Wednesday, 21 September 2016

An Olympic cautionary dose

When I was at school, we all knew that the most unjust type of sanction was collective punishment – you know the sort: when the whole class is kept in detention for one person’s misdemeanour. It’s the last resort of the ineffective teacher. “I know someone’s been smoking in here, and if they don’t own up in the next minute, I shall keep the whole class back after school until I get the name.”

I remember well the first time I was on the receiving end of this sort of sanction. I have no idea what the offence was. I was still in junior school and I remember the class being lined up at the top of the basement stairs, prior to being marched down to have the cane administered by the ex-army-captain headmaster. In fact, I’m ashamed to say, I was so scared I feigned sickness and avoided my fate and so was launched into a propensity to intelligent deceit. I did later get my fair share of rapped knuckles from Fido, the length of quadrant wielded by my moustachioed Maths teacher.
Graphic showing estimated civilian casualties in WW2, Memorial Civiles

When we were away on holiday in France this summer, we visited the moving Memorial Civils museum in Falaise which records the civilian cost of World War 2. There was an exhibit there which listed something like 20 men from a village, taken to concentration camp, after German military trains had twice been blown up nearby by the resistance. One man came back. A pattern repeated thousands of time in war, no doubt. The museum reminded us that our Soviet allies lost 36 million civilians in the defeat of Nazism, far more than the rest of Europe put together. Which is, by the way, one reason why I consider our officially sponsored populist anti-Russian narrative so misconceived.

You may surmise from this that I rate collective punishment as a very low form of life. And I was sorry when the Olympic authorities, almost, and the Paralympic totally imposed a blanket ban on athletes from the Russian federation. It seemed to me a denial of natural justice. Whatever the rights and wrong of the McLaren report of state sponsored doping in Russia, it’s clear that some innocent athletes were barred from competing by the bans, and I suspect guilty ones from elsewhere competed, perhaps making intelligently deceitful use of TUEs (Therapeutic Use Exemptions).

Whatever the case, it seems that the whole affair was hurriedly and clumsily mismanaged – which of course worked to GB’s advantage. True, GB did wonderfully well in both Olympics and Paralympics in Rio, and their medal haul exceeded even the London Games. But then they would have won more, wouldn’t they, with their main competitor for second, third or fourth place removed from the picture? I wouldn’t want in any way to rain on their parades. They deserve our very great admiration, but let’s keep it in perspective and hope that by 2020 Russia will be back in the mix.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Saturday 30th July 1966

Fifty years ago today, I was in Istanbul. I remember it clearly because we called in at the consulate there to hear the result of the World Cup Final from Wembley, before crossing the Bosporus to camp on the eastern side.

I was in my teens then. One brother was doing a gap year in Iran. Another was doing post-graduate studies in Jerusalem, and the third was mid-degree at Cambridge. At the end of the war my father, an RAF chaplain, had been posted in Palestine where he worked in the Moral Leadership School based in Jerusalem. During that time he had acquired a unique knowledge of Biblical topography. Among other things in her busy life my mother had been bringing up four boys in the post-war years. My Cambridge brother had the crazy idea for using his long vacation: how about the family in the UK driving overland to Jordan, meeting the other two in Jerusalem, and then returning via Israel and Greece?

There were a number of complications, although none as big as they'd be today. It was mainly a matter of getting all the necessary visas and not letting on that we were visiting Israel (as even then the surrounding Arab countries would not have let us through had they seen an Israeli visa on our passports). It was the year before the Six Day War. There was one big problem. We had the car, a shiny black Consul 375, a roof rack, a tent, a home-made awning which could be attached to the roof rack - but we had zero mechanical know-how between us. However we did have a good family friend, Peter, a post-graduate engineer, who knew more than we did, and although he couldn't afford holiday for the whole trip, he would accompany us on the outward journey. My brother from Iran would take his place on the return leg.

The car stood up to the journey pretty well. I think we broke down first on a German autobahn, then in northern Yugoslavia (as it was), had its exhaust replaced in Ankara (very efficiently) and lastly was driven into a ditch by a friendly local lad while we were walking through Hezekiah's Tunnel in East Jerusalem. In Yugoslavia our breakdown was enlivened by a local boy with a crewcut and big grin - perhaps barely eleven - whose conversation on finding we were English largely consisted of naming all the England football team, "Bobby Charlton (rolling the 'r'), Bobby Moore, Jacky Charlton, Gordon Banks...." He knew them better than us. We had no car radio, but we did discover England had reached the final, and so we made for the consulate on Saturday 30th July 1966, to discover that England had won.

