Monday, 21 July 2014

Sanctuary Artspace presents: Maya Horton Silent Seas

Running from the 21st to the 31st of July, at St-Edmunds church in Gateshead, Sanctuary Artspace presents a retrospective of works by local artist Maya Horton.

Maya is a trained marine biologist who's work has taken her to far flung places in the northernmost reaches of the planet. From as close to home as South Shields to the wintry vistas of the frozen tundra, when free time presented itself, Maya recorded the special way water and sky combine at sea. She has captured in particular, the strong blues that only ever occur this close to the top of the world. Combined with the variety of weather and the eternal dusk of her paintings, you cannot help be transported to these wild isolated places.

The gallery is open from noon to 4 pm most days and is right across from the Trinity Square shopping Centre. To close the show on the 31st, from 7 pm to 9pm there will be a special story telling evening starring the Moss Troopers. In the setting of an 800 year old church, hear northern culture come to life.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Sanctuary Artspace presents: The selfie as mirror of the soul

Gateshead's Sanctuary Artspace, known for it's many and varied exhibits in the past,  has for  this week only, an interactive display art event they hope to move into a more permanent viral format . When asked if this was an one off, Rev Jim Craig said he hoped an online version of this could be set up  and maintained so that more people could participate.

The "how do you see your #selfie " exhibition opened on Monday with over 100 hand drawn selfies, each as unique as the person who drew it.

Ranging from small children to adults and crossing the wide gulf that is perceived artistic talent, the selfies reveal a range of ambitions, emotions and self image. In amongst the many tiny images, I found inspirational combinations of words and images that alone or in juxtaposition to other images revealed a healthy, spiritual and hopeful community. If we as people could find a way to wear our hopes, dreams and desires as clearly as this display does, we might realize that in a very real way that no man is an Island, we are not alone in a sea of utter gloom, nor are the aspirations and connections around us as uniform as we think they are. 

In my own selfie I drew a man who is among the views and vistas he loves, but the instrument I view them with and share with the rest of the world... my camera... was bold, clear, distinct. The camera is revealed as my face to the world, my images,  how I  hope to be seen.  While I was saying don't look at me, look at my work, others were in your face and bold about themselves rather than what they do.

Rev. Jim Craig

The creators of this event, Sanctuary Artspace director Rev Jim Craig and his visiting trainee Vicar Kate Jamie,  were also looking for signs of spirituality and faith. In the art works  we see a variety of  self belief, reliance on faith for guidance and the flame of those who hope that they are in fact good examples to those around them. If there is a word that comes to mind that links both the timid and the bold in these spiritual selfies, it is hope.  Hope that we are the best we can be in the eyes of others, hope that others see us as we are ourselves and hope that what it is we are, is of some use to others.

Is this public made installation, art? Are the various  bits of art meant to be seen solely as unique expressions of individuality and nothing more? I like to see it as the DNA of  those  moved  to lift part of their mask joining up into a single bright lamp.  Be like them, show your soul, be inspired by others.

Cut out the flame , fill it in, add it to the others.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Dear Labour party: Time to engage in a fact based dialogue

Dear Labour party and Ed, it occurred to me a while ago while watching the news on Al Jazeera and Euro news in several languages, that we are not alone in facing a similar onslaught of far right lies and conservative trickle down theology that is held up by a barely believable but well financed media campaign that has pulled the wool over the eyes of even some of the smartest people I know, some of them even in the front benches of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition. Isn't it time we stopped "taking on board the concerns of the people" and started maybe putting out the case for the vision of the future under Labour?

I have no problem with reactionary politics if it means

1- We de-construct the myths from the truths in any public policy debate.

2- Show people the genuine consequences of some of the other parties policies if they are elected for the one popular policy or slogan they have.

3- Insure that who ever is being the straw man of the day is rescued before it becomes not only ok  but required ritual to demonize any one group of people regardless of class, level of wealth, ethnicity or religion.

4- Boldly strip the media bullies of the power to lie by not going for the bait. 

5- We stand by the principles that underpin the NHS, the welfare state and the Just Society so many other people are fighting deadly awful wars and revolutions to achieve. 

and lastly.

6- We finally make a move on creating that coalition with the electorate we used to have.  Only this time it's young women who are not their mothers and grandmothers, immigrants who are on the whole, hard working, educated and business minded and what about all those middle and upper class people you abandoned to the Lib Dems and the Tories. There are a lot more of those people than a hard core of former trade unionists or rabid common sense revolution far right nutters.

Here are a few things some people in the party seem to not know or pretend not to know.

Posh people vote and they are not all tories. If anything, educated, slightly better off and not blue collar still make an impact in the market place and the fair trade world of consumerism, do you honestly think they will bite you if you talk to them?

Religious people are not all right wing  swivel eyed loons. In fact most immigrants are a delightful combination of Catholic, Muslim or Sikh and do not believe in creationism, buggery of children or homophobia. As for your bog standard "English" religious person, and they are legion, they are also in the same mould as the immigrants.  All of these people, who by the way  support the separation of Church and state to some extent or other,  have in the past  and will again, vote Labour, the question is, how much recognition and respect will you give them?

About Immigrants. Immigrants are in the vast majority, not on benefits, many even if they wanted to, cannot qualify for at least three years. They are healthy, young, educated and multilingual, here to work and build businesses that pay taxes and contribute to the cost of all those English people on benefits moaning about immigrants on benefits. Nobody is living in £3 million houses for free with 20 children. It may not mean much to some, but to people of immigrant stock or recent arrivals, it's beyond insulting and has to stop. BTW, where do you think all those immigrants, old and new  go to for advice, spiritual  needs, food, meetings and parties? PUB? no, more like Churches, Mosques, small family run businesses, community halls and centres. Without these institutions many of us would not even have our cultures, basic liberties or dignity. We shop in small community grocers and we cook, we buy in bulk, our food is smelly and funny and sometimes it even becomes flavour of the week and yet despite all those vital and interesting contributions to the community, local economy and democracy, we have to fight still in 2014 to be treated as something more that just a colourful dance troupe on special days.

 What are British values? Well not to put too fine a point on it, Judeo Christian values that are best expressed by a combination of basic laws that protect the weak, the poor and the truth from oppression and tyranny. It is a system that has evolved to create a better distribution of wealth and tolerance of difference in culture and language where the basic laws that govern civil society need not bar or limit the free expression of people or peoples in a community. It is since 1948, a system that takes it as given that all people have a right to proper health care, education and upward mobility. Most if asked, are proud of the relatively recent tradition of accepting refugees and helping those who cannot help themselves.  These values have evolved and gotten better with every generation and with every wave of immigration. If we stand for inclusion, tolerance , justice and  equality, then I'm fine with British values.  But let's be careful where we go if we insist on blindly going along with IDS and Theresa May.

As for White Voters, let's draw a line under that term and call a spade a spade..... White means English/Scot/Irish/Welsh, everybody else is something else. Some of us are excitable Slavs, emotional Latins or Mediteranians and equally mysterious Nordic types. We have as many different and varied ways of  interacting with others or ourselves as there are ethnic groups and regional traditions. If you think you can appeal to every so called WHITE PERSON with a uniform campaign strategy, media message and direct contact, then you are doomed to miss out on vast swathes of the electorate. Not everybody drinks down the pub or shops at the Morrison's. There is so much happening out there away from the tired old spots; Parks, Churches, Mosques, YMCAs, allotments and schools, these are all the other natural collection points for people that don't spend all their time at the pub or at home watching telly.

About the White Voters. How come so many are so afraid? Well the further away you are from the more multi ethnic city centres the more likely you are to be a bigot. The less education you have, the more likely you are to be a bigot. The poorer you are the more likely you are to be lured in by the far right fantasies about immigrants, poor people, the unemployed and the sick. So what to do with them? Firstly some of them will never change and there is no point in trying to dissuade them. Secondly, the rest of them, if given a better laid out situation with the truth in plain sight, will at the very least be less openly bigoted or even .... come around and see reason.

I am mystified at the continued belief among some that we can somehow win the next election with only the unlikely combination of worried "working class" white voters, atheists, ageing feminists and disillusioned 40 and 50 something year old Guardian readers.

