Sunday, 17 September 2017

Where Would We Be Without Forests? A Book Review

We live on the edge of Sherwood Forest, possibly one of the most famous forests in Britain and certainly very ancient. Pollen sampling suggests that there has been a forest here since the end of the last Ice Age. Recently there has been a massive outcry against proposals for fracking under the forest. Actually it's a bit more complicated than that. There are plans to undertake seismic surveys in the forest which could lead to prospecting for shale gas and, eventually, fracking. 

©Janet Henderson 2016

So I was pleased to come across the wonderful book by Peter Wohlleben The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World, published in translation from the original German by Harper Collins, 2015 here 

I grew up with trees; my father was a forester and my husband always teases me because wherever we go I'm prone to comment on the health and beauty of the trees before noticing anything else (even a volcano!) But, whatever you think you know, this book will absolutely change the way you regard trees, forests and life! It's been a Sunday Times Bestseller and the lady in Waterstones said, 'It's amazing how many people are commenting about this one book!'

It's written by someone with years of experience as a forester. He has an intimate knowledge of one particular forest in Germany - his affection for it shines through. That doesn't stop the book being extremely well and widely researched with illustrations from many contexts. It's hard to know where to start in terms of the impact on any preconceived ideas you may have about nature. What the book does, and does very powerfully, is undermine any notion that there is no communication, capacity for feeling, or social networking outside the world of animals, birds, fish and insects.

I was especially struck by the story of how the infant tree grows to maturity and the odds that are stacked against this ever happening. Drawing on scientific evidence, Wohlleben shows how trees parent their offspring, communicate using chemicals, electricity and, yes, sound, and support each other through times of sickness and drought. They do this most effectively when they are gathered together in a forest and where there is minimal disturbance or interruption from outside influences. Forests manage themselves far better than humans manage them! He explores the delicate balance of the forest ecosystem and demonstrates how trees have learned a lesson humans have yet to learn, 'an organism that is too greedy and takes too much without giving anything in return destroys what it needs for life and dies out' (p.113). The forest prospers as each tree takes just enough space, light, nutrient and water, limiting its growth so that others have space. They can indeed 'learn' in the sense that their experience will alter their behaviour and create 'memory'. Once a tree has suffered a drought, it will behave in ways that make its take-up of water more economical, saving what water there is for times when it is really needed.

The book is choc full of similar insights. The longevity of trees and 'the leisurely pace at which they live their lives' is reflected in the slow speed of their communication (electrical impulses travel at about one third of an inch per second). This means that they develop strategies for procreation and survival with the long term in view, preparing things like seed production two or three years in advance in some cases. This relationship with time allows them to develop extraordinary partnerships with their environment. For example, many trees share communication systems and even, on occasion, nutrients with fungi that have networks spanning whole sections of a forest. 

The life cycle of the tree throws up big questions for evolution as we humans tend to think about it. Species that procreate often and do not live long demonstrate the maximum capacity for speedy adaption. A tree might ask, 'Why the rush?' They can withstand extreme changes in climate and temperature and their aim is to use adaption and genetics in their favour to live to be ancient - workers near Zurich found fresh tree stumps that turned out to be from trees that had lived 14,000 years ago! Imagine what climactic changes they have withstood and the mind boggles! Trees can use genetics to their advantage to save a species: unlike animals, trees of the same species can have very different genetic structures and so those that die 'favour' those that have the genetic capacity to survive. In a whole forest, this can lead to something akin to the self-sacrifice of some for the sake of the survival of others who will carry the species forward. And, yes, there is a bit of competition between species!    

Wohlleben talks of trees feeling pain. When a dog repeatedly urinates against a tree, the tree probably experiences something akin to the discomfort you or I would feel if a dog repeatedly urinated on our feet - a burning sensation in its bark causing its roots to wither. 'Yuk!' Fracking is described in the dictionary as 'the process of injecting liquid at high pressure into subterranean rocks so as to force open existing fissures and extract oil and gas.' I'm not sure it would be exactly comfortable to have that going on under and around your roots. I'm not too keen on having it going on around my roots of home, hearth and feet. 

If you only read one book between now and Christmas, make it this one! There is much that is new and challenging to our thoughts about how we relate to the natural world and, indeed, it to us. We are not necessarily the dominant species. 

©Janet Henderson 2016

©Janet Henderson 2016

©Janet Henderson 2015

©Janet Henderson 2015

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Online Personalities

What is your online personality? 

There are definite types, aren't there? Some of us post in a way that gives no real clue to our own thoughts, simply recycling the information, comments, jokes, aphorisms and photos of others. It may just be possible to guess something about our mood from our choice of subject. Others do the opposite, bearing our souls to the world by telling stories about how the day has gone, sharing excitements and bemoaning problems at length and, we realise later, with perhaps too little thought for the feelings of others involved in the situations.

Do you control your temper at all times? Or are you given to the occasional exasperated spat with fellow tweeters? It can be surprising what suddenly gets you riled and, just as in 'real life', it can often have more to do with something you read six tweets ago than the actual tweet or post you are responding to. Days when there has been some dreadful disaster or political crisis seem especially prone to this kind of activity as someone picks someone else up for allegedly over- or under-reacting.

Do you wisely steer clear of all talk about personal relationships, or do you find yourself sharing the latest quarrel you've had with your partner and asking for advice and supportive comment? Do you steer clear of mentioning work, entirely respecting principles of confidentiality and loyalty to colleagues, employers and clients? Can you resist the temptation to tell stories that will identify people and situations that have annoyed, betrayed or upset you? Or do you use the internet to administer a good telling-off to companies that have made life difficult by failing in some aspect of their service?

