Discover the lack of diversity.

Discover the lack of diversity.

When I was young I protected the opinions I held like tender plants. I shielded them from harm and fed them well. I read newspapers and articles that confirmed my fledgling biases and listened to authorities in the media who reminded me that my viewpoint was correct. One of the great pleasures of being older is that not I have much more knowledge, experience and better judgement I am free to think as I will. I do not have to follow any particular herd I don’t need to toe any party line. My opinions are no longer those given to me but those I have forged for myself over many years. 

I am also aware that others go though the same process as myself; discarding, forming and reforming their views, and that, as a consequence, good ideas can come from very diverse sources. I am also clear that many things I held as self-evident were in fact wrong, and it is inconceivable that my current views are immutable and cast in stone. Even faith can only survive if it is tested from time to time. 

For the reasons above I like to try and vary my sources of information and try to consider opinions from differing viewpoints. This is why I prefer using Wordpress to other ‘social media’ the range of opinions is broader and the content is less trivial and partisan. The essay/blog format is better suited to discussing ideas than the short sentence format which is better suited to rispostes, oaths and threats. It might also be anticipated that I’d enjoy the “Discover” section on the Wordpress Reader. This is described as “A daily selection of the best content published on WordPress, collected for you by humans who love to read” and sounds like a place to find new ideas and interests. I hate to be churlish but this is anything but.  

Each day the same type of pages are promoted with similar themes and topics. Even when the themes vary, the opinions on culture, politics, religion, society or any subject are the same and predictable. There are no discordant voices and no ‘surprising takes’ on any issue covered. It is rather like a pull-out supplement for the Huffington Post; bland and pappy, afraid to venture where there might be controversy, no voice appears from out of the wilderness to tell us we are wrong or misguided. While the race and gender mix of the authors is probably a good representative spread of our community, the lack of diversity of opinions held in this section is the only ‘discovery’ I have ever made. I am aware that I am not perhaps their target demographic but I can’t imagine everyone wants to read the same, unchallenging pieces day after day.

Heavens, this used to be the prerogative of the elderly. We old folk were meant to be the ones that wanted the same ‘nice’, comforting, ‘everything will work out fine’ stories day after day – indeed we had a magazine dedicated to this “The People’s Friend” (The world’s longest running women’s magazine). It used to be the young who wanted to explore new ideas, to kick over the traces and to shock. But perhaps with the fears of being “triggered” or experiencing “micro-aggressions” (Surely less troublesome than full throated aggression) it is the young now who want to curl up in the evening with a pipe, a good book, and their slippers. (Though the pipe is perhaps a bit dangerous). To be fair, it is likely that WordPress’s curators are too afraid to include anything which might give cause for offence to anyone for fear of being sued. This avoidance of controversy is guaranteed to lead them to curate the bland

A previous blogging platform I used had a useful feature. It had the option to read a random blog piece by just clicking a button. Using this I found many interesting sites (as well as many tedious and shocking ones), some of which I continue to read regularly and are sites I would not have found were it not for this act of chance. Wordpress itself had a “daily word” prompt blog. This allowed bloggers to create content in responce to a single word prompt and gave rise to a site with many varied authors taking very approaches to the subject matter. This also was a good source of discovery of new talent and content. Unfortunately this has now gone and we are left with the anodyne offering of the Discover page. 

I have found one partial remedy. Take a word, at random, from the last paragraph of the blog you are reading. Don’t select, just plump for any one regardless – e.g. ‘partial’ ‘reading’ ‘paragraph” – and type this into the search bar of the reader. Surprises await you. Not always good ones but still often enough to make the endeavour worthwhile. Give it a go, you’ll certainly have more chance of making a discovery than with the official route. 

Post-apocalyptic Lathe Shifting

Post-apocalyptic Lathe Shifting

Yesterday my neighbour had a large lathe, to turn and mill metal, delivered to his door. Four guys pulled the palette off the lorry and drove off leaving it in his drive. It was enormous and heavy, and he was unable to move it. Luckily, shortly after this, a van with some local youths, on their way back from shearing sheep, passed by. They noticed his dilemma, stopped and helped him lift the crate up to his workshop.

