Peace on earth and good will to all?

Good heavens, it’s December — where in the name of all that’s holy did 2018 go? It seems like only yesterday I was decking my metaphorical halls and boggling about the speed at which 2017 was evaporating. Does any one else experience December a bit like an annualised Grounhog DayA month when everything seems to repeat itself bringing a sense of  déjà vu and some difficulty in separating one year end from another?

It’s the time of year of dementedly cramming in everything that needs to be done in the count down to Christmas. The lure of the holidays beckons like a Siren call and you start to feel a bit over it all. As the weather hots up and the time runs out, it’s so easy to get a bit tetchy and lose sight of age old seasonal calls for peace on earth and good will to all. These become more compelling every year given our current reality and the scary future outlook we’re facing on many counts. Whatever religion or spiritual philosophy you embrace, surely the prospect of peace on earth and goodwill to all should be front and centre of everything we do if we are to leave any sort of joy to the world of our children and grand-children?

But, sometimes it all feels overwhelming. What can any individual do in the context of so much dysfunction? Well, lots actually. There are so many examples of incredible individuals who have changed the world through their inspiring lives. Clearly there’s the holy trinity of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi and their ilk. Amazing as these Titan’s of human rights were, the heroic and very much less travelled paths they walked fell a bit beyond most of us. But there are many less known others throughout history who have shown what can be achieved with vision and compassion. People like Henry Dunant who found the Red Cross in 1863 and whose humanitarian ideas gave rise to The Geneva Conventionin 1864.  People like The Tank Man, who stood in front of a column of tanks from the People’s Liberation Army in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989 armed only with his shopping bags. This unknown hero became an ionic image from Chinese pro-democracy protests which were brutally suppressed through weeks of clashes between with government forces in which thousands of people were thougtht to have been killed.

For sure, not everyone has it in them to show bravery like The Tank Man, but little things matter too and the ripple in the pond effect cannot be under-estimated. I’d say it would be wonderful to inspire those “I want what she’s on” responses and to infuse random strangers with our positive energy. As I said in my previous blog, I am a big fan of the kindness movement and the possibility of step change through benevolent influence. However, in the same vein, it’s the little things that can also be the most irritating and potentially destructive causing a chain re-actions of negativity and aggression, sometimes leading to violence.

I was sharply reminded a few days ago as I was walking briskly along the pavement (or sidewalk depending on where you live), enjoying the sunshine and day dreaming happily about the summer holidays. God was most definitely in his heaven and all right with my world. Then it wasn’t! What is it about people in groups? Do they forget that their group is simply a subset of the rest of humanity? Apparently so! Imagine my irritation when a clump of ‘yoof’ ambled towards me oblivious to my presence, or right of equal passage on the public footpath, forcing me to step into the road to be able to get past them. How inconsiderate I thought. How rude! Channelling Michelle Obama’s “when they go low, we go high”, I swallowed the “screw you” (or other expletive) that was begging to be lobbed at their retreating backs and strode on trying to get my dander levels under control!

I haven’t often felt pavement rage like this since I lived in London. In those years, we used to talk about aggressive walking – i.e. elbows and handbags as weapons being fair game to get through the milling, chaotic melees that were Regent and Oxford Streets in the lead up to Christmas. In bustling metropolitan places like Central London or New York where the populations are in the multi-millions, it’s often impossible to do as you would be done by pavement wise. In places like New Zealand’s capital of Wellington with its paltry 450,000 (and that’s the whole region, not just the city itself), not so much. There really is no excuse for pavement hogging here because we don’t have the rivers of people to contend with and it’s doubly annoying because there’s generally no need for it.

In the busiest places however, necessity is the mother of invention. There is a sort of acknowledged pavement etiquette which is applied by most people for the sake of everyone’s sanity and wellbeing. This is particularly true during the twice daily king tides of people flooding out of the underground stations in the morning and then receding back into them in the evening. Minor decisions about people flow are made intuitively and constantly whilst navigating these human tsunamis. Situational awareness is a critical survival skill.

It’s not just inconsiderate people that cause problems. Artless tourists are another source of rage to locals. When I started sifting around, I was quite entertained to find that there are studies about the walking speeds of locals versus tourists and workers versus shoppers. There are even groups lobbying for the introduction of fast and slow lanes and texting lanes on pavements that are colour-coded to achieve directional flow. Trouble with any sort of pavement regulatory system — voluntary or imposed — is that not everyone’s going in the same direction and you might want to cut across the flow to get into a shop. This can be life threatening at peak times — you’d have more success crossing the Spey River in full spate after the sprint melt.

In summary, when we take to the pavements, forget good will to all, simple good manners, courtesy and politeness all too often disappear faster than you can say Donald Trump. Oops did I mention the ‘T’ word? It seems a shame that the concept of good manners is ow so very much equated with a stiffling colonial past. There’s been a lot of talk over the last months of ‘incivility’ in the political arena. Taking it outside of politics, perhaps incivility is the contemporary articulation of the ancient proverb ‘manners maketh man’? (For man, read men, women, LGBTs and children). Whatever name you give it, I don’t think I’m alone in experiencing almost a soulful longing for a kinder, more considerate society and world. And where better to start than in the way we interact with our fellow humans on a daily basis?

The earliest known reference to the proverb “manners taketh man” was in the writings of William Horman, who lived between 1440 and 1535 and was headmaster of the very famous English schools Eton and then Winchester. Horman’s book ‘Vulgaria’ (translates from Latin into something like ‘everyday sayings’ or ‘common sayings’) is a collection of proverbs that were in common use, so it may have been around for many years, even centuries before Horman’s time. The proverb’s meaning has come to be that your mannerisms and characteristics make you who you are. That people are judged by their manners and conduct. But in its earliest use, it likely had a broader meaning – that manners make us human —  that politeness and etiquette are what prevent us from falling into savagery.

