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Thursday 25 November 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

A very, very Happy Thanksgiving to all American readers, from chilly England!

Saturday 20 November 2010

Sentimental Suffering

It’s a wonderful thing, I think, that Kate Middleton was descended from – obviously among others - a northern miner and a lorry driver and yet was educated at one of the most prestigious schools and universities in Britain and is marrying their heir apparent to the throne. It shows that, contrary to what the victim mentality of the welfare state would have us believe, no one is bound by the circumstances of their birth or family. Grammar Schools, like the one I attended (free of charge!) and loved (Notre Dame, Leeds), were disbanded by a socialist government that believed that they created a division between classes. In my school there were children who came from very wealthy families, the daughters of professional people, and the daughters of all kinds of workers and unemployed people. The pupils came from a wide area from the inner-city, to suburbs, to places out in the country. There was a board on the wall, inscribed with the names of people who had gone on from there to achieve a university degree (dating back to the days when women didn’t get degrees) but by the time I attended the school, the names had become so numerous that they had stopped filling it in and it was removed soon after. When the socialist government put an end to that and said it was an unfair system, schools drew together people who, regardless of their particular gifts – whether academic or practical or a mixture of the two – all lived in the same catchment area so people only mixed with the people who came from a similar background. And that was an attempt not to make everyone equal but to make everyone the same.

People are not the same, in my opinion, nor are they equal, if equality is synonymous with ‘same’. A large oak tree is not the same as a small crocus, though each can be beautifully awe-inspiring, and a park filled with only oak trees isn’t half as interesting as one which is filled with the variety of trees, creatures, tiny shrubs, little bugs, giant water plants, exquisite Birds of Paradise, sparrows and huge crows.

It has often seemed to me that there is a tendency to cater to the lowest common denominator, rather than fixing our eyes on the best that we can be. I have known children who cannot write a sentence but who can sew the most most beautiful embroideries or cook the most beautiful dishes but they were told they needed to have some meaningless qualification in order to be recognised. Cooking lessons went out of schools, to be replaced with ‘food technology’ – but some people were brilliant cooks who were made instead to write essays about cooking in order to gain some pointless qualification because someone once had the idea that it required a qualification to verify your worth! I have known people in psychiatric hospitals who draw the most brilliant pictures but who were labelled as ‘mentally ill’. Let the cooks cook; let the artists paint or draw; let the academics study; let the crocuses be crocuses and let the oak trees be oaks trees and let everyone, in each subsequent generation achieve all s/he can achieve.

Sadly, I have also known people who spend their lives saying, “It isn’t fair....the rich get richer....and we are poor, underprivileged, sick, oppressed....” and the worst possible response to that is to agree with it because in so doing we perpetuate that myth.

At risk of sounding like a terrible old Scrooge or something like that tonight....It is the evening of ‘Children in Need’. Truly I would give my last penny to raise anyone from any difficulty in which s/he temporarily found himself, but nowadays there is an endless series of tales of woe, all of which are presented as heroic. Sick children are always described as ‘brave’. Healthy children do not have such an accolade. We endlessly, endlessly, endlessly cater to the victim and I wonder often about the children who are not suffering, who are not apparently ‘in need’ but who are trying to find their own way in the world. Those who suffer are given holidays in lovely places; trips to America; hailed as heroes....In fact anyone who is ill is hailed as hero on the local news nowadays.

Perhaps if we began to look more at success, at hailing the healthy, admiring the differences between people, acknowledging the wonder in all of us, we wouldn’t need this victim-stuff or this sentimentalising of suffering...If we want to end suffering, we need to stop honouring it, don't we?

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Prince William's Engagement

Hurrah for the announcement of the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton! What a dignified, level-headed and beautiful couple, with both dignity and ‘the common touch.’ Diana, Princess of Wales must be ‘looking down’ in sheer delight at the way in which times have moved on from the days of her more-or-less arranged marriage, to that of her son to someone he genuinely loves. Congratulations to them and may they be blessed with every blessing!