After unpacking the lathe and assembling its stand in the workshop another problem became apparent. The machine weighed 300kg it was going to be difficult to lift it up, through the door, and onto its stand. I was passing, walking the dogs, and started to help. We fashioned a moving shelf with a car jack and a metal plate but, even with crowbars, we couldn’t get the machine up onto the shelf.

Luckily another farmer was passing bringing hay back from a field recently cut. We flagged him down and asked if he would help us with the last leg of the lathe’s journey. This was no minor request. This weighed over quarter of a ton, was difficult to handle and could cause serious injury, or death, if it toppled and fell. But none the less we all set to and after an hour of panting, groaning and swearing the job was done. We gossiped for a while about politics and Brexit, then I completed my walk with the dog, the farmer finished his journey with the hay, and my neighbour settled down to read the lathe’s handbook.

What struck me, as I was walking the dog, was how ready people are to help each other. Happy to help for no reward other than to be helpful. It struck me how often I see this. Or local community hall is run and shared by volunteers who maintain the grounds at their own cost and who give hours of time to organize local events. I recalled spending an afternoon with a man I did not know as we cut and cleared a tree which had fallen and blocked the road, and a prior evening when a different stranger had helped me round up someone’s sheep that had got out through a broken fence and were wandering the lanes. I have an evening booked, later this week, to go to the pub with some people in the town who, like me are Community First Responders, and give up some of their free time to help should anyone be in need.

Life would scarcely be liveable were it not for these multiple acts of kindness from strangers. If I drop my wallet, or leave my phone on the table, as I leave a cafe someone will call to alert me or run after me to make sure I don’t lost my property. Anyone with the misfortune to be in an accident will recall the offers of help from bystanders. Anyone lost knows you can ask a passerby for directions. Every day our interactions with others is usually helpful. When we walk on a busy pavement in the city we do not jump and jostle for space but step aside and ensure we can all move as freely as possible. It’s the way we are made, it’s our nature, we are designed to be helpful.

It is for this reason that I get annoyed with post-apocalyptic films and novels which suggest that when the state is destroyed we will all descend into barbarism. The usual scenario is, that after a disaster, man-made or natural, all the authorities have gone and our heroes have to travel across a land populated by villains intent on rape and murder. These dystopias paint a bleak picture of life without the state. The message is clear, without the state to protect us we world all be at risk from the murderous impulses of our neighbours.

This runs counter to our general experience. We rarely call on the state to defend us and every day we experience pleasant or useful communal interactions with our fellows. Our instincts to be sociable and create society are so innate and quotidian that we fail to notice them. Rather, we only notice when people fail to be nice and are, on rare occasions, rude to us.

There is a misconception that the state creates society. It does not, individuals by their nature create society. The state, by contrast, creates power; rather than fostering cooperation it creates compulsion and obligation. Humans do not by instinct kill each other, if you want to see violent and cruel behaviour you need a ruling class to compel it. The mass killings our species has seen (wars, genocide or pogroms) have always been instigated by a state and a call to the authority of a God, King, Nation or ideology. We have to compel people to go to war and sometimes shoot them if they won’t go – to encourage the others. People spontaneously build communities and society not war and oppression, you need a state for that.

Even the benign aspects of the state carry their risks. If, ‘for or own good’, the state looks after our welfare it takes it out of our hands. It means we do not make the choices and priorities, and we do not make the social bonds and links to promote our welfare. Charity, locality planning and fraternal organizations all become weakened when the state steps in. As the sociologist Frank Furedi noted :-

“Indeed, it can be argued that state intervention in everyday life corrodes community life no less, and arguably even more, than market forces. In many societies, people who come to rely on the state depend far less on each other and on their community. When what matters is access to the state then many citizens can become distracted, and stop cooperating and working with fellow members of their community”

In a practical sense, here is some free advice. If you ever find yourself lost in the desert, or jungle, or crossing barren windswept plains after a nuclear holocaust, and you see other people don’t run away from them. They are your best hope, do what all your instincts tell you to do and run towards them shouting for help; they probably will.

