Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Red Square

It was the beginning of November, 1988, and I had a temporary job as the personal assistant to a businessman, who was selling stuff and doing deals at a trade fair. In Moscow.

We worked hard and we worked late. Having finally finished for the day, my boss suggested we get some fresh air. So we left our hotel and walked the short distance to Red Square.

It was a cold evening and there had been a snow shower shortly before, but now the night was clear and wind-still. The wide expanse of the square was glistening white with fresh snow. We stood with our backs to the GUM department store, Saint Basil’s Cathedral floodlit to our left, beside it the star on the spire of the Spasskaya Tower glowing softly red in the night. Before us rose the ochre walls of the Kremlin. In front of them there was activity at Lenin’s Mausoleum. It was the changing of the guard. Young Soviet soldiers in grey-green winter coats with red and gold epaulettes goose-stepped in to relieve their comrades, the arc-lights reflecting from their polished high boots.

I remember being struck by a sense of history. There, in the Kremlin before me, Ivan the Terrible had lived, Napoleon had watched Moscow burn, Lenin (now lying embalmed in his tomb before us) had seized power, paranoid Stalin had brooded and ordered mass-murder. I seemed to hear Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture whisper ghostly across the square. Somewhere in there even now was Mikhail Gorbachev, perhaps working late at his desk, wondering where the twin genies of glasnost and perestroika he had let out of the bottle would lead his reluctant, increasingly unruly empire next.

And then I thought no more and simply stood, caught in the wonder of the moment. I had seen magnificent squares before; the majesty of the Grand Place in Brussels or the stupendous embrace of Bernini’s twin arms of columns edging St. Peter’s in Rome. Now I was sure Red Square was the most beautiful in the world. I looked up and saw the red flag above the copper dome fluttering bravely in the wind.

In the wind? There was no wind, yet the flag was unfurled and clear to see; the hammer, sickle and star visible in the upper left corner. My friend Sergei explained later to me that the flagstaff was hollow and that air was pumped up through it so that, even on a calm day, it would seem to blow proudly in the wind.

Though not for much longer, for the greater wind blowing was the wind of change. A year later the Berlin Wall would fall. Two years after that, on December 26th, 1991, the Supreme Soviet, the highest governmental body of the Soviet Union voted to dissolve itself, the red flag above the Kremlin was lowered and replaced with the white, blue and red one of the Russian Federation. Gorbachev was swept from the stage by Yeltsin, muttering (in my imagination) as he went Goethe’s famous words from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, “Die ich rief, die Geister, Werd’ ich nun nicht los (I cannot now be rid of the spirits I conjured up).” The changing of the guard no longer takes place before Lenin’s tomb, having been moved to the Eternal Flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and there are discussions going on in Russia on the subject of moving the remains of old Vladimir Ilyich somewhere else.

But on that evening in early November 1988, this was all still in the future. I returned to my hotel feeling peaceful and blessed, the memory of the beauty of the moment still resounding in my consciousness …

Picture retrieved from:

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Earth Hour

So, I’m sitting here in the dark, the only illumination being the dim light from my computer monitor, doing my symbolic bit for awareness of global warming. In case you didn’t know, we have Earth Hour this evening, where various organisations have asked us to turn off our lights for an hour as a sign of our awareness for the need for action on climate change. And wondering if it’s going to do a damn bit of good.

It is, I suppose, understandable that, after the long cold winter we’ve had, people don’t seem to be as worried about global warming as they used to be. An opinion poll published in Der Spiegel today reveals that only 42% of Germans fear the effects climate change could bring, down 20% on figures three and a half years ago. Similar results are reported from Great Britain. Apparently, recent criticism of admitted inaccuracies in reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the public debate resulting from it has made many people feel that there has been a large amount of scaremongering about the whole issue. A quarter of all Germans even believe that Germany could profit overall from climate change.

