Reflections and observations on life in general.

Category: ethics and society

Steam clean – relief from drowning

I am sitting with my head wrapped in a towel breathing steam in temporary relief from intermittent choking on the aftermath and “collateral damage” of a nasty cold that has filled my upper airways and chest with microscopic battle the last few days. I woke out of a dream of some region of England being used for military practice for the bitter Troubles in Ulster, the dream perhaps arising from the resonance of narrow-minded hate-filled comments I read in passing on Facebook not long but too soon before turning in, too tired and late to meditate and release my mind from things I cannot change.

Thinking of those years in the 1970s and early 80s when unrest and murder and hatreds were at their most intense and active in that uneasy land – for me, fortunately, in the news and not my daily life – I recall the relative simplicity of things. A time of fewer channels, when bigotry and binary views of the world were mostly spread in smaller circles – in the pub, works van, watching TV (4 channels), muttering at the tabloid on the train. Respite, release from the feeling of a need to say something, anything, in response to yet another joy or outrage was a little easier; the Forum closed for rest and cleaning in those days, it didn’t chatter on in your pocket, leaving echoes in your head.

So reading the compassion-free comments that captioned an image of more deluded and hopeful and despairing refugees (other adjectives also available according to your views) arriving with the tide in southern Europe I felt no rage towards the commentator, just a realisation of how widespread and deep the poisons of hatred and division are in every part of the world; most worryingly in those nations with the greatest wealth and actual security and established education. There are real problems to be tackled, many we have collectively failed to collaborate to face, his comments arise from things we need to discuss and deal with for sure. It’s the retreat into a blind trench warfare of beliefs that is so unhelpful, worse in its own way, or at least as bad, as the consensus-free committees that leave everybody outside frustrated and reactive.

I have not “unfriended” him, deliberately, I want to keep open even a silent channel of communication through the rising hedges and walls of a social network that resembles a labyrinth of walled gardens, within which people sit isolated with fellow enthusiasts for their particular flower, be it roses, tulips or poison ivy. I await a moment when, like a sniper with one round left for the enemy general, I can conceive and convey a comment to his rants that may actually make him think and reply with a more open view of the situation, a shift, even briefly, from binary to base-ten view of the world, from “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” to seeing that there are other places to stand and go to. Or perhaps I am, like that metaphorical sniper, already surrounded, the general is not one man but is now manifesting in so many heads that his uniformed body is now redundant to the cause he led; hope and some faith in the benefit of helping even one person see something differently sustain me in my hideout, however hopeless.

And, after all, these pervasive media are themselves neutral, facilitating the spread of joy and hope and healing as well as mental poisons; we need to keep the channels open though, at least let poisoned messages sprout but wither un-nourished, rather than just block them to keep the smell of a different flower out of our own garden, to revert to that metaphor.

I let it go at last, switched off devices, went to bed, “to sleep, perchance to dream…” and now, here I am, my mind and airways a little clearer, weary but no longer drowning from within, steam-cleaned for a short while, while the earliest commuters drive by outside and I lie down to rest a little.

Maybe there is value and a wider benefit in simply sending out basic good wishes, if I can’t think of or lack the present skills to do more effective things, even if that just means that I get a better rest and don’t carry the poison to spread on to others, inadvertently, through careless speech or actions. OK, just that then, for now, starting with you, dear reader, and thanks for reading this.


(Perhaps a a better metaphor: a guerrilla gardener with one seed of a different plant, the compassion tree, that I would plant surreptitiously in the least dark corner of his garden? Too late, go to bed mate!)

Poppies – in memoriam

I saw a link to this article by Robert Fisk, in the Independent, on Facebook this evening, a well-written piece that made me reflect on the issue of the wearing of the red poppies around the UK Remembrance Day (11 November):

I replied to the post after considering my own thoughts and feelings about this, including my own short and undistinguished military career, fortunately between conventional wars and at the end of the Cold one:

I’m happy to give a donation, even wear a poppy on the day in memory of the “poor bloody infantry” and others who are mostly being told to do the dirty work for politicians who keep well away from the consequences of their actions, particularly in the last generation or two, but I want to see this Remembrance grow to include ALL the casualties of war, such as the 14-year old boy in Aleppo today orphaned by two separate rocket attacks [[BBC radio 4 World Tonight 2200 3 Nov 2016 – grim report from a hospital] and many others …

At 1100, on the 11th, I pause to reflect on those in and out of uniform, all of whom are harmed deeply in many ways by this continuing stupidity.



Goodwill hasn’t gone…

“Whatever happened to goodwill?”, said somebody in exasperation to a friend of mine some time ago.

“It doesn’t pay the bills”, she replied. She was beginning her career as a self-employed photographer. They had asked her to do some publicity photos and she had, quite reasonably, asked for payment.