When the likes of the Tory front benches and the increasingly shrill right wing media, including the BBC now, put up straw man after straw man and the media and gullible public lap it up like mother's milk, it's time we as a party made a decision to stop being so bloody cautious and understanding. 

The fact is that with hardly any declared policy and a less than stellar performance from the leadership, we are in a position to win a majority government. Imagine if we showed some spine and spirit,  I'm giddy with the idea of waking up the electorate. We sit on the cusp of a major rebellion among the most destitute and the least powerful, we ignore the middle class that is slipping into the same trap and still despite saying next to nothing, have a shot at power. Now if we also tried to lure back all those people being temped by the Greens on the intellectual left, the toff left, and the grumpy old Hippie left, instead of apologising to the UKIP/Tory hordes, the narrative in UK politics would be different.

Do we not stand for something good? Is not the Labour party about rising above the easy the trite and the safe? When principles are as easily abandoned as yesterdays dirty pants then they are not principles. When it wasn't popular or easy, Labour promoted the NHS, social equality, immigration, environmental policy and Europe.  Even now we can high jack the agenda by turning it on its head and making it about the big multi nationals that don't pay taxes, protecting the migrant workers from exploitation, rebuilding the trust and the foundations of the NHS, creating new long lasting jobs for well educated young people who have hope not despair. I'm still waiting for the rumble to be heard over the din of the Number 10 orchestrated pro Murdoch press.

From now on in, the conversation with the electorate and the press, if with nobody else, needs to be in the tone of a Government in waiting. Labour need to discredit the lies and defend the legacy it took decades to build. People are not as stupid as they sometimes let on. An informed electorate will be less likely to fall for the lies peddled by the red tops and now sadly the BBC. We need to grow a spine, strip the lies away and deal with the actual problems head on. It won't make the party friends with everybody, but why would you want that? You want a solid mass of voters to support a properly thought out platform that can be carried out over the life of a Parliament or even two.

What about the European question? I cannot speak for others but I believe in Europe, I believe in a union that is keeping us free from a major war and the sort of chaos that sucked the world into a frenzy of  racism, ethnic cleansing and intolerance that lead to the ovens of Auschwitz.  NEVER AGAIN. The EU is not perfect but the alternative is far worse. Political and economic union is hardly the end of the world and has despite a few hick ups created a zone where we are frankly better off than we were before the EU. A massive level playing field will never be a bad thing and even now benefits the UK more than harms it. And in case people are missing this particular bit of news, were it not the active involvement of the EU right now, Putin would not have backed down and we would be knee deep in a Central European war with all that goes with it.... refugees on a scale not seen since 1945, escalations and massive destruction and the disruption of the gas supply from Russia, followed by the inevitable reconstruction decade where we rebuild everything that got burned bombed and levelled to the stone age. To me, Europe is not an academic question nor is it just about a few miserable regulations.

So in short, please Eds, both of them and all the others, please start acting like the next Government.  We have a year, let's not waste the time.

Ed Miliband's recently released text from the Sunday Times. It's a start, but we need more.

Are you considering Labour? Help shape the message

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Why a federal South Sudan

As I write this, Riek Machar is in the bush fighting for the survival of the dream of a just and equal South Sudan while  the rest of the world is grasping at straws or is pretending that Silva Kiir is just another politician who's head has been filled with the desire of power past the point of recognizing reason.

The truth is far less simple and the root of the problem is to be found in the very nature of the old Sudan and the way even the South of the country operated from 1957 onwards. South Sudan much like the rest of the country it broke away from, is far from homogeneous. It is a place where a multitude of peoples, some more numerous than others, live cheek by jowel with each other in a mixed society that only found an identity when the desire for an independent South Sudan got enough traction within the ranks of the SPLA/SPLM and it's splinter movements over the years. As far back as John Garang, there was always a plan to create a federated Sudan or Riek Machar's plan do the same to an independent South Sudan.

John Garang

Why federalism? What is the attraction of a system that creates a filtering of power from the people v the direct application of power by the all the people over the entire region?  It's simple,  South Sudan is not easily lumped into one chamber and one identity in that sort of organic natural way that you could say.... expect of Portugal. Tribally or ethnically the end result of a Presidential system leads to the selection of  a leader by all Southern Sudanese who is flawed in as much as the only possible result is yet another Dinka or Nuer who will think of nobody else or Riek Machar who along with his alies was always for a more representative leadership that took into account the needs of the entire nation. Such a system requires all Equatorians to band together and support one party or create a party that will somehow attract votes from across the country, but inevitably, never enough to win the presidency. But in a federal system with a prime minister, such a party in a parliamentary system would be very powerful indeed.

When  I was working for RASS many years ago during the long dark years of struggle, we realized quickly that the creation of an identity for the new country would not come from ethnicity,  but from the cooperation of many ethnicities in the fashion that had always existed. Towit; every time there was a Gordian knot of  massive proportions to cut through, it was done by people from smaller, less populous tribes from Equatoria. This worked for the simple reason that traditional mediation by such peoples was accepted by the much larger tribes on the basis that these smaller groups would not propose any solution that would allow for a worse situation in which they themselves would be hurt and by extension the rest of the country would be equally protected from further disagreement that usually stemmed from a Dinka Nuer conflict, that  as we have just seen , could lead to bloodshed on a massive scale.

Why this traditional tribal structure that has worked for decades was set aside, I do not know. The current  artificial presidential model has led to numerous policy disasters not least of which was the apparent decision that it would be a good idea for Dinka cow herders to take over farm land in Equatoria for grazing in the name of the national interest. This national interest is little more than the more obvious example of Dinkocracy in which the winner of the presidential vote got to make policy for his people, not all the people, just his people.

If there had a been a properly set up federal system with a proportionally balanced and weighed amount of seats by region in a national Parliament that could counter weigh such tendencies as have rocked the country in the last year, we could have avoided this entire bloody mess.  The mere feeling backed up by unchecked political power  that one man  from one tribe could today favour the Dinkas  and the next one the Nuer, sets up a perpetual see saw of conflict that will doom South Sudan to faliure before it's got on it's own two feet. The moderating influence of Equatorian counter weight in any discussion means that no policy will ever be adopted in Juba that isn't genuinely in the national interest.

After the shooting stops from the latest  round of violence, it would be nice to see the creation of a party political system that isn't based on ethnic or regional loyalty. There is need to establish such an ideological/practical array of  political division or there will be a repeat of  incidents like the ones plaguing South Sudan right now.  National interest cannot be created nor can a national consensus exist as long as people do not rise above the current voting patterns. I am aware from as early as the years just prior to the peace agreement and the cooling off period following the end of the war of liberation, that the only way we created consensus in the North American diaspora was when we made people leave the tribal divisions at the door. Only then were we able to create the list of jobs needed to do when the time came, the list of priority spending targets when the money became available.  At the end of the day at every one of those conferences we knew that almost everybody in the room had lost people to the bullets and bombs of Khartoum. How many hours, days , weeks and months were spent building the consensus that created the new identity of  "South Sudanese". How could we allow petty self interest now that the country is liberated , ruin what could be one of the most prosperous nations in Africa.

South Sudanese is not something you can point to in an anthropology study or linguistic map of Africa, South Sudanese is as artificial as American, Canadian or even Italian.  A country as large as Western Europe, with as many linguistic groupings and regions cannot be expected to become ONE seamless perfect identity overnight,  but with the help of a federal system and the taking into account of all the regional and ethnic interests in decision making, it wouldn't take long for a stable albeit new identity to take root. Tribalism should give way to multiculturalism and cooperation, a society where it is ok to be Dinka , Nuer  or any other tribe and still be like a brother or sister to your fellow South Sudanese. Celebrate your diversity, but never forget that the nation was forged in the blood and the steel of all the peoples of South Sudan, not just those of the current presidency.

In the years I served the Movement ( SPLM/SPLA indepence then SSIM/SSIA ) in my RASS capacity, I was proud to be part of a process that slowly over time took people from a disconnected group of people with a similar strugle against oppression, to a path where all concerned were agreed that there should be a country called South Sudan and that the country should learn from the errors of the North. To be clear, what precisely did the North do ? How did they treat the South from the 1950's to the last day the bullet flew?  Sisal, sesame and coffee, all crops that would have made South Sudan prosperous were suppressed or stolen and the profits all went to Khartoum, oil revenues and fields were entirely in the control of the North while population centres from Juba, Malakal, Torit and others were bombed and destabilised. Is this what people really want to do yet again but this time in the name of  skewed national self interest? Should  Equatoria be made the next South, to be marginalized and maltreated at the hands of a string of un representative non pan-national leaders whose only desire is to insure the comfort of one large tribe or the other?

