The Hedge-Priest Cometh

Two more books have flooded in: the Greek New Testament guide and the Funky Gibbon, so that’s only the atheist one to come, which I shall have to chase up. It is good to know that books can arrive; I was beginning to wonder if they’d got lost in some weird Covid-related sub-ether – not that I know what a sub-ether is, it’s just a phrase knocking about in my subconscious. As I write the hedge man is attacking our hedge with ferocious clippers. He has hay fever so his whirring and shearing is punctuated by loud and irritated sneezes.

We are quite concerned here about Leicester being newly locked down; not that it affects us particularly apart from my mother-in-law living in that catchment area, but because it’s an indication that lockdown is being eased far too soon and that we are in for another spike. I’ve generally always liked and respected the Mayor of Leicester, Sir Peter Soulsby, but he has blotted his copybook somewhat by breaking lockdown to visit his partner and has now claimed that the number of cases in Leicester has been exaggerated. This seems irresponsible to me and his assertion that the numbers are higher because they’re testing more people is worthy of Johnson himself. Do better, Soulsby!

The hedge man being here makes me think of hedge-priests who were a sort of wandering Quaker before Quakers were invented (were Quakers invented? Or were we discovered?) because I guess George Fox was a sort of hedge-priest, travelling from place to place, sleeping rough and insisting on giving his testimony in the churches. I think he must have been something of a pain in the arse, but then lots of these people are – like St Paul, for example – because in order to start something new you probably have to be a grade A PITA. It’s hard to imagine nowadays the sort of bull-headed commitment to a cause which would lead you to sleep in the hedgerows and make yourself universally unpopular, but whatever it is, I certainly don’t have it.

I was reading this morning a testimony about living more simply, having fewer possessions, less clutter and so on. This is something I generally aspire to and fail at dismally: last night I kept waking up and worrying about the dishwasher which I thought might be blocked (it wasn’t.) I often think of this photo of Gandhi’s possessions when he die

All of Mahatma Gandhi's worldly possessions : minimalism image removed on request

and look around me at everything I own. I imagine Gandhi, for all his virtues, must also have been another great pain in the arse; however committed to non-violence, his wife must have found him a great trial. These great men, important though they were, rarely adopt a consensual approach to anything. But going back to possessions, I think it’s not so much about what you own as your relationship to it. Do you fear losing everything or can you contemplate this with equanimity? It’s an odd thing but I can imagine losing everything we’ve got in storage without being too upset – but take away my dishwasher and I’d be devastated. The thought of all that bloody washing up every day… ugh.

That’s about it for today. Happy Tuesday.

Kirk out

Eight Minutes and Forty-Six Seconds

Eight minutes and forty-six seconds has become shorthand for the killing of George Floyd by officer Chauvin (apt name!) in Minneapolis, watched by two of his police colleagues. It has become an ‘enough is enough’ moment for black people all over the world, and because it is their story I feel reluctant to say too much about it. But it is also our story; the story of white people confronted by one of their kind committing an unspeakable act. It’s the story of white people made to face our own racism; the story not only of the openly racist committing unspeakable acts but also of the silent prejudice which lurks within our own hearts.

I don’t want to do too much breast-beating about this; I don’t think it’s helpful. But what should we do? It’s easy to stick Black Lives Matter on your Facebook profile, to sign a petition, to write to your MP, to repost stories: what’s harder is to do the work involved in eradicating racism from our own bloodstreams – because I sure as hell know it’s in mine. I’ve caught myself thinking and feeling things I don’t want to admit, because I know my brain is full of largely unchallenged stereotypes. I’ve done the work in challenging sexist stereotypes because they affect me daily, but I haven’t done the work in eradicating racism from my subconscious.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say I haven’t finished the work of eradicating racism. I’ve not been unaware of it, after all – and perhaps it’s always a work in progress. But work it most definitely is – and there’s the rub. It’s a lot of work to track down each of these thoughts and emotions, these ideas and stereotypes laid down over decades of film and TV and news and culture; these assumptions of whiteness Reni Eddo-Lodge talks about, meaning that we assume a person is white unless told otherwise (the example she gives is of Hermione Grainger being played as black in the latest Harry Potter and the Cursed Child giving rise to protest, but J K Rowling herself saying there was no indication that Hermione is white. *) To stop these automatic responses and tell yourself a different story: it’s all work.

And most of us feel guilty. We feel guilty by association, and we feel guilty because we know that all this stuff lies deep within us. But should we? If racism is for the most part unconsciously acquired, should we feel guilty – any more than we feel guilty about getting wet when it rains? I’m not sure that guilt is helpful in any case, because the first thing we do then is to start policing ourselves, to make sure no-one can accuse us of being racist. But policing oneself is not, in the end, a solution. In the end we must change the heart.

