Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The Rhymes and Routes Christmas Message

The Rhymes and Routes Christmas message this year comes from the Reverend John Faraday,  Rector of the Anglican churches (St James', St Peter's and Emmanuel) in Gorton, Manchester.
John (centre) pictured in Pakistan.

I am very grateful to Geoff for the opportunity of writing his blog Christmas Message. To have been preferred over a message from (Ex) President Ahmajinedad is a great privilege… I think.

For the benefit of your readers I will give a brief pen-picture of myself so that you will know where I came from and something about what makes me who I am. I was born in 1949 in Bootle, where bomb-sites were a normal part of life. At the age of 9 my father got a promotion and we were able to move nearer to his work in Southport.

When we got to Southport I was welcomed into the local Boys’ Brigade. I enjoyed their games nights and the local Church. By the time I was in my teens I was a committed Christian. (Yes, I know there are some who think that every Christian should be committed! I agree that all Christians should be committed, but I do not quite mean what they mean!)

While in my teens I met Geoff and we became life-long friends.

I trained at University to be a civil engineer. I am very glad I did because I met people of every social position. On a single day I could be at the bottom of a site trench or in a tunnel with the hard working (usually Irish) men who translated the drawings into reality, then in the evenings dining with directors.

However, my first work in civil engineering was not in the UK and I met no Irishmen. I was accepted as a volunteer for Voluntary Service Overseas and packed off on a flight to Sierra Leone. I learned a lot about myself while I was there. I went there thinking that I was exactly what Sierra Leone needed! I found out that my pride and inexperience made me useless to Sierra Leone. At the end of a difficult year I got home wondering if my time there was any use. I am now convinced it was useful, to me if not for Sierra Leone!

I am now a priest in the Church of England, but I have benefited a lot from meeting all manner of people in my life. (That is one of the great bonuses of work in civil engineering and in the Church).

Although I have made mistakes (and yes, I continue to do so) I am sure that if I had not been a Christian I would have found life a lot more difficult to cope with. When I feel like complaining I can reflect on Jesus. When he was born his parents had nothing. He was born in a stable and soon the family had to flee southwards to Egypt, several hundred miles from their home in the Galilee area. At the age of twelve he was so keen to consider important issues that he spent a couple of days with the Temple leaders, much to the annoyance of Mary and Joseph who thought he was with the party returning to Nazareth where they lived at the time.

Later he had a successful but controversial preaching tour talking about the love of God and forgiveness, about right and wrong- and their results, about what kind of values we should have. People who could not take his message put Him to a very painful death.

I think that it is great when people celebrate Christmas, especially when they take time to consider just what the season is all about- The Son of God coming to earth and ‘roughing it’ with the rest of us. The events of that first Christmas are monumental and meaningful. But they are not the whole story by any means! A tiny baby does not challenge beyond the need for safety, food, warmth and medical care.

A grown person, especially one who challenges every single human being yet is worshipped by so many, should be taken seriously. I believe that Jesus is nothing less than the unique Son of God! The best Christmas present people can give themselves is a copy of the Bible and then start to consider the New Testament. If you would like to ‘dabble’ but spend less money, have a look at a site such as ‘Biblegateway.com’ and read the Bible online, in whatever your native language is. You can find out all about God’s greatest gift to mankind. Start with the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and think about who Jesus was and why He is still a person people live and die for.

My best wishes for a happy Christmas.

John Faraday.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Tom Daley and a Far From Ideal World

On a day when the world mourns Nelson Mandela, who did so much to inspire the world by his struggle against Apartheid, I think it would help to consider  another struggle, which has run contemporaneously with the anti-apartheid struggle and the fight against racism - the issue of gay rights.
 One might think that there is no longer anything to discuss on this matter. Gay people are tolerated to a degree that would have been unimaginable when I was a teenager. Unlike many people of my age group, I admit to having had anti-gay prejudices, which the passing decades have eroded. A recent telephone chat with a cousin whom I have not seen for years provides a good example of how times have changed.
When my cousin phoned, like the proud dad and granddad that he is, he told me all about his four children and their offspring. He then told me about one of his children who is gay and in a civil partnership. What impressed me was the way he mentioned this - as if it were perfectly natural (which it is). To his immense credit, he sounded equally proud of all his children (which he is). Shocking though it may sound now, gay teenagers were still being thrown out of the family home by their parents as recently as the 1980s.
Which brings us to the recent "coming out" of Tom Daley. The story is well enough known, without my needing to repeat any of the details. What is of interest is the public reaction. Now, as Tom Daley himself has said, in an ideal world, he would not have needed to make this announcement. Like many people, my reaction was "So what? We've moved on - haven't we?". Gay pressure groups described him as gay, while some national newspapers labelled him as bisexual. Overwhelmingly, though, the reaction was sympathetic. All this pointed to a question which no-one wanted to answer.
The question is: When leading politicians, musicians, actors and fashion designers, etc, can openly declare themselves as gay or bisexual, why is it such a big deal for a sportsman or woman to do the same? Well, I am not going to attempt to answer this, but the homophobic abuse that has been dished out at rugby matches to the gay rugby player, Gareth Thomas, could indicate part of the explanation.
As for Tom Daley, I think that he should be left alone to develop his sexuality in the way (or ways) that he chooses (so should everyone!). However, going public like he has done will not help his case. There has been immense press speculation about the identity of his male date, and Daley may well find that he receives more unwelcome media attention than ever.
There is no such thing as an ideal world, as Tom Daley acknowledges. What may be ideal to one person is not ideal to another. An ideal world to a homophobe is a world without homosexuals; for racists, a world with no people of a different colour. I would not describe my view as "ideal", but  personally, following the publicity surrounding Daley's announcement, I would like to see all of us - not just the press, who only print what we want to read - learning to mind our own business. That would put paid to the awful cult of "celebrity" and "gossip mags". If you don't like what celebs do in private, stop reading about them; if you don't like what your neighbours do behind closed doors, stop squinting through the keyhole. As the Christians said in their perceptive song of some years ago: "This ain't no way to treat mankind" - and the song, incidentally, is called "Ideal World".
Or am I being too idealistic?

Monday, 18 November 2013

No Minor Detail - a Tribute to Alice Abes

Last Friday, my sister-in-law, Alice Abes, pictured above, died in a hospital in Manila, capital of the Philippines.63 years of age, she succumbed to leukaemia, which seems to have gone untreated for some months or years. At a time when many thousands of Filipinos have died, been injured, gone missing or made homeless by Typhoon Haiyan, Alice's death may be regarded by some as a minor detail.
Except it is not a minor detail. No-one's passing is a minor detail. As John Donne observed, when the funeral bell tolls, it tolls for all of us. Alice lived a life no different from that of many Filipinas. Born into a large family, she married, worked hard, battled poverty and raised a family. She leaves behind four children and twelve grandchildren, besides her eight siblings, one of whom is my wife. For them, losing Alice is no minor affair, nor any trifling detail.
Unfortunately, I never really got to know Alice. We met only a couple of times, and never really had a conversation (many Filipinos think I am either German or Australian, and find that very suspicious, for some reason). Nevertheless, I salute Alice's memory, and believe that her last days are of significance to us here in Britain.
Alice's final stay in hospital was made doubly traumatic for her family by the brutally simple fact that healthcare in the Philippines is not free - you pay for it. As many Filipinos are desperately poor, they often cannot afford medical treatment, and as my wife says: "In Philippines, if you don't pay, you die". Without support from her family, Alice would have faced a grim end; without support from the wider family, her children could not have afforded to pay for her treatment.
Why should this concern us, here in Britain? Well, it does not take much research to find that there are some right-wing British politicians who would dearly love to dismember the National Health Service (in which, ironically, many Filipinos work) and privatise as much of it as possible. This is not always overtly stated, but it is not difficult to read between the lines.
Fortunately, many British people recognise the warning signs, and are campaigning (not a moment too soon!) to "Save the NHS". If you, dear reader, support this campaign, when you are signing petitions, writing to your M.P. or joining in street protests, then please - remember my sister-in-law, Alice Abes. In a way, her passing encapsulates all we fight for, and all we are campaigning against.
There could be no better tribute to her memory.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