What is required now is a meritocracy in the civil service, national bank, judiciary and police, the estblishment of a fully British styled assembly with the power to name a Prime Minister from amongst it's own, empowered to run federal affairs via a cabinet also named of assembly members supporting the PM's party.  This federal assembly needs to however work with and for the various interests as represented by the states or provinces that speak for specific regions and the interests that arise from that region's resources and talents. The benefits of strong provincial governments and strong federal government mean the tight balancing act between regional interests, national interests and good common sense solutions to problems  that otherwise left to fester, will only lead later to the sort of bloodshed we have seen or the ultimate dissolution of South Sudan and the glee of many who said it should never have been allowed to go it alone.

I know the desire of my old boss Commander Chairman Riek Machar and all those that were imprisoned  and now recently released, as well as all of those under them, was to make South Sudan a rich, prosperous and fair country. I would like to think that if Silva Kiir has the best interests of the country at heart, he would rapidly move to make sure the talks start soon and the reforms put in place quickly. I however will not hold my breath, I was aware early on that there was every possibility that because Riek Machar, or for that matter anybody else, could have beaten Mr Kiir, trouble was brewing. When, the mass firing occurred after the removal of  VP Machar, I knew that paranoia had taken hold. Such was the situation that only the blindest could not see the bloodbath to come.  That the UN and the rest of the world are doing nothing to stop Uganda from propping up the rotten and dangerous regime of Silva Kiir is even more distressing given the extra work this gives the rebels who would otherwise have cleared the crumbling vestiges of legitimacy and power still left.

Riek Machar

As it is, it would appear that the South Sudanese diaspora is coming to side with Riek Machar and his rebels, most recently the Dinka community in Minnesota has joined in the many other voices calling for the toppling of the current president of the country. One hopes this ends soon and the rebuilding can start without delay.

Friday, 25 April 2014

The far right, UKIP and why we should vote in the European elections

May 22nd Europe will vote, even the bit of Europe that isn't on the continent, yes, by that I mean the UK.  What's interesting is that until about last week I thought UKIP and Nigel Farage were going to be the embarrassing winners of  a lightly attended vote thus sticking them further and more firmly on the front pages of every newspaper in the land. Turns out however that in the last few days the shine has come off of the UKIP penny, and that by their own hand.

By making it known that the money guy paying for the ads won't let the party craft the message and accepting the message this man is putting out, UKIP acknowledge once and for all they are out and out racists. No better than the BNP, The National Front and the EDL. It gets worse for them and better for us, suddenly, it would appear, parties including the Lib Dems and Labour are growing a spine, saying nice things about immigrants, talking about the real issues  of  a level labour playing field and the unchecked power of big business. The deflection of immigration and other racial issues that seemed to seep into the mainstream with the disgraceful apology by Gordon Brown for having called a racist ,  shock..... Racist, and seemed to have slipped in the  way of reasoned discussion is now giving way to a more cautious and careful approach that has in recent days broken into a full blown defence of the previously indefensible. Faced with a choice of allowing the further radicalisation of the British electorate  or fighting back, the instinct seems to finally show the revulsion of having to compete for the same handful of racist bigots who are even now tearing the Tory party to pieces. In point of fact, the rise of UKIP is directly tied to the moment the mainstream parties abandoned the moral high ground and egged on Farage and his goons in the hope of hurting the left or hurting the right. All three parties are guilty of  not seeing the danger earlier. Like the German power brokers who thought they could harness Hitler in the hope he would stop the left, they learned, tho not fast enough, that there was no holding him back once they had given him the room to grow and flourish. Are Nigel Farage and UKIP, Hitler and his Nazis? God no, but only because most of us like to think that no one would actually vote for these barking mad pedlars of fear. So far so good.

For an interesting read.... Is UKIP a party of  bigots from the New Statesman.

Links with European far-right parties ( from the article cited above)

Ukip is part of the group Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD). The group includes representatives of the Danish People’s Party, the True Finns Party, the Dutch SGP and the infamous Italian Lega Nord – all of them far-right. Nigel Farage is co-President of the group along with Lega Nord’s Francesco Speroni, who described multiple murderer Anders Breivik as someone whose “ideas are in defence of western civilisation."

That said, I don't for a second think that a person who is a racist and ignorant of the general easily verifiable truth out there will stop being a racist in a sudden flash of remorse; that would be too Moffat  love conquers all, but I do think that people who might have bought into the surface bile and lies and might have voted UKIP now won't. They will either stay at home or vote for parties that aren't trying to ignite a race war in the streets of Britain. What with Russia, Ukraine and fuel prices showing conclusively that we not only need the EU to stop WW3 but we need it to establish a fair social and economic balance across all of Europe. If enough rational people vote on May 22nd, the rise of the far right will not be contributed to by voters in the UK, it may even be given a solid kick in the chops by greens, socialists and even fiscal conservatives across Europe who have no problem with gays, blacks, Jews, Muslims, Romanians or Polish plumbers.

The sickening tone of the far right message regardless of where it comes from is the single greatest cause of concern in Europe today, and if isn't, it should be. The rise of the far right and it's reach into the very heart of the discussion of what it means to be European and where we should go as a block,  has so intruded on the debate, it has derailed the very real important questions that need asking even now. Is it necessary to re-arm the constituent states in order to protect ourselves from Russian hunger? Can we create a larger fairer marketplace for labour and manufacturing to thrive where even now some governments would prefer to keep stifling protectionist measures up. What ever happened to the green agenda? Like all the other issues, it's been sidetracked by apologists, climate change deniers and Eurosceptics intent on showing how bad the EU is by trying to break it.

As long as the right continues to pillory immigrants, we continue to loose sight of things like  recently released figures  showing an increasingly aged population with a shrinking pool of young people in employment also being asked to care for the elderly. Any nation state that permits immigrants, will have an easy pool of working tax payers to cushion this blow, those that wish to remain closed off will find not only that the ill equipped poorly trained local labour force is not willing to take up certain jobs but is also simply not trained to.  If you want your society to collapse, by all means, stop immigration.

And if that weren't enough.... the jobs these immigrants are going to steal have been created by a ratio of 6 out of 7 by other immigrants. In my time in North America and here in the UK I have always been aware of a certain over representation of ethnics and immigrants in the riskier parts of the economy. These people, these dangerous people, are  the ones who have been creating jobs for decades and will continue to do so. And yet, we see the ignorant and the closed minded politics of the far right in every corner of Europe scoring points on the backs of Gypsies, Jews, Turks, Africans and Muslims amongst many other selected targets. How can these people get on with life and what they do best when around every corner there are parties who's principle aim is to come to power by solving the economic woes of a country by advocating the 4th Reich?

Most recently has the acceptability of anti-Semitism, which had been on the wane overall and had in fact all but disappeared in some places, become so strong that a group of  Russian sponsored activists thought it was ok to pass out a pamphlet that appeared to officially demand that Jews in the Donetsk region register or leave. In Hungary an anti semetic and anti muslim party is the 3rd largest in Parliament, Nordic democracies long known for tolerance and social activism are lurching to the right with Muslims first and foremost in the line of fire, but hardly exclusively.

Mosley black shirts
In the 1930's, Europe from the streets of London to the Black sea, was awash with strong  read brutal regimes and parties that espoused a view of the world that we thought had died with the extinguishing of the last oven in the last German concentration camp in 1945. Alas, even the upheavals and soul searching of the 60's and 70's has not extinguished the appeal of the far right. As a child who's own father's family was split between fascist and socialist, I chose to insure in the most absolute way that never again would a Nazi, Fascist or other such scum be allowed to flourish let alone come to power. I have a bookshelf full of books  about rebuilding entire nations dating from the post war period, all of them demonstrating the incredible waste of resources and the destruction of cultural, commercial and agricultural capacity that took in some cases  over a decade to recover  and some cases never, as for the human toll, not including military deaths and collateral damage to civilians, over 12 million died in the camps that we know of .  Do we really want to go through that all over again?

