Always ‘on’…

If you are an American teenager, you are likely to be ‘connected’ around 7-10 hours per day (according to this article.) By this I mean plugged in/tuned in to the net in some way.

If you are honest- how about you? I might spend a lot of my working day in front of a PC- on an office day, this may be 6 hours. I then will read a few blogs/websites, answer e-mails, then do some bits and pieces of writing into the small hours. On some days, I am up there with the teenagers.

“TV will turn your brain to Jelly” my mother used to say. This was her excuse for restricting our TV watching to only two programmes a week- usually The World About Us and (more bizarrely) Starsky and Hutch. However I have since over compensated for this televisual deprivation, and my brain is not yet jellied. The question is whether our increased addiction to internet based communication might yet mix our brains into some kind of (ahem) blancmange.

I liked the balance of this;

The greatest advantages of wired living are easily enumerated. Plugged into the world’s hive-mind, we have speed, we have range. We can research and reference much of humanity’s gathered knowledge – and gossip and opinion – in minutes. We have godlike capabilities and are increasingly adept at using them.

Unplugged from media’s live wires, however, our originality and rigour can come into play in a different, older sense that’s found in our capacity to make decisions, to act on our own initiative, to think freely, without fear of pre-emption. Much as we hunger for connection, we need to keep some sense of ourselves separate from the constant capacity to broadcast. We need tenses other than the present.

If the issue is about trying to make sure that we have time for both- how do we achieve this, particularly given the strangely compulsive and addictive nature of the connected world?

For some people, the suffusion of the present is increasingly attended by strain and anxiety, and a sense of lost control. For all of its challenges, we live in an era of near-miraculous, unprecedented opportunities.

Above all, though, every effort on our part should begin with the knowledge that without the ability to say no as well as yes to technology – and to understand what exactly it is that we are agreeing to when we do say yes – we risk turning modernity’s miracles into snares.

I would add to this an old discussion on this blog about the nature of on line communication, which I compared to a kind of Autism. On line communication allows for the sharing of lots of informational data, but for the most part lacks the nuanced, multi-layered complexity that characterises human face to face exchanges.

People who have autistic spectrum difficulties can find techniques that might help manage some of the contradictions and complications life brings to them. They might also have real strengths that are revealed in a capacity to perform some non-social tasks extremely well. But within social groups, they will often struggle.

Which is another way of saying that online time is great, but it is limited. For most people it is not enough, and if we ignore the other parts of who we are then they might wither and die, to our collective detriment.

All the more reason then (plug alert!) to build in some periods of electronic silence into your life. And how better to do this than to come on one of our Wilderness Retreats? Allow the noisy silence of wild places to wash over you…

Canoeing the Congo…

Little mishaps aside, I love canoeing.

Since my accident a couple of years ago, I realise I have been much more cautious, particularly on the sea. Whilst caution might well be understandable, and even (particularly from Michaela’s point of view) a welcome corrective, I do not like it.

I do not like the shrinking of the far horizon, or the idea that adventure should be avoided. I do not like decisions to be dominated by anxiety/fear in relation to things I used to do with an easy smile.

This year, I intend to get out in the canoe a lot more.

Having said all that, I am not sure I am quite ready for this, no matter how much the idea of it excites me;

Here is a quote from here;

At night, in the absence of firm ground, my technique would be to paddle as hard as I could and ram myself into the thickest area of reeds I could find. I’d then try to somehow drag and push my way further through, until I was securely wedged in with little risk of capsizing. I figured that since I was surrounded by tightly packed reeds, I’d have to be pretty unlucky to get a surprise visit from anything big enough to fit my head in its mouth. On more than one occasion I was awoken in the middle of the night by crashing, splashing sounds, but after a while I got used to it. Crashing, splashing sounds are one thing – something horrible ripping your leg off is quite another.

Thankfully, there are no crocodiles in the West of Scotland.

The Midgies have eaten them all.


Building things to point at the heavens…

We have been doing it for a long time now.

Remember the story of the Tower of Babel?

According to the biblical account, a united humanity of the generations following the Great Flood, speaking a single language and migrating from the east, came to the land of Shinar, where they resolved to build a city with a tower “with its top in the heavens…lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the Earth.” God came down to see what they did and said: “They are one people and have one language, and nothing will be withholden from them which they purpose to do.” So God said, “Come, let us go down and confound their speech.” And so God scattered them upon the face of the Earth, and confused their languages, and they left off building the city, which was called Babel “because God there confounded the language of all the Earth.”(Genesis 11:5-8).

This has come to mind because of two stories over the last couple of days. The first one concerned a strange offer from the Brazilian government to build a replica of Rio de Janeiro’s famous Christ the Redeemer statue, on Primrose Hill, overlooking the City of London.

