June 30, 2012
Before the Iron Curtain came down, my brother and I holidayed in East Germany. Our reason for going escapes me now. I don't remember meeting any other tourists; the food shops sold only bottled gherkins and dry bread sticks and we were held for a while in unpleasant police custody.
But while there we did visit Buchenwald concentration camp. Little did we know we were starting a trend. These days it's called 'Genocide tourism.'
One of the abiding memories of this month's Euro football tournament - cliamxing tomorrow night with the final - was the England team visiting Auschwitz. The experience had a profound effect on Wayne Rooney. 'It's hard to understand,' he said. 'I am a parent and it's tough to see what happened there. You've seen the amount of children who died. You see the children's clothes and shoes, it's really sad. You have to see it first hand.'
The visit got a mixed press. Oliver Holt in the Daily Mirror said 'the harrowing visit made an extremely powerful statement,' as football struggles with racism among players and fans. Melanie Phillips in the Daily Mail, however, found it a 'deeply distasteful football PR stunt.'
But England was not alone in exchanging goal posts for gas chambers. Players from Italy and Holland had been there before them and representatives from the German team followed.
Whatever the motives, 'dark tourism' is becoming increasingly big business. Auschwitz received 1.4 million visitors last year and as Clare Spencer recently reported, it's not the only genocide memorial which is seeing a rise in interest. Bosnia, Rwanda and Cambodia have also become popular destinations on the 'genocide tourism' circuit.
Tour guide George Mavroudis, who charters planes to fly Americans around Rwanda to see the gorillas, says most of his clients also ask to visit the memorial in Kigali marking the murder of around 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994. Over 40,000 visited the memorial last year where row upon row of skulls are on display, as they are in Cambodia, where the victims of the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge are remembered. But what sort of a tourist pays these places a visit?
It seems people are broadening their holiday horizons and showing a desire to get beyond the pool side bar. 'People want to be challenged,' says psychologist Sheila Keegan. 'It may be voyeuristic and macabre but people want to feel those big emotions which they don't often come across. They want to ask that very basic question about being human - 'How could we do this?''
But this is not the only response to such memorials. In a famous scene in Trevor Griffiths's marvellous play, 'The Comedians', the sympathetic figure of Eddie Waters makes a shocking confession after visiting Buchenwald. 'It wasn't only repulsive,' he says. 'I got an erection in that place. An erection!'
There will be mixed motives amongst the genocide tourists this summer. Respect, horror, sadness, rage and strange fascination. When in New York a few years ago, I just had to stand in the exact spot where John Lennon was shot.
June 28, 2012
My Greenbelt Talks. Coming?
I now know - as of twenty minutes ago - what I'm doing and when I'm doing it at The Greenbelt Arts Festival on the August Bank Holiday weekend.
The title for the festival this year is 'Saving Paradise' and it all takes place at the Cheltenham race course.
All my action comes on Bank Holiday Monday.
11.00am: Solitude - Recovering the power of alone
Looking at the difference between solitude and loneliness, at the relationship between solitude and mindfulness, at our terror of solitude and at how solitude can become our mainspring for action.
2.00pm: Conversations with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
He's famous for writing the Sherlock Holmes adventures but while these gave him wealth, he sought paradise in speaking with the dead. His friend Harry Houdini thought all mediums were frauds. But Doyle sacrificed literary fame for adventures beyond the grave. Was he wise?
Perhaps I'll see you there.
June 27, 2012
Name the odd one out: impressionist Rory Bremner, pop star Gary Barlow, comedienne Dawn French and painter LS Lowry? The answer is Gary Barlow. He accepted an honour from the queen while the others all refused.
Apparently LS Lowry holds the record, turning down an honour on five different occasions.
So the question is, if the letter from the honours committee dropped on your doormat would you accept? After all, isn't rejection just being churlish?
Gary Barlow has been in the wrong sort of news recently. Awarded an OBE earlier this year, he said he was thrilled. 'Growing up I never dreamt that one day I'd be getting one myself. I enjoy every minute of the work I do, with a lot of it being a reward in itself so for somebody to decide I should get recognised for that is just amazing.'
But we've since discovered that his work is not quite enough in terms of reward - because he's also used a tax scheme that leaves him paying only 1% income tax. How does the British Empire feel about that?
