Saturday, 23 June 2012

Little things...

Before I vent my spleen on Michael Gove (if I ever get round to it) or Ed (aka Cain) Miliband, let me dwell on more cheerful things. I can't say it does much good to get too upset about politicians, as the most ambitious of them seem very similar to each other. So instead I'll post about some of the jollier aspects of my week - trivial perhaps, but actually such things are the stuff of life.

For example, Lynne gave Jane a bird-feeder earlier this year and she stuck it on the kitchen window. "That'll never work," I told her. "They'll never come that near the house, especially to the kitchen window with you and the dog in there." How wrong I was! As I sat in my chair in the conservatory, I had a grandstand view of a sparrow mother feeding her rather demanding, rather obese fledgling brood. My own Springwatch! They've grown and flown away now - but they weren't bad substitutes for chickens (to watch, not eat, I hasten to add).

Then there was planning for an MNDA Bake History coffee morning we thought we'd hold at home a week today. I have a Facebook friend in Kelso whose husband has a similar degenerative disease. Susan saw my entry about it. Clearly she can't come but she did offer to send a few "sock monkeys" for selling or raffling. I was intrigued. They arrived yesterday. I must say they are rather wonderful works of craftsmanship. The sewing is incredibly neat to the point of being invisible. They are quite appealing. Not surprisingly demand looks set to exceed supply. The best thing about them, though, is Susan's generosity in donating and sending them. Another bright thing to enjoy.

 Talking of bright things, life isn't all light. It's light and dark. Yet I was thinking as I looked out at my usual breakfast view, there's beauty in the darkness as well. Without the dark, of course, there'd be no light. But I love the mysterious shadow beneath the dark crimson leaves of the Cotinus, the "Smoke Tree". It's like a warm cave framed by the bright green leaves of the apple and hazel. Without it my view would be much duller. And of course the view is constantly changing in different seasons and conditions. 

For me it is sad that there are folk like Tony Nicklinson who has chosen not to enjoy the small joys of his dreadfully limited life but rather to campaign for euthanasia both for himself and also for others. No one would wish Locked-in syndrome on anyone, but it need not be the death sentence he takes it to be, if people like Jean-Dominique Bauby (author of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) and Michelle Wheatley, Bram Harrison and Martin Pistorius are to be believed (Bram Harrison's story). 

June is the MND Association's Month of Optimism. That's not a month of whistling in the dark. No one's pretending ALS/MND is any fun, though some of my MND friends have, or had, great senses of humour. However it is a month where we focus on hope - the hope to be found in the developments of research, the hope we find in being cared about and the hope to be found in the small joys of life, which somehow seem to show up all the more brightly because of the mysterious darkness against which they're set.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Humpty Dumpty or Brave New World?

The good old Church of England has hit the headlines today with dire warnings of the possible consequences of the Government's proposals to introduce "equal marriage" (known popularly as gay marriage). I had taken the trouble to send in a personal response to the consultation and so had spent some time reflecting on my views. I was quite surprised by my thoughts.

I found I was more worried by governmental redefinition of language than by homosexual fidelity. Promiscuity of all sorts is emphatically and fatally corrosive both of persons and of society. However couples of the same sex have long lived together and been accepted. When I was a boy, my parents took us to visit my father's cousin, Sheila who farmed in Kingsland, Herefordshire, with her friend, Mary Elliott, whom she'd met at a bull sale in 1944. They bred Royal Show champion Kerry Hill sheep, which I enjoyed photographing with my Kodak Brownie camera. It didn't occur to me that Sheila and Mary's domestic arrangement was odd, nor did it occur to my parents to comment on it. Sheila ends her book The Happy Farmers (Logaston Press, 1989) honestly and rather movingly: "Small children have called us 'The Happy Farmers'. I think that few farmers can be entirely happy in their life of incessant struggle with weather, markets and disease; while few in old age can be happy with the aches and pains, the ills and accidents, the diminishing powers and (for me) the haunting fear of the future. But we are happy in our home, our friends and our love, so maybe we have earned that touching title."

It is a shame, in my view, that same-sex friendship is now regarded as sexual (and so for some as vicious or intrinsically "immoral"). Friendship is actually admirable. Faithfulness is a virtue. Promises of commitment are meant to cement marriages. The same is true, I imagine, for civil partnerships.

There is a fundamental question about the purpose of marriage, and of sex, which lies beneath the debate. It used to be said that the first purpose of marriage was the procreation of children, then as a remedy against sin (i.e. an appropriate outlet for sex), and third for mutual society for each other. Now in the contemporary CofE marriage service the order's reversed, with companionship as number 1. Most "conservatives", I'd guess, object to gay marriage because they see it as a charter for "unnaturalness". There's an ironic conjunction between fundamentalists and Darwinians in the view that the sole purpose of sex is procreation and the preservation of the species. In that case there is no place for sex merely to provide pleasure, either heterosexually or homosexually. That logic leads either to celibacy within marriage or to procreation for as long as hormones or life allow. Somehow I can't see our consumerist society buying that. It is a pity that our society sets such a store on the sexual acts that close companionship has become such a bone of contention.