There are many tales to be told of that eventful journey, but talking about it today with the brother who masterminded it we reflected how different, indeed how impossible it would be now. I think we drove through Holland, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia (now Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia), Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan to Jerusalem; and, having crossed to Israel, by boat to Greece, Yugoslavia (now Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia), Italy, Switzerland and France. Bulgaria I remember as quite militarised, along with the ox carts. My brother was chatted up by a drunk Syrian "prince" when we were camping outside Damascus, our friend had his film confiscated after taking a photo of an Italian WW2 aeroplane in Lebanon and I was ordered out of the car at the Jordanian border in order to see whether my hair was too long. I still wonder if they would have given me a number one on the spot. Apparently I passed. But that was the sum of our difficulties. Oh yes, and we got soaked in Austria, eventually resorting to a hotel in Vienna, the Roter Hahn, who were understandably dubious about these bedraggled individuals dressed for camping rather than sightseeing. In the end they gave us a room. And then on the return journey crossing the Mediterranean rough enough for seasickness my father dubbed our converted coaster ferry, the Black Hole of Calcutta, with so many crammed in cabins and on the deck.

BBC Exodus : Our Journey to Europe
Jane and I have just been watching the BBC's moving trio of programmes called Exodus: Our Journey to Europe. The description read, "In 2015, we gave cameras to some of the people who smuggled themselves into Europe, to record where no-one else can go. The result is a terrifying, intimate, epic portrait of the migration crisis." Many of the places were where we had travelled 50 years ago. Through Europe borders are closed or manned by armed border guards, which to my memory only seriously occurred in the Middle East on our trip. Now central Europe is struggling to cope with the desperate migrants and the fear of terrorism. And of course after the coup Turkey is no longer the relaxed welcoming place we knew. No way would or could we cross Syria, that poor war-shattered country. What a mess we have unleashed! How different from the order of 1966!

And our discomforts were less than nothing when we watch the refugees ruthlessly exploited by the people smugglers, loaded into overcrowded inadequate boats to face the Mediterranean, trudging through all weathers for mile after mile, being refused entry to countries, struggling for survival in "The Jungle", fleeced by con men. What has happened to progress, to the optimism of evolution? When the media have not been preoccupied with Brexit and the turmoil of domestic politics, they have used the First World War to fill up spare hours and pages. "The war to end all wars". A hundred years on the world is as violent and war-torn as ever. 

So today, I'll not be madly celebrating what the BBC, in its customary hyperbolic style, this morning dubbed "the greatest day in British sporting history", but reflecting instead on the folly as well as the goodness of human nature.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Anniversary ambitions

This week we celebrated our wedding anniversary. One effect (bonus?) of having a condition like MND is that such occasions take on extra significance. If you have one, you'll know what I mean. As every new day is a gift, so every landmark occasion reached is also a gift. One of the things our local MND Association branch has done for a year or two is send a cheque at New Year to people with MND in the county to spend however they want. It's a lovely gesture, since normally one's preoccupied with the mundane matters of disability.

Emily Watkins (Kingham Plough website)
From the Kingham Plough newsletter
When I received my gift in January, I knew how I wanted to spend it. One of our sons' friend had been involved in filming The Great British Menu and so we had watched it. The chef nearest to us in 2014 was Emily Watkins from The Plough in Kingham, and she won the regional round and in the final week her fish dish was chosen for the war veterans' banquet. As far as one could tell from TV, not only did she cook beautiful food but she also seemed a nice person. One day, I thought, I'd like to take Jane for a meal at her pub.....

What better excuse than a wedding anniversary meal? The whole day exceeded our expectations. It helped that the drive took us through the Cotswolds north of Burford; it helped that the day was sunny; it helped of course that it was our anniversary and we were still in love.

We were shown a table inside near the bar, but decided to sit outside in the sun. We ordered our first course - for me, smoked sea trout "Wellington"; for Jane, home-made coppa with broad bean and radish salad and three times cooked potato wedges. The bread, while we waited, was, I imagine, artisan-baked, delicious. We were surprised and delighted when Emily brought out the smoked sea trout. I'm not a gourmet or a food critic, and I have never come face-to-face with food quite this beautiful.
I won't play the TV critic by analysing the ingredients and flavour combinations, but you can see it - and you'll have to take it from me, it tasted as good as it looked. The Wellington itself had the fish itself at the centre, minced off-cuts (I think), then seared chard leaves and finally the thinnest pastry I've ever come across. It added to my enjoyment when Emily emerged from the kitchen to ask how I'd enjoyed it. She told us it was a new dish. She had had 20 goes at perfecting it - and this was the first time she'd been satisfied enough to serve it to a customer. Wow! I thought. I assured her it was brilliant. Sadly I wasn't with it enough to get a picture of us with her...!
Our puddings - sorry, desserts - were lemon posset with granola (Jane) and strawberry soufflé with clotted cream custard (me). And of course they too were lovely. So we drove home with a warm glow inside and out. 