To topple a statue and fling it in the harbour is a powerful thing to do – but in the end the statue we must topple is the one that lives in the heart.

Kirk out

*as Lodge points out, it adds an extra dimension to the story of ‘pure blood’ and Hermione being Muggle-born.

Why I’m no Longer Waiting for Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People About Race

One of my books has finally arrived. I was waiting for three and had just decided that they would arrive all at once like buses (I even had a blog post title lined up for such an eventuality) but Reni Eddo Lodge’s book is now here, so I’m just waiting on a book about the Greek New Testament and one on How to Argue with an Atheist, both of which make me sound like a determined evangelist, which I definitely am not.

Recommended Read: Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About ...

I will post a review when I’ve read it but so far it looks interesting, and less of a rant than I expected. One thing I’ve noticed already is that as a white woman you experience both sides. You have the white privilege that she talks about but you also recognise much of the abuse, albeit as misogyny rather than racism (for example as a black person if you get angry you’re conforming to a stereotype; if you get upset as a woman you’re affirming a different stereotype.) I don’t want to get all competitive about prejudice because they’re all arguably equally awful – and it must be recognised that black women get the worst deal of all (apart from disabled black women) but it is interesting to be able to see it from both sides.

So the question on my mind this morning is this: WHATISTHEMATTERWITHPEOPLE? What is the matter with people? I mean seriously, why? Why can’t some people continue to exist without rushing down to the coast, crowding onto a beach, thereby putting themselves and others in danger, not to mention clogging the roads and leaving tons – literally tons – of litter? Why must they do this? It makes me ashamed to be English. What is the matter with people? There’s nothing I love more than a beach; I’d be thrilled to go down and spend a day on the coast but I recognise that it’s not a good idea and IT’S NOT SAFE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH THESE PEOPLE???????????????? As if the authorities didn’t have enough to deal with, they now have to evacuate illegal campers, treat the injured and clear away the litter. It’s shameful.

image removed on request

I hope I’m not a killjoy. I like beaches and concerts and festivals as much as anyone, but in recent years I can’t help feeling that something is going awry. True, in the Middle ages they had a festival practically every week but there was an underlying religious significance to them even if they did also involve copious amounts of merrymaking. Whereas nowadays I can’t help feeling that there’s something compulsive in all this exuberance. Take concerts for example. When I go to a concert I don’t want to sit there like a mannequin, I want to enjoy it. I might want to get up and dance if there’s room; and I definitely want to clap and cheer and shout – but after the songs, not during them. I want to hear the musicians, not the audience, but nowadays it seems a concert is just an opportunity for people to shout and scream and wave flags so that you struggle to hear the music.

But I daresay I’m just an old fogey. After all, Beatlemania wasn’t so different – not that I was ever into that. But I’ve got a feeling that there’s something out of control here; that this rushing to beaches and raves is part of a much deeper tendency, one which bodes no good. As for me, I’m staying locked down and watching TV like the grumpy pensioner I will no doubt shortly become…

Kirk out

Blake and Heat

It will not have escaped your notice if you live in the UK that it’s hot. When I lived in Spain there wasn’t much to say about the weather apart from in summer, Que calor! and in winter, Que frio! (I don’t know how to do upside down exclamation marks on here otherwise I would. I think they’re a very good idea because they tell you what’s coming.) A Spanish friend of mine, on visiting the UK, remarked on how much we talk about the weather. ‘That’s because it’s different every day,’ I explained. ‘Sometimes it’s different every hour. You just never know.’

Actually these days, thanks to more accurate forecasting, we generally do know. For example, today it will rise to a high of 29 degrees and drop at night to 17. Which means I shall have to start thinking in Spanish; go out for walks in the early morning before it gets hot, and have a siesta in the afternoon. I am generally someone who likes hot weather but if it’s too hot I do start to wilt a little; and whereas with the cold you can warm yourself up by exercising, there’s only so much you can do to keep cool. We currently have all the windows open and as few clothes on as possible; and this morning I practised this yoga cooling breath:

But what’s really on my mind this morning is Blake. William Blake is probably my favourite artist and one of my favourite poets. A visionary and a complete one-off, he openly declared that he spoke with angels and spirits. He was a great believer in equality, not only of the classes but of the sexes; a supporter of the French revolution and perhaps the greatest artist this country has ever produced. Yet where is he celebrated? Tucked away in a dark corner of the Tate, last time I looked, while we prefer less challenging painters such as Turner or Constable (not that I’m disparaging Turner, though Constable I could live without.) Why then is he so neglected?

