Sunday, 22 June 2014

Closure by cake

You might have seen my obituary for an old friend in the Examiner a couple of weeks back (see http://www.iomtoday.co.im/news/isle-of-man-news/bernard-caine-a-man-of-principle-1-6664211 ). No, I have no gig there, I just sent it in because it was starting to look like Bernard's life would not be celebrated the way it should be.
But last Monday I was squeezed on a pew at the very back of a Peel Cathedral packed with both his friends and the island's self-selecting elite for his funeral. Maybe the latter really wanted to pay respect to a genuine Manx giant, or maybe I shamed them into taking a couple of hours out of their pointless lives. Either way, they were there - which mattered to his family and many genuine friends and might have tickled Bernard if only he could have seen it.
I rarely go to funerals. Mostly of necessity, as I have to work, but also because I find the religious variant in particular unsatisfying. When the religious are so keen to stress that death is not the end, just the terminus where the faithful get their tickets stamped for Heaven, you might think they would make more effort with the send off.
For all the pomp and loving use of the Manx language and culture to whose revival Bernard devoted his life, this one just made me glad I am neither a Christian nor a pillar of the community. I am sure it was a moving experience and satisfactory farewell for others there. But to use that awful pseudo-therapeutic vernacular, I did not get closure and could not move on.
It took yesterday and a family day out in Peel to do that. This allowed me to retrace a routine Bernard and I had throughout our shared time on the local papers and magazines – walking out of the office and 100 yards or so up the street to a modest home bakery for cakes, fresh air and mischief.
At 12 noon daily you could have set your clocks by the pair of us ambling amicably up Market Street, trading banter with the bakery staff, then back down to 14 Douglas Street, stopping to look in every window or swapping skeet with everyone Bernard knew, which was pretty much the entire town.
So I did that one last time; some buns from the bakery, then a detour into a charity shop where, any Saturday after we stopped working together and Bernard retired, I could inevitably find him around noon on a chair in the basement perusing the books. Finally, popping my head into a few of the emporiums which officially sell antiquities, Manx historical tomes, local trivia …...or just junk, but unofficially are little more than an excuse for ageing Govags to gossip. In over 25 years I doubt if either Bernard or I spent more than £5 in total in such retail disasters, though I have to admit they did provide a steady stream of leads on obscure local historical topics.
So that was my day. Sunshine, home made food, charity shop finds and sore feet. Less than £10 spent in total but memories recalled of time with Bernard which are beyond price.
A happy era reminisced on, summed up, and finally laid to rest.
Now I really am  ready to move on.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Two hours of Nutty-slacking

