Happy Christmas from the Streets of London.

Blogging has taken rather a back seat this year as other, sometimes less important but more present things took priority. A situation I hope to resolve in the coming year. Today, in very different ways, I was spurred on to return by an old school friend and a new Australian friend.

There are many great, varied and beautiful cities around the world. I have been fortunate to visit many of them and hope to visit more in the coming years. There are perhaps fewer truly global cities, that somehow feel connected to or part of our humanity. For me, one of those cities is London. Perhaps, one of three or four similar world cities we aspire to visit, imagine living in and at some level feel we have a shared history and connection.

In the past year, I have spent roughly half my time in south London (in what some might suggest is the wrong side of the river) and have seen the place often with new eyes. Much of the time, this happens while walking Taz in the local parks. Today was similar, as I took that time to catch up on social media posts. The first confirmed I had missed out on some prestigious local blogging award (the Morties) – mainly due to the fact my posts had dried up in the middle of last year. The second was from a facebook friend in Australia (Paul) who posted about the potential loneliness many experience at this time.

Whilst it isn’t news that many people find Christmas challenging and as artificial as many Christmas trees, his specific examples gave me pause for thought. I have often wondered if there isn’t a darker side to some Christmas celebrations. Do some people need to know others are enjoying less or are simply excluded in order to enjoy their time more or at all?

Christmas for me has always been a bittersweet occasion. I remember the excitement of being given the bike that replaced one I had outgrown and the magic of my first true white Christmas. Then just prior to Christmas in 1973, my father died and the feel of Christmas from that point on had changed. Some things, no matter how hard a child wishes, cannot be replaced.

One of the few things I can remember from that year was a news programme showing an office block being used by the homeless over Christmas. I’m sure I didn’t understand the importance of this development at the time. This was the birth of Crisis at Christmas and the charity is, regrettably, still going strong forty years later. What so few people appreciate is just how easily we could swap places with any number of those seeking shelter in the Crisis centers.

The video above marries Ralf McTell’s 1960’s original with the Crisis choir (also featuring Annie Lennox) of 2017. Such a beautiful sound and an entirely unremarkable group forming the choir – all homeless and each could very easily replace their photograph with ours.

Returning to Paul’s comments from Australia, I found myself thinking of those who become invisible to others and society in general. Perhaps none more so than those we write off as probably drunk, high, mentally ill or too challenged to cope with the real world.

This year as for the last four, I haven’t sent Christmas cards but have made a donation – to a charity that can make a difference to lives. Although it isn’t my usual charity, this year will I will be supporting the Crisis at Christmas team. May the need for their work be short lived and I for one will try to see the person not their situation just a little more often.
From a warm, dry, happy and safe home, I wish everyone a very Happy Christmas. For those who for whatever reason, cannot enjoy this Christmas as they would like, I hope 2018 brings you what you would wish yourself.

 

 

Shang-a-lang a Holly-Nolly ding dong!

Anyone who has been reading or following this blog for any length of time may be familiar with my less than overwhelming enthusiasm for the festive season. (See Saturnalia)

However, once in a while something comes along which whilst not entirely changing your point of view, could be described as a refreshing change! One such thing is this year’s Christmas advert from Sainsbury supermarkets in the UK.

The  choice of a World War I themed advert may not have been entirely surprising given the emphasis on the centenary of the start of the Great War throughout 2014. However, having said that it eluded the competing retailers and advertising agencies leaving the field clear for this four minute gem.

The only branding in this piece is the name flash at the end of the video. Even that is shared with the recognition for the Royal British Legion. Furthermore, there isn’t a single piece of product placement – not even the featured chocolate bar.

The attention to historical detail is impressive and although there is an undoubted sentimentality it isn’t aimed at supermarket products (at least not directly).  Some have already indicated they find the advert distasteful apparently hijacking the historic events to boost Christmas sales. I for one don’t share that view.

Congratulations Sainsbury for taking the time to give this real production values, historical integrity and resisting the temptation to scatter it with subtly placed stock. Having seen the seasonal offerings from competing retailers, the risk was well worth taking ! A real Christmas present.

I am a rock, I am an island

It’s sometimes odd to me how two apparently unrelated thoughts can suddenly converge to reinforce a common theme. One such example happened to me today.

I was considering how well a friend of mine had done in fighting against some compulsive behaviour issues – far better than the person concerned recognised themself. It struck me as slightly odd that they couldn’t see the extent of progress I saw. At the same time, whilst flicking through 200 tv channels of not very much, I stumbled across a story relating to stones in death valley reportedly moving of their own accord.