To cap our day we spent the evening with old friends and new friends at our local coffee shop, Cornerstone, for the occasional meeting dubbed Face2Face. We shared food (again!) and music or poetry which meant something to each of us. My choice was Liszt's Les Préludes, which I first heard with Jane at an open-air concert at Kenwood House 44 years ago, intensely romantic and spiritual. Jane chose a song which resonates more with our present situation, Laura Story's Blessings, which asks questions about the mystery of unanswered prayer. She doesn't give definite answers, but keeps asking, "What if...?" To end with, Mary read a version of the Hungarian writer, Útmutató a Léleknek's often quoted/plagiarised parable, Do you believe in mother? And Pete prayed.

A rather, a very, good day - we slept gratefully and well.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

We should be angry

I was at a meeting on Thursday, discussing social media. I happened to say to someone there how hard it was to express our negative thoughts together to God. And then came along a third major atrocity in France within 18 months. 
Back at home, I heard that 84 people, including 10 children, had been killed by a man repeatedly driving a lorry into a crowd watching a Bastille Day fire​work display in Nice. At the time of writing, 54 children lie in hospital fighting for their lives. And so-called ISIS gloat over one of their "soldiers" committing an act of such deluded barbarity. How can we tell God how awful it is? How dreadful and demonic? How much we hate it? Are we allowed to? Can we find words that match the moment? Well, I think we may, we should and we can.

Photo: Huffington Post twitter
In the days when psalms were a regular part of daily Anglican worship, I've never once heard the most difficult one sung or said in its entirety. It's Psalm 137. It's one of several laments which come in the book of ​Psalms - the Jewish hymn book. It expresses the most raw pain and anger of any worship song I know.
Here it is:
By the waters of Babylon,
    there we sat down and wept,
    when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
    we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
    required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 
How shall we sing the Lord's song
    in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right hand forget its skill! 
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
    above my highest joy!
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
    the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
    down to its foundations!”
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
    blessed shall he be who repays you
    with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
    and dashes them against the rock!

It seems so unChristian, doesn't it? Especially those last lines. And yet... and yet, to be candid, that is the way that we feel in our inner, secret depths. "Give them exactly what they dealt out to us and our loved ones." That's natural justice. ​​​​It's a cry of utmost pain. It's how much it hurts - or it should be. It's appropriate.​ For a time anyway. And if it is​ what we feel, then pretending to God that we don't is pretty pointless. ​​Perhaps it would be good at times like this to share this psalm, even say it together, and then listen to familiar words of Jesus in Matthew 5:
 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven…" 
And then be quiet for a very long time.

Monday, 27 June 2016

After the referendum diagnosis

I've been trying to explain my feelings this weekend. "Depressed" is what I said to one person on  Sunday morning. But that's not quite the right word. I think the best I can do is an analogy.

When I was diagnosed with a motor neurone disorder (MND), I was shocked. Thereafter I was living in a new world, a world I hadn't and would never have chosen, a world I really did not like. I knew some things about it, such as it would be life-limiting. The chances were that I would die quite soon, though I might just possibly be lucky and live a long time like Stephen Hawking, a life of ever increasing dependence and frustration. Whatever happened, my world was completely changed, and would affect not only me, but also my family, my friends and my colleagues. My job would be affected; my future would be different. It wasn't a pleasant prospect; it didn't promise better things. And I lived under that cloud for some time.

It's true that for me not all my worst fears have been realised. I'm still alive fourteen years later, for a start. But I've had to give up my job; my life is very prescribed. I'm very much a spectator and not a participant in what's going on. It's not that I feel sorry for myself (much). But I do know a melancholy disappointment at the increase in my isolation. And sometimes that initial cloud returns. I wouldn't say life is better now than before my MND, though it is still life and I'm still grateful to be able to enjoy it. As a family, we've just had one of those events which give me joy.