I remembered this incident recently when I had a similar request at work – my experience and skills for free for something I am not employed by them to provide and which I do as my own business outside my contracted time. I explained that I would charge a fee for this, I doubt they will ask me to do the work. I am not disappointed, I like my weekends free at the moment. If they are not willing to pay a proper rate in exchange, it can’t be that important to them or they will find another way.

There seems to be a widespread expectation that, if you do work that is creative or adventurous and perceived as “enjoyable” or “worthwhile”, then that is surely reward enough and you should be providing it cheaply, if not free, and certainly on a basis of “goodwill”. I pondered this the other morning, while I guided a razor carefully over my too-early-morning face, and a new view of the issue emerged.

My reply to the complaint “where has the goodwill gone?” is this: it hasn’t gone, I provide all my labour and skills and experience on the basis of “goodwill”, there is no charge for that.

However, I am faced with a problem, I also need the “goodwill” of others, to take food from the shelves of their shops, get them to service and put fuel into my car, allow me to sleep and keep my things in their property and so on. They are nearly all generous and helpful people, all happy to do these things but they need to know that I am also part of the “goodwill” exchange system and I can only do this by providing material proof of my having also given my “goodwill” to others; as is the nature of our society, some paperwork is involved.

The administration has grown complicated, over the years, but the basic idea is simple; I do something in “goodwill” for you, you give me an officially and socially recognised receipt that confirms my act of happy generosity and indicates the amount of effort I have donated to your organisation or your quality of life, I can then give this receipt to others and they will reciprocate with an equivalent quantity of their “goodwill”.

To save us all having to make our own, these receipts or vouchers are ready-made and are really quite beautiful, combining aesthetic qualities with good functional design, they even feature a nice portrait of our illustrious Monarch, to confirm their authenticity ( clearly, a lot of “goodwill” has gone into the making of them ).

So, as long as we both agree on the quantity, nature and duration of the “goodwill” that I will give, and the type of vouchers to be exchanged, then I am entirely happy to help you!

Shaving safely completed, I made my way to turn on the kettle and the radio, which announced the news headlines and something about executive pay; they must be very generous people indeed, given the great quantities of “goodwill” vouchers they receive.

My employers need help today, I cannot bear to stand by and watch them struggle, I have no other commitments…


It is one of those days when the institutional disincentives to saving return to my awareness…


Despite the darkness

I’ve been cycling a slightly longer but vastly calmer and nicer way to work lately, along the Wyrley and Essington canal towpath. It adds about ten minutes at most to my journey and immesurably more to the quality and happiness of my working day.


The waterfowl have been breeding well this year and there are families of ducks, geese, coot and moorhen busily feeding, nesting, squabbling and resting along the entire route. It’s not bad for a canal network that passes through what used to be one of Britain’s most busy and polluted industrial areas. Among other factors it is a testament to the work of many volunteers and bodies like the Canal & Rivers Trust.
There is a profusion of plant-life, without which the birds would not be here, of course; ducks, like people, cannot live by bread alone!


The waterlilies are beginning to emerge from the muddy canal bottoms, growing towards the light around the bottles, cans, tyres, supermarket trollies and occasional bikes that continue the ancient tradition, if not spirit, of casting offerings into bodies of water to bring good fortune (or avoid arrest!).
I saw some particularly fine flowers opening, like their cousins the lotus, among floating debris from people I presume more interested in numbing their minds than waking them to the beauty around them.

waterlily blooming amidst beer cans & bottles
Somehow I found that more inspiring to photograph than the more conventionally “nice” compositions all around.  It reminded me that hidden beauty still emerges despite the litter, vandalism, graffiti and darkness of despairing, angry and agitated minds. Whatever the conditions, the waterlilies persevere in rising towards the light; there’s inspiration in that.
Enjoy your journeys.

Cold War Hercules Mushrooms

I’ve had a lovely bike ride today, out west to the RAF Museum at Cosford, briefly visiting the impressively-housed Cold War Museum and then on to Ironbridge on the River Severn and the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.  It’s an odd thought, looking back on it, that the Cold War and all its ramifications and consequences was only possible because of the technological pioneering that took place in this small gorge, where water, coal, limestone, some iron ore and wood were conveniently available in the one area.  That made it economical to start using coke, rather than charcoal, to produce iron of a higher quality with which more could be done, such as building a bridge over the river – the Iron Bridge.  It’s an impressive structure.

On the way out along the quieter back lanes, I found some unexpected treasures:

W3singer the Lone Singer in Codsall

W3firstautumnsign first signs of Autumn, just after a pot-hole that nearly had me off my bike.W3mushrooms1   

a tree trunk outside the front gate of a hidden house, surrounded by this dense mushroom ‘forest’,

 W3poppies  poppies in a field just outside the airfield

.W3hercules under the wing of a Hercules… W3coldwarmuseum to the beauty of cold steel… (ok, probably aluminium then!) This impressive building houses various aircraft, displays, tanks and missiles from the Cold War era.

