Saturday, 13 November 2010

Friends and Islamophobes

Recently I came across Islamophobia on Facebook. Not for the first time; ever since 9/11 and 7/7 it’s been everywhere. But this time it was in a discussion under someone’s status update. It was expressed by friends, and for that reason I wish I could be diplomatic, in case they may be reading it. But it was distressing reading, and in a way I found it more disturbing because it was expressed by friends – not close ones, but friends. They are nice people.

The discussion was in reaction to an incident in London, where ‘Islamic extremists’ ceremonially burned red poppies. As I said in the discussion, the action was not something I agreed with, even though I sympathise with the feeling that presumably motivated it: that Muslim countries, towns and villages have been bombed to smithereens by Western forces, and the red poppy symbolism was seen as a kind of glorification of British wars. The reasons I don’t agree with it are, firstly, that it causes unnecessary distress and offence to the families of soldiers killed in war, who feel that their sacrifice is being mocked. And secondly, because there are other ways to protest. If they don’t like red poppies, why don’t they wear white ones instead?

The comments in the discussion came from friends who have loved ones in the armed forces, and who understandably have strong views and feelings on the issue. In fact, I could see and sympathise with both sides. But the actual comments themselves were unpleasant and disturbing. And the comments of other people in the thread were even worse – along the lines of ‘shoot them all’. One said that the offenders should be sent back to wherever they came from, and if they were born in Britain, then to wherever their ultimate roots were. This last one was both disturbing and illogical. Disturbing because it is all too reminiscent of what nice, normal Germans were saying about the Jews in the 1930s. And illogical because, if any one of us were to take a DNA test, we might be surprised as to where our roots lie. Many English people have roots in Britain that only go back a few hundred years or less, and only some of us go back beyond Neolithic times. A recent study in Germany concluded that the first farmers in the region had roots in what is now Iraq. Can there be a greater irony than that?

In response to my attempt to introduce more reason and less emotion to the discussion, my friends urged me not to forget 9/11 and 7/7, and argued that our forces wouldn’t be in ‘their countries’ if they didn’t keep blowing themselves up. I agree that 9/11 was a terrible crime, but the suicide bombers and fighters in Afghanistan do actually have a legal right to defend their country against invaders; they are doing what our own Home Guard would have done if the Nazis had invaded Britain. I am, broadly, a pacifist so I don’t like what they are doing, but as long as they don’t target civilians their actions are within international law, however much politicians and the media portray they as terrorists rather than freedom fighters. Even the 7/7 bombers were motivated in defence of Iraq and Afghanistan, but their actions were far from legal as they did target civilians – some of whom, ironically, were Muslims. It is hard to see how occupying and bombing Muslim countries can stop similar atrocities, when those atrocities are motivated by Western military actions in the first place.

In fact, it was hard to tell in this discussion, whether the participants were referring to the Taliban, the 7/7 bombers, the poppy-burners or just Muslims generally. With regard to the ‘peaceful Muslims’, they ‘only had their own to thank’. But who are ‘their own’? The important distinction is between people who commit acts of terrorism and those who don’t; the 7/7 bombers had more in common with pilots who bomb Afghan villages than they did with the vast majority of Muslims. The language suggests a dangerous generalisation and stereotyping of people as a group – and a group, moreover, of a billion people. And it suggests a further confusion. Did some of the commenters want just the poppy-burners out of the UK, or all Muslims? What about Muslims who are white, whose roots in this country go back as far or further into the past than the commenters? I’m not sure whether the possibility of there being white Muslims had occurred to them, which would mean that Muslims were first stereotyped as violent (or at least as sympathising with violence), and second as ‘brown’ or ‘black’. In which case the commenters were displaying covert racism – something which, unless they were members of the BNP or EDL, they probably wouldn’t regard as acceptable in any other situation.

It’s possible that I’m assuming too much here. But what certainly was apparent was a perception of Muslims as ‘other’. They all come from ‘somewhere else’, somewhere outside the UK and in the Middle East. They don’t really belong; they’re not the same as us. What I tried to get across in my own fairly lengthy comment was that they are the same as us. I have lots of Muslim friends and I know for a fact that they have the same feelings, problems, joys and sadnesses as the rest of us. And why wouldn’t they have? Islam is less than two thousand years old; Homo sapiens sapiens is two hundred thousand years old. Many of my Muslim friends love much of British culture, and they live British lives in almost every respect. It’s the current British wars they don’t like – and with good reason. My ‘English’ friends decried the crimes of 9/11 and 7/7, but made no mention of the torture, the massacres, the imprisonments without trial, and the bombings of towns and villages committed by Western forces. If we don’t try to understand the point of view of the poppy-burners as well as the points of view of many other Muslims (and non-Muslim peace activists, come to that!), and if instead we generalise from the more sensational actions of the few that reach the mainstream media, then what we are doing is widening the gulf between communities. We are separating certain people off as ‘other’, and projecting all our fears and prejudices onto them. Far from recognising that we are all human, and that all sides in war commit crimes just as the majority of all people do good, we are decreasing understanding and increasing the potential for anger, misunderstanding and hate. We are wasting an opportunity to help us grow as a species, and decrease the amount of conflict and destruction in the world. What a loss! What a tragic mistake!

Taking part in this discussion thread was distressing for me because some of the participants were friends. It was difficult to hear such disturbing views uttered by friends, who I know to be good people, living quiet lives and doing harm to no one. It’s a worrying thought, really. If ordinary, decent people are capable of stereotyping and generalising a cultural or religious group in such negative ways, then it’s not just the EDL and the British Nazi Party we have to worry about. And history shows us this. Hitler probably couldn’t have committed the worst atrocities of Nazism – or at least, not so easily – had it not been for the prejudices of ordinary, decent Germans that were just waiting to be exploited. He manipulated his own people through clever use of the media; and this too we can see today, if in a more subtle and gradual fashion. No country is immune from racism and fascism. There are so many parallels between Islamophobia and 1930s anti-Semitism, that we have good reason to be worried.

And there’s another aspect. If ordinary, decent Brits are capable of such confused prejudices, what about their relatives in the armed forces, who are trained to kill the enemy? If they too have the same conscious or unconscious generalisations about who the enemy is (are they only people with guns and bombs, or are they Muslims generally?), then it’s no wonder that massacres happen, that killing is sometimes indiscriminate, that civilians are inadequately protected and sometimes actually targeted. I’m not accusing my friends’ kids of committing war crimes. But why do war crimes happen? And it may be that I’ve read too much into the whole discussion, and that the participants’ prejudices only referred to the poppy-burners, or actual terrorists. But if that’s the case, then why do they so fervently support the actions of the military, who have - far too often for it to be an occasional fluke tragedy - reduced men, women and children to ashes and scattered body parts?

