Friday, November 20, 2015

Terrorism, and what not to do about it

There may be many things wrong with religion, such as Deuteronomy 7:1-4 and the thread of misogyny that runs through the Abrahamic religions, but being religious doesn't make you a terrorist, including being a Muslim. There are estimated to be 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide. Only a very small proportion of them are terrorists but they make up a large proportion of the victims of terrorism and of the refugees from the mess in Syria and Iraq. Yet in the current panic about terrorism, some regard every Muslim as a suspect.

People, mostly male, who become terrorists are likely to have huge chips of their shoulders which they blame on others for a variety of reasons. They are unhappy, resentful people who'll justify their anger and hatred with one of a variety of negative -isms, including jihadism, patriotism, tribalism, nationalism and sexism. The Oxford English Dictionary defines terrorism as "The unofficial or unauthorized use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims." What was "shock and awe", the assault on Baghdad in 2003, but state-sanctioned terrorism, most of it committed by nominal Christians, led by those two pious idiots, Bush and Blair?

IS, or Daesh, is a bigger organisation than Al-Quaeda, Al-Shabaab or Boko Haram, largely thanks to Syria's Bashar Al-Assad's destructive regime and to the mess left in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. In the absence of any effective governance, widespread lawlessness and the availability of illegal weaponry has allowed a few charismatic leaders to recruit fighters to their toxic cause. Sponsorship by wealthy benefactors also contributes. Many of its foreign recruits are from areas of social deprivation; under-educated, under-valued, under-employed, and ripe for enrolment into an organisation that tells them you're all right and everyone else is wrong.

France may like to crow about "Liberté, égalité, fraternité!" but it has housing estates full of Muslim citizens who will tell you that they don't feel that they're treated equally. Al Jazeera has reported that by 1904 5,000 Muslims were working on the shop floors of Paris, in the soap factories of Marseilles and in the coalfields of the north. Muslim soldiers fought and died for France during the First World War, and Muslim members of the resistance helped liberate Paris in 1944. "Born as North Africans, many would die for France. But how much did post-war France care about their sacrifices?" Not enough. Young Muslims, like the young woman who blew herself up in Paris last week, have grown up to face social deprivation and unemployment with an understandable sense of grievance. Maybe you should be surprised that more of them haven't become terrorists.

And what about the UK? We don't have the same pool of disenfranchised Muslim youth, though there are pockets of deprivation, but bombing IS isn't going to help matters. There'll be more anti-UK rhetoric and reaction, more refugees, and more anti-Muslim nonsense spouted in the right-wing press and nationalist political groups and parties. In other words, it'll stir the pot of violence and hatred even more. Act in haste, and reap the consequences.

Click here to watch the Al Jazeera series on French Muslims.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Sparrows' bedtime

This was recorded as the flock of sparrows that roost in a large pyracantha bush in my front garden settle down for the night.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Ban the Bomb

Horrified by what had happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I joined CND as a teenager on Merseyside. My dad didn't approve. Some of my friends were in the Committee of 100, which he definitely didn't approve of. I had to sneak out of the house in the early morning to meet my best friend Ann before joining a coachload of CND people in Liverpool, off to demonstrate outside the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool. The Scouse sculptor, Arthur Dooley, was on his hands and knees with a hammer and nails in the coach, making placards for us to wave. We assembled on the beach in Blackpool, where Canon Collins and others spoke from a flatbed truck until the incoming tide threatened to wash them away. My father had got wind of my plans and forbade me to go, hence the early departure. He'd have locked me in my room if the lock wasn't stuck open with several layers of paint. I was spared a row when I got home because Mum and Dad had visitors, and didn't want a scene.

Ann and I continued to demonstrate. In the Easter holiday of 1960 we pretended to go youth hostelling in North Wales but went on the Aldermaston march instead, with me dodging the news cameras so my dad wouldn't see me in the Daily Mail, his newspaper of choice. We leafleted patrons leaving the local cinema after Dr Strangelove, Stanley Kupbrik's black comedy about nuclear weapons.

By 1962 I'd left home to work as a farm labourer. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 I was living on a small dairy farm outside Flint, in North Wales. My boss's wife, a primary school teacher, was convinced that we'd all perish in a nuclear holocaust at any minute and her paranoia was contagious. She'd stocked up with whitewash and brown paper to protect the windows against a nuclear blast, and rehearsed our survival strategy. The eldest two children were away at boarding school, and she fretted about bringing them home. As we were having breakfast one morning, her youngest son strolled into the kitchen in his pyjamas and asked, "Mummy, what's that big red glow in the sky?" Terrified that it was a bomb over Liverpool, my boss's wife rushed to look through the landing window. To everyone's relief, it was only the sunrise.

