April 30, 2009
Posted by nickbaines under Disease  Comments
I am sure I am not alone in watching the ‘Swine Flu‘ reporting with a degree of scepticism.
The Millennium Bug was going to wipe us out. When it didn’t, we were subsequently faced with SARS and Avian Flu. They didn’t amount to much either (except, of course, for those who died or were bereaved). Now we have Swine Flu and the media are dominated by this latest threat to the world’s population. But what is really going on?
Last night’s BBC News had a long item which included statements to the effect that this is the most serious threat since the last War and that hundreds of thousands could die if infected. Having scared us into thinking the end is almost certainly nigh, the reported then went into detail explaining that very few people had died so far, that millions die every year from ‘ordinary’ flu and that there is no reason to panic.
Er… did I miss something or was that a waste of a report? ‘This could be deadly. But it isn’t. Don’t panic – you can’t do anything anyway, but wash your hands alot. And, if you do get it, all you need to do is take some anti-viral drugs.’
Thousands die on our roads every year, but we don’t have massive news campaigns to ban driving. Most people who die of flu are already vulnerable and die of complications exacerbated by the debilitating effects of flu. OK, Swine Flu is supposed to hit younger people rather than older people, but we have yet to know what is really going on with those who have already died. Having been told with great certainty that 160 people in Mexico had died of Swine Flu, we are later told that, in fact, only 7 people had died directly from the infection; the rest had died and had also been infected, but it wasn’t certain that there was a direct link. Correlations don’t make explanations…
This is worrying. If this almost-pandemic comes to little or nothing (after SARS and Avian Flu), who will take any notice the next time anything serious threatens us? I heard that this might turn out to be minor, but that already-weakened people might then get hit by a Winter Flu bug and then die. Weren’t we told similar things about SARS?
I am concerned that the fear factor is unnecessarily being ratcheted up by the media and that governments are following the media lead. Isn’t it time we had some intelligent information, rational (statistical) discussion and took calming measures in the face of something we can’t do alot about anyway?
I hope I am right in being suspicious of the way this is being hyped up. The only benefit I can see is if organisations (such as the Church) use the opportunity to do some planning and dry-running for an unspecific social disaster and test out their procedures before the need is really there.
April 29, 2009
I was taken with a story in the media today about the release tomorrow of a new film about the Belgian singing nun, Jeannine Deckers, who became an substance-addicted ex-nun and who eventually committed suicide in 1985. Everyone knows her most famous song when they hear it: Dominique. The story is tragic and this will be one film without a happy ending. If you want to get depressed, this is one for you. I’ll probably give it a miss.
But, driving south through some beautiful countryside this morning, my thoughts turned to other singing nuns. Julie Andrews appeared in my head, climbing every mountain, doh-ing a deer and refusing to go away. I nearly crashed when I couldn’t get ‘How do you solve a problem like Sharia’ out of my mind.
The I got onto Whoopie Goldberg in the Sister Act films and heard myself singing gospel songs on the A22 to Felbridge. How sad is that?
But, eventually I got to the pinnacle of the singing nuns hierarchy – although it doesn’t actually involve a nun. (OK, my mind runs in peculiar threads…) It is the scene in the fantastic film Airplane when the woman with the guitar comes through to the back of the plane where the young girl on a drip is lying in bed. The woman sings about life and joy and the unity of humanity while swinging her guitar and ripping out the child’s drip. Everyone is enjoying the song, oblivious to the dying child. Watch the clip below – very funny. (And, in case you are sensitive, it is (a) fiction and (b) the child didn’t die.)
I think the reason this one came to mind (and wouldn’t go away again for hours) is that it made me think about the church. (Great link, eh?) I sometimes worry that we get so engrossed in the ‘song’ that we simply don’t see (a) the pain around us and (b) how stupid we look singing our songs while being apparently ignorant of what is going on around us. Or is that unfair?
Perhaps it is unfair. I know too many churches where the commitment of clergy and people to the communities around them and the needs of the people within them is amazing. I have churches in my Episcopal Area where ordinary people (with extraordinarily good clergy leadership) get stuck in to the often thankless task of serving people at enormous personal cost. Why do they do it? Because, as Paul put it, ‘the love of Christ compels me’.
But this shouldn’t obscure the challenge of the prophets. Amos tells us not to sing songs of worship to a God of generosity and mercy if we then live (or order our society) in such a way that grace and mercy are denied. Such songs stink and God is not amused – so says Amos. And, it seems to me, the church has some way to go in understanding the need to reflect the generosity and mercy of God – within the church itself, let alone outside of it.
