, the police lie to us, the media and the marketing men lie to us, even scientists and academics sometimes lie to us. Most shamefully of all, religion lies to us. They don't do it all the time, of course; just often enough to keep the masses following the road that suits their interests. I have seen this demonstrated incontrovertibly. Given the fact that I often descend to the level of taking this world seriously, can anybody suggest to me one good reason not to be cynical when I do?

Friday, 12 February 2010

Religion vs Science

For thousands of years, religion and science were one and the same subject, since all perception of material existence included the notion of a subtler spiritual reality lying behind, above or beyond it. That all changed in the seventeenth century when the scientists began to get to grips with the nuts and bolts of physical mechanisms. The resulting conflict soon grew into an embittered and almost total schism, and now we have a curious, even paradoxical, situation in which atheism has become the new religion. What is even more surprising is that scientists, who profess to pride themselves on the pre-eminence of rationalism, can be oddly irrational in their reaction to religion.

I find this all rather silly, since I think the argument can be resolved with the statement of a few simple principles. We need to consider what religion and science have the right to do and not to do.

Religion has no right to tell people what to believe, since nothing of what they teach is provable. What it does have the right to do is offer people a spiritual road to follow, should they be inclined to the view that there is more to existence than appears on the surface. In order to do this, they have the right to draw on the opinions and experiences of teachers down the ages. Many of these teachers were wise and intelligent people whose views are worthy of respect.

Science, on the other hand, has no right to tell people what not to believe, since, by their own admission, it is impossible to prove a negative. The purpose of science is to study and demonstrate the workings of material reality. They may tell us what to believe about that reality, once they have proved it. It is not part of their remit, however, to pass judgement on whether or not there are other levels of reality lying beyond the material.

In short, fundamentalism on either side is irrational. Science is passing judgement on an area which it cannot know, and religion is often guilty of ignoring scientific fact in favour of superstition. The only rational view is agnosticism, allied with the inalienable right of everybody to believe whatever they choose to believe.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

From the Sublime to the Cor Blimey

The weather forecast for today said ‘dry and sunny.’ It was sunny when I woke up; it stayed sunny; I decided to do some washing. The sky remained clear for as long as the machine was running. I hung the washing on the line. And then it began to snow, and it kept on snowing. It got heavier and heavier. When it assumed the dimensions of a blizzard, I brought the washing in again.

Talking of weather forecasts, three times in the last seven days, BBC Ceefax has given the weather for 1800-0600 as ‘dry and sunny.’ Maybe they published the New Zealand edition by mistake. Or maybe it was just one more small example of the absurdities served up to us by the media, a fact that most people don’t seem to notice for some reason.

Never mind. There’s a programme on the TV tonight, all about how the mathematicians have discovered that there isn’t just one version of infinity, but several. Must watch it, I could do with a bit of excitement.

Free Market Insanity

I heard today that the national British search and rescue facility, which is currently operated by the RAF, the Royal Navy and the Coastguard, has been put out to tender and the contract will be awarded to a private company. People’s lives are at stake here, and they put the service into the caring hands of the profit motive. This is insanity. This has got to stop.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

The Ubiquitous Non Sequitur

I find it so irritating when football managers bemoan a poor result which they see as having stemmed from a bad refereeing decision. It happens so often these days. For a start, it’s immature. As the incomparable Bill McLaren was constantly reminding us: “The referee is the sole arbiter of fact.” More importantly, it’s illogical. The argument usually runs

‘The referee awarded them a penalty which they shouldn’t have had. The final score was 1-1 so, if they hadn’t scored from that penalty, we would have won.’

It doesn’t follow. If the penalty hadn’t been awarded, the game would have followed a different road from that point on. It would have been a different game, and there is no way of predicting what the final score would have been.

Would it be too much to ask that schools teach kids the logic of basic determinism? It might help reduce the number of people going bitterly through life, pointlessly bemoaning the fact that ‘if so-and-so hadn’t done such-and-such, my life would be better now.’ There’s no way anybody can know that.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Glorious Trivia

I learned only today that the paints used by mediaeval artists to create stained glass windows had urine as a major constituent. It seems that red-haired, pre-pubescent boys produced the best version. Well, blow me! Who said trivia was trivial?

A Horse Called Satan

I went horse riding once. Could such an apparently trivial fact carry enough weight to make the tale worth telling, you might ask. It certainly could to me. It was a big day. The riding of a horse is imbued with an aura of mystique. Riding is Romantic. It speaks of cowboys and the Wild West, of the gallant knights of Old England, and of the cavalry charge at Balaclava. It was something I’d never done, a gap in my life that had to be plugged sooner or later. And so it was, one dull, June day in nineteen eighty-something-or-other.

