Sunday, December 26, 2010

How are you?

Sorry to be all introspective and gloomy, but it is the season to be jolly.

Someone asked me, "Are you OK?"

Few people have any idea how much energy and effort I have expended throughout my life in an attempt to persuade myself and the world at large that I am indeed OK - when for the most part I don't even know what being OK actually means.

Sometimes people respond to such solicitude by saying, "I'm as well as can be expected under the circumstances."

But what if those circumstances are the conditions of human existence: darkness, ignorance, finiteness, helplessness? What if the ingredients of this particular festive dish include disappointment, disillusion, the weight of unfulfilled social expectations?

Oh, did I tell you by the way? I'm down with the flu.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Christmas Helping of Quentin Crisp

"I simply haven't the nerve to imagine a being, a force, a cause which keeps the planets revolving in their orbits and then suddenly stops in order to give me a bicycle with three speeds."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Exposed

Thus saith Julie Burchill:

"Show me a man who loves football and nine times out of ten you'll be pointing at a really bad shag."

Whereupon I feel I must confess that last night I watched the whole of the Man City v Man United game on TV.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Why do people want to have children?

When I shared my puzzlement about this with my therapist she took it as evidence that I was still inclined to think too much about things. She said with impatient tone that people always had wanted to have children, without even thinking about it. In effect - Go with the flow. Not advice that an intellectual protestant like me finds easy to accept.

But why DO people want to have children?

And why are so many of my otherwise thoughtful friends using their Facebook page chiefly as a birth announcement gazette, with pictures?

As a wise person once wrote: People have been marrying and bringing up children for centuries now. Nothing has ever come of it.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Disturbance

Seeing that the world - reality - is so disturbing, why are so few people obviously disturbed?
 
And why do we treat people who are obviously disturbed so harshly?

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Really

This morning, while it was still dark, I heard the cry of a child we look after.

I was at home. He was miles away at his home.

I heard him because I was listening for him.

Did I really hear him?

What does it mean to say that I didn't really hear him?

Westwood Ho!

Lee Westwood has become the world number one golfer. It's all over the media. As if it matters in the slightest.

What I want to know is why Lee Westwood is so celebrated for being good - even the best - at something so utterly pointless?

Monday, November 01, 2010

Am I possibly a possibilian?

I ask this puzzling question because I have just been reading David Eagleman, a neuroscientist and writer of fiction. 
 
Eagleman rejects not only conventional religion but also the labels of agnostic and atheist. In their place, he has coined the term possibilian: a word to describe those who “celebrate the vastness of our ignorance, are unwilling to commit to any particular made-up story, and take pleasure in entertaining multiple hypotheses.”
 
The work of science, he says, is like building a pier out into the ocean. We excitedly add on to the pier little by little, but then we look around and say, “Wait a minute, I’m at the end of the pier, but there’s a lot more out there.” The ocean of what we don’t know always dwarfs what we do know. During our lifetimes, he adds, we will get further on that pier. We’ll understand more at the end of our lives than we do now, but it ain’t going to cover the ocean.
 
Our goal in some sense is to reduce the mystery, but that doesn’t reduce the awe, Eagleman insists. If scientists could produce a neural map that explains why chocolate ice cream tastes good, it would still taste just as good. The mystery would be gone, but the experience wouldn’t be diminished. 
 
Eagleman makes a useful distinction between himself, a possibilian, and what he calls a mysterian (one who believes that there are things humans can’t understand, problems we can’t solve).

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The possibility of God

I spend some of my time serving as a priest-chaplain to visitors in a local cathedral. It is the only part of my life that can be regarded as official or representative, the aspects of ministry I have always found most problematic. A friend asked me how I reconcile this role with my total uncertainty about life, the universe and everything, including religion and faith. What, he wondered, do I suppose I am doing when I stand there wearing my dog-collar and sporting my chaplain’s badge.

Good question. Tentative answer.

The basis of all conversations I have as a priest is the possibility of God. I mean this in at least two senses. First, that God might be a possibility, and that life might be lived in the light (or shadow) of that possibility. Secondly, that God might actually be possibility. To quote Kierkegaard: ‘God is that all things are possible, and all things are possible is God.’ To see the world ‘in God’ is to see the world as open, unpredictable, undetermined, totally uncertain.

One possibility I have yet to reckon with - the possibility that I am fooling myself into believing that this kind of uncertainty is consistent with my priestly profession. I may never be sure.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Son rising

When I worked in a classroom with eight year old children one of my strategies was to reverse roles and concede power to the child. It was playful and often disingenuous on my part. I would get things wrong on purpose so that the child had the experience of correcting and even chiding me.

When I was little my father, whose middle name was Victor, invariably put himself in the position of loser when we boxed and wrestled on the hearth-rug. He so wanted me to have the victory over him, to excel him in strength. It was as if he knew from the start that I would never use my power against him, that I would never knowingly and avoidably give him pain. I never did. What is more our loving kindness was entirely mutual.

I was reminded of this truly filial relationship during a recent visit to the Octagon Theatre in Bolton. In the play Rafta Rafta a father and his soon to be married son seek to humiliate each other through an arm-wrestling contest. Such a contest between me and my father would have been excruciating. And it never would have worked. We should each have been trying too hard to let the other win.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Down South

As I watched last month a senior Anglican dignitary welcome His Holiness The Pope on a historic visit with quite dazzling publicity, I was reminded how in the 1990s this same clergyman had applied to be Vicar of a less celebrated parish church in the North of England and had been turned down because a majority of the interviewing panel did not want a gay priest. A confusing mixture of dishonesty, denial - and yes, progress.

Acceptance

After spending my life ministering to people along the lines of - accept your limitations, be happy with your life as it is, don’t try too hard to succeed, come to terms with mortality, learn to love transience, cling to the void, practice compassion because we’re all in this together - I now find myself facing the harsher truth that I don’t want to get old, ill, frail, that I don’t want to die or suffer the privations of staying alive. Nor do I want to be told not to worry about it, that it doesn’t matter, that all will be well, that it’s no big deal. It feels like a big deal - to me at least.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Alone

He told me that he was joining a club for young people who think they might be gay.

