Light in the Lockdown: The Faith Response to Covid-19 in our City

For well over 20 years, the Interfaith Contact Group of Brighton and Hove (which I chair) has been serving our City, bringing all the various faiths together to share ideas, and events and generally find common causes we can talk about. A couple of years back we ran a competition to find The Angel of Brighton & Hove, which was a fun exercise that proved a big success with adults and children alike. Last year we ran a Tree of Life event that also revealed the spiritual wisdom that comes from different faiths and the importance of the tree as a spiritual symbol.

This year we set off singing and dancing, intending to celebrate the year on the theme of light. With the help of Brighton Museum and its curators, we planned to hold a family day celebrating light with music, talks, games and all manner of jolly activities. We also planned to draw attention to religious festivals like Diwali and Hanukka where light plays an inspirational part in the lives of people from the Hindu and Jewish faiths.

But, of course, it was not to be. When the Coronavirus struck, and we went into lockdown, everything came to an abrupt halt. We responded to the crisis as best we could, staying in contact with members and friends. We set up a weekly poetry, prayer and reading service called Words of Connection which features topical items alongside historical and related topics. The feedback was amazing, and thanks to the help of various supporters we were able to present Words of Connection in different formats – as a weekly email, and also as a blog on our Website.

But the greatest record of the faith’s response to Covid-19 came from a brilliant documentary film made by Sarah West of West Creative. Entitled Light in the Lockdown, it lasts just 17 minutes, and tells the story about how the people in our City are looking after each other, in every sense, both physically and spiritually. I urge you to look at it. It is both compassionate and moving. 

New Lessons in Walking Round Things

I would never have thought that to go out I would need little or no cash, a phone and a mask as essential items to travel with. But thus it has come to be. Today I have to walk into town, and this is the weird shopping list I have strapped to my mind, as I contemplate dancing around all and sundry.

Also… I would never have though that my age would single me out in some way, because like so many older people I have not, as yet got used to the idea of being old ; I was always a late starter. But Covid and our glorious Government say that older people must be careful, so I am following the rules. I follow the rules for the benefit of people working in the NHS, and nice people, not those broken by non-electable non-ministers in charge of everything.

In fact, the pandemic has made me fitter. I have taken to walking every day. The tedium of having to avoid people in the street has driven me out at 5.30 every morning to walk alone, if possible without the interruption of dancing warily around sweaty joggers or dog walkers. The solitude of the park in the early morning is a treat and an education. I have come to know the local fox that hangs around. He is a sad, solitary and mangy young thing who is constantly having arguments with the local bird population. Meanwhile all the beasts in the park fight over the stuff left by humans – the bits of bread and pizza, and over the weekends this is spread far and wide for all to see, but during the week the park is good and clean.

Maybe the most lovely part about haunting the park at the crack of dawn is the reaction of the wildlife. Originally all the birds and squirrels would scatter, sometimes warning each other of a stranger’s impending arrival. Now they just can’t be bothered. I reckon they say to each other “Oh it’s her again, don’t bother,” and I find myself having to walk around them while they forage. One way or another, it looks as though from now on I’m always going to be walking round a human, or a bird or some wild beasty thing.  The only birds that still fly off hysterically (as though they’ve never seen me before) are the blobby woodpigeons, but I was always thought of them as bird brains.

The Wild Will Win

All the good poets I know are having terrible problems. Everything they write comes out sounding angry. Anger at the UK government, anger at the US president, anger at the lack of value of black lives, old lives, carers, front-line workers, people… And there’s anger about what is happening to nature after the respite created by Covid 19. The Government will soon give billions away to support the polluting industries. It looks like we’re back to Square One. Where we might have had guidance and clarity, we have a vacuum. The empty rhetoric goes on… and on… an on… from strong and stable to oven-ready deal, from Get Brexit done, to send the virus packing, wash your hands, Led by science,  to stay alert …

Today it’s “The Great Economic Reform Bill”. Nothing is great until history and time prove it to be, and history and time will judge BoJo and Trump… but don’t despair. There is always another day. There is always hope. Nature, divinity, that which is, will come back… or as Dylan Thomas said “And Death Shall have no Dominion.”

