Thursday, April 30, 2009

travails of the Jabberwock

In 1865, Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) opened a new dimension for children of all ages with the publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which had to wait until 1871 for its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, and what Alice found there.

The latter contained a poem called Jabberwocky, concerning the hunt for and killing of the Jabberwock by an unnamed protagonist who is addressed by the poem's narrator as "my son". I was introduced to this poem in school and still remember the rather scary "snicker-snack" of the vorpal blade. I had actually met the titular creature before in a children's book called The Jabberwock in which it was presented as an altogether more friendly creature, although I've never been able to find it since. I must say, though, I do like the toves - creatures who are part badger, lizard and corkscrew, who live under sundials and eat cheese. That's my kind of wildlife.

The poor Jabberwock has since largely fallen out of the public consciousness, even though the first verse of the poem which gave him life appeared in a short story called "Mimsy were the Borogoves by husband-and-wife team Henry Cuttner and C.L. Moore under their pseudonym Lewis Padgett, in the classic American magazine whose time-worn issues I used to hunt in fairs in Glasgow, Astounding Science Fiction Magazine (later known as Analog):

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

The context is that a future multidimensional being called Unthahorsten, who is "childish in many respects", has sent boxes of toys back through time. One is found by seven-year-old Scott Paradine, who is attracted by the "tesseract" (hypercube) in the form of an abacus, while his two-tear-old sister Emma falls in love with a doll which can be taken apart in the manner of anatomically-correct models, but whose innards are not quite right. A similar doll is found in another box by Dodgson's (Carroll's) young muse, and teaches her Jabberwocky, which she makes the author promise to reproduce in his work verbatim.

It turns out that the first verse, taught to Alice Liddell by her "magic toys", is a set of instructions in how to connect flotsam so that it will conduct the Paradine children to Unthahorsten's dimension "in fragments, like thick smoke in a a direction Paradine [pater] could not understand". Paradine and his wife, as has been explained by child psychologist Holloway, have been "conditioned" to think in Euclidean geometry, while children's minds are so unconditioned as to be alien territory to adults.

I loved the story. My favourite period for American sci-fi is from the mid-fifties to the mid-seventies, but there were publications like Astounding Science Fiction who had been releasing intelligent output by writers conversant with science for more than a decade beforehand. What really impressed me about Mimsy were the Borogoves was that the authors drew upon Carroll's 1879 work Euclid and his Modern Rivals, written to defend Euclid against emerging theories of non-Euclidean geometry, and placed it in the context of the counterintuitive theories offered by 1940's quantum physics (whose seductive appeal remains to be consummated). The story's "crazy angles" certainly feel more comfortable than the "obscene angles" put to work upon the doubtful agendas of HP Lovecraft's corpus.

Where all this is leading is that today I watched The Last Mimzy with Minima. It was, supposedly, based on Mimsy were the Borogoves and so could be said to be related to the poor forgotten Jabberwock. In this version, however, the childish mutidimensional being is replaced by a desperate scientist from a future time when humanity's genes have become so poisoned that life in the open air is unimaginable without toxin-filtering exoskeletons.

The box sent back through time is spotted by five-year old Emma Wilder and recovered by her brother Noah, who is taught by a piece of perspex to speak in such a way as to make spiders alter the way in which they spin webs. His sister adopts the teddy-bear Mimzy (sic), but she is introduced to Jabberwocky by her babysitter, who flees when Emma makes some stones spin in mid-air then atomises her arm inside the circle formed inside them. If you're lost, then you're on the right track.

In the film, Holloway is replaced by Larry White, (eleven-year-old) Noah's science teacher, representing a dumbing down in every way. He is passionate about the abuses wrought upon nature by poisons created by humankind, which he summarises by displaying a two-headed snake preserved in formaldehyde. Call me reactionary, but I would have shown the kids the effects upon humans of, say, the Bhopal disaster, which would have given them much-needed nightmares while removing the risk of them being near formaldehyde.

A unique element in The Last Mimzy is the Mandala, which is a series of ornate patterns contained within a circle pioneered by Buddhists, but also used by Hindus. White's partner is seen chanting in a Buddhist fashion in front of Hindu icons, so presumably we are meant to assume that "it's all the same thing". As in Mimsy were the Borogoves, the toys instruct the children, but there's no knife-edged disappearance. It's all rounded corners and warm fuzzy assurances that everything will be okay. Okay, that is, as long as we stay away from major centres of population like Seattle and the big bad enforcer of the Patriot Act (the only major black character in the film).

In the film, Mimzy is not an anatomy-doll but is found to be an impossibly sophisticated artificial life-form with the legend Intel inscribed at a level only an electron microscope can detect. Having escaped from a high-security US installation, Emma's tear lands on Mimzy. Noah, who Emma describes as "my engineer", enables the toy to be returned to the future, and suddenly an industrial dystopia becomes the garden of eden redux, which allows a boy and girl to shed their exoskeletons and head outside, the light obliterating their near sides so that they look like two halves of the same person.

I was left feeling empty and unsatisfied by the film for the same reasons that I am left feeling insulted and patronised by much of what passes for modern science. I realise it might be mischevous of me to suggest that scientists started to sound like theologians some decades ago because they were merely occupying ground vacated by some theologians; but it seems strange to me that on the subject of whether climate change is predominantly due to the activities of humankind, for example, so-called scientists waste public money labelling freer thinkers than themselves as equivalent to holocaust deniers, people who deny the link between HIV and AIDS and irresponsible drivers.

If establishment scientists spent time doing science, they might have discovered that the oceans are rising faster than computer models before the free thinkers, because the latter spend at least as much time in the real world as sitting in front of computer models.

And if idealogues like Richard Dawkins, whose declamations upon religion from a strange dissociated place that makes ivory towers look pedestrian, would stop inficting their histrionic agendas upon the media, we'd be spared from having to examine our children's videos for ideas like that, expressed at the end of The Last Mimzy, that the genotype determines the soul. Get real, guys.

And let's have a cheer for the Jabberwock.

