Wednesday, 9 December 2015

The devil is in the detail

A truly magnificent piece of 'news' reported on the CBS website recently, which I urge you to have a look at here. It seems our Fappy the anti-masturbation dolphin hasn't been practising what he preaches. Quite the opposite, in fact.

These stories are laughable enough as they are, but there's often some small detail that enriches them even further, and this one's ripe with them. You may think it's the name of the dolphin that's the most amusing sobriquet in this tale, but it must take a poor second to the name of the bloke who's been nicked. His fourth arrest for such an act, it seems, though he's never actually been convicted on any occasion, of which more later. Our Mr Horner either been lucky to get off so frequently (see what I did there?) or extremely unfortunate to be singled out by quite so many vindictive law enforcement agencies. 

Never mind, though. His organisation, federally funded as it turns out, is right behind him. His part in their crusade to warn people of the 'dangers and consequences' of masturbation will merely go on in prison if he's convicted. I can see why he'd be well-placed, should such a conviction occur, to offer that advice - he'd certainly be experiencing consequences above and beyond what most people might expect from any of their own such onanistic urges.

But back to those little details. The term 'self rape' to describe what he'd be trying to stop during any incarceration is a staggering misuse of a word that represents the genuinely heinous. And on a lighter note I'm struggling to imagine any circumstances in which masturbating isn't consensual, frankly. Maybe if your hand had been possessed by the devil and was doing his work against your own bidding - but Fappy could hardly consider that your fault, could he?

And back to those previous arrests. An illuminating little snippet from his lawyer informs us that Stop Masturbation Now 'Luckily... has lots of connections in Washington. Plus, of course, he is innocent.' You'd certainly put that second in that list, wouldn't you? Describing your client as a 'hero, a prophet, and a saviour', you'd definitely put that he's innocent after those important connections which he may need.

In the event these allegations prove to be false for a fourth time (masturbatory fantasies, you might say?), the number to call to bring 'the tickle monster' as he's also known to your school is helpfully provided by CBS. I bet schools are absolutely queuing up.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

My father, who art in hospital

I was on a train yesterday morning when one of those public transport preachers you encounter from time to time got on. "Just five minutes of your time," he assured the carriage, before starting his efforts to save our souls with the words "The world is around 6,000 years old now." This piece of folly so startled me that I genuinely didn't take in much of the rest of what he said because I was going over in my mind ways to politely suggest to him that he may waste less of his time and better engage more of us non-believers if he didn't start with such a bizarre statement of 'fact'.

I did no such thing, of course. I did what everybody else did, what everybody else always does - I waited him out in silence before he finished up and moved to the next carriage. I do remember some of what he spouted over the next few minutes - stuff about babies not needing to be taught to lie, that we're all born into sin, that the world is full of murder, paedophiles etc. The usual mix of preaching and Daily Mail style hysteria.

Why have I brought this up now, after months without a blog entry? It's not as if there's been nothing to write about - take your pick from corruption in sport, the Russian jet, Paris, Kenya etc. There's been plenty of stuff worthy of saying at least something here. So I don't know. But this is nothing if not a personal blog, and it's personal stuff that's brought me back here. Standing on the train listening to this fellow, I wasn't doing the usual commute into work. I was actually heading south, to meet my brother and my mother, in turn to head off to Eastbourne to see my father, who's in Intensive Care in the hospital there.

My dad has just had a major operation - they've taken out a major organ, a bit of something else and the cancerous tumour that put him in there in the first place. That's why I was heading down there and not into work. What has this got to do with the preacher?

Well the surgeon who assisted the op spoke to us before we went in to see Dad, to tell us what to expect when we saw him, what had gone on in theatre etc. He was honest with us, as both Dad and we had asked him to be, and one of his questions was whether we're religious. None of my family are - my parents left my brother and me to decide these things for ourselves, neither stopping us attending church nor suggesting we should. It simply didn't come up during our youth. The surgeon, learning this, said that he wasn't either, he merely 'didn't want to close off that source of support'.

There is, on the same floor as the ICU at Eastbourne, and at the Royal Sussex County where both my parents have spent time recently, a chapel and a chaplain for people who do take comfort from their faith at times like this. Part of me envies the succour they must get from it, but this wouldn't be my blog without the words 'wind me up' in it, and the greater part of me is indeed wound up by this juxtaposition of church and medicine.

Where was God last Thursday week in Paris, when innocent people were being slaughtered in his name? Where is he for my mother who, having suffered a stroke which almost killed her in November 2013, now has to hobble to the hospital to see the very man who's cared for her at home during her own rehabilitation? This woman, so full of compassion and love for others, so completely selfless, who better exemplifies the qualities to which we're all urged to aspire in various holy texts than anybody else I know, would certainly deserve better in any world in which people get what they deserve.

