Thursday, July 06, 2017

Because of Grenfell this government must go

Its not because it is directly responsible for the tragedy – it clearly isn’t. Its not because the now Foreign Secretary decimated London fire services when he was Mayor. The firefighters could not have done more to prevent the towering inferno and its doubtful a more substantial number of firefighters would have resulted in a significantly different outcome. Its not because the vicious cuts to public services meant that inspections were less frequent or thorough.

However critical we are of the current government this might have happened under a previous Labour government. Yet I do believe there will be attempts to shift blame away from central government and we are well aware that party affiliation doesn’t save you from being thrown under the bus – the Conservative Parliamentary Party would gladly sacrifice lesser Tories in order to retain power.

While there is plenty of blame to be attributed to political and business figures it is possible that a Tory government could mitigate some of its excesses and introduce legislation to make another tragedy of this kind less likely. But I’m not talking about blame or even competence (though the current shower on the Tory front bench look ill equipped to organise a village fete). Not even the tardy and hollow response of Tory ministers, particularly the Prime Minister, in the face of a human and national tragedy, persuades me to put forward this proposal.

Its the response of the Grenfell survivors that persuades me. Their reluctance to accept offers of temporary accommodation speaks of insecurity and lack of trust. They have no reason to believe that any established authority can be taken at its word. They were not listened to when they predicted the disaster; why should they believe anything has changed? Their distrust is well founded and reasonable. Even though their current accommodation is temporary in the extreme and entirely unsuitable, even in the midterm, to refuse what they have been offered means that they maintain some level of control however absurd it might appear.

Anyone who has suffered a crushing loss knows that putting things right doesn’t get to the heart of our human needs. In your darkest hour you need someone who listens and understands but I am convinced that a Tory government can’t understand what the recent tragedy means to the residents of Grenfell. It has no concept of living in a free society where you have no voice, no power and very little means of controlling your life. Its a paradigm alien to the Tory mindset. When thousands take to the streets to protest cuts to public services, the monetisation of health and justice and the ravages of austerity, its response is to point the finger and call us irresponsible.

This government has overseen the destruction and dismantling of our NHS, the erosion of living standards of working people, the decimation of public services, callous and immoral sanctions of the most vulnerable in our society and, at the same time, empowered and enriched those with most wealth and power. It has no moral capital or integrity and has proved where its interests lie.

Grenfell is beyond political but its blackened husk is symbolic of a political establishment that has been completely de-oxygenated and is no longer fit for purpose either practically or morally.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Oak and Willow

My Mum was born on 14 January 1924 and died 14 June 2010

Born Edith Betty Holland, she met a man she would dedicate her life to, to honour and obey, till death do they part. Dad died in 1999 and if you knew him you would know that he was a truly great man but as they say, behind every great man…

They fitted perfectly. My Grandma used to say that they were the best mum and dad in the world and she wasn't given to flowery sentimentality. Mum was strong and resolute, not one for forgiving and forgetting. Fortunately Dad was a peacemaker - Mum the dependable, brittle, oak, Dad the strong but flexible willow. Mum had little self confidence but she had an inner strength she didn't believe she had and drew strength from the man upon whom she could utterly depend.

The last few years Mum battled with vascular dementia but she clung on to the memory of her family and husband like grim death when, by all rights, she should have slipped into blissful ignorance. My eulogy at her funeral wasn’t the recollection of one life now ended but the story of two lives and a journey. This is the story.


There once lived a young sapling named Willow Wise. He was strong and supple, brilliant and humble. He learned the ways of the wind – whistled her tunes and measured her moods. He knew the extent of the forest, its height and girth. He knew why sap rose and leaves fell. He knew where the paths led, which ones were safe and which were treacherous. He loved adventure and surprise but never ventured near the swamps and ledges.

When the great cruel wind blew through the forest he was uprooted and came to rest under the boughs of Sycamore Strong. She grew very fond of Willow as he branched and blossomed and introduced him to a precious acorn named Oak Brittle. Oak was quiet and timid but reflected the beauty of the forest with her shiny shell. At first Willow saw only his reflection until her beauty won him over and they fell in love.

Oak grew in the arms of Willow Wise. She produced many acorns and guarded them in her strong branches and sheltering leaves. Strong, brittle Oak and Wiley Willow were perfectly matched. Her guarded heart was softened by willow’s grace while he found strength in her unyielding love.

But time gives no deference to love and happiness and eventually Willow grew tired and could no longer draw nourishment from the forest floor. Oak was left with no reason to be strong and her brittleness became a burden. She would have bent like Willow if only she could but her destiny was to hollow out and only in the fragility of her shell would she yield to nature’s curtain call.

