The loss of a friend.

The loss of a friend.

My relationship with one of my neighbours is broken and I am not sure how, or if, I can fix it. We have lived on adjacent properties for many years and had always had cordial relations until a few years ago when ‘Rammy’ died.

Rammy was our, not very imaginatively named,  Welsh Mountain Ram. He was the first ram we had and over his life we had grown very attached to him. Each autumn he paid attention to the ladies in our flock and ensure the following spring we had new lambs. He was protective of his harem but he was never belligerent with us. He would see off any dogs or strangers who came into his realm and could be quite impressive as his 80kg ran at full pelt towards a foe. However, with us, all we had to do was to make a pretend gun, by pointing two straight fingers at him, and say “bang bang” and he’s stop running and keep his distance. During the annual tasks of shearing or dosing he would give-in gracefully, after only a token fight, and I was always certain that had he been determined to escape my clutches he could have done so. In short he was a gentle giant of whom we were very fond.

Unfortunately one autumn there was a minor accident. Our neighbour left the gate to our sheep field open and the ram and some sheep left the field to wander the lanes. The neighbour noticed what he had done and was able to herd the sheep, who had not ventured far, back through the gate and into the field. He left the ram in the lane. He did not think to tell us about this and we only discovered that Rammy had gone on a walk in the early evening when we did the routine head count and noted him absent. We frantically started searching and our neighbour told us, in a blasé fashion, what had occurred and that Rammy was last seen heading down the lane towards town.

We found him fairly quickly. He had gone into an adjacent farm’s field and was content having found himself surrounded by about 200 ewes ready for mating. He must have felt that he had discovered paradise, everywhere he looked there were nubile and receptive ewes admiring him. We tried to lure him home but the prospect of a bucket of nuts was no match for the sea of pheromones and plaintive calls of the seductive ewes that surrounded him. It was dusk and darkness was falling rapidly. We contacted the farmer who owned the flock that he was visiting and told him of our dilemma. We agreed that it was too late to separate him tonight, as darkness had fallen,  but that we would meet at dawn the following day with his shepherd and both our sheepdogs to round up all the sheep and pull him out. The worry about our ram, and the embarrassment that we were causing a major task for our neighbour at a busy time of year, meant we had a fitful and sleepless night.

At dawn’s light we all met at the gate to the field. We could not see Rammy and we joked he might be sleeping off a night of unexpected passion. We entered the field with the dogs and started to prepare to gather everybody together. As we crested a hill, to gain a vantage point to plan our strategy, we saw in the distance a large white body. It was clear Rammy was lying dead. When we got closer there were marks on his face and bleeding which confirmed what had happened. He had entered a field where there were two large texel rams who were planned to service the ewes. When Rammy met these two he met his match and he had died in the fight with them.

This was all an unfortunate accident, there was no malice on anyone’s part. Leaving a gate open is an easy mistake. Failing to notify us  that the ram was out is perhaps more annoying as, had we known earlier, then we may have been able to catch him before he entered the neighbouring field and the outcome may have been very different. But it is still a minor fault. So these issues are hardly grounds for the relationship with my neighbour to have broken down. I could have made the same mistakes, I recognise this.

The problem I have is that he has never apologised for this event nor recognised how much a loss this was. I am sure he saw the ram as just another item of stock, annoying to be lost but easily replaced. He probably does not realise, as he does not keep animals, how attached one becomes to them. I don’t want restitution. In all honesty he was not worth a great deal of money, he was no pedigree star. I know we can’t turn back the clock but the lack of an apology is always in my mind whenever we meet.

We never discuss what happened, it never comes up in conversation. There is now an awkward silence on the matter. Hence, an apology will never be forthcoming. I fear that without an apology then I can’t then forgive. Without this pair of ‘apologising and forgiving’ I fear that I can’t forget and it is this memory that has broken our relationship.  But perhaps some things once broken can never truly be mended and there will always be some form of scar.

 

 

Looking at the floral display.

Looking at the floral display.

The unusually warm  weather continues and today much of the afternoon saw temperatures of 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The promised thunderstorms have not travelled our way and it has stayed  hot and dry. This taxes my coping strategies; as a Scot living in Wales I have the full repertoire of skills to cope with cold and wet weather but I have never had much call for strategies for dealing with excessive heat or too little water. This is a novelty and I appear to be a slow learner, though at least this time I haven’t managed to burn myself. My only good recollections of sunny summers of my youth were the days afterwards when I could peel the dry burn skin off my body in strips. These were the says before anyone had heard of sun factors or creams. It was all part of the fun.