He is 15.

I asked him whether it was what he really wanted.

He said Yes. He wanted to meet people who are like him.

I told him I have never met anyone quite like me.

I am 67.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Chancellor, your slip is showing!

Last night, the heir to a multimillion pound fortune declared that it is wrong for people to get money for doing nothing.

Bad Conscience. 

Monday, August 23, 2010

But why?

Yesterday (Saturday) in The Times:

Daisy Goodwin writes in Weekend about whether or not she’s a pushy (enough) parent without reference to what success in life or education might be for, apart from ‘getting a reasonably well-paid job’. Professor Tanya Byron responding thinks it’s all about raising ‘well-rounded, confident, happy young people who will feel positive and of worth’.

Arthur Smith in Playlist opines that ‘comedy lies in the discrepancy between who we are and how we would like to be, between the beautiful possibilities of the world and the brutal truth of it’. There is more honesty here, but he goes and spoils it by adding that ‘the bigger the discrepancy, the harder we must laugh’, which, seeing that he’s a comedian, is a bit self-serving, but also leaves out the options that instead of laughing we might strive in different ways to make good our deficit, or despair of doing so, even commit suicide if we find life so intolerable.

In Magazine, Camila Batmanghelidjh adds to my, by now, almost total frustration by admitting that ‘we are fundamentally meaningless, a speck of dust on this earth’, yet goes on to say there is no point in fussing too much but that psychoanalysis, lying on the couch, is useful. She has founded a charity which works to improve the lives of vulnerable children (meaningless specks of dust?) through therapy, social work and advocacy, as well as providing food, education and holistic care. Why?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Dare to be a Daniel

Daniel doesn't get out much - mainly when I take him. He can't make it on his own. Can't even walk without leaning heavily on whatever is to hand. But we walk, or I walk him, and we talk.

The thing about talking to Daniel is there’s no such thing as embarrassment. He's not highbrow. But at the same time we do get into some deep places.

One of the things that amazes me about him is that he never quite accepts his limitations. He speaks, or at least makes utterance, and he expects you to understand and respond. He strives to do things and reach places which I, in my very adult way, know to be beyond him, and he never gives up. It's not that he has no sense of danger. He winces in anticipation of painful consequences when he pushes the boundaries of previous experience. But he is immensely brave, and really quite incorrigible.

One of the things that Daniel can do better than anyone - is give. A smile. A hug. Appreciation. Approval. Encouragement. Affirmation. These are just some of his gifts - and there's no mistaking them. He leaves you in no doubt. When Daniel gives, you know you've been given.

Daniel isn't impressed by appearances. He sees into your soul.

She's onto something

I'm just a peddler of other people's good ideas. Like a biblical theologian. Only not so dangerous, because the words I handle are not directly from God.

One of the people who are on to something and worth paying attention to, but are not God, is Celia Green.

She doesn't think much of what the rest of us call 'sanity' because sanity requires that we deny our astonishment that anything at all exists. Astonishment, she says, is the only realistic emotion. Such is the reality that we are all bent on escaping from.

Risks for Peace

George F Will in The Washington Post reminds us of recent history which too many seem to have forgotten already:

In the intifada that began in 2000, Palestinian terrorism killed more than 1,000 Israelis.
 
During the onslaught, which began 10 Septembers ago, Israeli parents sending two children to a school would put them on separate buses to decrease the chance that neither would return for dinner. Surely most Americans can imagine, even if their tone-deaf leaders cannot, how grating it is when those leaders lecture Israel on the need to take "risks for peace."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Autism or Chaos?

From a report by Jane Hughes, Health Correspondent, BBC News:

Autism Spectrum Disorder affects an estimated 1 in every 100 adults in the UK, most of them men. It varies from mild to very severe, and people with the condition can find the world appears chaotic and hard to understand.

But what if the world really is chaotic and hard to understand? Would it mean that the 99 in every hundred are wrong? - that it's they who need the treatment?

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Doomed to the Decent Thing

Seamus Heaney uses this phrase of a young man training to be a priest:

I could only see you on a bicycle,

a clerical student home for the summer
doomed to the decent thing. Visiting neighbours,
Drinking tea and praising home-made bread.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (in 3 Minute Theologian) makes a similar reference to the whiphand of conformity, and how we have to "act nice" even if we don't "feel nice".

      the forced smile which we put on in company where we do not feel at ease in answer to conversation which does not interest us. The muscles, not spontaneously moved, but moved by a low usurping wilfulness, grow tight about the outline of the face with the most disagreeable sensation.

One of the good things about being a retired priest is not having to be generally agreeable when you don't feel like it - not having to say that every show you see (by the kiddies in the church hall) is wonderful, when it isn't. In fact not having to go to such shows at all.

The Strangeness of Sanity

I've read two of CG's books: "The Human Evasion" and "The Decline and Fall of Science".

She begins the first with an observation about human psychology: that it is rather strange.

In particular that:

Human beings live in a state of mind called "sanity" on a small planet in space. They are not quite sure whether the space around them is infinite or not (either way it is unthinkable). If they think about time, they find it inconceivable that it had a beginning. It is also inconceivable that it did not have a beginning. Thoughts of this kind are not disturbing to "sanity", which is obviously a remarkable phenomenon and deserving more recognition.

There is no denying the force of this. And it is this force, together with the power of her aphorisms, one of which is presently a heading for this blog, that led me to look more closely, and take seriously, what she is saying.

