Friday, November 08, 2013

No more poppies, no more war

"O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it-for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen."
From The War Prayer by Mark Twain, c.1880
It's almost Armistice Day again, November 11th, when practically everyone on TV is wearing a poppy. Robert Fisk wrote in the Independent why he won't wear one...
On the briefest of visits to London, I was appalled to notice that our television presenters and politicians and dignitaries have almost all resorted to stereotype by wearing those bloody poppies again – even though I suspect most of them would not know the difference between the Dardanelles and the Somme. How come this obscene fashion appendage – inspired by a pro-war poem, for God’s sake, which demands yet further human sacrifice – still adorns the jackets and blouses of the Great and the Good? Even Tony Blair dares to wear a poppy – he who lied us into a war, which killed more people than the Battle of Mons.
I am afraid it will be the last time that I will bear witness to those soldiers, airmen and sailors who are no more, at my local cenotaph. From now on, I will lament their passing in private because my despair is for those who live in this present world. I will no longer allow my obligation as a veteran to remember those who died in the great wars to be co-opted by current or former politicians to justify our folly in Iraq, our morally dubious war on terror and our elimination of one's right to privacy.
If you feel the time for poppies is over, maybe you could make a donation to an over-stretched charity that works to help the psychologically-wounded, like "John" - I conducted his funeral, where his brother told his story.
One Christmas, when home on leave, we sat watching the news. An IRA bomber had blown himself up while planting a device. I remember the look of shock on Mother’s face when John raised both his hands and shouted, “Yes! Own goal!” How could her cuddly little boy take such a delight in the demise of another human being?

What she didn’t know was that some months before, while on active service in what the Army called “bandit country” in Crossmaglen, things had gone badly wrong and John got spattered when a colleague was caught in an explosion. It was the horror of this, I believe, that led to a serious drinking habit.
Combat Stress works to help veterans who suffer from mental health problems. Demand for their services is increasing. As Patrick Stewart explains on their site, it's not just the veterans who suffer; their families do too. Click here to find out more and make a donation.

Click here to find out about the Peace Pledge Union, campaigning since 1934.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Sense and Sustainability, or how to live with less

"Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction." - Erich Fromm
"The devaluation of the human world increases in direct relation to the increase in value of the world of things." - Karl Marx
"affluenza, n. a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more." - John de Graff

In a discussion about living standards the other day, a TV pundit said that today's young people might expect a lower standard of living than their parents, because of the world's economic crisis. They were talking about the UK. He said it as if this was a bad thing, yet compared with the billion-plus people in the world who live on less than $1.25 a day, British people enjoy a high standard of living. Young people aren't all that shallow and greedy, are they?

I wrote the following for a Thought for the Day on BBC Radio Suffolk on 16th October 2000.

Since the 1950s increasing affluence has allowed many more people to spend, spend, spend, on more and more ‘stuff’ – household appliances of every sort, TVs and DVDs and WAP phones and cars for every member of the family, and clothes, and trainers, and foreign holidays. For most people, it means working longer hours to pay for it all. Those who’ve researched such things tell us that though many people have far more ‘stuff’ (all of the things I’ve mentioned, and more), fewer people would say they were happy than in the 1950s. It seems that once you get past having good health and good food, a secure home, and a satisfying job, all the other ‘stuff’ doesn’t necessarily make you happier, so why waste precious time working so hard just to spend more money? Meanwhile, the gap between the haves and have-nots is growing wider.

Tomorrow, 17th October, is International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. Two years ago, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan gave a message, which included the following words: ‘For the past three decades, we have witnessed the most rapid improvements in the lives of billions. A child born in a developing country today can expect to live 16 years longer than a child born 35 years ago. Infant mortality has been more than halved since 1960, and the share of rural families with access to safe water has risen from 10% of the total to 60%.’ ‘But,’ the Secretary-General went on, ‘…such gains can be reversed… the struggle for the eradication of poverty has reached a critical phase… So long as every fifth inhabitant of our planet lives in absolute poverty, there can be no real stability in the world.’

Absolute poverty is defined as an income of roughly a dollar a day – which is about 69p a head. Poverty knows no geographical boundaries, spreads over all continents and is present in industrialised and developing countries, though to differing extents. It causes inadequate standards of living, weak health, hunger, unsanitary housing, homelessness, unemployment, social exclusion and illiteracy. It cripples the lives of some 1.5 billion people, whose number is rising by at least 25 million a year, mainly women, children and the elderly. The 1995 World Health Report, ‘Bridging the Gaps’, found it to be the world's most ruthless killer and the greatest cause of suffering.

The cost of providing basic social services for all in developing countries is estimated at about £27½ billion a year over the next 10 years, which is less than 0.2% of the world income of £17.22 trillion. The sum needed to close the gap between the annual income of poor people and the minimum income at which they would no longer be poor is estimated at another £27½ billion a year, so the total cost would be roughly £55 billion, or less than the combined net worth of the seven richest people in the world.

Closing the gap between the haves and have-nots could be so easy, given the collective will. Can money buy happiness? It can make a huge difference to those who have very little, but it seems to make little difference to those who have a lot. Once you’ve got the basic necessities of life, you don’t actually need any more. I realise this is heresy in today’s consumer culture, where millions of people earn a living producing and selling ‘stuff’ no one really needs. During the recent petrol crisis, I wondered how many of the lorries on our roads are carrying junk from one end of the country to the other? It’s a weird world we live in. All that talent, all that effort, wasted on cluttering up our homes with more and more ‘stuff’, while a quarter of the world’s population live in absolute poverty. Doesn’t seem right, does it?
One of the books that influenced me when I was younger was 'To Have Or To Be' by Erich Fromm, published in 1976, which is about materialism and its effect on human happiness. Fromm anticipated the danger of nuclear war but didn't anticipate the danger of climate change. Since then, things have got much worse. The population is growing at an unsustainable rate, consumption likewise, climate change has accelerated, and the weather has grown more extreme. All of this is being largely ignored by leading politicians, economists and the right-wing press. They keep talking about economic growth, which is not what we need and probably impossible. What we need is economic sustainability. Over the next few years, it's going to be much harder for those who suffer from affluenza to ignore reality. I think that young people are far less likely than their elders to suffer from affluenza. I hope so, anyway.

An interview with Erich Fromm about 'To Have Or To Be'...

An American film about Affluenza...

Affluenza: The All Consuming Epidemic (Paperback) by John De Graaf, David Wann & Thomas H. Naylor.
Affluenza, by Oliver James.
Before you buy new books from Amazon or another bookshop, it's worth checking for second-hand copies at

Click here for a list of some of the things that the young people involved with the Post Growth Institute have done or are doing to live sustainably.

Postscript, from The Telegraph, 14th October -
... one might also say that anyone bemoaning middle-class decline is really just complaining about a loss of privilege. Why should anyone feel sorry for over-privileged parents whining about the possibility that their children might be marginally less spoiled than they have been?

The answer, I think, is this: what is happening to the middle class is happening to 99 per cent of the rest of the population, too. Anyone outside the gilded 1 per cent is seeing their relative position decline. That’s an awful lot of people looking ahead and seeing less, rather than more, on the horizon. And, no matter what class you belong to, that’s not a healthy prospect for anyone.

We'll never have it so good again.
 'We'll never have it so good again' - David Thomas.

The population of the UK has risen by 10 million since the 1960s, 3.7 million in the last decade. It's now over 56 million. Of course there'll be less of the sort of things Thomas writes about in the future. The reason is that there are more people, and maintaining the sort of living standards he looked forward to just isn't possible. But that needn't be a reason for pessimism. It all depends on how you define "good", on what your expectations are, on what your values are, and how imaginative you might be.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

On killing badgers and boycotting milk suppliers

Click here for the Stop the Cull campaign
The badger cull has begun. I've emailed Dairy Crest, who deliver my milk, to tell them I'm closing my account, and why. I got this reply from Colin Walters, Dairy Crest's Consumer Care Advisor:
Dear Margaret

Many thanks for getting in touch and sharing your concerns regarding the issue of Bovine TB. We appreciate this is an extremely difficult issue, involving animal welfare issues on both sides of the debate and I wanted to give you some background information which I hope you will find useful.

