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…

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.

Reading festival? Have your own.

Yes, of course, I’m talking about reading, the thing you do with books (for youthful readers, a book is like a long series of Tweets bound in paper), not the annual celebration of rockular music, where popular beat combos cavort in front of stoned, cider addled fans in a field.

I would describe myself as an avid reader and possessed of minor bibliophiliac tendencies; I do love being surrounded by books and I don’t think I’ll ever prefer a reader to a real book. I don’t get obsessed with first editions and bindings, though: a new paperback is just fine for me.

I’m not massively well-read: I gave up a few dozen pages into Ulysses, can’t be doing with Dickens and failed to find any of Robertson Davies’ clever novels as captivating and funny as I was supposed to. Literachoor is all well and good but I find I enjoy a throwaway novel about superheroes fighting zombies far more as long as there are a few witty lines.

I say this as qualification because I’m going to recommend a couple of books and I don’t want anyone to think that you need to be able to quote chunks of Heidegger verbatim to be able to get something out of them.

Anyway, alongside the penny dreadful thrillers and comic-book plotted sci-fi that I’ve been enjoying over Christmas, I’ve been reading two slightly more serious books and I want to commend them both to anyone.

I’m a big fan of Ben Goldacre – partly because we share many of the same concerns about the presentation of science to the public, especially in the media and partly because I find his doesn’t-suffer-fools-gladly approach amusing. He’s a lucid, witty communicator of really important ideas. “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.” Is perhaps a slightly off-putting title to some people but please don’t be put off. It’s a collection of essays and articles on the misuse and abuse of science in media, politics and commerce. The book deals with issues that affect us all but, because, as the title suggests, the details are more complicated than the headlines suggest, we are often misled.

The articles are short, easy to read and entertaining. Depending on your reading speed and diet you could easily make it through in three months of entertaining and enlightening (see what I did there?) shits. You will emerge from the lavatory wiser and, I hope, angrier.

Speaking of angry brings me to my second recommendation. Owen Jones’ “The Establishment: and how they get away with it” will divide opinion. It’s divided mine and I give you theWikipedia link rather than the Amazon link so that you can have a look at the reception for the book. Of course, one would expect skilled rebuttal as criticism from the right-wing press for a book like this, so, although many of the criticisms aimed at the book are certainly valid, they should also be perhaps weighted accordingly.

Jones looks at the way that a small part of society has come to wield disproportionate wealth and power and how they continue to protect their privilege and the cost to the rest of us. It’s an angry, passionate book although the observations that the author struggles with some of those ideas and is short of viable solutions ring true. Just because you don’t entirely agree with a book or that it doesn’t make your mind up for you is no reason not to read it, though (in fact, I’d tend to steer clear of books that do try to make your mind up for you rather than invite you to think), and I think that everyone should read this one, even if you end up skimming some sections. If it doesn’t make you angry, I’d be surprised and suggest that you’ve either given up or achieved independent wealth and no longer give a shit what happens to anyone else.

Read them both and agree, disagree, act, don’t act. I’m not making a call to arms here: that should be your call to make. But I think that these are two important, thought-provoking books. You’re welcome to borrow my copies if you wish. Happy reading.

Oi! Where’s all the smutty jokes to?

Regular readers of my solecistic soliloquies may have feared/hoped that I’d finally provoked the wrong right-wing nut-job and spent a few months face-down in a ditch trying to sleep off a case of localised lead-poisoning.

No such luck, I’m afraid – if I’ve been poisoned by anything over the last few months it’s been a cocktail of ennui, cynicism and despair that I should probably stop ordering and go back to the neat Jameson’s and misused psychotropics that, on a leisurely re-read, appear to have fuelled most of my output to date.

If I’m aiming for anything with these articles, other than a safety net against future conscription, it’s a satirical look at what’s going on with just enough jokes to keep the jaded reader awake to the end of the piece. Since I last put stylus to wax tablet (following the recent hipster obsession with vintage tech, my blogs are written on clay tablets in cuneiform and transcribed to electronic media by a skinny intern with an incongruous beard whom I pay entirely in sarcasm) there’s been plenty going on that’s stuck a hot needle in my overloaded spleen but as soon as I think about writing something…

(Sigh)

The thing about trying a bit of satirical humour is that you want to be able to exaggerate, to carry something that you find ridiculous to its logical (or illogical) extreme. How, though, do you go about satirising news about Donald Trump, who appears from even the most balanced media coverage, to be a Spitting Image puppet brought to life and left to run rampage across American politics?

How do you satirise David Cameron telling the UK he’s fighting the EU to regain our democratic rights while he sells them on to corporations via TTIP? How do you make a joke about the global response to climate change without it being more than a weary glance and raised eyebrow at the guy standing on the next stool across at the gallows. “Hey what’s the deal with these ropes, man? Pretty ironic when I’m being hanged for dealing…”

How do you write satire when the BBC churns out the same pro-economic-expansion-come-what-may as everyone else while the planet falls apart under our noses? They film Cameron standing in a swamped village promising a few quid for flood defences without challenging him to do something about the underlying problem.

The modern news looks like a spoof dreamed up by George Orwell during a binge-drinking break from writing 1984 while if you want compassionate, thoughtful and balanced commentary on current events, you’re better off reading the output of a comedian – “Clean energy is always described as expensive and inefficient, but I suppose that if the price of the alternatives is extinction, we might just be measuring expense and efficiency wrongly…” that’s Frankie Boyle, professional media bogeyman, not George Monbiot.

Anyway, here I am again, mixing metaphors, moaning and bad taste humour. It feels like taking on the Agean Stables armed only with a cocktail swizzler but I suppose that’s all the more reason to crack on and put your back into it.

As a new feature for 2016 (and, if we’re honest, a spur to write more), I’ve decided to take requests so, if there’s some topic you’d be interested to see me try, drop me a line. I promise to either write something or to send you a personal and deeply offensive message declining the offer.

What have the Greeks ever done for us?

I wonder, as democratically elected EU leaders pressurise the Greek government to impose demonstrably inefficacious austerity measures against its people, whether they will stop to consider where the term ‘democracy’ originates?

Or, for that matter, the splendid architectural features of the buildings in which they govern, the philosophies underpinning much of their societies’ governance or the roots of half of the words that they utter.

The original Athenian model of democracy has, of course, been changed a little, allowing at the time only property-owning men, over a certain age, born in the country to vote. Keep a close eye on the next Conservative manifesto, folks.

Nonetheless, I think that the best thing that the Greek government could do with whatever remaining funds they can scrape together from down the back of the Parthenon is hire a really good patent lawyer and make a case for intellectual property rights on democracy, classical architecture, drama and – let’s generously say ten percent – of all of the words in most European languages. Taking even a small payment for every use (and twice for every misuse) of the word democracy should be enough to cover the loans and, if the EU won’t buy it, they should just threaten to take back all of the columns they’ve influenced on civic buildings. Now there’s a threat to destabilise the union.

With the debt wrote off, they can change the referendum for one on sovereign money creation and then finally, just before the party starts, threaten to sue all of the Greek-teaching public schools in England in order to get the Elgin marbles back.