So with  the next great European war simmering away on the front burner in Ukraine, Putin being hailed by the right as a strong leader who should be admired and an economic crisis hanging over the Eurozone and Europe over all, what are the actual issues that should be exorcising people today? I'm glad you asked.  How about getting on with the job of finding a new source of gas and oil other than Russia till we find new greener ways to keep warm, cook and build things. Extending the benefits of justice to every corner of the EU, keeping open a road and rail system that hasn't been this free and easy to use since the start of WW 1.  Creating a better Euro or finding another way to insure the economies of Europe already interlincked one way or the other don't fall victim to the poor judgement of one country or one sector. How about training people to participate in labour intensive lucrative industrial sectors that would make multiple parts of Europe, World leaders in industries that will not fade and die as quickly as the dot com bubble or the building boom fuelled by reckless bankers who are still asking for double bonuses and want us to pay for their mistakes.

Of course to do that, European leaders and people themselves need to admit that some of this won't be easy, and issues like food security have to take into account reality and  be less driven  by the wide eyes innocence of the 70's and 80's. Issues like regional security will include a component of choosing to stop pretending that Russia under Putin is in any hurry to become part of the Union or to be democratic. Energy security which has become more pressing since the ongoing problems in Ukraine, recently hotted up, is far from resolved. There is a school of thought that feels regulatory powers are used with little regard to reality or regional circumstances. A more focussed approach by politicians and technocrats can find the solutions if the process is not distracted by growing numbers of far right protest parties who's only goal appears to be sabotage.

So what's so bad about having a few clown fish from every nation sitting in Strasbourg? Surely these far from rational people are not harming the greater dream of an integrated Europe? Well maybe they are. Every time deputations like those of UKIP do not vote on key issues or worse vote against what even the most Eurosceptic Tory would find reasonable , even important, they help create a block of hate that gives oxygen to the views of parties  like Golden Dawn, Jobbik and many others. Despite the lack of  awareness the average British voter has regarding The EU or because of it, small numbers of determined nutters are taking the jobs of what should be Tory, Labour, Lib Dem and Green MEPs . The voice of Britain in Europe is the sound of screeching hyenas baying at the moon and waving their toy plastic swords in defence of the fantasy white world that never existed. In their haste to show just how useless the European Parliament is, UKIP were 6 among the 14 to vote against a ban on elephant ivory poaching.  Just what did the elephants ever do to UKIP ? There isn't a day that doesn't go by where yet another elected UKIP swivel eyed loon pops his or her head over the ramparts for a shot at everything the Daily Mail hates and a few things even the Daily Mail have yet to hate.

And so what is it that will convince the great British electorate that what happens in Europe, even far off Kiev with whom the UK have 5 iron clad treaties of cooperation and defence, is as important to them as Paris, London or Manchester?  How will the suffering and deaths of people in Donetsk, the consequent ripples of worry all through Central Europe from Warsaw to Vienna, the utter misery of being Greek or Spanish in austerity finally convince Britons it has something to do with them? I would like to think they care now, but I know most of them are oblivious to events further than their doorstep and couldn't even name their own MP let alone consider what occurs in Brussels as significant to them. However there will come a time when the specific events in the Ukraine and the need for a united Pan European reaction to Putin and his empire will make it all very close to home. Will it take the near break out of WW3? Will it take the tripling of gas and oil prices? Will it perhaps come when the average Briton sees the rest of Europe as just another place where they can, like anybody else, go forth and seek work, their own back yard, the next county over.  Maybe then . At some point the people of Britain will take as seriously European elections as they do the ones to Westminster, till that day we need to keep working at getting the numbers up steadily in order to insure that come election night, we won't be sending any more UKIP etc... fruitcakes to  Brussels than we absolutely have to.

 I'll be voting Labour as they are part of the Socialist block (S & D), their platform is one  I find practical to apply, creating a world closer to my liking. I have chosen a path that is not hatred and isolation, I have chosen a path that promises a solution to the  challenges facing the greater society we live in. I urge you to explore the blocks on your own and see where you fit in. Be part of the dialogue that is Europe.

If you have not yet registered for the election , you have till May 6th.... don't delay.

Friday, 4 April 2014

A guide to the ethics of freecycling and recycling

The other day I brought a few things over to St Oswald's for them to sell or send to the rag and bone people. I now prefer to do this over the more conventional options supported by the city, such as just bin things on the day, put them in the recycling bin or bring them to the recycling centre near St-Peter's in Byker.  The practical truth is that these options are now less desirable than ethically distributing things between neighbours and donating to various charities.

Before we get to the how of Freecycling, let's look at the why.

The last two times I tried to use the recycling depot I was verbally abused by the officious little *&nts from the council running the place. Despite my heartfelt desire to bring electronic goods, rags and other things they were designed to take, I was barred from the place for having entered on the power of my own legs. Forget that I at the time lived two blocks away and didn't want to drive a car in ( or in my case  somebody else's), the facility is built on the exclusive notion that you will drive in and out, there is no pedestrian access. Because of the slavish devotion to health and safety as well as  the belief that people are too stupid to look out before walking into a place to see if there is any traffic, means that anybody using something smaller than a mini austin or with fewer than 3 wheels cannot bring any recycling into the centre. Good job City of Newcastle, for making the disposal of unwanted things more likely to end up being fly tipped. I am not the only one who feels this way  but repeated complaints have have done nothing to remedy the situation and now I depend on other means which I shall talk about in a bit.It still means that at the end of the day, there is an even greater probability that the item I would have brought there to be dealt with properly, be it electronics, old paint, cardboard or building materials, will end up in landfill and not be recycled at all.

So what about the recycling bin you say? The problem is not so much the sorting, that I don't mind, glass away from the rest, makes sense. The problem begins when you try to shoe horn things like rods or odd bits of plastic  that won't fit in. Try leaving the clearly for recycling cardboard boxes neatly folded and staked next to the bin and they ignore the stuff. You need to cut it up and tie it and put a pretty bow on it with a note telling the workers how  brilliant they are AND stuff it into the already  full bin. Left over building material not numerous enough to hire a skip lays unloved and untouched for weeks  or months  until some bright spark takes pitty on the stuff and cuts it up with saw or steals it in the night. So while the blue bin is ok for most stuff, the things most foisted on us despite our best efforts, are near impossible to get rid of.

The blue bin part 2: We don't create a lot of rubbish, in fact if it weren't for a bit of egg shell, trimmed veg and bones, we'd have no rubbish at all. We recycle as much as we can and try to buy things with as little packaging as possible. This means that our green bin is effectively a large unused space taker in front of the house.  What to do?  For starters, what if I could use it as a recycle bin as well?  Just need a council approved sign of some kind..... a signal of some kind that says it's not got any rubbish,  but today I have put a load of old papers and other things in that would not fit in the blue one. It would take a second for them to look.

The Brown bin: If you live in a place with a lawn , a garden or some other such place with vedure and root things that need regular tending, you'll know you can't mix in food waste,  you can't put in any sticks  over a certain length and you cannot put in anything that is not some kind of plant life. Fair enough about that,  but  during certain seasons you'll trim a lot more than one brown bin's worth, and it will take weeks to be rid of the stuff if  ever.  In short, If I can , and I can....we burn it. We can't be bothered to wait a month to reduce a day's garden waste. And if that wasn't bad enough, it's a limited service, miss the days and you're stuck with a bin full of grass cuttings till next season. Three guesses where all that grass ends up.  Personally, I just hide it in with the occasional regular rubbish I accumulate, but  little wonder  some people have wrong mindedly paved, astro turfed or concreted over their laws. These people who had a choice to be kind to the planet or free of one more job, chose to deny water yet a few hundred more square feet of  space to gently go into the ground. Wonder why there's so much flooding? there's one reason.