An interesting phenomenon about the British is that only 3 things seem to really unite us as a nation. The first is football: when a major tournament (like the World Cup) is taking place, we suddenly become patriotic and, (with the ‘triumph of hope over experience’!) think that this time we might, just might, actually win....Alas! That hope usually fades pretty quickly! The second is some minor upset like a little extra snow or a flood or some other ‘extreme’ (by our standards) weather. The buses can’t run or people are stranded and suddenly we see ourselves in the ‘spirit of the Blitz’ – everyone pulling together for the common good. Neighbours help neighbours, strangers help strangers and everyone feels good about it all....then the thaw comes or the flood subsides and we all return to our British singularity.

The third thing, however, is perennial. It is the Royal Family: give us a jubilee or a royal wedding and suddenly the whole mood of the country shifts and we all have the excuse to celebrate, shed our English reserve and come together again! I admire all the work done by our Royal Family (who, for all the complaints of their critics, work extremely hard) and I have heard even the most ardent Republicans express their amazed sense of surprise when they came face to face with members of the royal family – the magical mystique of royalty! – but there is one thing they do better than anyone else: they have the ability to embody the hopes of a nation. People get engaged every day and it is no big deal....but when a prince (particularly so charming a prince as Prince William) is engaged, the entire country feels the ripple of joy. I guess that after centuries of having a monarchy, what happens in the lives of individual princes affects us all. It’s something that goes right into the very cells of our bodies and all the inherited memories of past generations, I suppose.

All in all – a very happy day for the country and I am grateful for the joy that the Royal Family brings us! Congratulations to William and Kate!

Sunday 14 November 2010

The Opium of the People?

At the time that he wrote his famous line: “Religion is the opium of the people” it cannot be denied that in many ways, Marx spoke the truth. Religion had, for centuries, long been used as a tool to keep the social order in place. During the enclosures in Britain, when the greater part of the rural population was illiterate, village parsons gave sermons threatening people with hell if they failed to obey and respect their ‘masters’ (no matter how cruel those masters were). In the Middle Ages, the illiterate people were, by means of pictures of hell (which must have come from the most macabre and unspiritual minds as many of them are more horrific than the worst horror films shown today) the consequences of not obeying their king. Basically, the message was, “You cannot think for yourself. You must obey those whom God has placed over you or you will spend eternity undergoing the most horrendous tortures imaginable....oh and, by the way, God is love!” And people believed it.

Surely a belief is the most powerful force there is, and when that belief is associated with the most basic and most prominent aspect of ourselves – our spirituality, who we really are, our view of what God/the Divine/Life is – the concoction is more powerful than sticking your fingers into an electric socket. Powerful people learned that very early in our history and used it to their own ends. Even the Emperor Constantine realised that the best way to control the Roman empire was to use religion, and hence the world became Christian, with a message very far removed from the message of the Galilean who first preached it. Terrorists today still kill innocent people when their spirituality is warped into the notion that they are doing God’s work.

But, paradoxically, some of the most powerful people on earth – the kings of the past – were more bound by that belief than by the masses who felt themselves wronged and to whom Marx was preaching. This, it seems to me, is a great and much misunderstood tragedy. A great many people, even now, condemn Charles I of Britain, Louis XVI of France and Nicholas II of Russia for clinging to their autocracies, yet
each of them was a devout man: a Protestant, a Catholic and an Orthodox king, all raised from their earliest years that they must accept their God-given role, as surely as the workers, the illiterate peasants and the masses must accept theirs. The Victorian hymn sung often in churches said:

“The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate.
He [God] made their lofty standing,
He made their low estate.”

