You made your bed .. ..

You made your bed .. ..

When the story of Shamima Begum first broke, I am sorry to say that, my first thoughts were much like the majority of people; having seen the depravity of the action of the Islamic State, I was angry and horrified that she might return back to Britain. My first thoughts were, “you made your bed, now lie in it“. However, as I have thought further I realise I was in error and now am in the very unusual position of agreeing both with Jeremy Corbyn and Jacob Rees Mogg (And it can not be often that those two find themselves on the same side of an argument!). Further, I know I am going to lose a lot of peoples’ sympathy in saying this, however, it is clearly right that she is brought home and investigated and tried here.

I think Javid Sajid, the home secretary, has made a mistake in attempting to revoke her U.K. citizenship. I imagine he felt the same revulsion as I did and saw this as a quick measure to appease the mounting hostility he could sense rising from the British public. In his situation this may have looked like a godsent opportunity – he could appear strong, he could appeal across both sides of the political divide, and he could demonstrate that he, as a Muslim, was eager to protect British values and society. There would be few people trying to take the side of a “bride of ISIS”. This must have seemed the obvious thing to do. Indeed, I myself, thought similarly.

Then my doubts started. This was not particularly about her age though this did give me some concern. She was an adolescent when she left to join and was married to an IS fighter and pregnant before she was of legal age. There is some argument that she was, at that time, too young to be held responsible for her actions. Some would argue that, in some ways, she herself was abused when she arrived there. I do not know what responsibility should be apportioned to her but, in fact, this is not really the point. At the moment we do not know what she did. We do not know if she undertook unspeakable butchery and crimes, or whether she spent her years childbearing and childrearing. What she did is important. It is not reasonable to say all those on the losing side of a war are equally culpable. Hitler and the Nazis were responsible for unimaginable atrocities and barbarism. Would we say that after World War II every German had to be equally punished for their country’s actions ? No. After the Khymer Rouge’s reign of horror and terror do we hold all Cambodians equally responsible? No. We would not say “just shoot him he’s a German / Cambodian” ; we would want to find out who participated in what, who initiated this or that, who ordered what, and who did what ? Only knowing this do we know who to punish.

To make an example of someone, no matter how tempting this is, is a major breach of our Western values. We hold that everyone is equal in front of the law and that you are only punished for that which you are responsible. If we make this girl the scapegoat for IS we break this tradition and become closer to the barbarians we have been fighting. We fought them because they punished people simply for being members of a particular  group. They killed or punished people just for being a Christian, or a homosexual, not for any criminal acts. There  would be no sense that we had won a war if the price of winning was that we started to behave like those we fought.

We need to know what she did. Paradoxically the more she is culpable for the more we need to bring her back here.  If she did nothing then her youth may have been a mitigating factor and her treacherous actions may be limited. If this is the case then her punishment also should be limited. However, if she was complicit then she requires to be punished and this will not happen in a Syrian refugee camp. If she did little or nothing and we leave her there what will be her future? Will her third child die of malnutrition, will she ? Should we worry ? If we worry about the radicalization of our youth then we should.  If we bent the rules to make an example of her then, were she to come to harm, she will act as a symbol to any who question our society. They could argue that, for all our highfalutin statements, we are unjust and biased against people of the Islamic faith. We would be writing the script to create a martyr and to create new fanatics for the future.

If she is guilty of heinous acts then we should wish her back. If you doubt this try this thought experiment. Say a young woman had exploded and bomb in a shopping centre in Cardiff killing a number women and children. Now we find she has fled Britain and is hiding in Syria using the cover of a refugee camp. What would you want to happen ? Should we just say “good riddance, we are well shot of her” ? Or should we be striving to get her back here to face justice ? I think that when we consider this the prime motivator is to ensure justice is done. So if there is any hint that she has committed crimes we need to get her back to ensure justice for her victims. We seek the extradition of criminals all the time. It would be easier not to, it would be easier just to let them escape justice, and we could sit happy that another ‘bad lot’ was someone else’s problem now. But we don’t because we value justice. It is one of the things that makes us who we are and our culture what it is.

At this point we don’t know if she was a stupid adolescent duped into being an accomplice to horrible  events or whether she is an active agent of evil responsible for some of the barbarism which, we know, took place. It is important we find out and we are not going to be able to do this by shirking our responsibility. If we say we are too afraid to bring her back, lest she creates terror here, then we are saying that we have lost the battle. We are saying that our comfort and safety is more important to us than our moral beliefs and our system of justice. Sometimes difficult and unpleasant decisions have to be made, and we will only win this battle to protect our enlightenment ideas if we actually show how important they are to us.  We must hold to our beliefs in fairness and justice no matter how unpleasant the foe, no matter the temptation to gain the satisfaction of revenge, and no matter what the terror they threaten us with. If we stoop to their level we will have lost.

 

Three rolls of fencing.

Three rolls of fencing.

