Monday, 12 December 2016

Why it is all Simon Cowells fault.

Just to make it clear, I have not watched x-factor for many years, and apparently Cowell has mellowed. I have never seen BGT either. But I did watch x-factor for a number of years and gave up when I started to realise what it was.

The people who enter are split into two categories. The first one is those who have little actual talent, and will never make it in the music industry. For these, the show, the entire format is abuse. They are put up to be laughed at, nothing more. They are encouraged to think that they have more talent than they have, while everyone knows that they are not going to achieve much.

This is different form, say, The Voice - everyone on that who is shown could make it in the business somewhere. Every one is musically talented, even if they don't quite work for the particular show. But Cowell likes his freak show. That is one reason why I stopped watching.

The other category are those who do have some talent, who can sing, and who might achieve success in the business. Some of the winners are in this category, but not all.

The problem with them is that they are "Cowelled" - turned into standard pop song production machines. Even those who have real talent - like Alexandria Burke - are modelled to produce the "right" songs.  the reason is that Cowell - and his like - are interested in making money out of the music industry. They are not interested in musical heritage or real talent. He forms the winners to produce money out of the industry machine.

There is no way that any of the great icons of music would ever have come out of this process. On the other side, none of the x-factor stars will be musical legends of the future - they will not be the next Bowie, Iggy, Lake, Emerson, whoever. And yet flooding the market with the Cowell-clones inhibits the development of these real icons and geniuses.

The fact that Cowell has so demeaned the music market to simply make money from it is what annoys me, what angers me about what he does. He is not in the business of finding talent - he wouldn't know talent if it slapped him around the head. He is in the business of making money, pure and simple.

But there is more, of course. Why is everything his fault? Because the x-factor voting has affected us all. The idea of voting for the joke, because it seemingly annoys Simon. Of course, it didn't really - it helped the rating for the show, so he was delighted. The idea of voting for the joke seems to have spread to the political arena too - making the "protest vote", because this is fun, and doesn't really matter. Except that, of course, it does. Because, underneath it all, there is someone else manipulating the system to make themselves more money.

The problem with Cowell is that he has normalised abuse, monetisation and "votes don't really matter" attitudes. Of course, it is not purely him, not all his fault, but he has some culpability. So maybe he has mellowed, but the damage may have already been done.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

The referendum.

On the day of voting, we went away for a 2-week holiday in Ireland. This has had two effects - firstly, stopping me having a chance to properly comment, and secondly, giving me a distinct perspective on the result.

I should point out, to anyone who missed it, that I am a passionate supporter of the remain campaign. Of course, some people will assume that my anger and frustration is because I am on the losing side. It isn't. I am a member of the green party, so I am used to having the good arguments but not winning. I also voted on the losing side on the last referendum about changing the voting system. I am quite used to being on the losing side.

The reason I am angry is simpler than that. It is because leaving the EU would be the single stupidest and economically and politically suicidal action that any country has ever done, a position that would not be changed even if the US were to elect Trump as president.

I will explain why this is later, when I explore some of the implications of leaving. firstly, I want to comment on the campaign, which has been a shambles. More importantly, two academics who looked relatively dispassionately at the claims made for both sides said that the leave campaign produced lies on an "industrial scale". The other, who was doing fact checking on the claims found that, while the remain campaigns claims were broadly supported by their sources, the leave campaigns were totally unsupported - they lied about their claims in every single case.

That seems to me to be deceit of the British public on an unprecedented scale.

I did try to be as balanced as I could and consider the opposing arguments. I wanted to understand them, even if I fundamentally disagreed. There was, eventually, one that I could support. Just one.

The biggest claim, regularly repeated, was that we paid £350M into the EU a week. This was, as many people said, utterly false - after the rebates, we paid something more like £250M.

I should be clear here, I am no expert on EU economics, I am trying to find some real figures that show the actual values, not the headline values.

The rebates are applied before anything is paid, so this is not money we will save - it is money we have already not been paying in. It's more like if you have to pay a speeding ticket. The headline cost of the speeding ticket is £100. If you pay without contesting it, you are eligible for a 50% discount (rebate). So the actual cost of the speeding fine is £50. To argue that it is £100, so by paying early you have £50 spare is obtuse at the least.

On top of that (as I understand it), the EU provides subsidies to a number of businesses in the UK - in particular, farm subsidies under the CAP. The leave campaign promised to continue to pay these, so they have to be removed from the equation, leaving around £170M a week that we pay in. Vastly different from the £350M. And to the farmers who supported the leave campaign - why do you believe that these subsidies will be continued indefinitely? They won't under a right-wing government, because the state should not be providing financial support to any business.

 What do we get for this? We get membership of the EU, and all of the indirect financial benefits that this brings. It serves to attract multinational businesses to our soil, because they can then sell within the EU. It serves to provide a far larger amalgamation of countries to negotiate international trade treaties with, which provide us with far better deals than we could ever negotiate on our own. The current crop of political leaders do not seem to be particularly good negotiators, and I very much doubt that any of them could get good deals from our trading partners across the world.

I have seen some complaints that "we never receive as much from the EU as we put in." This is true, and, as one of the largest economies in the world, is absolutely reasonable. The final figure that we pay is probably around £6B - which sounds like a large figure, but is not in terms of a national budget. For comparison, it is a very conservative figure of the amount lost through tax evasion in the UK in a year. Total tax avoidance - the legal but morally compromised non-payment - is vastly higher than this (I am not quoting exact figures, because they vary from source to source, and depend on how you calculate them).

