Is Tamimi part of the problem, or part of the solution?

She is an impressive young woman – surely everyone can agree on that, no matter which side of the Palestinian/Israeli wall your sympathies lie.

She has almost certainly grown up in a world totally unlike yours; a world characterised by violence and protest against what is regarded even by the United Nations as an army of occupation. Check out her story, here. She has watched parents and brothers arrested for protests against this occupation, as they have thrown words and rocks at men carrying American automatic weapons.

To much of the world, she represents the best of us. A child still, who has been brave enough to stand up against oppression. A young girl whose photogenic shock of curly hair and gift of erudition has made it on to the international media outlets. She has become the face of a whole people. What a burden for one so young.

To many others however, she is part of the problem. Yes, she may have been one of the hundreds of Palestinian children jailed by Israeli courts, but she was in fact convicted of an assault that is there for all to see. She taunted, slapped and insulted an Israeli soldier, who did his best to ignore her. She was convicted of something that she had in fact, done.

There is a danger here however  that we judge her actions by the things that happen on our streets, and the law practised in our courts. The West Bank, where Tamimi and her family live, is a war zone under military law. What this means for children is that since 2000, some estimates say that over 1500 children have been killed, and 10,000 have been arrested. What the Israeli state describe as moderate, appropriate response to terrorism and public unrest has to be seen in this context.

Think about this for a moment. Let us make a comparison with Northern Ireland. It is not a very good comparison for all sorts of reasons that I will not go in to here, but certainly at times the streets of NI were full of rioting, stone throwing young people. This led to ugly violence as locals and soldiers alike were brutalised. The event known as Bloody Sunday, in which soldiers fired into a crowd of people, killing 28, took years to be acknowledged by the Government, but the use of live ammunition to suppress protest was an extremely rare abomination, even in that poisoned atmosphere. Compare that, to this;

I think that most of us will find this utterly abhorrent, even if we agree that the Israeli forces have to confront violent unrest in some fashion. Shooting unarmed kids throwing rocks? Really? Is this what passes for crowd control in a democratic western country? Note how shooting people has become normalised, like putting a bullet in the leg or shoulder of a child is nothing. Just something that has to be done.

This is the context into which we have to place the story of Ahed Tamimi. Routine violence has led to more and more… violence. In such a polarising context, where one side views the other over Trump style ‘Beautiful Walls’, or through the sights of high velocity weaponry. The layers of hurt lie on the land like strata, each layer absorbing the bones of another generation of martyrs.

So, is the belligerent, teenage protest of Tamimi part of the problem or part of the solution?

It is not a fair question is it? She is far too young to carry such terrible responsibility.

But what would you do? What other means of expression are available to the children of the West Bank?

She wants to become a solicitor, because perhaps justice can be pursued through the law. That does not seem to be working at the moment, but perhaps in the future, the tide of history will turn, and then there may be a moment when the laws of the land will have value once again. But not now. Think of all those UN resolutions that are being ignored. Think of the Biblical commandments not to kill (muddied as they are by all the stories of a God who seems just as bloodthirsty as we are.)

Perhaps the question is one of those both-and dichotomies. Perhaps Tamimi is part of the problem. How could she not be? But perhaps too she might be part of the solution.

She has been given a platform. She is far too young. She will make mistakes. Powerful forces will be trying to undermine and vilify her at every turn. But she is from a new generation and that in itself is a source of hope.

May her heart be turned to love. May her hands be hands of peace. And may she see the tumbling of walls, not their increased fortification.

Of course, if this is to happen, the democratic state of Israel, forged as it was out of genocide and oppression, will have to come to realised the now THEY are the oppressors.

Or am I being antisemitic?

 

Antisemitism and left wing politics…

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The Labour party seems to be in the headlines not for challenging the manifestly unjust policies of austerity which have lead us to rising homelessness, vastly increased use of food banks, rampant child poverty and a yawning gap between rich and poor. Rather the media is full of stories about antisemitism in the rank and file of the party.

At a point in our history when social injustice has (arguably) been weaponised by the ruling elite, who have convinced us that the greatest dangers to our national security are 1. immigrants, 2. the feckless benefits scrounger, 3. house prices, the radical left can be painted as racist and therefore tainted and irrelevant.