I remember when thoughts like these were first troubling to me. The endlessness of time was a puzzle in itself, but when contrasted with the finiteness of me it left me feeling quite unstable. Thinking of the relativity of space had a similar effect. I could not see why the vastness of our known universe might not yet be microscopic in the context of one of much greater finite magnitude. A fantasy I entertained was that our solar systems, stars, suns, planets, could themselves be sub-atomic particles of a still greater reality. Conversely, the crumbs of dust that I brush from my lap when leaving the table after a meal might be the constituent parts of creaturely civilizations, too small for us ever to apprehend, thus swept away by my unthinking gesture.

If at a distance these thoughts now seem fanciful, they were I think the first conscious stirrings of what became an interest in the meaning of existence. My intellectual and spiritual journey has led me away from these earliest unsettling thoughts to a more mature, adult reflection.

Or has it?


Saturday, July 03, 2010

A Green Revolution?

I'm feeling the need to respond in some way - theologically, philosophically, spiritually - to Celia Green's writings. They amount to a serious attack on much that I have stood for and taught and indeed preached in my life and ministry so far. I am open to such an attack and will only resist it when it seems to me to be unfair, unbalanced, inaccurate or just plain wrong. But where it is merely asking that I rethink and re-imagine what it could mean to be a Christian, a priest, and a human being in the twenty-first century, I pray for the boldness and humility to follow.

Let's see.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Weakest Link

To describe, as The Independent did today, the outcome of a recent piece of research into autism and genetics as discovering the 'first significant link' and a 'breakthrough' is a bit misleading.

The claim begins to suffer death by a thousand qualifications with the deployment of such phrases as: 'researchers believe', 'their findings could eventually lead to', 'their discovery is still preliminary'.

Far from being the paradigm shift that they claim, it appears that they have begun to convince themselves that they have found what they were looking for anyway, namely that there is a strong genetic component to autism. At the same time they admit that environmental influences are also thought to trigger autism but it is not clear how this works.

My own recent experience of caring for autistic children has confirmed my own judgement that their difficulties are to be accounted for largely by unusual experiences, indeed traumas, in infancy. The children I am acquainted with have come from exceptionally testing homes. Their condition owes more to what they have in common with parents and siblings than what separates and differentiates them

Double standard

Eve Garrard, writing on normblog, illustrates starkly the injustice to which Israel is uncritically subjected:

Fintan O'Toole thinks that Israel regards itself as 'exempt from the demands of common humanity'. Iain Banks thinks that 'simple human decency' means nothing to Israel.
Two well-known writers, very anxious to tell the world that Israel lacks humanity. Israel's not like the rest of us, the rest of the human family. Compared to other nations, it's inhuman. It doesn't recognize what everyone else knows about, the simple requirements of being decently human. It ought to recognize these things, it isn't hard to do so, since they're so simple; and most other people do, since they're part of common humanity.
Leave aside the sinister provenance of that claim, and let's just consider it on its own.
Turkey has killed between 30,000 and 40,000 Kurds in the last 30 years; it occupies North Cyprus; it blockades Armenia and denies its own historical genocide. But Israel lacks simple human decency.
Sri Lanka, at the same time that Israel was fighting in Gaza (around 1300 dead) killed about 25,000 of its own civilians in the course of repressing an insurgency. But Israel thinks it's exempt from the demands of common humanity.
Sudan has killed something in the order of 200,000 people in Darfur, with countless rapes and tortures alongside. But Israel lacks simple human decency.
Iran rapes and tortures and murders its own dissidents who ask for democracy; it hangs young gays, it oppresses women. But Israel thinks it's exempt from the demands of common humanity.
Yemen is blockading South Yemen, it lets no food, medicine or water through; unlike Israel, which lets around 15,000 tons of supplies into Gaza every week. But Israel lacks simple human decency.
Egypt is considering a law to strip their citizenship from any Egyptian who marries an Israeli; it persecutes Copts; it blockades Gaza. But Israel thinks it's exempt from the demands of common humanity.
Russia kills 25,000 to 50,000 Chechens, and almost completely razes the capital city of Grozny; its soldiers inflict hideous tortures on their prisoners before killing them; investigative journalists are murdered. But Israel lacks simple human decency.
China kills somewhere between half a million and one and a quarter million Tibetans in the course of quashing Tibet's independence. But Israel thinks it's exempt from the demands of common humanity.
In Pakistan, Christian churches are burned, hundreds of Ahmadiyyas are killed, violence towards women is endemic. But Israel lacks simple human decency.
In Saudi Arabia, no churches are allowed, no Israeli Jews may enter, women are subject to gender apartheid. But Israel thinks it's exempt from the demands of common humanity.
Congo: what can one say about Congo? More than that 5 million - 5 million - people have been killed in its wars, alongside innumerable rapes and hideous tortures? But Israel lacks simple human decency.
Now, here's one especially for Iain Banks: the USA and the UK initiate a war in Iraq in which more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians are killed. But Israel thinks it's exempt from the demands of common humanity.
France trained and armed the Hutu genocidaires who killed around 800,000 civilians in the Rwanda genocide, and continued to protect them even as they lost power to the incoming Tutsis. But Israel lacks simple human decency.

Reasons why

My father envied his younger brother Donald.

Donald was the apple of their mother's eye. When he was born my dad was ten, the eldest child. He had been conceived out of wedlock, a great shame in those days. There were five daughters but no more sons and Donald was doted on. Although they both volunteered for the armed services when war broke out in 1939, only the younger nineteen year old was accepted. My dad was turned down on medical grounds. He was stone deaf in one ear following a mastoidectomy as a boy. The military could not guarantee that the enemy would only attack him on his 'good' side. I know that being turned down by the army was a bitter pill for dad to swallow. My mother said that it was the only time she had seen him cry.


Years later Albert, my dad, picked a quarrel with Donald. The evidence of any offence by Donald was flimsy and probably existed only in my father's imagining, but it was sufficient to sustain a one-sided silent feud conducted by him for several years.


