Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Catching Up (again)

I seem to spend far too much of my time apologising for not having blogged for a while. I've started various entries, made notes on others, but never quite got round to writing a full-blown entry. So I'm going to stop apologising. It's repetitive and non-productive and I should be writing more interesting things.

Such that today, I'm going to post more of a collection of short-but-sweet views, largely inspired by the news.

Firstly, I was saddened to see that Stephen Sutton has died. Hardly a surprise, but sad nonetheless. It must be (a very) little consolation to his family and loved ones that he achieved so much more in nineteen brief years than many of us manage in our three score and ten. Perhaps he will have inspired a few more people to get off their backsides and do something useful. RIP, young man. You deserved a better shot at life.

Other young people still in the news who also deserve a better shot at life are the girls in Nigeria, held prisoner by the Boko Haram terrorists. I get the impression that the Nigerian authorities were at their wits' end trying to deal with the group, and that in some ways, the mass abduction will turn out to have been a good thing because it will have drawn the rest of the world's attention to what is going on there, getting other countries involved and possibly putting an end to such treatment. I realise that this is a bit like saying the sinking of the Titanic was a good thing because it improved maritime safety; I'm mostly trying to find a silver lining to this particularly dark cloud. Fingers crossed that the girls are freed soon.

At the other end of life (almost), I tried watching a couple of episodes of 'Vicious', starring Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi. Both are fabulous actors and it should have been a joy to watch, but the script is so laboured and unfunny that even its stars struggle to salvage it. I see that voters on IMDB have given it ratings in the low 8s but I can't see myself bothering to watch the second series that is about to start. A real waste of talent.

That's it for this week. If no-one complains, I may make this the style of future blog entries!

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Happy birthday! or, Reasons to be Cheerful, part one.

I don't normally shout about the fact it's my birthday, but this time I will. Not the birthday bit, specifically, as I've written before about how the number associated with it seems less and less believable as the years go by, but this time the happy bit.

Lots of people reassess their lives on key dates - New Year's Day springs to mind - and for me that date is my birthday. Here are some of the reasons why I'm happy this year:

I have a wonderful family and superb friends. (I've already had some lovely presents and over 50 birthday wishes via Facebook.)

Notwithstanding the as-yet-unknown result of a recent blood test, I'm actually pretty healthy. I'm fitter than I've been for nearly forty years and I weigh less now than I have done for over twenty years.

My first novel, Moses in Chains, may not have won any prizes but it's out there and the first draft of the second novel is nearly finished.

I've found a new direction for my poetry that is still quite challenging but also satisfying.

I'm going to be doing some more directing next year. I've missed that!

I'm feeling brave enough to consider some more solo singing this year. (The supportive friends definitely help with this.)

I may have added some more destinations to my bucket list but I'm lucky enough that we can still attempt to work our way through it.

I have a job I enjoy; my dad always said the secret to happiness was to find something you enjoyed doing so much you'd do it for nothing, and then to do it so well that someone paid you to do it. Tick!

I recognise that the little irritations each day are just that - little, and irritations. Nothing more. The problems that some other people face, now they're problems!

I read somewhere recently that happy people focus on the positive things in their lives, whereas depressed people dwell on the negative. During the depths of winter, I certainly found it harder to find things to be happy about, but today the sun is shining, the daffodils are heavy on their stems and I'm off to sunnier/warmer climes shortly. I'm being positive!

How often do you make a list of your reasons to be cheerful?

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Giving for the right reason

There are so many charitable causes out there these days, how do you decide which one or ones to support? I suppose it depends on your beliefs initially. Some people would rather support the NSPCC rather than the RSPCA because 'people before animals', or vice versa, 'because they can't speak for themselves'. There's no denying that both charities and causes are worthy ones, but most of us have very finite resources and can't give to everyone who asks. So what's your reason for giving?

I am aware of at least one person who donates on a standing order because he wanted to talk to the pretty girl asking people in the street to sign up. Perhaps that was partly why she was picked for the job? Other donors might have more personal reasons; the vast majority of the runners doing the Race for Life for Cancer Research are doing it in part because they know someone affected by cancer.

