Sunday, 18 January 2015

Je Suis Moi-même

So far January has been a callous month. It has brought endless rain, a sprinkle of snow followed by brutal hail, terrifying winds and excessive violence.

I have found myself barely able to speak about the events in Paris ten days ago.
Even less able to comment on Nigeria - stunned by the lack of official comment.
Large sections of the British media appeared to move, lock stock and barrel to Paris for days on end to bring us every nuance of what they wanted us to know of events in France. Nigeria, it seems, only merited a bit of a mention by comparison.

And now everyone has hoisted a Je Suis banner of one sort or another.
It's not hard to do, hoist a banner. I would hoist one too, if it was simply about showing sympathy - my heart goes out to those who have lost their beloveds in Paris and Nigeria, as it does to the victims of Syria - victims everywhere.

But what actually happened in Paris last week?

Yes, I believe in freedom of speech. I believe, too, in not kowtowing to terrorism.
But while we're shouting about freedom of speech, where are the parallel core values that render it a human right?

Personally, I don't mind what people believe in, however dingbat their ideas might seem to me (or mine to them, for that matter). Someone's dingbat belief probably gets them through each day.
It's where freedom to say what you think (and thus to believe what you want) becomes the freedom to harm that's the problem. And how do you measure or quantify these things?

Being the complex creatures that we are, we can all wax lyrical on a thousand ways wherein we differ from the next person, but ultimately it's how we deal with difference that matters.

If I'm honest, I'm not that bothered about what cartoonists depict or journalists write, they are looking for maximum impact, after all. I daresay I'm pretty average in feeling ambivalent. I have the choice - I can read it/buy it or ignore it/tear it up - it's up to me.
I'm pretty average in other ways too: middle-aged (my kids might say old) middle-class, from the west, well fed and well educated. Not surprisingly I'm pretty happy to live and let live - it's easy for me. My biggest gripes in life are the weather and the government. I'm not going to go out and kill over either of them.

It's not like that for everyone, we are all different. Especially the young, who are passionate, hot-headed and know that they can change the world. Throw in underprivileged, marginalised and disaffected and you have created a bomb, just waiting to be detonated by something. When there is nothing else, an extreme belief system might be just the thing to make their lives worth dying for. Hello fundamentalism.

I have nothing against 'belief', and what people believe is entirely up to them, but I'm not keen on 'religion' which seems to me largely a tool for manipulating unwieldy masses. And any kind of fundamentalism makes me back away in haste. I once read the words 'we all make God in our own image', and I find them to be more true, the older I get - never more so than with fundamentalists of any faith. Marx is often misquoted, but what he actually said lies at the heart of the matter: Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. 
In today's world, I would happily replace the word 'religion' there with 'fundamentalism', and the very fact of being a fundamentalist seems to impose it's own obligatory jehad - literally, a crusade for an idea - not exclusively a Muslim concept by any means. People who knock on your door and try to convert you are on just as much of a jehad as any terrorist.

Amongst much interesting comment, there was  one article this week that left an impression on me. It pointed out that by forcing murderous distortions of Islam on the world, Muslim fundamentalists make violence their religion, 'a blasphemous interpretation of Islam, which in its truest expression is a religion of peace' By its very nature, this is 'an 'identity theft' of the Muslim faith'. 

The article also quoted Dyab Abou Jahjah, a Belgian newspaper columnist, who is Muslim, who tweeted: 'I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so.' Dyab Abou Jahjah (@Aboujahjah)

Which brings me back to the core values that need to underpin all our freedoms. The core values, that at the start, underpinned most religions.
Yes, I believe in freedom of speech.
But what happened to respect for others, for their beliefs and personal choices?
Where is the line drawn between freedom of speech and causing harm - on either side of the line.
As another good article, Five Days On intimated, it is about personal responsibility - in this instance, self-censorship. Perhaps this is a facile question, but why is it necessary to prove that we have freedom of speech by ridiculing and humiliating any culture or faith? Isn't that just a form of bullying, dressed up in suavely sophisticated clothes? It doesn't just provoke fundamentalists to acts of terrorism, it carves deep and painful fissures in the tentative bonds that grow - oh so slowly - between all the multi-ethnic communities in our increasingly homogenised world.