Albert fell out in similar fashion with his own father for reasons that Freudian analysts would find easy to explain. In business he faced the humiliation of bankruptcy when his creditors besieged him for unpaid debts. To cap it all my mother who would now be labelled manic-depressive was 'misappropriating' goods from my father's business to feed her addiction to cigarettes and prescription drugs.

Now my father never possessed a gun although he was I think trained in the use of a rifle in the Home Guard. Had he kept one at home it is not inconceivable that he would have been tempted to use it in an attack on any or all of his perceived rivals and adversaries. He didn't. He quarrelled with some. He refused to communicate with, avoided, possibly even hid from, others. But he neither acquired nor used a weapon on them.

If he had, especially in the 1950s the tabloid press would have bayed for his blood. Hanging would have been too good for him. No excuse for his crimes would have been sought or accepted. Attempts to explain the mental state that leads to acts of homicide would have been dismissed as the ramblings of do-gooders.

Which is why I find the coverage of the Derrick Bird murders and the columns and pages of personal biography to account for what happened and what he did so puzzling - and so nauseating. 

Monday, June 07, 2010

Weapons of Material Destruction

Press reports of the car bomb found las month in New York's Times Square and the guns used in the multiple killings last week in West Cumbria have referred to the lethal instruments as 'weapons of mass destruction'.

No wonder we couldn't find them in Iraq.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Man accustomed to shooting local inhabitants of one species - shoots local inhabitants of another.

He didn't have a horror of pointing a gun at birds (he was a Bird himself) and other animals in the prime of their lives and blasting them to death. If I did such a thing or, because I have neither the skill nor the stomach, it was done for me as a form of pest-control, I should still regret it it and, as much as I ever thought about it, be saddened by it.

For Mr Bird there was a certain coolness about it. As far as we know, he liked it. It was his hobby.

In today's papers there are many ingenious attempts to link this tragedy to Mr Bird's family strife, a big tax bill, and his fear of ending up in jail. The logic is at least tortuous. There are also those who point to the availability of guns, legally or otherwise, as a contributory hazard, overlooking the obvious fact that the kind of personal and domestic and financial problems that seem to have beset Mr Bird are much better addressed with professional, non-ballistic help.

There is however a marked reluctance to acknowledge  that what Mr Bird did on Wednesday to several human beings he had done many times before - for sport - to other animals.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

A quiet man's massacre

Derrick Bird who left a trail of death, terror and injury in a corner of the English Lake District yesterday was by most accounts modest, unassuming and polite. He looked after his frail, elderly mother.

He turned into a killer.

Or did he. A close friend said he used to like to shoot animals in the woods and local farmers' fields.

I understand that killing animals might be a regrettable necessity, and something that someone has to do as quickly and clinically as possible. But to like it? Speaking as an animal myself, that makes me nervous.

And no, I don't think that tougher gun controls are the answer. Reverence for life will do me.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Not against flesh and blood

At our Reading Group last night I introduced the poem "Childhood" by Frances Cornford

 I used to think that grown-up people chose
To have stiff backs and wrinkles round their nose,
And veins like small fat snakes on either hand,
On purpose to be grand.
Till through the banister I watched one day
My great-aunt Etty's friend who was going away,
And how her onyx beads had come unstrung.
I saw her grope to find them as they rolled;
And then I knew that she was helplessly old,
As I was helplessly young.

I find it an oddly flawed poem in many ways, but I do like the way she captures the helplessness of human existence, young and old.

Much in our psychoanalytic tradition persuades us that our helplessness from birth is experienced mainly in relation to others, not least our bigger, stronger, more powerful parents. Celia Green argues that our helpless rage from birth is fuelled rather by our inability to know or understand the world we are in, or to change it to make our human existence more tolerable.

The belief that our struggle is not with other people but with the universe itself is I think potentially quite liberating. 

Sickness or Sin?

I was shocked and surprised that in a recent radio documentary about violent Islamist extremists the language was primarily that of reform and rehabilitation, as if the problem was one of ignorance, misunderstanding, sickness even.

At a time when we are learning more honestly and accurately to describe suicide bombers as homicide bombers, here on the BBC their atrocities were ennobled by epithets of martyrdom, rather than murder and massacre.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

I was reading reviews of this novel, our reading group's Book of the Month, when I came across this excoriating judgement by Theodor Adorno:

Auschwitz begins wherever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: they're only animals.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

How long will it last?

 . . . this feeling that in Celia Green I have found a prophet (I feel sure she wouldn't like prophetess - too PC) for our time?

She is in many respects not my type. We don't, at least never have done till now, sing from the same hymn sheet. In fact I have been precisely the kind of theological modernist she most rails against. Yet when I say I have found her it's in the same way - she occupies the same pedestal in my intellectual world - as I found those thinkers she is most opposed to - the ones who have brought religion down to earth - socialized, politicized, humanized it, transposed its God-talk into ordinary language, taught us that there is no outside to life and the universe, that what we see is all there is.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Sworn friends

A human relationship is what happens when you know you can rely on the other person 
to be as dishonest as you are. 
(Celia Green)

Monday, May 10, 2010

Say that again

How many more times must we be reminded by popular journalists of that which 'we know' is true, namely that financial markets hate uncertainty, when the plain truth is that markets love and thrive upon uncertainty. In fact the freer the market the more uncertain, by definition, it has to be.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Sanity

I was brought up not to take sanity for granted. My mother was not by most definitions sane. I noticed from an early age that sanity was a label attached to people who lived quiet lives with low expectations; who knew their limitations and lived contentedly within them.

That was not my mother.

When Celia Green in her great book The Human Evasion turns her attention to human psychology she finds it rather strange that human beings live in a state of mind called 'sanity' on a small planet in space. The space we live in seems to be infinite, but we are not sure what that means or how to think about it and what concepts we might use in order to do so.

As well as space we live in time. But again we cannot comprehend it. It's quite inconceivable that it had a beginning, and equally inconceivable that it did not.