Among the good things some have arisen from ending up in a wheelchair. Not that I'd not far rather be able-bodied. It hurts like mad not being able to go with Jane on walks on the hills, along the coast, exploring cities.... It hurts a lot that Jane's life has to revolve around my needs and demands. I hate that she has to dress, drive, clean, push, cook, virtually do everything for me. But at least now I know what it feels like. So, I think, I have more empathy with the many disabled and discriminated against people in the world. And of course more understanding of facing an incurable illness. Those are good, if hard, things. Of course I don't know what lies ahead. Physically things won't get better for me. And I'm under no illusions that the NHS which has cared for me so extraordinarily well will suddenly receive a life-giving injection of cash as a result of departing the EU - the opposite, I fear.

So, after Thursday, I'm living in a new world, not one I chose, not one I like, but I shall have to come to terms with it. It's revealed a diagnosis of a fractured, disunited kingdom, with propensities to greed and hatred, and a national body whose parts are severely, if not terminally, out of sync with each other. I'm afraid I'm unable to share some people's jubilation about it. I don't share acquaintances' delight and conviction that "we have been saved by praying women". However, I've no doubt we shall survive and find some good redeemed from the sad mess of the past month (indeed years). I trust so, although I fear for too many it will bring only pain and grief. That's how I feel.

So it doesn't really help to tell me to pull myself together or to tell me that it will all be for the best. Nor that it's God's will - or his judgment. Just possibly you might be right, but it's not awfully helpful.

Friday, 24 June 2016

After the ball is over

This post is, to be honest, for my own therapy.

At shortly before six this morning Jane turned on the radio and we heard the end of the all-night referendum broadcast and the news that the Leave campaign had won a slim majority. The United Kingdom would leave the EU. My stomach sank as the markets had done. Well, I don't want to bore anyone with my disappointment. However, I was uncharacteristically moved when David Cameron announced that he would in due course resign and I wasn't unduly surprised to see Nigel Farage soon rowing back on the £35 million a week to the NHS promise of the Brexit battlebus ("It was a mistake").

Many, though not all, my friends on Facebook expressed their shock, shame, sadness and even anger over the outcome. I was particularly sorry for the younger generation whom I think have been let down. A YouGov poll indicated that they overwhelmingly wanted to remain:
I can do no better than apologise to my children and their generation. (Our district, if it's any consolation, voted for remaining in by a majority of 13%.) However I suspect that this country will become and feel very different in the years to come, less open, less friendly and less tolerant. Less European - and I regret that. I devoutly hope that our vote will not unleash a wave of nationalism across the continent, but I fear it will, and that would be more than tragic.

The final word I will leave with a good friend who cares about people: "Heavy feeling everywhere. Son in law up all night worrying about the markets; next door neighbour in street worrying about mortgage. I feel a deep wistfulness for 18s to 25s, 70% in favour of remain; shame before Poles and Romanians, who work cheerfully and hard at jobs many of us would turn up our noses at; fear for the most vulnerable immigrant communities, who must understand this message, especially asylum seeker friend of mine in the country for 13 years and more and still without permission to stay. Also a shamed awe before the forgotten working classes in outer estates, forgotten by people like me in our leafy suburbs, who have no one speaking up for them, in many ways completely helpless before a world not on their side, except for this act of political vandalism, that ultimately won't help them. 'The weight of this sad time we must obey' (Lear)."

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

I am voting REMAIN

I'm a bit upset to find that my post in which I expressed my doubts about the EU has widely been taken as an indication that I was in favour of Brexit. It is true that I was leaning that way, but all in the end I said was that "I ha'e my doots". Since then I have clearly said that I am going to vote to Remain. That however has not had such wide circulation.

So I want to make my position quite clear. As the final days of the campaign have unfolded, the barely disguised racism and xenophobia of the Brexiteers has more than saddened me, appealing as it does to the basest tribal instincts in us. Moreover, although they talk about the fear tactics of the Remain campaign (with a modicum of justice), their scaremongering is even worse. As a Christian one of things that most saddens me is to hear other Christians implying that the middle-east refugee crisis is an Islamic plot to flood "Christian Europe" with Muslims, and thus imperil the Church in this country. The corollary of this that they would choose a religion-based immigration policy (similar to Donald Trump's "no Muslim" policy). It seems to me that this totally fails to see the fact that the refugees are not seeking to invade but to escape unimaginable destruction and suffering caused in part by so-called Christian powers. It seems to me utterly inhumane. It's also a failure of faith in  Christ's promise that not even the gates of hell would prevail against his Church.

