Looking at the floral display.

Looking at the floral display.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The joy of bucket training.

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

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

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

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

Bucket
Object of Desire

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

 

 

 

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

We needed somebody smarter,

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Cadi

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

That would be doubleplusungood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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


Straw Dogs

Straw Dogs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Dark, sticky, concoctions.

Dark, sticky, concoctions.

When I was an inexperienced junior doctor, and clearly more uncouth than I am today, I and my colleagues would often call for Gerifix® when treating the elderly patients admitted to the emergency medical wards during the winter months. These patients were often severely ill with a varied combination of heart failure, chronic obstructive lung disease and an intercurrent infection. Our poorly developed diagnostic skills made if difficult to tease out the primary disorder and thus we called for our panacea – a bit of everything – a combination of an antibiotics, a diuretic (water tablet), digitalis (to strengthen the heartbeat) and a bronchodilator (to open the airways). In really severe cases we’d use Gerifix Forte®, which was the same combination with the addition of a steroid. Although we believed that the Geri in the name related to the age of our patients (over 65 and hence geriatric), I think with hindsight the name was actually Jerryfix and derived from the rough and ready work that we junior doctors did,  and an allusion to the term Jerry-builder.  In any event I was taken back to these late nights in the emergency department yesterday when two of our kid goats managed to be poisoned.

Goats have the reputation of being able to eat anything, and this is deserved in that they will manage to eat a wider range of things than horses or sheep and are also much more curious and adventurous in exploring what is edible – stand beside a goat and it will check every part of your apparel and anatomy to make sure it does not miss any tasty morsels. However, there are also many common plants that are extremely dangerous to them. Indeed, I sometimes think that the prior owners of my house had a deep seated unconscious animosity towards goats as they planted a drive with Rhododendrons, Azaleas, Pieris, Acer, and Laurel – each one potentially deadly for goats if they nibble at their leaves. I have done little gardening over the last years, and the little I have done has been to steadily remove these plants from our land. (A useful list of dangerous plants for goats can be found here.)

Usually the goats will keep clear of dangerous plants only being tempted by them in winter if they are starving and these are the only green leaves left visible through the snow. Also it appears that the mother goats will teach her kids to avoid these plants while they are too young to know better. One of the complications we have had, after loosing one nanny to a nasal cancer, is that her two kids are being bottle fed and don’t have their mother’s wisdom when they are out in the field. In any even yesterday afternoon it quickly became apparent  that two of the kids (the orphaned boy and girl) had eaten something they should not have and had been poisoned.

If you have never seen a poisoned goat here is a handy tip for you – Keep it that way!. A poisoned goat is a terrible sight. There is profuse and projectile vomiting, gallons of frothy green vomit spread everywhere in a four foot radius of the goat. On the walls, on the floor. on the goat, the mother goat and on you. They make Linda Blair’s vomiting in “The Exorcist” look tame.  There is also the colic which causes the goat to be distressed. They will grind their teeth when in pain and I fully understand why “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is mentioned seven times in the Bible as one of the torments of hell. It really is pitiful to hear them grind their teeth, only punctuated by ear-splitting screams when waves of colic overtake them. Faced with this it is your duty to fix the situation and, I assure you, you are going to try and do anything to try and stop this nightmare.

Fortunately, on the web there are many accounts of people dealing with this and reports of various mixtures which are reported to work. I noticed that there were some components which were common to all concoctions and decided to use them. This was a mixture comprised of :-

  • 1/2 cup strong tepid breakfast tea. Not any fancy herbal teas, this component needs the tannins which bind the toxins, so strong builder’s tea – tea in which a spoon would stand up.
  • 1/4 cup cooking oil. This seems to line the gut to prevent more toxins entering the system.
  • 2 tablespoons activated charcoal. This is to neutralize toxins.
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger. This acts as a painkiller.
  • 1 teaspoon of baking powder. The Bicarbonate of Soda acts as an effective antacid. Some people use Milk of Magnesia in place of this.
  • 1 teaspoon of brandy. Brandy or sherry act as analgesics. My kids were lucky. We only had one bottle of very expensive cognac, a present I received in my previous working life, so this had to substitute for ‘cooking’ brandy. I hope they savoured its fine balanced flavours.

When mixed you have a dark, 20180519_165954.jpgsticky concoction that no self-respecting goat is going to want to take. Especially no colicky and panicking  goat is going to be happy with the idea of drinking this mixture. Therefore it is your job to try and get this into the goat between screams with a syringe. This process will at least mean that instead of being covered with green vomit you will now be covered with black goo.  After having got the first quarter of the volume drenched into the goat in the first sitting then  repeat with small amounts of the mixture every hour until the goat is settled and normal.