Yet none of these thoughts are disturbing to 'sanity' -

         which is remarkable - and, says CG, deserves more recognition.

So let's give it the recognition it deserves.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

How a man dies.

Robert A Heinlein is a writer I need to be more acquainted with. At least that's what I think after reading this from his address to the cadets at the U.S. Naval Academy of April 5th, 1973:

"I said that "Patriotism" is a way of saying "Women and children first." And that no one can force a man to feel this way. Instead he must embrace it freely. I want to tell about one such man. He wore no uniform and no one knows his name, or where he came from; all we know is what he did. In my home town sixty years ago when I was a child, my mother and father used to take me and my brothers and sisters out to Swope Park on Sunday afternoons. It was a wonderful place for kids, with picnic grounds and lakes and a zoo. But a railroad line cut straight through it.
One Sunday afternoon a young married couple were crossing these tracks. She apparently did not watch her step, for she managed to catch her foot in the frog of a switch to a siding and could not pull it free. Her husband stopped to help her.
But try as they might they could not get her foot loose. While they were working at it, a tramp showed up, walking the ties. He joined the husband in trying to pull the young woman's foot loose. No luck —
Out of sight around the curve a train whistled. Perhaps there would have been time to run and flag it down, perhaps not. In any case both men went right ahead trying to pull her free ... and the train hit them.
The wife was killed, the husband was mortally injured and died later, the tramp was killed — and testimony showed that neither man made the slightest effort to save himself.
The husband's behavior was heroic ... but what we expect of a husband toward his wife: his right, and his proud privilege, to die for his woman. But what of this nameless stranger? Up to the very last second he could have jumped clear. He did not. He was still trying to save this woman he had never seen before in his life, right up to the very instant the train killed him. And that's all we'll ever know about him.
This is how a man dies.
This is how a man ... lives"

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Honest Norm

Norm clearly and rightly thinks it possible to have one view of the Iraq War without supposing that everyone who takes a different or opposite view must be mad, bad, or just plain wrong.

Some of those who supported the war subsequently came to think they had been mistaken in doing so. I was one of these people - because I had been mistaken in my expectations about the human costs of regime change in Iraq, and those costs had proven exorbitantly high. But in changing my mind I never lost sight of the potential costs if there had been no war or regime change, and it is this, among other things, that continues to separate me from the army of the self-blinding, self-righteous multitudes of the anti-war camp, people not only convinced that they were right to oppose the war, but incapable of recognizing that those who supported it might have had conscientious moral reasons for doing that.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The moral case for the Iraq War

After a lifetime of being anti-war the invasion of Iraq has been an education. Selective pacifism is rife on the left. Being anti-war is little more than a cover for anti-Americanism. So the moral case is too easily overlooked.

Fine analysis of the moral case for the invasion of Iraq by Nigel Biggar, regius professor of moral and pastoral theology at the University of Oxford, in today's Financial Times. He begins thus:

The surfeit of moral certainty among the commentators is suspect; the zealous clarity of their moral waters needs muddying.

The professor, in muddying those waters, does not shy away from the terrible death toll that followed the invasion. But he deals with it in a clear-minded way, asking how one can judge whether it is disproportionate. He gives short shrift to the issue of legality:

International law can be variously interpreted. However, even if we grant that the invasion was illegal, we still have to grapple with the fact that so was Nato’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo, which is now widely regarded as legitimate. The implication? That legality is not the final word.

The case comes to this:

The decisive issue in evaluating the Iraq invasion is not whether it was morally flawed or disproportionate or illegal, but whether it was really necessary to stop or prevent a sufficiently great evil.

He concludes that the certainty with which the antis answer that question is unjustified:

Maybe critics of the war view with equanimity what might have happened without the 2003 invasion, trusting that the secular rationality of Realpolitik would have prevented the rivalry between Iraq’s atrocious Saddam and Iran’s millenarian Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad from turning catastrophically nuclear. In this age of suicide bombers, however, such faith is hard to credit.

THanks to John Rentoul for this.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

How long have I got?

When I was revising for my third year final exams at university I got depressed and then anxious and then desperate about time running out - so much to do - fewer and fewer days, hours, minutes to do it. In the end I was so preoccupied by the shortness of time I was unable to spend the dwindling amount left usefully preparing for the test which was looming. A Harley Street psychiatrist, Anne Darquier, more recently a subject in a book "Bad Faith" by Carmen Callil but then doing a stint as a student counsellor, helped restore me to working order.

I find myself today in a similar state. This time it's death that's the problem. Not that I have a date, nor a suspicion that it's near. Frankly I'm surprised to be still around in my sixty-seventh year, and my decline is neither obvious nor swift. But I am aware of it. The end-time. I can't go on for ever. It's going to happen. I just don't know when.

And, as with my student revision, it's beginning to get in the way of doing ordinary things in ordinary time. The scarcity of time is making it harder and harder to make best use of the diminishing amount at my disposal.

I used to pick up and sometimes buy a book thinking I'd either read it now or save it or keep it for future reference. But it's the future reference, or lack of it, that's squeezing life out of the present. So I don't buy the book or start to read it. And I'm so much less likely to start anything, do anything, go anywhere for the first time.

At best it's a warm feeling. I feel that what I have left is time to revisit books and places, renew old acquaintances and friendships, see and hear again familiar sights and sounds, appreciate once more and perhaps more deeply the people and things I have found most worthwhile in my long short span.

But at worst it can be enervating, emasculating, a vicious spiral of incapacity in which what remains of the day implodes and all that is left is night.

Hurry up Matron! Time for my medication.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Homo Rapiens

This is how John Gray describes the human species in 'Straw Dogs'. Sooner or later it, we, will become extinct. When it is gone the Earth will recover. Long after the last traces of the human animal have disappeared, many of the species it is bent on destroying will still be around, along with others that have yet to spring up. The Earth will forget mankind.

And the implication is clear. Good riddance!

