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Friday, 27 February 2015

Games and Distractions

Mark Twain once wrote: "If voting made any difference they wouldn't let us do it," and I think, by and large, this is true, but not always. There is no doubt that in western societies the demographic is skewed towards the old, and since it is the old that vote the argument is they exert undue weight on government policy. Funny, I thought that was how democracy worked. 

It is in this context that some argue there should be a maximum age, beyond which you should not vote. In short, disenfranchise the old. One argument goes that just as you have a minimum voting age on the basis that children do not have the mental capacity to understand complex political arguments and might vote for the candidate offering free icecream, so to might the elderly, entering the second childhood, fail to understand the consequences of their vote. Mark Twain might have had something to say about that, too.

Others argue that this demographic enjoys considerable wealth, and are a drain in terms of pensions and welfare provision; this is at the expense of the young who face student debt, pressure to save for their own pensions, and the unliklihood of ever getting onto the housing market. 

This is a compelling argument --- as all arguments whose ultimate aim is to divide and rule---must be. Capitalist societies, and I suspect pre capitalist societies, have always employed this weapon. Redirect anger from ruling elites to another section of society. 

It may be the ground is being prepared for redistributing the wealth of the old to the young. I have only one problem with that.

I want to redistribute my little wealth to my children not society's children. The problem with the latter is that other people and paid bureaucracies decide how the money is best spent. And by 'other people' I mean the exclusive elites, who 'know' what is good for us, and demand iniquitous salaries as a God-given right.

Their other God-given right is tax avoidance. Lesser families might have their 'wealth' redistributed, but not them.

There are parents who scrimp and save, and strive to avoid the exorbitantly priced nursing home, for they know this may be the only way their children will inherit enough to buy a moderately priced flat. And then there are the extremely rich who will strive to avoid taxes to perpetuate dynasties. The unfairness there is transparent. The Establishment's more opaque.

It will be interesting to see whether a maximum voting age ever gains traction. Personally I think it is a divide and rule distraction rather than - for the moment - anything more serious. It would be a bit like Turkeys voting for Christmas.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Nothing is True and everything is Possible

On February, Friday 13th the thoughtful commentator and journalist, Ben MacIntyre, wrote a piece in the Times extolling the virtues of a book: Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, by Peter Pomerantsev. He uses the book to highlight the flaws of the Putin regime. I'm in no position to defend the Putin regime. I'd simply be walking from one cultural airlock to another, but much of what MacIntyre writes has a haunting familiarity. To quote:

"...amidst the smoke and mirrors of disinformation and deception, Russians have been inducted into distorted reality in which the decadent West is plotting to destroy Holy Russia, and confusion, conspiracy and corruption are endemic.
Pomerantsev paints a surreal portrait of counterfeit democracy ruled by television, where all the trappings of freedom are present - elections, an opposition, a functioning judiciary, a free media - but little of the reality.
The regime itself adopts multiple disguises and shifting identities… a strange and effective concoction of propaganda, disinformation and entertainment. As one Russian television celebrity observes chillingly: "We all know there is no real politics…Politics has got to feel like a movie." MacIntyre sums up Putin's government as "a  regime in which propaganda reigns as truth"

And as I said at the start, reading the article brought to mind three words: pot, kettle, black. What are we supposed to do about the Russian disinformation bubble in which ordinary Russians live? Shake our fists and pull faces from our own disinformation bubbles? I'm conversant with American politics, the vast wealth of a few families and the power of corporative media, but I don't live there so lack sufficient knowledge to pontificate. (Though that rarely stops me) As William Blake wrote, "To to generalise is to be an idiot." I'm not too sure he's entirely right, but its a useful warning, and so I'll limit myself to saying Americans inhabit their own disinformation bubbles as we do ours. 

We don't use ugly words like 'regime' when we refer to our respective governents. Regime. It has such a negative feel to it. Lesser cultures are governed by 'regimes'. No, we have 'Establishments,' a far nicer word but with much the same flaws that MacIntyre criticises in Russia. 

We are more practised; our disinformation is all pervasive and shimmers with subtly but essentially our respective 'Establishments' play much the same game as Putin's Russia with its fake choice of electoral candidates from the same monied elite. 

When the Russian commentator said: "We all know there is no real politics…Politics has got to feel like a movie," it resonates here, a reason perhaps why the elites, in order to give themselves the trappings of legitimacy, are making noises about state funding of parties and compulsory voting. And, in the meantime, our respective media play much the same game as the Russian media in terms of managing news, highlighting 'the message' and deselecting anything more inconvenient. 

So over here, too, there are 'counterfeit democracies where propaganda reigns as truth. It may be the best we can manage in a complex and selfish world, and ultimately stability trumps everything as Syria, Libya and Iraq have found to their cost - and which China understands. Thing is just don't be hypocritical and look for the splinters in other people's eyes and ignoring the plank in our own.

