Friday, April 24, 2015

The BBC Radio 4 Today programme contained an extraordinary interview with Holocaust survivor Eva Kor, covering her experience of being an experiment victim, the question of forgiveness and meeting former Nazi guard Oscar Groning. Click here to listen

Monday, April 20, 2015

Big Sing with Alison Adam. Sunday May 17th at 3pm

This is just a shameless plug for the fact that we have Alison Adam coming to lead a Big Sing at Morecambe Parish Church on Sunday 17th May at 3pm. Alison is a long-standing member of the Iona Community, and has worked with John Bell with the Wild Goose Resource Group,

Come along and learn new songs from the Iona community and from around the world. You'll find yourself making more music than you thought possible. No previous musical experience required!

If you would like to come, please register, either by signing up in church, or by using the Eventbrite button below. You can also use Eventbrite to register for a number of people at once, so why not get a group together.

Eventbrite - Big Sing with Alison Adam

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Bit of Political Incorrectness

The General election is nearly here, and the political conversations are littered with the phrase "hard working families". This describes in vague terms a sector of society who exemplify what politicians across quite a wide political spectrum gear their policies towards affirming and encouraging. Cameron and Miliband both litter their speeches with references to them. It's become what is sometimes known as a glittering generality.

I suspect that if we unpacked what they meant, it would be somewhat different. My hunch would be that Cameron would define them as the opposite of so-called benefit scroungers or work-shy, whereas Miliband would probably see it more as way of talking about the employed working class without sounding like a leftie and scaring the Daily Mail et al more than he already does.

My heretical thought is this: what is virtuous about being a "hard working family" anyway? What's wrong with being a working family, who earn enough to meet their bills and still have time and energy for other things? What about families where no-one can work, due to illness, disability or a lack of available jobs? What about people (hard working or not) who haven't got a family, or at least don't live in a family-type household? 

The problem with current rhetoric is that it implies that anyone not fitting the "hard working family" template is somehow less than ideal. Policy is being geared to this heroic group of people rather than the isolated, unemployed or marginalised. We already live in times where benefits sanctions are readily applied to anyone not able to comply with demanding conditions, sometimes in cases where good reasons prevented people from doing what was required. In such a punitive context, when all assessment of budgets and policy seems to be based on "what's in it for me", public opinion could very easily be tipped towards even greater restrictions on the support and help we give to the vulnerable of our society from the taxes of those the politicians charm with their hard-working rhetoric.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Eclipsed Songs

So, the sun is now out in Morecambe, and now there is no risk of an eclipse getting in the way and spoiling a sunny day by the sea. 

Having seen nothing but grey sky this morning, I thought the only response to lift our spirits was a list of moon-inspired songs. So here we go, not necessarily in order of preference:
  1. Whole Of The Moon - The Waterboys
  2. Bad Moon Rising - Credence Clearwater Revival
  3. Walking on the Moon - The Police
  4. Sleeping Satellite - Tasmin Archer
  5. Moon River - let's go for the Breakfast at Tiffany's version
  6. Dark Side of the Moon - Pink Floyd (there's no title track on the album, so you could go to Eclipse at the end)
  7. Blue Moon - has to be Ella Fitzgerald's version
OK break over. Back to work.


I know a lot of friends and contacts will already know about what has been going on with Debbie's health. It's been quite a journey so far, and there's a lot to come. I'm not going to use this blog for updates about her, as you can follow news and also Debbie's reflections on her illness and treatment on her own new blog. Just click here if you'd like to view that and keep in touch with what's going on.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Limits of Freedom of Speech.

The appalling and tragic events of the Charlie Hebdo attack have left many questions. Why were the perpetrators not spotted? Could it have been anticipated or prevented? How do people get radicalised, such that they think that taking such violent action furthers a moral cause or fulfils some warped idea of religious duty?

It also asks some important questions about the nature of free speech. The writers and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo were engaged in satire, which lampoons those in positions of power and influence. It's the nature of satire to provoke, to be controversial, to get a reaction - hopefully with a lot of laughter. And it's not unusual for satire to make people angry. The team at Charlie Hebdo would have been well aware of that, but the ability to publish satire is a sign that a society is free.