It was perhaps to seek refuge from the heat that I went into our town’s church. It was also because they had a floral display so that they might celebrate their 300 year anniversary. All the local chapels and churches had donated floral arrangements to decorate the stained glass windows. As I went in I was struck by the cool soothing atmosphere, the smells of the flowers and the sense of peace. I am not a regular churchgoer but I have been to a number of services in this Church and have found the minister and his sermons interesting. But there was something else today, something different to the atmosphere on a Sunday morning.

It realised was the liveliness and colours of the flowers juxtaposed with the quiet dark of the church that first caught my attention. Then on further  reflection I was aware of a greater sadness. As I looked around there were only a handful of elderly women who were managing the event. I also noted that when I have been to any of the chapels, who donated flowers, again it was the same handful of older women who made up the congregation. With the exception of the local Catholic church, where the congregation is larger and younger, it is the same stalwart band who keep the church and chapels running.

I am no spring chicken but when I attend services or events I am aware that I feel young, being about a decade or so under the average age. I also feel rather unusual in that I am male. There are male ministers but they are now few in number and  they have to cover a very wide parish containing a number of different churches. Looking at the flowers, especially in the window of remembrance, I saw how much work had been done. It brought to mind the other times the church put on events –  Easter, Christmas, Harvest Festival, and the like. These are basic events in our calendar – how will the church continue to do these things when age finally forces these members to stop?  I thought of the chain of events in the community over the past 300 years when the church was the focus of the town and realised that it is very unlikely that the church will be in a position to celebrate its fourth centenary.

I was not brought up in a religious household, though my parents came from non-conformist backgrounds they themselves did not believe, and they left me and my brother and sisters to form our own opinions and beliefs. My training has been scientific and I have always held that reason is the greatest human facility. However, I have also felt that largely I am Christian in my morality.  I have difficulties with faith and if there were such a thing I’d be a Christian Agnostic. I know this may reflect accident of birth, had I been born in a different culture I might view my moral decisions through the prism of Islam or Judaism. I have also been increasingly aware that when moral dilemmas confront me on issues such a euthanasia, abortion, racial bigotry, or greed, for example I have found that I nearly always ally myself with those who speak on behalf of the Christian Church. I have found that I am increasingly upset by simple utilitarian ethics which find the most convenient and expeditious solution, rather than to grapple with the moral problem.

This had already weighed heavily on my mind after the Irish referendum debate. I agree that no-one other than the woman can decide about her body and her baby – no doctor, no priest nor any government agent, and I also agree that there are times when to continue with the pregnancy would be clearly wrong (for the mother’s or child’s safety and wellbeing), and I also have seen  the terrible situations that women had been placed in Ireland (Such as the dreadful death of Savita Halappanavar) by the current regulations and thus think that there was little option but to repeal the eight amendment. However, this is still a difficult moral choice as it involved the legal rights of the unborn child and this is no minor matter however one looks at it. To alter these is a grave undertaking.

I was therefore unsettled when I saw the celebrations after the referendum results. Though this may be the right result it not a cause for celebration. Abortion is always, at best,  a necessary evil; every woman and man  would prefer to find some alternative path, but sometimes it is impossible. I am sure no woman makes the decision lightly but I found disquieting the celebrations in the media. I am sure that most of the celebrations were the joy of ending a successful campaign, and some may have been the pleasure in defeating a foe (the Roman Catholic Church in this case), I hope few were in anticipation of the changes this referendum will permit. I hope no-one was celebrating that we have reduced the rights of the unborn child or that we will see more abortions in the future.

This debate was one of the many dilemmas that always face us. When does human life start and when do we have our own human rights ?  In the past the church often lead the way on these issues. Currently we are unhappy with the moral guidance the church gave on many issues (sexuality, marriage, etc) and we tend to forget, as a society, when their advice was progressive (regarding racism, slavery, etc).Thus we increasingly ignore the church in these debates and as a consequence our churches are increasingly empty and silent. Instead of grappling difficult moral decisions and thinking about the principles involved we look to the easiest solution available to us.