They don't, though, do they? Much of the stuff I could have written about these past few months serves only to illustrate that fact all too clearly. So she sits watching over a husband she's doted on for the best part of fifty years while I contemplate if the always-empty chapel next door couldn't better be used as a bar, frankly. Watching and hearing the reactions of the other loved ones sharing both a waiting room and a waiting game with us, each with their own stories, their own hopes and tragedies unfolding in front of us, I don't think I was alone in feeling more like a pint than a prayer.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Don't give in to hate

It has been, by any standards, a horrible period for news. The indiscriminate killing of people enjoying their holiday in Tunisia, the awful slaughter in Syria, which British people are leaving our shores to go and join, and just this morning more people killed in Nigeria. These are just the ones I can think of - no doubt other atrocities, those which don't happen to catch the newsmen's eyes, have happened away from the gaze of the western media and are therefore hidden from us.

With so much suffering going on, so much inhumanity, it's tempting to simply close your eyes to it, to disregard the news completely. I've never done that, but I increasingly understand those who do. To do so, though, is to miss other stuff that can cast some light on what good people are capable of. I thought it may be an opportune time to add my own celebration to the life of a man who thoroughly refused to let hatred win. His achievements took a long time to come to light as a result of his reticence and modesty, and even as he died recently at the deservedly ripe old age of 106, the events I've mentioned above rather subsumed his story.

Sir Nicholas Winton didn't come to any kind of national attention until around 1988, oddly enough on That's Life (there's a reference for the teenagers...). He'd kept quiet about his efforts to get children, hundreds of them, out of what was then Czechoslovakia and into Britain, taking them from under the noses of a Nazi occupier intent on murdering them. This is not a phrase you'll ever see or hear again on these pages, I suspect, but have a look at part of the episode of That's Life which brought him to national attention.

He dismissed his own efforts for the rest of his life, instead claiming others took the real risks. His modesty no doubt included a grain of truth in that the other people involved in his operations deserve to be recognised as he was, but to return to my original point, this was a man who refused to let hatred win, who did something amazing and inspirational rather than think he faced an overwhelming, impossible task. It's a shame there aren't more stories about this type of good deed around, but regrettably, they don't sell as many newspapers, they don't make people tune in to watch the news specially – generally it's guns, killing and misery that'll do that.

Tomorrow, Tuesday 7th, is the anniversary of just such an event of the type that sends the media into a frenzy – the bombings in London which killed 52 people ten years ago. This was, of course, a perfect illustration of what can happen when people become so blinded by hate that they lose their humanity. But even in the aftermath of that kind of atrocity, there are still stories of incredible courage, of bonds formed out of the adversity, of people helping each other without regard for religion, colour, etc.

I think, so far at least, that typifies your average Brit's response to this kind of thing – 7/7 or Tunisia, 9/11, Lee Rigby, Charlie Hebdo, whatever. Usually, in discussions about this, what I hear is pretty measured, understanding and accepting that you can't judge a whole creed on the actions of a very few. So far, the usual response is a determination to carry on as normally as possible, a refusal to let these actions achieve their aims, and an unwillingness to tar everybody with the same broad brush.

How many stories, though, will it take before open and inflammatory anti-Islamic sentiment becomes an accepted response to another atrocity? The recent support for UKIP and, before that, an increase in the BNP vote, suggest the bar is moving downward, toward the point where it'll be acceptable to express anti-Islamic, rather than anti-terrorist, sentiment in print. There are clearly individuals who will regard any Muslim as culpable, just as Islamic extremist terrorists regards any Westerner as fair game – there have already been attacks on completely innocent people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – and it appears that some of those individuals are getting into politics, trying to legitimise this sort of response, or at least its spoken expression.

It'd be a slippery slope indeed if that started to become the norm. We would, for sure, be handing those few nutters exactly what they want. Sir Nicholas Winton's life stands as an example to all of us that hatred can be denied its ends, if we stand up to it. RIP, sir.

Monday, 25 May 2015


So a couple of weeks on, then, and the first noises are already being made about 'changing Britain's relationship with Europe', Nigel Farage having to applaud, to his own apparent surprise, from the sidelines in the meantime. With a referendum on that relationship with Europe surely now a matter of time, Cameron is making it pretty clear from the first days of this government what it is that people have voted for.

So what happened? Has the country lurched to the right? Is everybody simply voting with their wallets, as I've maintained has been the case since the Thatcher years, now the economy seems to be improving? And why did the fully expected bashing meted out to the Lib Dems seem to benefit the very party they were being punished for getting into bed with?

The only predictable bit was what happened to the Lib Dems. As I wrote here some time ago, vote Lib Dem, get Tory, was never going to wash with anybody who'd put their cross in that particular box last time round. Paddy Ashdown's infamous claim that he'd eat his hat if their showing was as bad as exit polls suggested and Clegg's tearful, apparently shell-shocked resignation speech seemed to suggest that the retribution they suffered came as a horrible surprise to them, if nobody else.

You might have expected Labour to be the main beneficiaries of the collapse of the Lib Dem vote, but that's not what happened. The votes all seemed to go elsewhere - the gigantic swing to the SNP in Scotland, for example, decimated Labour in an area where the Tories only had one seat at stake anyway. And to anybody not voting Tory, the south of England makes for depressing map making. Head south from London and only my home city of Brighton & Hove breaks the blue monopoly. Those disaffected Lib Dems certainly didn't vote Labour.