Launton Village Players raise a lot of money each year with the pantomime; this year over £5000 will be donated to a variety of charities, some local, some national. Performers have a say in the recipients and can nominate their favourites. This year, in addition to our local schools, money will be sent to Diabetes UK, the Samaritans, Air Ambulance, ROSY and Bicester Food Bank, amongst others. (If you come to next year's pantomime, there will be a full list in the programme. And then you will be contributing to the next group. See how it works? ;-) ) All, I am sure you will agree, worthy causes, and all raised while at same time having fun. I suspect some people do the pantomime or attend it purely for the enjoyment factor...

Personally, I support a child in Guatemala through Plan UK via a monthly payment, in addition to donations to DEC appeals and the like. My reason for choosing Plan UK was partly to abate my empty nest syndrome once my own children had moved out, and Plan UK specifically had no religious affiliations. My donation supports not only a particular child but also her community, assisting with things like clean water and access to education. I'm very happy to support this worthy cause.

What I'm not happy to do, however, is be treated like some kind of cash-cow. We are all quite rightly scathing of the scammers who, having discovered a kindly soul prepared to send their cheque to unlock the winnings of the Nigerian lottery or similar, then sell the name and address on and inundate this poor (or soon-to-be poor) credulous person with other requests for money. A news story this morning mentioned an unfortunate gentleman who had lost £100,000 via this route. But are charities who inundate their supporters with requests for additional money so very different from these scammers? I gather from someone who has worked for a charity that the cost of these begging mailshots and phone calls yields enough money to be worth it. I wonder if they have considered the negative image that is generated, however. Is that worth it? Money given through guilt may buy the same benefits as money freely given but it's unlikely to be repeated often, I suspect. And at some point, the pool of potential donors will be exhausted.

Saturday, 1 February 2014


The right to freedom of speech of one of those inalienable ones, until someone says something we disagree with, for whatever reason. Americans have it as their First Amendment, for all we seem to hear more about the Second one. The ability to speak one's mind without fear of punishment is something that many of us in the UK and the US take for granted, I suspect. Every now and then there will be a news story from China or similar that makes us draw a sharp breath in shock, though usually this particular right is one we don't even think about. But do we really have that right?

Some censorship may make sense. Child pornography, for example, should be censored out of existence, along with its disseminators. The protection of military secrets rather depends on your view of the need for a military. Other censorship, such as that described as 'political correctness', seems overly nanny-like. And don't get me started on groups such as the American 'Focus on the Family'.

The real trouble with censorship is that half the time, you probably don't know whether what you're seeing/reading/hearing has been censored. I don't mean just the self-censorship, the 'I probably shouldn't say that about my boss because I still need my job' type comments. It's the stuff the government thinks we can't bear to know or won't understand or will misinterpret (thanks for that vote of confidence in our intelligence, by the way). It's the super-injunctions, when various celebrities persuade the courts not only to keep their identities and court-cases secret, but also to keep the secret a secret. It's the decision by someone *higher up* that certain reading matter is subversive and therefore should not be circulated ('higher up' being a relative term here, not a mystical one).

Before the printing press, subversive material was limited in quantity but it didn't stop its existence. Subversion leads to discontent which leads to either rebellion and/or censorship. Socrates was made to drink hemlock because he had promoted philosophies that the ruling class of the day disliked, and that was some considerable time ago. Once Europe got its hands on that movable type, there was no stopping the pesky subversives - so the Catholic Church came up with an Index of Forbidden Books. Pope Alexander VI (the Borgia Pope) had tried to prevent unlicensed books being published back in 1501 but it wasn't until 1559 that the Index was first created, under the auspices of Pope Paul IV, the driving force behind the Roman equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition. (A stubborn man, he only accepted the papacy in 1555 because the Holy Roman Emperor Charles didn't want him to - or so we are told.)  Although the Index was refined later by the Council of Trent, authors could still be put on it simply because their views were deemed 'heretical', even if the subject matter of the book was not. Kepler, Kant and Newton were all forbidden in the Papal States and many Catholic countries courtesy of the Index.

Official censorship via the Index was finally ended in 1966 by Pope Paul VI although the man in charge of the Holy Office (formerly 'The Sacred Congregation of the Index') at the time, one Cardinal Ratzinger, said, "The Index retains its moral force despite its dissolution." Yeah, him.

Michelangelo had no reason to like Paul IV - practically his first act as pope was to cancel Michelangelo's pension - but I suspect his outspoken manner would have also turned him against a man who was keen on censorship to the point of burning offenders at the stake. At least we don't burn people at the stake anymore for abusing their right to a freedom of speech. Or do we?....