They would also have known that there was at least a small risk that amongst those they angered, there might be people who would become violent in response to something they published. Some the issues they attacked were very sensitive, perhaps particularly when they took on religion in all its forms. In 2011 their offices experienced an attack in reaction to their publishing cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, but they were not deterred from continuing to place no limits on who or what they satirised.

The debates that have followed seem to have at their heart whether the Charlie Hebdo team were brave, reckless, stupid or misguided to do so. It has revealed that there are some very strongly held views on all sides. One thing must be said: whatever you may think about the content of the magazine or wisdom of the team who produce it, there is no justification or mitigation for them becoming the victims of such terrible violence. This was a criminal act of murder. Alongside the wider public issues, families and friends grieve at the sudden and violent deaths of people they love, and we must not lose sight of that in the midst of other conversations.

The reaction has been profound - the expression of solidarity through the slogan "je suis Charlie" has spread rapidly, as the French people, joined by people of other nations, have asserted their rights for free speech in the face of intimidating violence. There has been a renewed appreciation of the notion of free speech, and the importance in a democracy of all views and opinions to be expressed, heard and debated.

Free speech is not, however, an entirely straightforward ideal to uphold. It seems to me that it is championed, with its own distinct interpretation, by very different groups of people with very different agendas. People we might generalise as supporters of liberal democracy are very much at forefront of the current expressions of support for freedom of speech. Yet paradoxically, at least some of them would also be at the forefront of campaigns seeking to remove expressions of extremism from the public eye.

On the other hand, people with minority view (which might or might or might not be extreme) can also be found advocating free speech. They see it as protecting their right to say things which are not (or no longer) the generally held views of society. It wouldn't take you long to find someone accused of racism / homophobia etc saying something like "whatever happened to freedom of speech" as a defence of their expressed view. Of course, some of these who are so keen on free speech to get their point across would be the first to deny it to others if they had the power to do so.

The debate at the last election around the British National Party having a party political broadcast focussed this well - the people who found the BNP's views most repellent and didn't want them on the TV also generally held strong views about freedom of expression. And recently there has been the possibility of police investigation when someone has tweeted something crass.

Should the law be used to restrict what people say, or should their silly views simply be dealt with by public scrutiny and debate?

It's not an easy subject. When the grieving is over, there will be a need to do some very careful thinking about the nature of public discourse, and how truly free we are.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

A belated review of The Imitation Game

I was genuinely looking forward to this film. As a fan of Sherlock, I like Benedict Cumberbatch. The story of Bletchley codebreaking is fascinating, as is the pioneering work on early computers. Alan Turing himself actually merits being described as a genius, and the issues around his homosexuality and the very different circumstances of the 1940s and 50s is well worth exploring dramatically. Having seen Derek Jacobi play the role of Turing on stage in the early 1990s, I was intrigued to see how this portrayal would come across.

There was lots to commend the film. The template is good - clever but plucky misfit overcomes scepticism further up the chain of command to develop something significant for the war effort - think Barnes Wallis and the bouncing bomb or Watson-Watt with radar. Add the fact that Turing set out all the basics for modern computing plus the complexities of his personal life, and it should have been riveting.

And yet it didn't quite work for me. Other reviews have pointed out the factual problems with the film Contemporary accounts record Turing as more of a team player and more sociable than the film suggests. There was more fruitful code breaking going on than the film suggests, and the cracking of Enigma was done in stages - first the simpler one, and then the more complex naval version. It's unlikely Turing ever knew the Soviet spy in Bletchley. Also, Turing was off his chemical treatment for the final year of his life, and not to the bitter end. There is, apparently, some evidence to suggest he was in quite good spirits in that final year, and some have even suggested his death was accidental (and, of course, the conspiracy theorists remain convinced that it was murder).

Whilst those are valid criticisms, I accept that drama sometimes needs to compress and exaggerate events in order to make a coherent couple of hours in a cinema. However, the Imitation Game felt more like a drama-documentary in terms of its script. There had to be some technical content, including a good moment when Turing utters the words "digital computer" (one of the very few people in the 1940s who would have had any idea what that might mean.) But it felt a bit clunky at times.