53 years later, I wouldn't have expected to be discussing the same issue again, but Jeremy Corbyn's statement that he wouldn't press the nuclear button has prompted a hoo-ha. It's absurd. One pro-nuclear advocate on Twitter told me that the nuclear deterrent has kept the peace for the last 70 years. Apart from the fact that a nuclear "deterrent" wasn't part of anyone's arsenal until the 1950s and was mainly connected to the Cold War, there's no evidence that it's a deterrence now, since the formation of the European Union, the demise of the USSR, and the increase in terrorism. What good would a nuclear bomb have been post-9/11? Former Tory Defence Secretary Michael Portillo called for our nuclear arsenal to be scrapped ten years ago. Simon Jenkins in the Guardian wrote,
I can recall no head of the army and no serious academic strategist with any time for the Trident missile. It was a great hunk of useless weaponry. It was merely a token of support for an American nuclear response, though one that made Britain vulnerable to a nuclear exchange. No modern danger, such as from terrorism, is deterred by Trident (any more than Galtieri had been in the Falklands or Saddam in Iraq). But the money was spent and the rest of the defence budget had to suffer constant cuts – and soldiers left ill-equipped – to pay for it.
So why Corbyn's Defence Secretary Maria Eagle should say that his remarks were "unhelpful" beats me. When it comes to nuclear weapons, Corbyn's a realist. Those Labour Party people who regard his stance as unhelpful need their heads testing.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Is it smart to be proud of obesity? (Light the blue touch paper and retire immediately)

I have a problem with being fat. I'm over-weight (though not obese) and trying not to be, though it isn't easy to lose the weight as someone with restricted mobility. I have enough health problems, without obesity making them worse. I also have a problem with other people being fat when they seem to think it's OK, even desirable, to be fat, and promote it as a lifestyle choice.

Tess Holliday
This post was prompted by a thread on Facebook today, where the subject of "fat-shaming" came up. In America, it seems that you have to be very careful what you say about obese people, for fear of being charged with a hate crime. In response to criticism, some women (it's mostly women) have adopted a "fat and proud" stance. The recent visit of size 26 supermodel Tess Holliday to the UK, where she signed up with a British model agency, attracted hoards of fat fans who adore her because of her attitude. She's tweeted, "To the people that fight on my social media: I don't give a fuck. Get a therapist, phone a psychic or eat a fuckin' burger ... grow up."

The World Health Organisation says, "The fundamental cause of obesity and overweight is an energy imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended." In other words, eating too much. Couldn't be simpler. Yes, I know it's not easy, with all those tempting high calorie things out there just falling into your shopping bag and, like any other addiction, it's hard to quit. But there must be a balance between fat-shaming or bullying and being "proud" of a condition that's a major risk factor in noncommunicable diseases such as:
  • cardiovascular diseases (mainly heart disease and stroke), which were the leading causes of death in 2012;
  • diabetes;
  • musculoskeletal disorders (especially osteoarthritis - a highly disabling degenerative disease of the joints);
  • some cancers (endometrial, breast, and colon).
The increase in cases of diabetes has been reported as overwhelming the NHS, costing £25,000 a minute, while you're a drain on the public purse even when you're dead, if you're fat; I've blogged about that before.

So, excuse me if I'm not proud of being fat and I don't expect anyone to find it attractive. I'm eating less (small plates, no snacks) and slowly losing the weight. You can click on my Just Giving link (right) to encourage me. And I don't think it's clever to try to be a fat role model, like Ms Holliday. Her obesity is, of course, highly visible, but no less a problem than an invisible one like alcoholism or smoking. They all damage health. How can you be proud of that? Maybe it's time that more fat people were less proud?

Photograph: Sergiy Barchuk for the Guardian.

Saturday, August 15, 2015


Saw a bit of the VJ Day stuff on the telly and it reminded me of Bill. In the early 1960s, including one of the coldest winters on record (1962-63), I worked on a small dairy farm just outside Flint in North Wales. Bill was my boss, one of the kindest, gentlest men I've ever known. He taught me a lot, including how to care for the cows and their calves. We bottled the milk and sold it on a milk round in Flint, which wasn't easy when the streets were like an ice rink.

Bill had been a prisoner of the Japanese in the notorious Changi Jail and on the Burma Railway, where so many men died. One of his fellow prisoners was the artist and cartoonist Ronald Searle (famous for creating the St Trinian's delinquent schoolgirls). Bill told me that they were so hungry that they used to catch and kill snakes and cats to eat, but Ronald drew them first.

