Apology

March 2nd, 2021
by Chris

I know there are quite a few people who have gone to the trouble of subscribing to this blog (for which many thanks), and I’ve become increasingly aware as January passed and now February, that I’ve posted nothing. I’m sorry to those who expect something more.

I’m not going to blame pressure of work, although I have quite a few manuscripts to edit backed up at the moment, have a contract for another book which is largely not getting written and have bitten off rather more than I can chew in terms of online courses recently (the various lockdowns have meant that quite a few people who I want to hear from and engage with are doing more online stuff than they normally would). Yes, I have a number of things I’ve half-written, or in one case maybe 99% written, but none of those has quite got to the point of posting.

No, the underlying reason is that I fear I’m sliding gently back into the depression which basically claimed my life between 2003 and 2013. Yes, it’s situational, which the previous one wasn’t entirely or even mostly. Most, if not all days, I find myself having a little weep over some news item, which is more overt than I’m used to with emotion. Of course, the government’s incompetent handling of the Covid pandemic up to the new Year is a major factor – measures were taken too little and too late from June onward, leading to daily reports of over 1000 deaths for a month and a half (happily now somewhat reduced, but still appalling).

I can somewhat understand the mindset of those responsible, having had ten or more years involved in emergency planning locally, which included considering biological threats; there was there a consistent story in exercises of the scientific advisors advising draconian measures and the politicians feeling unable to ask the public for that much sacrifice. I can understand it, but whereas last year it was an unknown threat and there was no roadmap to combatting it, by now our leaders have the example of New Zealand and even Vietnam to work from – and another 60,000 of us have now died as a result. That is also a sacrifice, but a wholly unnecessary one.

That, however, is not the main factor. The main factor is Brexit. Throughout the last four years, I have felt in the position of someone strapped into a bus seat with a mad driver careering towards a cliff edge, with the diminishing and ultimately vain hope that eventually someone must see sense and stop the vehicle. There were a lot of Brexit solutions which were distinctly short of the “no deal” option which came, insidiously, to be the one which Brexiteers favoured; no one who voted leave wanted a “hard Brexit”, and most talked of something like a “Norway” deal. We could, for instance, have stayed in either or both of the customs union or the single market without being a member state, and I hoped and prayed that we would eventually settle into one of those. This graphic shows the possible options:-

May be a cartoon of text that says "The Consequences of The UK's Brexit Strategy UK's status in European economic, trade and travel agreements Schengen area EFTA Gibraltar EEA Switzerland 米 UK Norway Iceland Liechtenstein EU customs union EU Eurozone Slovakia Slovenia Estonia Lithuania Latvia Malta Bulgaria Belgium Germany Netherlands Austria Italy Greece Ireland France Luxembourg Spain Romania Portugal Cyprus Finland Poland Czech Republic Hungary Denmark Sweden Croatia Monaco Northern Ireland San Marino Source: Statista research Andorra Turkey statista"

Obviously, there were several possibilities there… and I hoped fervently that the government would eventually settle on one of them as the extent of damage Brexit was going to cause became clearer. Every few days there was some report that yes, maybe they would bend away from “no deal”, only to be squashed a day or two later. And, as they say “hope deferred maketh the heart sick”.

However, by the end of 2020 “no deal” looked like the likely result. I felt unreasonably relieved when Boris came back with an agreement short of the “hard Brexit” I had feared, though I did write that it was only very slightly less bad than the complete demolition of our trade (and thus our economy) which “no deal” Brexit would have meant.

The trouble is, as the weeks have progressed, it has become apparent that the difference from a hard Brexit is minute – I predicted it would be bad, but had underestimated quite how bad. . Yes, we do not have tariffs between us and Europe (hooray!) but we do have other restrictions – certificates of origin for components, phytosanitary checks which need a vet to certify any consignment of food items (or, of course, live animals) – or, indeed, anything which has touched UK soil, notably plants – and an absolute mass of other customs forms which the government have not put in place the necessary support to complete (nor, of course, do they pay for their completion) – and all of this makes trade with the EU for any but the largest organisations unviable, because it all costs. Even transport is costing 2 to 5 times more (if you can find a haulier prepared to do it) because of the huge delays in clearing customs, which is time the hauliers need to have paid for.

May be an image of furniture and text that says "07:13 Tweet t7 Dr Mike Galsworthy retweeted James Milbourne @JamesMilbourne This is the paperwork required to send one order to the EU now. Previously zero. £100k/ year of Veterinary inspection fees now, previously £0. Very annoying/ costly for an established business like us, crippling for a small company! Emailed @GregHands, no response... CANAGAN : Nick Ferrari and 9 others Tweet your reply"

Some whole industries have been ruined – shellfish, for instance, on which there is an overall ban except for those purified at this end, as our water quality isn’t high enough (and this is something which is not new; our MEPs voted for it some years ago), and we do not have the purification facilities. Fishing is generally pretty much dead, due to the fact that most of what our fishermen catch, we don’t want to eat – but there was a market in Europe. However, fishermen can’t jump through all the regulatory hoops fast enough (fish has a very short “shelf life”) and/or sell at an attractive enough price when they’ve done that (cost of paperwork again) to keep those markets. This is supremely ironic, because all the noise made by our negotiators last year and, indeed, following the “deal” was that we were improving our fishing prospects…

There was no mention of financial services, either in the run-up to the agreement or in the agreement. The result is the loss by the City of London of tens of billions of pouds worth of trading. Now, fishing is (or at least was) around 0.45% of our economic activity. The City is something more like 20%, and responsible for at least 10% of government tax revenues.

