Monday, 26 December 2011

The Queen's Speech

With Jane out of action, the A team did a sterling job on Christmas lunch yesterday. We lingered over the turkey and trimmings with Château Capville  2009, and the sherry trifle and mince pies. One result was that we watched the Queen's Christmas address after 3 o'clock. However in my opinion it was worth waiting for. You can watch it here. I gather it's all her own work, without political advisers interfering. Perhaps it was an illusion fostered by the fact that Prince Philip was in Papworth Heart Hospital while the broadcast went out (obviously it had been filmed some time ago), and perhaps because Jane and I have been extra aware of the fragility of life, but to me there was a sense of the Queen wanting to record her most urgent message while she could.
It was nicely constructed, reminiscing over the royals' past year in which they'd seen extreme hardship in Australia and New Zealand and South Wales, and the response of courage. It reflected on the strength of friendship and family, mentioning the her two grandchildren's weddings. Its conclusion, somewhat flinched at by the press, was uncompromising and uncoded, simple and profound:
"For many, this Christmas will not be easy. With our armed forces deployed around the world, thousands of service families face Christmas without their loved ones at home.
"The bereaved and the lonely will find it especially hard. And, as we all know, the world is going through difficult times. All this will affect our celebration of this great Christian festival.
"Finding hope in adversity is one of the themes of Christmas. Jesus was born into a world full of fear. The angels came to frightened shepherds with hope in their voices: 'Fear not', they urged, 'we bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 
"'For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord.'

"Although we are capable of great acts of kindness, history teaches us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves - from our recklessness or our greed.
"God sent into the world a unique person - neither a philosopher nor a general, important though they are, but a Saviour, with the power to forgive.
"Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God's love.
"In the last verse of this beautiful carol, O Little Town Of Bethlehem, there's a prayer:
O Holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us we pray.
Cast out our sin
And enter in.
Be born in us today.

"It is my prayer that on this Christmas day we might all find room in our lives for the message of the angels and for the love of God through Christ our Lord."
"Neither a philosopher nor a general... but a Saviour with the power to forgive" - that is strong stuff. It's not PC, but yet it's true. "Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith" and it is able to heal families, friendships and communities, and, as her Majesty's prayer implies, it is not something endemic to humanity, but something given through Jesus Christ. Well said, Ma'am! 

And thank you, family, for a wonderfully lovely Christmas.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Christmas thoughts from my chair

While there seems to be determined effort in some quarters to remove the Christian message out of Christmas, such as items about trend towards secular carol concerts citing Raymond Gubbay's 120 Christmas concerts nationwide, not mentioning the astonishing fact that last year 41% of Londoners attended carol services, there was a welcome exception on BBC's Countryfile last night, which created a traditional village celebration with none of the sceptical airbrushing that we've become accustomed to. The Christian elements of the festival were straightforwardly explored, from the star to the God pie (three-cornered mince pie representing the Trinity) to the animals. It was thoroughly uncynical and refreshing. Thank you, BBC.

Coincidentally on Friday night David Cameron had hit a raw nerve with some in a speech in Oxford marking the 400th anniversary of the Authorised Version of the Bible, in which he talked about the importance of the Christian heritage of our country. He also said it was "easier for people to believe and practise other faiths when Britain has confidence in its Christian identity". "Why? Because the tolerance that Christianity demands of our society provides greater space for other religious faiths too.""Many people tell me it is much easier to be Jewish or Muslim here in Britain than it is in a secular country like France," he said. "And because many of the values of a Christian country are shared by people of all faiths and indeed by people of no faith at all."  

Sadly the speech wasn't quoted on the Radio 4 news that night, only a predictable sound-bite from humanist ex-MP, Evan Harris, saying that restating our Christian history was divisive of religious groups - and anyway such ethical principles as "Do to others what you'd like them to do to you" predate all religions by thousands of years. Of course he adduced no evidence for his view, merely that they were rational principles. (Isn't reason God-given anyway?) He's quite wrong, of course, about the divisiveness of a distinctively Christian stance. When I taught in a multi-racial school in Oxford, it happened to be a Church of England school, founded by the Cowley Fathers to bring education to the poor areas of East Oxford. (The Christian contribution to education and in social involvement, by the way, is something often ignored or airbrushed out by faith's detractors.) Significantly ours was the school of choice for local Muslims, because they preferred a school where faith in God mattered to one with no religion. We used to enjoy our 6th-form assemblies in which Christian, Muslim, atheist, black, brown and white shared and discussed their faiths. Divisive? You're joking!

For someone who has no faith in God, it's a simple mistake to make imagining that different faiths can't coexist harmoniously. (It's also a lie fraught with danger, if not inciting hatred.) For many centuries they did so in the near middle east, as William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain beautifully records. And just last week I read this fascinating news item from Jerusalem:
"This holiday season, many evangelical Christians and their families are using the Hanukah Tree Topper and Star of David Tree Topper to crown their Christmas trees. The idea was the brainchild of Morri and Marina Chowaiki who have sold many thousands of the decorative 'menorahments' after making one to put on top of their own Christmas tree because they couldn’t find one in any store. The couple say that they have received many orders from people who want a symbol of Israel and peace on their tree and have received, 'tons of positive feedback.'"
There's a trenchant (and often misquoted) comment by Ben Stein, inter al speech writer for Richard Nixon, which was broadcast on CBS on 18th December 2005.
"Here at this happy time of year, a few confessions from my beating heart:

"I have no freaking clue who Nick and Jessica are (US reality TV "couple"). I see them on the cover of People and Us constantly when I'm buying my dog biscuits. I still don't know. I often ask the checkers at the grocery stores who they are. They don't know who Nick and Jessica are, either. Who are they? Will it change my life if I know who they are and why they've broken up? Why are they so darned important?