In the end, if we can't control ourselves and decide what constitutes a freedom of speech that does not cause harm and allows everyone to live in dignity, we leave the way open for governments and their military to control us, which they willingly do - with greater surveillance, new laws and tighter reins, none of which are ever rescinded. And let's not beat about the bush here - it seems a symptom of the human condition that those in power will always seek security in office via the old adage, divide and rule. They may have marched in Paris, they may profess to want unity, but unity doesn't serve them, and the ways of all political parties have become too tangled to allow for any single truth - so while, in the public gaze, governments train their hoses to put out the fires, in the background they are often busy fanning the flames. Politically the convolutions are endless, and nothing is what it seems; so we are told what they want us to hear and left to puzzle over the all too frequent anomalies afterwards.

Who can say with any real confidence what actually happened in Paris last week, and why?
More and more, we are taught to live in fear - something we have learned from America, and taken to our hearts.
All of which causes more 'distress' as Marx phrased it, which ultimately leads to more protest, more radicalisation and more problems - the endless vicious circle.

As Jim Wallace said in the Sojourners article, the only way to change fundamentalism is from within.
That's for the leaders and followers of all religions to address.
But everyone needs to address what the humane parameters of freedom of speech encompass, and what we can expect in return for our ability to express everything we think.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Bah, Humbug, New Year!

I'm not really a New Year person.
Despite the In-Charge's cousin talking me through 'the year is a circle, New Year joins seamlessly onto the end of last year' - that still doesn't work for me.
It's always seemed like a straight line, the year - so 31st December appears as some sort of awful cliff that you fall off, willy nilly. Yet another leap of faith.
Sadly, I guess that makes me a member of the flat-earth society.
I'm not proud.

I have tried.
Indeed, I do try.
No doubt my family, at this point, would say 'you're very trying' - but despite all, something isn't working.
It's all a bit like this really, New Year:

Whatever, this circle thing just isn't happening for me.
It's about colour somewhere along the line. (There you go - 'line' - see what I mean?)
Colour, whether I like it or not, is the be-all and end-all.
Christmas teems with colour. It jumps out and socks you one, grabs you round the neck and sucks you in until you drown in it, until colour has replaced the blood in your veins, the air in your lungs, the thoughts in your brain.
New Year isn't about colour. It is clean and cold and brightly, icily blue.

Or - as in today's case - wet and grey and rather down-at-heel.
But whatever the reality, it's a chilling contrast to the warmth of Christmas, and definitely outside my comfort zone. It's all about new beginnings, starting all over again - like Maths homework that you got wrong the first time round. 'Return to Go' and definitely do not collect 200...
It's the point when, were it not for the chocolates, empties and new socks lying around, you'd wonder if Christmas had just been some sort of tantalising dream.

Sorry, all you New Year fans out there.
Please tell me, where am I going wrong?

We went to some lovely parties over Christmas, and even had one here, but last night was a quiet night in.
I didn't go to bed - I couldn't be that Scrooge-ish. We watched a movie (an excellent, if rather distressing one, as it turned out - The Flowers of War, with Christian Bale), but then we had an unexpected treat.
Queen and Adam Lambert live at Central Hall, Westminster.
I've not exactly been switched on this last while, so Adam Lambert and I haven't been personally introduced until now. As with most things, I'm behind the times, but it's never too late to catch up.
Last night's gig was, to quote an old friend, 'bloody-marvellous'.
Freddie Mercury - sleep on, sweet singer, rest in peace. Miss you as we do, your legacy is in safe hands. Adam Lambert is a worthy heir.

And just in case you missed it - here's a little snippet for you

And if you need any more convincing:

Still not sure?

Here's one for the road:

Oh, and London's New Year fireworks were amazing too.
Queen thoughtfully paused to let them take centre stage at midnight.

Happy New Year everyone, from rather a dark, damp, colourless west coast.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Hag Stones

We went to our favourite beach on Christmas Eve.
It wasn't a particularly nice day. The sun shone in fits and starts, and I think we got rained on and blown at, but it didn't matter.
It was the first time we'd all been together for more years than we could count, and the weather wasn't going to put us off.

Christmas Eve

We collected hag-stones along the way, peeking through them at the charcoal grey skies and tumultuous white foam on the sea. They are magical, hag stones, the 'eyes' in them said to be doorways to other worlds, especially if you look through them in moonlight.
A perfect circular eye encompassing your heart's desire.
When I looked through them, I saw all my family together in one place.

They say that you don't find hag stones, they find you.

I have collected them for years. Perhaps one day I will hang them from the bedpost to ward off nightmares, or string them from the ceiling to protect my animals. Who knows.

On Christmas Eve, my loved ones held firmly together in their ring-eyes, I was happy to thread them onto some pretty ribbon as a memory of our first Christmas together in this house for eight years.
A very special time.