I was on pleasant walk to post a letter this afternoon when I had an opportunity for a short thought experiment. As I walked along the road, with the dog, I noticed that the fence at the side of the road had been removed in preparation for being replaced. Every hundred yards or so there were neatly stacked piles of fence posts and rolls of fencing; some new and some tidily rewound ready to be reused. Everything was left ready for tomorrow’s task of refencing a large field.

I looked at these piles of equipment and recalled that I need to refence or middle field and will need to do this next month before I am able move the sheep. I then had the ‘thought experiment’ – “Why don’t I steal the fencing?”. This equipment, like so many other pieces of farm equipment, had been left here unguarded and with no protection, why don’t I just take some? If would be so easy just to lift it up and take it home.

The first reason I considered was that perhaps I didn’t need or want this stuff. This was easy to dismiss. Fencing is an never ending job on farms, a bit like painting the Forth Road Bridge, once you get to one end it is time to go back to the beginning and start again. Nor was it because this material is so inexpensive as to not be worth stealing. Although fence posts are relatively cheap, the fencing itself is reasonably dear and this is a noticeable cost in the farm budget. These weren’t the reasons.

I then considered the law and issues of crime and punishment. I knew that this was against the law, as taking without permission would be stealing. However, this would only influence my decision if I had a chance of falling into the hands of the justice system. In other words, it would only be an issue if I might, possibly  be caught. The risks of this were really quite negligible. One bit of fence wire is much like any other and who would be able to prove that this was not my wire once it was on my land. No, if I stole this wire punishment by the legal system would not be my biggest concern. Punishment in another way, however, might well be the reason.

The obvious reason I don’t take the wire is because I know it is wrong and that if I acted wrongly I would feel bad. The anticipation of guilt is the main barrier to bad actions. This guilt is modulated by a number of factors but, in today’s walk, community seemed to be the biggest modifier. I know who is repairing that fence. I know who would be hurt by my actions. I know that they, like I have, had left things out because they trust that their neighbours will behave well. My guilt would be even worse if I broke this trust. My knowledge of who was involved was the biggest factor in my decision. If I did steal from them,even if they never found out I would know. This knowledge, that I had stolen from them, would be corrosive to my soul and very difficult to bear.

All our lives, from when we are able to be independant, we are trying to balance the drive to keep our individuality whilst seeking to enjoin ourselves in community. Our first step is usually to find a partner, then to create a family, while all the time trying to find a community, or kinship group, in which to thrive. It is no surprise that the Lord’s Prayer asks for “our daily bread”, rather than “my daily bread”, and to pardon “our trespasses” not “my trespasses”. We only exist, as people, when we are in relationships with others. John Donne described this well in his poem “No Man Is An Island” :-

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee. 

But as we build bigger and bigger communities there may be a cost. The anthropologist Robin Dunbar estimated, that due to the limitations of the size of our cortex, we can only get truly to know between 100 and 200 people. This number, usually rounded to 150, is Dunbar’s Number and is the limit of people we can know in any real and significant manner. Above this number,  communities start to require stricter rules and regulations to ensure good behaviour from its members. Above this number, the knowing interaction between individuals, and filial feelings, can no longer be relied upon to ensure decent behaviour.

I found the idea of stealing the wire “unthinkable” and I believe in part this was due to my temptation occuring in a smaller community. Were I tempted in a larger group, with anonymity for me and for my victim, I am not sure I could be relied upon to behave as well. Those of us who wish people to behave well, to seek out the good, and to become better people need to think about this. Rather than devising more, strict rules, which might more strictly control behaviour, but at the expense of weakening moral abilities, we should perhaps ensure that our communities are small and human sized. In larger communities there is a danger we become a myriad of individuals, in a huge shoal of individuals, requiring supervision to ensure we don’t harm one and other. In smaller communities the instinctive urges we have to look after ourselves while working cooperatively with our fellows are well balanced and effective.  Larger societies don’t just end up concentrating power they need to concentrate power and it is for this reason that we should resist this danger.

Let’s hear it for .. .. The Superego

Let’s hear it for .. .. The Superego

It is clear that history has not been kind on Sigmund Freud. His theories have not fared well in the face of scientific enquiry and they are rarely applied in the treatment of mental illness today as they are date, often wrong and usually ineffective. However, he was an important figure in our culture’s development and his influence on opinion and attitudes is hard to overestimate. Despite the shortcomings of his theories he made many useful analogies which help us understand our psyches at some level.

His description of the psyche as comprised of three components, the Id, the Ego and the Superego,  will never be shown to have any physiological nor psychological basis but is a useful analogy to help us understand aspects of our functioning. When the doctor uses the analogy of the telephone wires to explain the nerve damage that a patient experiences they know their analogy is wrong on very many levels but it is also useful as it allows some thinking and understanding of the problem faced.

