Every cloud

Every cloud

When I received the news that I had Type II Diabetes a few years back I should really not have been surprised. I could not have claimed that I had looked after my health and should have known that decades of sloth and excess would eventually take their toll. But, despite this, it still felt like a blow especially after re-reading the medical literature and realising that I was suddenly much closer to meeting my maker than I had ever previously thought.

For the first few months this was very dispiriting. I moped around feeling sad and rueful about my earlier nonchalance about my health. Occasionally I would feel angry thinking “I gave up smoking 60 fags a day to get this !!!“, as if one step I took to look after my health should have undone everything else that would befall me. I didn’t get depressed, but I did get sad and fearful, and imagined a future being blind, impotent and without my legs (having lost these to diabetic vasculopathy). But ‘every cloud has a silver lining‘, as they say, and this fearfulness prove to be very useful; it was the fillip I needed to change my behaviour.

Since then I have walked every day, at least twice a day, and made considerable changes to my diet and lifestyle. But it is the walking that has had the biggest impact on my life. This is not primarily because it helps me control my weight, although it does, it is because of the psychological effect it has. I am fortunate to live in a corner of Wales which is very scenic. Every morning and evening I walk the same 2km loop but every day it looks that little bit different.

In the mornings the walk is a great way to gather my thoughts for the day and plan what projects will take priority. It is a time to think over the news that the radio had delivered with the morning cup of tea. The weather is the major factor on the morning walk. This is the time of day that we can often have wonderful mists which reveal the hidden glens in the landscape. It is the first time of the day I venture out, so is the time I am introduced to the weather for the day. I now meet the rain, wind or frost having spent the last 8 hours warm in bed.

Morning mists hang in the valley as the sheep and I start our day.

The evening walk is a different kettle of fish. This walk is a time for review; to look back over the day and consider how it went. This is a time to mull and compose correspondence in my head, as the dogs and I walk in the gathering darkness. The weather is less of an issue on this walk, as by know I have been outside much of the day and am well acquainted with what has been going on. On this walk it is usually the sky which is the focus. As the sun sets down behind Cader Idris we can have spectacular displays and hints at what tomorrow might bring.

Sheep and shepherd hoping that this display does promise delight

Illness and death are inevitable. As we age and get closer to the latter we usually have to learn how to cope with the former. I have been fortunate not to have been tested too much. My first proper brush with poor health has forced me to think and caused me to lead a better life than I did before. I will not always be so lucky, but hopefully whatever happens in my life it will cause me to change and I may again find some way to salvage something good from whatever befalls me. (I think tonight’s sunset was making me feel particularly mellow.)

My preferred pronouns are .. ..

My preferred pronouns are .. ..

I read a very interesting article by Rachel Mankowitz on the problems that languages have with the changed views we now hold about gender in society. This an interesting read about language, religion and gender focussing mainly on Hebrew and it is well worth a read. It certainly made me think about the muddle we have created for ourselves with the issue of pronouns.

There are areas that I think have been clearly problematic with pronoun use. This I when they have been used to promote gender roles inappropriately. Sentences like “The nurse felt her heart race as the doctor raised his scalpel to make the first incision” are potentially harmful to society, as they portray, and foster, job stereotypes – nurses are women and surgeons are men. As a society we have really progressed from the idea that a certain chromosome mix, or specific genital anatomy, is important for a job or a task (other than the realms or childbirth, breastfeeding or possibly types of prostitution). We should be careful when we use gendered pronouns to relates to large groups as they create assumptions we may not intend.

However, most of the time we use pronouns it is to try and use a shorthand to identify an individual by reducing the options but without unnecessary specificity. The sentence “Alan left Alan’s clothes in Alan’s house” sounds far too hectoring or emphatic compared to “He left his clothes in his house”. Describing gossip or arguments with “he said, she said” is much easier than “Mr. Smith said, Mrs. Smith said“. We use pronouns to reduce the likelihood of errors in communication often by using one of the most basic of differences we notice about people. Often apparent gender is enough but sometimes not (e.g. “Her, her on the left with the red hair”). If one was to look at a group of 10 men and be asked “Who took the ball ?” to answer “he did” will not be adequate. We all use pronouns and adjectives instinctively like this; we use words to convey what we want to communicate as clearly as we can.

This not where the problems lie. The problems occur when people feel the need to select their pronouns. The statement “My preferred pronouns are ..” is problematic.