I am not an expert in climate studies, but there are a couple of things that seem clear to me. Firstly, last winter means nothing – even if it did have me occasionally wishing for global warming as, shivering, I trudged my way carefully along icy footpaths or dug my car free from deep blankets of snow. That was just weather; we will go on having warmer and colder winters – and summers. Climate change is about long-range trends, over decades and centuries and that’s where the problems start. The statistics science really needs just haven’t been kept for that long, so the scientists have to rely on secondary evidence, tree rings and ice probes and such things. And that’s one of the main things making the data so open to different interpretations and conclusions.

But there are a couple of basic facts which give cause for concern. World population has been increasingly rapidly since the beginning of the industrial age. Two hundred years ago, it was around one billion, a hundred years ago 1.7 billion, fifty years ago 3 billion, ten years ago 6 billion, and around the end of this year we’re going to crack the 7 billion mark. Now all these people produce a lot of heat just by living and consume a hell of a lot of energy – particularly if they live well (which many don’t, but the amount who do is much larger than at any stage in the past).

We are producing and consuming more energy per head than ever in history. There are ever more cars and trucks, more and more of us fly in aeroplanes more and more frequently, we have more and more appliances, all of which need to be powered. Our homes are centrally heated, many have air-conditioning. And, with the exception of solar and wind energy and nuclear power, all this energy is gained by burning stuff. Additionally, because, despite all technical advances, we’re still not very efficient at this, a considerable amount of this energy is lost at every stage of the process, the way energy looses itself most easily; as heat.

In a very simplified way, from a chemical point of view, burning stuff always comes down to the same thing. Growing things store energy by using the only ultimately free source of energy, sunlight, to bind carbon molecules with lots of other stuff. Almost all the carbon for this comes from carbon dioxide in the air, producing free oxygen molecules as a by-product. When this carbon is released by applying an initial impulse of burning, it combines with oxygen to form carbon dioxide and releases that stored energy as heat. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution we’ve been burning everything we can get to produce energy, including vast amounts of fossil fuel, which is basically, solar energy which was stored over millions of years. And the carbon which was bound there has been released in the form of billions of tons of carbon dioxide.

Nobody can seriously argue with any of this; the discussions arise when it comes to the consequences. The opponents of global warming theories, it seems to me, argue that the excess heat and CO2 we produce are not significant on global levels and, furthermore, that the earth itself regularly goes through warming and cooling phases which are far more significant. It only takes a bit more activity on the part of some major volcanoes to produce extra levels of carbon dioxide which equal or surpass that caused by humanity and, no matter how technologically advanced we have become, we’re still not up to controlling geological events. A couple of Krakatoas are capable of producing a greenhouse effect, without any help from humans.

There is some validity in these points, yet, in my opinion, they don’t reach the core of the problem. There seems to be clear evidence that global temperatures have been rising in recent decades, it is undeniable that the polar icecaps are shrinking and that glaciers are in retreat. That inevitably means more liquid water and rising sea-levels. Rising global temperatures means that weather patterns will change. Many millions of people on our densely populated planet depend for their survival on stable sea-levels and weather systems and this stability seems to be becoming shaky. In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether climate change is anthropogenic or not, the evidence suggests that it does seem to be getting warmer worldwide in the past decades. And one thing is certain, humans are not helping to cool things down. Personally, I think it’s not a bad idea for us to start doing so. That’s why I turned out the lights this evening.

And now that Earth Hour is over here, I’ll turn them back on and post this …

Friday, 26 March 2010

What's your Nationality?

“Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!

- Walter Scott

“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”

- Samuel Johnson

As someone who has lived outside his native land for over a quarter of a century now, the question of my national identity often exercises me. My study of history has led me to be generally suspicious of “nationalism” and I find much value in the view that nationalism (or at least a particular expression of it) was one of the major roots of the frequent cataclysms of mass murder and sufferings which convulsed the globe throughout the 20th. Century. From a rational point of view it seems in many ways ludicrous to feel a particular attachment to a geographical/political/cultural entity – a country – just because one happened to be born there. And, in many cases, this quickly goes farther, to a belief that we, and the way we do things, are better than others and the way they do things.