It is rather like paying to be a member of a golf club. Nobody expects to get back the money they pay to be in the club, because they see it has other benefits. Some of these are the ability to play golf, but others are the chance to discuss business with potential partners. For many, the indirect benefits they receive are far more than the cost of membership. So it is with the EU. I have seen quoted that a 0.5% drop in the economic growth of the UK would wipe out the entire payments we make (although I don't know what figure for payments this uses). So membership has to provide a boost of 0.5% - not much - to balance the payments.

This brings me onto the second issue raised - that we could control our borders. Even aside from the blatant racism that is inherent in this, and the implication that immigration is purely negative (it isn't - on the whole, immigration has proven very positive for our country), this is blatantly untrue. Our biggest trading partner is the EU, and if we were to negotiate an agreement with them, it would be on the basis of having open borders. In fact, it would be on a very similar basis to what we currently have. Leaving the EU would impact our trading relationship mainly in that we would no longer be on the inside to negotiate ourselves - we would have to accept whatever the EU insisted on. That seems a very poor deal in real terms. And it would do nothing to impact immigration from the EU. If we want to impact it from other places, we can do that anyway.

The one argument that held some weigh was that the EU is an irredeemable bureaucratic mess. I can see this point, in that the EU is rather red-tape heavy. I don't believe it is irredeemable though. I do believe that if we in Britain had been wholly in and supporting the EU for the last 10-15 years, and working with others to make it better, more streamlined, more efficient - rather than simply trying to get what we could for ourselves - it might be in far better shape.

So what is - and will be - the impact of the vote and of leaving (assuming nobody decides to actually do something useful and stop this ridiculous process)? I think we saw on the day after the vote the impact it will have on our economy - the stock market and the pound crashed. They have recovered since, but I suspect, if it became clear we were going to go through with this, they would crash and stay crashed. The banks think this is a stupid thing to do.

But that is short term. More importantly, multinational business will stop investing in the UK, because they may as well invest in a country inside the EU, where they can gain all of the benefits. Even those companies who have claimed that they will not leave will, I suspect, withdraw further investment, because their payback is so much greater by investing elsewhere. That in itself will cause us long-term damage. We took many years to attract companies like Toyota to the UK, but we can lose them very quickly, and then will have to spend many years encouraging them back.

Maybe more importantly than that, it is clear that Scotland and Northern Ireland want to stay in the EU. I fully expect that they will try to block an exit, at least until they can separate from England and Wales, and remain as members independently. Being in Ireland, it is interesting that there are even questions about reuniting the country - apparently, people may be prepared to put aside centuries of religious conflict and fundamental disagreement to not be a part of the insanity.

Scotland, of course, were far closer in their vote whether to stay or leave. Being in the North of Ireland, and having been just 12 miles from Scotland, I do wonder whether a "Western Nations" grouping could form - Scotland and a united Ireland. It would leave England as a very minor player in the area.

But it is not only businesses that will leave, though. The fact that all of the academics whose specialism is the EU said that leaving would be disastrous, and they were ignored. The anti-intellectualism we have seen is liable to lead more and more academics to consider whether this is a place they want to work. Additionally, the ease of communication and travel across the EU means that collaboration is comparatively easy, and for many, the ease of this will outweigh any provisions at a particular institution. More and more top level research is done internationally, and this will be impacted. Additionally, of course, the EU does put money into academic research, and if the projects aren't available in the UK, the researchers will move elsewhere.

Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg. This is just identifiable sections of the community who may consider a change in circumstances. There are many others, like myself, who would seriously consider it, but I don't have the resources or ability to make a move. But most of all, and saddest of all, I think this entire process, and the decade of chaos that is to come from it, will disillusion many people about the whole of politics. The politicians are in a shambles, and they have utterly lost the confidence of the public at large. That is a dangerous and problematic situation.

Finally, from an Irish perspective, you would have thought the people of the UK would have learned that identifying oneself in opposition to others, vilifying them and spreading hatred does not tend to lead to a happy situation. That is the lesson of history that nobody seems to want to learn.

Friday, 1 July 2016

"Person first" language

I noticed an interesting article recently, and it prompted me to think again about a posting I had been considering on this topic.

It was several years ago that I first encountered this, in relationship to my son who is diabetic. Or as I was told at the time, who has diabetes. It had me thinking about my own depression and how I consider this.

So I was told that I shouldn't say my son is a diabetic, because that defines him by his illness. Then I consider that he has to test and inject several times a day, a routine that impacts his life hourly. It affects his health, and, when he is not good at controlling his levels and ends up in hospital, that takes him out for a day or so.

So his illness affects every part of his life, every day, and will for the rest of his life. It seems to me that describing him as "a diabetic", in the sense that this aspect does define a lot of his life, it is an important and significant aspect of who he is. Now it is not all he is, but it is one aspect that defines him. He is a diabetic, he is a boy, he is a geek, he is my son. None of these define him totally, all of them seem like valid aspects that are defining - and will be for the rest of his life.

In the same way, I am happy to define myself as a depressive. I cannot remember when I first started to suffer from this illness, but my age was in single figures. I have battled with this for some 45 years, through my "formative" teenage years, through my working life, through my marriage and children. It would be disingenuous at the least to try to identify myself apart from an illness that has been present for most of my life.

That doesn't mean I welcome the illness, but that I accept that it is formative and critical to who I am. To pretend that I now have an existence that is not impacted by my illness is to live in a fantasy. My illness does not totally define me, but it impacts everything about me. I am more than my depression, but everything about me is impacted by it. I might not like it, but that is the truth.

