Tuesday, December 21, 2010

uunitalian, no, wait... uni-talian...

In the new year spirit of clarity, I've done something about the name - alright, I know "uunitalian" sounds a bit dumb, but "unitalian" also reads un-italian, which has always irritated me. The "UU" also has more meaning to me these days, as I feel theologically closer to the American than the British movements. So uunitalian it is - every bit as perplexing, yet to the point, as Unitarian Universalism.

UPDATE - swayed by Scott's sound advice, I changed it again!

Now the UK Spirituality blog is properly back on line (after 12 months! - I should get a UU medal of endurance for continuing to post up until 6 months ago despite the coding problems) I'm also going to try to concentrate more on that, although I'll flag posts up here. One modest attempt to inject some viscosity into the on-line liquidity.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Einstein was right, you can be in two places at once

A device that exists in two different states at the same time, and coincidentally proves that Albert Einstein was right when he thought he was wrong, has been named as the scientific breakthrough of the year.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Some kind of special

A little nugget from Wikileaks that lays bear the true nature of the, ahem, "special relationship" between the US and UK...

More than one HMG [government] senior official asked embassy officers whether President Obama meant to send a signal in his inaugural address about US-UK relations by quoting Washington during the revolutionary war, while the removal of the Churchill bust from the Oval Office consumed much UK newsprint... This period of excessive UK speculation about the relationship is more paranoid than usual... This over-reading would often be humorous if it were not so corrosive.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Utopias inside and out

Watching the interview with the director of the excellent In Memory of Me, about a young man who gives up the easy life to become a Jesuit noviate, I was struck by his observation that this film could not have been made 30 years ago. Then there was ideology, the Cold War, communism and so on - people sought utopias in politics, the external world. Now all that has gone, there's nothing. We no longer seek our utopias outside, but in...

And that's the tale he tells.

Friday, November 19, 2010

UK only country where wealth does not determine access to healthcare

Britain's health service makes it the only one of 11 leading industrialised nations where wealth does not determine access to care – providing the most widely accessible treatments at low cost among rich nations, a study has found.

The survey, by US health thinktank the Commonwealth Fund, showed that while a third of American adults "went without recommended care, did not see a doctor when sick, or failed to fill prescriptions because of costs", this figure was only 6% in the UK and 5% in Holland.

In all the countries surveyed except Britain, wealth was a significant factor in access to health, with patients earning less than the national average more likely to report trouble with medical bills and problems getting care because of cost.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Remembering Sousa Mendes

The "Portugese Schindler" who saved 30,000, but got little thanks from his government, which condemned him to internal exile where he died in poverty in 1954.

"I could not have acted otherwise," he declared late in life, "and I therefore accept all that has befallen me with love."

Friday, October 29, 2010

What's fair?

Huge debate about "fairness" as the government's "reforms" of the benefits system (basically - less) begin to bite, summed up by this article in the Guardian about the row over housing - on the one hand we have the Tory minister for housing saying, well if I can't live in the posh street why should people on benefits be able to do so, and on the other the Tory mayor of London (conscious of his soft-left constituency no doubt) arguing against "Kosovo-style social cleansing".

Certainly I wouldn't dream of moving to an expensive part of town and claiming housing benefit (and knowing the rental market I'm not sure if this is more than a fantasy given the amount of deposit you usually have to pay up front, although I suppose there are always exceptions). The people this is more likely to hit, it seems to me, are the working class who have lived in areas for generations that have been gentrified around them. Housing benefit presumably allows them to keep doing so and families to keep together.

Now, this may not be "fair" by the standards of a free market capitalist society, but is this the kind of "fair" we want? Isn't another kind of fair one in which communities consist of those on all rungs of the social ladder and working class people have the same access to decent state schools as their middle class neighbours? A communal fair as opposed to an individual one?

Just because the banker in Kensington earns ten times more than the nurse or street cleaner next door, does this mean their work has ten times more value? That they have ten times more right to live in a better area with better amenities than their neighbours?

Only by one extremely narrow definition, surely.

Another definition of fair is one in which the differential between rich and poor is much less widely defined, and where the contribution of the people who run the railways is acknowledged as much as the people who travel upon them. Where we define fair by what we contribute to a community rather than simply what we can make for ourselves.