Searle smuggled lots of drawings out of the prison. This one is of roll call before going to work on the railway - click on the image to enlarge it. I asked Bill what he thought of David Lean's film, "The Bridge on the River Kwai", with Alec Guinness as the ridiculous British officer, Nicholson. Bill was seldom negative, but he became almost angry when he said that it was nothing like Burma - nothing could be that bad. Wikipedia says, "The largely fictional film plot is loosely based on the building in 1943 of one of the railway bridges over the Mae Klong...". Bill said it was almost all fiction.

I didn't stay long on Bill's farm - I left to go to art college. Bill said that he'd think of me whenever he saw a box of Kleenex, as we'd both struggled that cold winter with colds, coughing and sneezing through the snow drifts. Compared with what he'd suffered under the Japanese, that was nothing. On today's news I saw that some Japanese are proud of what they did in the war, and feel they have nothing to apologise for. Maybe they've forgotten about Changi and the railway.

Friday, August 07, 2015

An email to my MP, James Cartlidge (South Suffolk)

I'm ashamed of my government. I'm appalled by the attitude that migrants are all potential scroungers and must be deterred. I'm sad and angry at the lack of basic humanity shown towards these desperate people. We have accepted far fewer refugees than other European countries, and certainly far fewer than countries like Greece and Lebanon, who really can't afford to help them.

Today (Friday) I read a report from a young woman, Jaz O'Hara, who's Head of Design at Pants to Poverty, about a visit to The Jungle, the makeshift refugee camp in Calais. Jez is one of the volunteers who takes food, clothes and other essentials to the refugees.

This is what she wrote:

An hours drive from my house, then half an hour on the Eurotunnel, and we were in the world’s worst refugee camp in terms of resources and conditions, yet we were welcomed with open arms. It’s amazing how only the people who have nothing really know how to share.

The ‘jungle’ (as the camp is known), is loosely and naturally divided by country, with every one of the worlds warzones represented. We walked through ‘Afghanistan’, ‘Syria,’ ‘Eritrea’ and ‘Sudan,’ all living peacefully alongside each other. This struck a chord with me – it was immediately clear that these people, fleeing war and persecution, want anything but conflict. The ‘mosque’ (a wooden frame), next to the church (some wood and tarpaulin, crowned with a wooden cross), right next to each other, representing that we are all the same, regardless of religion or race.

Nothing could have prepared me for hearing the stories of these people first hand.

A man from Afghanistan told me how he had fled his country with over 100 other people with the aim of walking together to England. Many people (mainly women and children) died along the way. They were so hungry they ate grass, and one night, walking through Bulgarian woodland in the dark, he tripped and a stick pierced through his eye. He spent 2 weeks in hospital in Sofia and the group left him behind. He carried on alone and had finally made it to Calais.

Then we met three Eritrean brothers aged 14, 13 and 10. They were alone. Sent by their parents to escape conscription to compulsory, indefinite military service, which is basically slave labour, they had made their way from Eritrea on foot.

And then, a 23-year-old from Dafur, Sudan. He told me that the Gangaweed had come to his village on horseback when he was 18, burnt it to the ground and brutally shot many people, including his dad, just for being black. He was arrested, accused of opposing the government, and put in prison for two years. As soon as he got out, he went back to where the village once was, desperate to find his two little brothers, little sister and mother. He was told his sister was alive and in a nearby town so he went looking for her. She wasn’t there. He searched towns and cities until he was again arrested, as travelling through the country is not permitted. Unable to face any more time in prison, he spent all the money he had to be smuggled to Libya. Here he started his journey, on foot and alone to England.

England..where everybody is always smiling and no one has problems, he told me. “Is it this cold in England?”, he asked in the middle of a sunny day in August. His expectations, and the reality of his life if he ever does make it to England, make my heart hurt.

He told me he doesn't feel the hunger (the refugees get one free meal a day they have to queue for hours for), or the cold (I cant even begin to imagine winter in this camp), he just feels the pain of his lost family. Each time he spoke the word family, his voice broke and he put his head in his hands. Crying, he told me that every time he closes his eyes, he sees his mother, telling him he is a good boy, and that he is doing the right thing. ‘Why then, am I living like an animal?’ he asked me.

Every night he walks a few miles to the tunnel in an attempt to make it to England, although he told me he was taking a couple of days break from trying to allow his leg to heal. He proceeded to show me a huge bruise on his calf from where he had been hit by a police baton.

Many many people from Sudan tell the same story. Persecuted for being black, many have seen their entire family killed in front of their eyes.

We sat for ages in the Sudanese part of the camp. The guys here searched the surroundings to find the most mismatch selection of chairs, and even made us tea over an open fire. ‘You are our guests’ they told us, in front of the opening to their makeshift tents.

Yesterday I realised that the people in this camp don't WANT to come to England. They have no choice.

These people aren't migrants...these are REFUGEES. They can't go back, but they can't go forward, they are stuck, trying to create some kind of normal life from a bit of tarpaulin and a blanket.