And now there are reports that high-ups in the EU might be proposing some middle ways. There’s hope again, and I confidently expect it will be deferred or dashed.

Against this background, the government tries to tell us that everything is wonderful, and if not, that it’s the big bad EU punishing us for leaving (by following the rules which apply to any nation outside the EU and for which we voted when a member). As the linke suggests, we’re being gaslighted. Most of the media completely ignore this catalogue of disasters; the tabloids spout the government line (only more forcibly), the BBC just ignores Brexit.

And, if I can manage to tell myself not to think about Covid or Brexit for a few minutes, there’s also the impending disaster of climate change and the now overwhelmingly likely collapse of everyone’s economies as a result (and in all probability a death toll which will make Covid look like a minor blip in the statistics). Yes, there’s much more being done than previously, and there are many success stories of countries managing greater and greater removal of CO2-producing energy, but all the indications I see is that this should have been done 10 or 20 years ago to have any reasonable chance of averting disaster.

I try very hard to tell myself, firstly, that very little of this affects me or will affect me personally. I don’t expect to live long enough to see the effects of climate change, I’m a pensioner, so not dependent on a job in the rapidly shrinking economy, no-one I know personally has died of Covid (very few have reported catching it), and I’ve been immunised, so have a decent chance now of not catching it myself.

Secondly, there is frankly naff-all I can do about it. I’ve consistently voted and argued for policies radically different from those which are contributing to the various disasters, and am prevented by lockdown from any direct action (for which I’m too old and infirm to be much use in any event). And what needs doing needs doing NOW, not when the (entirely sensible) restrictions to fight Covid have finished. Indeed, it’s mostly too late. So my sensible head says “accept the things you cannot change”…

And it doesn’t work, because I am not really much concerned for myself, but for my neighbours, my children and theirs, those who will inherit this apocalyptic mess. People like this girl. I can’t turn off my compassion, and I’m suffering a permanent overload of that. I can’t turn off my anger, and every day I’m goaded into a bit more of it by seeing government gaslighting, ridiculous tabloid headlines, Covid-deniers and climate change deniers – and there’s no way to sublimate that anger into action.

Depression has been described as “anger turned inwards”. I have a massive excess of it. I just hope this isn’t the start of another lost 10 years of my life, as 2003-13 were, with a crippling level of depression.

So, I’ll try to put up a few more posts, and maybe not worry so much about them being nicely polished accounts…

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Have we “got Brexit done”?

December 31st, 2020
by Chris

When what seemed the last possible deadline for agreement of a new trading relationship with the EU had expired, I wrote a somewhat despairing post. Hindsight now reveals that, as I indicated to start that, I might be writing too soon. There is a deal (agreed on Christmas Eve and voted on by the House of Commons yesterday), and it has avoided some of the more awful consequences of “no deal”. Lord Adonis calls it the “Trade Reduction Deal”, and that seems fair to me.

Has it “got Brexit done”, as Boris Johnson pledged to do (and by doing so got himself an unassailable majority in parliament for the next four years)? Not by a huge margin. As Chris Grey comments in his excellent review of the current situation, this is not the end of negotiations – he calls it “never-ending Brexit”, and not for the reasons I gave in a 2019 post “This will never end”. Those reasons still, I think, hold good, but we need to add to them the fact that this is only a partial agreement – most significantly it doesn’t include services, and services constitute an unreasonable amount of our foreign earnings (and the only area in which we run a balance of trade surplus). In particular, it is a temporary deal – it is scheduled for complete review in 5 years, which among other things means that Keir Starmer may say that Brexit will not be an issue in the next Labour Party manifesto, but it has to be, because the agreement will essentially run out shortly after the next election. There is no chance that Labour will issue a manifesto which ignores such a major issue. Granted, he may think that he can forget the “Brexit” label and just have a policy on trade relations with Europe, but I fancy that the label will still haunt him…

Add to that the fact that it’s a partial deal – it doesn’t cover quite a lot of things, of which services is only the most prominent, and it anticipates other agreements and modifications on a continuing basis throughout that five years. We don’t even have (say) four years during which we can stop thinking about it – it will be prominent on the political scene within months, if not weeks, and we can never forget that it contains provisions which could scrap some or all of it if either side is radically unhappy about the way it’s progressing (as Ian Dunt expands on) . Dunt, to be fair, sees this as an opportunity to move closer together in small increments – and that really should be the case.

But it won’t be. There are just too many MPs at the moment who will rebel at any move towards a “softer” Brexit. The only thing I can see which would not attract such opposition would be “passporting” UK financial services into Europe, which I earnestly hope will be on the agenda immediately – not only does it constitute a large segment of our overseas earnings, but it also provides a significant slice of our tax base. While I agree with Chris Grey that we could do to rebalance our economy away from services (I said as much in the first post I link to above), doing it abruptly will be a “double whammy” and put us in a bigger trade deficit and a hole in our tax revenue at the same time.