The Guardian reports local councillor-

Primrose Hill Lib Dem councillor Chris Naylor said he wasn’t sure a 20ft statue of Christ with his arms outstretched was quite what the area needed.

Then today there was another story in the papers about a plan to raise a temple to Atheism at the heart of the City of London. As if there were not already plenty of those. De Botton said he chose the country’s financial centre because he believes it is where people have most seriously lost perspective on life’s priorities- presumably he hopes to restore the balance of these priorities by architecture.

The philosopher and writer Alain de Botton is proposing to build a 46-metre (151ft) tower to celebrate a “new atheism” as an antidote to what he describes as Professor Richard Dawkins‘s “aggressive” and “destructive” approach to non-belief.

Rather than attack religion, De Botton said he wants to borrow the idea of awe-inspiring buildings that give people a better sense of perspective on life.

“Normally a temple is to Jesus, Mary or Buddha, but you can build a temple to anything that’s positive and good,” he said. “That could mean a temple to love, friendship, calm or perspective. Because of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens atheism has become known as a destructive force. But there are lots of people who don’t believe but aren’t aggressive towards religions.”

Dawkins criticised the project on Thursday, indicating the money was being misspent and that a temple of atheism was a contradiction in terms.

They appear to be finding it difficult to find a site in the City of London however-

Discussions with City authorities about a possible site stalled because “they can’t be seen to be connected to anything to do with atheism”, the project’s architect, Tom Greenall, said.

Well there you have it. The Protestant Work Ethic and the Opium of the People all cosied up perhaps?

Whatever the merits of these two schemes, which may well never get anywhere near planning permission, there are some interesting issues here. Spending money on buildings in the name of religion or areligion always seems a little like a power statement- particularly in times when people are in need. The great medieval cathedrals were build to inspire awe and trembling and to dominate the skylines.

But they remain. And I love to be inside them. And the can be very useful in our climate.

It is one of those human contradictions that constructed spaces can open up spiritual spaces inside us – or perhaps close them.

What gives buildings this kind of power? Is it simply the curve of arch and the vault of roof? The ambient acoustics? The softening of history or the pride of ownership? I suppose it might be all of these things, but it seems to me to be as hard to dissect and define this power as it might be to do with any human art form.

What of that ancient story of the Tower of Babel? I have heard it used to illustrate all sorts of theories-

  • God was bringing mankind down a peg or two as we were getting too big for our boots
  • God was blessing us with nationhood and nationalist pride
  • It is an illustration of a stage of the journey away from the Garden of Eden. A logical extension of the move from hunter-gatherer, to farmer, to wealth accumulator, to city builder

I tend to associate with the last of these. Cities are wonderful places. I visit them most often as a tourist these days, as we live so far out on the western fringe. I love their energy, their human variety, the layers of creativity and commerce all mingled. Then I love to leave them behind and go home.

Because our experience of the weight of human experience is not really captured by how high, how big or how magnificently we can stack stones is it?

This is about what happens within our small spaces, wherever they are – when we meet and love within them. The Tower of Babel might be seen as a warning of the pointless steeple, unconnected to the land and the life of those upon it.

Burns day…

Today is Burns day.

For the uninitiated, this is a big day up here in Scotland. There will be many a haggis piped in and much raising of whisky glasses along with ceremonial readings of Burns poetry. It is possible that somewhere in this wonderful world that there are other great poets whose memory is celebrated by a national day all of their own – the poets of ancient Persia perhaps – but if so, I do not know of it. This fact alone singles out Burns as special.

(There is an interesting article in the Guardian today about William Barnes, a Dorset poet, also a farmers son who wrote in his own dialect.)

Burns was a man who packed an awful lot into his 37 years of life. Before he died in 1796 he had been a farmer, a book keeper on a Jamaican slave plantation, a tax man, a part time soldier, a song writer and (of course) a poet of power, subtlety and gifting who was able to speak with an authentic voice.

Burns personal life was no less colourful. Jacobite, Freemason, Socialite, Womaniser (who is said to have had many illegitimate children.) Lover whose poems immortalised Highland Mary, whose statue stands above her (and my) home town still –

Burns died young after living hard. He was a man of many contradictions; a supporter of revolution who collected taxes; a campaigner for liberty and justice who worked on a slave plantation; a socialite and friend of the rich and powerful whose wife and many children lived in real hardship, particularly after his death.

Why did his poetry endure? How did it become to be so identified with Scottish culture?