I was on holiday in the English Lake District with my then partner. She was an old hand at the horsy stuff. English girls are. They join pony clubs as soon as their heads come level with the stirrup iron on a Shetland pony. Boys don’t, at least not in the sort of place where I grew up. My only experience of horses had been the feeding of crusts to the farmer’s dray that used to hang around the edge of a field close to where I lived as a kid. My partner wanted to go riding, she said; so I agreed to go with her and become a dashing hussar for an hour or so.

I wasn’t unduly worried at that stage. I’d been a keen rugby player for over twenty years and had full confidence in my mettle. What terrors could horse riding hold for somebody who’d been used to having his ears chewed, his teeth chipped and his nose flattened in the middle of a scrum?

The arrangement was made and off we went. On the way to the riding establishment my partner giggled and suggested they would probably give me a psychotic stallion called Satan. I smiled indulgently and joined in with the joke. I knew they wouldn’t, of course, but I began to feel a little nervous. I was heading into unknown territory and a few nerves are perfectly acceptable in that situation.

When we arrived the first thing I noticed was how exceptionally pretty the young woman instructor was. I was still young enough to be possessed of an incurable need to impress attractive young women. Seeing her only served to double the challenge. I became a little more nervous.

The first thing she did was give me a piece of headgear that made me look like a hobbit. I felt silly. I looked silly. I have the photograph to prove it. Being the superstitious sort, I dislike inauspicious beginnings. The day was not boding well.

Then she introduced me to the horse. She said it was their policy to put men on male horses. He was a very handsome fellow, a pure palomino of around 15.2/15.3. The instructor’s voice carried no hint of either humour or mischief as she announced “This is Satan.”

Oh, right. Bloody great! My partner was suitably amused. Doubled up, actually. I spoke to the horse nicely.

“I’ve never done this before, Satan. Just go steady now, OK?”

He showed no signs of psychosis. He turned his head towards me and sighed; I swear it. He gave me a look that spoke volumes. It told me that he really didn’t want to be bothered with this. His actions – or rather, lack of them – confirmed my intuition. When I climbed into the saddle he refused to move. He was eventually persuaded to - but only, I suspect, because he knew that the sooner he got it over with the sooner he could get this idiot off his back and return to the fresh grass and some peace and quiet in the meadow.

I remember the feeling of being disconnected as he walked sedately across the rough moorland with me concentrating hard on finding the surest way to hang on. I was convinced that Satan would only have to make a sudden movement with one ear and I would be flung from my dizzy perch and break several bones on making contact with the unremitting ground.

We walked for about a mile, and then the instructor - who looked even more beautiful in her headgear - decided we should try a trot. I really didn’t want to, but I didn’t say so. Honest! I didn’t let the side down. So trot we did. I clung on tight with hands, knees and anything else that was capable of clinging. Fortunately, the instructor was riding slightly ahead of me and I was able to take some small comfort from the fact that she wasn’t watching me make an idiot of myself. I shudder to think what my face must have looked like as we bounced up and down and I kept landing in different places.

Eventually we arrived back at the stables. To my amazement I had survived the ordeal. I climbed down, thanked the instructor and walked back to the car. I did my very best to hide the fact that my legs were in an advanced state of disarray. Any reference to jelly would be an understatement, but I held my chest out. That was the one part of me that remained singularly unaffected by the experience. Everything else was living in a world of its own.

Frankly, I have to admit that I hadn’t enjoyed it very much. Satan probably had. I’ve suspected ever since that horses laugh silently.

Once the ordeal was over I came to the conclusion that sitting on a slippery piece of leather strapped to a moving animal is an extremely silly way to carry on. There really is nothing romantic about it, any more than there is anything romantic about being shot by a six gun, having your limbs hacked off by a thug in armour, or being scattered to the four winds by a cannonball. I learned an important lesson that day. I am a true wimp of the modern world. I never went horse riding again.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

One of Life's Big Landmarks

I have no reason to suspect that anybody has ever visited this blog, or indeed that anybody ever will. Should some lonely web traveller just happen to wander in, however, I should like to convey the news that I finished the first draft of my novel tonight. The fact that this post is neither an outcry nor an aside in no way disqualifies it from being made. The thrill is mildly redolent of becoming a father!

Friday, 5 February 2010

Let Them Die and Reduce the Surplus Population.

I saw another TV programme, this time about research into the ageing process and the development of drugs to combat it. I have two problems with this.