It seems unbelievable, but just a few weeks ago I wondered how I'd ever get the house together for Christmas. Much as I longed to see my boys, I dreaded them coming home and feeling that Christmas wasn't what it used to be. I've not been hugely well this year and as a result, the place has looked more and more like an ill-fated jumble sale as the months have gone by - unloved; stuff everywhere, dust settled in drifts.
The worse it gets, the less you feel able fee to deal with it.
The worse you get, the less you care.

I don't really want to think about it. Mercifully the In-Charge and #2 Son helped pull it together - I'd never have managed it without them. We blitzed everything: threw the vacuum cleaner, a load of dusters and buckets of hot water in, locked the doors and fought it out.
I wasn't the last man standing. The effort nearly wiped me out, but it was worth it. By the time #1 Son arrived the night before Christmas Eve, lights were twinkling, the Christmas tree was glowing in the corner and the house was rich with the scent of venison and spices.

The eve of Christmas Eve

Everything is ready

The stars that #1 Son and I made when he was three were hanging - traditionally - in the hallway, all the most special cards that we've received over the years were brightening the walls on their ribbons, beloved decorations had been taken from their tissue lined boxes and the candles were lit.

We didn't do much. Apart from our walk on the beach, we mostly sat around catching up with each other. We laughed a lot, drank champagne for breakfast, talked about life on the far side of the world and life on the ocean wave. We filled and refilled glasses with red wine, we ate all the delicious treats we associate with Christmas, and couldn't eat some chocolates that were just too beautiful to consume. We opened presents, laughed as Model Dog opened her present and SuperModel's, and flitted in and out of a jigsaw on the table in the corner - another tradition that has lain dormant for years. And then on Boxing Day we welcomed friends for a supper party just as we used to in days gone by.
After so many silent years, the winter song of the house has been renewed.
What a joy.

We lay around

Model Dog opened her present and SuperModel's

Chocolates just too beautiful to eat

Bollinger for breakfast

A suitably themed jigsaw for 2014. The flag was the most difficult bit - maybe we have lived out of the UK too long

Now they have gone back to their own worlds. #1 Son to Edinburgh and Iceland before heading back to the West Indies to meet his boat. #2 Son happily not to the far side of the world this time, just elsewhere in Ireland, where he's planning to stay for awhile.
Standing in Dublin Airport a few days ago, waving goodbye, I thought of the Hag stones, threaded on their scarlet ribbon.
I'm glad the Hag stones found us on Christmas Eve.
They are locked safely in the eyes of the stones, my darling boys.
Whenever I look through, I will see them, spooling out along the paths of their own lives, yet held fast within a circle of warm light that spells Christmas.
You see, they are magical, Hag stones.
As magical as Christmas itself.
As magical as love.

You can read about another Christmas here

And here

Or even here

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

The Wild, Wintry West

The In-Charge came home last night and said, 'It's all white on the hills along the road. And we're going to get 60' waves tomorrow.'
'Goodness,' I replied. I was diligently working the border of Tina's blanket at the time (Tina is waiting to collect it and send it off - it's a Christmas present for her sister), so I wasn't concentrating very hard.
'Where's the snow?' I asked, far more interested in set-dressing than water. 'Up around Skreen?'
It was indeed around Skreen that winter has descended, perhaps a little early for Christmas, but it's getting the right idea.

Adding the border

We have been in the teeth of a storm for the last three days. Bitterly cold winds screaming in from the north like banshees on broomsticks - tearing the face off you if you're daft enough to be out. Hail flinging itself at the roof and windows like gunfire, odd snatches of sunshine luring you to a false sense of security. I was at a craft fair with my friend the Goddess of Plenty on Sunday. By mid-morning, in a blitz of thunder and lightning, the power had gone, never to return, and at the end of the day we were both so numb with cold it's a wonder we managed to pack the car and drive home.

But this morning lying in that half world between sleeping and waking, listening to the trees moaning around the house, my brain snapped on like a light switch.
60 foot waves? That's not a storm, that's a tsunami.
We are only 70' above sea-level ourselves, we can see the sea from our upstairs windows. The river runs practically past our door.
What does he mean, 60' waves?
I pictured walls crumbling, cars floating, trees like flotsam, the bridge swept away on an angry, churning tide.
Lying there, I suddenly wondered if the distant roaring I could hear was the sea, preparing to strike.
I decided it was time to get up. The hens wouldn't stand a chance.
But later, as I headed out of the village, the sea just looked grey and cross and murky.
I noticed that the sea road was closed though.
And this evening the wind is still roaring. Hail has come and gone and come again.
It isn't over yet.