In our case this was in the early hours of the morning; they started to settle with the first dose but weren’t comfortable much before midnight. However, I am glad to report that by today they were their usual selves, fighting for food and climbing on the walls and gates. Most of these items are in the average kitchen cabinet so the only thing that might be necessary to make sure you keep in stock is activated charcoal, though some mixtures do not call for this. In any event it is worth keeping the ingredients in stock, for whatever recipe you are going to use, as you won’t want to waste a minute collecting the materials together if you are faced with this emergency. It might also be worthwhile pinning the recipe near the phone just in case someone else is looking after your goats and the worst happens. Fingers crossed you will not need it.

 

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Everyone oblivious to last night’s horrors

 

 

 

There is always something to be ashamed of (*)

When I made the jump and left the city for the rural life I was uncertain about how some aspects of my life might change. I was, however, quite sure that moving to a smaller community would be better. In his book, Sapiens: A brief history of mankind, Yuval Harari suggests that the largest group that we can live amongst comfortably, knowing our family and neighbours, is 150 of our fellows – above this number we need to call on cultural developments to substitute for our personal knowledge of people. In essence, up to 150 people – then first hand knowledge and gossip allow us to cope, above this we need extra strategies.

In the city I was aware that I was in a huge amorphous mass of people. Because we lived closely packed together our privacy became important. It was important to keep your life separate from your neighbours as we lived cheek by jowl with them. When the situation forces you to live close with your fellows and en masse it becomes important to keep your distance. Paradoxically, though I lived in a large group I knew relatively few people, I knew my immediate neighbours, but relatively few others in the street. I knew very little about people living 100 yards from my front door.

In place of my local community I had my professional community. I mixed with other NHS consultants, lawyers and teachers, in short I mixed with people like me. We would meet and bemoan why others  did not see the world as we did and could not see how correct we were in our analyses.   In the days before social media there were already echo chambers and I lived inside one. My already skewed viewpoint became increasingly bent by agreement and repetition.

When I moved, one of the first obvious differences I noted were the simple benefits of living in a small local community. Within a very short period I knew my neighbours;  I knew the shop workers, the staff that worked in the local farmers market, the farm workers, the foresters, the mechanics,  the people who worked the land adjacent to ours. I quickly discovered that I knew many more people, not just by sight but their name and history, than I ever had known when I lived in the large city.

It was, and is, a pleasant feeling to recognise your fellows when out and about. It gives a warm feeling of community and sense of security. During the recent storms it was our neighbours who sorted out the problems of fallen trees and blocked roads well before the local authority even thought about responding. When I have had problems with livestock it has been neighbours who have assisted and I have, in my turn, assisted them. When walking through the town centre I can recognise the faces of strangers and visitors to the area as I know who is local and who is just passing through.

In the main I like this but I have been aware that this is not a simple relationship but something that strikes at the core of living in a community. Because I know others, they know me, this means my reputation is much more important than it ever was before. When you are anonymous it doesn’t matter much about your reputation.  If you committed some heinous crime life would be much harder in a small community. True, if there were exonerating circumstances these may be more likely to be recognised (and taken into account), but failing this if you become the outlaw then you might prefer the anonymity of the city rather than the gaze of your fellows.

However, even at a much smaller level this reliance on reputation and knowledge of our fellows is important and, I feel, has beneficial effects on our behaviour. Imagine you are driving through town and someone pulls out suddenly and cuts you up. In the city it is all too easy to jerk the finger and shout the expletives, you’ll never see them again. In this community you might look in the car window and see your elderly neighbour on the way home after a worrisome visit to the doctors, you really don’t want to be shouting and gesticulating. Indeed had you done so you would rightly feel ashamed about your uncouth behaviour.

In the town if you drive along and notice someone with a flat tyre it is quite easy to drive past and reassure yourself that they will have phoned for help. Here, in this community,  you will know that you could be recognised, even if you do not recognise them, and it will be known that you did not help.  Passing on the other side would be the wrong thing to do, your reputation would suffer, and you would tend to feel shame and guilt that you had not taken the opportunity to help a fellow in need. In smaller communities you will tend to work with the same people again and again rather than interacting with many people on single, or a few, occasions. This allows you to develop your reputation by repeatedly showing such characteristics as honesty, fairness, punctuality or diligence. In short, you are able to demonstrate your honour.