Well, it certainly feels pretty savage when a phalanx of people fail to give way on a pavement forcing you to walk on the street. It’s also quite savage when someone crowds you at a check out or tail-gates you in a place where they have no possibility of overtaking. Those shouted cell phone conversations some people insist on having in public that disturb the peace — a legal offence in many countries and most definitely savage. Ditto people who talk through movies or concerts. Call me old fashioned but I’m still a big fan of those very under rated ‘magic words’, please and thank you . And would it really hurt for drivers to acknowledge my courtesy with a wave? So many of them don’t. Barging in front of me in a queue is not a winner either! And please don’t sit at my dinner table texting or checking your social media conversations — I believe that’s called excessive virtual socialising.

I don’t want to go through my days having spasms of irritation and being a victim of these every day acts of thoughtlessness that spoil my buzz. I’d say manners are still a fundamental need of a civilised society. We just need an updated version for our current reality in which we struggle to deal with over-population and resort to smart devices as the universal panacea. Manners might not cure all the evils of the world, but what a different place the world would be if we really could extend goodwill to all — we might even succeed with achieving peace on earth. Amen to that.

 

 

Be yourself no matter what they say

On a road trip a couple of weeks ago, my playlist dished up a song by Sting that I hadn’t heard for a while — An Englishman in New York. Glad though I was to be reacquainted with this old favourite, it’s been stuck in my head since like … er … a stuck record.

The Englishman in question was the infamous eccentric gay icon Quentin Crisp, who moved from London to New York in 1981 (incidentally the year I moved to London from Scotland as an starry-eyed post-grad). Crisp – or Denis Charles Pratt as he was born in 1908 — apparently came from a fairly conventional suburban English background. How he then made the leap from that to wearing make-up, painting his nails and including items of female clothing in his ‘look’ is anybody’s guess. Well actually, that’s not quite true. His autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant, which ultimately became a cult TV production starring John Hurt, made him a household name from the mid-seventies and removed the need to guess about his Genesis.

Quentin Crisp was many things in his time; a ‘rent-boy’, a professional model for life-classes in art colleges, a raconteur — his one man show filled theatres for many years in Britain and America — as well as a TV actor and personality. But it was the interviews he gave that fuelled the legend, particularly his take on manners and the cultivation of style, both of which he wrote about at length. He famously labelled himself as “one of the stately homos of England”.

I admired him hugely for his commitment to living life on his own terms in the certainty that everyone has a right to fulfil their true and unique potential. He seemed to accept that flying in the face of convention would not be a comfortable ride, particularly when you don’t evangelise the party line on divisive issues such as gay rights, and openly criticise wildly popular figures such as Diana “the people’s Princess”. While the ‘outrage factor’ certainly added to his allure, it also brought vitriolic criticism and disapproval. Whether or not this bothered him, it certainly didn’t change him. As Sting so elegantly put it, “It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile. Be yourself no matter what they say.”

Thinking about this concept of being yourself, no matter what they say, it’s always been one that’s been very dear to my heart. While I’m no rebel, like Crisp, I’ve always rated individualism and done my best to foster my own. Our human DNA seems to be infused with deep-rooted tribal instincts. In my own case, despite many years as an ex-pat, I still identify strongly as a Scot. But this only goes so far. Much as I like being around my own kind, I’ve never wanted to be one of the pack. For as long as I can remember, I had a highly developed sense of my own individuality which has always seemed to me to be a precious thing that made life fuller and more interesting.

Very early on, I found my own sense of style which I’ve built on through the years. I can remember teetering around the cobble stones of my alma-mater, Saint Andrews University, in the depths of the Scottish winter wearing outrageously precarious shoes and a moss green corduroy pencil-line skirt and jacket which I made myself. That was one of a number of similarly outstanding, if impractical ensembles in my wardrobe. I mention this only because it was a time when most of my peers were content with uniform blue jeans and Guernsey jerseys.

Moving to London post grad was like diving into a cornucopia of opportunities for self-expression. I found my spiritual home working in international media where anything goes, and idiosyncrasy was par for the course. With the natural advantage of statement hair of the blonde cork-screw variety I was the right fish in the right pond. Of course, I hated my hair with a passion when I was a violin-playing nerdy kid, but it became a real asset during those  years for its sheer ‘out-there-ness’. I used to festoon this riot of tresses with all sorts of bows, bands and ornaments.

Coming back to Quentin Crisp, it takes courage to keep your faith. It’s much easier to wear the uniform, join a tribe, embrace the jargon. Several times in my life I’ve tried very hard to contort myself into being something I’m not — to conform to the expectations of a partner or to succeed in a job — with all the success of a gaudy tropical fish trying to survive in the freezing waters of Southern Ocean.

I’ve lost my way badly on a couple of occasions, somewhat ironically coinciding with a compulsion to straighten my hair! At one point I took a job in the Masters of the Universe realm of venture capital and attempted to become a ‘suit’. But even on the conservative end of my spectrum while I was trying to be one of them, my clothing selection was severely career limiting. I remember being sat down by my then boss for a talk about dressing for success a little like parent broaching the topic of sex education with their teenage daughter. He underlined his point by giving me a very chic and very suitable briefcase for Christmas the first year. I tried to confirm. I really wanted to. If nothing else, the financial incentives were very compelling. But after three years (I’ve never been a quitter) I did both of us — me and the firm involved — a sanity returning favour by understanding that Corporateland was not my natural habit and I’ve never ventured back.

I started this blog under the title Never Succumb to Beige. That was the best articulation I could find of my belief in the need to embrace our own uniqueness. It seems that as we grow up we’re conditioned out of liking those sparkly jelly shoes and garishly colourful ensembles most kids revel in. After all, they’re tawdry gewgaws that should be consigned to the dress up box as we grow up aren’t they? But who is the ‘they’ that impose the boundaries on our self-expression and creativity? If my sense of self says I lust after purple boots with fringes, what’s stopping me? That would be the crushing tyranny of good taste and what’s appropriate for my age and stage. But seriously, who cares? If a visual cacophony is what does it for you, why not? After all, girls just wanna have fun … even vintage ones like me.