The first problem is minor. This problem arises when someone expressed this statement completely unnecessarily. Someone, often a stale white guy in a position of authority or a celebrity with falling ratings, will announce “My preferred pronouns are He/Him” as if there had been any prior doubts whatsoever. There was no need to advise us, we knew what pronouns to use, and the only reason this statement is made is to attract positive attention. The hope is that we will now think “He is a cool and aware dude not the boring old fart I had thought“. This actually rarely works in any event, most people can see through this, it is about as effective as a elderly vicar wearing jeans and a Limp Bizkit T-shirt saying ‘Yo ! I’m gettin’ down with the kids‘. Unless people have transitioned, or are in the process of doing so, there must be relatively few times this is necessary. I don’t like this but it is a minor irritation.

It is often felt that this statement is used to avoid hurt and insult during future conversations. Thankfully most of us have no intention of being insulting or disrespectful to others and in our conversations we will try and be polite and friendly. I am sure that if I met Trump or Boris I’d probably have a conversation that didn’t use the terms buffoon or egotistical maniac even once. Even when we disagree, we rarely insult people face to face; it is counter productive. But even if one actively wanted to be hurtful pronouns are not the issue here, because in English the first and second person pronouns are not gendered. If you refer back to the statement “My preferred pronouns.. ” it is clear that my pronouns are “I / Me” and the second person pronouns are “You / Yours“, so in any conversation there is no need to use a gendered pronoun at all. Unless you are unpleasant and nasty enough there is unlikely to be any accidental misgendering or insult – “Shall I pass you your clothes ? When did you start your job?” – you would have to work at being unpleasant to do it through the medium of pronouns. This statement about pronouns is rarely to prevent hurt or insult.

The real reason behind this request, and the reason for my objection to it, is that it is compels others to speak in a specific way about a third party. This is the insistence that, when a first person speaks to a second person about a third person then, the first person must use specific pronouns. This compulsion is rarely necessary ; if somebody looks as if they are living in the female gender role, or have told us they are, then we will probably use “she/ her”, and apparent occupant of the male gender role will likely be referred to as “he/him”. If the situation means we don’t know the gender , or feel that the situation is ambiguous, then we will probably use non-gendered terms such as “they / their” or “person/ people”. We are lucky in English that the third person “they/ their” can be used in the singular and plural. This is not always easy in other languages, in Welsh for example ‘they/their’ ( nhw/ eu) is always plural and requires plural noun forms. But again there are non-gendered placeholders that can be used.

Nobody has the right to insist that others talk about them in a specific manner. No minister of religion can insist on being called “reverend”, no politician can insist on being termed “the respected”, no one can insist on any particular adjectives or pronouns. Unless we threaten or slander or libel others we are free to communicate as we wish. Thankfully nearly all of us speak clearly and kindly. However, we would be foolish if we thought that the answer to racism, misogyny, homophobia, or any other hateful idea is to ban the speech that people can use. These ideas will die when they are confronted and exposed not when words are banned or specific pronouns are demanded.

A final irritation I have about this trend is that it appears a further step on the road to defining ourselves by a very limited aspect of ourselves. This statement tends to say that “The most important thing about me is where I fit in the current range of genders“. Now, unless I am thinking of wooing you to capture your sexual favours, this may be the least important aspect of you to me. I might prefer to think of you as “the vet” or “the lawyer” rather than as “Xi / Xim” or “She / Her”.

If I can see the gender role you present I’ll probably use the apt gendered pronoun, on the other hand it if it is very ambiguous I’ll probably be cautious. The third person, under discussion, by their words and behaviour will be able to help me choose. Conversations let us navigate these difficulties and find ways to talk to each other civilly. It is better to find this out together than to think we can prescribe what language other can use about us.

I could imagine that if I heard my overheard my neighbours talking about me and saying “Have you seen the state of the sheep on dickhead’s farm ?” then I might be upset. I would have two strategies I could consider. I could try to stop being a “dickhead” or I could insist that they called me “the wise one”; I know which strategy might have some hopes of success.

Smaller is often better.

Smaller is often better.

A small group of folk in the town had arranged a rather unusual concert for Friday night. They had organised a fusion of Welsh Cerdd Dant and Jamaican dub poetry. This may sound an unusual mix but there was a reason for this; the group organizing the night were researching the historical links between the local wool trade and slavery.

When I lived in Scotland I was aware of the strong link between the tobacco and sugar trades and the slave trade and there were very many reminders of this in my home town. The street names, statues and buildings all bore witness to this shameful period. I had not been aware when I moved that this was also the case in North Wales, though perhaps I was rather naïve to think there is anywhere in the country, the hub of old Empire, which doesn’t have reminders to squalid aspects of our past. In any event I looked forward to this evening as it promised something different and I had little familiarity with either of the cultural forms.