I hated the wind when we first moved here. There are times when I still hate it, but by and large I like the connection it gives me. Lying in bed, cocooned in my warm nest, safe within the thick, 200-year old stone walls of this house, there is something wonderful about the wind and the trees battling it out all around me.It is like being in the centre of the vortex - the eye of the storm - or at the bottom of the sea. Something wild and elemental is happening, but just beyond my reach. And I am not quite as fearful for the trees as I used to be, after years of watching how they dance to the wind-demon's whim.

It isn't always like that, of course. Sometimes a gale finds its way inside the roof, you can hear it whirling around in apocalyptic rage beneath the slates like a dervish, trying to get in, in - in to the heart of the place, hungry to lay waste. It has managed that, once or twice, slates spinning off like fish-scales - but hopefully not today. Today it doesn't sound personal, not like the night that still haunts me, when I woke to hear the wild beast of heaven swarming overhead like a demon on the rampage.

It's my hens I feel most sorry for. Who would be a hen in this weather?

A brief moment of sunshine - it didn't last!

Poor little dotes. They are blown hither, thither and yon. They look bedraggled and cold, and spend all day hiding in the shrubbery below the wall.
At least they get a hot breakfast and supper. From the indecent speed with which they gobble it up, I think they like it! Simple to make, but it makes all the difference to their day - half a kettle of hot water in their 'cornflakes' and then I splat it about on the grass for them.

Hot mash makes for happy hens

But at least they are all there at bedtime tonight. Cold, damp and blown but otherwise unscathed.
As are my roofs. And my trees.

To come away unscathed is to be blessed.
So mercifully, just a normal wild, wintry day.
Let's hope the 60 foot waves will only feature in the annals of local folklore.

Monday, 8 December 2014


I actually went to the ballet recently.
That's about the third time in twenty odd years. How sad is that?
I love ballet, but we don't get a huge amount of it here in the North West, and when we do, I miss it, or am too broke, or hear about it after the event.
But this time I actually made it to the one and only performance.

Ballet Ireland Swan Lake photo by Ros Kavanagh, taken from Internet

I have my friend, the Goddess of Plenty to thank, because if she hadn't invited me to go with her, I'd never have known it was on.
Ballet Ireland in Sligo, dancing Swan Lake. Goodness gracious.

DodoWoman joined our happy band, and when the three of us arrived at the theatre in Sligo, we wondered for a moment if we'd got the wrong night and were in for a Panto instead. The foyer was heaving with  hordes of excited children.
I have to confess, my heart sank slightly as we took our seats in the balcony - three solid rows of young kids behind us, more on either side. I wondered whether it would be Swan Lake to Tchaikovsky or to a stream of burbling chatter.
At least that took my mind off what sort of performance Ballet Ireland had in store. The last ballet I'd seen on our relatively modest stage had been performed by a very reduced company. Lovely, but not the full monty, and I although I was just happy to be there, deep down I didn't really want a compromised Swan Lake - I wanted the traditional, full, unexpurgated version in all its moonlit, feathery glory.

Ballet Ireland photo from the Internet

I have heard the music many times in the intervening years, and it never fails to move me, but there is nothing like hearing it in the hush of a darkened theatre, waiting for the curtains to rise. What I hadn't expected was to be transported, with the first bars of the score, back to my own childhood, sitting in the stalls at Covent Garden at the tender age of eleven, staring at the rich velvet curtains, waiting, waiting, hardly able to breathe with excitement. As the ballet unfolded, I recalled every nuance of that first magical experience, the haunting music flooding through me like adrenaline, the dancers an enchanted dream just beyond reach - the exquisite romance of it all, the pathos, the heartbreak.

It was a fabulous performance, that night in Sligo. The Swan Lake I had fallen in love with all those years ago, not changed, or reduced, or modernised, just the tried and tested classic that bewitched me as a child.

Wonderfully, it betwitched the countless children in the audience too.
There wasn't a peek out of anyone during the whole evening.
Thank you, Ballet Ireland.
And thank you, Talentui Goddess  

Photo:  taken from the Internet

Saturday, 6 December 2014


All in all, it's been a difficult year. I've spent most of it feeling very unwell, so as much as possible I've kept my head below the parapet, which has kept me away from blogging.
But even though I haven't been online very often, my blog has been a warm, furry presence out there, awaiting my eventual return.
So you cannot imagine my dismay when on Thursday, after a long absence, I opened up Blogger only to be told 'You are not the author of a blog yet'.
Thinking I'd done something wrong, I tried again.
Then I switched email account and tried a third time.
I did everything my technically-challenged brain could think of.
No joy.

