In the Salisbury Information Centre

I went into the Salisbury Information Centre just ahead of an elderly lady. While I only wanted to browse and see what kind of information they had available, she had a specific inquiry that she put to the man at the desk.

Concerning the road closures that had been announced for Armed Forces Day on 29th June, when there will be a major parade through the city: What roads are going to be closed, and for how long?

“You’ll have to look on the Council website, we haven’t actually got a complete list here.”

“I’m 95, I don’t have a website,” she replied.

But to no avail. The Council was not distributing a printed list of road closures. The Information Centre could print the website for her but there were about 20 pages of it. They could tell her that the road between where she lived and the city centre would be closed for three days…

“Well, how am I going to eat, then?”

When you live alone, have no car, have to travel to the shops by bus, can’t carry enough provisions for three days — how can you cope with not being able to get to the shops for that long? When you have no computer, no Internet access — how can you obtain even the most vital basic information these days?

It’s a scary glimpse of how modern living marginalises and excludes the elderly. And by the time I’m 95, if I should live that long, it will presumably be even worse, even more difficult.

Politics and the Tao Te Ching

And then there is the other great Taoist classic, undoubtedly the Taoist classic, the Tao Te Ching: the Book of the Way and its Power. It also has a lot to say about the conduct of the state, how rulers should rule. Probably the best known aphorism is

“Ruling the country is like cooking a small fish.” (Chapter 60) We take this to mean that those who govern in accordance with Tao should not meddle too much. If you poke a small fish that you’re frying, it will disintegrate. But I think it also means you mustn’t neglect what you’re doing but need to keep an eye on it the whole time, so that you see the exact moment you need to do something. ‘Like cooking a small fish’ doesn’t just mean you leave it alone, as the extreme small-government people might have us believe.

But there’s much more good stuff. (Both the following extracts are from the J. H. McDonald translation) I love chapter 17:

The best leaders are those the people hardly know exist.

The next best is a leader who is loved and praised.

Next comes the one who is feared.

The worst one is the leader that is despised.

If you don’t trust the people,

they will become untrustworthy.

The best leaders value their words, and use them sparingly.

When she has accomplished her task,

the people say, “Amazing:

we did it, all by ourselves!”

And chapter 18 sounds disturbingly appropriate in our increasingly nationalistic times:

When the great Tao is abandoned,

charity and righteousness appear.

When intellectualism arises,

hypocrisy is close behind.

When there is strife in the family unit,

people talk about ‘brotherly love’.

When the country falls into chaos,

politicians talk about ‘patriotism’.

The version I’m reading at the moment is the more recently published translation by John Minford (Viking, 2018) It’s a bigger book than most versions. The Chinese original contains only 5,000 words. It practises what the Tao preaches about using few words. Minford, however, has chosen to accompany his translation with helpful commentary from some of the great commentators on the Tao Te Ching, especially the River Master and Magister Liu, together with some short Chinese poems that illustrate the theme.

He advocates a slow, meditative reading of the text which he calls Lectio Sinica, a Chinese version of the familiar Christian and monastic practice of Lectio Divina. This commends itself as a useful way of approaching such a strange yet deeply attractive text.

 

Politics and I Ching

易經

I’ve been fascinated by the I Ching for more years than I can remember. Maybe it’s having lived through the 60s and Flower Power and all that stuff, and being intrigued by some of the artistic, literary, and psychological associations like Hermann Hesse, George Harrison, and Jung; but I didn’t start looking at it more seriously until the 1990s. Since then I’ve kept taking it up and putting it down again, frustrated by its opaqueness and, quite simply, its foreignness.

And still I come back to it, and have a modest collection of different translations and books about it. I’m attracted to it not as a book of divination… who really wants to know what will happen, especially at this moment in history? It will be bad enough to find out when it actually happens. No, what appeals to me is the sense that it speaks with a voice of wisdom, a very different kind of wisdom from what we’re familiar with in the West, although often saying many of the same kind of things. It has a lot to say about how to develop moral character and right behaviour: how to study to become a better person; and I like that.

But still, much of what you find about it in books or on the Internet seems either mad, or unnecessarily esoteric, or alternatively just plain trivial. What has changed in the most recent time, has been coming across the idea that I might actually read it. (I know, I’m slow on the uptake… But the Changes don’t reveal their deep secrets to the person in a hurry. I think.)

Thomas Cleary, in The Taoist I Ching, insists that you cannot make any sense of this book, if you have only a limited knowledge of it, and this is especially true of any random approach (such as, only reading the hexagrams that result from some random process, whether counting yarrow stalks or tossing coins).