Friday, 13 February 2015

The Yellow Menace

I heard on the radio people talking about daffodils. I was cleaning my teeth at the time so something may have been lost in the gurgle of tap-water and the spitting of foam, but they seemed to be saying that daffodils were not good to eat, in fact they were dangerous. I dried my mouth and tuned in. Who in God's creation ate daffodils?
No one apparently, unless by accident, and this was the point of the interview. Demands were being made on supermarkets to move daffodils well away from the vegetable and fruit section in case they were mistaken for spring onions, or asparagus or chives. Another step in the relentless infantilisation of our culture. I mean, there are first world problems, and first world problems. 

 Okay, this verges on the reckless. The Co-op in Monmouth has daffodils dangerously close to apples.

And of course there is no rhyme or reason for this. I haven't seen a single supermarket where Daffs have been segregated from their companion blooms, and suck by themselves in a vegetable rack. A flower section may be adjacent to fruit and veg, but it would have to be a noggin with an IQ of 14 to rummage amongs the roses and chrysanthumums, pick out a daffodil and mistake it for a spring onion. 

There is also no consistency in this.

A few days later in the Times there was an article on the edible Dahlia. Not the flowers, you understand, (they are reserved for the garnish, until the next interview on The Today programme warning us of the dangers or eating garnish). No, what is edible is the Dhalia tuber, a cross between celery, carrot and potato. Some apparently taste like asparagus. Can't wait.

But will I find them in the vegetable section or stuck with the flowers some distance away? And what about the edible flowers? I sampled them all as a very young paperboy - rose petals, marigolds, nasturtiums, geraniums - all picked at and nibbled as I walked down long drives. Some had a nice, peppery taste, though privet leaves were more problematic. They were bitter on the tongue and left your teeth green. But what I'm thinking now is: I should have been warned! Why did no one warn me against daffodils?

The Aztecs didn't have this problem. They apparently ate chocolate, chillies and Dahlia tubers like there was no tomorrow. (Well, there wasn't for them) Perhaps the conquistadors should have come bearing daffodils.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

There are fairies in my garden

 There are fairies at the bottom of my garden. Well, may be not. Then again why not? Monmouth seems to be the epicentre of witch-lights and fairies, though admittedly sightings have been down of late.

 Cusop is a small village adjacent to Hay on Wye. It has an ancient church, a castle mound, and apart from a few houses, that’s just about it. Except for the sightings.

In 1912 Mrs Leather wrote: "Fairies have been seen dancing under foxgloves in Cusop Dingle within the memory of some now living there." And witch-lights wherein the whole landscape has been lit up have been reported in the late C20th. 
                                          Cusop Dingle, courtesy of Tim Heaton Geography Project

 But it's the fairies that grab me, along with sightings well into 'modern times'. 

“A story used to be told of one little old fairy woman who was known to visit Monmouth Market with a basket to buy things. No one knew where she came from or where she went, although she was always watched very closely. Her eyes were white as was her hair, which was arranged in an old fashioned way.” This was reported in the South Wales Argus in 1936 though there is an earlier account in 1905. 

There are many accounts of fairies dancing. On the whole they preferred the dry, light ground beneath oak trees but they were not averse to barns. Rees John Rosser from Hendy in the Parish of Llanhilleth lay to rest in some hay after feeding is oxen. After a time he heard music coming from the barn and when he went to investigate a fairy woman gave him a tasseled cushion to sit upon and allowed him to watch the fairy dance. 

More usually they invited humans to dance with them, though their dances tended to go on… 

Edmund William Rees returned from such a dance only after a year had passed. He was lucky. Some never came back.

 In 1905 Beatrix A Wherry told of fairies dancing in Trellech. Two men were walking past a meadow called Pontcwm at Midnight and saw fairies dancing around a tree. They joined in the dance until, without warning, the fairies and one of the men vanished. The other man scouted around and found nothing. When he returned home he was accused of murdering his friend so he returned to the tree the following night. There was his friend, large as life, still dancing with fairies and not wanting to come back. At last he was persuaded to do so just to prove he hadn’t been killed - but just for one day, he said. The following night he vanished again and never came back.

 In Trellech the fairies came from underneath toadstools to dance at the Parkhurst rocks nearby, and drank water from harebell cups. This is one of their favourite dancing spots
                                                                    St Annes Well Trellech
When a farmer cut out the discoloured turf where the faires danced he found that he was the only one in the village who was unable to draw water from the well. When he restored the turf the fairies relented.

 There were also fairies sighted at Llanover near Abergavenny, Basseleg in Newport.  In fact there are so many reports this post would be as long as a fairy dance. The high-lighted links have some great pictures, though one of the links (you decide which one) suggests the author has been touched by the fairies.