In the future, without churches, where and how will these moral debates be  held. Thinking about morality, debating and critiquing it , improves our abilities to act morally. Avoiding the issues and getting by with pragmatic solutions will  lead to us seeing our moral skills atrophy. Increasingly we might not know what is the right thing to do we might only know what is the thing that pleases most people. We have gained a great deal  in our societies through reason and following the Enlightenment. However, we must be careful that we don’t jettison valuables  while clearing  space for the future. Somethings once we have lost them can never be recovered. Standing in the cool of the church looking at the flower a shiver of sadness passed through me.76579_polarr.jpg

 

 

Coron drogennod

Coron drogennod

Whatever the cause of the climate change we are witnessing it is very clear that over the last decade our seasons have altered. One clear aspect is that, here on the west, it is generally wetter and possibility warmer (though there seems also to be more variability in temperature than before). While this may not be to the benefit of farmers and growers, without altering crops and patterns of management, it is not a disadvantage to everyone. This weather favours some of the insect life which has been much more prolific.

As it is warmer the winters are not as cold, and it seems not cold enough, to kill off the flies and larva as usual. Over the past years we have seen flies in the air right through the winter period and it has felt very strange in December or January to see them still flying about. It was for this reason that we have been much more concerned about fly-strike and our sheep and the reason I was collecting everyone yesterday for their medication. The season where one could expect fly-strike or head fly is now much longer than before.

This is a considerable source of worry. Fly strike, or maggots, is an awful thing to happen to sheep. They are literally eaten alive by maggots. The common risk factors are warm humid weather which favours the flies and the sheep having some scouring (diarrhoea) often associated with the spring grass. The flies lay their eggs on the skin and they hatch out into maggots which then eat the animal causing holes in the flesh which become infected. This process can be extremely fast, a sheep can become seriously ill, and even die, within a day of a fly laying its eggs. It is for this reason that government guidance, and good advice, is to check your sheep daily so as to catch this problem before it becomes severe.

Last year we had a lamb who got maggots in her tail. It first I thought it was just a swelling or bruise on her tail but when I caught her and examined it I was horrified to find maggots. As I parted the cut on her tail it is no exaggeration to say that hundreds of maggots tumbled out. It was like a scene in a David Cronenberg horror film. I debrided the area then cleaned it with antiseptic spray and gave her a shot of long acting antibiotic. I then covered the wound with Stockholm Tar. This is tar made from pine wood (also called archangel tar). It is a thick, black sticky paste which covers an area acting as a flexible and antiseptic bandage. It also had a wonderful medicinal smell. We kept her in the barn for two days during which time she had extra rations to give her strength. Thankfully following this, and much to my surprise, she recovered fully and even regrew hair on that area of her tail eventually.

Another group of insects who enjoy, and benefit from, this warmer wetter weather are the ticks. These arachnids have been getting more of a problem year on year. Though I am aware that, through Lyme Disease and other illnesses, ticks can cause problems for humans, I am more concerned about their effects on animals. The dogs and cats come in most days now with ticks in their fur and now our evenings start with the ceremony of de-ticking and trying to rid the pets of their unwelcome visitors.

My attention to this increase in ticks was piqued this morning when out on my regular ‘Walk rather than die of diabetes and obesity‘ walk this morning. I had slowed down to talk to a neighbour in the lane. Then we both noticed something rather odd. It seemed to be a mouse wearing a hat or tiara.

coron
Coron Drogennod

On closer inspection we found out it was a crowd of ticks on its head like some tortuous crown. About 8 or so hard bodied ticks were sucking and engorged on its head. We dislodged the ticks and liberated the mouse to go on its way. I thought I had done my good deed for the day but later read up about ticks and mice. Mice are common hosts to ticks and indeed are a major vector for tick based illness. However, a long scientific study, conducted over 16 years, has found that ticks are really not that damaging to mice for some reason. Indeed, male mice with high tick burdens live longer than males carrying less ticks !

I am sure the mouse was glad to see the back of its bloodsucking visitors and it did serve to remind me to check the animals tonight and to keep checking the sheep.

The joy of bucket training.

It never fails to amaze me the effect that simple changes can have in leading to results much greater than one would ever have anticipated. I recall when we started with sheep and were the proud owners of a very small flock. We bought five ewes and a ram (who, after much thoughtful deliberation by my wife, was named ‘rammy’) and would wake and look out of the window with pride as we watched them roam our fields happily grazing.