But as we gathered for the evening I started to realise something was amiss. The night was cold and wet and there had been weather warnings of rain and flooding. We had noted that the town was rather quiet but, as my wife and I sat in the bar, we realised the only others there were either the performers or the theatre staff. Quarter of an hour after the due start time only three other people had joined us – we were hardly a throng being swollen. By the start of the show the audience was outnumbered by the staff and performers by a ratio of 2 to 1, but the show had to go on!

The main act was Yasas Afari. He is a well know poet but he also is a tall, handsome, striking man who has a great deal of charisma. This was a man who was not going to be intimidated by a poor turnout and was still intent of giving his performance. He delivered his poetry with gusto and verve. There was a powerful physicality to his delivery. This was made all the more potent by the fact that at times there were literally only inches between ourselves and the performer.

This evening clearly threatened ‘audience participation‘ and I was not sure my usual strategy was going to work on this occasion. Usually I adopt a pose of studiously looking at my feet, putting a glower on my face and trying to radiate an aura of “Don’t even think about choosing me, it would be more trouble than it is worth” as a protective shield around me. This usually works, but when I comprised fully 20% of the audience I anticipated that this was not going to be successful and I was correct : I had no option but to join in.

Yasus took an evening which could have been awkward and turned it into something quite special. He had us on our feet (all ten of them), we took part in the chorus, we made pledges and said oaths, we even danced along to some of the poems (Though shuffled may be a more appropriate verb than danced). He transformed an a difficult concert into an intimate gathering and we had a great night. We discussed language and culture and the links between language and political power. He made the links between the Welsh Language and Jamaican Patois clear and obvious.

We also discussed Rastafari and whether Yasus realises it, or not, he is an obviously a preacher. By the end of the night I had a much better understanding of this religion than I ever had expected. My knowledge of Rastafari had been limited to knowing some famous names associated with it (Marcus Garvey and Bob Marley) but I knew very little of the beliefs that it contained. Much is very similar to Christianity which, I am ashamed to say, I had not realised. I enjoyed his descriptions which were vivid and clear, and was struck when he said that he though many of our current problems stem from a modern mistake. The mistake, in his eyes, is to view ourselves as bodily entities having spiritual experiences rather than spiritual entities having bodily experiences. I thought this an interesting echo of the old view of the Cathars and early gnostics.

Mr. Afari really deserved a much bigger audience. If you ever have the chance to hear him deliver his poetry give it a go, you will enjoy yourself and find yourself thinking about a variety of issues. However, I am partially glad that this night was a “flop” and had such a small audience. It delivered a great deal more than it would have with a crowd and I would otherwise never had a chance to high five the poet!

However many ‘o’s you want to use.

However many ‘o’s you want to use.

The sad death of Harry Dunn has given me cause for thought. This young, 19 year old, man was killed when his motorcycle was struck by a car driving on the wrong side of the road. Annie Sacoolas was the woman driving the car and she left Britain, before police had completed their enquiries, claiming diplomatic immunity. Attempts to coax her to return to Britain and take part in the investigation have so far proven fruitless.

This case is obviously sad : a young man has lost his life, his family have been left bereft and the investigation into this event has been stymied. The feelings of hurt his family must be feeling must be great. It is likely that now there are unnecessary feelings of anger and frustration which have been laid on top of this family’s already considerable suffering.

Anne Sacoolas may think she is avoiding hurt to herself by using the cloak of diplomatic immunity to flee from further involvement in this case but sadly this may not be the case. Were this a tragic accident with no culpability then an enquiry may have revealed this. By thwarting the enquiry she has removed the chance that she herself could ever be exonerated. Indeed, she has ensured that there will always be a cloud of suspicion around her; that not only was she involved in Mr Dunn’s death but perhaps she was implicated and in some way responsible or culpable. There will always be the doubt that she has evaded justice.

I would like to think that most people carry their moral code with them as part of their psyche as an integral part of their personality. When we do wrong we feel guilt and need to atone and make amends. We don’t see justice as something external to us, as something we can avoid, we need to own our own actions (good and bad) and to live with them. Mrs Sacoolas may feel that if she avoids the enquiry she might not be found culpable but I think it is very likely that this will not help her avoid feelings of guilt, though it may impair her ability to make amends. I presume Mrs Sacoolas has read the American classic Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”; she should then know that we can never flee our conscience, if we have one.

This is part of a utilitarian trend in our society to see our morals and ethical code as something separate from us. As if it were a tool to be used in the calculations of whether we will take certain courses of action. It is not strictly whether something is right or wrong which matters (whether it accords with our inner, integral moral code) but rather whether the action will benefit us or harm us, whether we will be caught and punished or if we may get off scot-free. It is often not fear of feeling guilty (an awareness of failing our own code of ethics) but fear of capture and punishment which curtail our baser instincts.