The same spirit is to be found in the misanthropic utterances of Doug Stanhope:

"Want to save the environment? Then don't f*** in the front hole"

Shocking - but funny, and kinda logical.

The Heir of Blair

Weather - or not

I have just heard a weather forecaster on TV say that part of the reason for it being cooler is that the temperatures are lower.

Canon Peter Green

Recently attended a lecture about this Salford Anglican priest who was active there between and after the two world wars of the last century. Strong character. Despised gambling and drinking. Very demanding. Turned down academic and episcopal appointments. Castigated the clergy for their inexcusable laziness. A vegetarian because he thought it healthier. Favoured remarriage in church of 'innocent' spouse after divorce. Preferred life sentences to execution because they allowed more time for repentance. Was ahead of his time on women's ordination and lay ministry. A peacetime pacifist who yet thought that World War Two was the lesser of two evils. A reformer on such matters as euthanasia and assisted suicide. He read the bible, not as the revelation of God, but as the history of the revelation. He believed that the Fall took place in a state of pre-existence. He called it the fall of the world's soul - original sin.

One could not but respect and even admire his energy and passion. I'm not as sure that I would have loved and liked him. One example. He taught that prayers should be said kneeling, or they were useless. I thought of a contemporary of his, a priest who was my Rector at home, the Revd Father F. W. Osborn. I'll bet he never said prayers other than kneeling, even on the coldest, hardest floor. But he would never have condemned the more comfortable offerings most of us make as useless. What conceit.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

I used to be indecisive, but now I'm not so sure.

When you come to a fork in the road - take it.

I think we have Mark Twain to thank for this helpful advice.

The real John Venables problem

Like many people I struggle with the apparent conflict between our needs to understand and yet to condemn the terrible killing of Jamie Bulger. But there is room here for a more considered view. Melanie Reid gives it.

Monday, March 08, 2010

The blood of the martyrs

Frank Skinner has found the secret of success - embrace religious victimhood.

How sad?

"Sadly there are large chunks of the world that I've never visited."

Francis Turner expresses this regret in his normblog profile. I wonder what he means by this. I wonder what he thinks he's missed - or that 'large chunks of the world' have missed on account of his not having been there?

Sunday, March 07, 2010

A senior moment

I often wonder which is more needed for survival - the ability to remember - or the ability to forget? I like the notion that human memory has a will of its own.

"Your memory is a monster; you forget - it doesn't. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you - and summons them to your recall with a will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you!"
John Irving

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Just been thinking

We never know our parents. We never know our children. And we never know ourselves.

This isn't a problem. It's just a fact.

The problem is that we think we do.

Many of the world's difficulties stem from a single mistake. We think we know things when we don't.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Secret Caretaker

I used to interview people - mainly teachers - for jobs. One of my own mentors in this role was the managing director of a large company who attended interviews for new staff. As the candidates arrived on the company premises he met them in the guise of the caretaker, key chain, overalls and all. He noted their attitude to him in what they perceived to be his lowly position, and compared it with their demeanour when introduced to him a second time in the boardroom.

I was once shown round a hospice by the chaplain. I had agreed to cover for him at holiday time. I noticed that whilst he couldn't wait to introduce me personally and politely to the consultant, medical and nursing staff on duty, he walked past the cleaners without so much as a greeting.

I'm particularly sensitive about this - probably because my dad was a caretaker. He took good care of me.

Monday, March 01, 2010

The wrong end of the stick

 Tim Worstall has a go at Geoffrey Lean for this piece of obvious wisdom:

Green technologies also seem to provide plenty of jobs. Exploiting renewables now employs 2.3 million people worldwide, more than the entire oil and gas industries, even though they contribute a small fraction of the amount of energy. They provide several times as much work per dollar invested than fossil fuels, with other green measures like recycling and saving energy proving even more job-intensive. 
 
Come on Tim:

"Imagine an economy of 100 people. 80 of them must labour to provide the food for all 100. This leaves only 20 to do the arts, the crafts, the medical care, lawyering, defence, banking and manufacturing. Over time we get better at that farming thing. We now need only 20 to produce the food for 100, we have perhaps 50 doing manufacturing and 30 doing the services. Times and technologies move on again and we need only 2 to feed us all, 12 to make things we can drop on our feet and 84 can run creches, tend the sick in the NHS, write Grand Theft Auto and appear on the X-Factor.

"Roughly speaking that is what has happened in the UK economy over the past couple of hundred years. We have become wealthier by reducing the amount of labour required to produce food and things and services meaning that we can produce more of all of them to share among us out of the labour we have available. We've even, over the same time span, gone from the majority of everyone's time being spent in labour to the minority of it.

"A useful shorthand for this process is "we've got richer".

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Leaders' spouses

As questions are raised about whether Gordon Brown has a bit of a temper, Michael Skapinker in the FT suggests that:

"the signal service spouses can render is to tell leaders what no one else dares to.

"In June 1940, Clementine Churchill wrote a letter to her husband, tore it up and then wrote it again. Roy Jenkins, in his biography of Winston Churchill, described the letter as "terrifying", which it must have been – both for the writer and the recipient.

"My darling," Mrs Churchill began. "I hope you will forgive me if I tell you something that I feel you ought to know. One of the men in your entourage (a devoted friend) has been to me & told me that there is a danger of your being generally disliked by your colleagues & subordinates because of your rough sarcastic & overbearing manner. If an idea is suggested (say at a conference) you are supposed to be so contemptuous that presently no ideas – good or bad – will be forthcoming. I was astonished & upset because in all these years I have been accustomed to all those who have worked with & under you, loving you – I said this & I was told 'No doubt it's the strain'."

"My Darling Winston – I must confess I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; & you are not so kind as you used to be cannot bear that those who serve the Country & yourself should not love you as well as admire and respect you – Besides you won't get the best results by irascibility & rudeness."

