Sunday, 11 January 2009

Big flames 2009

My neighbouring village Burghead brought in the New Year in its usual style last night: burning the clavie while walking it around the village, delivering new fire to waiting households (who have presumably put out their old fires in anticipation), and boiling up a damn good fire on the hill by the Pictish fort. And then, so I hear, a ceilidh of suitable proportions.

The clavie sparks and billows on its journey around the village but that is a sideshow to the burning on the hill (also of the hill itself). There, the clavie is stoked up with wood and oil. Lots of oil. Oil poured in until it is overflowing and then more and more oil thrown on, and thrown again. The sky-high flames and burning oil are awesome. The grass burns too. And the villagers fuel the clavie up until it falls and shares its smouldering coals. Intense and profligate, the clavie on the hill is better than any bonfire. Bliss.

No distant grandstand view for me: I eased my way into the crowd on the hill, as near as I dared. I wanted the heat, the sparks, the black smoke too if it came my way (and it did). Firstcomers cannot possibly know what to expect. Two guys behind me started up a conversation just as the clavie was being set in place: "Your first time?" "Yeah, and you?" "Yeah." And then stunned silence when the first oil was thrown. Their lives will never be the same.

Satisfied, I went to the offie on my way home. The shop assistants expect the rush on this, the busiest night of the year. And they always know who has been on the hill: the clavie leaves its mark, if only with soot. Straight home to the bath for me.

Sometimes, smouldering just isn't enough. Big flames are needed once in a while!

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

ASA gives the right decision

Today came the news that the Advertising Standards Authority passed the Barnados' advert Breaking the Cycle as OK.

I've written before that this advert shouldn't be banned. And although some forum threads have focused on the negative, there have been plenty of posts supporting the ad -- see Barnados twitter page for examples. So goody, goody.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Neighbours for the homeless

I have written already about good humanity and UK's half-heartedness to look after its own. Here is another issue.

I was Christmas shopping in Aberdeen yesterday. Having already decided to keep Christmas spending to the absolute minimum, I was keeping my spirits up quite well even while seeing soaking homeless men sitting on the street, and planning the options of which charitable cause in need of support to put to the family on Christmas Day. And the household finances are not healthy so I kept myself happy in the knowledge that me and my other half have a happy home and enjoyed walking warmly in the rain and closely arm in arm with him, even while we were wondering what could be done for those without a roof 24 hours a day apart from provision in the city: the temperature in Aberdeen yesterday was 4 or 5 degrees warmer than the countryside.

We did actually walk past The Big Issue vendor Stevie Johnson outside Marks and Spencer's, and then wondered why we had. We got out our change, went back to buy a copy and started talking to him. He is desperate to move on and get his place, really fed up with his situation, wants a normal life. He is very wary of now turning to alcohol to relieve the boredom of living on the streets. We wish him luck cos it won't be easy. But Stevie's comments on Aberdeen council's recent changes in its policy for the homelessness make me wonder again about how humane we are in the UK.

Aberdeen council no longer wants homeless people begging
on the streets, so they have put up begging boxes for people to put money in, rather than straight into hats on the street. My partner and I didn't see these but let's say they are collecting money that the council can use. But the council has closed homeless shelters, for health and safety reasons, and there are less overnight shelters available in the city.

Any reason that justifies reducing floor space under a roof, so that more people are sleeping under the stars, is better for their health seems rather dubious to me. And also, it raises the question, what is the begging box money providing now?

It seems to me that Aberdeen council would have the homeless having less neighbourly interactions, both in their begging and in their shelters. It only takes some lateral thinking to realise that following an out-of-sight-we'll-be-less-hassled policy can only result in a more dogmatic anti-homeless view. Shame on it.

Please let something be done for Zimbabwe

I received a letter from Zimbabwe recently. It was from the headmaster of the school where I spent nearly 3 years, and came almost exactly 15 years to the day I left. The school, the country, the continent has remained in my heart all this time, so I am really hoping that the events this week mark the lowest point in Zimbabwe's history and that the only way now is upwards and onwards.

