RIP Rob Cook.

The world lost someone this week. His passing won’t be national news, perhaps a mention in the local papers, but it will be keenly felt by people like me, I’d imagine hundreds if not thousands of us, all over the world.
Rob Cook led a Christian youth group in Aldridge in the West Midlands. When I met him he was gradually taking a more prominent leadership role, one which he embraced and grew into in the years that I spent with them.
I was a teenager full of questions; like any young man, trying to sort out what it was to be a man. Rob remains to this day one of the yardsticks against which I measure myself as a man. He was a man of conviction, strength and wisdom – although I’m sure that he would have laughed to hear me call him wise, humble as he was. Smiling, patient, caring – he was like a father to so many of us. He passionately wanted us to follow him in his faith but never forced it on us and never gave up caring about those who didn’t. He saw the good in every one of us. It’s easy for those leading religious groups to lose sight of what it is like to be on the other side of the fence. Easy to be judgemental and puritanical. He was never anything but understanding and tolerant. His advice was always considered and realistic.
In a time when my relationship with my own family was strained and difficult, I relied on Rob, his wife Annette and the rest of that group; they supported me unconditionally. I wouldn’t be who I am today without them.
Through that group and under Rob’s watchful eye I had countless opportunities to grow as a person, to be involved with charitable projects, creative endeavours and incredible adventures. I may not have managed to acquire his faith but I believe that he has a hand in my continuing desire to try to make the world a better place.
There’s a lump in my throat as I write this but also a smile on my face. I can see him now, beaming from a chair in a marquee in a field on the Gower. I can hear that distinctive laugh echo through the night.
Goodnight and God bless, Rob. You made the world a better place and each one of us for whom you cared so much carry a little piece of you with us into every corner of the world.

A misanthrope’s guide to saving the world.

Should you be taking spiritual advice from a misanthrope? What the hell are people like me trying to save the world for anyway? Don’t we think that people basically suck and secretly hope that someone pushes the button, the world goes boom and we can evaporate with “I told you so” lingering on our smug, whiskey-tainted[1] lips?

Think of us like rescue dogs… we might growl and bare our fangs, occasionally frighten your kids and we’re never going to be in a cute family photo but if you can win our trust, you’re doing something right. And if a misanthrope thinks there’s something worth saving, there probably is. It’s not like we’re prone to flights of romantic fantasy.

Anyway, if Mark Zuckerberg can write an essay about how he’s going to save the world with Facebook then, fuck it, everyone should be prepared to throw their hat in the ring. At least you know I’m not trying to sell you anything.

Really, the question isn’t “How can I save the world?” as, if you’re reading this, chances are you’re probably already doing your bit. Let’s face it; this is a pretty selective readership.

The more pertinent question is, “How can I encourage other people to save the world?” That question seems especially pertinent if, like me, you live in a bubble of like-minded folk who are all equally concerned about the way that the world seems to be going.

All I’ve come up with so far is that, at the fragile, iridescent edges of your bubble, there are those who can reach outside, reach into others’ bubbles. And so on. The better you do with your monkey sphere, the better your monkeys will fare on the outside.

So, monkeys within a critical radius, what can we do?

Try harder. Try to walk in the shoes of the people that we so easily offer contemptuous dismissal. Take it from an intellectually arrogant, judgemental dickhead: we’re never going to win over the people who are voting for the politics of fear with hectoring, high-horses and high-minded rhetoric. The liberal elite didn’t listen to the electorate in the UK’s EU referendum or in the US elections. You can’t win a debate without genuinely listening to your opponent’s argument – especially if they already think you’re a dick. Trust me on this – almost everyone thinks I’m a dick.

Check your… well, everything. Privilege, facts, friends, ethics… In short, think before you open your fat mouth. Or, more pertinently, post or share. Everything that we put out there that can be justifiably ridiculed weakens our stance. Stay credible or stay quiet.

