8 April 2015

A High Five To...


Two fingers of a left hand are mending, after they unsuccessfully went one round with the pavement in London.

The little finger, still a swollen cocktail sausage, is recovering from an operation in which a pair of  tiny divining rods were inserted into the bone to pull it back into line.  Now, it snuggles close to the ring finger, its bigger and functioning sister, copying and sheltering.  

But it's reverted to toddlerhood, learning to walk, to talk, to go to the park, to demand the swings.  

Each day it sucks in its paunch, stiffens its stooped back to pull itself up to its full height, blend in with the crowd.

Each day it strives to work in community - to grow nails, tie a shoelace, open a tin, search out a spoon, hold an octave.  

With its siblings, it has a go at making shapes.  A gate.  A rake.  A limping dinosaur.

It struggles to fan outward into the kind of delta where a continent’s river system disgorges and over-wintering herons land.

And it religiously does the drill; to bow deeply forward in the belief that the top of its head can indeed touch the palm’s outstretched skin. 

27 February 2015

Deliver Me From The News

‘If I want to know what’s happening locally?  They’ll tell me when I pop into the bar.  And if I want to know what’s happening internationally?   They’ll tell me when I pop into the bar.’

Thus said an acquaintance a few years ago, who had foresworn watching or listening to the news in favour of a more tranquil life.  To be, shall we say, so deliberately under-informed seemed an alien concept, but his words set me on an examination of my own relationship with the news.  

And it was a needy one: waking up to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, followed by dips in and out of news media on the internet, rounded off by early evening news and, even later, by News at Ten.  I couldn’t leave news alone, but neither would it take its hooks out of me.  I began to be affected by the ‘barrage of bleakness’ as Charlie Beckett put it in a recent Radio 4 programme entitled Good News is No News.   It was not merely my feeling of impotence in the face of stories of violence and cruelty, of political crassness, of greed and manipulation, or of pending environmental catastrophe which rankled, but an extreme annoyance at the manner of delivery – combative interviews, unremitting speculation, a negative agenda and doomsday scenarios.

A year or so ago, I switched allegiance in the mornings to Spanish radio on RTVE.  Quite apart from the fact that I could only understand half of its foreign sounds, which gave the impression of waking up in a tiled hostal and only a stroll away from the beach, the necessary preoccupation with all issues Spanish that did not impinge upon me gave a welcome distancing.  With less hand-wringing, I could simply listen to how interviewees were, for example, given much greater rein to answer questions without constant interruption.  Or how excitement would mount audibly when days like Los Reyes approached.  Or how gems and curiosities that made few waves here in the UK would surface, such as the story about El Pequeño Nicolás, a twenty-year-old who hoaxed his way into the highest circles, even getting in under the radar, at a reception of dignitaries, to shake the hand of the new king Felipe on the day he assumed the throne. 

Lately, however, I have forsaken even Spanish radio at sun-up, preferring a gentler entrance into the day with Solfeggio chants and a few yoga stretches.  News, I contend, especially first thing in the morning or last thing at night, can be extremely bad for you.   At a time when the ‘human race has never been healthier, wealthier or more peaceful’ (as Charlie Beckett put it in the programme Good News Is No News) notwithstanding that blood-curdling acts do happen, we are perhaps being given a distorted view.  Doom and gloom are a daily diet.  

Twenty-two years ago, the newscaster Martyn Lewis was apparently pilloried when he attempted to argue that ‘normal journalistic judgments should be applied to all stories instead of pushing positive stories automatically on to the spike.’  Warned not to challenge the status quo, with his job put on the line, he got nowhere in his efforts to start a discussion about ‘holding up a proper and sensible mirror to society’.

That the news is essentially negative was underscored by Tony Gallagher, deputy editor of the Daily Mail.  ‘The reality is that it’s a gloomy world out there and bad things happen.  And we tend to be a conduit for bad things.’  When asked by Charlie Beckett whether this was not giving an Old Testament view of a world full of plagues and disasters, he answered: ‘ It’s a tiny fragment of the real world, and it’s an extraordinary fragment of the real world, which is why we should be covering it in the depth that we are.  Of course it doesn’t relate to the ordinary person’s existence any more than a crime thriller relates to the ordinary existence of somebody living in suburbia.  But we are competing for people’s time and their attention, and the reality is that bad news does sell.’