Only 40 years ago, Notting Hill, home of David Cameron, was a working class area. Over the past few decades it has been transformed in to one of London's most exclusive and fashionable addresses as Trustafiarians - like David and his wife Sam - bought up properties, in the process pricing out those locals who wished to buy (as opposed to rent, presumably supported by the benefit system).

It is interesting then that the policy he is pursuing so aggressively will inevitably result in his own community being affected, with possibly even some of his neighbours forced to up-sticks. It probably won't seem very fair to them, but somehow I doubt David will be around to explain.

UPDATE - UK benefits spending in one easy graft.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Heresy review by Andrew Pakula

Insightful and compelling. Axam weaves three millennia of thought with his own self-realisation to offer us a faith for today.

Largely thanks to you, Andy, I might add.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Why Heresy Saved Me

I'm being ironic, obviously, although what began as a dig at an Anglican bishop who threw some Unitarians out of his cathedral acquired greater meaning as I got deeper in to the book - that the modern heresy was declining to play the God/ no God game; how I arrived at this point by having my assumptions about the world gradually (and sometimes violently) removed; how Unitarianism helps provide the space for us to be who we are meant to be.

If this sounds a bit heavy, well I promise Heresy is not. Indeed, I specifically set out to write a book about spirituality that has a sense of humour (and actually as I was using myself as the source material, I found plenty to laugh at), one that would do for contemporary faith what I've tried to do most of my career (with varying degrees of success, admittedly) for other tricky issues - make it accessible, refreshing, inspiring.

I thought - wouldn't it be great for that UU kid in Manchester/ Minnesota to have something s/he can enjoy alongside the Twilight series, Chomsky and the Collected Works of Marilyn Manson; a slim volume they can read on the National Express/ Greyhound between home and college, that they wouldn't be ashamed to be seen with, even recommend... Nietzsche recently tweeted (who would have believed it!) Profundity of thought belongs to youth, clarity of thought to old age. By declining to focus solely upon an audience of middle-aged farts like myself, I hoped to produce a book about spirituality that would have fresh appeal to young and old, UUs and non-UUs, and yes, even middle-aged farts like myself.

The craziest thing is it is not Unitarianism that truly inspired me, rather its absence: when I regularly attended church I had no notion or inclination to write. It was only after we moved to Italy - a true Unitarian wasteland - that I came to miss my community so much I felt compelled to fill the hole the only way I truly knew how, with words. And that's finally what the book is - a kind of letter home.

Heresy Saved Me is now available on Amazon or through the website.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A book in the hand...

Almost, but not quite, the real thing - in fact what's known as the "uncorrected proof" that precedes the final print run, now due for delivery in a few days time.

What a journey it's been though. Writing it was just the beginning. I finished Heresy over a year ago, around July 2009 I think. It took me about six months in all - the rest has been proofing, design, production, although admittedly I haven't helped... for example the book should have been on the shelves at the beginning of this month if I hadn't made some radical last minute changes.

But despite the delays I'm really happy with Heresy now. I am a much better writer in revision (and revision and revision) than first draft, and I have been told the book is easy to read and to the point (but I'll get to the what, why and how in a later post).

Now undoubtedly the greatest challenge - marketing. Plainly I did not write a book about Unitariansism to make money or appear on Oprah. I began because I felt compelled to, continued partly because I was encouraged, and now feel a responsibility not only to myself but to the book itself. Readers too: from the reaction I've had so far I feel reasonably confident people will get something out of it, despite the strongest responses being to parts I had least expected!

As you can see, it has a revised Amazon page. You can place an order here now. If you do read it, by the way, and like it, please say so in the review!

The book also has its own website, which still needs a bit of work to be honest, but the advantage over Amazon may be that it's cheaper for postage overseas.

Finally, I'm really keen to get it reviewed. If anyone has an established blog and would like a free review copy, just email me (see my blogger profile) and I'll pop one in the post.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Druid time again

Pleased to see Druidry, the ancient faith of Britain, has received official acknowledgement as a religion and duly been granted charitable status. The faith that built Britain's most enduring monument has had to wait around 1900 years to get the nod from officialdom.

That this has prompted the rancour of Melanie "Mad Mel" Phillips can only be a good thing.

Astonishingly, around 100 members of the Armed Forces now classify themselves as pagans, and a further 30 as witches.

Well, thank God we've got the witches on our side, is all I can say. I could quote almost every one of her sentences for a choice absurdity, but like so much these days its actually beyond parody. One has to worry for her immortal-or-otherwise soul however. I mean really, it must take an enormous effort for an Oxford graduate and former Guardian journalist to manufacture such ill-informed outrage. Why bother?