Of course for author JG Ballard, another of the honours 'refuseniks', the empire and the queen was the problem. 'Thousands of medals are given out in the name of a non-existent empire,' he said. 'It makes us look a laughing stock and encourages deference to the crown.'
But when film director Ken Loach said no to an OBE in 1977, it had less to do with the queen and more to do with the other winners: 'It's not a club you want to join when you look at the villains who've got one.'
Rory Bremner turned down an OBE for professional reasons. As Alistair Campbell reveals in his book 'Burden of Power,' 'His view was that even if the offer was not made in the hope of taming his comedy, if even one person watching him perform felt it did, it was not a risk worth taking.'
My main issue with the honours system is that it rewards the fortunate who have already been rewarded. I'm delighted Gary Barlow can write songs and I happily sing along to them in the bath. But even without his tax avoidance schemes, he's been very amply paid. As Jesus could see a long time ago, it is the way of all flesh: 'To those who have, more shall be given.'
Occasionally of course the awards filter down to local communities and an MBE is offered to some local stalwart. But is anyone really helped by this? Those who are psychologically well are happy with the life they're given and the love they're able to show. Only the disturbed or the sad could enjoy being set apart from others in this way; and only the desperate could lust after such affirmation.
The chances are remote. But if the letter came my way, I would feel a moment of pride, laugh at the absurdity and then politely say 'no'.
June 25, 2012
The frog and the scorpion
I like the story of the scorpion and the frog, which remarkably turned up in a team talk for the English football team last week.
Manager Roy Hodgson sat the boys down and once they were comfortable and settled, recounted what happened:
'Once a scorpion met a frog by the river. The scorpion asked the frog if it could sit on its back and be taken across.
The frog was undertsandably suspicious.
'How do I know you won't kill me on the way with your poison?'
'What would I gain from that?' asked the scorpion. 'If I killed you I myself would drown.'
It seemed a fair point and so the frog said 'Yes' and started out across the river with the scorpion on its back.
But half way across the river the scorpion struck at the frog with its fatal poison. The frog felt its life ebbing away as it began to sink with the scorpion.
But before it went down, the frog had to ask: 'Why?'
'Because it's in my nature,' said the scorpion as they both went under.
Accepting the truth of our nature without self-blame is the beginning of our rise to the surface, when we think we're drowning.
P.S. Sadly, this story does not appear to improve performance on the football pitch.
June 24, 2012
A life journey
Existing and developing inside the other
Snuggled in a blanket of darkness and warmth
Attached by cord, our first lifeline
Through which we filter both the helpful and harmful
We are dependent on the other and we come to know her every movement
Inside out we hear the sounds that echo within her body
We are held by her heartbeat
A constant companion, accompanying us as we grow
Bouncing, turning, stretching, kicking
We are content to be
Until the day that our movement becomes restricted and we need to break free
Followed by our first gasp for air
Then the cut
A strange sound coming from deep within
The desperate cry for help
We are no longer physically attached
But we cannot recognise ourselves as separate
Too small and fragile to survive without care
We need others to live
So for good or ill our lives begin to be shaped others
Gradually we form our first attachments
If they are good, we will survive and grow
We will come to know the world as a place of kindness and warmth
And recognise ourselves as good and loveable
If they are bad, we may not survive, but if we do we will be weak and damaged
Our animal instinct will be close to the surface, attack and survive will be our default position
We will come to know the world as cold and cruel
And falsely recognise ourselves as bad and unlovable
If they are indifferent or unpredictable we will probably physically survive, but we will learn to be hyper vigilant
We will come to know the world as a confusing frightening place that cannot be trusted, our experience will be that good things are given and then whipped away
We will falsely recognise ourselves as unimportant, cowardly and powerless
Our first attachments will deeply influence the patterns of behaviour we form
And we will live these patterns until we notice them and therefore are able to change them
If we are fortunate we will meet others who can aid and guide our journey
Once we realise that these early patterns of behaviour are seriously restricting us
We are on our way to breaking free
We are preparing to embrace the next stage of our journey
That is to leave the other behind and learn to walk our own pathway
To recognise our own goodness and uniqueness
To learn to think for ourselves, even if it means (as it often does) not agreeing with the majority
We begin to perceive life differently, with new eyes and clearer vision
Things are no longer clear cut, black and white,
We start to notice the subtle hues and many shades of grey
And we become comfortable with difference; we accept things as they are
Eventually we give up trying to control the world and allow ourselves to be part of something bigger
And once again we know we are held by the Heartbeat
But this time it is a heartbeat that encompasses all creation
We joyfully accept our small part in this dance of life
We recognise we are somehow both
One and All
Tiny and Huge
Young and Old
Weak and Strong
Male and Female
Born and Unborn
Human and Devine
Of course our mechanical brains cannot make sense of this
But somehow we hold and embrace this truth
And we know, beyond knowing
That all is quite perfect and all is quite well.