If we ever do see the breakdown of the state then I will be even more reliant on my friend and neighbours. We would quickly reorganise our local community again and people might take the opportunity not to return to power structures that we had lost, with all the inequality that accompanied it. The world would go on but sone of those who leeched of our backs would now have to fund a way to be helpful and productive.

The state might tell us whether we can buy a lathe or not, or might put taxes on its purchase to fund its own agenda, and it may punish someone if they steal it from us, but it doesn’t do much else. It didn’t design it, make it, or transport it, individuals working cooperatively did that. The state didn’t help us move the lathe in the past and we will still be able to move it, despite its weight, once the state has gone.

James McCune Smith

I spent many years at Glasgow University; six years as an undergraduate learning medicine and a further decade later on when I worked as a lecturer in the medical faculty. During this time, I learnt about many of the illustrious ex-alumni such as Joseph Lister, Tobias Smollett, William Hunter and A.J. Cronin to name a few. However, to my shame, I did not until recently know the name of perhaps one of its most important sons – James McCune Smith (1813-1865). If the University can be proud of any part of its heritage its role in this gentleman’s education is one it should cherish.

James McCune Smith was born in slavery but was emancipated at the age of 14. Despite this emancipation no University in America would take this intelligent young man as a student because he was black, and his emancipation didn’t mean the end of racial discrimination. Being exceptionally bright the African Free School in New York and Abolitionist societies in Britain arranged to pay for his transport and education in Glasgow University. His promise was confirmed when he graduated at the top of his class and graduated with degrees in 1835, 1836 and 1837.

He was the first African-American to obtain a medical degree. He undertook his internship in Paris before returning to America to set up practice in lower Manhattan and work as the resident physician at the ‘Colored Orphan Asylum‘. He was a prolific writer and active in political circles. Indeed, Frederick Douglass described him as “the single most important influence” on his life and another commentator at the time noted “As the learned physician-scholar of the abolition movement, Smith was instrumental in making the overthrow of slavery credible and successful“. He was the first black man to have an articles published in American medical journals and he established the first black owned and run pharmacy in the United States. Despite all his success no New York Medical association, nor the American Medical Association, would accept him as a member because of his race. Racial discrimination followed him, despite the many successes of the abolitionist and emancipation societies over the years, and he was buried in an unmarked grave by his pale-skinned children to escape racial prejudice.

Glasgow University is to open a new learning hub building and intend to name it in James McCune Smith’s honour. It is about time. Hopefully future doctors in training won’t remain as shamefully ignorant, as I was, about the history of one of our most important colleagues.

Rape and pillage

Rape and pillage

There have been distressing times on the

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farm this week. A veritable fortnight of acts of rape and pillage, in which the major culprits have been the ducks.

If your look very carefully at the photograph on the right there are two things to be discerned. One you can see and one you can not. If you look carefully you will see that there is not a single surviving leaf on any of the runner beans. Not a solitary leaf survives, and the culprit? If you continue to look carefully your can see a fat, well fed Muscovey duck wearing a smug grin. She has just gone steadily up the row, truss by truss, and assiduously plucked every leaf for her lunch.

However, it is difficult to be angry with her as her plundering occurred because she is a refugee. She is fleeing the duck yard and trying to find safer pastures. The duck yard at the moment

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has fallen under the control of a belligerent and vicious rapist and the females are fleeing his attention. As your will see in the photograph on the left the females have been left almost bald at the back of their necks. This is due to the drake pulling on their neck feathers when he mates with them and pulling them out.

Ducks mating, like most fowl, is never gentle and romantic but rather brutal and violent. I have heard of drakes killing their mates, as they cause then to drown, while they mate with them in the water. Unfortunately I, and the fox, must take my share of the blame for these recent problems.

The fox has taken a number of our ducks and now the drake only has a meager four wives. He really feels this is inadequate. Thus his lusty attentions are only quartered between four ducks rather than decimated between ten as before. I have the incubator running as we speak to try and address this aspect of the problem.

The other part of the problem was my fault. Much as I like Muscovey ducks I wanted a change. The meat on Muscoveys is a good substitute for red meat and it is very low in fat. However, Muscoveys, with their knobbly wattles faces, are not going to win any beauty contests. I fancied changing to something more traditionally duck-like and, if I am honest, prettier.