There is much of this which can be easily explained, although understanding some of the reasons why things are the way they are often doesn’t do much about changing things which are very deep in us.

We are still, basically, primates. Ok, we’ve come a long way and are (arguably) much cleverer than our monkey cousins; we have tilled the earth and subdued it and taken dominion over everything and all that stuff. Primates are social animals, that’s the way they survive. They live together in a group, find their identity there, cooperate to make a living and protect each other. They find their status there, bickering and competing with each other for position, looking after their children and weaker members (at least to some extent), obeying and adulating some (thereby bestowing prestige), ostracising others. They tend to react aggressively to other groups of the same species – partly because they are competing for similar resources, more viscerally felt, simply because they are not-us. This is the way evolution made us; the fittest who survived.

On the way, however, something else happened – the complex story of our development led to us developing reflective (self-)consciousness, rationality. We developed the ability to examine ourselves and our behaviour, to reflect on it and change it in the light of other aspects that this development gave rise to (or helped us discover, depending on your viewpoint); religion, morality, philosophy, sociology, political science, etc. Our way of living grew complex, the groups grew larger, differentiated, developed sub-groups, combined or were subjugated; tribes formed, principalities, kingdoms, republics, nations.

Monkey business writ large, if you like – but there’s still a lot of monkey in us and it’s how we feel comfortable. Still, there is a lot of it that’s completely irrational, stuff that we should be able to go beyond.

Stuff we have gone beyond, in many respects. We have the United Nations and the International Court of Justice, even if these organisations have vast room for improvement. In Europe we have the European Union, something the peaceful development of which has changed our lives dramatically in the past fifty years, mostly (in my opinion at least) for the better. We have many edifying visions of our common humanity and our common responsibility for each other and our planet. Our global village is growing together in many practical ways, not least through the literally world-wide web, which enables us to form all sorts of new communities, unfettered by geographical, national, racial or cultural differences.

I’ve lived in Germany for 24 years now. I speak the language fluently, as well as anyone who has basically learned it as an adult probably can. I feel genuinely comfortable here; I have my job, my daughters and grandson here (although this, like everything, can and may perhaps change at some time in the future), I have friends and colleagues and acquaintances. I know how things work, all the little things you need to know to survive and thrive – like where you go to buy particular things, how to do your tax returns, what number to call when you need a doctor or a pizza, what’s in and out in all sorts of groups, how groups relate to each other, etc., etc. I’m at home here. Around ten years ago I got a letter from the local authorities telling me I was entitled to citizenship. There was just one small snag.

I’d have to give up my Irish passport. I couldn’t do it. It’s no big thing. As an EU citizen, I have the same rights as Germans here, with the small exception that I can’t vote in national or Länder elections and can’t be elected to the Bundestag. But something in me balked. Pushed to it, I just wasn’t prepared to officially give up my Irish nationality. From a practical point of view, this is completely illogical. The way my life looks at the moment, the chances that I’ll stay here for the rest of my life are fairly high. Apart from anything else, Ireland has changed enormously since I left and I haven’t a clue about how all sorts of practical things work there nowadays.

I don’t believe that being Irish is better than being German or vice versa, that’s got nothing to do with it. My Irish identity would remain, no matter what passport I had. I could still cheer when the Irish soccer team occasionally win and curse when they more frequently lose. I could still retain my continuing interest in what’s going on in Irish politics and culture. Officially becoming a German, officially acknowledging that I’m at home here wouldn’t have to change anything about the feeling I have when I visit Ireland that that’s going home too.

Only it would, somehow. It’s not rational, not logical. Something about roots, about an important part of me being where I come from. Just me. So, in two years time, I’ll be sending my passport off to the Irish Embassy in Berlin to have it renewed for another ten years.