Monday, April 27, 2009

swine flu and the hazard of hysteria

By the end of this year, around 20,000 people in Great Britain will have died of flu. For one simple reason: according to Dr Colin Russell of Cambridge University's Centre for Pathogen Evolution and the World Health Organisation, around that number die of flu in Britain every year, and indeed there are on average 500,000 deaths every year worldwide.

It's very sad to read of 150 deaths - so far - from the unique form of swine flu that has broken out in Mexico, where masks are now de rigeur. Research by the CDC (US Centers for Disease Control) with the University of Hong Kong on the effectiveness of face masks finished last year, but the results weren't published.

Perhaps this is because the problem with face-masks is getting people to wear them - Influenza World reported last month on a study led by Dr Raina McKintyre of the University of New South Wales which found that wearing a mask "curbs in-home spread" of the illness. However, on the first day of the trial less than two-fifths of participants were wearing their masks, and it went downhill from there; ironically, the study was reported a little closer to the action in February, by the Peruvian news agency Andina.

Mexico certainly hasn't got its troubles to seek right now, with an earthquake hitting Mexico City as the authorities there are trying to take the sensible precautions of closing schools and cutting down on unnecessary journeys. And I can imagine that if I lived in the US it would be tempting to be very worried, especially in those parts near a border already porous enough to let through individuals and gangs connected to the drugs trade; viruses are smaller and less easily detected - the Telegraph reports that "in Texas, a school has been closed and a family put into quarantine after three children fell sick".

But all fatalities have - so far - been in Mexico. However, I'm a little worried about the climate of what I can only describe as hysteria being whipped up by some sectors. I don't think I can put it better than the Daily Express's headline:

(The two had returned to Scotland from Mexico, and are now doing well in hospital. Scottish Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon told reporters that some twenty-odd who had been Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish Executive Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Member for Health and Wellbeing: click to read the storyin contact with them had reported mild symptoms.)

I tolerated the Sun's website long enough to find a thread on its forum entitled WILL PIG FLU KILL US ALL?, on which a poster had written (in all seriousness), "BTW its NOT PIG FLU, its a biotoxic weapon that was stolen from US labs Maybe you should read between the lines. Bird Flu was exactly the same thing but from China". I can remember similar things being said about HIV in the 1980's; I suppose the loonies need to let off steam about something. The Sun's homepage promised reportage on Ms Sturgeon's statement, then her faced morphed into a celebrity I've never seen before and probably never will again who was modelling bikinis for some reason.

So what's rattled my cage? The statistics at the top of the post - flu kills 20,000 people a year in this country, and 500,000 worldwide. The most vulnerable people are carried off either by the flu or a pneumonia, often bacterial, which accompanies it - for example, young children, older people and the homeless. In 2007, Indonesia famously stopped supplying influenza supplies to the World Health Organisation because of concerns that some samples were finding their way to a pharmaceutical company to make vaccines that the country couldn't afford to buy for its people. The stand-off was soon resolved, and the Indonesian government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Baxter International to create a flu vaccine for the country.

Pharmaceutical and related companies companies are doing well out of this crisis - the Telegraph's Rowena Mason reports that "The FTSE 100 rose as fears that the sEasy Flu Protection - click to go to the websitewine flu outbreak in Mexico could derail a global economic recovery faded and investors bought pharmaceutical shares on expectations that countries will stockpile vaccines". An outfit called Easy Flu Protection Personal Pandemic Plans is offering to store "reserved stock of antiviral medication specifically for you", without explaining how it might prevent your lifeline from being diverted should headline-writers' dreams come true.

Baxter International, mentioned above, is applying to the WHO for a contract to manufacture vaccine for swine-flu. This is disturbing, for two reasons. Firstly, its research facilitBaxter International's Baxter Worldwide logoy at Orth-Donau, Austria got conspiracy theorists so excited they practically went into orbit when it sent vaccine containing live bird flu virus to the Czech republic in February.

Secondly, Baxter International drew criticism in 2001 for creating smallpox vaccine, usually made from animal tissue, from "lung tissue taken from a 14-week fetus aborted from a 27-year-old woman".

What worries me is that the high emotions being whipped up around the swine flu outbreak will be manipulated to push through unconscionable methods of creating Immanuel Kantvaccines at a time when responsible scientists desire to use cell-lines from other sources than human beings who have not been in a position to consent or otherwise to their use. Whether you want to look at it from the point of view of the Catechism of the Catholic Church's statement that "viewing persons as mere means to [an] end engenders unjust structures" (para 1887) or from Immanuel Kant's theory of ends - that nobody should unknowingly be involved in a process whose ends they do not understand - it's wrong, and poignantly so given that it has never been easier to manufacture vaccines from non-objectionable cell lines. The market's insertion with violence into the sacred places of creation requires us to think hard about why Jesus reacted as he did in the temple.

I'm sorry that there are a lot of people falling ill in different places, and pray that the death-toll doesn't mount too high. I fear that the Government is going to play up the impact of swine flu, and not just in order to bury bad news: we're in danger of developing fatigue in all sorts of areas, for reasons that anybody who heard the story of the boy who cried wolf as a child will understand.

sow with piglet by Scott Bauer

Related post: happy birthday Charles Darwin

Swine flu - is it time to panic yet?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

at least the Budget is consistent

Jeremy Kyle: click to go to the Jeremy Kyle Show websiteI've always thought The Jeremy Kyle Show far more intelligent than The Jerry Springer Show. People spectate at Springer for the same reason as they watch high-speed car racing, whereas Kyle's cameras are taken off a crash on his show until order is restored.

This morning, the audience was struck silent as Kyle opened an envelope which contained the results of a DNA test to settle the question of a child's paternity, disputed by a young man who didn't see any reason to be involved with the offspring of his former girlfriend. The test was positive, and the boy was without answers as to why he hadn't been there when, for example, his daughter had become ill and had almost died.

So what does this have to do with the Budget? The answer is contained in either one or two words, depending on who you think is governing Great Britain: (New) Labour.

Labour has long championed the case of families in "alternative" situations, for example single mothers, and there's nothing wrong with that. My Mum was widowed when I was seven, and I witnessed her fighting the darkness that can sometimes overpower somebody whose dreams have been snatched away from her.