And now Julie Andrews is back in my brain singing ‘So long, farewell’…
April 28, 2009
This morning the BBC took a late decision to drop the heavily-trailed interview between John Humphrys and legendary DJ Andy Kershaw. Kershaw’s private life has been pretty disastrous in the last couple of years and he was now ready to speak openly about his troubles and his recovery. The programme he was to do this on was Radio 4′s On the Ropes, in which people talk about how they got through some difficult personal times of life.
I was looking forward to hearing Kershaw in the repeat this evening, but it is not to be. Apparently, the decision to pull the programme was taken because it might compromise the legal arrangements between Kershaw and his ex-girlfriend who now has sole custody of their children. He has no access to them. His behaviour has been pretty bad and he has displayed the desperation any of us would feel if we had led ourselves down such a dark alley. It would have been good to hear his story from his own lips and give an opportunity to the public to encourage him in his recovery.
Andy Kershaw has proved to be a fantastic broadcaster, introducing millions of people to world music and stamping everything he did with his distinctive northern voice. His personal fall from grace deprived us all of some great insights into music and culture. No doubt there are those who will now scream at me, ‘Consider his estranged ex-girlfriend and kids who have had to be protected from him!’ Fair enough; I am not excusing his behaviour. But I sometimes wonder if (like with the case of Erwin James/James Monahan) the same people would feel better if these guys fell back into their problematic behaviour and lifestyle and continued to waste their lives. I prefer to celebrate the small steps such damaged people make into becoming positive members of society again. Why do we find people’s struggle for recovery or even ‘redemption’ so deserving of our sneering contempt?
This is pertinent today for a second reason. Yesterday the press were given access for the first time into the Family Courts in England. Hitherto they have been banned on the grounds that children needed to be protected from exposure to and by the media. In other words, the vulnerable had to be protected by law from being further abused by some of our less reputable journalists. Those journalists who went to the courts yesterday reported their disappointment that little had changed, that although they were granted access, they were not allowed to report what they saw and heard – even anonymously.
The response has been interesting – and, I think, worrying. Apparently, freedom to report proceedings in these courts would help expose injustices and make everything transparent – which is taken for granted to be a ‘good thing’. Why? And ‘good’ for whom?
Why do we allow the media to assume that they have the right to see and hear everything in our society? Why should there not be areas of life from which the media are prevented from going? Where did this ‘right’ to access come from? And why does the ‘right to access’ – based on an assumption that transparency is always in and of itself good – trump the right of a child to be protected from exposure by the press?
The Family Courts deal with some of the hardest and most complicated human judgements we can imagine. I have met judges whose commitment to this work is exceptional and admirable – who do not make judgements in a cavalier way and who try in the most difficult emotional circumstances to do what is right. They admit to the probability that they will sometimes get things wrong and recognise that the cost of doing so will be high for those who suffer as a consequence. Can someone tell me how allowing reporting of these proceedings and putting the process and people under media scrutiny will enhance the prospects of vulnerable children having a happier life.
I might be wrong in this and be missing some obviously crucial factor. But when I look at the tabloid newspapers in particular, with their lust for sensation and brutality whatever the cost to the ‘victims’, I feel no shred of confidence that allowing them access to sensitive court proceedings will do anything other than add to the scale of human misery that these ‘organs’ specialise in.
April 26, 2009
With great relief I have just finished writing the final draft (from my point of view) of a new book. If the publisher doesn’t like it, I am well stuck because I don’t think I have anything else to say on the matter.
In the course of editing it I was listening to the newly-released double CD of Leonard Cohen’s Live in London, recorded on 17 July 2008 at O2. It is wonderful. The music is beautiful and the uniquely deep and expressive voice of the elderly man is utterly compelling. When he sings you hang on every note, every word. When he recites his poetry he sounds like he is exposing his soul – and mine and ours. Everyone should buy this album – the bloke deserves to have his stolen pension replenished. At one point he thanks the audience for being kind and for keeping his songs alive; but he had to write songs worth keeping alive in the first place.
Coincidentally, I am also reading his book of poems (Book of Longing, Penguin, 2006) and I find myself jealous of his facility with words, rhythm, language and experience.