In my shallowness I went for Aylsbury ducks.

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These looked sweet, they looked like kindly cartoon ducks. These were the kind of ducks I recall from reading story books to my children when they were small. Just look at him, on the right, I thinkl you will agree that he looks as if butter would not melt in his mouth. But this is the villain of the piece; he is the lusty, belligerent, abusive partner to my refugee girls. His cute appearance belies his fierce cunning and his domineering behaviour.

I now have a difficult dilemma : Do I procede with the ugly but healthy Muscoveys or change over to the cute but tasty Aylsburys? If I do the latter will they ask prove to be as difficult as my first? The balance of what hatches next week will help me make the decision.

Let’s say a big thank you to all the w@nkers !

Let’s say a big thank you to all the w@nkers !

I know that my blog title appears possibly crude, especially the inclusion of an ampersand in the text. However, I have no wish to offend and do indeed want to offer my thanks to people who have been horribly maligned over many years. I had been thinking recently about the importance of attitudes to sexual behaviour in our modern society. We have known for many years how potent the sexual drive is in guiding human behaviour. This potency has lead been used to sell everything from apples to zinc baths, advertisers know that the our sexual urge is one of the strongest tools in their armoury. Generations of young men and women have striven and improved themselves in the hope of attracting mates and society has had untold benefits from this as they sublimated their sexual urges into self improvement, artistic endeavours, sporting success or charity. Unfortunately it has also been used to drive men to war and nations into conflict. It is indeed our primal and basic drive.

I have been concerned, however, on a rather different method of influencing us by our sexual desires. For millennia the state, usually through religious bodies, has used sexual desire to control us. It has stated that some very basic impulses are to be shunned, to be avoided and to be shameful. By telling us that those who fornicate wrongly, and don’t limit their desires to the prescribed form and frequency, are damned and the lowest of the low they created shame and fearfulness. Every young boy or girl whose hand slid to their waist knew they faced hellfire and eternal suffering. Or, if they escaped the horrors of hell then they would succumb to the secular terrors of insanity or blindness. Indeed after the priests had lost their hold over the public the medical experts were there ready to step into the breach and warn us of the terrible fates that would befall us if we were one of these morally weak degenerates.

The intention of these concerns about sexual behaviour was never the well being of the individual, despite the medicalization of the ‘problem’. The intention was always precisely to cause anxiety and doubt. To take something everyone did (to lust after a beauty, to fantasize over others) and to make it shameful turned us all into sinners whose only escape was to ask forgiveness from our betters. So shameful were our thoughts that we could not discuss them with our family or friends we had to admit them in the privacy of the confessional or the discuss them behind the doctor’s closed doors. It meant we all knew we were failures, we all carried a secret shame which could be revealed to our harm at any point, we all had the anxiety of being found out as morally imperfect.

This strategy is still being used today though the vendors of our shame and anxiety have changed. It is no longer the church that inculcates our doubts and shame. Now the elite in our media ensure that we know the mantras that we should repeat and the sins that we might harbour. We know, that now, it is a sin to say “A lesbian doesn’t have a penis” and hateful to exert that “Woman: noun, adult human female” might be a statement of fact. Apart from some specially chosen ‘facts’ it is now impossible to consider that there may be some innate differences between men and women. Anyone doubting this had best keep their tongue still if they wish to keep their friends and job. There is a veritable minefield of ideas about what is, and what is not, normal sexual behaviour, so difficult is this area, that it is best avoided all together.

All these statements do the same old thing. They keep the public anxious and ill-at-ease, fearful of saying the wrong thing. It makes us watchful of our superiors so we might be given the cues of what is permissible to think and to say. This keep our superiors in a position of strength over us. They hold the keys to the ideas that imprison us and can unleash the hounds when they decide we have transgressed. It can be terrifying to watch social media these days when people are pilloried for statements that would have been commonplace a decade ago. It is alarming when we see someone cast as a heretic for ideas that are similar to our own.