Are your posts mostly political, personal, artistic, religious, humorous, practical or fantastical? Are you the one known for sharing recipes and pictures of garden produce or for bombarding your friends with invitations to sign petitions? Are you welcomed for providing an endless supply of pictures of unicorns or for promoting your own blogposts, pictures and poetry? Or are you famous for your involvement in training for the next sporting event with daily updates and sponsorship requests? Is your choice of subjects balanced and varied or does it suggest a 'specialism' (or perhaps an obsession)?

We all reveal far more than we realise, even those of us who think we're careful and controlled in what we put out on the internet. I find that I'm beginning to have a sort of affection for my internet community and it differs from the kind of affection I have for my real-life network of friends. Among my community there are people I've never met but who regularly contribute insights that I value and that have occasionally had a significant influence on my life. There are people who draw my attention to things I would never normally be aware of left to myself or who direct me to sources of information I now use regularly but would never have found on my own. There are others who can be relied on for an encouraging 'well done' and some who have interjected an unexpected comment that has the power of a 'well-done' simply because it was unexpected and, hey, they've noticed. 

Then there are the folk I've known but seldom see. It's heart-warming to see photos of their growing families, to hear news and to be able to feel a connection across the miles - maybe reaching as far as a different continent. You can of course feel instinctively that you have more in common with someone who lives in another culture entirely than you do with the person sitting across the table from you. And it's great to see projects I've been associated with taking new and different directions, though occasionally disappointing too. I have really appreciated the times that someone has responded to a post - 'You're in the area? Can we get together?' Or I've seen that a friend is on a visit to the UK and been able to set up a meeting. And I love being able to keep in touch with former students - maybe just once in a blue moon - to see that they have made a presentation at the UN or moved to a new kind of work or written a book.

Sadly, too, there have been times when I've become aware of someone's illness or death only through internet contact. On occasion this has resulted in renewed real-time contact and the possibility of visiting a dear friend before their death. At other times news has reached me too late and left me with that feeling of deep regret that the potential to renew friendship has gone - don't we all have past friendships we hope to renew in the future 'when we are less busy' or 'when we both retire'? The grief experienced at the loss of these has, for me, been heightened by the dawn of digital communication. There are a few friends whose families have left their statuses in place (or perhaps this hasn't been a deliberate decision but they have simply not known how to remove them.) This and the existence of 'memorial' sites is a new phenomenon we are coming to terms with. It's worth thinking about - what plans, if any, will you make for your own online persona after your death?

And then there can be times when you inadvertently stumble across something that relates to you that you didn't know was there. Maybe it's a welcome find! Some nice student has quoted you in their dissertation (always flattering) or a friend has made an appreciative comment about you and recommended your breed of wisdom to someone else - or just repeated your joke! Maybe it's not so affirming. Someone has named and criticised you for a past misdemeanour you have no recollection of and do not recognise - clearly their memory and yours do not co-incide. Should you comment? Probably not! Or maybe there is a concerted effort to bring your name into disrepute by a Facebook group or an anonymous blogger? Perhaps someone has misappropriated a photo you took (or one you feature in) for some purpose you really don't approve of? Or you have become the subject of plagiarism or bullying. What does forgiveness look and feel like, what does it require of us in this newly public and almost universally accessible network of relationships? How can we 'forgive' those we have never met or who have never identified themselves? In the pre-digital era it was not possible for prospective partners, friends or employers or indeed journalists and historians to pull our pasts quite so forcefully into the present and have them affect our future for good or ill. When we shape the reputation of others by what we post on the internet, we carry a heavy responsibility. 

Real life personalities and online ones can be subtly different. Shy people become more dominant, over-users get ignored, infrequent commentators are noticed and listened to, shadow-side attributes and hidden talents come to the fore. The never-angry person always complains, the prosaic administrator turns out to be a fantastically observant photographer capable of portraying the natural world in extraordinarily beautiful ways. Communities form around the most unexpected people and break up suddenly or fade away without anyone noticing except the one person for whom it was a life-line.

Most people don't spend much time consciously thinking about their personality or how they impact other people. It tends to be when we go to team-building events, on a retreat or enter counselling that we self-consciously examine who we are and how we come across. Behaviour on the internet is not an exact replica of behaviour in 'real' life but it has in common with it the ability to impact others powerfully for good or for bad. We all know people whose horizons have been opened up by the internet and we know others who have been damaged by it. Sometimes both are true for the same individual. Most of us, once introduced to it, get into the grip of its fascination in ways that can be challenging and hard to control. 

Before what historians call 'modernity', people acknowledged individual personality but they also understood themselves to be located within an extended family, a local community, a clan or a tribe that had a strong sway over them and defined the possibilities of what it was to be human in that context. Think, for example, of Old Testament sagas like those of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, Isaac, Leah and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers; individuals are set within a defining tribe or subset of a tribe or they are ejected or displaced and this, at least in part, defines who they are and what is expected of them. During the Enlightenment period which heralded what philosophers describe as 'the turn to the subject', the concept of the individual became that of the person who, through choice, is self-defining and self-referential. Increasingly we have thought of ourselves in terms of people shaped by our genes, our immediate family and our own endeavour, differentiated from one another by the autonomous decisions we make in time and space. The dawn of the internet and the digital world is slowly beginning to make a similarly revolutionary impact on our understanding of the self and we are now just beginning to see the effect of this on personality and our own sense of who we are. What we have previously thought of as our 'real' selves now swims (for want of a better word) along a river with changing currents - at one moment buffeted by the responsibilities of those with whom we are geographically, spatially and practically linked and at the next pulled along by those to whom our connections and responsibilities are partially or entirely non-spatial, located in abstracts such as attitude, reputation, celebrity, anonymity, power to access knowledge, image and internet space. We are becoming people who understand ourselves in a new way and there is no going back as more and more people become deeply immersed in the culture - or some might say cult - of digital personality.                 