Needless to say Druidism was actually a fully-fledged religion on British soil for far longer than Christianity has been to date, and had the further qualification of being home-grown. England was in fact a spiritual superpower, right up to the second Roman invasion when the Druids and their faith were suppressed, and its certainly no more silly than worshipping a dead Israeli prophet as a Sky God born of a virgin (no less), no matter how wise his words may have been.

So congratulations Druids and, indeed, our Pagan wing!

Friday, October 15, 2010

The trouble with hipsters...

In the 50s and 60s, there are five people at the centre working very hard, miserably trying to write a book and around them there are 95 people more or less having fun," Greif explains. "In the hipster culture the people at that centre aren't necessarily producing art, they're actually working in advertising, marketing and product placement. These were once embarrassing jobs. Now it's meaningful in this world to say that you sell sneakers, at a high level.

From Why do people hate Hipsters? in the Guardian. I don't actually know anything about Hipsters. I didn't even know they existed, or if they are trouble (not to me, obviously). However, there did strike me as something unnerving about the paragraph above. On reflection, perhaps it shouldn't be. Who's to say On the Road is more important than an innovative digital marketing campaign or advertising for Nike?

No, that doesn't work, does it.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Early Heresy review

I sent out a few advance copies of the book and got this back from David Usher.

If you are looking for something to give your mind and heart to, but can't accept what many churches say you must believe, Heresy Saved Me is the book for you. Nicholas Axam tells the story of his own journey from cynical disbelief to open faithfulness with candour and insight. I recommend it to all who hunger for a spiritual home.

David is a member of Executive Committee of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches in the UK and was first President of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists.

He's also a very kind man.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Reasons not to be terrified

I was pretty sceptical when the media reported the Mumbai-style terror attacks on European cities had been foiled after zapping some people who might have something to do with a plot they didn't actually have the details about, and in any case was still at the planning stage. If indeed there was a plan, and these were the people involved. It was like the RAF dropping a few bombs on Berlin in 1940 and announcing the invasion of Britain had been thwarted.

Now it seems the authorities have also had second thoughts and it's alerts all over again.

At some point of course, the terrorists will get through. However, what strikes me is how limited the existential threat to the West really must be. Certainly the terrorist's penchant for committing suicide provides a frightening frisson, but given the general level of hysteria you would think attacks would be a lot more common. And this can't just be thanks to our wonderful security services - look at the IRA.

In London, from the 1970s to 1990s, terrorism was commonplace. From an early teenage trip to the centre with French exchange students when a big bang and distant pire of smoke signalled a bomb that had hit a bandstand, the shocked survivors moving toward us across the grass like zombies, to my twenties when explosions were so commonplace I got to know the minutiae of their tactics ('What was that?' asked the Southern Irish girl across the computer bank in our office off Oxford Street. 'Sounded like a bomb,' I said. 'No,' she said, 'the back of a van.' 'There'll be another in a minute, as they run from the first,' I said. When it happened, she burst in to tears. 'Only a two-pounders,' said a chap from Northern Ireland in a vain attempt to comfort her) terrorism was just a fact of life. Indeed, attacks were considerably more numerous than the wiki entry. For example, the buggers even blew up my local YMCA.

All this, despite the thorough infiltration of the Irish Republican movement by the intelligence services - the IRA could still muster enough manpower to stage comprehensive and long-running campaigns. And remember - these were people who cared about getting caught. Given this, one can only conclude that active support for Islamic terrorism in the West must be infinitesimal. Yes, some terrorists will succeed, but they are never going to be a threat to our way of life, unless we let them.

Of course that's not the case in the "East" - the Islamic "crescent" from Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Middle East and Africa. This is where the "real" war is being fought - indeed, from what little the media could gather about the current supposed plot, it was to bring the fighting in Pakistan to the West in response to drone attacks. In Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Somalia, violence resulting in multiple casualties is a regular occurrence.

The West is embroiled in a conflict essentially internal to the Islamic culture (and has inadvertently, and incalculably, empowered the forces of Islamism by its approach). It is worth remembering that even 9/11 was viewed by its perpetrators as a response to Western influence on Islam and not as a precursor to some kind of Red Dawn-style invasion - from their perspective the West orbited the Islamic sun, not the other way around.