Bovine TB is one of the most serious problems facing the dairy sector, having a negative impact on the health and welfare of both wild and farm animals, and it is important that we work towards its eradication.

Bovine TB has inflicted severe damage on the financial and emotional well being of many British dairy farmers and it is on the rise, with 38, 000 cattle compulsorily slaughtered as reactors or direct contacts in 2012, a 10 per cent increase compared to 2011. This has already cost UK farmers £90 million and it is estimated that it will cost taxpayers £1 billion over the next ten years if we do not take action.

The Government has been through due process, including a judicial review, and has concluded to go ahead with a limited cull. As the UK’s leading dairy company, processing around 15 per cent of British milk production, Dairy Crest may well source milk from farms in the pilot area for the trial. However, we want to help our farmers to ensure the long-term sustainability of a British dairy industry and to do this we need to tackle bTB head on. We therefore support the science-based controlled approach proposed by the Government. It is up to each individual farmer if they participate but we are committed to supporting all of our farmers through this challenging time.

Thank you in advance for your understanding.

Kind Regards, etc.
I've replied:
Thank you for your speedy reply. I've heard all the arguments in favour of a cull (I wrote to your CEO last year), and I sympathise with the dairy farmers, but I have very strong reservations about how "humane" the cull will be and I'm unconvinced that it will benefit the dairy industry in the long term. I find the arguments in favour of a cull less convincing than those presented by Team Badger. Lord Krebs has said, “The scientific case is as clear as it can be: this cull is not the answer to TB in cattle. I have not found any scientists who are experts in population biology or the distribution of infectious disease in wildlife who think that culling is a good idea. People seem to have cherry-picked certain results to try and get the argument they want.”

I'm regretfully cancelling my doorstep deliveries from Milk and More unless and until the cull is cancelled, or until Dairy Crest changes its support for a badger cull.
Incidentally, I signed my initial email with my full name, and regard it as over-familiar to be addressed by my forename.

It won't be easy, doing without doorstep deliveries, as I don't drive and the village stores only sell milk from the same supplier. The nearest source of locally-produced milk is 4 miles away. I'm going to have to make some room in the freezer.

I wonder if Chris Packham's TV series on burrowers might help raise support for the anti-cull campaign? It hasn't been mentioned in the programmes, but the timing must have helped.

Monday, August 26, 2013

On imposing "secularism": headscarves and hijabs

Al Jazeera asks, "What’s behind the fixation on women who wear Muslim headscarves?" Good question. They say,
While some claim governments have the right to uphold secularism by outlawing religious symbols and apparel in public spaces, critics believe these restrictions are mainly targeting Muslims and a result of growing anti-immigrant sentiment.
I've never believed that it makes any sense to prohibit the wearing of religious symbols in public, under the pretext of "upholding secularism", apart from a requirement to be able to see someone's face in places where security is a consideration. If full-face motorcycle helmets aren't allowed, neither should the niqāb or burqa, in places like banks. What is the difference between, say, an English countrywoman wearing a headscarf (though they're less fashionable than they were) and a Muslim woman wearing a hijab? An alien from another planet would fail to see any.

A secular state is one where religion and the state are separate. The NSS explains,
Secularism is a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.
There have been a few cases of aggrieved religionists claiming discrimination, for example over disputed work or school uniforms. If they've lost their legal actions, it's been because there have been valid reasons why they should have expected to adhere to a dress code. But walking down the street in a hijab threatens no one, any more than any other form of dress might threaten you - unless you happen to be carrying a machine gun while wearing military fatigues. I used to live in Oxford, where many of its residents liked to wear eccentric outfits, including the man whose pet rat adorned his wide-brimmed hat. Academic gowns, as worn on graduation day, might appear eccentric to someone from another culture.

You cannot assume that a woman in a hijab is being forced to wear it by a domineering husband, and even if she is, banning it won't make her situation any better. At a sixth-form conference on faith issues, I shared a platform with a Muslim woman in a hijab, while another Muslim woman, who chose not to wear one, facilitated the discussion. The students, mainly from a rural Suffolk area where they normally don't meet any Muslims, were keen to know why the hijab-wearer had made her choice. Both women were British-born. Essentially, it was about how they interpreted Islam and its teaching on "modesty". The hijab-wearer regarded hers as a statement, which was partially an expression of her identity, while the non-hijab-wearer didn't feel the need for any such form of self-expression, though she felt that her faith was just as important to her. There are many ignorant Islamophobes here in the UK and elsewhere who know very little about Islam, but tend to regard all Muslims as one homogenous mass. In their minds, Muslim women are all subjected to misogynist male domination, and by making Muslim dress illegal, they'd be free of all that. Utter nonsense. As for Muslim passivity; try telling Yasmin Alibhai-Brown how she's expected to behave. She's an opinionated, independent Muslim woman, and she's not that unusual. The difference between her and the anonymous, powerless women in burqas that you see in newsreel films from Islamic states is cultural and political.

In Sweden, non-Muslims have been wearing the hijab to express their feelings about the assault of a pregnant Muslim woman in a hijab, the subject of the story above. It's believed to be a faith-based hate crime. This has nothing to do with secularism, but if anyone thinks it is, they don't understand what secularism means.

Monday, August 05, 2013

On unhappy morons

See the happy Moron,
He doesn't give a damn.
I wish I were a Moron,
My God!, perhaps I am.
This popped into my head while thinking about Twitter misogyny, again. The misogynist morons don't seem happy to me. If you can get past being disgusted by them, you might feel sorry for them, the poor, sad fools.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

On misogyny, on and offline

Bill Bailey, well known feminist and supporter
Two stories about misogynists have been in the news over the last 24 hours. The first was about the Co-op and the Lads' mags; the second was the threats made on Twitter to Caroline Criado-Perez after her successful campaign to have a woman on a banknote, for a change.

On yesterday morning's BBC news, Simon McCoy interviewed a man who was introduced as having been involved with the publication of one of the so-called "Lads' mags" - I forget his name. He was reacting to the Co-op's decision that they won't stock these magazines unless they're supplied in opaque covers, so you can't see the glamour models. The Co-op says it's had complaints from customers that the images are not suitable for viewing by children. Simon's interviewee made some pathetic comments about "feminists" who were out to spoil boys' fun, or words to that effect. It was clear from the way he practically spat out the word that his attitude to feminism was anachronistic and ignorant. To him, and men like him, feminists are just unhinged trouble-makers. Children can see women baring all on the beach, he said, so why the fuss about seeing them on a supermarket shelf? Their objectification, and the blatantly sexual poses that might attract the wrong sort of attention on Skegness seafront, that's the difference. I'm sure he knew that.

On Newsnight, a small panel, including Caroline Criado-Perez, discussed the abuse she was subjected to on Twitter, and the reaction to it by her supporters and others. Twitter has been fairly useless, so far. The police don't seem to be doing much, though they have arrested one man. Caroline's not the first woman to experience this sort of thing. By coincidence, Newsnight followed Professor Mary Beard's programme about Caligula; Mary experienced similar abuse after she appeared on Question Time not long ago. One of her trolls was "outed" and when Mary found out who he was, she threatened to tell his mum; he apologised. Most trolls are probably not bothered about what their mums might say. Most trolls are probably almost as horrible to their mums as they are to other women.