Composting: A fine idea, sometimes even supported by local councils  but mostly not. What do you need to compost? Enough waste that is clean ( uncontaminated ), clean kitchen waste, some paper, some space, a composting kit and a reason to make the stuff in the first place.  If you can't use it but your neighbour can, good.  But if you're not that lucky, who's going to take it away to be used at allotments, private gardens or local farms? Depending where you live, the service is spotty to none. Which brings me to us....We cook from scratch, buy fresh, mostly free of  packaging and only in the amounts we need in the case of food that will go off quickly. Food prep waste, mostly fruit, veg and egg shells, means we should compost, but we produce too little even with all the home cooking. We are forced to find novel ways to get rid of the stuff, and so we start here with the freecycling and the ethics of it all.  Faced with the dilemma of binning v making the world's smallest compost bin, we have been forced in the absence of a nearby compost bin to just bin the stuff in the closest  green bin owned by people who never heard of recycling, and believe me.... there are still way too many of them. It saddens us that until we finally turn over the yard and turn it into a our own small free hold farm  short of the chickens ( hums the good life theme), we are effectively forced to go against our own principles or end up knee deep in bits of onion and garlic skins.

Having lived a few places in my life, not least of which was a city that led the way with what we now call free cycling, I find myself turning to the old solutions, as they are still the best.

As a boy my grandmother taught me two important things.

Other peoples rubbish can and should be gold, but only if you need it or know people who need it . 


Always be clean and respectful of other people's property when reclaiming something into usefulness. 

It's amazing what perfectly good things people will bin. In my lifetime I have saved furniture, books, clothes, toys and games not to mention the abundant harvest of pumpkins, melons and other perfectly edible decorative veg that goes out the day after harvest festivals and Halloween. We lived on an unused clean 5 kg bag of lentils for two months once. Most recently we have acquired

1- a lawn mower
2- a strimmer
3- several antique non electric yard and kitchen gadgets that still work fine
4- enough spare parts to build or repair most of the appliances in the house
5- book cases, books, cd's
6- perfectly good computer peripherals including a kick ass set of mini speakers
7- Enough toddler toys to stock a day care.... which it did in the end
8- Art.... you will not believe the bounty off people with bad taste.

and FOOD.... food that thing that keeps us alive. When you move house and you bin perfectly good fresh food.... don't make it hard to get to, don't cover it in slime. Make it easy to find and take, and if you can spare the effort and time... offer it to somebody, anybody. It's food and it's a sin, a crime to waste it.

CLOTHING is another area we need to tread carefully on. Most clothes in this country end up in one of two places, the bin or increasingly, the charity shop. I used to run a charity and can tell that despite the most logical hygiene rules, people still donate underwear, aka stuff that has been near your genitals or bottom.  Do I even need to say why this is wrong????? Pants aside, most clothes, washed and in good condition deserve to be used by somebody. If we have lost weight and cannot take the clothes in ourselves or they are not worth the expense of a seamstress, we will bring the clothes to one of the many large metal boxes situated in convenient places and that are dry even in the wettest weather. Barring that, we always walk the clothes over to a charity shop near us to insure the goods are not ruined by passing dogs and other beasts that could open the bags up. That said, my wife and I have been the grateful recipients of clothes from others who thought we'd appreciate perfectly good clothes  that could fit us  but not the person offering.

Freecycling is easy and ethical if you follow a few simple principles

1- Assume somebody needs what you don't want any more:  This is true with furniture, appliances, art, books and kitchen things. My preferred way is to put things in plain sight a few days before the bin men come. What doesn't get taken by people who need it gets taken by the rag and bone men ( salvage ). If you feel uneasy about this, then call a proper charity that will place or sell on your things at a low price to those who will need it most. Avoid the charity that regularly breaks and bins most things  they get  if they cannot get  a good price off the antique dealers. Ask the questions and you'll be sure the goods ( not actual rubbish) get a new home as opposed to just taking longer to get to the landfill.  In fact the step before the charity is to ask around your neighbours or family before you put it put on the curb.  Even better, hold a garage sale, put a small price tag and shift it to somebody else's house.

2- When taking something from the tip behind the big grocery store: be careful to be clean, be careful to take only what you need and no more. In fact you can, if you think it will work, arrange to let the manager know you are taking the stuff and why.  Let them know that there are food banks and families that are going without while they bin industrial quantities of food every week.

3- When taking something from the yard of a person on or near the bin days: keep it clean, only take the stuff you can use and leave the rest for somebody else.

4- Give back: keep the cycle going, do not be ashamed of what you are doing and make sure you never break any laws.

5- If you have enough people or space to take food from the "not so perfect" back bin in large amounts, cook it, share it , freeze it , and share some more.

6- If you garden, swap with others, give away excess seeds so others can garden as well. Process your fruit and veg into something that will last and cook with it or bake with it.

7- Books: If you're not the type to hold onto books for long, find people willing to take them off you or sell them to used books shops. 

8- You are online: then use the swapping sites, be fair, be honest and never undervalue things  just because some idiot is giving things away for 25p.  Things have value, just try buying them new cheap or trying to find somebody willing to build it for you for free..... these things have value and so do the skills to make them.

9- lastly, in all of this, never loose sight of the fact that your act of generosity and consideration will be a reason to socialize more and be aware of your impact on the people around you. You are also reducing the amount of materials used to replace the binned things if you had to buy them new yourself. Consider that the next time you feel the need for a new phone a mere 4 or 5 months after you just upgraded. Waste is waste regardless of what end of the wheel you take it from.

Freecycling is not begging or scavenging for the sake of a temporary budgetary short fall, it's a way of life that goes goes back centuries and will survive the current greedy culture that just wants us to buy new things and replace them 5 minutes later with something newer. Hand me downs are not always a bad thing , they are thrift. Some children's clothing is made so well and so timeless that several generations can wear them before they are worn out. Freecycling as we know it now was started in New York City by middle-class people and socialites who grew tired of the waste and even at their rarified cost of living  were having to choose what they spent money on and what they preferred not to. That it took them back to the same values their parents and grandparents held barely 60 years ago is no accident.

Because of this way of life, I have learned how to cook with an assortment of novel unexpected ingredients, I have learned to repair appliances and acquired the skills to use tools that have been abandoned by an entire generation. I have made new friends and been introduced to new cultures.  My reach and impact into other people's lives is greater because I participate in the swapping, giving and reusing. The absolute ethical spine that drives the movement here and in other places is one that fights the instinct of some to isolate themselves and think only of themselves.

I don't for a second suggest that this is the ultimate way of life, this using old or slightly used things only. I feel it's important that you also spend some serious cash with skilled workmen, farmers and merchants who get up in the morning to make a living. I'm not raising the act of charitable giving above and beyond every other thing you can do to the distraction of profit and the destruction of the marketplace for skilled people.  We still need a functioning economy, but if you feel that wasting things is bad and you prefer to spend your money on things you can't make yourself, then freecycling is the route for you.

I do have one proviso about the reusing of things for the sake of reusing things...... Know the value of what you are about to destroy for the sake of arts and crafts, fashion or simple utility. If you are taking a first edition of 1984 to cut amusing shapes into , then you are desecrating a book, but if you take 50 copies of Jaws in paper back  to make coasters, you're ok. If you find vintage clothing and decide to cut it up for curtains, you could be insuring the destruction of the last of such an item. Underclothes especially are hard to find, but clothes of any kind  above a certain age are worth more intact than altered or damaged.  Do you need a spare part off an older thing that still works? be sure the main object is beyond use. Just because YOU don't see any value in the bit of furniture, book, record, painting etc.... does not give you the right to destroy it. Before you make the ultimate gesture of removing an object from it's principle reason of being, be damn sure it's beyond use, once it's gone, it's gone.

still using this

Here's a way my wife and I developed years ago and still use. We call it the Bench G-d,  we take a box or bags  of items we don't want and leave it on a park bench or bus stop. At some point, if we've chosen wisely, more than a few people who actually need the items will stop long enough and help themselves. It helps somtimes to put the word FREE in large friendly letters, but you don't have to. Friend of ours regularly does this by leaving books near the fireplace of her local pub, if anything, the place seems to breed more books now and all of them good for somebody.

A few interesting links you can use to follow up on this.

UK freecycle, a site where you .... swap or give away for free. 
Gumtree ,  sell your stuff
CT home Newcastle ... furniture, appliances service for the less well off.  Dealers not tolerated.

Monday, 17 March 2014

The re emergence of Central Europe or how the next European War started.