Monkey business.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Health Care Reform

So, the US Congress has passed President Obama’s health reform legislation and around 32 million US Americans will finally get some kind of health insurance. Seen from a Western European perspective, the USA has finally joined the group of nations which officially sees health care as a basic human right.

I admit to finding the US debate strange. Manipulated by various vested interests and some frightening ideologues, many US Americans of a conservative bent genuinely seem to see the reform as an attack on the foundations of their society, ramming through dictatorial socialism in the land of the free and the home of the brave. A confirmation of their fear of what the election of a black president with Hussein as a middle name and a surname which contains only one letter’s difference to the first name of the fanatic mastermind behind 9/11 would bring. One evangelical preacher has been making headlines by starting a list to pray for the deaths of all those representatives who voted for the health bill. This kind of fanatic, hate-filled opposition is frightening. The ironic thing is that it was the regions with the highest proportion of people with no health insurance whose representatives voted most strongly against the bill. (Those interested in the statistics can view them here:

It all suggests to me that a lot of the opposition to Obama’s health care proposals is of basic ideological nature, rather than actually about health coverage. It’s about complex issues of perception rather than the concrete issues on the table. There are deep roots in old American memes of mistrust in government and a frontier mentality of self-reliance. These join with conservative evangelical themes which have a deep distrust of secular liberal pluralism and a feeling of being threatened by a dangerous, unknown, possibly hostile world outside the glow of the camp-fires around which those of like-mind, those you trust and love, huddle. A world of outlaws, of people who look and think differently to you; a world where you can be cheated and robbed – either by those poorer and more desperate than you, or by those who are cleverer, more smooth-talking and educated than you, who will take your money and leave you with snake-oil. Against the poor and the desperate you can protect yourself with a gun, but what will protect you from self-secure, godless, liberal lawyers, who want to take your money and (having pocketed a good portion of it) give the rest to those too lazy and indigent to look after themselves? And, there in the back of your mind, there’s still that niggling worry, the fear that you too could loose your job, get sick; but if there’s one thing you’ve learned, it’s that in such situations, the only ones you can really rely on anyway are family and, sometimes, trusted friends, and, of course, God. In him you trust, the rest pay cash and you do too, when you need something and you have it.

There’s a kind of residual Calvinistic tinge to all of this; a feeling that, somehow, sickness is a judgement of God, a result of your own failings and that general health insurance will be “wasted” on those who have stuffed themselves to obesity and diabetes or fornicated themselves into sexually transmitted diseases or situations in which they consider terminating pregnancies. The factual grounds for obesity in poor, cheaper diets and lack of exercise, the genetic component in diabetes, that the treatment of stds (with the exception of the special HIV issue) is generally cheap and easy and that it’s a miniscule amount of the health budget in developed countries anyway disappear in the heat of emotional discussion. But, as I said, most of the discussion is about perceptions rather than facts.

Not that there aren’t enough facts to be discussed. Health care is expensive and will become more so, especially in the developed countries, with ageing populations and ever better, more complex treatments which mean that people are coping with and living much longer with chronic illness. Are there limits to what society can carry collectively in the area of health and, if so, what are they? How much do we want to spend on the basic right to health care, how do we allocate and manage the resources? Are there deeper questions which need to be asked about the moral vectors in society with regard to the major area of confluence between health care and the dynamic to maximise multi-national business profits by banking and insurance corporations and the pharmaceutical and medical-supplies industries?

These are questions hotly debated in Europe and Japan and there is enough stuff for bitter conflict. There are many issues which can only be tackled internationally. But progress on these issues is dependent on two basic premises: firstly, that basic, universal health care is a human right and, secondly, that illness cannot be fundamentally seen as self-inflicted or deserved. Hopefully now that the USA has legislated for general basic health care, they can now join the rest of the world in the discussions about the more important and difficult areas; how to go about providing it.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

On Friendship

I’ve just come back from spending a few days in Ireland where, among other things, I had the opportunity to meet up with a number of very old friends. It was a marvellous series of encounters, one which left me with a feeling I can only described as blessed; blessed by the luck I had to encounter such people in my life and even more, blessed by the fact of their friendship.