This idyll was soon broken when we discovered that we had a part to play in this rural bargain – they provide the meat and wool, we provide the medical care and feeding. The problem was that to provide the care and attention meant rounding them up and gathering them into a pen so that we could give vaccinations or medication to them. We know this might be a bit difficult so we deferred the task until we could organise some reinforcements and we invited friends to come an help us.

On the first attempt we went out en masse. There were four of us, all reasonably fit, and with 9 university degrees between us, we were going to outwit these animals in short order.  It took us four hours of running, jumping and swearing till we got the first half corralled and a further three to get the others. The sheep outran us at every turn, they dodged our cunning barricades, out-thought our sneaky plans and obviously knew what we intended and were not going to play ball. The only true success we had that first afternoon was to be a valuable source of entertainment for our neighbours who stopped their work to enjoy the spectacle of the ovine victory.

That evening, as we sat dejected and tired,we seriously reconsidered our plans : perhaps we could become vegetarian, we were sure we could outrun a potato and outwit a carrot (Well fairly sure). If we had to have this struggle every time we needed to do anything with the sheep we really did not think we were up to it.

Bucket
Object of Desire

Summer and Autumn came and went and we had dreadfully ineffective days when we dosed each sheep one at a time or sheared them over a few weeks. Things did not get better. Then winter arrived and we started to feed them to help them through the lean months. They soon learnt that we were a source of hay and even more importantly a source of ‘sheep nuts’. Once they saw the bucket they knew what it contained and they changed entirely.

 

 

 

As I filled the bucket from a large metal food bin the lid of the bin would rattle. The sheep, about 1/4 of a mile away would hear this jangling and would bleat to let me know that they knew food was on the way. By the time I had walked to the gate they would be already assembled and waiting for their breakfast. They were now “bucket trained” – and like all good bucket trained sheep they would go wherever the bucket went (mainly). The joy of being able to move the sheep from field to field simply by walking with the bucket, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin with a line of obedient and eager sheep in tow, was exhilarating. Movement was now a joy rather than a cursed task but there was still a niggling problem. We could now get them to follow us around but we still could not get them to go into a corral. They were still too wise for that, and they guessed that we were up to no good when they saw a corral erected from hurdles in the field. We needed more help.

We needed somebody smarter,

DSC_3122_polarr
Cadi

someone quicker, and someone with more stamina. All our education felt us totally unprepared for sheep wrangling, we needed an expert. Fortunately we found her in a neighbouring farm. Cadi, the sheepdog, was bought for the princely sum of £75 and put to training. She knew instinctively what to do and after a few lessons with a local shepherd he, and Cadi, had us licked into shape. Cadi could outrun and outwit even the fleetest and sharpest ewe. Between the bucket and Cadi we can now gather everyone together and have them corralled in about quarter of an hour and life is again sweet.

 

I was thinking about this today because we needed to give the sheep ‘pour-on’ and ‘drench’ to protect them from flies and flukes. The warm wet weather we have had recently makes this a major risk. Until a few years ago this was a nightmarish task, I would have difficulty sleeping for nights before as I tried to think out stratagems to outwit the sheep. This time we got up, got the bucket and the dog and did the work. It was a sunny morning and I am glad to say that some neighbours passed by and watched us manage the dosing without a single expletive. Some even commented that they had not got round to doing their sheep yet. We will never become famous shepherds but we are happy to be looked on as competent

As time goes on we continue to learn and get better at some things.  Sometimes it is the small things in life, like a bucket and a dog, which make the biggest difference. The important thing is to persevere. You may not believe it at the time but, even in later life, it is possible to master new skills and learn new knowledge. The danger is to abandon the challenge and to miss the opportunity of learning just what you are capable of doing. I could easily have done that four years ago and be speaking as a animal-less, vegetarian. It is hard now to imagine life without the sheep, and especially without Cadi.

 

DSC_3120_polarr
We heard the bucket so we thought we had better be ready at the gate.

 

 

 

Is Unnecessary Suffering the price of our tolerance?

Is Unnecessary Suffering the price of our tolerance?