An Aid to Meditation

A year or so ago a friend introduced me to a method of meditation based on the Sixteen Guidelines for Life articulated by King Songtser Gampo of Tibet in the seventh century. It works very simply and is based on the idea that our values and our behaviour are formed of the things we habitually think and do, the ways we relate to others and the sources from which we draw meaning. The method focuses on 16 qualities:


right speech

Relating to other people and our environment

Finding meaning

Each day, it has been helpful to meditate on one of these qualities. What do I understand by it? What do I feel about it? How and where does (or doesn't) it show up in my life? It obviously takes 16 days to get through the process and it's interesting that when I've repeated it over the next 16 days the nature of my relationship with each quality has changed. I've found that certain biblical stories have sprung to mind as I've meditated. Of course, many stories are appropriate to each quality, but here are some I've found helpful:

Humility  Matthew 20 The Labourers in the Vineyard
               Mark 10.35-45 The Request of James and John
               2 Kings 5 Naaman is Healed of Leprosy

Patience  Deuteronomy 29.2-5 & 34.1-5 'I have led you 40
               years in the wilderness...'

Delight    John 20.11-18 'Mary! Rabboni!'

Content   Psalm 131   

Right Speech  John 18.28-40 Jesus Before Pilate
                      Matthew 15.1-20 That Which Defiles

Generosity  Leviticus 25 The Jubilee Year
                   Matthew 20 The Labourers in the Vineyard
                   Luke 21.1-4 The Widow's Offering

Kindness    Acts 28.1-2 Unusual kindness in Malta
                  Matthew 5.42 Give!
                  Isaiah 25.6-8 God's Kindness

Respect     Luke 7.1-9 The Centurion's Son
                 Matthew 15.21-28 The Syrophoenician Woman

Gratitude   Ephesians 5.19-20 Giving Thanks at All Times
                  John 6.11 Eucharistic Thanksgiving

Forgiveness  2 Samuel 9 David and Mephibosheth
                    Luke 15.11-32 Father Forgives Son

Loyalty        The Book of Ruth (4 chapters)
                    John 21.15-19 Jesus' Loyalty to Peter

Aspiration    Galatians 1.10 Pleasing People or God?
                    John 13.7-10 and Luke 28.29-36 Peter's
                    Misplaced Aspiration

Principles     The stories of Daniel, Esther and Pilate  

Courage        Luke 8.43-48 The Woman Who Touched Jesus

Service         Isaiah 58.10 Satisfy the Needs of the Afflicted

Monday, 5 June 2017

A Window of Opportunity: Pentecost and Politics

The Eastern Orthodox fill their churches with greenery for Pentecost. This is a reminder that it is the Spirit that greens the earth and brings new life into being. 

Stretensky Monastery, Moscow

In John's Gospel, Jesus says, when speaking of the Spirit, 'The wind blows where it wills and you hear the sound of it but you do not know where it comes from or where it blows. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.' (Jn 3.8) We suffered some ferocious gales a few years ago when we were living in Yorkshire. On one occasion a massive tree was blown down just missing houses, a road and some people out walking in the vicinity.  A traumatic, potentially dangerous event which caused a great deal of damage and, to boot, a bit of a rumpus in the village about whether other trees should be felled. The absence of the much-loved sycamore was mourned. The area around it - gardens and a churchyard - seemed bereft. Where the tree had stood, new light flooded in. Other trees and shrubs shook out their leaves and expanded in all directions, wild flowers began to move into the space and eventually a new tree - a horse chestnut with red candles - was planted. Disaster, conflict and new life in the very short space of a couple of seasons.

Many of us reflected on the extremists' attacks on Manchester and London yesterday, the day of Pentecost which marks the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is hard to hold together, on the one hand, the horror of the attacks and dark thoughts about the grief caused and the state of mind of people who could so arbitrarily go out to bomb, run down and stab and, on the other hand, the kindness, bravery and solidarity shown by so many of those who were involved or who lived nearby. But no easy links between evil and good, death and hope suffice. 'The wind blows where it wills and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it blows.'

I found myself focusing on the ways in which opportunity is created and fanned and experienced. We have the Prime Minister's words, 'Enough is enough,' ringing in our ears but is tough talk, escalating security and more money spent on arms to sell and to protect ourselves what is needed? There is a growing number of voices calling for a new approach to the kinds of extremism that produce terrorism and violence. Unpopular as such initiatives were, breakthroughs came in South Africa and Ireland only when Nelson Mandela and the British government, respectively, began to talk to P.W. Botha's government and the I.R.A.

Are these attacks, coinciding with an election, the opportunity to begin to back new ways of organising our foreign and defence policy and our security and community policing? Talk, listen, challenge threatening ideologies that lurk in our communities. Stop selling arms, refuse to bomb other countries, disentangle ourselves from American foreign policy. 
Recognise that focus on deterrence and retaliation does nothing more than stoke up resentment among those who feel themselves to have suffered as a result of the policies and actions that result. In such changed behaviours lie the green shoots of peace and they will be costly. They require a revolution in our thinking but then Pentecost is all about a revolution of the spirit. Those caught up in it were laughed at and called naive and mad and traitors of their tradition, and they faced persecution. The voices that are calling for this kind of revolution were well represented this week by the woman who, during Question Time with Jeremy Corbyn asked, 'Why are you all talking about killing millions of people?' A growing body of millions of voters want no more to do with policies based on aggression and retaliation. Voices everywhere are being raised in bewilderment that, in our society, the unthinkable notion is to question the basis of our security being supposed military superiority and the underlying cost of this for us all.  This Thursday is the time to use your voice to unite with others and grasp a unique opportunity to begin a different kind of politics as well as a different way of responding personally to threat, conflict and violence.    