I have lived a life which, for many complex reasons I’m not going to go into here, has been characterised by quite a number of pretty radical discontinuities. One of the major factors which has given me the courage to make major changes or to cope with them when they have occurred, apart from the continuing dynamic stability of that basic, continually changing, evolving and growing anchor known as family, is the support and (often unquestioned and unreflected) presence of friends. There have been phases in my life where I have just accepted such things as a given but, as I have grown older (and hopefully wiser), I have come to realise just what an amazing grace friendship is and how important it is to cherish it and, when the opportunity presents itself, to invest a bit of effort in it – just to make or re-establish contact, to mutually give one another that gift where the giving is so far less than that which we get from it; a little time.

“Friendship” is a word which has suffered under a strange kind of inflation in recent years. Facebook has a lot to answer for in this regard, with every occasional contact you make automatically gaining the sobriquet “friend” (although that’s still better than Twitter’s “followers”). This is not at all to knock the hugely positive effect the internet has had in the whole area of building up and sustaining friendships – I find it marvellous in many ways and it has helped me track down quite a number of old friends and revivify our relationships. It has also been a platform for me to forge a number of new friendships, which are developing and deepening all the time, with people I have not yet seen “in real life” (and doesn’t that open some more exciting vistas for the future? J).

Sartre once commented, “L’enfer, c’est les autres.” Although I would regard myself in many ways as an existentialist, I see this as too pessimistic, or perhaps just incomplete. Anyone who has gone through an acrimonious break-up of a relationship will immediately confirm that hell can be other people, but they can be heaven too – perhaps no more so than in that suspension of time and sense of the limits of one’s own self which happens in the delight of meeting with real friends. Thinking about this post, my magpie-like memory threw up a hint about something I vaguely remembered reading once and, thanks once more to the internet, I was able to track it down. More than two thousand years ago, Cicero wrote a treatise on friendship, de Amicitia. Dealing with a view that “our affection to [friends] should exactly correspond and equal theirs to us…” he responds, “such a view reduces friendship to a question of figures in a spirit far too narrow and illiberal, as though the object were to have an exact balance in a debtor and creditor account. True friendship appears to me to be something richer and more generous than that comes to; and not to be so narrowly on its guard against giving more than it receives. In such a matter we must not be always afraid of something being wasted or running over in our measure, or of more than is justly due being devoted to our friendship.” (De Amicitia, 16)

Thank you, Marcus Tullius, I couldn’t have put it better myself! And thank you too, my friends, just for being there. I’ll be seeing you …

Sunday, 14 March 2010

The Pope's Problem

I really didn’t want to come back to this subject again, but the continuing revelations about abuse within the Catholic Church in Germany and the reaction of the Vatican just cannot go uncommented. A few weeks ago I predicted here that the situation was going to cause problems for Pope Benedict XVI. Even then I hadn’t realised how serious they might potentially be.

It was confirmed this week that during Josef Ratzinger’s last years as Archbishop of Munich a priest from the Diocese of Essen, who had been accused of sexual abuse of an eleven-year-old, was transferred to Munich. Ratzinger agreed to the transfer. The reason for the transfer, according to church sources, was so that the man could undergo therapy in Munich. However, this therapy never took place; instead the priest in question was appointed to a parish. A few years later, he was convicted of sexual abuse of minors in Bavaria and given a suspended sentence. He has continued to work in the Munich diocese, although he no longer officially has contact with children.

Assigning the man to parish work was a grave mistake, the Church admits; the sole responsibility for this decision has been taken by the Vicar General of the Archdiocese at the time. While it is possible that the assignment might have been reported to Ratzinger’s office, there is no reason to necessarily believe that archbishop personally approved it. The archbishop was a busy man, there were nearly a thousand priests in the archdiocese at the time, such appointments were the responsibility of the vicar general.