Believe. A wise friend posted this wonderful article a while ago. It took me a while to really get my head around it. She’s right. We have lost something in our lack of belief. We don’t need gods or creeds or lists of rules. We need to have put enough effort into our own thinking that we can truly believe in ourselves, instead of parroting something that we’ve heard because we can’t be bothered to put the work in. We need to be prepared to admit ignorance, to ask questions, to do the hard yards and know our own minds. Take a few minutes and listen to a vox pop on the radio some time, or look at the comments section on a debate about immigration. Almost every time you see an argument that makes you think “bigotry”, you’ll see ill-matched phrases lifted from half-remembered arguments. Don’t be that guy. Know what you’re talking about.

Do something. Seriously… some time ago I posted “Spare half an hour to write to your MP or spare me your opinion.” I stand by that. If you’re not a member of a political party – or else forming your own or an active member of a protest group – then you’re just an Internet dilettante. You don’t have to go hair shirt – I could do a lot more – but there’s no true belief without action. If you can’t even be bothered to sign a few petitions, to write to your political representative, then why should anyone care if you’re not tickled pink with the status quo? Truly, if you’re not part of the solution…

Be nice. Yeah, I know. I’m hardly one to talk. Ask anyone who’s known me for a long time though and, I hope, they’ll tell you I’ve come a long way. But every day you have multiple chances to make the world a better, kinder place. If you don’t, why should anyone else.

Maybe I’m not the misanthrope that I used to be. Maybe misanthropy has made me the man I am today. I’d like to think that we can still save the world. If we can’t, then you’re welcome round my place when it all finally goes tits-up. Bring a guitar and a bottle of Jamesons.

Unlimited love.

x

[1] Maybe that’s just me…

Only 352 shopping days until Christmas…

So those of you expecting an anti-commercialist, sanctimonious moan about not buying things might be surprised when I exhort you to spend these 352 days thinking about gifts for people.

Yep, you read me correctly.

Of course, naturally, I don’t mean start buying animatronic singing Christmas elves and wrapping them in glittery paper. But I’m serious about the gifts.

This particular train of thought comes to you courtesy of the ever cheerful Giorgio Monbiroder, who you may remember from ‘Together in Electric Dreams’, in a column in which he details the impact of our rampant consumerism on the planet. It’s cheerless but deeply necessary reading. Read it now and come back, I’ll wait.

George suggests that we eschew giving commercial gifts entirely and make cakes, write poems, tell jokes and give hugs for Christmas instead and, whilst I understand the sentiment, there’s also a part of me that thinks that’s perhaps not going to work for everyone. I for one am not a great baker of cakes, if I write someone a poem it’s probably going to be so depressing that they’ll hang themselves on Boxing Day, my jokes are mostly (as regular readers will attest) stupid, offensive or both and I’m currently wearing a beard that makes me look like a paroled killer so going in for the festive hug is just going to give people the Christmas willies 1.

So maybe not. And I don’t want to be that git that buys the family a card saying that they’ve bought a goat for a village in Niger or a cobra for a nursery in Burkina Faso. And not just because goats are difficult to wrap.

There are plenty of Ned-Flanders style suggestions about giving people vouchers for hugs, favours, foot rubs or whatever, too, but I’m going to call bullshit on that. Doing a good deed should be special for Christmas? A favour is something you do to help – any time of year. You help someone put up a picture or wash the car or whatever because you can. Because it’s how we get along. Because you’re not a dick.

There’s nothing wrong with giving gifts at any time of the year. There are lots of things that you can buy from real shops that don’t cost the Earth. There are plenty of things that people will get through during a year that you can buy them a slightly nicer version of. Whiskey, in my case.

Good wine, coffee, preserves, sauces, crackers… come on, people. Books don’t cost the Earth and there’s no finer gift than a well chosen book. Music that you’ve chosen really carefully; you could even support an emerging, independent artist. Make jam, sloe gin, fudge, a notebook.

There are loads of things that you can buy to support local producers, ethical trade. If you want to go big ticket for someone, there’s even an ethical smartphone.

You’ve got 352 shopping days until Christmas. If you can’t resist that urge to fill someone’s stocking in 2017 then you’ve got 352 days to search online, in charity shops, ethical producers. To learn to make really good chutney. To take a woodworking course so that you can make someone a custom office bookshelf.