Burns was a fierce nationalist, and his Jacobite leanings had become very fashionable in the century after his death thanks to the Victorian romantic vision of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ and the reinvention of Highland heritage and regalia by Sir Walter Scott, who had known Burns. Although Scott, a Unionist, would certainly not have approved of this one;

The other force that propelled his on going fame was the establishment of Burns nights by friends of Burns shortly after his death. The huge popularity of Freemasonry at the time carried this tradition all around Scotland and into Northern Ireland, as Lodges began to celebrate Burns night with food, whisky and poetry.

Burns endures because his poetry capture something of what Scotland believes and hopes itself to be – fierce, proud, simple, direct, passionate, defiant, independent minded. The fact that he was a bit of a rogue does him no harm either.

But enough of this- time for some poetry. I confess not to find Burns easy but then how many of us read Shakespeare for fun? But occasionally something lyrical and beautiful breaks through. I tend to find myself drawn to the songs he wrote-

A Fiddler in the north

Amang the trees, where humming bees,

At buds and flowers were hinging, O,

Auld Caledon drew out her drone, And to her pipe was singing, O:

‘Twas Pibroch, Sang, Strathspeys, and Reels, She dirl’d them aff fu’ clearly, O:

When there cam’ a yell o’ foreign squeels, That dang her tapsalteerie, O.


Their capon craws an’ queer “ha, ha’s,” They made our lugs grow eerie, O;

The hungry bike did scrape and fyke, Till we were wae and weary, O:

But a royal ghaist, wha ance was cas’d, A prisoner, aughteen year awa’,

He fir’d a Fiddler in the North, That dang them tapsalteerie, O.

Tapsalteerie=topsy turvy. Work the rest out for yourself!

Then there is this beautiful song (with Dick Gaughan’s version of the lyrics below.)

Now westlin winds and slaughtering guns
Bring autumn’s pleasant weather
The moorcock springs on whirring wings
Among the blooming heather
Now waving grain, wild o’er the plain
Delights the weary farmer
And the moon shines bright as I rove at night
To muse upon my charmer

The partridge loves the fruitful fells
The plover loves the mountain
The woodcock haunts the lonely dells
The soaring hern the fountain
Through lofty groves the cushat roves
The path of man to shun it
The hazel bush o’erhangs the thrush
The spreading thorn the linnet

Thus every kind their pleasure find
The savage and the tender
Some social join and leagues combine
Some solitary wander
Avaunt! Away! the cruel sway,
Tyrannic man’s dominion
The sportsman’s joy, the murdering cry
The fluttering, gory pinion

But Peggy dear the evening’s clear
Thick flies the skimming swallow
The sky is blue, the fields in view
All fading green and yellow
Come let us stray our gladsome way
And view the charms of nature
The rustling corn, the fruited thorn
And every happy creature

We’ll gently walk and sweetly talk
Till the silent moon shines clearly
I’ll grasp thy waist and, fondly pressed,
Swear how I love thee dearly
Not vernal showers to budding flowers
Not autumn to the farmer
So dear can be as thou to me
My fair, my lovely charmer

And finally, a quote from Thomas Carlyle, speaking of Burns

Granted the ship comes into harbour with shrouds and tackle damaged, the pilot is blameworthy… but to know how blameworthy, tell us first whether his voyage has been round the Globe or only to Ramsgate and the Isle of Dogs.

Burns travels far.


The return of the protest song…

The Occupy London movement have launched their own music channel, along with an album entitled ‘Folk the Banks’.

More from the Guardian here.

The first album, called Folk the Banks, has a cover designed by the artistJamie Reid, who stuck a safety pin through the Queen’s nose on the Sex Pistols’ behalf all those years ago. This is not punk, though, but – as the title suggests – folk music.

Adam Jung, an activist from the US who is the driving force behind the project, believes the organisers have made the right choice of musical genre. “Folk makes sense because it’s traditionally the music of protest,” he said. “It’s the music of the people. It’s very appropriate for the first album to come from that tradition.” And even if this one doesn’t take off, there are already four others in the pipeline.

The 17-track album includes work by Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, Billy Bragg, Anaïs Mitchell, Ani DiFranco, Sam Duckworth and the stalwart anarchist collective Chumbawamba. Yours in exchange for a donation, it will be distributed digitally and, the organisers hope, on vinyl.

Vinyl! I hope to be able to get hold of this…

The power of song to communicate ideas and to allow passion to flower in the very heart of us all remains strong. Sing on I say- we need you.

Man flu…

I could explain to you just how ill I feel right now after two nights with no sleep, lungs coughing up things the colour of moss, and a head like a blender…

…but I am too ill to write. Count yourself lucky.

Instead I offer you these photographs of our fire place after one mornings action –

Community and the social core…

I joined this site recently, thanks to a contact on my blog because of an old post about Poverty and the Emerging Church.

‘Our Society’ is helping to join people together for good – to exchange ideas and information and encourage community action, and as such it seems like something to shine light and sprinkle salt on.