All of this is, superficially, credible. But there is at least one misrepresentation in this statement and a number of deeper questions are conveniently ignored. Of the nearly thousand priests referred to in official church statements, a large minority would have been members of religious orders and congregations, with whom the archbishop per se had practically nothing to do. So the number of priests for whom he was personally responsible was quite a bit smaller.

The deeper questions are more serious. The church has confirmed that Ratzinger had initially agreed to accept the man from the diocese of Essen. Generally speaking, inter-diocesan transfers of priests are not particularly common within the Catholic Church. They happen, of course, but a priest would, in the normal course of events, have to explain to his bishop why he wanted such a transfer and it would be usual to explain the move to his new bishop and diocese as well. If the move took place at the behest of the religious authorities in Essen, it seems very unlikely that the background would not have been explained to his new bishop – in this case Ratzinger.

So, it seems at least quite likely that Archbishop Ratzinger knew why the Diocese of Essen was presenting him with a new priest. It seems probable, reading between the lines of the various Church statements, that the issue of therapy was mentioned.

The astounding thing is – if the Church accounts are true, and Ratzinger knew nothing of the man’s assignment to parish work – that in the nearly two years before he left Munich to take up his new position in Rome as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Ratzinger apparently never troubled to enquire how things were working out with that man from Essen, you know, ahem, the one with that problem. For the Church, and Josef Ratzinger, there is no good answer to this. Either he didn’t ask, and was thus profoundly negligent in his responsibility for the children in his diocese, or he did ask, was told about the parish assignment and saw no problem – once again profound negligence of his responsibility for the children in his diocese. (The only other explanation, one that could just get him personally off the hook, is that he did ask and was lied to, but I haven’t heard anyone suggest that yet.)

Twenty years later, in 2001, Cardinal Ratzinger sent a letter to all bishops advising them that all cases of sexual abuse of minors must be forwarded to his then-office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and that the cases were to be subject to pontifical secret. Many canon law experts have stated that this secrecy order would not prohibit bishops and religious superiors from reporting suspected crimes to the police. The Irish bishops have, however, stated recently that many of their number misunderstood the letter on just this point and, while the Irish bishops may not the brightest group of men on earth, there is no major reason to believe that they are substantially denser than their colleagues in other parts of the world.

The deeper question is, of course, whether this misinterpretation was due to the stupidity of some bishops or whether it was actually planned for. One is reminded of Cardinal Connell’s explanation of the concept of mental reservation with respect to economy with the truth in the dealings of the Irish Church authorities with abuse cases. It does seem remarkable that, in a letter which lays down precise procedures for dealing with cases of sexual abuse, the then Cardinal Ratzinger did not feel it necessary to give any recommendations regarding contact with the civil authorities in such cases. The least that can be assumed is that misinterpretation was possible and it is not a very big step to speculate that it was wished for. After all, what normal bishop, sensitive above all to conform to the image of being ever obedient to Rome and wary – in light of a long, sometimes murky history – of attracting the closer attention of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly known as the Holy Office, earlier still as the Holy Inquisition), would not hesitate to approach the police about such cases following a letter which told him to put them under the seal of pontifical secrecy and made no mention of reporting them to the civil authorities?

The facts coming to light in the past weeks force me to the conclusion that the pope has no interest in genuinely dealing with this matter in an open way, of sincerely apologising on behalf of the church for all the suffering that has been caused by the way the church failed to remove abusers from positions in which they could continue their perverse cruelty and by the way it has treated those abused with browbeating, ignorance and contempt. The fact that the Vatican is reacting with a counterattack on those raising questions in Germany does not signal a readiness to really face up to issues. Frederico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman stated on Saturday, “In the past days there have been some who, with a certain doggedness, have been trying to find elements in Regensburg and Munich in order to drag the Holy Father personally into questions of abuse.” He added that they had “failed.”

Monsignor Lombardi is very wrong here; there is no need to drag the pope into such questions. He’s already right there in the middle of them.