I rejoice that the corner may be turning. But it is a shame that it was only yesterday, with the news that cholera is killing Zimbabweans and threatening South Africa, that the regions leaders started talking having to do something.

I rejoice that the UN did pass a resolution in 2005 that they could act against a country's leader if the people are suffering. But why has it taken so long?

I rejoice in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, advocating military action if necessary. But how has the region allowed Zimbabwe to become a basket case rather than the bread basket of Southern Africa?

What has led up to the current situation is a complex story. Mugabe urged reconciliation, even after his violent putting down of the Bulawayo uprising in the early 1980s, but the white Rhodesians did not play ball. Doris Lessing's 1957 book Going Home sheds much light on what Mugabe had to work with, describing the whites as adolescents, selfish and immature, unable even to see that their attitudes were leading to a poorly educated and less productive workforce. Unfortunately, Mugabe became more entrenched against the whites and the UK to the point of not acting in the best interests of the country: a journalist said as much to me in 1991, by which time Mugabe was sufficiently sensitive to criticisms to close the road passing the presidential palace in Harare overnight.

The story is also compounded by Mugabe being the Father of the country. A teacher said to me in 1992: “The question is, if a family is suffering because of what the father is doing, how does the family tell the father that things need to change?”

There is the problem. In Mugabe's eyes, he is leader still, and, in the face of unrealistic self appraisal, there has been no telling him. The African leaders, this year at least, have talked with him -- man to man, leader to leader, chief to chief -- with no obvious result.

I have to say that I believe another course of action, i.e. military, must be taken if Mugabe does not hand over home affairs to Morgan Tsvangirai very soon. And the Africans need to do it: I was glad to see Saddam Hussain removed from power, but not what happened afterwards. I trust the African leaders to appoint another chief to father the Zimbabweans; I don't want the UN, the USA or the UK to be involved other than to support the African leaders in their decision to step in.

I've taken comfort in having proof that the postal service in Zimbabwe was still working in October. The letter itself did not give much information about how things were: it was more of a "Hello, just found you in my old address book. I am still here. It would be nice to know how you are." Whether my friend will get my reply by Christmas I don't know.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

We are shown but we don't want to see

Barnardos' new video Breaking the Cycle is shocking. Will it be banned like their 2003 campaign, which featured a cockroach coming out of a baby's mouth? Let us hope not.

The outrage hasn’t started in earnest yet, but it seems certain it will do. There are already angry comments such as "they'll stoop to any level to get money nowadays".

Some parents fear for their children because they might see it while watching X Factor or I'm a Celebrity. My just-turned 13 year old would be uncomfortable but she would not thank me for keeping it from her. She knows what sadnesses there are, in the world, not just in the UK. She has been aware for a long time from my magazines (New Internationalist, Amnesty), radio and family conversations. Now she is well equipped to receive these shocking moving images and maturing all the better for it.

If children are old enough to see others seeking fame and the sarcastic "wit" that the judges are encourage to utter, they are old enough to assess the other types of damage that humans can wreak on other and experience the hurt that comes from it. I suspect that those who don’t see Breaking the Cycle in this way don’t see X Factor or I’m a Celebrity in this way either, and are as self-obsessed as the stereotypes they watch. The comments "one thing raising awareness but another upsetting people" and "if i want to give to a cause, its because i belive in their plight not because i was shocked into it" dismiss that shock comes first, then awareness, then belief. Let's hope that once their shock has dissipated, a true awareness will develop.

Let’s think again about what this video does. It shows a cycle of desperation, punishment, abuse and escape through drugs that then leads to desperation. It is vivid because that IS what is happening to people in some parts of UK society. Another’s comment is "I don't think these type of ads are constructive to be honest and just give people the wrong idea that if they have seen it on tv then it's the norm." This person obviously hasn’t sat on a bus and seen a mother punch her daughter with sovereign rings on her fist -- someone in this household has.

Another comment is "there is enough awareness at the mo especially after Baby P", Victoria Climbie’s death came before Baby P’s, but the horror of her death didn’t prevent his. Shortcomings in social services can only be part of the problem if we believe that there is enough awareness. This is why such a shocking video is needed.