Not for the first time, this has set me thinking. Compared with the horrific treatment of women in other parts of the world, threats of rape and other online unpleasantness are, arguably, less serious. Domestic violence in the UK is very serious. Misogynist attitudes towards women in the Middle East persist, whether or not there's been a brief Arab spring. The forced marriage of young girls, honour killings, and the denial of basic human rights to women, are familiar stories in Pakistan. When young men have been raised in these patriarchal cultures, where misogyny is mixed up with fundamentalist Islam, it's difficult to see how they can be persuaded to change. But here in the UK, and in America, where there are plenty of Twitter trolls, attitudes ought to be more enlightened.

There is a word for women who hate men. The Oxford Dictionary says,
A woman who hates men can be described as a misandrist, and the corresponding noun is misandry. But however prevalent the attitudes described by these words may be, the words themselves aren't common. There are currently only 23 examples of misandrist in the Oxford English Corpus, while misogynist appears more than 1,200 times; 37 uses of  misandry are overshadowed by 1,592 examples of misogyny.
"He is unaware of punctuation
and is as literate as a spoon."
A Lucy Pepper troll.
"However prevalent the attitude"? Of course there are women who hate men; many have good reason to hate them - see previous paragraph. But why is it that Internet trolls are overwhelmingly male? Why do they enjoy being so disgusting? Surely they can't all have been neglected by their mothers? How do they behave towards women in their day to day lives - their female relatives, colleagues, neighbours? Are most of them basically sad cowards, whose relationships are non-existent? Artist Lucy Pepper has compiled a troll catalogue, which shows some of them as quite endearing failures - failing to understanding what is acceptable behaviour, and why they'll never win any reasonable friends or influence any sensible people.

It's evident from the sort of thing that misogynist trolls tweet that English was probably not their strongest subject at school, and that they're generally as thick as a brick. I'll bet that many of them were the sort of boys who spent all their schooldays sniggering at the back of the class, like Beavis and Butt-Head, a distraction to anyone who wanted to learn anything. They hate women, yes, but they hate clever women the most. Clever Caroline's campaign to have a clever women - Jane Austin - on an English banknote stirred something in their pathetic little troll brains. How do they function? It's a mystery. Emma Barnett of the Telegraph tried to find out, but didn't get very far. After one troll told her that "men are predators", she asked how he would feel if, like Criado-Perez, his mother received 50 rape threats an hour?
His first answer was genius: “She wouldn’t because my mum’s not a feminist.”
Pity his dad wasn't a feminist, like most of my male friends.

And what would Jane have thought about all this? She'd have been horrified.
"I cannot think well of a man who sports with any woman's feelings; and there may often be a great deal more suffered than a stander-by can judge of."
Jane Austen - Mansfield Park.
(The above will be unintelligible to the average male troll.)

For those who don't know: feminism means the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Twitter can confuse

My sister tried to work out what Twitter was all about and rapidly concluded that it was far too confusing. When I read tweets like these, I can see her point.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

On Nigella's bully of a husband, and not getting involved

Reports of the public assault by Charles Saatchi on his wife Nigella Lawson, with photos to prove it, have been in the news. Among many opinion pieces was a disgraceful one in the Guardian by Roy Greenslade, who has since thought better of it.

One of the questions that's been asked is why no one did anything about it at the time, other than to take photographs? Saatchi, a very wealthy man who appears to suffer from overweening arrogance, made no attempt to hide his bad behaviour, presumably feeling entitled to behave as he pleases, wherever he pleases. It wouldn't have occurred to him that anyone would interfere, and no one did.

One of the people who's asked why no one got involved is Australian academic Alecia Simmonds, Adjunct lecturer of law at UNSW. She wrote,
No-one called the police and no-one attempted to help her. When asked to comment on the incident a spokesperson for the restaurant said: ‘we do not comment on the private affairs of clients.’ The choice of words is a good indication of why onlookers tolerated a crime in a way they wouldn’t if it were any other crime.
I came across her on Facebook, through a friend, and replied as follows:
Why didn't anyone help? Partly because of their celebrity status, which bestows a sort of immunity, but most people will avoid getting involved in this of of situation anyway.

When my son was a baby we lived on a mobile home site where sound carried unhindered. Late one night, I heard screams. I put my biggest dog (he was half labrador) on his lead and went to investigate. Around the corner, outside the phone box, a young man was kicking his girlfriend, who was lying in the road, while holding their terrified toddler in his arms. Several curtains twitched, but no one else had come out. I told him to stop and he raised his fist as though to hit me, then looked at the dog and thought better of it. He didn't know that the dog was a soft pudding. He went back inside their mobile home with the child while I struggled to get the girl on her feet and dial 999. The girl was taken to hospital by ambulance but (typically) she returned to her abusive partner several days later. They moved soon afterwards so I don't know what happened. All the while, not one neighbour had come to help.
Though it hasn't happened that often, this wasn't the only time that I've got involved with domestic violence incidents, but on each occasion, I was the only one who did help. Bullies are often taken by surprise when anyone stands up to them, and (so far) I've come to no harm. However, a majority of onlookers or eavesdroppers seem to prefer to pretend that whatever's happening has nothing to do with them. This doesn't just apply to domestic violence; it seems to apply to other examples of public bad behaviour and bullying. Yes, it's scary to face someone who's threatening violence, even when he or she isn't threatening you - every time I've done it my heart has been pounding like a sledge-hammer - but wouldn't you want someone to help you, if you were at the receiving end? Perhaps I've been safer than a man might have been, in similar circumstances, as men may be regarded as a bigger threat. When my son went to someone's rescue in a night club, he suffered a broken nose from a head butt for his pains; honourably earned, even if it does make him snore.

This tendency of a majority to avoid getting involved in such situations has been labelled by psychologists the Bystander Effect. One of the worst examples is the 1964 murder of 28-year-old Catherine Genovese, known as Kitty, outside her New York apartment, while 38 of her neighbours witnessed the attack and did nothing to help her. One witness is reported to have said, "I didn't want to get involved."

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Wind power or Nimby power?

From the Guardian:
Residents will be able to stop the construction of windfarms under tough rules that could seriously restrict the growth of onshore wind power generation . . .

New guidance is expected to tell councils that local people's concerns should take precedence over the need for renewable energy, and give more weight to the impact of turbines on the landscape and heritage. Polling consistently shows that the public supports onshore wind. Two polls last year found 60% and 66% approval for the technology, for example. But a vocal minority is adamantly opposed and the UK Independence party has made opposition to wind energy a central plank of its pitch to voters – putting pressure on the Conservatives to follow suit.
Cartoon by Joe Heller

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The trouble with labels

I've been asked to supply an account of how I came to be a humanist by my friends at Suffolk Inter-Faith Resource (SIFRE), who'll use it, together with other testimonies, as a training resource to be accessed by schools, colleges, and various statutory and voluntary bodies, including the police and local authority staff.

I first wrote a similar account for a SIFRE publication, Finding Our Way and Sharing Our Stories, written by women from the various local faith communities, and me, some time ago. It needed revision.


The older I get, the less I’m inclined to adopt any label to describe how I view life, the universe, and everything. The trouble with labels is that they encourage laziness. If you’re in a social situation and someone asks you what you do, or what you are, and you tell them, they’ll be inclined to refer to whatever they’ve heard or read about that label and apply it to you. It’s more interesting to be mysterious; to learn about each other through a process of discovery. Labels lead to pre-conceived ideas about what they stand for. If someone identifies him or herself as a Christian or a Muslim, what do you assume about him or her, and his or her attitudes to, say, morality or privilege? You’re likely to be wrong. We form our values and opinions through our experience and the people and ideas that have influenced us, including religious ideas, and we react to these things differently.

So, if I describe myself as a humanist, some may assume that I’m part of a trend towards what a friend calls “fluffy, cuddly humanism”, which can be summarised as simply being good without God. In its campaign for legal humanist weddings in England and Wales, the British Humanist Association has, perhaps unintentionally, given the impression that everyone who has a humanist rite of passage celebration (a humanist ceremony) is a humanist, and that humanism is equivalent to religion, which it isn’t.