I had not anticipated that a move to a smaller community would put me in closer contact to feelings of shame and its opposite honour. I am glad that it has as it has reconnected me with my own core beliefs. I know what I think is important and I now have to try to live in accord with these principles. This rediscovery of shame is important and beneficial. It is through shame that we change our behaviour, without it we can plod on seemingly oblivious to our failings and mistakes. I fear in larger societies we have substituted a culture of dignity for a culture of honour. We have substituted the right to respect for the duty to earn it.  While this may help maintain social cohesion by asking very little of individuals other then a modicum of good behaviour it means we lose some of the ability for self-improvement.

In a culture which has little role for11REGRET-popup shame, and tends to feel that we should accept everyone for who they are regardless, there are few prompts for people to improve themselves. As I have reported before, I wish people had cared enough about me, and dared, to comment on my gluttony and obesity so that shame may have driven me to diet  – rather than, as was the case, fear of death from diabetic complications prompting me to do so. For many of the current problems by which we are beset, are often the consequences of excess, indulgence or of short term thinking – an early experience of shame might be much preferable to the later damage experienced.

Most religions, indeed most moral codes, stress the importance of self awareness and self scrutiny so that we may be aware of our failings and correct them. The story of Adam and Eve in the bible can be read as mankind’s discovery of shame and recognition of our failings is integral to Christianity (“Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins.” Ecclesiastes 7:20) . Likewise recognition of misdeeds and repentance are core constructs in the Jewish (Teshuva) and Islamic faiths (Tawba) and means whereby we instruct ourselves to become better people.

If we build an increasingly shameless society, one in which we are fearful of judging our own or others behaviour, we should not be surprised if it behaves in a shameless manner. If we take away one of our checks and balances we can expect to see increasing problems with excessive consumption, poor interpersonal relationships and failure to be good custodians of our environment. Let’s hear it for shame ! Even in large societal groups we still need shame,  the exhortation that “If it feels good do it !” is fine as long as it is accompanied by the knowledge “If it is wrong don’t do it”, you need both halves of the equation to live well.


(*) In this case it is my grammar, and ending a sentence with a preposition, which causes my blushes – “There is always something of which we can be ashamed” – Sorry, I’ll try harder. This is something I won’t put up with !


 

Intellectual Dark Web

Intellectual Dark Web

Today’s daily prompt of “rebel” was timely as I realised I would be able to offer a little bit of public service to those of you who wish to rebel against stifling conformity and try a bit of free thinking. In an excellent article in the New York Times Bari Weiss discusses the new intellectuals who are changing the face of current debate and starting to offer some hope that free thinking and debate have not died. She suggests that there is an Intellectual Dark Web where rebellious debate is gathering momentum, it is really worth  a few moments of your time to check this out.

 

The shame of Britain’s jewel.

The shame of Britain’s jewel.

The Learning Disability Mortality Review was published this week and it has largely gone unnoticed in the press and news. While we flaunt the successes of our health service, and describe it as the “the envy of the world“, we have ignored the fact that there is a serious problem with how the NHS treats one of the most vulnerable groups in our society. The report looked at those with learning Disability dying in NHS care and found that in about one in eight of those deaths neglect, abuse or incompetence had “adversely affected” the care that the individual had received.

The report makes harrowing and upsetting reading. It is clear that this group of people are being sold short by our health service, that they are often felt to have lives not worth saving. There are reports of staff failing to recognise the worth of the individual and thus they are discriminated against. This utilitarian view of life is very dangerous and particularly dangerous, in a system such as the NHS, where the client is not the patient but the state itself. The state will have the tendency to value some lives are more productive than others, more valuable than others, and thus worthy of more attention. This group of people find themselves at the bottom of the pile when priorities are being drawn up. When the calculus of how much someone is worth is reckoned their values – the pleasure they bring to their families, the love they express, the friendships they make – don’t weight well in the scales and they loose out.

Staff recognise this and start to behave accordingly; they care less for the patients and come to view them as obstacles in the path to giving better care to more deserving patients, and, in extreme cases, unworthy of using the resources which could be better used by someone more valuable. All of this has echoes of the film “Dasein Ohne Leben ” (“Existence without Life”), the 1942 Nazi propaganda film which was intended to soften the public’s opposition to the euthanasia, or murder, of the physically and mentally handicapped.

Although this group of people almost certainly suffer the most from this neglect they are unfortunately not alone. When I was working I was repeatedly shocked by the contempt that medical and nursing staff could express for patients with dementia seeing them as nothing more than “bed blockers” who were misusing scarce resources. Recent scandals about breast screening errors again show that ageism is still prevalent. Older women have higher risks of breast cancer but screening is avoided because it is “not worth it” in this group. Were the NHS an insurance system, as it was initially intended, then people who had been in the scheme longer, and contributed more, would expect better dividends not a scheme which rewards their involvement by reducing their entitlements.