June 23, 2012
You're not on a journey
I was talking with someone last week about the image of the 'journey' in psychological and spiritual growth.
We were aware that it can be a helpful picture. But we were also aware that the idea of journey can become unhelpful for some.
It can create in us the idea that we're going somehwere and we haven't got there yet; which might just blind us to the fact that everything is OK now, that we can accept ourselves and the world as we are right now.
The idea of journey might create in us an unhelpful striving, with voices inside screaming 'When will I get there, when will I get there??' OR 'You're not there yet, you're not there!'
When in fact we are there, right now, right here - but determinedly not noticing.
You're not going home.
You are home.
June 21, 2012
The diminishing power of the oath
'I swear by Almighty God to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Only joking!' Does speaking on oath make any difference at all?
Despite the oaths sworn, there appears to have been some carelessness with the truth at the Leveson inquiry. Two former Prime Ministers, for instance, claim Rupert Murdoch lied in his evidence. The media magnate claims never to have asked a prime minister for anything but John Major says he asked him to change the conservative stance on Europe or his papers would withdraw their support.
Murdoch also claims Gordon Brown 'declared war' on him in a phone call; but Brown denies such a phone call took place and the cabinet records support him.
They can't all be right.
And then Rebekah Brooks, former editor of 'The Sun', said her paper had the Brown's permission to print a story about their son. Mr Brown denied this and was supported by the NHS, who said the paper got the story from an insider at the hospital. But then Gordon Brown also said he'd never instigated or discussed any personal attacks on Tony Blair, which left many in the press corps aghast in disbelief.
Meanwhile, George Osborne and David Cameron were also stretching our credibility muscles to the very limit. Yes, they'd enjoyed countless dinners, parties, Christmas days, phone calls, text messages and private meetings with the News Corp hierarchy - but we must understand that they amounted to absolutely nothing in terms of pay back. 'LOL' was the general response - which as Mr Cameron learned from his own chummy text exchanges with Ms Brooks, doesn't mean 'Lots of Love' but 'Laugh out Loud.'
So what now for the oath? Does it possess the moral force to turn a liar into a teller of truth? The Leveson inquiry suggests that it doesn't, that dissembling carries on regardless and perhaps we aren't surprised.
It's one of the life's ironies that the traditional court oath is taken with the hand of the witness on the bible, perhaps the only book explicitly to reject the practice of oath-taking: 'Simply let your 'yes' be 'yes' and your 'no', 'no',' said Jesus. 'Anything beyond this comes from the evil one.'
It makes sense. If you struggle with truth in the bedroom or office, you'll also struggle with it in court.
As anyone who has observed themselves will know, the boundaries between forgetfulness, self-deception and lying are not always clear. Survival strategies adopted by us when young created a brain hard-wired to deceive, a skill we take into adult life. We invent what we need to and retain a terrifying capacity to believe our inventions; and the rich, it seems, are the same.
The Leveson inquiry is an inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press. It's the great and good who've been invited to give their version of events - and the great and good,so careless with the truth, who've ensured the very public death of the oath.
June 20, 2012
Holloway prison and beyond
I was talking yesterday to a prison officer in Holloway prison.
She'd just finished work and I found myself walking beside her after she'd opened a gate for me.
We got talking about her work and the ways her colleagues protect themselves when on duty; obviously she faces some stressful situations and some difficult people. But then so do we all.
She talked about the necessity of putting up barriers to keep these people out and herself protected.