Perhaps the left does indeed have a real problem with antisemitism. Check out this timeline of Labour’s troubles. At very least, it seems to be a crisis that has not been well ‘managed’- which is in itself a crime in an age of the political spin doctor. Is there more than this however? Is there an underlying antipathy towards Jewish people lurking beneath the surface of the otherwise painfully politically correct rank and file of the party? How we love to call out hypocrisy in others after all, so it is delicious to be able to reveal the prejudices of those who proclaim themselves to be engaged in a fight against racism.

Corbyn is a case in point. He has been long regarded as the champion of the underdog, the patron saint of small people and lost causes. He has stood on platforms wherever people have been oppressed, and waved flags on a thousand ant-racism marches. Yet one of his own party’s grandees, Margaret Hodge, screamed abuse at him in the House of Commons, calling him out for being antisemitic. I am listening to ‘Woman’s hour’ BBC radio 4 right now, and here is Margaret Hodge being interviewed about her family background, describing the horrors that her family went through during the holocaust, and how she has been getting an increasing amount of abuse because of her Jewish background on twitter. Hodge was allowed to lay out her case against Corbyn, and how he has ‘lost the trust of the Jewish community’. There is no balancing opinion being offered. Hodge was particularly weak when asked about the rights of Palestinian people to protest. It would be difficult to hear an interview like this and not wonder about media bias. She finished by describing how ‘middle England is offended’ by the way the the party is insisting on focussing on the right of Palestinians and being racist towards Israel. Perhaps she is right. She said it on Woman’s hour after all.

I am not a member of the Labour Party, although I have been in the past. This is more because I am not a natural joiner these days, rather I am more comfortable in the role of observer. However, for all his limitations, I have listened intently to the politics of Corbyn, and felt my hopes soar. We desperately need a channel through which an alternative set of ideas about what is a good way to manage our political, economic and environmental relationships to the world and to each other. There is also much that is being done in our name, under the dodgy alibi of ‘democracy’, that should be resisted, and this requires a strong opposition. History tells us that social change that helps the poor has always required a strong movement of working people. Following in the footsteps of my big sister, I almost did join the Party a couple of years ago.

So, because of all of this, I have done my very best to try to understand this issue. I care about racism and antisemitism. Striving towards equality and social justice has been part of my whole life and career. I confess however that after all the reading, discussions and questioning I have engaged in, I remain to a certain extent confused. I have read a number of examples of racism where members of the party, such as Ken Livingstone, have used extremely ill chosen words. As the video below makes clear, it seems however that the words might well reveal something more ugly.

 

Perhaps we have to return to definitions. There has been a huge outcry about Labour not adopting the International Human Rights Association definition of anti-semitism in full. This was part of the Hodge row with Corbyn. It might not be common knowledge however that this definition is in itself controversial, in that it is regarded as imperfect and imprecise. This debate here makes clear the breadth of views on it.

The four ‘examples’ that Labour left out are also interesting, in that they shine a light on some of the heat of this debate.

  • Accusing Jewish people of being more loyal to Israel than their home country
  • Claiming that Israel’s existence as a state is a racist endeavour
  • Requiring higher standards of behaviour from Israel than other nations
  • Comparing contemporary Israeli policies to those of the Nazis

The first thing to say that these are examples, not part of the actual definition. All of these issues are covered elsewhere. Secondly, perhaps we should ask this; how might these ‘examples’ of antisemitism read from the perspective of someone living in the Gaza Strip? We might know the answer to this, because in an open letter to The Guardian leading members of the Palestinian community in the UK said this;

The reality of the Palestinian people’s ongoing dispossession belongs to the public space: Palestinian people have the right to impart information about these present and past injustices, as every British citizen has the right to hear this information, along with the ideas and arguments that emerge directly from it.

Accordingly, any use by public bodies of the IHRA examples on antisemitism that either inhibits discussion relating to our dispossession by ethnic cleansing, when Israel was established, or attempts to silence public discussions on current or past practices of settler colonialism, apartheid, racism and discrimination, and the ongoing violent military occupation, directly contravenes core rights. First, the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, who remain protected by international laws and conventions; and second, the rights of all those British citizens who stand by our side, in the solidarity of a common humanity.

There is something fundamental here about the right to give and take offence, and how power is used to make and suppress protest. In international terms, Israel is now seen by many as the oppressor. THEY are the neighbourhood bullies, not the victim of international politics. THEY have the big guns and the powerful allies. The violence they can perpetrate is on an industrial scale, often aimed at soft targets. Small wonder that we might baulk at the idea that we should limit the degree to which we hold them accountable, no matter what provocation in the form of terrorism is aimed their way.