My comment to the consultation was sent in the aftermath of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. I was ruminating on the nature of the monarchy. What, I wondered, would we call an elected constitutional head of state? They might fulfil precisely the same roles as the present queen. However, without a doubt, they wouldn't be called Queen or King. Traditionally hereditary heads of state have been named kings and queens. We'd give a different name to an elected one, such as president. They have the same functions, but they're crucially different. Traditionally marriage has been between a man and a woman. We'd give a different name to a same-partnership - wouldn't we? They're the same, but they're crucially different. 

Language in this country does not change by government dictat, but by usage and evolution. I can't work out whether the government is indulging in Brave New World social engineering, or whether it's merely become Humpty Dumpty:
"`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.' 
`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.' 
`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master - that's all.' "

Humpty Dumptyish redefinition of language sits rather uncomfortably with a government set on teaching our children the traditional skills of times tables, learning poetry by heart and mugging up on the solar system. They'd better beware, as every child knows the fate of Humpty Dumpty (unless they go to the PC nursery which, I learned today, has him landing safely on a bungee rope...). If you asked me for an alternative generic word, the best I could come up with is "union".

In fact, I have long been attracted to the French wedding system, as I understand it, where everyone has a civil ceremony, and those who choose proceed to a church ceremony afterwards. However, I also have sympathy for the CofE's mistrust of the European courts. Although they have ruled to respect religious freedom, because of the established nature of the Church here it's reasonable to suspect that discrimination legislation might be deemed to trump religious independence. The Church is NOT independent from the State here. It might have to face the difficult decision to cut its ties.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

"Mea culpa?"

George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, has written a letter to The Sunday Telegraph today. In it he says, "Our recovery - already facing powerful headwinds from high oil prices and the debt burden left behind by the boom years - is being killed off by the crisis on our doorstep." The response from Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, was predictable"It's deeply complacent and out of touch for George Osborne to blame Europe for a double-dip recession made in Downing Street. He will fool nobody with these increasingly desperate excuses."

Déjà entendu? Don't you remember the Labour Government saying our economic woes were all the fault of the American sub-prime market and the bankers? It's really not our fault, they said. Of course the Tory Opposition repeatedly asserted that the deficit was actually the result of the government's irresponsible stewarding of public finances. Of course it was their fault, they told us.

Life's not that simple. It's not black and white. No wonder so many people feel like Mercutio, dying because of the ancient feud between the Montagues and Capulets - "a plague o' both your houses"! If the consequences weren't so serious for the people in the middle, we might write it off as "Punch and Judy politics". However there are casualties - from the young unemployed with little prospect of finding a job, to the genuine disabled facing cuts in their support. And of course there's the cost of people's faith (and interest) in politics.

This coming week our political leaders will be in the spotlight in front of Lord Justice Leveson. I don't suppose the modus operandi of their politics will be focused on. Perhaps Her Majesty might have a word, when she has a chance after her strenuous week. She might remind them of the New Testament reading from her St Paul's service on Tuesday which was read by the Prime Minister: "Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all." Did she choose it deliberately? I wonder.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Royal reflections

I'm sorry. I think this will do me good - a sort of therapy; and if I'm lucky, if I can get it out of my system, it will save Jane from having to put up with a somewhat cynical husband for another day. It may lose me some friends, but there we are; you win some, you lose some....

My problem is this. All this hooha over the Queen's Diamond Jubilee has been getting to me. As readers of this blog will be aware, I admire HRH immensely; I take some pleasure in having passed Prince Charles once or twice going to lectures on the Sidgwick Site in Cambridge (and personally I don't think he's as potty as his detractors try to make us believe); and I admit to having been thoroughly seduced by last year's royal couple. However yesterday in church we had a short video compilation of the coronation and, I am sorry, I saw the rows of ermine, that gaudy coach and all the ceremony (highly symbolic, I know) of gold, and crowns, sceptre, sword of state etc etc, and I thought, "Surely, please, we're not going to repeat all that in a few years' time, are we?" And the answer was of course a resounding affirmative. And next time the media juggernaut will roll into action with even greater hyperboles. The national anthem was sung at the end of the service: "Long live our noble Queen... send her victorious... long to reign over us..." - and I had heretical thoughts, such as, "Is it fair to pray that she'll get very old? Or to ask that she'll never be allowed to enjoy a retirement? And whom exactly do we want her to fight and beat?" At least the verse about frustrating her enemies' knavish tricks was left out.