And the only thing I can see coming from that from our current government is a new period of “austerity”, in other words removing by stages all the good things government provides, at the expense of those in our society least able to bear that.

I am only slightly less despairing, therefore.

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The shock of incarnation

December 26th, 2020
by Chris

On Christmas Eve, I listened to a fair proportion of “Carols from Kings” (a rather Spartan version compared with the norm). Somehow, it isn’t really Christmas without this precursor, usually listened to while finishing off various cooking tasks in the kitchen, but this year without anything major left to do. It seems that Nel and myself make a very efficient team in the kitchen, swapping chef and sous-chef roles smoothly – and it wasn’t that we were cooking far less food, as our Christmas lunch had all the usual elements.

That gave me the opportunity to really listen to some of the words. Kings always starts with “Once in Royal David’s City” and ends with “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, but somewhere in there will be at least one new piece, and some different arrangements. By the time we got to the Herald Angels, I was wondering how it was that I didn’t usually take full notice of what the carols were actually saying – most of the content is so familiar that it sort of slides over the rational faculties and engages the emotional resonance direct, at least when there’s something else to do.

And my mind went to the notorious artwork “Piss Christ”.

In 1987, Andres Serrano made this photograph, of a small plastic crucifix suspended in a countainer of urine. This caused absolute outrage in many conservative Christian circles, combining as it does a venerated religious image with a particularly “unclean” medium. Richard Beck makes much of this image in his splendid book “Unclean”, which explores ideas of the sacred and of the taboo.

Why this?

The carol writers rather generally try to expose the disconnect between (taking “Hark the Herald Angels” as a template) the “triumph of the skies”, a particularly imperial concept of Jesus, with “offspring of a virgin’s womb”, the paradox of “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail the incarnate Deity”. But it’s all too familiar. The messy business of birth, with various bodily fluids and secretions and, for the mother, a total collapse of any sense of dignity, is lost. “Piss Christ” brings back that idea forcibly. I have no difficulty with the image at all – I’m a panentheist, if called on to give an ontological account of the relationship of God and man (even though I think that is beyond my or anyone’s capacities to define), and God, for me, is radically present in all things. And that, of course, includes the piss as well as the Christ. I regard Christmas as the feast of radical immanence – “God with us”, but also in us, around us, under us, over us, before us, behind us… It isn’t remotely a stretch for me to think of a mewling infant, which in the world of 1st century Judaea was someone who might, possibly, become human in 14 years or so if very lucky, as God, the highest being (or hyper-being, or something beyond that) imaginable.* So high and mighty, indeed, that Judaism prohibited any attempt at representing him (or her). That, in it’s time, was a shocking, an inconceivable idea – but the shock value has vanished for us.

But, as I contemplated this, I recalled the start of the carols. “Love and watch the lowly maiden” from “Once in Royal David’s City”, and I thought “‘lowly maiden’? – this is the Theotokos (“God-bearer”), the Queen of Heaven, according to Orthodox and Catholic theology”.#

“There is is”, I thought, “There’s the paradox, the inconsistency, the contradiction, the rupture, the cognitive dissonance which I was missing”.

It’ll do for this year. For next year, I may need someone to write a carol involving piss, blood and amniotic fluid… and get it performed by Kings.

* Or beyond our ability to imagine, and only guessable at by extension…

# I’ve been spending some time reading a group including a lot of conservative Catholic and Orthodox people, on the basis that you shouldn’t restrict yourself to a like-minded bubble. They would not like “Piss Christ”…

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Hope deferred indefinitely.

December 13th, 2020
by Chris

I may be writing this slightly too soon*, but it appears we have reached the final deadline to agree a trade deal with the EU, and failed. Failed despite the fact that the EU has, throughout the negotiations, been offering us really very good deals. Failed, perhaps, primarily because Boris Johnson used the opportunity of a face to face meeting with Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, to slag off other European countries and bluster, instead of doing what the country desperately needs and giving up the sticking points – fish, for goodness sake, which represent 0.1% of GDP, and some half-baked notion of sovereignty which thinks you can get all the benefits of a market without committing to obey it’s rules.

We are, it seems, going to crash out of the Single Market on January 1st without any trade deal at all with our most important and nearest trading partners, the remaining 27 EU countries. And, of course, without any trade deal with most of the rest of the world, because our trade with them was under EU agreements, which will also end.

And there’s a little bit of me which is happy, despite the probability that we will be facing shortages of food and medicines (among a vast number of other things – the shortage of medicines means that a few of my friends will quite likely die as a result of this – and I might as well) and a blow to our economy which will permanently set us back as a trading nation. I calculate that, instead of being 5th in the G7, recently slipped from 4th as a result of the pending Brexit, we’ll be hard pressed to stay a member at all… and I might worry about staying in the G20. OK, I know Rees-Mogg thinks that in 50 years we’ll see a benefit from it (and that that will be worth it!) but we will have wrecked large sections of industry and, perhaps most importantly, the City of London, which loses its access to Europe. That, in turn, means that government revenues will nose-dive (less economic activity, less tax revenue) and I confidently expect that the “austerity” of 2005 onwards will look like a slight inconvenience in comparison with what is to come.