There is a point early in the London gig when he recites the names of many of the drugs he has taken over the years (some for medicinal purposes). Then he says this: ‘I’ve also studied deeply in the philosophies and religions, but cheerfulness kept breaking through… There ain’t no cure for love.’ Cohen spent a decade up a mountain in a Buddhist monastery and much of the tension of this experience is evident in the poems from that period of his life. But I wonder about his conclusion!
I think many people unthinkingly think that religion is cheerless and philosophy unswervingly serious in a humourless way. Perhaps Cohen’s pursuit of self-fulfilment (or however he might wish to express it) in isolation form the world lay at the root of his dissatisfaction with its elusiveness. Christians, on the other hand, believe that the individual can only be ‘fulfilled’ in the company of other people whom we don’t choose (Jesus does). There can be no fulfilment in isolation; we need one another and the community preserves us from selfishness and narcissism.
I know exactly what Cohen means, though. The Christianity I grew up with through my teens and twenties was one that emphasised sin, failure, inadequacy and the need to please God (as a means of gaining his favour?). Cheerfulness broke through when I realised (over a long period of time) that the whole creation belongs to God and that we are free within it to enjoy (together) what God has given us. The world became bigger as God was liberated in my mind from the miserable tyrant, obsessed with any tiny naughty thought I might have, to being the creator and lover of the cosmos. Rather than this leading to a woolly denial of the brokenness and damaging elements of human being, it set it in its right place: God is not surprised by my failures, but loves anyway and invites people like me to walk with him and others who have also discovered that forgiveness is liberating and hope infectious.
Cheerfulness kept breaking through and still does. Or maybe faith is annoyingly cheerful anyway and it is the darkness that keeps breaking though. But, as John says at the outset of his Gospel, the darkness cannot overcome the light that has come into the world.
Thank God for Leonard Cohen!
April 24, 2009
Posted by nickbaines under Crime and Prison  Comments
I remember many years ago reading a piece in the Guardian by one Erwin James and becoming immediately addicted. Each time an article from him was published (I think it was every two weeks) I went straight to it. Since that first report I have followed his story with interest and admiration. And that’s where the trouble starts.
In today’s Guardian Erwin James writes a remarkable account of his life and crimes. He began writing for the Guardian while serving two life sentences in prison for murder. He never profited from his journalism and, on his release after 20 years in jail, he maintained his pseudo-pseudonym from the public in order not to cause further grief to the families of those whose relatives he had killed. Last week he was finally outed on the internet and has today come clean in the newspaper.
No doubt there will be people who now damn him for having profitted from the prison system. Having gone in as a useless criminal who had leeched off society for most of his life, he had taken the opportunity to catch up on his missed education and got himself a job as a writer. When recidivism statistics are relatively high, he represents the success of one whom the Prison Service served well and turned around. He deserves praise and admiration.
I have been involved in prisons in various marginal capacities for many years. In my present role I spend most Christmas Days in one of South London’s three main prisons (Brixton, Wandsworth or Belmarsh), but do not have a prison in my own Episcopal Area – which, therefore, limits any regular involvement. But what always impresses even the casual visitor to a prison is the serious concern of the authorities that prison must be about more than punishment. presumably we all have a vested interest in prisoners changing their ways and emerging from an expensive system to play a constructive part in society.
I sometimes wonder if that presumption is accurate. I wonder if we would be happier just to see them suffer and emerge as unchangeable criminals – which would make us feel better about not being like them.
The piece by Erwin James deserves a close reading. He makes no excuse about his guilt and describes the conflicted emotions and psychology that someone in his position experiences during and after emerging from prison. If someone as clever, cultured and ‘together’ as Erwin James finds it so hard, pity help those who are uneducated, immature, emotionally cracked and socially unsupported.
Actually, his name isn’t Erwin James. Or, it is, but they are his two first names. Henceforth he will be known as James Monahan – using his real surname. His article is a wiping clean of the past and gives him the opportunity to integrate his life/lives for the first time in a quarter of a century. This man deserves huge credit for his bravery in changing, for his ‘confession’ of past mistakes and an exposure of the torments that make life so difficult for people in his position.
I hope he continues to get the support he needs. And I hope he will continue to write about the issues he knows about. I further hope he will get understanding from the public and the acknowledgement and encouragement he deserves – and needs now more than ever.
April 23, 2009
I missed the sheer joy of watching the Darling Budget yesterday because I was in meetings all day. So, I tried to catch up on it today and found so much contradictory stuff around in the media by way of response. The budget is good or bad, inevitable or reckless, cause for analysis or cause for punning headlines.