Well, Monday night was fun. I spent it at this (see http://www.iomtoday.co.im/news/health/relaxing-cannabis-law-could-benefit-isle-of-man-claim-1-6589370 ) and, as I said elsewhere, enjoyed the rare pleasure of seeing a genuinely knowledgeable person speaking in a Manx public building. As far as I can recall, that has only happened three times in all my years on the island.
Media reports of the event are a little sketchy, because reporters on a topic which, eventually, was all about personal freedom and enjoyment and not “serious” moral issues were only ever going to get space to pick one sound-bite and play it up. Personal reports will vary enormously, and considering that even within a row of me were folk ranging from sixties burn-outs and semi-pro tree-huggers to conservative clergy and hardcore UKIP groupies that is no surprise.
So, for the record, if you have already seen David Nutt on, say, that live Channel Four Ecstasy experiment last year or read his book then there was nothing new. He ran through his routine in a manner calculated not to frighten elderly ladies, hung together with a jokey slide-show, and finished by politely answering questions from mostly middle-aged, middle brow types who had, quite reasonably and with admirable public spirit, turned up to find out what they could about illegal drugs from someone who ought to be able to tell them. The questions from the public were fair enough, and he answered them objectively and in comprehensive detail.
Actually, I did clarify a couple of my own local suspicions from these questions.
Firstly, that the only real drug threat on Manx sink estates is the latest generation of prescription drugs (the ones which were supposed to replace benzodiazepines, AKA “mother's little helpers”).
Secondly, that those who set up and have benefited from the Chief Minister's Task Farce on Drugs and Alcohol still pan-handle for cash and tell whoppers without shame. These whoppers would be immediately discredited the moment our Public Health professionals have the courage to publish - in full- all the surveys they have conducted at public expense into drug and alcohol “abuse” exactly as they were published in peer-reviewed journals, including the methodology and the true parameters and numbers of the survey groups. They never will, because even the two examples I was able to obtain from university libraries via friendly academics clearly show that neither the experiments nor the findings bear much resemblance to the 500 word press summaries (and, sadly, even they went unread by the local media once a couple of shock stats had been quoted, wrongly and out of context).
The more serious question posed by Nutt on the night was if the island could and should profit from the problem caused back in 1971 by a UK government which, in ensuring cannabis must never be legally available, simultaneously ensured that university research could never explore any medicinal benefits because to possess it was a common crime and even to cultivate it under licence was prohibitively expensive. Since the 1980's research in other countries has begun to open up some amazing possibilities (just check the excellent and extensive Wikipedia entry on cannabinoids to get a sense of these). Meanwhile UK scientists, once world leaders, are now reduced to reading other people's research and begging knee-jerk politicos to look beyond the next focus group and ballot box. With just a little of the horse sense that saw us develop the TT and the finance sector, we could develop a niche pharmaceutical industry to fill the gap when both of those vanish – as they must within a decade or two at most.
But the only real question is do you trust mature adults to take decisions over their own lives, and then be responsible for the results? Just that.
If so (and as a libertarian my obvious answer is ”Yes”) all that remains is how you organise things (legally, socially, economically..) so that the mature and responsible are free to get on with it, those who refuse to take responsibility will find it too much hassle and those who cannot (the young and otherwise vulnerable) are not going to be capable or exploitable. The question itself should be no different when it comes to other adult pleasures, such as cigarettes and alcohol.
Nutt half addresses it with the comparative risks of rock-climbing, horse-riding etc. and the way that pleasures enjoyed by the relatively powerful never seem to get restricted while working people's cheap relaxants do, but then screws up by setting up alcohol and tobacco as alternative folk panics to dope. He starts off by correctly pointing out that alcohol is also a drug, but then it all goes rapidly downhill, and he ends up peddling a variation on “reefer madness” about currently legal (if increasingly socially proscribed) substances in order to advance his own special interest.
Those who follow the debate seriously (rather than with one hand on the bible or the bong) know about Nutt's shortcomings already. He causes defenders of drinkers or fag smokers in particular to grind teeth in despair as the “evidence” of his prattlings is taken up by dopey Guardianistas and neo-puritans alike. When he should be identifying and seeking common cause with all who oppose a prohibitionist industry which out-prudes the Victorians (and lacks even their genuine social concern for the dispossessed) he hands it half-truths to shoot down all opposing views (including his own expert opinion).
For a real attempt to put the wider picture in context, try Chris Snowdon's excellent little book The Art Of Suppression: Pleasure, Panic and Prohibition since 1800. Towards the end, in assessing current threats to liberty of the responsible adult, he comprehensively covers the wrong done by government and tabloids to David Nutt, but also Nutt's unfortunate habit of shooting himself and potential allies in the foot. If you cannot find time to read the book, at least check out some of the short and pertinent blogs on Snowdon's website (Velvet Glove, Iron Fist) and those of a few endangered fag smokers ( Dick Puddlecote is a prime example). If you cannot then begin to see the bigger picture, then maybe the liberties you are losing are just liberties you never deserved.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