Firstly, I’m of the belief that this life is just one component of an ever-turning wheel: the cycle of life, death and rebirth. It really doesn’t matter very much how long it is. All that matters is to engage with it for as long as it lasts, until we get to the point where we’ve experienced enough to be able to come off the wheel and move on to another level of existence. On a more prosaic level, I’m tempted to wonder why we should be so concerned about prolonging life when we’re constantly being told that the world’s burgeoning population is getting too big to be sustainable. Ah, silly me; I’m forgetting. It’s only the rich folks in the rich west who will benefit from this breakthrough. The black and brown sludge on the other side of the world will continue to die young as usual, and the status quo will be even more firmly entrenched. Read on…

One American scientist is in the early stages of making such a breakthrough. His research isn’t complete yet. A few thousand more innocent rats and mice have to be imprisoned, tortured and killed first. And yet Smith Kline have already paid him $750m for exclusive rights. Let me spell that out: seven hundred and fifty million dollars, for something that might not even work at the end of the day.

A second American scientist was on the verge of making a product that is (more or less) proven. And then disaster struck. Another company beat him to the post and their pills are now on the market. He isn’t very happy about this, as you can imagine; he has to remain merely well off rather than hideously rich. But he does believe in the product, and he does want to live longer. So he happily pays the price to provide both himself and his father with the elixir of youth. It costs $25,000 for a year’s supply. Did I say he was merely well off?

I’m a simple sort of chap who would like to see human beings become more mature in the way they conduct the business of being human. If we have the wherewithal to push forward the boundaries of medical science, I would like to see it being used for the benefit of all humankind, not just for the wildly pecuniary interests of selfish scientists and the profiteering of pharmaceutical companies in the so-called 'developed' world. I think I must be naïve.

Monday, 1 February 2010

The Downside of Democracy

It seems that many of the organisations working in urban communities to address the problems of racial intolerance, inequality and exclusion are having to cease operating due to cutbacks in funding. The government and local councils are telling them they have to ‘diversify’ into other areas of social concern. Apparently, racism is no longer a matter of sufficient gravity to warrant singular focus.

This is worrying for a number of reasons, not least because it appears to vindicate what I have long suspected: that the giving of public money to address racial issues is not driven by values such as compassion or a proper desire to ensure justice and equality for all. It is driven by the political need to minimise the consequences of marginalisation. Marginalised people tend to feel anger and the need for vengeance. That’s human nature. They become ugly; they threaten to rebel; they might even turn violent. Governments lose the support of their voter base when society appears to be disintegrating, and so it is politically expedient to be seen to be putting a lid on the pressure cooker.

Such expediency only lasts, of course, for as long as the perception holds that there is money available. But times have changed. We have been going through a recession. The same denizens of Middle England, to whom the major parties look for votes, might once have tolerated the spending of a few millions on the race issue if it meant they would be spared a latter day sacking of Rome by the ethnic minority Vandals. Now, in these difficult economic times, they are more likely to resent the spending of their hard earned taxes on people who they see as the troublesome inhabitants of an alien culture. Hence, the vote winner becomes the vote loser. It’s just one symptom of the callous and cynical nature of western democratic politics; and therein lies the deeper issue.

We are led to believe that democracy is the perfect political system because it ensures rule by the majority. Even allowing that such is really the case, the problem is that the will of the majority isn’t necessarily right. Lynch law mentality, for example, is one unfortunate manifestation of rule by the majority. In western, free market cultures, the majority is formed of the middle ground, which is self consciously comfortable, conformist and aspirational. Such aspirations are determined, I might add, by the will of the system, not the majority. It is also patently apparent that the middle ground is not as comfortable as its inhabitants are conditioned to believe, but that’s a separate issue.

The point I’m making is that democracy does not celebrate diversity. Democracy demands cloying conformity. There is a movement in Britain to ban the Muslim face veil, the reason being that they are considered ‘a symptom of a divided society.’ This is a sad state of affairs, because it panders to the hideous will of the racists under the guise of democratic justification. In a democracy, only the middle ground is truly acceptable; democracy demands unquestioning allegiance to its values, mores and expectations. Anyone who declines to do that becomes, to some extent at least, an outcast. Marginalisation is the inevitable consequence. The only way to avoid such stricture is to be rich. The rich are, for some unaccountable reason, always afforded a warm welcome, even when, like Donald Trump, they can destroy hundreds of acres of wild land, against the will of the local majority, to feed their self-serving interests. What price democracy then?

So is there a better system? That’s a matter of opinion; no political system is inherently perfect. What I want the west to do is to stop using the banner of democracy to cover a multitude of sins. If we want it, fine; but at least let us be aware that the political machine is driven as much by individual greed and power mania as it is by the values supposedly inherent in the concept of democracy. And when we go driving our military bulldozers around the world, supposedly spreading the gospel, the whole concept takes on a much darker hue. It becomes just another form of imperialism. If other people want a different system, that’s their choice.

And so we come full circle to the issue of diversity. Democracy does so love to destroy it.