Tuesday, 23 May 2017


We were practising handbells in the village church in Oxton tonight when someone came in to light a candle and say a prayer. It occurred to me that all over Britain, indeed all over the world, people are praying for the people of Manchester and the visitors who were at the Ariana Grande concert last night. In countless homes, churches, mosques, temples, halls, cars, schools, town squares, cathedrals, stadiums people have gathered or stood quietly on their own to remember the people who died. As night falls here in the UK, relatives and hospital staff are keeping their vigil and the police and emergency services are facing another night when they have to carry on with their demanding tasks.

Photo St Magdalene Chapel, Ripon
©Janet Henderson
I know it is small comfort, but I pray that everyone affected by the horrific action of the terrorist last night will be aware that there are people of goodwill everywhere thinking about them tonight, wanting to stand in solidarity, unable to imagine how they feel yet grieving at the awful result of this heartless, callous act.

God, be with all who grieve, 
wait with all who are at their wits' end searching for a loved one, 
watch with all who sit beside a hospital bed not knowing what tomorrow will bring, 
calm all who cannot get the images, questions and 'whys?' out of their minds, 
help the broken hearted feel the warmth of love that holds them despite their pain,
and send us all out to shape a more generous, respectful, caring world 
so that the shadow of this tragedy will not darken into night
but, through our tears and outrage, be turned into a search for the kinds of justice
and understanding that remove the scourge of terrorism from this and every nation.    

Monday, 17 April 2017

On Easter Monday

The first time I experienced a 'walk through Holy Week' was when I joined the Ichthyan Singers in Cambridge. The name of the choir was taken from the Greek word ἰχθύς (or ichthus) meaning fish. One of the symbols used by early Christians was the fish. The Greek word 'ichthus' is an acronym for 'Iesous Christos, Theou Hios, Soter', the transliterated Greek words meaning 'Jesus Christ, God's Son, Saviour'.

The choir sang the full range of church choral music from Palestrina, Bach and Tallis to Bairstow, Finzi, Howells and the blues! Each Holy Week we spent the eight days in one parish, singing all the services. This introduced me to the practice of journeying through the events of the last week of Jesus' life and, to some extent, experiencing the emotions they engender. It's an overwhelmingly powerful story of celebration, betrayal, misunderstanding, political intrigue, legal process, torture, crowd pressure, forgiveness, death, grief, astonishment, reconciliation and hope. Over the years I've continued to keep Holy Week with Christian communities as varied as a Roman Catholic seminary, a Maltese parish, four British cathedrals, churches on vast outer city estates and the deeply rural churches of North Yorkshire. For the past three years, worshipping as a Quaker, I have not kept Holy Week but have endeavoured to focus on recognising the experiences held within the story through weekly contemplation at Quaker Meeting, meditation with other Christians and people of prayer in our villages, and through daily silence and private meditation.

The purpose of this post is not to suggest that one way of marking the events of Jesus' death and resurrection is 'right' or 'better' than another. It is, rather, to try to express something of the impact of dwelling on them on everyday life.

It's undoubtedly true that the journey I embarked on with the Ichthyan Singers was the beginning of a life long practice of drawing strength and inspiration from the many layers of the stories in the Gospels. There is something about living, if only for a week each year, with the words of Jesus ringing in your ears and His, at times, puzzling actions at the forefront of your imagination that builds into a rich storehouse of imagery and thought resourcing you for everyday life. Facing death, bereavement, grief, pain, argument, betrayal and life's inevitable tragedies has been done through the lens of Jesus' story. Darkness, conflict, despair and death are very real and feel very much like endings but the events of Jesus' death and resurrection allow us to tangle with what life sends in the light of a broader context where death is experienced as the precursor of a renewed and different life. In particular, for me, the liturgy and poetry of Holy Week have been sources of inspiration and empowerment for nursing and for ministry with those facing terminal illness and the loss of loved ones.

However, it's also true that there is a danger in this concentrated form of remembering. For years I've been very aware of the way Christians tend to stuff Lent and Holy Week full of extra activity and extra talk of sin without there being a noticeable sense of renewal beyond the emotion of the activities themselves. For seven weeks of the year there is a psychologically heavy feel to the words and music of the churches. Sometimes this coincides well with the period just before the earth wakes up and trees and plants spring into bud; other years, when Easter is late, there is a dissonance between the sombre world of the desert prophets and the joyously emerging spring. Either way there can be a sense that the spiritual path you are invited to walk is not touching the real things of your life as much as it might. It's sometimes more like a soon-forgotten pilgrimage of good intentions rather than a slow dawning of renewed and sustained changes in behaviour.

Quakers look to experience divine life in the here and now, in our own lives this very day. To that extent, although there is no problem with remembering and celebrating texts and events that speak of how God inhabits death and life, the focus of our attention is on the ways God inhabits both the created order and the individual human spirit now, today. The desire is to see and hear where the Spirit is leading us. The themes of betrayal, death, resurrection and the indwelling of God are lived out in acts of truth-telling, justice, reconciliation and restored dignity only as we attend to the leadings of the Spirit of God within us every day. One of the conditions for this 'leading' is silence in which listening can happen. And one of the conditions for silence is a greater simplicity of life where everything is stripped back and the important begins to emerge.

Perhaps it's worth lingering over the meaning of some of Jesus' post resurrection words, and pondering how they shape us and our living?

'Do not hold on to me, but go.' Don't cling for safety to the familiar, even the familiar things of faith. Go to all without preference or favour?

'Peace be with you.' Be people of peace whatever the cost?

'Receive the Holy Spirit.' Search out and live by that of God within you?

'Tend my lambs, feed my sheep.' Work for the practical, physical well-being of all people and the distribution of the earth's resources so all can live? 

'Someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.'  Be willing for whatever God's Spirit directs you to?

Monday, 10 April 2017

What's Stopping Women?

