Greater love hath no man…

The title of this post refers to a very well known line from John’s Gospel:

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

The surrounding lines provide a bit of context – it’s part of a statement made by Jesus, shortly before he goes in to the Garden of Gethsemane where he’ll be betrayed by Judas.

“This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.  Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends, if you do whatsoever I command you.”

The call to selflessness has become culturally associated with the military services, and the phrase is often used with regard to people who have died in the heat of battle, sacrificing themselves for the benefit of others around them.

But I also associate this line with a fictional story.

I enjoy the James Cagney gangster movies from the 1930s, particularly the two he did with Humphrey Bogart; ‘The Roaring Twenties’ and ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’.  In the latter, Cagney plays a gangster, Rocky Sullivan, released from jail and owed money by Bogart’s character, Jim Frazier, who collaborated with Sullivan on a bank raid.  Sullivan took the rap, in return for the money to be paid to him after his release.  Sullivan also has a friend in the local Catholic pries, Jerry Connolly.  As boys, both Rocky and Jerry carried out a robbery together but only Rocky was caught, and sent to reform school, where it might be argued his criminal career began.  Jerry was a faster runner, and became a priest.

Jerry coaches a group of boys playing basketball, who rapidly become impressed with Rocky’s charm and bravado, and his courage and general approach to life. Jerry is concerned that this may lead the boys in to a life of crime.

To cut to the chase, Frazier double-crosses Rocky, and Rocky ends up in a gun fight in which he kills a policeman, which ultimately leads to Rocky being on death row, awaiting execution.

The boys are convinced that Rocky will die like he lived – a hero, going to the electric chair with swagger and bravado. Jerry goes to see Rocky and asks him to go to the chair ‘as a coward’, with the hope that the boys will lose all respect for him and not set out on a life of crime as they try to emulate their hero. Rocky refuses.

However, when he’s taken in to the execution chamber to be executed, he begs and weeps and fights against the guards. His courage and bravado are gone; he goes to his death in an undignified and cowardly manner, pleading for mercy. Jerry, who’s present in the role of Rocky’s priest, prays as the execution takes place.  The boys later read the headlines that Rocky died a coward, and ask Jerry whether it was true.  After a brief pause, he tells them that it was all true. The boys lose respect for Rocky; it’s hoped that they will steer away from crime.

Whether Rocky was acting the part of a coward, or whether he really did ‘break’ at the end isn’t revealed in the film. In later life, Cagney kept quiet about it as well. I saw this film first time around in my early teens, watching it one Sunday afternoon with my parents, and I couldn’t quite work out myself whether Rocky was acting or not.  I got the feeling that Jerry thought that Rocky had done the right thing, though – that moment of pause when the boys asked whether whether the newspaper story was true seems to suggest he was wondering whether to tell ‘the truth’ or the truth.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to think that Rocky DID do the good thing – he made whatever sacrifice he could at the end to help his friend. His life was already forfeit, so he gave up his character, his dignity, his courage; he gave up the rest of him, so to say.

As for Jerry, the older I’ve got the more I have to ask ‘Was it too great a thing to ask of Rocky? After all, but for your ability to run faster, you might have followed a similar life. You asked of him to give away the very thing that made Rocky, Rocky, in the eyes of the world. That was a great deal to ask. Was it too much to ask?’

I’ve not yet got an answer for that one.

Fiction allows us to explore complex morality at ‘low cost’ – this film has stayed with me for my whole adult life. I occasionally watch it when it’s on TV to see if I can gain some more insights; I know, it sounds daft trying to pick out morality from a film that’s almost 80 years old, but sometimes we need fiction to allow us to answer some of the big questions.


For a fuller description of the plot, take a look here.


Unhappy the land that needs heroes….??

The line :

“Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”

comes from Bertholt Brecht’s ‘Life of Gallileo’ and has stuck with me for many, many years.  I can’t remember when I first heard it, but it still rattles around my head and so I thought to myself – time for a think.

I don’t know whether I agree with it or disagree with it. When I first heard it I thought it to be so; these days I’m not so sure any more.  The way the world is today the characters of a Brecht play may not need heroes, but the rest of us probably do!

I’m a great believer in the quiet hero, as well as the more obvious heroes in our society.  I would add that there’s rarely anything truly heroic, in my opinion, about sports stars, actors, musicians and celebrities; as a society we seem to have slackened off our definition of hero over the years.  Having said that, there are a few heroic examples of these folks – just not the ones that appear on X-Factor….