Humanism, to me, is a way of thinking, of viewing the world, in the only way we can; as human beings, without reference to any supernatural explanations for life, the universe, and everything. The philosopher Bertrand Russell said, “Many people would sooner die than think. In fact they do.” I'm not sure that he was entirely right, as it seems to me that not thinking isn't necessarily a choice for many; they’re just not very curious. A humanist friend was asked, "Don't you have to be really brainy to be a humanist?" "No," she replied, "you just have to use the brains you've got." Humanism is a philosophy for the insatiably curious, who never stop asking questions. Far from being fluffy and cuddly, humanism can sometimes lead you to lonely places. But it can also be bracing to find yourself in a different place from other people, discovering things for yourself. Humanists habitually ask “Why?” Sometimes, there isn’t an answer – yet.

This approach to life has been described as a scientific one; science is defined as the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. It’s also been claimed as a philosophical approach, since philosophy is the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence. But we’re back to labels again, and possibly the claims of different disciplines, when a humanist approach to life is limitless. Creative expression through the arts, social innovation, psychology, political theory, the evolving uses of language, are all avenues through which we’re free to explore, if we choose.

How did I get here? As a child, I drove my parents and teachers mad by constantly questioning what I was told. My parents, whose families originated in Scotland, were raised as Presbyterians – a rather dour bunch of non-conformists who disapproved of the pleasures of the senses, particularly on Sundays. Mother, who enjoyed a wee dram, didn’t appear to be wholly convinced by this brand of Christianity and, like many others, developed her own, private version, which didn’t involve going to church. Dad did go to church until his deafness meant he couldn’t follow the services. I was sent to church, and the church youth club, where I got into trouble for arguing with the minister. By the time I was in my early teens, having explored some alternative ways of thinking in the public library and with a friend’s more liberal parents, I announced I didn’t believe any of it, and that was that. I wasn’t put under any pressure to continue going to church. A Quaker RE teacher listened to some of my half-formed ideas and didn’t try to impose any kind of orthodoxy, which helped. By the time I left school at sixteen to work in a bank, religion played no part in my life. It has been an irrelevance ever since.

Going to Art College and university in the 1960s and early 1970s brought me into contact with bright people from a wide range of disciplines, as well as some students whose upbringing had been far more religious than mine. One sad case was a boy who’d been raised a Catholic, and who found it hard to cope with all the students’ sexual activity going on around him. Deeply conflicted, he had a breakdown and was found wandering the streets naked late one night. Another Catholic friend coped by spending a lot of time in the confessional, joking that they’d had to install a loo in there, just for him. At university, studying for a post-graduate teaching qualification with an assortment of graduates from all disciplines, one of my tutors was the mathematician Dick Tahta, who’d inspired Stephen Hawking as a schoolboy. Dick was very keen on existentialism. He took a small group of us for an intense weekend in a remote bungalow owned by the Monkton Wyld Centre in Dorset (my son was fortunate go there, years later, for a holiday organised for bright schoolchildren). To this day, I’m still not sure what the purpose of this weekend was, and I’m none the wiser about existentialism (a rather nihilistic movement), but Dick encouraged us to question just about everything, which some of us did. One friend, a fellow artist, took to spending a lot of time in the garden paying his violin. If I could remember more about it, it would make a good film. Dick was among several of the staff at college and university who encouraged a non-conformist approach to life and although I didn’t end up with particularly impressive qualifications, as I was never very good at sticking to a syllabus, I’ll be forever grateful to them.

It wasn’t until much later, over twenty years later, that I got involved with organised humanism. At that time, the British Humanist Association was a small organisation that campaigned against religious privilege and encouraged non-religious people to openly reject the status quo, where the church claimed the moral high ground and dominated public ceremonial, and children were not taught about alternatives to Christianity, including the free-thinking alternative. I had surgery and treatment for cancer and soon afterwards my parents died within six months of one another. These events led me to consider what sort of funeral my son might arrange for me, as it wouldn’t be appropriate to invite God. Funeral directors only offered religious funerals, so I volunteered to become a humanist celebrant in 1991. In December that year, I founded the Suffolk Humanist group, where like-minded people have met to share ideas and raise awareness of alternatives to religion. The rest, as they say, is history. After those first few years, most people became aware that religious ministers don’t have a monopoly of rite of passage ceremonies, which can be as personal as you choose. What started as a small subversive movement has resulted in a widespread rejection of convention. Humanists still have a role to play, but we’re among many who offer a choice. What most people don’t realise is that we were here first.

Having given over twenty years as a secular subversive, I’m no longer very active in organised humanism, but I’ll be a humanist freethinker until the day I die, unless I go doolally, in which case, I won’t care.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Dear America, I love the NHS

Angelina Jolie has written about her double mastectomy for the New York Times. She had it because her mother died of breast cancer at 56, and she discovered that she was carrying the faulty gene, BRCA1, which meant she was at high risk of having breast cancer too. There's also a risk of ovarian cancer with BRCA1.

Angelina is a wealthy woman, as a successful screen actress and director, so finding the money to pay for the tests and surgery wouldn't have been a problem for her. She wrote,
Breast cancer alone kills some 458,000 people each year, according to the World Health Organization, mainly in low- and middle-income countries. It has got to be a priority to ensure that more women can access gene testing and lifesaving preventive treatment, whatever their means and background, wherever they live. The cost of testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2, at more than $3,000 in the United States, remains an obstacle for many women.
Since British woman Wendy Watson persuaded doctors that she should have preventative mastectomies 21 years ago, the operation has become available on the NHS, after genetic testing and counselling. It seems scandalous to me that, in a developed country like America, money should still be an obstacle to saving a life. Those who opposed Barack Obama's healthcare reforms referred to the NHS in derogatory terms, rejecting "socialism", which seems to them to be a worse threat than disease, so American women with a family history of breast cancer may die because they can't afford preventative surgery.

Among other health issues, America's infant mortality rate is more than twice that of Japan or Sweden, while its emergency departments struggle to cope with the consequences of gun crime, which costs the US economy $37billion+ a year. Yes, the NHS has its problems, which have been keenly debated over the last few years, but America seems to have far bigger ones.

I've had a mastectomy and a whole bunch of other surgery and treatment from the NHS. If I was American, I think I'd have died before now.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Michael Gove could never do this

This is inspiring stuff, but in spite of all those Hollywood films about teachers who win over their delinquent classes, you need more than just the constitution of an ox and the determination of a Miss Pierson to be a good teacher with kids who test you to extremes.

I started teaching in an under-funded, under-resourced secondary modern school in Grimsby, Lincolnshire, in what would later be known as a social priority area. I'd spent the summer desperately looking for a job after gaining my PGCE (Post-Graduate Certificate in Education) at Exeter University, after four years at art college and a year being seriously ill. I should have been suspicious about what awaited me when I was offered the job without an interview, and without even seeing the school, which turned out to be an old Victorian brick-built building with a Boys' entrance and a Girls' entrance, surrounded by a playground and old-fashioned outdoor toilet blocks. The first year was the only one that was co-educational. They planned to co-educate from the bottom up.

I was based in an art room. Soon after I started, I found a science teacher in the room opposite beating a boy with the tube off a bunsen burner. When I reported him for not using appropriate punishment or writing it in the punishment book (this was when physical punishment was still legal), the acting headteacher, a weary man waiting for retirement, said that the kids would make mincemeat of me when they realised that I wouldn't hit them. I was a member of an organisation opposed to physical punishment.