I’ve just returned from another multi-year walk in the ‘who am I?’ wilderness. Every time I come back to my senses and remember the answer, I’m reminded of the Ivy Compton Bennett quote, “A leopard does not change his spots, or change his feeling that spots are rather a credit to him.” Unsurprisingly, my hair’s curly again and I’ve regained the feeling that it’s still rather a credit to me.

Be yourself, no matter what they say!

 

Clothes to dye for!

I could never be a naturist! Not that I have any particular beef about naturism per se — if you want to attend Nudefests and retreats, compete in the Naked Olympics, go skinny dipping of a summer’s night, or simply get your kit off and hang out in the buff with your family and mates around the BBQ, good for you. Each to his or her own I say. I salute every human being’s right to self-expression … even if I salute it more if they don’t express this particular form anywhere near me.

No, my aversion is because if I ever had a rush of blood to the head and decided this was the lifestyle choice for me, it would deprive me of one of my greatest pleasures in life — clothes. Clothes (and this is a broad church that includes shoes and accessories) have always felt like an extension of my personality. My clothing selection is as much a barometer of my mood as whether I’m bouncing around like some Latter Day Tigger or in a Garbo-esqeue “I vant to be alone” frame of mind.

When I was a wide-eyed graduate, just let loose on the world, I pondered becoming a fashion buyer and worked in Harrods of London for a few months to try the idea on for size … as it were. It didn’t fit! I hated the place. Before that I also pondered becoming a historical costume adviser for stage or TV. This wasn’t as random as it sounds with an honours degree in Medieval History that included a finals paper on fashion in the English and French Courts during the very specific period of 1330 — 1380. I was mesmerised by the whole concept of the form and function of clothing in defining society and this period is recognised as marking the emergence of recognisable fashion. The fourteenth century saw the introduction of a raft of innovations including buttons and laces enabling much more figure hugging attire than the previous tabard shapes. Imagine the liberation of no longer having to sew yourself into your garments!

I’ve never liked being regimented or told what to wear … or not to wear even. I’m strong on the importance of individuality and uniforms are anathema. I think there is a lot of truth in the saying that there would be no wars if there were no uniforms. At one point the Harrods department I worked in decided to put us in some prissy polka-dot dress with a white collar as our uniform. I hated it with a vengeance — likely the tipping point in my abortive fashion career. But in terms of self-expression, it’s the clothes that are the vehicle not the brand, which can become just another uniform. Reading the coverage of the Tear Drop Ethical Fashion Report this week, which evaluates the performance of leading fashion brands each year, made me glad I hadn’t persevered. The multi-trillion-dollar apparel industry is apparently the second dirtiest industry in the world after oil and gas. These days clothes really are to dye for!

I don’t say this lightly. I went to a thought provoking event a couple of nights ago — Fashun Statement — organised by and featuring some of the inspirational kiwi fashionistas who are at the forefront of the eco-fashion movement. It was both uplifting and horrifying. Horrifying because the first half was given over to looking at the state of the global fashion industry. If you have hopes for the continuation of this planet in any form that includes life as we know it, the statistics are mind-bogglingly depressing. As I’m sure you know, the biggest culprit is “Fast Fashion”. This is the design and distribution of cheaply made clothing  “take, make, waste” behaviours.

Fast fashion uses innovative production and distribution models to dramatically shorten fashion cycles by getting garments from the designer to the customer in a matter of weeks instead of months. This has seen the number of fashion seasons increasing from the traditional two main ones each year (spring/summer and autumn/winter) to as many as fifty to a hundred micro-seasons. I can’t find stats later than 2014 but at that time, the average person bought 60% more clothes than they did in 2000 and kept them half as long. The numbers are increasing exponentially as ever more people in countries like China and India move up the economic ladder. Clothing consumption is projected to triple by 2050 requiring three times as many natural resources compared to what was used in 2000. And what happens to all these disposable ‘rags’? On average, garments are worn only nine times before being binned, creating Everests of additional landfill. Oh and don’t be fooled by conscience salving clothing bins. Apparently, many of these castoffs get exported to emerging nations (if anything is done with them at all), often destroying local businesses and jobs that can’t compete with the influx of our detritus.

One of the presenters showed images of inhuman and abysmal working conditions in factory sweat-shops where people barely achieve subsistence wages and rivers are turned all the colours of the rainbow from industrial waste flowing freely from dyeing shops making rivers and drinking water toxic. For all too many of the big labels, supply chain ethics are sill … er … totally unethical and transparency seems to be something that happens in a parallel universe.

Then there’s the industry’s ecological footprint. Issues like the amount of water and energy required to grow crops like cotton which are the bedrock of the industry. Producing just one cotton shirt apparently requires 2,700 litres of water — enough to keep one person alive for 2.5 years. Cotton farming is also responsible for 24 percent of insecticides and 11 percent of pesticides despite using about 3 percent of the world’s arable land. Polyester production uses less water but is highly carbon intensive. About 20 percent of industrial water pollution is due to garment manufacturing, while the world uses 5 trillion litres (1.3 trillion gallons) of water each year for fabric dyeing alone, enough to fill 2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools. Let’s not forget the oceans of fuel required to ship the flood of new clothes around the world. Clearly, I already knew some of this, but hearing it was a real wake-up call nonetheless.