No Pasaran! - the Musical

I have never reviewed a musical before, and welcome the chance to do so now. If I leave out anything important, I hope readers will forgive my omissions. Now I've got that out of the way, I can begin.
Last weekend, my wife and I went for a short break to Bournemouth. It is our favourite resort on the south coast, and I was glad to combine our trip with a visit to the De la Salle Theatre to watch "No Pasaran! - the Musical" by Roy Gaynor (lyrics and music) and Doug Gould (musical orchestration).
Now, at this point, I must declare a personal interest. Roy and myself share an interest in the Spanish Civil War (SCW), that epic struggle which still has the ability to arouse passion and anger. I met Roy through the International Brigade Memorial Trust, of which we are both members. I write lyrics myself, and Roy had already set one of my lyrics to music. Naturally, I was interested to see what he made, musically, of the war in Spain during the 1930s.
The SCW lasted from 1936 to 1939, and presents difficulties for theatrical presentation. There are many detailed accounts of the conflict, and Roy would have been faced with the problem of depicting the passage in time of the war, while condensing the material into an acceptable time limit.
I think he solves the problem brilliantly by telling the story of a divided Irish family whose two sons set off to fight in Spain. One goes to fight for Franco and the other (hurray!) for the Republicans in the International Brigades. The experiences of these two drive the action. Wisely, Roy has not included every SCW battle, and there is a time lapse between the Battle of the Jarama (1936) and the Battle of the Ebro (1938). Without spoiling the ending, there is a love triangle story that runs through the musical that is poignantly resolved at the end of the play when one of the brothers returns to Spain. My wife, who loves musicals, was moved to tears by this charming climax.
Of course, as a music lover, and a lyricist myself, I was very interested in the songs and music that run through the production from beginning to end. I am pleased to say that Roy does a first class job here. Writing songs about a historical event calls for freshness of insight and arrangement and there is a wide variety of songs in No Pasaran! - from ballads to blues. At no point will you be bored when watching this musical. The singers are outstandingly good, singing with passion and expression of  a professional standard - no mean achievement, considering that many of the cast are amateurs. A marvellous Spanish touch is the appearance of Flamenco dancers throughout the play. They give impressive performances, and remind us of the people for whom the International Brigades fought.
I must admit to the fact that both the love triangle and the superb choral performances in "No Pasaran!" reminded me at times of "Les Miserables". If I was some sniffy national newspaper critic, I'd comment adversely about that, but I'm not, and I won't. If similarities in stories were wrong, then Orwell's "1984" would be dismissed as a copy of Zamyatin's "We", and "Pilgrims Progress" as a mere derivative of the Bible. The story of the musical is believable and moving, and the choruses are admirable of themselves.
If "No Pasaran!" does not become better known, then there ain't no justice. Whatever, congratulations to all concerned for a great performance and a great night out for the audience. I am pleased to say that it will be performed again in Bournemouth next year - and hopefully elsewhere.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Tommy Robinson, Islamophobia and the Problems of Heresy

Following on from Rednev's item about the growth of Islamophobia among young Britons, I think it worth turning to the recent resignation of Tommy Robinson (aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) from the English Defence League (EDL). Having been categorised as anti-Muslim and a racist, Robinson has now announced his intention to work with Quilliam to break down extremism among Muslims. He expounded his opinions this morning, on the BBC TV programme, "Sunday Morning Live". Unsurprisingly, there has been a good deal of scepticism about Robinson's "conversion" to moderation, especially from anti-racist groups and some Muslim commentators. Others are prepared to give Mr Robinson the benefit of the doubt. I belong to the latter group, albeit with some caution. The EDL is in decline anyway, and Robinson might just be abandoning a sinking ship. If he is sincere, then he should watch his back - if the Neo-Nazis who have been agitating against Robinson's leadership actually take over the EDL, they will regard Robinson as a traitor (some already say he was an MI5 agent), and be out for revenge. Jihadi groups take a similar position towards people who leave their ranks.
And there lies the crux of the problem. The EDL, the far right and their Jihadi enemies need each other in order to justify their own extremist positions. As has been noted before, they resemble each other in a number of significant ways. Moving to a more moderate consensus is not acceptable to either side.
Tommy Robinson (and the rest of us) might like to start by asking why there is a growth in Muslim extremism in the first place. The argument that it is all because of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan is too simplistic - although it is undeniably a factor. Al-Qaeda existed before 9/11, and most of the hijackers were Saudis, not Afghans, Iraqis or Pakistanis. It is a mistake to regard Islamist terror attacks as retaliation for attacks on countries; all the terror groups say that they see the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as attacks on Islam itself. It is that, I believe, which is alienating some Muslims from our society, and causing their rejection of liberal democratic norms in politics and societal behaviour. Fundamentalist Islam, which Robinson and others detest, is a total lifestyle choice, involving cultural issues, not just politics and violence. Besides which, we should bear in mind that not all fundamentalist Muslims are terrorists, nor are all Muslims fundamentalists.
At this point, I must say that I have taught many Muslim children (still do teach!), worked with Muslim colleagues in my career, and never encountered the slightest hint of extremism. My experience of encountering Islam has been generally  positive. I have learned a lot from Muslim children about their faith, and been impressed at how articulate they can be when discussing their beliefs. As far as I'm concerned, never having met any extremists, I have no problems with the vast majority of Muslims.
However, Islam itself, I believe, has a problem organisationally. Not only is it divided into two main camps, Sunni and Shia, but it has no central controlling body. This makes it very difficult to rid itself of extremist groups. The Church of England has the General Synod; the Roman Catholic Church had the Inquisition; the Communist Party in the old Soviet Union had an all-powerful Central Committee. This meant that all these bodies could rid themselves of heretics and ideological deviationists (the two terms are interchangeable!). Islam has no central body to do this, and the Jihadis remain Muslims, tarnishing the name of the religion they profess to follow.
Besides this, the image of Islam is not helped by the fact that, of all the countries in the world where faith minorities and unbelievers are badly treated, the majority of such countries are Islamic states. I have discussed this in previous postings, researching the treatment of Atheists, Christians and Bahais around the world, and found that Islamic countries are the worst offenders. This varies, of course, from country to country. Egypt has a large Christian minority, and Turkey has a quite lenient attitude towards unbelievers. However, the picture is very different in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran. While Islamic countries practise intolerance towards minorities, groups such as the EDL, etc, will be able to portray Islam as a threat to our way of life. Nor does it help when some Muslims admit to this - see the picture above, or read some of the pronouncements of Jihadi hate preachers.
To return to Tommy Robinson, Esther Rantzen made the point this morning that, if we reject, with cynicism, extremists such as Mr Robinson who want to come in from the cold, we will only discourage others who seek to do the same. Let's hope that Tommy Robinson moderates his views and many others (EDL and Jihadis) follow him.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Islamophobia and British youth

"Borrowed" from 1st Ethical website
28% of 18-24 year olds interviewed in a survey say they do not trust Muslims: I even heard one 20-year old woman say on the radio, “They’re all the same”. I am very disturbed by such prejudice towards followers of a faith that constitutes 23% of the world’s population. As a comparison, Christianity represents 33%.