Perhaps there is more to this issue than just ‘siding with one side or the other’ though. I find myself returning to my training as a social scientist, and old definitions of racism, which we often used to divide into two kinds; overt racism and institutional racism.

The overt kind is easier to see for what it is. There are those who will still tell you that black people are less intelligent, or who would treat people differently because of their religion or the colour of their skin. Within left wing politics, in my experience, this is a rare thing in total contrast to right wing politics of course- this example being a case in point.

 

That is not to let the left wing off the hook entirely however. I am told that one of the things that might underpin antisemitism is a particular kind of conspiracy theory, in which some kind of shadowy Cabal, like the Illuminati, exists that controls world affairs. Where this become antisemitic is that this Cabal is regarded to be dominated by Jews. This kind of nonsense is remarkably pervasive, despite a total lack of evidence.

Turning to the other kind of racism however, the institutional kind, which was defined by Sir William Macpherson in the 1999 Lawrence report (UK) as: “The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”

Might the Labour party be regarded as institutionally antisemitic? Certainly Jewish leaders have levelled this accusation.

 

My past way of trying to understand this kind of racism has been to listen to the voices of those oppressed by it. There seems little doubt that Jewish people feel oppressed, and that they regard Corbyn as being responsible, either through commission or omission for creating a hostile environment for Jews within the party. It would clearly be a mistake however to suggest that this is a consensus view, as made clear by this article. Some have gone further, such as Jewsforjeremy or jewishvoiceforlabour both of whom regard much of the criticism as mere gaslighting.

So, after all of this reading, where am I up to? Don’t get me wrong, I claim no deep insight. I am an outsider after all, just trying to make sense of the avalanche of crap that comes down to us through all of the media and social media outlets all day long. For what it is worth, here are my thoughts;

  1. The Labour party is a conglomeration, made up a wide body of views. It is also in a process of change. Blairite loyalist are being squeezed out by a new grass root politics. This has led to a poisonous atmosphere in which abuse has flown around on both sides. We have to see the antisemitism row in this context.
  2. There seems little doubt that Corbyn has not handled this well. But the reason he seems to offer the hope of a new politics is precisely because he is not interested in sound bite slick spin manipulation. He is perhaps naive in this, and certainly vulnerable. He wants to have a debate and thinks that things can be resolved by reasoned argument. He has been proven wrong.
  3. Antisemitism and anti-Israeli sentiments are not the same. We have to resist oppression of the individual because of their ethnic background. We also have to resist oppression by a nation state. We have every right to hold them MORE accountable because they are supposedly our allies. They are supposedly a liberal democracy.
  4. Jewish hate crime is on the rise. But so is hate crime generally. We must hold our society to account for ALL racism. Brexit was about racism, of a kind that was fostered by our politics. We should fear these politics.
  5. We should listen to Jewish people in the UK
  6. We should listen to Palestinian people in Palestine.

Final words I will leave to Jewish critic of Israel, Noam Chomski, who incidentally is banned from entering Israel;

Giving you poetry…

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Over the last year and a half or so, I have been working with a fantastic group of people to edit a poetry collection, entitled ‘Reaching for Mercy’. I am delighted to say that collection is now complete and will be launched at Greenbelt Festival. on Saturday night 25th August when poets will be reading works from the book. Early copies of the book will also be available at the Greenbelt pop-up bookshop G-Books throughout the festival.

(By the way, if you are one of the poets, and planning to be at the festival, can you let me know?)

We are sharing some sneak preview of poems from the book on our facebook page.

I have long had a theory about poetry, which is that lots of the best poems grow where there may have been pain and damage. A bit like mushrooms from damaged tree roots. Emily showed me this poem recently which backs up my theory. Warning, it might act upon the tear ducts…

 

The race to the bottom…

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I still play cricket. These days, I play in the West of Scotland fourth division league, which is pretty much the bottom of the pile. The side I play for has a few decent players, but if they don’t ‘come off’ in a particular match we tend to lose, sometimes badly. Still, I love the game in all its forms and played on Saturday even though an injury meant I could only stand at slip whilst fielding and to try (and to fail) to score only from boundaries whilst batting. Despite this level of foolish addiction, we had a thoroughly miserable game, not because we lost (we did) but because of the attitude of the opposition. It has been on my mind ever since and so I decided to park some thoughts here on my blog. That is what blogs are for, after all.

