Friday, 30 September 2011

Musings on Retirement

Me, trying to look menacing in Nottingham
Castle - Doesn't work, does it?
"Age doesn't matter, unless you're a cheese".
Billie Burke.

I hadn't planned to stop working at the age of 62. The organisation I worked for could no longer afford to pay someone at my level. So I took redundancy and moved to Nottingham.

I would surely find some work that would keep me going for a few more years, and a couple of Employment Agencies that I signed up with were similarly confident. My brain was no worse than it had ever been, and as long as I wasn't expected to walk miles every day, I was reasonably fit and healthy. Above all, I wanted to work.

I applied for six jobs; five with charities and one with a local authority. Four charities never bothered to reply, which was something that I'd never done in my working life. My view has always been to treat applicants with respect. If someone has gone to the effort of applying for a job, the least you can do is acknowledge that effort, even if it costs money. Cost it in as part of the recruitment budget. The other two applications were acknowledged: "Thank you for your interest in the above position, but I'm sorry to say etc etc". A letter I had written a thousand times over the years, and now I was on the receiving end. All of the jobs I applied for were asking for the sort of experience that I had taken a lifetime to obtain, but not even an interview. After three to four months, with money running out, it was time to make a decision - retirement.

I was not looking forward to applying for benefits. However, my application for Housing Benefit couldn't have been simpler, after all I was used to filling in forms. Rushcliffe Borough Council processed the application very quickly, and even back-dated the money to when I moved to Nottingham. Similarly, my application for Guaranteed Pension Credit was done quickly, following a twenty minute interview over the phone. This too was back-dated. I was very pleased that the whole process was hassle free. Now I was officially retired and living on benefits. That's when emotional turmoil began.

People react to their retirement in different ways.  Some have been planning for it, and financially they are equipped to engage in all of the activities that TV adverts bombard us with, and good for them. Others know it's coming, but are not prepared, and life takes on something of a struggle. Still others, a bit like myself, have it suddenly thrust upon them, and the adjustment is difficult. Stay with me on this please, as I promise you it will be positive.

For six to nine months, it was this adjustment that was difficult to cope with. I've come across others who felt the same way. Benches, whether in parks or built up areas have a way of attracting people. After all, they were placed there for people to sit on. Unfortunately, I seem to occasionally attract the 'needy' who plop themselves down beside me. It's as if there is a sign above my head that says, "Needy? Sit here and tell me your life story". At other times I'm confronted by the, quite frankly, disturbed, who you feel should not really be out in the community on their own. Thankfully, there are others that in conversation, you find experience the same feelings as you.

For me, the adjustment was difficult in four areas (yes, I've been able to analyse it). Having worked almost non-stop for 47 years, it was difficult to come to grips with the fact that I no longer got up with the alarm clock, and went out to work. This meaningful activity was no longer for me, and it almost felt like rejection. In a strange way, what was once mine, now belonged to somebody else, and it was not easy to let go. Allied to work was the important matter of having company. Every day you were mixing with staff, clients, and people from other organisations. Suddenly, you were on your own, and with no regular contact with people you could have a relationship with. It doesn't matter whether they missed you (not strictly true, as you would like to be missed a little bit), I missed them, and this social interaction. Again allied to work was the matter of money. It's generally the wealthy who say that money isn't everything. I had a good wage which allowed me to do anything I wanted to, now that had stopped. I was now living on 27% of my previous income. That was difficult to adjust to. I tended to agree with Spike Milligan, "Money can't buy you happiness, but it does bring you a more pleasant form of misery". The last difficult area of adjustment was over a car. I'd owned one for 40 years (not the same one you understand), and I felt that it was my sanity. It gave freedom to go wherever I wanted to go. That had to be got rid of for financial reasons - non car-worshippers will not understand this. So for all of these reasons, I was not a happy bunny in a new land.

Then, about a year ago, things changed. I believe that I was sitting in the Arboretum looking at this memorial tree opposite. It was planted on the 50th Anniversary of The Old Contemptibles in the First World War.

It was while sitting there that a number of things entered my head, and suddenly the negatives seemed to fade, and the positives rise to the surface. Life was not going to change (unless I won the Lottery, which was unlikely given that I rarely bought a ticket), so you need to get on with it. Nobody likes a miserable old git, so things are going to get worse if you don't change your attitude. Then I thought of someone who often has coffee at a Kiosk by the Trent, at the same time as I do. He's about my age, is blind, and in a wheelchair, but has the most positive attitude to life. You can't help but think of him and stay the same. This all led to the thought, get a grip.

The outward circumstances have not changed, but life is often more mental than physical. It's not just a question of putting up with retirement; it's enjoying it. I have a lovely flat in a very nice neighbourhood, and it's right next to an excellent public transport system. I'm close to the river Trent, and to the Nottingham Canal, both of which I love to walk along. I enjoy the company of a couple of friends, and attend some jazz evenings. Qualifying for a concessionary bus pass means that I can travel for free on any local bus throughout England., and I make use of this particularly in and around Nottingham.

If I still had a car, I would have been an expert on Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire, because I would have always been out in it. I would never have got to know Nottingham as a City. But with public transport and walking, I've got to know the City very well. I've been able to spend a lot of time with my Sister, as a result of her unfortunate illness; something I would have had difficulty doing if I was still in work. I can visit my family at times to suit them, rather than having to suit me as well.

I've now found time to research my family history, which has been thrilling. I've found nothing exciting, but the thrill was in the research. I've time to research and write a blog, and even if no-one else was interested in it, I would be. All this because I've time, and allowed the development of new interests. There may of course be the occasional dark moments, but I had those when I was working. Life is not at all bad.

I like the advice of M.K. Soni,

"Retire from work, but not from life".

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The Real Greek Tragedy

Trying to follow the Greek financial crisis is a bit like watching a piece of surrealist theatre. You struggle to understand what your eyes are seeing.

Greece is the weakest of the European economies, but this was the case in 2002 when it dumped the drachma, and became part of Euroland (or the Eurozone as it likes to be called). Economists knew then that Greece did not fully fit entry requirements, so the decision was a political one, rather than an economic one. Joining Euroland meant that Greece had access to borrowing, that was previously denied it. It took advantage, and went on a spending spree. Public spending soared, and public sector wages practically doubled over the last ten years. Expenditure greatly exceeded income, and it needed to borrow money to fill in the gap. It became too expensive to borrow money commercially, so they turned to the European Union and the International Monetary Fund for a 'bailout'.

The Irish Republic and Portugal had already received bailouts, and in May 2010, it was given a bailout loan of 110 billion euros. It is now looking for a further 109 billion euros to pay its bills, and the European Commission (EC), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will meet in Athens tomorrow to review the situation. It seems likely that a further bailout will be forthcoming.

The aim of the bailouts is to shore up Greece's economy, calm the financial markets, and stop the problem spreading to other debt-laden European economies. It is also being driven politically by Germany and France to ensure that the "European dream" does not fall apart. Of the 17 countries who adopted the euro as its currency, 5 are in severe problems over debt - Greece owes about 340 billion euros; Ireland is forecast to owe about 173 billion euros by the end of 2011; Spain owes about 630 billion euros; Portugal I can't work out, and Italy has a massive 1.9 trillion euros of total debt. It may be of interest to note, that while the UK is not part of Euroland, its debt at the moment is around £940 billion.

Economists like to talk in complicated language about the debt crisis, and the reasons for it. Some see a reason for inadequate income generation as "rampant tax evasion", with the Greek labour minister estimating that a quarter of the economy pays nothing. While you have to condemn tax evasion, surely the fault must also lie with the Government's inability to collect taxes. I think though that the problem is much more corrupt. Greece was never going to be able to pay its debts, and it knew it. The IMF and the ECB knew that Greece was never going to pay its debts, but it still gave out loans, to try and keep Euroland alive. This is all so dishonest, reprehensible and irresponsible. You don't have to be an economist to know that if I spend more money that I get in, I'm in trouble, and no-one will bail me out. If I take out a loan knowing that I won't have the means to pay it back, makes me guilty of fraud, and no-one will bail me out. Governments however can do it, and ask to be bailed out.