If I were an 18-24 year old living in Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya and had seen my country invaded by British and American armies, or in Libya’s case heavily bombed, especially if my community had been destroyed with neighbours, friends and relatives killed or injured, I suspect I would feel hostile towards those responsible.

We invaded Iraq and Afghanistan when neither country posed a risk to our security; who can forget Tony Blair’s dodgy dossier about weapons of mass destruction? A count of civilians killed by the fighting and the breakdown of law and order after our invasion of Iraq puts the figure at 114,566 (based on data drawn from cross-checked media reports, hospital, morgue, NGO and official figures), equivalent to 38 September 11 attacks - see Iraq Body Count.

The New York and London bombings and the horrific murder of Drummer Lee Rigby are unforgiveable atrocities, but is it surprising that our actions provoked a response? Unlike the days of empire, if we throw our weight around nowadays, those we attack can retaliate. Most of course do not, but it only needs a tiny number to commit terrorist acts. Condemning one and a half billion people for the actions of the few is ignorant, unjust and inflammatory.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Syria : Some Thoughts and Questions

Saying anything original about the Syrian crisis is difficult. So much has been said already, and the last word will not be said, unfortunately, for many years to come. The situation is developing (I wish I could say improving) even as I type, and my observations will be out of date in a very short space of time. Nevertheless, I do have some questions and thoughts on this evolving tragedy, and hope they remain relevant.
My first question relates to the recent horrific chemical attack in Damascus which, as we know, killed 1,400 people. We have witnessed a very rare rebellion on this issue in the House of Commons, which has put paid (supposedly) to any British military involvement in the promised US-led "punishment strikes" against the Assad regime. President Obama, who always said that proven use of chemical weapons would result in military action, has still not managed to put together enough international (or domestic) support to launch any punitive measures. This farcical state of affairs has given President Assad time to move his troops and weapons into civilian areas and, presumably, his chemical weapons into secret locations. Quite what any air or missile strike would hit now is anyone's guess. My question, though, is this: 100, 000 people have died in Syria so far, and no action has been taken. In which case, then, if the 1400 unfortunates slain by Sarin gas had been shot instead, would there still have been a House of Commons debate or any talk of action by the United States?
Next, I would like to know why we are not hearing more about the crimes of the supposed "good guys" - the Syrian rebels. Our media reports, accurately enough, that there is a strong Al-Qaeda presence among the rebels ("Al-Nusra"), but we hear very little about their victims. One of the main targets for this group, as has been seen in Iraq, is the Christian population, who are fleeing Syria in huge numbers. Both sides are committing war crimes, but the reporting of rebel misdeeds is somewhat subdued. I know that there is a difference between the violence of the oppressed and that of the oppressor, but that distinction becomes blurred as we look more closely at both sides in this conflict. The whole situation shows signs of becoming a Sunni versus Shia battle, with Rebels + Al-Nusra + Saudi Arabia on one side and Assad + Iran (our dear friends again, folks!) + Hezbollah on the other. In other words, this could become a religious war. Let's hope I'm wrong, as such a war would have a worldwide impact, and would not remain within Syria's borders.
Next, I'd like to make an observation on the supposed military inaction by western countries, especially the USA and Britain. This is of particular relevance in light of the recent House of Commons vote and the firm declaration of "no boots on the ground" by British and American politicians. If the USA and Britain were looking to launch air and missile strikes, they would need to have trained "spotters" on the ground in Syria itself. These spotters are necessary, in order to ensure accurate hits on chosen targets, and to avoid the disastrous mistakes made in the Balkans and Iraq by so-called "Smart" weapons. Now, these spotters could be trained rebel personnel, but are more likely to be experts from British, American and French special forces (serving or retired), who have a proven history of working covertly in the world's troublespots. In other words, there is probably a Western military presence already.
Lastly, I recently saw a photograph in "The Independent" of an elderly Syrian man, gazing on the ruins of his village after a government bombing raid. His face was a mask of utter despair, like that of so many Syrian victims in this obscene conflict. His story was typical of so many others as well; most of his family had been killed by one side or another. I wonder: would anyone like to explain to him (and all the others) why the rest of the world stood by and argued among themselves while his life was devastated?
Any volunteers?

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Persecuting the Harmless - the Trials of the Bahai Faith

Speaking personally, this has been a worthwhile venture, researching into religious (and non-religious) persecution. While the details of the persecution meted out by believers to other believers and others have been horrifying at times, I have learned to respect the tenacity of the persecuted. An Anglican vicar friend of mine, for instance, told me that Pakistani Christians accept persecution as part of life. To me, NO religious persecution is acceptable, and I am glad of the means to condemn it. Besides this, I have learned more about the beliefs of persecuted groups whose tenets were previously unknown to me. One such group is that of the Bahai faith who are a harmless religious minority of only a few million worldwide, yet who still attract persecution in a small number of countries, worst of all in Iran.
So who are the Bahais? Well, this is what I have learned:
The Bahá'í faith is one of the youngest of the world's major religions. It was founded by Bahá'u'lláh in Iran in 1863. The basic Bahai beliefs, all of which are admirable (even if some are common to all religions) are as follows, and taken from the Bahai UK website:

"Bahá'u'lláh taught that there is one God whose successive revelations of His will to humanity have been the chief civilizing force in history. The agents of this process have been the Divine Messengers whom people have seen chiefly as the founders of separate religious systems but whose common purpose has been to bring the human race to spiritual and moral maturity.
Humanity is now coming of age. It is this that makes possible the unification of the human family and the building of a peaceful, global society. Among the principles which the Bahá'í Faith promotes as vital to the achievement of this goal are
Whatever our beliefs, there is not, I believe, anything there for other religious believers to find objectionable. There is a worldwide Bahai presence (6000 in the UK; 140 000 in the USA) of about six million adherents. The Bahais, then, are a peaceful and inoffensive religious minority. No-one, I thought in my ignorance, should feel the need to persecute them.
Alas, I was wrong. The Bahai faith, founded in 1863, had the great misfortune to start out in Iran, where its followers were immediately regarded as heretics and apostates to Islam. This is because Islam teaches that Muhammad was "the seal of the prophets", and no further prophets (such as Baha'u'llah) are needed. It has been the unhappy fate of the Iranian Bahais to be persecuted under every political ruler in Iran, be it the Shah, or the Ayatollahs. Since 1979, over 200 Bahais have been executed, thousands have been imprisoned or driven into exile, and their community leaders arrested. They are also barred from higher education and employment opportunities. This disgraceful situation has been the subject of numerous reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
To be "fair" to the Iranian regime, Bahais face discrimination in other countries: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Indonesia and Morocco. All these countries are Islamic; the only Muslim country to grant legal recognition to the Bahais is Egypt. The recent rise of the Muslim Brotherhood has caused anxiety to Bahais, Christians and other religious minorities in Egypt - the world's media never mentions that. One wonders why...perhaps the safest comment to make is that religious persecution is worse in some countries rather than others? Which leads to an obvious conclusion...

Friday, 2 August 2013

"If..." - You Can Remember the Sixties?