Soon Oak could not recall the willow ways. She heard the wind but from where it came she couldn’t tell. Her shiny acorn shell had given way to splintered bark and her leaves had all but fallen. But she would not be felled. Willow’s shadow had not waned and though her pithy memory had gone her resolution remained as she kept a place for him in her empty centre.


But when her brittleness was spent

She heard the willow call and bent

She paid no heed to mercy at the axes heft

But for willow’s arching grace her spirit left

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Life's a Bich and Then You diet


Dieting has never appealed to me, partly because the pseudo science that drives the diet industry has so often proved itself to be just that. Even professional dieticians fail to enable their clients when they pursue a non-holistic approach, driven by their scientific methodology which doesn't adequately address the human condition.

While it must be under-girded by science, dieting is generally more an art. It also doesn't exist as a discipline in itself, it has to be part of a lifestyle to have any hope of maintaining traction.

I first fell into the trap of thinking that losing weight was a case of mind over matter - that somehow I could think myself thin. I can now attribute that to avoidance. To engage on a proper diet I would need to declare myself fat and my girth was not something I wanted to draw attention to (for many reasons).

But what you have to realise is that people don't pay much attention to things that don't change so if you are not gaining or losing weight you don't stand out. Also, everyone has their own image of who you are. You might compare yourself to George Clooney or Beyoncé but no one else does. Your crooked nose or double chin is only ugly to those who don't like you.

But your public image is affected by your self image and you will be more attractive externally when you feel attractive internally. In part, this depends on transparency (if people don't appreciate your inner beauty its because you are simply not nice or because you are hiding it); hence my decision to go public (that sounds over dramatic). As well as making a statement of intent I genuinely wanted advice from real people rather that Google.

I wanted a diet that was not based on some modern idea that prided itself on thinking outside the box or was gratuitously counter-intuitive. I was also not interested in a club as such where I would either follow some strict rules or feel the need to justify my own deviation from them. Being a closet rebel I needed a plan that was not my invention but would allow me to be innovative.

So I settled for the GI [glycaemic index] diet (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glycemic_index). I've stolen from the GI model but its really more of a low carb diet, partly because its much easier to source low carb than low GI and because I don't want to get nerdy on the science. I had a diet buddy who has since given up because it wasn't working for her, but I don't think I could have started successfully on my own.

I was hovering around the 199lb mark but was happy to weigh myself at 200lb on day 1. This was not a complete accident as I consciously made the decision to eat what I wanted up to the night before. Losing 5lb in the first week might have owed some to inertia but, by strategy or design, I think I got it right. Losing 1lb per day over the first 3 days was a big confidence booster.

The general plan was to combine low carbs with fat (glycaemic index vs glycaemic load). My first shop consisted of strawberries, tuna, crisp bread, créme fraiche (full fat), peppers, mushrooms, broccoli, smoked mackerel, chicken breasts, Wheat Shreds (Aldi), brown rice, cucumber and almonds. I've regularly included cheddar cheese, onions, various veg such as green beans and cauliflower. I've avoided sugar, pasta, potatoes, bread and anything low fat or diet related.

At first I was having Wheat Shreds for breakfast, swapping sugar for strawberries and créme fraiche. I've since come to realise that cereals tend to be high carb (Aldi's Wheat Shreds are low carb in contrast to Shreddies which are not). Of course there's no good reason why I should start the day on cereals so I've since gone more for the fried breakfast option.

One piece of advise I was given was to eat smaller portions and that is really important. Part of the lifestyle change is to teach your stomach restraint which means learning to be hungry and not needing to be full. However, you also have to be aware of what your body needs. So when your stomach aches and you've not eaten you probably need to eat something and hunger should not be ignored, just overridden sometimes.

One of the key factors in deciding on a plan was sustainability. It was important I had a plan that wasn't too restrictive, prescriptive or utilitarian. It had to be a real life solution that I could live with long term. It needed to be based on foods that were easily available from most outlets and allowed for stepping off the wagon from time to time. I didn't want anything that involved counts which inevitably lead to guilt trips and discouragement. So I have a system that isn't a system.

All the best plans are triangular in nature (because a triangle is the most stable shape). So in addition to low carb/medium fat meals and small portions I've been walking briskly for a minimum of 30 mins per day (or average thereof). As well as helping to burn my reserves and keeping my metabolism firing it helps psychologically. Not only does it keep me alert its a distraction from the diet.