In 1865 A girl from Penallt near Monmouth would go out every night through her bedroom window to dance with the fairies (at least that’s what she told her mother) 

In the late C19th one of Lady Llanover’s gardeners told of servant girls sweeping the floors clean every night and then strewing them with bread crumbs for the fairies before retiring to bed.

But God help you should you treat them unfairly. When John Rhys visited Llanover in 1885 he was told of the servant who left a cup of milk and some bread on the hearth every night for the fairies. One night he decided to play a trick and urinated in the milk. The following morning the cup was found across the room, its contents staining fabric and curtains. That night the servant was warned by the fairies that because he had wronged them, they would be revenged on him and his descendents. Henceforth to every generation would be born an idiot child. 
So be warned. Feed the fairies at your own discretion, but never urinate in the milk. 

For anyone who wants to read more, there is Alan Roderick's excellent book The Folklore of Gwent

Friday, 30 January 2015

Pacer, Ponies, and Lynx

Man accused of having sex with a Shetland pony was found 'smelling strongly of horses' 

The Telegraph

Police say Alan Barnfield was 'sweating profusely' and had several cans of Lynx in his bag on the night he was seen leading two ponies into a dark wooded area 

I couldn’t get this image out of my mind, nor what they found in his rucksack:

..... several cans of Lynx deodorant, a length of white electrical cable, a handheld water sprayer, a cloth, a metal dog chain and two bottles of Lucozade

Lucky Doncaster Crown court that brought him to justice. Lucky jury, pondering on how these various items were used. Either way it didn’t read as a particularly good advertisement for Lynx. I was still trying to figure out whether the ‘horsey smell’ in the headline referred to an innovative new fragrance, along the lines of Opium or Africa, whether indeed he'd been led astray by Excite. Or whether it was making the point that Lynx was powerless against the stronger smell of  Pony. Bestialists, I think, should be warned. 

This is one of the dangers of long distant walking. The mind goes freewheeling, racing joyously and unconfined by the more sober tread. My mind needs little encouragement to freewheel but now it's on hyperdrive as a result of the new App my beautiful  daughter has installed on my phone.

It’s called Pacer, and I can recommend it for those missing out on something to obsess about. For those who are still Pacer-virgins let me explain. You switch it on and begin walking. In return the app will tell you how many miles you have walked, calories burned, and it will even congratulate you on passing the 6,000 step mark. How I long for these little rewards – to the extent if I’m three or four paces short, and I’m sitting, watching TV or on the computer, I’ll take it out of my pocket and swing it a few times to earn Pacer’s praise. Talk about Pavlov and chimps…or was it dogs…and did Pavlov ever use Lynx?

It has another feature too – Pacer not Lynx. You can become Pacer Buddies. I thought nothing of it when my daughter suggested it. In fact, I was touched. Still am. Though truth be said, there are drawbacks, for with a glance at her iPhone she can observe my lengthy bouts of idleness. She is graceful. She says nothing. But I am aware. I’m aware, too that with her 13K paces a day I’ll never be able to criticise her. So if there's anyone else, equally forgiving who would like to be 'pacer buddies' just let me know.

Stop press. Pacer has just informed me I can set myself goals. Oh Joy.

Thursday, 22 January 2015


Just before Christmas, I detected blood in my urine. ‘Detected?’ It was pink as strawberry blancmange. It only happened the once and didn’t happen again. Still, take no chances I thought. My GP took a similar view. Within a week, I was in Neville Hall hospital having it investigated.

It’s a nice euphemism that, ‘having it investigated.’ The reality was a camera pushed up my urinary tract. I watched as it approached, my eyes flitting from the doctor’s eyes – they looked sympathetic – down to something the size of a small a bicyle pump. ‘That’s not going to fit in,’ I wanted to scream. Instead, I shut my eyes quickly and winced. When I opened them again, I was able to see my bladder and kidneys on the big screen.

 It was like a NASA probe investigating Mars, at least that's what the specialist said in a chatty, warm hearted kind of way, like he was talking about ‘Voyager’ and not my insides. ‘Look,’ he said, drawing my attention to veins on a dim pink terrain, ‘just like Martian canals’. What was he talking about? My kidneys and bladder and God knows what else were being violated by a hideous, metallic snake, my insides actually shuddering. He detected a faint shadow but assured me it was almost certain the pressure of an enlarged prostate doing a bit of empire building. All very Star War-ish. Still, again taking no chances, I was referred to the Royal Gwent Hospital for a biopsy, and shortly after Christmas my appointment came through.