So how can I possibly be happy?

Well, to start with, any deal which might remotely have emerged other than the fantasy I’ve occasionally had that the government would turn round and say “OK, we can’t do a bare bones deal which is any good, let’s do a ‘Norway’ deal” (which would have had most of the advantages of EU membership without any say in what the rules were), such a deal would have been only slightly less awful than the “no deal Brexit” which is going to happen. Granted, that “slightly less” would have possibly halved the negative effects on the economy. However, no deal means that opposition parties will not be put in the position of being called out for voting against a deal (and so voting for no deal) if they don’t support whatever was negotiated. Johnson and the Conservatives will be unequivocally responsible for the disaster, and it will be far easier to “make them own it” and set up the opposition to try to do something positive in the years to come.

Secondly, the period of ups and downs, with a deal being slightly more likely one day then not likely the next is over. A bare bones deal might have been absolute garbage compared with what we used to have as a full EU member, but it was something, and produced a level of hope beyond its real value. Raising and dashing hope time after time is soul-destroying; “Hope deferred maketh the heart sick”, and eventually one can prefer not to have the hope rather than have it demolished for the 100th time.

But there are other reasons to think there might just be some good come out of this.

Firstly, although I very much fear the results of removing a large amount of our tax base with the demise of the City, what the City actually does is to a great extent not productive – it’s gambling on movements in shares and commodity prices and on whether risks will materialise – and this does not translate into real things. If we are, as I suspect, heading for a collapse of the whole world system of financialised free market capitalism, to cure ourselves of dependence on this earlier rather than later could, just possibly, be worthwhile, even if it is extremely painful. It would probably be more painful later…

Secondly, with ecological crisis looming, I question whether trade over long distances is something we can actually afford. Transport contributes very large amounts of CO2 to global totals, and while we seem on the verge of ditching petrol-driven cars here in favour of electric, I see no corresponding moves to make goods vehicles more carbon-friendly, far less ships or aircraft. Again, the correction would be painful – but it may be one we are going to have to make anyhow. We could be forced to make and grow the stuff we want to use and eat, instead of importing it – assuming, that is, that anyone still has the money to start enterprises of that kind.

Lastly, although I absolutely don’t want this to happen, things might get so bad that the government is removed by force, by some form of popular uprising – and that would remove the awful prospect of four more years of Tory rule, and the threat of various measures which are calculated to destroy our democracy; removing the power of parliament to bring the government to account, for instance (which they have already voted away in respect of trade deals); removing the power of the courts to ensure that the government abides by the constitution (yes, there is one, even if it’s unwritten, largely conventional and can always be overruled by parliament) as was seen when Boris sought to stop parliament sitting; removing human rights; ending devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland… the list could go on. It might even give us things like a more sensible voting system and an upper chamber which had actual power to hamper a runaway government like this one, rather than just slowing it down slightly.

[“Taking back control”, it seems, is something this government is doing – from parliament, from the devolved governments, from the courts and from the people, not from the EU, where if anything we have let go of some control.]

Actually, in the case of major civil unrest, I would expect that the Conservatives would ditch Johnson and his ERG cronies and try very hard to get a sensible trade deal (much more than the minimal one we’re currently not getting), as well as doing a U-turn on things like reducing the power of parliament and the courts. It would, of course, not be a “Brexit deal” any more, just a trade deal with our nearest neighbours. I think that in order to get there, Johnson and pretty much all of his current cabinet would have to go (and I would shed no tears if any or all of them never held office again), because they are poison from the point of view of the rest of the EU.

Though, were I the EU, I might insist that we first established ourselves a written constitution which parliament and government couldn’t ignore, and a PR system of voting. They do, after all, have “stable government” as one of their criteria for membership – maybe also for a comprehensive free trade agreement and customs union? Personally, I’d like to rejoin outright, but that might be a bridge too far for the electorate at the moment; even if something like two thirds think leaving the EU was a mistake, the figure would be significantly lower for a move to rejoin.

  • It turns out I was, as we have yet another extension of talks. I am not allowing myself hope…

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This way lies madness…

November 19th, 2020
by Chris

I’ve just watched a commentator who has pulled together some of the more bizarre reactions of American evangelicalism regarding the recent election. I’ve seen most of them previously, but never had them presented side by side before.

Needless to say, were I American, I wouldn’t have given any of them creedence, in part because I both reject the concept that God is all-controlling and consider that the examples of Cyrus (given in the video) and David are horribly misleading when applied to Trump. But that isn’t remotely the only reason.

Now, I may be extremely liberal in my theology, but I don’t rule out the possibility of prophecy, nor even prophecy which predicts near-future events. On balance, I think that some people on some occasions have been able to predict the future in a prophetic way, though I remark that in the Bible prophecy is virtually always against the ruling classes, against the powerful, against the status quo – and I note that in all the clips in the video, the prediction is in favour of the status quo. I also don’t rule out the possibility, even likelihood, that a truly prophetic word will sound deranged to many listeners (as they will tend to think there is no alternative to the status quo) – or even that the words of people who are genuinely mentally ill may have prophetic content. There is, after all, Biblical evidence that a number of the Prophets displayed behaviour which we would now consider evidence of mental illness, and Ezekiel is perhaps the primary example.