(Sources: Der Spiegel, Irish Independent, Irish Times)

Friday, 12 March 2010

Taking time

S**t, nearly a week gone by and I haven’t posted anything on the blog!

I knew this kind of thing was going to happen when I started this – it’s one of the main reasons I hesitated so long about beginning it in the first place; the fear that it would mutate into another chore, an obligation to be regularly fulfilled.

I’m not going to try to fool myself on this, there is a certain obligation involved, both to myself and the thousands (J) of readers out there in cyberspace impatiently waiting for my latest pearls of wisdom. I was aware of this when I started and mentioned it in my first post.

So what’s my excuse? The usual one, the one we all use; I didn’t have the time.

I hate that excuse. Yes, there was quite a lot to do in the past week, including two days laid up dealing with a tummy-bug, but, when I think about it, it was just ordinary life. Work, household chores, appointments to make and keep, etc. All the good things which “had” to be done; family, friends, people to meet, people to keep in touch with. Newspapers and articles and books to be read. The odd TV programme to be watched. That new, trial beta version of the next big thing on the global social network scene (at least that’s the hope of its developers, some of whom I’ve been getting to know a bit – and they may well be right!), which an on-line friend of mine invited me to get involved in, which is interesting and exciting (and, hey, there’s another hour gone before I even noticed!).

So, I just didn’t have the time. Rubbish. I had just the same amount of time as I’ve always had, the same amount of time as everyone has; twenty four hours every day. I could have written this yesterday evening, or the evening before. To be really honest about it, there were just other things I did instead. Because they were, at the time, more important to me. If we’re going to be straight about things, the excuse, “I didn’t have the time,” doesn’t make sense. What we’re really saying is: I didn’t do that (fill in the appropriate activity) because there were other things which ranged higher on my particular personal list of priorities. We don’t say this of course to others because we are afraid that they might find the particular formulation hurtful or insulting. But this is not necessarily, or even usually, the case. We can only live our lives by continually setting and reorganising our priorities, by making choices. Even the things that we “have” to do are the results of deeper, more fundamental choices which we make, or have made – like taking responsibilities for others (and ourselves), working on and cherishing the relationships which are important and vital for us, living out the consequences of various commitments which we have made.

Finally, this evening, this blog reached the level on my scale of personal priorities which got me writing this. And now that I’m nearly finished, I can allow myself the innocent pleasure of looking forward to the good feeling I’ll have when I’ve posted it in a few minutes and can relax for the rest of the evening. I did have the time after all!

(Thirty seven years ago this week, Pink Floyd released one of the greatest albums of all time. Here’s their take on “Time” from “Dark Side of the Moon.” )

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Making Music

A friend of mine fulfilled a dream yesterday evening. After a many months’ work, at the age of forty, she had her first gig as a singer with a rock band in a bar.

You won’t see Roadmax replacing Lady Gaga any time soon at the top of the hit parade. They’re a group of middle-aged people doing something for fun, because they enjoy it, and are prepared to put work and discipline into their pastime, taking time from all the other things that life demands and offers to put their dream into reality. They played two sets, maybe an hour and a quarter all together, rock classics from Credence Clearwater Revival, Born to be Wild, Good Golly Miss Molly, Paranoid, Rockin’ all over the World (come to think of it, that’s a John Fogerty song too) and some of their own stuff. The full bar (many of those present friends of the band) rocked and, if they weren’t paid anything for the evening, a hat was passed around and a nice little sum came together to help them realise their next, absolutely necessary purchase; their own PA.