In this context, I suspect terrorism in the West will always be a "sideshow", no matter how much it feels to us like we are centre-stage.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

How does it feel?

Love this, New Order's Blue Monday re-imagined by septuagenarium Jamaican mento group.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Here be no Unitarians?

It's always a pleasure to think that my jottings are not going entirely unnoticed, albeit by only a handful of curious souls every week. Over time these accumulate, leaving their mark on the world map at the foot of the site. But if you scroll down and take a look, you can see a broad swathe of emptyness, which must be Middle America - the Flyover States - I guess. Maybe its almost as lonely being Unitarian there as in Italy!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Why it's not about Silvio (and what this could mean for Ed)

The only bum note of our recent Jordan trip was at a bar one evening when our (Italian) tour group predictably got on to the subject of Silvio Berlusconi and his not inconsiderable sins. Everyone agreed he was the shame of Italy in much the same way I imagine a group of liberal UUs would have wrung their hands over Dubya.

All that is except a woman from Rome who, her cheeks flaring (although maybe it was the beer, maybe the sun) said: Well who else is there? Tell me - who else is there to vote for?

Cue embarrassed silence then everyone talking at once (ie, no change there). But I was left thinking (and I had plenty of opportunity to think, unable as I was to keep up with much of the discussion) she had a point. Not by voting for Silvio, I hasten to add, but that the existence of Silvio was not the fault of the right, it was because of the failings of the left.

Silvio is successful not because Italians are intrinsically right-wing (if anything they err to the left) but because the left has consistently failed to reflect the concerns, or speak in the language, of ordinary people. Silvio does.

I was reminded of this following yesterday's election of Ed Milliband as the new leader of the British Labour Party. Although the majority of party members and its MPs voted for his brother David, the endorsement of the unions swung it for Ed. Needless to say Ed was the more "left-wing" candidate, while David was much more popular in the country as a whole.

Although I have nothing against Ed's politics, this does seem reminiscent of the Italian left, which, with the exception of Nichi Vendola - the Obama of the South - seems determined to ignore the voices of ordinary folk while it converses with itself, at the end of which it fails to understand why no one votes for it.

Labour's (well, the unions) choice of Ed seems a bit of a missed opportunity, particularly when the Tory administration is about to embark on a highly unpopular - and ideologically-driven - series of cuts. Every time Ed opens his mouth, they will simply label him the voice of vested interest. What am I saying? They've done so already.

Or maybe I'm just sore cos I voted for David. And Oona. And John.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Deepak Chopra's new book on Mohammed

I love this quote from his interview:

If someone asks what religion you are, what do you say?

I say God gave humans the truth, and the Devil came and said, “Let’s organize it, we’ll call it religion.”

I'm sure he didn't mean us, though... ;-)

Via Pickled Politics.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Robert Kennedy 3 around the corner

The wrong David Mitchell

"I didn't know that man from Peep Show wrote experimental novels and had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize twice", said my girlfriend, leant over her copy of Repubblica. "Really?" "Yes, apparently he's got a new novel coming out about cultural dissonance, set in Japan in 1799." All that, I thought, and Have I Got News For You.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The intellectual grotesquery of Benedict XVI

It is easy to be outraged when the Pope blames Nazism on atheists but I think it's important to also understand the basis for his wrong-headedness.

I do not believe the author of a series of encyclicals that is essentially a Catholic/ Existentialist death-match (next, Pope Benedict and Jean Paul Sartre!) has not thought this through.

Benedict's experience of growing up in Nazi Germany may mean he associates God-lessness specifically with a world in which Man's power was unleashed in a perversion of Nietzsche's conception of the "Superman". So, perhaps also projecting a certain amount of guilt for not having done more to resist, he may possess a particular dread of the God-less state, and associate it automatically with Nazism.

But he is wrong to conclude atheists "created" the Nazis - atheism may have been a characteristic (and not much of one at that - witness Himmler's attempts to re-imagine Nazism as a Pagan cult) but Christianity was arguably its genesis.

In Straw Dogs John Gray demonstrates how despite having "murdered" God, the post-Enlightenment West and its ideological off-spring remain culturally Christian, particularly in a tendency to promise Heaven here upon the Earth - Utopianism.