Many observers in the financial markets see it as inevitable that Greece will default on its debts, and when this happens, the same will be true of Ireland and Portugal. The only question being discussed in some quarters is to whether the default will be "orderly" or "disorderly". This is econospeak. An orderly default means that a substantial part of the debt is rescheduled so that repayments are pushed back decades. Euroland leaders are proposing a 50% write-off of money loaned by private lenders, which they describe as a "haircut". A disorderly default would mean that much of this debt is not repaid - ever. The fear is that whichever default takes place, other countries such as Ireland and Portugal will follow suit, and the effect will be felt across Europe, as well as further afield.

Some may be asking, what has all this to do with us? So what if Euroland collapses; we're not part of it, and if the IMF etc want to go on propping up failing economies, let them get on with it.

If only we could distance ourselves from all of this so easily. But we can't. Did you know that the UK has already handed over £12.5 billion in emergency loans to Greece, Ireland and Portugal to help prop up the euro? Why has it done this with our money? The simple reason is to avoid losing more money. The chart above shows the countries that are most exposed to Greek debt. France is the greatest with a total of 56.7 billion dollars at stake. The UK has a debt exposure of 14.6 billion dollars. If Portugal defaults on its debts, the UK banking sector is exposed to the tune of £29.5 billion, and the largest foreign lenders in Ireland are UK banks. If UK banks end up losing out, what do you think will happen? Yes, an appeal to the Government for their own bailout, and who pays for this? The UK taxpayer.

Even if none of this happens, the crisis is going to cost us a lot of money. Christine Lagarde, IMF managing director says that the current £250 billion 'war chest' was insufficient, and "pales in comparison with the potential needs of vulnerable countries, and needs to be expanded to deal with the worst-case scenarios". A new target fund of £2.6 trillion has been proposed, which, because of the agreement with the IMF that the UK has signed up to, will mean that the UK is liable for 4.5% of this, around £115 billion contributed to an enlarged bailout fund. This is the equivalent of £4,600 per household.

Enough about money. Enough about countries. Enough about the IMF and other financial institutions. The real Greek tragedy is what is happening to its 11 million of a population.

To get financial aid, the Greek Government is forced by the ECB/IMF to institute what is known as "austerity measures". These are bad, with worse to come.

Through strikes and marches, the Greek people are saying that they've had enough, and that they're running out of patience with the austerity drive that is ruining their lives.

They are enduring wages cuts, benefits cuts, pension cuts, and rising unemployment. The graph opposite shows that since about April 2009, unemployment has risen from just over 8% to it present level of 16.2% (42% for youth unemployment). It is said that 1,000 jobs a day are being lost. The wages for 30,000 public sector workers will be cut by one fifth, and pensions for all by 10%. In actual fact, pensions paid to those younger than 55 will be shaved by 40% for the amount exceeding 1,000 euros a month. In addition, crime, homelessness, emigration and personal bankruptcies are on the rise.

According to Marcus Walker of The Wall Street Journal, "The most dramatic sign of Greece's pain, is a surge in suicides". About 40% more Greeks killed themselves in the first five months of this year than in the same period last year. The suicide help line, Klimaka used to get four to ten calls a day, but "now there are days when we have up to 100". This is in a country with a strong stigma attached to suicide. The Greek Orthodox Church forbids funeral services for suicides unless the deceased was mentally ill. Because of this, families often mask suicide deaths as accidents. Click here to read the heart-wrenching story of Vaggelis Petrakis. Here as I say is the real Greek tragedy; what is happening to its people under the guise of austerity measures. What is happening there, can happen anywhere. The cruelest toll being exacted in this crisis is the death of decent, hard working, dignified people, and the humiliation of so many more.

The European dream destroys democracy, destroys countries and destroys people. What happened to independence and individual country responsibility? Why can't we support each other without formal alliances? Where is the incentive to be prudent and frugal, when you know that there is a bailout around the corner for profligacy? In a recent poll, 80% of Greek people said that they refused to make any more sacrifices to get EU/IMF aid. I can understand where they are coming from. Never forget the real Greek tragedy.

What of the politicians? Let me finish with a comment from CNN in America. "It is still possible that the Europeans can come to grips with this crisis before we end up in a replay of Lehman Brothers, but in a depressing replay of 2008, for now it seems, that the flavour of the day is wishful thinking".

Monday, 26 September 2011

E-Petitions and the Death Penalty

There's nothing particularly new about e-petitions, as Tony Blair introduced them to the No 10 website when he was in power. They have however taken on a new dimension in the name of 'democracy', and you can click here to view all of the e-petitions currently underway.

The one's that seem to be attracting the most attention, are those concerned with asking for a debate on the subject of the death penalty. The Government has said that any e-petition that can attract 100,000 signatories will be looked at by a panel of MP's who will decide whether it is appropriate for Parliament to debate the matter. Already we are seeing the mad, the bad and the sad come to the fore. Politicians are lining up to show how wonderfully 'democratic' they are. The Leader of the House of Commons, Sir George Young has said that "it would damage democracy to ignore strong opinions among members of the public, or pretend that their views do not exist". Douglas Carswell MP, said, "The mistake MPs have made is to not trust the people and to try and ignore their concerns".

This is all lovely and cosy isn't it? A new era when Politicians vote the way that popular opinion demands. Come on, pull the other one. The UK population currently stands at about 62.3 million, with around 13.3 million being children. This leaves a total of about 49 million adults. An e-petition of 100,000 signatures to trigger a debate is supposed to be democracy at work, but this is 0.002% of the adult population. Supporters of the death penalty often point to public opinion polls showing that over half the population are in favour of the death penalty. I'm not a lover of opinion polls, even though they state that their accuracy rate is + or- 3%. Take this question. "Are you in favour of the death penalty for murder, even if on a very rare occasion a mistake is made?" Many would say yes. Change the question slightly to this. "Are you in favour of the death penalty even if you were one of the mistakes being made?". I suggest that the response would be somewhat different.

A lot of press attention is being given to the e-petition created by Paul Staines, who writes the Guido Fawkes polital blog, and who campaigns for the re-introduction of the death penalty for certain murders. To date, this has achieved 21,434 signatures, and as he apparently has about 60,000 people who read his blog, he may well achieve the required 100,000. What is rarely being mentioned is the e-petition created by Martin Shapland who wants the Government to retain the ban on capital punishment. To date this has 29,787 signatures. I've no doubt that there will be a debate, but is it all a waste of time? Will it just be Parliament going through the motions? Even if they voted to re-introduce the death penalty (which won't happen), nothing will become law. Why? Because of the Lisbon Treaty that the UK is signed up to. The treaty's Charter of Fundamental Rights, Title 1, Article 2, section 2 says, "No one shall be condemned to the death penalty, or executed". As Mary Ellen Synon of the Daily Mail says, "That overrides anything Parliament may decide". Paul Staines recognises this, for in his petition he says, "We petition the Government to review all treaties and international commitments which may inhibit the ability of Parliament to restore capital punishment". Whatever your views on the Lisbon Treaty, (and I have huge problems with its dictatorship) withdrawing from it will not happen. That's why I say a debate on the matter is a waste of time and money.

Those calling for the re-introduction of the death penalty for murder are not agreed on the type of murder that will trigger execution. Some want to see it introduced for all murders, while others are talking about for specific murders.  Paul Staines in his e-petition is asking Government to "restore the death penalty for the murder of children and police officers when killed in the line of duty". Why just these? Is the life of a police officer less valuable and precious, if it is snuffed out when he is murdered off-duty? Is the life of an elderly person who is brutally murdered in their own home of less importance? Why are these value judgements made?

The last executions in the United Kingdom took place in 1964. The death penalty was formally abolished in Britain in 1965, and in Northern Ireland in 1973, and I for one would like it to remain abolished. Let me make it clear, I am opposed to the re-introduction of the death penalty, and have signed the e-petition accordingly. I've noticed already that supporters of this position are being called, "bleeding heart liberals" or "bloody do-gooders", plus other names that I prefer not to repeat. Why is it that instead of being able to have a healthy debate on a subject, the response of many is to engage in vitriol against someone with an opposing view. Tolerant society? Don't make me laugh.