The idea that the, largely conscious, ego tries to balance the demands of our Id and Supergo in the face of the needs of outside world is a helpful way to consider our own psyches. We clearly we are born with primitive desires and appetites, only some of which we are conscious, and these can be thought of as our Id. The feelings of sexual desire, our hungers, our passions (both good and bad) can be thought of as the animus which drives us. Our conscious ego has to steer these to socially acceptable outlets and in this task it is help by the superego. This is the, partially conscious, part of our psyche which knows what we should, or ought to, do. It is the consequence of learning, firstly from our parents and later from society,  what are the good and right things to do. In the modern parlance it is our “moral compass“. It sets up ideas of right and wrong and allows us to have an ideal vision of ourselves and helps guide our actions.

Unfortunately since about the end of the 1950’s we have been living in a world in thrall to the feelings of the id. We have tended to the view that what defines us are our inner passions and drives. The “inner child” is held to be our true nature and we are encouraged to “be true to our inner selves“. But is this actually our inner self ? There are good reasons to doubt this approach.

Our primitive desires are largely innate – our sexual preferences, our tendency to anger, our hungers and tastes, our fighting response when attacked – and they do give force to much of our behaviour. But this is purely at an animal level. All animals, not just homo sapiens, have these desires to some degree or another. All animals will eat, mate, fight and flee (Though not necessarily in that order). We are different because we elect not to follow instincts. We can see a beautiful sexually enticing person and elect not to try and mate, we can see food and decide to give it to someone more needy, we can feel the fury of revenge and decide to let the law take its course. We are human because we are not driven by these passions and instincts. What the world sees and what the world judges is the skills of the ego and superego in limiting the id.

To see the id as the true self is akin to seeing the petrol as the true core of the motor vehicle. Agreed, the petrol (or some motive force) is necessary but what makes the car is the engineering and electronics that convert this to speed and comfort. On its own petrol is just a short destructive blaze. If we want to know someone’s character we need to know how they temper and direct their passions in the face of the real world and its opportunities and adversities. Our heroes are those who curbed their own urges for self protection to allow them to save others. Our saints are those who ignored their own needs and comforts in order to improve the lot of others. We never hold someone in high regard because they have high passions or are probe to their impulses. Giving in to temptation is easy, resisting it is the proof of character.

The tendency to glorify the id and define ourselves as our passions (a lot of current identity politics reduces people to a small, animal impulse), or the tendency to see our personal growth in terms of sating appetites, is a tendency which belittles us as a species. It is ignores what is unique and great about us. Our ability to do things because they are right, despite them being difficult or carrying a personal cost, is our stamp. Self-control, planning, perseverance and prudence are signs that we are behaving as humans. It is no surprise that the seven virtues are descriptions of when we resist our urges, while the seven vices describe when we fail to do so.

We need to see through this infantile fad of revering our animal instincts and start to recognise our human abilities. We need to start to praise women and men with fortitude and prudence, or self-control and charity. It is people with these natures that will allow us to develop our society and culture. We will never be free from the devil on our left shoulder but we need to try and listen to the angel on our right.

 

The Wizard Trump

It is sometimes odd how we stumble into knowledge of matters. I was listening to a podcast which was discussing President Trumps’ potential legacy when the contributors began to make reference to “The Wizard of Oz”. They argued that many of the aspect of populist politics in today’s America echoed those of a hundred years ago and the satire about the Wizard of Oz could equally be applied to Donald Trump. I had not been aware of the political analysis of L. Frank Baum’s book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and it was fascinating to hear these.

When the book was written American politics and economy were in turmoil. There had been major changes in monetary standards and the Fourth Coinage Act had devalued silver. There were major financial difficulties and one of the movements aiming to address these was a move for bimetallism – money backed by both gold and silver. This was taken up in 1896 by the William Jennings Bryan , leader of the Democratic Party, as well as some populist groups and Republicans from silver mining areas (“Silver Republicans“). Bryan won the leadership by his ‘Cross of Gold convention speech where he stated “The gold standard has slain tens of thousands.” and urged the convention “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” It was felt that gold helped the rich get richer while ‘free silver’ would create cheaper money with a wider base and provide help for the poorer sectors of society.

It was against this backdrop that “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was written.  It may be no coincidence that gold and silver are measured in ounces which are abbreviated to “Oz.” Similarly a “yellow brick road” to the “emerald city” might well signify the power of the gold standard (yellow) to lead wealth to the wealthy (green signifying fraudulent greenback money). In the book, but not the film, the way to sort problems, and get out of trouble and back home, is by the “silver slippers” – the film used the more photogenic ruby red instead. It is quite easy to imagine Dorothy as the common man assisted by a ‘cowardly lion’ (William Jennings Bryan) on their way to find solutions for the Scarecrow (farmers and agricultural workers) and the Tin-man (Steel and other industry workers). Certainly when Baum wrote a stage version of the book in 1902 he made many political references, mainly as jokes against the current luminaries.