Why do I play cricket? Besides a love of the game, there is the companionship, the exercise and just being ‘outdoors’- these are all good things but I also feel a commitment to some things that are harder to define. Firstly, in our culture, most collective activities are on the decline, from sports clubs to going to pubs and of course, going to church. We do very few things together any more, apart from ritualised constructed commercial events. Cricket is my way of bucking the trend, in spite of my own social awkwardness and introversion. Our club is made of up of the usual ramshackle mix of ages, body shapes and personalities but by and large, we get on with one another. Of course, there is the inevitable tension at a dropped catch or a careless waft of the bat but I think that mostly we enjoy one another’s company, in that profane, abusive and protected way that most blokes do friendship.

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There is something else about the game too that I love. There is this mythological thing called ‘the spirit of the game’, which suggests that cricket should be played in a fair and gentlemanly kind of way. Of course, this has always been a rather flexible principle, from W G Grace’s refusal to be out (claiming that the crowds were there to see him, not the bowler) right through to the current Australian side’s use of sandpaper to alter the ball to make it swing. You would think that at our level of cricket, this would be an easier thing to defend. Here though are a list of things that have happened over the last few games (please note that I am being deliberately vague about WHICH game these occurred in because it would be be not be appropriate to enter into any kind of debate about specific on-field disciplinary matters on this blog);

  1. Challenging umpires decisions. In lower league cricket the batting side also supplies the umpire (or referee.) This happens in no other game as far as I am aware- effectively you are asking a team to regulate itself, and trusting that it will be OK because of the spirit of the game. This has led to several incidents in the last few games and one in particular on Saturday when bowler might shout and rant about a decision that has not gone their way, sometimes over an extended period.
  2. Calling players ‘cheats’. This follows on from above. In cricket there is a faint tradition of batsmen ‘walking’ (giving themselves out without awaiting the umpire’s decision.) in reality, even those (like me) who do it sometimes do not do it all the time. Sometimes you just want to believe you are NOT out so much that you can argue with yourself. Those who seem to hurl the word ‘cheat’ most readily seem the least likely to walk themselves however.
  3. Smashing a hole in an artificial playing surface when given out. This happened when a member of the opposition was adjudged ‘run out’. After damaging our surface he shouted ‘You should have got a fu**ing decent pitch’ as if this was the cause of his run out. Incidentally, the playing surface cost over three thousand pounds.
  4. Constant abuse of opposition players. There is a lot of talk about ‘crossing the line’ in cricket when ‘sledging’, which is the art of undermining the opposition with snide comments. This can at times be funny and appreciated by all sides. Sometimes though it is just bullying and abuse. For example when a fielder screams that a batsman is a ‘fu**ing disgrace’ because he refuses to take a run, or when he constantly makes foul remarks about his appearance. I was flabbergasted recently to hear a white haired old man on the opposition describe our club as ‘unfriendly’, as if we deserved the abuse he and others were giving us. I can only say that we had done our best to be welcoming and pleasant to the opposition. It is also perhaps significant that they were losing the match at the time.
  5. Physical contact. Not long ago, William was shoulder barged by a bowler as he was taking a quick single. The bowler elbowed him in the neck and knocked him sideways. He managed to make his ground but was hurt. The opposition did not apologise, and pretended it was an accident. I should add that William is 18 years old and although he went on to get a century, was genuinely shaken by the experience.
  6. Spitting. An opposition player spat on the ground in front of me as I walked off after getting out. He had been increasingly abusive prior to this as we were piling on a good score. Of course he denied that he had done this deliberately.
  7. Not understanding the rules. I was umpiring and an opposition bowler was bowling from off the artificial wicket- i.e. to one side of the prepared surface, which would be regarded as a ‘back foot no ball’. There had already been comments about how the surface of the wicket was slippy (he was probably wearing the wrong shoes as I did not find it slippy.) I decided not to call no ball, but to talk to him about the infringement. He immediately bristled, saying ‘he had never been called for a no ball in his whole career’. I tried to calm him down but he was not willing to listen. He then abused me throughout the rest of the match, including by telling me that I had dementia.

No Ball Rules 1

What do you do when faced with this kind of behaviour? The temptation of course it to respond in kind- which becomes a race to the bottom. On Saturday, whilst umpiring, I stopped the match and asked to speak to the opposition captain. He did nothing to change things whatsoever. Many of the things I have mentioned above are breaches of the league’s disciplinary codes, but even if we took the trouble to refer them to the league, there is the feeling that we would be winging, and anyway, it would be our word against theirs.