However, I would also not give these evangelists creedence because what they are saying is clearly hysterical; they are obviously in an overwrought state, and even if they were saying things which would be music to my ears (such as that the world would shortly experience a collective metanoia, turn to ecological sanity and end the threat of climate change) I would, if faced with them in real life, retreat to a safe distance and well out of earshot of them and their followers. Why? After all, they are clearly making fools of themselves (as one of them has the good grace to admit).

The answer is, because their delivery is clearly not just hysterical, it’s hysteria-inducing. And the last place I want to be is in a crowd subject to mass hysteria.

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On a personal note…

October 28th, 2020
by Chris

I need to apologise to those who have subsribed to the blog. There hasn’t been much material of late, and I’m not all that confident that I can promise to do a lot better in future.

Partly, that’s due to the fact that I keep writing a few lines and then realising that it’s a topic I’ve already written about on the blog. Mostly, though, it’s because I’m just finding life (and particularly thinking) difficult in the face of various things over which I have no control. Yes, I try to use the Serenity Prayer (“God give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change”) as much as possible, but most days see me shedding a tear or two in the face of that inability, and finding the weight of these things making everything harder.

Covid is not the most prominent one of those, but it does present an underlying dis-ease, particularly in the face of a government which doesn’t seem to me to be dealing with the pandemic particularly competently. OK, I have well in mind that government has been presented with an extremely difficult set of problems; as I’ve written before, Covid presents something close to the most difficult set of parameters for a pandemic which I could have contemplated inflicting on my emergency planning colleagues back when I was active as a civil defence scientific advisor. The lag of three weeks or more before an infection results in a reliable indicator (i.e. death), the fact that many people are asymptomatic, the difficulty of testing reliably for something which is genetically a cousin of the common cold, the lack of a complete picture of the means of transmission (albeit, the last two are becoming clearer with time), all of those make the life of emergency planners more difficult. As if it wasn’t difficult enough balancing the preservation of life (and, increasingly it seems, long term health) against severe economic disruption…

No, the things which are really weighing on me remind me of my daughter’s favorite white-knuckle ride at Alton Towers back when she was small, and demanding that daddy take her (my wife and son get vertigo stepping off the kerb, so weren’t candidates!). It’s very simple – you get strapped into a carriage, several people abreast, in two rows (raked so you have a good view forward) and are steadily winched up to the top of a tower, at which point the carriage tilts forward so you have a really good view down quite a long way to a hole in the ground (where the message “don’t look down” is prominently painted) and pause – for a random number of seconds. Then they drop you. Of course, once through the hole in the ground, the carriage is guided by rails back to the horizontal fairly quickly, and the whole thing is actually very safe indeed.

Brexit strikes me in that way. We’ve been effectively stuck in the carriage looking down on the drop for four years now, since the referendum result in 2016. Up to the 2019 election, there was actually some slim hope that we could winch the carriage back down the way we’d come to at least some extent, but that hope was extinguished with an 80 seat majority out of a 1% increase in the Conservative vote (as the Brexit Party withdrew from all the seats winnable by the Conservatives and their vote collapsed) and Boris Johnson proceeded to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement to remove the possibility of a customs union – and refused to ask for any extension of the transition period. Short of a revolution, there is now no serious hope of anything much better than throwing away every trade agreement we have (a “no deal”); anything which remains possible will be minimal, and certainly not include a customs union. (To clarify, the lack of a customs union means that a massive volume of our imports and exports, which is to and from the EU, will be subject to customs; the backlog of lorries at both sides of the English Channel is estimated to be something around 100 miles worth, and the delays in excess of two days. This will make fresh food imports very difficult, at the least, and will no doubt deter many suppliers from trying to negotiate the barrier, even if duties on the goods and the paperwork to go with that didn’t do that.)

So, the country will drop from the metaphorical tower on 1st January 2021. The difference is, we don’t have any guide rails or tunnel, and it may effectively just be like a 100 metre drop onto solid concrete. The anticipation of this has already reduced the UK from #4 in global exports to #11 (behind Mexico). We will have food shortages. We already have medicine shortages (in anticipation, again) and that could well kill at least three friends.

We may even have a revolution, and I’m averse to revolutions, as they tend to kill a lot of people and rarely produce the result the instigators wanted. But as I sit here, I’m not sure that isn’t actually warranted by the severity of the shock the country faces.

And, if that wasn’t sufficient, there’s climate change. I will probably not live long enough to see the bottom of the drop from the tower on that one, as it will probably take 20-30 years, and I doubt I’ll live that long, given my underlying health conditions, even if Covid doesn’t do the job earlier. But, constructive noises in the UN notwithstanding, I just don’t see the international will to take the kind of steps necessary to avoid a catastrophic rise in temperature, sea level rises, widespread crop failures and, of course, the collapse of the world’s economic systems.