“Therefore, the first step is to read the book in its entirety, without pausing to judge or question, just going along with the flow of its images and ideas. … Ancient literature suggests reading one hexagram in the morning and one at night. At this rate, this initial phase of consultation can be completed in approximately one month. This may have to be repeated one or more times at intervals to effectively set the basic program into the mind.”

In fact, on this first read through of the 64 hexagrams (Book I in the Wilhelm/Baynes version), I’m going faster than just two chapters a day; I can come back to that more leisurely approach later. But the overview is already yielding wonderful nuggets: not least the quaint old-fashioned ideas that moral character is important; that it’s especially important in people with power and influence in the state; that everyone has a responsibility to cultivate it; that things go badly for everyone when moral character is lacking – especially aomng the people in power.

Take, for example, the Image of hexagram 12, P’i / Standstill (Stagnation):

The hexagram for this is ䷋: made up of the trigrams Ch’ien, the Creative, Heaven over K’un, the Receptive, Earth. These are complementary realities, but in this particular arrangement they are pulling away from each other, rather than working together, hence the idea of Standstill or Stagnation. (Don’t worry if this is all Chinese to you: walk with me for a while.)

The text for the Image reads:

Heaven and earth do not unite:
The image of STANDSTILL.
Thus the superior man falls back upon his inner worth
In order to escape the difficulties.
He does not permit himself to be honored with revenue.

And the commentary begins:

When, owing to the influence of inferior men, mutual mistrust prevails in public life, fruitful activity is rendered impossible, because the fundaments are wrong.

It seems to me you could hardly find a more accurate summary of Brexit Britain, and what’s wrong with the state of our nation and politics at the present time. People have simply lost all trust in our political class because the perception is that they are morally inferior people. It used to be the case that society, schools, the whole process of education and upbringing, taught that you should regard it as a moral duty to use your skills and gifts for the general good, not just for your personal advantage. Especially if you enjoyed any kind of privilege or position: and even receiving a free secondary, let alone tertiary, education, was an enormous privilege, bringing responsibility with it. Certainly that’s one of the things were were taught at my local grammar school, even if the invisible sub-text was that we would possibly be called upon to govern the Raj (or whatever the 1960s equivalent of that was) under the supervision of the gentlemen whose privilege had been to enjoy a public (sic) school education. This is no longer the case. The antics of the entitled classes, as exemplified by the Bullingdon Club and its many wannabes, is enough proof. The popularity with the Tory Party of the unspeakable Boris Johnson, and the absurd and terrifying likelihood that he will soon be Prime Minister, confirms it.

And all the while I’m sure there are many, many people in pubic office, perhaps even in Parliament, who really do have a notion that they are there to do good and to work for the common good. It’s just that their efforts are made invisible by the greed and wealth of those among them who continue to vote for measures that oppress the poorest and most vulnerable, and make their lives a misery. Theresa May appeared to say the right things when she spoke of making Britain a country that worked for everyone, but most of the policies of her Government shouted the opposite, and much louder. Francesca Martinez spoke for many, and earned the applause she received, when she said on Question Time that the Tories have blood on their hands, because their austerity policies have been a direct cause of 130,000 deaths.

There is much more in the I Ching about how rulers in particular, and all people in general who seek to live in wise harmony with the universe, should fashion their lives. Sadly, I doubt if the Boris Johnsons of this world and all those who admire them, so much as give a damn.

O Land, Land, Land

Just started reading Kate Atkinson’s latest novel Transcription (just appeared in paperback — whee!) and I come across an epigraph which includes the translation of this Latin inscription in the foyer of Broadcasting House.

“This Temple of the Arts and Muses is dedicated to Almighty God by the first Governors of Broadcasting in the year 1931, Sir John Reith being Director-General. It is their prayer that good seed sown may bring forth a good harvest, that all things hostile to peace or purity may be banished from this house, and that the people, inclining their ear to whatsoever things are beautiful and honest and of good report, may tread the path of wisdom and uprightness.”

“…That the people, inclining their ear to whatsoever things are beautiful and honest and of good report, may tread the path of wisdom and uprightness…”

In the present car crash of British politics: the Brexit referendum, the implosion of the Tory party, the unfathomable triumph of the Brexit Party whose only policy is that they want to crash us out of the European Union even if it means leaving with no deal … I’m wondering if the first Governors of Broadcasting didn’t pray hard enough? Or, more likely, whether it’s ‘the people’ who have simply squandered their precious inheritance of honesty, good report, wisdom, uprightness and faith.

(The title of this post is from Jeremiah 22.29, the prophet’s lament over God’s people’s wilful deafness, refusing to hear and heed God’s message to them: “O land, land, land, hear the word of the Lord!”)