"Please forgive your loving devoted & watchful Clemmie."

"You don't get that quality of advice from many management consultants."

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Remember Churchill when you think of Iraq

 Daniel Finkelstein is on fine form today:

Whatever view you take of Mr Blair’s dossiers or George Bush’s politics, without a proper estimation of the possible consequences, as seen at the time, of not acting, the whole war is impossible to evaluate or understand.

A school I'd have been happy at

"If I were choosing a school for a child I should avoid any which imagined itself competent to do more than teach efficiently and provide a polite and civilized environment in which children were not exposed to physical or psychological attack from either the pupils or the teachers."
Celia Green

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

A Questionnaire I completed recently

  1. What does it mean to be religious and/or spiritual? The kind of words that come to mind are - urgency, single-mindedness, intensity, integrity, moral courage, the individual, the exception, the outsider.
  1. Would you describe yourself as religious and/or spiritual? I’m working on it.
  1. How is religion and/or spirituality important in your life? Please comment on how it is or why it isn’t. Without something that I can identify as a religious purpose I can hardly see the point of living at all. This made the decision to have children of my own a tricky one. Fortunately my two adult daughters, as far as I can tell, do not share my squeamishness on this matter.
  1. What is the contribution (if any) of religion and/or spirituality in dealing with questions of peace, justice and sustainability? When I started to think seriously about religion as a young adult it was under the guidance of a priest who was a pacifist (in wartime a conscientious objector). He lived a life of self-denial, offered his home to the homeless and brought the gospel to the poor. One of my early philosophical mentors was John MacMurray. He taught that all human thought is for the sake of action, and all action for the sake of friendship. This has made sense and informed my thinking at the deepest level all my life - friendship as a kind of end in itself, the Trinitarian God a kind of ideal community of friends (Friends?). I have come seriously to re-think my position on this. I am increasingly drawn to the view that the kind of this-worldly emphasis in modern theology has been a distraction and even a betrayal of those who have rightly sought in religion a way of transcending the limitations of human finiteness. I am so unused to thinking in this way I am almost embarrassed to be doing it, but this is where I am. I find myself asking for the first time whether this focus on human relationships, morality and politics  which has been the central concern of much modern theological writing is anything more than a distraction from, and defence against, the overwhelming and possibly intractable problem of existing at all, as we humans do, in a state of ignorance, uncertainty and powerlessness. This is a new direction in my thinking and as yet more than usually tentative.

  1. Were your parents (or other carers) religious/spiritual and in what ways have they influenced the views you hold now? My parents introduced me to the reality of human existence, they brought me to birth - a happy event? Actually they were lovely people who just didn’t stand a chance. My mother was a tormented person who committed suicide (?). My father had troubling thoughts about life, death and human destiny. He railed (quietly) against the human predicament, especially that he had not been consulted on the two most important questions – whether he should be born and whether he should die. He was also one of the funniest and most entertaining people I have known. 
  1. Have you ever been aware of or influenced by a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self? If so, please briefly describe your experience. God is love – crucified – makes a kind of sense - also the absent and hidden God of R S Thomas’ poetry.

  1. Does prayer have a place in your life? If not, please comment on why. If so, please describe when and how you pray and what for. I’m not sure whether my problem with prayer is how to do it or how to stop doing it. My apprehension of life and living things and sometimes even inanimate objects is mostly of a hypersensitive kind. Trying to connect everything to everything else and to God is my ongoing experience and practice of prayer. Liturgical worship and prayer have always meant a lot to me. I can lose myself in it. My parents were RC and took me and my sister as small children to Mass. I liked it.

  1. Is the notion of God meaningful for you? Please comment on why or why not. God, Love, the Absolute, have been a vital part of my life-vocabulary.

  1. What is your understanding of Jesus? A scary man who made quite unreasonable demands on his followers. A holy man, a lonely man, an individual. An inspired genius whose life, death and teaching brought into being the Christian Church, the cradle of much of what is best in western civilization.
  1. Do you think Jesus was conceived by a virgin? Please comment on why or why not. Nothing that is important to me depends on this being literally true. In any case I consider virginity to be ludicrously over-rated.
  1. Do you believe that Jesus was raised from the dead? Please comment on why (and in what sense you understand that) or why not. I have found the best way of understanding this is in terms of the Church as the risen body of Christ.

  1. In what way is a religious outlook compatible (or not) with the idea that life on earth, including human life, has evolved? To be credible a religious view must be compatible with reality – all that exists – and the way that it exists and has come or might have come to exist. Actually we do not know much about the universe, its origins and what it is made of. There is very little, if anything, we can be certain of. A profound and radical skepticism about everything is probably the only rational option.

  1. In what way have the media articles or TV programmes celebrating the anniversary in 2009 of Charles Darwin influenced your view? As I think we know so little about what and how and why the world is then every bit of seemingly solid knowledge and more or less credible theory such as Darwin’s is to be welcomed. At the same time I regard as vain and disreputable the attempts made by some in the name of religion to equate nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ with the eternal purpose of a Great Designer.
  1. What, if anything, should primary school children be taught about religion? I have never believed that Christianity is a simple faith and I doubt that there is such a thing. It is most likely to be understood and appreciated from a position of mature reflection that is only possible later in life. Those who wish to commend religious belief to children must be careful not to talk down to them.