At the end of their trek they meet the wizard who is revealed to be a pompous humbug who uses all sorts of tricks to hide his nature from the people. He actually has no ideas and no power and admits to Dorothy that “I am a very bad wizard. And, thinking of Trump, this seems to be where we came in.

ww-denslow-illustration-4

 

 

Chip Shop Blues

I was quite unsettled during my recent visit to the chip shop. I was perhaps already feeling unsettled as I went in, as I was breaking all of my good New Year’s intentions. I had intended not to eat take-aways, I’d intended to prepare our meals from scratch and to maintain a healthier balanced diet. But we’d had a difficult cold and wet day in the fields and the chip shop’s warm smells and bright lights were irresistible. I had done my usual trick of thinking of excuses : I had always said I should eat more fish and I guessed potatoes in chips are, in fact, a vegetable. I’d also worked out my escape strategies; eating less the next day and doing a but more exercise to compensate. I am a master of self-deception and despite the guilt I was initially quite content standing in the queue, in the warmth, smelling the chips and vinegar, while I waited for them to deep fry my order.

My disquiet started as I watched the television high up on the wall behind the deep-fat friers. It was tea-time and the television was tuned to a music video station, MTV or something similar, and I started to watch the performances. I didn’t know any of the bands or songs and, to be honest, I couldn’t see myself rushing out to a record store to rectify my ignorance. Though not my taste, the music was unremarkable pop music. What was remarkable were the videos that accompanied the songs.

The themes of the songs, as far as I could judge, were as paeans to the singer’s virility, if male, or pulchritude, if female. I guess so many songs are, but these seemed less subtle, less sublimated than I recall songs from my youth. The men all described their unbounded stamina while the womenrihanna-small_trans_nvbqzqnjv4bqeo_i_u9apj8ruoebjoaht0k9u7hhrjvuo-zlengruma invited you to compare them with other less-fortunate women. Both suggested you’d be better to drop your current partner and choose them if you wanted any chance at future happiness. But is was not the shallow lyrics, nor such a carnal view of love,  that made me feel out of time, it was the accompanying videos.

The videos were comprised of very attractive men and women dressed in very little at all. The dancing, as far as it went, comprised thrusting the genitals, buttocks or breasts towards the camera so as to make their pulchritude fill the frame. Sometimes, lest the viewer had missed the point, it was necessary to jiggle the body parts to catch the attention of anyone who was not paying heed. These movements were coordinated into dance scenes when the dancers skilfully simulated sexual acts with each other just in case the viewer had not got the point of the endeavour. The crassness of the videos unnerved me and set me to thinking about the changes that have occurred in my life and set me to worrying about the future my grandchildren will have.

When I was an adolescent, and my life focussed on sex and all matters sexual, we would sometimes sneak into cinemas showing adult films. At sixteen we could sometimes fool a lackadaisical adult on the desk at the cinema that we were of age to enter. When successful I was able to see films, in technicolour, and with sound, of women with few clothes and some brief nudity. At times I and my friends would see actors simulate sexual acts which were less explicitth than the video in the chip shop. The films I was watching in a public space, at tea time, were stronger than I had seen illicitly in cinemas where the wearing of a raincoat was almost compulsory. Times have certainly changed. Early evening music entertainment in my childhood was a man, with a variety of colourful jumpers, singing while in a rocking chair. To spice it up some dancers may have bounced demurely in the background to the beat of the music. (Val Doonican won all the NME awards in 1965 !).

I worry about these changes not because I fear the effects of nudity nor erotica. These are pleasurable. I fear these changes,  as I feel pleasure, like many things, is relative.  Much of the pain and pleasure we experience in life comes from the change from state to another. If you lived on a very plain diet of beans and rice then the excitement of a meal in a middle-price restaurant would be major. The epicure or gourmand, however, will not be able to enjoy ‘bangers and mash’ after a life of ‘larks tongues in aspic’. The baseline setting of our lives determines what it takes to excite us, to please us or to upset us. I think that there is a danger than this turning up of the background noise of erotica is dangerous.

When we are young we are driven to seek pleasures and focus easily on the erotic. The background setting in the 1950’s and 60′ was quite low. Modesty was considered important and as a consequence it was quite easy to be exciting and sexy – raising hemlines in to 60’s caused a stir as did the wearing of a bikini. Young boys could be excited by an underwear catalogue as it revealed the bra under the blouse. However, the excitement caused by these glimpses of nethergarments had exactly the same frisson as the excitement that boys and girls experience today when they see something risqué. But they start much nearer the top of the scale. My scale started with the excitement of seeing a ‘bra’ or a ‘leg’ and rose from there. When you start with simulated sex and crotch shots there is not a lot further to go. Therefore I fear that the total amount of pleasure that can be experienced will ultimately be smaller.