I hate to say I told you so, but, I told you so. Russia under the leadership of Vladimir "Rex" Putin has only gone and proved me right yet again. Years ago I said he wasn't to be trusted, years ago, when he meddled in Georgia the World was warned that the current bunch of Empire rebuilding Russians were not going to rest until they fixed the mistakes of  Mikhail Gorbachev.  There has always been a nationalist party in the Kremlin and regardless of ideology, any regional government that tried to get away from the loving embrace of Mother Russia has paid in blood and even greater loss of freedom.

 That the Crimea or Krim which is easier to say and more familiar to me, was never a part of Ukraine, really seems academic at this point, but is worth considering if only for the intellectual exercise most rational people went through as early as the emergence of an independent Ukraine in the 1990's. Firstly, the ceding in 1954 to the then wholly artificial concept of  an independent self sufficient Ukraine within the Soviecky Soyuz by an apparently drunken Soviet leader in a fit of  more than usually strong alcoholic haze, is one of the great mysteries of modern Russian history. That most regretted it almost immediately is not questioned. Roll onto the dissolution of the Soviet Empire in the wake of  Glasnost and Peristroika, and you see the rise of nationalist elements that began to clamour for the reconstruction of what had been lost. Solely in the case of the Krim was there ever a justified case for the restitution of territory to it's proper place. If people who consider themselves Russian want to live in the paradise that is the Soviet Empire redux, that I will grudgingly admit, is their  right. Where I depart from the views of both Kiyov and Moscow is the argument that you can forcibly keep people within borders that were never really yours or that you can just take back land after a sham referendum in which every rule ever written for referendums was broken. The less than subtle armed take over  followed by the "transparent" ballot boxes and annexation atmosphere that followed the occupation of the peninsula, including the unvarnished and unapologetic propaganda machine that had hundreds of thousands of imaginary refugees fleeing Ukraine, pogroms and apparent rise of 5th column nazis rising in their hundreds of thousands ready to wage terrible war on the legacy of dear old Lenin, would have been funny had it not been so earnestly taken seriously by Russians and Russian speakers in the Ukraine. Having got the required soviet style 97 % in a vote( prior to the Russian occupation , a poll had annexation at 40%) , Putin and the ultra nationalists have the needed bit of  moral justification they wanted. They would have achieved this years ago if they hadn't spent the entire time scaring the hell out of their own citizens and those of countries around them. Who knows, if Gorbachev had ultimately succeeded in creating a truly free and democratic Russia and the IMF and others not insisted on trying to recreate in Moscow what failed so miserably under Reagan and Thatcher, we'd be looking at situation where Crimea would continue to be an autonomous, predominantly Russian speaking state that could have eventually chosen in time to 1- separate from Ukraine  then 2- negotiate it's entry into Russia..... or not.  As it stands, this brutal regime has yet again shown it will do anything, as long as it can do so without fear of retribution or loss of personal power and fortune.

The fact remains that most existing sovereign states  in central and eastern Europe today live in constant fear that Russia will next target them in the never ending crusade to rescue imperilled Russians living abroad or to repatriate territory unjustly , in the eyes of Russians, given away at one time or another and most recently in the great dissolution of the temporary madness of  Gorbachev. Having successfully bluffed the West and the rest of Europe in the Krim, Putin now has his eye on the Eastern territories of Ukraine. If the current crisis can be stopped at this tipping point between all out European war and some old fashioned diplomatic tension, we and the people of the Ukraine may yet walk away from the naked territorial grab that is next in the works without thousands of Ukrainians and Russians dying needlessly when the ultimate result is a draw in which nothing changes but the formerly intact landscape of homes, factories and farms. If shooting breaks out, the inevitable outcome is the hardening of the resolve of  millions of Ukrainians, both native speakers and Russian speakers alike v the not so paternalistic Russian forces coming to take them kicking and screaming home to Moscow. As a citizen of Europe, you surely cannot be unaware that any war on European soil that involves Russia directly like this, cannot help but escalate tensions and cause every government from Warsaw through at least Berlin or even Paris to mobilize it's armed forces where  if the desired effect for Putin is pan European war, he will get his wish. The mood that prevailed last week  where economic and diplomatic sanctions on Russia and it's oligarchs was not seen to be realistic or practical has now moved into full application. Germany and a number of other nations are moving to a position where soon a defacto boycott of  many Russian products and services will occur. Sanctions on individuals and their companies so successful against the Serbs in the last Balkan war, are the first step in a long line of steps designed to stop the  naked territorial aggression and ambitions of Putin's Russia short of having to declare War. I do have one question to which even I don't have an answer.... Can The United Nations Security council survive with it's reputation intact if a permanent member is allowed to veto any resolution stopping it's own aggression on a sovereign state let alone it's own people? I'm sure like the League of Nations it will hobble along like a dying animal for a bit, but can the Security council find a way around this? I for one hope so, the vacuum it's death would cause is too dangerous to contemplate.

What are the other critical forgotten conflict zones where it could all still go horribly wrong? Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan as well as Latvia  where fully 25% of the population are ethnic Russians. If we step away from strictly linguistic and ethnic tensions, Russia has till now been, all be it unstable at times, a partner in the greater international efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons and in ( he laughed with unease ) Syria, where it has so far ( rolls eyes) refrained from further escalating the civil war/revolution into a bigger unstable bloodbath. As and when Russia drops the pretence of being an honest broker and good global citizen, we will be back in the full grips of a Cold War we have not felt since the 80's.  I'm still not convinced that anybody will use nuclear weapons, and maybe because of this, I'm all the more concerned that full on conventional war will break out in Europe and drag the rest of the World into it..... again. The European Union and the effect it has had on nations in it and those wanting in is tangible and powerful proof that the last thing Europeans want is another European land war. Oh look at those words come out of hibernation  people, like tired old soldiers who thought they'd been retired for good but called out again for one last kick at the ball. Where was I? The EU, In recent elections in Serbia and Bulgaria, the political momentum has been away from isolationism and towards a greater integration into the European Union, the cleansing effect this has had on countries is in marked contrast to what they were like a mere 10 years ago. The one positive you can take from the crisis is that even in the UK, the anti European rhetoric will be falling on increasingly deafer ears as the fear of war and the destruction of Pax Europa is staring us down the barrel of a kalishnikov.

Some of you are too young to remember what it was like to live in the cold war.  Lucky you, but grab your towels fast because we're about to get another ride on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse merry go round. Sometime from the moment Russian tanks crushed the Hungarian revolution in 1957 to the moment of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Peace Dividend somewhere in  early 1989, the  world was in the cold war. From as early as aged 7, I lived in daily terror of dying from a nuclear holocaust. It coloured my view of relationships, marriage and my definition of long term planning. I had for years a recurring nightmare where I would be walking in the street near my home seeing my family walking away from me under threat and when I turned around to look at the house, there would be the unmistakable, yet silent, mushroom cloud of death rising over the city from behind our home. The wind would approach, trees would bend and buildings dissolve and just before I died....I would wake up. That was no way to live. When the nightmares stopped, we all thought that regular programming had resumed and to a great extent it has. This current crisis has however restored the previous levels of terror prior to the last cold war. Where in the rest of Europe the appetite of Germany, Austria, France and Britain has effectively gone away, Russia is still hungry.  It has never stopped and pushes up against the political and economic aspirations of a peaceful and unified Europe. The death of the so called nuclear deterrent only makes actual conventional war more inevitable in Europe and the European Union the only effective solution to the Russian threat.

War is neither evitable or inevitable

The first ripples of fear will manifest themselves in the Central European capitals like Berlin and Warsaw where already the new Europe is drawing up plans to put a stop to the as yet "evitable?" war with Russia. New mutual defence pacts are being drawn up or tested as we speak, gone is the hope that somehow Russians will somehow develop a healthy appreciation of  our democracy, our only desire now being to castrate the regime and it's friends enough to buy time to shore up defences, limit the damage and be clear we mean business. I would like to think that the wishes and desires of the various peoples of the emerging Central Europe that had been swallowed by the Russian Bear will be respected and encouraged to the detriment of  Soviet ambitions, but I fear at least some of the more far off western powers will still try to use us as a bargaining chip. Please be aware that once out of the bottle, powers like Poland that have joined Germany and France in the new Entente Cordiale that includes the potent mix of NATO and EU membership will be hard to break down short of the previously mentioned naked armed aggression.