One boy, aged 11, used to flinch when I raised my arm. He was deliberately provocative. One day he asked, "Miss, why won't you hit me?" and I asked if it would make him behave better, and he said, "No." I said that there'd be no point then, would there? He used to wear the same clothes, every day, every week. He was one of several kids who came to my place at weekends, where they learned to cook and painted murals on our yard wall. My housemate got hold of some clothes for him, and suggested that we deliberately spilled a cup of tea over him, as an excuse to put his clothes in the washing machine and give him some new ones. So we did. I never heard from his mother about this. He became devoted to me, and would rush to defend me if any of the other kids was rude. He was just one of the kids whose backgrounds were terrible. One girl witnessed her father stab her mother to death. Another girl was locked in her room every day after school by her stepmother, until I found out about it and she was taken into care. They could all have done with a champion like Rita Pierson. I was newly qualified, totally out of my depth, with no professional or personal report, and I cracked up under the strain. I left after a year for an easier job. It wasn't that much easier, but there was less beating.

After a few years, during which time I did other jobs, I went back to teaching. I worked in the Oxford area for a while, as a supply teacher, before applying for work in Suffolk, to be near my family. Again, I was offered a job without an interview, without seeing the school, and should have known what to expect. It wasn't as bad as the school in Grimsby, but my head of department had been off sick for months with a "stress-related illness". My contract was for a term. I was offered a permanent job after Christmas, but turned it down. The colleague I'd worked closely with, who was in her probationary year, quit when I did, and never went back to teaching. She now runs a successful pottery.

I did more supply teaching after that. I'd learned a survival strategy by this time. Supply teachers will often find themselves covering for the teachers who are in the most stressful jobs. I can draw, and I used to bribe badly-behaved kids to behave with the prospect of a portrait to take home to mum at the end of the day. It worked a treat. I was frequently asked to work in the special needs department of an Ipswich school, where the head of department was fussy about which supply teachers he'd allow into his classrooms. Some of them were older people whose attitude towards the kids with multiple problems was unhelpful. They didn't like or understand children from the sort of deprived background that they knew nothing about, and the kids responded negatively to their crude discipline. My friend the head of department said that some of them could reverse a term's development with a few ill-chosen words. One day, I was sent to supervise two classrooms with a stationery cupboard in between, so I could hear what was going on in one while I was in the other, until another supply teacher arrived. Things were reasonably calm, with everyone settled, when a child came from the next room
to tell me that a strange man had arrived. I found a nervous-looking man in a suit with a briefcase. He didn't look like a teacher but it turned out he was. I told him what the children were supposed to be doing, and gave him a quick explanation of what to expect from some of the more challenging kids - a boy who became violent at the slightest provocation, so it was best to avoid confrontation, and a girl who had mild learning difficulties and struggled to remember anything for more than a few minutes, despite her best efforts, and so on. He showed little interest and waved me away. I'd been dismissed. Within five minutes, all hell broke loose next door. He'd yelled at the boy with the hair trigger, who'd thrown a chair at the window, and the girl who struggled to cope was in tears, after being told she was shamming. It turned out that the new supply teacher had just completed his training, it was his first day as a teacher after quitting an office job, and he'd imagined that he'd be a born educator. Oh, how wrong he was.

ME was prevalent among teachers and schoolkids, and I'd been covering for someone who had it. Not long afterwards, I was diagnosed with ME too. That was 27 years ago. You have to be fit to teach, especially in schools like the ones I've worked in. Every time I hear some idiot going on about how teachers have a cushy life, with long school holidays and all, I wish that he or she could see what it's really like at the chalkface. Michael Gove wouldn't last five minutes.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

A little life

If you're not a cat lover, or an animal lover of any sort, you may not understand this. I'm grieving for a cat. This cat. Her name is Lucy. I didn't choose it. She came with a name. If you don't have much to do with animals, you may not realise that they're not all alike. Every cow, every horse, every dog or cat - they all have different personalities, fears, curious habits, and relationships. Like people, only in a far less complicated way.

Lucy's world, since she came to live with me, was a very small one; she never went further than my immediate neighbours' gardens, apart from occasionally coming to greet me in the street when she heard my car pull up outside. I tried to discourage that, but she was streetwise, having been raised in a city.

In the summer, Lucy liked to lie in the garden near the front door, where she was ready to greet visitors. I feared that some delivery person might fall over her, camouflaged as she was - a grey tabby on a shadowed concrete path - but no one ever did. Instead, she was rewarded with lots of fuss. The men who service the boiler, among others, were overheard talking to her.

Every Sunday at 3 o'clock an octogenarian friend visits for tea, cake, and a TV murder mystery. To begin with, Lucy was rather standoffish with him, but he won her over with cat treats. As soon as she and Audrey (our other cat) heard his voice, they were there, looking expectant. I provided my friend with a little fluffy mat for his knees, to protect his skinny shanks from her sharp claws, and Lucy hopped up and made herself comfortable for the whole of Midsomer Murders, or whatever we were watching, until about 5pm, when it was dinner-time. My friend doesn't have a TV or a cat, and he doesn't eat cake on weekdays. He regards Sundays as the highlight of his week, and the cats (and previously the dog, who died five years ago) as the main part of the treat. When Lucy lay on your lap and allowed you to stroke her (sometimes she let you know when to stop, with a clout), you'll believe all that stuff about how stroking a cat can lower your blood pressure.

Like most cats, Lucy liked to be warm. On sunny days, she'd sunbathe out of doors. If it was very hot, she trampled a little nest in long grass, in the shade, to doze away an afternoon. If I was pottering in the garden, she liked to sit on an old tree stump, and watch. In the winter, she appreciated the central heating. She'd lie on a window ledge above a radiator, or find a warm spot on the floor over the central heating pipes. Last winter, being so cold, she dozed her way through the worst months.

Not all cats like milk, but Lucy did. She didn't seem able to drink it without splashing some over the side of the saucer (the pretty one I bought from the charity shop just for her), so I had to mop up the splashes several times a week. The RSPCA advises that it is a cat owners' responsibility to entertain her cat, as well as feed it and care for its welfare. Cats can be very fussy about toys, I've found. A promising-looking toy with dangly things attached to a sort of glove was completely ignored. A skinny mouse on elastic, that dangles from a sort of fishing rod, amused her for about five minutes at a time. A pink sausage-shaped thing that smelt of catnip was occasionally hugged and rubbed, and once she even fell asleep with her chin resting on it.

Over the last couple of years, Lucy had to have most of her teeth removed, but she seemed to manage without them. A couple of months ago, she started losing weight. She'd been quite plump when she first came to live here. Now she was skin and bone. The vet took blood samples and speculated about a thyroid problem, but the medication he tried made things worse, so he tried steroids instead. She gained a little weight, but not much. She drove me mad, always pestering for food (I couldn't just leave it out, or greedy Audrey would steal it). I bought all sorts of expensive cat food to tempt her. She'd eat some enthusiastically for a day or two, then refuse it. Things seemed to be improving, and then, yesterday, just after she'd had some breakfast, I heard a horrible noise. It was Lucy, crying out in pain, and staggering around the kitchen. By the time the vet arrived, she had collapsed and was hardly breathing. It may have been a heart attack, the vet said, but whatever it was, and whatever she did, Lucy was unlikely to recover. She was given a lethal injection where she lay, on the floor at my feet, and was gone in seconds. It's funny how death changes you, human or animal. In an instant, you can tell that there's no one there. It's like snuffing out a flame.

I make no apology for being sad about my cat. I'm in good company. Doris Lessing, Brigid Brophy, Mervyn Peake, Mark Twain, Edith Sitwell, Garrison Keillor, W H Auden, and many other creative people, have loved cats. They'll all have felt the loss of their cats. Albert Schweitzer said, "There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life; music and cats." He was right.

Cat illustration © M Nelson 2013

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Pass the remote

Whenever I see any of these people on TV, I usually change channels. I just wish there was some sort of automatic filter.

Tony Blair
Kelvin MacKenzie
Ed Miliband
Ed Balls
David Cameron
Eric Pickles
Bob Crow
Melanie Phillips
Ricky Gervais
Janet Daley
Sayeeda Warsi
Michael Gove
Vincent Nichols
Alison Ruoff
Chris Evans
Polly Toynbee
Nigel Farage

Evans is loud and annoying. Gervais is creepy and egotistical. I know what the rest of them are likely to say, and I don't want to hear it.