"I don't know who Lindsay Lohan is either, and I don't care at all about Tom Cruise's baby.

"Am I going to be called before a Senate committee and asked if I'm a subversive? Maybe. But I just have no clue who Nick and Jessica are. Is this what it means to be no longer young? Hm, not so bad.

"Next confession: I am a Jew and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish, and it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautifully lit-up, bejeweled trees Christmas trees.

"I don't feel threatened. I don't feel discriminated against. That's what they are — Christmas trees. It doesn't bother me a bit when people say 'Merry Christmas' to me. I don't think they're slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it. It shows that we're all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year.

"It doesn't bother me one bit that there's a manger scene on display at a key intersection at my beach house in Malibu.

"If people want a creche, fine. The menorah a few hundred yards away is fine, too. I do not like getting pushed around for being a Jew, and I don't think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can't find it in the Constitution and I don't like it being shoved down my throat. Or maybe I can put it another way. Where did the idea come from that we should worship Nick and Jessica and aren't allowed to worship God as we understand him? I guess that's a sign that I'm getting old, too. But there are a lot of us who are wondering where Nick and Jessica came from and where the America we used to know went to." 
Rather wonderful crib in Sorrento Cathedral
So to my friends, of whatever colour and creed, I wish you a happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year (I guess there's more hope of the former than the latter!). Hopefully you'll reciprocate in the way that suits you best.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

No, non, niet - no idea!

"Who was responsible for ethical compliance?" I've just been watching the evidence of the News of the World's lawyer, Tom Crone, to the Leveson Inquiry. When asked that question, he seemed totally stumped, and in the end came up lamely with, "The Chief Executive, I suppose," (i.e. James Murdoch). When it was pointed out that the CEO had notional responsibility for everything, he responded that his own role he considered to be litigation compliance for articles. It seemed to me disturbing that it emerged that neither the legal department nor anyone else in a newspaper was responsible for the morality of what it publishes - disturbing and symptomatic. I'm hoping that the Inquiry will have the effect of shifting the press from unethical towards ethical journalism.

I gather that a new expression has entered the language. It's "doing a Clegg" and means something like going AWOL. It of course arises from the deputy prime minister's conspicuous absence from his boss's side when he triumphantly reported his "NO" to the cheering/jeering House of Commons. Strictly speaking David Cameron did not veto the Merkozy plan; he didn't forbid or block it. He just opted the UK out. Still it made good press, echoing nicely President de Gaulle's "NON" to Britain's entry into the EEC in 1967. Now that was a veto. We had to wait until his fall before applying again and becoming a member in 1973. One can only hope that our PM doesn't follow that other theatrical "NO", or rather "NIET"-sayer, Nikita Khrushchev's habit of banging his shoe on the table to emphasize his immovability. So unEnglish!

I've recently read an essay by the distinguished Nobel Laureate, Professor Amartya Sen, entitled Violence and Civil Society (in CAM 64) in which he argues that conflict is not best solved by state-sanctioned force. He carefully examines the commonly perceived factors giving rise to violence, such as class, poverty and religion. But they aren't the whole story.

There were two passages which struck me: "For example, appeals to country and nationality played a rousing role in the immensely bloody war in Europe between 1914 and 1918, and a shared religious background did nothing to stop the Germans, the British and the French from tearing each other apart. Yet, today, the Germans, the French and the British mix with each other in peace and tranquillity and sit together to decide what to do in their continent without reaching for their guns." Well, that was the vision behind the EU! Quite important we don't forget it.

Then there was this: "Democracy is more than a collection of specific institutions, such as balloting and elections - it is also dialogue, freedom of information and unrestricted discussion. These are also the central features of civil paths to peace." For some reason this put me in mind of the Occupy camp in the heart of that least transparent of places, the City of London, outside St Paul's Cathedral.

I've been asked why the Falconer "Commission" has taken longer to come out than expected. The answer is, I have no idea. I don't think it's because they got wind of something I'd written in anticipation  - I'm not that important or that vain, I hope. I imagine it's a matter of waiting until the serious news clears out of the way to leave it room for maximum publicity.

In this context, I found Amartya Sen's comment on what he calls "the solitarist approach to human identity" (which sees human beings as members of just one group, defined solely by their native civilisation, or religion etc) illuminating: "The solitarist approach is an excellent way of misunderstanding (my italics) nearly everyone in the world. The same person can be, without contradiction, of Asian origin, a Christian, a socialist, a woman, a jazz musician, a doctor, and one who believes that the most important problem in the world today is how to make South Africa the cricket champion of the world." I doubt whether the professor knows such a person, but it's a point well made. To assume that one factor in somebody controls all they think and do is dumb. We are not machines; we're complex individuals trying to live together.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

What value a qualified apology?

The public sector strike was in full swing. I have been in two unions in my working life, NUPE which amalgamated with others to become UNISON, and AMMA which is now ATL. Both of them came out on strike on Wednesday. And I can understand why. It's tough to have your contribution to the economy rubbished (even though a day's strike apparently could cost £1/2 billion), and to hear yourself talked about as though you are not a tax-payer yourself. And it's tough to have the pension you've paid for all your working life shrink at a stroke.

Jeremy Clarkson, employed by the licence payer via the BBC, proceeded that evening at 7 o'clock to pontificate in his satirical way both about the strikes and oddly, in a week which had begun with the tragic suicide of the universally liked Welsh football manager, Gary Speed, he quipped about trains not stopping when someone commits suicide in front of them.

The press of course made a lot of his comments about shooting the strikers, which were in dubious taste but fairly characteristic Clarkson-babble. As often, he needlessly overegged the pudding, with adding "in front of their families", which demonstrated a juvenile lack of empathy in one so close to the establishment. When questioned about it the following afternoon, his response was typically bullish: "The BBC are not going to sack me and I am not going to apologise. What do you think I have done wrong?"