I am, thankfully, still friends with my friends – I hope. But the episode left a nasty taste in my mouth. How many people in this country agree with them? If it’s a large proportion, then the potential for understanding and bridge-building between communities, and for recognising what unites us rather than what separates us, doesn’t look very hopeful.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010


This is a very different subject from the ones I usually write about - and a longer entry too. My sense of belonging and not belonging has shifted many times throughout my life, and so it feels easiest to tell it chronologically, like a story. I dunno, maybe it's the therapy! Either way, you can take it or leave it, but it helps me sometimes to get these things down.

My earliest clear memory is of my first day at school. I felt abandoned and unsafe, and cried the whole day. All the other little kids seemed to be taking the day much better, so I guess I could say that my earliest memory is of not belonging in the social group I found myself in.

My sense of the rest of my early childhood, however, is of feeling fairly happy and secure. I was always a bit shy, and tended to play sometimes by myself in a little fantasy world. But I still had friends, and birthday parties, and don’t remember feeling very different from the other kids. And I think I felt fairly secure within my family as well. How much of that may be due to remembering the past in a rose-coloured way I’m not sure.

My last really happy memory of childhood is when I was about nine years of age. The days were hot and sunny, and I’d be playing in the street with my sister and a girl who lived down the road, who I really liked. I’d like to think that if my childhood had continued like that, then eventually she might have become my first girlfriend. But in fact my childhood got sort of hijacked.

When I was nine we moved to a different county, as my dad got a new job. We moved to a smaller house in a less pleasant street, and of course my sister and I had to start a new school. I was very nervous, but it was okay and I ended up with a few friends there. Starting secondary school two years later was more scary, but although I was shy I still had some friends. I still sort of belonged. But soon after that my parents got divorced, which of course shook us all up somewhat. And a year after that my mum got remarried, so we moved again, back to where we lived originally! This posed new problems for me, as I found the ‘new’ family difficult to settle into and there were various strifes and frictions at home. I didn’t have the same sense of belonging and security that I remember from just a few years earlier. To make matters worse, I was very shy on entering yet another new school, and for the next two years was bullied quite a bit. I went to school every day in fear. This was, I think, my first really deep experience of not belonging.

To protect myself I spent as much time on my own as I could. I retreated into a kind of fantasy world where I imagined being a very different person. Later I found a retreat in books, especially science fiction books, whose stories were so very different from my own reality. I was nervous of boys because they might be a threat, and kind of idealised girls who came to my rescue when I was given a hard time. By the time I was sixteen things eased off quite a bit, but I think the previous few years had traumatised me and I was still pretty shy. I had one or two close friends though.

In the sixth form I suddenly found myself beginning to fit in more. The classes were smaller, and my fellow pupils more accepting of me. In my last year at school I actually enjoyed myself! I became very fond of some of my peers, and they seemed fond of me too. I no longer felt judged as a wimp, was no longer laughed at and certainly not punched or kicked. The bullying was well and truly over, I enjoyed being with people, got invited to parties and socialised outside of school. I felt I really did almost belong, and this happy feeling of being more accepted into the human race continued into the following years at college.

This change, however, was too late for the romantic feelings I had at the time. I still tended to idealise women, but I couldn’t convince myself that anyone would be interested in a relationship with me. I fell in love with a girl at school – we were both seventeen – but despite my passion I could never bring myself either to ask her out or tell her how I felt. The irony is that she definitely knew, because friends told me she did. I don’t know if she would have gone out with me, had I asked. If she had, then my sense of belonging in adult life might have been very different.

I remained ‘in love’ with this girl for years, long after I last saw her. My relations with work colleagues, housemates, etc were okay in some ways, but I remained shy and in my late twenties, I felt I ‘belonged’ less than in my final year at school. Although I shared a house with others, I tended to be isolated, keeping to myself in my room. I was very unhappy at work. But health problems forced me into redundancy, and I needed a change of career from the office job I’d been in for so long. So I took up studying counselling, and also did voluntary work on a crisis helpline. The preparation course for this was a joy, and was I think the first time I really, really felt part of a group. The voluntary work gave me a sense of purpose and also opportunities to socialise when, due to unemployment, it might otherwise have been difficult. The counselling course was great too, but here I felt I didn’t fit into the group as well. I also lost confidence in my counselling abilities, and didn’t pursue it to diploma level. Instead I started working in mental health, in residential homes. Here, as in every work situation I’ve been in, there was internal strife and politics, which spoiled the experience a lot. But I was pretty happy there on the whole, and I did make friends. The work was fulfilling and varied, and in my own slightly insecure way I felt I did belong there. In fact, especially as I did regular sleep-ins at the residential home, I often felt more at home at work than I did at home!

My sense of never quite fitting in remained however. I always felt a bit ‘different’ from other people. Looking back, I know that this was due to my inexperience of sexual relationships. The couple of relationships I’d had were brief and very unsatisfying, both emotionally and physically. As the 1990s wore on I felt increasingly lonely. Everyone else seemed to be having fun, having sex, sometimes getting married and having kids. I still believed no one could really want me in the way I needed them to, and its effect on my self confidence and self esteem was quite severe. At the beginning of 2000, when a close friend embarked on a blissful relationship, I became very depressed. I was so desperate, and yet happiness seemed further away than ever.

After about three weeks of feeling like this, fate kind of stepped in! I met a beautiful American woman at a party, who came up to me and simply stated that she wanted to kiss me! I wasn't going to turn that offer down, and although she was in a relationship and her life was pretty complicated, we agreed to have one night together. After how I’d been feeling only hours before, this was pretty overwhelming for me.

The trouble was, that night was too good! I don’t quite understand even now why this woman who was already in a relationship and only intended one night with me, behaved so passionately and lovingly. We talked about it a few times afterwards, but I never completely got me head round it. But for me, that night was the deepest experience of belonging, of being accepted, that I’d ever had. It was as if I’d been shut in a cell since childhood, while everyone outside was having fun, and then suddenly being let out and realising what I’d been missing. All my dreams coming true all at once. But only for one night. The following day, despite the experience’s beneficial effect on my self-confidence, I felt I had to crawl back into the cell, and that was hard too.

I did have a bit more confidence now, though. I felt I’d begun to join the human race. I had a couple of brief relationships that year, and though neither of them were really what I wanted, they helped my confidence too. Things were definitely getting better.