Recently, in what could be seen as a proliferation of shocking news, media organisations have begun to apply correctives, ‘solutions-based journalism’, like ‘The Optimist’ in The Washington Post and ‘The Fix’ in The New York Times.  Huffington Post’s ‘What’s Working’ section is doing well.  ‘Stories that reinforce our faith in human nature are shared three times more than the combined average of all our other sections’ share rate,’ said Ariana Huffington, co-founder and editor-in-chief.  Jim Waterson, political editor of Buzzfeed, echoed this.  ‘Stories that are shared the most do tend to be positive – there’s something about your identity, there’s something you’re proud to support or something that you want to get involved in.  But,’ he added, significantly, ‘when there is massive news, then that overrules everything.’

If I am cautious in my own consumption of news, and seek to turn down the volume of negative in favour of more pleasing stories, does this make me ignorant?  Am I sticking my head in the sand or recognising the limits of a personal sphere of influence?  If I sometimes turn a deaf ear to the bickerings of politics, am I rejecting civic duty or aspiring to achieve what a Buddhist might describe as non-complaining mind?  If I try to appreciate what is actually going right in society (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it) am I merely Pollyanna?  

Since the time of Martyn Lewis’s stance, our way of consuming news has been overturned.  It has now become our own responsibility to control and ration what we see or hear.  No longer does one, or even a set of, authoritative broadcasters hold the key to editorial control.  We can obtain news from hundreds of different news organisations and social networks.  We can watch - at times grotesque - amateur footage, as well as professional coverage of events as they unfold.  We can binge on whatever news is out there to the point of sickness or, by finding the more wholesome, seek balance.

Or we can take the occasional break, and dare to switch off the news altogether.

5 February 2015

When the Horse Knows Best

Home stretch

This could not have happened in the kingdom of Health and Safety.  Nor would it have happened if the extent of the challenge had been fully explained.

It was late September in the Lecrin Valley, near Granada.  I had signed up to go for a horse ride – by 'ride', of course I meant ‘sit', for I had never had riding lessons despite having been conveyed by pony from A to B with minimum disruption on holiday trundles.  Picture a beach, with a bored quadroped being led by a string.  That is the level of my horsemanship.

My details had been handed in to the riding school: 1. no, not experienced 2. have only gone at walking pace - trotted (accidentally) once.  Meeting my steed, I was pleased that it had neither satanic stare, nor  dimensions of a battle-Percheron, astride which a body would rip in half.  In reality, this was a tiddler, and I was truly thankful.  It bode well for the one-hour session.

Again I emphasised to the owner:  no he galopeadoNo soy experta.  By which I hoped to imply that I had never galloped and was not an expert.

We set off in a small band - our leader Rodrigo, inveterate Canadian outdoorswoman Jean, and Englishman Robert who had trekked the length and breadth of South America on horseback.
‘Have you taken your painkillers?’ asked Jean.


‘Yes.  This is going to hurt like hell.  I’ve already taken two Ibuprofen.  At the very least, make sure you take some tonight and tomorrow.  You’ll really be aching after this two-hour ride.’

Two hours?' 

And so we set off, through the village streets, towards the side of the valley, and before long, were winding up a steep twisting path.  The horses' hooves slid in the narrow path's dust, inches from the sheer drop beside us.  My palms went clammy.  Vertigo came in hot waves.

'Don’t worry,’ said Jean, ‘your horse knows what it’s doing.’

Small consolation.  At each hairpin bend, there was no telling whether my animal might be seized with a lemming wish, or simply miscalculate and stumble, or whether I, in averting my gaze from the chasm, might lean the wrong way as my pony hopped up, yes, hopped up over rocks.
This was not the time to adhere to the Spanish style of riding, in which you hold the reins in one hand only.  Yet, during the midst of the perspiration and dread came a moment of utter clarity.  Here, between heaven and the boulders far below, it was no good panicking, or wishing I hadn’t come.  There was no way out, but forward.  I had no choice but stay on that horse’s back and have faith in its ability to get on with the business of climbing.
As we reached the top I breathed a sigh of relief to see the path opening out on to a flat plain  overlooking the town of Albuñuelas.  Things would get easier.  My beast, on the other hand, was of a different mindset.  Seeing the others racing ahead, and paying no attention to my hauling back on the reins, it sprang to action - first breaking into a trot then, Dios mio, a brisk gallop.
I bounced up in the air and slapped down as if on a bucking bronco.  If there was a preferred method of timing my landing on the horse's spine, which minimised the chances of falling off, I had little opportunity to finesse it.
Jean and Robert rode hard to catch Rodrigo.  'She’s never galloped before,' they said.  He glanced back at the spectacle of me see-sawing on the horse’s back.  'Sure she has.  She’s fine,' he replied.