As complaints continued to flood in to the BBC, he was "persuaded" to make a statement of apology - which he did, sort of: "If the BBC and I have caused any offence, I am quite happy to apologise for it alongside them." But he insisted in his statement: "I didn't for a moment intend these remarks to be taken seriously - as I believe is clear if they're seen in context." I gather the wording was his, and, you'll notice it's one of those sorts of apology which implicitly puts the blame back on the person offended. This is a conditional apology using the word "if". A genuine apology is unconditional. "I apologise for the offence that my remarks caused." No "ifs" and no "buts". Just, "I'm sorry." The trouble is those words are usually blocked by our pride. Not only does Clarkson's apology contain an "if" and an implied "but", it also has another shifting of the blame, "If the BBC and I". I've puzzled over this. Is he saying that his remarks were scripted and editorially approved? Is he implying he was reading them off the autocue? It's hard to believe, but might possibly be the case. Perhaps he was referring to the sycophantic studio laughter that greeted his remarks. Otherwise it sounds rather like an errant schoolboy whining, "It wasn't just me, you know." 

However, I actually found his remarks about suicide even more disturbing. As someone commented on Facebook: "I too found his comments on the strikers bad enough, but it was compounded by his terrible comments about people who may have committed suicide by being knocked down by a train. His attitude was, 'Why should the train stop for that? Why should I be put out?!' His appalling attitude reflects the worship of self above everything else. It's sad to see a man with ability demean himself in such a way for some cheap laugh!" I felt strongly enough to send a complaint to the BBC, which I've done only once before.

"In the week of the highly publicised suicide of Gary Speed, Mr Clarkson's comments about trains not stopping when desperate people step in front of them showed an unbelievable level of crassness and insensitivity. Even if, as he seems to suggest, the context was jocular, there was simply no excuse for his comment. Suicide is always a tragic event, for the person who was sufficiently depressed to take their own life AND for their family and friends. To make light of it is inexcusable; to make light of it this week and on prime-time television on an all-age magazine show was beyond comprehension. I was glad that an apology was made on the show by Matt Baker. As far as I'm aware, Mr Clarkson, whilst half apologising for his remarks about the strikers, has issued no apology to those bereaved by suicide or to those who have attempted it or to the train-drivers often traumatised by the experience of contributing to the death of another human being. As a licence payer who, I understand, contributes to his 7-figure salary, I'd ask the BBC to consider Mr Clarkson's position, as I suspect he won't do it for himself. The BBC is bigger than Top Gear. The very least the management should insist on is an UNQUALIFIED (i.e. no 'ifs' and 'buts') apology. Thank you."

Maybe it was an overreaction. Someone else commented: "WHY TAKE CLARKSON SERIOUSLY? HE IS JUST A BIG OVER-EXCITED KID , AND NOTHING MUCH HE SAYS IS WORTH COMMENT. PERHAPS IT IS LOOK-AT-ME PUBLICITY." I'm sure it was an attempt to get publicity. But actually he's a bit older than a kid, and he ought to have known better. More than 21,000 people thought so too. 

Jane tells me to ignore him and deny him the oxygen of publicity - and she's right of course - but I feel better to have got it off my chest! 

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Watch out!

Watch out! It appears that Dignity in Dying (formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society) is rolling out its overdue autumn offensive, with a little help from its friends. It must seem a shame that there's been so much important news hogging the headlines, such as the euro-crisis, the Leveson Inquiry, the Chancellor's autumn statement, the public sector strike, Egyptian and DRC elections, Pakistan border incidents.... But the Falconer "Commission" promised to report late November. Maybe, like the government's prediction for balancing the books, it had to be moved on a bit in the light of events.

BBC filming at Cornerstone
Well, yesterday afternoon I received a message from a friend saying was I going to be on the BBC later on. She thought she'd heard me on Radio Oxford. "Not that I know of," I replied. However in due course an item about a chap with locked-in syndrome accompanied by a picture of Tony Nicklinson, whom I'd met in the summer, was trailed for Inside Out South. And lo and behold, at 7.45 or so on came the piece which had been produced for Bristol. Listening to it again, there's one misleading piece of commentary near the end which says something like, "Now both Tony and Michael are awaiting the report of the 'commission' to see its recommendations...". No, I'm not. I'm aware that it's a done deal, and that the 'commission' was fatally compromised from its inception. I would be interested in what a Royal Commission had to say.

The significance of the item dawned on me today when my son pointed out to me the first item on the BBC website's News England page, headlined, "'Right to die' man seeks ruling" which linked to the "debate" I had with Tony. The article is about Tony Nicklinson applying to the High Court to grant permission for a doctor to end his life. As I've said before, he's a brave chap. I couldn't help but be moved and sympathetic when we met. I can understand why he felt his frustration unbearable, but I agree with someone who watched it (herself suffering from a painful degenerative disease); she said, "Sad he felt there was nothing to live for, not even his misguided but loving wife. Sad that people think their lives are their own to choose." 

I imagine the case will get a lot of media coverage. I can't imagine that his advisers have held out great hope of success, since the taking of life is still illegal in this country. But of course there'll be a lot of discussion of inequality/discrimination and choice. And justifiable public sympathy and less justifiable indignation.

Next will come the "Commission" with a great hullabaloo and media circus - with an appearance of being official, and carefully researched, and balanced, and no mention of the the fact that nine of the 12-strong panel had previously declared in favour of assisted dying and none had declared against it. I imagine it will be presented to MPs as the definitive exploration of the issue and conclude that with tight safeguards doctors be allowed deliberately to take the life of someone so inclined.

In Canada, as I said yesterday, there's been a similar exercise. One response came from my friend Alison Davis, who has multiple disabilities and what many would call an unbearable "quality of life", who described her experience of asking for death to the Calgary Herald.