The Wild Will Win

Put away your anger…
Mankind
Human greed
Our sorrow
The wild will win

Existence and dis-ease
Made us stop
Turn back
Want tomorrow
So the wild would win

Now the divine earth
Witnesses man at play
Cars, plans, planes, power
Return to follow on
And the wild will win

Lockdown Poem

Every morning I get up and walk, at around 5.30 or 6. If it’s a bad day it’s 8, and the number of people irritate me, and I become quite silly and sulky. One becomes quite strange in this Lockdown. Some friends that live alone are not finding it easy, and I suspect that a few people who find themselves with a partner feel equally alone, in a different way. Others are just having a great time, and I find myself telling them to enjoy themselves, and stop feeling guilty.

So here is a picture of what I see when I go for my walk… and a poem about lockdown:

Lockdown

Freedom went
Didn’t know our luck
Plucked and stuck
Doors closed
Luckdown
Lockdown

Knockdown
Look down
Life down
Life drown
Doors closed
Hearts opened

We gave food 
Queued
Stepped back
Polite and rude
Some clapped
Clapped out
Stepped back
Wept, crept
Paused
Looked back
Lockdown

Isolation
Home alone
Phone home
Alone 
With myself
With another
Melted thoughts
Knockdown

Move aside
Shifting
Sideways on
In parks 
Shuffling
Taking
Talking 
Waking
Walking
Lying
Breaking

Gift of love
Song of life
Bottle of hope
Food for thought
Insight… Lockdown

Entering the Age of The Hanged Man

There are oracles and prophets – some are inscrutable, some efficient, some dicey and some totally illuminating. It’s always a good thing to consult the oracle when you get your metaphoric knickers in a twist. 

I used to read Tarot cards with great enthusiasm in my youth — but after some really unpleasant presages of things that happened to people I loved, I went right off it. This is, of course ridiculous, because life is full of ups and downs, and just because you get a signpost of what’s to happen, there’s no reason to go all wimpy, but I did… so I just don’t read Tarot cards any more.

Recently I realised that the Tarot is also a good indicator of zeitgeist, and I realised that we have now entered the age of The Hanged Man. So who is the Hanged Man? Some people say he has a female face, and is smiling, but the most important thing about him/her is that she hangs upside-down suspended from a wooden gibbet and for all the world looks very calm… but above all things she represents sacrifice, something that we know nothing about. When Margaret Thatcher became prime minister and told the nation that we had the right to have everything we wanted, we forgot about sacrifice. But Thatcher is also a lesson on how being self-serving doesn’t necessarily work. I don’t think she was that happy in the end.

As we all know, we now occupy a crazy world, ruled by the likes of Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro. Significantly those three have failed their countries conspicuously when it comes to Covid 19. Their creed perpetuates a world where money is the only goal worth pursuing. No wonder they have all fallen at the first hurdle thrown at them by mother nature.

Now we have to learn about sacrifice – it’s the new norm. Sacrifice is such a beautiful thing. The best side of it sees people doing astonishing things for others, risking their lives, taking time to nurture, care for people and think about them… and very sadly, sometimes even die for them. Sacrifice has us all hanging upside down from the gibbet with a smile on our faces knowing all the things we can no longer do, or see, or be, or eat, or achieve. And none of them are that important. But in the knowing of sacrifice we can, if we are lucky, be a great deal happier, wiser and more loving. It can be done.

And here’s a little film from the brilliant Sarah West to remind us of the joy that comes out of sacrifice: 

A Tribute to Carers… Across the World

I come across many carers — gentle people who have nursed men, women and children for days, weeks and sometimes years. At a funeral, it was always evident that they cared so much, and carried out their work with love and tenderness. My heart went out to them. They wore an invisible badge of compassion.

Today carers – including doctors and nurses are in the front line in the fight against the Corona virus, and we find ourselves both revering and celebrating their courage and devotion.

For the past two Thursdays, at 8pm, neighbours have stood in doorways and hung from windows and just applauded, crashed pans, rung bells, shook maracas and beaten drums for a few minutes in heartfelt appreciation for the heroic carers working for us and sometimes dying for us. After the applause had died down and we returned to the house I realised I had tears in my eyes, like millions of other people, everywhere.