The international will is not there despite the fact that Covid has shown us that we actually can reduce carbon emissions sufficiently to avoid catastrophe – but at the cost of really major economic effects. Chiefly, it seems to me, it’s not there because the most prominent emitter of carbon in the world, the USA, is collectively a climate-change denier. Will that change in the event of a Biden victory? I don’t know. I don’t have much confidence in India or Brazil either. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have had much confidence in China either, given that they were massively expanding coal-fired power production, but there have been some signs that they may be at least somewhat onside, and they do have the advantage of a totalitarian government which can act, and act fairly quickly.

But as things stand, I think my children are likely to be living in a “Mad Max” style post-apocalyptic landscape, assuming that they survive the transition, and that much of the major achievements of Western civilisation will have gone the way of Atlantis. And that would represent the failure of everything I’ve ever hoped for from civilisation and technology.

Up to 2013, I lived 17 years with major depressive illness (before some factor, whether it was different antidepressants, the confidence that my doctors were actually listening, working a 12 step programme or constant prayer, brought me out of that). In the latter years, the only emotion I could muster was “it’s all wrong” as anhedonia set in (OK, with occasional bursts of anger). Rationally, I see much the same picture now – what, I ask myself, is the point of anything?

Emotionally, however, I don’t seem to be quite in the same position, deo gratias. So there are some blog posts. But please excuse me, as producing anything is a mountain to climb…

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Divine self-investment

September 23rd, 2020
by Chris

Tripp Fuller, best known for the Homebrewed Christianity podcast, has written his first academic book in “Divine Self-Investment: An Open and Relational Constructive Christology”, which as a long time supporter of the podcast I just had to read.

Bob Cornwall and Jay McDaniel have already written excellent reviews of the book from their particular academic positions, so I see no need to repeat their thoughts, beyond agreeing that this is a book displaying deep scholarship. Tripp masterfully explores pairs of similar but subtly contrasting Christologies in successive chapters, weaving his way through the subtleties and coming up with an approach to a harmonisation in each case, with a final overall construction.

I wish I’d had it on my editing pile, as repeatedly Tripp comes up with some facet of Christology which I’d have liked to engage with in more depth, but he sensibly went with a publisher more known for academic titles than I work with. That’s where I’d like to direct my main response, though; I generally find myself editing books which are more in the “popular theology” bracket, similar to Tripp’s earlier book on Jesus in the “Homebrewed Guide” series (and I recommend that unhesitatingly as well). As Jay McDaniel remarks, this is not a “popular theology” book, it’s an academic one. Viewed from the point of view of an editor who is always looking to make books accessible to the maximum audience, this is not, to my mind, wholly beyond the lay reader; Tripp has, even when doing serious academic work, an engaging and easy style.

Admittedly, had I been editing it, I might have argued for maybe a dozen additional footnotes as concepts arose which I felt the reader in the pews might have some difficulty with (or difficulty in appreciating the subtlety of), but that is relatively few in a book of this depth. With that very slight warning, I can unhesitatingly recommend reading it if you have any interest in developing a robust open and relational Christology.

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My dad’s little victory

August 15th, 2020
by Chris

My father, Donald Eyre, would have turned 100 last week. Sadly, he missed out on that by a little under 19 years. He has, however, been very much in my thoughts as the VJ commemorations have taken place this week, because the East was where he spent most of his wartime service.

He joined the RAF while at Oxford University, and found himself in the control tower at Scampton airfield for a while; his eyesight precluded flying duties. As he put it to me, he then made the cardinal error when in the services, and volunteered without knowing exactly what he was volunteering for, and found himself packed off to the Oriental School in London to be taught Japanese. We were very short of Japanese speakers.

The course was intensive and, to my mind, brutal. List of 50 words; learn those and we’ll test you on them tomorrow. Next day, a list of another 50 words; learn them and we’ll test you on both lists tomorrow. That continued for some weeks, by the end of which the list of words had reached 10,000, at which point the students were told that that was greater than the vocabulary of most tabloid newspapers, and they were therefore qualified as interpreters. At that point, he was packed off to India, where the 14th Army was fighting to prevent the Japanese getting into India.

He then had a rather idyllic year, socialising with friends, making new friends (including a very close relationship with a young Indian girl who sadly died very young – and had she not done so, might have been my mother), hiking in the foothills near Simla and generally having a rather “cushy” billet – the reason was that at that point, almost no Japanese had been captured, so there was no call for interrogators or interpreters. He did, however, improve his time by learning Japanese characters to go with the spoken language, so got a small amount of work reading Japanese scripts.

Things warmed up for him in 1944 and definitely into 1945. He started to get a lot of work interrogating. While I failed miserably to get from him much of the content of those interrogations, one story he had struck me forcibly; he was tasked with interrogating a fairly high ranking officer, of samurai background – and the officer didn’t understand him. This puzzled him, as lower ranks had had no problem undertanding him. Then a ploy came to him, and he selected a lowest ranking private to come into the interrogation with him; he then asked the private to repeat to the officer what he was saying (which, of course, was in Japanese). The officer’s response was amazement, and he asked the private how it was that he was able to understand English.