  1. What is your view of homosexuality? What is my view of heterosexuality? I think that all human beings have their own way of being close to and intimate with others. Among these are homosexuals – and heterosexuals.
  1. Should churches offer blessings for same sex partnerships? Please comment on why or why not. Churches should bless all good, loving, life-affirming relationships.
  1. Should abortion be available on demand? Please comment on why or why not. I have always been strongly in support of a woman’s right to choose how and when her pregnancy should end.
  1. Should assisted suicide for those with terminal illness be made legal and available in the UK? Please comment on why or why not. Apart from the safeguards necessary to ensure that the person who chooses suicide has done so freely and without any form of coercion, my main concern here would be how to negate the power of the state to intervene by prescribing or refusing the medication chosen by the individual seeking to put an end to his life.
  1. What do you think happens when we die? I don’t want to be stuffed. But seriously I can hardly make sense of the question. What I don’t see is why this is a religious question. A longing for ‘life after death’ is more likely to be selfish (more of me/more for me) than religious (more of God).
  1. In what ways (if any) does your answer to question 19 influence how you live your life? If there is no ‘life after death’ I have no reward or punishment to look forward to or fear so I had better get on with making the most and the best of what life I have, practicing goodness for its own sake, and even loving God for nothing.
  1. As you think about your life at the moment what gives you most fulfillment? I am not at all fulfilled. The nearest I get to that feeling is when a child we look after who is severely disabled falls asleep in my arms and I think to myself ‘If I’m good enough for Daniel, I’m good enough.’
  1. Have you ever had to deal with a personal tragedy or crisis, and if so, who or what did you turn to for comfort. If not, who or what do you imagine turning to in those circumstances? As a priest I have been more used to being the one that others turn to. I am not that good at turning to others. The Psalms have helped.
  1.  If you ever just want to feel a sense of calmness or soulfulness, what do you do? Where do you go? To the seaside.
  1. What are some important morals or ethics that you try to live by in your daily life? For the sake of the planet I don’t eat meat and I don’t fly. Actually I don’t like flying and meat eating is unnecessary and probably unhealthy and nearly always involves avoidable cruelty and pain to innocent animals.
  1. Do you think the world would be better off with more religion, or less? Religion is here to stay. Given the extent of extremism and fundamentalism more of the same would be a calamity. We need to raise our game.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Deja Vu All Over Again

Remember how we were told that Saddam Hussain had been supplied with weapons by the US and UK when it served our purpose to keep him in power, only later to discover that nearly all of the arms recovered after the war were from Russia and France? Well another myth has been exposed.

Call it the 'war for oil' fallacy.

According to Reuters the US oil majors were largely absent from an Iraqi auction of oil deals snapped up instead by Russian, Chinese and other firms.

The Oil Ministry on Saturday ended its second bidding round after awarding seven of the oilfields offered for development, adding to deals from a first auction in June that could together take Iraq up to a capacity to pump 12 million barrels per day.

[...]Russia's Lukoil on Saturday clinched a deal to develop Iraq's supergiant West Qurna Phase Two oilfield after having failed to convince Iraq to bypass the auction and revive an old Saddam Hussein-era deal for the field.

[...]Only one U.S. firm bid in the second round, and of the four fields bid on by U.S. firms in the first round, only Exxon Mobil won a major prize, leading a group to clinch a deal for the supergiant West Qurna Phase One field.

U.S.-based Occidental came away with a quarter stake in a consortium that won a contract for the giant Zubair field.

By contrast, Chinese state oil firms were involved in every first round bid and made a strong showing in the second.

[...]"We haven't really seen U.S. companies, and that is because of intense competition ... The issue is financial and technical and not at all political. This confirms Iraq can manage its oil policy and activities without politicization," said Thamir Ghadhban, a prime ministerial advisor and former oil minister.

As Robin Simcox reflects: "So while the US barely figured, Russia and China - both of who(m) voted against the war - are now both (as they have every right) making finanical gains from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. However such facts rarely do much to puncture the depressingly prevalent idea that Saddam was overthrown by the US and UK due to an insatiable thirst for oil and financial gain. This blatant misreading of the facts seem to be increasingly accepted wisdom, and it is hard to see what Blair can say at the inquiry to change this."

Is war possible?

According to Professor Philip Allott writing in today's Times:

Wars should be preceded and accompanied by intense public debate about all aspects - strategic, moral, political, social, economic, legal.

Has there ever been such a war? Could there ever be?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Big Questions

 At the end of Chapter 1 of Celia Green's book The Human Evasion are some fiercely searching questions I seem never seriously to have asked before:

"The questions which remain are these. Are people, in fact, matters of ultimate concern to other people? And still more, can they be sources of "ultimate solution" to them? If they are not, what psychological force is at work to ensure that these questions are so seldom asked? Why, if you ask a question about man and the universe, are you given an answer about "man in society"?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Iraq War Inquiry Derangement Syndrome

That's what Melanie Phillips calls it.

She concludes:

"we all know beyond a shadow of a doubt, Blair secretly committed Britain to an illegal war on which he lied to the British public – and unless the inquiry concludes as such, its members will be consigned along with him to the first circle of hell.

"Verdict first, evidence nowhere."

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Valentine

The patron saint of making sad, lonely, ugly people feel like crap.

(My last quote "Chequered" was, I think, original i.e. I made it up. This one I definitely heard somewhere.)

Chequered

The best thing I can say about my chequered past is that it exactly matches my chequered present.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Sounds unfamiliar

Labour MP David Anderson speaking in the debate on the Queen's Speech:

"I hope that John Chilcot asks people such as Bayan Rahman to give evidence. I hope that he asks Hangar Khan, from the regional trade union movement, and Abdullah Muhsin, who was exiled in the 1980s and became the international representative of the trade union movement, to give evidence too. They will say clearly what Bayan has said to me: "Some people seem to have forgotten the brutal reality of his long years of repression. Saddam conducted a campaign of genocide against the Kurds. His forces used chemical weapons to kill men, women and children including 5,000 people who were killed in an attack on the city of Halabja in 1988. They murdered innocent people including thousands of boys and men from the Barzan area who disappeared in 1983," never to be seen again, "and whose mass graves are being found today."

"Saddam's forces also "razed 4,500 villages to the ground, destroying" the agricultural heartland of Iraq. The suffering in other parts of Iraq was the same. The key question that people ask me when I am over there is not "Why did you come here in 2003?" but "Why didn't you come here in 1983? We might have had a very different way of life."