The Foreign Secretary wobbles …

One final post before I put this blog to rest for a week or two – I’ll be on a retreat and, I trust, out of touch with the world!

My starting point this time: Bronwen Maddox’s interview (before an audience of 250 within the Foreign Office) with Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, in the March edition of Prospect.  Richard Dawkins was, curiously, in the audience. Not always a favourite – his views on religion aren’t mine (though I read his books!) but on this occasion he pinned Hammond beautifully.

Dawkins: “On something as important as Europe why hand it over to the British people.’ (How tongue in cheek that was I don’t know.)

Hammond: ‘There speaks a true democrat – too important for the people to decide.’

Dawkins: ‘We have a representative democracy – we want politicians to make judgements on our behalf.’

And that is indeed how we avoid the excesses of populism, and rule by the popular press and an unaccountable media. Referenda are dangerous instruments: the ‘popular will’ is a fickle thing, easily roused by rabble-rousers, and the damage once done hard to put right.

Hammond, justifying his position on Europe, then commented: “What’s gone wrong is very simple. The economic benefits haven’t been materialising for Britain, so many people feel that the dynamism and entrepreneurialism of our economy has been held back by the dead hand of Brussels bureaucracy.”

Does he really believe this? To quote an article elsewhere in Prospect (by Springford and Tilford), “there is next to no evidence that EU membership is a significant constraint on the supply-side of the UK economy. For example, according to the OECD, Britain’s markets for goods and services are the second least regulated in the world.”

If we’re not reaching markets – and that is especially true  compared to our European neighbours in countries outside the EU – it isn’t the EU’s fault.

Look elsewhere, Philip, and you might begin to do your job encouraging British firms to get stuck into markets round the world.

(It’s interesting to speculate on why British firms do underperform outside Europe. Two related suggestions: the size of our domestic market, and more broadly the English-language market, so there isn’t the same urgency there is for others; and a certain discomfort dealing with other countries and other languages. The world dominance of English may actually count against us.)

Compassion – Zen Master Dogen and the Pope take on the world

Zen Master Dogen (writing in Japan, in the 13th century) has been a favourite of mine since I first came across him, maybe ten years ago. Discussing compassion he writes:

Even when you are clearly correct and others are mistaken, it is harmful to try and argue and defeat them. On the other hand if you admit fault when you are right then you are a coward. It is best to step back, neither trying to correct others nor conceding to mistaken views. If you don’t react competitively and let go of the conflict , others will also let go of it without harbouring ill will. 

Don’t act competitively – that may seem hard, but the benefits can be extraordinary.

You make the community’s heart your heart and their thought your way of thought. You make the parental heart your heart and the heart of children your heart. If you practise in this way you will be like a boat with a rudder on a wide river, or like rain in a time of drought.  

There are countless other contributions on the subject down the centuries. In recent years there’s been Marshall Rosenberg’s book, Non-violent Communication, and the worldwide movement that it’s inspired. And Karen Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion – which I’ve signed up to.

And as of today – there’s the Pope’s comment about the wall that Trump would build along the Mexican border: “a person who thinks only about building walls… and not of building bridges, is not Christian.” And one Republican response, one Jerry Fulwell Jnr: “Jesus never intended to give instructions to political leaders on how to run a country.”

From that we deduce that compassion isn’t easy. In our private lives we may find that compassion can indeed be like a boat with a rudder on a wide river. But in public – the Pope’s is a simple statement, and the only comment a Christian could make. Build bridges don’t put up walls. (Israel has not understood this – to its long-term cost.)

Religious leaders do best to keep out of politics – but when there are egregious failures of morality at a high level – when the ordinary norms are behaviour are compromised – they have to speak out, and this is such a time.

‘Make America great again,” is Trump’s lunatic war cry. America was great and can still be great if it realises that it won its previous greatness by working with and supporting countries and communities and being part of alliances round the world. Not by waving a big stick.

This is a vast subject, and best to leave it here for now. But there’s a danger that populism can shift a country dangerously right, or indeed left. And ‘stepping back’, or ‘turning the other cheek’, won’t always be the right action.

As indeed Zen Master Dogen recognises. “…if you admit fault when you are right then you are a coward.” Or if you stay silent.