It's a destructive fallacy we cannot shake off - from the Jacobite Terror, through Stalin and Hitler, to Neo-Conservatism. Unlike the Greeks and Romans Nietzsche admired (and whose age he wished to recreate, free from the shackles of "slave" religion), all have peddled the idea of a "promised land" - and led their followers to destruction.

For a man so supposedly endowed with intellect to ignore this is a considerable flaw. To enlist the Jews, for whom 2000 years of Christian persecution culminated in genocide, to make his point, is simply grotesque.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Since records began...

It's not often my eye is drawn to a story in the Daily Express...

POLICE have been sent on a training course to prepare for a massive earthquake, it emerged last night...

Yet over the past 1,036 years since records began in 974 only 11 people are known to have been killed by earthquakes in Britain. And the last one of any size was nearly 80 years ago.

I love that over the past 1,036 years.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Blood-sucking capitalism exposed by... the Twilight series

The Marxist sub-text of Twilight in A Very Pubic Sociologist...

One effect of this is to obscure the exploitation inherent to capitalism, by negating the traditional imagery of factories and mines for the soft, flexible labour relations of the 21st century. While theorists such as Virno and Negri have documented this transition within the narrow confines of academia, it was left to the genius of Stephenie Meyer to demonstrate this transformation in simple imagery.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


Unitalian began as a photo blog but ground to a halt over a year ago because of connection problems... and I was lamenting this as I thought about how I would like to share my holiday snaps with the rest of the tour group I visited Jordan with, because obviously I wouldn't be able to use Flickr either, right? But then I got to thinking, maybe the connection is better now, maybe, just maybe I can even upload to my blog. Nah, probably'll never work, but hey, I'll try one of those Jordan pics, just to be sure...

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Support Southall Black Sisters appeal for two acid attack victims

Dear Friends,

I am writing to you in the hope that you will be able to donate generously to finance the medical costs and rehabilitation of Samar (31) and Juwariya (25) Atique whose young lives and hopes were brutally crushed in October 2009 by two men who threw a jug of acid on their faces as the women were returning home from a day’s work in a rickshaw.

Their crime – Juwariya had turned down a marriage proposal from one of the men!

They sustained severe burns and injuries to their faces, their eyes and their upper bodies. In acid attack cases, the victims should be hosed down gently with a continuous stream of water immediately to stop the acid continuing to burn into their flesh. But they did not get treatment for five hours after the incident because the woman doctor was threatened with a similar attack by these men and their families.

They may be blind for life. They will need to have reconstructive surgery on their noses and lips. Their eyelids were burnt away so they also suffer from itching and dryness in the eyes. Their first operation did not take place till 5 months after the event. To date they have had 3 operations and they will need many, many more. They live in Delhi but they have to travel to a hospital in Chennai, nearly one and a half thousand miles away, where they are getting subsidised treatment. One of the sisters is suicidal, they are both suffering from depression but neither of them has had any counselling sessions as yet. Post-operative care and rehabilitation will take years.

They were independent working women, whose incomes contributed to the expenses of a joint family of 11 people. Samar worked for an IT company and Juwariya, ironically ran her own beauty parlour. One other sister and brother have had to give up their jobs in order to look after them leading to a loss of four incomes.

The reduced family income is less than the monthly cost of routine medical expenses like bandages, antibiotics and painkillers, let alone the cost of going to Chennai for surgery, let alone the costs of daily life. So far, they have managed with donations and loans from family and friends. Poverty has compounded the consequences of violence.

This case came to the attention of Southall Black Sisters earlier this year.

Although we do not usually have the capacity to run international campaigns, we felt that the horrific nature of this particular attack served as a salutary reminder of the extreme violence that women round the world continue to face should they make the smallest strike for freedom and assert their most basic rights, in this case, the right to choose their own partner/spouse.

The immediate target for fundraising is £21,000 for microsurgery to be carried out on Samar’s eyes. There is some hope that her sight may be saved although Juwariya’s is irretrievable. Of this sum £11,000 has already been raised.

However the very rough total estimated costs of all surgery, including longterm rehabilitation, are: £250,000. It is impossible to be precise partly because every decision for futher surgery depends on preceding operations. The following are some examples of costs:

Average monthly cost of care: £1350 (bandages, medicines, nursing, local hospital visits, nutritious food)
Each visit to the Chennai hospital: £12,000 (based on their previous trip)
Every return flight to Chennai costs: £985 (for 3 people)
Counselling: £30 per session

Thank you.