A couple of months back, I bought the DVD of the acclaimed Lindsay Anderson film from 1968, "If", starring Malcolm McDowell.( If I'd known that I could watch it in full on YouTube, I wouldn't have bothered). It caused a sensation on its release, winning the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1969. It was given an "X" certificate, and has been rated since as the 16th greatest British film of all time by the magazine "Total Film" in 2004.
The film's reception was heightened by the 1968 riots in Paris, the Grosvenor Square riots in London, the Prague Spring and a number of revolutionary conflicts around the world, most notably the Viet-Nam War. For those who have not seen the film, it concerns the alienation of, and revolution (more accurately, armed uprising) by three rebellious public schoolboys. There is the lover of violent revolution, Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell), the eco-warrior, Johnny (although he says very little about green issues), played by David Wood, and the gay activist Wallace (played by the gay actor, Richard Warwick). These three nonconformists clash with authority on a number of occasions throughout the film, suffering degrading and painful corporal punishment, until they find a cache of automatic weapons and, in the famous closing sequence, open fire on a Founder's Day ceremony from the school roof, accompanied by two of the boys' lovers (one male, one female). As the school cadet force return fire, we are left with the unfinished question "If...", which in full is meant to be:
"If this were really to happen, which side would YOU be on?"
It is easy to see why this film created such a sensation when released, which points to a misapprehension about the 60s. Real sexual and social revolution did not come about in Britain until the 1970s- the 60s was a time when the changes had only just begun. Instead of the "Swinging 60s", the period has been better described as "the 50s with mini-skirts" - which brings me back to the film and its political message. It could only shock because of the relatively conservative nature of UK society at the time. To me , it looked dated in 1978 - even more so now.
I do not wish to discuss the filmic and artistic merits of the film, as they are better discussed elsewhere. I do, however, believe that it has political and historic merits that have been overlooked. It depicts, symbolically, I believe, the "high-water mark" of the revolutionary Left in western society in general and Britain in particular (the "high noon" came at the end of the 70s). The key to the film's action is the "hero", Mick Travis, who covers the wall of his room with pictures of violent revolutionary struggle from around the world - and he loves it. As he says:
"Violence and revolution are the only pure acts".
This questionable utterance is a distinct echo of the thoughts on revolution of Mao Zedong, whose picture is on Mick's study wall. It is a romantic (in the widest sense) statement, worthy of Blanqui, Bakunin, or Mao himself. Mick expresses no sympathy or solidarity with the revolutionaries or concern for innocent civilians; he is in love with revolution itself. Do he and his fellow dissidents engage in struggle against the iniquities they see happening in their public school? Do they seek to organise the pupils of the school to improve conditions? Do they lead strikes, walkouts, sit-ins or protests? Alas, no, they resort to a gesture of futile violence.
 In this, they represent some on the far Left at that time who embraced the revolutionary ideal without wanting to join in more traditional workers' struggles over pay and working conditions. According to this view, drawing upon the theories of Herbert Marcuse, the working class in the west had become pacified by welfare reforms and brainwashed into docility by the mass media, especially television.
In order to jolt the masses out of their torpor, these "romantic revolutionaries" of the 1960s split in two ways. Most became Anarchists or Maoists, interested only in violent demonstrations and melodramatic stunts. Well, John Lennon never said truer words than when he wrote in the song "Revolution":
"If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao,
You ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow".
The Maoists had vanished by the 1970s - I only ever saw one on all the demos I attended at the time. Only the anarchists remain, as an isolated, if annoying, minority. But then, there were anarchists before the 1960s.
The second, very small, group of "romantics" followed the example of Mick and his comrades in the film, by taking up arms to create revolutionary conditions and awaken the sleeping masses. This led to the emergence of urban guerrilla groups like the Weathermen and the Symbionese Liberation Army (USA), the Red Army Faction (West Germany), the Red Brigades (Italy) and the Angry Brigade (Britain). All these groups collapsed over time, never achieving a mass following.
All this, of course, happened after the film's release, and the film makers could not have been expected to foresee the future of such thinking. My judgement, I admit, is based on hindsight, but then, that is key to the writing of history. And "If", in more ways than one, occupies an important place in the history of the 1960s. If nothing else, it dispels the myth that the 60s were a time of "love and peace". To revise the old saying: If (that word again!) you can remember the sixties, you were there, but count yourself lucky that you survived intact - many others did not.
If British poster.jpg

Friday, 26 July 2013

Atheists and Agnostics - the Trials of Unbelief

I'd like to begin this post with Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations in 1948:
"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."
That is an admirable statement, and is meant to be implemented by all the UN member states. If strictly applied, it guarantees all of humanity the right to worship, or not worship, as they choose. Living in Britain, we take this right for granted, and admit to having been somewhat complacent about it myself. Only when I was researching my last but one blog item did I realise, with a massive jolt, that Article 18 is more honoured in the breach than the observance worldwide. I found that Christians face persecution today that, in some places, rivals that which they suffered under the Roman Empire. My research begged a question - if believers persecute other sets of believers, how do they treat UNbelievers?
I expected to find the answer - "not too bad, really". After all, atheists and agnostics do not proselytyse, observe unique festivals, dress in distinctive clothing or engage in rituals that others could find offensive. But I was wrong.
Firstly, it needs to be said that atheism, as a coherent world-view, is a comparatively new phenomenon. It also needs to be said that the freedom to be an atheist or agnostic in Britain is even newer. The poet, Shelley, wrote a pamphlet called "The Necessity of Atheism", for which he was expelled from Oxford University and denied the custody of his two children. Then there was the case of Charles Bradlaugh, Britain's first atheist member of parliament, who was elected to Parliament in 1880, but not allowed to take his seat until 1886, because he refused to swear the Oath of Office until finally being allowed to affirm the oath. As Christopher Hitchens (in "God is Not Great") observed:
"As late as the 18th and 19th centuries, in relatively free societies such as Britain and the United States, unbelievers as secure and prosperous as James Mill and Benjamin Franklin felt it advisable to keep their opinions private".
It hardly needs to said, that if it was difficult for Mill and Franklin, it was far tougher for ordinary people who held atheist or agnostic views. They remained silent - as do many today in many countries. In the UK, happily, things have changed. Britain's most prominent atheist is the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, and atheists have full rights and protection under the law. Some estimates put the percentage of unbelievers in the UK to be as high as 44% - although not all of these people declare themselves to be atheists. Celebrity British atheists include Richard Dawkins, Richard Branson, Daniel Radcliffe and Ricky Gervais.
To my surprise, I found that the only Western country where unbelievers face discrimination is the USA. Seven US states - Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas - have constitutions which forbid unbelievers from holding public office. Atheists even complain of persecution by Christians, in some states. This is a shock, because, as the atheist writer, Gore Vidal, used to love pointing out, the Founding Fathers of the USA were men of the Enlightenment, not religious believers. To be fair, this discrimination only occurs in a minority of states, and unbelievers have their rights protected by the US Constitution. Nevertheless, the highest figure for the percentage of atheists and agnostics in the USA is only 9%, as opposed to 54% in France and (according to some estimates) 85% in Sweden. This gives US believers (mostly Christians) something of a numerical advantage over their unbelieving fellow citizens. Some academic research appears to show that atheists are among the most distrusted people in North America.
Unsurprisingly, the harshest treatment of atheists happens in Islamic countries. For example,there are no figures for atheists and/or agnostics in Iran. Doubtless, the Iranian regime would say that they have none. The real reason is that unbelievers have no legal standing in Iran (and many other Islamic countries) - you are either Muslim, Christian, Jewish or Zoroastrian - or you have no rights at all.
The other factor making it awkward for atheists to declare their lack of religious faith in Muslim states is the fact that to do so is to make oneself an apostate to Islam, for which the penalty is death. In practice, though, it has to be said that the treatment of atheists in Muslim states varies from country to country.
I think that the United Nations should reopen the discussion on human rights - especially the right to freedom of worship. It would then be incumbent on some member states to explain why they show such contempt for Article 18.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