All-of-us in Blunderland

In 2013 Anthony King and Ivor Crewe published their book The Blunders of Our Governments, a study of the cock-ups of British Governments in recent decades. Here’s their opening paragraph:

“Our subject in this book is the numerous blunders that have been committed by British governments of all parties in recent decades. We believe there have been far too many of them and that most, perhaps all, of them could have been avoided. In previous generations, foreign observers of British politics viewed the British political system with something like awe. Government in Britain was not only highly democratic: it was also astonishingly competent. It combined effectiveness with efficiency. British governments, unlike the governments of so many other countries, knew what they wanted to do and almost invariably succeeded in doing it. Textbooks in other countries were full of praise, and foreign political leaders often expressed regret that their own system of government could not be modelled on Britain’s. Sadly, the British system is no longer held up as a model, and we suspect one reason is that today’s British governments screw up so often.

When I first looked at this book, probably in 2014, I just thought it would be too depressing to read. Who could imagine that, five years later, there would be so much more evidence, and even more incontrovertible evidence, of the authors’ assertions? It has become a truism, repeatedly written about and discussed in the media, that our ‘political class’ have failed us, that our whole politivcal system is no longer fit for purpose, that Britain has become a laughing stock, over which former friends scratch their heads in bewilderment, wondering how we can so far have lost our sanity.

The blunders that have clustered around the whole Brexit debacle are so egregious, that they probably draw attention away from all the other blunders of the same period (failure to deal adequately with the 2008 Crash, austerity policies, out-sourcing to private companies, Universal Credit…) So, just a recap (I’ll probably forget some of these, so do prompt me if memory fails.)

  • David Cameron promising a referendum on EU membership in the first place
  • … without sufficiently defining the terms of whether the result would be advisory or mandatory, or what majority would be required to force so great a constitutional change
  • Parliament leaping to accept the narrow 52-48 result
  • Mrs May’s decision to hold a General Election to help her implement ‘the will of the people’
  • Her precipitate invoking of Article 50 before there was any kind of plan about how to implement it
  • Spectacular failure of a succession of (let’s face it, often ignorant and incompetent) negotiators to negotiate or reach any kind of deal until beyond the eleventh hour
  • Failure of MPs to agree to any proposed Brexit plan
  • All of this to appease the most extreme Eurosceptic members of the Tory party

And all the while, this process is accompanied and orchestrated by the right-wing press whipping up hatred and issuing threats against anyone who dissented from the new orthodoxy. And no one challenges the lies that continue to be told to smear opponents. In the interest of ‘balance’ and the reporting of the most sensational events, the most extreme individuals and groups have constantly been given more airtime than the voices of reason. (Ask yourself how many times Nigel Farage has appeared on the News or in panel discussions, compared with, say, Caroline Lucas?)

It’s not just the Governments that have blundered. Somehow the whole electorate, the whole country, has taken leave of its senses and continues to follow the path of most damage. At least Alice got out of Wonderland, and managed to return from Through the Looking Glass to the world of reality and sanity. I wonder if we will ever be so fortunate?

The Satanic Verses 30 Years On

Somewhere on my bookshelves, I used to have a copy of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Its pages slightly browning, because even though I never read it, it must be over 20 years ago that I bought it, and for some of those years it sat on a window sill in the sun. But had it survived the downsizing, and terrible cull of books, that took place when we moved to Thame?

It didn’t take long for me to find it, and yes, it had survived, and is still on my list of Books To Read. Some time. (Being able to find it so quickly, incidentally, is an indicator of how few books remain…)

This search happened after I was reminded of Rushdie’s book by the recent BBC2 documentary, The Satanic Verses 30 Years On. In this film, presenter Mobeen Azhar examines the lasting effect Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses has had on the Muslim community and how the events of 1989 continue to have an impact today. Those ‘events’ followed the book’s first publication, when Muslims in Britain were scandalized by Rushdie’s fiction, convinced that it was a blasphemous affront to Islam. Huge demonstrations took place in Britain, where the book was notoriously burned in the public square in Bradford, and in other countries, especially Iran and the USA. Ayatollah Khomeini issued the notorious fatwah calling upon faithful Muslims to assassinate Rushdie, and death threats were also made against the book’s publishers and all the individuals who had been involved in its publication. 59 people lost their lives in the most violent demonstrations around the world.

At the time there were laws against blasphemy in England and Wales, but they only protected the Christian religion. For a time there was some discussion, supported by a number of liberals and Christians, about extending the law to protect Islam and other faiths. In the end this did not happen: instead, the blasphemy law was repealed in its entirety in 2008, and may be considered to have been replaced (in part) by legislation against religious and racial hate crimes.