However, it was the portrayal of Turing himself that troubled me most - not Cumberbatch's acting, but the material he was given and the way his character was framed. The film handles the whole question of his sexuality very oddly to me. In flashbacks we see his close friendship at school, which indicates the way things are going. Those scenes in the school were some of the most moving moments for me. Then we see little more until his spy colleague names his sexuality out of the blue and tries to use that to manipulate him. But underneath, there is a sense that Turing is a kind of tragic hero, doing great things for his country, but doomed to a sad and despairing end. His engagement is obviously ill-fated from the start, despite the apparent willingness of his fiancee to go ahead in full knowledge of his sexuality. Finally he is found out, and we see a relatively tame depiction of how gay men were apprehended for indecency under the laws that then applied to homosexual relationships. I suspect they were often treated with greater brutality and disgust, according to the attitudes of the era.

The theme (stated explicitly) of the whole movie is that a) Turing is weird and b) weird people sometimes do extraordinary things. At one level that summary has a good degree of validity. However, the drive of the narrative leaves the viewer with the sense that his sexuality is central to any weirdness he may have shown, and that gay people are destined to a tragic, albeit sometimes heroic, end. I felt the film was telling me that his sexuality was a rather inconvenient problem, but we can overlook that as he was jolly clever in the war. That may well have been what the security forces thought at the time, but a modern film ought to be able to critique that without inserting lots of clunky and anachronistic lines and phrases.

It was an interesting evening out, but I don't think the film is a classic.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

I Don't Understand Economics Pt. 4

A few years ago, I posted parts 1, 2 and 3, so I thought it was time for another, as the news has had quite a bit to say about the deficit recently.

The Tories accused Labour of having £21 billion of plans that were not funded. Labour responded by saying the Tories were misrepresenting their commitments and doing the sums on the wrong basis. That's all the usual party political mud-slinging that we expect as an election approaches. Likewise, the Tories have planned tax cuts for the better-off, which are 'funded' from other savings. That left Labour asking the question as to why that money can't be used for the whole of society, rather than benefiting the few.

Putting the debate another way, the Tory attack reveals an assumption that there is a pot of government money, and when it's used up, that's it. The Labour reply is based on the same 'pot' assumption, but that there is enough money in the pot after all. Both parties show that they have a particular view of the deficit.

They both need to be challenged by the fact that there is no 'pot' of money fixed by any absolute standards. Governments have to manage the gap between their income and their spending, and in the majority of recent years, the UK has spent more than it got in (a deficit). In other words, governments nearly always have to borrow to supplement what gets put in the national piggy bank from tax etc. (Incidentally, a lot of recent borrowing has been done quite cheaply by historic standards.) The running total of all these debts (and occasional surpluses) is the national debt.

This makes sense. We know that if our government said it would only spend what it got in during 2015, many essential services would collapse, and the economy would plunge into deep recession, putting many more out of work and doing untold damage to society and the economy. It's also true that if the government didn't address the deficit at all, then confidence would be lost, and it would have a very bad effect on the pound and also our country's ability to borrow money.

Somewhere between those two extremes there is a significant amount of room for manoeuvre. In other words, the amount of money in the government's 'pot' is a set of decisions, not an absolute figure defined by some unassailable authority sitting somewhere else.

It's the result of a series of judgments, such as:

  • how much tax can be gathered, and where from?
  • how much should be spent, and on what?
  • how big a deficit is the system prepared to take?
And, of course, even when you have done all the calculations and plans, sometimes things work out worse than forecast (as they have for George Osborn) or sometimes better than forecast (as they did for Gordon Brown in some of his years at 11, Downing Street).

So it seems to me that the kinds of questions we should be asking over the next few weeks are these:
  • why have you decided on cutting/increasing/freezing _________ tax (fill in the blank)
  • why have you decided on cutting/increasing/freezing spending on _____________?
  • why have you decided that our country can/can't afford more/less deficit in this tax year?
It's actually quite disappointing that there are few significant voices challenging the current assumptions. Labour are committed to cuts as well, albeit a bit gentler than the Tories. Obviously the deficit needs to come down, but I wish more were asking whether our society's present needs don't justify taking a longer view, and giving more time for balance to be achieved.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Boundaries of Remembrance

It was inevitable that this year would see an increased emphasis on remembrance as we marked the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War earlier this year. The monuments, memorials and most of all the commemorations on Remembrance Sunday are all part of the way our nation came to terms with its terrible death toll of between 7 & 800,000 (depending on which records are used). It's a staggering loss of life, and yet only a fraction of the number of people killed overall in the 14-18 conflict.