The Great Gatsby - Nostalgia and Innovation

As this is supposed to be partially an arts blog, I thought it time to try writing my first film review (I must remember to give a star rating). I have no idea how to proceed, so I'll just have to do my best. The film I wish to review is none other than the latest production of "The Great Gatsby"(TGG), starring Leonardo DiCaprio. There have, of course, been previous films based upon this enduring novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald - this film makes a total of five. The one most valued by film buffs is the 1974 film which starred Robert Redford as Gatsby, and, for some purists, is the definitive edition.
I disagree with that, of course, and will make my case later. Before this, though, I think it worth examining the historical context of the book. It is set in New York State in 1922. For those unfamiliar with the story, the action revolves around the romantic yearning for a past lover by a rich man who conceals the source of his wealth (he's a bootlegger). There are spectacular party scenes which typify most people's view of the period - the so-called "Jazz Age", of which Fitzgerald was a key figure, along with his disturbed wife, Zelda. Lest we disapprove of, or ridicule this, we should remember (and most reviewers don't) that the early 20's were lived in the shadow of World War One, which had a devastating effect on so many young lives. Gatsby himself has returned from Western Front service as an impoverished officer. Scott Fitzgerald also served with the US forces at this time. Understandably, those who could afford it, the famous "bright young things" of the period, wanted, to paraphrase Prince, to forget the war and party like it was 1929. Well, as we know, the party ended in 1929 with the Great Depression. Fitzgerald's career and marriage went into a decline, and some commentators see TGG as reflecting Fitzgerald's longing to return to the happy times of the early 1920s. Gatsby insists, in the book and the film, that it is possible to recreate the past. His attempts to bring this about lead to his downfall, which proves, perhaps, that Fitzgerald was not as naïve as might be believed.
But I digress. Di Caprio's portrayal of Gatsby is a harder and edgier portrayal than Robert Redford's urbane Gatsby. This, I think, makes the character more believable. I could never see Redford's polite bon viveur making a fortune as a bootlegger. Readers of the book will know that, in TGG, there is no physical description of Gatsby, but Di Caprio is highly convincing and, for me, is THE Gatsby.
Purists (I hate that word - it makes me think of odourless soap) have raised loud objections to the musical score, which has numerous contemporary sounds by modern artists, such as Jay Z, Fergie, Beyoncé, Will.I.Am and the Bryan Ferry Orchestra. I personally see nothing wrong in this. The early 1920s and our present times have much in common. Both periods see masses of people having a good time without being happy, and both periods have a soundtrack of meaningless popular songs which, as Billy Bragg has said (of today) are about nothing more than getting drunk. The gangsters of the 1920s (like Gatsby) ran speakeasies and made a fortune. Al Capone and other US mobsters became media stars. Today, gangsters (aka "gangstas") have a whole genre of music dedicated to them - a celebrity presence common to both eras.
As for performances, the two best, in my opinion, are of the Buchanans, who are the prime movers of the action. Daisy Buchanan is played very well by Carey Mulligan, and the obnoxious Tom Buchanan is shown in his full odiousness by the distinguished actor, Joel Edgerton. Daisy, the object of Gatsby's yearning, is seen as a frivolous spoilt brat. It is a common theory that the basis for Daisy was Zelda Fitzgerald - if then, we see Gatsby as an avatar for Fitzgerald, Carey Mulligan leaves you wondering what he saw in Daisy or Zelda. Tom Buchanan, who contrives Gatsby's death, is seen as the malevolent creep that Fitzgerald intended him to be - well done, Mr Edgerton.
For those who plan to see the film, I make one suggestion - read the book. It is not very long and somehow (at least for me) has the power to be unforgettable. I first read it back in the 1960s (another Jazz Age?) and have never forgotten it. The book, and THIS film version, admirably complement each other.
For me, this film merits four stars out of five, but I can imagine that it will not be to everyone's taste.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Islamophobia, Islam and Religious Minorities

After my last posting, in which I tried to argue against the Islamophobic backlash that appeared to be starting in Britain after the horrific Woolwich murder, I received a reply from an old friend of mine, the Rev. John Faraday. John is an Anglican vicar in Manchester, but, to my surprise, he was writing from Pakistan, where he was a guest of the Pakistani Church. He agreed with my point about the need to resist Islamophobia, but raised a subject that the Western media never talks about - the treatment of Christians in Pakistan. I promised John that when he was safely back in the UK, I would write on this subject, however unpopular it might be in some quarters. Now that he is home with his family and congregation, I am able to write.
In a short email, John painted a sad picture of life for Pakistani Christians who, he said: "...face low level persecution all the time. (Difficulty getting jobs because of their faith, etc) and occasional violent opposition. (Hundreds of Christian homes burnt down in Lahore in the last few months)"
Despite this, he spoke with admiration of the "tremendous Christian people" that he had met who: "... accept discrimination as a part of life and do not give violence in return."
This last comment angered me - the idea that, in the 21st century, discrimination can be accepted as part of life, and I decided to look into this matter further.
After some research, I can confirm that there is widely documented persecution of Christians in Pakistan. If anything, John Faraday understated just how violent the persecution can be. These are just several of a number of examples given by Wikipedia:

"In August 2002, grenades were thrown at a church in the grounds of a Christian hospital in north-west Pakistan, near Islamabad, killing three nurses.[175]
On 25 September 2002, two terrorists entered the "Peace and Justice Institute", Karachi, where they separated Muslims from the Christians, and then murdered seven Christians by shooting them in the head.[176][177] All of the victims were Pakistani Christians. Karachi police chief Tariq Jamil said the victims had their hands tied and their mouths had been covered with tape.
In December 2002, three young girls were killed when a hand grenade was thrown into a church near Lahore on Christmas Day.[178]
In November 2005, 3,000 militant Islamists attacked Christians in Sangla Hill in Pakistan and destroyed Roman Catholic, Salvation Army and United Presbyterian churches. The attack was over allegations of violation of blasphemy laws by a Pakistani Christian named Yousaf Masih. The attacks were widely condemned by some political parties in Pakistan". (Only some!?)
This is not to say the Pakistani Government approves of these actions, nor does it mean that all Muslims in Pakistan support such crimes. The fact remains that there are militant Sunni Islamic groups in Pakistan who hate their non-Sunni fellow citizens enough to kill them. Even leading Christian politicians in Pakistan are not safe. Shahbaz Bhatti, minister for minorities, and a Christian, was murdered by Islamists in 2011.
This is bad enough, but Pakistan is not the only country where Christians face violence and discrimination, even though we hear very little about it in our media. The charity, Open Doors, does not even place Pakistan in the top ten of countries where Christians face persecution (North Korea takes first place). While I totally condemn the post-Woolwich antics of the English Defence League and the arson attacks on Muslim buildings since the Woolwich Murder, they pale into anaemic insignificance when compared to the 1.5 million Christians murdered by the Janjaweed in Sudan since 1984, or the beheading of prisoners carried out by Muslim insurgents in the Philippines.
Now, it needs to be said that Christians are not the only minority being hounded in Pakistan (and elsewhere). The Sunni fanatics who killed Shahbaz Bhatti would almost certainly have murdered him had he been an Atheist, Agnostic, Hindu, Sikh, Jew, Shia Muslim or Jedi Knight. (This opens up another area of investigation for me.) Islamism is a totalitarian movement that hates all minorities and dissenters.
There is also the painful historical fact that Christians have been guilty of persecution many times. It is a fact that Christians have persecuted other Christians. It is also true that Christians have persecuted Muslims horrifically at times - the Crusades being an early example. For me, this is irrelevant; medieval massacres by an invading Christian army do not justify throwing grenades into Pakistani churches in the 21st century - or any of the appalling crimes listed here.
There is an argument which says that attacks on Christians in Muslim countries come as a result of the "War on Terror" and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. This does not hold water - these incursions might have made it worse, but persecution of Christians was going on well before 9/11.
In no way do I support the Islamophobic attacks that have happened in the UK since the Woolwich Murder. I am also well aware that the majority of Muslim people in the UK deplore acts of terrorism and religious extremism and support our democratic institutions. However, I must say that while persecution of Christians (and others) exists in Muslim countries, Islamophobes in this country will have a treasure trove of anti-Muslim propaganda.