And they are heroes. Their stories show more determination, strength and courage than anything I have ever heard from anyone in the UK. They should be an inspiration to us all...yet they are portrayed by our media as a drain on our society, scrounging our benefits. This couldn't be further from the truth. These people WANT to work, want to earn enough money to pay tax, and want to be given the opportunities they deserve.

These people are desperate. On the one hand we commemorate holocaust Memorial Day, yet on the other we turn away at people facing as extreme persecution as the Jews, right on our doorstep.

What the actual fuck?

A sign in the camp read 'we must all learn to live together like brothers, or we will die together like idiots'.

This needs to happen, and quick.

Many people didn't want us to take their picture, scared of the negative media representation, but also in case their families face repercussions under repressive governments back home. They are also ashamed; ashamed to be living in such an undignified manner.

We'll be going back next week to start filming a documentary, as sensitively as possible, with the aim of sharing the stories of these inspirational people. We're also stocking up on men's shoes, men's clothing, SIM cards, old phones (people are desperate to call home) and anything else people many be able to donate...

To be involved, to donate or to help us, like our campaign here:

You can follow the journey in photos on instagram:


This is the link to our kickstarter campaign:

We need to do something. Turning your back on this tragedy on our doorstep is literally unforgivable.

I agree. It is unforgivable. But I'm also concerned that the government has back-tracked on its green commitments; scrapping support for offshore wind, cutting solar and biomass subsidies, scrapping the green homes scheme and the zero carbon homes scheme, selling the green investment bank, reducing incentives to buy greener cars, fracking (especially in SSIs), and dropping the green tax target. All this, while President Obama sets an example with his speech on tackling climate change. What has this to do with migrants? Have none of your considered the increase in refugees from Africa and Southern Europe as extreme weather, due to climate change, makes their homes uninhabitable? Are you going to fight to keep them out too? What about those who are drowning in increasing numbers in the Mediterranean? UKIP's attitude I can understand - those people are ignorant and prejudiced - but surely even Conservatives with an imagination might see that your current policies (if you can call them that) are inhumane and destructive. Unless there is action on climate change soon (it's long overdue) the UK population will also be on the move, from the coasts and the flood plains. For goodness' sake, wake up!

Note: James Cartlidge was chosen by the South Suffolk Conservative Association as their election candidate to replace Tim Yeo, who was deselected because, they said, there'd been complaints that he didn't spend enough time in the constituency. Yeo served as Chairman of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee and was a humanist, and to the left of the party, so maybe these made him unpopular with the old Tory fogeys.

Photo by Jaz O'Hara.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Cousin Wounda

19th century etching of a chimpanzee

In the Congo the name Wounda means 'close to dying', which is what she was when she was rescued and taken to the Jane Goodall Institute's Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center, where she was nursed back to health. Eventually, she was well enough to be released back into the wild, a sanctuary on Tchindzoulou Island in the nearby Kouilou River. When her crate was open and she was free to go, Wounda hesitated and took stock of the strange situation, then embraced Dr Rebeca Atencia, who'd cared for her, and world-famous primatologist Jane Goodall, before venturing into the forest to explore her new home. The video had me in tears.

And why have I called her Cousin Wounda? As the Jane Goodall Institute says, "Biologically, chimpanzees are more closely related to humans than they are to another species of great apes—gorillas. In fact, humans and chimpanzees share about 95 percent to 98 percent of the same DNA." To think that hungry but ignorant people eat them as "bush meat" - it's like cannibalism. One way or another, humans are responsible for the apes' destruction, loss of habitat being the main problem. Action to save all the great apes - chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans - will also help to save all the other species that share their forest habitats. Click here to find out about action to save them.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Thank you, Mr Pickles

Tiverton town councillors have voted to include prayers in council meetings. As the National Secular Society has said, holding prayers in council meetings is divisive, wrong and completely inappropriate. I've been exchanging emails with Tiverton's Town Clerk:
I was interested to read that Tiverton Town Councillors have voted to include prayers on the agenda of their meetings. It may be true that this is legally acceptable, thanks to Mr Pickles, but it isn't morally acceptable. Rather than expecting atheist councillors, or councillors of other faiths, to leave the chamber while prayers are said, it would be more acceptable to have prayers 10 or 15 minutes before a meeting starts. Members should opt in, not opt out. Anything else is sheer bad manners, as it forces religion on non-Christians. Imagine being expected to say prayers from any of the other faiths practised in the UK, such as Paganism?

Other councils have prayers before meetings, making them optional, and it works well.

Town Clerk:
Thank you for your views.
The recommendation to full Council was made after receiving advise from the Legal Officer from the National Association of Local Councils. The decision will be made by Full Council as per our standing orders and constitution.

