Freedom or Licence?

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We hear a lot about freedoms at the moment, particularly in the area of masks. We hear people protesting that it’s an infringement on their rights, their freedom to do as they choose. I remember the same arguments being advanced over seat belts; I dislike wearing a seat belt and didn’t wear one until I was made to but that doesn’t make it sensible. I equally remember a similar debate over no-smoking areas, people complaining that it infringed on their rights and freedoms.

Both these examples are analogous to the wearing of masks, in that they are issues of safety. Wearing a seat belt generally protects only the wearer, but has a knock-on effect in terms of hospital use etc: having smoke-free areas protects everyone not only from lung diseases but also from the risk of fire.

I don’t like wearing a mask either. It can make you feel as if you’re gagged or silenced, though it’s a totally psychological reaction as you can speak perfectly well wearing one. But it makes me wonder whether there’s a correlation between mask refuseniks and those who feel disenfranchised, like people who voted for Brexit. I wonder…

Whatever the reason, refusal to wear a mask makes no sense. It is true that scientists differ on the benefits but even if the benefits are small, it’s still better to wear a mask than not. Like smoking it protects others besides the wearer.

I simply cannot understand the kind of stroppiness that insists on going to a beach when it’s patently unsafe, or attending a rave, or going to the pub. I totally get why BLM protesters wanted to march and pull down statues and in many ways it was important that they did; these actions cannot be compared to the stubborn seeking of pleasure that we see in beachgoers or ravers. But it was probably not sensible all the same. Then again, if it’d been me, can I put my hand on my heart and say I wouldn’t have done the same?

Probably not.

Above the gates to Nelson Mandela park in Leicester sits the quotation pictured above. Every time I went there I’d think about it. I’d also think about the sentence at the end of this speech: ‘Your freedom and mine cannot be separated.’

I guess he meant that in freeing others we free ourselves – or perhaps vice versa. The oppressor is not free, any more than the slave; they are both bound upon the same wheel. In fact the slave could be considered as more free since he or she knows they are enslaved; the slave owner does not. So I think Mandela’s right – and this much I know: freedom is not doing whatever the hell you want, regardless of other people. That is licence, not freedom.

So stop it.

Not you, dear reader. I know you would never be so foolish.

Stay safe out there and have a good week.

Kirk out

Keep Friday Special

I think God is interfering with wordpress. I changed the title of this post to Keep Friday Special and it still insists on the link saying Keep Sunday Special. Anyway, here it is:

Some days you get to Friday and the week seems so squashed that you have to double-check the calendar. Where did Wednesday go? Surely we skipped Tuesday this week? And I know Thursday didn’t happen… It’s a good thing on the whole because it means you’re engaged and busy, but also scary because when time speeds up it means that you’re getting older and that merry-go-round of life just gets faster and faster until it shoots you off the end. T-t-t-that’s all folks! So long and thanks for all the fish.

Not so today. Today I am just thankful to have made it to the end of the week without major casualties of one kind or another. Monday was quite peaceful but with two hospital admissions on Tuesday and various phone calls and messages and visits flying back and forth I’ve hardly known where I am the rest of the time. Work has been largely washed out for the last couple of days and my brain doesn’t know whether it’s coming or going. It’s also not conducive to sleep to keep one’s mobile on all night, but I need to do this in case of messages from the hospital, so whether for that reason or another, I did not sleep well last night. But Friday it is, and what have I got lined up for the weekend? Erm… a bit of light strimming and Quaker meeting via Zoom. That’s about it. Much as I’ve enjoyed lockdown I’m getting to the point where I’m feeling it would be good to have some sort of social calendar again; to go to the pub or the cinema, to meet up with friends. I could go to the pub – it’s just that I don’t think it’s a particularly good idea. So there we are.

Friday is for most people a special day; a day of winding down and looking forward to the weekend, so we should keep Friday special. There used to be a campaign, back in the days when shops were beginning to open on Sundays, to Keep Sunday Special. I’m all for the principle of people having rest but for me growing up Sunday was not special at all; it was one giant yawnfest. The afternoons were interminable, especially in winter. In the summer you could have a trip out to Richmond or Osterley Park, get a rowing boat on the river or ramble in Windsor Great Park, but in the winter there was nothing to do but play cards or look moodily out of the window at the rain. It was enforced rest with nothing enjoyable open; no shops, no pubs, nothing. (I remember at trip from Chester one Sunday where going over the border into Wales I screeched ‘Turn back! It’s dry!’ In Wales on a Sunday the pubs remained firmly, Presbyterianly closed all day, whereas in England they were at least allowed to open for for a few brief hours.) I’m definitely not in favour of 24/7 consumerism but neither do I want a return to those dull days.