Alison Davis
Re: "No right to be killed; Doctor assisted suicide should not be allowed," Editorial, Nov. 20. 
I was glad to see your excellent editorial stating the case against euthanasia. If it had been available to me some years ago, I wouldn't now be writing to you. I have several severe disabling conditions. I use a wheelchair full time and a vent at night. I have severe pain, which even morphine can't control. 
I wanted to die for more than 10 years, at a time when doctors thought my life expectancy was very short. I attempted suicide seriously several times, and was saved, only because friends found me in time and took me to the emergency room, where I was treated. 
At first, I was angry with them for thwarting my wishes. Now, I'm eternally grateful. I want to live now, even though my pain is worse than it was when I wanted to die. What changed my mind is friends who refused to accept my view that my life had no value, and a group of very poor children, who loved me wonderfully and overwhelmingly. I found a reason to live in reaching out to help others, rather than turning the negativity on myself. If assisted suicide had been available then, no one would ever have known the doctors' prognosis was wrong, or that I'd be missing the best years of my life.
Alison Davis, Blandford Forum, U.K.

Monday, 28 November 2011

On the radar?

Last Wednesday I spent the day (well, from midday to 5 o'clock) being interviewed for a 2nd-year Film Production assignment, by three students from the University of Gloucestershire. The documentary was, predictably, a "balanced" 9-minute film on assisted suicide. I was providing the balance. It was a long afternoon.

Near the end the chap interviewing said he had two questions from one of Dignity in Dying (formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society)'s extensive staff, Mylinh Cao (their press trainee). My ears pricked up at that point. I felt vaguely flattered that I featured on DiD's radar!

First question: "We've noticed that your articles don't give you the title 'Rev' nowadays. Is there a reason for this?" Answer: "a. I'm retired. b. It's no secret. c. It's irrelevant. d. It's just cheap for people to diss views with a 'He would say that, wouldn't he?' whereas the arguments are too important for that.

Second question: "Is your attitude to assisted suicide a result of your religious beliefs?" Answer: "My view is primarily based on societal reasons. It's to do with the effects on the disabled and aging. A society that doesn't value human life is in trouble. So is one that allows people to terminate each others' life. Clearly my faith in God is important and informs all my life, including my philosophy of life. But in fact everyone has a faith of some sort - whether it's in God, or in science, or in technology, or in atheism, or in nothing. We all start with presuppositions. The question is what's the substance of the arguments.

I was interested to read that Canada has its own phoney enquiry into assisted suicide which has just reported. I read this on the Secondhand Smoke blog:

Wednesday, November 16, 2011, 12:11 PM

Wesley J. Smith
The in-the-tank media is huffing and puffing, trying to make something important out of an entirely predictable recommendation by the Royal Society of Canada commission to legalize euthanasia.  But commissions can be created to obtain a specific result, as this one was and did.
In fact, I told you this very thing would happen two years ago, to be precise, on October 28, 2009.  Here’s the Secondhand Smoke post, “Stacking the Deck for Euthanasia in Canadian ‘End of Life’ Commission” in its entirety:”
“Expert commissions” to advise on contentious issues of public policy are usually political tools designed to come to a predetermined conclusion in order to pave the way for a desired  policy changes.  Remember that as we take a look at a new commission being appointed by the Royal Society of Canada to look into end of life issues.  From the story:
Queen’s Philosophy professor Udo Schuklenk has been selected to head a prestigious new international panel on “End-of-Life Decision Making” in Canada. Appointed by the Royal Society of Canada, the expert panel will investigate key aspects of this critical issue – including voluntary euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide – and prepare a public report.
Stories such as this never seem to look deeper than the job titles of the panelists, as if they come to their work with no preexisting positions. So, I decide to check, starting with Udo Schuklenk.  What a surprise: He’s a pro euthanasia philosopher. How do I know?  He’s said so.  For example, in an essay explaining why he is an atheist, he wrote:
No matter how unbearably patients suffer due to illness or injury toward the end of their lives, the world’s monotheistic religions stand as one in their rejection of many dying patients’ requests to end their lives in dignity. That we may well be of sound mind, and that there is no prospect of our condition improving, makes no difference to their stance. Our own considered judgment that life is not worth living any longer counts for nothing to organized monotheistic religions. According to them, we are not ethically entitled to ask for physician assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia. This is surprising, given that at the end of our natural lives churches have promised us that we would be going to heaven – or hell, as the case might be. If at the end of a decently lived life we would go to heaven and enjoy eternal life, why are they fighting our earthly death so vigorously? None of this makes any sense at all if we take religious beliefs about our afterlife seriously. Once again substantial, avoidable human suffering is a direct consequence of religious interference with our end-of-life decision-making.
I don’t care about his religious views, but to chair a panel with such a clear view in favor of assisted suicide, indicates the direction in which the commission’s recommendations are expected (designed) to go.
But perhaps I am being too cynical.  Let’s see who else is on the commission:  Ah, Scot philosophy professor Sheila McClean who wrote The Case for Assisted Suicide, a book described as arguing fervently in favor of legalization.  Hmm, I wonder how she will vote?
Another commissioner is a Dutch euthanasia researcher.  Cute.
Then there’s Jocelyn Downie, author of Dying Justice, a book urging the decriminalization of both euthanasia and assisted suicide.  The bias isn’t even subtle.
I spent some time researching the views of the two remaining members, but neither seemed to be particularly involved in the issue.  So let’s count them, at least for now, as neutrals. No matter: Even assuming both are as adamantly opposed to assisted suicide as their co panelists appear to be for it, the deck is stacked, the fix is in, 4-2 for permitting assisted suicide in at least some cases.
The next step in this Kibuki Theater will be for the media to trip over themselves to report breathlessly that “the experts” have deeply pondered, and determined–after much hand wringing, there is always hand wringing–that assisted suicide should be allowed.  It is all so scripted and predictable.
Gee, I was right.  But then, on these matters, I usually am.