I understand that in the larger councils provision is made to recognise other faiths.

As noted in the legislation anyone has the option of leaving the room prior to the prayers being said if they wish to.

But why should they leave the room? This places the onus on those who aren't Christian, which is unfair. No matter what your advice, the legal position is essentially wrong as it favours Christians.

Christians are now a minority in the UK. They're no more entitled to foist their beliefs on other people than football fans are entitled to force others to sing football songs with them.

You're no more likely to find me singing with these lads than you are to find me praying.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Email to my MP

The local Conservative Association ditched my previous MP, Tim Yeo, and selected a new guy, James Cartlidge, before the election. He won, as might have been expected in this blue county. Although I've never voted Tory in my life (and never will), Tim Yeo was better than most, being a leftish Tory, a humanist, and clued up about environmental issues. He served as Minister for the Environment and Countryside from 1993 to 1994 in Major's government and was Chair of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee. I've heard that some MPs don't seem inclined to respond to constituents' letters or emails when they've been critical of Tory policy, but whenever I wrote to Yeo I always got a detailed reply, even if it wasn't what I was hoping for.

When I read Cartlidge's election address, I wasn't impressed. For a start, he has four kids. Has he never heard of population control? As my mum might have said, he should put a knot in it. Apparently, James argues on conservativehome that the property market should be rebalanced more in favour of those who want to own property than rent it out. He doesn't like the surge in buy-to-let investors, but what about social housing? The Tories' pledge to allow housing association tenants the right to buy their homes is just as big a problem, if not more so.

So I wrote to him. Probably a waste of time, but...
I'm writing about your government's plan to allow housing association tenants to buy their homes. This has to be one of the silliest policies imaginable. It's well known that a significant proportion of the council homes sold under Mrs Thatcher's right-to-buy scheme have ended up in the ownership of buy-to-let landlords who charge higher rents than the councils did, and that many of these rents are being subsidised from the public purse through housing benefit. This is especially true of former council homes in the London boroughs. Not only that, but the sale of council houses has actually resulted in fewer homes becoming available. Since 1980, nearly 2 million homes have been sold under the scheme, while just 345,000 new social properties have been built. The experience of one London housing association, Phoenix, illustrates the reality of right-to-buy. 82 of its properties, valued at £12.7m, were sold under right-to-buy. A subsidy of £100,000 to tenants meant proceeds dropped to £7m. A transfer agreement meant a further £5m went to the former landlord, Lewisham council. Selling 82 homes gave Phoenix enough money to build just 12 new one-bed flats.

I know something about council housing and the housing crisis. As a Babergh District Council tenant for 30 years, I was its first Tenants' Forum chairperson and was a tenants' representative on its Housing Panel. I've taken a keen interest in housing issues for a long time. I can confidently claim that selling housing association stock will not have the effect of easing the housing crisis - just the opposite. Not only that, but I'd question the government's right to do this. I believe that the associations plan a legal challenge.

The obsession with owner-occupation in the UK is misguided. Our European neighbours regard renting as an acceptable way to be housed, including in Germany, where 53% of the population rent and most have indefinite tenancies. Rather than selling off our remaining social housing, it would make much more sense to stop its sale, to build a lot more social housing, to bring more empty properties into use, and to do something about bringing the private rented sector under control with stricter standards and rent control.

The National Housing Federation is among many organisations with expertise in housing that strongly oppose your party's plans, and with good reason. Someone may have imagined that it would be a popular policy to include in your election manifesto, but it has not been thought through. I urge you to prevail upon Mr Cameron to think again.

Yours sincerely ...
Photo of Cartlidge from the UK Parliament website. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015


I recorded the birds singing in my garden this evening.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Elegant letters

If you're not a graphic or web designer, you may not think about the design of the words you're reading. I did Fine Art at college, so typography wasn't part of my course. It's only been since I got a PC and have done some freelance design that I've got to know a little bit about it. Travelling around town, I've been known to shout out the names of some of my favourite fonts when I spot them in posters and shop signs. Weird, yes.

Nueva standard, which I've used in the heading of my blog (see above) used to be included in the list of fonts that came with Photoshop, but it disappeared. All I had left was Nueva condensed, which I hardly use. So now I've made up for the loss, with the advantage of being able to use it in Microsoft Office programmes.

The font was designed by an American, Carol Towmbly, in 1994.