So I can see the appeal of "person first" language, but I think it is a dangerous approach to chronic illness, because it is pretending that life is different from what it is. So for me, I will continue to describe myself as a depressive. That is who I am, and I am quite happy to acknowledge it.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016


The Panama papers that came out some time ago now revealed that all sorts of politicians and senior figures have money stashed in a Panama tax haven. Not that this is really a surprise to anyone, but it is interesting to have proof.

Of course, this was one legal firm in one tax haven, so it is fairly random who is caught in this particular revelation. And, I should point out, it is perfectly legal. Whether it is moral or not is a whole different question, and a far more difficult one to address.

There is another issue that has come out from this, which is, I think, a far more significant issue, which is that many of the worlds tax havens are British dependencies. Places like the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man are included, but the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands are also dependencies. This means that we, the British, support and promote world Tax Havens - at a time when we are told that there is no money for the NHS, for Schools, for the disabled, we control places where trillions of pounds are stashed away to avoid paying tax.

Does that sound wrong to you? That one of the biggest industries that we as a country support across the world not only provides no money to the UK, but actively promotes a reduction in tax income to countries across the world (including the UK).

One day, we will look back at this and be shocked and ashamed. It is an international trade of shame that we will look on like slavery - that sounds rather dramatic, but the money invested in these places is deliberately being taken outside the laws of other countries, deliberately being put into places where it can be hidden.

This means that we, in the UK, support a business internationally that generates no income for us in the UK, and mainly serves to help people avoid supporting their own economies. We should stop it - the argument that if we didn't do it, others would is moot because we support the majority of the places that are doing it - we could challenge the entire international tax avoidance business. We could provide millions more into the treasuries across the world.

The problem, of course, is that most of those involved in legislative procedure have large amounts of money invested (hidden) in these places. And they have connection to others who have money invested there. So there is no real incentive to change things is there.

With the claims about how much we are spending on the EU (which are wrong), this money dwindles into insignificance compared to how much we, in the UK, are helping to hide from legitimate governments across the world. Our support for tax havens is a national disgrace.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The church is too slow

It took 20 years for the Church of England to agree to ordain women, from the point where it was first raised. That is quite extraordinary, in modern society. At the start of this time, the ordination would have been a radical and groundbreaking step, identifying the church as a leader in equality politics.

By the time it actually happened, it was playing a game of catch-up, trying not to be one of the last bastions of male privilege. While it was great for those who could then be ordained, it indicated far bigger problems in the church.

It then took another 20 years to propose making women bishops, which is ridiculous. If anything, it highlighted the gender inequality even more, because it quite simply denied certain top positions to them, irrespective of their qualification for the role. The fact that the first vote rejected the idea was quite unbelievable. 40 years after it had been established that there was no theological reason to deny women positions within the clergy, some within the church had still not got the message.

The whole farce has, without question, lost the church many people who are tired at the slow pace of change.

I should make it clear that, while the Church of England is very much the focus of this, most other churches show the same type of slowness in dealing with other issues, or even this one. There are churches who will not let women into leadership still (not just the Roman Catholics, who have a far bigger mountain to climb).

And today, the church is still struggling with homosexuality. Having congratulated itself on allowing women to be bishops, as if this is a radical move, it then turns on alternative sexualities and rejects them, flying totally in the face of the rest of society.

I don't mean that the church should be mirroring society. I don't think this is the biggest danger at the moment. Rather, the church should be leading society in terms of acceptance. They should not be accepting gays because society is - they should have been accepting of gays way before society did, and seeking to encourage them into stable, long-term relationships, rather than promiscuity, which was, at one time, rather more common (before AIDS made this far too risky). The church should be ahead of the curve, rather than objecting to conforming after the fact.

And this worries me because the church is liable to spend many years tearing itself apart over homosexuality (and then many more years over bisexuality, asexuality and all sort of other alternative sexualities) before finally being forced to catch up, having lost many more people. To be clear, the church still seems to consider sexuality in a binary sense (Homosexuality vs Heterosexuality), and hasn't really started to understand the breadth of sexuality that people express.

In this time, it should be accepting people irrespective of their sexuality, and looking at issues of gender fluidity. This will become accepted within our society in the next few years, way before the church has even acknowledged that it is a question that needs consideration. People should - of course - be accepted irrespective of their gender definition, but more than this, the church should be helping people acknowledge and understand their gender in far more fluid terms than a simple binary.

I am sure that there will be those who say "We never had gender fluidity when I was young. It's just a fad." I disagree. In fact, it has always been around and an issue, but you may not have met it for two reasons:

1. So many who could not resolve their gender in a way that society would accept either hid it or took their own lives. Both of these involve a life lived in pain and denial.

2. People who have gender questions would probably not come to you or to the church, knowing that they would be condemned.

The church is too slow. By the time it comes to ask important questions, most people have moved on. By the time it comes to answer them, they are seen as a dinosaur. While this is bad for the church, I am more concerned at the many people who are condemned, hurt, rejected and damaged while this process goes on. It is not acceptable.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Is this government a cult?

 A discussion on the Ship made me consider that this government might, in fact be a religious cult. Let me explain why I think this.

1. A charismatic leader. Well, some people think he is. A smooth talker at least. That is a good start, someone who seems to be able to convince people that black is white.

2. An unerring belief in their own ideas. Irrespective of how demonstrably wrong or mistaken they are, they still believe that the Tory Ideal for Britain. The problems are always something to do with either the precise implementation, or the refusal of other people to accept them properly.