I find that my own response is to become rather troubled. I do not easily brush past conflict and aggression. Possibly this is because of my own vulnerabilities- past experience of bullying and abuse. I am also gritting my teeth at the injustice of it all, and the feeling that something I love is being trampled under foot by people who really should know better.

I am left thinking about the way teams (and other human collectives) form their own culture. Not all the blokes in the team we played on Saturday were unpleasant characters. Perhaps even none of them are in a different context. However, in the context of the game, they were all willing to follow a couple of their players down in to the gutter. There were few, if any, attempts to suggest to their own side that they were taking things too far. Unfortunately, too their tactics might be regarded as being successful, in that they worked. Our batting wilted in the face of some bad bowling, so the aggression and abuse achieved it’s purpose.

Does this matter?

I think it really does. I am sick to death of hearing that in order to succeed, you have to trample on those who get in your way. Our team are genuinely considering leaving the league and only playing ‘friendly’ fixtures. Some players are considering packing in altogether as they have had enough.

Cricket prides itself as being different, in offering a better way to hold ourselves individually and collectively. Without this, even at the bottom of the league, it just creates a race to the bottom.

Music to give life, 4…

Nothing opens me up like a three (or more) part harmony. Those moments when a melody lift and soar into the stratosphere will almost always be carried there by polyphony. Yesterday, some dear friends of ours took us out for the evening in Glasgow. We ate Iranian food and then went to see a gospel choir singing- massed ranks of voices pulsing and harmonising. Perhaps heaven really will be like this because who wants to play harps for eternity anyway?

The music I want to offer you today however, is not gospel music, but something different- 4 men from Boston who sing what might described as ‘folk-pop’, who call themselves Darlingside.

Despite my commitment to keep hopefulness front and centre of this blog through this year, the song I have chosen, at first glance, might be seen to be rather dystopian. Here is what they say about the album it comes from;

“It’s over now / The flag is sunk / The world has flattened out,” are the first words of Extralife, the new album by Boston-based quartet Darlingside. While the band’s critically acclaimed 2015 release Birds Say was steeped in nostalgia and the conviction of youth, Extralife grapples with dystopian realities and uncertain futures. Whether ambling down a sidewalk during the apocalypse or getting stuck in a video game for eternity, the band asks, sometimes cynically, sometimes playfully: what comes next? Their erstwhile innocence is now bloodshot for the better.

The song is like a stiletto wrapped in silk, but in my defence it does not leave me without hope.

On the one hand, it might remind us that without mankind, the wild things of the planet will do just fine. Rivers will run clean, forests will regenerate, wild creatures will no longer be crowded and fenced into shrinking corners of the world. The seas will swallow all that plastic in sediment.

It might remind us too that without wild things, we are buggered. The 70% decline in insect life is not just a disaster for insects and birds, it is a disaster for us too, because we are the top of the ecosystem. We depend on them, they do not depend on us.

So where is the hope? The hope is in the sublime beauty of this song; how it carries our humanity. How it displays our ability to love and value the very place that we are destroying.

Because perhaps we have to be able to imagine a world without us in order to once more realise that we are part of the world, not separate from it.

And just to prove they can do it live

Someday a shooting star is gonna shoot me down
Burn these high rises back into a ghost town
Of iridium-white clouds
Matted close against the ground
While the sky hangs empty as a frame

See the reddening horizon line
Feel the planet spilling on the space time
On the way down Somerset I take pictures of cement
For the history books on Mother Earth

To the west now it begins
In the sound waves in the wind
There is an echo going by
Of the mountains caving in
And the parted roads and I
Knew that one day we would die
And become smooth and old again
Like the ash that sweeps the sky

Someday a shooting star is gonna shoot me down
Burn these high rises back into a ghost town

There’s holy water lying in the crater well
Heavy metals high test gasoline
Blessed singularity
A telescoping memory
Where the sky still flickers through the leaves

The demonisation of the working class…

I am reading Owen Jones’ ‘Chavs’ at the moment. It was loaned to us by a friend but despite their recommendations my expectations were low becaue I tend to skim past Jones’ columns in The Guardian. Half a book later, here I am to say I was wrong. It is a book that we need to read; a necessary, prescient mirror to hold up in front of a British society that has lost any sense of the injustice at rampant, growing inequality, and has replaced it with pervasive negative stereotypes that can rightly only be called demonsation.