But advanced age is not necessary to be a victim of this type of calculation. The high profile cases of severely disabled children being removed from their parent’s control causes further concern. In these awful cases, the parents asked for nothing extra from the NHS other than to get out of the way and to let them try what they could for their babies. Their hopes for their offspring were almost certainly futile but it may have helped the parents to know that they had done all that was humanly possible for their sons. But the system felt is was important, having assessed the importance of these infants lives, to stop the parents and other systems doing what the might lest they squandered resources.

When systems become too large they often become inhumane. When the patient and their family is not the focus then the system operates on economic principles of value for money. It stops being an insurance scheme to protect us form the high costs of health care, by aggregating risks, and becomes a system to ration care. In a rationing system the vulnerable groups of the disabled and elderly always loose out particularly in times of scarcity. As the NHS becomes increasingly unable to meet the demands put upon it it will start to ration ever more strictly. Then it matters not a fig, whether you paid your taxes diligently, or worked productively, or are a valued member of your family and community, if you are deemed too expensive and too unproductive then your services are going to be poor. You will get the minimum that can be offered if a callous system allow even that to happen.

Our sons and daughters, and brothers and sisters, with learning disabilities are not lesser people than us. They have every right to care and we should feel ashamed that a system what we hoped would provide universal healthcare  is failing to do so for the weakest and most vulnerable of our fellow citizens.

 

The Sea of Faith

The Sea of Faith

While I was watching an old film on television this week I was reminded of Mathew Arnold’s wonderful poem “Dover Beach”.  This is the lyric poem that he wrote telling of his feelings of loss and sadness following the ebbing of faith in his society. He uses the metaphor of the tide to show the retreat of religious faith, which he felt was now only an echo of its former self.  With regret he wrote :-

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear.

And naked shingles of the world.

Watching the tide retreat under moonlight he rued the passage of faith and considers his and society’s loss.

I was reminded of this poem after catchingMV5BNjU4NzQ4NzU5MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDM2Nzk1MDE@._V1_ the film “Lease of Life” on television. This was the penultimate film of the great Robert Donat who had returned to acting after a long sabbatical necessitated by his poor health from asthma. In this film he plays a village parson who discovers he has less than a year to live.  Donat’s ill-health is obvious when watching this film, he looks much older than his years, but this adds a poignancy to his role as a man coming to terms with his mortality. The whole cast are excellent but Adrienne Corri, whose youth and beauty are counterposed to Donat’s age and frailty, is especially so.

So why did this 1954 British film from Ealing Studios, remind me of Dover Beach ? It was the theme of the film –  death comes to us all, but before then how do we live life well ? The film takes this religious theme and explores it through a number of vignettes : a wife who has subjugated her life and wishes for her husband and daughter, a daughter who wishes to seek advancement but not at the expense of ther parents, a dying parishoner who who has a complex relationship with his wife. There is no violence, no sex, no excitement, just moral dilemmas played out on a human scale. It would probably be impossible to make this film today. Imagine the pitch to the movie moguls.

Mogul “Right give us your pitch ! What’s the payload of the film

Director ” Sure. The film has at its core a vital unifying scene that lays the whole film open”

Mogul “Great give it to me

Director ” The elderly, terminally ill parson gives a short sermon in church to a group of schoolboys reminding them that religioun is about free will and choices not about dutifully or slavishly following rules

Mogul “And ?

Director “The boys like it and we later see the paron lving in accordance with his beliefs”

Mogul “Next ! Close the door as you leave

The film reveals how issues of faith and morality were central to life. It reminds us we have to think actively about how to be a good and moral person and that it is inadequate to choose the most expedient options at every turn. With this deontologiocal message it does not sit easily in our utiltarian culture.  This film revealed just how important issues of faith, and the role of the church, were in British culture two generations ago. But this has largely gone and, like Mathew Arnold watching the tide ebb, I watched this film and thought what have we lost?

Certainly we have gained some freedoms, particularly in the realm of our sexual lives, but how valuable is it to gain this sexual freedom if we risk loosing romantic love or reducting the pleaures of love to simple mechanics of friction. What if our need for gratification robs us of the virtue of patience. There are so many changes where we cannot foresee the resultant complications and  I fear we are loosing many of the principles that perviously guided our personal and family lives. This film reminds us that these small quotidien decisions that constitute our lives are vitally important and this film does not need any pyrotechnics or CGI assistance to make its point. Like other films from Ealing Studios it looks at people humanely and reveals to us, if we wish to see it, what it is that makes humanity special.