Jess Phillips MP writes in the Huffington Post here today about the things that support women's ability to be fully active in the workplace. She was a child of the 1980's and took advantage of maternity and paternity leave, tax credits, free nursery places, nursery vouchers, Sure Start, children's savings accounts, care workers, attendance allowance for the elderly, hospice services and NHS services. This is the kind of practical support that is vital if women are to make sense of their lives as workers with family responsibilities. Just as important is a community of mentorship and proactive encouragement to be fully engaged beyond home and family. The full use of women's skills to increase productivity in this country can only, she argues, become a reality if there are moves toward an infrastructure of care and toward 'industrial strategies' that take seriously the shape of women's lives.

This Woman Can; 1997, Women and Labour
Published 10th April 2017, Fabian Society
Fabian Ideas 643

I'm thirty years older than she is and have no children. I've worked all my adult life, usually at more than one job at a time and with occasional forays into education and trusteeship alongside work. I've seen things improve dramatically in terms of women's pay and access to mid-ranking, medium-income jobs. I've witnessed an increase in access to child care but always with the impression that there is not nearly enough to go round and that what there is often uses up an unmanageable proportion of parental income. I've experienced amazing care-of-the-elderly and end-of-life-care services. But it has been a battle and, even for me, without children, has at times been almost impossible to negotiate.

One particular phase perhaps illustrates the kinds of balancing act required. I was Rector of a busy parish for a number of years during which time my mother became unable to cope in her own home, five hours drive away, and my husband went down with a prolonged and serious bout of pneumonia. In between fitting in funerals and weddings, I managed, with five days leave, to close up my mother's house 260 miles away where my parents had lived for 35 years and find and furnish a warden-aided flat for her near to us. Traumatic is not the word for it! All the time my husband was so ill at home he could scarcely get out of bed, never mind look after my mother, and we were totally dependent on the wonderful care workers who came in to look after Mum - all arranged within 24 hours in a city where she had never been resident. That was in the early 2000's in Nottingham.

My partner and I have coped with sudden deaths, slow terminal illnesses at home, accidents in the family and working in different cities at full time, demanding jobs with long hours. I have no brothers and sisters so responsibility for elderly relatives has not been shared with anyone. I have to say that I don't know how people with children do it! Undoubtedly, without the access to social care and the support of equipment and workers we have not had to pay more than a contribution for, we could not have done it. It has sometimes felt as though we have had five jobs between the two of us!

We've tried very hard not to make heavy weather of facing our responsibilities and we haven't seen our roles as sharply gendered. However, I have been aware that the burden of actual physical care and the responsibility to be the person who, when the chips are down, sees that it happens often falls to the woman. My partner is outstanding (I'm biased!) in terms of taking on care and he's excellent in a crisis but it remains the case that the majority of people I have organised care with, received care from and met through the care system are overwhelmingly women. And women who have children appear to be vulnerable - they are, in a sense, sitting ducks. If you are on maternity leave or working part time to care for your children or in a lower paid job that brings in less income than your partner earns, it almost invariably falls to you to be the one who can squeeze in a few more hours to give or arrange care for another family member or three. I know there are men who do this too but not, it seems, in anything like such large numbers.

My work has been in the university and health care sectors and in the church's ministry. The NHS and the churches provide 24 hour, 7 day-a-week services and this adds another level of complexity to the work/life balancing act. Shift work can be very rigid and unsocial in its demands while parish work has moments when it can feel you are almost indispensable.  I think of a colleague whose young child was taken ill with acute appendicitis on a morning when she was committed to take a funeral - this was the point at which she discovered for real that the church's back-up call-out systems do not always operate like clockwork! 

Every job has its own particular rhythms, priorities and consequent stresses. What the female workforce requires is a root and branch examination of the measures that create the kind of environment in which work and care can reasonably take place alongside each other. Phillips' argument is that until we begin to address workplace issues of time, time off, pay, benefits*, leave, location, communication, child and elderly care from female-driven perspectives, we will all (not just women) continue to miss out. Women will continue to be relatively handicapped and/or stressed in making the contribution they would like to make to society. She concludes her article, 'What is lost in missed contributions to both the Treasury and society must run to billions of pounds. Thousands of missed opportunities for innovation, lifesaving medicine, beautiful things and technical revolutions. What could have been if only we’d thought to remember the women keeps me awake at night. What have we missed?' And indeed, what have those being cared for - children, elderly relatives and relatives with illness or disability - missed out on by being part of a slightly frazzled existence where the meeting of everyday needs only hangs together by the skin of its teeth, people are stressed, and relaxed time spent together is a rare luxury?

The Fabian Society has just published a pamphlet that looks at some of these issues through the eyes of the Labour women MPs elected since 1997. Undoubtedly, having more women involved in the creation of legislation has helped. But has it helped enough, or even as much as it should have in 20 years and what is preventing progress? What would work be like if men worked in ways that were shaped by expectations of flexible working hours, career breaks, job sharing, care-leave? And expectations that taking advantage of this way of working did not debar you from training opportunities, increased responsibility and promotion. I can hear the laughter echoing in my ears, 'What world does she live in?' But that's the problem in a nutshell - I live in my world which is populated by managers, directors, colleagues, family members, poorly neighbours. I can't ignore any of them but I have to make sense of it all and respond appropriately. And my female perspective ought to be able to inform work place assumptions and infrastructures as well as those that drive patterns of care.

Out today

This Woman Can: 1997, Women and Labour
Editor Sally Keeble, published for the Fabian Society 
Fabian Ideas 643

This woman can, this woman is...

* benefits is an interesting word. You might argue that what a male-centric society sees as 'benefits', a female-centric society would see as essential to the good of all.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

End Slavery in the UK

Nottingham University is running a Stay Safe From Slavery  conference on June 21st as the city works toward becoming a slavery free city. The conference will focus on prevention while the city-wide campaign focuses on local initiative and joined up action across agencies to identify and assist those caught up in slavery. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Nottingham has also been running training events during the year to raise awareness of the presence of slaves in the area - how can we see what is in front of our eyes more clearly, notice people who may be enslaved and help the 'slave next door'? 