The reason was that, from the officer’s point of view, it was inconceivable that an Englishman could speak Japanese, and so he was not going to understand (and he never actually did). The private, who didn’t have the intellect to think up something like that, just responded to someone speaking words he understood. Later on, dad would take the opportunity to say a few words to Japanese tourists when we came across them, often when on holiday ourselves, and I could see the moment of incomprehension on them as this obvious Englishman addessed them in their native language, but in every case they realised that yes, they did understand him – and frequently the famously impassive Japanese face became all smiles. By then, of course, there had been an allied occupation force in Japan for some years, and plenty of English and American people who had learned Japanese.

The one incident which he did tell me of which impressed me most was towards the end of the war. By that time, the 14th Army (which my dad had huge admiration for, in particular Orde’s Chindits) had made great progress through south east Asia, and my father was regularly being flown in to captured airfields to interrogate the senior officers. On one such occasion, the plane landed and dropped him off, and then took off again for another location – and, standing on the tarmac, he realised that there were no non-Japanese faces among the people who came to meet him. As it turned out, the ground forces hadn’t quite got that far, and the airfield was still uncaptured.

However, it also proved that the Japanese were so disspirited by then that the commandant surrendered the airfield to my dad. A few hours later, some ground troops turned up, and were ribbed unmercifully about how a single Flight Lieutenant had captured an entire airfield and didn’t really need a couple of platoons of infantry. Though he was extremely glad to see them!

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“You’re a brick, Peter”

August 9th, 2020
by Chris

I keep seeing debates about Matthew 16:18-19 in various locations, always on the basis that someone who is Catholic is trying to say that these verses prove beyond doubt the primacy of the Catholic Church. To remind you, those verses say “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Many years ago, I found to my delight that Jesus was making a pun when he said this. I got there via the French “Tu es Pierre, et sur ce pierre je batirai mon eglise”, and wondered about the original. In the Greek original, the words of verse 18 are “kago de soi lego hoiti sy ei petros kai epi taute te petra oikodomeso mou ten ekklesian”. Note “petros” and “petra” – these are both forms of the same word, and the different endings are purely because they are used as different parts of speech in Greek, whereas French and English don’t have case endings. I was more delighted to find that in Aramaic, which is no doubt the language Jesus was speaking in, both words are “cephas”, which was definitely a name by which Peter was known, so it was definitely a pun whether he was speaking Greek or Aramaic – or even Latin, because the pun works in Latin as well. I liked Jesus even more, knowing he was at least on one occasion a punster.

The thing is, Peter always seemed to me a most unlikely person to be given authority over all the other disciples (and that isn’t what the passage says in any event). He is portrayed in the gospels as being – well, slow on the uptake would be a polite way to put it. Granted, Paul describes him as one of the pillars of the early church, the others being James and John (and I note not only that there’s no indication that Peter was at the time even “primus inter pares”, but also that he was still being slow on the uptake with respect to food…

Casting around for some way of translating into English such that the pun was still there, however, I encountered something interesting. I considered “Rocky” initially. Jesus talks elsewhere of building a house on rock, a solid foundation, and that would be a natural link. However, he also talks of spreading seed on rocky ground, where it doesn’t germinate well – and that, to me, encapsulates much of the character of Peter as presented in the gospels. He’s very solid, but telling him things doesn’t always bear fruit. “You’re a rock” isn’t a commendation of your intellectual acuity, let’s face it.

I also considered a more common building material where I live, brick. Again, you can say that someone “is a brick” indicating that they’re solid and dependable – but you can also say that they’re “thick as a brick”, and that meaning might just creep into the first for those with keen ears.

I don’t know whether the same kind of dual meaning attached to such words in the koine Greek or Aramaic of the first century (and we have no native speakers to ask these days), but, to me, the passage says rather forcibly that Jesus is underlining that the dunce among his disciples is also foundational for them.

But what of verse 19? Catholics want to say that only Peter (and his successors) have the keys to the kingdom and the ability to bind or loose. But that’s not what the passage says; the fact that Peter has that power is by no means exclusive of the other disciples also having that power. One can, indeed, look back at Jesus’ words to his disciples earlier in his ministry and deduce that they all had that power and maybe had “had ears to hear” already, and it may be that Jesus was underlining the fact that yes, the most dense among them (rocky, brick-like) also had power.

Yes, even Peter. And even the Catholic Church. Not, however, to the exclusion of anyone else – after all, the Holy Spirit is poured out upon all the disciples in Acts 2.

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How to stop being human

July 23rd, 2020
by Chris

Toby Buckle has done an episode on dehumanisation on his Political Philosophy podcast which I strongly recommend. OK, it’s rather over an hour, but I think well worth a listen. It takes him some time to get there, but in the last third of the podcast he raises an issue which has been troubling me a lot.

An absolutely standard response from people with significantly more conservative political view than mine to the multiple examples which have come up of mainly black people being shockingly treated by police, mostly in the US but also in my own country, has been that “they’re a criminal”. Not that they have at some point in their lives done something which is against the law, but they ARE a criminal. Somehow, this seems to excuse treating them as not entirely human, not entitled to the same respect for life and limb as the rest of us – and I note that in both our countries, the principle of “innocent until found guilty” applies, and similarly previous conduct is not generally considered a sufficient reason to believe that a crime has been committed on this occasion (in the UK, it is something which is not allowed to be raised by the prosecution before a verdict except in special circumstances).