Anyway, happy Friday and I hope you enjoy the weekend.

Kirk out

Scattering the Ashes of My Thoughts

It’s hard to know what to watch sometimes – it’s great having lots of choice but sometimes the sheer welter of TV shows can be mind-boggling. First you have to narrow it down by thinking, What am I in the mood for? Then you trawl the appropriate category and are confronted by loads of – in the case of last night – sitcoms you’ve never heard of starring people you only vaguely recognise (or don’t.) It’s much easier when a series has been widely reviewed and trailed, as Mrs America was, because having heard about this I immediately knew a) what it was about and b) who was starring in it which led me to decide that c) this was a must-see. But ours is an age of drama in which sitcom can be very hit-and-miss, so it was lucky that I clicked on The Other One. I’ll come to that in a minute.

My thoughts have been very scattered, the last couple of days. My active brain has been waking me too early and then the days have been buzzing with events. Parcels have been arriving and people have been admitted to hospital including, as we finally found out yesterday, a close relative. Said relative is elderly but likes to be independent. Fine. But independence is one thing, being incommunicado is another and the result is, we have no contact numbers for said relative other than their own (poorly functioning) mobile and a landline which was going persistently to voicemail. I finally found the number of the council department which manages the sheltered housing. I was put through to someone who put me through to a manager who offered to email the warden who might know what was going on. Email! No thank you, we’d like to know today, not next week. She did phone him; he called me back, I just missed the call, my voicemail crossed with his but in the end we did get to speak. He turned out to be very pleasant and caring (phew) but couldn’t tell us much more than confirming that said relative was in fact in hospital. Another phone call to the Royal where staff happily were able to tell me exactly where they were and on which ward. Yet another call to the ward who finally gave us the information we wanted. (Don’t worry, it’s not life-threatening and it’s definitely not the virus.)

None of which was conducive to concentration, and for the rest of the day I got very little work done indeed. Today may be better, but we’ll see…

Anyway, having finished Mrs America last night I needed some comedy (it’s a brilliant series but quite harrowing in its way) and discovered The Other One. The premise is that after their father dies two girls find out that they are sisters. He had two families and called the daughters in both by the same name. The relationship seems doomed to failure but the families are forced together by the need to scatter the father’s ashes.

It’s fun. Give it a watch.

Kirk out

Eight Minutes and Forty-Two Seconds

I’ve just returned from taking part in a vigil for Black Lives Matter. Twenty of us stood around the bandstand in the park in silence, one or two carrying placards while others took the knee, and there we remained for eight minutes and forty-two seconds. Even though I was standing and not kneeling it felt much longer, more like a quarter of an hour, so imagine what it feels like to have someone’s knee on your neck for that length of time. George Floyd called out ‘I can’t breathe’ about twenty times during that period – and at the end of eight minutes and forty-two seconds he died, while after my eight minutes and forty-two seconds I went home to my family.

I keep thinking about some sort of artistic response to this. I don’t want either to jump on a bandwagon or to do something which might count as cultural appropriation, since this is not my story to tell. But my response is my own, and is as much personal as it is collective. So it requires some thought – but I think a poem may emerge at some point. I also want to think about what was going through the mind of the police officer. Why do people think it’s OK to behave like this? What are they thinking? Or are they not thinking at all, only reacting?

A propos of all which, I was greatly cheered this morning to see this news item.

It is a moment of utter liberation when the statue of a slave trader is replaced by the statue of a Black Lives Matter protester, and this is what happened early this morning in Bristol. The statue is of course not official but if the authorities have any sense they will let it stand for a while at least while they consider what to do. I think the best use of the plinth in the long term would be some kind of memorial to the suffering of slaves – and while that’s in preparation they could leave the statue up. Or else use it for some public art, like the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square which, as you may remember, I was lucky enough to be on (here’s the post about it.) Public art is the best response to injustice and I will always be glad to have been associated with that.

Here’s a pic of me when I’d finished my poems:

Kirk out

Shout-out to All New Readers and Followers

I’ve had quite a few new readers and followers over the last few months and I haven’t taken time to give you all a shout-out. So here it is:

Don't forget to give a shout out to your fans, followers and ...
image removed on request

Rest assured you are not forgotten. I always reply to comments and if you follow me I will take a look at your blog and may follow you back: if not I will at least read something.

But! my book has arrived! Yes, only four weeks later than predicted, How to Argue with an Atheist has finally dropped through my door. I wonder how long I’ll have to wait for last week’s order? Concerning the battles that all writers have in getting stuff from brain to page, it’s called The War of Art (geddit?) and I’m hoping it’ll be really useful.

