When Reality Imitates Fantasy: Dominic Cummings and Gríma Wormtongue

Dominic Cummings Advisor to King Theoden

I have never been able to understand those that hold works of fantasy and fiction in contempt. All my life I have been convinced that the greatest characters in fiction are to be found everywhere in life. Characters of the imagination are simply archetypes of people that we all know, in some form or another. The most spectacular recent ‘dead ringer’ who constantly pops up in the news is Dominic Cummings – the so-called political strategist, currently serving as chief special adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Not only does dear old Dom look exactly like Gríma Wormtongue from the Lord of the Rings, but he operates like him and the nature of his working relationship to the bumbling Prime Minister elegantly duplicates Wormtongue’s relationship with King Theoden of Rohan. The similarities are stunning. Even more astonishing is the fact that Grima is also having his strings pulled by another force of power, not Putin the Red but Saruman the White, or Saruman of many colours, as he liked to be known. The similarities are spectacular. If you haven’t read Lord of the Rings, or seen the film, do so now, I am convinced that Cummings has styled himself on Gríma to simply brilliant effect. Well done Dom.

Grima Wormtongue, the well known advisor to King Billy Bunter

The dramas and real tragedies we are witnessing now have taken on all the horror of a compelling children’s book. Somewhere in the distance all the people and animals in the forest are being swept away on a tide of water and the force of wind thrown at our world by Nature, Nature, the beautiful spirit that has simply had enough of us all, and our idiotic, destructive ways. Meanwhile the King and his cronies lie under the bedclothes snoring and farting and pretending that nothing has happened. From time to time his knights protest, but all he really wants to do is stuff his face like Billy Bunter and sit at his great oval table and hear the voices of his sycophantic toadies squawk “Yes, yes, great King. You are right. You are powerful. We bow down to you, and do as you tell us.” Well done Dom and well done King Theoden (aka Billy Bunter) and well done J.R.R. Tolkien, although Wikipedia tells me that even Wormtongue is based on another ancient character – Unferth from Beowulf. Personally, I am inclined to think he is just another archetype, somebody we all know, and Uriah Heep belongs in this category… and that said… go and see Armando Iannucci’s “The Person History of David Copperfield” it reminds me that we are all archetypes, all cartoon characters, and hopefully even the bad ones eventually get their comeuppance, even if it takes a bit of time.

On the subject of cartoon characters… Martin Scorsese has it wrong when he says Marvel films are formulaic and ‘aren’t cinema’. Marvel films are just jammed full of splendid stories and wonderful characters, from Rocket Raccoon to Gamora and I for one would far rather sit through Avengers Endgame than live for three hours with The Irishman, which is also about violence, but violence of a more unpleasant and realistic kind. But then, it takes all sorts. I have loved Marvel all my life and I fear I am not very highbrow. Hey ho!

All Hail King Billy Bunter
And look who’s here?
And here… and there

Holocaust Memorial Day

This is the talk I gave at The Friends Meeting House concerning Holocaust Memorial Day. The reaction, which was very enthusiastic surprised me, and many people asked me to post it on my blog… so here it is.

Following on from our other speaker (David Selo) who considered the historical importance of Holocaust Memorial day, it has fallen to me to look at this subject in the light of today… and the impact of the past on the present…

I decided to wear my stole to honour today; this particular stole carries a number of symbols that I feel are closest to my heart and are relevant — the star of David, which denotes my origins, and the dove of peace which is particularly important to me, also the Ankh… the Ankh is the Egyptian hieroglyph for life and has become associated with eternity, and it is also sometimes called The Crux Ansata. It represents the goddess Hathor who is associated with the zest for life and interestingly she is also the goddess of death. Her symbol reminds us of the beauty of being… and also non-being, in this world and the next. Symbols are important; the one symbol I don’t have here is the symbol of the butterfly, which was drawn, etched and painted by thousands of children at the (Theresienstat) Terezin Concentration camp… it seems so important that these children chose this symbol, because the butterfly represents the soul, endurance, hope, life, rebirth and renewal.

Holocaust Memorial Day has come to represent the sorrow and tragedy of many people throughout the world, innocent people who have died for their apparent difference. I don’t believe there any difference between any of us. Whether one is marginalised by so called race, or ideology, the act of murder is just an excuse to vent hatred and exert power…. Right now there are 40 known wars taking place as we sit here, 40 places where people are killing each other for ideology or racial differences, and equally frightening… there is also a corporate war, fuelled by human greed, waged on the very fabric of our planet itself, its resources and all its life forms. 

As we all know, and some here will know better than I, lessons from the past can teach us a lot about the future. And to start with, I won’t accept the complacency that says ‘It couldn’t happen here’ because… we need to remember that the Concentration Camp is in itself is a British invention; it was used in the second Boer War, from 1899 to 1902… and concentration camps were also used by White Americans to contain and control the Native American population in the mid 19th century so this method of corralling and controlling people of so called ‘difference’ has been in operation for a long time. The other reason that I won’t accept any kind of complacency, particularly from those that say ‘It couldn’t happen here’ is because it is happening in part right now…

UK Removal Centre

Look no further – men and women are being treated in the most degrading way, solely because of their so-called difference… people are being detained right now in UK Removal Centres, this is Government created language, language used to dehumanise… hence this interesting phrase… UK Removal Centres. A UK Removal Centre is not somewhere where furniture is stored, it refers to a place designed to imprison people whose only crime is to seek freedom when their home is no longer safe, who are housed in prisons with names like Brook House Immigration Removal Centre, Campsfield House in Oxfordshire and Colnbook Immigration Centre – run by Mitie PLC, and Dungavel in Lanarkshire run by the GEO Group. Who are these innocent people and who are the companies chosen to do this dreadful work for Her Majesty’s Government? Mitie promotes itself as a UK facilities management company, whilst the GEO Group is a worldwide Group committed to providing ‘leading, evidence-based rehabilitation programs to individuals while in-custody and post-release into the community through the “GEO Continuum of Care programme which includes cognitive behavioural treatment, integrated with post–release support services”. 