David Nutt talk - be there or stay misinformed

A couple of weeks back I hit a particularly rich and interesting research seam for another project. For that reason alone I cannot blog much until I find time to read through and start processing it.
Still, I can at least point anyone who hasn't yet heard towards the David Nutt lecture at the Manx Museum on Monday 28th April. It's a co-production between Isle of Man Freethinkers and the Positive Action Group: no tickets or seat-booking and free entry/contribute what you can towards costs, so best be there at 7 PM for a safe seat. You can find more at http://positiveactiongroup.org/index.html.
And before anyone asks, no, though I have banged on about such topics regularly, I am not an organiser. If I had any influence on the decision to set up such an event, it is quite marginal, stemming from a proposal I floated to some of the older Freethinkers a few years back.
Following the death of my good friend Patrick Kneen, the Manx assisted death campaigner, and once a misguided attempt to prosecute his widow had gone away, I thought it would be a shame to lose the Manx public's new willingness to explore controversial topics in an open and civilised way. The Kneens' brave campaign opened the floodgates on an island where I had almost given up hope of seeing social change or even temporary relief from Theo-fascist twaddle. For once, local religious bigots and control freaks were caught on the back foot (despite their considerable government influence), as was also shown later by the way one homophobic legal or governmental barrier after another fell quickly in just a few years.
I tentatively put it to Mrs Kneen that it would be nice to remember Pat by setting up an annual lecture in his name. The general idea would be to bring over a knowledgeable, high profile speaker on the kind of topic locals might quietly have strong feelings about but no means to start a debate and keep their jobs. She was very keen, but as she moved away to rebuild her life and died just a year or two later, the idea got no further. I did then put it to the Freethinkers that, as possibly the only local grouping interested in social change but unlikely to ever beg public money, we really ought to give it a go.
I can hardly wait for the rare experience of entering a Manx public sector building to hear someone with expert and highly specialised knowledge willing to engage with the general public. Someone who is neither looking for nor seeking to perpetuate a public handout (and even if he was, not willing to lie or suppress vital research or evidence in order to do so). This may explain why it took two groups of enthusiastic, public-minded folk rather than a QUANGO or civil service body to set the night up. It also explains why nobody with a serious interest in the topic should miss it, and why I doubt anyone involved in the Chief Minister's Task Farce on Drugs and Alcohol or their ludicrous policies will be there.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Necromancy considered as a subsidised performance art

See http://www.iomtoday.co.im/what-s-on/manx-entertainment-news/manx-passion-play-to-be-performed-around-isle-of-man-over-easter-1-6552955 for the latest episode in “Year of The C Word”.
Sorry to go on about it, but however cretinous this whole exercise is panning out to be there is a serious point. Culture is now a bit of a buzz word, especially amongst conservatives and bigots, but it still gets used as ignorantly as the time when some chinless Cambridge inbreed or other misused the word in front of an uppity grammar school boy called Raymond Williams back in.. oh, maybe the 1940's. This led Williams to look into the matter rather more seriously and he went on to found what later became Cultural Studies (along with some similarly uppity blacks, gays and girlies who kept redefining the term on finding it didn't seem to include them either). And that was all good, intelligent and positive stuff.
So different to today, when anyone who tries to take politics seriously is told that “nobody talks about class”, though the “nobody” who isn't talking about it is also a tiny subculture - but sadly one which just happens to run everything. More precisely, that “nobody” does not want to acknowledge that class divisions are getting worse and the local nobody cannot acknowledge that Manx society has an underclass that is trapped from the cradle to the grave as surely as the Welfare State project (now abandoned) was supposed to be a safety net against such problems.
And as for race..............
In the Isle of Man nobody in government (either the politicians or civil service mandarins) wants to talk about race, for fear of having to consider how racist the island still is. So maybe “culture” is little more than an excuse to continue racist prejudice now that a more open system of apartheid is no longer possible.
And eventually, who decides what “Manx culture” is anyway? Certainly not ordinary Manx residents, to whom this crap is about as relevant or recognisable as Moon rocks.
“Ours”? No, just “theirs” - and “they” are neither many nor approachable.
Which brings us to this shining example of Culture as something that is a bit icky-poo and badly needs spoon-feeding. This event has been subsidised to hell and back, so on that basis we can safely identify it as the art bore equivalent of a Nil By Mouth hospital patient.
Though, of course, in the worlds of art and culture attitudes are so Catholic. Everything that might otherwise get quietly knocked on the head seems to be a cause celebre for some vociferous Right To Lifer. Considering how dominated proceedings will be by acolytes of the Zombie Carpenter, turning up to watch this show will be like being trapped in an advocate's waiting room after a hospice death.
It sounds like the kind of gig most would pay to get out of, not into. Be grateful, then, that most if it takes place in the kind of god-forsaken bat sanctuaries most of us in these enlightened days will never even be seen dead in.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Manx democracy, a contradictatorship interned