But what socialist feminists have long said is that women don't need men, to the extent that Labour-run councils would prioritise young unmarried girls with babies for flats and houses on the grounds that the traditional family - ie Mum and Dad - was guilty of being oppressive and even abusive. Sometimes individual families were, but more often young, vulnerable girls with newborn babies would find themselves lonely, isolated and easy prey for the local nasty piece of stuff.

Just so, the Labour belief that people who earn a lot of money are thereby guilty of something as terrible as it is nebulous has resurfaced in Alistair Darling's budget, which has introduced a 50% tax on higher-earners for no discernible reason other than they earn a lot. There have been many examples of how such a policy is unworkable aired today, but, given that George Harrison's 1966 song Taxman (from the Beatles' album Revolver) is being played a lot today, I think it's best to heed what Harrison said about tax in a 1969 interview:
George Harrison
The British Government's policy seems to be, grab as much as you can now because maybe it's only gonna last another six months. I know personally for me, there's no point in me going out and doing a job, doing a show or doing a TV show or anything, you know...So, you know, why bother working? But if my tax is cut then I'd do four times as much work, I'd make four times as much money. They'd take less tax but they'd make more from me. But they cut their own throat. They do it all over the show, every place you look in Britain it's the same.
It seems strange to be revisiting the times when, as the Telegraph's Harry Wallop reports, we're looking at the prospect of people leaving Britain for less expensive shores.

Similarly, we are revisiting other times: earlier this month, a fellow appeared on Jeremy Kyle's show to ask, "How can I be the father of her child when I only slept with her once?" The eclipse of responsible sex education by the attractive, abusive lies of beourgeois left-wing ideologues is certainly making itself felt. It's like going back to the days of the Victorian horrors when rugged individualism was the Trojan horse for all sorts of unsupportable prejudices which targeted mainly the poor and, within the poor, mainly women.

I'm thinking right now of tonight's harrowing documentary on C4, Kimberley: Young Mum 10 Years On, where we revisit a girl who, in 1999, proclaimed herself "keen to avoid getting pregnant young like her mum and sister", struggling to keep her second child from being taken into the clutch of social services like the first, due in no small part to the actions of men. (I recommend her insistence that she will not abort her third child to anybody tempted to cynicism about the continuing action of goodness in the world.)

Just as New Labour and its fellow travellers arrogate to themselves the right to abolish a child's right to a father, they now seek to abolish any sort of comon-sense analysis of where the present financial crisis arose, because it leads not to a cloud of people rich enough to be subject to the 50% tax, but specifically to government ministers and their placemen in financial spheres.

If there's one thing I can say in Labour's favour, it's that they're being consistent: they've cut the Gordian knot of ties that bound many families together, broken the bonds of trust between people and the powers that be and, now, fled in fright to monetary policies that were Pyrrhic victories in the first place. I would refer Government MP's to Chapter 19 of The Time of My Life, the auobiography of former Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey:
any substantial attempt to improve the lot of the poorest section of the population must now be at the expense of the average man and woman, since the very rich do not collectively earn enough to make much difference, and the average man [sic] does not nowadays want to punish those who who earn a little more than he, since he ultimately hopes to join them.
Heaclick to see an article on Denis Healey on hte site of his alma mater, Oxford University's Balliol Collegeley is a much-needed intellectual within the Labour Party, an anecdote to the lazy, guilty rich whose attitude is summed up by the old saw, the working class/can kiss my ass/I've got the foreman's job at last.

On the Jeremy Kyle show, how would Gordon Brown fare in a confrontation between himself and a single mother struggling to bequeath a legacy to her child that amounted to more than the cold comfort of impermanent liaisons? Not very well, I think, because Kyle possesses something Brown has proved himself to lack - a moral compass.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England

a traditional view of St George and the DragonEngland can't claim such a high-profile patron saint as, say, the US, which is represented by the Immaculate Conception. (The New York Times complained in 1871 that Jay Gould wanted to make St Patrick the country's patron saint, but I suspect that's a different story.)

But St George is patron saint of this great country, and I look forward to celebrating his feastday tomorrow. Unfortunately, there's not that much going on in Cambridgeshire, at an official level at least: the Cambridge News's Jack Grove reports that Waterbeach's Beach Social Club will celebrate the great British banger with butchers entering their sausages in a competition, and Ely and District Scouts will fly their colours in a St George's Day parade on Sunday. (And in London, Boris Johnson's administration is putting on a free concert in honour of the saint on Friday.)

As a fellow exile living in England - though from not nearly as far away - I liked the introduction to the Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu's speech on Englishness at the Sunday Times Literary Festival in Oxford earlier this month. It was a quote from a piece reputed to have been written by a Frenchman:
Dr John Sentamu: click to go to the Archbishop of York's website
There are four kinds of people in the UK -

First, there were the Scots who kept the Sabbath - and everything else they could lay their hands on;

Then there were the Welsh - who prayed on their knees and their neighbours;

Thirdly there were the Irish who never knew what they wanted - but were willing to fight for it anyway.

Lastly there were the English who considered themselves self-made men, - thus relieving the Almighty of a terrible responsibility
The last sentence, as the Archbishop points out, represents the heresy of Pelagianism, but the peice describes exactly both the self-confidence and self-deprecating humour that are part and parcel of the archtypal English character, and his "tentative conclusion" that "Englishness is back on the agenda" was reassuring.

It was concerning, however, to be directed by Damian Thompson, in his Holy Smoke blog for the Telegraph, to an article by the left-wing Christian think-tank Ekklesia which complains that

just as he was co-opted by the crusaders, so St George’s misappropriation as an excluding or dominating figure has continued in recent history. And it is not just the BNP who have done this. His elevation has happened in the political mainstream, too. In parliament, he sits over the exit from the Central Lobby of the House of Lords, lending presiding authority to the vestiges of an unelected, top-down social order.
Having laboured under a socialist government for 12 years, I don't have any problems with their objection to a "top-down social order". But the organisation continues: "We say that it is high time St George was reclaimed from the dragon, from past associations with racism and the far right, from religious crusades, from inward-looking nationalism, and from images of arrogant flag-waving."