There is a view held by many who support the re-introduction of the death penalty, that it acts as a deterrent. This is questionable. Statistics have been shown by supporters, particularly from the United States to prove the deterrent value of the death penalty. However, other statistics from the States can show that one State with the death penalty has a higher murder rate than another State who does not have the death penalty. Statistics can be produced to bolster any polemical argument. Rupa Reddy, from the University of Westminster's Centre for Capital Punishment Studies says, "You can't say that the death penalty has no deterrent effect. But there is no evidence that it is more influential than Life Without Parole sentences and first-class detection techniques".

A strong emotional argument put forward by supporters of the death penalty, is the re-offending rate by those who were convicted murderers, who went on to murder again after being released from prison. Some say that this figure is around 200 people since the death penalty was abolished in 1965. They seem to delight in saying that with the death penalty, "the re-offending rate is zero". Yes, the murder rate in England and Wales has risen substantially since 1965, but the country has also changed over these last 45 years. The population has gone up; it is less homogenous, and there are far more lethal weapons in circulation.

Pro capital punishment supporters seem to dismiss the mis-carriages of justice that have occured, as either being because they are "very, very few in number", or the price to pay for getting murderers off our streets. I for one do not believe that that price is worth paying. I've read some glibbly saying that with the advances in forensic science, there is little chance of mistakes being made today. How I would love that to be true, but I don't believe it to be so.

If the possible death of an innocent man or woman was the only argument I had against capital punishment, it would be enough for me. Even if the numbers are "very, very few"; one is too many. No-one should die for a crime they did not commit. No-one. I strongly recommend that you click here, and read the case of Cameron Todd Willingham. You will need to give time to this, as it is a very detailed analysis covering 17 Internet pages. But this matter of the death penalty is too great not to give time to the issues. Zach Johnstone, in an article looking at the case of Troy Davis, concludes with these words. "... I find myself opposed to the reinstatement of capital punishment: the loss of even one innocent life in the name of retribution is, I believe, too great a price to pay".

Let me finish with this. Murder is a heinous crime, and while I support retaining the ban on capital punishment, I also strongly support changes to the criminal justice system, which will have the same effect as capital punishment, of preventing murderers being released from prison only to murder again. I believe that all those convicted of murder should be sentenced to life imprisonment, without the possibility of parole, and that life is life. They will remain in prison (unless subsequently shown to be innocent) until they die. I'm pretty sure that the call to re-instate the death penalty will be defeated, but I'm less sure that the law will be changed to ensure that life, means life. I certainly hope that I'm wrong on this last point.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Is there anyone out there?

Andromeda Galaxy
I was born 64 years ago the day before yesterday. I didn't want to write then, as it seemed a bit sad to be drawing attention to my birthday. Why two days later seems less sad is anyone's guess.

I decided to google, and find out what other momentous events took place on the 23rd September 1947 (look, my birth was momentous to my parents, OK?)

I came across a fascinating Top Secret document called, PROJECT 1947, sub-titled UFO Documents. It was a report from Lieutenant General N.F. Twining of the US Air Material Command to Brigadier General George Schulgen of the US Army Air Force. Twining had been asked to investigate reported sightings of "Flying Discs", and the report was his considered opinion.

In his opinion,
  • The phenomenon is something real and not visionary or fictitious
  • There are objects probably approximating the shape of a disc, of such appreciable size as to appear to be as large as man-made aircraft
  • There is a possibility that some of the incidents may be caused be natural phenomena, such as meteors
  • The reported operating characteristics such as extreme rates of climb, maneuverability (particularly in roll), and motion which must be considered evasive when sighted by friendly aircraft and radar, lend belief to the possibility that some of the objects are controlled either manually, automatically or remotely
He goes on to describe their shape, formation, sound and speeds. He suggests that consideration must be given that these "flying discs" are of domestic origin - "the product of some high security project not known to this command". Also, "the possibility that some foreign nation has a form of propulsion possibly nuclear, which is outside of our domestic knowledge". He recommends that further, more detailed study is undertaken, and that funding for this should not interfere with existing projects.

Reports of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) have been around certainly since 1909, but it was a reported sighting by Kenneth Arnold on the 24th June 1947 that was a catalyst for the US Military investigation. He was flying in southern Washington in search of a missing marine plane, and said that he sighted nine saucer-like aircraft flying in formation at 3pm. They were extremely bright, as if they were nickle plated, and flying at an immense rate of speed. By the end of July 1947, there were over 850 UFO reports, and while many of them have been shown to have been hoaxes, or genuine mistakes, approximately 150 reports made their way into the files of the US Technical Intelligence Department. It was all of these reported sightings that brought PROJECT 1947 into being. Lest you think that this is solely an American phenomenon, sightings were also reported from Scandinavia, France, Australia as well as other countries. A website has been created, called Project 1947, which aims to catalogue apparent sightings, and anyone interested can view the site here.

It was also in 1947 that many believe in Roswell, New Mexico, a spacecraft and alien bodies were recovered, and that this has been hidden by the Government for over sixty years. See here for more on Roswell. This conspiracy theory has been exploited by thousands of books and films over the years, and none better than the finest television series ever, which ran from 1993 - 2002, and occupied an hour of my life every Tuesday evening.

The X-Files. FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully explore 'unexplained' cases. Mulder is the believer that "other life is out there", having seen his sister abducted by what he believes to be aliens when he was aged 12. Scully is the medical doctor and scientist who is sceptical of there being "other life". It's this challenging difference between the two of them, and the continuing "plausible deniability" from the Government that made the programme so absorbing.

"Are we alone in the universe?" is a question that occupies the minds of many, including my own. Bill Watterson seems always to be quoted in any article on this subject, so I'll continue with the trend. "Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us". It's a fun statement that shouldn't be taken too seriously. Leaving aside Government conspiracy theories that proof does exist about extra-terrestial beings; it's just being hidden from us, how possible is it to believe that we are not alone in the universe? Given the scale of the universe, it would be the height of human arrogance to unequivocally declare that no such possibility exists.

How big is big? The numbers are mind-blowing. I haven't counted them myself, but in 2003, the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union calculated that there were around 70 sextillion stars in the universe. We are told that modern telescopes can detect about 50 billion galaxies, each of which has billions of stars. These stars are spread over a very, very, very long distance. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is about 100,000 light years across. The closest galaxy to our own is the Andromeda Galaxy, which is two million light years away from us. This is all a big amount of space, and surely there has to be a smidgen of a possibility that we are not alone in all of that vastness.

Deniers of this possibility often speak of the impossibility of places sustaining 'life'. But what is the definition of 'life'? Why should it only be carbon based entities such as ourselves? Why? Here's something very technical for all you geeks out there. In 1961, Frank Drake, the astronomer and founder of the Search for Extra-Terrestial Intelligence (SETI), perfected an equation to suppose the possibility of other life in the universe. It's nonsense of course, as it's based on assumptions and guesswork. However, it's great fun. Here it is.

N = the number of civilisations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible, and
R* = the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fl = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
fe = the fraction of civilisations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time such civilisations release detectable signals into space

Drake's equation means,

R* = 10/year (10 stars formed per year, on the average over the life of the galaxy)
fp = 0.5 (half of all stars will have planets)
ne = 2 (stars with planets will have 2 planets capable of developing life)
fl = 1 (100% of these planets will develop life)
fi = 0.01 (1% of which will be intelligent life)
fe = 0.01 (1% of which will be able to communicate)
L = 10,000 years (which will last 10,000 years)
N = 10 x 0.5 x 2 x 1 x 0.01 x 0.01 x 10,000 = 10

So, according to Drake's formula, there are ten civilisations in our galaxy (forgetting all other galaxies) that we might communicate with. Star Trek would call them "M-Class" planets. That was fun wasn't it?

Is there anyone out there? I've personally no experience of this. Are Governments across the world capable of cover-ups if some had been in touch? Of course they are.

Do I believe that we are not alone in the universe? Well, I want to believe. The universe is too huge for me to accept that we are all alone in this vastness.

I agree with Curtis Silver, who concluded an article last year with these words. "Of course, in the end, there's no way to really tell at this point whether or not we are truly alone. I think it's a bit arrogant to think that we are that special to be the only form of intelligent life in the universe, but hey, until we're shown otherwise (ie when the invasion starts) why not be selfish?" It's fun looking at the subject, isn't it? And as the X-Files says,

"The Truth is out There".