Friday, 24 May 2013

The Woolwich Murder - Atrocity and Reprisal

On the 21st of November, 1974, the Provisional IRA exploded two bombs in Birmingham. 21 people were killed, and 182 injured - the worst terrorist atrocity in the UK before the 7/7 bombings. There was massive public and media outrage, politicians of all parties on either side of the Irish Sea condemned the bombing and there were calls for action to be taken. It's not remembered now, but at the time, the IRA leadership denied responsibility for the bombings. Understandably, no-one believed them, as the IRA had already carried out other lethal attacks on the mainland. It's now thought that an IRA cell carried out the attack without orders from above, but that unconfirmed belief is not relevant here. The main result of the attacks was a seemingly massive "own goal" for the IRA, as the atrocity led to the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and an end to the growth of the long-forgotten "Troops Out" movement in Britain. Only the great Irish journalist, Mary Holland, recognised the bombings as a Provisional IRA success.
Holland said this because of the huge (and also long-forgotten) wave of anti-Irish backlash that swept Britain. This led to many acts of violence against Irish people, especially in Birmingham, where Irish workers in factories were attacked, and even Irish nurses caring for the injured in hospitals faced abuse. Leading politicians, such as Brian Walden and Roy Jenkins, were forced to call for calm. Fortunately, public anger subsided and common sense prevailed, but the IRA, I believe, came to see the benefits of provoking reprisal action from the host population in the UK. Had long-term violence and harassment of innocent Irish people continued, some, at least, would have become more sympathetic towards the IRA. This is why Mary Holland, on the now defunct TV programme "Weekend World", spoke of IRA success.
Well, the IRA failed to re-create the same wave of anger, although they came close to it at the time of the Warrington Bombings. They could not afford to be seen as mass murderers, and, in subsequent attacks, usually gave telephone warnings carefully timed to give insufficient time to evacuate a locality, but long enough to appear anxious to avoid civilian casualties.
I have gone to this length to describe a terror campaign of the past because I believe we are faced with a similar situation today. The murder in Woolwich of the young soldier, Lee Rigby, I believe, was carried out by individuals with a similar strategy to the IRA.( Lee Rigby's attackers declared to onlookers that they" wanted to start a war" in London). The Woolwich attack was every bit as hideous in its way as the Birmingham Bombings, and carried out with a similar end in view - to provoke reprisals, either by the state, or by the non-Muslim public, against the Muslim community. Again, this could well lead to more Muslims becoming involved in the Jihadi struggle, one way or another. The major difference between the Jihadis and the IRA, of course, is that the Jihadis will be bound by none of the restraints that affected IRA strategy. The Provos had to make some concessions to public opinion; Jihadis despise it - as we have seen many times in many countries.
It needs to be said here that this strategy is nothing new. It has been employed by guerrilla movements for centuries. In the last century, it was used by the now venerated (in Ireland) rebels of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, by Soviet partisans in "quiet" sectors behind the German lines in Russia, by Tito's partisans in Yugoslavia and, to a lesser extent, by the French Resistance against the German occupiers. The Nazis, as we know, needed little encouragement to take reprisals. No-one will ever know how many innocent people were massacred by the Nazis in retaliation for acts of resistance in Europe - but their reprisals created many new enemies. Likewise, the execution of the leaders of the Easter Rising by the British authorities caused moderate Irish people to sympathise with the rebels, leading to the war for Irish Independence in the 1920s.
Since the end of World War Two, there have been guerrilla movements in many countries, usually as part of anti-colonial struggles. Nearly all have sought to sting their opponents into precipitate actions: the Haganah in Palestine hanged British soldiers; Mau Mau fighters in Kenya murdered civilians; the Viet Cong killed American wounded in Viet-Nam - the list of atrocities is tragically long, as is the list of reprisals by the occupiers.
Nowhere was this process more bitter than during the Algerian War of Liberation, 1954-1962. During this conflict, both the French forces and their FLN enemies engaged in torture and, all too frequently, indiscriminate massacre and counter massacre. One early example of this happened in 1955 at the Algerian town of Philippeville (now Skikda), where FLN zealots butchered 123 civilians, mainly French, including old women and babies. This outrage, ordered by the regional FLN commander, provoked massive French retaliation. According to some reports, French forces massacred 12 000 Algerian civilians. The FLN, presumably, thought this a price well worth the paying.
We will not (hopefully!) reach to anything like this level of violence, but, disturbingly, there have been signs of public anger towards Islam. By this, I do NOT mean the antics of the English Defence League in Woolwich on Wednesday evening, but the statements of ordinary, normally rational people on TV, radio and in social media. After 9/11 and 7/7, people I thought of as models of common sense and rationality were telling me how they were regarding people of Middle Eastern appearance with suspicion. We can only hope it gets no worse. In war, you should never do what your enemy wants you to do. Harassment of innocent Muslims, or worse, to echo what Roy Jenkins said of blameless Irish people after the Birmingham bombing atrocity in 1974, can only play into the hands of the terrorists.
As for the Jihadis themselves, they seem to be going down a road that I predicted back in 2010. As their central command has suffered some serious blows, they appear to be turning towards small scale attacks which are every bit as headline grabbing as 9/11 or 7/7, if numerically less lethal. The Woolwich murder illustrates this point perfectly. The Jihadis will probably see the attack as a success from the publicity angle and be encouraged to try something similar again. Unlike the 7/7 bombers, who spent several thousand pounds preparing their explosives, future Jihadi killers will only have to spend a few quid buying knives in B&Q. This story still has a long way to run.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Michael Gove, Ofsted and Angry Sheep

With a certain amount of gleeful satisfaction, I watched the heckling of Michael Gove at the recent NAHT conference. This is because the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) is usually about as militant as a flock of neutered sheep. Other welcome news was that the NAHT has voted to affiliate to the TUC. If they were listening, the government would see that this is a sign that the natives are getting restless. Other teaching unions have been warning of teacher discontent for years. If the NAHT have decided to join the fight, it is a welcome addition, if overdue.
Gove looked somewhat discomfited by his frosty reception, but, as expected, declared his intent to continue with the government's drive to raise standards. As everyone knows, this is a familiar refrain from Education Secretaries, Tory or Labour. It is an old chestnut that never seems to leave the fire. When it was pointed out to Gove that OFSTED created a climate of fear, he said that there was a need to part company, but he didn't leave, much less resign, unfortunately.
Although I welcome the NAHT's criticism of Gove, it is highly unlikely to change anything. Schools will continue to become academies, initiative after initiative will be piled upon school staff and the carping against teachers from senior politicians and the right-wing media will continue. This is basically for two reasons.
The first reason lies in the underlying ideology that powers much of Tory thinking. This is the drive to reduce the role of the state in social provision (AKA "saving public money"), hence the drive towards educational academies. This is mainly to be found in the secondary school sector, but will doubtless be focussed upon the primary sector in time.
There is, I would contend, a secondary reason. This government, as some commentators have noted, appears to devise its policies down the pub. Nowhere is this apparent tendency more clearly to be seen at work than in education policy. Every pub loudmouth (usually male, usually Tory) will tell you that teachers aren't doing their jobs properly and need sorting out. I have no doubt that Gove and his friends and colleagues express the same views when they chat over drinks at their clubs in Mayfair.
I have pointed out, in previous posts, that OFSTED pressure and government "initiatives" (Tory AND Labour) are causing demoralisation among teachers and leading to an increasing number of teachers leaving the profession. About half of new teachers leave in the first five years, according to the Guardian. Incredibly, Gove himself commented on this issue back in 2010, describing it as a "tragic waste of talent". At the time, Gove blamed this exodus on the problems that teachers face when keeping order in the classroom. He is oddly silent on the continuing exodus nowadays. I wonder how Gove and his ilk will explain one day why we have a teacher shortage?
Still, I take heart from Gove's treatment by the NAHT conference delegates. If sheep get angry, the shepherds should beware.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher - Time, Chance and Success