Rahila Gupta
(on behalf of Southall Black Sisters)
* * * * * * * *

Please click on the Justgiving link below and follow the instructions.


Via Pickled Politics

Friday, July 30, 2010

New look, accidentally

I was enticed by the new Blogger templates and began to experiment only to find out... I couldn't return to the old look, or insert a more "Bolognese" image of my own. Well, perhaps I can, but if I continue to mess about I'll get in trouble with my partner who has a long list of things for me to do before we leave for Rome (today is the day all Italy goes on vacation and the auto strada will doubtless resemble Goddard's Week End). So maybe when I return. Until then...

Buone vacanze a tutti!

Monday, July 26, 2010

On being too busy to blog

Seneca advised a friend who had just been offered a plum job not to take it – better to contemplate the balance sheet of your own life than the corn trade, he told him – and my lack of recent posts has been largely down to work too. I’ve been too busy to blog, and too preoccupied with earning a crust to have much inspiration to do so, either.

Continued at UKSpirituality

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Declaration of Dependence

On this, the eve of July 4, celebrated across the US in recognition of my birthday, alongside some historical footnote, I'm listening to the album Declaration of Dependence by Norwegian duo Kings of Convenience.

Continued at UKSpirituality

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The style of Quentin Crisp - an enduring philosophy

If I have any talent at all, it is not for doing but for being, said Quentin Crisp, and his philosophy is one I keep returning to...

Continued at UKSpirituality.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Bulimic Britain

Our society is mentally ill. All societies are to a greater or lesser extent – France, for example, famously has a something like a quarter of its population on Prozac. The United States appears torn between unreflective belief and Liberal self-loathing. Italy has the mother of all mother complexes. Iran? China? Japan? Germany?

Continued at UKSpirituality

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Our Liberal Democrat life class

Seeking to draw what consolation I can from the Liberal-Conservative victory in the recent General Election, I am reminded it is a life of surprises.

As Prefab Sprout put it:

Darling it's a life of surprises
It's no help growing older or wiser
You don't have to pretend you're not crying
When it's even in the way that you're walking

Few "progressive" voters really believed the Liberal Democrats would actually go in to coalition with the regressive forces of conservatism, despite what the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg had warned.

Indeed subsequent polls indicated that most Lib Dem voters, on a scale of 4:1, wished for a coalition with the Labour Party.

Yet how much was this actually a case of wishful-thinking?

Continued at UKSpirituality

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Back to Labour

Well, it's been a strange election. It seemed only a couple of months ago that the Tories were a shoo-in. Then came the televised debates where people were tempted by a third choice - the Liberal Democrats - and the competition became up for grabs again, with the possibility of a hung parliament that would leave no one party in power and could mean coalition government and proportional representation if the Lib Dems got their way, which would bring us closer to a kind of democracy.

Two months ago I was going to vote for Jenny Sutton, of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Alliance , who were the most Left wing party standing.

Then I, like many, was attracted to the Lib Dems because I don't like the sitting Labour candidate very much and I would like to see PR, so my vote for an obscure Marxist party can one day count for something (it's a safe Labour seat, so my vote currently counts for nothing).

But on refection, I'm going to stay with Labour, especially now it looks like the Tories are likely to win a majority and go about asset-stripping the country, embedding inequality and lining the pockets of their City friends, all in the name of austerity, yah?

Because when it comes down to it, I will always choose the side of the working class. As it currently stands their only genuine hope is Labour and in the months and years of recrimination to come I want to feel I did what was right, despite everything.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A surprising source of redemption in the most powerful film of the year

One of the good things about being stranded in England is being able to catch some movies (they are always dubbed at home - a rare example of Italian inelegance). I've been particularly lucky that it's been at a time when some of the finest films of the year are on release - Kick Ass, with it's explosive c-word scene an instant classic, I am Love, an art-house meditation on the brutal authenticity of love, and City of Life and Death, on the pitilessness of war and specifically the 1937 "Rape of Nanking".

With our own focus on the Holocaust, Chinese suffering in the 1930s and 40s tends to be overlooked, yet between 10-20 million lost their lives. Before the war in the West had even begun (and long before Pearl Harbor) the Japanese had invaded China and sacked its then-capital Nanking.