I'm not saying that we should be complacent about "far-right" organisations (who want blanket nationalisations and micromanagement? Go figure) and we should certainly heed the warning of the Archbishop of Canterbury that the recession may fuel social unrest and xDeve Kumarasiri - thanks to Matt Alexander and the Nottingham Post for the picenophobia. But the aspect of multiculturalism that warms my heart most is that represented by Sri Lankan-born postmaster Deva Kumarasiri who, Lucy Cockcroft reports, turned away five people for "wasting time and holding up the queue" because they didn't speak English - he believes that immigrants should learn English and love their adopted country.

I can understand this. When I lived in Italy and France, I learned the languages, bought local, and grew to appreciate the many strong points of those countries. Unfortunately, the local Muslim community presented owner Rizwan Raja with a petition objecting to being told to speak English in England, and he was told not to turn in for work. I say "unfortunately" because if yoNorman Tebbitt - click to read his article on 'What England means to me'u've seen a bus driver who can't speak great English trying to speak to a prospective customer who has the same problem, then you'll understand that the problems caused by not speaking English in a country where that is the language are not confined to any one group.

Norman Tebbit, MP and Minister in Margaret Thatcher's government and now Lord Tebbit, proposed a "cricket-test" as one measure of integration of immigrants into England. He said that, say, Pakistanis would pass this test if they supported England against Pakistan at the game of cricket. (When attacked for his "far-right" views on a political discussion programme, Question Time, soon afterwards, he replied that he'd be just as happy for immigrants to vote Labour as Conservative.) Once again, Lord Tebbit brought good sense to the vexed topic of integration earlier this year when he wrote, in the context of councillors in Oxford beSt George and the Dragon - a more modern interpretationing unwilling to turn down applications for a loudspeaker-system in a Mosque, that Muslims be invited to turn their minds to Allah by bells within the Mosque - it would be in character with the area, and the Koran comes down in favour of neither.

Tomorrow I dare say I'll have a pint at the Tintinnabula - not with far-right racist flag-wavers, but with decent, hard-working flag-wavers of all political (and other) hues. Trying to slay the dragon that tempts us to be defined by our differences, I'll wish them, as I wish Deva Kumarasiri, Lord Tebbit, Archbishop Sentamu, and you: happy St George's Day!

This being also the anniversary of William Shakespeare's death in 1616, I think this is the best I can leave you with:

This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England

Richard II, Act 2, Scene I

Related post: let England stand free

top ten songs about England

Happy St George's Day!

Monday, April 20, 2009

danger - misanthrope on retreat

click to go to the Spring Harvest site
When we got on the train to go to Spring Harvest, I was still feeling queasy from the stomach bug, which had kept me awake with knotted guts all the night before; so I wasn't at my most communicative as I stood on the crowded train so that Maxima and the girls could sit, together with our friend Significatia and her daughter Feles, who had broken her ankle in an acute attack of childhood. Three changes of train got us to Skegness - where Maxima's parents had their honeymoon - then a huge taxi took Feles and her entourage to the town's Butlins.

When we got to our chalet, comprising two rooms and a toilet, we unpacked and found out that the rucksack I'd been leaning my big head on was flooded with coffee, as the flask had burst, so I wasn't flavour of the month. Minima disappeared to go to a "club", and it was almost the last we saw of her all week, apart from mealtimes and those rare incidences when she felt tired.
click to have a look at Butlins Skegness
Butlins is a holiday camp founded by Sir Billy Butlins at Skegness in 1936, and was used for accomodation and training of troops during WWII. It was, famously, home to the Knobbly Knees and Glamorous Granny competitions before these fell victim to the guillotine of modernity. So what did we have for the first night's entertainment in the hall across the lane from us for the youth of the Christian inspirational week? Flaming thump-thump-thump music, with excited kids jumping up and down so that the windows were shaking in their frames. Still, it made me grumpy, which is always a good sign that I'm going to get something out of an experience.

There was lots to choose from, the programme encompassing evangelical sessions, Communion services and everything in between. I felt myself on the edge of becoming unwell, something which I can experience when not feeling good physically, so I didn't attend as much as I'd hoped to. One thing that stood out was the Café-Church, a faith-based community held in a Costa coffee chop which the chain has pledged to host wherever there's a demand for it. So Costa's first on my list of refreshment stops when in Cambridge - I think that's how capitalism works. Minora and I met a lady who struggled with depression, and a fellow who had injured his arm at work and had begged them to let him return from sick-leave, but had been blocked by health-and-safety mandarins. Another group I attended through the week was entitled Walking with Muslims, of which more in another blog soon.

Profthe Jolly Fisherman statue, symbol of Skegness: click to see moreessor Calculus had thought that Skegness, with its Viking name, was further to the north, but it's on the Lincolnshire coast, just above the Wash. Our taxi driver commented that the town might be half its size were it not for Butlins, and when we visited the resort the prices, as attractively low as they were, reflected the economic depression that parts of the county can be prone to at the best of times. The saucy seaside postcards, although maybe not quite consonant with a Christian-themed holiday, nevertheless raised a smile and brought back memories of childhood holidays at Blackpool on the west coast with my Mum.

Going in the other direction to Ingoldmells, on the other hand, I was dismayed to enter a sweet shop with one of my daughters, to see anatomically correct reproductions in confectionary of the genitalia of both genders stacked at a height that would make them eye-level to young children. This was way beyond saucy postcards, which require some brainwork to access the double-entendres. It's not for me to agitate for such tat to be banned, knowing how vital hen-nights, stag-nights and such are to a smaller resort struggling to stay afloat in the shadow of a larger one; but their prominence in the sweet-shop and market stalls was disappointing when, say, a sign indicating that adult products were available "under the counter" for over-18's might have worked. That would certainly be preferable to the signs screaming "don't forget your rock [expletive deleted]".