To everyone’s relief, after the shock tactics came the uplifting part — hearing the inspirational stories of the presenters. Despite being the co-founder of a start-up myself who has evangelised a new technological product in tricksy places like the Middle East, I can’t imagine the true grit it takes with only a few hundred dollars to go somewhere like Indonesia and find a way to set up a manufacturing outlet that is clean, good for the workers and good for the planet. Other than shared admiration for the David v. Goliath success stories we’d heard, in the networking sessions, there was a lot of talk about the growing demand not only for emerging ethical clothing products but also for clothes-swops, re- and up-cycling, getting back to the good old-fashioned (pun intended) concept of actually mending things, using found objects to make accessories from and similar. Online options like TradeMe in NZ and eBay elsewhere offer unlimited potential for the discerning second hand bargain hunter.

The destructive cycle of unchecked consumerism can’t go on — assuming infinite resources when we all know they’re actually finite is not a winning ethos for us humans. Some fashion companies have already acknowledged this and are testing new models like renting jeans, taking back old garments for re-cycling and incorporating “slow fashion” into their business models for competitive advantage.  The only real answer though is to convince people to buy less. Actually, to buy much, much less.

I want things to change — I don’t want my clothes habit to go the way of so many other things that have become taboo because they’re bad for me or the planet and I am encouraged by all the amazing people blazing the trail towards change. I just hope it’s enough. On a personal basis, I’ve stopped being such an avid consumer — I think much more about what I buy and try to find things that will last and which are from environmentally responsible organisations. I know that it’s not always easy or possible to make ethical choices, but at least understanding what’s at stake is a big motivator.

Coming back to my theme of clothes as a statement of individuality, I don’t see finding your own personal style as the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything — that remains 42. But tapping into your inner and unique fashionista can be a wonderfully rewarding journey of discovery about who you are and what you believe in. It’s not about the clothes themselves, it’s more the qualities that set you apart from your peers. It’s about standing for something.  After all, if you don’t know who you are, how can you know you’d like to hang with, love and be loved by, what you want your life mission to be or what your position on religion, politics or any of that stuff is?

Perhaps this all sounds very superficial? Obsessing about clothes when many older people can’t afford to stay warm in the winter and a large chunk of the world is starving does seem frivolous to the point of indecency. Believe me, I’m checking my privilege as I write, but you don’t need money to find make your own statements as the incredible 98-year-old New Yorker, artist and performer Ilona Royce Smithkin (featured image) has shown over the years. To me, she epitomises self-expression with elan and flair. This short video about her take on this is well worth watching. I think that if more people were like Ilona and sure of who they are and were prepared to stand up and be counted, not huddle together like so many sheep in the rain, we might be able to actually do something about all the troubles in our world. As Vivienne Westwood famously said, “you have a more interesting life if you wear impressive clothes.” I’d substitute “individualistic” for “impressive” but thinking about the redoubtable Ms. Westwood’s fashion journey, I get what she meant!

Featured Image — check out this wonderful portrait of Ilona Royce Smithkin and many others equally good at HayDave, to whom thanks.

 

Stranger in a strange land?

My sister and I launched a satirical magazine for women a few years ago. It was written for women like us who were looking for an alternative to the usual drivel dished up by the ‘glossy’ mags and it sent up the whole genre of outrageous cosmetic claims and superficial crap that they peddle.

As part of this, we created frankly ridiculous quizzes for people to complete, spoofing the absurd ones in some mainstream women’s media. You know the type — Which Disney Prince Is Your Soul-mate? Can You Tell The Difference Between A Designer Handbag and A Cheap Knockoff? Does This Sexy Body Part Belong to Luke, Liam or Chris Hemsworth? While it’s actually tempting to linger over the Hemsworth hiatus (Chris for president I say), my point is, it’s all such utter bollocks.

Ours were so much better… Is My Mummy The Queen of England? Should I Wage War On My Neighbours? Are You Wonderwoman? Flicking through these old mags again recently, the one I liked most was Is My Partner An Alien? In fact, I liked the idea so much I found myself burning to find out. Then I remembered the inconvenient truth; I don’t currently have a partner. Undeterred, I decided to answer the quiz from my own perspective to see if I myself was an alien (forgetting for a moment that we had invented the quiz and therefore it was as much bollocks as the ones in the other magazines).

Much to my astonishment, my answers provided conclusive evidence that I was, in fact, an alien. I was quite taken aback by this. If true, clearly I’ve been suffering from whopping amnesia about why I’m on earth amongst humans — some sort of deep under-cover operation? If so, I have no sense at all of the otherness that I figure I should be feeling as a stranger in a strange land. Most of all I wondered where the space ship was parked.

In all seriousness, in the current international climate, the question “Is your partner an alien?” is no joke. Setting aside for a moment the Close Encounters extraterrestrial type of alien in our quiz, down here on earth, in law, a human alien is a person who resides within the borders of a country and is not a national of that country.

We all like to belong. To fit in. To identify with others. Be recognized by our kind and recognise others like us. We like our tribes. Us humans have a prime-evil, almost visceral need to identify with kindred spirits. Unfortunately, looking at the world scene right now, for many this goes beyond the simple comfort factors of a sense of belonging to  issues like identity politics, fanaticism, bullying and terrorism against people who are different or believe differently.

I’m an expat, but an expat by choice not circumstance and living in a place with a lot of similarities to the country I left. Even after more than two decades, I still miss aspects of my previous life deeply but there are no barriers to going back and I can visit as often as I wish or, more realistically, can afford. In some ways, I’m lucky enough to have two countries that I think of as home. I can only imagine the anguish of people who have no place. Refugees running in fear of their lives, forced to leave everything precious and sacred behind. What must it be like to have lost everything you hold dear? Then there are ‘over-stayers’ who’ve built lives that are as fragile as butterfly wings in a gale. Living lives that force them to be constantly looking over their shoulders, stalked by the fear of being torn away from their friends and families and deported.

Particularly at this time of year, my heart goes out to the people all over the world for whom life turns on the whim of others and who feel alien on a daily basis. I just read a heart-rending article about the atrocities suffered by Rohingya refugees who’ve fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh with whole villages burned after soldiers butchered the men, raped the women and girls and mutilated and burned babies. And yet despite their horrendous ordeal, there is no happy ending in sight for these ‘aliens’. Bangladesh doesn’t want to take them. Nor, apparently, does anyone else and there are even suggestions that the best option would be repatriation!

