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.