A year after I met the American woman, I said an emotional goodbye to her as she left for a new life in California. I actually met her only four times. A month later, however, I met my present partner, who I’ve been with now for nearly ten years. My feelings for Angie didn't bloom so suddenly, but now I love her deeply and she loves me too, very much. I moved in with her after six months, and although it was a struggle compromising for a long time, with both of us inexperienced at living with someone, I was happier now than I’d ever been before.

In terms of belonging, what I had now was a sense of being part of a ‘normal’ couple – a family, almost. We had our life at home together, had sex regularly, went out socially as a couple, mixed with other couples, and went on holiday together. I hadn’t been on holiday properly for decades, as I felt I had no one to go with. Twenty four hours in Cornwall in 1999 to see the total solar eclipse had been a lonely experience, as I was surrounded on the campsite by tents with couples and families – a reminder of the sense of belonging I’d had on family holidays as a child, compared with my solitary life now. In my new life with my partner, we went abroad and saw many wonderful places. It was fantastic!

I also had a new job at a day centre – just as fulfilling as the last one, but less stressful and more fun. It was the best job I’d ever had, and I felt I belonged and was accepted there too. I was very happy most of the time.

Then fate stepped in again – or it would have done if I believed in those things!


Out of the blue, in 2004, I developed a chronic nerve pain condition which meant that I had to give up work. I became anxious and depressed, and started on anti-depressants and sundry prescribed pain killers. The pain was disabling: it limited how far I could walk, how long I could sit for – really almost all aspects of my life. It was difficult for my partner too, who since then has had the responsibility for bread winning and for doing all the other things I struggle with. I found a sense of purpose for a while through getting involved in the peace movement and setting up a local group with my partner. But this became an emotional strain and I had a nervous breakdown in 2008, spending much of that year recovering from severe anxiety. I did get better, with support from helplines and a lot of self help, but my life remains very limited compared to what it used to be, and all sorts of basic activities that I used to take for granted are now much harder for me and sometimes, when the pain is very bad, almost impossible.

Looked at in one way, the depression and anxiety I’ve had since the pain started six years ago are a kind of response to not belonging. I spend much of my time at home, and quite a bit of that time resting. My partner lives and works away from home three days a week, so I’m quite isolated. Often I feel that the world is going by without me. The worst feelings were when my anxiety was at its worst, in 2008. Besides being frightened I felt as if I was trapped in a kind of bubble, breathing my own stale air and kind of watching everyone outside without being able to feel a part of it. It’s very hard to describe, but certainly it was the worst experience of not belonging I’ve ever had. I really felt as if I was trapped in my own tiny, frightened world and no longer a part of the real one.

Things have got a lot better since then, if gradually so. My life still feels very limited, but I am less disturbed by it now and am gradually taking charge of my situation, learning how to manage my pain and my mood. I’m beginning to find things I can do that I get satisfaction from: writing, art and photography, enjoying the countryside even though I can’t walk very far… I’ve recently started writing a book! So I feel as though I’m gradually rebuilding my life, reinventing it almost. And as a result, slowly increasing my sense of belonging in the world once more.

This entry may seem a bit maudlin to some readers, but I'm glad I wrote it. Sometimes putting these things into written words can help to clarify or crystallise things in my mind. I’m grateful that the opportunity sort of fell out of my mind and into my laptop!

I hope something of all this is interesting or helpful to other people, too.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Summers long since passed...

I’m a chronic nostalgiac (is that a word?) about family holidays. This is partly because I don’t live in a real family (with children) anymore: it’s just my partner Angie, my cat and me. I also find it very difficult to travel far, due to the chronic health problems which I’ve had since 2004. But it’s also because, in my childhood, I enjoyed many family holidays and they provide many wonderful memories which I still retain. I firmly believe that the lives of children who are unable to have holidays are impoverished. Family holidays give kids experiences and memories which, if happy ones, will give them pleasure for the rest of their lives.

My life as a child was split into two halves: before my parents’ divorce, and after. The holidays I had afterwards differed in some ways in character, although one theme remained and that was the destination. Most of our holidays, before and after the break-up, were in France or Cornwall (as in the picture above, from the mid 1970s).

I don’t remember our earliest holidays in much detail, but I do remember the beauty of them. Setting out in the car in the middle of the night to avoid traffic was so exciting! The arriving at what was often a campsite in Cornwall, moving into a big tent with separate compartments, sleeping sometimes with the distinctive sound of rain drumming on canvas, emerging in the morning in the pinky-blue, muted dawn light… And many of the places we visited – Tintagel, Boscastle, St Ives - remained in my memory and finally drew me back decades later, when I met Angie and started sharing holidays once more. The only thing I disliked was that family relationships, and chores, remained. I hated the physical chores of camping, and as for relationships, my sister and I often argued and my parents were not happy together. But I think they made a real effort to give us kids a good time and provide memorable experiences for us. In my case, they definitely succeeded.

When I was about 11, my mother divorced my father. A couple of years later she remarried, and I have to say that the following years were difficult for me. But we still made an effort to go on holiday, and often to Cornwall again. Our family was about 50% different, but the places were the same! Cornwall is still perhaps my favourite county in England, and I think nostalgia for those early holidays is a big part of that.

With my father, meanwhile, the holidays were usually in France. In about 1980 I went with him, my sister and her friend to Brittany (which I remembered from earlier holidays when the family were still together) and L’Ile d’Oleron further down the coast. In some ways this was a difficult holiday. My sister got homesick (probably for Mum as much as home) and very moody, so her friend spent a lot of time with me instead. This I think caused a lot of tension between the three of us. I got on very well with the friend, but looking back I sense that we felt we were almost ganging up on my sister, or at least that my sister was jealous of the change in relationship. I don’t feel very good about it, looking back. Also at about this time my Dad got a job in Paris, so although we saw him very little in term-time we would cross the channel for a while in the school holidays. I loved Paris. Sometimes my sister was with us, sometimes not, and on the latter occasions while my Dad was working I would explore the streets and art galleries of the city by myself. At that time I knew Paris far better than I did London. And these holidays were a blessed relief from the rest of my life: struggling to settle in with my new step-family, being bullied at school. Paris was exciting, and I remember it very vividly. I haven’t been there since the mid-1980s.

Another holiday I remember from this time was a week in Austria with my Dad (I can’t remember why, but my sister was absent). It was a good opportunity to bond with him (we have never been close), and we stayed in a beautiful village in the Tyrol, in summer. It was a gorgeous, verdant landscape. Halfway through the week we took a day trip to Venice by coach, and that was memorable too – the only time I’ve visited that city. Decades later I saw Venice from the air on a flight to Greece, and thought back to my visit as a child, to that city which from such a height appeared so small.