I can’t seem to get out of the habit of ordering books – and why should I? As habits go it’s not a bad one, and since discovering Alibris I’ve managed to read loads of stuff on my to-read list including novels, political books and poetry. I’ve discovered stuff that’s hard to get or out of print, and I’ve bought a whole shelf-full of books for the price of a couple of hardbacks.

I know people get things cheap on Amazon, but I won’t use them because of their failure to pay their fair share of tax or to treat their workers properly (as well as their overuse of packaging etc etc.) But I had to break this rule today because an item I wanted was otherwise only available from Germany and would have taken weeks to arrive. And lo! in the course of ordering these items I was automatically signed up for a free trial of Amazon Prime whose benefits spanned several pages and which, as I suspected, I would have to cancel before this day in August or be charged a monthly charge. Even when cancelling they still ask plaintively ‘are you sure you don’t want all these lovely benefits? If you click this button all your delicious and wonderful benefits will vanish,’ and so on. Nope. F*** off Amazon, I’ll none of you.

It takes discipline to resist all these offers though, like two-for-one in the supermarket or cheap flights. I can’t understand why everyone seems to be going on holiday now as though everything’s back to normal. It isn’t – and if we’re not careful we’ll be into the second wave. And we’re not being careful.

I’ve rambled a lot today. What I was going to write about was the habit of art, a phrase borrowed from Alan Bennett which I think he in turn borrowed from W H Auden. I think art is a habit; inspiration can strike but unless you are in the routine of sitting at your desk every day for a certain number of hours, you’re unlikely to know what to do with it. Ideas are the raw material of art; the cotton or linen which must be spun and woven and sewn to make a full garment. As someone said (I think it was C P Snow) if a writer can only work at a certain hour in a certain spot when the sun is at a certain angle, one has not much hope of his art.

So there we are. So thanks to all my readers and followers; you are much appreciated. That’s another good habit – appreciating people.

Kirk out

Gender-Critical? Moi?

This morning I came across a quote from Carl Jung about artists:

‘The artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realise its purpose through him.’

I entirely endorse this quote, except for its language which, like most things written before the 1970s, leaves out half the human race. It is a struggle when you have to continually add ‘or she’ to every sentence – though fortunately nowadays few people will try to get away with the spurious ‘oh, but he includes she’ which it patently doesn’t, or at least only when the speaker wants it to. It’s a Humpty-Dumpty word…

A propos of all this, I’ve been watching the excellent series Mrs America, now streaming on BBC iplayer, which deals with all the women involved in the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment in the US. In theory the focus is on Phyllis Schlafly, a woman who, as OH pointed out, uses far more letter ls than anyone has a right to, and on whom the character of Serena is based in The Handmaid’s Tale. Schlafly was a conservative Republican who tried to paint the ERA as a retrograde step which would compel women to be drafted (with Vietnam still going on at this point) and be injurious to housewives and mothers. She is a contradictory figure very like Thatcher, a woman who owed her position to feminism but fought against it (Thatcher did nothing for other women) and is seen here as both victim and perpetrator. I can’t help wondering if Guislaine Maxwell is something similar; horrendous as her crimes were she may also have been a victim. Not that that excuses anything she may have done.

Anyway, back to language and to an app which claims to predict the gender of the author of any piece of writing. It seems to do so fairly accurately, but there is a problem: in cases of transgender people, it describes trans women as male, and trans men as female. You may make of this what you will – OH analyses it here – and each of us will have our own view on it. The problem arises when it comes to expressing those views in public. I may think, for example (though I’m not saying I do) that it is impossible to change gender; that a trans woman remains male and a trans male, female. But to say so publicly is to invite a furious backlash – look what happened to J K Rowling. I don’t think it was helpful of her to express herself in the way she did but neither does she deserve such vilification for doing so. I have seen people on Facebook declaring that they will clear out every bit of Harry Potter from their houses, simply because the author said something that they disagree with.

There’s no debate, that’s the problem: in every public arena we are invited to line up on one side or another. Are you for trans rights or against them? Are you racist or anti-racist? Are you anti-semitic or not? Nuance is entirely lost and any attempt to bring it in is seen mostly as obfuscation – try advancing the argument that anti-zionism is not the same thing anti-semitism and you’ll find yourself on a hiding to nothing.