Dungavel Removal Centre

The privatisation of detention centres means that corporations (with shareholders) are making money out of imprisonment of innocent people who have been expelled from their homes and their homelands, and we, one of the richest countries in the world are paying for companies to forcefully hold and imprison people for our own political ends, and those imprisoned are called immigrants and aliens.

It is with a heavy heart I see that our own Government may use child refugees as bargaining chips for its own political ends. In its first days of power the new Government rejected any attempt to reinstate child refugee protection rights, an inhumane position that defies understanding. 

Returning to the holocaust… The secret of identifying the machinery of holocaust lies in the methods and means. The devil definitely lies in the detail — Topf and Sons was a company known for its industrial heating and brewing systems. They also happened to manufacture crematoria ovens in Buchenwald, Dachau and other concentration camps and later became known as ‘the engineers of the final solution’. Closer to home, another company that you may know better is Thomas J Watson’s IBM which played a particularly ugly role the holocaust story. In this case the detail relates to the production line – every concentration camp maintained its own Hollerith-Abteilung (Hollerith Department), assigned to keep tabs on inmates throughout the war using of IBM’s punch-card technology. Apparently Willy Heidinger, who was the chief executive of Dehomag, the German subsidiary of IBM was an great supporter of the Hitler regime, did a lucrative deal with Watson’s company shortly before the war. The Nazis went on using the technology during the implementation of the final solution; in his book IBM and the Holocaust, Edwin Black states that “without IBM’s machinery, continuing upkeep and service, as well as the supply of punch cards, whether located on-site or off-site, Hitler’s camps could have never managed the numbers they did.” The devil does indeed lie in the detail. So, when you next Google something on your personal computer, please give a thought to the origins of IBM.

Another horrific detail of the holocaust, which abruptly brings us up-to-the moment is Zyklon B. This cyanide-based pesticide was used to gas men, women and children and was also a widely used insecticide; its variants are still manufactured and used today. It is horrifically poisonous, and kills all forms of life, human, mammal and insect alike… yes…this particular form of extermination and its modifications is not confined to people, chemical pesticides kill, and are widely used to undermine life on our planet to this very day. I was reminded of this tragic fact only a week or so ago by my own MP, Caroline Lucas, who was curating at an exhibition of some beautiful nature paintings and landscapes at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne. During her talk she reminded us that in her own lifetime we have lost half of all our beautiful wildlife in the UK. Half. Moderns farming with its propensity to kill everything that moves, has contributed to the destruction of so much, and where will that take us in 50 years’ time? I hope, most truly that we will seek to reverse what we have destroyed, in so many ways.

During the 12 years that the Third Reich held power, people across Europe who were under the shadow of this most dreadful system said that they didn’t know what was going on, an excuse echoed time and time again. Later on, Nazi sympathisers and other members of the extreme right have reiterated and developed their position by denying the existence of the Holocaust itself, and an interesting and alarming parallel is now manifesting itself on a global scale. Today Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites occupy a number of corners of the world, they appear to be growing in number, but we all hope that their growth is a mere anomaly. Climate change denial which shares many similarities, is not only widely spread, readers of millions of right-wing newspapers, published in the UK, Australia and the United States are aggressively promoting climate change denial in order to uphold corporate convenience and imperatives, and keep their advertisers happy.

There is a definite relationship between Holocaust denial and climate change denial. What I find most alarming is the similarities between these two topics in terms of images, images that we have all come to know. In the case of the Holocaust the black and white images show seeming piles of rubbish, which aren’t rubbish at all, they are piles of corpses – people –  people who had hobbies, families, passions and personalities like you and I, piled into heaps… and also piles of artefacts, clothes, prosthetics, wedding rings and hair, and those tragic images have a horrible parallel with the images of today, right now … vast piles of human stuff — debris of all kinds (in apparently distant lands) with children sifting through the rubbish in order to find something to eat, or trade… and also images of lakes and seas of plastic, clogging up the very soul of the planet, fish, corals and plankton…  piles of discarded consumer products filling up filthy landfill as consumerism continues on its relentless way… and images of struggling animals trying to survive oil slicks, animals fleeing the destruction of their habitat, by land grabbers, by fire, by corporate greed – forests and jungles burnt and destroyed, places that once served as home to millions of beautiful, now extinct species, from plants to mammals, from hummingbirds to butterflies. The similarities cannot be overlooked. These are anti-life images and they are the work of humans. Another kind of favoured Fascist image was the family propaganda pics of the Nazi regime happy Aryan family images, whose smiling faces are not different from the happy family images now appearing on TV that promote gas guzzling cars, giant SUVs that protect people and their families from other people in similar cars, reminding us that we must protect our own… Always protect our own. No wonder we think in terms of ‘them and us’. The machinery of marketing tells us to do so. 