I think it was George Orwell who commented something along the lines that so many works of critics regarded so many books as masterpieces written by geniuses, that when a REAL masterpiece came along written by a TRUE genius the critics would have to find new words with which to describe them!

Are there people that everyone can agree are heroes?

Here are a few definitions….

“A hero is someone who stays brave for 5 seconds longer than everyone else.” – Captain James T Kirk

“A hero is someone who has given their life over to something bigger than themselves.” – Joseph Campbell

“When your time comes to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home. ” Tecumseh

“I think a hero is an ordinary individual who finds strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles. ” – Christoper Reeve

“A hero is somebody who is selfless, who is generous in spirit, who just tries to give back as much as possible and help people. A hero to me is someone who saves people and who really deeply cares. ” – Debi Mazar

“My dad’s the one who’s always been there; he’s my hero, you could say. Even when he was working, he’d do anything for me. He’s been the biggest influence in my life. ” – Gareth Bale

“The thing about a hero, is even when it doesn’t look like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, he’s going to keep digging, he’s going to keep trying to do right and make up for what’s gone before, just because that’s who he is.” – Joss Wheedon

“Neil Young is my hero, and such a great example. You know what that guy has been doing for the past 40 years? Making music. That’s what that guy does. Sometimes you pay attention, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes he hands it to you, sometimes he keeps it to himself. He’s a good man with a beautiful family and wonderful life. ” – Dave Grohl

I’m not sure what the common features are here, but I’ve known and still know people who these quotes describe.

I am surrounded by quiet heroes in my life; those folks who fit the descriptions given above by Joseph Campbell and Christopher Reeve. People who’ve given themselves to something bigger than themselves.  Their family, charitable works, their community. Folks who’re constantly fighting the odds. The ones who, as Wheedon says, keep digging even when there appears to be no light at the end of the tunnel.

I need people like this; they’re the folks I look to when the shit is hitting the fan and all seems dark. They’re the ones providing the light – the faint glimmer that, as John says in his Gospel, cannot be put out by the darkness.

They’re also the ones who make me want to be a better man, and perhaps be a hero to others.


Dandelion Breaks and how to avoid them

I have always been a great fan of Berke Breathed’s cartoon strip ‘Bloom County’. For those of you whose life is as yet incomplete, lacking reporting from the strange world of Bloom County, I refer you to where the current ongoing daily adventures of the characters can be found.

Originally Bloom County stopped being published in 1989 or thereabouts, and was reactivated in 2015, and details the adventures of, amongst other characters, a penguin called Opus, a dodgy, sleazy lawyer called Steve and a monster-packed anxiety closet.

But for me, the most important thing to come from Bloom County was the concept of the ‘Dandelion Break’.  When life became too intense for Opus, he would decamp to the top of a local ‘grassy knoll’ and sit among the dandelions for a while until he gained his composure.  Here’s the strip in which I first saw the concept used…


I doubt a month goes by without me resorting to a virtual dandelion break of some sort.  In fact, with my inability at gardening I can, if needed, indulge in a real life dandelion break for several months of the year by simply going in to my back garden.

What’s lovely about this particular script is that whilst the details in that first panel have changed, the course of Opus to resolve the anxiety is still valid today…turn off the tech.  For those of us old enough to have been around the first time, the list of news stories being broadcast is a litany of anxiety from the 1980s – the old Soviet Union, teh Lebanon, Central America, Northern Ireland, the Falklands – the great Cold War, Post-Imperial, Contra-Irangate hotch-potch of issues that used to give the rolling TV news consuming folks in the world ulcers.

Today it’s Trump, ISIS, the Middle East, the Baltic region, Brexit, climate change, fascism, xenophobia, homophobia…you get the picture.  But today we’re equally – if not more – likely to get our drip-feed of anxiety inducing horror through our social media feed as we are through Sky News or CNN. We tool rolling news and rolled it up and put it in our pocket on our phones.

I was again reminded of this in recent months when I’ve felt the urge for the Dandelion Break growing – not particularly in me, but in lots of people around me and people I know through social media. I recently saw a comment on my Facebook feed to the effect that the person concerned was incredibly depressed to the point of crippling anxiety by the state of the world, and another comment from a gentleman being interviewed:

“When I look to the past I get depressed, when I look to the future I get scared.”