As in prior times, the easiest thing to do in these situations is to say nothing and keep your head down and bowed. It is even safer to agree with the inquisitors and to call out the heretics. After all while they are persecuting them they will be too busy to get round to you. This silence is now palpable. In politics across the globe the common people are afraid to voice their true opinions. They know they are viewed as the uncultured, immoral mob and worry, if they say what they think, they will be dammed. This means no one takes their opinions seriously and nobody discusses their concerns. It is adequate just to say that these are just deplorable, uneducated and unrefined folk who haven’t recognised the error of their ways. So when pollsters call, or interviews are held, we all toe the line and confirm what we know is safe to say. Many elections recently have stunned the pollsters when the results have been very different to predictions. Just as in years gone by nobody ever admitted to masturbating or lustful thoughts nowadays nobody doubts it is better today to use the term “pregnant people” rather than “pregnant women”, and that sometimes it is best to place a rapist, with a penis, in a female prison, when they are asked by someone holding a microphone or notepad.

As these inanities multiply I often become depressed and worry people are loosing their rational facilities: How can people not see the contradictions in these statements ? Why do people not speak up ? Do people believe this guff ? Then I remember the wankers; the millions of young men and women who over the years heard the dire warnings to their bodies an souls (Even today I had some trepidation using the word in the title such is the fear that has been instilled in us). downloadI remember them facing with the eternal torment of the demons and fires of hell as their parents and elders had warned them. I remember them thinking of a life of blindness or of dribbling insanity that the medical profession had clearly warned them lay ahead. I remember that despite this, these wankers slid their hands below the bedcovers and ignored them all. They knew, not with 100% certainty, that it was guff that they were being told. They doubted what the authorities told them and then went and did what came naturally.

So I am optimistic that as we move forward people will still think that their desires are normal, their common sense is indeed sensible and common to most of us, that though our superiors may demand lip-service to current sexual shibboleths we know they are wrong and maybe in the future we might be able to talk honestly about our opinions. We will look back, have a laugh, and feel sheepish about what we said. Perhaps one day the time will come when we can recognise that we don’t need this guidance and we can talk and interact as free individuals, unashamed to express our opinions. Then, if our opinions are wrong, we have a fighting chance of learning this and correcting them, rather than spouting the incorrect opinions of others.

A dog in the distance.

A dog in the distance.

The last lines of Thomas Gray’s poem, “Ode on a distant prospect of Eton College” have now the status of a proverb:-

“Where ignorance is bliss,
Tis folly to be wise”

Though I have often used this idiom I must, in truth, say that I have always doubted its accuracy. I am aware of the arguments of Eden and the fall and the occasional utility of the white lie, but there have been very few times in my life when I have thought ‘I wish I hadn’t known that‘. Extremely few times when, with hindsight, I have said I would have preferred to remain in the dark about those issues. However, recent events with Cadi our dog have changed all of that.

A few weeks ago we noticed that she had a breast lump on the right hand side. After a visit to the vets surgery was scheduled and she underwent a lumpectomy and was spayed. A week later the biopsy results confirmed that she has cancer and that it has started to invade local tissues. This was bad news but we were hopeful that, with the interventions already done, we might have a reasonable prognosis. This all took a knock last week when another lump appeared, this time in her left side, and we have now booked for the first of two mammary strip operations (If radiology before this does not reveal widespread metastases).

The emotional upheaval through all of this has been difficult to weather. The worries about two major surgical procedures rob us of sleep at night. Whenever I look at Cadi, especially as she wears her protective collar, I feel sad and down knowing that she is only a young dog but she may not have a lot of time ahead of her. In general, my wife and I feel as if we have been through the wringer.

However, Cadi, who has had to undergo all the unpleasantness so far, is quite unconcerned. She lives her life as fully as she did before the start of these events. It is possible that she may in fact be a little happier as she now gets more treats. We are now much less strict about the rules, which now seem petty, and quite happy if she wants to sleep on the bottom of the bed for as long as we have her.

We humans know our mortality. We might prefer to ignore this, and can do so easily, while we think our end is some considerable time away. When we receive notification, usually through a diagnosis with a bad prognosis, we feel robbed of our innocence and distressed and unhappy as a consequence; our end was ever nigh but we liked to pretend otherwise.