I can feel especially happy for Anja because I know what that feeling is like – to stand in front of an audience, your heart beating hard, and then letting it go, the music you and the others have worked on for so long finally meshing, bringing you together to make something good, something beautiful and then you’ve got the crowd with you and you’re spinning that dream, making that space carried by rhythm and melody, outside of time, free and structured, the combination of all kinds of paradoxes which music so necessarily and effortlessly (unless you’re one of the ones who had to do all the practicing) is. I know that feeling; the excitement, the buzz when it works, the band is one and you’ve managed the bridge which was such a bitch in practice and, oh yes, you got that high note and held it and the crowd is rocking to the beat as you relax enough to turn and grin to someone else in the band and then you get wonderfully lost in the song again as it carries you and you carry it to the last chord and then there’s applause and cheers … Yes! Okay, you’re not Bono and there’re only seventy or eighty in the audience and you fluffed one or two chords but, right now that doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter at all.

Music gives the lie to the niggardly reduction of everything to economic factors which so rules our world today. Of course there’s a multi-billion dollar music industry worldwide, but that’s just lots of people trying to make a living, a few earning astronomically high sums of money and quite a few more ripping everyone off. But that’s life, in the end it has nothing to do with music itself. Whether you make it, or just enjoy it, it’s the proof that there’s much more to life than just what anything costs and whether you can pay for it, whether as an individual or as a society. And, in this vein, perhaps the economists and accountants and management consultants and human resources people should remember where the word “performance” originally came from. Music won’t solve your problems but it can make you feel better and would you really want to be without it? Something so utterly useless and so absolutely, vitally necessary – the union, sublimation, transcendence of freedom and form; in a word, beauty. Rock on, Anja!

Friday, 5 March 2010

Life is good

It’s snowing again, a real snow-storm settling in for the night. Somehow, I’m not really surprised; this winter set out in North-West Europe to show us what weather can really do and it’s not quite finished yet. Yet it doesn’t really bother me – it’s more like the last, flailing blows of a punch-drunk boxer who doesn’t know that he’s beaten and that the towel is shortly going to come flying into the ring. The sun is already up when I leave for work in the morning and the equinox is only a couple of weeks away. And for those who posit that this winter proves that global warming is only a myth, the answer is very simple; global warming is about world climate – one hard winter is simply weather; spectacular, miserable, depressing, but still just weather.

This evening none of this can really get to me anyway. Maybe it’s just the promise of spring around the corner, maybe it’s the fact that it’s Friday evening and the weekend’s ahead, that I only have to work for another week and then I have a week off, during which I’ll be flying to Ireland for a few days. Lots of good things to look forward to. But, on reflection, although all this helps, the real things we need for equanimity, for contentment, for happiness are the littler things, the more immediate things, the deeper things. I spent the early evening with my daughters and my grandson and I could experience that they are all – each in their own way – basically content and happy, at least today. I drove back through the wind-driven snow, the frisson of slightly treacherous road conditions just enough to keep me pleasantly attentive, the Beatles playing on the sound-system in the car, a tiny microcosm of everyday, magical technology taking me warm and secure over twenty-something kilometres in a little more than half an hour, a thing of nothing which would have been a major, uncomfortable undertaking a hundred years ago.

In an online discussion this week, a friend of mine complained eloquently about the moral bankruptcy of the political, the controlling classes worldwide. He’s right of course, but my reaction was, somehow, to think of Voltaire’s Candide and his conclusion with regard to the big questions of life; il faut cultiver notre jardin. Not that the big questions aren’t important, or that it isn’t a major problem that most of us are resigned and disengaged most of the time. But the starting point is with each one of us, in the here and now. Tasting, experiencing, cherishing every moment which, as it flashes into now, is the only thing which really exists, the only thing which really matters, as we live it grounded in our own centre. Archimedes claimed that, with a lever and the proper fulcrum, he could move the world. That fulcrum is our own centre and the lever is now.

“Komm, Lass uns leben, Lass uns leben, Lass uns leben immer mehr, Komm, Lass uns leben, Lass uns leben, Zu leben ist gar nicht so schwer [Come, let’s live, let’s live, let’s live more and more, come, let’s live, let’s live, it’s really not so hard to live],” sings the German singer-songwriter, Marius Müller Westernhagen.

Life is good.


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