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Blog Awards 2011

I'm fascinated by the whole blogosphere. According to the blog monitoring website Blogpulse, there are as at today's date (the site keeps a running, live-time total) a total of 170,836,331 identified blogs in the world. That is some source of traffic available across the world.

What amazes me is how something like my wee, unpretentious blog gets viewed throughout the world. Search engines of course allow someone to stumble across a particular blog, and quickly realise it's not what they're looking for. But hey, it's still called a page view, and I won't mock any avenue that adds to blog statistics. I'll come back to these in a moment, as they pale into insignificance alongside those blogs that have just been featured in the 2011 Blogs of the Year Awards, and it may be worth pointing out (for what reason?) what these were.

The Total Politics website runs these awards every year, and the votes are cast by readers of the website. Now you may, or may not be interested in awards; I'm not particularly so, but then I never win anything. If I did, I might shamelessly glory in the fact, and place the award as a banner headline on my site. Yes I have no shame.

There are a host of blogs, blogging and bloggers awards sites, so if you fail in one, try another. Mind you, doing this makes you come over as very sad. I'll stick to the Total Politics awards, and give you an insight as to what's 'in' this year.

There is a long list of categories, the winners of some of them have yet to be announced. As for blogs, the list is, in no particular order; top green blogs; top non-aligned blogs; top media blogs; top left wing blogs; top right wing blogs; top Welsh blogs, top Scottish blogs, top Northern Irish blogs; top Libertarian blogs, top Labour blogs; top Lib Dem blogs; top Conservative blogs; top Councillor blogs; top MP blogs, and top group blogs. I would have liked to have seen, "Top talking about nothing in particular blogs", or "Top talking about everything in general blogs", but you will have to look elsewhere for these.

Let me give you the top 5 placings in five of the main categories that have been announced. You can get the full lists by clicking on the Total Politics link above. The numbers in parenthesis indicate last year's placing.

Top Green Blogs
  1. (2) Bright Green Scotland
  2. (5) Another Green World
  3. (-) Viridis Lumen
  4. (8) Rupert's Read
  5. (-) Suitably Despairing
Top Media Blogs
  1. (1) Spectator Coffee House
  2. (2) Paul Waugh
  3. (-) The Staggers
  4. (18) Bagehot
  5. (5) James Delingpole
Top Non-Aligned Blogs
  1. (2) Political Betting
  2. (-) Dale and Company
  3. (1) Paul Waugh
  4. (3) FT Westminster
  5. (5) UK Polling Report
Top Right Wing Blogs
  1. (1) Order Order
  2. (3) Conservative Home
  3. (4) Spectator Coffee House
  4. (26) Archbishop Cranmer
  5. (81) Crash Bang Wallce
Top Left Wing Blogs
  1. (1) Left Foot Forward
  2. (8) Political Scrapbook
  3. (5) Liberal Conspiracy
  4. (11) The Staggers
  5. (2) Labour List
These, and millions like them are specialist blogs that focus on particular subject matters. Many other people use their blogs as diaries, while still others are like mine; a misellony of subject matter, where you don't know what the next blog is going to be like. There is a benefit in, and a place for all types of blogs, and with over 170 million of them, that's surely what we have.

All of the blogs mentioned above have a huge readership, that many of us can only dream about. However, it is surprising how many page views a small blog like mine can get. I'm not interested in comparing my blog with anyone else's, as that's a bit fatuous. I'm just pleasantly pleased for myself to look at the statistical page on my blog site (given that I'm reading it in the correct way).

Since I started the blog, I have created 121 posts, and these have generated 5,553 pageviews. I've had 21 views today (up to the time of printing it out); 45 yesterday, and 720 last month. The most viewed post was "Hugh Laurie Sings the Blues" with 403 pageviews. I was also astounded to see the audience breakdown by country. These were, UK (2996); USA (893); Germany (206); India (100); Singapore (87); Canada (80); Australia (70); France (66); Spain (46), and Ireland (28). As I've said, I don't want to compare with your numbers, and if they're higher, well done. It just fills me with child-like delight, that a blog of random thoughts is read by anyone.

A sobering thought to finish with. When Total Politics were compiling their list of categories a few months ago, someone wrote in with this contribution. "Would suggest some sort of recognition of Twitter, as it is now an integral part of blogging coverage. That is, any decent blogger ought to have a good engagement with Twitter".

Now I don't use Twitter, I don't understand Twitter, and I have no desire to become a part of Twitter. If the writer is correct, then I have no chance of becoming a 'decent blogger', but in spite of that, it's a hell of a lot of fun isn't it?

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Memories are made of this

Remembering things can be wonderful. It can of course also be awful, but I'd like to think that for most of us, good memories out way the bad ones. The self-indulgent nature of blogs allows us to reflect on the past, and enjoy what we can remember without worrying whether anyone else feels the same way.

Today, I decided to walk into town along the canal, and while sitting on one of the strategically placed seats in the early afternoon sunshine, watching a beautiful narrow boat sail by, some thoughts flashed into my mind. Why this happened while viewing the narrow boat is difficult to fathom, as none of the memories have anything to do with boats. Let me share with you some of these unconnected memories.

In the late 1980's I was heading up a cross community charity in Belfast. Part of our funding came from partnership schemes with the Westminster Government (there was no Northern Ireland Assembly at that time), and I won't mention the department or minister involved, as I don't want anyone identified.

The Government minister made periodic visits to Belfast, and as our scheme was fairly high profile, and involved a fair bit of money, we would be on his schedule of visits. I always got on well with him, and found him friendly and approachable. So much so that I managed on one occasion to get an extra £100,000 out of him. We would always try, for publicity reasons, to get group photographs done at the end of his visits, as well as attending other events that had been arranged for him. While I was never a great lover of these occasions, it was something that had to be done to promote our profile. And if I was honest, they weren't too bad, and I would leave them thinking that all had gone well.

The day after one of these events, a female staff member asked to see me. She said, please don't ask me to attend any more events with that minister. Goodness me, why ever not? It turned out that during the photograph session, he kept touching her bum. She didn't want to make a complaint, and kept well away from him in the future. You just never know what people are like do you? Not much of a memory I know, but hey, everything can't be earth-shattering.

Cliff Richard
Still in Belfast, this memory is of something that never came about. My organisation had been built on Christian principles, but apart from senior positions, faith was not a requirement for employment.

I once had this idea for a great fundraising spectacle, and if I planned it a couple of years in advance, surely everything would fall into place - wouldn't it?

It was here that I learnt a lesson about the life and work of a 'celebrity'. I wanted to arrange an evening with Cliff Richard. He was ideal. He had strong Christian principles, and gave two months of every year to charitable and philanthropic work.

It was with high hopes that I wrote off to his Personal Assistant, and to be fair to him, I received a reply reasonably quickly. Cliff would be happy to consider my suggestion, but unfortunately he was booked up for the next seven years. My goodness, what a popular man. I was prepared to stretch the planning to perhaps three years ahead, but seven? That was too much, so I thanked them for their reply, saying that I may be in touch again at a later stage. I never was. So this was a memory of a failed attempt to lure a 'star' - something that was to happen a couple of more times in the following years. I guess that I'm just not destined to mix with stardom.

Spike Milligan
This memory relates to the greatest two minutes of my life. I spoke to Spike Milligan. Let me place this in context. I'd grown up with the Goons, revelled in his anarchic TV shows, read most of his books - I loved his humour, and he was my hero. I've probably quoted Terence Alan Patrick Sean "Spike" Milligan more than any other person.

He lived on the outskirts of Rye in East Sussex, just a dozen or so miles from where I worked. My organisation had put together a collection of poems from our clients, and knowing that Spike was interested in the plight of the poor, and appreciated off-the-wall poems, I decided to send him a copy for his interest.

I was sitting in my office one morning (actually it was a shared office, because the organisation was quite small at that time, with only four members of staff. There was space for three desks, so the last one in had to sit on the freezer which also shared the office), when the telephone rang. "Spike Milligan here". Now what would you think? My immediate thought was a hoax. Some bugger was playing a joke because of my known passion for the man. But no, it really was Spike Milligan.