I do not want to close this talk on a negative tone. The concept of Holocaust Memorial Day is in itself humanitarian and enlightened. It must serve to remind us that we are as much creatures of compassion and empathy as we are creatures of cruelty. But I cannot overlook that my forbears came to this country, and were not imprisoned, they were free to come here. My antecedents came from Portugal, Italy, and Holland on one side, and from Germany on the other, and I am truly grateful that they came here, and above all things… were allowed to stay. And it’s the same for all of us, every single one of us in this room, because we are all refugees according to history… the latest scientific evidence shows that we are much more closely related to each other than was previously thought. There are no five races. We are one race, we all came from Africa, and we are all much more closely related than we realise. If you take any two apes or chimpanzees you will discover they are much more distantly related than you and I. You and I are related. We belong to one race and one race alone that lived in Africa 300,000 years ago, and then 100,000 years afterwards we chose to wander the planet. The 7.7 billion people on this planet are all related to each other. We seem diverse, as diverse as flowers in a beautiful and colourful garden, but we are all related.  

Perhaps the best lesson to be learnt from Holocaust Memorial Day is that we are here, together, sharing this moment in the Friends Meeting House, the home of one of the most generous, hospitable, peace-loving faith groups of all. We are the privileged guests of The Quakers, a group I honour with all my heart, and thank today.  It will not be a novelty to our hosts when I say that we just need to cherish and respect each other, to celebrate each other’s difference in terms of ideas, skin colour, beliefs and enthusiasms… because, as we all know… we learn absolutely nothing from exterminating each other, but we do learn from revering and celebrating life itself, in all its beautiful manifestations. Thank you.

Half of English Wildlife has Disappeared

The Unexpected Flights of Fairies

Peaseblossom, Mustardseed Cobweb and Moth in action

In days of old, when I was running my Marketing and PR Company, I had an office in Kentish Town. Kentish Town then was not the most glorious corner of London, and 30 years ago it was a bit rough, yet aspiring to be genteel and trendy. Our company office was in a mews, and it was quite charming in a bijou sort of mewsy way. We were located opposite a builder, and our other neighbours were thoroughly mixed, varying from an arty-farty photographer to something that was faceless and anonymous, and remained so, and then disappeared very suddenly.

We worked hard, employed quite a few people, and had quite a few adventures. My joke, which was a half joke half-something else was all about how to appeal-to and also appease the household gods. Apparently household gods fall into two categories – the number one hearth goddess and the fairies – better known as Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, Cobweb and Moth… or Twinkle, Dinkle and Stinkle depending on your choice of literature.

I have always had a strong feeling for good and bad in places, and for many years our office seemed to be a good place, honoured by good spirits, and optimism. As a company we were modest, hard-working and jolly and delivered good work to our clients. Time passed and clients came and went, and the company flourished, and things were good while we were there.  Meanwhile… although I didn’t have shrine to the household gods, I regularly deferred to them, and the staff and co-director put up with my eccentricity, and joined in the fun. 

Then things started to happen in the mews. We had an armed robbery opposite us, and the weekly wages for the builder, which were all in cash, were snatched. After this the vulnerability of the mews started to become apparent. The photographer suffered from a theft, and about six months later so did some other neighbours, and we with our notorious optimism and the support of the household gods continued unaffected…until a year or two passed-by. Then one day we arrived at the office to discover that the very large and expensive five lever lock had been prised off the door, and taken away, and computers and their chips had been grabbed.  A couple of weeks later the thieves came back to take whatever they fancied and had left behind the first time.

 We left shortly afterwards, taking a circuitous route, firstly staying for a short time with an advertising agency that had taken over the photographer’s studio and installed heavy-duty security, and then on to an office in Kensal Rise. But the most intriguing thing was the change that underwent the Kentish Town mews office after the burglary. However much we attempted to shore up the equipment, or the furniture in that place, after the robbery, the fairies were gone, so much so that the staff would comment on it regularly, and they were a lot more astonished by the change in atmosphere than myself. The difference was palpable. The good fairies had flown… for good.

Another fairy duo

That departure by certain spirits from certain places is something we can all identify. It’s not about the colour of the paint, or the warmth or the smell. It’s something to do with the people occupying a space, something to do with feng shui but its more than that. It’s to do with ambience, love, spirit and other things that defy language. It explains why certain cultures have powerful forces that favour them for eons, and then those spiritual or godly elements depart as quickly as they arrived. The presence of mystical and mysterious forces, both positive and negative in rooms, temples, churches and also open spaces is something that children and animals can identify, and adults less so, unless they are spiritually sensitive.

Very recently, when I was on holiday with my partner; we visited all sorts of gardens and stately homes and castles. One of these gardens and its associated castle filled us with a deep sense of apprehension. We couldn’t even enter the building, and although we walked around the gardens, which were large and wild, we still could not shake off the feeling of dread until we had departed from that place. I will never be persuaded that such feelings are imaginary, because they are as real as toothache or bad weather. They are there, and until we start to connect with such feelings, in a healthy and sensible way, we may find ourselves blundering through life without any reference to our intuition which is there for a purpose.

Intuition is a force and feeling that is wise, even if in the short term it appears not to be the case. Intuition is an intrinsic part in our lives and the lives of others, with its lovely knowledge and interaction with the spirits of Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, Moth and Cobweb, to name but a few fabulous and famous fairies… that you have to admit… can be so very loveable.