It was all God’s will. Neither Louis XVI nor Nicholas II wanted power at all. They were obeying the belief instilled in them since childhood, that God had called them to sacrifice everything for this. They were no different, in that respect, from the drugged masses about whom Marx was writing. However, very few people condemn the drugged masses – on the contrary, there is great sympathy for the poor and downtrodden who chose to remain in that state through some mistaken belief that God wanted them to suffer.
Many people, however, speak glibly of Nicholas and Louis as arrogant and stubborn, whereas they were devoutly following what they saw to be their duty and they, along with Charles I, were literally martyred for their beliefs.

Much good came from religion in the past – education, the establishment of hospitals, schools and orphanages – but most of that came from individual thinkers within the institution of religion (and often encountered initially a great deal of resistance from the hierarchy of religion – how many saints met opposition from bishops!). Much good comes for some from religion now – the creation of communities and bringing people together, but the history of it is of so much manipulation and – to my mind – the greatest crime of all, depriving people of their immediate connection with the Divine.

It seems to me often, looking at Nature and Creation as the surest expression of what the Divine is, that religion is lacking. The word, coming from its Latin root ‘re-ligio’ means to reconnect with the Divine. When I was at school it was defined as a ‘measuring stick’ – something ordered and against which we measured how well we were doing, which so suited the interpretation of Empires when everything needed to be kept in line – the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate – but Nature, along with the orderliness of tides, planets, seasons etc. is absolutely wild as well: the chaos of overgrown gardens, the intermingling of colour at this time of year, the lavish wastefulness of leaves being shed year after year, the variety of creatures...And nowhere do you see a dog telling a cow that, “My way is the right way. I have the Truth”, or a daffodil telling an oak tree, “You are appointed as God’s king and must rule me.” Humans are so odd – and nowhere more so than in our powerful beliefs which are at the heart of all that is good in the world, and all that is catastrophic.

Thursday 11 November 2010

"In Flanders Fields the Poppies Blow....."

This morning, along with most of the rest of of the country in supermarkets, work places, at memorials and anywhere anyone happened to be, I stood for the 2 minutes silence of Remembrance Day. I thought of Max of Hesse-Kassel, Maurice of Battenberg (2 members of the same family killed on opposite sides of WW1), and I thought of my own great-uncle – an ordinary northern working man who went off to war to ‘do his bit’ and whose wife gassed herself when she heard of his death on the trenches, and another great uncle who had been married for only 3 days before he went off to die in some hell-hole battle....for what? I guess they thought it was noble and for freedom, just as the Austrians, the Germans, the Australians, the French, the Russians, the Americans and every other nation which took part in that war did).

Then I thought Agincourt, Afghanistan, Bosworth, Battle of Britain, Camp Hill, Cambrai, Culloden, D-Day, Edgehill, the Falklands, Gallipoli, Hastings, Helmand Province, Indian mutiny, Iraq, Jutland, Kings Norton, Korean War, Marston Moor, Mons, the Marne, Naseby, Passchendaele, Seacroft Moor, Towton, Worcester, Ypres....So many centuries of British battles...so much slaughter for what? So many people at home crying for their dead, so many soldiers believing they fought for what is right...but who now really remembers Towton (the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil) or why they were dying at Hastings or Agincourt...or the Somme? Just pointlessly, endlessly pointless fights that achieve nothing.

90 years ago today, the Cenotaph was unveiled to honour those millions who had died in the First World War. The Unknown Soldier was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey and it must have seemed as though humanity had reached its glut on the carnage of war. After all, that was the ‘war to end wars’, and remembering it with poppies and due respect to the courage of all those who had died and demonstrated sometimes incredible bravery and other times, sheer terror, was surely meant to be the lesson that after centuries of inane killing, we realised that nothing was ever achieved by it. 90 years, an even longer world war, and numerous other wars later it continues. Now, the German fighters of WWII stand alongside their ‘enemies’ in Britain to honour the dead. Of all the thousands of wars and battles in history, only one, to my mind, makes any sense, and that is WWII – stopping Hitler’s bizarre view of the world, but it strikes me as mightily odd that Britain ostensibly went to war to protect Poland and yet, at the end of the war was happy to see Poland handed over to the totally insane Stalin.