Here’s my prayer for carers:

Let’s give thanks
To those that know compassion
Carers, nurses, doctors
Gentle and kind
Volunteers and cleaners
Serving people near and far 
Adults and children 
Young and old
Female and male
Let’s offer up our loving thanks


Let’s honour those
That are fearless
As they walk
Into the valley of death
Sweeping aside dread
Bringing comfort to the timid
And strength to the vulnerable
Envoys of the highest order 

Let’s applaud
Those that support us
And support them 
Across the world
Down your road and mine
Blow whistles –
Clatter and yell –
Broadcast in sound and spirit
Praise and honour all they do
Today, tomorrow and always
As we confront invisible forces…
The daunting unknown
From our place of isolation

Amen

Remembering Claire Shelton-Jones… Mother, Grandmother, Teacher, Guide and Mentor

Today I learned of the death of a great friend, a woman of this City who was a mum, grand mum, teacher – and for me – a spiritual and cultural mentor that not only changed my life, but the lives of hundreds and probably thousands of people, by explaining ways to express ideas, and pass them on.

Claire Shelton-Jones

Only some teachers have this profound ability, and Claire was particularly gifted; she influenced her pupils, of all ages, in subtle and inspirational ways.  I must turn to The Tao to describe the way Claire operated as an educator:

Therefore, the master acts without doing anything, 
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

I met Claire under the most bizarre circumstances, the kind of circumstances that compel one to respect destiny. I was living in Brunswick Square at the time, and a neighbour asked me to find a women’s writing group. I ended up in The Jubilee Library, looking at a hand-written card giving information about a group that met regularly just off the Old Steine. We went and the neighbour soon gave up; it was all about poetry… but for me that group was special… and Claire who ran it, changed my life.

With a core of about five or six writers, and a couple with enormous talent, I found that my life expanded; the group gave me creative and spiritual sustenance of a kind I never knew existed. Claire had the ability to bring out the very best in us all. Apart from her poetry, which was beautiful, I found the writing of Pauline Suett Barbieri and Rikki Hennessey particularly fine, and I read Rikki’s beautiful words to this day.

Every time we met, Claire would give us some homework — a poem to write about and we would read our stuff aloud, listen to Claire and compare and contrast. The subjects chosen were unusual… they varied from umbrellas to ‘the road to hell’. My output varied from blank verse to dreadful doggerel. Before I joined Claire’s group I had a real aversion to poetry. Today, I look at my library and see that there are more poetry books there than anything else, and all thanks to Claire. Not only that, I have just browsed my old ‘homework’ file on my computer and discovered that I wrote 154 poems under her gentle guidance… but 154 is nothing. Today I have an on-line library of over 100 funeral readings (all poems) and a massive library of poetry used for everything from weddings to Mayoral Council Meetings. Thank you, Claire.

Claire was a person with her own views, nearly all of which resonated with my own. When we met recently we bemoaned the current political scenario, and looked at it from many angles. She knew very well what she did and didn’t like; yet in the poetry group she had infinite patience with us if we found things difficult, helping the more anxious students by offering words of kindness, much to the irritation of some of us, who were much less patient. She was compassionate, insightful and always soft spoken. She also taught students with learning disabilities, and I can imagine she was brilliant.

She leaves behind a lovely family – Tim, her delightful husband, who is also a gifted poet, Matthew and Katie, and a grandson.

By opening the door to a skill I didn’t even recognise in myself, Claire empowered me and, I believe many other people. 

Just over a week ago, in my capacity as Chaplain to the Mayor I realised I had to say something about the massive weight of responsibility faced by the Councillors today. Available time was limited, but it was important to let the Councillors know that they were appreciated. I wrote a short poem that (apparently) worked well, across all parties. This poem would never have existed without Claire. Here it is.

In Times of Uncertainty
Dedicated to all the Councillors of Brighton and Hove

In times of uncertainty
Good people happen.
The hungry are fed
The weak nurtured
Gardens are cultivated
But it is not easy

In moments of uncertainty
So much of what you do
Seems indiscernible and yet
It is not; unassuming service
Changes lives for the better
It brings gifts beyond compare
As you put your hand to a small pronouncement
As you touch a household you do not know
A gesture of compassion brings immeasurable change
In times of uncertainty
We need you 
We are your community
This is our City 
I am that street dweller
These children are yours
And so, we are in your hands
Held in your hands… and your heart
Thank you… 

And thank you so much Claire Shelton-Jones…

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