I attended one of the events run by the Diocese of Nottingham recently and was impressed by the approach being taken. The plan is to train as many people as will come this year, helping us to understand the issues and, indeed, acknowledge that there is such a thing as modern day slavery in Britain. Next year, the plan is to move on to working with organisations by bringing them together to combat this real twenty first century evil more effectively.

It's estimated that there may be 13,000 people enslaved in this country. Modern day slavery affects people of many nationalities including British citizens. They may be subject to domestic servitude, forced labour, criminal or sexual exploitation. Other kinds of exploitation involve forced begging, forced marriage, illegal adoption and organ removal. Some are children.

We might think that there is no slavery in our own neighbourhood. It's often well hidden but it may be present across industries and sectors we are familiar with. Slaves have been identified in most regions in 'jobs' such as domestic service, laying drive ways, cleaning vehicles, serving at nail bars and more generally in the beauty industry, in manufacturing, hospitality, agriculture, food packaging and preparation, and as sex workers.  

Recognise the signs
People may
  • avoid eye contact and social contact
  • look withdrawn or frightened
  • refuse to get into conversation
  • look malnourished and unkempt
  • have few personal possessions
  • often wear the same clothes
  • be dropped off at a location regularly, early or late
  • appear unfamiliar with the neighbourhood
  • seem under control with little opportunity to move around freely
  • might sleep and work at the same address
  • might seem to go out seldom
  • live in premises with obscured windows, poor access, heavy security, visitors warned off
  • show signs of physical or psychological abuse 
  • have little or no access to money

Since doing the training, I have been much more careful to think about the people I meet asking to wash my car, do unsought work on our house and garden, and those who serve me food and other goods. It's also important to ask retail suppliers where they get their goods and under what standards they have been produced. Nottingham is slowly working to eradicate slavery from all contracts and supply chains within the city.

If you suspect that you have met victims of slavery, it will almost certainly be difficult or impossible to talk to them directly about their situation. However you can report your observations anonymously to Crimestoppers on 0800555111

The Salvation Army have a 24 hour confidential referral line for those who have escaped servitude and need urgent assistance on 03003038151 click on 'Ways We Help'

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Anonymous Blogging

Over recent years there's been an increase in the number of blogs that form little anonymous communities of comment on various issues. Some bloggers go to great lengths to conceal their own identity. Others (not necessarily themselves operating under the cloak of anonymity) promote anonymous and therefore unaccountable comment on their site. Some do both. As we all know, many of these sites give rise to the propagation of factual untruth, defamatory comment, and bullying. It's really rather vicious for a whole body of people to comment on named individuals or publicly identified situations without clearly declaring their own identity with all it reveals about their motivation and ability to be in possession of facts. Such comments are often then spread out across the internet as other bloggers, Facebook, Twitter and journalists pick them up. Endless links are formed and these may contain lies, 'alternative facts' and defamation. It's a kind of sport where pleasure is taken in adding weight to unsubstantiated, unowned opinions of like-minded commentators at the expense of people or situations who are entirely unable to defend themselves or put their own side of the matter.   

There's no defence for anonymous blogging in a society where freedom of speech exists. It is simply unnecessary. In a society like ours which enjoys free expression, whatever we say publicly whether on the internet, in writing or in speeches and broadcasts should be said in a spirit of openness and with complete willingness to take full responsibility for the consequences of what we say. Where the words and photographs of others are used to support opinions, sources should be clearly cited. Anonymity and misappropriation of others' material immediately call into question the motives of the person blogging or commenting. If someone is not prepared to put their name to what they write, is this because there is no solid evidence to back up what they are saying? Or is it perhaps because they know that their words will harm a person or a cause but they do not wish to accept the consequences of the harm they do? To say what they say may get them into trouble or lead to public outcry and criticism but that does not get them off the hook. The fundamental basis of debate in a democratic society is that of honest persuasion by identifiable agents. Yes, sometimes it's costly, particularly if you belong to an excluded or oppressed minority or if you yourself are subject to attempts at bullying or silencing. However, to retreat into anonymity only exacerbates the problem - the anonymous author often becomes part of the bullying and oppression.

In a free society where human rights are protected by law, anonymous blogging and commenting is a form of literary and moral cowardice. It undermines and does huge damage to those who are trying to work in a transparent, accountable manner (sometimes even toward similar ends to the bloggers and commentators). Journalists are not averse to reading these blogs and being influenced by what they glean from people who are not willing to put their names to what they say. An analogy with hunting is not inappropriate here as victims of comment are sought out, publicly identified and pursued for a headline-generating story (which of course will not be reported under the protection of anonymity.)

Please think twice before you write or comment anonymously. Why do you need to do it anonymously? What are you afraid or ashamed of? Why are you hiding? Who might you be harming? 

'And Jesus said to Pilate, "Sayest thou this thing of thyself or did others tell it thee of me?"'
John 18.34

Responses to the Westminster Terrorist

A picture of the Archbishop of Canterbury on Facebook with the superimposed question, 'What kind of person treats a terrorist?' caught my eye. I don't think it was the Archbishop's question. However, the fact that anyone might be asking it gave me pause for thought. To a medic it's a non-question. Health care professionals are committed by their codes of professional conduct to treat everyone. They give life-saving, pain-easing treatment to whoever needs it, usually in an order of priority that's dictated by the medical need of the people suffering. There's no moral judgement attached and no consideration of their own perspective on who the person might be or what he or she might have done. In war, medics and nurses treat the enemy if circumstances require it, in peacetime they treat victims of abuse and those who abuse alike. The moral basis of life-saving healthcare is that those giving it do not make judgements about the moral state of those who receive it.