Hang on, I told myself through clenched teeth.  Trust.  Trust the horse.  And gradually, over the length of the route, I began to learn to do just that.  To tune into to its rhythm.  To be firm, but not to fight.  I also constantly checked in with my own muscles – tensing this one, flexing that one, slightly twisting my body one way then the other to take tension off my back.  By the time we had ridden across the entire ridge, through olive groves, down through the village of Saleres and along the riverbed, I was non-plussed when, without warning, my horse staggered on a rock. 
After a total of two and a half hours I finally dismounted, cocky to be still in one piece.  Oddly, though I took no painkillers at all, nor the next day, there was not one twinge in my body.  

Would I do this again?  I’m not sure.  For a novice it was risky.  

But it left me with an exhilaration - and a keener sense about surrender and letting go, about trying to get into harmony with an animal, with a moment, with an experience.  Magical.

12 September 2014

Scotland - Please Stay

It is my fervent wish that the title of this blog will not ring hollow in a week’s time, in the way of a book I found a few years ago, written pre-1947, whose title was Must England Lose India?  Well, yes, I said at that point, tossing the book aside without so much as a glance at the pages of erudite argument.  

So much for faits accomplis.  Yet I feel compelled to admit a very present anxiety in the pit of my stomach.  Standing on the sidelines in the final run-up to a momentous decision which will be taken by residents of Scotland next week is a hard thing to do.  Quite simply, I don’t want Scotland to separate from the rest of the United Kingdom.   And here are the reasons.

First, the things I am not qualified to speak about.  I cannot comment on future revenues for Scotland and need to leave it to industry spokespeople to elucidate, for example, to what extent North Sea oil might be dwindling and whether new discoveries are financially viable.  Nor do I have an economist’s handle on the anomalies inherent in seeking to keep the pound while severing links with the UK – or the protracted turbulence the pound may experience in the period immediately following a Yes vote for independence.  But I am disturbed at the prospect of poor financial health for Scotland as much as I am disturbed by the tendency for some in the Yes campaign to pass off genuine statements given by (non-political) experts as ‘scaremongering’ or ‘bullying’.  

I’ve watched and listened to debates with mounting disquiet.  I listen to reasons given for independence - amongst them the need for social justice, and to act against the bedroom tax, and child poverty.  Yet these issues are as live and heated ‘down here’ to anyone who seeks a just and caring society.  I listen to anger expressed over the fact that Westminster has taken the country into unwanted wars – yet recall my own incandescent rage when the Blair government, with slipshod justification, involved us in Iraq.  I hear annoyance about expenses-fiddling by MPs as though no English, Welsh or Northern Irish person also shares this opprobrium.   I hear voices countering arguments put forward by pro-unionists with cries that Scottish inventiveness and intelligence will win out,  as though any anxiety we express over Scotland’s future (and, yes, over our future because the Scottish vote will affect us all) even takes into question, in the first place, the proven creativity and ingenuity of Scots.  I hear sneers about the ‘Westminster Elite’ as though ideological distance from the Houses of Parliament in London is solely the preserve of (northern) geography.  In fact, I live just up the same river from the Houses of Parliament and can leap on a train and be standing in front of them in less than an hour.  But whenever a government for whom I have not cast my vote takes power, and only spitting distance from here, I too feel disenfranchised.  
I applaud strong self-governance within a larger framework, and hence am in favour that more powers are being offered to Scotland in the event of a No vote.   Having grown up in the province of Ontario in Canada in a federalist system -  where provinces are responsible for direct taxation, natural resources, hospitals, schools, welfare, intra-provincial transportation and the administration of justice, and where the federal government in Ottawa has jurisdiction over  international and interprovincial trade, communications and transportation, banking and currency, foreign affairs, and defence -  I am comfortable with the idea of power devolved away from central government.   I lived just across the Ottawa River from the province of Quebec whose vibrant character and culture, I would argue, have always been better protected within Canada with its professed commitment to biculturalism and bilingualism.  A Quebec flying solo would be not just overshadowed by the remainder of a still enormous Anglophonic Canada but also by its huge American neighbour to the south.   In the same way, I feel that Scotland is best served by staying in the union, strengthening its culture, its identity and with increased powers, but safeguarded from the economic vicissitudes of going it alone.  There are cold winds out there.

My prayer that Scotland will vote to stay part of the United Kingdom is because I also speak as a child of Northern Irish parents - with Scottish forebears - and as a person with a surname (by marriage) that sounds as Welsh as it is possible to sound who lives in the southeast of England.   I am by no means alone in this country with these kinds of connections.  The four corners that they represent are key to the strengths that currently exist in the UK.  We are linked like kin.  We have shared history and, I profoundly hope, a shared future.  There is, without doubt, much to be modified and improved, yet so very much more to be celebrated in this imperfect but nonetheless joint venture in which we find ourselves.