I understood why she said this. On the survival level, barriers are important. So if we only wish to survive, barriers will be our default position.
But I then said to her that the trouble with putting up walls is that in the end, they keep everyone out.
And perhaps even worse, they keep ourselves out. We become strangers to ourselves and therefore quite dangerous and fragile in a tense sort of way.
Like when you meet someone, and feel, 'We never met - we spoke but never met.'
They were walled in, walled up - surviving but hardly alive.
I said the alternative to barriers is to allow people in whilst also allowing them to pass through so they don't lodge in us, don't stay.
The prison officer was very struck by this. It wasn't something she'd heard before. Until then, barriers had seemed the only option.
I was struck by her openness, her ability to receive. She could easily have closed up to this idea, but she was open, inquiring and therefore a miracle.
We won't throw away our barriers until we're ready, of course. That's not sensible - we may be crushed without them.
But as we grow as people, we'll find ourselves increasingly able to allow people in because we know they're passing through, not lodging, not squatting in our psyche.
So we meet them which is important, we welcome them, allow them - but they have no claim on us, no hold over us and so they leave.
This is true beyond Holloway prison.
June 18, 2012
The old entrance into the park
I went for a walk in my local park at lunch.
And by chance, came across an entrance I used to use.
I used to go that way all the time, it was handy but I had to stop because they put a big metal fence across it.
No more access there.
And now the fence itself is overgrown and the old path I used hidden with grass.
It was hard at first, having our old way denied us.
But then we carved a new entrance through the hedge and now everything's fine.
And as I say, I'd forgotten all about the old entrance - once so used and so loved - until I found myself standing near it today.
Once we've let go, things do tend to fall into place...and then we can't quite remember why it was so hard at the time.
Though it was...
June 16, 2012
How old are you?
For those who struggle with form-filling like myself, answering the question about one's age is generally one of the easier ones.
On the face of it, it's not controversial, not a matter up for debate.
How long have I been on this planet? Then that's how old I am.
But of course it isn't, or not in any very profound sense anyway.
The mistake we make is to assume there is only one 'I', one me. We walk around as if we are a single person, speaking, living, reacting, from a single 'I', a single me.
This is far from the case, obviously. In truth, we are a multiplicity of people, of figures inside, who each come to the fore depending on our state. The 'I' when we are at peace or feeling secure is very different from the 'I' when angry, and different again from the 'I' when fearful or the 'I' when aggrieved or the 'I' when threatened.
We are a multiplicity of 'I's' and some of these are very young indeed, remaining unexamined and unchanged in us for years.
Some of our 'I's' are childish and these can cause a greatdeal of trouble.
So yes, physically we are one age, but psychologically we are many different ages. We are an all-age community within.
Which means that when we tell someone to act their age, they may reasonably say to us, 'Which particular one?'
That question on the form about your age - it isn't really discovering much about you at all.
Enjoy your many 'I's' today, watch them come and go. You may even be able to put an age to some of them...
June 14, 2012
Only the sane seek help
If we want to be healthy, there's plenty of advice around. We're told to look after our hearts, keep an eye on our blood pressure, maintain a balanced and nutritious diet and to see a doctor if 'worrying symptoms persist'. It's considered entirely normal to look after our bodies.
Yet our mind, the one part of our body which we can't replace and which determines everything we do, we leave alone to get on by itself, as if it needs no care. Now that's what I call insanity. Shouldn't it be entirely normal to look after our minds as well?
I offer consultations and lead retreats to help people look after their minds. They're like doctor's check-ups in a way. How am I? It's a question we all need to ask occasionally.
And strangely, I believe that people come not because they're mad but because they're sane and know somewhere inside that when they look after their minds they look after themselves and therefore others.
That's a courageous and generous sanity.
And ironically, it's only the sane who seek help.
June 13, 2012
On children left behind
I enjoyed a true story a friend told me today.
He was to be the godfather of a baby born to some rather distracted parents...alcohol a little too predominant.
The service was at midday and my friend turned up at quarter to 12.00. The parents weren't happy with him - they felt he should have turned up a bit earlier on this special day.
But as midday approached a problem emerged. They realised they'd left the baby at home on the kitchen table. (This isn't the Camerons.)