This involved something considerably bigger than a bicycle pump but I was mercifully anaethetised by an injection via the spine. ‘You’ll like this,’ he murmured, ‘a nice tingly glow.’ And it was true - like a magic spell had been cast over my legs. Fairy Dust. A moment later, to all intents and purposes, they had vanished. I could see them, but they were no longer there. I was dead from the waist down. ‘Now,’ he murmured, ‘do you want to see what’s happening? If you don’t, I can give you something else.’
Was the man mad?
‘Give me all you got,’ I said. ‘All you’ve got’.
‘It will make you calm and sleepy.’
And it did.
They erected a dark green screen, a surgical Berlin wall, separating the living from the dead. Over it, I could see masked and capped heads bobbing up and down but felt nothing. They could have been building the Hoover Dam, the Great Wall of China, building a new motorway. There could have been road cones and warning lights all the way up to my bladder. Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Quantum nothingness behind the green screen.
And then it was over.
Before I knew it, I was trolley-boarded back on to my hospital bed, where I had to wait five hours for my legs to return. That was fine but for the fact that I’d been put back slightly askew and was in no position to straighten myself. I could have called the nurses but a sense of humiliation trumped common sense.
My legs did come back…and so did everything else. I looked down at it with quiet pride. You’ve been to hell and back, buddy; knew too, there would be no Purple Heart or  Victoria Cross. Just the results due in a few weeks.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Je suis Charlie...I think

Je suis Charlie, cathartic yes, also a pageant of emotion, hypocrisy and doublethink. There are hashtags and small designer badges, (like there were for the girls kidnapped by Boko Harem,)  and world leaders, arm in arm, defending the right to free speech – except when it comes to anything they don’t agree with. 

The actual murders – those of the 17 journalists and the innocent shoppers at a Jewish supermarket – were vile. The murders were instruments of intolerance, an attempt to impose a code of behaviour on a different culture and on those who would not be ‘persuaded.’

The establishment of course has no need to resort to kalishnakovs. Political elites and an engineered concensus exert a more subtle and powerful intolerance. Their instruments are less bloody but more powerful. How many people have been pilloried by media and twitter for expressing views against the prevailing morality, how many have been forced to resign, and how many of these were essentially private conversations subsequently leaked?


A case in point is the Jewish cartoonist, Gerald Scarfe who drew a cartoon showing the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu building a wall with blood-red coloured cement, in which were trapped Palestinians. The case against Scarfe was made stronger because the cartoon was published in the Sunday Times on Holocaust Memorial Day. All hell broke out as everyone from the Israeli Ambassador to leading British politicians spoke out against it and Gerald Scarfe was forced to make a grovelling apology. 

            Why? And what does that show?

All of Scarfe’s cartoons, and all good political cartoons from James Gillray to Spitting Image are vicious and brutal and spiteful. Political cartoons, as another practitioner, Martin Rowson, puts it represent ‘assassination without blood.’ Check Scarfe’s cartoons on Tony Blair and George Bush, and a more recent one of Bashar al-Assad guzzling from a large cup labeled ‘Children’s Blood’. The Netanyahu cartoon is part of Scarfe’s canon attacking man’s inhumanity to man, and focuses on an individual, a mere politician - not a race, a prophet or God. 
Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, accepted the Sunday Times’ ‘right’ to publish Scarfe’s ‘disgusting’ cartoon, but went on to say it was a ‘misjudgement’ and that the Sunday Times had made a ‘mistake’ in exercising that right.

But what does Stepen Pollard have to say about the famous (or infamous depending on viewpoint) Danish cartoons, depicting Mohammed with a bomb in his turban. He accepts they’re offensive to Muslims but essentially says so what. ‘If free speech means anything, it surely includes the ability to question and to mock the belief that Mohammed rewards jihadists.” So are we talking double standards here. It’s all right to offend a large number of Muslims but not Jews, or in this case a Jewish  political leader?


And here is the crux of the problem. You either have free speech or you don’t. The pick and mix free speech we currently uphold is morally unviable. Already the weasel word ‘but’ is coming into play. For example, the murder of the seventeen journalists was terrible but….followed by variants of ‘they had it coming,’ or 'they should have known better.'

 And already those various paragons of democracy in the Muslim world are putting pressure on the United Nations to legislate ‘Islamaphobia’ as a hate crime. As that tolerant and democratic champion of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan, recently said:
‘There needs to be international legislation dealing with attacks on people's sacred and religious beliefs. As Turkey, we will take the lead. Freedom of thought and belief ends where the freedom of thought and belief of others begins’   Well, that clearly works well - in Turkey and Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, but where does that lead the rest of us - other than in a goldmine for lawyers as every major religion interprets it as they choose. And where does that leave the already dangerously diluted concept of free speech? Bottling thought and free speech, subjecting it to license and the whims of the great and the good will eventually lead to something worse than hurt feelings.
A mature and considerate person may choose to moderate what they say so as not to offend someone but just as I am free to consider the feelings of others, another person should be free to choose otherwise. Courtesy cannot, nor should be leglislated for then it becomes a tool of government and the status quo, the antithesis of free speech. Twitter as the new sheep dogs.