The list could be longer. It may get longer.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The meaning of life

Found on Facebook - American spelling! J
A couple of days ago, when my math teacher asked, "Any questions?”, I asked, "What is the meaning at life?". She replied, “The meaning of life is math."

Today, we realised that, in the alphabet, M is the 13th letter, A is the 1st letter, T is the 20th letter, and H is the 8th letter.


Friday, March 15, 2013


I shared a car the other week with two unrelated old people who were comparing notes about the size of their families. One had to do some arithmetic to work out how many great-grandchildren she had. Both had gone forth and multiplied, resulting in the birth of at least 30 people over 3 generations. Yet it didn't appear to occur to them that multiplying at this rate is unsustainable. Just do the maths.

From The Onion - We Must Preserve The Earth's Dwindling Resources For My Five Children.

Demand for school places driven by the birth rate rising more quickly than at any time since the 1950s.

Population Matters.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Save the Disabled Living Fund

"Disabled people with the greatest needs make up 2% of the population, and yet they are weathering 15% of the cuts. By 2015, the combination of measures targeting this group will amount to losing more than £8,000 each a year. It's the difference between being a trustee of one of the country's most dynamic charities, and having to go to bed at 5.45pm – because that's when your 15 minutes of care has been allocated." -- Zoe Williams, The Guardian, 13 March 2013
The Government's plan to scrap the Disabled Living Fund is being challenged in the High Court by a small group of severely disabled people who rely on it to maintain their dignity and standard of care. I've written to my MP about this:
Dear Mr Yeo,

Though I'm disabled, I fortunately don't need the ILF, but my niece Kate, who died a few years ago, did. I'm appalled at the thought of people like her being forced to manage without the support that it offered. Her sister, my niece Jenny, who's also severely disabled, wrote about the legal challenge to the scrapping of the ILF in the High Court:

"Anne Pridmore, who is and has been very active in the Disabled People's Movement, is one of those taking a case to the High Court to defend the Disabled Living Fund, which is necessary for disabled people with high care needs. I knew Anne from my days at the BCODP (British Council of Disabled People), as she was then on the Management Committee.

"My sister, the late Kathy Mitchell, used the ILF to help fund her 24-hour care needs. It makes me incandescent with rage to think that she, if she were still alive, would be expected to pee and shit into nappies in bed, with no assistance at night, meaning she wouldn't be able to shift positions either, leading to intense pain.

"I have serious problems shifting at night. 'Normals' do it naturally in their sleep. I have to wake up when it starts hurting and it's a real effort heaving myself around in the bed. I wake up alright!

"People all over the country need this for personal care and independence. It's a scandal that it's due to be scrapped by the Government."

Please prevail upon the DWP to withdraw this plan.
There have been several e-petitions about this (why don't campaigners co-ordinate their action?) but writing to your MP can be more effective. Let's hope the High Court puts a stop to this stupidity.

Click here to find your MP.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Douglas Adams and other animals

"We don't have to save the world. The world is big enough to look after itself. What we have to be concerned about is whether or not the world we live in will be capable of sustaining us in it."
— Douglas Adams, Speech at The University of California.
If Douglas had lived, he'd have been 61 today. This is a speech he made in 2001, only days before his sudden death.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Cheap sheep

Flock, originally uploaded by Sparrows' Friend.

Friend Don watched me starting to cut up a cauliflower I was going to cook for my supper tonight, and the conversation turned to the cost of food. The cauli wasn't expensive, I said, because it was one of Sainsbury's "basics", which probably meant that some poor grower had had his or her profit margin trimmed to the bone. Don started going on about something he'd read somewhere about the link between the cost of food and the rate of inflation, and I said that we'd have to get used to more expensive food because we've had it too cheap for too long. In real terms, the cost of food in the UK has been kept low for ages, and now it will have to increase because of a hike in the cost of staples like wheat and the effect of the wet weather on British crops. Then we'll all starve, says Don, who's in no danger of doing so.

After Don had gone home and I'd had my cauliflower cheese, I watched Countryfile with Prince Charles. Part of the programme was from a hill farm in the North of England, where the farmer, his wife and two kids struggle to keep going with rising feed prices, lower sale prices, and all the costs incurred by running a farm, even a small one. Charlie helped a charity in their area that supports similarly struggling farmers. There've been too many suicides over the past few years, after they've failed to make a living despite long hours in all weathers. Some make as little at £8000 a year. How many of the shoppers at your local supermarket, grumbling about rising prices, would keep going for that sort of money? Yet they expect cheap food and will throw a substantial part of it in the bin because they've bought too much, or a picky eater in the family turned up his or her nose at it.

There's a lot of fuss in the media currently about benefit caps and the rising cost of living, yet most people in work, even those on low wages, are still getting more than £8000 a year. A hill farmer with sheep or a small scale dairy farmer will work much longer hours than most other people, so their low income works out at well below the minimum wage, pro rata. Imported food comes from places where people are expected to work for even less. Still think it's OK to complain about rising prices and throw stuff in the bin? If you do, you should be ashamed of yourself.

Click here for a previous post about the dairy industry.
Click here for The Farm Crisis Network.
The cost of cheap food.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Worth the wait

Was in the dermatology clinic today, having a small tumour cut off my face. Nine stitches. They didn't hurt a bit but the local anaesthetic injections did, though not for long. I asked for hospital transport today, as I'd been advised not to drive myself, so it took longer than it otherwise would have done. The other passenger in the hospital car was in oncology, having radiotherapy and seeing a doctor, so I had to wait for her. As I didn't have to be anywhere else, it didn't matter.

The doctor who did my excision was ahead of schedule, but one of the others was forty minutes behind. Maybe he was attending to patients who were seriously ill. When one of the nurses announced the delay, there was an minor outbreak of grumbling. I said that I was sure that some of my American friends would be happy to wait forty minutes for treatment, knowing that they wouldn't have to worry about a bill. It went quiet after that. I reminded me of the fly-on-the-wall TV series, 24 Hours in A & E, which often showed patients with minor injuries (some inflicted by stupidity) complaining loudly about being kept waiting, oblivious to the fact that the staff were busy dealing with seriously injured or ill people.

When the driver eventually came to collect me he was very apologetic for keeping me waiting. I said there was no need. Without the NHS, I'd have died a long time ago. Waiting is the least of my worries. I love the NHS.


An American friend posted this comment on Facebook -
A woman I know was trying to get a CAT scan for her son but no one would take him because he didn't have insurance. She asked how much it would cost if she paid cash. Less than half of what it would cost if she had been billed. So she withdrew $3,800 (all of her savings) and paid for the scan. Health insurance for us would cost $790 [£524+] per month. Even then, it would only cover 80% of the bill. Truly poor system we have.

Monday, March 04, 2013

The Pope and population control

The election of a new pope is in the news, together with the disgrace of the former Cardinal Keith O'Brien. The Catholic Church's scandals over child abuse and priests attacking homosexuality while secretly lusting after other men are bad enough, but by far the biggest problem that the Catholic Church has inflicted on all of us is its opposition to population control. Catholic women, like brood animals, are expected to produce lots of babies, whether or not they can afford to feed them. In countries like the Philippines, priests bully women into not using contraception, though a new law will allow them free access to it.

The poverty issue is only part of this. The world's population is increasing at a terrifying rate, with consequences for climate change, food and water scarcity, conflict, land issues and species extinction. This short video by Dr Jack Alpert shows why, and that it's no longer just about stabilising the population - it must decrease.

As long as the Catholic Church keeps denying the truth, it's difficult to see how things will change. As far as child abuse and homosexuality are concerned, the issues are serious, but when it comes to contraception, the church's influence is deadly.