From the bottom of my soul I believe we should treat such people with the milk of human kindness. But it’s complicated. I watched as my birth country, the UK, absorbed waves of aliens, many arriving with religious belief structures as their guiding stars and for whom adherence to religious law was more important than adherence to the law of our land. We lived in a duality where everyone knew there were places — whole cities even — where the law’s writ didn’t fully run. The clashing cultures of nationality opened up deep divisions and dislikes. Un-crossable Rubicons flowed where political correctness enabled and then tacitly ignored horrors in our midst like ‘honour killings’, where there was often no justice to be had for many and discontentment bred the shame of home grown terrorists.

I don’t know where the answer lies, but I don’t believe we can just shut our borders and lock out any and all outsiders. I hate the ‘Little Englander’ mentality that spawned BREXIT or the isolationist America First thinking that is gaining ground in many western countries with its underlying shades of white supremacy. We need to be better than that and find ways of getting over our tribal affiliations with their deep-rooted prejudices.

Maybe salvation will ultimately come from the intervention of some as yet undiscovered but highly evolved extraterrestrials who’ve found the answers! Perhaps said ETs could helpfully start by removing for scientific experimentation fanatics and cavemen leaders like Trump and their offensive Banyonesque henchmen who fan the flames! Particularly at this time of year, I’m reminded of the age-old and still highly valid concept of peace on earth and goodwill to all.

A man’s a man for ‘a that

I’m a Scot and a lifelong fan of the poetry of Robert Burns, a pioneer of the Romantic movement. While Burns is more often remembered as something of a ladies man, “the greatest hours that ere I spent were spent among the lasses o”, he was also a towering advocate for social equity.

Reading the headlines over the last few days, one of my favourite of Burns’ poems A Man’s A Man For ‘A That written in 1795, has been often in my mind. More than two hundred and twenty years after his death, the insight and aspiration of the piece remains profound.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

 AMEN!

British and Irish Lions 2017 tour — a world in union!

I was lucky enough to be given tickets for the second test in the British and Irish Lions 2017 NZ tour last weekend in Wellington. It was epic and that was only the atmosphere in the stadium. To be honest, the atmosphere was what I went for and it didn’t disappoint. The Lions … Lions … Lions chant from the sea of red supporters was electrifying and compulsive and it’s been ringing in my head all week. In my book, the antics of rugby’s ‘Barmy Army’ — the glorious, enthusiastic, contagiously cheerful, campervan-enabled mas of Lions supporters — has been the main event of the tour, rather than the rugby itself. And no one could ever accuse these guys of having succumbed to beige!

There’s something improbably beguiling about tens of thousands of good-natured fans prepared to travel all the way round the world, leaving their summer for our winter to roar on their heroes. In a world where sports followers all too often split into to fanatical nationalist and tribal divisions and go to war, this tour has left it’s eccentric, but heart warming grace in a lot of hearts here.

I would have loved to be at last nights tour finale in Auckland. Instead, I went for the armchair experience helped along by a spectacular dinner and some very good wine. And what a match it was. Nail-biting to the very last with some incredible play. The big disappointment? It ended in a draw and we have to wait so many years for the re-match as the Lions only tour NZ every 12 years. The consolation for a dichotomized ex-pat like me? That it ended in a draw and both sides therefore won.

In truth, the All Blacks should have taken it out — they had their chances, but the British bulldog in me reveled in the doughty ‘we will never surrender’ spirit of my compatriots as they fought on to the last gasp, evening the score in its dying moments. I can tell you, I didn’t know whether to sing Rule Britannia, Swing Low, Flower of Scotland, Men of Harlech, Ireland’s call or Pokarekare ana for that matter.

With an English mother and a Scottish father, I’m a half-breed. Thinking about it, I’m actually more of a ‘bitsa’ if you go back another generation or two. In addition to both of those not always harmonious nationalities vying for prominence in my loyalties having lived in both countries for close to equal time, there’s also Irish, French and German. If you go back even further there’s likely some Viking in the mix. After a couple of decades in NZ, there’s now also a fair dollop of Kiwi super-imposed on it all.

When I was a kid, I used to watch test rugby with my father — one of the few things deemed OK for us kids to stay up late for. I can still remember the excitement building during each pulsating match and dad’s highly vocal ebbs and flows as points were won and lost and Five Nations slugged it out for national glory or against one of the great touring sides like the Springboks. But when the All Blacks were involved there was an extra frisson. An exoticism that few other teams could match. After all, they had the Haka and who could every forget the first time they saw one performed? The spine-chilling moment when the All Blacks line up and lay down the challenge to the opposition. It’s a primal declaration of intent. To my childish eyes, it was truly awesome. Decades later, it still is.

Living in New Zealand, it’s very easy to support our local side. They’re just …er … so good … and they win so often … and this country’s rugby mad … and you get caught up in it all. In all seriousness, the All Blacks truly are one of the world’s great sporting brands and one of this little country’s enduring successes. It’s hard not to succumb to their might and glamour, particularly as supporting Scotland can be bit of a test in its own right. On numerous occasions we may well have sent the English homeward to think again, but we’ve never beaten the All Blacks in 30 attempts, the first being at Murrayfield in 1905. That’s not ever. Never. Not even once. OK there have been two draws so it hasn’t been a complete whitewash and you have to take the wins where you can (as it were), but it is a teeny bit one-sided and depressing even for the most ardent fan. Mostly I’m just happy if we lose respectably. Ditto England, Ireland and Wales in the context of the All Blacks.