Through the first fifteen of my adult years I was alone, so hardly went on any holidays. Twenty-four hours in Cornwall to see the total solar eclipse in 1999 was a lonely time, as I slept in an old caravan that was full of moths and spiders, looking out with envy at the family tents scattered around. I felt very sad, really; the contrast between that and my childhood holidays in the area was very great. The eclipse, however, made it more than worthwhile. Even though it was clouded over, the eerie darkness was indescribable, and I’ll never forget it.

My partner and I have had some wonderful holidays together, including my first on another continent, in Canada in 2003. That was awesome; I’ve never seen anywhere like the Rockies, before or since. But these trips were not what I think of as family holidays. They belong as memories. We don’t plan to have children, so for me a family holiday means a distant but sometimes vivid memory of often quite magical times. I’m very, very grateful to my parents that they provided us with these wonderful experiences. I’m lucky, because I think a lot of children even today very rarely leave the city they grow up in.

I guess the only advice I’d give a family, based on my own experience, is to make a holiday as different as possible from the rest of their lives. That way it’s a true break, even if it’s a busy one. Camping is a wonderful way of doing this. And taking your kids to interesting places, as well as the beach, helps to stimulate an interest in culture and history too. But the most important thing about holidays is also the most obvious. Just HAVE THEM!

Monday, 14 June 2010

Altruism v selfishness on 'Question Time'

I can’t help being a Darwinist, because the theory of evolution by natural selection, besides its great explanatory power and beauty, is so obviously true. The evidence for it, in myriad branches of science, is overwhelming. But crude social Darwinism is repellent. It seems to assume that because, in the natural world, organisms which are best adapted to their environments tend to survive, while those which are poorly adapted become extinct, therefore it’s morally okay to live only for oneself and behave selfishly to the highest degree, trampling on everyone in order to get to ‘the top’. Unfortunately, Social Darwinism is everywhere in our society, both on a personal and political level, and with a new Conservative government in place its apologists seem to be coming transparently to the fore.

This was brought home to me by last week’s ‘Question Time’ on BBC1, which I have been mulling over ever since. The line-up of panellists was typical: a government minister and his opposite number, both instantly forgettable and saying exactly what you’d expect; a ‘journalist’ called Toby Young, who writes for the Telegraph; and a horrific horsey Sloane ranger/minor royalty/Margaret Thatcher hybrid called Katie something (forgotten her name completely). And one of my three favourite politicians, the leader of Respect Party Salma Yacoob.

Forget the two MPs (I have). Everything Katie said was so monstrous it was almost funny, like a cartoon of Thatcherism - which I suppose makes her an obvious Social Darwinist. And everything Salma said was passionately but clearly expressed, while speaking up at all times for the suffering and disadvantaged in society. She was the only panellist talking sense, and listening to her was like a breath of cool mountain air wafting through a dank and smelly cellar.

But in terms of personalities and what they revealed about themselves and each other, the most interesting thing was the contrast between Salma and Toby. Toby revealed himself as an arch Social Darwinist, a transparent selfish Conservative, as opposed to the minister’s (what was his name?) presentation of a new ‘caring’ Conservative government (we do hate to make these enormous cuts to public services, but we’ll try and protect the weak and vulnerable, and our hearts bleed for all of you as we all suffer together). At one point he was incredibly self-revealing, saying that he never joined the Labour Party because he assumed he would ‘never be able to climb the ranks’. And everything he said was with an air of macho smugness. Interesting if depressing to watch.

He couldn’t stand Salma! Her whole argument, her whole politics, was about protecting the vulnerable in society from the predations of unfettered capitalism (that includes war, although she didn’t get a chance to talk about that). And despite the fact that she is personally likeable and said nothing offensive to anyone – and the audience applauded her comments enthusiastically – Toby transparently (I know, I keep using that word, but it’s so appropriate) took a strong dislike to her. The next day he even wrote an article in the Torygraph, slagging her off. Perhaps it’s just because she seemed popular with the audience, perhaps it’s because their politics are so different. But I felt there was a deeper, more personal, emotional reason as well.

The self-absorbed and self-serving are terribly upset when faced with someone genuinely and passionately caring and altruistic. It holds a mirror up to their own selfishness. Of course, it works the other way round too. But Salma had logic on her side, while Toby had only selfishness. (She made arguments, for instance - and not only against Toby - with which it would be impossible for any sane person to disagree, such as when she self-disclosed about her earlier life. She said simply that had it not been for student grants, the further education that led to her career as a psychotherapist would not have been a priority for her working class family - and there was the case against tuition fees et al, right there.) So Salma was able to remain calm, at least outwardly (perhaps her therapy training putting her in good stead!) But Toby was quietly, and sometimes not so quietly, seething.

It was fascinating viewing, on a certain level. The contrast between altruism and its opposite couldn’t have been clearer. But it was also quite upsetting, and my own emotional reactions to the programme were pretty strong - hence the need to write all this!

I started this blog by mentioning my love of Darwin’s great theory, but it obviously hasn’t been about that at all. The crudest form of Social Darwinism – and its altruistic opposite – is my theme. And it’s such an important one. As Richard Dawkins has said many times in his books and elsewhere, our own evolution as a species has progressed so far that we no longer need to be dominated entirely by our ‘selfish genes’. We can put other people first, even to the extent of sacrificing our individual comforts or even lives. We can decide not to perpetuate our own genes, we can decide not to have children. We can resist the urge to claim more and more for ourselves, whether it’s money or privileges or territory. And we’ve reached the point in our history where if we don’t think and behave altruistically, then we and perhaps millions of other species are lost. With the world’s population expanding like mad, the most powerful weapons imaginable, and the climate heating up, the issue of altruism versus short-term selfishness couldn’t be more urgent.

Hearing Salma speak does a lot to rebuild my shaky faith in politicians as a species. Hearing the Tobys and Katies of this world reminds me depressingly of what we’re up against.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Democracy: hung, but not dead yet

I should have sat up in bed reading my new treat, ‘Brightness Falls from the Air’ by James Tiptree Jr, instead. It would have been more relaxing, more enjoyable and far more edifying. But there were at least some results in this bizarre and undemocratic General Election that brought a smile to my face.

After 18 years with a tomato-faced lawyer who lives in Kent, Eastbourne went yellow. I’m happy about it, of course, and Stephen Lloyd is a good guy. I just hope the Lib Dems don’t go and do a deal with the dark side; if they do, I won’t support them again.