You’ve got 352 days to keep giving small, thoughtful gifts to the people that you love. To keep doing nice things for friends and strangers alike.

Because not being quite as miserable as George Monbiot doesn’t have to mean you’re a dick.

1. Christmas willies make a great gift but only for consenting adults

It’s behind you! 2016 was just a panto villain.

Ding dong, 2016 is dead. We can all breathe a collective sigh of relief. Everything will be ok now that awful year is over. 2017 should be less tragic, shouldn’t it? We must be almost running out of beloved celebrities to die prematurely.

I’ll admit: I’ve been on the bandwagon; it’s been a year that’s seen me pretty much stop writing. Whether you see that as one of the things to celebrate about 2016 or not depends on your perspective and tolerance for rambling diatribes interspersed with bad puns and balls jokes, I guess. There came a point last year where Thalia got caught in a weltschmerz riptide and carried away; it’s hard to crack wise about the state of the world when real life feels more like black comedy than anything you can conjure. But I’m back. Yay.

The depiction of last year as a celebrity-hunting bogeyman is probably quite apt. The good riddances bid on social and news media, though, have focused on lost luvvies and been light on the politics, bar some very vague references to war. It’s nice to have a clear cut pantomime villain to hiss and throw peanuts at. Like any panto baddie, we’re not really booing what we think we are. The villain in any drama is a projection of our own deadly sins; our wrath, lust and sloth as a cartoon caricature.

To shout “Begone!” at the year past because of lost celebs is to rail against simple probability. Some years will take a heavier toll than others; those we treasure will walk into the light and Rupert Murdoch will remain until the expiry of his Mephistophelean contract. Upsetting but inevitable. Simple chance, the random cosmos isn’t the bad guy.

As sad as it was to see such giants of the entertainment world as Ronnie Corbett[1] pass on, that’s not the reason that 2016 really sucked.

We were.

Choosing isolation over union. Choosing fear and selfishness over compassion. Choosing laziness over making a stand.

Britain decided to leave Europe. After all of the fuss, the lies, the accusations and the political point scoring, we chose to go backwards. Not to reform and try to improve a union whilst still seeking cooperation. We chose to go back and hide on our rainy island.  Lots of us were against it but we were too arrogant, too proud. We failed to listen to the other side, failed to understand and to engage.

The US election; the ongoing war in Syria; political posturing; post-truth news and politics; the rise in hate speech; the alt-right: I know from what I’ve read that I’m not alone in thinking that the world has become an uglier place over the last twelve months. But so many of us are complicit in all of these events. Each time we’ve convinced ourselves that writing to our MP doesn’t make a difference (it does if we all do it); each time we’ve voted mainstream because we’ve let mainstream media convince us that they’re the only credible alternative; each time we’ve let ourselves believe that a Facebook post counts as doing our bit – we’ve contributed.

It takes twenty minutes to write a well-researched email to your MP. Ten minutes to write a letter for Amnesty. Five minutes to add your name to a petition. You can find communities like helpfulpeeps  and perform a small act of kindness to make your community a better place. It takes a couple of seconds to think whether joining in with a joke in the office is making the world a better place or helping other people to think that casual prejudice is OK. No time and no money to not buy something from a corporation with questionable ethics.

2017 can be an amazing year. World-changing. It could be the year when our political leaders are forced to prize people over profit; when our companies are forced to take responsibility for what they do to the planet; when we make an effort to truly love our neighbours.

It would be nice to think that this time next year, a few beloved singers passing on is all that we have to feel bad about.

[1] Note for non UK readers: one of the Two Ronnies; a much loved comedian of remarkably diminutive stature.

This feels wrong… we shouldn’t get rid of Cameron.

Oh my, I think I’m about to defend David Cameron in writing. I feel sullied. Bear with me. I think I have a worthwhile point.

Here we go: if you train a dog to attack children in the street, is the dog evil? I have a horrible feeling that Cameron thinks that he’s trying to do the right thing. Like the dog. Maybe I should have gone with a foxhound…

If you shoot the evil dog for attacking children, are you making the problem go away?