But last night I was proud to be a Brit! Progressively during this Lions tour, the land of my fathers (and sisters and cousins and aunts) has reclaimed me. The improbable alliance that is the British and Irish Lions is uplifting in a world where there is so much strife. As once BBC commentator put it, “they (the Lions) have done it once again, from disparate parts and across old enmities. In a modern world often focused on cold commercial gain and a narrow nationalism, they remain an idea apart and a reality to inspire. As you watched the two sides merge for a shared team photograph at the end, red shirts mixing with black, Englishmen with arms round Irishmen, a Welsh skipper congratulating a Welsh man of the match, a Scotsman ending as the tour’s leading try scorer, then you did understand what it was all about, after all.”

If people like these from places with deep-seated ancient grudges and not a few contemporary ones can set them aside and revel in the moment, there’s hope for us humans and our world. 

Photo from The Daily Mail

We don’t get fooled again?

There it was, a compelling subject in my boring list of emails pulling my eye towards it with the compulsion of a $100 note lying unnoticed on a pavement.

Beware car-jackers in parking lots — read this now!

So I read it …. well you do, don’t you? 

“Imagine: you walk across the parking lot, unlock your care and get inside. Then you lock all your doors, start the engine and shift into reverse. You look in your rear view mirror as you prepare to back out of the parking space and notice a piece of paper (some sort of ad?) stuck on the rear window that’s obscuring the view. You put your car in neutral or park, jump out to remove the paper (or whatever it is). When you reach the back of your car the waiting car-jackers appear out of nowhere and jump into your car and take off. Your engine was running, your handbag is in the car and they practically mow you donw as they speed off. 

BE AWARE OF THIS NEW SCHEME

 Just drive away and remove the paper they’ve stuck to your window later … and be thankful that you read this email and that you forwarded it to your friends.”

Well reader, I was concerned I can tell you and I nearly fell for it. I nearly shared a bogus email and worried all my friends sick for no reason. Apparently this is a hoax that has been doing the rounds since 2004.

Man, we’re guillible as a species! But, they’re so credible these emails or social media shares, and you feel so puffed up with the responsibility of keeping not only yourself safe, but also everyone else you know. Well, you do, don’t you? Your finger hovers on the send/share button for a moment. Maybe it’s a hoax? But it can’t be … can it? No, damn it, it sounds like something I heard on the radio sometime, somewhere … I’ll press send just in case. What harm can it do? If it’s true, I’ve done what I can to alert others, if it’s not true … well … so what really? A few of my circle might momentarily think I’m a plonker, but they’re busy and the moment will pass. More likely, they’ll just hit ‘share’, like me , without questiontioning anyway. It’s not exactly a crime against humanity of the type that got Hermann Göring in front of the Nuremberg Trials.

But on reflection, it’s plain irresponsible to share stuff that’s not true. Along the lines of the bored shepherd boy who cried “wolf” once too many times to get attention and then wasn’t believed when there really was a wolf. Particularly questionable are ones that are partially true, which can have serious consequences. A recent example is the much promoted concept of ordering an Angel Shot if you’re a woman in a bar feeling threatened or unnerved. Bar staff then summon an Uber cab to whisk you to safety — oh the irony of a woman feeling safe in the Uber-verse! While there is some merit in this new form of SOS, it relies on bar staff everywhere knowing the signal and knowing what to do. Being widely publicised also means the perps are likely to have decoded this signal rendering it pointless.

As I said at the beginning, these shares are so very credible and it’s so much easier to hit forward and be done with it, than actually take time our of out of our time poor lives to do a bit of sleuthing first. Particularly when there’s some sort of guilt quotient or not meeting the expectations of friends’ involved in not sharing  In our current reality, many of these fall into the category of fake news, intentionally or not. My sister will kill me for writing this as she’s our family’s expert on not getting fooled and I’m stealing her thunder. (Also, she is a life long and passional fan of The Who and might be annoyed by my hi-jacking the title of one of their greatest hits for the piece.) However, in writing this I’m continuing her crusade with the key message being, ‘help is at hand’. If you’re not sure about something, have a look at one of the fact checking sites like www.snopes.com.

Of course, that assumes that the fact checkers themselves are unbiased in their assessments. When I googled on this point, I came up with a recent cautionary tale in Forbes magazine casting some doubt about Snopes and the processes it uses to make its calls. Snopes is the fact checking site that is partnering with Facebook as its arbitrer of truth, which is a bit of a worry to say the least.

True or false, it really does seems as if a lot of us prefer to awfulise and believe there are horrors lurking round every corner, than check the facts and spoil the story or break the chain! Sadly, it seems we will always get fooled again … because we like being ‘in the know’ and the fake news brigade are past and present masters of playing on our fears, biases and incredulity. As the old saying goes, don’t believe everything you read!

Where have you gone Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby?

Sifting through GoodReads the other day, I came across a section of reviews about a book I loved as a child — Charles Kingsley’s fantasy story The Water-Babies (1863). About half of the reviewers were people like me who remembered this book fondly from childhood. The rest were new to the story. From the comments, it’s clearly very dated and the reviews were mixed to say the least. It was good to see that the magic had remained for quite a few of the second timers and somewhat surprisingly caught the heartstrings of some of the newbies. “A load of smug, moralistic old twaddle,” would be a synthesis of the remainder.

Water-Babies is one of those gloriously stentorian and self-righteous Victorian tales known as a didactic moral fable. It is full of the era’s upper class, Anglican prejudices against just about anyone who did not qualify as “one of us”; Catholics, Irish, Jews, the poor, blacks … even Americans. Because of its now very non-PC attitudes, the book has largely fallen out of favour[1], but it was a mainstay of British children’s literature for decades after its publication. It was one of my childhood favourites and my sister and I listened wide-eyed as our mother read it to us and breathed magic into this story of aquatic adventure full of fantastical creatures.