The British Nazi Party didn’t win a single seat, and the Fuhrer came third in Barking. As Russell Howard memorably commented, “who’d want to preserve this genome? – he looks like luncheon meat stretched over a toad.” I’m very happy for all my black, Asian, European, Muslim, Jewish and gay friends – everyone who doesn’t correspond to the Nazis’ laughable definition of ‘Britishness’. We are all England, we are all Britain. We are all human. Strange that one should have to state something so obvious in the 21st Century, but then again, the Third Millennium hasn’t exactly begun in an enlightened and civilised manner, has it?

Jacqui Smith lost her seat, ha ha! I don’t give a poo about her expenses scandal and I don’t blame her husband for watching porn when he’s married to her, the poor sod. I’m just happy because she’s an evil cow, and whilst home secretary was an arch-enemy of liberty and democracy. Same with Charles Clarke – good riddance and fuck off.

A few Labour MPs who I actually quite like got re-elected, such as Diane Abbott, Glenda Jackson, Frank Dobson and the incorruptible Jeremy Corbyn.

I got a glimpse of Neil Hughes, the Lib Dem candidate for Carlisle! In the groundbreaking documentary ‘Up’ series, he was the one who at seven years old wanted to be an astronaut, and if not that then a coach driver. Since then he has been shuttling around all the corners of the British Isles every few years, although not, I think, at the helm of a shuttle or a coach.

Salma Yaqoob, the leader of Respect, did massively better than in 2005. She achieved a huge 13% swing from labour to Respect, coming in at a very Respectable second place and not that far behind. I would have absolutely loved her to win, partly because the Respect manifesto is so close to my own views, partly because she seems so refreshingly honest and down-to-earth, and partly because she looks wonderful in a hijab. In the post 9/11 and 7/7 climate, seeing a Muslim woman in a hijab standing up for equality and human rights would have been a fantastic thing to see in the House of Commons. I haven’t checked George Galloway’s result, but with the other Respect candidate Abjol Miah failing to get in it looks to have been a bad night for one of my favourite two parties. But Salma will do it next time!!!

The most exciting result for me, however, was the triumph of Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavilion. In many European countries with a less antiquated and unfair system of democracy, Green MPs have been in Parliament for years, but we’ve never had one in Britain before. It was, as Caroline said afterwards, a historic event. A party with a far bigger share of the popular vote than you might think, committed to values of justice, equality, human rights and environmental protection – no, a party that’s really committed to those things – can finally represent us nationally in Parliament. And in a hung Parliament even one vote can sometimes carry a lot of weight. In an era, when a public hungry for change and fairness has been repeatedly sold down the line by those whose duty is to represent them, Caroline is one of the few politicians I actually trust, and I am hugely looking forward to seeing her on the benches and watching her, in that quiet but determined way she has, demonstrating her integrity amongst a group of people who, by and large, possess little of that quality. Seeing the quiet emotion on her face when the result was declared was a joy, and almost made up for my disappointment at Salma’s result. I wish, I wish I lived twenty miles further to the west…

As for the prospects for the country over the next few years or more, I guess that depends partly on what the Lib Dems decide to do. I suspect, however, that while things may continue to get worse, that should hardly be surprising because they were pretty bad already. Blair was a monstrous and fanatical leader, and Brown too led a criminal government, eroding fundamental rights, colluding in torture and pursuing a barbaric and unjust war with scant regard for the lives of civilians who bear a terrible cost in terms of casualties. Could things perhaps actually get a bit better, in a Parliament so truly hung? I don’t know enough to say, but I’m not holding my breath.

The best hope lies with us, as it always did, and with the possibility of radical electoral reform. Go to Without public protest and direct action, they will probably still need a good kick up their arses.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Rocks and a Sheep Place

It's been a while since I updated my website; partly due to health problems and partly the dark and dreary winter days we've had. But I'm feeling better and so has the weather, so I've been getting out and as a result have some new photos on the site. Go to, click on the Gallery page, then on the 'Animals', 'Flowers' and 'East Sussex' galleries and scroll to the bottom to see the new images.

I've lived in Eastbourne with Angie for nearly seven years now, and despite driving past it on countless occasions we have never visited the Seven Sisters Sheep Centre before. Sadly this too was just a flying visit and I wasn't able to spend as much time with the animals as I wanted in order to get enough good photos. Sheep are easy to photograph while grazing as they're pretty slow on their feet, but up close it's not so easy. They practically fall over each other trying to reach you; perhaps they're hoping for food, but it's very endearing. So the best shots I got of them were of lambs and their mothers. Pigs are just the opposite: they rarely take their snouts out of the trough! I got a few good images out of the visit, but I'd like more - so I'll be back there before long.

Meanwhile the side of me that loves to photograph cliff faces and rock formations has a new lease of life, thanks to a book on Ansel Adams that Angie got me as an anniversary present. I love Adams' pictures - who doesn't? - but I notice more now about his use of composition and also of texture. Even his portraits of Navajo people in New Mexico, as well as their deep humanity, have the abstract quality and detail of his close-up images of leaves or his Rocky Mountain panoramas. The closest things to mountains where I live are the South Downs (now a national park), and their truncated edges along the coastal white cliffs. My interest in the cliffs especially has been re-invigorated, so I hope I'll have more photos of them on this site very soon. Possibly including some close-ups - we'll see.

The image shown here is of one of the flint layers that run through the chalk cliffs, mined here during Neolithic times. I read somewhere that these layers match up exactly with those on the opposite coast of the English Channel; just one part of the evidence that millions of years ago the chalk stretched all the way across to France, until the sea finally eroded it to break through and form the Channel. These facts thrill me almost as much as the visual power of the cliffs themselves. Angie and I are very, very lucky to live in such an amazing part of the country.

I've waffled on enough for now. More images coming soon!

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Outside the Law: Stories from Guantanamo

A film by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, available on DVD from

This powerful documentary is a film of talking heads - yet it’s absolutely gripping. Following the stories of four Guantanamo detainees, and featuring interviews with ex-detainees Moazzam Begg and Omar Deghayes, the legal director of Reprieve, Clive Stafford Smith, and American lawyer for the detainees, Tom Wilner, it’s a damning expose of the Bush administration’s torture and detention policies in the War on Terror, and at the same time an uplifting account of how humanity can survive intact following dreadful and prolonged enforced suffering.