If you owe your Manx political appointment to an unelected cabal in another country, shouldn't you have the common decency to butt out of the democratic process?
I only ask because of this pseudo-political slide back to the Middle Ages (see http://www.iomtoday.co.im/news/isle-of-man-news/time-limit-experiment-approved-1-6512103 ), which I could not point out here at the time because I was too busy elsewhere to go into it.
The key point is that:
“At the July sitting, statements and moving a report will be limited to 20 minutes while moving any other motion will be limited to 15 minutes.
Speaking to a motion or amendment will be restricted to 10 minutes while contributions at Question Time should be no longer than five minutes. Tynwald president Clare Christian will have discretion to allocate additional time on request.”
Media presentation and discussion of the matter nicely avoids the problem: which is that the real work in the movement of any parliamentary bill is done in the committees.
Membership of both those committees and the various government departments is not determined by merit, suitable professional or other background or other common-sensical principles. It is, in reality, determined by a vague and shadowy system of patronage.
If your face fits – with both senior political and civil service figures – you might just be allowed a place. If you are totally unsuitable (semi-literate, disinterested, too wrapped up in your day job to turn up except when needed to vote) you are even more likely to get in, because you won't be in the way when special interest groups want something that is definitely not in the general public's interest.
This leaves short spaces in the discussion of clauses (providing this hasn't already been delegated to a committee) and third and final reading of bills where any MHK (if fortunate enough to be forewarned and even luckier enough to catch the Speaker's eye) can jump up, ask questions or point out anomalies. That few minutes is the last precious remains of democracy in the Manx political process, and this nasty little move almost strangles it.
If I was in a mood to joke, it would be tempting to ask, could sermons be limited by law in the same way?
But far more importantly – who put the freeloading carbuncle up to it? Because it certainly was not his initiative, which suggests that somewhere in the murky depths of Legislative Council or the Council of Ministers a deal was done to nod through public funds the Church wants but should not be getting, in return for something that a loathsome floater in one of those bodies needs so that the Manx business community is not inconvenienced by democracy or common decency and that community, in return, finds a nice non-executive board place for a soon-to-retire politician or civil service executive.
Watch the Manx business pages after the next election, or the next round of civil service retirements, and you will find the answer. Those pages are just a joke, read by nobody outside the business community that provides acres of dull (and free) copy, so those that do feel so far above public scrutiny to bother hiding the connection.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