I don’t want to see blatantly racist people like David Starkey given a platform – what he said in the interview here was not a one-off; he had form and these views should not be legitimised. Hate speech does not come under the banner of free speech; we have laws about these things. But here’s the thing: is it hate speech to say that trans women are not women? Or is it a point of view? More importantly, is it something that ought to be debated rather than just accepted as gospel?

As I’ve said before we have had the debate about gays and lesbians, we’ve had the debate about women’s rights; we’ve had – and are still having, unbelievably – the debate about racism. But no such debate has taken place about transgender rights. The T has been tacked on the end of LGB and we are told to accept it in the same manner, without question. But the narrative of trans rights is one that affects everyone and everyone should be able to debate it – openly, respectfully and without vilification.

Kirk out

Re-Reading the Past

When I was young I developed the bad habit of nostalgia. We’re all prone to it but it’s not a good idea because it traps you in a past that, as George Orwell said of India, never was what it was. And when I started to keep a diary I developed the even worse habit of re-reading it over and over, to the point where I had to get rid of several years’ worth of notebooks because I was getting stuck in them.

This was a sad thing because I now wish I had them: it’d be interesting to look back on my early writing and see how much it’s changed and what my preoccupations were then: I wish I’d been able to lock them away in some kind of time capsule and then release them like government papers under the thirty-year rule. But no. Nowadays I’ve developed the desperately stern habit of Never Looking Back, and I think on the whole it’s a good one. I feel no urge to re-read my old diaries; I’m too involved in where I’m going right now.

But how impossible it is to see the past accurately! It’s like a dream that fades as soon as you try to describe it; even to think about a past event is to rewrite it. I am frequently reminded of how bad a witness I would make to a crime. Sherlock Holmes would have no patience with me because I see but do not observe; asked to describe someone who had just passed me in the street I would have great difficulty in giving anything beyond a vague impression. What were they wearing? What colour was their hair? How old were they? Nope, no idea. When I meet someone I can tell you a lot about their demeanour, their attitude, their voice and gestures, but ask me what they were wearing… um… Well, I guess everyone notices different things. But it has been shown that witnessing an event is no guide to describing it accurately, the reason perhaps that many people film events on their phone instead.

I wonder whether nostalgia is the product of an optimistic or a pessimistic mind? It might be either; a positive outlook might cause you to look back and see the best in what happened – then again a pessimist might see the present as dark and the future even darker, so might look back to a past when things were better. As I once did…

Ah, those were the days – when I had proper nostalgia!

Kirk out

What’s Going On?

Where does the week go? It’s Thursday already and yesterday was Monday – wasn’t it? Now that I think about it, there were events in between Monday and today, it’s just that they seem compressed somehow. There’s a time schmoosh (to use the technical term) and everything’s crammed together in one brief span. And now, to add to my woes, I keep thinking it’s Friday and I’m demanding that people send me links to programmes that haven’t aired yet.

I’m also thinking about my granddaughter, who’ll be one in a few weeks’ time. Her entire life is less than a year at this point, so how long must a day seem to her? If time perception is proportional to age then a day to her is like two months to me. That’s a very sobering thought and makes you reflect on the intensity of childhood experience – that we should always be wary of dismissing their suffering as short-lived.

I am a follower of this blog about C S Lewis and his legacy. Lewis was a man of many contradictions; a devout Christian and confirmed bachelor who ended up marrying an atheist, and a writer of excellent children’s books who was uncomfortable around children in real life. Although many of his attitudes were of their time I can’t think of another writer of that generation who wrote stories for boys and girls where both male and female characters took part in the adventures. It’s true that Narnian society is largely patriarchal; it’s equally true that he has a problem with women in positions of power: both the White Witch and the much talked-about Susan problem testify to that. But I can’t think of another writer of his time who writes such excellent stories for both sexes.

This article has some interesting things to say on the problem of Susan: I love the phrase ‘Renaissance fair cosplayers.’ And there are some further thoughts here.

Oh, and you’ll be relieved to know that I got my mouse sorted out. As Ratae suggested, it just needed its eye cleaned. It now has 20/20 vision.

Kirk out

Om Nom Noms

One of the things which always amuses me about Quakers is their disengagement from popular culture. This is not deliberate – we’re not the Amish – it’s just that certain aspects of culture like the obsession with celebrity or memes on social media, pass them by. They are quite as au fait with politics as anyone could wish, but when it comes to the latest trends – nada. Zip, zilch, niente. Not a flicker – so I have to be careful when texting Friends not to use abbreviations like k, btw or np.