The film covers all the issues, including ‘extraordinary rendition’, torture and the bizarre and confusing legal mess created by the administration in order to justify its policies and sidestep international law. One example given was their redefinition of the word torture. Everyone knows what torture means: it’s the deliberate infliction of suffering on an individual. But the administration redefined it to mean the infliction of pain ‘equivalent to’ that of major organ failure or even death. Even here the definition is ambiguous: what does ‘equivalent to’ mean in this context? According to this definition, presumably breaking someone’s nose or fingers is not torture. Waterboarding (‘controlled drowning’) is not torture. Chaining someone up by their wrists in a cold, pitch dark room and playing heavy metal music at deafening volumes for a month is not torture. Slitting a man’s penis with a razor blade is not torture. Subjecting someone to the screams of a woman and children and telling him that it’s his wife and children who are being raped and tortured is not torture. But we all know it is. And all of these ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques have been practised on detainees, either by Americans or by proxy in other countries. Through the use of doublespeak, misinformation and transparent attempts to suggest some sort of legal basis for torture, the administration tried to normalise it and make it acceptable.

All of these practices seem to be so self-evidently inhumane, that after watching the film I found myself wondering how it is that so many ordinary, good people justify them. Many people do, both in Britain and the US. Statements such as ‘there’s no smoke without fire’, and ‘torture must be OK if it saves lives’, seem recurrent. The latter argument, promoted by TV shows such as ‘24’, is not supported either by common sense or by serious studies; because people under torture will tend to say anything to make the pain stop, the practice if anything tends to confuse and complicate intelligence. And there’s often smoke without fire; otherwise there’d be no need for courts to determine someone’s guilt or innocence, and there’d never be any miscarriages of justice. Miscarriages are all the more likely, of course, in an unfair system which operates outside the rule of law. Hence of the 700 or so people imprisoned at Guantanamo, over 500 have since been released, in an implied admission that there was virtually no evidence against them (many were not even charged with an offence) or that they are certainly, or very probably, innocent.

Misconceptions are encouraged by fearmongering and propaganda from politicians and the media. They include the assumption that terrorists are somehow different from other murderers, and therefore that suspected terrorists can be treated differently from all other suspected criminals. The fear of Muslims that arose after 9/11 makes them an easy target; perhaps, in a certain sense, Muslims are the new Jews. And I suspect, though I cannot prove, that this scapegoating may be a cover for an endemic racism which otherwise could not be expressed in mainstream society. But also crucially, I think it reflects an ignorance of international law. The UN Convention Against Torture, the Geneva Conventions and other international laws and treaties all exist to protect all of us, without exception, from these kinds of abuses. The people who authorise or practise these abuses are themselves criminals, and could in theory be tried at the International Criminal Court. It’s this emphasis on the rule of law, and the Bush administration’s twisting of it, that Nash and Worthington’s film presents so well – an emphasis which is present even in the film’s title.

Seeing the extent to which the rule of law has been trashed, and the standard of ‘justice’ employed as a return to the 11th Century (pre-Magna Carta), is depressing and upsetting indeed. But the film also presents hope for humanity. Clive Stafford Smith speaks in the film of how the detainees, when he first met them, had lost their faith in humanity and it was important for him to build a sense of trust with them. Yet despite everything they have been through, Moazzam Begg and Omar Deghayes are both humorous and humane individuals who appear to hold no personal grudges against those who guarded them in Guantanamo and are passionate campaigners for justice. Omar, who I have met personally several times, is both passionately determined and at the same time one of the gentlest men I’ve ever known. It’s both sad and touching when, towards the end of the film, he speaks of his son Suleiman whom he hasn’t seen since he was a baby, and says that of all the things that were done to him in Guantanamo, the taking away of his opportunity to see the first years of his son’s life is the biggest loss of all. It’s a poignant and very human note to end the film on.

The War on Terror, and the struggle against its multitude of injustices, includes both the worst and the best of humanity. By showing us, above all, the humanity of these so-miscalled ‘worst of the worst’, ‘Outside the Law: Stories from Guantanamo’ does an important service indeed.

Friday, 5 March 2010

The Man Inside the Suit, or how I learned to love 'Star Wars' after all

I’m currently watching all six Star Wars movies on DVD - in chronological order of events, not of release. Having now reached Part III, I’m now less dismissive of the series as an over-simplistic cowboy fantasy in space. ‘Revenge of the Sith’, as well as perhaps the most visually spectacular, is also quite subtle psychologically (yes!), contains a timely commentary on world events, and is imbued with a sense of tragedy that was hinted at in the previous film, and makes it clear that the whole series is about Anakin, his seduction, corruption, fall and ultimate redemption.

It’s also stunningly beautiful. The opening shot, before which all previous memorable opening shots in the series pale in comparison, is incredible, with golden sunlight flaring in space and a dizzying battle which is exciting, humorous and yet already contains a sense of tragedy. The two friends are fighting together; they will end the film fighting each other. And the visuals, as they do throughout, are not merely spectacular (any video game can do that), but expressive of mood. The golden sunlight in this opening scene suggests that the sun is setting on the Republic – and indeed it is. By the end of the film the Republic will be no more – as will the strained but nonetheless deep friendship between Anakin and Obi Wan. This is the darkest Star Wars movie by far – something that could never have been imagined over thirty years ago, when we all poured into the cinemas for Part IV, the film that we now know as ‘A New Hope’ after the Republic’s (and the hero’s) fall.

Both falls, the personal and the impersonal, are depicted with some subtlety. In the second half, all the threads of Palpatine’s machinations are drawn inexorably together as democracy is destroyed – it’s all terribly believable. The Chancellor’s controversial ‘emergency powers’ are just one allusion to the War on Terror; no politician ever wants to give up temporary powers, which is why the piecemeal giving away of our freedoms is so dangerous. Natalie Portman’s Padme (sadly with less to do here than in the previous film) asks Anakin if he’s stopped to wonder if they’re fighting on the wrong side; if they’ve become as bad or worse than the enemy they’re at war with. And there’s a chilling reminder of the year 2001 when Obi Wan, desperate to help Anakin and avoid having to kill him, is told by his former apprentice “if you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy!” Donald Rumsfeld spoke almost the same words at the start of the War on Terror. “Only the Sith talk in absolutes” replies Obi Wan, and in another sense he’s right. Darth Sidious, enjoyably chilling and creepy throughout, is the only purely evil character in the whole series. Anakin is portrayed with far more subtlety, and also quite movingly, by the much-maligned Hayden Christiansen.