When two myths collide

Even without my cultural academic hat on, I would roll around the floor laughing at this nonsense (see http://www.iomtoday.co.im/news/isle-of-man-news/stormy-meeting-over-future-of-cregneash-church-1-6511315 ) in which two delusions, almost equidistant from contemporary society, go all handbags at dawn.
So, as Harry Enfield would say, which myth is more important, religion or heritage? Only one way to find out......F-I-I-G-G-H-H-T!!!!
Just to put off-island readers in the picture... this is not really a church, and Cregneash is not really a village; together they are more of a film or theatre set. Until somebody in government paid a visit to the Ulster Folk Museum, then saw the potential of the “living museum” concept in the Thatcher era, Cregneash was just a farm next to a semi-abandoned chapel, known only to Gaelic language pilgrims because Ned Maddrell (a Manx speaker whose chance introduction to an Irish language academic in the 1940's kicked off attempts to save Manx Gaelic) used to live nearby.
And ever since the beginning of the village's commodification for Manx touristic purposes there have always been historically inaccurate “improvements” to the church to make it look more “authentic”. In reality, like any other working church, it is a mish-mash of odd little bodge-ups according to liturgical and national fashions of times when money, labour or materials were available.
In the late 1980's, and again in the late 1990's, my job took me to every tiny chapel and church on the island. Most, however threadbare, at least have an air of being loved and used. Someone regularly running a duster over the pews and brasses, flowers changed, scattered hymn books and bibles indicating that acts of worship actually take place.
Cregneash chapel, by comparison to most, is more like a storeroom for a few religious props. When I last had to know, it held an evensong every couple of weeks but no Sunday morning communion, because the potential congregation refused to attend when tourists were milling round the museum proper (i.e. when it might just have drawn in visiting Christians eager for a rural religious experience).
The only time in recent decades either looked well was when they became a fictitious Irish village for the film Waking Ned. For which the church had subtle changes made so it seemed more like a rural Catholic church (which it has never been) and the village telephone box was painted green to look like a proper Irish one, and was not repainted for years – even at a time when the Baillie Scott design of it was being played up in a row over whether to keep it.
Why was it never repainted? I'm told because a nationalistic element within Manx Heritage at the time preferred it green so that it wouldn't look English, even though telephone boxes on the island throughout history have always been red, like the postboxes.
That tells you all you need to know about the difference between “history” and “heritage”, just as the single figure congregation's rows with “church management” reveal how wide the gap is between Manx Christianity as an inclusive act of faith and an exclusive means of cultural practice.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

We are not serious

Thanks to clicking, out of idle curiosity, on a chance link to a vaguely familiar name that came up in a computer search this week I had a vision of what might have been.
As I've mentioned once or twice, in a former life – over 30 years ago – I was involved in the world's unlikeliest clown troupe. In Belfast, at the height of “the troubles”. But in 1983, due to several devastating incidents which happened within weeks of each other, I just had to escape. It was meant to be temporary, but on the very morning I was supposed to take a plane back there to discuss a new project I had a severe panic attack of a kind I have never experienced before or since, and could not board the plane.
I later recovered the confidence to fly to visit a friend in the UK, during the year of the Miners Strike and Battle of the Beanfield, and saw a country I no longer recognised and no longer wanted to be a citizen of. To cut the story short, it was 1988 before I ventured off-island again, and then only to travel to Israel at the start of the Intifada, a two month adventure which (for reasons totally unconnected to the political situation in Israel) finally gave me the impetus to break back into a satisfying profession and life.
From the odd thing I saw on TV, I knew the Belfast projects were doing marvellous things, but never managed to get back into contact with old colleagues, even when in Belfast for a weekend of atheist subversion in 2005 and my hosts tried to help. So all these years I have wondered what happened, especially to my co-founder of the world's unlikeliest clown troupe.
Then, this week, that chance click on a vaguely familiar name revealed an astonishing story. My co-founder (then a startlingly individualistic 18 year old who, like me, left school unqualified at 16 having been told by teachers she would never amount to anything) carried on clowning, and other remarkable things. This should have been no surprise because, as I may have also mentioned, the whole point behind the clown troupe was that if you are in a hell-hole where conventional wisdom says you cannot do anything, you may as well go all out doing what you love, because even if you fail you will have had far more fun than conforming.
Then, in the late 1990's, she decided to take a B.A. in Archaeology, graduated with a first, went on to gain her Ph.D. in 2005 and to contribute to academic journals on a topic on which she is now almost Ireland's only authority. Remember again – written off as a no-hoper at school, living in a city where most of her generation were condemned to unemployment anyway according to the conventional wisdom. She's now, as far as I can gather, living happily in Galway, surrounded by other interesting and unique people and in every way defying the false logic of those who run these septic isles and think we should shut up and accept our place in their scheme of things.
It's odd enough running away to join a circus. Being one of only two people so individual they ran away from a circus is even rarer. Knowing the other one then, and knowing now that she went on to defy the odds (the norms?) for over 30 years, is an absolutely unique pleasure.