The site is focussed south of the border at present, so it would be great to get some Scottish participation.

Gavin Barker sent me this power point in relation to work he has been doing to map areas of social deprivation;

<div style=”width:425px” id=”__ss_11131652″> <strong style=”display:block;margin:12px 0 4px”><a href=”; title=”Mapping deprivation and co-production” target=”_blank”>Mapping deprivation and co-production</a></strong>

The slides about the importance of connections and ‘social capital’ are very familiar, but the idea of a ‘social core’ was less so to me.

The measure of our societies depends to a large extent on the community activists at the heart of our towns, which Gavin describes as the ‘social core’ who tend to be

•Middle aged
•Have higher education qualifications
•Owner occupiers
•Actively practice their religion
•Have lived in the same neighbourhood for at least 10 years
•Over 60% of middle aged females would be counted as part of the civic core
These folk will do 72% of the civic participation, 79% of the charitable giving and 87% of the voluntary hours.
Gavin also talks about the ‘inner core’ – the 7.6% of the population who do 22%, 40% and 49% of the above.
I would add to this (from a small town Scottish perspective) that these people are also often incomers- that is, migrants into the area, or ‘white settlers’ as they are disparagingly known.
You could legitimately argue that the description of the social core above is simply those who can afford to spend time, money and energy on these things. Other people are caught up in surviving. However; whatever the reason, whatever the motivation, thank God for them, particularly in these times of disconnection and fragmentation.

Scottish independence?

So, the issue of independence for Scotland from Great Britain is at the top of the political agenda.

Tory leader, David Cameron decided to force the issue and in the process managed to give a political boost to the Scottish Nationalists – any posh London Tory who tries to flex his or her muscles up in Scotland is going to be resisted by 90% of the population up here. As someone said, there are more polar bears in Scotland than Tory members of parliament!

I have written before about my own take on all this which is pretty much along these lines-

  • I am an English/Irishman, living in Scotland. Most of us are part of a similar mix when you scratch the surface.
  • I have an innate suspicion of nationalism as I can’t think of a single instance of nationalism being a force for good
  • Rather nationalism is often associated with ‘us first’ – defended boundaries, exclusivity and sectarianism.
  • This is particularly the case in when politics starts to use history as a justification. It all becomes distorted and dishonest

Does this mean that the 5.2 million people who live in Scotland (8.5% of the total UK population) could not benefit from independence? The answer to this of course is that no one really knows. The economic case is yet to be argued, not to mention the wider political implications for the whole of the UK. The argument has been really stuck at some kind of romantic notion of ‘Scottishness’, which is of course defined AGAINST as much as defined by.

Defined against the English that is.

Typified by the proposal (by the Scottish Nationalist Party) to hold a referendum on the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. Because Robert the Bruce has more to teach us about our politics than all those intervening years of Empire and conquest (apparently.)

Is it possible to love your country without seeking to denigrate your neighbours? I hope it is for the sake of the future of these islands. I hope we can promote the politics of reconciliation and respect. I suppose nationalists in Scotland would argue that this is only possible when there is an equal partnership, or even genuine self determination.

I read this recently, which paints a strange picture of views on this issue either side of the border –

The poll shows that while a substantial proportion of Scots (40 per cent) back independence, 43 per cent want to remain inside the United Kingdom.

However, among English voters – who would not get a vote in any referendum – there is a clear lead for those who support independence for Scotland (43 per cent) over those who want the Union to be preserved (32 per cent).

Most Scots admit their nation would be worse off after independence (41 per cent) than better off (38 per cent), while 51 per cent of English think the Scots would be worse off.

Some 61 per cent of English people, moreover, say the current formula which sees higher government spending per head in Scotland is unjustified – a similar finding to 2006.

Among Scots, 53 per cent think that the spending system, known as the Barnett formula, is justified while 21 per cent do not agree.

So will it happen?

At the moment I would say that the odds are against, but I hope that over the next year the questions asked will be much more sophisticated ones, rather than just the agenda that is set by the Edinburgh Tartan Elite.

Blowing away the cobwebs…

This weekend our eldest nephew Josh and his girlfriend Alice are up to stay with us. It has been a great day- we took them over to Ostel Bay, wrapped up against the wild wind.

Rain hail and sleet came across a massive sky in horizontal sheets, curtaining off the island of Arran in the distance, then parting to give a tantalising glimpse through and beyond. You could lean into the wind like a cushion.


The blessing of uneasy questions…

After a long week, I kind of need a cave for a while, but this came in today from the Emergent Village minimergent…

May you (and I) be richly blessed in this kind of way.

A Franciscan Blessing 

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart. Amen.

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace. Amen.

May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy. Amen.

May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.