As I type, MPs are debating the legacy of the recently deceased Baroness, Margaret Thatcher. As a divisive politician, her legacy of division continues after her death. Already we have heard eulogies from her admirers, vitriolic condemnation from her victims and detractors, and a lengthy discussion on Radio Four ("Thinking Aloud") about her ideological beliefs. With so many opinions being expressed, it's difficult to keep any kind of objectivity or say anything original, but I'll try.
I am no fan of the late Mrs T, as might be expected, but I'll try to be balanced in my criticism. I shan't be rejoicing at her death, even though the horror expressed by Tory politicians and commentators at the street parties held to celebrate Thatcher's death is nothing but cynical hypocrisy. As my colleague, Rednev, has pointed out, when Hugo Chavez died recently, the right-wing newspapers in the UK and abroad were gloating over his death.
Instead, I'd like to focus upon the idea, bruited abroad by Thatcher admirers, that she was a runaway success in all she did. That is a myth which needs to be dispelled.
To begin: here is one of Baroness T's earliest quotes:
'Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.'( On winning 1979 election).
Well, we all know how successful she was there. Riots in Brixton and Toxteth, the Miners' strike and the industrial dispute at Wapping, as well as the violent agitation against the poll tax point to a failure in one of Mrs T's stated aims. Whether she was sincere in her quoting St Francis of Assisi or not is another matter, but when she left office, Thatcher left a country which remains deeply divided to this day. Not only this, but there are some regions of our country where despair is a long-established part of everyday life.
When I read claims like this, by Louise Bagshawe, I have to laugh:
"I do not think it is an exaggeration to state that the country I grew up in was shaped and saved by Margaret Thatcher".
If we examine this claim critically, it simply does not hold water. If Mrs T saved anywhere, she saved the South-East of this country, where the so-called "Tory Heartland" is situated. Very few people in Scotland, the North of England and South Wales considered themselves "saved" by the Thatcher government. Of course, many people in the South-East suffered because of Thatcher's policies, but these regions felt the greatest impact. In fact, Mrs Thatcher definitely seemed to be indifferent to many areas of the country where she was unlikely to get votes. To my certain knowledge, she visited Liverpool only once during her time as Prime Minister.
Next, if there is anything that Tories love to praise Baroness T for, it is her stirring leadership during the Falklands War. As Thatcher said herself, after the conflict:

"We knew what we had to do and we went about it and did it. Great Britain is great again",
Margaret Thatcher 26/06/1982.
What has been forgotten is that Mrs Thatcher's government was largely responsible for the war in the first place. Of course, they did not invite the Argentinians to invade, but two things encouraged the Galtieri regime to launch an invasion. One was the withdrawal of HMS Endurance, the Royal Navy ice patrol ship and the other was the 1981 British Nationality Bill, under which the Falkland Islanders lost their right to become full British citizens. These were seen as signs of weakness on Britain's part.
As for the military campaign itself, with all due credit to our armed forces, it was a very close run thing. Had the Argentinians not run out of Exocet missiles, the British Task Force could have been decimated; had the Argentinian garrison not surrendered when they did, the British Forces would have run out of ammunition. British commanders in the Falklands now admit this.
Thanks to the Falklands victory, Thatcher's government survived. Before the war, Mrs T was the most unpopular Prime Minister of the century. After the war, she was winning elections. Had the Task Force failed, however, there would have been a different outcome.
The end of the war saw the beginning of Mrs T's apparent megalomania (remember "We have become a grandmother"?). At the Victory parade in London, the Royal Family were not invited! Two civil  servants( CS1 and CS2 )watching the parade are supposed to have said:
CS1: "...this shows the results of letting some desperately unpopular tinpot autocrat use a crazy foreign military adventure to court popularity and get off the hook at home"
CS2: "Charles, you're absolutely right. Yes, Galtieri and the junta really blew it"
CS1: Galtieri? Harry, I'm talking about Margaret Thatcher!"
(Source: "Military Intelligence Blunders and Cover-Ups", by Colonel J. Hughes-Wilson)
Now, as we all know, the Community Charge, aka the "Poll Tax", and the riots it provoked, led to Thatcher's downfall. What is not being stressed is the fact that a number of cabinet members at the time advised against the tax. The same people who now praise Mrs T for her political record do not mention how keen they were to be rid of her at the end of her time as Prime Minister. And, as we know, it all ended in tears - which Mrs T shed when she left Number 10 for the last time in 1990.
In time, I believe that we shall come to see Baroness Thatcher not as an astute and resolute saviour of her country, but an obdurate and opportunistic ideologue - albeit a lucky one.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Mental Health Homicides - Apportioning Blame

Like everyone else, I have been appalled by two recent murder cases: that of grandmother Sally Hodkin in Bexleyheath, 2011, and the fatal stabbing of 16-year old Christina Edkins on a rush hour bus in Birmingham on the 7th March. These sickening murders have called into question the safety of the general public from mental health patients at large in the community. This is because the perpetrators of both these murders have been people with mental health issues. Sally Hodkin was killed on the street by Nicola Edgington, who had previously been incarcerated for the murder of her mother. The man arrested for the killing of Christina Edkins, 22 year old Philip Simelane, has been remanded in custody to a secure mental health unit. Now, it is very difficult to get accurate figures for such murders, as they do not seem to be compiled by a disinterested body. Julian Hendy, whose own father was murdered in a Bristol street by a mental health patient in 2007, says that there have been about 900 such murders since 1993. As he says:
"We are frequently told that such killings are “rare”, with the implication that we shouldn’t worry too much about them – but plane crashes are rare and when they do happen, like mental health homicides, they are always catastrophic. And I don’t think such killings actually are that rare. So far I have documented around 900 mental health homicides in Britain since 1993 and I have collected some 300 official investigations and inquiry reports. The picture that emerges is of a mental health service that struggles to deal with people with serious mental illness and that often does not do things as effectively as it should."
Interestingly, the tabloid press do not seem to be blaming the mental health authorities for these terrible events as much as they blame the police. Nor is it just the tabloids; in  a rare example of unity, the Guardian and the Daily Mail both have condemned the police for their failure to stop Edgington at an earlier stage. Like Julian Hendy, I believe this to be unfair. When all is said and done, it is the mental health mandarins who release these individuals into the community, and it is they who should be held to account. But it may go deeper than that - as in all NHS issues, there is an issue of resources and political will. As two psychiatrists have commented :
"Because the media only become interested in mental health care when fatalities are involved, this drives Government policy. As a result of over-emphasising the link between mental illness and dangerousness, there is a concentration on treating a small number of offenders in secure hospitals. This costs £1billion per year - 15% of the total NHS investment in the mental health of working-age adults.
The number of standard NHS psychiatric beds has gone down by 60% in the last two decades, while the number of involuntary admissions has gone up by 60%. In other words, it is increasingly difficult to gain access to psychiatric care when acutely unwell." And, as they point out, Nicola Erdington was a voluntary patient - she was trying to be admitted to a unit on the day she carried out her second murder.
As I do not have the answer to this problem, not being a mental health professional, I will not try to offer a solution. More information on this issue can be found at the website started by Julian Hendy.
 I can, however, offer an historical perspective. The right-wing press, interestingly enough, never point out that "care in the community", as it is known, was a Tory initiative, put into place by the Thatcher government in the 1980s. It was brought about by a strange alliance of mental health charities, who wished to end the stigmatisation of mental health patients by closing down the large and forbidding asylums and Tory monetarists, who wanted to cut back on public spending. The blame for the present tragic and muddled situation which led to the 900 murders mentioned here can be laid at the door of Mrs Thatcher and her merry band of vegetables (aka "The Cabinet"). Ian Duncan Smith, the ex-Tory leader, now describes Care in the Community as a "£100bn failure". Well, he should know...