I think I’ll be returning to that particular story on another occasion.

There is certainly enough to make so many people take dandelion breaks that the whole of Bloom County’s grassy knolls would be full of anxiety crippled folks sitting and meditating on the beauty of nature. Everyone has to find their own version of the Dandelion Break to save their sanity…or do we?

Whilst loving the concept, I’ve managed to cut down my need for Dandelion Breaks caused by the external events in the world by simply not immersing myself in the day to day stream of ‘world news’ stories that buffet us.

I turn off the tech.

I’ve chosen instead to put myself on a strict diet of ‘catch the headlines if they’re passing by’ and focus on things closer to home – family, cats, friends, work, church. I strengthen my relationships with people around me; I look after my own community and my job and my church. I guard my soul, and hopefully support the souls of others.

As I said on Facebook the other day:

“I catch the headlines online and then that’s it. If WW3 breaks out I’ll know when I see a big flash of light and hear the local ‘Comic Book Guy’ say ‘I have wasted my life.’

Being aware of the weight and tumult of the world when we’re unable to prevent it is a form of torture; I prefer to work locally and try to make things better that I can make better.”

We all have circles of action – the world around us in which our doing or not doing something has immediate and lasting action.  The part of our lives where we can do something to reduce our anxieties in a practical manner.  Then we have circles of influence – we might argue a point, make a decision and communicate and delegate action to be done – the part of the world where we don’t necessarily have that direct impact on the world but we stand a fair to middling chance of influencing it.  Then we have the circle of concern – stuff ‘out there’ that we can’t realistically impact.

Right now, I’m pulling back in to my circle of action. My circles of influence and concern can, for the moment, go screw themselves.  I am not going to cripple myself and by extension my family, cats, friends, work and spiritual life by gaining sleepless night worrying myself stupid about issues I cannot influence.

I know that people will accuse me of being isolationist, uncaring, selfish – please fill in your own words here.  But I can do nothing for the world if I’m broken; and the constant, daily – no, hourly – forcing of the issues of the world over which we have so little influence in our day to day actions simply kills us.

One day, I’ll be strong enough to grow my circle of action further in to my circle of influence – to extend the area around my life where I can do things that have a direct impact on reducing my anxieties.  Until then I intend to push my existential anxieties in the my equivalent of the Bloom County anxiety closet, and use my energy on DOING stuff that benefits me and those around me – family, friends, community – rather than getting in to the depths of ‘The world sucks, it’s all pointless.’

I like having the fallback of a Dandelion Break if needed, but it will be down to earth, practical worries that sends me there.





To Peace….

…and before everyone leaps up, glasses and coffee mugs in hands, and shouts ‘To Peace’ back to me, I’m not offering a toast here! I’m thinking that it’s about time we made ‘peace’ a verb.

Henri Nouwens had this to say :

“Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love?’ These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will be many fruits, here in this world and the life to come.”

I read this as saying that all those things – smiles, healing, letting go of anger and resentment, forgiving and loving are all wrapped up in some way in that first phrase ‘Did I offer peace today’.

We often define peace in terms of the absence of other things. Peace is what we have when we don’t have war or conflict; it’s when there is no noise or tumult, when there is nothing to disturb us.  Sure, we have ‘peace conferences’ designed to create peace, but even these are really about resolving the issues that lead to conflict.

The word ‘Shalom’ – a Jewish word – is often thought to mean peace, but actually has a deeper and richer meaning.  According to Strong’s Biblical concordance,

“Shalom means completeness, wholeness, health, peace, welfare, safety, soundness, tranquility, prosperity, perfectness, fullness, rest, harmony, the absence of agitation or discord.”

Some of that fits with peace, but there’s an awful lot there besides!

When Jewish people wish each other ‘Shalom’ they are packing an awful lot of good stuff in to that single word.  And it’s a word defined in things that are present, as well as things that are absent.

I think we need to start bringing some Shalom in to our own lives and the lives of people around us. We need to start ‘peacing’ – doing peace in our day to day lives.

For me, ‘peacing’ would be about the things from Nouwen’s quote above and the definition of Shalom. When we ‘peace’ we would be looking to bring love, healing, smiles and forgiveness.  We’d be looking to carry out actions or say words that bring about a sense of wholeness and completeness, welfare and safety.  We’d be wanting a sense of harmony and the absence of agitation or discord or conflict in relationships. And we’d be looking to do all we can to bring about a sense of peace and restfulness in a person’s life and relationships.