So everyone then walked the 400 yards to their house, but on arrival, there was another problem. The couple realsied they'd left the house keys on the kitchen table next to the baby.
One of those attending the baptism put his hand up and said he could help. He then shinned up a drain pipe and gained entrance to the property through an upstairs window.
He then came downstairs and let everyone in.
My friend spoke to him later asking him how he did it.
'I must confess that I did a little time for burglary when I was younger,' he said.
You couldn't make it up.
What I'm particularly enjoying on this occasion is the anger with my friend for turning up a mere 15 minutes before their child's baptism.
Before the realisation that they'd forgotten the child...
June 11, 2012
The rise and fall and rise of superheroes
Some people don't know what all the fuss is about but Hollywood director Neil Marshall does:
'Sure, it's really just about a guy who dresses up as a bat, but it's such a smart beautifully-made movie about a guy who dresses up as a bat!'
He's speaking of 'The Dark Knight', the second in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy and the biggest box office success of 2008. It's a hot topic now because on July 20th, the much-anticipated final film in the series, 'The Dark Knight Rises' is released. But should we be bothered by such escapist nonsense?
Batman has come a long way from the comic book hero who went 'Kerpow!' and saved a grateful Gotham City with little sign of personal trauma. These days, he's a darker figure who even has a back story. In 'Batman Begins' the young Bruce Wayne faced his deep fear of bats and turned it into a strength. Adopting the bat persona, he became that which he feared and now it was his enemies who felt the terror.
The message was simple: transcend your fears and put them to work for you.
And as we discovered in 'The Dark Knight', the super hero can't always be super. Here he was faced with an impossible choice: save Gotham City's heroic young District Attorney or the love of his life, Rachel Dawes. Super heroes usually solve such conundrums and save everyone but not on this occasion. Batman makes his choice, the D.A. dies and those who wanted two hours of popcorn and escapist fun are brought back to savage reality. Our hero is letting us down badly. This shouldn't happen, should it?
The English Nolan believes it should. He wants to trouble us as well as entertain and compares his latest offering with Dickens' novel 'The Tale of Two Cities.' 'There's an attempt to visualise certain things in this film,' he says, 'that are troubling and genuinely threatening to the idea of an American city. Revolutions and the destabilising of society have happened everywhere in the world. So why not here?'
It's a delicate balancing act, holding together the real and the mythological, the dark and the light. We need our heroes to be better than us to give us something to admire; but we also need them troubled and rooted in a world we recognise otherwise what's the point? To this extent, the selling of Jesus and Batman can appear similar.
In the case of Jesus, we have the savage and implacable denouncer of hypocrisy and cant alongside the ever-available and empathetic friend who walks with us each step of the way. Film directors and theologians both walk the slippery tightrope between challenge and reassurance.
And similarities with Jesus continue for ultimately, the caped crusader is the suffering servant of Gotham City. 'You've given everything!' he's told as he contemplates further sacrifice towards the end of 'The Dark Knight Rises.'
'Not everything. Not yet.'
Shivers down the spine...
June 10, 2012
Songs of Praise recording - What happened?
I had a good Friday afternoon with the Songs of Praise team in my garret.
How can I describe it?
Pretty much like the filming of Spielberg's classic, 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' really.
Chaos, of course, and all very glitzy and all very Hollywood: Cameramen, sound engineers, large catering combo, directors, producers, assistant directors, executive producers, make-up, animal trainers, chief grip, fight coordinator, the stunt team, script writers, Aled Jones' P.A, my P.A, the P.A to my P.A., publicity departments, set designers, the Los Angeles Fire Brigade etc etc - are you getting the picture?
And when it came to the filming, I am proud to say I only used a stunt double twice. Once for the whole crocodile sequence - during which three extras died...fortunately they weren't celebrities - and the other, for the naked mud-wrestling scene with Aled Jones. We must hope we don't lose that in the final edit.
In truth, it was an enjoyable and peaceful experience with a very civil team of four - Aled Jones, producer, camera man and sound man. They were a professional pleasure to work with.