Cadi has never had a future, she has always lived for ‘now’ and she will continue to do so. She will not be troubled by thoughts of time she never thought she might have. She also has nothing to make up; dogs always give you their best, they don’t work on the basis that ‘in the long run I was a good companion’, they give their best all the time. So, she can have no possibility of regret, unlike us.

Looking at Cadi, living well despite the terrible news, I now truly understand Gray’s words.


 

To each his suff’rings: all are men,
         Condemn’d alike to groan,
The tender for another’s pain;
         Th’ unfeeling for his own.
Yet ah! why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
         And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
       ‘Tis folly to be wise.

Cutting Edge Peasantry

I am sometimes envious of other people’s gadgetry. I look at their tractors or back-hoe diggers and think “I wish I had one of them“. However, we have eschewed buying many of these items as we have sound reasons to avoid them. Firstly, if I can do a task by simple ‘manpower‘ rather than by petrol, or electricity, I tend to imagine that I will have less of a carbon footprint. Secondly, some of our fields are so steep that operating a tractor on them would verge on the suicidal. It would be very easy to topple a tractor on their inclinations – I sometimes think I might need crampons to get to the top of our small sheep field. Thirdly, machinery makes me less self-reliant, I can only do the work if I have petrol or electricity, and fourthly I would miss the opportunity for exercise. Avoiding gadgets, and using brute force, means I can avoid the gym and all that goes on there. But above all of these I am aware just how much these items cost. We just can’t afford them, so much better to realise that those grapes would be sour anyway and persevere in our morally pure manner.

However, today we saw a giant leap in our technological solutions. My task for the day was to put 200kg of fertilizer (25-5-5) onto our central field. Obviously, I was going to do this in the time-honoured way with a bucket and a cup. I would walk the length and breadth of the field like a medieval peasant scattering the fertilizer granules in front of me. If this was good enough for them back in the middle ages it was going to be good enough for me too! Indeed, it was a lovely dry and sunny day, so I realised I was going to kill two birds with one stone. I would improve the nitrogen content of our field and at the same time I would get my exercise. I have a project I call “Running away from Death” and try to keep active, hoping that meeting a high step count daily as well as getting my heart to beat a bit faster I might not drop dead too young due to my previous years of sloth and gluttony.

Then I had a brainwave. The fertilizer granules are quite small and my eyesight is not great, it can be difficult to be sure that you cover the entire field evenly as you are scattering. It is difficult even when you mentally divide the field into sections to be sure you don’t double dose or miss patches. I knew that the new fancy tractors had GPS systems which took care of this, but it was just me, a bucket and a cup so this seemed an unlikely solution. Until I remembered I had been given a smartband for my birthday. It is a gadget which tracks where I go and how many steps I take and nags me if I don’t do enough during the day. If I was the tractor with the fertilizing attachment, then I did have the GPS module also. I switched on the band and was able to check that I did cover every area of the field and that there were no blind spots or areas of double dosing. Two hours and 6 kilometres later the job was done, and my envy of my better endowed neighbours had almost completely dissipated.

Parabolic

Parabolic

I sometimes feel that I, and the rest of our society, are sitting atop a giant inverted parabola. For millennia we have tried to elevate ourselves individually and as a culture with the exhortation and hope that we are not simply animals. We felt we were something set apart and duty bound to try and live lives that were better than the lowly animals. We may never have hoped to be gods but we always hoped to be closer to our God.

After eons of aspiring upwards away from our animal base we now seem to look downwards. We see ourselves as simply a smarter animal driven by the base animal desires we share with our less evolved kin. We no longer look upwards to the skies with soaring urges to exalt our difference, we look down into the depths and express our animal passions as freely and vigorously as we can.

It has never been proven that the path of humankind will always be one that is onwards and upwards, extinct species before us testify to that, our parabola may have both an apex and a nadir. It is a little like sitting atop a giant rollercoaster peering down filled with fear and dread but without having the certainty that this will all work out allright. Our present day large societies may feel that that they can ditch religion and operate on simply secular lines but, as revealed in a recent article in Nature,  religion played an important point in our development. If we ditch our religions and faith we shouldn’t be surprised if some of the effects we see are equally major and potentially damaging.