As a Christian, the start of the Holy Communion part of a service is that we all give one another ‘a sign of peace’, with words along the line of ‘Peace be with you’.

In Islam, the greeting “As-Salam-u-Alaikum” is used – (Peace be unto you”.  This is pronounced as “us-saa-laam-muu-ah-lay-kum”, if you ever want to use it.

The world seems to get nastier and more spiteful and small minded with each passing day; perhaps we all need to start peacing – and if we can’t do it with words (after all, it might seem a bit formal to say ‘Peace be with you’ to the mail man) maybe we need to start doing it with actions.

When we meet people, speak with people, pass people by – carry in our hearts and minds an attitude of peace and shalom.  Bear in mind whether we can give them any of the gifts listed above. And try to peace everyday.

After all, practice makes perfect, which is itself one of those traits of Shalom.


Single Sex Marriage….

Well, you know what they say about fools rushing in where angels fear to tread….here I go.  Normally I don’t post too much on social issues, but this grew out of a Facebook post I made on a friend’s wall, and it seemed to be sensible just to put it here as well.

On the practical side, this is a badly thought out piece of legislation (next up will need to be changes in the law on divorce, (the current definitions of adultery and non-consummation as grounds are meaningless, for example, with regard to gay couples). I’m also concerned that the area protecting vicars / priests against possibly being sued for not wishing to conduct a same sex marriage is not watertight. And until the ‘civil partnership’ arrangement is made available to straight couples, we don’t have true equality – just a change in the law. As an aside, equality does not necessarily mean identity. I believe in fairness, but believe that being fair in society doesn’t mean everything has to be the
same for everybody. That ends up in a form of totalitarianism.

On a personal side, and from my Godbothering perspective, I’m one of these folks who believe that the ‘New Covenant’ between Christ and mankind superseded quite a bit of the ‘lifestyle’ sections of the Old testament, particularly Leviticus, so I have less hangups than some of my bretheren about homosexuality. I’ve pondered this issue for a long time, using the three pillars of the Church of England; scripture, faith and reason. And PLEASE don’t conflate this argument with women Bishops, as many have done. Different issues. I’m a big supporter on all levels of Women Bishops, less so of the way that the SSM issue has been handled….

My faith, based on a loving God and the redemption offered by faith in His son, is not affected on a personal level by this.

Scripturally, ‘the jury’s out’ and will be forever and a day. As is often pointed out we shouldn’t necessarily be using a text written in the Bronze Age (OT) and Roman times (NT) to determine the in depth rules of society today; we’re not a theocracy, after all. However, for those of us who do have faith the books are there and we take on board what’s in there as central to our beliefs. Unfortunately, as someone said the other day, ‘Jesus didn’t say anything about same sex marriage; then again, he didn’t comment on space travel either….’

My reasoning powers try and make some sense of this. As I’ve said, it’s a half arsed piece of legislation that will need some tuning before it’s put in place. Years ago there was a significant difference in society’s attitude to Church and Civil weddings – to the degree that many people didn’t regard people married in Civil Ceremonies as married. The issues here are going to be similar. Whatever is said in the eyes of the law, it may be decades before many people in society regard SSM Cermonies as ‘proper’ marriages.

The ‘straw man’ arguments about divorce rates, celebrity marriages, etc. are not an issue. Saying that a social and cultural institution is invalid to force a change to it that does nothing to address those problems is not an argument in favour of change. The religious argument here in the UK is purely because of the interconnected nature of Church and State; if the Anglican Church wasn’t the established religion, I doubt that there would have been a lot of the outcry. As it is, I personally feel that there are likely to be wider repercussions from this apparently civil legal change that will impact on the position of the Church in ecumenical terms with other Christian faith groups.

Bottom line is that I’m in favour of fairness and equality, but not in favour of the way that this whole thing has been done. It’s poorly formulated law, put in to being at a time when there are massive social problems on the horizon that really need to engage our body politic rather than this. The question of ensuring that those churches who do not wish to conduct SSM don’t have to is wide open; someone, somewhere, will push the case, I’m sure. It will have an impact on the relationship between the Anglican Church and State (I’m in favour of reducing ties, btw) and with the position of the Anglican Church with its relationships with other Churches, purely due to it being the Established Religion.
On a religious / scriptural level I can’t yet determine a view point, but on a social and cultural level – bad move at this time, in this way.