Religious freedom; that is, the ability to think freely on religious matters, the right to worship an the manner your religion decides, the freedom of associate with others of your faith, and the freedom to express your faith, through words or actions, is one of the hallmarks of a modern, liberal, civilised society. One of the signs that this has been reached is the tolerance that citizens show towards fellow citizens who do not share the same beliefs as them. Thus in a tolerant society people may disagree, even vehemently so, and believe others wrong in their thoughts and deeds but we tolerate these differences and live alongside each other despite them. We do not insist we all think and believe the same way and do not demand that people act, or don’t act , in the same way. We don’t insist that we all abstain from meat on a Friday, nor that we all observe the Sabbath on Saturday, nor do we insist we all face Mecca while we pray.

However, there are some limits to this tolerance. This tolerance does not allow us to commit acts which are harmful to others and we insist that everyone is equal in front of the law. Or rather, with the rare cases of religious exceptions, we insist everyone is equal in front of the law. We tend to think that these exceptions should be rare, and should be based on a clear picture that they are necessary for religious observance, and do not break the natural rights of others. For example, I am sure that no matter how liberal a state became, and no matter how protective it was of religious freedom, that any modern state could countenance an exception to permit ‘child sacrifice’.

That above example was an extreme and therefore easy choice, but what of the difficult choices ? What about when a religions try to preserve archaic practices which we no longer hold to be reasonable ? What about when a religion demands of its adherents that they mutilate the genitals of their young ? This one is difficult . In the UK we allow a religious exemption to mutilate young boys’ genitals , while we circumcise them, but ban and prosecute anyone who tries to mutilate a young girl’s genitals. We cope with a difficult problem by having obvious dual standards. This is how important religious freedom is; it is more acceptable to be incoherent and duplicitous than to infringe any more than is absolutely necessary on the rights of citizens to practice their religion.

When these practices do not involve the suffereing and rights of people, but rather relate to animals, we become even less logical. It is generally accepted that if we are to kill, to eat, large animals such as hens, sheep or cattle, then they should be stunned into insensibility before the final act of killing the animal is performed. There is a clear body of evidence that animals which are not stunned and who bleed to death suffer pain and distress during this process. (For a summary by the RSPCA and British Veterinary Society see here). Therefore it is against the law to kill an animal by bleeding unless it has been stunned beforehand. Except if there is a religious excemption such as exists for the halal or kosher slaughter of animals. In most cases, even those animals who are slaughtered under kosher or halal regulations are still stunned before slaughter but it is estimated that up to 1 in 5 animals killed under these relgulations are killed without being stunned.

I am of a liberal disposition. I do not agree with this method of killing and think those that do this are doing a great diservice to the animal and to their faith. I argue with them and hope that, given time, they will see the error of their ways and behave better – either by stunning their animals or by deciding not to eat them at all. If you can only eat the animal if it has suffered it would seem inhumane to eat it, especially as there is no necessity to eat meat at all. I will, and have, argued strongly on this topic but because I am a tolerant individual I must tolerate their right to do this. It is one of the costs of maintaining our society, I would not seek to ban them but would urge them to reconsider their practice.

Unfortunately, I fear that an aspect of this problem is not being dealt with fairly and that a lack of openness and honesty is causing unnecesary suffering for animals. Many animals in abbatoires are killed in accordance with halal practice and the numbers killed thus exceeds the number needed for sale clearly labelled as killed under these religious excemptions. It is felt wiser in the slaughterhouse to do more animals this way than needed as they can be sold as normal while an animal killed humanely can not be sold as halal or kosher.

There is obviously no harm which will befall someone should they eat halal slaughtered meat unknowingly, though an observant religious person finding they had unwittingly eaten meat not slaughtered in such a fashion may worry for their souls (Though I believe the religions themselves give dispensation for such accidents). So many animals are killed without stunning but no mention is made of this on the labelling except when it is sold explicitly as halal meat. It has been suggested that almost every kebab sold in Wales is mad from meat slaughtered to halal standard (some stunned, some not) but no mention of this will be made at the point of sale. This is the very definition of unnecessary suffering , if I eat meat killed without stunning when I have no religious need to do so, then that the suffering of that animal was unnecessary and should have been avoided.