R.E.S.P.E.C.T Adventures in the Unitarian Church… and beyond … in Westminster

There is a school of thought that believes that we have the right to say and do anything anywhere. I am in trouble with the Unitarian Church because at a service ten days ago (that I was holding) I got into a conversation with a mother whose young child clearly did not want to be in the church, and who could blame him? It was a lovely sunny day and the child was making a lot of noise, and yelling that he wanted ‘a wee’ while his parents tried to amuse him with lots of toys and appeals for quiet, which he understandably ignored. People seated around the family looked ready to scream, but unable to do so, because a church is not a good place to scream. When I spoke to the mother about the disruption, she became huffy and asked if I wanted the family to leave… and I checked-in to my inner self. I looked briefly at the congregation, a quiet peaceful group of people who were going to listen to an address about spirit and music, who would later be meditating in near silence, and decided that ‘yes, I wanted them to leave’.

Because of my carefully considered decision I have become a pariah in the Unitarian church, and have been seriously admonished. And so… it came to be… that I was asked why I showed no remorse… and I leave the answer up to you.

The idea that a sacred space is always suitable and open to everyone is not sensible. Some places of worship need quiet to honour and respect a sacred moment and the need for peace and others do not. When we hold the interfaith service on the 24thNovember the church will be full of yelling and singing and reciting kids having a great time and being generally part of the action. I love them. It is their space then — a space for a great mix of people of all ethnicities, faiths, families, ages and ideas. Even the children that come to see their siblings will be happy, because the space honours them all. This is about respect. Respect to know what is right at the right time. 

The other night we all sat around the box watching Jacob Rees Mogg sprawling across a bench in the House of Commons in the most ludicrous way. It was no different from PM Johnson putting his foot on a fine table in the office of the French President for a picture opportunity. It was no different from the PM shouting abuse and children’s playground language at the opposition… language ready to be used and re-used in the tabloid press. This is about inappropriate behaviour, an understanding of what is right in the right place. This is about the difference between children and adults, and I respect both, in the right place at the right time… because I am both. But it is up to adults to identify what is appropriate in order to honour time, place, and moment and the needs of other human beings.

As we sat in front of the box, screaming at the slouching Rees Mogg, our much-loved member of parliament – Caroline Lucas – stood up and voiced everything that had gone through our minds, and more. She reminded us that Rees Mogg’s body language sent out a message – it spoke of boredom… and the unwritten agenda was lack of respect. Respect is needed… right now, and the ability to identify when it should be used is almost as important as expressing it. Respect is not a word that the leadership of this country understands… and this is a shame, because we all know what it is… and we respect respect. Respect is very closely related to love… and lack of it defies language.

Loyalty: from the Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter

We are witnessing a horrific fight for the keys to 10 Downing Street. A rabble of disloyal self-serving politicians is driving our country to hell in a handcart… they don’t know what loyalty is… and they don’t care…

We need loyalty right now. This was my address at The Unitarian Church last Sunday: I started as boringly as possible, so that everything that came afterwards was greeted enthusiastically

Online Etymology Dictionary says that: loyalty comes from the Old French loialteleaute and The Medieval Latin word legalitas. The earlier Middle English form was leaute (mid-13c.), from the older French form. …is about Allegiance … It’s a matter of principle and applies especially to conduct. (Apparently)Loyalty is a matter of both principle and sentiment, conduct and feeling; it implies enthusiasm and devotion.

This deadly dry explanation from cyberspace just reveals that the use of a word in isolation doesn’t mean a thing, but when it’s woven into poetry, literature, conversation and life-experience it’s is a great deal more beautiful and meaningful.

Apart from the madnessof loyalty, the kind of loyalty that led nearly 2.67 million men to volunteer for the First World War, and other mistaken acts of human faith, the word means something very special. So, when I think of loyalty in its most simple sense, I have an almost visceral feeling about it, that is even stronger when I recall those films and books where loyalty has been a key part of the story. I am an enthusiast for some popular literature: The Lord of the Rings, and The Fellowship of the Ring, and Harry Potter all lean heavily on loyalty as underlying themes. I draw the line at The Famous Five, but I’m sure you won’t mind about that. Interestingly it’s said that Agatha Christie held loyalty in low esteem. Maybe that’s why I feel a bit off about her, and I don’t think she likes me much either.

Tolkien was clearly a great enthusiast for loyalty, which may have come, in part from his gruesome wartime experiences. It’s not surprising that The Lord of the Rings is so deeply concerned with loyalty as a central part of its plot. It’s a strong characteristic of the Hobbits, who always insist on doing stuff together. Despite their diminutive size they are allowed to become four of the Nine Walkers chosen to counter the evil of the Nine Black Riders. Their powerful devotion to each other is evident to Elrond (Number one elf) who agrees to let them form the main representative group in The Fellowship of the Ring. 

In Rivendell, the home of Elves, Elrond outlines what the Company of the Fellowship can and cannot do. Later on, when the Company has undergone some terrifying adventures, it is in an act of weakness and disloyalty that upsets everything. A member of the fellowship, Boromir, who is a man (rather than elf or dwarf) breaks up the Fellowship by trying to use brute force to take the Ring of Power. And this is the point in the saga when we discover what can happen to people who are disloyal. It’s a moment that opens out the plot very effectively. In the space of just four short paragraphs…in a book of over 455,000 words, the chain of loyalty is broken with disastrous consequences:

            ‘Come, come, my friend!’ said Boromir in a softer voice. Why not get rid of it? Why not be free of your doubt and fear? You can lay the blame on me, if you will. You can say that I was too strong and took it by force. For I am too strong for you halfling,’ he cried; and suddenly he sprang over the stone and leaped at Frodo. His fair and pleasant face was hideously changed; a raging fire was in his eyes.