The word ‘marriage’ is a culturally loaded word, and the nature of the institution harks back to a time when it was effectively a means of ensuring property rights, inheritance rights, child care and social cohesion. These issues are less significant today in the West. This whole business seems to have been fought over the use of a word.

I have no intention of getting in to a debate / argument about this as I think that no words I say will change other minds, and other folks won’t change my mind as I’ve done a lot of soul-searching and study in recent months. I appreciate that some folks may regard me as a bigoted homophobe, and if so, well, just un-friend me in the most appropriate manner and I won’t be upset.

So…congratulations to all who’ve fought hard for this change, and to anyone whose life will be enriched by it. But on a personal level, I think it ill-advised and potentially massively divisive, and my conscience prevents me from embracing it.

As Martin Luther said “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. ” I think that sort of sums me up on this issue.



Seven of Nine and the Illuminati

This blog post started life this summer, after the Olympics.  It was a time of great celebration in Britain; after all, according to some people we’d dodged at least three bullets over the Olympic period – a nuclear terror attack, the invasion of Earth by inter-dimensional aliens through a portal opened by the Olympic Opening Ceremony or an uprising of the forces of the Illuminati.  My original comments can be read in ‘Whoops, No Apocalypse’.

And in December we’re still here….although the Mayans are around the corner…

A day or two ago I again watched the episode of the TV series ‘Star Trek: Voyager’ that triggered this piece in the first place – The Voyager Conspiracy.  In this episode, ex-Borg drone Seven Of Nine attempts to download the whole of Voyager’s computer database in to her head, and in the process of doing so gives herself paranoid delusions in which she attempts to put together a narrative from various events that have taken place on the starship, resulting in her almost causing a mutiny as the Captain and her second in command are told different paranoid delusions in which other crew members are conspirators.

The facts of what happened to the ship were correct; the interpretation placed on them by Seven was totally delusional, caused by her mind’s attempt to see connections and causality where non existed.  As her theories were questioned by other crew members, she would change them to add new facts, never lying but working things around to support her own point of view, ultimately ending up with the crew not knowing who to trust and going around carrying sidearms!

And I’m afraid that that’s what we’re seeing from a lot of people these days.  The Internet has bought a lot of information to a lot of people, and I’m afraid that many folks don’t seem equipped with the critical faculties needed to differentiate between a scientific fact and a stick of rhubarb.  And if you dare to suggest that there might be a more simple explanation than the conspiracy theorists are offering, you’re described as a sheep, already brainwashed in to believing what ‘they’ (whether they are lizards, zeta reticulans, organised crime, CIA mind controllers, etc.) wish us to believe.  Only the people pushing the right line of conspiracy are truly awake and aware; the rest of us are either unwitting dupes, fellow travelers or part of the enemy.

This isn’t to say that conspiracies don’t happen; they do.  But we all need to get a grip on facts as well.  Sometimes a gunman is just an evil or insane, rather than being someone who has been conditioned like Jason Bourne to be a killer.  And whilst the mind-manipulation techniques of programmes like MK-ULTRA no doubt exist, they’re not used on every bat-shit crazy lunatic.

Cock-up is usually more likely than conspiracy.  I have no doubt that on 23rd December when we’ve dodged the Mayan Apocalypse bullet  the conspiracy theorists will be coming up with any number of reasons why they’re still right.  We can expect calendar issues, successful interventions by aliens or enlightened ones, or even that it DID happen but we didn’t notice it.  Me? I have no idea what’s supposed to happen but my money is on nothing at all….

But these conspiracies, propagating around the world and in popular film and TV shows, cause some people a lot of fear and uncertainty. At a time when the world is full of real problems – crashing economies, poverty, hunger and war – perhaps these very capable minds might think how they can apply their intellects to solving a few real-world issues, rather than playing games in which they see themselves as something special – enlightened ones better than the rest of us because ‘they know’.

Whatever it is that they think they know, I’m convinced it’s simply the  production of an under-employed, over-fed and over-stimulated mind.