3. Total dismissal of anyone who disagrees with their principles. We have most recently seen this in the gagging of government funded science, where scientists are not allowed to criticise the government if they are funded by them. But it is wider - they refuse to accept insight from anywhere that does not sign up to the Tory Way.

4. "It is the right thing to do" - I have heard this so often, it is becoming a Cameron mantra. But it is the justification for all sorts of things, and there is nothing to really say against it. "No it isn't" sounds like childish arguing, but often this is the appropriate response. It is a brilliant piece of strategy and a dangerous approach to governing.

5. "If you vote for anyone else, you will go to hell". We hear this - in various forms - so often. Labour will ruin the economy (like the Tories haven't already), anyone else is a waste, voting for the Tories is a vote for a Greater Britain. It is so like the language used in churches and cults - "Stay with us, however much we abuse you, because if you leave your worst nightmares will happen". It works in so many abusive relationships.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Earthquake, wind and fire

Recently, I have attended my first Quaker meeting, and it got me to thinking about how I experience God, and how that has changed. This is about those reflections, and where I have gone through to get where I am today. The idea of how things have changed partly reflects the words to Elijah - although not entirely. For me, God has spoken through the Earthquake, Wind and Fire, and is now, maybe, speaking through the Still Small Voice.

I used to meet God in the earthquake - the noise, the unsettled reality. That time and experience helped me see God wherever I was, at work, in the car, in the city. I was not having to go somewhere else to find God, to experience him, because I could experience Him in the business of life. I still can - I have not lost that, just moved on. God is there in the noise, the music, the chaos.

I also used to meet God in the wind - in nature. Seeing a sense of God in the natural is important, and reflects (as the previous idea does) something of a Celtic perspective. This is not about worshipping nature, but about seeing God as a creator God who can be experienced through the natural world.

Anyone who knows some of what I have been through in the last decade or so knows that it has felt like the fire. It has been a difficult few years, and I still hurt from them, but I have found a new experience of God in it all. In truth, I am struggling to say I have found an experience of God through it, but I can hope that I can say this in time. I have been through the fire, and I have not lost my faith, which might be all I can say.

And now, maybe, I can find him in the still small voice, that is the Quaker style. I can't say that I will definitely stay with them, but the approach of being quiet, listening for God, experiencing him in the quiet. I think he has always been there, but it has never been where I have met him. I think the silence is nothing like as oppressive as what I call "Anglican Silence". The silence can be broken, and there is an acceptance that for some people it will mean nothing. What is more, it is only an hour. That used to seem like a long time for me, but I have learnt to manage that. It might be old age (I am sure it is not maturity).

Additionally, the "Anglican Silence" (not just Anglican, but it is prevalent in some areas of Anglicanism as seen in silent retreats in particular) is very much about "providing some input and insight, and then being silent to consider this and pray about this. I have always found that insanely aggravating, because I want to talk about what we have heard, to think it through with others.

The Quaker silence turns this upside down. The silence - with any words brought during that - are the place where the insights come. There is time to consider them, to work with them in silence, but then there is time to talk and discuss (if needed).

I should clarify that this list is not a hierarchy. It is not that I used to experience God in one way, and now I have matured and experience Him in a new way. It is that I change, and develop, and add new ways of experiencing God. It is descriptive of my journey, not prescriptive in any sense.

Why Quakerism? I think I have had enough of services, of the songs, the sermons, the prayers, the words. I have heard them all, sung them all, spoken them all, and they are no longer ways that enable me to engage with God. Worship that has none of it is different.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Cancellation - a short story

Mum was furious, of course.

“That’s unprofessional, cancelling at such short notice. What are we expected to do now?” Of course, what she did was work furiously to find someone else. But it was never going to be the same.
I had been looking forward to this for so long, because this was going to be a very special event. I know it was only opening the town fate, but he was going to be here, and I – as mums only daughter – would be in charge of him, look after him for the hours he was around.

Of course, at school, this made me the centre of all attention. Everyone wanted to be my friend – except Jennifer Oswald, if I remember correctly, who though he was a creepy old man. But then, she was never one to go along with the crowd. I looked her up recently, and found that she had taken her own life many years ago. That shook me. I wondered when I read that.

And yes, I loved being the special one for a change. I loved all of the attention being about me – well, about him, but about me being the conduit to him.

When mum told me he had cancelled, my world fell apart. It might have been the last chance I had to meet him – he was doing less these days, and he was rarely on the TV. This was my one chance gone.
Needless to say, the day itself was an embarrassing failure, despite mum finding some soap star who could fill in.

It was a few years later that he died, and it all started. I couldn’t believe it when the rumours started, all those people telling lies about him. Why would they do that? Why would they say that stuff about him, my hero. Why would they tell all them lies about him? He would never do that – he loved kids. I couldn’t understand why so many people wanted to make him out to be a monster. Stupid cows – telling their stories for their minutes of fame.

Of course, now I realise the truth. Now I know what he was, I can see. It’s amazing what hindsight does. Now I realise that I had a lucky escape. I used to think that the weekend was my nightmare when I had missed my chance to meet Jimmy Savile. I now realise that it was my lucky escape from rape, abuse, a nightmare like Jennifer.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

CFS and ME

At a recent visit to my doctors, she raised the possibility that I might have CFS, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, also known as ME or PVFS.  Which, I have to say, sucks big time.

So I have been exploring and considering what this might mean, what CFS might be caused by, at least in my case. I think I have come to an understanding that seems to work for me (and I am not offering any wider perspective, or any clinical perspective).