I think there are several reasons. First, that he was a political radical, and we don’t tend to honour radicals in this country. We know the names of Henry VIII’s wives and the manner of their executions but we haven’t heard of Peterloo (watch the Mike Leigh film; it’s terrific.) Secondly, Blake was working-class. This brackets him with figures such as Lowry and Turner but unlike them his subject matter was much more challenging. To sit in front of a Blake painting is like putting your hand in a fire – consider this picture of Nebuchadnezzar:

Nebuchadnezzar, William Blake | William blake paintings, William ...

Or this, of Cain:

Sense of Sin - Creature and Creator
But perhaps the most important reason why he is not sufficiently honoured is this. Blake was a master, not only of painting but also of engraving – and he was a poet. Considered as one of the Romantics, though not much given to lakes or daffodils, he wrote and painted in equal measure and was master of both. Many of his poetry books are illustrated with engravings and it is hard to say which is more important. They are equal – and this we do not forgive. For an artist to master one medium is fine; for them to master a related medium, this we can also accept – but to be master of both art and poetry, this is unforgivable. It’s presumptuous: we come over all Lady Bracknell-ish and say that to master one medium may be construed as genius, to master two looks like hubris.

Yet Blake was the most modest of men, living simply with his wife in a couple of rooms in London. It was sad that he remained unrecognised during his lifetime; what’s sadder still is that he is even now underappreciated.

Kirk out

Circling the Square – Redesigning the Union Flag

Union Jack Flag Free Stock Photo - Public Domain Pictures

As far as I know there are no plans at present to redesign the Union Flag (as the Union Jack should be termed) – but in the wake of the George Floyd protests I think now is the time to do it. For a start, as many people have consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black (little Withnail reference there for those in the know) and I think it’s high time we had another go and made it more representative of those who have truly built this country. So instead of the current shape with its pattern of red, white and blue I propose a circle. The flag itself could still be a rectangle but on it there should be a circle in which people of all colours are standing, not necessarily holding hands but in equal relationship to each other. We could represent all strata of society and a number of essential occupations, such as cleaners, nurses, doctors and teachers. Heroes from the Second World War should be acknowledged. Some could be in wheelchairs or using zimmer frames (let’s not forget the elderly).

Of course, any attempt to redesign these things risks opening a can of worms. For a start any representation of people, however well done, is bound to leave someone out. And if we are to be truly inclusive we should also represent the establishment. Models of diversity often, for understandable reasons, focus on the hitherto excluded and forget those who are perceived to be at the top – but that way lies a backlash. So instead of forgetting the red, white and blue it should be included somehow – perhaps as a background or a design around the edges.

But of course this is a load of hippie nonsense. How could patriots go about waving such a symbol? It would be horribly divisive. In any case, no-one’s going to come round and ask me to design it.

But I still think it should happen. Anthony Gormley, anyone?

Kirk out

You Can’t Watch the Same Box-Set Twice

I have yet to come across Heraclitus in my Greek studies but it was he who famously said, ‘You can’t step into the same river twice.’ If you think about it, this is true for two reasons; first because the river is constantly moving and is not the ‘same’ river as it was even a moment ago; and secondly because you are not the same person as yesterday.

This requires some thinking about. We tend to view natural phenomena like rivers, mountains, seas etc, as fixed and discrete objects. Yet they change every day. Rivers change in a more obvious way than, say, mountains but even a mountain is different from moment to moment and never more so than in these days of climate change. (Incidentally I think people should stop climbing mountains, especially Everest which is now so litter-strewn as to become an object of global shame; not to mention the cost to Sherpas in rescuing people.) But we don’t even need climate change for Heraclitus’ comment to be valid, and even such a fixed object as a house is different in many ways from one day to the next. The air in it is different; objects are moved, even the atmosphere changes according to who is there.

The other half of the equation is the change in us. We are not the same from one moment to the next, though we imagine ourselves to be. This ‘persistence of being’ is necessary if we are to function at all; yet at every moment cells are dying and regenerating, our thoughts are changing and our emotions are changing. Even if we think we stand still or go round in circles, we are mistaken; there is no standing still and every circle is in fact a spiral, as Dante well knew.