Someone who trains a dog to attack children will just get another dog. You have to go after the owner. I think Cameron’s been conditioned by an upbringing of privilege. He has no idea what it’s like to be without money, or the accompanying confidence that things will be ok. He has no idea what it’s like to be truly dependent on the NHS, or your local school, or the support worker from the local authority. Just like you have no idea what it’s like to eat swan until you can pick your teeth and stuff a pillow.

If you kick out Cameron, you’re most likely to get Boris. Make no mistake: he’s funnier than Cameron. The trainer’s taught him some good tricks. He rolls over and dances on his hind legs and lets you rub his belly. He’ll still attack your kids.

The tax thing is a distraction. If we listen to the papers and fixate on the people we miss the point – and that’s playing into the hands of the system. If we get into an uninformed huff and boot out Cameron over doing what is basically the same thing as what you do when you stick money in an ISA, we’ll think we’ve won some sort of victory and let the country keep on getting run by a pack of dogs trained by the same sociopath. Vote for the Tories, vote for Labour – it doesn’t matter. It’s the status quo. The Establishment. The same little privileged club, running the country… not for themselves, not as they see it. Running the country the way that they’ve been conditioned to run it. The way they’ve been trained.

Sign a petition to get rid of Cameron if it helps to assuage your anger about the NHS or schools or benefit cuts if you want. Or because you want to cause a little mischief. But don’t think that you’re making the world a better place.

If you want to do that, then learn about monetary reform or TTIP or democratic reform. Bore your friends about it. If you can convince one other person to encourage one of their friends to do something to make the world a better place, then we can change the world together. That’s difficult, though, it requires perseverance; a sacrifice of time and the risk of making your friends uncomfortable. Signing a petition to boot out Cameron is easy. That’s why we shouldn’t bother. Nothing worth having comes easy.

Getting rid of Cameron won’t make the country better any more than pulling the head off a dandelion will improve your lawn. We’ve either got to be prepared to get the weedkiller out, do some digging and reseed, or get used to looking out of the window at a wilderness where only the fittest survive.

The Black Feathers – a gig review

A feather, in case you didn’t know, is a marvel of natural engineering. Incredibly light but, pound for pound, as strong as carbon fibre, allowing our avian friends to carve shapes in the air with apparently effortless grace and power.

So The Black Feathers are aptly named. This evening’s performance at the Lansdown in Bristol began with “Goodbye Tomorrow”, showcasing the immaculate harmonies of Sian and Ray, two voices perfectly paired and expertly controlled, with Ray’s sometimes feather-light, sometimes assertively resonant touch on the guitar providing backing. Like the playing, the voices, whether whisper-soft or soaring powerfully, are polished to perfection, every phrase engineered and refined.

Next came a sly, fun take on “Spirit in the Sky”, with mischief in the guitar line acknowledging the camp of the original but the beautifully constructed vocal still showing reverence to a famous old song. Yes, there’s not just musical talent on display (although the songs are so good, so well delivered that the duo could sit stock still, never speaking to the audience and it would still be a spellbinding evening) – there’s self-deprecating humour, wit and true warmth too.

Thus the tone for the evening is set, the haunting “Homesick” a combination of heart-stopping beauty and incredible precision , the ‘foot-tapping misery’ of “Down by the River” and the pared-down, truly acoustic “You will be Mine” all faultlessly delivered and interspersed with jokes, asides and a genuine gratitude to the audience.

The singing is impeccable, one runs out of superlatives for the quality of the harmonies and for the composition of the melodies around which they are woven. The lyrics are elegantly constructed, meaningful and every song is polished, every dynamic thought through and rehearsed. The performance transports the audience; a glance around the room shows eyes closed and emotion writ large on faces. Tonight’s performance could truly have graced any stage in the world. I hope one day soon that everyone sat in the upstairs room at the Lansdown will be pointing at their televisions, telling relatives: “I saw them before they were famous, it was amazing, I was this close.”

If there’s any justice, that’s exactly what will happen. Catch The Black Feathers while you can, and pick up “Soaked to the Bone” and amaze your next dinner guests.