When I am ill, one of the things my body (and this is common to most people) does is goes to sleep. My mum says that I always used to do that, and I still do, because sleep is a natural healer. Often, when I am ill with a virus or similar, this works because the body has a chance to fight the problem, and I get better after a day or so.

The problem, as I understand it, is when this reaction goes out of control. In PVFS (Post Viral Fatigue Syndrome), the sleep response doesn't stop once the body is capable of handling the remaining infection. I have suffered with this before I think, and eventually I got over it - after three months.

The other time when it can kick in is when the body can tell that it is ill, but sleeping is not the solution. Depression is a case in point, when sleeping is unlikely to improve things. I suspect this is the case for me here, so I am hoping that this will lift given some time.

But this is not to dismiss the fact that ME can be, and often is, very long term - many years. I suspect this is still the same process, but where the response does not die away after time. the body continues to think that it needs to sleep to heal, but it doesn't.

So, that is how it feels. As I said, it is not a clinical assessment, just a representation of how it feels for me.

On a day when I have nothing else to do, I will sleep later than usual (9-9:30), enabling me to do a little bit, but nothing too strenuous. I will eat lunch around midday, and then need another snooze before being able to do a little bit in the afternoon. It is not unknown to be asleep or nearly asleep all afternoon. After tea, the evening is normally OK, but I am not a night owl, usually heading for bed for 10:00 - 11:00.

That has quite an effect on my life. I do manage to work, which is exhausting but satisfying. I know that I am fortunate to manage to work, despite the fact that this takes me out for the evening. What is more, it means that I cannot concentrate for a long period - this means that writing something like this blog is a struggle. Keeping the concentration to compose and type a piece of this is difficult.

"OK so it is just being tired then? I get that when I do too much". Once again, this is missing two of the three letters. The third word is "Syndrome", which just means that nobody really understands what it is about. The other two, that are so often missed are "Chronic" and "Fatigue".

"Chronic" means that it doesn't go away, it doesn't get better with sleep, it is always there, and there is no immediate chance of it going away. It is not just being really tired when you have been busy - it is being tired whether busy or not, whether you have had a good nights sleep or not.

"Fatigue" is not tiredness. It is the ache and struggle to move that comes with a body that wants to stay asleep, to recover, and not to have to move. And it is that ache that comes when you are so tired that your muscles are sore. And this doesn't go away with a bath and sleep.

So yes, it is real, and it is disabling.Over last weekend I was on a retreat, and I discovered what I could do, with no pressure. If I had a nap in the morning, and another one after lunch, I could cope and be gently sociable the rest of the time. I could do some writing and reading with this regime. One day I even managed to go out for a while (I would walk down the garden occasionally). That is about it. That is my ability without getting tired and incapable.

Against that it should be noted that I hold down a full time job. If you have understood that, you might realise just how much this costs me, how much it takes to achieve that and why I can do little else.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

The virginity myth

I read an article some time ago arguing that virginity was, in fact, a myth. I suspect it was related to a book The Purity Myth, but the article did explain all sorts of false ideas about what virginity is and isn't (I would link if I could find it again - sorry). There were two significant factors highlighted:

1. There is no way to tell is a woman has had sex or not. The hymen can be broken in many ways, and can repair or be repaired.

2. Virginity is impossible to define in any meaningful way.

There is a more significant aspect for the purity culture campaigners that I will come onto later, but I want to consider the second point above first.

What is virginity? Does it mean not having had sex - and how do you define sex? If you mean male-female penis/vagina sex, then there are many gay people who are virgins. If you define it in terms of experiencing orgasm then I would suggest you cannot find more than a few teenagers who are virgins - masturbation is a part of growing up. Or are we going to define it as orgasm with another person, meaning that whacking yourself off means you are still a virgin, but getting a hand job from your partner means you aren't? What is the conceptual difference that makes these so different?

Sorry to be so graphic, but it seems important to some people to define virginity, and define it in a way that is very physical. The reality is that it sexual experience is not so easily defined and categorised. For which we should all be grateful.

The truth is, for most people today, this is not a problem. For those who argue that sexual experience should be entirely limited to marriage are firstly condemning newly married couples to some difficult times (if you have spent the last ten or so years resisting sexual desires, how are you expected to suddenly release them? Especially having been told that they are bad, sinful and dirty?) but also condemning those who behave in a more natural way, who learn how to channel their desires properly. What is more, these very ideas are based on completely mistaken scientific and theological concepts (and nothing gets me angry like bad science combined with bad theology). I want to look at a few aspects of this and explore how meaningless they are.

1. Where do babies come from? Today, we have a reasonably good idea of the processes that are required to produce a baby. But there have been a lot of strange ideas about how you get pregnant and how you don't. I have heard, within my lifetime, people arguing that you can't get pregnant the first time you have sex, or unless you have an orgasm. More importantly, there was an idea that the male seed was a baby, and the woman's role was purely to host it as it grew. We know now that both partners play an important role in the generation of a new life, and actually, the female contribution is possibly more significant - a woman releases one egg every month, whereas a man releases millions of sperm in the same period. The male contribution does seem rather more random.

But the idea that the man creates a new life, while the woman simply stores it tends to dismiss women, as so often, into a subservient role. If semen is babies, then it contains life, and should be considered near sacred. If it is merely a half cell, ready to join another half cell and together create life, then it is rather less special. Some of the ideas of sex being only for within marriage and only for creating babies makes a degree of sense within that idea, but if you destroy that idea, it loses a lot of its power. Of course, the patriarchy would not let something like that diminish its control.