We know forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest and it is important that we keep some pleasures in reserve. By withholding gratification we allow the potential pleasure to build. If we try and enjoy everything at once we  rob it of its value and end up less pleasure than we could have enjoyed. As in the warning of “Brave New World” we could end up with a world of frequent sexual activity but little enjoyment from it. Standing in the chip shop I felt I was almost there already. I felt as if  in a scene from Blade-runner, in a brash, noisy, gaudy future with images and video all around, all senses stimulated and all pleasures offered but with little prospect of happiness. Next time I’ll peel some potatoes and put some carrots on to boil, it will be safer.

 

 

 

 

Gaeaf Glas wna Fynwent Fras.

We had a cold start to the day this morning and we have more promised to come. Though I was not too keen on this first thing today, when I had to break all the ice from the animals’ water troughs, I am generally glad to see the season behaving more like a normal winter. The cold snap reminded me that, while I had cut and collected enough timber for fuel, I have not split enough logs nor prepared enough kindling. So now I have my weekend planned.

I saw in the agricultural diary, when I was writing our log, that the Welsh proverb of the week is “Gaeaf Glas wna Fynwent Fras“.  This can be translated as a harsh or cold winter will lead to full cemeteries. It reflects early awareness, of now scientific knowledge, that winter is the most dangerous season. Indeed the 7th of January is the day of the year on which  more people die than any other. Possibly reflecting two factors : the first is the winter season itself,  and the second may be the ability of people to hold on or persevere until after the Christmas period – slipping off the mortal coil at a more timely point.

Gaeaf Glas literally means a blue or green winter. Although now ‘glas’ is used to mean ‘blue’, earlier the celtic languages didn’t distinguish in words between blue and green and used ‘glas’ for both colours.  This is why the “dear green place is called “Glasgow”.  Now, in  Cymraeg (welsh) we use glas for blue and gwyrdd for green and I am not sure that this is a step forward. Sometimes I think the prior situation may have been better.

At the moment we are trying to renovate our holiday let’s kitchen and this entails choosing the colour of the doors of the cabinets. You might imagine that this is an easy task. Think of a colour you like, blue, or green, or red, and decide on that colour. But unfortunately this does not work. I have now discovered that there are bluey-greens and greeny-blues, as well as greens that are too greeny. I have been asked to look at  cards and select between sage green, pale verdigris green (which is gray), soft pastel mint green or soft duck egg green (which is blue). Once we have selected an apt green for the cabinets we can then open the big book of paint colours for the splash back. I think there are over 20 blues and greens in here.

I really have no hope of contributingcolor_differences to this debate. Indeed I don’t know why I bother, my wife will make the decision anyway. Not only can I not distinguish between these imperceptible shade differences (Imagine being asked which you prefer “magnolia” or “almond white” or “cream” ! They are all the same). But also there is the mystery of matching to come – “Do you think this brown picks up the brown in the carpet ? Or is it too reddy brown ? I have no hope of playing this game. I don’t know the rules and I am also wired wrongly. Studies have shown that men and women differ in what colour differences they can perceive and as a consequence men and women have different colour categories and nouns.

In this area I think expansion of categories is a hindrance rather than a boon and we should start a campaign for real colours. We would permit red, blue, green, yellow, purple and orange but suggest that all the other colours are simple figments of the home-decorating and furnishing industry and banned as fraudulent advertising. Although of a libertarian inclination this is one area in which I could support some increased legislation. Think of the marital disharmony it would prevent and the number of divorces that would be avoided. Think of the errors that could be avoided day-to-day – no longer could somebody be asked to get the taupe cardigan and make a mistake and get the gray one. Bliss.

 

 

Human Music

Human Music

It is the tradition in Wales, as I am sure in many other places, to welcome in the New Year with a concert or other musical event. So I found myself last night in the village hall listening to two local bands playing. Now I do not have a musical bone in my body, I can play no musical instruments and totally lack any sense of rhythm. But I still enjoy music and have fairly catholic tastes, I can usually find something in all forms of music that appeals to me. When I was young I used to be adamant that I didn’t like Opera but that was before I took my daughter to Die Valkyrie and I discovered I was a Wagner fan. Similarly my disdain for Country music evaporated when I worked for a period in Columbia S.C. and subsequently discovered Hootie and the Blowfish. I am pretty confident that there will be something in all types of music that I will be able to find enjoyable.

I presume this is because music is such a basic form of communication between us. We may not share the same language as someone else and we may not be able to exchange many facts with them. But through music we are able to convey feelings and emotions with others though we do not share any tongue in common. It is very likely that in our species the  development of language and that of music are closely intertwined. It is hard to think of a human celebration that doesn’t use music – not only the pleasures of the Wedding March” or the songs of praise at worship, but also the sad or fearful times of our lives with the funeral marches, The Last Post or even the skirl of the pipes as armies are lead into battle. Even those of us, like myself, who can play no instruments nor compose any songs still have music in our lives. As Neitzsche that ardent atheist and nihilist said “Without music, life would be a mistake”.  This may have revealed the chink in his theories; as when we sing to ourselves, through happiness, fear or sadness, we are showing that there are always two of us present. The singer, that associated with our bodies and the present, and the listener, that spark inside, which is our permanent core.