In recent years any serious follower of land speed records will have become familiar with the area of death valley and its use as a super-flat, super-clear raceway.

Creeping rock tracks

Creeping rock tracks

However, that isn’t strictly true. Across the vast dry river beds there are strewn a large number of rocks and boulders scattered at apparently random intervals. Each of these rocks leaves a snail like trail tracing its progress across the desert floor, although interestingly, nobody had ever seen these rocks move.

For many years, a range of competing theories was put forward as to the cause of these mysterious trails. Hurricane force winds, flash floods and even alien visitations have been put forward as causes. The biggest mystery however, was that despite the best efforts of many observers, the stones never appeared to move.

However, in what has been described as the most boring experiment in the world, scientists placed GPS tracking devices on the stones and waited to see what phenomena was responsible for the ghostly tracks.

The mystery as to the cause of the tracks having been solved and the transient ice sheets responsible filmed only one question really remained. Why hadn’t this been seen before?

The answer appears to be partially due to geography. The lake beds concerned are at least an hour from main roads and cross poorly maintained and often hazardous terrain. The visitors to the valley had usually chosen to avoid the worst weather conditions which is precisely when the phenomena can be most easily observed.

However, even then, the distance between the rocks and the introduction of water and/or ice means there is often no available reference point against which to measure the rocks progress. With such incremental movement it’s hardly surprising that a positional change had been missed.

Whereupon, the problem of my friends resistance to recognise progress came back in to sharp focus. Could it be that their progress lacked the available reference points in the same way as the stones did? It is too easy to say they were too close to see the strides they continue to make. However, with this answer at least a strong possibility it did reinforce my role as acting as one of those points of reference.

It also reminded me of a Buddhist commentary on (of all things) glacial erosion. The former Dali Lahma Thubten Gyatso is alleged to commented: ‘If a glacier which has no free will or self-determination can transform mountains, just think what man could achieve’

Broken news: The drugs war is lost

It is now 43 years since President Richard Nixon announced his ‘war on drugs’. His comments came in the summer of 1971 at the height of public concern in America over cannabis use, fear at a growing ‘hippy’ culture and two years after Woodstock. Many commentators believe the war he mentioned focused on Cannabis, however it has widened in recent years to include all drug classes.

In recent weeks Admiral Robert Papp, head of the US Coast Guard was heavily criticised for stating that it was disheartening to watch a continued battle against drugs being lost. Many will not agree with the premise of his argument, however, it was sufficiently interesting to make me consider a number of similar comments in the United Kingdom.

The more I looked the more I was surprised by the apparent cross party agreement that the current status quo is failing to prevent the steady growth in drugs use and availability.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat) called for a Royal Charter to investigate the possibility of moving to the Portuguese model where all drugs are no longer subject to criminal sanction but rather become considered a public health issue. He was quoted as saying that the UK was ‘losing the battle against drugs on an industrial scale.’ Despite rapid dissociation from the Prime Minister, this remains Liberal Democrat policy.

His argument was that countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States end up criminalising significant proportions of their population for drugs offences often initiating a downward spiral. He suggested that once in possession of a criminal record for drug possession/supply, an individual was effectively marginalised in society. This made their employment less likely and ultimately increased the potential for them to re-use.

In the summer of 2012 former Home Secretary and political heavyweight Ken Clarke (Conservative) also commented that the United Kingdom was losing it’s war on drugs. Despite being lambasted for making such a comment he wasn’t alone in holding those views at the time. Although taking different views on the solution, a similar admission is made by Louise Mench MP (2012) Speaking against legalisation. Ms Mench was a fellow Conservative MP at the time and open in her admission of previously having taken class A drugs.

Former chief advisor to the government Professor David Nutt (politically independent) is perhaps the most well known individual to take a public stand which ran contrary to public policy at the time. Nutt argues that his views are based on empirical evidence and is nothing more than a logical position based around the relative dangers of non-prescribed (illegal) drugs, compared to items such as tobacco and alcohol.

To complete the political consensus, it was only this summer that the Labour magazine claiming to voice thought leadership to the party made the same comment. It encouraged the party to support legalisation of recreational drugs – including those currently classified as Class A such as Crystal Meth and Cocaine.

In addition to the voices from the political classes, a number of social commentators have been calling for a debate on current drugs policy. Some are perhaps unsurprising.