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Back to University at Over 60?

Sat in my Doctor's surgery the other day, I started reading an article in "The Daily Telegraph" (well, there was nothing else to do while waiting). The article, by Tim Ross, "Over -60s are told: go back to University and retrain", outlines the government's latest scheme to reduce the unemployment figures by focussing on that notorious group of slackers and benefit claimants: the pensioners and the retired. I have a special interest in this group, because I am one of them.
As a (semi) retired person, my first thought when looking at this article was to be encouraged. "Great!", I thought, "now I can fulfil my dream of getting a degree in Anthropology and Middle English". I honestly believed (for a moment!)that the government was about to engage in an act of benevolence. Er, no, not quite. It's all about the Tory idee fixe: saving public money. As Ross says:
 "One in four people will be older than 65 by 2033 and economists have warned that the ageing population will place an unsustainable burden on taxpayers unless more people work for longer."
Ah, so that's it, I thought. The Higher Education Minister, David Willetts, does try to put a spin on it:
"Mr Willetts, who is accompanying David Cameron in India, urged workers older than 60 to give further education serious consideration. “There is certainly a pressure for continuing to get retrained and upskilled,” he said. “Higher education has an economic benefit in that if you stay up to date with knowledge and skills you are more employable.”

Mr Willetts said a university course had “wider” benefits, making people more likely to lead healthy lives."
The article goes on to sweeten the pill by saying that the upper age limit for student loans has been raised, making over-60s eligible for financial help. It was then that the whole thing began to unravel for me (I had time to do it - the practice Nurse was a bit late). "Hang on", I wondered (silently)," won't that mean people over 60 will have to work for years after graduation in order to repay their loan, as do their younger counterparts?" Tim Ross has the answer:"However, the average pensioner this year will have an income of £15,300 a year, meaning they are unlikely ever to be required to repay the loan".
In which case, I wondered, how will that benefit the economy? After all , the over-60s graduate will need to get a well-paid enough job to earn a good rate of income tax. Besides this, when the over-60s graduate goes for a job, they are unlikely to be seen as an attractive proposition to employers for various reasons. This is especially true in public sector occupations, where employers have an unspoken drive to rid themselves of older staff (ask any teacher over 50). Nor was it made clear in the article how older graduates were going to find employment when younger graduates could not find work. This point was emphasised elsewhere in the Torygraph by a real-life over 60s graduate, Linda Kelsey:
“Education is such a good thing, it is not reserved for young people,” Willetts went on to say. “There will be people of all ages who will want to study. There is great value in lifelong learning.” Now you’re talking, Mr Willetts, as I have lately discovered. But this has nothing to do with the labour market."
Anyway, the nurse was ready, so off I went to get my blood tested. I can only wonder - how long before someone tests the sanity of the present government? This inept initiative will almost certainly go the way of their much-vaunted (and dismally failed) "back to work scheme", which has signally failed in its efforts to get people off invalidity benefit.
Mind you, I'd still like to go back to "Uni" - but not with the aim of finding a high-powered job (which I'd be very unlikely to get).
Next time I visit the surgery, I'll take a book with me - or the Guardian.

Monday, 18 February 2013

OFSTED and Physical Education

Well, the wide awake club, aka OFSTED, are at it again. As readers of this blog know by now, OFSTED has a habit of making periodic scandalous discoveries about education in the UK. They usually never explain why or how they suddenly unearth these horrendous malpractices, but at least we know how long it has taken them to find out that many children in the state education system are not getting the physical education (PE) they deserve. As Richard Garner observed in last Thursday's Independent:

"PE lessons in more than a quarter of Britain’s schools involve so little physical activity they fail to improve pupils’ fitness at all, a highly critical report has found."

What Mr Garner does not tell his readers is that OFSTED took FOUR YEARS to arrive at this conclusion - still, at least they haven't rushed to make their judgement. Unkinder commentators might point out that OFSTED are supposed to have their podgy fingers on the pulse of education and wonder why it took them so long to alert the public of this disturbing situation. Without these "discoveries", there would be no need for OFSTED, but that is another story.
Now, as it happens, I have more than a passing interest in PE, having been a co-ordinator in this subject in several primary schools over the years. While no fan of OFSTED, I have some sympathy with Richard Garner when he says:

"Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, accused teachers of taking the “physical” out of physical education by talking too much in lessons and not involving children in enough strenuous activity to build up their stamina or strength."

There is an element of truth in this, but it fails to account for the reason why so many teachers feel that they have to teach in such a way. This does not happen because schools and teachers choose to follow this procedure; it happens for several reasons:
1. Teacher training, which, in some teacher training establishments, emphasises the explanatory side of PE rather than the physical.
2. Pressure from above to attain academic targets, which leads some schools (especially primary schools) to neglect PE and other non-core subjects.
3. Dreary and uninspiring PE schemes of work, which are often unrealistic and boring for pupils AND staff.
4. Financial constraints on schools, which have led to many schools selling off their playing fields, and to "prioritise" at the expense of PE. Schools have been castigated by OFSTED for not teaching their children swimming - no mention is made of the fact that some schools simply do not have the money to afford swimming instruction.
 Strangely, Mr Garner and OFSTED do not take these factors into account. This is grossly unfair, as the problems OFSTED highlight are not, in my view, the fault of the schools under discussion. Teachers in schools have to follow their school's PE scheme; the school follows LEA guidelines; the LEA follows DES directives. The blame for the latest OFSTED shock-horror expose lies elsewhere, but OFSTED are not likely to attack their government bosses.
As a practitioner, I have experienced all 4 of these factors, the most significant being the schemes of work. Some Educational Gymnastics schemes require children to contort their bodies in all manner of unnatural shapes and move in bizarre ways that are about as useful for improving children's fitness as giving them doughnuts and coke in the afternoon. When I taught such lessons, I always tried to incorporate a game of some kind. When OFSTED were visiting, however, I followed the plan strictly! I did not realise that the inspectors might be thinking that the children were not getting fitter for following the plan laid down from above - and which they seemed to approve. Having said that, some OFSTED inspectors do not seem to be up to assessing PE anyway, as a Daily Mail article about OFSTED inspectors puts it:
"One PE teacher was reportedly told that their lesson was ‘unsatisfactory’ as there were ‘children doing nothing at some points in the lesson’.
The decision was overturned after it was pointed out that the pupils were fielding in a cricket match."

My personal view is that all PE - gymnastics, dance, games, etc, should be relevant and enjoyable. Yes, children need to get fitter, but the change needs to come from the top down - simply moaning about schools is not the answer, and is extremely unfair. Yet again, I ask: when schools are feeling the financial pinch, why have there been no cuts in the OFSTED budget?