I just wonder what it’s all about and – to quote the song – ‘when will they ever learn? when will they ever learn?”

If we stand in silent awe before cenotaphs, surely part of the awe is at our own inability to see how we can continue perfecting the arts of war with bigger and better weapons, and still not knowing really why anyone is still fighting.

Forgive me if this offends you on this day on which I, too, wore my poppy with pride. I honour every single one of those people who were brave enough to do all they did. I honour, too, the objectors - though that is so much less glamorous - and I honour those who were shot as deserters when they couldn't take any more of the horror of it. I just don’t know what it is, or what it was ever for.

Wednesday 3 November 2010


Bonfire Night draws near and it is striking how close it is to Poppy Day when, in the murky November evenings, the sounds of fireworks and flashes of light through the night sky seem quite reminiscent of the shells on the Somme and the Marne. It is such an evocative time of year!

First comes Halloween and it shocked me to learn that throughout history 13 million (!!) witches have been murdered in the name of religion. These witches were, for the most part, country folk who clung to the ways of Nature which now, after 200 years of industrialisation, is back on the political agenda as though the idea is something new! The so-called witches never ‘consorted with devil’ – they listened to the earth, watched the seasons, saw the grandeur of Nature and the way in which any contemplation of it inevitably leads to a sense of there being a Divine hand behind all of it. They saw the healing properties of herbs. Perhaps they danced in joy as the seasons changed....basically they were free spirits who couldn’t be controlled...and were burned as witches.

Then comes Bonfire Night – ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ – the man who not only gave his name to a kind of festival that has lasted for over 400 years, but whose name became a slang word for any man. Few people realise that the word ‘guy’ comes from this one man, who was basically a terrorist (and also a local lad in these parts - a Yorkshire man!). After several decades of religion swinging one way then another in Britain - first Henry VIII started killing Catholics, then his daughter, Mary, started killing Protestants, then Elizabeth tried to create a balance and allow freedom of worship, but was excommunicated and flt obliged to outlaw Catholicism – the country had a most ineffectual and unpleasant king in James I. The son of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, he was a staunch Protestant, and Guy Fawkes, along with some cronies, decided to blow him to bits in the name of Catholicism. That, of course, was a really Christian thing to plan to do!! (I am, of course, being ironic). The plot having failed, Guy Fawkes was caught and hanged and to this day children stand in the street with scarecrow-like figures and ask for ‘a penny for the Guy’, who is then thrown onto the bonfire. You would think, from the countless fireworks, that there is something to celebrate in this but it is really celebrating the failure of a plot to to blow up a failure of a king. Of the many wonderful things that have happened in British history, it is bizarre that this remains a constant annual feature. No one (thank goodness!) celebrates victories at Waterloo or Trafalgar. No one celebrates the ends of the world wars. No one celebrates the Queen’s birthday really....yet this silly man and his plot to kill a silly king remains a celebration. How odd the English are! It’s probably more a question of timing than anything else. The clocks go back, we need something to lighten the gloomy nights between summer and Christmas....Bonfire Night happens.

But then comes poppy day. Already just about everyone is wearing a poppy (and so do I, but not out of hailing heroes, but as a reminder of the pointlessness of wars and out of respect for those who paved the way to this understanding). It is good, in some ways, to see that November 11th – the Armistice of World War 1 – is still remembered and all those who died in the wars are respected. The other day, though, as part of research for a book, I read a lot of articles and watched many videos about the battles of Verdun in 1916. The utterly unrelenting and incomprehensible slaughter, I thought as I saw it, was surely the biggest lesson in history about the pointless of killing other people. If only, as we pin poppies to lapels and lay wreaths at the cenotaph, we saw how nowadays - as Germans and British veterans stand side by side, and Germans and French veterans stand side by side and Japanese and all other past enemies stand side by side- it is all nothing more than a children’s game that sometimes goes very wrong. All through history in the name of righteousness, people have killed other people. Whether they be witches, Catholics, Protestants, Germans, Nazis, kings, beggars....no matter how many righteous arguments were put forth to explain why it happened, not one of those murders was justified really, was it?