Russell Brand’s debate and near battle with Peter Hitchin on Newsnight has become something of required viewing when considering the two most extreme ends of the spectrum. One considers the requirement to move from criminalisation to treating as a medical condition akin to a disease or illness. The other holds the position that a more punitive enforcement of the criminal law would be more likely to lead to success.

However, increasingly less typically anticipated voices are making themselves heard. Richard Branson recently spoke out encouraging a move to treatment rather than regulation. He also made the point that most politicians in power find it impossible to speak out about the issue. However, they frequently move to the position once they have left power. He cites former Presidents Carter and Clinton as examples. He also drew comparisons between the fight against drugs and the prohibition of alcohol in 1920’s America.

So my position isn’t to propose a ‘solution’ I don’t presume to know enough to do so. However, what is clear to me is that the current status quo isn’t working. More over there appears to be near political unanimity in agreeing that position. I don’t want a world where the population is wandering around in a drugged stupor (legal or illegal). I’ve also seen far too many people’s lives ruined with remarkably little in the way of support.

My question and challenge is that if that is the case – where is the political discussion? Is it simply easier to sedate large numbers on methadone rather than face up to a problem we all know exists and isn’t improving.

How many politicians from how many parties and political stances does it take to speak out before the issue becomes important enough to shape a new public policy ?

Oh you are awful …. but I like you !

Dick Emery

Dick Emery

Any comic or sit-com actor will tell you that catch phrases can’t really be planned – they just take off and work their way into the psyche of the audience.

The other characteristic of a catch-phrase is their longevity. A case in point happened today when I was walking through an office reception and heard a rather plummy female voice utter the phrase ‘Oh you are awful !’

Cut to 1979 and the now virtually forgotten comedian Dick Emery who had a vast array of characters in his then iconic Saturday evening comedy show. One of those characters a young lady called Mandy found herself subject to frequent end of the pier double entendre and always responded ‘Oh you are awful … but I like you!’ – Followed by a swift left hand shove.

Instantly I heard the comment in the reception area I mentally finished the punch line, even though I hadn’t heard it for at least 30 years and was a young child at the time.

Then I began to wonder why Dick Emery had been erased from British Comedy? Others such as Tommy Cooper, Frankie Howerd and the like are held up as major comic influences on others. Considering some of his material it certainly wouldn’t be considered PC but its certainly harmless.

The clips above show a range of the characters Emery created. Now although not rip-roaringly funny in this compilation, some of his work was ground-breaking. He was one of the only commedians in the 1970’s and 80’s to feature an openly gay (and yes camp) man – but one who was clearly enjoying all aspects of gay life. Something we rarely see even today.

So today I found myself saying thank you Dick Emery for making me laugh as a child and for raising a smile some 30+ years later. That has to be some record I’m sure.

 

Surprised by things you didn’t know you remembered

Isn’t it strange how some things impact on you and the rational state of your particular universe. Often, these things (at least to me) seem to be things which I was only partially aware of in the first place.

The news broke today of the death of a female singer songwriter from the 1970’s. Lyndsey de Paul was not immensely well known and wasn’t someone I particularly followed or even liked as a child. However, I do remember her singing Rock Bottom with Mike Moran in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1977. I was around 12 at the time and despite these events forming nothing more than a passing blip of recognition, the news of her death has had a significant impact on me.

Given her relatively young age (64) it isn’t perhaps surprising but it does make me wonder if I’m firing on all four cylinders at present. I often find that these rather random events gain greater significance that perhaps is due when I’m slightly off kilter.

Some people notice they don’t sleep well, others spot memory lapses or loss of appetite. I notice that I get a bit sentimental. Perhaps Rock Bottom has more significance than I had previously thought.

Throwing the lions at Christian

Now I’m one of those people who will annoy many, please others and just bring bemused puzzlement to others. You see, I don’t buy the accepted wisdom that humans are the only animals capable of emotions.   We may argue where the boundary of higher emotional capability lies  and I’m not suggesting a hamster is capable of jealousy and revenge – but then I wouldn’t rule it out either.

This documentary was recently shown on Channel 4 and reminded me both how much has changed in terms of our relationship to animals. In this instance, Christian was purchased at Harrods in the last 60’s when buying a lion was entirely possible.

Occasionally a story is so touching, refreshing and challenging that it just merits being circulated and praised. An amazing story well worth watching.