Jones charts this through social media, through the virulent portrayal in press, film, music and television and of course, in post-Thatcher politics, both Tory and New Labour. Think of Waynetta Slob or Shameless. Think of the ‘Skyvers not Strivers’, think of the rise of the middle class as a social ideal. Now try to think of one positive image of working people from recent times. To be working class, it seems, should induce shame- as surely otherwise your aspiration would have allowed you to become middle class. If you are still working class, then you are scum. You are a Chav.

Not that we ever talk about class any more. Most 20th C social policy was dominated by analysis of how social class systems shaped and dictated life paths for good and ill, but it is as if this vast body of social research never happened. Inequality is no longer a political imperative. It has been replaced by the relentless pursuit of wealth and profit…

 

But, I need to stop ranting because there was another moment in this book that brought me up short- one that described how the liberal left might have joined in with all the Chav hate.

school photo

I should start with my own confession. I have spent my whole life working on my own personal escape plan from where I came from. Here I am above, back row in yellow, with bowl-haircut, from my primary school days. I was the second child of a single mother, entirely dependent on state hand-outs. My absent father was an Irish road worker but both his start in life and my mothers were much worse than mine. We lived in a nice house and never went hungry. Sure, we were ‘different’ from other kids, marked out by our clothes, shoes and our lack of foreign holidays but at the same time, there were always presents at Christmas and birthdays, piano lessons and pressure to succeed at school. Despite this, embarrassment and shame was a dominant part of my becoming.

Small wonder then that I did my best to hide my background. I told small lies about our lack of ‘things’ that seemed to be social markers. I tried to speak with a neutral accent. I went to church youth clubs full of middle class kids. I did enough schooling to become a graduate, via a third class Polytechnic. I ended up working as a social worker, where I inevitably ended up looking down at where I came from with the perspective of one who is no longer like them, but has now become something else. Someone else. No longer working class. I had managed to hide my inner Chav.

There is of course another way to characterise my rise into middle-class respectability. I might be better understood to be the poster boy for meritocracy. Perhaps I escaped because I was better than those who did not. Perhaps I worked harder than those who did not. This feels like bullshit though because the Chav is still with me. The shame is still in me. This despite the fact that I grew up in the late 70’s and 80’s, a much more benign time to be living on benefits than we are living through now.

In reading Owen Jones book, I realised something else though- my own prejudice against working people. In ‘escaping’, I promoted myself. I was not like them. They were racist, sexist unthinking football-crazed yobs who drank too much and lived in dirty conditions. Of course, they were not all like that, but even those that were not were not like me. I think this contributed to a certain kind of alienation and displacement in my life because I was not like the middle class either. I lacked the confidence, ease and security that characterised most of my peers. I was cast as observer, participating only at the edges. Either way, despite my liberation theology/ left wing leanings, perhaps I have to acknowledge that I have done my share of unconscious demonising.

Does this matter? It is not as though I have ever indulged in any of that daily mail rabid Chav hate.

Yes. I think it does. There needs to be a corrective, which has to start in us if it is to become a movement.

Perhaps this film says it all.

The back of William’s head…

 

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This has been my view for much of the last few days- well, that and lots of stunning Highland scenery…

We are just back from our attempt at the Great Glen Canoe Trail.

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Thanks so much to all of you who supported our trip via our Just giving page– we decided to use this trip to try to raise some money for Children of Peace, a charity who work with Palestinian and Israeli kids, bringing them together to foster greater understanding and friendship, and sponsoring some through higher education. (In case this is not obvious, the news of young people being routinely shot on the illegal borders between Israel and the beleaguered and embittered Palestinian people made this charity seem like the best recipient of our sponsorship.) We chose the somewhat arbitrary figure of £400 as our target, and thanks to some very kind and generous people, we made the target this morning.

The trip was not straight forward- read on if you want to know more!

We arrived at Fort William early Sunday afternoon, and tried to pick up a key for the toilets/showers/facilities from Corpach sea loch, having be assured the office was open all day. This is the Highlands though and there was no-one to be seen. Eventually we tracked down a canal worker who told us ‘all the keys are gone’, although then managed to find one for us anyway! We then took all our kit to the top of ‘Neptune’s Staircase’, the series of lochs that climb up out of the basin to the start of the canal proper. The sun was HOT the air still. A paddlers dream.