Squashed on my small sofa, I had quite a long chat with Aled about loneliness and solitude. What's the difference between them? Can you be lonely in a crowd? Does it help to have a faith? What can parents do to help their children in this matter? How do you move from loneliness to solitude? And he wanted to know what I meant when I said, 'loneliness is a struggle against reality. Put down the struggle and you put down loneliness.'
These were some of the things we considered, before I got into my sporty clothes so they could take some shots of me running outside down various streets and from various angles.
I had one or two small requests of course:
'Er, could you speed the film up a bit to make it look like I'm going faster?'
'And please, CGI to give my thighs a little more bulk. I mean, let's put technology to good use.'
Not the loneliness of the long distance runner but the solitude of the long distance runner. A daily gift.
The programme goes out on July 29th which is rather nice because that's my birthday.
The BBC are spoiling me...
June 08, 2012
Songs of Praise comes knocking
Today is definitely 'clean shirt' day as I have Aled Jones and the Songs of Praise crew turning up later.
Aled will interview me around themes of loneliness. This is not because I'm Nobby No Mates - no, reallly! - but because of my book on Solitude. That's my story anyway and I'm sticking to it until the day I'm able to face the truth.
I'm not sure how we're all going to fit in to my garret. It isn't Pinewood Studios or indeed St Paul's.
But where there's a will...and did you know thre programme has viewing figures of around 3.5 million? Scorchio!
That's even more than the number of people who follow me on twitter - just.
So as I say, it's definitely a clean shirt day and I'll probably need to hide the mouse traps as well.
I don't want Songs of Praise inadvertently to become an episode of 'The Killing'.
I'll let you know how it goes.
June 07, 2012
Can I be happy alone?
I was talking with someone recently at present out of a 'special relationship'.
Could they ever be happy alone? This was their big question.
Of course they hadn't been happy in previous relationships, far from it. But the unhappiness in those didn't quite evoke the fears she felt now.
In one sense, she isn't 'alone' at all. She has children, friends, work colleagues. She's a successful business woman. But the fact is, she feels alone with out a special status relationship.
'It's what you're taught - you must have someone.' Friendships don't count apparently. Everyone must look for 'the right one' who is going to make all the difference.
Even though they don't. And can't.
My friend was wondering what it was she feared. She knew in her head there was nothing to fear about being single but not in her self, not in her being, and she didn't like the person it was making her. She felt she was being increasingly unkind.
If we feel the world's being unkind to us it does have this effect on us...
We considered the many unhappy relationships we knew around us, in which people accepted 2nd, 3rd or 4th best because the greater fear was to be alone.
My friend didn't wish for that, she couldn't go back to what she'd known. But what was she going forward to?
With tremendous courage and honesty she's looking again at almost everything she's ever believed in.
June 04, 2012
Bank Holy Day.
There's some unknowing about the origins of the Old English word 'halig' but it was probably describing 'that which must be preserved whole or in tact, that which cannot be transgressed or violated.'
And so on from there to meaning 'sacred, godly, set apart'.
It's lost its way a little down the years.
It's been used in expletives, for instance since 1883 as we've sought to intensify the significance of our emotional reactions:
So 'Holy Smoke!' - 1883
'Holy Mackerel!' - 1876
'Holy Cow!' - 1914
etc etc...batman cartoons.. etc
Most of these are euphemisms for 'Holy Christ!' or 'Holy Moses!' We want these giants four-square behind our hysteria.
But back with the origins, 'holy' describes that which must be preserved whole or in tact as opposed to something fractured or distracted - which as you'll know, literally means 'ripped apart'.
On a bank holy day, if we have a moment, we listen to our breathing, become present once again, gather our selves, become undistracted, focused, holy, whole.
In other words, we come home.
We definitely need more bank holy days...
June 01, 2012
I'm involved with various stories at the moment.
I've just finished one long one and am in the middle of another.
But of course stories don't have to be long, some of the best are very short.
So for those who haven't got time for 'War and Peace' today, here's one of the best of the '55 words and no more' variety, written by Jeffrey Whatmore.
'Careful, honey, it's loaded,' he said, re-entering the bedroom. Her back rested against the headboard.
'This for your wife?'
'No, too chancy. I'm hiring a professional.'
'How about me?'
'Cute. But who'd be dumb enough to hire a lady hit man?'
She wet her lips, sighting along the barrel.