The night sky – and spacetime

From Russia, to the Welsh hills, and a retreat last week.

Up at 5, cup of tea in hand I’d stepped out and looked up, expecting cloud and drizzle, and …the stars were bright, the quieter stars of summer evenings (the stars of course roll right around the heavens once a year) which give a first showing to early risers in February and March. Long gone are Orion and the twins and the lion, it’s now the swan and the lyre rising up from the east, and the huntsman, Bootes, above, and Arcturus, no longer an evening announcement of spring, but in its full glory on a February morning.

The sky almost floats above you, pre-dawn just touching the hills.

Anything but floating…

Reading Philip Ball on the general theory of relativity (100 years this year since Einstein presented his paper on the subject) my usual puzzlement is just a little allayed by his comment that ‘Isaac Newton’s apple fell to Earth because it was, in effect, sloping down the slope of the dent that the planet’s mass induces in the fabric of spacetime’. Which means that it’s not gravity as an an invisible force holding me to Earth, rather I’m slipping down a dent in the fabric of spacetime.

This rather changes my way of thinking about things…

But my sense of wonder at the night sky, which first took a hold of me when I was eight-years-old, remains as it always was, and a spiritual sense is still a part of that wonder. I touch the Earth and the hand of God.

Strivers versus scroungers

On the domestic front there’s the ‘strivers versus scroungers’ polarity. I see the Economist has now used it – I hope as a one-off, not to be repeated – in an article on the American education system. It’s become embedded in daily discourse. I’m all for strivers, but scroungers is a dreadful term, used cheaply to vilify anyone who is on benefits, as if they existed to exploit the state – a state which should be mean and lean.

We’re back with notions of the deserving and undeserving poor.

As someone who’s been unemployed, and been through various crises in his life, and won through in the end by a mix of determination and good fortune, I’m well aware of how long and difficult the path can seem when you’re down. What you need is a push – benefits are not a God-given right, the safety-net is no place for a permanent home, and also a pull, a society that is minded, instinctively minded, to help, to allow you, when you’re down, to feed yourself and family, to keep family together, not to lose hope in dark times. And to give you the encouragement and the opportunity to climb out.

If we cut benefits we must give more back in terms of what we offer to the unemployed, the low-paid and especially the disabled. This can’t be a promise for the future. It has to be now. A moral state (an interesting concept in itself) has no right to cut benefits unless it can give more to those who, usually through no fault of their own, have fallen by the wayside.

How we do that is a mighty question. For now I’m simply making the point that if we take away we must also give back. It is too convenient to justify taking away by stigmatising.

Mrs Thatcher I believe saw individual freedom as more central to the Christian message even than love. Back in the 1980s as PM she invited the bishops to Chequers and lectured them on the subject. I sympathise: a powerful sense of freedom to achieve and fulfil ourselves is key to a well-lived and happy and Christian life. But so too are love and compassion.

Freedom versus love is another crazy false polarity. Christians and Buddhists (and I hope atheists) will always be on the side of love and loving-kindness. It is by showing love that you find yourself. And that also means loving yourself.

Back to my earlier blog – you stand on two mountain tops – self and other.

West in best

Which of course it is, but we must get real…

The West continues to exist in its own cocoon, still thinking within that post-Berlin Wall world frame of mind, where history (as God once had been) was on our side, if it hadn’t actually come to an end.

Two examples:

1) Charles Krauthammer (a serial offender) in the Washington Post exercises himself over the failure of America to take a lead, a moral lead, in the Middle East. He fails to recognise the simple truth that America has very limited moral force in that part of the world. And even the pro-Western countries don’t want its leadership. Obama is wisely steering a course more subtle than the American right which still inhabits a neo-liberal world can grasp.

2) The Economist had an in many ways excellent piece on Russia earlier this month (February). We have the statement ‘[Russia] is an unconstrained state that can sacrifice its citizens’ interests to further its destiny and satisfy its rulers’ greed. Both under communism and before it the Russian state acquired religious attributes.’ As a statement this recognises the old and deep rooted sense of ‘Holy Russia,’ but doesn’t engage with it as a reality. The ‘state’ and its ‘citizens’ are much closer than the Economist would have us believe.

