A difficult conversation.

A difficult conversation.

I had a difficult conversation with my neighbour this morning. Each day I, and my neighbours, take our constitutionals with our dogs around the lanes of our valley. It is rare not to meet someone and usually the walk ends with a handful of folk and a reasonably sized pack of dogs doing the circuit. My immediate neighbour, and his two terriers, are my most frequent companion and my reliable source of local news. He has been very ill over the last few years and had become significantly disabled. However, fortunately he discovered the idea of a mobility scooter and his life has been transformed.

On his own he is able to walk, perhaps, 20 yards on a flat surface and over the past years he had to give up many of the activities he enjoyed. Now, with his scooter he walks the dogs daily again, visits friends, post letters, and the many other activities which allow him to have an independent life. But I have to confess that, at one level, it was his mobility scooter which made the conversation difficult this morning.

On his scooter there is a little dial. This dial can be turned from pointing at an icon of a tortoise through to a picture of a running hare. I think this dial is probably stuck solid through lack of use as he never switches it from the dashing hare. I believe he hates the idea that he might hold people up or slow down their walk. Unfortunately, this means our walks take the form of me jogging and running trying to keep up while he zips along with ease. To a passer-by I am sure it looks as if he is being chased by an elderly, wheezing asthmatic, but safely evading their clutches.

I have asked him the speed that the ‘hare’ setting represents as a hint that perhaps this was a little too fast (As prior hints by wheezing, stumbling and falling behind were obviously too subtle). It seems at this setting we can manage a steady pace between 5 and 6 miles per hour. This is the pace that marks the change from jogging to running and it seems that this is good estimate of our progress. So our conversation was difficult: my replies obscured by wheezy breathing; his replies lost on the wind as he flew on.

However, this was not the main reason the conversation was difficult. The real difficulty came with the content of his news. He, and his wife, have been keen Rotarians all their adult life and done an enormous amount of charitable works. He sadly informed me that his, and possibly the other, branch of Rotary in our area might have to close down. We are unusual in our small town that we have two branches of this charity. It relates back to the great schism a decade or two ago. Arguments about the membership of women, and difficulties relating to important players personalities, split the Rotary into two groups.

Both groups were successful for a while but in the last years their membership has risen in age and fallen in numbers. Insufficient people attend to justify two groups continuing and if they merge back it is possible that there may not be enough interested people to even keep one branch functioning. As we talked about this it became clear that this type of charitable work is often maintained by older people. Younger people don’t seem to have the interest or enthusiasm to take part in this type of charitable activity. As members die there are not new recruits waiting in the wings to take their place.

This would not be a terrible situation were it simply reflecting a change in practice and new styles of charitable works were being brought forward by a younger population. This is not happening, we seem to be losing the interest in charity. Although charitable donations have increased, the number of people giving is less and fewer people report active involvement in any form of charity. I fear that some of this may be an unintended adverse effect from the larger welfare state we now enjoy. We pay our taxes and expect the state in return to look after us in our periods of misfortune. Ideas of self reliance and prudence for the future are less fashionable now.

Charity is a virtue, possibly the greatest virtue. But often now charity is seen a a poor or bad thing, something to be avoided. Public opinion often complains if charities provide a service rather than the state. The poor and the misfortunate will always be with us and we will always need to be able to do what we can to help our fellow men and women when they fall on hard times. The state will never cover every eventuality and nor should it.

If we don’t get the opportunity to undertake charitable actions we miss out on one of the most important aspects of being human. To knowingly and deliberately help, or forgo something, to help our fellow is what marks us as human. It is also, in most psychological research, the most potent source of our happiness. Material things can only give brief and transitory pleasure, while helping others does bring lasting happiness. It is in our nature. This may help explain the paradox that while the material wealth of the population has risen year on year unfortunately our happiness has not. Indeed, as we have become materially wealthier more of use are falling prey to depression and sadness.

It was difficult to hear about the possible loss of these local social groups. It sounded like a further sign that we are continuing on a path which distances us from our neighbours and making us less involved particularly when times are hard. No amount of money, no amount of taxation, can have the same effect of a helping hand from a friendly neighbour and we should be wary of seeing comfort as a substitute for happiness.

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He is probably just around the corner

 

Unresponsive

I spent another afternoon “On Call” today as a Community First Responder. I am either jinxed or blessed as today, like the three times before, no-one called and I got no chance to try out my newly aquired skills. I spent a week in the ambulance centre last month updating my practical skills in emergemcy situations and had spent some months before that on-line and in the classroom getting my general knowledge brought to current standards. At the start of each ‘on call’ session I checked my kit to make sure it is all present and ready . The defibrillator, the oxygen cylinder, airways and masks, the tourniquets and bandages; it was all there pristine in its packs at the start of my session ready for use, and it was still there virginal and unused at the end of my on call. As I said, in some ways I feel jinxed as each time I have not had a chance to use the kit and test my skills. I did get to check that I know how to log-on to the emergency response system but have not has a chance to check I know what to do when I get the call to respond. However, I also feel blessed as my inactivity thankfully means nobody actually needs my help. Nobody has had to call the emergency services because of accident or illness and I have to think that this is good news for my neighbours.