Watch out for the same coming here when the so-called "Commission on Assisted Suicide" under Lord Falconer reports in the next few days or weeks. You may recall that 9/12 of the commission members had previously pronounced in favour of assisting people to die. The Commission is funded by Terry Pratchett (assisted suicide campaigner), and the brainchild of ... guess who? ... Dignity in Dying - otherwise known as ....

Friday, 25 November 2011

Counsel of hope

This week there have been two stories which have leaped to my attention. One, I have to confess, I first heard on the Breakfast Show on 5 Live (Well done, the BBC!). The other appeared in The Guardian and The Telegraph. What they had in common is that they are about men confounding the realists and the scaremongers.

The Bolton News
The first is the story of Gary Parkinson: Paralysed former professional footballer Gary Parkinson has been given a role scouting for his home town club — despite only being able to communicate with a system of blinks. Gary Parkinson once played for Middlesborough and was coach for Blackpool Youth Team. He had a brain-stem stroke which has left him with Locked-in Syndrome (like Tony Nicklinson whom Jane and I met in the early summer, you may remember, for BBC West's Inside Out programme). It doesn't sound as though he has the same fancy computer, but he communicates with his wife, Deborah, through blinking his eye. He once played with Tony Mowbray, Middlesborough's manager; and he's now sent the many DVDs of youngsters hoping to get a contract with the club, whom he rates by blinking: from once, no, to four times, sign him!

I was really impressed by the determination of his friends and family (and presumably himself) not to give up on him. At the end of the Bolton News article, I read:
"The 43-year-old was initially confined to his bed following a stroke in his brain stem.
But there have been improvements.
"He has been for day visits to his home, while there are hopes he will get his speech back after an operation on his vocal chords.
"Mr Mowbray, speaking in Middlesbrough’s match-day programme on Saturday, said: 'We were determined to give Gary a role, where he could feel involved. Not only that, I genuinely value his opinions about the game.'"
The second story was from Belgium and concerned Rom Houben who had been in a "coma" for 23 years. He had been a martial arts enthusiast and almost killed in a car crash in 1983. He was regularly diagnosed as being in a permanent vegetative state. "For 23 years Rom Houben was ­imprisoned in his own body. He saw his doctors and nurses as they visited him during their daily rounds; he listened to the conversations of his carers; he heard his mother deliver the news to him that his father had died. But he could do nothing. He was unable to communicate with his doctors or family. He could not move his head or weep, he could only listen" until a neurologist from the University of Liege took another look. "Using a state-of-the-art scanning system, Laureys found to his amazement that his brain was functioning almost normally." With intensive physio, he now has some movement and is able to communicate using a touch screen with one finger.
From The Guardian

"The moment it was discovered he was not in a vegetative state, said Houben, was like being born again. 'I'll never forget the day that they discovered me,' he said. 'It was my second birth'." 

One wonders if in the brave new world of euthanasia, which some organisations are pressing towards, Rom Houben would have survived to see his second birth - or whether his "quality of life" would have been written off as negligible, his care withdrawn and his death engineered. The preservation of life is a paramount principle in human and humane society. 

"Dum spiro, spero" - while I breath, I hope - the old saying goes. What a shame that so many now utter counsels of despair! "You're disabled: you'll not be much use." "You're old and going senile: you're just becoming a burden." "You have a terminal illness: you've got nothing to live for." That's all diabolical nonsense. Every life is great gift.  

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Brodie of Glenbogle

I don't know if I'm alone in seeing a resemblance between Mr Brodie Clark CBE and Golly Mackenzie of Monarch of the Glen. Golly, if you remember, is the faithful long-serving gillie of the Glenbogle Estate.

I watched the grilling of Mr Clark by the Home Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons yesterday. Clearly some of the MPs had been briefed by the Home Office politicians. Brodie Clark came across as someone who thoroughly knew his business, and far from being a "rogue" irresponsible bureaucrat careless about national security. Where the blame lies in the ministers' apparent ignorance of the contingency arrangements for "Health and Safety" emergencies I don't know, but that seems the nub of the problem. What was clear was that the boss of Border Agency, Mr Robert Whiteman, in post for all of five weeks, has a great deal to learn in man-management. This well-endowed and bearded young man seemed to want to cut a figure as decisive and authoritative. He doesn't seem to have wanted to listen to experience and to consider carefully.

Archie has just appointed a new estate manager at Glenbogle. He's keen to impress. There've been reports of loose record-keeping. He meets with the grizzled Golly, who explains that they do a daily count of the red deer throughout the year, and a regular headcount of the grouse. However in the early spring and autumn in the migration seasons they don't count the individual wildfowl on the estate, just do a weekly approximate calculation. "Then how do you check that no one's poaching them?" asks the new manager.
"Well, you can't - that way, just by counting."
"You mean you don't know exactly how many stock are on the estate at any one time?" he asks incredulously.
"Aye, I mean that."
"But how do you know Lord Kilwillie's men are not coming and stealing our best stags?"
"I'd know. We have our ways."
"That's not good enough. I'm suspending you and getting one of my friends to investigate you. And if I were you, I'd go gracefully, and ask for retirement. I'm sure the Laird would give you a decent pension. How long have you been working here?"
"Only 38 years."