So it’s unlikely Quakers would be aware of nom. Having had teenage children, I am only too aware that yum yum has been replaced with nom nom, or sometimes, if a meal is particularly delicious, om nom nom. It’s just as expressive and I guess every generation has to invent its own slang; but what amuses me is that the Quaker committee on which I sit is known as Noms. It’s short for Nominations but it always makes me think of eating something delicious. Yet I doubt anyone else makes that connection.

We had a Noms meeting last night, via Zoom (confidentiality forbids me to say any more) and I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that in many ways I prefer Zoom meetings to real ones. For a start you don’t have to make the extra effort to get out of the house in the evening (which, since I’m obsessively punctual, means that I always overestimate the journey time and arrive too early) you can make yourself a drink without worrying whether your host/ess will have herbal tea or soya milk since you are an Old Fart who drinks no caffeine after midday and no cow’s milk at all; you can check out and go to the loo or scribble some notes or look at your email, all whilst pretending to be fully engaged in the meeting. It’s so much more restful. Plus, if you’ve forgotten to bring something you can just nip upstairs and get it. Then when it’s all over you can just kick back and flip on the i-player without having to drive or walk home. Zoomy bliss.

Sometimes I worry about what kind of person I’m turning into. I’m finding lockdown far too easy;enjoying sitting down of an evening to watch TV or play computer games with The Son; I don’t feel the need to travel or go to the pub or the cinema or a restaurant. Never in a million years would I have dreamed I’d be like this – and sometimes it bothers me that I’m turning into my parents: getting up early, in bed by ten, not going out. Then again lots of the things I like doing have been ruined. Travel is ruined by climate change – I can’t fly with a clean conscience, beaches are spoilt by pollution and litter (and too many people) and even my favourite beach, Southwold, is spoilt by guilt because half the town is now given over to holiday rentals. I love Cornwall but I wouldn’t go there now because a) it’s a long drive on busy roads and b) it’s too crowded. Where is there to go? How can one travel nowadays without causing or witnessing environmental damage?

Answers on a postcard please (now there’s a dated expression).

Kirk out

I’m Left-Handed in Mice

As if I didn’t have enough to contend with, my mouse has gone weird. Just like the mouse in the song it’s going clip clippety-clop all over the place; if I want to click on something it zigzags all over the page and then circles it like a drunken man trying to fix his gaze on the arresting officer. (Speaking of which, a government spokesman today said that a refusal to wear masks should be as taboo as drunk driving. Good idea – trouble is, that taboo took years to form: when I was young drunk driving was seen as a sort of occupational hazard and even decades later it was acceptable to drive after ‘a few ales’ as Withnail hopefully said to the constable who stopped him. But I digress.) The mouse is Well Out of Order, which is a bit of a bummer because it’s not just any old mouse but a wireless, left-handed mouse which, since I am left-handed in mice, is a real boon.

I probably should explain my handedness, insofar as I understand it. It was clear from an early age that I was left-handed in writing. I was lucky enough to be born in a more enlightened age and so escape the scourge of being forced into right-handedness (why this persecution of the left hand, to the extent of calling it sinister? I could probably write reams about that – with my left-hand…) The effects of this are vividly shown in The King’s Speech, where his stammer is largely attributable to being forced to write with the right hand. But what was not so clear to me was that, though generally right-handed, I am left-handed in things other than writing. A book, for example, feels quite wrong if held in my right hand. Then again, a mug nestles there quite neatly. It’s weird.

But to return to the rodent world – why, you may ask, since I’m having such trouble with my mouse, do I not use another? Like most houses this one is overrun with e-rodents in various forms but alas! most of them are wired and are either defunct or the wires don’t stretch from the USB to my left hand. Plus, they are right-handed mice and so not designed for me. The buttons are all wrong whereas the left-handed mouse is perfectly adapted to the shape of my hand: I fit it like a glove. I guess I could give in and buy another left-handed mouse but I’m trying to reduce the number of my possessions, not increase them, so I’d quite like to make it work. Maybe if I could find some e-cheese? Pep it up a bit?

In other news I enjoyed last night the televised version of the making of Alan Bennett’s diaries, Keeping On Keeping On. They are full of reminiscence, political fury and – sadly – opera, but my favourite anecdote is one where someone approaches him at a train station and asks if he’s famous. Self-deprecating to the end, Bennett says ‘You could say so.’ The young man, failing to identify him, asks if he’s ‘a lookalike.’ Bennett agrees that this might be the case, whereupon the young man pats him on the arm and says ‘Be content with that,’ before melting into the crowd.

A refreshing lack of ego on Alan’s part, I’m sure you’ll agree.

I’m off now to give my mouse a stern talking to. I don’t know where you buy e-cheese – I may have to resort to Amazon.

Kirk out