It is an unusual feeling being “on call“. It reminds me of when I was in work. There is all the excitement of waiting for the alarm to ring. The hours of mental preparation of what to do when it does. Checking the alarm to check that it is still working and its silence is not a sign that it has broken and the rereading the text books to make sure that the information in my head is accurate and not a figment of my imagination. All these emotions are generally pleasant but there is also a background fear that accompanies them. The fear that one will be called to something beyound my abilities, or called to deal with something with which I have no experience. In sum, just the fear of finding that you fail somebody in a time of need. That when they needed help, and called you, were found wanting. I was surprised to find these memories coming back.

I recalled with pleasure the recollections of emergency sessions when I was a young medic. The rush of high intensity work and the pleasure of managing to deal with a crisis and pull someone back from the edge. Working against the clock, in a team that was functioning well, is one of the greatest pleasaures there is. Even on occasions when illness ot accident prevailed, as long as you and your team pushed everything to the limit and gave every chance to the patient, the sadness could be tempered by the knowledge that everything possible was done. I could understand why emergency medicine gave its practitioners such rewards. My skill set was not well matched to A&E (I have never been very dextrous) and I moved into psychological medicine but still enjoyed my emergency sessions even if these were less hands on.

But although I recalled “the buzz” I also recalled the “dread“. In my latter years working, and partially one of the reasons why I retired, I came to dread being on call. Over the decades the general drift of mental health services had lead to a general over-reach. Rather then being limited to mental illnees, mental health services had suggested that they could answer many personal and social problems. This increasingly lead to crises, which were largely social in nature, being presented to mental health services for resolution. Distress that arose from poverty, or spousal abuse, violence or drug abuse was presented to the emergency doctor for solution. While we did what we could, there was always the awareness that there was little we could do. There was also the recognition that others, a social worker or policeman, may have been able to help more and the bigger fear that sometimes we were making things worse. Pretending the problem was depression rather than the poverty or poor housing never seemed helpful. Suggesting that the battered wife had mental health issues didn’t empower her in her marital problems and possibly weakened her position. The recognition that you would face crises, you were not equipped to solve, lead to this growing feeling dread when on call came around.

I encountered a little bit of that feeling of dread again today. However, this in itself was valuable as it reminded me why I retired and made me happier with my lot.

No longer unexamined.

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Cader Idris

I have decided to try and post every day. This will have a number of consequences. The quality of the posts on average will fall. If I post on days when I have been vacuous and my day has been empty then there may be little more than a photograph and a few words (Such as today). If nothing has angered, cheered or aroused me then the content will be rather sparse. A further consequence may be that, the content there is may be more often concerned with sheep, goats and the movement of timber and dung as these seem to be the mainstay of my life. A personal consequence of this will be that I will have a record of my quotidian activities. This may not be riveting to anyone else, but as I age might become increasingly interesting to me if for nothing other than reminiscence.

In essence, I  intend to use this blog as my journal. When I have kept a journal before I have usually abandoned the project after a few weeks as I have found myself becoming increasingly self-indulgent. The absence of any reader seems to have encourage me to see myself in a good light and I never truly criticize my own thoughts. Though I feel I am, to a degree, anonymous when I write here there is still the possibility of being read and criticized and this will force a degree of inspection of my words. Simply documenting my thoughts is not examining them, hopefully making them public will force me to consider them a little more carefully.

Socrates felt that the “unexamined life is not worth living” (ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ). However,  any examination must surely be more than simply recording one’s ideas, errors, prejudices, hopes and the like, alone and uncontested. It is easy to examine others, it is incredibly hard to examine oneself. I think we need a sounding board to do this and people who are not friends and family are more likely to help in this endeavour. They have no shared history that they can use to excuse our failings, no reasons to give us an easy passage and no vested interest in keeping us happy. Many people complain about the relative anonymity of the internet but in this regard I feel it may be helpful.

To start off this new project let’s document today’s  banal occurences. My day today has been largely unremarkable. I pared hooves and shifted logs and decided to move my paper journal online. I continued reading my novel “Gwylliaid Glendwr” and downloaded a copy of Seneca’s “On the shortness of life” to start after I finish “Unauthorized Freud“. In between, the dogs and I took our walks in the increasingly cold air and remained impressed by the colours that autumn has brought to the trees. An unremarkable day but surprisingly a pleasant one.

The first fires of winter.

The first fires of winter.

The first snowdrops promising spring after the winter, the first swallow that may, or may not, make a summer, and the turning leaves of autumn – every season has its herald. For us we know winter is around the corner when we start to use the wood-burner in the kitchen again. We have, obviously, used the fires in the house in the evenings but this has been as a luxury, as a comfort, to give a focal point to the room in the evening. It is different to start the kitchen range in the morning. This is serious and utilitarian.