Good management in my view involves giving direction, but also listening to and supporting one's workforce. Not sacrificing them after years of service. People are not turkeys. I read that "local organic turkeys are in short supply" in the States, in face of "increasing demand for organic free-range turkeys for Thanksgiving" this year. In British politics it seems we want our civil servants to be entirely battery reared - tasteless and faceless, but well-fleshed.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Accept life

I have never done this before, but I've been so excited by something that I'm replicating here a post from my other blog, Room with a view. I've just finished reading a remarkable book which was sent to me by my former colleague, Elspeth Waidson. It's The Wooden Suitcase by Emmy Goldacker (which was translated by Elspeth's parents) and published last year. Emmy Goldacker's father was a German Jew who emigrated to Palestine; her two brothers died fighting in the war; she herself worked for the German government as a translator and then began teacher-training. In 1945 she was arrested in Berlin and condemned to 10 years hard labour in Siberia. This is her story, which is stranger than fiction. It reminds me in some ways of Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Much of it is harrowing, revealing a woman's incredible fortitude and faith in life. It's a real insight into the Gulag Archipelago of Stalin's Soviet Union. Near the end of her sentence, after years of unimaginable hardship in concentration camps, she describes going on a work-party to harvest hay on the tundra. They have to cross the River Usa by ferry. They're north of the Arctic Circle:
"I stood at the rear of the ferry. The engine started and the jolt caused me to sway this way and that; however I regained my balance and looked around at the wide expanse of the landscape around us. I no longer heard the women's chatter, so entranced was I by the beauty of this mighty river whose slight ripples reflected the light of the midnight sun. This yellow-golden light, covering the violet-brown swamps to the right, this light that spread over the giant black pines on the left like a yellow-golden veil. What infinite peace!
   "I felt and comprehended the infinite quality of the northern landscape. I saw the beauty of the sky and the water, and was happy and thankful, in spite of the years that lay behind me, that I could still be receptive to this beauty. I was alive and still had feeling! I could have been dead or completely apathetic. I made another attempt at the 'Our Father' and I could say the prayer almost to the end. I realised it was a grace. How small and insignificant I seemed to myself. Who indeed was I? Today I was here, tomorrow someone else would be at this spot. How unimportant! All that was important was to see this beauty and to accept the grace with gratitude."

What a profound and simple piece of writing - after seemingly unending years of deprivation and suffering, Emmy is moved that she is alive and still has feeling! She realises it is a gift - a "grace" simply to be accepted with gratitude. Life and feeling are inalienable gifts.

Friday, 11 November 2011


Shortly before 11 am this morning I received and read this from Andrew White's UK link-man. I thought it was a positive note to strike: remember the peacemakers. Peacemaking is hard and costly work - and frequently dangerous. War is only ever justified if its aim and result is to establish justice and peace. But as Andrew White and his friends are committed to showing, there is a better way than war. Perhaps you'd include him in your remembering this weekend. There's no more critical region for peace than the Middle East, which is teetering on the edge of catastrophic conflict.

Dear Friends,

As many of you will know, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month 1918, Armistice was signed on the Great War; the war that was to have ended all wars.

However since then, over 100 million people have died in armed conflict around the world, or by disease and famine brought about directly by the privations of war. 

At 11am today, many of us will take a pause from our usual busyness to remember with gratitude those who gave their lives for the freedoms we now enjoy. The terrible reality is that most of those 100 million souls did not give their lives for noble freedom, but for myriad other reasons; largely the folly and greed of their fellow man. 

We have seen over-eager military intervention for political gain.  Conversely, we have seen a deplorable lack of intervention when prompt, decisive action could have headed tragedy off at the pass. But most of all, we have seen rhetoric ramping up violence in place of dialogue that would have defused tension.

In Baghdad, where we work, a good month is one in which merely 150 civilians lose their lives to sectarian violence.  A year ago on October 31, five militiamen stormed the Syrian Catholic church during the Sunday service, terrorised them in unimaginable ways for four hours, before detonating their suicide vests, leaving 48 worshipers dead.

In the months that followed we witnessed a marked increase in violence against the Christian minority in Iraq.  Pipe bombs were planted outside front doors.  Sticky bombs were placed under their cars.  Sameh was head of security at St George's church.  He is a Muslim but was targeted because his job is to protect our church.  He survived the car bomb, but his leg was blown off above the knee.

At least 120 Christians died in those two months, for no other reason than for their faith.

Blessed are the peacemakers

But then it all changed.  Working with the most senior religious leaders in Iraq, we convened a three day dialogue in Copenhagen which resulted in a joint Sunni/Shia declaration, which was then read out in mosques across Iraq. Through our work, a declaration that: "The Christian community is the root of Iraq" was heard. 

The result of this declaration?  Violence against the Christian minority stopped that very day.  With a few sad exceptions, the agreement holds

Now, we at the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East make no claim to possess a panacea for all the world's ills. But it is our experience that carefully mediated dialogue can make the world of difference in de-escalating conflict.

We also know this; the only way to make a difference in these seemingly intractable conflicts is by being as committed to peace as the suicide bombers are to their cause. What a difference it would make if the international community were to devote the resources currently spent on waging war to building peace. (My emphasis - Michael)

So as you pause at the 11th hour on Friday, spare a prayer for the peacemakers.  At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them. 

With every blessing,

Peter Marsden
FRRME Director

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The Blame Game

I think it's time for a new campaign, with the working title "Praise not blame" - better suggestions welcome. I lie in bed and listen to the news. Have you noticed how much of it is about people blaming others? Sports journalists blame Martin Johnson for England's performance in the Rugby World Cup and his job is on the line. The Home Secretary pins the blame on Brodie Clark, head of the Border Force, for relaxing immigration controls too much in the summer. Michael Jackson's fans and a Californian jury blame his doctor for his death. Devon and Somerset Police are en route to blame Taunton Rugby Club for the terrible M5 crash. Poor care of the elderly is blamed on hard-pressed NHS staff. All of us blame the bankers for the recession. At least, some of us blame the Labour government for their prodigal husbandry of our resources. The present government is lining up the euro-zone as the guilty party in our flat-lining economy. The summer riots were blamed on a "feral underclass". The media seems to be fuelled by blame stories and, of course, it feeds them. I dare to wager that one of the questions every reporter and interviewer will ask whenever something goes wrong is, "And who do you think is responsible for this?" Who's to blame? And of course in hot pursuit comes the lawyer urging legal action.