Thankfully, Spring Harvest was altogether much more tasteful as well as intelligent, and the young folk gave an object lesson in how to look good and modest simultaneously. I did worry, however, that they were not as well-served musically as people from other age-groups. For example, in the introductory big-top marquee session (which was piped to chalet TVs), the lead singer with thebandwithnoname led a rap/hip-hop session. This seemed to mirror music for teenagers generally, and it seemed to me that for every kid who went to see a band because they performed hip-hop, another stayed away for exactly that reason. There seems to be a conspiracy not to mention in public that a lot of Christian popular music (ie not hymns) is often not quite up to standard, but younger people show the rest of us the way by refusing to compromise in their demands for subtly written and performed music.

There were, of course, many exercises of looking beyond our own shores, one of which was Tearfund's "wipe away poverty" campaign to provide toilets for parts of Africa, where

not having a loo...makes women and girls a target for sexual assault as they go to the toilet in the open, late at night.
click to see more about Tearfund's work on toilets
Of course, as a matter of common-sense giving, I refrained from patronizing any charities I wasn't familiar with until I could get home and look up their views on issues concerning the beginning and end of life in the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children's Charities Bulletin. Whereas Tearfund has said "abortion is always and everywhere a tragedy", Derek Prince, author of Atonement, which I'd set myself for the week, goes much further:

click to see Derek Prince Ministries' website for worldwide activities
God is on the side of the weak and oppressed. The conspicuous example [of injustice toward the weak] today is abortion - deliberately taking the life of an unborn infant. If there ever was an example of someone weak and helpless, it is an unborn infant.
In this vein, the icing on the cake at Spring Harvest was finding the SPUC Evangelicals leaflet pictured below. I say this because the concept of "innate" rights means precisely that: without a clearly-recognised right to be born, the rest of the whole shebang might as well have been written by Spike Milligan on speed. click to see SPUC Evangelicals' website on The Shaming of the Strong

One high point was when we went to visit Revd Cantiana in her caravan, and I found I was the grumpiest there. Sad as I was that Cantiana wouldn't be coming back to the Draughty Old Fen with us but heading to her new posting, that cheered me up. Then it rained, which chased the crowds away and I could enjoy a walk.

If I particularly felt the presence of God, it was in the little graces - calming down the kids to have a moment of prayer; or Significatia stopping us to point out it was three o' clock and time to thank God for his death-defying love for us; or Minora giving me a hug when I wondered out loud how many more family holidays we'd have.

I remember some people we met, as well - a boy in his early teens who was taller and wider than me and had an incredible vocal range, who enjoyed putting on musicals with his am-dram society; a black African worker who saw dispensing benedictions as part of his duty and whose voice had a music in the way that a Highland accent does, who said he was going to come to next year's harvest as a steward; and the girl with whom Minora made friends ("for life", they said) who loved Disney films and multicoloured socks. I hope their dreams come true.

The end came too soon, and the journey home was tiring but uneventful, except for Maxima having to let a lonely, well-refreshed ex-Harvestee down gently when he proposed to her.

My better half having a stonking cold, I chivvied the girls, tired and reluctant, to school this morning. Minora's eggs boiled harder than she wanted, because she was distracted playing a DS game about preparing food. I'm sure there's a good lesson in there, but I'm too tired to tease it out. Anybody?

Monday, April 13, 2009

see you next week

I've had a stomach bug all day, which is worrying, a we're off to the coast for Spring Harvest tomorrow, having arranged cat-sitting cover for Magus.

One good thing is that I've had time to watch the cop-show special on ITV3 today. I watch less and less TV because of BBC's contemptuous treatment of its licence-payers, but on those occasions when I do watch TV, it tends to be more and more ITV3. Following a "top of the cops" top 50 were epsodes of Miss Marple, Poirot and a rare treat - the first episode of Juliet Bravo from 1980, where Inspector Jean Darblay takes over an all-male police station, in the austere beauty of the Lancashire Hills.

Best, though, was a classic 2005 Taggart episode, The ties that bind. The discovery of a librarian's corpse flushes out secrets of a bourgeois circle involving "alternative" sexual practices (see title) that preys on homeless kids. DCI Matt Burke (Alex Norton) goes the extra mile to try to reach out to one of the kids and finds he has made powerful enemies. It was really good seeing sites around the River Clyde, where I used to love walking. The series pulls no punches, but the one thing I was disappointed about was the absence of Maggie Bell's gritty rendition of the song's theme song (now an instrumental), No Mean City.

Anyway, I have to set my mind on higher things now as I prepare to go blow away some spiritual cobwebs, digestive system permitting. Hope you all have a good week.

noli me tangere: happy Easter

touch or hold on to?

Tangere - Latin verb - to touch, or to cling on to.

Happy Easter!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday - Jesus, Jerry Springer and jockeys' teeth

George Friderick Handel I'm sitting here listening to a BBC Radio 2 programme commemorating the 250th anniversary of Messiah coposer George Frederick Handel, which concentrates on that most famous of his oratorios; we're waiting for At the Foot of the Cross presented as a meditation "of words and music" on Good Friday by Ken Bruce, featuring excerpts from Messiah.
Father Brian D'Arcy - click to see biography
The BBC's not an organization that likes making life easy for Christians, but BBC Radio 2 is - mostly - an exception, a sweet oasis in the antitheist sea. The reason? The watchful eyes of Father Brian D'Arcy and Canon Roger Royle, with the powerful backing of TCanon Roger Royle - click to see biographyerry Wogan, who once described himself as "an agnostic who knows enough Greek to realise what the word means". The only nod to God on terrestrial TV today is the classic Greatest Story Ever Told featuring the chiselled Scandinavian features of Max Von Sydow - on Channel 4, whose claim to fame was once showing a man drinking a pint of his own vomit.
James Nesbitt as Pontius Pilate in The Passion - click to go to the BBC website
Saying that, I can't fault the BBC for its worthy but somewhat speculative The Passion about the last week in Jesus' earthly life, but this does not amount to a get-out-of-jail free card regarding its airing in 2005 of Jerry Springer - the Opera, which it defended stoically in the face of the most complaints about a single programme in the Corporation's history, many of them centering on the disgusting befoulment of the characters of Jesus and Mary.