It’s his transformation into Darth Vader, his betrayal of the friendship with Obi Wan and his relationship with Padme, which is the tragic heart of the series. Christiansen expresses Anakin’s fear, despair and conflict quite convincingly, and even at the end is far from simply ‘evil’. After rescuing Palpatine and causing the death of Windu, he collapses and cries “what have I done?!” And even after massacring the Jedi children, he stands alone (utterly alone) on the volcano planet with a tear streaming down his face. While Darth is destroying the Republic, Anakin is asking him from the back of his mind “What are you doing?” All this makes his final mutilation and transformation, from his burning at the edge of the lava flow to his encasement (imprisonment) in the famous suit, all the more upsetting. I found this scene distressing, as well as a little morbidly fascinating: what did the young Darth look like inside his suit? At the end of the movie, Anakin has lost everything. His is the real tragedy of the films, just as he remains, ultimately and despite his fall, the Chosen One. He does restore balance to the force, he does destroy the Sith! It just takes him six movies to do it.

The acting throughout is good. Ewan McGregor is really starting to look like Alec Guinness, the supporting cast are excellent (I’ll include the CGI Yoda in that!), and Natalie Portman portrays Padme’s heartbreak – well, heartbreakingly. She’s also astonishingly beautiful; I can see why Anakin fell in love with her!

I haven’t yet mentioned the humour. At times it’s a funny movie, and if dialogue is always claimed to be George Lucas’s weakest point, he’s not bad with the one-liners. “Not to worry – we’re still flying half the ship!” says Obi Wan before their impossible crash landing following the space battle. And R2-D2 is as engaging as ever (I didn’t know he could fight like that before!) But there’s even a sadness in the humour. R2 will not always be helping Anakin, and many of the jokes arise from the tense friendship between Obi Wan and Anakin. By the end of the movie it’s not longer a joke. The last words screamed to Obi Wan by the burning, mutilated Anakin are “I HATE YOU!!!” To which his heartbroken mentor cries “you were my brother! I loved you!” Full marks to both of these actors, who worked hard both on the fight scenes and on the psychological aspects of their relationship throughout these two films. It’s a moving and upsetting climax.

It might be said that I’m taking the film all too seriously. I would have said the same when Parts IV-VI were all I knew, but now I’m a convert. And the whole Star Wars saga was conceived and written during the Vietnam War, whose parallels with the War on Terror have been remarked on by Lucas himself. It was noticed also by right-wing politicians in the US, some of whom called for a boycott of the film after its release because it was ‘liberal’ and against the Iraq War. Which of course, is as excellent a reason as any for going to see it!

One wonders if Tony Blair will one day find some kind of redemption, as Anakin does in Part VI. Now that is hard to believe.

Sunday, 21 February 2010


Another review of mine, also published in the latest edition of 'Pain Matters'. This is of the latest series of guided meditation CDs by Breathworks:

CD1: Body Scan
CD2: Mindfulness of Breathing (2 CDs)
CD3: Kindly Awareness (2 CDs)
Available from

Several years ago, Breathworks brought out a series of three guided mindfulness meditation CD’s with an emphasis on working with chronic pain and illness. I’ve loved them since I first heard them, finding them wonderfully helpful and with a calm, spacious quality which is very special. I felt a flash of disappointment when I realised that these new CDs are re-recordings, but it didn’t last because each meditation practice comes in several different versions, and these are essentially new CDs. In fact, I like them even more than the originals!

For anyone unfamiliar with it, mindfulness meditation is a practice of being aware, non-judgementally, of whatever is happening in the present moment, whether physical, mental or emotional. It includes practices such as being aware of the breath, or focusing on sensations in each part of the body in turn, and gently bringing the mind back to the present-moment awareness each time we notice it’s wandered. Such meditations have several benefits for those of us living with pain. For instance, they can often produce a calming effect, bringing us gently away from the thoughts cascading through our minds and coming home, over and over again, to the body. Also, focusing on different kinds of sensations, whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, can help us to recognise that pain is only one part of our experience, and while listening to these CDs I have often realised that my pain was not as bad, more bearable, than I thought it was. All experiences, whether physical sensations or thoughts, change and pass in a gentle state of flux. Becoming more aware of this can help to reduce the ‘secondary suffering’ resulting from our agitated thoughts and feelings about our pain – which as I’ve learned myself through difficult experience, only makes the pain feel worse and can greatly prolong flare-ups.

The meditation practices on these CDs are led by the founders of Breathworks: Vidyamala Burch, who has long experience of coping with severe pain, and her colleague Sona Fricker. The Buddhist roots of mindfulness are not explicitly apparent here; the CDs are secular in feel although both leaders are Buddhists. They also have beautiful, calm voices which contribute much to the feeling of spaciousness, and in fact their leading sounds even more relaxed and fluid than before. They are very gentle with the listener, reminding us that it’s OK if our mind drifts; it’s normal, and we can simply bring it back again each time. But the real bonus of the new CDs is that they contain extra meditations; ‘Mindfulness of Breathing’ and ‘Kindly Awareness’ now have two CDs each. Each has a longer and a shorter version of the meditation, as well as a choice between fully-led practices and ones with only minimal guidance. I like the fully-led ones the best, as the voice seems to act as an anchor, helping to bring my mind back from its wanderings, but I know people who like to have the space to meditate without the intrusion of a guiding voice. So it’s wonderful that listeners are provided with such choices here, and the sound quality of the new CDs is more beautiful too.

Of all the CDs, my own favourite is ‘Kindly Awareness’. Here the practice involves first of all focusing on our own sensations and feelings, and then gradually including other people, extending from a friend to a neutral person to someone we have difficulty with, and finally to the whole world. The beautiful thing about this is that, perhaps even more than the others, it fosters a sense of acceptance and kindness, both towards oneself and others. So often we can feel alone, isolated and frustrated with our pain, and all these feelings simply increase secondary suffering and make our condition harder to live with. Kindness, which is at the heart of mindfulness, helps to foster acceptance of all our experience, both painful and pleasant, and the Kindly Awareness meditation also encourages kindness to others: a sense of our kinship and the universality of suffering and joy. This can be quite liberating. The pain is no longer an enemy; it’s simply an experience which others share and which we can be tender and caring towards.

Discovering the original Breathworks CDs has been a revelation to me, and I can also recommend Vidyamala’s book and CD, ‘Living Well with Pain and Illness’, which with great clarity and compassion provide a further exploration of mindfulness and some useful extra practices. I frequently still find meditation a challenging practice, but it does help to reduce my pain and anxiety levels, and has been shown to do the same for many others. And the experience of clarity, calm and acceptance, when it comes, is a worthwhile and beautiful thing. It’s mirrored in the quality of the CDs themselves, in the leaders’ calm voices and in words and phrases that help to foster that clarity and calmness. In Vidyamala’s memorable phrase:

Body like a mountain…
Heart like the ocean…
Mind like the sky…

Reversing Chronic Pain

A review I wrote for the book‘Reversing Chronic Pain: A 10-Point All-Natural Plan for Lasting Relief’, by Maggie Phillips. It has been printed in the latest issue of Pain Concern's 'Pain Matters' magazine, and I thought I'd share it here.