Obama chops Trump down

Lovely to see – to hear – Obama chopping Trump down. Being president is not about a being a talk show host, about marketing, about publicity, it’s about making difficult decisions, and some are unpopular, some will hurt people, and being well-briefed in your dealings with other world leaders – they too have ‘their own crowds back home’. That last point I especially liked – you, Donald, are not alone in this world.

There’s a piece in the Economist on American conservative talk radio, hosted by the semi-crazed (Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck) who somehow in the rarefied air of the prairies don’t just to get a hearing but strike a few big chords – or a few bum notes. If bum notes are all you hear, would you recognise a chord?

Does it give joy to Trump to be supported by such people – how much of a conscious game is he playing with them – feeding them pap?

Ted Cruz is no better, but while you feel that for Trump it is a big game, and a big ego, for Ted Cruz it is deadly, evangelically serious. He also feeds the talk shows with great material. The trouble is – he believes it all, and he can express himself with a degree of coherence. And he is so sure he’s right that compromise and balance, which is what the American constitution requires, gets shown the door. And America becomes ungovernable, as it halfway is now.

What also bugs me is Cruz’s call on the Bible, and Jesus, to support him. He sure as hell – almost literally – wouldn’t get close to the pearly gates. America has always been too good – the prairies again – at creating its own religions.

Only one small pleasure in all this – a little bit of humour – Fox News almost the good guys. They do at least have a small idea that politics is about governing – and governing, as John Kasich the best of the Republican contenders has made clear, is a serious matter, about results and balanced budgets and not public platforms.

The UK is – to use totally the wrong expression – a different ballgame. But we also have the same populist right-wing nonsense to deal with and it’s big in the media – thank God we’re spared talk shows. But we do, sadly, have the Mail.

Obama mentions that one aspect of government is looking out for the underdog – ‘standing up for people who are vulnerable and don’t have some powerful political constituency’. And that is the ultimate litmus test of any politics.

To quote Bob Dylan’s Chimes of Freedom, which I’ve done before:

Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed/ For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse/ An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe/ An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

A poem – or a blog?

I’ve not been blogging these last few days. I’ve been writing – trying to write! – poetry. And the two mindsets are a wee bit different.

Poetry – you’re not organising facts and you’re minimising planning. You’re looking for a spark, an idea, an emotion, to give you lift-off. Yes, you need to find yourself in territory where you recognise a few landmarks, but it’s about exploring, and going way beyond those landmarks.

“We shall not cease from our exploration/And the end of our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” (TS Eliot, Little Gidding)

And that’s not the same process as a blog, which is much more, though not entirely, an intellectual, rational, calculated exercise. You need the idea, and the emotion – that drives you forward, but the territory does need to be pretty well charted in advance. Though writing blogs or any non-fiction it is also about moments of revelation as you witter on – bright thoughts that open up new pathways, and can have you busily scribbling out earlier wrong turnings.

And there’s waking in the night… I find I think about ideas for poems, and sometimes half-write them in a kind of creative stupor. Or I think about what might go into a blog – that’s what really wakes you up. Too much cold logic.

Also, blogging – you’re blogging for a wider audience. You want someone to read and to influence one or two people – if not, why are you writing? Poetry – if you’re thinking about your audience, or influencing, or winning prizes, or getting published, then you’re going in the wrong direction. Unless, that is, you’re planning on writing verses for Clinton’s birthday cards.

For poems read stories – short or long. There’s a piece by Lorin Stein, who’s the editor in the Paris Review, in a recent New York Times that I like – the idea of public solitude.

“To write a story also requires public solitude. You can’t be worrying how you sound. You can’t wonder whether you or your characters are likable or smart or interesting. You have to be inside the scene — the tactile world of tables and chairs and sunlight — attending to your characters, people who exist for you in non-virtual reality. This takes weird brain chemistry. …It also takes years of reading — solitary reading.”

But reading is a cocoon – sometimes you do have to hatch out!


Kids Company – where lies truth?

I’ve read some pretty unpleasant things in the press about Kids Company, so I watched Lynn Alleway’s film based on interviews with Camila Batmanghelidjh (shown on the BBC last Wednesday) with great interest. While I’ve had no connections with the charity I’ve had the sense that it was doing something remarkable, and the way sections of the press turned on her and the charity last summer left me with grave misgivings. Accusations of failures to investigate physical and sexual abuse, in additional to claims of financial incompetence, finally brought charity down: the police have no found no evidence to support the accusations relating to abuse, but much much too late.