 

 

The 3 ‘R’s

The important triad that we need to consider, if we are to have any hope of tackling the problem we face with climate change and degradation of our environment, is the triad of:-

  • Reduce
  • Reuse
  • Recycle

Unfortunately, it is the most important of these that we tend to forget and ignore. The most important is “reduce“; indeed, the instruction to reuse and recycle are just other methods to avoid using new things and thus simple practical ways to reduce our consumption. If we recycle something, or use if for a different purpose, it saves us from buying or creating something new, it reduces our consumption. The key part of the triad remains reduce and it is the aspect which, unfortunately, the one to which we pay less attention. I can understand this, as it can quite easy to enjoy the other two instructions. There is indeed pleasure to be had from finding a new use for something you thought past its days. Recycling and reuse can save us money and certainly help us have a feeling of smugness, that we have done our bit, without any real cost to ourselves. In contrast “reducing” consumption has little fun associated with it, and any smugness is probably obliterated by a feeling of missing out on what other are having.

We are, in fact, exhorted to do the exact opposite of reducing our consumption. Although we all know that, if we want to reverse the damage we are doing to our environment, we must start to consume less and more wisely. But every day adverts tell us our lives are not complete without this, or that, product or service. Every day we are informed we will be happier if we just have something else; a new car, a foreign holiday, this year’s fashion in clothing or music. Increasingly advertisers try to urge us to become better people buy buying their products, suggesting that people who buy car X are obviously those who go against the herd, thinking individuals who understand the social and environmental threats we must tackle. The “greenwashing” that we see in the luxury market is particularly galling when we are urged to buy something new, because it is more efficient or green, while the much better option would be to not buy something and make our car, or washing machine, or fridge, or whatever, last that bit longer. The calculations to work out the better environmental option in these situations can be quite difficult to work out but it is generally safe to presume that not consuming something is the greenest option open to you.

At the social level this situation gets even worse. The mantra enthrals that all politicians is that “growth is good”. We are told that economic growth is the best marker for the health of our societies. It is suggested that if growth slackens then our future is grim, only ever increasing production and consumption can save us. While it is true that the spectacular growth we have seen has lifted most of the world’s population out of poverty but the problem is no longer inadequacy of wealth (there is more than enough for all) the problems are waste and faulty distribution. The wealth we have is not fairly spread and the creating of this wealth is at the expense of our future safety. It might be much better to be aiming, in the developed world, for what Adam Smith described as “stationarity” or the “steady-state economy” described by the ecological economist Herman Daly. Those of us living in the post-scarcity economies of the developed world need to try and find ways to alter our living and let us reflect on our problems.

This problem was brought home to me this week, on Tuesday to be precise. This week included Shrove Tuesday but most of our press and media were keen to remind me it was Pancake Day. It is clear that this is another ritual or celebration which is going through a metamorphosis to become more useful for our current times. Shrove Tuesday is so called because of the word shrive which means to absolve. This day marked the end of the period before lent. A day to use up, and so not waste, the foodstuff that would no be eaten during the fast to come. (Mardi Gras has the same origin, its meaning being Fat Tuesday). It was time to start reflecting on our failures and begin the period of Lent during which we would be expected to give up some of the pleasures of life and, instead, pay attention to our failings.

This aspect of the celebration does not fit with a modern consumer culture. A ritual that encourages reduced consumption and thoughtful introspection really doesn’t fit with our current world view. The last thing a consumer society wishes is for consumers to doubt or reduce their consumption. So as Breugel (See Picture) anticipated we have converted it into another excuse to consume, to carouse, to eat and drink to excess. Just as Easter has become the celebration of eating chocolate, Christmas the celebration of general excess, the remnants of Lent have become the celebration of eating sweet carbohydrate treats. They all join the new celebrations of consumption such as Black Friday and Amazon Prime Day.