So, on with the sparklers and the Roman candles, and the fun of being alive in November!

Monday 1 November 2010

History's Homeostasis

The most interesting and practical idea in medical or nurse training is, for me, the realisation that all interventions are an attempt to restore homeostasis – the body’s own ability to regulate itself. Medical practitioners attempt it with drugs or surgery and I often think that the less intervention, the better. The body is so remarkable in its ability to restore itself to balance. Homeostasis doesn’t mean everything is always the same, though. It implies growth and development – just as a baby becomes a child and then an adolescent and an adult. Humans are no different from the rest of nature in that respect. When an area is concreted over and apparently deprived of any living thing, it takes so small a time for weeds and plants to sprout through the gaps, and colour to appear as though the world naturally returns to its own equilibrium of growth, stasis, balance.

Like the beautiful song, “From a Distance”, the world looks quite different from the air where patterns are clear – oceans, conurbations, fields, countryside, cities usually clustered around rivers and the whole history of the area – its growth and the development of humanity – is so apparent. Geologists, I imagine, see the same patterns in the way rocks are formed – though I know zilch about geology!

Stepping back a little and looking at the patterns of history, it really seems as though there is a brilliant design of homeostasis built into it. Like those executive toys (Newton’s balls),
it swings this way then that way as ideas come to the fore, and every single time returns to a kind of balance again. Some people thought they ruled others and others thought they were oppressed, but from the larger perspective, it’s clear that everything was working together for the development of the whole. For an example in English history – the country is under Roman rule and there is strict Roman order....then the Romans are suddenly gone and it swings back to a wilder time (I think, in spite of our reputation for being so stiff upper-lipped and stifled, the English are quite Nature bound at heart – after all we are a maritime country and our history has been greatly influenced by the ebb and flow of tides!). There are whole centuries which appear to be quite dormant – nothing significant happening at all – then suddenly a flurry of activity for a century or two....then dormant again. By the time of the Tudors, opposing religious opinions had swung to extremes. First the Protestants killed the Catholics, then the Catholics killed the Protestants, then the Protestants killed the Catholics again...and then it settled on a new level of tolerance – a homeostasis. In the 18th Century, the monarchs were viewed as debauched and the fashionable society of the time seemed to revel in petty intrigues (basically, who was having an affair with whom), and by the 19th century we had gone to the opposite extreme of what is viewed as Victorian prudery (Queen Victoria, however, was anything but a prude). It was the balancing out of what had gone before. In the 20th Century, there was the sabre-rattling of militarism which led to the slaughter of the world wars, followed almost immediately by the opposite extreme of the ‘make love not war’ slogans of the 1960s. In the 1970s, as I personally recall it, there was a whole dreary move of socialism, followed by the extreme Thatcherism of the 1980s. At the same time, pop music of the 1970s was filled with glitz, whereas in the 80s it was far more intense – achieving a balance between the popular culture and the political culture of the time.

Of course, it’s impossible to write of so many things in so short a post but my whole point is that I think that no matter how powerful leaders think they are or how aggrieved or victimised others might feel, it is all part of a glorious unfolding of humanity, which always, just like an individual body, finds homeostasis. A much greater hand is at work here and no matter how many people like to tell us that the future is bleak or we are under threat from all kinds of dangers, the grand design is so beautiful and it is a great thing to be a part of it all! On a personal level, I believe each of us has the power to create our own history, our own lives and our own futures and in so doing we contribute to the beautiful work of art that is life!

And, on the birthday of Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, it is also the anniversary of the death of Tsar Alexander III who made his own contribution to life, not least by bringing into the world his very gifted, kind and much underestimated son, Nicholas II.