We already place labels on our food, various pleasant red tractors, or green trees, to ressure us that our animals had a good life and were well cared for. But we seem reluctant to place a label which lets us know that the animal didn’t suffer at death. I can understand the retailers’ reluctance; they clearly know that if there was a label saying halal slaughter some buyers would avoid that product because they do not want to be party to unnecessary animal suffering. They would prefer that we remain ignorant and continue to make the purchase unhindered by any moral deliberation.  Unfortunately they thus remove a choice we may wish to make to support better animal husbandry.

I fear our legislators also wish to avoid this issue but for a darker and more sinister reason. I believe that  they fear, that should they insist on labels saying ‘humane slaughter’, or something similar, then people may ask for a debate on how far religious exceptions in law can go in our society. They fear that they may unleash public anger. They tend to believe that for every person troubled by issues of religious tolerance and animal welfare there is a bigoted, racist, islamophobic or anti-Semitic  doppelgänger who will be released, and therefore it is best just to keep quiet about all of this.

Unfortunately keeping quiet and hiding secrets never encourages anyone to change. Those to whom you lied never find themselves pleasantly surprised when they find out the secrets you kept from them. It is more likely that when people find the truth they tend to become angry and hostile. Thus, if anything, this strategy of hidding the religious exemptions from humane slaughter is, in the long term, likely to increase animosity between groups and reduce the drivers for change and increased societal harmony. A simple label “killed humanely” would reassure those of us who eat meat, it might make some of us who eat meat think about whether we should continue to do so, and would hardly be offputting to someone who felt that their alternative methods were appropriate (Though it may make them think).

Surely it is just as important to know the animal was cared for when it was killed as to know that it was treated fairly while alive ? It might even be the very least we could do.

 

 

That would be doubleplusungood.

I sometimes fear  that we will need to radically rewrite our dictionaries in the near future as so many of our words are dropping their old, negative definitions for new, positive and  winsome meanings. It is not, for example, unusual to hear a phrase such as “go on, indulge yourself, you deserve it” on an advert  on the television. The modern use of indulge is the components of luxury or tolerance. Any former ideas of postponement of a debt or deferment of a sin has largely been lost. Similarly words such as “pride“, which was previously something to be avoided, as one of the seven deadly sins, are now seen as positive attributes to one’s character.

Common words such as health can come to mean their opposite when allied with the word “mental”. It is not unusual to hear he suffered with “mental health” (instead of illness) and  “we are all affected by mental health” (When unfortunately this is not the case and many of us suffer with mental illness). I fear the stigma associated with mental illness is so great that people are even fearful of saying the word and will try all forms of verbal gymnastics to avoid it.

It is to be expected that words change their meaning over time as fashions and social mores change. In an increasingly secular world it is not surprising that many words which previously had a religious connotation are now pressed into service for more profane uses. As our technology and lives change we need words to communicate our new circumstances and it makes sense to bring older antiquated words out of retirement and disuse, and dust them off, before pressing them into use in contemporary conversations. Although I am a bit of a pedant, and I do like the original meaning of words recalled, I am happy to see drifts and changes in the language allowing us to communicate freely. I would not wish to think that words should be preserved in aspic as this is a sure route to the demise of conversation and understanding.

However, there are some words which are so important in the meaning they bestow that they should only be misused with great care. In his excellent novel ‘1984’ George Orwell reminded us of the power of words, and in particular the power of words when misused  to entrap and imprison us. Big Brother altered the meanings many words,  through the development of Newspeak , as they were aware this was a source of political power. Nowadays, it seems that we are rapidly learning Newspeak and words such as sexcrime and crimethink seem very prescient.

Two such words are ‘Shame’ and the related word ‘Guilty’. Shame used to mean the painful emotion we felt when we were aware that we had not lived up to our standards, when we experienced feelings of guilt or disgrace because we had behaved badly and to a level below the standards to which we hold ourselves. Shame is increasing being used as a verb meaning to make someone feel ashamed and often tagged onto a preceding word – fat shaming, slut shaming, body shaming, and so on. However, it is often the case that it was not shame that was sought but rather advice which was offered. It is no great surprise that the commonest people responsible for fat shaming are family members and doctors, people who have a vested interest in aiding someone who is obese or overweight and are least likely to wish to insult or distress them. People are not trying to shame someone but rather to advise or counsel them. It is true that we wish to avoid or get rid of shame, but not by banning the attribution, but rather by living and behaving in such a way that we do not feel ashamed by our actions.