It is that ability to communicate that makes music enjoyable to me and is why I always prefer real, live, human music to reproduced music no matter how good it is. I enjoyed my evening listening to two local bands (who were, incidentally, excellent) in the company of my friends and neighbours. Hearing music made ‘up close and personal’, with all the content (the coughs, the mistakes, the breathing, the fluffed notes) carries much more emotion than simply the song or tune itself. You understand the emotion or concentration far better when you can see the facial expressions or sweat of the performers. No matter how good the recording on my CD may be, the effect of being so close to he performers and the audience makes live music superior every time.

I have been to live music events in arenas and stadia. But I much prefer small scale, local musical events – music on a human scale. When I attend other concerts I was part of a much greater crowd, for example when hearing “Yes” or “Andre Rieu” but this was not as part of a real community. In these events we were all either old or young, classical or jazz lovers, fans of a band or genre. We were a tribe. We were not a living breathing community with the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the academic and the farmer, all coming together to share enjoyment and welcome the start of another year. In these large events you can loose your indivduality to become part of the mass and you make no links to others in that mob. In small events you keep your individuality and start to recognise other individuals and create links with them. Not only sharing the music but communicating about it as well. Last night created the links that are the glue that will hold our community together over the coming year.

When I think back to my own childhood and recall Hogmanay’s of years ago. While I can remember the drinking and the carousing, the strongest memories I have are of the singing. I remember us, as children, singing to the adults. I remember my Mum and Dad singing to the gathered people and I remember my parents singing with their neighbours. I remember when older, and a student in the city, walking the streets on Hogmany looking for parties and knowing where to go by hearing the signing from the windows. If there was no singing there was no point in knocking on the door! Despite the pleasure that can be had from mass produced commercial music it would be a great shame is we lost the home grown, local, small scale musical events. We should be careful that we don’t allow increased personal access to music to reduce our shared communal appreciation of music as the latter is by far the more important.

 

Blwyddyn Newydd Dda / Happy New year

 

 

 

 

 

The night I was a ghost.

The night I was a ghost.

The New Year and spirits have long been closely associated in my life. As a Scotsman I have usually spent my Hogmanays in close proximity to an excessive amounts of spirits and usually paid the penalty on Ne’er Day with an awful hangover.  As I have aged and moved, and as the tradition of first footing is waning, I have been looking for alternative ways to celebrating the end of the old year and the start of the new. An evening of watching fireworks or music shows on the television didn’t appeal nor did the idea of staid dinner parties. Nothing seemed to be available to capture that feeling of melancholy mourning for the year just gone and that blind hope that the next year would be better. I really searched.

Then I thought I found it. An evening of psychic investigations, or ghost hunting, in a local derelict castle. I imagined an evening of walking the ramparts mulling over the past as we were frightened by a crew who would try and spook us. Any spirits unsettling my nerves would be simply phantoms evoking transient distress rather than the day long misery that whisky was able to bequeath you in the morning after.  If nothing else, I reasoned, it would be very different, a bit of fun.

My mistake became apparent very early on in the proceedings. As we all gathered and made chit chat in the dark of the castle’s keep it became clear that people were not there, like myself, for fun. They were there for the deadly serious task of finding ghosts, making contact with the spirit world and discussing psychic experiences. Other than my wife there were no doubters.

After a ‘lecture’ on how our equipment would work, we were supplied with EMF meters, ionic readers, and a myriad of gadgets which crackled static and blinked coloured lights, we went into the chapel for our supper and psychic readings. I now knew I had gauged this wrongly. This was in earnest not in fun.

We all had our tarot cards read and crystal balls and dangling pendants helped us know our futures and natures. I noted that everyone at my table, and in my vicinity, no matter who their psychic had a very similar reading. It ran “You are a kind and intelligent person, perhaps too giving and modest, you tend to be put upon by others because you are too quiet to ask for help yourself. You have faced adversity and are dealing with an important decision but I can see that the future is looking very bright for you and you will manage many of your heart’s goals.” It was like listening to every horoscope ever written and it was perhaps no surprise that no-one said “You are and irritable and greedy person, self-obsessed and unable to see things from another’s viewpoint. You have had it easy so far and the future is going to throw some difficulties your way“. Perhaps few people wish to pay for this, possibly more accurate but more negative, reading or perhaps (even less likely) there was nobody on this crowd of 50 who were going to have difficulties in their future.

After our readings and meal our real ghost hunting started. This entailed standing in the dark and cold in rooms of the castle calling our to the spirits to let themselves be known. “Is there anyone there ? Can you hear us ? Let us know. Rustle the leaves if you are there. Make a sound. Light up the light on the meters .. .. .. ” . The desperation in the calls was clear, my fellow guests were eager, beyond belief, to believe that spirits lurked around them and any event was going to be evidence of their presence. Fortunately I was able to help.