            Frodo dodged aside and again put the stone between them. There was only one thing he could do: trembling he pulled out the Ring upon its chain and quickly slipped it on his finger, even as Boromir sprang at him again. (Frodo was now invisible)The Man gasped, stared for a moment amazed, and then ran wildly about, seeking here and there among the rocks and trees.

            ‘Miserable trickster!’ he shouted. ‘Let me get my hands on you! Now I see your mind. You will take the ring to Sauron and sell us all. You have only waited your chance to leave us in the lurch. Curse you and all halflings to death and darkness!’  Then, catching his foot on a stone, he fell sprawling and laid upon his face. For a while he was as still as if his own curse had struck him down; then suddenly he wept.

            He rose and passed his hand over his eyes, dashing away the tears. ‘What have I said?’ he cried. ‘What have I done? Frodo, Frodo!’ He called. ‘Come back!’  A madness took me, but it has passed. Come back!’

Tolkien didn’t let Boromir get away with his act of betrayal. Wild with remorse and regret, he lets this tormented character sacrifice his life shortly afterwards, for the good of the Fellowship, now divided by his act of disloyalty. Meanwhile Frodo, believing that the power of the ring warps everyone around him, runs off to Mordor, to destroy the ring.

It’s a great evaluation of the massive potential effect of disloyalty, and how it can cause a chain reaction. Of all human emotions I have witnessed in my life, disloyalty sows the seeds of regret more than almost any other. Men who have left their wives and children, people who have said bad things about people they admire, all live to regret their disloyalty… Loyalty is both positive and powerful and is much better if honoured if one wants an easy life. And all this serves to remind us that love is almost surely the most important force in our lives (and whatever our belief system) is something sublime.

Another enthusiast for loyalty has to be JK Rowling. Despite a few personal doubts about the consistency of her writing, I have to admire her for her tremendous plot construction and portrayal of loyalty as revealed by Harry, Hermione and Ron Weasley in Harry Potter. These three all know exactly what loyalty is about, and very rarely waver in their support of each other. Like the Lord of the Rings, loyalty is a key component to the story. The loyalty of Severus Snape to Harry’s mother, and to Harry himself, is particularly beautiful and touching, given that for most of the book Harry is fairly unpleasant to Snape, in every way. Snape’s loyalty is almost angelic; through thick and thin he continues to be loathed by everyone, other than Dumbledore, yet still remains both loyal and brave in the face of great opposition. This is loyalty indeed, and it’s a wonderful study of loyalty at its most consistent and touching. As a study in fidelity, its almost worth reading for this alone. I like to think that its impact on the young people has been both profound and life-changing.

There’s not much doubt that loyalty and love are closely related in more than one way, and disloyalty and betrayal are also pretty well one and the same. Yet in the world of business some people use the idea and ideal of loyalty in quite a base way — the phrase ‘customer loyalty’ in all its cynical glory makes my heart sink…. For the time being let’s just bask in the light of faithfulness and kindness as revealed in this church and its congregation, and also another lovely quotation, this time from Cicero, ‘Nothing is more noble, nothing more venerable, than loyalty.” 

Acts of Violence Against People of Belief

My role within the Interfaith Contact Group (IFCG) recently switched from Secretary to Co-Chair, a position I share with Kate Williamson. Now Charlotte Gravestock, who was Secretary before, is Secretary again after eight years. It’s no exaggeration to say that both Kate and Charlotte are inspired.

Hove Methodist Church

The Interfaith Contact Group of Brighton and Hove is in itself an inspirational organisation, a microcosm of all that is best in the worldwide interfaith movement. It’s harmonious, peaceful and wise.

But being involved in an interfaith organisation is not all sweetness and light. One of the sorrows of belonging is being so very aware to the horrors of people of belief being killed, tortured or maimed for who they are and what they believe in. It is so very strange that within the human mind, another person’s beliefs are reckoned to be so bad and inferior to one’s own that one feels the need to kill them. Do those people who set out one sunny day to blow-up innocent men, women and children ever have any self-doubt? I wonder. This evening the IFCG will be holding a peace vigil in Hove Methodist Church at 6pm, honouring the people who died in Sri-Lanka, and next Wednesday, May 1st, we will hold our monthly Interfaith Peace Prayers at the Baha’i Centre in Stanford Avenue from 6pm to 7pm. Loving, sacred words, which draw people of all faiths and none are becoming increasingly important… and needed.

Here’s a prayer I produced for the vigil this evening:

When we lose spirits of faith
Caught up in a moment
Of sacred celebration
We lose so much of ourselves
And so, we feel abandoned

The departed pass on…
Holding belief in their hearts
Christian, Jew and Muslim
Buddhist, Atheist and Pagan
They continue their journey of mystery
But we, the survivors are left behind

It seems that energy, soul and belief
Life and love have gone for good
Because of the bad…
Known or unknown…
Companions go unheard and unseen
And so, we feel forsaken

And as we stand on the shore
Watching the tide shift gently
So very gently
We witness the change from being
To non-being
And we feel adrift and abandoned

And some will want revenge
And others are too bereft to think
And the rest will seek to know
And there is sorrow and desolation

But the truth lies in all of us
Those that have departed
And those that remain

It is buried… so deep
That when we come to our moment
Of knowing why they left us
We realise that there was no staying or leaving
We were, and are and will be…
We were never alone, never abandoned
And never destroyed
For we are as one
And the story has no end

 

A Beautiful and Effective Way to Stop People from Killing Each Other

 

If you watch lots of television, whether it’s the news, or a drama series or a documentary film you may conclude that there is only one way to deal with terrorism: it’s to deploy a bunch of blokes in black clothes, bullet-proof vests, balaclavas and battering rams to break into the wrongdoers’ hideout.  Then your crack-team will either blow up the terrorists, or hand-cuff them and take them off and incarcerate them. In other words, one deploys a similar response to the problem itself, one that does not differ much from the methods the perpetrators might favour themselves.