Nevertheless it was a pleasant surprise to find that I can still get something new from watching the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice. The best novels give something fresh with every new reading: can the same be true of TV? Happily it can. For my money the Beeb’s 1996 version is the best Austen adaptation I’ve ever seen: I could write reams about the music, the settings, the costumes, the houses and the parks, but this time around it was the acting that caught my eye. Being someone who couldn’t act their way out of a paper bag it’s always been something of a black art to me, but I found myself noticing more details this time around; nuances of voice and expression; the reactions of figures in the background, all of which mirror the subtle ways in which Austen herself builds up her effects, layer upon imperceptible layer. There’s very little in the way of ‘action’ in the modern sense – no car crashes or fights, no police chases, no glitz or glamour, no distractions. Nothing is hurried; the series takes its time and in six hour-long episodes (happily made in the era when an hour was an hour, not fifty minutes plus recaps and previews and trailers) the action unfolds. Though not everything in the novel is covered, no sub-plot is neglected and the ironies of the original emerge without being glaringly signposted. Those with selfish intent end up achieving the opposite of their aims; and as Miss Prism so keenly observed, the good ended happily and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.

I think Mary Bennett is a sort of Miss Prism and Lady Catherine de Bourgh is a prototype Lady Bracknell…

Kirk out

Roman Values – Being a Funky Gibbon

I’m being rather classical of late. I’m not only learning Greek but immersing myself in Roman culture; first, with the DVDs of I, Claudius and secondly with a Mary Beard miniseries about ordinary Roman citizens. Then the other day I got sufficiently inspired to order a copy of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. We studied Gibbon for his prose style during A-level English so I am looking forward to experiencing that again, though God alone knows how long it will take: I’ve been waiting a fortnight already for Reni Eddo-Lodge and the book on how to argue with an atheist. It’s very frustrating. OH frightened me somewhat by asking if I had ordered all thirty volumes of Gibbon; fortunately I’d just ordered the one volume which I assume is some kind of digest. (According to the Guardian review linked above, there are only six volumes – so now I’m totally confused.)

It’s been a fairly typical lockdown weekend. I decline to open myself up just yet as I’m daily more convinced that we are heading for a second spike in infections and that things are being opened up too early. I understand the arguments for doing so, but surely no economic motives can outweigh the fact that lives may be at stake. So I’m continuing more or less as I have been; though every time I go out it gets harder to socially distance.

I’ve been trying to compare the Roman Empire with ours. In many ways they’re very similar: we both told ourselves we were civilising the world and that we had a right to invade other countries. We both kept slaves, though arguably Roman slavery was better in that it wasn’t always a life sentence; slaves could be and often were freed and could reach fairly high positions in society. You could also argue that the Romans were more liberal in that they allowed for freedom of religion: conquered races were allowed to continue worshiping their own gods so long as that didn’t interfere with the running of the Empire. We, on the other hand, insisted on converting all subjugated people to Christianity. Another point in the Romans’ favour is that they respected courage and defiance in their enemies.

But of course the most interesting period of Roman history is the era of the decline and fall; and I shall probably write more about this in due course once I’ve studied Gibbon. If it ever arrives…


Kirk out


It’s a weird thing, sleep. Without it we lose concentration, feel shaky and ill, struggle to regulate temperature and metabolism and eventually lose our wits. Yet we’re no nearer to knowing why we sleep and what it actually achieves than we were thousands of years ago.

But we do know, instinctively, that sleep is not a homogeneous essence. Not all nights are created equal; it is possible to sleep less but feel more refreshed than if you’d slept twice as long. Quality of sleep is the key thing here, but what does that involve?

A yoga teacher of mine was fond of saying ‘the body needs rest but the mind needs sleep.’ This is why babies sleep so much; because everything is new to them and they have to process information. One day we were eating Indian snacks and our ten-month-old daughter picked up a very hot samosa and bit into it before we could stop her. We were horrified and reached for the honey (sweet things are the best antidote to spices, much better than water) but she screamed once and then fell instantly asleep. Her mind needed to process the information, and when she awoke she was perfectly fine.

We too need to process the experiences of the day. OH has a theory that the dreams you have earlier in the night relate to problems whereas those in the early hours are about solutions. So what’s happening when we dream is that like some giant search engine the mind is looking for solutions, and somehow our dreams are the representation of that process.

OH also says that the best person to interpret a dream is the dreamer themselves. I think that’s right; nowadays we don’t believe in universal symbols or external explanations but look to our own experiences and our own psyche. Unfortunately I often don’t remember my dreams, but when I do I usually have some sort of explanation as to what they mean.

It is said by yogis that the more time one spends in deep meditation the less sleep is needed. Unfortunately at the yoga centre where I lived in Madrid it was assumed that we’d already got to that stage, so we were woken at a quarter to six for a six a m meditation. Even this was a concession to the Western lifestyle as Swami Sivananda had originally said we should be waking at four. I was usually shattered by the afternoon.