What is amazing is that the figures being thrown around are staggeringly huge – yet we hardly blink any more. Only two years ago we were being told that £5 billion was too much money for the entire developed world to pay to educate every child on the planet: it would simply not be feasible to use such an enormous sum on such a risky venture.
Now we talk about ‘trillions’ of dollars and don’t lose a wink of sleep. Is this because we are too far removed from the ‘reality’ of what this all means? Or is it because ‘this’ is all unreal? I went back to the ‘Two Johns’ and was amazed to think that their conversation (note for Americans: it is ironic satire) was recorded only six months ago, yet seems to come from a different age. (When you have watched it, look for Part 2 on Youtube. The best explanations of all this esoteric financial stuff are to be found in the mouths of the satirists and anything by the Two Johns is worth watching.)
April 23, 2009
I was looking through some notes I took when visiting the home of Sir Winston Churchill at Chartwell a couple of months ago and I came across the following. During a speech in the House of Commons on 18 June 1940 – the day after the fall of France – he said: ‘Of this I am quite sure, that if we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.’
This made me stop and think. It is all too easy to pick over the different interpretations of history (how we got to where we are) and justify ourselves by the accuracy of our (post hoc) prophecies or analytical skills. But the danger is that, despite the importance of knowing where we have come from in order to know why we are where we are, we simply distract ourselves from the task of shaping the future.
I am conscious of this reading the post-Budget reporting this evening. I was in meetings all day and so was spared the puerile bear-pit shouting match that always accompanies Westminster activity. But it seems to me that there is a good deal of self-justification going on (in ‘I told you so’ terms) – to the detriment of an adult and responsible cooperation by political leaders for the sake of the country and the world. The massive enormity of the economic challenge should not be a matter for party-political opportunism. It is a classic of losing the big picture by haggling over some detail.
There is a typically English touch to Lady Churchill’s erstwhile bedroom at Chartwell. On the four-poster bed there is a sign that says: ‘Please try not to touch’. Isn’t that lovely? Not a command such as: ‘Do not touch!’ or ‘Touch this and you’re dead!’ But an invitation to be be responsible and considerate that recognises the power of temptation to do the opposite of what we are told.
I wonder if it might be remotely possible for our political leaders to accept a gentle invitation to try something different and resist the temptation to play the tedious old games of partisan point-scoring and take responsibility for our mutual future?
April 20, 2009
I have just got back from speaking at a conference in Austria over the weekend. They seemed to survive my lousy German and were very generous and kind to us. The conference (Kongress fuer Evangelisation und Gemeindeaufbau – under the auspices of the Evangelische Kirche in Oesterreich) took place in the gorgeous village of Bad Goisern in the Salzkammergut. Just look at the view out of the bedroom window of the hotel!
Then, back in the office in Croydon this morning, what do I find? My colleague, Colin Slee – Dean of Southwark, is in the papers for questioning the integrity of several bishops including the Bishop of Rochester. Rather than trust the newspaper reports, I went to the original source and read the Annual Report from Southwark Cathedral. It is very long. The bishops bits appear at the beginning.
Colin is always full of surprises and is great company. He is also never short of an opinion. Now, that is fine when you know what you are talking about. Speculation can sometimes be funny. But how on earth did he find his way into print on two things he cannot possibly know about?
He begins by describing the Lambeth Conference from July 2008. Yet he wasn’t there. It was for bishops. You can’t make too many judgments from the outside and cannot possibly know the rationale behind the decision of those who did not come. We can speculate; but we cannot make definitive statements about them. To make the judgements Colin makes with such unassailable confidence is just silly (even if he turns out to be right).
Then he goes on to enter the mind of the Bishop of Rochester and reveal to the world the real reason behind the bishop’s decision to resign later this year. Colin appears to know definitively what is going on in the bishop’s mind – which goes well beyond speculation. How is this possible without prophetic (abusing the word, I know…) superpowers.
What is really funny is that neither of these issues has any place in an annual report for or from Southwark Cathedral as neither are the business of Southwark Cathedral. Are they?
Colin, I want your superpowers! I, too, want to be able to see into the minds of people I know and expose definitively to the world the real contents of their minds and motives. (Or is that God’s business?)
April 16, 2009
Posted by nickbaines under Bruce Cockburn
| Tags: guitar
|  Comments
Just saw this and thought it would encourage beginners on guitar. It is the immortal Bruce Cockburn – almost unknown in UK, but the world’s best. More anon.