2. Mary, the mother of Jesus, has been a controversial figure through history. In the context of this discussion, it is the idea of her "purity" and "perpetual virginity" that is of significance here. She is held up, in her idealised state, as the perfect woman, to whom all women should aspire. The problems are manifold here: firstly, the "idealised" Mary is idealised by men - the male priesthood - and is not a real person; secondly, she cannot be the model for all women, because she is in a specific time and place; thirdly, the idea of her perpetual virginity is a strange one, that doesn't really accord with the biblical stories; finally, her purity is about a poor and dangerous interpretation.

To take the first two together, what we have is powerful men telling women that they should aspire to be their idealised woman. That is at least verging on abusive, and has been used in an abusive way throughout the centuries. This is wrong is every way - this idealised person is a myth, and a dangerous one; the idea that a woman from the first century in Palestine should be the model for all women across the world and across time is peculiar. She was never meant to be a model, and we know so little about her, it is dangerous to use her as such.

Mary is always described as a "virgin", a word that is actually better translated as "a girl of marriageable age". It is more to do with her status and age than her sexual experience, although there is a very high chance that she was sexually inexperienced. Her claim to the angel that "I am still a virgin" was just about saying that she hadn't had intercourse with Joseph, so her pregnancy was not something expected. She was chosen by God not because she was virginal, but because she was willing. She was "pure of heart" because she was young and prepared to accept that God could do something with her. It is more about her attitude than her sexual history.

3. Sex is evil. This is a message that the church has given for so many centuries that it is hard to change the idea.The church has - and does - have a problem with passion and intensity. Sexual activity for pleasure has always been a problem for the church (while accepting, sometimes reluctantly the necessity for reproduction).

There is more than a whiff of gnosticism about this, the separation of "spiritual" from "physical". the problem is not just that this emphasises our spiritual as more important than the physical (which I would broadly concur with), as the fact that it divides them (which I wouldn't). If we separate them, we diminish both sides, we restrict the possibility of the spiritual. In truth, we can find God in the physical, because (in my view at least) if we can't we will not find him anywhere. So yes, it is possible to engage in physical activity - including sexual activity - and not find the spiritual, but I don't think it is possible to find the spiritual without engaging in the physical. That is, to me, the core message of the incarnation.

This is the problem with "purity culture", the idea that we can keep ourselves pure and unsullied until marriage. It diminished marriage, it diminishes sex and it diminishes the spiritual. More than that, it harms people, burdens them with guilt and a sense of dirtiness. It is a form of abuse and control. In the end, it does people more harm - physically, mentally and emotionally as well as spiritually - than any amount of sexual activity is liable to.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Do unto others

Matt 7:12 and Luke 6:31 is one of the often quoted core aspect of Christianity: Do unto others as you would have them do to you. As I was thinking about this recently and realised that it is not as self-effacing as it appears to be, and I had to consider whether this is because it is less altruistic than we understand, or that we need to re-express it in a way that reflects the meaning of the original.

The problem with it is that it focusses on the giver. It says, or implies, that the way the giver wants to be treated is the right thing for everyone. This can be patronising, but - more commonly - it can also be unhelpful. If what I want others to do for me is to leave me alone when I am struggling, then a strict interpretation of this means that I should leave others alone when they are struggling. Of course, not everyone wants to be left alone - some people find it better to have others around them, to be visibly supported. In this case, doing to others would be seen as a negative. Of course, it also works the other way round.

Now I am not suggesting for one moment that we abandon this passage "The Golden Rule" just because it can be misused. I think it is far too important to be simply ignored, rather, we need to work a little harder to properly understand the depth of it. I tend to reject the idea that it is intended as a justification for patronising people, because Jesus explains it as "summing up the law and the prophets", which do not patronise. So I am forced to consider how it should be expressed.

I think it might better be expressed as "Treat others how they wish to be treated, considering how you would wish to be treated in the same circumstances". Not quite as catchy, but changing the emphasis to the receiver, and what they want, not the giver. I might want to simply say "Treat others how they want to be treated", and this is, to my mind, the heart of it, but not the whole. It should involve asking others how they would like to be treated, but, for example, a thief might decide that he wants to be treated as if he wasn't a thief, and be allowed to get away with it. That is not necessarily the best for anyone.

So there is a part which also asks how you would like to be treated in a similar situation. However, this is a secondary consideration, and should be a more general aspect - "with mercy" would be a good answer here. The thief may want to be allowed to go free, but, if I were in a similar situation, I would want to not have to steal any more. I would want to be helped out of the situation I was in that meant I was stealing and had been caught. So punishment is appropriate, but merciful and with a view to redemption, not simply suffering.

We - Christians, the Church, Westerners - are very good at using this sort of passage to inflict our solutions on other people. I do not believe that was the intention,and I don't think that is how it would have been heard originally. The intention is not to focus on you, but to put you in the other persons place, and then to consider how you would feel - if you were actually there, rather than just hypothetically.

It is very easy to say "If I was unemployed, I wouldn't want handouts, I would want people to find me things to do in my lovely spare time". That is hypothetical, and probably not true. It is harder to say "If I was where they are, unemployed and asking for money, I would want someone to give me some money". That is really what it is about, actually putting yourself into their shoes now, at the point of contact.