Bring on the dancing scientists.

Most of the people who I know are involved in the education system at any professional level believe that it is in some trouble. Clearly the Guardian is struggling too, as it’s now publishing articles on education written by sixteen year-olds. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t listen to the views of teenagers on education; in fact, we don’t really consider their true needs nearly enough. Perhaps though, they should be briefly challenged and encouraged to produce a nuanced edit before being published in a national newspaper.

I offer as evidence the sentence: “…Maybe it’s no surprise that this stigma exists: we’re in a society that is obsessed with living for the future.”  Well, yes. As we race towards extinction due to climate change, famine, war and the other horsemen of the apocalypse, we absolutely should be living for the future.

The article in question is by a lady called Orli Vogt-Vincent and, in her defence; it is, the odd phrase aside, a thoughtful and lucid piece about being forced into choices by her school and the fact that her option to take up dance is considered less valuable than science.

As a champion of STEM education, you might expect me to offer some rebuttal. I do not. I think that she’s quite right in many respects – the current administration does devalue the arts, does not encourage the study of subjects like philosophy which are the very underpinnings of civilised thought and is obsessed with shoving kids into academic qualifications in maths and science for which few are suited.

My problem with the article rests with the Guardian’s decision to publish it with no debate or discussion. Fair enough to not allow comments, I would not wish to subject any minor to the bile spewed in even the most respectable papers’ comment threads. But this article, which I assume will be read by a fair number of the nation’s more sensitive and enquiring youth, simply adds to weight to the idea that the arts and science are in some way adversarial.

My guess would be that Ms Vogt-Vincent probably has some great dance teachers and at the same time she has not been inspired by science. This is probably the case in many schools. I wholeheartedly encourage Orli to throw herself into dance and to get the most out of it. I would, however, urge her to apply the same iron discipline that a great dancer requires to her studies in science because there are issues around climate change, energy security, health, food, resource management and countless other areas that will require her to make decisions about her spending, her democratic choices and other vitally important areas of, yes, her future. Only a good quality science education will give her the foundation to understand those issues clearly.

So my problem with the way that The Guardian has chosen to present his piece is this: it is unhelpful. All the paper has done is pitted two areas of education against each other when they should be championed together.

The great failure of the current administration and of many authoritative voices in education is that students’ subject choices are simply seen as a pathway to qualifications and hence careers. This article is making the same mistake.

First and foremost, education should be equipping students to make good choices that steer them to a life of happiness, fulfilment and enable them to make a contribution to society. Not to turn them into career-obsessed wage slaves who will do anything they’re told if it will help them reach the next promotion.

This thing is, at present, it’s easy to study technical subjects and still enjoy the arts on a purely participative basis – no qualification required. A neurosurgeon may play piano in a jazz quartet but we (rightly) discourage professional musicians from dabbling in brain surgery.

We need an academic pathway that engages intelligent students deeply in the important issues of science so that their lifestyle and political decisions can be made on a sound basis without shackling them with the pressure of a qualification, enabling them to throw themselves into other subject areas if that is where their passion lies. A pathway that enables the dancer or the artist to have a road to Damascus moment, perhaps, and suddenly, at the age of sixteen, develop a love of organic chemistry. Or, equally, not.

The obsession with STEM education has come from a good place, Orli, I hope that you realise this. The planet is in a bad way and at the moment, we don’t have the engineers, the scientists and the doctors to fix it. It doesn’t mean that we don’t need dancers and artists and musicians too – I’m an engineer turned educator and still the thing I’m most glad I learned is to play the guitar. The pressure you’re under to study physics rather than physical theatre is born of the panic felt by those looking over the parapet and seeing the approaching shadow. The message, though, has got lost in the obsession with economic progress at all costs because those technically-educated alumni, you see, also make a better regular return for their paymasters.

But for the Guardian – shame on you. You’re supposed to be looking deeper, doing some journalism and encouraging your readers to think more deeply about an issue, not to take a side in a knee-jerk debate that will ultimately leave the dancers and the physicists equally impoverished.