This current strategy seeks to put the distress on the person who notices the sub-standard behaviour rather then on the person who has fallen short of their own standards. If I am happy with my behaviour and feel it accords with my view of what is right and proper, it does not matter one iota how you criticise me, I will feel no shame. I can only feel shame when I fall below my expectations not yours. I can only feel shame when I agree I am in the wrong, if I disagree I feel wronged or misunderstood not ashamed. You cannot shame me unless I share your thought that I have done something wrong.

Guilty‘, however,  is the word being treated in the most egregious manner. In our connected and on-line world it has almost come to be synonymous with ‘accused’ . Previously there was a chain of events – an accusation was made, an assessment of the facts undertaken, all parties explained their actions and finally, after consideration, someone was either found “Guilty”  or remained Innocent. This is what would be loosely called “due process“. To be guilty of some wrong deed is to be found responsible and culpable and is a major step, a step all civilised societies have found should only be taken after due process.

The nightmare of living in states where an accusation is all that is required to make one guilty is well known and is the hallmark of the totalitarian and barbarian. Over the millennia we, as a species, have learnt that it is vital that people should have the presumption of innocence and we should only call people ‘Guilty’ after a rigorous  and fair examination of the fact. Too often today, in cases of child abuse or sexual abuse, people are quick to name someone as Guilty before due process has been had. On social media and the internet many are happy to condemn people as guilty without an exploration of the facts. Campaigns are often mounted to shout the word “Guilty” to the world before any trial of the evidence has taken place. The campaigns accuse and the media condemns before any justice can be obtained.

This often occurs in the most heinous of accusations (child abuse, rape, etc) but it is because these are the most disgusting and dreadful acts that it is especially important to ensure due process. While we must do everything possible to find those that commit these acts, hold them culpable, and punish them, we must be careful that we do not punish the innocent. To label an innocent party guilty of acts such as these is a crime on a par of severity with the acts themselves. Although it may be difficult to swallow, especially at times when the desire for revenge is high, but Blackstone’s Formulation is a true foundation for a safe and civilised society :-

It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer

When we interfere with this viewpoint we place everyone in danger. No-one would be able to sleep at night if all it took to become guilty was that someone accused you.  What about the snubbed friend, the disgruntled employee, the querulous neighbour ? Our innocence is a precious thing and should not be able to be tarnished without very good cause.

 


That it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer, is a Maxim that has been long and generally approved.
Benjamin Franklin, 1785


Straw Dogs

Straw Dogs

I have come to find Talking Pictures TV a useful channel from our television providor. It screens old classic films and television and has been a good source of viewing when I want to feel nostalgic. It is also instructive to re-watch films and programmes that I enjoyed when much younger. Frequently I am pleasantly surprised at how well these have weathered the passage of time. Sometimes I can be quite shocked in the difference between how the item appears now and how it was when I saw it originally. It can sometimes feel quite awkward trying to mentally reconcile my original views with how I think and feel now.

Now a large part of this is my own fault. When a teenager and a young adult I was deeply involved in student politics. At that time I felt it very important to know, and appear to follow, the party line. There was a party line on everything from the  economic status of Allende’s Chile (State Capitalist) through to which chocolate bars were edible (not Nestle). In the issues relating to economics, politics and boycots then things were fairly straightforward, there were goodies and baddies and my enemy’s enemy was my friend. This was easy ground to master and never caused me any great difficulty.

However, in the world of the arts it was a different matter. In the 60s and 70s everything was political and especially the arts. Some books, paintings or plays were progressive and in the vanguard helping us push back the boundaries of the old regime and breaking new and exciting ground. Other works of art were  reactionary, regressive and backward and needed shunned and avoided at best and preferably rooted out and destroyed.

There were guide books of marxist cultural criticism to help you manouvere this minefield but these were much trickier waters. Especially as issues about how pleasing or well executed the artwork was, seemed to bear no relationship whatsoever to the likelihood of it being considered progressive or reactionary. The faux pas of  expressing enjoyment in reactionary art was a near fatal step in social circles and required a great deal of fancy footwork  (professing one was being ironic and post-modern) in an attempt to redeem oneself.