In the end, it reflects a saying that I hold very close, despite the antiquated and trite language: "There but for the grace of God go I". I have never been able to rephrase this as succinctly, so I stick with this phrasing, and understand it as meaning that I might be in their shoes, were it not for some twists of fate. If I was in their shoes, I would want people to be good and kind to me, in a way that I want, not in a way that they deem is good for my soul.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Opting out

One of the greenbelt talks was by Stephen Oram discussing the question of opting out. And yes, I know that was ages ago, but it takes me a long time to put these thoughts in place sometimes. At the time, it made me think that the idea is a fallacy, because it is actually impossible to opt out.

I am very positive about the idea of opting out, in theory at least. There is some attraction about going "off the grid", cutting dependencies on others - no internet, no television, making your own electricity, recycling everything you can, growing your own food. Actually, I would miss the connection with others, but I would like to make my own electricity, personally recycle stuff more, have less reliance on services. I would also find it a whole lot of hard work, and enjoy not having to do all of this.

The problem I have is that it is only possible to be off grid to a certain extent. I want to identify the things we can do and the ones we can't.

The services are the first thing to try to sort out. Electricity can, if you have a large enough area, generate this from solar panels and wind turbines. Gas we have to do without, but we can heat with wood burners, and cook in a similar way, if we have an appropriate supply. So with a large enough area, this works.

Water we can achieve if we have a stream on our property, so we need to take care at finding the right place. Of course if too many people take water from a stream, it will run dry, so we also need to collect rainwater, and use this where possible. The other service, telephone and internet, is impossible to get without paying, so we either have to accept this or do without this. It is, of course, possible to have no phone or internet, but then you would not be able to read this.

Sewage can be dealt with by recycling the water having cleaned it up enough for some purposes. Recycling the excrement as fertiliser can be achieved with a little work - a dry closet does this, apparently. So the services can be attended to.

Food can be grown, if you are prepared to harvest and deal with it yourself. That is a large amount of work, but, assuming that you are not working outside your home, this should not be a basic challenge

The problem with this is that it has too narrow a scope. Which is a strange thing to say given that it seems to require a lot of planning and organisation. However, the aim is to "opt out", to remove oneself from a dependency on  a society that we might reject (for any reason).

Firstly, I presume that there is a house on the property, which has been built using resources from the society. This could be avoided if you choose to build the house yourself, but somewhere in that, there is likely to be some external dependency. Can you build a house yourself without using facilities from outside? It can be done by skip diving, but this is not opting out, this is depending on other peoples rubbish. If you use tradespersons, they are external resources that are needed.

An existing property has all of this already inherent in the location. This is opting out only for the now, using what has been created already. This is like being homeless for a few weeks, and thinking you know what it is like. It is one of the things that irritates me about the "sleep-out" events. One night sleeping out is a bit of fun. Every night is not. Claiming to be opting out, while still relying on what others have done is short-term opting out.

The other problem is that your little property cannot exclude itself from being part of the UK. If, as an example, the locals rivers are managed to not flood, then your property benefits from this work. Similarly, if it does flood, you can rely on the emergency services to assist. If someone is ill, you can take advantage of the NHS. Those aspects of "society" that do not affect us directly and imminently are easy to ignore, but they are still there, still aspects that you are engaged with. If the country is threatened from outside, the government will not point to your smallholding and say "you can invade there, they are opting out" - you are still reliant on the military, however much you might disapprove of them.

To me, this is the core problem with trying to "opt out". There are some aspects which are comparatively easy to avoid, with some thought and planning. But opting out of "society" is a whole lot harder. I think this is why I don't choose to opt out, rather I choose to be involved and try to change. That is not an implied criticism, just the way that I choose to go.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Evangelising England

OK, so this was announced last week Evangelising England.

To which I let out a resigned sigh. 
To those who don't know me - and probably some of those who do -  this may well sound like I have rejected Christianity, and don't want people to get to know Jesus. That could not be further from the truth.

I am a passionate believer that people need to know Jesus, need to engage with the Divine, need to find faith, find spiritual truth and reality that engages them and drives them and fires them on.

I am a passionate believer that we, as Christians, need to talk to others about what we believe, discuss with them, engage with them about faith - ours and theirs.

The reason I sigh is that the Church of England as a system and structure has done so much damage to these conversation over the last few years. The damage has been done mainly with the farce over Women Bishops and the constant and continuing hand-washing over sexuality. The messages that these have sent out - very publicly - are that women are just about tolerated and that anything other than heterosexuality is an abomination to God. The recent suspension of ECUSA over this issue is a clear demonstration of the feeling from the church system.

Now I know that there are many Anglican churches that strongly support women in all roles. There are many churches who are less interested in peoples sexuality than their humanity. The problem is that the general public perception of what Christianity means is set by the more public statements. There is a perception that Christianity is anti-women and anti-homosexuality. This is not helped by some of the more fundamentalist reports coming from the US and (sometimes) supported by people in the UK. The impression given is, although we are very British, and are not going to shout and rave like the Americans do, British Christians are also very much the same.

This statement is likely to have a number of effects:

1. All sorts of money and resources will be poured into ineffective, outdated "evangelism" campaigns.
2. Some of the larger, more conservative churches will push their agenda again, and there will be embarrassments.
3. For a few people, in a few places, the negative impressions that the Church of England has given over the last few years will be undone.

Of course, there is a view that not giving total support to any activity that you define as "evangelism" makes the baby Jesus cry. In truth, some of these activities make him cry - both in sadness and laughing.

I am all for evangelism. I am all for telling people the good news. But the starting point today is to undo so much of the damage caused by the Church of England as an organisation. And then it is to engage and listen. And then to change and accept and embrace others, to move to being where they are, to be the presence of God for them.