I first noticed that when I was allowed to use the laser grid I could help things on their way. This was a laser pen that shone a grid of lights on the wall. If the spirits passed across the beam they would be revealed by their shadows! I noticed that if I squeezed the pen the connection to the battery was impaired and the lights dimmed. When this dimming happened in response to “Are you there ?”  the response was appropriately electric to all participants. Thereafter through a series of “yes/no” questions and my squeezing we were able to have a rudimentary conversation with a 7 year old stable boy who had been most grievously treated in the castle. It was interesting that all the questions supposed the existence of only stereotyped characters from romantic fiction.

It was then on to the séance and Ouija board. With only a modicum of imperceptible effort the glass scuttered across the board. I knew at this point I was not the only ghost in the room; a fact that my wife’s white knuckles confirmed. Here we were talking to the lady of the castle. She spelled out her first name (approximately) and then the call went out “What is you surname ?” I could hardly shout out “I don’t know” so after some taciturn spells we went back to “yes/no” questions while we confirmed that she had been a beautiful and graceful lady wed to a fearful domestic tyrant. I could almost see his top hat and twirled, pointed mustachios.

We then ended with a bonfire, a drink and watching the fireworks over the town and sea. Listening to my fellow guests they were very happy with their night; they had met ladies and stable boys and made contact, through the curtan, with the other side. I had intended to argue and rebut their beliefs but I could not bring myself to do this. They were a nice group of people. Friendly, normal people, holding down jobs and caring for families who wanted to believe that there is more to life than the mundane world we all live in. Had they wished to debate I would have been happy to participate but I had wish to spoil their evening or reduce their happiness.

Their open-mindedness did verge on gullibility and I feared that some of the professional psychics and mediums were more driven by the fees than the search for spiritual enlightenment. As we live in an increasingly secular world many people, who have a need for some more spiritual understanding of their existence, are being left adrift. When faced with moral or personal dilemmas, which simple utilitarian decision making  can’t answer, people would often, in the past, have asked their religious advisers for counsel. This is open to fewer and fewer now. But such counsel is still often wanted and probably underpins the growth of new-age fads and the return of old practices such as mediums and spiritualists. Though I am happy if it provides comfort or respite from troubles I fear it may sometimes place people in contact with charlatans and frauds when they are at their most vulnerable.

 

Recollections of Misgendering

Recollections of Misgendering

I was watching a video which has been doing the rounds. It is of a fracas in a shop when a customer feels they have been “misgendered” by a sales assistant. As I watched them argue about the use of “Sir” and “Ma’am”, and saw their emotions rise, I had the thought that this is a very modern problem. My instinctive response was another nostalgic thought of  “In my day we never .. ..  ..“and so on. I allowed myself to imagine that such problems never really occurred  when I was young, and that I, and my age cohort, had a much easier time. Though, in Britain, we would still have been upset it anyone had used the term “ma’am” as we would have felt they were being deliberately sarcastic. But later, when out running, I recovered the memories of when I had been “misgendered” in my youth. I had thought that times had changed but perhaps not.

About two generations ago, in the seventies, there was  a veritable frenzy of misgendering. I was an adolesecent, thin, and boyish. I was waiting for my facial hair to arrive and longing for  reason to shave. I knew I didn’t look manly or macho therefore I needed an alternative style to appear winsome and interesting to the opposite sex. It was the time of psychadelia and I leapt into this trend’s music, books, drama and fashion with gusto. Surely no one would fail to see that I was a mature man with knowledge and discernment when I immersed myself in this counter-culture. Surely no-one, or at least one person, at least one female person, could see how interesting I was and would want to start a relationship with me.

Unfortunately I had not thought this strategy through adequately. While knowing the music of Cream and Jefferson Airplane, being familiar with the books of Huxley and Thompson, and having sat through the films of Bunuel and Antonioni were valuable plus points. This knowledge did gain me entry to many conversations at parties. I was able to hang out with other wise and enlightened people. But the strategy did not work out as I had anticipated. Unfortunately the fashions amplified my problems. I grew my hair long (The hair on top of my head that is) and I bought bell bottomed trousers and cheesecloth shirts. Togged up in my purple bell bottoms, multicoloured tie-dye short, with my long freshly-shampooed hair dropping down the back of my Afghan coat, it was pretty difficult, especially at a distance, to know what I was – a boy, a man, a girl or a woman ? The psychedelic fashions rather than make me look like an adult manly-man had made me look like a young girly-boy. This was not the outcome I had planned.