Denver and the progressive knee jerk point-scoring…

I rarely write about serious stuff like mass murders here on this blog.  It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just that I regard it as pompous and pretentious for me to pontificate on the bleedin’ obvious disasters that befall this world unless I’m somehow involved.

The Aurora cinema shooting is just another tragedy in America’s long and difficult relationship with firearms and the Second Amendment of the US Constitution (for those who don’t have a copy : “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.“)  It’s a combination of multiple personal tragedies, cultural and governmental failures to legislate and one person’s evil or psychosis. I guess that we may get some idea of why this young man did what he did – whether it will make any sense is another matter.

I’ll come straight out – I love a lot of Americans.  Their governments may make me weep on occasion, and they have some religious leaders that make we wonder whether we read the same Bible, and they also produce the Khardssians.  But – on the whole, I like ’em.  I like to think of myself as a left-wing libertarian in political terms, so I sometimes find myself dealing with a lot of people from the left who disagree with my views of the American people, and a lot of people from the US who think I’m a particularly weird type of Libertarian.

What I have found is that hatred of the US is one of the last remaining acceptable bigotries.  So I wasn’t desperately surprised to see this little gem pop up in my Twitter stream – still not sure whether it’s serious or a ‘joke’:

“What American’s don’t understand is that they’re insane.”

Now….let’s pretend I tweeted…”What Greeks don’t understand is that they’re insane.”  I wouldn’t do such a thing – they’re exhibiting some of the sanest behaviour in the world right now – but listen carefully….hear that low rumbling, that sound of wailing and gnashing of teeth, the sharpening of disembowelling cutlasses?  Good.  Because that’s the sound of ten thousand people who’d support that sentiment about the Americans on Twitter getting ready to turn around to me and yell ‘racist’.

I can’t see the difference in comments, but one would be acceptable to a lot of people who consider themselves to be liberal, free-thinking, non-bigoted progressives and one wouldn’t.

To my friends on the left – this isn’t the time for cheap political point scoring based on the actions of one lunatic, no matter how often this particularly American tragedy is played out. The shadow of the man with the gun is long in US culture – it will not easily go away and I’m sure that we’ll see this sort of thing happen again.  But I’d like to think that we could all have the decency to get through these dark times without point scoring and cheap jokes.


Johnny Cash and me.

An early memory of mine is listening to my Uncle Idris play Johnny Cash songs on his guitar.  Particularly he did a great rendition of ‘Ring of Fire’, though without the Mexican trumpets, Mexican trumpeters being singularly rare in the town of Warsop in the 1960s. Back then, Cash was a big name, although I’m not sure that he was ‘cool’ – more mainstream.  And he became more known for his novelty songs like ‘A Boy named Sue’ and ‘One Piece at a Time’, and his TV show, than his more straight forward country / rockabilly songs.

Figuratively speaking, Johnny Cash wandered in and out of my life over the years; he showed up as a murderous singer in Columbo; I’d see his name on the credits of various TV shows and films and also became aware of his conversion to Christianity and his near constant battles with drug addiction.  I admired the guy; in attitude he reminded me of people like Neil Young – ‘not bothered what you think of me, I’m just going to do my music’ – in appearance he vaguely reminded me of some North American Indian version of my own father and uncles.

I loved his appearance in ‘The Simpsons’ episode ‘The mysterious voyage of Homer’, where, under the influence of “The Merciless Peppers of Quetzlzacatenango! Grown deep in the jungle primeval by the inmates of a Guatemalan insane asylum” Homer undergoes a spiritually rich hallucination in which Cash play’s his spirit guide, a coyote. By now I’d grabbed a few CDs of his music, and also read his biography, particularly intrigued by his conversion to Christianity and his claim that he was still one of the biggest sinners he knew.

With the ‘American’ recordings, he became something of a cool icon – the black dress, the  sparse musical performances – especially with the cover he did of the NiN song ‘Hurt’.  Even now, it’s a song that reduces me to tears.

This was around the time that I started taking a more serious interest in my own spirituality, a process that eventually led to my being confirmed in to the Church of England a few years later.  I started looking at Cash’s back catalogue – his spiritual songs, gospel music – and also finding out more about his life.  He was definitely no angel – but he was a man who was honest with himself and others – what you saw was indeed what you got, warts and all.  ‘Hurt’ is indeed his epitaph, but I often think that the lyrics to the U2 song ‘The Wanderer’ – which Cash sang for the band – sum his journey up:

I went out there
In search of experience
To taste and to touch
And to feel as much
As a man can
Before he repents

And as he put it in his own song ‘Man in Black’:

Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
Why you never see bright colors on my back,
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there’s a reason for the things that I have on.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.