Armistice Day itself (11 Nov) was adopted as a public holiday by several nations, but in the UK, the outbreak of World War 2 led to the moving of the commemoration to the nearest Sunday - it was less disruptive to war production (which has its own irony). That is where the main ceremony has stayed since, although 11/11 has acquired a greater significance in recent years. That has led to some confusion. For example, here in Morecambe we had the main town ceremony on Sunday with over 1,000 people present and many organisations taking part. However, people were still asking about what was happening on 11/11 at the cenotaph with a sense of disappointment that it was not a major event. But for those of us there on Sunday, it would feel strange to be back doing the same thing again so soon.

It begs the question as to whether we need a new national consensus on which day we should use, and where remembrance begins and ends. Some people have argued that the UK should have a Bank Holiday between August and Christmas, perhaps relocating one of the holidays in May. One option might be to use 11/11. If we did that, then all UK ceremonies could take place on Armistice Day and there would be no parallel ceremonies or repetition. Our remembrance would be focussed on the one significant date when the guns fell silent.

It's also interesting which conflicts get included and which don't. Prior to 1914, relatively few war memorials were made. There is a very rare Crimean War memorial in my home town of Beeston. And I suspect that many people miss the fact that our church building contains a Boer War Memorial:

Boer War memorial in Holy Trinity, Poulton-le-Sands (Morecambe Parish Church)

It's interesting that a war that ended at the start of the 20th century with over 20,000 British and allied dead (there were similar scale losses in Crimea) ends up being almost completely overlooked. Possibly it's due to there being some lasting unease about the conduct and legacy of parts of that campaign.

Of course the important thing is not the physical memorial, but the knowledge and appreciation of the cost and destructiveness of war. When memorials say 'lest we forget', it's a sobering reminder that the tragedy of bereavement represented by each name was repeated thousands and thousands of times up an down the country, and that should be all the motivation we need to inspire us to work ceaselessly for peace and reconciliation.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Poppies and T-shirts

We have just entered that time of year when debates and articles begin about wearing poppies around Remembrance Sunday / Armistice Day. One of the shifts in recent years has been the fact that everyone on TV is expected to wear a poppy for at least a 3 week period, and anyone failing to do so is pressured off camera and criticised if they go on camera without the requisite item. ITV newsreader Charlene White got racist and sexist abuse for not wearing one last year. In fact she doesn't object to wearing them altogether, and explains the choices she made here.

The culture around poppies has changed, so that they have become the criterion by which respect is judged. Failure to wear a poppy has become almost synonymous with disrespect. Although I do, in fact, wear a red poppy for a few days, I have a problem with the quick judgments people jump to.

I found an interesting parallel with another very different story about T-shirts, wittily described on the Beaker Folk blog. David Cameron apparently declined to wear a pro-feminism T-shirt, whereas Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband did so (look out for the misprint in the report!). This was seen as a great sign that Cameron lacked commitment to promoting equality for women. It may well be that he does lack that commitment, but to judge him by his choice of shirt seems a rather superficial assessment. Likewise wearing a "this is what a feminist looks like" T-shirt hardly makes you a champion of equality - anyone can do that.

So maybe we need to be a bit cautious jumping to conclusions about people who decline to wear a red poppy. Some will prefer to wear a white one, to show their commitment to peace and reconciliation - which, after all, is a commitment at the heart of the prayers we use on Remembrance Sunday. Some will feel that the poppy has become rather closely associated with a kind of patriotism that they can't go along with. Still others will wish to exercise the choice as to how they show respect, and not be dictated to by convention. What we can't assume is that we know what's going on in the hearts of those who don't (and those who do) wear poppies. The important question is whether we appreciate the cost and tragedy of conflict and are committed to do all in our power to work for peace and reconciliation in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.