The nation needs to wake up and get its brains and hearts. "A 16y girl from care-home needed shelter, I asked Barnados & NSPCC to put her up” says another comment. How can the UK expect charities to act on behalf of our social responsibilities, expect social services to do their job when we don't press them to do it, expect that keeping only one eye open is enough to prevent These Things happening again and then damn those that would try? With hypocrisy, I imagine.

It will be very bad for us indeed to damn the advert. If we do, we will be more Dickensian than when Dr Barnardo started his charity. He used the media and we responded to it and made the charity successful. Let’s not change our minds now.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

One tribe goes to war; one tribe fights the fires

A couple of days ago, I ended a comment to this blog with the words Viva Humanity!

This morning, I was reminded of the nightmare that comes when inhumanity lives and thrives, while listening to Lyn Witheridge* on BBC Radio 4's Saturday Live.

Lyn is one of the first people in the UK to prove her case of bullying in the High Court. Her story of the ridiculous professional demands and personal insults is not the whole of it. Nor is it sufficient to recognise the depression and the effect on her family life while she was being bullied.

What tips the balance into a nightmare situation, a nervous breakdown and complete feelings of helplessness is when the legal process goes wrong. In Lyn's case, the tribunal rejected her complaint on the basis that she had bullied her employer, the organisation itself. She called for apparently too many meetings to discuss the issues. This is again a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't situation. My deepest sympathy to anyone forced into this situation anywhere, at work, at home, with their neighbours.

Lyn's efforts were viewed as bullying itself. The court was used by the bully to further their own actions.

This is where our legal system goes wrong; still even today I believe it is happening.The victim is placed on the same level as the bully, where the implication is that there are "two warring parties". With this, a court gives the bully a voice and places value judgements on the victim's responses to the situation that they have been placed in (remember, they were not looking for it). Hence, the bully's actions are condoned and the bully's effects on the victim are strengthened.

This is the nightmare; a war is being fought between an aggressor and a fire fighter, and the fire fighter is damned for his efforts to put out the fire that no one wants but the aggressor. The bully has the Law on their side.

Fortunately, in Lyn's case, her union was funding her case and supported her taking the case to appeal. A nightmare within a nightmare and thank goodness she had her union; it is nigh on impossible for anyone with a private case. Appeals are expensive, transcipts have to be taken of the original hearing; the focus has to be that the original hearing was not conducted properly. And new evidence can only be presented with good reason. If you are forced in to this situation with a civil issue, where you are paying, make sure you get your case clear from the start. All the emotions don't make it easy but get it right first time -- the right to go to appeal is not a matter of course.

The result: Lyn's was worst case of bullying that the judge had ever heard and the tribunal had to be held again.

There are many good people forced on to the back foot by a few. It would serve the world well if the practioners of law were to routinely recognise even just the coarser grains within humanity.

So, Longue Vie à La Bonne Humanitié!


* Lyn Witheridge's account starts 20 minutes into the programme.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Geohash on a slow Sunday

The latest thing in this household is a new activity, geohashing.* Basically, geohashing is being told where to go in the belief of patient fun and maybe meeting someone, all at random.

It works like this:

(1) Get ready to go -- sandwiches, friends, camera (especially);
(2) Find your part of the world (graticule) on the site's interactive map;
(3) Enter today's date and find out where to go. The randomness comes from an algorithm hashing the Dow Jones Industrial Average is published with the date to create coordinates for every graticule in the world;
(4) Try to get to the geohash point for 1600 hours. GPS and rulers help. Then, either (i) rejoice in your success, (ii) rejoice in your failure. In both cases, have fun and take some interesting pictures of wherever you have ended up.

If you want, you can post a report of your expedition when you get home.

We met no one new, indeed no one at all. But for a random set of coordinates, we stopped at quite an acceptable point of a sandy beach and chuckled to ourselves.

I really do have lots of things to occupy myself with: books, spinning, gardening, blogging. But today's expedition is just what a slow Sunday should be.


*Geohashing originates from the wkcd web comic. 503 is rather poignant to the geohasher per se, and 162 suitably cross-matches with my slow mood.