There is a sort of jingoistic response to terrorism that places it into a 'beyond-the-reach-of-the-normal-rules-that-govern-society' category. This is surely misguided and dangerous. It plays right into the hands of terrorists. Their aim is precisely to disrupt the values which hold society together. It's the kind of response that walks the path of allowing torture as a part of interrogation and the suspension of civil liberties in the service of security. These are sharp ethical dilemmas but ultimately I come down very firmly on the side that honours the requirement to do everything possible to save life, eschew torture and uphold freedom despite the inherent risks.

The other picture which has been doing the rounds is one of the Dalai Lama with the quotation (his words), 'Buddhist terrorist, Muslim terrorist. That wording is wrong. Any person who wants to indulge in violence is no longer a genuine Buddhist or genuine Muslim.' This reminded me of Lily Allen's song, 'Him' in which she muses on how God feels about the atrocities that are committed in God's name. The song's deep message is one of despair that throughout the ages people have been killed in God's name.

We don't know the reasons for the attack on Parliament last week but whatever was in the mind of the terrorist, we should not abandon the quest to live peaceably according to our most honest understanding of our own faith (Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, humanist...) and neither should we depart from the best ideals of a free, democratic, humanitarian society.   

Photo The Women's March on London

Friday, 3 March 2017

Character and the New Politics

One reason I have written so little on this blog recently is the speed at which things are changing. Scarcely, it seems, have I half-formed an opinion before it needs to be revised in the wake of new information. This has been true of the political arena and also in the world of the churches and how they are dealing with issues of gender, inclusion, abuse, authority and leadership. It's been difficult to see how to comment in ways that don't either state the obvious or add to the general air of division.

One thing that interests me is the way in which the new 'new' is very quickly normalised and how those with the lion's share of power move to organise a dumbing down of protest or dissent. In the case of the US presidency, the battle lines are really just being drawn up. For us in the West, it's a wake up call to find organisations being excluded from press conferences and journalistic practices under fire from the President himself. The first amendment of the US Constitution states that the Congress will make no law 'abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.' It is unusual if not unique in the history of the American presidency for the incumbent to issue direct adverse comment on the practices of specific journalists and media corporations and to attempt to exclude some from press conferences. We do not yet know where this is leading but we now have the unfortunate coincidence of a press which, over recent years, has lost some of the trust and confidence of the public it once enjoyed and a President who actively manipulates not only the media but, apparently, the facts of stories. Politicians have always sought to put a particular spin on facts to suit their own purposes and to influence which facts appear and which get buried, but we are not used to the pervasive culture of 'alternative facts' and self-contradiction that has emerged during the campaign for this presidency.

On the whole, despite the mass protest marches that took place on every continent following Trump's inauguration, the appearance of things is that we're all beginning to settle down under the new regime and look for ways to understand rather than challenge. There's a very identifiable process in play: statements are made and actions taken that sound and indeed are very negative toward particular groups of people (Muslims, immigrants, women championing maternity rights in the workplace or looking for healthcare from agencies that offer abortion) but these are quickly followed by statements that suggest members of these groups are 'welcome' or that their voice is heard and their concerns will be swept up into the supposed 'greatness' of the newly emerging America. Not many specifics are offered. And there are now regular public setbacks for the administration - isn't health care just so peskily complicated?

So, we have a process of change, normalisation of new values and a particular style of communication that challenges previous assumptions about what can and can't be believed. I'd like to suggest that a discipline known as Narrative Theology comes into its own at such a time. Philosophers, theologians and writers like Alasdair McIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, Iris Murdoch have long pointed us to the (dare I say) fact that human endeavour is essentially played out and understood in narrative terms. To understand a situation we don't simply ask, 'what are the facts?' or 'what happened?' or 'who did what to whom?' We need to take account of the character of the person, clan or institution acting in a particular way. We need to look for insight into their habitual ways of interacting, the values which have shaped them and their intentions. 'What does this mean if these kinds of people express it like this or that?' In societies that depend heavily on adversarial politics, rational analysis and dialectical thinking this ability to assess character and the part it plays in moulding what is or isn't possible doesn't come naturally. Even journalists who are in a position to appreciate the power of a good story find it hard to read character and to report in such a way that character is revealed. But it is important to factor in character and, under newly emerging regimes, ever more so.

Interestingly, in the UK the current gender tussles in the Church of England over the inclusion of women clergy and LGBTI couples display similar dynamics. Here we see in the Synod and House of Bishops institutions that contradict themselves and make statements of welcome while acting in ways that exclude or constrain certain groups for the 'greater good' or 'unity' of the church. Although there's a loose internal coherence of approach, it's so obscure that most people can't grasp the principles on which it's based. It involves embracing contradictory things ('two integrities', women can and can't be ordained, lesbian and gay couples are fully welcome but cannot have their unions sacramentally recognised) and then finding pragmatic ways to allow these conflicting beliefs to be played out. Members of the church on the ground find that few specifics have been worked out as new territory is charted. Processes are obscure and facts disputed, laying the church open to accusations of injustice even where perhaps none has occurred.

A number of these features were also at play in the Brexit campaign and are now present in the the process to trigger Article 50. In the case of Brexit, the focus has been very much around the use of 'alternative facts' - a blatant tendency to state as fact things that have later been discovered simply not to be true - and the complicity of the press in reporting them. (What motivates editors? The clue lies in character.) As with Trump and the church, there is also a sense of pressure being brought to bear to silence dissenting voices and normalise the new in the service of 'the greater good of the country'. There is a similar lack of internal coherence accompanied by a degree of self-contradiction among those leading the process. This is heightened, in the case of Brexit, because it's not at all clear who's leading the process so, whereas Trump and the church display particular kinds of medium-to-long-term leadership and authority, Brexit appears as a case of 'authority emerging in a vacuum'. Brexit is, par excellence, an example of a process that's being worked out pragmatically with few specifics derivable from its driving principles. Again, we have the exclusion of certain groups alongside a mantra that claims that 'within parameters' these people are welcome. (I've just spent an interesting day talking to medics and nurses from the European Union whose personal lives and futures have been thrown into confusion by the conflicting messages that assault them from day to day.)