I can remember his words to this day. "John, what do you expect me to do with this bloody book you've sent me?" In reply, I said that I had expected him to bin the book, as he probably got loads of stuff in the post every day, but the fact that he'd rung me showed that he hadn't done that. I said that I'd sent it to him because I thought that he would be interested in the artistic work of people who had suffered problems similar to himself, and who were living in the same neck of the woods. I was probably pushing it a bit, but he listened and asked a few questions, then the conversation was over. I was on cloud nine; in seventh heaven, and any other similar description you care to name for days. I'd spoken to Spike Milligan. It may have been only for two minutes, but I'd spoken to Spike Milligan. A few days later a donation arrived to be used for the clients. How I wish I'd taken a photocopy of that cheque.

Me - House of Lords
A few years ago, my Chairperson and I were invited by a national charity that we were particularly close with, to attend a function to promote their work at the House of Lords.

The picture opposite is of me trying to look intelligent as I spoke to one of his Lordships. I felt obliged to wear a suit; in fact I may have bought it for the occasion - I hate suits, as I feel so uncomfortable in them. I may have worn it once more since.

I'm not a supporter of hereditary peers, but there might be something of a closeted member of the higher echelon about me, as I found the opulence of the Lords to be intoxicating.

We made our way to London to the House of Lords, and after safely negotiating security, we found our way into a room for drinks. After about half an hour of socialising, it was time to move into the dining area. I'd often seen this from the south bank of the Thames, and now I was sitting in it. It was a large marquee on the balcony, with views overlooking the river, which when it got dark, was awesome. There were about 200 people in attendance, sitting at tables laid out for ten people. The food was high quality, and the seating plan had obviously been carefully arranged. I sat next to someone from the Fabian Society, and the conversation was exhilarating. High profile speakers addressed us, and the evening drew to a close. I loved every minute of it.

So there we are. A few personal, varied and unconnected memories. I've enjoyed remembering them.

Let me leave you with this clip from Spike Milligan, only because I can, and I want to.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Freedom of Speech

I want to put freedom of speech, or freedom of expression under the magnifying glass. The reason for doing so is that I believe that the majority of people hold it dear for themselves, but seem to have difficulty in allowing it to others who may hold a different viewpoint.

This came to a head with me when I received an anonymous email taking me to task on Marxist verses Capitalist comments I made in a previous blog here. The email was none to complimentary, and if I was honest, it was offensive. It was as if I had no right to hold such views, and certainly no right to express them.

This anonymous writer (who didn't have the decency, or the courage to put his/her name to it) had obviously no concept of what free speech meant. They probably hold the view that they have the right to express their position, but I didn't have the right to express mine.

You see the same thing expressed on a daily basis in Internet newspapers and blogs sites. The level of venom displayed against a writer's contribution is frightening. Politics, religion and immigration seem to bring out the worst in people. Having another viewpoint is anathema, and instead of reasoned debate, there is vitriol. Some of the so-called Christian comments about those speaking on subjects such as abortion and homosexuality are nothing short of hateful. Freedom of speech and expression is more than a nice statement to have on the statute books, it needs to be understood, and followed in practice.

Basic human rights have long been enshrined in legal declarations. The Magna Carta of 1215 was a document for its time. It was a practical solution to a political crisis, which basically aimed to limit despotic behaviour by the king. The fact that only 3 of its original 63 clauses are still valid today does not devalue the iconic nature of the Great Charter. In fact, the most treasured clause still in force today concerns criminal justice. "No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, nor will we proceed with force against him, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice".

Equally, the right to free speech is recognised in many countries. The English 'Bill of Rights' 1689 granted "freedom of speech in Parliament", which was a huge step forward at the time. During the French revolution of 1789, the 'Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen' was adopted, with Article 11 stating, "The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law". The 'United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights' in Article 19 says, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers". To these you can add, Article 19 of the 'International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights'; Article 10 of the 'European Convention on Human Rights'; Article 13 of the 'American Convention on Human Rights', and Article 9 of the 'African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights'.

The Education (No 2) Act 1986, Chapter 61, Part IV, Section 43 on Freedom of speech in universities, polytechnics and colleges, says, "Every individual and body of persons in the government of any establishment to which the section applies shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers".

John Milton 1608 - 1674
I find it interesting to note how many of these Charters guaranteeing freedom of speech are based on the work of the 17th Century John Milton.

Milton is perhaps best known as a poet, particularly through his magnificent religious epic, 'Paradise Lost'. What is less known is the political side of his life. He was a civil servant to Oliver Cromwell during the Commonwealth Period from 1649 (from near the end of the English Civil War), until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

In Andrew Puddephatt's 2005 book, "Freedom of Expression. The essentials of Human Rights", he shows that Milton's arguments have been taken up by others, and reveals that freedom of speech is a multi-faceted right, that includes three distinct aspects.
  1. The right to seek information and ideas
  2. The right to receive information and ideas
  3. The right to impart information and ideas
So the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas is enshrined in human rights legislation. Let that be clearly noted by those one-sided proponents of free speech. It's not just for you, it's for everyone.

However, it needs to be noticed that free speech is not without its limitations; free speech does not guarantee a free for all. There are limitations set in every country that promotes free speech, and in the UK, freedom of expression is subject to common law. Wikipedia lists the following where free speech does not apply in the UK. "Incitement, incitement to racial hatred, incitement to religious hatred, incitement to terrorism, including encouragement of terrorism and dissemination of terrorist publications, glorifying terrorism, collection or possession of information likely to be of use to a terrorist, threatening, abusive or insulting speech or behaviour, treason, including imagining the death of the monarch, sedition, obscenity, indecency including corruption of public morals and outraging public decency, defamation". The list goes on, which you can follow by clicking on the link above.

While exceptions to free speech, such as 'corruption of public moral' and 'outraging public decency' are open to interpretations, I don't have too many problems with these free speech limitations. I don't wish to insult or offend anyone, and I will listen to anyone's point of view, however much I may disagree with it. In return, I want the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas for myself, without having to run a gauntlet of hate and vitriol - that's not too much to ask for is it?

Two years ago, Philip Johnston in the Daily Telegraph wrote, "Whatever happened to free speech? Britain was once renowned around the world for defending people's rights to speak out. Not any more". What brought him to say this?  It was two events that were twenty years apart. The day before he wrote the article, the Labour Government had refused permission for the Dutch MP Geert Wilders (well known for his criticism of Islam) to enter the country,  saying that he would be "a threat to one of the fundamental interests of society". The ban was in fact overturned on appeal, and he was allowed in about ten months later. However, Johnston didn't know that at the time, and saw the Government as caving in to the threats of public unrest from one section of the community.

He contrasted this with the treatment of Salman Rushdie in 2007, when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of Rushdie for insulting the Prophet Mohammed in his book The Satanic Verses. The Government supported the right of Rushdie's free speech, and broke off diplomatic relations with Iran. Rushdie was supported in free speech, but Wilders was not. This was why Johnston saw the latter's treatment as "a pusillanimous flight into cowering capitulation", and brought him to ask, "Whatever happened to free speech?".

It's irrelevant whether you agree with the views of Rushdie or Wilders, as it is irrelevant whether you agree  with my views on religion or politics, or anything else come to that. What is relevant is that we are free to express our views within the law of the land. Otherwise, as George Washington said, "If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter". Let me leave you with a few other quotes.

"Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself" - Salman Rushdie

"Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties" - John Milton

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" - Voltaire

Friday, 9 September 2011

The Strength of a Woman

Now, I'm going to be upfront with you. I really haven't a clue what I'm talking about. "Nothing new there then", I hear some of you say. Listen, be kind, I'm trying my best.

My eldest Son posted a blog here, "Tails of the Unexpected", where he recounted a conversation he'd had with his Mother. This set my mind thinking about the differences between men and women, and in particular the strengths of a woman.

I acknowledge the generalisations of what I will be saying, and that perhaps it is more personal experiences that are being used to prove a case, but I think that there is strong evidence from around the world to back up my claims. You will soon find that this is not a deep piece of work, for I wish to simply contend that women are better with long term memories, collecting important family information and keeping things going. And I for one am very thankful for that.

Women are generally better with long-term memory. My short-term memory is not too bad. I don't generally forget things that are important now. However, my long-term memory is another thing.

In the conversation referred to at the beginning, my Son's Mother recounted minute details of my Son's reading habits over 35 years ago. This is one of many examples of her detailed memory. She is not alone in this.