It's possible to download Nueva and many other fonts free of charge. This is as unethical as using someone else's illustration without permission. So I paid, and I have a licence. Now my conscience is telling me to go through this blog and remove all the pictures that aren't copyright-free. I may be some time.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The times they are a-changin'

I read in the Guardian that we have more LGB MPs than anywhere else, which is good. The article referred to the 1997 election, when Stephen Twigg was elected. It says, "Stephen Twigg was gay – a 'practising homosexual', to use a formula still popular at the time." It reminded me of a Suffolk six form conference I was invited to, as one of a panel of speakers on "controversial subjects", including homosexuality and abortion. Considering that, as far as I can remember, Section 28 was still in force, this was quite provocative. One of the other speakers was a member of the Gay and Lesbian Christian Movement and another was a homophobic evangelical vicar I'd come across before. He'd been "saved" and was determined to save as many others as he could. After quoting Leviticus (don't they all?), he said he didn't object to homosexuals if they didn't practice. I said that my gay friends didn't need to practice; they knew how to be gay. At this, the hall erupted, with the kids yelling and cheering, to the evident displeasure of the homophobe. I thought to myself, these kids are all right, and things are going to change. And they did.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The height of fashion

Nicola Sturgeon's shoes
According to a study by the Université de Bretagne-Sud, "men behave more favourably towards a woman if she is wearing high-heeled shoes," concluding that "high heels make women more beautiful". Sociologist Jean-Claude Kaufmann claims "high-heels are an important tool for women hoping to attract a male partner." But if you're looking for a proper grown-up relationship, maybe that's not the sort of partner you want?

Presenting the BBC's Young Dancer 2015 final last night, Zoë Ball was perched on ridiculously high heels, as she often is. I guess it's part of her show business image, to wear totally impractical shoes. During Strictly Come Dancing, she must have been glad to sit down. She certainly couldn't dance in them. But why does Nicola Sturgeon totter around on stilettos? They throw her body forward so her gait is unnatural. She probably wears them because she's short. Now what would a psychologist say about that?

Naomi Campbell's spectacular
1993 fall at Westwood's show
It's a very long time since I wore high heels. I had some silly platform soled shoes in my early 20s that were an accident waiting to happen, and it did. Shoes like this remind me of my Aunty Dorothy. She wasn't a real aunt, but our next door neighbour when I was growing up. She always wore high heels and her calf muscles looked like they had knots in. In later life, she had difficulty walking even in flat shoes, due to the damage done by walking on tiptoe for years. In years to come, fashion historians will probably deride very high heels as the height of foolishness.

Click for the history of high heels.

Seems I'm not the only one who's been interested in Nicola Sturgeon's shoes. She was on ITV's Loose Women, where she got side-tracked into talking about her appearance instead of about politics.

Nicola Sturgeon on Loose Women: How the 'most powerful woman in British politics' dealt with questions on shoes and fashion.  

Bit of a hoo-ha at the Cannes Film Festival, when women were turned away from a red carpet screening for not wearing high heels.

Nicola Thorp was told that she had to wear high heels to work as it was part of the dress code. She refused, and is trying to make it illegal for bosses to impose this rule.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Art lovers' heaven

Thoroughly enjoyed Frederick Wiseman's three-hour film on BBC Four about The National Gallery, with no narration and no music, part of the Slow TV season. You have 29 days to see it on iPlayer.

Although I did Art History at college (I did a Diploma in Art & Design), I didn't know about Caravaggio's use of ground colour in his chiaroscuro paintings, which was described as "economical". Nor did I know that when a painting has been cleaned it's varnished before being restored, so that there's a barrier between the original painting and the restoration. This means that if the painting is cleaned and restored again, all the hours of work done by the conservators can be wiped clean in minutes, leaving the canvas as it was before.

In the film, I found the staff and visitors to be as fascinating as the subjects in the paintings, especially in the galleries' subdued lighting. It reminded me of two people. The first was my Uncle George, one of my mother's brothers, who managed a toy shop not far from home. He was naturally talented (as was Mum - must be a family tendency) but I never saw anything of his apart from some pencil drawings. When he retired from the shop he got a job as an attendant in The Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool (my family's from Merseyside), where he was happy, surrounded by art and art lovers. Perhaps, if he'd had the opportunity, he'd have liked to do what I did, and go to Art College but, like many of his generation, higher education was out of the question, for financial reasons. My grandfather was a merchant seaman and he and Nana had five children to raise. Poor George.

The second person the film reminded me of was Dr Cronheim, who taught Art History at college. He was a small man, swamped by his heavy double-breasted pin-striped suit, who spoke with a thick Austrian or German accent. I don't know anything about him, but he was probably a wartime refugee. Dr Cronheim prided himself on his research into the characters in some of the large Renaissance paintings he lectured about, featuring the patron's families and friends with the holy family. If a patron had paid a lot of money for a religious painting, he might expect to be included in the subjects. If the artist had an especially strong reputation, he'd include himself in the painting too. On one occasion, Dr Cronheim pointed at a man in the bottom right hand corner of a large group surrounding Jesus and some angels and a bunch of others. "Zis is not the artist's brother, as I had first supposed, but the artist's brother-in-law!" He practically squeaked with emotion as he said this, his voice rising in triumph at his cleverness. I have no idea how he deduced the relationship of the man in the painting. I suspect poor Dr Cronheim was disappointed by our reaction, which was more amusement than admiration.