There’s always been a battle in Russia between traditional and Westernising influences – going back to Peter the Great. That sense of Russia as a place apart, with a sentiment attached to it that you have to be Russian to understand, is woven into Russian life. Russians doesn’t want to be subsumed into a broader Western identity. If we get our heads round that we’ll better understand who we’re dealing with, and how to find agreement. Not least we’ll understand that the Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine really do instinctively look east, and while we want to preserve Ukraine as one country we have to see it at the very least as federated, with western and central Ukraine looking to the EC, and the south-east looking to Russia. From that starting-point we might just find a solution, given time and patience.

The Baltic states are of course another matter. Kiev, capital of the Ukraine, is also at the heart of the history and mythology of mother Russia. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are countries with more recent Russian populations, the result of Russian occupations. Their integrity should be absolute, something it now seems that NATO has taken fully on board. We must be vigilant, even more so reading today of Boris Nemtsov’s murder.


From another mountain top

Looking out from the mountain top – another person’s, not your own. What’s the view like from there?

I call this blog zenpolitics. That has a certain ring to it. But I’m drawing on other Buddhist traditions. Compassion, which is there in all traditions, has a special place within the Mahayana, where it’s wisdom and compassion that chart the path to enlightenment.

Non-self is a key tenet, in all traditions, and it ties in closely with compassion. It’s easy to treat it as theory, separate from daily life, but it has a direct and eye-opening implication. If you downplay the notion of self, then it’s easier to put yourself in the place of others. You’re less obsessed with self, more aware that there are other points of view, as valid as your own. This is not to deny the importance of making  judgements, criticising, campaigning, often being personal. It’s a pretty hostile world out there and you won’t get anywhere by letting it walk all over you.

But don’t overlook the other point of view. What you say or write will be that much more valid if you’ve taken the time to understand the other’s position first.

Screamingly obvious you say. But also, it doesn’t make for good journalism, and party politics isn’t about understanding the other side’s arguments.

I’ll go along with that, but there are too many egregious examples, where it does matter.

In blogs that follow I mention the Middle East, Russia and that appalling false polarity between strivers and scroungers which seems to have infected popular discourse.



‘A form of fraud on its readers.’

Commercial interests came before good journalism, that’s Peter Oborne’s argument.

His resignation from the Daily Telegraph will get limited coverage. [And indeed, nine months on, the story is long forgotten.] Not least, newspapers could be worried that similar accusations could be made against them. Oborne has accused the paper of  a ‘form of fraud on its readers’ for its coverage of HSBC and its Swiss tax-dodging scandal. He’s claimed the paper did not give due prominence to the HSBC story because of commercial interests. The OpenDemocracy website is where his full statement is to be found.

Oborne told Channel 4 News he believed he spoke ‘for the vast majority of Telegraph staff’ in saying he had no confidence in Murdoch McLennan, the paper’s chief executive, and the Barclay brothers who own the paper. (I’m quoting from the BBC website.)

For my part I’ve never trusted the Barclay brothers, the Telegraph’s owners. I remember how disparaging Bill Deedes, long-time Telegraph editor, was about them. In an age when circulations are falling rapidly it’s people with big money and personal bandwagons to ride who can afford to handle the risk and live with the losses. The Telegraph’s most famous bandwagon was the 2009 expenses scandal, which they milked to do maximum damage. I will desist from saying more here – but it was a disreputable piece of journalism.

The sad thing is that in many ways the Telegraph is a great paper – for features and review coverage and sport. I don’t trust its political coverage, but I allow for that when I read a story. And I now know the way advertisers can influence the paper: some stories will hardly get a look in, some (I assume) may not even be reported…

The truth can be bent in so many ways. Is withholding, so we can’t even make a judgement, worse than telling lies? We are of course, all of us, economical with the truth in our daily lives. We all withhold. But newspapers are by definition public. A different standard applies.

The last five years….

‘Five years of stable and successful government’ is how the right-of-centre blogger Tim Montgomerie characterises the last five years. How many would agree – or disagree? Montgomerie, no doubt intentionally, overstates it. But many a four or five-year span has seen the UK fare much worse. The government has bickered and fought with itself but it has stayed together. Montgomerie puts much of that down to Nick Clegg, the ‘unsung hero of our times’. I’d go along with that. He’s had a big role in keeping the coalition together. With so much sh… thrown at him by some pretty nasty people he shown a remarkable cool, and kept a party that’s fissiparous almost by instinct together.