April 16, 2009
Most of us who gave the Blair government the benefit of the doubt over what became known as the ‘dodgy dossier’ have found it difficult to understand how we allowed ourselves to be duped. Acres of opinion in print and audio-video have followed and one of the biggest questions asked is how you could ever trust someone who appears so blatantly to have lied to the country. The post-governmental Blair has made religion a focus of his attention and the media cynicism about this is almost universal.
Tony Blair left office and set up the Tony Blair Faith Foundation under the leadership of some of his most trusted aides from Downing Street. If you read the papers and follow the blogs, you would have almost no option but to think that Blair is a rich bloke who plunged us into a stupid war and then turned his mind to loony stuff as a way of compensating for the loss of power. Scepticism about the Foundation is, in my experience at least, widespread. It is equally misguided.
Interesting, then, that a (religious) sceptic like John Rentoul should put a different perspective in today’s Independent newspaper. He begins as follows:
‘What do you think about religion? Yes, I hate Tony Blair too. No wonder foreigners find our national conversation hard to follow. This week, Christopher Landau, the BBC religious affairs correspondent, broadcast a radio documentary about the former Prime Minister’s faith foundation. Even before it went out, it provoked a response.
The general view seems to be that Blair resisted invitations to go on about his religious belief while he was Prime Minister but doesn’t half go on about it now. This is, it is alleged, at best cowardly and at worst mendacious. I am no fan of Blair’s religiosity, but I can detect nonsense if it is right in front of me.’
He then goes on to question much of the received wisdom about Blair and will probably make himself unpopular by daring to challenge some of the media-driven myths about the man and his faith – particularly the ways in which these have been reported or (mis)quoted. He summarises: ‘Religion: some people who don’t have it assume that it means hearing voices telling you to do crazy things. Other people who do have it assume that their difference of opinion with Blair’s decision has (their own version of) divine authority.’ He then concludes with a statement of common sense: ‘I don’t do religion, but if Blair’s faith foundation can do anything about such a large [Muslim] misconception, I’m all for it.’
Rentoul faces the problem that any rational person would have to address sooner or later: would we prefer it if Blair was going around the world enriching himself for purely personal gain? Or interfering in other people’s politics? he has been remarkable in having vacated the political scene in the UK precisely in order not to interfere or be seen to interfere.
I have been involved in interfaith work for a number of years now. I engage with senior leaders of all the world’s major faiths in a peculiar context: the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Kazakhstan. This morning I met with a Kazakh Senator and other officials at Lambeth Palace as the invitation to me to lead an Anglican delegation (on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury) was handed over. My experience of this initiative since September 2003 is that, whether we like it or not, religion is a major factor in world politics and life and has to be taken with the utmost seriousness, even if you think the content of other people’s beliefs is bunkum. (Kazakhstan holds together 130 ethnic groups and over 40 religious groups in a country the size of Western Europe and with a population of 15 million.)
The biggest challenge in such work is to understand the worldview from which people speak and within which they think and see the world. This is demanding because it means getting inside the head of another person and looking out through their eyes – listening through their ears. Any linguist knows that speaking another language is not a matter of simply swapping one set of words for another, but that some things cannot be translated at all because the ‘depth’ of the concept cannot be shared by someone who comes from outside. (I write as a former professional linguist working in Russian, German and French.) We will be working with the complexities of language and worldviews again on 1-2 July when the Third Congress takes place in Astana.
I share the concerns about the Iraq War and the tight relationship with Bush’s America. Too many questions remain in my own mind about what that was all about. But I know the people who run the Tony Blair Foundation and they (a) don’t hide from frank questioning, (b) deal openly and professionally with people who might be expected to resist anything to do with the Foundation and (c) take seriously and intelligently some of the most pressing religio-political questions that will face the world in the next few decades.
Rather than looking for quick fixes to urgent problems, they are setting up schemes from bringing (particularly) young people from different worldview and religious contexts into contact with each other, using new technology. They are taking a long-term view of educating huge numbers of young people about ‘religion’ per se and intelligently doing so in the wider context of social, medical, economic and political realities in different parts of the world.
Like John Rentoul – but for different reasons – I am all for anyone doing anything to improve religious intelligence anywhere they can. It would help enormously if some of the campaigning ‘rationalists’ in this country would join in examining our own philosophical assumptions and presuppositions, listen attentively to those whose worldview is different, and model respect for those whose view seems to be obviously and self-evidently silly.
Having had several spats with people over recent weeks, I had probably better work on this myself.
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