Some stills from the BBC film:

Restorer cleaning a painting
Visitors being lectured
Restorer touching up some blemishes
Alert gallery attendant
Guide lecturing about a painting

Old man sitting in a gallery

Sunday, April 26, 2015

A term of abuse, when it should be celebrated

I'm not keen on Ricky Gervais. The novelty of his dad dance in The Office wore off long ago, and I've never found him funny since. However, his Twitter attacks on big game hunters who kill for "sport", showing the hunters' sickening photos, posing with their trophies, have highlighted an issue that needs highlighting. Whether it'll make any difference is debatable.

I didn't like one of his messages, however, because I hate the use of the word "cunt" as a term of abuse.
I agree with Elisabeth:
The Oxford dictionaries define cunt as "vulgar slang" and a noun meaning -

1     A woman’s genitals.
1.1  An unpleasant or stupid person.

What has the first to do with the second? Nothing, except that it's a symptom of the misogyny that associates female anatomy with nastiness. For centuries, male religious extremists have regarded women's genitals as foul or dirty, a necessary evil if progeny are desired. Women were kept hidden from society while menstruating and after childbirth, because they were considered unclean. It still happens in backward patriarchal societies. Nowadays it's a favourite term of abuse for women by male Twitter trolls, like the idiot who attacked the classicist Mary Beard online. Mary's commented:
"When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out. If you went into a bar and a load of guys started saying, 'Look at that old slag. I bet her cunt smells like cabbage,' you would say, 'Look, guys, cut it out.' Same on Twitter!
So please Ricky Gervais, choose your terms of abuse carefully. I don't care for those that indirectly insult women.

See what Wikipedia says about the term.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Let's scrap party politics and start again

OK, here's an idea. No more political parties. If you want to govern the country you have to study lots of relevant stuff, pass an exam and a psychological evaluation, then you go on a list. Members of Parliament are chosen from this list to represent a cross-section of society, half men, half women. It's a bit like jury service, only better. You serve for a fixed term. The house is divided in half and half changes at the end of the term, so there's an overlap and continuity. No one may serve more than once. Committees are formed of people who are interested in the subject, such as education, health, etc., informed by relevant professionals. They can't make decisions, only recommendations to the full house. No one is expected to win a popularity contest. Claims on behalf of the house are fact checked. The primary people's representatives are the most articulate, chosen for their ability to get everyone to work together, not to dominate.

Can't be worse than what we've got now, can it?

Sunday, April 19, 2015

God as a mouthpiece for earthly control freaks

Free will: The power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion.
Watched the BBC's The Big Questions this morning. Today's question was, do we have free will? I'm none the wiser. One of the speakers, an evangelical Christian, said something about those who don't accept Christ going to hell. I've been told by a Muslim that atheists will go to hell. The more I hear about it, the more attractive hell sounds, if it's free from the clamour of religionists all trying to impose their beliefs on everyone else. Free will? Not if the theists' God has anything to do with it. The Big Questions doesn't do religious believers any favours. By herding a bunch of them all together, arguing about who's right (they all think they are), they appear collectively silly.

Yesterday I watched the second part of Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch's series on Sex and the Church on BBC Two. Fascinating stuff about Christian history, and how attitudes to sex have been shaped by various Christian saints, all male, with sexual hang-ups of one sort or another, determined that free will and spontaneity would be strongly discouraged in matters sexual.

God is generally an authority figure invented by a succession of control freaks as a mouthpiece for their messages. The same is true of the various believers who take part in The Big Questions. They may be recycling someone else's messages, but they've all originated in the minds of men (mostly men, not women), not in some supernatural sphere. If you were looking for a religion, which one would you choose? The one that most closely reflected your attitudes and values? A majority of people, worldwide, don't enjoy the privilege of choosing. Their religion is chosen for them by the control freaks in their community, mostly male. No free will for them.

I'll stick to freethinking. The Big Questions' participants could benefit from trying it for a while.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

A puzzle, and a bored postman

A few days ago a small packet arrived with a pair of toe nail clippers I'd ordered from a company in Manchester. I don't know the people who work there and had never ordered anything from them before, so I was mystified by this hand-written message on the back of the padded envelope: "Hope you are fully recovered - David" and a smiley face. Who was David? And how did he know I've been ill? I'm recovering from a nasty bout of gastro-enteritis. Maybe, I thought, the message wasn't intended for me, but had already been written on the envelope before it was used.