During this time I watched a lot of emperors parade their new clothes : I watched films where people sat in a chair silently for an hour, or a camera filmed the front of a building for three; I  listened to poems lacking grammar, content or imagination, let alone rhyme; and I read novels that had abandoned the narrative structure in search for new ways to narrate a story. While I watched and read this rubbish I made sure I knew the correct stance to  take, and the right things to say – “its transgressive”, it “pushes back boundaries” and “confronts the reality” it might even “attack the hegemony” if I was lucky. I even read Richard Brautigan and Thomas Pyncheon, for Heaven’s sake. If there had been a three hour epic of watching paint dry on a wall, as long as it had been trailed as a provocative film, attacking our conceptions, and revealing how the media covers all opposition and blanks it out, then I’d have been there in the queue. I would be in the audience for anything, as long as it was cutting edge and hopefully made me look windswept and interesting to the opposite sex. In short I was a bit of a prat.

So I remember “Straw Dogs” well : it was a film that pushed the boundaries and explored issues of violence and masculinity in our society. It was an uneasy watch but an important film that made us question our views. Or so I thought. Does it stand the test of time, is it still an important piece of film theatre ?

The plot of the film is very slight : mild mannered mathematician moves with his beautiful wife to a town in the back of beyond. The locals are strange and start to torment them building up to the killing of their cat and the rape of his wife. Eventually the worm turns and, in an X-rated version of the siege in Home Alone , he vanquishes the attackers with a stunning show of violence.

There are aspects of the film which still work. The acting is generally of a very high standard and, through this, the menace is built up well. By the time of the climax you have really come to dislike the attackers and are ready for revenge. The violence and slow motion effects are still shocking. In days of CGI we are used to being able to see anything whether it is possible or not. But the hyper-real detail that often accompanies CGI is somehow less frightening, we know this is made in the computer , we know there is no real risk. A bit like if one replaced fireworks with flashing lights and buzzers, they would look and sound the same, but they would not be exciting as there is no risk that it might go awry.

There is a slight piece of moral justification for the films feast of violence but it is really very minor. So if all you want is excitement and violence then this film would fit the bill. But then so would many other video nasties from the 70s, this film is meant to be better than that. This film is held to be a significant piece of art not some populist piece of porn. However, there are serious limitations to the film that stop it rising above its true genre.

Firstly there is the problem with the female characters in the film. There are only  two in the film (The vicars wife really only plays an ornamental role). Amy is his annoying, provocative and flirtatious wife who undermines Hoffman’s masculinity and interferes with his work. At the height of the siege she would be happy to give the mentally handicapped man to the crowd, to be beaten to death, if it saved her own skin. The other female character is a young girl who flirts and teases the handicapped man to such an extent that he accidentally kills her (John Steinbeck may come after Pekinpah  for some of the royalties due to this scene).

In essence both female characters are dislikeable and behave in ways that lead to their own downfall – rape or murder. The rape scene is upsetting, as a serious depiction of rape should be, but this is not the worst aspect of misogyny on show. In his masterful phase Dustin Hoffman, having found his masculinity, starts to shout to tell his wife what to do and when she doesn’t jump to it he strikes her – presumably for her own good. There is a clear message women should shut and do as they are told as the men know best in a crisis.

The only thing which might ameliorate the misogyny is that, in truth, it is not only the women who are unpleasant. There is more than a touch of misanthropy; all of the male characters are unpleasant also (With the questionable exception of Dustin Hoffman). There is no character guided to do good, there is no explanation of why they do bad, just a picture of a world populated by nasty people doing nasty things. When Duston Hoffman starts to fight back he does not do so for any real moral purpose, he simply intends to defend his house. He is not avenging his wife’s rape (he does not know of this), to a small degree he is protecting the handicapped man from the mob, but he is repeatedly clear it is his house he is defending.

The nearest we get to a moral to the tale is that, having won, Dustin discovers that he enjoyed the violence and took pleasure in it. Indeed, the finale would suggest that any moral justification for violence is just a convenience, an excuse, to start fighting and killing. There is no questioning of this, which is why this film really doesn’t move out its true genre : it is simply an exploitative vigilante film. It is possible to move above this and consider issues of violence and masculinity. It can be done, and was done, 5 years later with Travis Bickle and Taxi Driver. However, this film would be best filed alongside “I spit on your grave” rather than beside “Taxi Driver“.

It is sad when we look back and find our earlier heroes have feet of clay but it is better to have a true memory rather than a fragment of fiction in our mind.