I can recall many times, in queues, people behind me passing by with a jaunty “excuse me Miss“. Similarly  people in lectures calling out to the “girl up there in the back. Yes, you, the girl with the long hair“. These were mortifying events for a young man insecure in his masculinity. They were public and embarassing. However, the only anger I recall feeling was with myself for my lack of machismo, or at the world for the unfairness of having this late developing physique. I knew there was no malevolence from the person doing the misgendering. I knew they had made a mistake and could even entertain the possibility that they had a twinge of embarassment. I never argued with them, the sooner this episode passed the better. I had no desire to prolong the embarrassment or to invite more people to be aware of what was happening. The less people who were aware the better for all concerned. I am so glad this was before the days of social media where my discomfort could be spread around the globe in minutes

There were of course times when the misgendering was deliberate. I recall that the barmen in the harder city pubs would make a point of noticing the long hair that I and my friends sported (“Will you ladies be having Babycham then?”). Likewise, after arrest by the police at demonstrations I never doubted that the mistakes the policemen made (“Excuse me miss is this your placard ?“) were anything but deliberate. In this situation we would generally play to the audience as we were on ‘the right side of history’ and part of the countercultural revolution. We would play up to their errors as flamboyantly as Mike Jagger could strut his ambiguous stuff on stage. On these occasions their faux misgendering was just grist to the mill and a sign that we were winning. This was not upsetting, they hadn’t made a mistake, they knew our gender they were just upset that we didn’t play to their rules.

Although I can understand the distress caused by misgendering I presume most occasions occur by accident rather then design. In these circumstances tolerance and respectful apologies seem the obvious course of action. Between civilised people these errors need not cause more than minor momentary distress. When it occurs deliberately, and without provocation, then like any other insult anger and ire are the appropriate response. Though I would still wager that maintaining the civilised posture is more likely to win the day.

I never get misgendered now. Age came and took the dubiety away. Everyone, even at quite a distance and without spectacles, clearly sees an old man. I’d be flattered to be mistaken for a boy or a youth, or even a girl, but I’m fairly certain that this is not going to happen. However, I am also happy to know that now I have left the age where  I believe aspects of my identity should and do define me. It is no longer important to me whether you think I’m old or young, male or female, straight or gay, black or white, or any other distinction. The only thing that concerns me now  is what you think of what I say and do and whether I think, on reflection, I have said or done the right thing.

 

 

 

The Ovine Death Wish

Farmers and smallholders often hold the view that sheep are born with a ‘death wish’. Much of sheep farming is less to with ways to breed, rear and grow them than to working to stop them killing themselves. You make fences to stop them hurling themselves in front of traffic. Once the fences are strong they manage to garrotte themselves in the wiring and resist all your attempt to pull them out. If there are no fences they’ll try  getting entangled in the branches of hedging. If there is anything poisonous they will find it and try it, and I am not convinced they don’t lure in the dogs, foxes and crows that cause so much trouble. If the Samaritans ever consider expanding to the animal kingdom their first new section should be for sheep and their suicidality.

As there is less forage at this time of year the sheep become more adventurous in their search for food. They climb higher,WhatsApp Image 2018-12-29 at 16.37.30 reach farther and jump deeper than they usually will consider. This was the problem behind today’s escapade. I had noticed when out walking that one of my neighbour’s ewes was standing knee deep in a bog. It was looking perplexed but un-distressed and I presumed just enjoying a new range of forage. In the return leg of my walk, a half an hour later, I found her in the same position but now sunk to her shoulders and clearly tired and fearful. As I went to see her she become more frightened, struggled a little (as she was tired), and due to her struggling sunk a bit lower into the bog.

I didn’t have much time, I needed to get a rope and to get her out. It was late afternoon and it would be dark in half an hour or less and at he rate of her sinking she could be fully under water in that amount of time. I ran home and retrieved my waders and a rope. I don’t like running at the best of times but I have discovered a new horror – running in waders ! This is almost an impossibility, although you try to make all the right running movements, the constriction of the waders holds you back so you make little more speed than brisk walking. You look as ungainly as it is possible to look and the noise of rustling waders is sure make certain that anyone in the vicinity will know to turn and look for a free laugh.

Fortunately when I got back it was still light and I was able to drag her out with the rope. WhatsApp Image 2018-12-29 at 16.31.15She was exhausted after her struggles and cold to the core. She couldn’t bear her own weight though (other than being cold and wet) she had no injuries. Fortunately I spotted  a local passing in a pick-up and managed to get his help. (He was driving slowly after a fit of laughter caused by seeing somebody trying to run while wearing waders). Between us we managed to get the ewe over the wall, into his pick-up and have her taken back to the farmstead to get dry and warm. I’m optimistic she’ll be fine after this. But I am also certain that this won’t be the last time this winter we will be dragging sheep away from their doom; they are drawn to it like moths to the flame. It is the way of things.

On the plus side I always find the week after Christmas a rather flat and sad time. The modern Christmas seems to have lost both its Christian and Pagan roots  and to have become something rather greedy and egotistical. So I welcomed this opportunity to help an animal in distress, and my neighbour, and the happy outcome brightened my day.