I've only just completed 3 weeks so you can take this all with a pinch of salt. But I do believe there is sense and logic behind this which I've gleaned from years of diet watching and dabbling in the science. If you will bear with me I'll give a summary of my progress so far by way of observations.

Observation 1. Cheat like hell. You are competing only with yourself and if you need a Mars bar go for it. If you are being honest with yourself, like not robbing Peter to pay Paul or fiddling with the scales you'll find a good balance. Use your natural inclination to sin and repent to advantage.

Observation 2. Avoid the weight watching aisle like the plaque. Ignore calories completely because, of themselves, calories don't make you fat. Neither does beer make you fat though you might want to moderate wine or cider.

Observation 3. Learn to be hungry. Don't swap munching crisps, chocolate and sweets for celery and carrots. Your weight loss will not be sustainable unless you change your eating habits. Sometimes you will get the munchies but be creative. I've microwaved frozen peas for a snack. Its quick and they are sweet.

I will be doing more research but only to inform what I'm already doing. Just like our bodies don't automatically turn fat into cellulite and cholesterol from eggs doesn't automatically clog your arteries, what I read doesn't dictate how I live. I'm just beginning this new journey and hope to gain more than I lose.

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Cherry on the Cake


I think its fair to say that the majority of people are religious to some degree, whether they place their faith in a deity or religious mantra or simply hold to beliefs that lack empirical evidence. None (or very few) of us have a check list of verifiable facts by which we measure every action. We even deliberately go against sound advice and received wisdom when we feel the need to satisfy an emotional compulsion that defies rational thinking but agrees with our core. We’ve all heard (or read) someone say, “I’m not a religious person but I felt the need to pray”. Its a need to appeal to a higher authority that is impartial, compassionate and wise. The heart sometimes doesn’t even need to believe, the hope that good is supreme and actually resides in some dimension is enough to get through the moment.

Many find security in organised religion even though the tenets of faith under girding it mean nothing to them or are quite unfamiliar. Nationalists often affiliate themselves to a religion, not because of its teachings but because it gives them an identity. They very often cite quasi-religious texts that adherents of that religion reject. In reality most of us create our own god like a ‘Have it Your Way’ burger. But unlike fast food, fast religion has always been with us. Religious wars owe more to expediency than religious belief. This very human way of thinking and living is not peculiar to religion.

“Peace and goodwill to all men”, though biblical, is a Christmas meme that resonates for most us but doesn’t pass the litmus test when the warmongering media presents the latest atrocity and calls us to arms. Its natural to want retribution when we feel attacked but its also natural for siblings to fight over the best seat and lash out when they don’t get their own way. Peace is only possible when we deny our baser instincts and look to higher principles. World peace is no more than a motto in a Christmas cracker if all it accomplishes is to make you feel warm and fuzzy when you are not being challenged.

For Christians, Easter centres on the physical death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (our saviour Messiah). It leaves no room for the suck-it-and-see faith of those who merely call themselves Christian. It demands the acceptance of an actual person being crucified at an actual place at a precise time in history. And if we are to be faithful to the story we also have to accept that Jesus rose as flesh and blood, not the ethereal icon that ‘lives in our hearts’. But therein lies a problem that has blighted the 20th and 21st century church – taking the Bible literally.

The discussion around literalism, errancy and reliability of the Bible can be excruciating and circular. The more you define your view the more distorted it becomes. I’ve battled with these ideas for years and I think I’ve arrived at something akin to a cherry-on-top cake with an inedible (non-negotiable) case, a distinct cherry in the middle and the rest is stodgy and malleable. My belief in a creator God is non-negotiable, the Bible as a whole is open to interpretation. The words of Jesus and the centrality of his death and resurrection define and give purpose to the whole cake. To explain how I got here is a story long in the baking; its no cake mix.

The more socially aware I become the more I see the life and teachings of Jesus come into focus, the Easter story ever evolving while the essential ingredients stay the same. I see this same model applying to the peace and democracy movement. An ideology can distort your world view and alienate you from those who think differently. Fixating on specifics or being resigned to generalisations makes you a case with no substance or a cherry with no cake. To strive for world peace you need hope but if you have a focus that shifts from side to depending on the circumstances it might as well be just a wish. The cake itself is messy in the making and will collapse many times as you strive for success.

Faith is mostly stodgy and messy. It burns and sinks, delights and disappoints. It never turns out like the picture in the book and sometimes you have to try making it without a vital ingredient. On Good Friday the cake burned and the cherry was stolen. But God had an even more glorious cake planned.