For those of us not of a politically blue persuasion, there were still highlights, still things to please. The main one, of course, was the defeat of one Farage, N., in Thanet. There's no arguing with the number of votes UKIP gleaned overall - a worrying and slightly depressing sign that many Brits may well be blaming all our problems on immigration and a possible, if seemingly implausible, answer to that question of where the Lib Dem votes went. But their winning of only one seat, and Farage's failure to take his, are cause for some hope. Farage's predictable u-turn on his resignation, though, demonstrated that he'll still likely feature on the newly blue political landscape, even if it's only as a mouthy observer. George Galloway losing (and by 'losing' I mean being completely thrashed) Bradford West was also to be celebrated. Abominable man.

Where now for Labour? Realising, five years too late, that they should have elected the other Miliband, should prove sobering to the rank and file. David Miliband always had more charisma than his sibling, and his brother's campaign, essentially moribund, reflected that lack. In this era of personality politicians, where image is so much more important than manifesto promises that are no longer worth the paper they're printed on, he simply never inspired people. A genuinely fresh face is needed. I'd rather hoped my own MP, Chukka Umunna, a man seen as a rising star of the Labour movement and, importantly these days, regarded as pro-business and not too left wing, would be the new leader. He pulled out, though, feeling the need in the process to deny that an 'unwelcome press story' was his motivation for doing so. Odd.

Whoever they do choose this time, they have to get it right because they've got a lot of ground to make up - we've now got five years of Tory control with a small, but workable, majority. Five years during which the Labour leader will have to prove him/herself as a plausible alternative to the incumbent PM, probably campaign on a hugely important issue like EU membership, and try to find at least some common ground with a party which wants to break up the Union as it stands, if any credible opposition to the Conservatives is to be offered.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Dogma, pedagogy and helicopters.

It's been that long, I realise, since I wrote anything on these pages that it must have seemed like I'd given it up forever. It becomes an easy habit to break, this, and with every week that passes without a new entry, a harder one to re-establish. The longer it goes without an entry, the better it's got to be when it does finally reappear, right? At least that's how it feels from this end.

So, finally dipping my fingers back into the murky waters of the typing pool, you'll forgive me, I hope, if this one falls rather short of the standard that might be expected after a five-month hiatus, for that is what it's been. (I genuinely hadn't realised it had gone that long).

So, comment on general election to come. Clegg's tears, Miliband's rather startled realisation that his brother should have got the job all along, and Farage's defeat will no doubt feature. See if you can guess, before I write that entry, which one of those three things gave me the most pleasure. In the meantime, a bit of comment on what Danny Baker might call the Iron Horse of this blog, the good old Catholic Church.

I've had the very good fortune these past couple of weekends to head out to Spain for each of them. It may seem a bit la-di-dah jet set to fly out on a Friday, back on a Monday, out again on a Thursday and back once more on the Monday, but that's how it fell. First for a wedding, then for a birthday celebration. I've written on here before about Spanish weddings, I think - their length compared to the British ceremonies I've attended, never having to pay for a drink at the reception, the very Spanish music partnered by dancing late into the night. Then there's just how, well, Catholic the actual ceremony is. This usually includes a sermon, in both senses of the word, and the one delivered by the priest administering the wedding I attended a couple of Saturdays back was an absolute doozy.

I usually hear my girlfriend, a fervent atheist brought up in a Catholic country, muttering in quiet disagreement during these ceremonies as the priests do their thing. On this occasion, though, she actually felt moved to get up and leave the church mid-way through the thing, ostensibly to assist a mum with one of her two babies, who'd started fussing a bit - who can blame them? - but really to cool her anger at what she was hearing. My Spanish has not come on sufficiently to follow everything said at these occasions, especially when it's punctuated by the typical call-and-response refrain of the church's own peculiar argot.

Her later explanation was that the priest had had a bit of a go at parents who leave it to teachers to educate their kids. Teachers, he'd explained, merely teach. They can't educate - only the Church, through their parents, can do that. So all this stuff the schools fill kids' heads with can't be allowed to take root as incredulity, as questioning, lest they veer from the perfect truth of the Church. As a former teacher, this was basically the perfect storm for her, so out she bailed, for a while at least.

All ended well, though. They got married, there was dancing, and I got completely shit-faced because a) the bar's free, remember, and b) you always forget they don't bother with measures like we do, so you're getting at least a treble every time you order a short. The hotel room was doing the helicopter thing when I crashed into bed at who-knows-what hour of Sunday morning, knowing I had to be back at work Monday afternoon and recovery time was therefore short.

This weekend just passed, however, was completely different. I got completely shit-faced at a birthday party instead, and the spare room of the house I was staying in was doing the helicopter thing as I crashed into bed at who-knows-what hour of Sunday morning, knowing I had to be back at work... you get the idea.

What did I learn from these occasions? Well, it might be a good idea to get wasted before any subsequent wedding ceremony I attend out there. The church may do the helicopter thing while the nuptials are going on, but I've noticed that my confidence in my Spanish is correlative with the amount of alcohol I've consumed. So have a few early doors and I'd at least think I could understand the sermon sufficiently to understand what my missus is muttering about as she stands next to me.