I, on the other hand struggle to remember some of these events, not through lack of interest or love for my family, but through the working of the brain. In my pathetic defence, I blame the workings of my 'hippocampus'. I'll bet you haven't often heard that as an excuse before.

Let me explain. An Internet article on the working of the brain says, "Information is transferred from short-term memory to long-term memory through the hippocampus, so named because the shape resembles the curved tail of a seahorse (hippokampos in Greek). The hippocampus is a very old part of the cortex, evolutionarily, and is located in the inner fold of the temporal lobe. All of the pieces of information decoded in the various sensory areas of the cortex converge in the hippocampus, which then sends them back where they came from. The hippocampus is a bit like a sorting centre where these new sensations are compared with previously recorded ones".

To me, there is a difference between memory, "The mental faculty of retaining and recalling past experience", and memorisation, "Learning so as to be able to remember verbatim". I've generally had little problem with the latter, being able to memorise speeches, quotations, facts and figures etc. But recalling past experiences, names, events, dates etc is another thing. Thankfully, women that I have known have been so much better with memory. For many years I used to visit men and women in their homes, hospitals or institutions, and without doubt, the women could generally remember long-term events better than the men. In my family, it's the women who have kept the details of family history alive, and I'm so grateful to them for that.

Another area that I think that women are better at is in collecting things. I don't mean porcelain, pictures or pitchers. I mean collecting and retaining family documents, information and photographs. Left to me, I would have nothing, and so much important stuff would be lost. Again, this is not through lack of interest, but my brain just doesn't function in this way - I don't think. Collecting is linked with memory, for it can help us to remember and relive the past. Terry Shoptaugh of Minnesota State University, wrote an article entitled, "Why do we like old things? Some Ruminations on History and Memory". In the article he offers the idea that collecting is based on a need to inspire recollection, in that people collect in an effort to remember and relive the past. "We use keepsakes to stimulate memory, especially to trigger fond memories, but even if memory cannot be relied upon to faithfully reproduce a record of the past, it remains vital to our understanding of the past".

My Son says that his Mother keeps a file on all three boys, which is the continuing story of their lives, and goes back a number of years. What a fabulous record this will be. Important features of family life are recorded for posterity. Social historians long to find family treasures brought together like this, and no doubt at some time in the future, something like this may well find itself in a library archive. When I was clearing out my Mother's house a few years ago, it was amazing to find so much family stuff that she had collected over fifty years. There were newspaper cuttings, pictures of, and notes from, her grandchildren, and going back even further, things that I'd forgotten about, relating to me.

There was the newspaper report detailing the exam successes from my school in 1963, with my name and results highlighted. My 13 Denbighshire Certificates of Education (gardening was one of them) never have been of any use to me, but I was so pleased to see the cutting. There was also a collection of correspondence from the mid 1960's with the Football Association of Wales (thought I'd just drop that in), when I played for, and ran a youth football team in my home village. Most of this I'd forgotten about, but it was such a joy to see it. I'm so glad that my Mother was not like me, and that she was such a collector of family things.

I'm now trying to put together the story of my Mother and Father, and I've relied heavily on the memories of my Sister (there you are, women again). It's coming together nicely, with family lines, photographs, certificates, and anecdotal stories. Some of it wouldn't have been possible without the memories and collectibles of women. Haven't a clue what I'll do with it if it ever gets finished.

The final thing that I think women are better than men at is keeping things going. I think it boils down to resourcefulness, determination and patience.

As an example, let me take you back a lot of years. I was brought up in the Church, and it became my life. I started preaching at the age of 15 (I'm now 64 - nearly), and used to go around a number of village Churches in the Wrexham area. When I became a Minister, I would also visit mostly rural Churches in Suffolk, and later in Northern Ireland.

Many of these Churches were quite small and struggling - my smallest ever congregation was 3 (as an aside, my smallest funeral was in Belfast where there was the deceased, me and the undertaker - pointless to mention that of course, but there you are). In the three areas I've mentioned, there was a common theme, "Prayer meetings were started by men, but kept going by women". In my experience this was undoubtedly true, and more Churches would have disappeared sooner, if it had not been for the work of the women. This was actually quite funny when you think that theologically, most of these Churches would have been fundamentally opposed to the leadership role of women, but they would have been nowhere without them.

As usual, I seem to have meandered my way through the subject valley, but my contention remains, that women are generally better than men in the three areas mentioned. What do you think?

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Success! But what about the failure?

Council House, Nottingham
There's a large banner strung across the front of the Council House in Nottingham, which in case you can't read the picture says, "Congratulations to all pupils, teachers, schools, governors, parents and carers on Nottingham's best ever SAT's, GCSE and A-Level exam results". Of course, we all agree with that.
The banner exemplifies the pride in the city, that has also been shown in the local press and television. But while rejoicing with those who have achieved what they wanted to achieve, is anyone sparing a thought for those who have failed their exams, and are wondering what the future holds? Now I've never liked the word 'fail', preferring to use 'set back' instead. Some will feel that this is mere semantics, and they may well be right, but certain words do come with connotations. The word 'fail' gives an impression of negativity and finality, while 'set back' says, 'you've taken a knock, but there's hope'.

I failed my 11-plus, which was devastating at the time, and I remember a fellow class mate who also failed, being so distraught, that he locked himself in the school toilets, and wouldn't come out for hours. A few words of public commiserations for those who have failed would not go amiss. There will be many feeling like my class mate, and wondering what now? I could talk about failing at SAT's or GCSE, but I'm particularly thinking of those who sat A-Levels.

For years there has been this insane drive to encourage more and more people to attend University. It has been akin to the insane drive for home ownership over the last thirty years, and the subsequent sale of council houses, leaving nothing but the vagaries of the private housing sector for those in need. (Get back on track John). Some will have sat A-Levels and got nothing; others will have sat them and not achieved high enough grades. Both will feel that the door to University is closed to them. They have failed. If society sees success as getting to University, and not getting there as failure, then society has a lot to answer for in the destruction of dreams, and the blighting of lives.

I never went to University, and there does seem to be an awful lot of them. There has to be huge differences in what they provide, and the quality of the degree that students come away with.

All I know is that getting a degree is no guarantee of a chosen career in the future. Graduates are stacking supermarket shelves or serving in fast food outlets. Those that come out of University with a degree in subjects that matter to employers probably fare a little better.

So to those who haven't succeeded in their A-Levels to allow them to go to University, there is still a life of hope. They may be made to feel second class because of all the hype, but there are opportunities to explore that may bring greater future rewards. I have to question also the sense of incurring huge debt - which will be even bigger next year - to get a degree that may well be next to worthless in enabling graduates to get a career. By the way, this is not an anti-university rant, as I'm very well aware of the benefits attached to certain University studies. I just want to show that getting to University is not the be-all and end-all of everything, and that not getting there is not the end of everything.

There are many fine Occupational courses at local colleges that provide a decent education and qualification at the end of it. I've known a number of people over the years who have gone down this route, and ended up with better paid jobs than their graduate counterparts. Apprenticeships are all the rage again, and the benefit is that you get paid while you are learning a profession. Though there is no guarantee of permanent work even if you go down these routes, they at least give hope. The ones I really feel sorry for are those living under parental expectation. There's a long tradition of University education in the family, and you're the only one to 'fail'. Unfortunately there are some horror stories of children being made to feel like 'black sheep', but everyone isn't the same. Some are perfectly intelligent, but are happiest working with their hands. The country would be in a poor condition if there weren't people like this, and this isn't failure.

Around the city centre there are these banners advertising a jobs fair on the 22nd September. I'm all for promoting job vacancies in every way possible.

The banners say that there are 100's of jobs available, but unfortunately there are 1000's of people looking for them. So employers will have choice, which is great for them, but this cherry-picking will leave far too many disappointed and still without work.

In a capitalist society, that's how it will always be.  But there are chances out there for those with determination; who can show that they have something to offer. Not getting exam results is not the end; it may just mean a rethink, that could just turn out for the best.

Yes, I know that I'm putting a positive spin on this, but that's what those who've been told they've failed need. I'm really pleased for those who've got what they wanted, but my thoughts are with the rest. There is much written about education, and I leave you to ponder the words of Oscar Wilde,

"Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught".