Or one can do something completely different… the problem is that our Government has no idea about what this may be, and that is one of the terrible problems of the moment. We are run by a Government with no imagination, no will and no intelligence… but there is another way, as I will reveal at the end of this bloggetty blog.

To appreciate the fact that our Government is clueless about violence, one needs only to go back to 2003 when Tony Blair declared war on Iraq. Those of us that marched on February 15th then, realised we would soon face relentless terrorist activities from people who had never been our enemies before. Why couldn’t Tony Blair see this? I have often wondered.

There are many causes of violence and governments, particularly ours seem incapable of understanding the root causes.  People who invest in war and conflict is one cause. The other, and maybe even more terrible cause is poverty itself. In scenarios of poverty, where there is no hope, people resort to violence, either under the influence of extreme anger, alcohol, oppression, or frustration. I have a friend who has done a lot of filming for charities in Afghanistan. She tells me that if the (oxymoronic) Ministry of Defence had deployed the kind of money it spent on arms and killing people, on acts of friendship instead, like building schools, new homes, health and agricultural initiatives, the story about Afghanistan and what happened there would have been completely different. The cost financially would have been a great deal less, and we wouldn’t have seen so many innocents killed and maimed.

The UK has a history of war and waging war, and we have learnt nothing.

Here’s a terrible statistic that I found in Google: Over 14 million people, about one in five of the UK population are in poverty, according to the Joseph Rountree Foundation. Of them 8.2 million are working-age adults, 4.1 million are children and 1.9 million are pensioners. Eight million people live in poverty in families where at least one person is working. This is a terrible recipe for violence and disaster; it’s a recipe for domestic violence; it’s a recipe for terrorism, it’s a recipe for people to hate and hate again – to hate people with more money than one has oneself — to hate people of different ethnicity — to hate people of different ages, genders, looks and sexual inclination. It’s the anger behind Brexit and perhaps something a great deal worse.

On the Third of October 2018 our Leader, the Rt Hon Theresa May MP announced that austerity was over. And six months later we see pigs flying about, or as the Italians say, we see donkeys flying, or according to the French, we now celebrate a week with four Thursdays on St Glinglin’s day, not to mention the Serbian suggestion that this is the moment when the willow bears grapes. So who dares to say that austerity is over?

But even in this awful moment, there is a way to tackle hatred. It’s to bring people together. To find common ground for ideas, conversations, creativity and interests. It’s to get people to eat and talk and share things together. This what that Interfaith Contact Group of Brighton and Hove does, without any money. If you want to see how we do it, please take a look at this brilliant 10-minute film made by Sarah West. I just wish that a few kids from the poorer places in our City could participate in this story, and maybe in time, this will happen… or better still, maybe the poverty in our City will be vanquished for good… one day.

The film can be viewed on the front page of our website:

www.interfaithcontactgroup.com

or with the following links… not to mention the link to Sarah West herself.

 

https://www.westcreative.org

 

 

 

Go Green Go!

Long ago and far away my Labour councillor urged me to join his political party, and I just couldn’t. It wasn’t until I had thrown my company out of the window, walked away from London, had a nasty dose of cancer, and found myself doing a boring research job… that I found my way. The job involved studying the core ideas of the main political parties, and reading their unbelievably dreary manifestos. As a result of this journey through treacle and tedium I discovered a gem in the midst of the dross, and promptly joined the Green Party. Because I ate food that grew on plants, or under the ground, or on a tree, and breathed air and drank water, and because I loved nature with a passion, it seemed to be where I belonged. The environment was my thing. The environment is the thing for anyone who thinks about the important things in life. Loving the environment seems to me to be supremely sensible… And children can be reasonable and sensible, as we saw yesterday.

Caring for our world should be part of life, because we can’t live without our world. The wonderful children of the world know this. They know that green is about life itself, and that corporate greed is about death, and I am not talking about death as a beautiful gateway to the next world, but death as in choking ourselves and our birds, fish and animals and the sea and the air with plastic… Killing bees and all the other insect life with pesticides, and throwing toxins and material waste everywhere and destroying clean water, and raising the sea levels, and creating climate havoc, and, and, and… you know the rest.

The last marketing job I did involved the creation of a wonderful exhibition stand with an exquisite design featuring the downs which served as an enchanting backdrop in the midst of many a dreary exhibition hall. My marketing career of a zillion years came to an abrupt halt when the person I reported to said to me “Oh no! There’s far too much green. Green, green should never be seen!” thus repeating the superstitious words said to me by my grandmother a century before. Both believed that green was an unlucky colour. Actually they both got it wrong. The phrase is “Blue and green should never be seen unless there’s something in-between” and as I think lovingly on the glory of the Sussex Downs and the beauty of the blue sky, I can only marvel at the sheer perfection of nature, the harmony of these two most perfect colours – blue and green – and the sheer dottiness of humans, and their capacity to destroy so much that is good and glorious… but hey ho!