Then, today, my home help came to clean my house. Did I get the message from David? she asked. All became clear. David is her husband and he works in the sorting office, sorting the mail at night. He saw the envelope addressed to me, and wrote the message. Mystery solved. I remembered that it wasn't the first time I've had a cryptic little message written on the back of a package. David amuses himself by writing them when he comes across packages for people he knows. I wonder when the next one will be?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Happiness is relative

A spiritual path?
This morning's BBC god-slot programme, The Big Questions, asked "Does religion make you happier?" The answer to that? It depends. For millions, religion is a tyrannical system of thought that makes people angry, miserable or just plain confused, while others claim that it does make them "happier" - but happier than what? Anyone who expects to be happy all the time is just plain foolish. Several spoke about their "spiritual path" and others nodded or applauded, but I have no idea what they meant. What's a spiritual path?

Sorry, Nicky Campbell, but a little intellectual rigour wouldn't go amiss on your show, though you'll only hear it from a minority. Oh, and by the way, I'm content without a spiritual path, thanks, whatever it is. I quite like real ones, in the country.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Religion can be a problem, but it's not the only one

Some of my friends are preoccupied with religion, and it bores me. It's one of the reasons that I'm less interested in atheist stuff on the Internet too; the constant criticism of religion. One of the latest articles promoting atheism is in Salon - "Religion's sinister fairy tale". The author, Jeffrey Tayler, writes,
We understand the real purpose behind religion whenever it exceeds the bounds of conscience, as it has done throughout history, and seeps into politics.  More than two centuries ago, the English and American revolutionary Thomas Paine penned words that still ring true: “All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”
The real purpose? It's not that simple, is it? Religions aren't all the same, nor are the religious one homogeneous mass, equally devout, equally duped. I wonder how much the most vociferous critics of religion really know about religion, its complexities and history?

But I've blogged about this before, and about the male bias in atheism too.

I think nationalism and tribalism are also threats to peace and harmony, as the world becomes increasingly over-populated. Yes, of course religion plays a part in all this. Patriarchal religion has been used as a justification for all manner of human rights abuses for millennia, especially the subjugation of women, but it's not the only reason. Misogyny proliferates in a vicious circle, where culturally defined social structures prevent children from learning how men and women can live together on an equal basis. I commented on a New Humanist post about terrorism recently:
The problem isn't just religious extremism, it's also male domination in Islamic societies and the deeply ingrained misogyny that prevails. How can extremism be challenged when hardly any of those involved know what it is to have healthy relationships with those who share their lives? Religion is used to justify the subjugation of women, but it has been regarded as normal for so long that it's like a collective psychosis, almost impossible to change. Without the civilising influence of women, the societies where extremism proliferates can't be fixed. British, European and American politicians may fret about terrorism but the threat to us is insignificant compared with the daily terrors suffered by thousands of women and girls.

One of the consequences of patriarchal attitudes is a resistance to population control, so these societies will continue to grow as the resources to feed, house and employ them decrease. It's estimated that 222 million women worldwide have an unmet need for modern contraception. As David Nicholson-Lord, Optimum Population Trust research associate, said: “Talking about threats to national security without highlighting the growth in human numbers is a bit like staging Hamlet without the prince. Population growth is one of the major forces behind global environmental insecurity, whether it’s the direct effect on issues such as climate change and food, water and energy shortages, or the creation of large cohorts of discontented young people in developing countries, which provide fertile breeding grounds for terrorism."
Not long after I wrote that, I found this article - The Hidden Link Between Women and War. Leith Greenslade writes,
The UN’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence run until December 10, Human Rights Day, and as we reflect on 2014, there is no denying it has been a particularly vicious year for violence against women. The images are forever seared in our minds: the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls, the trafficked Yazidi women, the assassination attempts on Afghan women leaders, the sexual assaults on Egyptian women in Tahrir Square, the horrific gang rapes of girls in India and the brutal honor killings in Pakistan.

These atrocities are all by-products of the resurgence of a particularly ancient kind of war—extremely violent, religiously or ethnically motivated civil conflicts that now rage across parts of Africa, South Asia and the Middle East. All of the conflicts involve large groups of young men, undereducated, overarmed and delirious with power; caught in a labyrinth of shifting relationships and competing interests; united in their efforts to control and oppress women and girls.

Why is violence against women central to so many of the conflicts that plague the planet today? What is driving young groups of men to mobilize against women? And what can we do to prevent it?
You could blame religion for all of this, but it isn't that simple, really it isn't, and if you're only interested in attacking religion and not in feminism or population control, your blinkers will continue to get in the way of understanding.