At a time when the last thing in the world we need is encouragement to consume more it is sad to see a tradition promoting moderation and self-reflection dying. If anything we need to try and revive Lent and to encourage people that we need to think about our consumption and behaviour. We may think that we no longer need to think on our sins nor repent as we are modern and above such primitive things. However, greed, gluttony, lust and envy are factors that drive our overconsumption and promote the unequal distribution of our wealth and we need to think about these. If we do not, and we continue as we are, then the inequalities we see will worsen and we will fail to stop the global warming which we clearly know is starting to threaten our future as a species. At a time when our behaviour is such that it threatens our very survival it might be a wise time to salvage a period of reflection and repentance, and the exhortation from Ash Wednesday would seem a very good place to start :-

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return

Betting in your smalls.

Betting in your smalls.

I find the increasing numbers of television adverts for on-line gambling depressing. It seems that, during the day at least, there are more adverts for this than any other product. Presumable they are targeting those at home, the unemployed, the retired, the housewife or househusband, who they see as their biggest market. I know that now this is a huge market and I should hardly be surprised to see their marketing presence is large. It is estimated that about half of all betting is now undertaken online and in the UK it is thought £1.85 billion is spent on on-line gambling yearly and, of this, people spend £164,800,000 on on-line bingo. This is a lot of money for a frisson of excitement and the chance to see some flashing lights and it is no shock that they advertise heavily to capture this market.

I have ambivalent feelings towards gambling. I can understand the excitement that it engenders and I have no wish to unnecessarily restrict people’s choices but I have known those to whom it has become an obsession and have lost everything, their homes, their families, and their lives, to it. I’d wish that any advertising would be honest in portraying the pleasures it offers. It would probably be too much to expect them to portray the risks other than minimally.

I find the on-line bingo particularly upsetting. Bingo was once a massive pastime in the UK and every medium sized town would have its Bingo Hall, In addition bingo would be played in clubs and associations, indeed everywhere where a large enough group of people gathered bingo was played – old peoples homes, working men’s clubs, village halls, and so on.  At this time Bingo was, in addition to gambling, a social event. One went out to be in a group of people to play Bingo and have a drink and a chat. It was, at one point, the most popular pastime for working class women. I can recall vividly my mother, and my grandmother, going out with groups of friends for a “night at the Bingo”, and it was “a night”; you bought your books and played a number of games, with intermission for snacks and drinks, and chatted with your friends. The possibility of winning made it more fun but the prizes were much more modest. I can remember the joy when ‘my Bingo-players’ came home with a set of bath-towels. Their success was the talk of the street.

This is the unfortunate change with the move to Bingo online. No longer is it a social event it is simply playing a game of chance. The organisers know this and therefore try to suggest, in their adverts, that this is not the case. This is why I dislike their adverts so much, they are fundamentally and deliberately dishonest. In all the on-line bingo adverts they stress the “community” and “togetherness” when it is precisely this which has been lost. They show people in groups chatting and sharing jokes. There are people dancing and playing games, or making music, together. Every advert has people eating and drinking together and enjoying the company.

This is what bingo did, in the past, offer. But that was then before on-line bingo. That was before 2005 and the Bingo halls started to close.  I remember the Friday night smell of hair-spray as the women of my family bundled their hair high on their heads, and got into their best outfits, before heading to the bingo hall. What they got, in addition to a chance of bath towels, was a night of communal fun at a modest price. On-line bingo has none of this. It is a solitary affair, a way to give money to an anonymous corporation for a short lived, isolated shiver of anticipation. There is no need to get dressed up, no need to leave your home, no need to talk to anyone. Other than through the very unlikely event of winning it adds very little to your life and the adverts need to conceal this.

If they were more honest their adverts might be more valuable. If instead of showing happy, healthy, men and women gathered together for social interaction they showed the real deal people might think twice. An advert of a lonely man, sitting in his untidy flat, in his underwear, prodding his tablet in the vain hope of winning some cash, or a short ad of a women sitting in the cubicle of a W.C. hopefully thinking that this game on her phone will reward her enough to deal with her debt, might be more honest and more useful. Just as buying a particular car will not make us a rebel, nor wearing certain clothes make us an intellectual, neither will solitary gambling make us part of a community. We need people to put their pants back on, to go outside, and meet their friends and neighbours again.