Semi-satirical in form, the over-arching theme is one of Christian redemption. Kingsley, an Anglican minister, used pertinent character names like Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby to put his points across. Her antithesis was Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid who demonstrated in very tangible ways the consequences of doing bad stuff.  All very hellfire and brimstone! Sitting under this primary theme were several others: the wrongness of child labour, the atrocious treatment in England of the urban poor and also the narrow-minded thinking of many of the scientists of the day. Kingsley was a contemporary of Darwin whose Origin of the Species he somewhat surprisingly (being God-squad) strongly supported.

The plot focuses on a young chimney sweep Tom, who meets upper class girl, Ellie whilst sweeping the chimneys in her house, is chased away for his presumption in talking to her, falls in a river and seemingly drowns. He is then changed into a Water-Baby and begins a journey which serves as a moral education. Ellie becomes a Water-Baby shortly after Tom and joins him on this journey which concludes as he helps his cruel former master Mr Grimes (who is being punished for his mid-deeds, including beating Tom) achieve redemption.  By showing willingness to do ‘right things’ he doesn’t like or want to, Tom earns himself a return ticket to life and human form. Back in the ‘real’ world he becomes a great man of science. He and Ellie (similarly redeemed) are re-united although the book states they never marry. So, the upshot is that they lived sort of happily ever after. Disney would have hated it — no love’s true kiss[2] for this pair!

However, I didn’t start writing with the intention of producing a synopsis or critique of Water-Babies. While the story of the book has faded into little other than fondness in my mind, Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby, left a lasting imprint, and has been something of a guiding light in my life since. The concept of doing as I would be done by has always seemed a very simple aspiration. The question, ‘would I like it if someone did this to me?’ is a sure-fired way of identifying whether an action I’m thinking about is supportable or not. A sort of moral litmus test. I’ve lived my life in the general belief that it doesn’t much matter what you do as long as you don’t hurt others, or yourself, along the way. Having said that, I’m not a saint by any means. I’ve lived a full and varied life. But I do care how my actions affect the people around me and I do my best not to create collateral damage as I skip my merry way through life.

Seriously, it’s been a no-brainer. When I follow the do as you would be done by principle, I feel good. When I don’t, it disturbs me and I feel bad, sometimes even sick. Let me quickly add that you don’t have to be a doormat to do as you would be done by; there are always options and choices which allow us to achieve our own objectives without trashing other people along the way. Of course, doing as you would be done by doesn’t in any way guarantee that other people will do the same.

It often feels that common decency and respect for others have become ‘old hat’. Yet they are the ingredients that make societies civilized. Courtesy and manners are about acknowledging the kindnesses, cleverness and care of the people around us. But they’re also about restraint. About not just saying the first thing that comes to mind. Not responding in kind to other people’s rudeness or anger. Respect allows us freedom of expression without fear, providing there is understanding that rights also come with responsibilities. Respect for the law allows us to live in peace and safety instead of anarchy. Respect for ourselves is a vital part of leading happy fulfilling lives. Respect for others and for our environment also allows families, social groupings, organisations, countries and our much vaunted ‘international community’ to flourish. This respect includes having at least a nodding acquaintance with the concept of a common good instead of the cult of me that has become the bedrock of modern life.

Clearly, respect has to be earned. but if we lose respect for the people and things around us, we cease to care about our world and become uncivilized. Disrespect in the conventional sense is everywhere; noisy neighbours whose booming stereos spoil our weekends, boy racers grinding their gears and revving the hell out of their cars at 2am, people walking five-abreast along a pavement who force you into the gutter … and those are just the tip of the iceberg.

Coming back to Water-Babies, the reviews I read didn’t inspire me to re-read it. I was tempted, but decided to keep my memories as they are. However, I do think it’s a pity that we can’t ignore the bigotry of the time such books were written in and take the eternal currency of their messages on board. The world would be a better place if more people embraced the do as you would be done by creed so individuals start being nicer and less self-obsessed people who understand that working towards the greater good is, in fact, good.

Footnotes:

[1] Despite several recent attempts to find redemption for the book itself — a 2013 update for BBC 4 brought the tale to a newer age with Tom having been trafficked from Nigeria as a child labourer — it’s attitudes don’t resonate with the sensitivities of contemporary audiences (well at least some of them … step away from the ‘Trump bashing moment’).

[2] As a totally useless piece of trivia, Kingsley is credited with inventing the word ‘cuddles’ which first appeared in Water-Babies.

Where’s the ‘honour’ in killing?

A few years ago I wrote a novelette — shorter than a novella and longer than a short story — about Anne Boleyn’s last days. Recently I read something that caused me to dust off this minor opus and look at it through a slightly different lens; not just as the story of one wronged woman, but as a story that is part of a deeper context of all wronged women.

Anne Boleyn’s story has always moved me. The Anger of Princes is Death was an attempt to imagine how this extraordinary woman’s last days and hours might have unfolded. What on earth would go through your mind as you walk towards a scaffold where a swordsman is waiting to hack your head from your body? You are an anointed queen and you have sworn before God you are innocent of the charges against you. Your trial was a trumped up farce — you weren’t even allowed the right to defend yourself. Most of your friends and family have deserted you. In many cases, they even testified against you. A man who once loved you with a passion that caused him to move heaven and earth to marry you signed your death warrant and is now waiting eagerly for the cannon fire that will tell him he’s free to marry his new love. Your adored brother and some of your dearest friends — cited as your lovers —have already been tried and killed.

It must surely have been a gruesome vigil waiting for your date with death. Then finally, the last short but seemingly interminable walk from The Queen’s Apartments in the Tower of London to the scaffold. A walk not of shame as your enemies saw it, but of turbulent emotions — a desperate wish to cling to life mixed with a profound longing for the ordeal to be over.