The atrocities committed presaged those to come, as graphically portrayed in the film, the most convincing depiction of World War Two war crime since the Russian Come and See and certainly superior to Schindler's List, not least because for most of the characters there is no happy ending. It is also a far more complex film, making an attempt to understand this dreadful "phenomenon" from both sides and even daring to empathise to a limited extent with the perpetrators. We criticse China's freedoms, but I cannot imagine a Western film as even-handed - Letters from Iwo Jima perhaps, but the context was very different.

A further example of how it challenges our preconceptions is the portrayal of the leading "hero", Nazi official, John Rabe, German consul in Nanking. Rabe represents the refugees in the so-called Zone of Safety and does all he can, alongside American missionary Minnie Vautrin, to protect the terrified civilians. Unlike Oscar Schindler, it appears Rabe was a convinced Nazi, although for his activities he ended up being questioned by the Gestapo on his return to Germany and lived in poverty after the war, supported by a grateful Chinese government. Traumatised by what she witnessed, Vautrin committed suicide at home in Illinois in 1940.

What comes out of the film quite strongly is how, in the wrong circumstances - inevitably unlimited power - human beings can behave to other human beings. It is ironic that Rabe, apparently at the time a true believer in the Nazi's perversion of Nietzsche, should, when faced by its consequences, become the champion of the weak. It is perhaps one of the few sources of redemption in this outstanding, unflinching film.

I also saw Roman Polanski's highly-rated The Ghost Writer but thought it was crap.

Friday, March 26, 2010

A Space Idiocy

Posted complete because of technical problems at UKSpirituality...

A debate took place recently about whether we should actively attempt to contact aliens, and it made me think how very like the inhabitants of planet Krikket from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy we humans are.

The Krikkets lived on a planet completely encompassed by cloud (a lot like England, now I think about it) until one day a spaceship burst through the atmosphere and crashed.

The event caused the Kirkkets to actually look up for the first time and contemplate what lay beyond. They soon knocked together a spaceship and saw the splendor of the universe for the first time.

One astronaut turned to the other. ‘It’ll have to go,’ he said, and thus the galaxy’s most destructive intergalactic war was born.

There was another scene in Hitchhikers when as a punishment they shackled someone to a chair and forced them to see themselves in contrast to the immensity of the universe; how, in a kind of reverse-telescopic effect, they became less and less consequential. It invariably sent the victim mad.

It was actually not unlike this.

There are apparently as many planets in the universe as there are grains of sand on every beach on the world. Think about that next time you bang out your deck shoes. All those tiny planets!

It’s been said that we have replaced our longing for the Messiah for the dream of alien-contact.

I signed up to SETI once – I could see the value in searching for electronic signals from outer-space, and I think the alternative of looking for carbon dioxide (based on the principal that aliens would fart the same as us) is also pretty cool.

However, I think the idea of actually beaming signals in to space to deliberately contact aliens is really, really stupid.

As Dr Marek Kukula, public astronomer at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, said: part of me is with the enthusiasts and I would like us to try to make proactive contact with a wiser, more peaceful civilisation.

But he was concerned at the risks.

We might like to assume that if there is intelligent life out there it is wise and benevolent… but of course we have no evidence for this. Given that the consequences of contact may not be what we initially hoped for, then we need governments and the UN to get involved in any discussions.

Given that the consequences of contact may not be what we initially hoped for.

Yeah, like they might eat us.

With an almost infinite amount of planets, it seems sensible to conclude that there are an almost infinite amount of possibilities, both benevolent and malign.

The smart thing would be to hunker down in the corner of the cave until we have developed enough tools to protect ourselves should we venture outside, or worse – something come in.

But, like the inhabitants of Krikket, I suspect we have an exaggerated sense of our own worth.

Our expectation of “salvation” from the stars could simply turn out to be somebody else’s lunch.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Tao of David Beckham

Watching the legendary footballer sobbing as he realized he had broken his Achilles tendon and would not make it to the World Cup, I felt real sadness. Not just for England’s World Cup chances but for the man himself, whose serene attitude exemplifies a kind of oneness at odds with the fractured celebrity-culture the Beckham “brand” paradoxically embodies...

Continued at UKSpirituality

Saturday, March 13, 2010

If religion is the new rock and roll, is Unitarianism the new Indi?

Of course rock and roll was the first rock and roll, then it was comedy, next food, but certainly since 9/11 religion has been the new rock and roll and no, not in a good way, but that was what rock and roll first represented: lewd hips, long hair, parental outrage. Rebellion, conflict, the shock of the new – counter to the prevailing culture, whatever it was...