Sleep deprivation is one of the easiest forms of torture to practise – and right now the sun is doing a pretty good job of keeping me up at night and waking me in the wee small hours. I don’t want to be grumpy about midsummer but right now we haven’t even got any sun; it’s just cold and rainy…

Kirk out

Just When You Think It’s Safe…

Just when you think it’s safe to get back into bed at 4 am after doing a pee, you get bashed on the head by an all-lights-blazing, 100% full-on supercharged bout of wakefulness. At four o-bloody clock! What sort of time do you call this? I asked my brain as it insisted, like a toddler on Christmas Day morning, that it’d had quite enough sleep and was now bouncing around ready to start the day and unwrap all its presents. Except that there weren’t any presents. Go back to sleep! I told it grumpily. It’s not time to get up yet. So I lay down and tried all the usual tricks: putting my hands in the sleep mudra:
Image removed on request

counting down from 300 and reliving yesterday backwards whilst talking to myself in a very drowsy voice. Nope. Not having it; nothing worked – until about 6.30 just after OH got up when I finally lapsed into a sort of hallucinogenic doze with some spangled dreams which I can’t now remember, then when OH came in with the tea trying to calculate how much time spent in spangled hallucinogenic dreams counteracts two and a half hours of solid wakefulness. I am not a happy bunny.

In other news, after a long war of attrition in which OH tried every which way to debate with a friend on Facebook about BLM and other issues (I unfriended this person after they made rude jokes about orthodox Jews) OH has finally broken ties and unfriended them! Kudos to OH; this was a long time coming and whilst nobody wants to live in an echo chamber, this particular guy had crossed so many lines that he definitely had it coming. Would that it were so easy in real life… I’ll leave you with Al Stewart’s thoughts on the subject.

Kirk out

What am I?

For a long time when I was asked my nationality I’d say English rather than British because British had to my ear connotations of flag-waving nationalism. But now I’ve begun to feel that the opposite is true. It’s horrible being English at the moment: we have the worst Covid record in Europe and have just, to our utter shame, exported it to an otherwise Covid-free New Zealand. Our leader is the worst in living memory and is daily more clearly the tool of a right-wing maverick whose cock-ups get daily worse. Most governments take years to piss off their MP’s; this one has managed it in a few short months, and now they’ve sunk to a new Daily-Mail style low in proposing effectively to abolish the foreign aid department by merging it with the Foreign Office, thereby managing to bring two ex-Prime Ministers out of the woodwork to speak against it. Would that Messrs Cameron and May had talked as much sense when in office, because right now it’s not even looking like ‘Britain First’ so much as ‘England First’. Johnson might as well put on a Millwall shirt, drape himself in the St George’s flag and start chanting Ingerland, Ingerland, Ingerland; at least then we’d know what he stood for. I am ashamed to be – well, whatever I am – English, British – whatever it is, I’m ashamed to be it. I haven’t felt this way since the Gulf War when I was in Spain and we were bombing Iraq while trying to find those pesky weapons of mass destruction (spoiler alert: there were none.)

I was never particularly patriotic at the best of times, but there were things I was proud of. Our culture, our language. Our literature. The landscape, the architecture (some of it). Real ale and pubs. Pub games – not arcade games but cribbage and pool and skittles. The Archers. Our great sense of comedy. The fact that whenever two or three are gathered together at a bus stop one of them shall make a joke about buses and the other two shall laugh. The fact that on country roads we have special crossings for toads and hedgehogs. (One year when I came back from Spain it took me a while to realise where I was, but then we drove down a rural road and I saw a sign saying ‘hedgehog crossing’ and I thought, Now I know I’m home.)

But despite the antics of Johnson and Dom there are far worse places to be. I could be living in Somalia or China or India. I could be in Russia: poor as this government is, it has not yet sunk to the depths of Vlad (‘the poisoner’) Putin, as last night’s drama-doc The Salisbury Poisonings showed. We have yet to see the final episode but so far it’s totally gripping, telling the stories behind the officials, the police and the ordinary people caught up in the Russian-backed poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. The public health narrative eerily echoes that of the C19 crisis, the more so as it must have been filmed before the virus hit.

I’ll post a full review when I’ve finished watching but so far it’s highly recommended – unlike this government, who I wouldn’t recommend at all. If you’re going for a new leader I’d choose Jacinda Ardern. Even David Cameron’s better than this lot, and he’d have the sense not to listen to Dom.

Kirk out