It was nothing but a good thing for the Blasphemy Law to have been repealed. It was ridiculous and out-dated, had hardly ever been used by Christians in the hundreds of years of its existence, and the possibility of it being used by Muslims in a case such as the Rushdie case, simply appalling. It’s also an unfortunate reality of the differences between the world faiths, that there are passages even in the sacred Scriptures that could be construed as blasphemous by the adherents of other religions. Christians ‘blasphemously’ (to Muslims) believe that Jesus is the Son of God. The Quran ‘blasphemously’ (to Christians) asserts that Jesus is not the Son of God, and that he did not die on the cross. This is just the start of the problem…

Mobeen Azhar’s documentary followed up the events of 1989, interviewing some of the men who had been involved in the protests. His conclusion was that, although the protests had given the Muslim community the opportunity to make a protest which was, as much as anything, about the racial intolerance and disadvantage they had suffered, it had also had many negative consequences. In particular, the caricature of the Muslim bogeyman was born, because of the way the tabloid press reported the riots. Azhar’s final comment:

“It ushered in this age of division, with Muslims being seen as the other. But we’re not outsiders. We’re a really important part of British society. But we have to be able to stomach debates about our culture, and actually our religion as well. Even if we find them offensive, we have to be able to do that. And it’s only when we can do that, that the ghost of The Satanic Verses will truly be put to bed.”

That blasphemy is still considered a crime anywhere in the world, in the 21st century, is a scandal. We only have to look at the terrible way it is used in Pakistan and other Islamist countries, where not only Christians and ‘apostates’ from Islam are routinely lynched or murdered, but also Muslim politicians and justice officials who try to protect them. And this in a country which, as a member of the United Nations, is supposed to subscribe to the UN Declaration on Human Rights, with its protection of Freedom of Religion. (Including guarantees of the freedom to choose one’s religion, to hold to any religion or none, and to change one’s religious beliefs without fear of reprisal.)

Are human beings offended by material insulting to the God they believe in? They need to just get over it. Is God offended? I think God is likely to have a good laugh about the presumption of us thinking that God might be. But even if God is offended, I’m pretty sure God knows how to deal with it. Probably by grace, mercy, and love, and (I hope) opening the blasphemer’s eyes to see the foolishness of insulting the Divine.

Literacy and life expectancy

A new documentary, H is for Harry, to be released in cinemas on 7 March, focuses on the fact that white, working class boys form the demographic that does worst in our education system. It’s said that 1 in 5 children left primary school in 2018 unable to read or write properly. I’ve heard this statistic before, and understood the difference it makes to life chances, employment, and health, but I was especially shocked to read in the Guardian report on this documentary about the difference it also makes to overall life expectancy:

Adults with poor literacy skills are more likely to be unemployed or in low-paid jobs. There is a link between low levels of literacy and shorter life expectancy, depression and obesity. According to the National Literacy Trust (NLT), a boy born in Stockton-on-Tees, which has some of the most serious literacy challenges in the country, has a life expectancy 26.1 years shorter than a boy born in north Oxford.

26 years off a life expectancy of around 80 is 54. Let that sink in.

A couple of days ago I posted about the differences in library funding between the UK and Finland. It’s instructive to note a few other comparisons as well, described in another article in the Guardian. Life expectancy in Finland is rising; in the UK it has stopped rising. Infant mortality is twice as high in the UK as in Finland. Finland has some of the best education in Europe, because it trusts and rewards its teachers, so that professional morale is high. It also provides free school meals for all pupils, so that no child goes through the school day unable to learn because of hunger. And its system is truly comprehensive, with none of the blight caused by our private schools and selective grammars creaming off the most advantaged children. Finland is dealing effectively with homelessness, and its truly preventative health care measures include the provision of genuinely affordable housing for all, so that people can afford good food rather than paying much of their income on the kind of astronomical private sector rents we see in our system. Finland spends a slightly lower proportion of its GDP on health care provision than the UK, but it can afford to because doctors don’t need to be paid as much as they are in the UK, since housing costs are lower. For every 10,000 people in Finland, there are 32 doctors, compared to 28 in the UK, and there are 40 hospital beds for every 10,000 Finns, compared to 26 in the UK.

There’s more: Finland is also seeking to introduce a truly universal basic income. It has the best green credentials in the world, ranking top in the 2016 Environmental Performance Index. Add to this that Finland is one of the most equal societies in the world: the gap between the richest 20% and the poorest 20% is one of the lowest in the world, second only to Japan.

If we’re looking for ways to improve British society in the coming years (if such an aspiration is even possible) we could do a lot worse than look at how Finland does it.