So two cheers for Nick!

‘Stable and successful’. If we expect government to work wonders, always to get it right, and, if it fails, to see it all as being accounted for by the selfishness of others, above all our self-serving politicians…. if we’re bought into the Ivor Crewe disasters of government mentality , if… then, yes, the five years have failed, and every five-year span will do likewise.

Messing around with NHS organisation was a bad error and a disaster. With hindsight bombing Libya and ousting Gaddafi likewise. Worse than bad. Policy without proper appraisal and heedless of consequences. We’ve seriously overdone the austerity. There are many casualties. Too many in government (and beyond)  sheltered by their own good fortune, forget compassion, forget the misfortune of others.

That’s an indictment. And there’s more. And yet…. before we collapse in anger and depression remember that the miracle of democracy means that we’re still standing, society mirabile dictu still functions, and there is all to play, and to fight for.

The Alligator’s Mouth

We missed the Lion and the Uniforn bookshop in Richmond (Surrey, that is) when it closed two years ago. Now a new bookshop, The Alligator’s Mouth, is about to open. In the window of the soon-to-open shop is the following:

“Our mission is to reach all readers; the confident, the beginner, and the reading-resistant….

We are here for any child who wants to enter Wonderland, or who still believes in fairies and that animals can talk, or who wants to be a pirate or a magician or fly with the dragons…”

The alligator’s mouth is a risky place, but it opens wide, and there’s a kind of smile there. Or maybe that was Mr Crocodile. And you don’t smile….never ever.

I’ve lived several childhoods, and I still want to enter Wonderland, and fly with dragons. And put my head in that wide-open alligator mouth.

Some days I’ll sit quietly, and instead of meditating I’ll fly with dragons. Maybe they’ll get me to the same place!

Be mindful, whatever you do. And if what you’re doing is being a dragon….


Talking about the BAFTAs

Zenpolitics is not Mark Kermode or any other variant on the theme of film critic. But tonight is an exception. Watching the BAFTAs – yet again I wasn’t invited – I knew when I found tears in my eyes during a clip of a few seconds’ duration that Eddie Redmayne had to win best actor. I would have felt personally cheated had he not done so.

I have yet  to see Boyhood so can’t make comparisons. The very notion of a film so long in the making is heroic, and to give of yourself over so many years is one hell of an achievement. ‘When you make yourself vulnerable you make everyone else vulnerable as well,’ was a comment in one of the acceptance speeches in Richard Linklater’s absence. If they’d all been on their own agendas the movie could never have happened.

Mike Leigh had to be nice, given he was receiving the Lifetime Achievement award. ‘May you rot in hell,’ the fate he wishes in all those who declined to back his movies, was in its own way quite gentle.

‘How lucky we are to have been born into the age of cinema,’ was another Mike Leigh comment. Worth thinking on that one. How lucky we are to have been born at all. And just for today it could have been reading Basil Bunting’s Briggs Flats; a clear cold weather sunset; Venus, an evening star again, in the western sky; highlights of England v Wales rugby; or Man U’s last minute equaliser against West Ham. You make your own luck. Mike Leigh did.

Crass comment, tucked away in a review somewhere – BBC? – was Mark Kermode’s about Whiplash. ‘Rocky on snare drums.’ Whiplash was my third favourite film of the year, compelling, you just hung in there, one hell of a ride, and the drumming and the jazz, the sheer ordinary downhome genius of it all, was something else.

Second best film, Ida, a young Polish novice nun after the Second World War on what might be a voyage of discovery… The most perfect, finely judged movie almost I’ve ever seen. Camera work and settings kept simple, black and white, a bleak Poland where all the emotion lies in the unspoken history and that landscape…

The best film, yes, The Theory of Everything. Redmayne gets as close to being Stephen Hawking as any human either side of the pearly gates could ever do. It’s less about an extraordinary performance from Redmayne, more about his ability to convey an ordinary man, who did and is still doing extraordinary things.