I remember watching, and hearing, the Vulcan bombers flying over our house in Cornwall in the 60s, the futile nonsense of the ‘Protect and Survive’ leaflets distributed in the late 70s/early 80s by the Government, many more memories from that period up until the momentous fall of the Berlin Wall, which I watched on TV.  So many changes, so much technology and creative effort in pursuit of a conflict that, in reality, was entirely constructed in our minds; it really is possible to fool all of the people nearly all of the time, or at least for a considerable time.  The definitions and causes have shifted, but the same stupidity persists.

Apparently this was ‘World Peace Day’, as well as a day on which many people marched to draw attention from governments and other institutions to the urgency of real action on climate change.  Both of these are issues which we have the capacity to solve, within a year if we really decided to, but we would need to motivate ourselves in the same way and with the same degree of commitment to the cause as we have done so successfully in our wars… I see no sign of any attempt by those currently in power either politically or financially to take the leadership actions required to do this, to solve these real problems that face us all.

Some might find the contents of the Cold War Museum depressing, chilling or even superficially exhilarating if you don’t consider the full implications.  Today I felt some of the first two and recalled the latter from earlier times in my life (watching a Sea Dart launch from an aircraft carrier was quite something, better to be behind it than in front).  I do admire the technology for the skill in solving challenging problems but most of it is really a misguided, if so far necessary, effort.  What I do find hopeful though is that it shows what we could achieve with a change in our aim, by lifting the veil of the siren illusions and prejudices and distractions that seduce us collectively onto the rocks.

Maybe we have to just go ahead and start to do it ourselves, even if that is just to get out on a bike for the afternoon.

The Taste of Pride.

A little while ago I had the bitter, slightly nauseous sensation of having swallowed a lump of pride; this physical sensation persisted, even a cup of strong coffee didn’t shift it. Only after I’d spent a while helping somebody else did I notice it had dissolved into a memory of the morning.
I had just responded a little too harshly and obstructively to a colleague with whom my working relationship is sometimes strained.
I understood with sudden clarity as I walked to another task, that I had been unfair, had a harsh tone of voice, used negative words to block him off and had failed to listen properly to what he was asking me; it was a perfectly reasonable request.
I considered this and I did apologise to him when I saw him next. His response was reasonable enough and he said that I did do this quite a lot with him.
I considered this experience, including the powerful reaction I felt upon realising I was wrong and behaving negatively, sowing seeds of further discord.
I came to see that my negative speech was emerging from a limited view of the situation and a feeling that I had a position to defend; both the result of locking myself into a narrow preconception of things.
My sensations of the “bitter pill” were a sign, perhaps “symptom” is a better word, of part of me resisting any notion that I, I, might be in the wrong.
Since that experience, I have made an effort to improve the situation, including working at being more attentive and mindful and supportive when dealing with hom and other colleagues ; so far with some success but aware of the risk of complacency.
It’s not an easy nor trivial thing, changing even a partial habit but the thing is to start anyway and try to persevere. “Perseverance pays” , I tell myself when faced with walls of churning white water blocking my little voyages from the beach out to the calmer water “out back” behind the breaking waves, where the opportunities for the clean-peeling waves are to be had. It’s always tempting to give up, turn round, go back to the habitual safety of mushy white water and the crowded sand, stay in the comfort zone and dream of the waves I would have ridden “if .. (type excuse here)”.
To put it another way, we can put up with water, or taste the wine. The latter demands making a transformation that may appear miraculous.
But of this, more in another post; my coffee cup is,literally, empty and it’s time to walk home.
Outside, the weather is “horrible” or simply “cold”; which one I experience depends upon my view.