Daytime TV in particular is peppered with adverts from "accident" lawyers. You know the sort of thing. "There I was at work, carrying a box, when I tripped over a cable on the floor. I bruised my nose and smashed my glasses and was off work for three weeks. Kenge and Carboys were great. They got me £3000 in damages - and it cost me absolutely nothing." "Kenge and Carboys - specialist accident solicitors - guaranteed no cost. If you've had an accident at work, ring freephone number 0800..." Of course it does cost - a lot - and the lawyers on both sides make a lot of money, from the employer, or their insurers (who are also paid by that and other firms), thus increasing the industry's costs. All because some silly person didn't look where they were going. I've heard of people suing councils when they've tripped over uneven paving stones and suing British Rail when they slipped on a wet platform. The fact is accidents do happen. They just do.

"local initiatives" such as this sponsored walk in aid of MND
Instead of looking for someone to blame, shouldn't we be praising? For example, shouldn't we be celebrating that fact that we have a good transport system, that we don't have to walk on roads of mud, that we have local councils who maintain our roads and pavements and take away all our excessive waste? Shouldn't we be praising our amazing free-at-the-point-of-need emergency services, the paramedics who come out 24/7 to pick and patch us up; our 24-hour Accident and Emergency departments who treat even obnoxious binge drinkers? Shouldn't our news channels be filled with items about people like Bill Gates supporting Aids relief with his billions, and local initiatives such as Street Pastors, volunteers who patrol town centres to come alongside and help young (and not so young) pubbers and clubbers rolling out in the early hours greatly the worse for wear? The good thing, I have to confess, about the next couple of weeks is that we are occasionally shown items about projects supported by Children in Need.  Wouldn't it be good if our news focused on such things all year round? There are plenty of good news stories around. 

Manchester - The Mustard Tree at work
Let's cultivate our taste-buds so that we prefer praise to blame. I don't know if "blame" is the same as Jesus meant by "judge", when he told us not to judge. I think it was about having a critical spirit, so there's relevance about what he said next: "For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you." 

So here's my first item of praiseworthy news in my Praise not Blame campaign! Good news from Manchester. You'd be welcome to send links to other good news stories. I want to break this cycle of negativity which seems so to have captured our national psyche. Life is good! 

Life's goodness shouldn't be news, in the sense that it shouldn't come as a surprise to us. However it appears that it is news at the moment. Let's celebrate it.

And how about this for a novel idea? Instead of us all taking part in the Blame Game, why not let someone who gets something wrong say, "I'm sorry. I made a mistake there. I'll take responsibility"? Like, sadly, to give him his due, Graeme Knowles, the Dean of St Paul's.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Confined to barracks

Having a heavy cold which makes me sound a bit like an elephant with a bun stuck up his trunk has meant my being CB (confined to barracks) these past few days. To be honest, it doesn't make a great difference to my schedule, as I'm not highly mobile and don't get out much. The last time was on Thursday - to my amazing dentist from whom I consistently come away grateful and wee bit euphoric; followed by my weekly trip to Cornerstone, while Jane skivvies in the kitchen. Anyway today I stayed at home while Jane went with our friends, Pete and Jane, to a kind of mini home-church with a friend who's ill.
So I spent a quiet and thoughtful morning on my own. Among other things, I was pondering on what lies beneath the St Paul's protest and, come to that, the summer riots. I know there's no simplistic single answer. In fact one of the (more inane) criticisms aimed at the protesters is that they don't have an alternative. "Where's your programme for reform?" That misses the point entirely. One of the factors behind popular cynicism about current politics is precisely that in campaigns politicians make a whole load of promises, which they then fail to carry out when they come to power. Even now one hears politicians trimming their downright condemnation of the St Paul's protest as they discover that it has more support than they first thought. Such unlikely people as George Soros (megafinancier), Bill Gates (megaindustrialist) and Rowan Williams (megaecclesiastic) seem to have found common issues with them, such as the International Financial Transaction tax (the Robin Hood Tax). Oops, one senses the politicians think, we'd better not miss the band-wagon. Thus they expose one of the weaknesses of our liberal democracy. Instead of politicians standing up with their principles by which they will stand, we have politicians whose only principle is to please the people. I suppose the arch-exponent of this was Tony Blair, with focus groups, e-petitions and spin doctors, whose aim was to win at all costs. He of course has set the trend and David Cameron is said to follow his example.
On the surface it seems a reasonable approach: find out what the people want and then give it to them. Isn't that what democracy is all about? The answer is No. That's not democracy; it's demagogy. It's a system of government where the loudest voice rules. Actually it's mob-rule. The alternative is a system where men and women clearly set out their principles for public examination - and then stick to them. In that system the quiet people, the ordinary voters, have equal influence with the loud-mouth lobbyists.   It all depends, of course, on that old-fashioned word "Honour". It depends on our politicians honouring their word, but more than that, being people of honour. I don't often write to MPs, but I don't think I'm alone in the feeling that, when I do, I'm receiving a people-pleasing reply rather than a plain honest expression of opinion. By the way, I think something of this lies behind the Occupy movement's use of general assemblies which I gather are as long as a piece of string. They are an attempt to resist the power of a vocal lobby dominating decisions.
Something else which I believe, recognised or not, lurks behind the protests is a general unease that something is rotten in the state of Britain, and to some degree in the Western world. You don't need to be a prophet to recognise that justice is not flowing like a river (Amos 5.24), either nationally or globally, and to call for it. Ironically I suspect that a contributing factor to this has been the elevation of personal choice over corporate responsibility. Ironically, because on the face of it to allow more personal choice is to add to the sum total of freedom. The end of the 20th century was the great period of deregulation, from personal ethics to market economics. The City markets were deregulated - and since 2008 the world has been reaping the whirlwind. Personal ethics (such as divorce and abortion) were made a private issue rather than one which had implications for society, and we are now wrestling with the effects of divorce on countless children. People who dare to uphold traditional Judaeo-Christian values such as columnist, Melanie Phillips, are branded as "bigots", and we begin to see a new sort of politically correct censorship creeping in under the guise of freedom. However it's a "freedom" defined by the demagogues.
On 27th November 1997 a letter appeared in The Times under the title "The Death of Trust":
"Contemporary morality tends to elevate the right to choose above every other value.  It finds offensive the traditional teaching on the sanctity of human life which has been part of common morality in Western societies.  This outlook is having many profound effects.  It has desensitised many people to the evil of abortion.  It has also predisposed many to support euthanasia.
"Euthanasia aims at ending a life judged to be no longer worth living, either because of suffering or because of presumed ‘poor’ quality.  The aim is accomplished either by a direct action, such as administering a lethal injection, or by depriving a person of medical treatment or of ordinary care in order to bring about death.  An essential defining characteristic of euthanasia is the intention to end life, that is to kill."
The letter was signed by Cardinal Basil Hume. This month will see another push towards euthanasia with the publication of the "findings" of the very unofficial Falconer "commission" on assisted "dying". Hopefully it will be seen for what it is, a piece of demagoguery by a well-financed, well-connected and vocal lobby group.