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Day one was scheduled to be a short paddle of only 10K, although after a lovely journey through winding canal banks, with the occasional glimpse of the glorious Ben Nevis range, we decided to paddle further out into Loch Lochy (so good they named it twice) where we made camp.

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Looking back towards Ben Nevis from the bottom of Loch Lochy

As you will see, we were using camping hammocks- brilliant things, but they are essentially a compromise between comfort and warmth- given that the cold night air underneath you can be very unpleasant. There are various ways to combat this, but I certainly miss employed them the first night!

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The next morning, after a porridge breakfast, we paddled off into a stunning flat calm loch- one of those stunning mornings when the opaque depths of the water hold hardly a ripple and it feels as though you are not floating but rather have been suspended. The spell was broken after an hour or so when I realised I was not wearing my glasses. There seemed no alternative but to return to our camping spot, with many apologies to my fellow paddler, who fortunately took the extra effort in good spirits, even when I found the things tucked up inside my stowed-away hammock, miraculously intact. It was that kind of day.

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An extreme hot day. We scooped water straight from the loch to drink as it was cold and clear. Yes I know, there is always a risk, but this seemed one worth taking. We even swam later, when we stopped at the ‘Trail blazer rest’ site of Glas -dhoire (a lovely place to stop if you are planning a trip, with its camp spots in the trees and a composting loo.)

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After a long pull through Loch Lochy, we arrived at South Lagan lock, which meant another portage. The first challenge was finding the spot canoes were supposed to disembark. There were no signs. Eventually someone shouted out of a window ‘Oi, not there, over there,‘ pointing to a muddy slip into what looked like someones garden. We had a pint of lovely beer each at the Eagle Barge inn, which is as it sounds, a food pub in barge moored just about the lock. We had earned it after all.

By the time we had set off towards Loch Oich, the wind was blowing against us again, which made passage into the Loch hard work. We had a vague plan to see if we could camp on the island in the Loch, but it proved rather overgrown, although very beautiful. Because we were scouting for a camp spot we took the left hand channel, which is not the navigable one normally, but it is quite lovely- a reeded area rich in dragon flies and fringed with flowers on the island.

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Still, we were very glad to reach the trailblazer rest site at Leiterfearn as it had been a long hot day.

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We found some good trees for the hammocks, and I made a rather better job of protecting them against the wind. Hammock hanging, we were finding, is as much art as science.

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The next morning was misty at first – cold even, in great contrast with previous days. We were both feeling the aches and pains of our paddling efforts in the morning so we paddled into a stern headwind in silence, knowing it we faced a day of multiple portages.

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As we paddled under the bridge at Aberchalder it seemed strange to see all the lines of cars, buses and campervans driving through the glen. Of course, I have made this journey myself many times, but today the people in the vehicles seemed like a different race. They were not like us.

At the first portage, past the lock at Cullochy, we met a very well equipped group of canoeists who were heading in the opposite direction. They passed the time of day, and also some rather dire warnings of the conditions up ahead on Loch Ness. Hmmm.

Talking of portages, I had  bought a canoe trolley on Ebay for thirty-odd quid. It was clearly not up to the job of carrying both our canoe and our baggage, so we ended up having to first take the canoe then ferry everything else. You get what you pay for I suppose.

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The next stretch of canal was our favourite. The sun was out now, and we paddled through a green world of trees and hanging branches, which Will said reminded him of pictures of Mangrove forests.

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We lingered a little at the next lock (Kytra) and encountered two more parties of canoeists. The first were travelling in the opposite direction, and gave more (slightly smug it has to be said) warnings about conditions up ahead. The other party were a group who had set off around the same time as us and had now caught us up.

After a companionable paddle along the last stretch of canal, we arrived at the dreaded long portage down the line of locks into Fort Augustus. There was nothing for it but to get on with it. The huge effort seemed all the harder as it was taking place in the midst of milling holiday makers from all over the planet, who often seemed totally unaware of the need to make space for a heavy canoe and a sweating canoeist. They were not like us.

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Finally, we stood on the shores of the might Loch Ness, the largest inland water in the British isles. Our half way point.