The film interviews sympathetically, but also shows how personal and inconsistent and extravagant many of the charity’s activities were, and Alleway concludes (with sadness) that Batmanghelidjh was living in a world of her own.

But – and I’ll quote the Guardian review of the film here – ‘however bonkers and badly run Kids Company was, it’s hard not to admire and support the idea behind it: to bring the love of a family to troubled lives. Nor is Camila’s motivation in question – she’s trying to do the right thing by the kids. And on an individual level it works, it can change lives for the better.’

The love of a family.

No other charity has attempted anything in this scale, or achieved so much – or been so profligate. Could Alan Yentob as chair of the trustees have kept her in check – did he want to, being aware of the good the charity was doing? And what are we left with, now that it’s gone? The loyalty and enthusiasm of the Kids Company staff were very evident from the film.

On the other hand – what the Kids Company was faced with, from the more callous sections of the press, is evident from the Telegraph  review of Lynn Alleway’s film:

‘Those who bring succour to the needy are deserving of society’s gratitude. None have gobbled up more of their fill than Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of Kids Company. Public knowledge of her love-spreading charity was greatly enhanced by a documentary made by Lynn Alleway 10 years ago. So when a vastly expanded Kids Company started to run out of money last year, Batmanghelidjh invited Alleway back to watch the fur fly from the inside….Alleway’s wasn’t especially keen to expose her subject as paranoid, narcissistic, belligerent, manipulative, self-pitying, evasive, irresponsible and needy. But Batmanghelidjh didn’t give her much other material to work with.’

And there’s much more in this vein. My disdain for this kind of review, this kind of reporting, is absolute.

There’s a factual note at the bottom of the review – the charity’s total income 2013:  £8,104,012; the number of children the charity said it was supporting at the time of its closure: 34,000.

34,000. Even if overstated, even its a significantly smaller number, that’s a lot of children being helped, and what has happened to them since then? That’s another story.

Maybe the Telegraph would like to report on this – and try and report accurately and honestly for a change.

Room – the movie 

Thoughts on the movie, Room, which my daughter Rozi and I saw last Monday. Though in itself an extraordinary story there are connections with ordinary childhoods, and that’s what I want to explore here.

Room focuses on a mother, Joy, abducted and kept prisoner for seven years, and the boy, Jack, she gave birth to two years into her captivity – the father being her captor. They’re incarcerated in a garden shed, with a skylight, and a TV, and this is the only world the boy knows, until aged 5, his mother explains (quite a challenge) to him that the world he sees on TV is actually (cartoons accepted) the real world. And she plans an escape. I’ll say no more about the plot.

There’s an intensity about the movie, which needs to be considered apart from the book on which it’s based: the movie can’t cover all the book’s elements or subtleties. It focuses on mother and child, and it’s the strength of their relationship which left an indelible impression on me. Joy gives him her total attention, total loyalty, and while in the everyday world parent-child relationships can so easily be inadequate or fractured, in this case Jack grows up, over his first five years, remarkably secure, and with a strong sense of his own identity. It has to be reinterpreted once he learns that there is a real world out there, and of course when he finds himself actually in that world.

But there is an identity on which he can build – and that is the subject of the second half of the movie.

I remember reading a few years ago about the work of paediatrician and psychotherapist Donald Winnicott, and his  concept of the ‘holding environment’.  And it all seems very relevant.

Winnicott argued that the ‘mother’s technique of holding, of bathing, of feeding, everything she did for the baby, added up to the child’s first idea of the mother’, as well as fostering the ability to experience the body as the place wherein the  child – and the adult – securely lives. The capacity for being – the ability to feel genuinely alive inside, which Winnicott saw as essential to the maintenance of a true self – is fostered by the practice of childhood play. (Quotes courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Joy provides so much of what Jack needs, there is a real sense of ‘holding’, and gives him security, and she encourages play – there’s a lot of play in the early scenes of the movie: children can conjure remarkable world of play out of very little. They don’t need Toys R Us or Hamleys.

As for the father – the movie hardly touches on that. Joy rejects ‘Old Nick’ as the ’emotional’ father of the child. But how Jack connects to men and male role models –  that’s another story, and hardly touched on in the movie.

A movie, far more than most, to make you think.