There is often a clamour for more visible policing, and stiffer sentencing of those found committing criminal acts, in the hope that this tougher justice will keep us better in line. But this is rather putting the cart in front of the horse. We shouldn’t ask to have more guardians of our behaviour we should be asking how can we change our selves and society so we have less need of them.

Poverty has always played a role in the genesis of crime. Hunger and want can drive people to do things they themselves hold as wrong, but thankfully absolute poverty is declining in the developed world (although problems of inequity are probably growing). But moral poverty, not having an adequate internal moral code to rely on, is growing. Our increasingly affluent but unequal society, fostering avarice and greed, has tended break up small communities and traditional family models which did help foster the development of morally aware individuals.

The basis for a better society in the future is to promote better individuals. We have progressed as a species and have learnt to control some of our bloodthirsty, rapine and debauched tendencies. We have done this by accepting, and internalizing, a moral code. Indeed, the whole history of man’s religious thought and actions probably reflect our growing understanding of morality and of the issues of right and wrong. We need to continue to foster and expend this if we want our society, and species, to prosper.

We can’t run away from this. We need an internal vision of how we view the world and decide which of our actions would be right and proper, and which would not, so that we can act without needing a policeman or guardian to tell us. Other people telling us what to do is for children. When we are mature, we take that onus upon ourselves and try to pass on our learning to our children in return. We all need an inner knowledge and vision of the good, no matter how many ‘o’s you spell that with.

Feeding the birds

On our way home from the vets last week we stopped in a café to break the journey. While sitting with our sandwich we noticed that there were groups of sparrows and robins watching us expectantly. We duly obliged by tearing off bit of bread for the birds to enjoy. It was clear that the local bird population had learnt that this was a good place to hang out as it was pretty likely that they would be fed.

Looking beyond the birds, who were tame enough to eat out of your hand, I noticed the faces of the other patrons of the café. It was clear that everyone else, old and young, were enjoying doing the exact same thing. Everyone was sharing their lunches with their feathered friends and thoroughly enjoying doing so. This is a long-standing pastime which has pleased people through the ages. Feeding the ducks is a common way to spend a pleasant afternoon in the park for town dwellers and Julie Andrews sang about the pleasures in the song “Feed the birds (tuppence a bag)” in the film Mary Poppins.

It lead me to think; “Why do we enjoy feeding the animals?” This is not the same as feeding farm stock, or pets. There is clear necessity to feed these animals and there are clear rewards also in terms of produce or affection. However, we seem to get pleasure from the simple act of feeding animals. I am aware that feeding often allows us to appreciate the beauty of these animals up close, and more easily than if we did not feed them, but I think it is more than this. These were sparrows which were capturing the attention of the cafe-goers not finely plumed, exotic birds of paradise.

I think the song gives us a clue as the reasons for our pleasure. In the song we are encouraged to spend money to feed the birds because :-

Come, buy my bags full of crumbs;
Come feed the little birds,
Show them you care
And you’ll be glad if you do
Their young ones are hungry
Their nests are so bare
All it takes is tuppence from you
Feed the birds, tuppence a bag
Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag
Feed the birds,
” that’s what she cries
While overhead, her birds fill the skies
All around the cathedral the saints and apostles
Look down as she sells her wares
Although you can’t see it,
You know they are smiling
Each time someone shows that he cares

The pleasure we get from this activity is primarily being able to act well, being able to be kind and benevolent. In days when the media tends to spend an inordinate amount of time reminding us how badly people can behave it was pleasant to watch people revealed a truer aspect of our nature. As a species we have an inbuilt tendency and nature to want to help and care for others; not just for ourselves, our family and friends, but of all other people and even for animals of other species. It is in our nature to do this and it is very important to us. We need to be thought of as good we can not exist without it.

When I worked as a doctor I saw many people coping with a whole variety of differing illnesses. I was struck by how well people endured these. No matter how painful and distressing, no matter how disabling or disfiguring, the vast majority of people soldiered on bravely. Thoughts of suicide, and requests for euthanasia, were remarkably rare. On the other hand when I attended patients with depressive disorders the situation was much worse. When these patients were troubled by ideas of guilt or shame, when they felt isolated and removed from the affections of others, when they no longer felt themselves to be good people thoughts and acts of suicide became distressingly common.

As a species we need to feel that we are viewed as good. We need to know we are worthy of affection and love. We gain a lot more pleasure from being benevolent than through gratitude, as they say, it is better to give than receive. Feeding the birds reminds us of this important side to our nature. It is probably true to say that without the knowledge that we can be ‘good’ life is not worth living.


I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.

Acts 20:35