Continued at UkSpirituality

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The value of poverty, for those who can afford it

Contemplating the latest bout of politics at the office, I resolved that rather than get drawn in I would attempt to cultivate a more “religious” attitude. I imagined a more detached me; forgiving, unencumbered, quite possibly a bit smug too...

Continued at UKSpirituality

Friday, February 26, 2010

The trouble with being right

Election time is coming, the media is crowded with politicians trying to prove they are right and their opponents wrong. How we love to hate them, but how they are like us! Don't most of us hold strong opinions, think ourselves in the right, the other fellow wrong?

Continued at UKSpirituality

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Friday, February 19, 2010

“Coming out” Unitarian (and explaining the inexplicable)

I recently “came out” to an old friend who I have kept in touch with over the internet. Although we have maintained regular contact, what with him being first in Mexico and now Saudi Arabia, the religious part of my life was something that had never come up in our emails – why would it? When we hung out together more than a decade or so ago, it just didn’t figure – it went without saying that we were not religious; few in our urban, graduate, left-of-centre circle would be. Irreligion was our default setting...

Continued at UKSpirituality

Friday, February 12, 2010

Holy humble heart

I’m not a Christian – I don’t believe in the trinity, the resurrection and so on, although I can see how it can have beauty and meaning for some – but I do believe in the revolutionary and divine insight of Jesus.

And nothing was more divine than his call to be humble. Humbleness is closest to holiness...

Continued at UKSpirituality

Friday, February 5, 2010

As God is his judge

I was not surprised by Tony Blair’s performance at the Chilcot Enquiry into the war in Iraq, because there were no surprises – he was sad about the deaths, naturally, but he had few regrets and still believed history would consider him in the right...

Continued at UKSpirituality

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The meaning and unmeaning of August 1980

Waiting for Lea to finish her shopping I strolled over to the monument to the victims of the Bologna railway station bombing in 1980 and was struck by how very many people in their early twenties had died.

I imagined them crowding the waiting room, where the bomb was planted. There would have been backpacks, books. Boyfriends, girlfriends, friends all heading somewhere – the future still ill-defined but full of possibility…

Continued at UKSpirituality

Monday, January 25, 2010

When pop went down fighting (and what it fought for)

When you talk about choice
As if its something we were born with
This choice is for some, but not for everyone
And the way you talk about money
Like it's the currency of faith…

Waiting at the end of the queue for the shuttle bus between terminals at Gatwick Airport I watched workers laboriously shovel out salt on to the frozen path. I remembered how when I was a kid they used to do the same thing using a sieve so they wouldn’t have to go back to the store so frequently and the salt would fall evenly rather than in patches punctuated by islands of ice. I wondered where the sieve had gone. The likelihood was that it had been dispensed with long ago in the name of savings – a shovel could do many more jobs, after all, only this one not as well.

The lyrics from an Everything But The Girl song sprang to mind: Why does England call… when soon there’ll be nothing left at all?

Continued at UKSprituality

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Eight and a half years for Majid Tavakoli

Majod Tavakoli the popular Iranian student leader who was arrested on 7th December, Iran’s National Student Day, has been sentenced to eight and half years imprisonment.

The regime published photoshop images of Majid dressed in a chador after his arrest, with the intention of humiliating him, which only backfired and showed their misogynistic mind set...

Continued at Harry's Place

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Myth moves me

Last year I listened to an excellent sermon by retired Canadian minister Philip Hewitt who was visiting Newington Green before setting off on a cruise around the Mediterranean which would focus on the ancient world.

What stuck in my mind was his observation of how the certainty of youth had given way to the uncertainty of old age. He used the metaphor of a wrapped package of water untied and falling through ones fingers to illustrate the difficulty of truly understanding ourselves. His message chimed with my own feelings: the older I get the more I realise the less I know...

Continued at UKSpirituality

Sunday, January 3, 2010

In praise of the militant moderate

I would like to declare my commitment to extreme moderation.

Times are tough for moderates – we are being assailed from all sides

On the one hand we have secularists, with whom I have always harboured some sympathy, enforcing the will of atheist fundamentalists and over-turning centuries of tradition. For example in Italy, where I live, a Finnish-born mother recently won a ruling through the European Court of Human Rights to have crucifixes removed from all classes...

Continued at UKSpirituality