 

 

In the Face of Horrid Uncertainty (like a No-Deal Brexit) turn to the Spirit of the Wayward Feather

Being aware is a double-edged sword. One can see that the future Brexit path looks dangerous, and this country faces a potentially horrendous future for its young people. I find myself imagining what might happen to the poorest amongst us… and then these thoughts remind me that (some bloke called Dan Zadra said) ‘worrying is a misuse of the imagination’.

That’s the moment when I do a bit of spiritual wandering. The conflict and uncertainty give way to contemplation, and the contemplation takes one to a place that is not so much escapist, as a world of reality. It puts things in a different place and reminds one that everything that provokes passionate feelings, is a matter of perception. It’s a point of view, and it’s time to step outside of it all. And this week I visited ‘The Spirit of the Wayward Feather’, a dreamy pattern of thought that can take one all over the place, like a floating feather.

Very often when I’m doing things around the house, like sitting down to write, making a bed, doing a bit of cooking… a feather, such as one might find in a pillow, or in a garden, will float down. Feathers are objects of enormous power. They are reminders, comments and connections with reality, imagination, dreams and above all the subconscious, the deepest most beautiful self. For a start feathers are ancient and useful. They evolved like skin and horns, and they are an essential part of birds, the plumage, but they were also part of the outside covering of dinosaurs as well. They are useful, like pullovers only better – they aid flight, keep things warm, help diving birds to whizz about underwater and are beautiful and very decorative. Some feathers are rare and exquisite and highly valued.

Everything in this world has energy and spirit, and the spirit of a feather carries many messages. Meditating on a feather could take a lifetime. The structure is enormously complex, depending on the size and function of the feather itself; it includes shafts, barbules and hooks and all sorts of things. But I am looking at the spirit of the feather, the wayward small floating things that drift down from a corner of the house, or the garden and offer a thousand ideas. If the feather could speak it would say — I have been worn in battle, giving the wearer the power of the bird that I belonged to; I have been shoved into pillows and used as a pen, a tool to write with, wielded by the greatest minds and the greatest poets and playwrights; and that pen was mightier than the sword, as we all know. I have been part of the most delicious eiderdown you might want, but I am also a reminder, a powerful messenger.

It’s no coincidence, that angels who are messengers with wings are invariably equipped with feathered wings. Having worked on the Angel Year in our City, gathering images from age groups across the board, if I hadn’t come to recognise the importance of angel feathers by now, I would be a dim-wit. People young and old associate angels with feathery wings, and this crosses all faiths and many interpretations. Feathers belong to birds and equally to angels. So…Are wayward feathers messages from angels?

Most importantly when you have forgotten about feathers, they come to you. They float down from nowhere. Many people believe that they are messages in themselves, reminders of people who have died, loving communications that empower one to recall somebody who is elsewhere. Many, many times, I have been told that people recalled a loved one because of an inexplicable feather that floated out of nowhere. The Egyptians reckoned that a light heart was something to do with being a goody, so they did a nice metaphoric weighing of a heart on the one side and a feather on the other. The word light, has so many meanings, and presumably light meant a few things in hieroglyphs as well. And with this in mind, it’s time for us all to be light as a feather. To be frivolous. To tickle ourselves with a feather. To honour the tickling stick. To accept a good message from the feathery realms, and smile, remembering that if you start to be aware of the spirit of the wayward feather, you must also appreciate that feathers come from a glorious variety of birds – from the grand and dangerous birds of prey, to the smallest and most beautiful hummingbird – and the messages they give us should remind us at all times that we are of this world, and should therefore love and protect this world and its birds, just as we are part of other worlds, where messages, ideas and dreams spring from objects that simply float out of the sky.

Adventures in Eternity

Last Sunday I did a service at the Unitarian Church about Eternity. It included a great reading called You Want A Physicist to Speak at Your Funeral. 

My address followed. I hope you enjoy it.

One of the topics of the moment… is Death. It’s very a la mode. In and around Sussex we have all sorts of events dedicated to death, there’s something called a Frontline Death Network Event coming up, and there are Death Cafes, and a Last Wishes Workshop. Death is a topic of concern to many of us, particularly as we get older, and more and more of our contemporaries drift out of our lives. Death is also a business. There is a material side to it.

I have been studying Death with a real passion since the mid-1970s,  yet now it seems that the more important issue may not be Death, so much as Eternity… and so I’m inviting us to give a thought to our eternal selves, and along the way, we can take in a bit of other people’s wisdom, celebrate Eternity with a touch of frivolity, admire the view and also respect the words of people of faith.

The concept of Eternity is bound into most religions – Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and  Buddhism, and the Eastern faiths are probably the most enlightened on this subject… but the spiritual text that goes to the subject of Eternity in the most direct way, with perfect precision, is the 2,500-year-old Chinese philosophy called – The Tao.

The Tao makes reference to Eternity from the outset, but also explains the problems we meet when expressing the idea of Eternity in words. The word Tao itself has a nice broad meaning – it is the basic principle of the universe and is simply translated as The Way. It is the journey of life, taking in its potential and also the journey that goes beyond life, and it embraces many ideas and principles. Here are the opening words of the Tao:

The Tao that can be told
Is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
Is not the eternal name.

The unnameable is the eternally real
Free from desire
You realise and understand the mystery
Caught up in desire you see only the manifestation
The expression… the unfolding action.