Yes, I am all for evangelism. That is why I sigh at the statement, because I suspect, in many cases, this will put back the work once again.

Monday, 25 January 2016


The BBC had a discussion about the significance of Saga Noren from the superb Nordic Noir series The Bridge, the third series of which has (as I start writing this) just finished (and has been, once again, utterly superb, disconcerting and shocking). However, I think there are more reasons why Saga has been so significant and popular, that has nothing to do directly with her gender.

I think one reason she is popular is that she is not the usual autistic character. Actually, as is often pointed out, she does not have an autistic diagnosis, but this seems to be something like what she has. Her problems of engaging with other people and expressing her emotions indicate something of that nature.

The thing is, she is not the usual autistic savant. We have seen some of these, and they are often well done, good characters. People like The Mentalist, and Sherlock show some of these traits too. Their oddities are usually accepted because they are brilliant at solving problems. Saga is a superb detective, but not on that level, so she is tolerated and accepted for her oddities. In this series, she comes up against someone who is less accepting of her peculiarities.

But Saga is also very aware of her shortcomings. She knows - has become aware over the series - of those areas she is less than optimal at. She is seen, in this series, to be trying hard at improving her performance in some of these areas. She is a fallible human being, she sometimes makes mistakes, and her character is very hard on herself for making mistakes.

I think what is so appealing about her is that she is so vulnerable. She faces, in the third series, the reality that she could be perceived as a problem, that her peculiarities may not be fully countered by her skills (which are part of her autism-like nature). She is made to see, to a greater degree than previously, her frailty, and we see her through these eyes too. Unlike the savants, who we sometimes feel need taking down a peg or two, we feel sorry for her, because she is human, she is struggling with a psychological disorder, and at this time, her disability is proving more significant than her talent. That is a very human, very real insight into her. It is a real insight into every persons failings, every persons potential failure.

For me, the real reason that Saga is popular is that she shows us how vulnerable we are, how odd we might seem, how close to losing it all we all are. I know that I want to give her a hug, because I feel her pain, feel her struggle to comprehend.

Saturday, 16 January 2016


Since Christmas, we have lost two giants of music - Lemmy and Bowie. There has been an interesting meme on Facebook with the title "This is what you get when you pay for music" with pictures of Lemmy and Bowie, and "This is what you get when you don't pay" with pictures of One Direction and Ed Sheeran.

Actually, I have to admit, I quite like some of Ed Sheeran's work. But the point is made.

One of the problems with shows like X-Factor, and The Voice are that they focus on commercial success. I am not one to dismiss commercial success as such, but these days, commercial success is the antithesis of musical freedom and creativity. One of the best x-factor winners - in terms of her vocal ability - was Alexandria Burke. I watched that series, and I loved her voice, but in all of the music that I have heard her record since, there has been nothing of that talent shown. Yes, she has had success, but at the cost of her musical integrity. That is a sad loss. there are suggestions that last years winner, Lousia Johnson has some talent as well, but she is unlikely to do well from being involved. Especially as she failed to get the Christmas Number One. If Simon Cowell cares about anything, it is success, and she has failed to provide him with what he wants.

I remember when Steve Brookstein had won the first x-Factor, which was a surprise, and the following year he made a comment that "at last I am free of the contract". I was as cynical as most others, that he was apparently "glad" to be free of a £1M contract, the largest that he will probably ever get. Today, I think he may have had a point - having a binding contract to produce Cowell-Musak is only the dream of people who can sing, not of singers.

When I was younger, in the 1970s/80s, most bands would produce records to sell and make money. That was how they made money, and to do this, they needed a recording contract. There were all sorts of record labels - the independents - who would pick up bands they felt had something and would produce their music for them. Bands would go on tour to promote their record sales, and would often  make a loss on the tour, which would be made up for by increased sales.

All of that has changed - partly for the better, but partly for the worse. Today, getting your music out there is so much easier, with the internet, BandCamp, YouTube and suchlike. However, nobody can make a living making music and selling it any more. The downside is that it is no longer the music that is so important. Musicians can only make money by touring and performing, which means that it is no longer the music that is so crucial as the "performance".

Now Bowie, in particular, was a performer maybe over anything else. However, I don't think Cowell and his like would embrace that style of performance. It is not just Cowell, it is the majority of the music industry, and Cowell is the public face of this. It is a particular style and form of performance that is expected and needed. I listen to Heart radio on my commute - mainly for the traffic news. I used to listen to Vibe, another local station, with (possibly) better traffic news. The problem is that both of them play a lot of Cowell-Musak, and it is very hard to tell them apart. When you look at them, they all look identical (Maybe the numbers or the hair are different, that is about all). This is the music that makes money, so if you want to make money in the music business, this is what you have to produce.

As I am writing this, I am listening to a BBC documentary on Bowie, and they have got to the Heroes section. This song - maybe my favourite Bowie song - combines him with Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, two other musical geniuses. I don't think, in the current musical environment, any of these would be able to find a start or a role in the music business.

That is my problem with the era of "what you get when you don't pay". It will continue to give you what you had last time. Because of this, radical new talent that doesn't fit into the accepted commercial categories has a far more difficult time to get attention and any degree of "success". While success is not the be all of music, if you can't make something out of it, musicians will stop producing.

We will never see another David Bowie or Lemmie. Not least, this is because people that different would never get a way into the business. In truth, this is the real sadness of the Cowell influence in the music industry. He has destroyed the real creativity in it. That is why the genius of Bowie will not be seen in that business again. Today, such people have to find a new outlet.