And yet, witnesses say Anne Boleyn took those last few steps to her death with dignity and self-control, and without protest against the system that had condemned her. Many contemporaries saw Anne’s execution as the cynical killing of a woman, who was ‘past her sell-by-date’ and who’d become an inconvenient nuisance to Henry VIII, a view point most historians now agree with. Every time I think about it, I’m disturbed all over again. It’s not as if I knew her or she were my friend or even a friend of a friend. It’s nearly five centuries since this drama unfolded, but her ghost haunts me because of the circumstances and the overwhelming feeling of injustice involved.

It has to be said that Royal Courts, such as that of Henry VIII were notoriously visceral. Power and wealth were there for the taking through service to the monarch, but much pride went before many falls for people who over-reached. Anne Boleyn’s dazzling rise and spectacular plummet is just one example. While the other beheading of a queen of Henry’s, Katherine Howard, his fourth wife and Anne’s first cousin, is still a repulsive act, there isn’t the same sense of injustice because the evidence of adultery is very compelling. Few at the time or since really questioned her guilt. She was a foolish girl and paid a very high price for her folly. While one can argue a whole bunch of things about the wrongness of any form of death penalty, by the norms of the day, she was likely guilty of a capital offence.

Anne Boleyn however, was anything but a foolish girl. She was a spirited woman of the Renaissance. Talented, well educated and intellectually curious, Anne is credited with playing a significant part in the Reformation of the Church in England through her friendship with and advocacy of some of its leading figures and her influence on Henry VIII. It is likely the worst she was actually guilty of was over-arching ambition, arrogance and the inability to produce a male heir for her mercurial and often cruel husband. It seems Henry did convince himself somewhat conveniently that the charges against her were true and while he expressed outrage at her betrayal, the reality seems to be that he had fallen out of love with her and Anne’s execution opened up the possibility of his marriage to someone else who could legitimately bear him heirs.

There are few monarchs or rulers in history that can match the beguiling awfulness of Henry VIII who cemented the House of Tudor on the English throne after the Wars of the Roses (1455-1487). His reign became notorious for his break with the Church of Rome in order to marry Anne Boleyn, after which he made himself head of the Church in England and dissolved the abbeys, significantly enriching his exchequer. Under his watch came the Reformation which caused deep religious divisions in the country and a growing pile of corpses belonging to the many people who didn’t agree with him, most famously Thomas More, his one time friend. And then there were his celebrated marital excesses. The sheer theatricality of the six wives, two of whom were careless enough to end up without their heads, retains a morbid fascination that often eclipses the much more significant events that were taking place.

My interest in history goes as far back as I can remember. But as a kid, the concept of history was little more than a parade of kings, queens, princes and princesses and my friends and I fixated on the ‘gory’ bits. Henry VIII provided endless grist to our imaginative little mills. We used to recite the old “divorced (Catherine of Aragon) … beheaded (Anne Boleyn) … died (Jane Seymour) … divorced (Anne of Cleves) … beheaded (Katherine Howard) … survived (Catherine Parr)” mnemonic in primary school to remember their order. Technically of course, divorce is incorrect as the marriages were annulled, but that was too complicated for children playing Henry VIII and his wives in a school playground! Even as a child it was easy to feel that the last wife, Catherine Parr, had a lucky escape when Henry died and she could marry her true love, Thomas Seymour. But Anne Boleyn was always the romantic heroine of the piece and we all fought to be the one to play her.

I digress. Through the ages, most royal and noble women have been considered and treated as little more than chattels. They moved from the domination of their father to that of their husband and often they had no or little say in whom that would be. Their principle duties were to be virgins at the time of the marriage, reproduce as often as possible, remaining faithful till death so there could be no question about the legitimacy of their children. For the wives of kings, adultery was treasonous and generally carried the death penalty. Very Game of Thrones! (George RR Martin apparently drew his inspiration from the Wars of The Roses.)

But looking at Anne Boleyn’s treatment through my different lens, I see shades of what we now call ‘honour killing’. This is defined as the killing of a family member by other members of the family, due to their belief that the victim has brought shame or dishonor upon the family or has violated the principles of a community or religion. One of the most common ‘crimes against honour’ is of course adultery, although there are many others. In Anne’s case, mirroring that of so many other women before and since, alleged charges — if you exclude the testimony of a young musician gained under torture — were all that were needed to convict her.

The concept of killing adulterous wives and unchaste daughters has a long and inglorious history and is by no means limited to practitioners of fundamental religions. Some examples include The Lex Julia de Adulteris Coercendis enacted by Caesar Augustus which gave the Roman pater familias the right, as a point of honour, to kill his unmarried sexually active daughters or his adulterous wife. Aztec and Inca societies apparently punished adultery by death. In France, the Napoleonic Code of 1810 made it legal for husbands to murder unfaithful wives and partners, but wives did not have the same right in respect of adulterous husbands. Scarily, this law wasn’t formally repealed until 1975 although it’s hard to imagine any court by then condoning such murders! The Napoleonic Code inspired similar legislation in some of the Middle Eastern countries where France’s influence was strong. Throughout Mediterranean Europe the concept of familial and community honour was a way of life and defined the lives, customs and values of many peoples — the Sicilian Mafia being just one example.

What’s so insidious about honour killing is the whole vicious cycle: the killers often take pride or self-righteous justification in their actions, the community leaders protect the killers and the authorities connive the cover up. While it isn’t only women that are killed for honour, women are its main victims. Apparently, instances of this barbaric practice are on the rise. It’s unconscionable in this day and age that, all over the world, women from all walks of life, irrespective of class, ethnicity or religious background are treated as the property of the men with the power of life and death over them. You don’t even have to be a prince for your anger to mean death!

Clearly writing a short story about a long-dead queen does nothing to change this. But re-reading my story, reminded me of the on-going need to speak up against inequality wherever it occurs, particularly when it’s based on outdated and frankly ridiculous concepts of masculine honour and pride. Death is just the most extreme outcome for such women in a world where life is not fair and there is no justice to be had.

If you’d like to read my small, but perfectly formed novellette, The Anger of Princes is Death, it’s available as a kindle book on Amazon.