Merkle and Tusk

Russia has had it's moment to be part of greater Europe and seems to have decided rather firmly that it will not even try be part of Pax Europa.  If this is the way it's meant to be for the next decade or so, then so be it, let's not drag our feet any more than we need to. No more Mr Nice Guy, time we took down the oligarchs and the dictators they are supported by.  I'm sad it's come to this, but at least I can look forward to the leadership and wisdom of Frau Merkle  who herself had to endure the horrors and deprivations of the Cold War like the rest of the new European leaders in Central Europe. There is nothing like a victim at the helm to insure the mistakes of the past are not repeated. Yet it would be foolhardy for the peaceniks too to think for a second that self defence and military alliances that mean something are a bad thing. If Ukraine asks for help from it's neighbours as it will most assuredly not hesitate to do should it come to that, be prepared to see many more millions of slavs who have tasted freedom since 1989 to stand thier ground and not roll over and die with a whimper like some in the West have done repeatedly. Some of us have lost relatives to Russian aggression and oppression in every decade since 1945, if you think  there is no stomach for a fight in Ukraine, Poland, Bulgaria or the Baltic states, etc.., think again.

In my lifetime I have seen a few things I thought I would never see.

1- Polish freedom from Russia
2- The fall of the Soviet Union
3- Irish peace
4- The end of the nuclear nightmare.... literally.
5- The restoration of Europe to it's state of affairs prior to 1900

The New Europe has ignited hopes in me of standing for election as an MEP,  the House of Commons or even the Polish Sejm. I now live on the cusp of fulfilling several long held dreams, not least of which  living in Poland again at least part time on my family's own recovered lands and properties. However that and other hopes are tempered by that old familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach I still have  every time  I watch a programme about European history and they get to the part where yet again, Poland and the rest of Central Europe are engulfed in a fight not of their own making, where our young and not so young people will yet again die for the vanity of a man in Moscow. Yet again we will be forced to rebuild our cities and towns and yet again we will be bombed into an industrial stone age, our economies in ruins. Well not  this time if we can help. And if it comes to a fight at least this time we'll be ready.

Those of you in far flung places who don't think a few shots fired in the Balkans or the Crimea will amount to anything are forgetting that the recent history between 1914 and 1989 was an interlude in which Central Europe was swallowed whole by both the West and the East, made to be the pawns of powers far away and too concerned with other matters to think our people mattered. Things are different now, we have our countries back, our power back and our dignity back. Soon jobs held in near perpetuity by British, French and American politicians, diplomats and generals will pass into the hands of  those most concerned. Central Europe is back and hoping it will not require a baptism of fire to be taken seriously.

I strongly recomend you watch this instructive video of the evolution of the map of Europe. pick a spot, any spot and watch, then look at Poland, Germany, Russia and a few other states. Try to realize that through most of European history the nations some of us hardly reckon can muster so much as a veto were for the longest time huge military and economic powers with interests that reached far past their physical boundaries. Further take your modern history glasses off and realize that Russia is IN Europe, it , Russia IS Eastern Europe and all the states to the west of it form the centre along with Germany. Maybe now you'll realize once and for all that things have changed. There is no Warsaw pact, no Soyuz and no Soviet Empire, just free sovereign states that are part of the old Europe minus a few royal houses.

Late news edit: Russian demands that Ukraine create a new federal constitution, it remain neutral or in other words, not join the EU or NATO, give status to the Russian language and Lastly respect the result of the impromptu referendum in Crimea. The real news is that President Obama on the recommendation of Foreign Secretary Kerry, has accepted this. Again, the actual opinion of the legitimate government of Ukraine is to be ignored and Russia is allowed to dictate terms in order to get out of a sticky wicket. Typical, disgusting and a complete surrender by Obama. Who is he to speak for another country, who is Lavrov to demand these things of Ukraine? While on the surface some of the demands are even reasonable, but seen as a whole, similar to the attempt to humiliate Serbia in 1914. And if you need reminding, despite the total acceptance of even the most intrusive demands from Austria, Serbia still ended up being invaded. Can we expect better from Russia? Probably not. EU foreign ministers are to meet and are already rejecting some of the demands as extreme. Among the demands the creation of a “Support Group for Ukraine” consisting of the US, EU and Russia that would guarantee the military neutrality of Ukraine, the same sort of diplomatic construct that kept Belgium neutral till 1914 when it no longer suited the Kaiser. 

At the end of the day if Ukraine does join the EU it too will want to make military alliances with neighbours that won't threaten to invade them. Russia will have to accept at some point that they no longer can call the shots like that. This of course will take longer if people like Obama insist on telling another people that they have no free will unless he and Putin think they can have it. How very sad. Plus ├ža change and all that. Even sadder is it's not clear if Putin is blinking or just playing WW1, the game. Obama's words "continue to oppose any violations of Ukraine's sovereignty or territorial integrity " ring even more hollow in the knowledge that the reaction in the White House and UN are those of the old school diplomats that have blinked when they could have helped at the ultimate cost of Ukraine. The desire of Ukraine to join the EU, the very reason for the uprising in the first place now seems to be in jeopardy. Time will tell if this premature climb down by the Americans will be accepted by the European foreign ministers and Ukraine itself.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

What me? Sinner? or how to fine tune yourself

I have a question for you. Can you, the living breathing embodiment of the Mahatma Ghandi or Mother Theresa be free of sin, you who have given to every charity, recycled, voted, protested, signed petitions, been nice to minorities, adopted rescue kittens, read the Guardian and bought fair trade, be capable of sin? 

Most people won't consider themselves capable of sin so long as they still go by the old fashioned teaching that created multiple generations of Catholics ( or other Christians) who were told that disobeying your parents, not doing your homework and forgetting to throw out the rubbish was sinning.  Such a list of what we can call minor misdemeanours,  compared to actual sins and the adult  application of what is actually meant as a sin, are worlds apart and are the principle reason most people either don't understand or take seriously the word SIN.

In this season of  Lent where we are supposed to examine ourselves  and find ways to improve ourselves, perhaps a quick look at Sin itself and the way it affects our lives is in order.
Guilt is your conscience reminding you it's there.

Guilt, Catholic guilt, closely related to Jewish guilt and that thing English people do when confronted with squelchy noises and awkward situations, is the manifestation of all people asking themselves the core question, consciously or unconsciously, "Am I doing the right thing". It's another way of  being aware of sin. Sin in and of itself is not just the list of the big ones, the cardinal sins, the sins that get you locked up and fined, but the myriad of small traps that define life for ourselves and those around us, that through awareness keep us from complicating day to day life unnecessarily. And yet it is also the force that requires us to occasionally make a few waves but know also when to stop. It's hardly simple is it? But it operates in some, 24 hours a day and in others hardly at all. Sin, the awareness of sin or guilt are the only tools we have as people to navigate an often tempting world where many basic values have been left by the side of the road.

When some pray "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, ... the things: which should be changed,: and the Wisdom to distinguish: the one from the other." They are asking for guidance in knowing when to pick a fight, when to make a principled stand, when to bend and when to lead by example. This doesn't absolve anybody for a second from trying to insure a better self or a better world, but it does keep us from getting into the kind of trouble that will make our efforts wasted, misunderstood or so devalued, we may as well not have tried.

 I can hear some of you thinking, but this is about idealism and big principles. Well  sometimes it is, and it guided the actions of many great people, including the just passed away Tony Benn, who was a great practitioner of the Methodist school of Socialism. His life was about righting great wrongs and picking his moments. Sometimes he chose wisely, other times he preferred to loose than to win just a little bit. While life, especially political life is about the great debates and great reforms, it is also about the the small battles we face every day with ourselves, with others and with the limits of where our rights and obligations begin and end. 

We need to accept that if we are to achieve personal serenity and adherence to the values we hold dear and more importantly through our own example, show others that they are good values, we need to first break down the intellectual notion of what sin actually asks us to examine. In the Catholic mass, the following phrase is used when confessing to sin and declaring our souls pure and open to receiving G-d.  