I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me.

Well, we’re doin’ mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought ‘a be a Man In Black.

I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin’ for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.

And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,
Believen’ that the Lord was on their side,
I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,
Believen’ that we all were on their side.

Well, there’s things that never will be right I know,
And things need changin’ everywhere you go,
But ’til we start to make a move to make a few things right,
You’ll never see me wear a suit of white.

Ah, I’d love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything’s OK,
But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
‘Till things are brighter, I’m the Man In Black.

Shortly after my own confirmation, I was asked to think about my own journey to Christ, and who influenced me on the way.  Three names popped up – my Aunty Harriet, CS Lewis, and Johnny Cash.


The Competent Person….

The ‘Competent Man’ (or woman) is a character in literature who has a vast range of skills and abilities that make them appear to be capable of doing anything.  Classic male examples are Jeeves or Angus MacGyver.  Now, I’m pretty sure that I’m not one of these mythical men, but I was reminded of this creature when I came across a quote from Robert Heinlein, attributed to a character in one of his novels, Lazarus Long:

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

Well, this quote was written about 50 odd years ago by someone who was a great believer in self-reliance, but I can manage 15 or 16 of those.  To save you trying to work out what I haven’t yet managed – I get my meat from a butcher, have invaded nowhere (unless you cound the battles I’ve played out when wargaming), fight like a girl and haven’t yet died, let alone died gallantly.

But what might we consider to be skills for a competent person today?

The thing that struck me is that we have tended to become more specialised, and often specialised in the minutiae or trivia of life.  I’d be interested to see what people think we might add to the above as ‘skills for the competent human being’ today.  Not ‘skills for the corporate drone’!  Here are my initial thoughts:

have an understanding of national politics, take part in civilised debate and research for the same, entertain small children, be a good listener, manage one’s personal privacy, plan and execute a protest, put up a blog or web site, find and hold down a job, run a household, be comfortable around the aged and dieing, host a meal, organise a funeral, apply basic maintenance to car and home, practice an artistic pursuit, understand some basic science and technology.

I guess that years ago anyone who could do this many different types of activity competently would have been regarded as a very well rounded personality but not necessarily that uncommon (obviously, replace blog or web site with something appropriate for the historical period) – today, I think that they’d be a rarity.

Which is a shame.




Wikileaks – ‘Heat’ magazine for the Political classes?

Hear me out on this one.

I’ve been a political animal for over half my life; for me it came with the turf of being working class boy, avoids going down the pit by going to university, comes home and sees the five pits that I could see from my bedroom window as a kid closed down within a few years.  I was active in ‘Old Labour’ – Chair of Ward, vice Chair of Constituency, District Labour Party, etc. before quitting in disgust at the direction New Labour was taking the party.  Since 1995 my politics have been with a small ‘p’ – they’ve been about community building – bottom up helping people create their own solutions, a little writing, a little online community building, whatever.

So, you might be surprised to read this item, in which I am going to argue that many of the ‘big leaks’ of US Military and Diplomatic Information from Wikileaks have been ultimately pointless, organisationally egotistical and distracting from the issues at hand.  The lack of US security, the possibility that some of the information is ‘black propaganda’ and the personal life of Mr Assange are matters for another day and probably another writer.

Going back to the first time that Wikileaks hit the headlines, the release of papers showing that there had probably been war crimes in Iraq perpetrated by Allied troops, that torture took place and other stories associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was undeniably valuable and the sort of traditional ‘investigative journalism’ that we might expect from the Fourth Estate.  These were relevant and important leaks in any number of ways – wrongdoing by US and UK citizens, possible war crimes, lies in Government about the prosecution of a war – possible further indications that the wars themselves were illegal.  They removed the last shreds of the idea that these were ‘just’ wars being legally and effectively prosecuted. 

Now, the October/November 2010 release.  More of the same to some degree, with added diplomatic cables – what embassy staff said about world leaders, stuff like that.  And stuff going back 20 or 30 years.  Here’s where I start having misgivings – the Diplomatic leaks.