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Response to Students Boycotting Israel

This letter was posted on Archbishop Cranmer's blog, and I agree it should be circulated widely. I have posted it so that people can start using their brains.

A non-Jewish Scottish professor responds to his Israel-boycotting students

Scotland is known to have a slight problem with sectarianism, but the focus is invariably on Celtic-Rangers spats with the occasional demand to outlaw the singing of the Hokey-Cokey. Meanwhile, Scottish councils and universities pass their anti-Semitic motions with impunity.

The following letter was written to the Edinburgh University Student Association following their vote to boycott Israel and all Israeli goods because it is an 'apartheid regime'. Dr Denis MacEoin (a non-Jew) is an expert in Middle Eastern affairs. He is senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly, and runs his own blog 'A Liberal Defence of Israel'. This letter merits dissemination far and wide, and certainly to every university in the country.
The Committee
Edinburgh University Student Association

May I be permitted to say a few words to members of the EUSA? I am an Edinburgh graduate (MA 1975) who studied Persian, Arabic and Islamic History in Buccleuch Place under William Montgomery Watt and Laurence Elwell Sutton, two of Britain’s great Middle East experts in their day. I later went on to do a PhD at Cambridge and to teach Arabic and Islamic Studies at Newcastle University. Naturally, I am the author of several books and hundreds of articles in this field.

I say all that to show that I am well informed in Middle Eastern affairs and that, for that reason, I am shocked and disheartened by the EUSA motion and vote. I am shocked for a simple reason: there is not and has never been a system of apartheid in Israel. That is not my opinion, that is fact that can be tested against reality by any Edinburgh student, should he or she choose to visit Israel to see for themselves.

Let me spell this out, since I have the impression that those members of EUSA who voted for this motion are absolutely clueless in matters concerning Israel, and that they are, in all likelihood, the victims of extremely biased propaganda coming from the anti-Israel lobby. Being anti-Israel is not in itself objectionable. But I’m not talking about ordinary criticism of Israel. I’m speaking of a hatred that permits itself no boundaries in the lies and myths it pours out. Thus, Israel is repeatedly referred to as a ‘Nazi’ state. In what sense is this true, even as a metaphor? Where are the Israeli concentration camps? The einzatsgruppen? The SS? The Nüremberg Laws? The Final Solution? None of these things nor anything remotely resembling them exists in Israel, precisely because the Jews, more than anyone on earth, understand what Nazism stood for. It is claimed that there has been an Israeli Holocaust in Gaza (or elsewhere). Where? When? No honest historian would treat that claim with anything but the contempt it deserves. But calling Jews Nazis and saying they have committed a Holocaust is as basic a way to subvert historical fact as anything I can think of.

Likewise apartheid. For apartheid to exist, there would have to be a situation that closely resembled things in South Africa under the apartheid regime. Unfortunately for those who believe this, a weekend in any part of Israel would be enough to show how ridiculous the claim is. That a body of university students actually fell for this and voted on it is a sad comment on the state of modern education. The most obvious focus for apartheid would be the country’s 20% Arab population. Under Israeli law, Arab Israelis have exactly the same rights as Jews or anyone else; Muslims have the same rights as Jews or Christians; Baha’is, severely persecuted in Iran, flourish in Israel, where they have their world centre; Ahmadi Muslims, severely persecuted in Pakistan and elsewhere, are kept safe by Israel; the holy places of all religions are protected under a specific Israeli law. Arabs form 20% of the university population (an exact echo of their percentage in the general population). In Iran, the Baha’is (the largest religious minority) are forbidden to study in any university or to run their own universities: why aren’t your members boycotting Iran?

Arabs in Israel can go anywhere they want, unlike blacks in apartheid South Africa. They use public transport, they eat in restaurants, they go to swimming pools, they use libraries, they go to cinemas alongside Jews – something no blacks could do in South Africa. Israeli hospitals not only treat Jews and Arabs, they also treat Palestinians from Gaza or the West Bank. On the same wards, in the same operating theatres.

In Israel, women have the same rights as men: there is no gender apartheid. Gay men and women face no restrictions, and Palestinian gays often escape into Israel, knowing they may be killed at home. It seems bizarre to me that LGBT groups call for a boycott of Israel and say nothing about countries like Iran, where gay men are hanged or stoned to death. That illustrates a mindset that beggars belief. Intelligent students thinking it’s better to be silent about regimes that kill gay people, but good to condemn the only country in the Middle East that rescues and protects gay people. Is that supposed to be a sick joke?

University is supposed to be about learning to use your brain, to think rationally, to examine evidence, to reach conclusions based on solid evidence, to compare sources, to weigh up one view against one or more others. If the best Edinburgh can now produce are students who have no idea how to do any of these things, then the future is bleak. I do not object to well documented criticism of Israel. I do object when supposedly intelligent people single the Jewish state out above states that are horrific in their treatment of their populations. We are going through the biggest upheaval in the Middle East since the 7th and 8th centuries, and it’s clear that Arabs and Iranians are rebelling against terrifying regimes that fight back by killing their own citizens. Israeli citizens, Jews and Arabs alike, do not rebel (though they are free to protest). Yet Edinburgh students mount no demonstrations and call for no boycotts against Libya, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Iran. They prefer to make false accusations against one of the world’s freest countries, the only country in the Middle East that has taken in Darfur refugees, the only country in the Middle East that gives refuge to gay men and women, the only country in the Middle East that protects the Baha’is... Need I go on? The imbalance is perceptible, and it sheds no credit on anyone who voted for this boycott.

I ask you to show some common sense. Get information from the Israeli embassy. Ask for some speakers. Listen to more than one side. Do not make your minds up until you have given a fair hearing to both parties. You have a duty to your students, and that is to protect them from one-sided argument. They are not at university to be propagandized. And they are certainly not there to be tricked into anti-Semitism by punishing one country among all the countries of the world, which happens to be the only Jewish state. If there had been a single Jewish state in the 1930s (which, sadly, there was not), don’t you think Adolf Hitler would have decided to boycott it? Of course he would, and he would not have stopped there. Your generation has a duty to ensure that the perennial racism of anti-Semitism never sets down roots among you. Today, however, there are clear signs that it has done so and is putting down more. You have a chance to avert a very great evil, simply by using reason and a sense of fair play. Please tell me that this makes sense to you. I have given you some of the evidence. It’s up to you to find out more.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Denis MacEoin

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Beauty and the Beast

Beauty - Heron at Arboretum Pond
I was standing by the railings of the Arboretum pond in Nottingham watching the Mallards do very little - yes my life really is as exciting as that, when a thing of beauty happened, which really is a joy for ever.

A Heron gracefully flew in and landed on the central island. This was the first time I'd seen one in the park and it stayed around for over an hour.

It really was a thing of beauty. The Heron belongs to the Ardeidae family, and there are 64 recognised species in this family.

I have no idea which species is in my photograph, except that it seems to be very common in many parts of the country. I was captivated by it, and probably spent far too long watching it walk around the island, as well as slowly walking in the shallow waters of the pond. I guess that its rarity in the pond makes it more interesting and exciting. It really was beauty in the park.

Beast - Bottle in the Arboretum
If only it could have stayed like that. I took this picture as a symbol of the couldn't care less attitude exhibited by many human beings.

Most of the park looked beautiful, with the sun showing up the changing colour of the leaves on the trees, and the laid out flowered areas in full bloom.

However, look at various grassy areas and you could see discarded bottles, cans, plastic bags and a polystyrene chip plate. All of these were in a few yards of one of the many rubbish bins that are in the park.

Some will blame the park authorities for not clearing up the rubbish quickly enough, but I won't, as it was people who made the mess, and my ire is directed firmly at them, for causing a blot on the landscape. I was talking with someone who agreed that rubbish was terrible, and that people were so thoughtless. I disagreed: I preferred to say that people were disrespectful. In what way?
  • It is disrespectful of park regulations which says that there should be no glass bottles, and that people should dispose of any litter in the bins provided
  • It is disrespectful of other park users who come to enjoy the beauty and peace of the place
  • It is disrespectful of the safety of young children who are brought to the park by their parents, and who are inquisitive of things lying around
  • It is disrespectful of the dangers to wildlife in the park
  • It is disrespectful of the risk to everyone who walks through the park
Now I'm no eco-warrior, but I do try and take seriously environmental matters, as I do believe that we are custodians of this planet. Every one of us has a part to play, and leaving rubbish around for someone else to pick up is being disrespectful of the planet. I was taken aback at how angry I was, as we see rubbish everywhere, but I love that park, and to see parts of it blighted in this way was shocking.