"I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do. "

It's not long, but boy is it heavy laden, and yet despite multiple repetition or even mumbling over the years, the weight of those words is lost on many who still, as we have seen, believe sinning is not having made your bed and disobeying your Mother.  That somehow sinning is for small children and once you're old enough to open a bank account, it doesn't apply to you is missing the point entirely.  If you take nothing else out of a church service, then that simple sentence should be the one thing ringing in your ears everyday of your life. It is the moment during the service when you are asked, for a few seconds to examine yourself and see if you could make the week coming better than the last. 

Let's look at the 4 conditions and consider them. 

"In my thoughts":  You could argue that your thoughts are your own and that if you do not follow through on killing the person who has just mistaken Tuesday for Thursday for the 3rd week in a row, costing you time and money, you have showed restraint, even mercy. In as much as you have avoided a direct action that could have been unfortunate and even possibly illegal, you may be right, but are still not out of the woods. Your thoughts, your decision making as it were, will guide your attitude towards people and things in a number of small but significant ways. If you are not open to new suggestions, new ideas, new information or the exercise of reserving judgement until you have enough information, you will choose unwisely. If you limit the sphere of consequence of your decisions to the 3 feet around you and your personal comfort, glory and satisfaction, you have in fact through your thoughts sinned.  No man is an Island and if we accept that we live in a society that is composed of more than just ourselves, we must be inclusive in our thinking.  But if you insist on me giving you a concrete example of sin through thought by even a saintly person, I give you reckless, insensitive, sinful thought, I give you... jumping to conclusions. It's a favoured sport in my tribe and that of my wife, having led us individually and together to a lot of bad decisions, some funnier than others and some, life alteringly awful, dragging on for years and usually based on absolutely nothing.

 "In my words": Words are powerful if you give them power, and other times they are just words. You need to know the difference. This diplomatic skill eludes a lot of people, especially the brightest among us. We will at times forget ourselves and say things that are inadvertently hurtful or lead to questions and consequences that were wholly avoidable. I'm not telling you to never utter a word, or never praise or never  mention something embarrassing or never correct. These are sometimes the right thing to do. Some people just need to deal with the fact that life goes on regardless, that praise is part of the learning process and that correction is the passing on of wisdom, that humour is as much part of the healing process as is comforting. Where some of us might cross the line is when we carry a joke too far or pick at a still raw, less than healed sore of another person. You have to ask yourself if it was worth the discomfort of the other person when you scored that extra point or humiliated your friend for "a laugh".  As for the less learned, you also sin with words when you use them and think, it's all the same, you can chop and change meanings and expect others to justify and support your ignorance. Do not be offended or surprised when you get something wrong. When you reject the correction or the wisdom with your words, you send a signal to the other person that they need not waste any more effort on you, and that will be your loss, not theirs.  If anything, remember always that the wisest man is the one who is still learning.

 Lastly, sometimes ignorance can in fact be bliss. Ask yourself at least three times  before you spill the beans about something too soon, to the wrong person or to the person being wronged.  I won't say who, but a person of my acquaintance was in a bad relationship. I tried to the best of my ability to meddle with a light touch, but discovered she was not yet ready to find out for herself what kind of mess she was in. When the time came and the relationship dissolved, I was there to offer help when it was needed and we are still friends. If she had in fact been in any kind of real danger, you bet I would not have hesitated to act more forcefully, but some people just won't be told and sometimes you're best staying out of it. 

A good rule of thumb before you open your mouth and can never take back what you said is to 1- know who is there 2- be sure what you're going to say doesn't open a can of worms and 3- Be sure you will be clearly understood.  How others choose to twist your words is not down to you, but always strive for clarity. 

In what I have done: This is different from words, as words, however good or bad, flawed or premature, can be rendered into a choice not taken. However, once you've crossed the Rubicon, that's it.  In doing something, you open a whole new can of worms that can't be changed. Consequences of a much more solid variety, as a rule will cost you more than an I'm sorry I said that, they will bring with them a lot of ill will, anger and retribution on you.  Are you really prepared to waste your money or time for example, on a luxury for yourself when your dependent children and spouse who have in no way wronged you or been bad, will later have to suffer themselves because of your own greed? Is it really a harmless sin when you opt to do something to  a person or persons over a matter so trivial there is no law for it but will lead to their lives being worse directly or indirectly through your choice.  I do not suggest you hold the weight of the world  like Atlas, but do think about how your choices will impact on those around you.  When you hold hostage something out of spite or out of simple seeking of fun, the person to whom the object belongs to will trust you less, expect restitution of damaged goods and likely place you on a black list you will not soon come off of.  And you had better hope and pray that whatever it is you damaged isn't irreplaceable. Sentimental objects, collector items and appliances that will cost more than a week's wages to repair or replace will also shift responsibility for the replacement of those things on others  if you yourself are not able to. How fair is it that they need to pay for your stupidity? Why should they loose something they took care of for years because you were too inept to be careful? And even if it is yours and has come to you from an older relative, does it give you the right to be the last person to ever have it or use it? In most cases we are meant to preserve and care for things and people, and it starts from the moment we are able to pass something on intact or better than when we received it. 

In what I have not done:  Here's a tough one that isn't any harder to understand than the power of words. So you didn't do something, so what , who got hurt? Well you didn't, but it has cost somebody else for sure. I'll use a simple example we've all seen in operation. The somebody else's problem field so well explained in Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  There are three or four of you in a house, somebody , the famous somebody, but not you, has left a sock on the floor. You see it, but it's not yours, so you leave it there, a few days go by, the others too ignore the sock, especially the person who dropped it. Eventually the sock becomes a no go zone, surrounded by dust, and for all intents and purposes, invisible.  Then laundry day  comes along  and presto, who ever was doing the laundry picked it up.  They had to go on a seek and destroy mission around the house looking for all the lost bits of clothing, it cost them time, it cost them happiness and it made them feel used and unappreciated that nobody else would pick up the damn sock. Again mining the rich vein that is Douglas Adams, there is a refrigerator, a detective and a cleaning lady.  The detective won't throw out the disgusting rotting sandwich in the back of the fridge as it's the cleaning lady's job, she won't touch it as she expects not to have to be exposed to possible new life forms that will eat her. It's not hard to see Dirk Gently is wrong, but we also recognize a huge stubborn streak in him. it's not his job, not his responsibility and it's certainly not his problem. Somebody will have to clean it up , but not him. Again I'm not  suggesting you become muggins and do it all yourself, but show some initiative, then get the problem solved in a more permanent and fair manner. Lastly, without breaking any law or being immediately and irrevocably awful, if you delay action, any action, too often, the time to do the right thing will pass and you will be responsible for the worsening of something through your inaction. Try not to leave those to do lists mouldering too long  before they become impossible to do things. Some won't affect anybody but yourself, yet others will in point of fact leave you  hoping others don't find out it was you that forgot to apply for something when it was easy but you figured " I don't need it, so sod  it" and now  your mates are wondering why they are the only ones paying full price and locked into a year long contract. BTW, if you know something seriously bad is being done and you can stop it but you don't do anything, you are as good as doing it yourself. 

It's a simple thing to do things on time, do them even if you don't feel the need for it now. It can and probably will come in handy later on and you can never predict how your decision to not do something today will impact harmfully on your friends or future relatives. Make the time to do things, think about others and how your seen or unseen unselfish act will always reflect better on people than the selfish one you hope they never find out about.  

Savings, thrift, the act of not wasting, the act of sharing , the act of asking if others want as well, are all actions you can choose not to do that are not a cardinal sin, just  nigly little annoying ones that if you let them pile up, will hurt you and those around you. 

There you have it, the four conditions, the four horsemen of Sin, not so scary, not so simple and not so insignificant.

Having got through this, let me ask you again .... You , can you, the living breathing embodiment of the  Mahatma Ghandi or Mother Theresa be free of sin, you who have given to every charity, recycled, voted, protested, signed petitions, been nice to minorities, adopted rescue kittens, read the Guardian and bought fair trade, be capable of sin? Of course you can, not even the great Mahatma was free of sin, sin as you can see is not just about the big heavy commandments, it's a life long  fine tuning of yourself ,and guilt, the little voice reminding you to look at your check engine light from time to time.