I perhaps wouldn't be so implacable about the opera had the fictionalised Springer moved on to further musically mine controversial material; what pops readily to mind is tha modern-day child bride, from the site - click to read Ali Sina's discussion on Aisha's agee marriage of Mohammed to Aisha when she was six or seven. I don't see it though, because Mark Thompson, former head of C4 and Director-General of the BBC since 2004, believes that Islam, as a minority religion, "should be treated more sensitively than Christianity". A shame - I had some rhymes for the librettists: crocodile, volatile, juvenile... (I'm not being facetious: it would be an opportunity to open a debate on Jesus' liberating views on women, and contrast St Paul's struggles to transcend the gender politics of his time.)
Liam Treadwell, 100-1 winner ofthe Grand National, click to read Anita Singh's article for the Telegraph; thanks to PA for the photo
But what really sticks in my craw is that Ofcom is gearing up for a full investigation into an interviewer's remark about a jockey's teeth after 2,000 complaints - compare with the 63,000 that Jerry Springer attracted.

But it's not all negative. This is Good Friday, when we celebrate the major engine in the machinery of salvation that God set in motion when he told Satan in Eden that a descendent of Eve would seriously rain on his parade. And what a wonderful day to learn, from Stephen Adams on the Telegraph site, that the carbon-dating exercise performed on the Shroud of Turin in 1988 based on a sample of cloth that was repaired in the 16the century; and Ray Rogers recorded a video shortly before his death in 2005 admitting that "it has a very good chance of being the piece of cloth that was used to bury the historic Jesus".

face on the shroud of Turin: click to read Rod Draper's article at Crunchy Con

Make your own the mind of Christ Jesus:

Who, being in the form of God,
did not count equality with God
something to be grasped.

But he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
becoming as human beings are;
and being in every way like a human being,
he was humbler yet,
even to accepting death, death on a cross.

And for this God raised him high,
and gave him the name
which is above all other names;

so that all beings
in the heavens, on earth and in the underworld,
should bend the knee at the name of Jesus

and that every tongue should acknowledge
Jesus Christ as Lord,
To the glory of God the Father.

Maundy Thursday - beyond the comfort zone

I'm trying to get over a period of not having gone to church. I'm it sure how it happened, but I realised recently that suddenly not going to church had become as normal to me as going had quite recently been.

I went to morning prayer at St Gallicus the other day and admitted this, whereupon Revd Cantiana deftly defused a potentially difficult situation with on of Christendom's best weapons - hilarity. She remarked that I'd been to church twice on two consecutive days and, given that they wanted to hold on to me, proposed chaining me to a pew.

For me the Maundy Thursday Eucharist has always been the most powerful of the church's year, because it celebrates Jesus's kingship over all things, including the most elusive and unforgiving - time: it is a memorial of the first Eucharist, where Jesus offered himself as paschal victim on the Cross to the Father the day before he was crucified.

Cantiana had indicated that she wanted to wash my feet beforehand, so I scraped out the mushrooms between my toes (a shame: it looked like being a bumper crop this year). She spoke about her first experience of washing feet, which had taken her out of her "comfort zone". I have to admit I was also out of my own, because I've never had my feet washed by a woman before. I'm pathologically Glaswegian in that I'm not all that much into being touched.

Her touch was loving, soft and gentle, and, I think, gave me an insight into the discomfort the Apostles must have felt when Jesus - the Son of God who united all humankind (read Luke 1:26-38 alongside a basic genetics textbook) - washed their feet. Cantiana's leaving us soon. I'm not quite sure where she's going, but I think it'll be a better place soon.

beynd the comfort zone - what would Jesus do? - click to read Greg Boyd's reflection on Lars justinen's painting

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

scientist reported to police for predicting earthquake

It's a shame to see scientists being gagged for doing science. Of course, there are different ways of gagging: when Roger Revelle, one of the founders of climate change theory, announced in circumspect terms that he was having second thoughts, he was "denounced" as mentally ill, and the same treatment was meted out to internationally-known ecologist David Bellamy. Not content with this, last year establishment scientist David Suzuki called for politicians who dare to listen to scientists who agree that climate change isn't due to the activities of mankind to be jailed.

But with the dreadful news of yesterday's earthquake in Italy's L'Aquila comes the taking of vilifying scientists who dare to tell an inconvenient truth to a new level. The Telegraph's Chief Reporter Gordon Rayner reports:
An Italian geologist predicted the country's worst earthquake in almost 30 years but he was reported to the police for scaremongering...Even after he was proved right, civic leaders effectively dismissed him as a maverick whose accurate prediction was little more than a fluke.
In an interview which has been posted on Youtube, geologist Giampaolo Giuliano spoclick to read a transcript (in Italian) of Giampaolo Giuliani being interviewed by Roberta Galeotti for Il Capoluogo d'Abruzzoke about his network of devices which record precursors to earthquakes, placed in Abruzzo, the area where the earthquake hapened, including nearby Gran Sasso. He stresses in the interview that nobody can definitively predict an earthquake, but points to increases over the winter in Radon in the area, which is a time-honoured method of predicting the probability of an earthquake recognised by IASPEI (International Association of Seismology and Physics of the Earth's Interior), anclick to go to IASPEI'S websited also to an increase in seismic events ("foreshocks"). Poignantly, he states that the majority of fatalities of an earthquake are caused by panic, and calls for people living in an earthquake zone to be given the opportunity to "compose themselves". Here's the interview, for anybody whose Italian might be less rusty than mine:

On Jeremy Vine's BBC Radio 2 talk-show, I've just heard Professor Philip Stott inform listeners that Giuliano is, in his opinion, a "technician" and not a "scientist", which seemed to indicate that he considered this a slight on Giuliani's abilities. So how come some politicians disappear in a cloud of carbon-taxes when economists, theologians and other politicians declaim on the putative science of climate-change?