Mystery and manifestations
Come from the same source
And this source is known as darkness.

Darkness within darkness
Is the gateway to all understanding.

When people see some things as beautiful
Other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good… other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other
Long and short define each other
High and low depend on each other
Before and after follow each other.

Therefore, the wise one acts without doing anything
And teaches without saying anything.

Things arise and she lets them come
Things disappear and he lets them go.

She has, but she doesn’t possess;
He acts but doesn’t expect.

When her work is done
She forgets it
And that is why it lasts forever.

The Tao, in saying that everything has its opposite reminds us that the opposite of the eternal is the moment, the now… the split second when you do something, like read or hear these words. The relationship between the moment and the eternal, these two polarities, and everything in-between are the essence of the Tao… The Way. The smallest and the greatest are one and the same.

So… a moment, a split second is both the opposite and the same as Eternity. At risk of overdoing the quotes, I would like to tell you what Thoreau said about this… he said: “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your Eternity in each moment…” Ludwig Wittgenstein went one better when he said: “Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take Eternity to mean (not infinite temporal duration) but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.”

And the importance of the now and Eternity is also mentioned in the Gospel of John, where it says eternal life isn’t about the future, it’s about the ‘now… so those who accept Christ can possess life here and now as well as in Eternity, for they have “passed from death to life.”

But the prospect of Eternity doesn’t appeal to everyone. In fact, there is a phobia called apeirophobia which is a fear of Eternity — the terrifying thought that existence goes on for ever. On a frivolous note, perhaps, those who have seen the film Groundhog day once too many times, or worse still too many episodes of Pointless, may begin to feel this way. Of course, apeirophobics will have all sorts of concerns, and I suspect that coming to terms with time itself is one of them, and that is hardly surprising. Coming to terms with time is not easy at all.

For example, if we can imagine that the earth was formed 24 hours ago, human existence occupies just one second in the age of the earth… and if human history amounted to a day, a 24 hour day, it would be 10 minutes or so since the birth of Christ… In terms of spiritual awareness… we have recently been told that humans have been demonstrating sacred rites and practices for the past 70,000 years… Christ, as we all know, was born two thousand years ago… The Christian faith is young… a lot younger than the entire Egyptian civilisation of the Nile Valley, which lasted for about three thousand years. Understanding the scale of time, and its relativity within the framework of the cosmic picture is not easy, particularly when it comes to the given lifetime we have.

So being in the now is as close to coming to terms with Eternity as possible. But we also have to respect the exquisite and even unsettling patterns of our history, the lessons taught by past religions, cultures and dynasties. History empowers us to relate to time more easily. Our City and its architecture bear witness to our respect for history, the beautiful proportions and principles of Greek and Roman buildings that are to be found across Brighton drawn from the shapes and patterns in nature, and their mathematical formulae. When we resonate with the past, through form, classical form, which can be found in art, architecture, music, and poetry, we also contact our deepest and most distant memories, and we are reminded that we are eternal beings

The gateways to connecting with our eternal selves are all around us. Some may choose to walk through the emptiness of desert sands to gain a feeling for the endless nature of time; others train a telescope into the sky, or just walk on the downs and marvel at the glory of the stars. Others may choose to look through the lens of a microscope and admire the shapes and forms of nature and crystals at their most minuscule levels… but the real answer almost certainly lies in us, ourselves. We have an inbuilt programme, amidst the 1,000 trillion synapses in our brains, and the memories we also contain in our bodies, because every cell of our bodies, has memory… It is your deepest ‘self’ that has the potential and power to ‘know’ your eternal self, to appreciate that your spirit just never, ever dies. We just need to climb into the complex and profound place of self, and wander through the beautiful arcades and galleries and libraries and gardens of the mind. Meditation and contemplation are wonderful paths to knowing Eternity.

As I draw to a close I would very much like to pay homage to those people who believe they have had a brush with Eternity at the closest range. These are people who have nearly died, either through illness or trauma, and have experienced a Near Death Experience. Over and over again they find it difficult to express what they experienced as they went over to “the other side”. These people (of which there are now a great many) talk constantly about the importance of light and also darkness in terms of illuminating their understanding of life and death. I am reminded of the words of the Tao “Darkness within darkness – the gateway to all understanding,”  and the recently discovered ‘Dark Energy’. Light and darkness are intrinsic to the Near Death Experience. The role of music is very frequently mentioned, music far more beautiful and powerful than anything heard on earth. Landscapes and scenery with varying degrees of familiarity are described, and time itself is also said to work differently, as does language, which seems to be no longer necessary. When we are in the discarnate state communication seems to work without words — it is instant, made possible by simply thinking or feeling about something. In a land where language is not used, it will always be difficult to explain new experiences involving words we do not have. Many of these people say that the enormity of what they encounter, and the scale of the dimension they encounter — of cosmic proportions and beauty — is both endless and indescribable. They meet people who have died, and sometimes this includes people they didn’t encounter in their present life. Eternity is both mysterious and intriguing, whatever angle it may be viewed from. Perhaps most significant of all, is that after those people have encountered Death, they no longer fear it, which is understandable, given that Death is simply a gateway to our true eternal selves.

And so it seems so appropriate to close with the words of the great Carl Gustav Jung, who said “What happens after Death is so unspeakably glorious that our imagination and our feelings do not suffice to form even an approximate conception of it. The dissolution of our time-bound form in Eternity brings no loss of meaning.”