We don’t use the range routinely through the year. It produces  a great deal of heat and in the summer it is oppressive. When we tried it was only possible to stay at the cooker if one was wearing swimwear. This is aesthetically unpleasing and, when frying bacon, seriously dangerous. So, through the summer, we have an electric induction hob and we content ourselves that we are a net producer of electricity. We are not self-sufficient in electricity as our solar system only works by being attached to the national grid but across the year we export more electricity than we consume.

Our problem with solar power is that we make lots of electricity wghen we don’t need it. When it is warm and sunny the kilowatts pour in but we can read, keep warm, and dry clothes without recourse to flipping a switch. We need the electricity when the sun has gone. We are looking at battery and hydro options but the initial outlay is very costly so we are still doing our sums about these. At this time of the year we switch to our second fuel source which is wood.

They say “wood warms you three times“; when you cut it, when you split it and when you burn it. I think this is an underestimate as it forgets the time when you have to heave the wood and move it about the place, bringing it to where it will be burnt. Also, it is at this time of year that you get that warm glow of smugness: the self-satisfied feeling that follows recognizing that, a year ago, you sweated and swore while splitting and stacking wood that is now dry and ready to be burnt. There is something quite special when you see that wisp of smoke above the house; you know the house is going to be warm, there will be food and warm water for a bath.

We normally try to have a full day of meals with our own produce when we start up the range. We have eggs first thing, soup for lunch (with our own produce) and then, today, roast lamb, roast beetroot, and green vegetables. Milk, yoghurt and cheese from our goats compliment the meals. Although we have to buy in the spices and any flours it is reassuring to have a civilized day without making any calls to outside providers. This is a good way to say goodbye to autumn and hello to winter, secure in the knowledge that the larder and freezers are full and the woodstores have been moved near the house in readiness. I think we are ready to see the snow.

Blasphemy laws; here and there.

Blasphemy laws; here and there.

The Irish public are voting in their referendum today as to whether they will jettison their ancient blasphemy law from their constitution. This is found in Article 40 which reads :-

“The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”

This situation did receive degree of  public attention when attempts were made to use the law  against Stephen Fry on 2017; following his making of blasphemous statement in a television interview.  His case was dropped and thrown out as have all other attempts to use the law in recent times. Indeed it is a largely recognised that this is an “obsolete law“, a view which is also held by the Irish Catholic Bishops conference who are, as a consequence, not opposing its abolition. It will be welcome to see the back of this anachronism, a relic from the days that every constitution used to include reference to God and Faith.

Blasphemy laws are simply an attempt to restrict freedom of speech. They do not protect people of any faith, they simply protect those with power. They are a sign of the wedding of state and church and a mechanism to bolster the influence of both of these institutions. They protect some from offense or distress by removing the rights of others to freedom of expression.

People with religious faith do not require blasphemy laws. It is in the nature of faith that it persists despite what others may say, it persists in the face of argument. It is this steadfastness which makes me admire so many of those people of faith, who have soldiered on against apparently insurmountable odds, because their faith directed them to do what they knew to be right. (Think of the Quakers’ opposition to wars or the Abolitionists in the struggle against slavery). Indeed blasphemy laws are largely a risk to people of faith in the many cases when their faith is not shared by the current state. This is the horrific situation in which Asia Bibi finds herself in Pakistan.

Asia Bibi had been out collecting berries with neighbours and had taken a drink of water from a well. She was told by her neighbours that, as a Christian, she was unclean and should have not used their cup. An argument followed and at both parties made disparaging remarks about the others faith. Asia was charged with blasphemy and imprisoned in 2009.  She has been kept in solitary confinement and subsequently found guilty and sentenced to death.  Seven years later she is still in prison and awaiting results of appeals to the Supreme Court to have her capital punishment decision overturned.

As a consequence of this blasphemy accusation her family have gone into hiding. Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, who looked into her case and stated that the death sentence should be suspended was assassinated as a consequence in 2011 as was Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minority Affairs Minister, a few months later as he too voiced his support for Asia against the blasphemy laws. Asia’s case has been used to whip up hatred against Christians in Pakistan and to help hard-line religious politicians in their search for support.

As we await the news from Ireland we should recall that Pakistan suggested, in 2009, to the United Nations that all its member states should adopt the very constitutional clause that Ireland is currently considering removing. We should also recall that there are still 71 countries which have blasphemy laws on their statute books. That is 71 countries which have laws which place people of minority faiths at serious danger. It is time that these laws were abandoned for the furtherance of free speech and promotion of religious tolerance.

With all this in mind it is extremely regrettable that the European Court of Human Rights  (ECHR) seems to have taken a backward step.  An Austrian woman was found guilty of “disparaging Islam” and the took her case to the ECHR. They did not uphold her appeal and supported her conviction and fine saying that she made ““an abusive attack on the Prophet of Islam which could stir up prejudice and threaten religious peace” and that this was not covered by the right to freedom of expression. To be clear, this lady had not said anything to foment violence or hatred against Muslims which would clearly, and rightly, be an offense. She had simply been sacrilegious and blasphemous and while this may be upsetting to some should not be against the law.

Churches, states and people in power may need blasphemy laws, people of faith do not and are particularly at risk from such laws. After Ireland, 71 to go !