Of course it's sad to see L'Aquila's beautiful Cathedral of San Massimo in ruCathedral San Massimo after the earthquake, from the Telegraph website, with thanks to AFP-Gettyins, but the pertinent fact here is that around 200 people are estimated to have been killed in this earthquake, whose herald has been criticised for predicting it a week too early and 40-45 miles away. Given the margins of error accepted for the science mixed with snake-oil salesmanship that powers climate-change con-tricks, I'd say that wasn't too bad.

I wouldn't be too insulted to be called a technician - it's certainly better than the language of mental illness being thrown about as it the terms were insults. But watch this space.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

irony and the silent hound

"Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

"The dog did nothing in the night-time."

"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.
This is the origin of the phrase, possibly more common in the UK than the US, of "the dog that didn't bark", which I guess is the opposite of "the elephant in the room". It's from the Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of Silver Blaze, and I've been thinking of it after reading about the horriffic deaths of fourteen people when a light aircraft crashed into a cemetery in Butte, Montana on 23rd March, and burst into flames.

Irving It's a story I came to through Don't poke the baby. The plane was carrying two daughters, two sons-in-law and five gandchildren of Dr Irving "Bud" Feldkamp (plus four family friends and the pilot) when, having diverted from its planned course, it crashed into the Catholic Holy Cross Cemetery, killing all on board.

It's the equivalent of a plane crashing into the grounds of Our Lady and the English Martyrs Church in Cambridge, next to the Memorial to the Unborn. Feldkamp, a dentist by trade, is the owner of the Family Planning Associates Medical Group, which is the biggest for-profit abortion provider in the US; the cemetery contains a Tomb of the Unborn.

Cyberspace frequent flyers will be familiar with this, because the news has gone through the blogosphere like John Barr's best beef. Day-trippers may not be quite so familiar, eGingi Edmonds - click to read how she broke the Feldkamp crash newsspecially if they're from the UK, because the press has been silent about the issue. I found a short mention in the Sunday Express website, but it focussed exclusively on the family losses and didn't mention the abortion angle.

Over here, I don't think it's customary or popular for sections of the press to spend a lot of time thinking about how powerful the abortion industry is in Britain - so thank God for John Smeaton and Radagast and for Cranmer's forays into pro-life comment - but the Yorkshire Post's Bernard Dineen states that "the abortion surge is an inevitable victory for the powerful abortion industry": abortion services will now be advertised on TV. Which will lead not only to an intensification of the massacre of unborn children, but to unanticipated physical and psychological attrition upon mothers for a reason that Family Planning Associates makes no bones about on its website: "Patients are given complete information about what to expect when they leave the facility" (my italics - if yclick to go to the Silent No More Websiteou're new to pro-life posts, imagine the information you'd expect to receive from medical personnel beforehand if you were having your tonsils out.)

This crash is so ironic it hurts, but I hope the suffering of all of the plane's passengers was minimal. I also hope that, if the power of the abortion industry here was what caused our presshounds to be the dogs that didn't bark, they will soon recover their voices and that, in the words of the international campaign to heal the wounds abortion causes to women and men, they will be silent no more.

Friday, April 3, 2009

bbc fine leaves the corporation quids in

Georgina BaillieHere we go again.

Last October, establishment eejits Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand left obscene messages on the actor Andrew Sach's answerphone, concerning his grand-daughter Georgina Baillie.

The BBC initially lied and said it had not received a complaint from Mr Sachs before some of the egregious material was replayed on Brand's show the next week. It then tried to sAndrew Sachsmear its own constituency of licence-fee payers for not being quick off the mark about complaining, which probably reflected Brand's miniscule audience more than anything else; but when journalists, notably the Mail's Melanie Phillips, made the public aware of what had happened, complaints poured in until the broadcasting regulator Ofcom had over 40,000 of the things. The BBC then tried to snatch the Gordon Brown prize for speedily mustering the lifeboats on the ship you've just scuttled and demanded praise for suspending Ross for 3 months without pay (Brand having confirmed his reputation as a serial resigner).

Ofcom rOfcom logo: click to read the report of the Ofcom Content Sanctions Committee on the Brand/Ross affaireleased its report on the affair today, containing its decision - as the Telegraph's Digital and Media Correspondent Urmee Khan reports - to fine the BBC £150,000. Ross's suspension is key to understanding why the fine is, in Telegraph blogger Janet Daly's words, small change to the Corporation.

Jonathan Ross is famously on a £18,000,000 ($26,250,000) contract for three years with the BBC, so a three-month suspension without pay has saved the BBC £1,500,000. It is therefore disingenuous of Ofcom to state that it set the BBC's fine at a lower threshold in comparison to other public service broadcasters because "any fine would be taken from monies paid by the public (the licence fee payer)", as the fine leaves the BBC quids in to the tune of £1.35m of licence fee payers' money - and I suspect the Corporation will argue that it now has the moral authority to declare the matter closed.

But this declaration of fine principles on the part of Ofcom comes in page 34 of a 37-page document. Janet Daley's exposé of the obfuscation is crystal-clear:
Janet Daley - click to view her profile and recent posts, thanks to the Telegraph for the picHacking your way through this management gibberish - this risible catalogue of compliance systems, compulsory Safeguarding Trust courses and proactive testing - you might long to see a reference to common sense, not to say common decency. Do professional broadcasters now have to attend training courses to be told that leaving obscene messages on the answering machine of an elderly man is not simply "inappropriate" but morally repugnant behaviour?
It's gDavid Cameron, Conservative Party leader: click to read his speech on freezing the BBC licence for a year, thanks to the PA for the picood that the BBC has responded to 40,000+ complaints, but disappointing that it aired Jerry Springer: The Opera in the face of a third as many again protests. Conservative leader David Cameron has called for the BBC's licence fee to be frozen for a year in response to the recession. I hope this is a prologue to disestablishing the broadcaster, so that it can be as offensive as it wants without those of us presently indebted to it by statute having to pay for the privelege.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

top ten songs about water

It's nearly the end of Lent, and Maxima has been fasting every Friday, and finding it something of a liberating experience. In the early Church, Eastertime was the customary time of baptism for converts from paganism, and therefore Lent was a time for meditating on the various aspects of water. I can't promise a meditation, but am fascinated by the matrix formed by the intersection of modern music with seemingly deeper topics. Here are my own offerings.