Population Matters

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Women, get a grip!

It's more than a little suspicious that the Lord Rennard allegations should be aired just as the Lib Dems were making some headway in the Eastleigh by-election. Not that it'll make much difference, according to the BBC's James Landsdale. What's been making me cross is the way that the women involved have been characterised. The Daily Mail reported that a young woman had been "molested" by Lord Rennard at a party event in Peterborough:
She was hysterical, shaking and crying and said that he had touched her up in his room. There were senior MPs in that room and party officials and everyone saw how badly she had been affected by it.
Hysterical? How appropriate! That's exactly how women should react in those circumstances, isn't it, the poor things? Having a man's hand on your thigh is enough to make you take leave of your senses.

If it was, there'd be a lot more crazy women than there are, since a significant proportion of the male population has been groping, and worse, for millennia. It's unfortunate that the young woman mentioned in the media hasn't been taught how to take care of herself. Yes, I know that the gropers and worse are the ones who need training, but they're all rather stupid, aren't they, so it's up to us to teach them, since their mothers clearly failed.

To read some of the sanctimonious, hypocritical crap on Twitter and elsewhere, you'd think that the Liberal Democrats are the only ones to have this problem, which is nonsense. You'd think that Nick Clegg has failed in his duty to ensure that Liberal Democrat women remain unmolested, which is also nonsense. You'd think that there was some sort of ideal large organisation, political or otherwise, where everyone is conversant with the rules of appropriate behaviour, and detailed records of every complaint are kept. There isn't. As we've heard lately, this sort of thing has been going on all over the place, wherever powerful men think that they're entitled to sexual favours.

So, girls, no hysterics, please. It only confirms the view of too many stupid men that women are poor, weak, emotionally fragile beings. Don't get hysterical; get angry. Perfect the art of the withering look and the caustic put-down. If that doesn't deter the morons, poke them in the eye, shout very loudly, kick them in the nuts if necessary. Make sure it's his reputation that suffers, not yours. Boadicea never had this trouble. When she was angry, the Romans regretted it. So should any lecherous men who try it on.

And keep a sense of proportion. Gender violence is one of the most common human rights abuses. A hand on your thigh in the lift or some unsubtle rubbing on The Tube may be unwelcome, but they're the sort of thing that a strong woman with a loud voice should be able to deal with. Thousands of women have to deal with far worse. We won't get very far with stopping any of that if we go to pieces over a grope.

"The worlds I inhabit are politics and the media, but women in all walks of life know that this kind of routine sexism exists in any workplace." -- Cathy Newman, Presenter, Channel 4 News

Friday, February 22, 2013

What's cooking?

Have had a couple of conversations prompted by the horsemeat hoo-ha lately, about how so many people seem to rely on processed food. Considering the number of cookery programmes there are on the telly, it's difficult to understand how anyone can plead ignorance in the kitchen, said my son. Yet many do. In a recent Channel 4 episode of Superscrimpers, a couple was shown how to save money by cooking some of their favourite meals from scratch instead of using prepared ingredients. The stupid husband, who would only buy branded packets and sauces in the supermarket, insisted that home-made pasta sauce would be inedible. In a blind tasting, he had to admit it was better than the processed stuff. The culinary-challenged who take part of the programme are taught how to cook healthy, inexpensive meals by an older woman who was brought up to be thrifty. None of them have a clue what to do. Are there really so many non-cooks out there? Polly Toynbee seems to think so. She's claimed that poor families are forced to eat processed meat products, like burgers, which might have had horsemeat in, because they're "all they can afford". Utter nonsense.

It's not just poor families. I live in a village where a majority are comfortably off. A friend goes through the books donated to our recycling centre for ones that are good enough to sell on Amazon - the money benefits the village school. Her husband observed that quite a few cookery books don't appear to have been used. You'd expect good cookery books to have pages marked with ingredients, he said, with splashes of gravy, beaten egg or sauce on the pages referred to most often. Pristine pages may be good from a fund-raising perspective, but what does that tell us about how much cooking is going on?

My mum, like many of her generation (she was a wartime bride), wrote recipes in an exercise book that got progressively tattier. It occurred to me this morning that I must start my own recipe book, since I've accumulated lots of scraps of paper and cuttings in an untidy folder. During and immediately after the war it was unthinkable to waste food because there just wasn't enough to waste. One of my favourite meals was a baked cheese and tomato thing Mum made with semolina. There wasn't a lot of cheese, but it tasted good just the same.

I don't have much sympathy with those who complain that they can't eat well on a low income, as I do, when it's apparent that they expect to do that on a supermarket trolleyful of processed meals. If you're hungry enough, you'll learn. There's no shortage of advice. It's especially galling to see how much food is wasted by fussy eaters who don't plan ahead - see the Love Food Hate Waste website. As food prices escalate, we're all going to have to think about what we eat, maybe learning from our great-grandmothers who fed their families in wartime.

Now I must make some soup.
Preserve label © M Nelson 2000

Thursday, February 21, 2013

"The Sun's selection of the photograph simply reflected Ms Steenkamp's own highly successful career choice"

Like many, I was appalled by The Sun's front page when Reeva Steenkamp was killed. They used a photo of her in a bikini, inviting its readers to see her as a sex symbol, even when she was in the morgue. I tweeted and emailed my disgust to The Sun. Today I got an email from its managing editor, Richard Caseby, almost certainly the same as many others.
Dear Margaret,

Thank you for taking the trouble to write and let us know your concerns about our coverage of the arrest of Oscar Pistorius for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in South Africa.

I am sorry that you were upset by The Sun's front page on Friday 14th February and its choice of a photograph of Ms Steenkamp in a bikini.

The circumstances surrounding the death of Ms Steenkamp are shocking and tragic.

However, The Sun's selection of the photograph simply reflected Ms Steenkamp's own highly successful career choice. She was one of South Africa's most famous models who has posed in a bikini in fashion shoots and on magazine covers many times.

She was due to appear as a celebrity in the reality TV programme Tropika Island and in publicity for the show had said that her personal claim to fame was being named by the men's lifestyle magazine FHM as "one of the 100 sexiest women in the world two years running". The first episode of the reality show was aired days after her death.

I note that other newspapers made a similar picture choice as The Sun. The Daily Star showed Ms Steenkamp in a bikini on its front page and the Daily Mail published two photographs of her in a bikini in a double-page feature. In New York the Daily News and the New York Post put her on their front pages similarly, and the Huffington Post featured her in a swimsuit in an online gallery of photographs.

We appreciate all feedback and the Editor has been informed about your views.

Yours faithfully,

Richard Caseby
Managing Editor, The Sun
I don't like being addressed in familiar terms ("Dear Margaret"), especially as that's not how I signed my email. As for the references to other news outlets using the same picture, since when did several wrongs make a right?

Dear Mr Caseby, if your wife, daughter or girlfriend was murdered, would you be happy to see her on the front page of The Sun in a similar pose to Reeva's, or are you such a greedy sexist pig that you wouldn't be bothered, as long as the paper sells?

I laughed when I read that Caseby had complained to the Guardian about a piece by Marina Hyde, criticising The Sun. Maybe if he reads this, he'll complain about the suggestion that he could be a greedy sexist pig?

Saturday, February 09, 2013


Anyone who imagined that the meat in processed foods was good quality can't have been watching Jamie Oliver's crusade against rubbish ingredients. I remember the appalled expression on some schoolchildren's faces when he demonstrated what goes into cheap sausages - cartilage, fat, skin and all. It looked disgusting because it was.

Now everyone's in a lather about horse meat. Until now, hardly anyone's been asking where cheap meat products have come from. Questions are being asked, but not the important ones.