This gentle but thought provoking film reminded me of our losses, but I fear I need to check my priviledge here. The loss of faith and the ebbing of this tide is particularly a problem for white developed-world cultures, particularly in Europe, like mine. This sadness is unlikely to be shared equally across the globe as the number of people of faith (Christians in China, Muslims in Africa and Asia) elsewhere continues to grow. There are now more people on our beleaguered planet who profess religion is important in their lives than ever before and perhaps, in this, there is hope that the tides of the sea of faith will again lap on our shores.


Dover Beach

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; – on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Mathew Arnold

 

Drifting towards the rocks.

Drifting towards the rocks.

It is increasingly apparent that the left has abandoned its originators. It was through the struggles of the working class that many of the present left wing organisations were born. These movements had their roots in the organisations formed by the working class to protect their interest and promote their advancement. The trade unions were the stalwarts of the Labour Party in Britain, and to a degree remain important today, but few on the left today have more than a vague awareness that the other strand which pushed the development of the left was Christian thinking. As Morgan Phillips, when General Secretary of the Labour Party said “the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than Marxism“. In any event, any link between the Labour Party and working class organizations and culture has largely atrophied and disappeared. Now, like many organisations on the left, is more concerned with identity politics and intersectional theory than with any class struggle.

Thoughts on this subject were stirred last night MV5BMzc1MDY3NDIwMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzkwNzU0MzI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_when I went to see the Swedish film “The Square” which won the Palm D’or Award at Cannes. I’d heartily recommend this film to anyone who has not yet seen it as it is a biting, vicious satire which is genuinely funny but also very thought provoking. Although the main target is the “Art World” it also takes aim at the progressive elite who run our charities, government quangos,  health boards, government enquiries and generally wield a large part of the day-to-day power in our society. These people talk the talk of inclusion, accessibility, sharing and caring and empowering the powerless, but rarely do they walk the walk. As the film reveals they often have a deep seated fear of the poor and have much more interest in satisfying their own needs. In the film they create art to show they care for their fellow man but fail to recognise their fellow man in need when they pass them in the street.

On the left the politics of identity and intersectionality may have been able to help some groups. Although the womens’ struggle and the fight against racism seemed to be being fought with success before this new theory took the high ground, and it is arguable how much added benefit these theories have had in advancing the causes of women and minorities in western societies. Sometimes the focus on cultural issues, and cultural identity, has indeed been counterproductive when one considers the struggles of women, or homosexuals,  in Islamic countries where a blind eye has been turned to horrific events and support has been denied to those struggling for liberation. But there has been also an unintended negative  consequence of these theories. Now there is a problem of what to do with white working class men and boys.

These individuals have found that ‘class‘ does not count in the hierarchy of victimhood. Poverty and powerlessness do not, in themselves, interest the left. Their struggles are no longer what drives the progressives and their culture no longer has any interest to them. When they think of white working class men they think of brutes, loud scary people with opinions they reject, the wrong ideas on Brexit and immigration. often with attachment to old fashioned cultural constructs and morals. They just don’t fit. In the world of the media and the arts they have all but disappeared. Working class men make up a third of the population but they will not be seen in our plays, films or television series except as in small roles as bigot No#1 or possibly as a wifebeater. In between the programmes on television, the adverts will show every demographic possible with the exception of white working class men. They are an embarrassment which will hurt sales, best to hide them away.

We have a culture that despises them, as Frederick Mount in his book “Mind the Gap” reported they have been “subjected to a sustained programme of social contempt and institutional erosion which has persisted through many different governments and several political fashions”. They have no political project promoting their aims and therefore is is no surprise  that as a group they are suffering badly.   In education, according to the 2016 report by the Sutton Trust, white pupils on free school meals achieve the lowest grades of any ethnic group. In employment and housing they are also steadily failing. These effects should have been anticipated.

The final, probably unintended, consequence of these changes should worry us all. These people who have a proud tradition of fighting for equality and for the moral good have shown themselves able to transform society. Their rejection by the left and progressive movements creates a vacuum. We can hope that new movements will form and pick up the struggle for social improvement. However, recent experience in Europe and America makes me fearful that other political movements will move to fill this vacuum. I fear it is easy to sell a project based on hate and anger to a group that has been marginalised, alienated and held in contempt. Vengeance is a powerful motivating force !

We need a progressive movement that includes everyone, particularly the majority of working class men and women who make up our society. We need to stop defining ourselves into smaller and smaller groups and trying to create our power bases and start defining what we want a good society to look like. We have to start to think we can change society and that we all have something to gain in the future. As Vance wrote in Hillbilly Elegy “We hillbillies need to wake the hell up.” – we all do  – because if we don’t Trump, Orban, and Le Pen are only the first glimpse of our future. We still have a chance to stop it.