It may sound a little dramatic, but given the circumstances, it felt like the last straw.
In desperation, I sent an email to the GeekWizard (who retrieved everything off my blue-screen-of-death hard drive), but he has - rather thoughtlessly, I feel - moved to another country and is currently house-hunting and up to his gunnels. I sent a similar email to WonderBrother (who salvaged my blog once before when all was lost), but he - also rather thoughtlessly - has acquired a new, uber-demanding job in yet another country.
Neither was at the other end of my emails at the time.

It was then, after turning off the depressing message that I was 'not the author of a blog yet', I went back to my emails. There was one from my first-born nephew, about a photo he had kindly sent me a few days ago. He was, the email said, studying for his MBA exams next week.
My addled brain lit up. My nephew, I suddenly recalled, works for Google. (In yet a third country.)
I communicated my misery to him in Helsinki, and told him - in fairly round terms - what I thought of his employers.
He answered at once, bless him. He doesn't work for Google (it's one of the other big names out there), but said he'd have a look.

It took most of his precious revision day, and involved him setting up a blog of his own to see how the system worked - and there were odd hours when either he or I were offline, but at bed time - oh Hallelujah! - there it was!
He had managed to retrieve my blog from the jowls of perpetual oblivion and return it to one rather distraught owner.
He is a Genius and a MegaStar!

I think you can see the seeds of greatness in this photo, taken when he was less than a year old. It's one I'm particularly fond of.

 Thank you, dear Nephew!

Friday, 5 September 2014

A Pet Evening

Last week, while the Godson was here, the Silver Beast decided to break down.
She's been very good this last year or two, living quietly in her kennel-yard and going everywhere we've asked, with no complaint. But no longer. She went from moody to recalcitrant to point-blank refusal in just 4 days.
The started-motor had died.

Happily, the Godson drove us hither, thither and yon, bless his heart, but alas, even he finally had to go home, and still the garage hadn't been able to get to her.
It was my friend DodoWoman who stepped into the breach, as ever.
'I need to ask you a huge favour.' I said - hesitantly.
'What?' She sounded slightly anxious, but when I asked if we could borrow her small car, her response was immediate and generous to a fault, as always. 'Of course,' she said with verve and vigour. It was only afterwards I wondered what she'd been expecting me to say.

I have fallen in love with her Hyundai. It goes like a dream, is incredibly comfortable, and when asked if it wants a drink responds with an astonishing, 'No, I'm good thanks.'
It was - as with all the lends of her cars over the years - a godsend for which I am forever grateful.

The Silver Beast, having had her moment of cosseting and one-to-one attention, is now safely back in the yard, happy and  full of well-being, so yesterday evening we set out to return DodoWoman's car to its own cosy nest.

Unlike the rest of the British Isles and Ireland, we have not been basking in unalloyed sunshine all week, despite all promises and expectations. We have skulked under grey skies and dismal-ness.
I think there were a few brief hours of fitful sunlight on Wednesday afternoon, but that was it.
However, yesterday, although the clouds sat heavy on our shoulders the entire day, it was blissfully warm and even more blissfully still.

'Let's take the dogs and go to the beach on the way,' the In-Charge suggested, just when the sun would have been dipping over the yardarm. ''It will be low tide.'
So we drove both cars over to DodoWoman's house, left her Hyyndai to await her return from forrin-parts and moseyed down green, summery lanes to our second favourite beach. We passed lazy amblers, dogs and companionable horse-riders on the way.

It must have been about 7.45pm when we got to the beach. The tide was at its lowest ebb.
There were sandbars showing all across the bay, the sea pooling around them like silk, the sky pearling softly into the water, and everything the shade of sophisticated dresses, neither silver nor grey nor quite lavender.
And on the spit of land behind the beach, harebells, wild scabious and white heather spread in drifts through the grass.
We walked along the beach in our shirtsleeves, not a breath of wind, the air balmy and gentle, the only sound a heron hurrying home to Culleenamore.

It's not often that we are walking the beach on such a pet evening. It's not often that we are on the beach as the day melts into night.
But the combination of the two sent me tumbling through a mindfall of years, walking a beach on the far side of the world, saying goodbye to my childhood, the night before I left that tropical island forever.
It is strange, what ghosts walk in the gloaming.