That is to say nothing of the immorality of the Brexit cure-all for immigration, the quota system. This is based on a points system such as the one used in Australia, which is designed to limit entrance to those with skills that are needed here. Skills like doctors, nurses, teachers, for example. Sounds sensible - until you take the trouble to think of the consequences for the émigrés' nations. These will generally be poor and developing countries who have funded these professionals' training and who need their skills more than we do. In fact their development depends on such people far more than on aid. What the quota system does is contribute to increasing the rich/poor divide in the world. It is the epitome of unneighbourliness.

It is a pity, it seems to me, that we have not heard more of the positive reasons to remain, which I briefly alluded to previously. The best summary I have come across is this.

"We are convinced that working together is vital for our human family. Our vision is for a world where all people live in peace with the opportunity to thrive. We believe that Britain’s membership of the European Union is a key way we can help make that happen. Here are five reasons why:
1. Peace and security. The European Union was established in the aftermath of two world wars to build and maintain peace in Europe. In 70 years, it has made European war unimaginable by bringing together leaders in co-operation, not conflict. Against the borderless threat of terror, the people of Europe are stronger together. By remaining in the EU, Britain will not only continue to be a part of this project but help lead it.
2. Community. Through our membership of the EU, Britain belongs to a community that crosses national borders to work for our mutual benefit. A community that celebrates inclusion and diversity enriches all its members.
3. The environment. Climate change and air pollution do not stop at borders. Every nation needs to take action to tackle them and protect our environment worldwide. The EU has taken a strong lead through binding agreements that commit its members to specific action leading to lasting change. Our membership of the EU has the welfare of all humanity in its sights by protecting the planet that is our common home.
4. Human dignity and social justice. The EU was founded on a strong emphasis on the solidarity that promotes and protects human rights. By being part of the EU, many basic rights we now take for granted have been protected. The EU also stands up for justice for those outside the EU, for example in relation to international development and human trafficking, matters that can only be tackled with international cooperation.
5. Prosperity. Inside a free trade area with access to its markets, British businesses – small and large – are able to export goods and to prosper. Millions of jobs have been created, and hundreds of billions of pounds of investment have helped strengthen our economy." (from Christians for Europe)
That the future of the planet could be affected might seem far-fetched, and yet it is true that global warming knows no boundaries. A friend, Martin Hodson, who's a leader in environmental studies, wrote this, "I work a lot in this area, and the EU has been very good for the environment. We need to work together to tackle problems like climate change." 
I watched John Snow interviewing the war veteran, Franklin Medhurst, on Channel 4 last night. His message was clear. He wrote it in a moving letter to the Guardian. 
"It is helpful to be old, for in my lifetime I have seen world population increase threefold; a stable seasonal climate become wildly unstable with drought, forest fires and floods; the pollution by humanity of the planet’s earth, air and waters to a stage where all life is threatened; and violence become a permanent, continuous tragedy in a world of great uncertainty.

The only stable community in this universal upheaval has been the European Union, formed from the wreckage of a continent for which I and millions of others fought six years of war. I write as a former airman, having flown well over 2,000 hours against three despotic enemy nations. That victory for the democracies has given Europe 70 years of peace and security in a widely unstable world. The “leave” chancers are campaigning to abandon this steady progress, citing values false or irrelevant, while they have no plan of what to do after jumping ship.
If the nation should fall for this deceit I can only conclude that the lives of my comrades – Irish, Scots, Welsh and English – were lost in vain. They will be rattling their bones, wherever in the world they fell, at the loss of the beliefs for which they fought.
Britain in Europe will enhance progress to higher values in the greater world; Britain out means a return to the early-20th-century chaos of warring states against each other.
I am 96. I remember how far we have come. I know what we stand to lose.
Franklin Medhurst, DFC (RAF 1939-46)
Carlton, County Durham"
It seems to me tragic that so many are now wishing the break-up of the union that rose from the ashes of two dreadful wars and has been the basis for peace and stability since then. I know it is dressed up in jingoistic language, like taking back control and Britain being great again. But actually it is such a little vision. As the great poet said, "No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in MankindAnd therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." The fact is that Europe needs us - and we need Europe. It's not that the EU is perfect. No one on either side of the Channel believes that. So we need to be a part of it in order to be part of the discussions which will contribute to its reform and improvement, for our neighbours' and for our own sake. We will be better remaining together. 
Hence I shall be voting that we Remain.