The Heron and the beer bottle showed the Beauty and the Beast today. I know what I'd prefer to see.

Nottingham Arboretum

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Titus Oates - in a league of his own

Titus Oates lived here, The Bourne, Hastings
For twenty years before moving to Nottingham, I lived in Hastings in East Sussex. During that time, I passed this house in Hasting's Old Town on many occasions. There's an old wooden plaque on the wall which says, "Titus Oates lived here. Baptised in All Saints Church 1649".

However, Titus Oates is not a person to be proud of. Jane Lane, in her wonderful 1949 book on the life of Titus Oates begins with these words, "The England of 1649 suffered two national tragedies: the execution of Charles 1, and the birth of Titus Oates". In a poll by the BBC History Magazine in 2005, which asked people to nominate their entry for the 'Ten Worst Britains' in history, the name of Titus Oates was nominated by John Adamson of Peterhouse College, Cambridge, who said, "Oates was in a league of his own in the depths of his vileness". So who is this man Oates, and what had he done to bring down such scorn upon his head?
Baptism by Total Immersion

To understand Titus, I think that you have to understand something of his Father. Samuel Oates was a man who didn't seem to take religious denominational allegiance very seriously. After leaving Cambridge with a degree, he became a minister in the Established Church. He then became an Anabaptist preacher, and during the civil war of the early 1640's he was a Chaplain in the New Model Army that Parliament had decided to form, which had General Thomas Fairfax as its Commander in Chief, and Oliver Cromwell in charge of the cavalry.

Anabaptist means 're-baptiser', and their belief centred on the baptism of believers as adults. Anabaptism (followers were often known as dippers) emerged during the Protestant Reformation, which began around 1517, when Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenburg Church in Germany. Luther's views on the Church followed those of the 14th Century John Wickliffe and his Lollard followers, but were much more developed and successful. Anabaptists believed that all institutions were by their nature corrupt, and this gave them the right to disobey laws imposed by governments. Because of these views, they were seen as a threat, and suffered great persecution in many parts of Europe.

Puritan records from the 17th Century give some damning reports of Samuel Oates as an Anabaptist preacher. "He roamed the county of Essex, taking advantage of young women, who would sneak out of their houses at night to be 'dipped' in the nearest river or pond, naked". There are several accounts that say some of these women were made pregnant by Samuel Oates. He would charge a fee to these women; the rich would pay more than the poor, but all would pay. By 1660, Samuel was back in the Established Church, and from then to 1674 he was Rector of All Saints Church in Hastings. This flirtation with denomination life for his own gain was passed on to his son.

Titus Oates, National Portrait Gallery
Samuel had little affection for his son, who by all accounts was not an attractive child, or a clever one. Was Titus' subsequent life a result of nurture or nature? Whatever the answer, his life was a catalogue of lies and expulsions.

Titus was born on the 15th September 1649 in Oakham, Rutland. His school life was a catastrophe. He attended Merchant Taylors School in London, but was expelled in 1665, and went to a school in Sedlescombe, near Hastings, with no better result. Somehow he managed to get into Caius College, Cambridge, and later St John's, but was 'sent down' without a degree because of dishonestly trying to get a coat, among other things. Not having a degree was no problem to him, as he just pretended that he had one.

Miraculously, for one so consistently described as a dunce, and with a reputation for dishonesty "he slipped into holy orders", and became Minister of an Established Church in Bobbing, Kent in 1673. He was expelled from this living for dishonesty, and went to act as Curate to his Father in All Saints Church, Hastings in 1674. Titus really wanted the position of school master in Hastings, which was held by one, William Parker. Titus and Samuel brought a trumped up charge of buggery against William Parker to get him ejected from the school. The charge was so evidently false that Samuel was ejected from his living in the Church, and Titus was charged with perjury, and sent to prison in Dover to await trial. From there he escaped and went to London, and gained appointment as Chaplain on board a king's ship. This lasted twelve months before he was expelled from the Navy for being caught committing buggery with a sailor. This was a capital offence at the time, but he escaped death because he was a "man of the cloth". Titus may have been a dunce to all of his tutors, but he had a remarkable way of getting jobs, even if he kept getting expelled from them. After the Navy, Titus bluffed his way into becoming Chaplain to the Earl of Norwich. He was expelled from this after a few months for being "generally unsuitable and constantly inebriated".

After this latest expulsion, he converted to Catholicism, because he hoped the Catholics might feed and clothe him. He was accepted into the Catholic Church in March 1677. Later, he met Father Richard Strange, head of the English Jesuits, and many believe that they became lovers. Father Strange arranged for Titus to study with the Jesuits at Valladolid in Spain under the pseudonym Titus Ambrosius. Guess what? He was expelled when they realised that he had no grasp whatsoever of Latin. Strange helped him enroll in another Jesuit seminary in France under another false name: Samson Lucy. One writer describes his stay like this. "here, his engaging personal habits - drinking, smoking, swearing and lying - made him so unpopular that a fellow seminarian attacked him with a frying pan". He was expelled, and returned to London. His attraction with Catholicism was over. Now all he wanted was revenge on the Roman Church that had so snubbed him, and the Jesuits in particular.

The Popish Plot
It may have taken a long time for me to get here, but we're at the point of Titus' story that has made him so reviled - the Popish Plot.

Titus met up with an elderly friend of his Father's, Israel Tonge, who hated Jesuits with a passion. Together in 1678, the two men wrote a lengthy manuscript accusing the Roman Catholic Church of plotting to kill King Charles 11, and replace him with his Roman Catholic brother, James. They claimed that when that happened, Protestants would be massacred in their thousands. This caused public panic, and made Catholics even more unpopular than they already were.

Titus was interrogated by the King's Council, during which he made 43 allegations against various members of the Catholic orders, including 541 Jesuits; this later grew to 81 allegations. He also made allegations against people in high positions, such as the Queen's physician; secretary to the Duchess of York; the Archbishop of Dublin; Samuel Pepys and a few months later he accused the Queen of working with the King's physician to poison him. Though reaction to the allegations was far from plain sailing, Oates was given a squad of soldiers and he began to round up Jesuits. All told, around 80 were arrested, and accused of taking part in the plot. In all, about 15 were executed (some say 35), including the last high profile victim, Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh, who was executed on the 1st July 1681.

Oates in the Pillory
The tide was now turning against Oates, and people were beginning to realise that the 'Popish Plot' was nothing but a bunch of lies, that brought public panic, and the death of innocent men.

When the Catholic James 11 became King in 1685, he had Titus Oates tried before Judge Jeffreys, who described him as a "shame to mankind", and was found guilty of perjury. The punishment was extreme and brutal. He was to be pilloried, whipped and imprisoned for life. James also stated that once a year, Oates was to be brought out of prison, pilloried and severely whipped, and sent back to prison.

This lasted for three years, before James was replaced by the protestant William of Orange in 1688, who pardoned Oates, and granted him a pension of £5 a week. The treatment of Oates eventually brought a change in the law, which dealt with brutal and inhumane treatment of prisoners.

After being freed from prison, Oates became a spy for the King, got married and somehow became a Baptist minister. He was again disliked, so much so that one member of his congregation barred him from attending her funeral. On the day, Oates' response was to occupy the pulpit and preach a long, irrelevant sermon which caused a riot in the Church. He was yet again thrown out of his job by his own congregation. His last appearance in court was in 1702 when he was fined at Westminster for hitting a woman over the head with his walking stick. "He spent his last years in obscurity writing religious tracts that nobody read and haunting the Westminster law courts as a spectator". Titus Oates died in 1705.

Very few would disagree with John Adamson, that "Oates was in a league of his own in the depths of his vileness". Another historian gave this damning verdict, which none of us would like to be said of ourselves. "If Titus Oates had any redeeming features, history does not record them". I'd like to think that there are many lessons to be learnt from the failings of this man.