10 - The Mighty Atlantic - Runrig

This song is from the album Mara, which is Scots Gaelic for "sea". I am reminded of the Hebrew word Marah, which means "bitter", and is mentioned in Exodus 15:23 as a bitter srping some days' journey after the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. Some Jewish mystics ascribe to Marah the experience of "the great bitter sea" which must be crossed on one's journey to God, an experience they sometimes call the Vision of Sorrow.

9 - The River of Dreams - Billy Joel

I often hear people who haven't practiced their faith for years discuss what they're going to give up for Lent - it seems as much a part of touching home as Christmas. Just so, I'm fascinated by the opening lines of Billy Joel's song, which came to him in the shower one morning (water again!) just after rising: In the middle of the night/I go walking in my sleep/From the mountains of faith/To the river so deep/I must be lookin' for something/Something sacred I lost.

8 - Big River - Jimmy Nail

Perhaps it's the daily experience of living with powerful forces you can't control that tempts people who work on and by the sea to be superstitious: I've heard a story that a collective chill went down the spines of the Harland & Wolff Shipyard workers in Belfast when they came on shift to find that somebody had painted the legend "unsinkable" on the hull of the RMS Titanic. Whatever, this is a powerful song of the rise and fall of shipyards that has been played out in many places over the world, but ends with a note of optimism that generally heralds the diminishing of a depression of any description like spring's first snowdrop: the river will rise again.

7 - A change is gonna come - Billy Preston

Like many classic songs, this is "about" many things. When Sam Cooke wrote it in 1963, the civil Rights movement had burgeoned since Rosa Parks decided a bus-seat was a bus-seat and enough was enough. But it also speaks of his inner turmoil, much exacerbated by the death, earlier that year, of his infant son. Cooke writes of being born by the river and seems to see life as a Heraclitean process of change which has been dammed for so long that an inundation is inevitable. His song has been sung by a host of singers, but my favourite interpretations are by Seal, the Neville Brothers and Billy Preston. I love the latter's piano style, so I chose his.

6 - Rivers of Babylon - Boney M

This was no. 1 for weeks in Great Britain, and I believe it was the German band's only hit to trouble the US charts. Much of their music was derided as disposable pop at the time, but I bought Maxima their Greatest Hits a couple of Christmases ago, and was surprised at the sophisticated arrangements.

After its release in 1978, it received boquets and brickbats in equal measure from the inhabitants of the "God-slot" on Glasgow's Radio Clyde. Personally, I think that a disco song that put verses 1-4 of Psalm 137, detailing the dramatic refusal of a cantor to sing for his Babylonian captors, on everybody's tongue and in everybody's mind was wonderful.

5 - Fingal's Cave - Mendelssohn

Fingal's Cave
In 1829, the composer accepted an invitation to travel to England, and extended his journey to Scotland to visit the novelist Walter Scott. On a sailing trip, he glimpsed the rugged beauty of the entrance to Fingal's Cave, on the island of Staffa, which is one of the Outer Hebrides (also called the Western Isles), a chain of islands to the west of the Highlands. It must have taken the water aeons to carve the intricate pillars from the basalt outside the cave: but then water, like God, acts in its own good time. (If you click the video twice, you will see thelightisahead's excellent commentary on this piece.)

4 - Amazon - John Denver

I'm not anti-environment, because that would be synonymous with suicide. But the endless clanging of empty vessels calling for care for the environment is not only sinister, in that it combines population control agendas with ways of seeking to raise taxes on how we live and move, it is presumptuous: if Great Britain's electricity supply owed as much to wind turbines as environmentalists would like, we'd have had a blackout during the cold snap last Christmas, when there were hardly any winds. And stupid: because of the haranguing at high levels of environmentalists, not only do we not have new nuclear power stations to replace the old, but we're going to have to import the know-how to build them from France, for Pete's sake.

We are fatigued with all the false righteousness, and one of the biggest losers is the Amazon. What's going on there, with logging, development and eradication of indigenous ways of life, is nothing short of a crying shame. I don't think James Lovelock was being mischevous when he recently called for nuclear waste to be buried underground around the Amazon - development would wither, and demand for products from the trees would collapse.

John Denver's 1991 song Amazon, from the album Different Directions, seems seems to be rigidly platonic in the introductory verses, but the reasons for this become clear in the later parts of the song. I hope you enjoy these images of Amazonia, and the track from Denver's Wildlife Concert.

3 - Eriskay Love Lilt - Nana Mouskouri

This is a Scottish love song that was originally written in Gaelic, but to embed a video in that language would not only exclude the rest of the world, it would exclude most Scots. For me it shows where the analogy between water and God breaks down - love can unite where water divides. It's performed by Greek songstress Nana Mouskouri.

2- Perhaps Love - John Denver and Placido Domingo

Legend has it that John Denver wrote this song after coming in from the balcony attached to his London hotel room; he had been preoccupied with the darkest of thoughts, but - an aviation fanatic, indeed a pilot - had seen Concorde fly overhead, and decided that if such a random event could pierce his suffering then there was a purpose to it all. The resulting song was full of dissonant metaphors, but water ran through most of them: love is "a shelter from the storm", and it is "like an ocean, full of conflict, full of pain" (although Denver sometimes substituted "change" for "pain"; perhaps he'd read of Heraclitus). The one line, hoever, that has come to me through the years is the memory of love will bring you home: I'm sure St Monica hoped something similar for St Augustine - certainly my mother and my wife made this their prayer for me.

1 - The long and winding road - The Sixties

This is a faithful interpretation of the Beatles' Let it Be album version of the song, with its references to rain and pools of tears, about which there was a huge kerfuffle, with Paul McCartney saying that Phil Spector's instrumental backing ruined it, and Spector replying that Macca had no problems accepting an Oscar for the film of the album. So I decided to offer you a video by Israeli cover band The Sixties, supported by the Raanana Symphonette Orchestra. The reason I've put this at number 1? When I was living in Rome, a student priest said to me, "this is the story of my faith."

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