PS Moving interview tonight on Songs of Praise with Glen Campbell and his wife Kim. He's the American country singer, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimers. That's faith.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Doors open at a cost

 By now St Paul's Cathedral should have opened its doors and allowed worshippers in to a service - and presumably tourists to try to recoup some of its lost revenue from a week of closure. It's been a sad episode, and sadly it isn't over yet, as I read that the church authorities are joining with the City of London Authority to seek a court injunction to evict the protest camp from its land. I heard Mr Fraser of the CLA talking about them obstructing the highway. Ludgate Hill is the only through road in the vicinity and is on the other side of a thumping great cathedral from the tents.

What is sad is that the Dean and Chapter have been in such awe of both the lawyers and the Health and Safety firm they employ. The H&S people tell them it's not safe to keep the cathedral open, and instead of talking about how safety could be preserved they lock the doors - only to find a few days later that there was quite a straightforward solution after all. Create a firebreak next to the walls! Now apparently their lawyers have advised them not to talk to the protestors before they get to court. What interesting advice! Somewhat contrary to Jesus' advocacy of negotiation: "Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison." 

There's a witty but sad cartoon in today's Guardian by Steve Bell, which will no doubt give delight to those who take every opportunity to attack faith. It does reflect the popular perception that the church tends to side with the rulers of this world. There is of course a dilemma for any church "rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar's", let alone the established church of a country, against following the example of its founder who was a friend of the alienated and sinners and not of the establishment.

Eventually last night I was moved to write to the Dean and his fellow clergy:
Dear Dean and Chapter
   I'm a retired country vicar and not much interested in church politics, but I want to say how glad I am at the news that St Paul's is going to unlock its doors tomorrow. The closed doors have been a symbol that has spoken more loudly than many thousand words.  I am sure others have observed the irony of the Archbishop of Canterbury's recent words in Harare in the context of the parable of the wedding feast: "You know very well, dear brothers and sisters, what it means to have doors locked in your faces by those who claim the names of Christians and Anglicans. But... the Lord proclaims that he has set before us an open door that no-one can shut. It is the door of his promise, the door of his mercy, and the door into the feast of his kingdom."  That's the message that clergy throughout the country preach Sunday by Sunday, and so to see the great west doors of London's cathedral locked trumpeted a dreadful denial of our words.
  I am sorry that Canon Fraser has felt it necessary to resign, as it seems to presage an impending attempt to evict the protest camp through the law courts in conjunction with the civil authorities.  He undoubtedly says uncomfortable and controversial things, not all of which I agree with, but he has earned credibility with those who have no faith in the 'establishment'.  I sincerely hope that the church authorities will not lend their support to what will be viewed as an attack on peaceful protest and expression of free speech by the powers-that-be.  No doubt there are many generous benefactors to St Paul's within the City, but that should not restrain the church from prophetic detachment.  I suspect that refusing to take part in legal action will be a far more eloquent gesture than organising a debate of many words.
    I join with many in praying for your wisdom and courage in these challenging circumstances.
        Yours sincerely 

Sadly, the Bishop of London has muscled in on the "evict the protesters" coalition. However, lest you think all in the C of E Establishment support the St Paul's line, there's a pithy blog-post from one of our local bishops, Alan Wilson, worth a read: Bishop on shutting St Paul's: "... do they have the stomach to engage in the real world at the crest of a tidal race between people, money and power, or are they just overgrown public schoolboys playing indoor games in their own self-important Tourist Disneyland?"

There's an awful irony in the timing of this whole mismanaged fiasco, in that it has completely overshadowed the Reasonable Faith tour of Professor William Craig Lane which ended on Wednesday in Manchester in a debate with Professor Peter Atkins, and was remarkable for the refusal by Richard Dawkins to a debate in Oxford. Craig Lane seems to be one of the Christians with whom atheists would rather not debate; so respect to those who were ready to defend their corner. But what a shame it is that some rather unusual and important debates should have been pushed off even the religious columns by a less than glorious piece of news - which sadly promises to run and run. Someone must be rubbing his grubby little hands in glee. Happily, he won't have the last word. Hallowe'en is just the prelude to All Saints' Day!