In such a brave new world, a narrative approach seems pertinent in helping us to find ways to keep searching for truth and to make effective protest. A common theme of many political and church movements at the present time is exclusion - exclusion that is experienced by many in confusing and less-than-straightforwardly-honest ways and that does not want to face up to the cost or consequence of its own actions. Protests can only be effective where the nub of a matter is identified and addressed and I would suggest that working to understand the character of the people and institutions involved is part of the answer to well targeted and productive protest. McIntyre's use of the concept of character is not to be equated with personality. Character is a conglomeration of traits, habits, values, internalised societal customs and prevailing ideologies that build into virtues inherent in the way individuals and institutions interact. The questions to ask are, 'what are the prevailing narratives?,' and 'what is motivating the behaviour of the leading characters?' 

In the case of the Trump presidency, from what we have seen so far, motivation would seem to be a desire to rebalance power and entitlement that is perceived as having been eroded from a predominantly white, complementarian (male and female have different roles), non-Political, republican sector, along with a fear of otherness in the face of increasing globalisation that has focused on supposed versions of Islam and South American immigration. The deeper reasons for this lie in US economics and foreign policy and in Mr Trump's personal history. Untargeted mass protest looks set to further re-inforce that deep seated sense of unsettled entitlement. Despite his own endorsement of 'alternative facts' Mr Trump's administration needs to be engaged with purposefully over carefully identified issues using a combination of well marshalled information and emotionally intelligent persuasion - 'attention hooks' and bargaining chips. This is not an administration that will crumble in the face of civil protest or unrest - it will harden. The challenge for campaigners and dissidents is to field the right people and use the appropriate method in a bewildering range of pathways - legislature and judiciary, unions, scientific community, corporations, digital community and media, campaign groups, NGO's, diplomatic community, UN, world leaders. The difficulty for those who would either influence or oppose Trump is to be sufficiently focused and sufficiently well-informed themselves.     

In the case of the bishops and the church, motivation seems to be fear of facing up to the truth about exclusion resulting in a 'have your cake and eat it' desire to keep everybody on board. This is often expressed in language about unity and the most Christlike approach. Ultimately this does weird things to truth; to say that the church is inclusive because it includes those who wish to exclude or constrict others (women, sexually active gay clergy, married gay clergy) is, to my mind, an 'alternative fact'. It perverts the word inclusion and gives it a meaning that is the opposite of its original meaning. It's honest to say 'we do currently exclude or constrict these people.' The deep-seated roots of the fact that the church demonstrably does exclude on grounds of gender lie in psychologically and theologically driven instincts about sexuality. So the answer here is less about finding pragmatic 'solutions' and more about addressing a lack of self-knowledge and some very deep seated unhealthiness about how authority, sexuality and abuse are played out in parts of the Christian tradition. 'Two integrities' are not sustainable - I think a psychiatrist might diagnose mental illness! So the approach here has to include a continual pressing for greater honesty about how the Christian Anglican tradition has impacted on sexuality.

In the case of Brexit, motivation is diffuse and complex to identify principally because those now charged with implementing the exit from Europe were largely recorded as being against it or only tepidly in favour. Others appear to have been in the position of scarcely believing that the vote would go the way it did and possibly using that as a cover for private agendas. Of the three scenarios examined here, I find Brexit is the most difficult to assess. What was, what is and what should be the motivation of those who are pushing for it? Again, character suggests an approach. There is something very deep seated in the British character that doesn't plan but seizes opportunity, that is pragmatic and 'makes things work, come what may' and that allows the disenfranchised from time to time to say, 'enough is enough' without reaching the point of revolution. 

We are also perhaps seeing a revisiting of untended or only partially tended wounds. As an island nation with former colonies, the UK has a complicated and largely opportunistic relationship with immigration. This involves degrees of both suspicion (don't welcome too many) and unacknowledged shame (it's a sort of atonement for the colonial past.) From George V and the Romanovs to the pre-war era and the Holocaust, the UK does not have a track record of welcoming huge numbers of refugees. Once citizens of previous colonies were allowed to move to the UK, in the popular imagination, the borders were opened up too much. In practice, during the 50's, 60's and 70's most people continued to regard immigration as being 'at our invitation' and therefore, by implication at least, under some sort of control. The recent European refugee crisis has therefore played into a deep ambiguity about welcome and this has shown itself in the bitter battle between liberals and more nationalistic (England, not Scotland and Wales) thinkers. So from the point of view of character, we might say that Britain and especially England wants to think of itself as welcoming and tolerant but in reality is suspicious and fearful of being overwhelmed both in numbers and by other languages than English (this is a deep psychological factor in a society where most people are monoglot.) The way forward here seems to be around re-education. To address this fear, people want to see greater economic parity across Europe and within the UK - a fair living wage in each country would be a start. An assessment of the areas of economic activity that cannot be supported without the contribution of other nationals is long overdue. And there needs to be a pan-European forum for addressing the changing nature of immigration. It is certain that, in the future, there will be more populations migrating away from areas where water and food are scarce and where there is political turmoil. We have only seen the tip of the iceberg in the current crisis.

Politics has long been practiced in ways that give little space to emotional intelligence. Lately we have seen this demonstrated in the Brexit result, in the tensions in the Church of England and in the over-throw of the previous political elite in the USA. The huge women's marches in protest at Trump's election indicated a deep but unfocused recognition of this and alerted the world to the degree to which a large percentage of people feel that the values that drive their lives are not well represented in Western political and religious life.