Eating horse meat, provided it's prepared hygienically, won't hurt anyone. You can be fairly sure, however, that the poor beasts that ended up in your burgers or lasagne were hurt. We know that meat products used in cheap British ready meals came from a factory in France called Comigel. We know that the horse meat came from countries like Romania. We know that most other countries, including those in Eastern Europe, have far lower animal welfare standards than we do. World Horse Welfare reports that 65,000 horses a year are transported across Europe for slaughter. They spend days in lorries without water, suffering just as all livestock does when moved this way. Romanian abattoirs are unlikely to care much about the condition of the animals when they arrive, or to bother about their welfare; they're just a commodity to them. Research done with Romanian farmers concluded:
Results of this study shows that in year 2009, 65.8% of the farmers do not have an awareness regarding the animal welfare, but 63.8% consider that in the EU exists legislation regarding the transport of farm animals related to their welfare or protection. Also, about half of farmers consider that in the EU the welfare of farm animals is better than in other parts of the world, but in Romania this issue receives not enough importance.
If Romanian farmers, who work with live animals all the time, are ignorant of animal welfare standards, is it likely that Romanian slaughtermen will be any better?

So whether or not you find the thought of eating horse meat repulsive, surely the issue should be how that meat was produced?

Then, on top of all the indignation about being fobbed off with horse meat instead of good British beef, Polly Toynbee, on today's Dateline London, claimed (if I heard right) that poor parents fed their kids cheap processed meals because it was all they could afford. Horseshit! The reason that poor parents feed their kids these meals, if they do, is because they haven't learned how to cook. Meat isn't essential in a healthy diet, and if you do eat meat, it should be in moderation. Before the Chinese started developing a taste for more of it, with developing affluence, they ate small amounts of meat mixed in with large amounts of rice and vegetables, as do many Asians. Consequently, they suffered far less heart disease than we do. Never mind excusing parents for buying cheap rubbish - what about cookery lessons? In the long term, it would have health benefits. And bring back domestic science in schools. The decline of basic cookery skills has played right into the hands and bank balances of processed food producers.

The Independent: Horsemeat scandal reveals trail of shadowy suppliers - the last thing these people will care about is animal welfare.

The Telegraph: How horses slaughtered in Romania end up on British plates

The Independent: Horse meat found in British supermarkets 'may be donkey'.

Click here to read what Compassion in World Farming says.

Some of the horse meat that came from Romania could have originated in Ireland - live horses are transported across Europe.

Fiddling horse passports to avoid fit for human consumption rules? Abandoned Irish horse shown to have been "slaughtered".

More than a 1000 racehorses a year in UK abattoirs.

The planet can take care of itself

Humanists and atheists campaign about all sorts of things, from faith schools, to evolution in the science syllabus, to legal humanist weddings (why?), yet I haven’t noticed much fuss about what really matters.

What have our bad weather, the insurgency in Mali, and the world's economic downturn, got in common? They’re all linked to population increase.

The bad weather is related to climate change, and most scientists agree that climate change is due to human activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels. We’re wet, and we’re going to get wetter, with implications for food production, property damage, and the cost of the clear-up.

What’s Mali got to do with it? Roger Howard wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that in recent decades Mali's population has been growing at an unsustainable annual rate of about 3%. The country's population has tripled over the past 50 years. According to the latest UN estimates, it’s going to triple again over the next 50.
Such a drastic rate of population growth rate has profound implications. In particular, it means that, in an undeveloped and largely barren land, too many people are competing for too few local resources and opportunities. Young men have limited hopes of finding employment or even sustenance and are therefore deeply susceptible to the temptation of armed criminality and insurgency, and to the lure of radical preachers who seem to offer them both a sense of purpose and scapegoats who they can blame for their woes.
As for the economic downturn . . . Political leaders are floundering while they try to think of ways to generate economic growth. In the UK, the emphasis has been on encouraging people to go shopping to “kick start the economy”. Unlimited economic growth is a fantasy. It  would mean using dwindling resources even faster, as we create more stuff and more waste to satisfy an insatiable appetite for things to spend our money on. Countries like India and China are rapidly catching up with this trend, expecting to eat more meat, to own more belongings, and to drive more cars. They’ll ask, why should they be deprived, when the developed countries have been enjoying all this for the last few decades? More and more people with higher and higher expectations, with no thought about where it’s all going to come from.

Who’s going to tell the have-nots that they can’t have these things? And who’s going to tell people that they can’t have more children? Will we just have to wait until there’s no oil left, and no grain to feed the cattle, and no water to grow the crops, and no room? Will we have to wait until there’s even less room because of rising sea levels, and climate change refugees are being slaughtered on the borders of more affluent countries by nationalists waving KEEP OUT signs? Will we have to wait until hundreds of other species have been eliminated due to loss of habitat, poaching, hunting and over-fishing?

The Optimum Population Trust, which campaigns as Population Matters, says,
The mid-range global projection is that the planet’s population will increase from seven billion to nine billion by 2050. Broader estimates range from eight to 11 billion, depending on how effectively and quickly reproductive and development programmes are implemented in developing areas of the world to address the key drivers of population growth: the lack of reproductive health and contraception, lack of women’s rights and poverty. In some countries, migration also contributes significantly to the increase in population.
Isn’t this is the most important issue that any of us have to face? I’m 68, so it won’t affect me much, but I may soon be a grandparent, and I fear for my grandchild or grandchildren (hopefully, no more than two). Yet how often do you hear population growth mentioned in political speeches, unless it’s about immigration? It’s the most enormous elephant in the room, and it’s not going to go away.

The Royal Society recently published a paper headed, “Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?” by Paul Ehrlich (Stanford Professor of Biology and Adjunct Professor at the University of Technology, Sydney) and Anne Ehrlich (Senior Research Scientist in Biology at Stanford), to mark their fellowship of the society.  It’s summarised as,
Environmental problems have contributed to numerous collapses of civilizations in the past. Now, for the first time, a global collapse appears likely. Overpopulation, overconsumption by the rich and poor choices of technologies are major drivers; dramatic cultural change provides the main hope of averting calamity.
The Ehrlichs conclude that there’s a need for rapid social and political change, and end on a cautiously positive note:
Do we think global society can avoid a collapse in this century? The answer is yes, because modern society has shown some capacity to deal with long-term threats, at least if they are obvious or continuously brought to attention (think of the risks of nuclear conflict). Humanity has the assets to get the job done, but the odds of avoiding collapse seem small because the risks are clearly not obvious to most people and the classic signs of impending collapse, especially diminishing returns to complexity, are everywhere. One central psychological barrier to taking dramatic action is the distribution of costs and benefits through time: the costs up front, the benefits accruing largely to unknown people in the future. But whether we or more optimistic observers  are correct, our own ethical values compel us to think the benefits to those future generations are worth struggling for, to increase at least slightly the chances of avoiding a dissolution of today's global civilization as we know it.
It’s true that “the risks are clearly not obvious to most people”, who prefer to imagine that we’re just going through a phase, and ask what can they do anyway, with a shrug. It’s easy to sign some online petition or other about rainforests or rhinos with a click of the mouse, before planning your next foreign holiday over a nice bottle of wine but, as the  Belgian philosopher Raoul Vaneigem said, “Ceux qui parlent de révolution sans en référer explicement à la vie quotidienne ont un cadavre dans la bouche,” or, “Those who speak of revolution without making it real in their daily lives talk with a corpse in their mouths.” In other words, make some effort and begin by changing your lifestyle. No matter whether or not you can afford it, consume less, drive less, and waste little. Then, as you sort out your own lifestyle, become a nag. It’s not necessary to join a campaign group, though organisations like Population Matters can help with lots of useful information, but you can write and email whoever has any influence, anywhere, to review and change public and/or corporate policy. One of the advantages of living in the UK is that we’re free to express our opinions, so do it, and if you need ideas, get in touch.

The planet can take care of itself but its inhabitants need urgent help.

First published in the Suffolk humanist group's newsletter, February 2013

Cartoon © Polyp