Wantage Market Place festivities with the "Rockits"
No, it's not her majesty that's been getting under my skin. Neither is it communities coming together for celebrations. I think street parties like village festivals (of which Stanford's is a good example) are excellent occasions, bringing people out from their houses worshipping their one-eyed gods in the corner (or on the wall if it's a big-screen plasma one) and reminding them that they have a lot of neighbours who are human and indeed quite nice. Jane and I went yesterday to Wantage Market Place, where about 4000 people had been in spite of the rain, and this afternoon we sauntered down to Grove Rugby ground where there was a panoply of entertainments and stalls and many more people enjoying the sunshine. I understand these cost ratepayers nothing, unlike nearby Abingdon which had budgeted £50,000 for their weekend.

It's not even the money, however, that's made me reflect, although the message of lavish spending to celebrate the unusual length of a queen's reign should create pause for thought in a period of austerity when most people are being forced to economise and many are without jobs. We're told that the cost of the celebrations is being met by private donors - though that is clearly not the case, as Abingdon illustrates, and when such things as heightened security and additional policing, fly-pasts, broadcasting etc are factored in. But the message is still there, loud and clear, money can be found for some purposes after all - just not for the most disadvantaged. I heard someone on the radio this morning defending the expense by saying, "For once, can't we forget about bread, and give them circuses? We need both...".

I suppose that's the question. Has the monarchy just become a circus to entertain the hungry masses? Is that its real function? I don't presume to know the Queen's personal views, though we are told that if history hadn't lined her up for the throne she'd have chosen a quiet life in the country with horses and dogs. All the more credit to her for fulfilling her role of service to the country with such faithfulness. However all the pomp and circumstance, all the traditional razzmatazz, all the extravagance of the "court" could be regarded as circus entertainment, which is of course how the media treat it, when all the pseudo deference is stripped away. I'm left wondering not so much whether we want a monarchy, but whether we want a celebrity-style royal family, frozen in theme-park aspic.

My intelligent friends abroad had interesting reactions to the weekend. Mark, an Englishman in Sydney, commented: "So glad I'm in Australia, there is only so much of the Union Jack I can cope with..... And I've seen too much on Facebook alone!!" It's not that he's unpatriotic; but I think he is tired by jingoism and our constant apparent need to "big ourselves up" (to use the unpleasant but vivid modern expression), often at the expense of others. Jeannie in New York when I mentioned the Jubilee weekend commented that she was "not into the 'queen'" (by which I think she meant monarchy show), but she had been "a Diana fan", and she "likes Prince Charles's environmental stuff". Such a balanced assessment was refreshing to read after all the uncritical adulation or unthinking antagonism which occupied the airwaves of the BBC at times. I asked a Dutch friend who lives in the UK, "Do we REALLY do royalty so well? I know we do it expensively; but it seems to me we do it extravagantly. Should we go Dutch? I can't believe you're so prodigal. (NB I think good Queen Bess 2nd does royalty very well.)" She agreed that Britain could manage its monarchy at a much more modest cost, and that the Netherlands manage a constitutional monarchy with far more simplicity, "properly rooted in the Dutch calvinist tradition, sense of duty and profound awareness of God's grace."

It was interesting for me to read about the Dutch monarchy, and also to google pictures of Dutch royal ceremonies. Pictures of pageants and pomp are strikingly missing. Only Queen Beatrix and her consort, and the heir apparent and his are paid stipends (linked to the civil service's rate). The rest of the extensive royal family have to earn their own living. I seem to remember her mother, Queen Juliana, used a bicycle. The queen is provided with one official residence and one work palace. For state occasions there's the Old Palace in Amsterdam, which open to the public at other times. This unshowy royal family have between 85 and 83% approval rating. According to Jenni Bond, the former BBC royal correspondent, our Queen's approval rating in the polls is 80% (Radio 5 this morning), when she's never been more loved. From which I conclude that all the flim-flam industry with which we surround our monarchy is dispensable. (And please don't give me the tired and irrelevant "It's good for the tourist industry" line!)

I tuned in to a heated exchange on Radio 5 Live this morning, including one Dicky Arbiter, once the Queen's press secretary and now public speaker. I think it was him that made a comment, to justify monarchy, that seven of the most stable democracies have monarchies, by which I guess he meant Belgium, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. For some reason he didn't mention states like Saudi Arabia, Brunei, Swaziland, Omar, Dubai, Qatar, Morocco, Bahrain etc. I'm sorry. It's empty arguments like that which make me consider democracies such as Ireland which elects its impressive non-executive head of state. However for the moment I'm grateful for ITV4 which has been showing the diverting French Open Tennis, which has provided welcome relief from saturation coverage of plastic-flag-waving jubilifications. And to be honest, I am more grateful and full of admiration for the woman standing alone in the centre of this picture, while at the same time I wish her husband a speedy recovery.
from Huffington Post