Diplomacy has been defined as the art of saying ‘What a nice doggy, here doggy, have a biscuit, cute doggy…whilst looking around for a large rock with which to hit said dog.’   A great deal of diplomatic traffic is ‘private’ – a concept that many people in Wikileaks and who believe that ‘all information wants to be free’ have problems with.  Does it benefit anyone in the world to find out that British sailors were released from Iranian detention after possible involvement by the Pope?  Or that a US Diplomat regards the British Government as having slight paranoia about the so-called ‘Special Relationship’?  I’m not sure it does – to me it genuinely appears to be gossip on a par with that published in Heat about the status of the marriages of people in the public eye – but I’m sure that it gave the chattering classes a great deal of vicarious pleasure by apparently letting them in to what CS Lewis called ‘The Inner Circle’ – a group of people who know something that most other people don’t…  But ultimately, I’m reminded of the story from World War II surrounding ‘Enigma’ intelligence.  Messages were decrypted that often gave lots of useless personal details about German officers – like one chap constantly complaining about gout.  Whilst it was amusing it was also pointless to the allies, and potentially dangerous to the Enigma decoding project, as were it to get back to the enemy that the allies were having a good laugh at the General’s throbbing toe, it would soon lead to a review of policy and procedure that might shut down the Enigma source for good.

There are other diplomatic leaks that should be kept secret – simply because they deal with ‘work in progress’.  Diplomacy is not a spectator sport.  Those of us of a certain age can remember that the Camp David agreement was greatly facilitated by ‘back channel’ diplomacy where people could speak to each other in secret without knowledge of these meetings, which would have probably scuppered political careers at the very least, getting out until after the event.  This sort of ‘get lots of data, apply no self-censorship, dump the lot on the Internet’ approach from Wikileaks will undoubtedly make any diplomats think twice about what they say in such situations in future.

Wikileaks themselves have admitted that their approach to releasing documents without review or ‘redacting’ (blacking out text, for you and me) could mean that the site would ‘one day have blood on it’s hands’.  To say that and still persist in the same publication method is arrogant and ego-driven.  Amnesty International have already raised the issue of redaction of the names of Afghan civilian workers from released documents – i.e. people helping the Coalition forces in Afghanistan who’re now at risk of death (as are their families) because of the leaked documents.  There is also information about techniques and equipment used to tackle ‘roadside bombs’ in the leaked documents.  Whilst it’s likely that anyone with reasonable technical knowledge could work a lot of this stuff out, there is no point in making the task easier.  I am forced to wonder how much blood will be spilt on the backs of these two stories alone?  Afghan civilian and bomb disposal officer?  Feeling queasy yet, Wikileakers?  People on the liberal left quite rightly decry the waste of life of these wars; I’m not hearing the same voices decrying the waste of life caused by the release of documents by Wikileaks.

And the whole Wikileaks business has been a massive distraction here in the UK.  Whilst a fair number of mainstream media outlets have been publishing leaked Wikileaks documents, running stories on them, and then most recently getting in on the personal stuff about the Wikileaks founder, Britain has had a number of student protests and ‘bottom up’ political protests that have received either biased or no coverage at all.  To people in Britain, Wikileaks will have :

  • Academic / prurient interest for journalists, the chattering classes and teh wannabe ‘heroes of open data’.
  • Serious interest if you’re serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, or have family or friends there, from teh point of view  of your own life or the lives of others being put in greater jeopardy by the data released.
  • Political impact (probably negative) in terms of diplomatic negotiations
  • Very little impact at all on the vast majority of people in the UK.

That’s not to say people are not interested and concerned about leaks that deal with wrongdoing at a personal, governmental or corporate level. That’s what organisations like Wikileaks SHOULD be doing, but with a degree of care, and not with teh arrogance and narcissism that they currently display.

But things like the Student Protests and the protests against unpaid tax made against High Street shops and businesses such as BHS, Vodafone and Top Shop are relevant to people on  day to day basis – they will be paying for that unpaid tax, their children will be paying more for education.  Their children are getting their heads broken (literally) by Police batons.  And these stories are only getting out to the public slowly and with great effort. 

Wikileaks is a distraction to these stories and activities that are more relevant to the British people.  But, I guess they’re not as sexy as things with ‘CLASSIFIED’ written on them that smell, ever so slightly, of spilt blood.  

Like I said, ‘Heat’ magazine for the Political classes,  political porn for the poseurs.