This even extends to suggesting that people are already excluded from being treated as citizens with all the normal rights of a citizen because they have “failed to comply with an order” of a law officer (which has sometimes included arguing that the order is not lawful), because they have crossed the street at the wrong point, because they have a defective tail light on their vehicle… Or, of course, because they are black, and therefore conform to a description in which the only salient point of similarity is “black man”, or on the somewhat spurious basis that they are more likely to have committed a crime because they are black (or, in this country, sometimes west asian) – which is, I suppose, statistically correct, but neglects the fact that they are still, at worst, only around 5% likely to have committed some provable crime. Indeed, sometimes, just standing in the street (or on their own property) or walking along the wrong street at the wrong time, or having no home seems sufficient. There is a clip from “Not the Nine O’Clock News” from 1979 which is satire – but these days, it has come to look so much like actuality as to be painful to watch.

Our theory, in both countries, is that if someone does commit a crime, the court sentences them to some punishment and when that is expired then “their debt to society is paid”. But neither country actually practises this; ex-offenders find it somewhere between difficult and impossible to get a job, for instance, (unless they lie on job applications and so commit an offence of fraud) which propels them straight back into crime. In the UK, despite the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, which is designed to underline this principle by making it legal for people not to mention a conviction after some years have passed (varying depending on the offence and sentence), insurers can ignore this (which means ex-offenders can’t get insurance – and sometimes not having insurance is an offence), employers sometimes find devious ways round the provision, and any position involving a position of care for others (particularly children) also circumvents the Act. In the USA, not infrequently, ex-offenders are denied the vote as well (it is notable that the European Court of Human Rights has determined that voting is a human right which should as a general rule be retained even by prisoners serving a sentence, something which the UK signally fails to implement). This is, of course, not to mention the forced labour in the US prison system, which is effectively a modern slavery.

So, it appears that in both countries, although far more so in the US than the UK, we are creating individuals with only partial human rights, only partial citizenship – and, if you are effectively allowed to shoot someone without being prosecuted and jailed merely because they are “a criminal”, that is effectively a form of outlawry, stripping away the most fundamental human right of all.

It’s worse than that, however, if you’re a Christian (and even these days, a majority of people in the UK self-describe that way, and a massive proportion in the US). I could rehearse the list of instances from the gospels where Jesus made it clear that no-one was outside the circle of humanity, the circle of his followers, and indeed “the last shall be first and the first shall be last”. Women, children, the disabled, members of foreign occupying forces, collaborators with the invaders, heretics, foreigners, even members of a hereditary enemy country were all to be included. However here, I want to concentrate on one instance, the thief on the cross. “Today you will be with me in paradise” is fairly unambiguous – the man was a condemned criminal and hadn’t even clearly repented his crime, but he was still included. It is not open to us as Christians to treat “criminals” as less than fully human, fully Children of God.

Just to underline this, St. Paul had some words to say in Romans 3:10-12 (inter alia) on the subject of criminality, borrowed from either Psalm 14 or Psalm 53: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” If there is any temptation in our minds to say “Ah well, I am not a criminal”, we should read that – and ask ourselves whether we have ever contravened a traffic regulation, fudged our taxes a little or employed someone for cash (conspiracy to commit tax fraud), overstated an insurance claim, puffed up our resume to get a job or overstated our achievements in order to get social approval, or, perhaps even been standing on or walking down the wrong street at the wrong time – and that’s only considering laws which we actually know about, given that almost no-one knows all the law – ignorance of which is no excuse (“ignorantia juris haud excusat”).

OK, I’ve always thought that Paul was overstating with the entirely laudable aim of stopping people being complacent and lacking in self-awareness and self-criticism. I’ve met a very few people who I suspect have never, at least in adult life, broken any law. Not many, to the extent that I think they constitute maybe 0.01% of the population. I am definitely not one of them, and I deeply suspect anyone who claims they are (those in that category are not likely to boast of it, I’ve found). Thus I cannot subscribe to the Calvinists’ “total depravity” – but would argue that, when it comes to the law, the overwhelming likelihood is that each of us is guilty of some “criminal” act – and there need be no intention. George Floyd tried to pay with a forged note which he almost certainly didn’t know was forged, something which I once did (but obviously without the dire results he suffered). In the eyes of the “but he was a criminal” brigade (who I suspect of being closet Calvinists) that made me a criminal too.

And, apparently, being a criminal means that you don’t have the rights of citizens (in the US, definitely including life). You don’t have the rights of humans (under the European Convention on Human Rights definitely including life). You don’t have the right to be treated as a child of God. as all of humanity is. Or as Christ – missing from the categories in Matthew 25:31-46 is “When did we treat you as less than human?” and “When did we shoot you because you were a ‘criminal’?”, but they should possibly be there in a 21st century version.

Of course, eventually they crucified Christ because he was “a criminal”. Perhaps it’s time to stop crucifying Christ?

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