The book is published by North Atlantic Books, and available from, or from

I’ve just read this book during a big pain flare-up, my first for a couple of years. I felt instinctively that I was going to like it, and it didn’t disappoint. This is a really comprehensive, structured presentation of contrasting and varied techniques for managing pain, and it gave me comfort, encouragement and hope.

It starts with the best and clearest explanation of the groundbreaking ‘gate’ theory of pain that I’ve ever come across. It was a relief, in my flared-up state, simply to feel that I understood more about what was happening to my nervous system, and why exactly pain is such a distressingly emotional experience. The gate theory suggests that there are points (‘gates’) along the spinal cord that let messages from the peripheral nerves through to the brain, where they are registered as pain. The messages arrive at three separate areas of the brain: the sensory cortex, which processes physical sensations, the limbic or emotional centre, and the ‘thinking’ frontal cortex. Hence the way that our experience of pain is influenced by our emotions and patterns of thinking.

The comforting aspect of this is that pain messages can be blocked, either through techniques that ‘close’ the gates to stop messages getting through, or by dealing with the messages that have already reached the brain. An example of the latter is any technique that boosts levels of pain-relieving endorphins, such as humour, exercise, or listening to music. An example of the former is massage or any pleasurable or neutral physical sensations; these travel along the nervous system up to seven times faster than pain messages, and thereby block some or all of the pain from reaching the brain – in effect, ‘closing the pain gates’.

Understanding this theory, for me, not only gave me encouragement and hope that I could reduce my pain through ‘natural’ means; it also made me aware that I have some control over my pain. Chronic pain, especially during flare-ups can be such an overwhelming experience, that we can feel as if we have no control over our bodies and our lives. Understanding brings the potential for more choices in how we respond to the pain. I’m very grateful to Maggie Phillips for explaining this so clearly, and for helping me to identify my own most effective ‘pain blockers’, which I am now starting to utilise much more regularly.

The theory of pain is just the start, however; the book explains far more than that. The coping techniques presented include breathing, visualisation, mindfulness meditation, exercise, ‘energy therapies’ and addressing past traumas and the emotional context of pain. It includes a great number of varied exercises and skills to practise; so many, that ideally I’d like to spend a week on each chapter, adopting the book as a kind of ten week course. I think I’ll do that before long, but Phillips does emphasise that the reader can choose to adopt the exercises they most relate to or find helpful, leaving the others to take on if and when they feel ready. My own favourites include a beautiful ‘lovingkindness’ mantra; finding a ‘safe place’ within my body; and some of the visualisations, some of which are very comforting, while others sounded quite bizarre until I actually tried them. The ‘brain’s pain relief centre’ one is even entertaining, like a mini-action movie in the body, where you can be director and actor at the same time!

There were parts of the book I felt resistant to or didn’t understand well. The spiritual element in the mindfulness chapter seemed unaware that many chronic pain sufferers might be atheists, but on the other hand it certainly wasn’t organised-religious either. And I could not relate to the chapter on energy therapies; for personal reasons, I have a strong emotional resistance to anything that includes phrases like ‘energy flow’. The chapters that most resonate with me are two near the end, which deal with the role of trauma and loss in chronic pain. As a recovering anxiety sufferer as well as someone with neuropathic pain, I’ve increasingly wondered if the two conditions are related, and lately feel as if a build-up of grief and tension from unresolved losses and traumas in my life has contributed to the physical and emotional difficulties I’ve had over the past few years. So far my thoughts are just beginning to touch on the issue, but with the help of Maggie Phillips’s book and the exercises and insights it contains, I think I’ll be exploring in far more depth and hopefully will gain a deeper understanding and acceptance of my pain. Will this lead to a reduction in pain and a more active and fulfilled life? I don’t know, but it seems there’s nothing to lose by trying.

In short, this is an admirable and very helpful book, at times a little too ‘Californian’ for my taste, but one which I know I’ll return to again and again to help me manage and understand my pain. I think most chronic pain sufferers will find at least some of the exercises beneficial, and for many it will be a breath of fresh air that brings the hope, comfort and support that those of us with pain so often, and so dearly, need.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Living Peace

Yesterday a friend gave Angie and me a late Christmas present, and obviously knew what we needed. It's a CD called 'Living Peace' by Gael Chiarella, and it's really beautiful.

Gael has a lovely, gentle American voice, and leads you through four deep relaxations. They're based on practises I've encountered before, such as yoga and mindfulness meditation; the latter is something I practise every day. Having listened to them all, I've found that they encourage a state of appreciation of my surroundings and the good things I have, as well as a balanced observation of the impermanence and changability of things, including sensations which I label unpleasant, such as pain. And they also do something which is important for chronic pain and anxiety sufferers: they seem to help 'slow down' the nervous system. Helpful for anyone in these stressful and fast-paced times, it's also something that ambient music can do. So every night once we're in bed, Angie and I relax and doze to Brian Eno's 'Music for Airports', present almost at the edge of hearing, like a musical soft light or perfume!

The music on this CD is less distinctive than Eno, but beautifully calm and not mixed too forwardly, so it doesn't intrude too much. The sensation of listening to these tracks is a bit like sitting in the courtyard of some Tibetan monastery, witha deep blue sky above and the Himalayan peaks catching yellow sunlight all around. Which is not a bad place to be, if only in your imagination.

I can recommend this CD highly. You can obtain it and other CDs by Gael at Amazon, or by visiting her website at


Thursday, 4 February 2010


Hello again after a long absence! I've changed the title of this blog, because I no longer see myself as a peace activist, having reluctantly given it up due to its effects on my emotional and physical health. I may still post occasional 'political' entries, but also I'd like to try and find a new focus for my blog, with a greater emphasis on personal experience than before. So its character is changing, but what precise direction it will take is something I'm not sure of, yet! I'll just see if it evolves into something a bit different from before!

In my personal life I've been struggling recently with health problems; none of them 'serious', but quite debilitating. I hope I'm learning though, and will come through as I have before.

To help keep me positive, I've been creating a new ebsite for my photography, which at present you can see at: It will have a proper domain name in a few weeks once I start paying for it, so I'll post the new link when I have it. Meanwhile, if you like photographs of landscapes, animals, flowers, architecture and anti-war marches, I hope you enjoy browsing!

Bye for now, and peace to all.