The power of the wind coming off the Loch was a shock. Our weather forecast had told us to expect winds of between 8 and 10 MPH. It was actually gusting to over 40 MPH. In those conditions the surface starts to spray- you can see it here;

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It might look pretty, but this is no place to be in an open canoe. To paddle out into water that 35 foot yachts would not willingly go would be madness. Even if you could make progress into these conditions you would do so at great risk; certainly you would be swamped by waves and be bailing as much as you paddled, and there is always the risk of capsize- which in a solo heavy loaded canoe is pretty much impossible to self-recover from. Along with our canoeing companions, we had no choice but to wait. And eat chips. The weather was strange. Sunshine, heat and mountains perhaps will produce odd weather.

If anything, conditions worsened, so we reviewed our choices. We could wait overnight to see if things improved. The weather forecast suggest a window of windlessness at 4AM, but given that it had been so inaccurate we had no way of knowing whether this was believable. It could also lead to us being stranded half way up. Those who had got through over the last few days were all heading in the opposite direction, and most of them had rafted up and come through under sail.

We considered asking Michaela to come and pick us up and take us up to Inverness, to let us have a go from the other end. The thing is though, it may still have been impassable. In the end, there was only one decision, we had to go back. Back up that blood line of locks and back to where we came from. Fortunately, some of the other stranded canoeists helped us get our stuff back up the hill. They were waiting a while longer so kindly volunteered to get us on our way. Still, we both were subdued and disappointed as we loaded up again to set off back over already travelled waters.

But, propelled by the strong wind, we dug in hard. The canal banks seemed to fly by and after two more portages we were back on Loch Oich, revelling in the wild conditions. We stopped for a rest at Well of the Seven Heads, wondering if a cafe might be open, but no luck so we set off again, back through the Mangrove forest and all the way down to South Lagan. The Eagle Barge was closed so we stopped to cook a tea of spicy rice. Still it was past 9.30PM when we set off into a darkening and challenging Loch Lochy, searching for a suitable camping spot.In the end however, we made it all the way back to the Trailblazer rest site at Glas-dhoire, bursting out the last of our energy as the darkness gathered, about 10.30 at night.

What an epic day it had been; on the go almost non stop from 7 AM, seven portages, disappointment followed by the exhilaration of fast sustained paddling in wild conditions, and about 30 K of waters covered. We slept well that night.

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In the morning, the sun was shining, but the wind was blowing hard. We had shared our site with a group of kids from London who had paddled half way up the loch the day before- good for them because that must have been a tough effort. We described what awaited them and the leaders decided they would try to get further, but if not, would raft up the canoes, rig and A frame and let fly their spinnaker to give the kids a thrill. We fancied joining them, but we had mission of our own. We were heading home, and this meant tackling the loch.

Unless you have been in big waters in a canoe, you will not know what I am talking about. I kept my VHF radio close to my chest and fought to keep the canoe stern on to the waves as we were blown, bounced and pushed down towards Gairlochy. It was magnificent. What a contrast with our passage up the loch. You will understand the lack of photos- it was simply not possible to stop paddling. The bottom of the loch was the toughest- the wave reach was around 18 K, more than enough to raise waves of about a meter, which we actually ended up surfing. I knew were unlikely to be able to paddle broadside to conditions like this, so in order to keep the waves to the stern of the canoe, we had to leave the relative safety of the shores of the loch as we neared the wide section at the end. I think we both felt a combination of relief and anti-climax when we reached the more sheltered waters of the canal heading into Gairlochy.

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The rest of the day was just hot paddling though the canal system. The last stretch seemed the longest of all. After days of over estimating the time taken to cover distance, the opposite happened and each twist in the canal we thought would be the last. We were tired because it had been another epic day.

We arrived back at Banavie with mixed emotions. We had failed in our crossing of Scotland, but we had succeeded in so many other ways.

I had the deep pleasure of a once-in-a-lifetime trip with my son, who is on the verge of adulthood, soon to be off on adventures on his own, perhaps far away. We had not even a cross word between us for the whole trip. How blessed am I?

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We raised some money for a cause we believe in (assuming people do not ask for half of their donations back!)

We proved we could paddle long distances and still enjoy it. In fact, we may have got the bug. Already we are wondering about other long distance paddles- The Spey perhaps?

We also learned a lot. We need to re-equip the canoe, which is old and battered, but still has a good hull. It needs new thwarts, and hopefully a sailing rig. The hammocks need underblankets. We need to read the weather better. We definitely need to spend some money on a better trolley! We would take less clothes, and get more creative with our cooking.

We will share it with others too perhaps. Anyone fancy coming along next time?

(Oh- by the way, Will had his gopro attached to the bow of the canoe so if he ever gets around to editing the video I will post it later…)

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