House, Home and Happiness

I live in a small but pleasant first floor (the first one above the ground, if you’re American) flat on a busy road in what I suppose is an ‘average’ area of this city in the middle of England.
I have enough space, just, for most of the things that I possess and adequate space for the things I actually need.
I would like to have a little more space, a room that could be a studio/office, a utility or workshop room, a garage or at least a covered area for the car that I still need, enough garden space in which to grow vegetables, set up some solar panels, a place to run a wood-kiln or experiment with rocket stoves or perhaps make a surfboard. This would be good, it would allow me to do things more easily, enable me to live more closely to the way that I want to and reduce further my consumption of ‘stuff’ and energy, perhaps even generate some. It would be enough.
I thought about this as I was driven past some lovely, large, relatively new, houses in a wealthy part of Cheshire the other night. Apparently they are mostly owned by ‘celebrities’ – footballers and others who are ‘famous’ for a variety of reasons – or by people whose work is valued highly in today’s society, whatever its contribution to the happiness, or suffering, in the world.
The houses were impressive, superficially attractive, sometimes beautiful, sometimes not, but all prompted my curiosity. I wondered about the people living there, what they were doing that evening, how warm it was inside, behind the grand and secured gates. Many had the appearance of being full of people, to judge by the number of lit windows, or perhaps they just left the lights on. Some had carefully designed outside lights, too, stage lights to display the houses and gateways. Some of these up-lights had the unfortunate effect of making the windows look like black holes, skull-like empty sockets. The house assumed the aspect of an empty office building or a prison under this lighting.
Were the occupants really eating very different food or enjoying very much better and more satisfying showers than I am able to? They could only eat one meal at a time, take one shower or bath at a time, sleep in one of the many beds, watch the same TV programs as most other people, probably even discuss similar things. Were they really as much happier than ‘average’ people, in compensation for the substantially greater cost in financial outlay and maintenance and worry involved in these modern mansions? Do they have fewer arguments, happier and more satisfying relationships, tastier food, much longer lives, greater insights and wisdom… Do they get their money’s worth?
How hard do they have to work to keep up these homes? How much extra insurance and administration do they have to pay for and do? How peacefully do they sleep when they are away?
We drove on, my girlfriend and I, to a lovely meal, good company, finally back to a small but comfortable and clean and sufficient flat, with only a small garden plot and no security gates.
We slept well.


I’ve just emerged from a busy supermarket into the brisk sensory immediacy of a cold, rainy, very British December evening.  It is a welcome shock that helps bring me back from the numbing of my mind induced by the relentless seasonal musack, the intensely bright light and the aisles of super-laden shelves.

As I start the car and turn northwards towards a shared weekend, I wonder whether freedom really equals choice and whether choice equals freedom, at least in terms of material goods?

Is there not perhaps a point beyond which greater choice becomes oppressive and limits our freedom to enjoy living and our relationships with others?

My cup is empty and I am running late…  I could choose to write more… but I choose to move on … people are more important than these words.

Safe journeys to any readers out there.

Careers Guidance

Society in general values and rewards those who make money for others. It does not value nor reward those who enrich others’ lives.

Of course there are exceptions to these broad statements and there are a lot of people in between, but consider these points:

If you trade in shares and other people’s money, produce and sell harmful recreational substances (tobacco, alcohol, etc), even design and sell weapons to enable yet more harm to be done in the world, you will receive high financial rewards, status and influence through having the ears of the political establishment.

You will be told that you are doing essential work for the nation’s prosperity, creating jobs and wealth – some of this is true, at least in the system as it is now.  Shareholders and colleagues will thank you and award you generous bonuses and share options.  You will be able to take things like a home, one or more cars, travelling on a whim (work permitting), private health care, an ample pension and so on for granted.

Even if you do lose your job, you will not really be poor, not like those people in the other postcode. Broadly speaking, regardless of your competence or the consequences of your actions, unless you’ve done something really stupid or incompetent, you will be able to get another post via your influential networks and impressive cv; a decent recruitment agency should sort that anyway.

You will acquire the means to make a lot of good and socially useful things happen, though that may not always fit neatly with the business or investment plan.  When you look back on your career, you should see a list of progress and achievements, material and professional.  You may never see the actual fruits of your labours, except on news broadcasts or in statistics, but you can’t be held personally responsible for all those things.  You can mostly ignore the bleatings of the ‘little people’ who think this is all so unfair, after all, you move among the ‘people who matter’.

If, instead, you choose to do something that reduces the suffering of others, improves the appearance and quality of things, creates beauty rather than destroys it, helps people to grow inwardly, or if you keep a good home and raise children to become better human beings, deliver education and understanding of the world, or care for people in their sickness, ageing and dying, you will be praised for your good work, thanked even.  You may get a reputation for being indispensable, reliable, ‘salt of the earth’, creative and ‘gifted’, committed to your ‘vocation’.  People will say things like “I don’t know how you do it, I could never do that, I’d lose patience (etc)”.

Occasionally people will tell you how you helped change their lives for the better. It’s good to know that, sometimes, flowers spring up where you have stepped; you will be able to look back knowing that the fruits of your labours were healthy, nourishing and sweet and contained the seeds of future harvests that others might sow.  This is valuable.

You will be looked down upon in a kindly, condescending, way but told you are doing essential work for the fabric of society, which is true. If you ask for that to be reflected in your pay, so that you can buy a house, an efficient car, feed and educate your children well, pay the bills without worrying every month, perhaps occasionally enjoy a revitalizing and inspiring holiday…

Please, be serious now, if labour costs go up, how can we hope to achieve ‘growth’ and pay off the Defecit?

We’re all in it together, after all.