Thursday, 30 July 2009

Virgin Mary - read this and weep

Can I just say that even us non-religious folk can experience miracles?
We’ve all heard story after story about the face of Jesus appearing on a crisp, the Virgin Mary seems to dash about the world like a mad bat on speed, verses from the Koran appear on…..well, you know the kind of thing.
Anyways, this morning my wife was checking how the scars from my recent op were healing up, as some are in places I can only see with a mirror and way more contortion than is good for anyone.
When she looked at my belly button, which was used as an entry point for some surgical implement or other, she burst out laughing.
Having just checked by standing on a chair and looking in a mirror while stripped to the waist (heaven knows what the neighbours will say), I can confirm her findings.
I have a Smiley Face on my tummy.
Atheists even get better stigmata than religious folk.
How cool is that?

Is there a Manx word for 'Equality'?

What seems like years ago, but was in fact less than 18 months, I helped contribute to a government consultation on a planned Employment Equality Bill. Yesterday I was informed the results had been published.
You can find them at, and I warn you now some of them are not pleasant. If anyone needed an accurate picture of the gap between the understanding of basic human rights and respect for others seen in the civilised world and the Manx view on such things, this is it.
Almost the only positive thing I can say about the report on the consultation is that, for once, whoever collated it reveals what was said and who said it. In that sense it is a valuable document for anyone who wants to understand just how Manx democracy and government happens – or rather, doesn’t.
I know personally from watching them in action that Manx government departments are often run by folk who care little for humanity, but the comments you see from some of them in this consultation might surprise everyone else. For example the total disinterest in giving disabled people basic employment rights and support which are now taken for granted throughout Europe.
The comments from religious organisations will surprise nobody, and to be fair they are quite upfront about their intent to ride roughshod over everyone else’s rights and feelings if they can get away with it. But it is still astonishing that government just doesn’t get it on religious privilege.
Despite having it explained in words of one syllable, they plan to allow religious organisations paid from public money to continue discriminating against employing women, gays and non-Christians as they see fit. One wonders what more we can do to educate our dimwit politicos or the culturally clueless who advise them – pictures, watch the bouncing ball singalongs in a Powerpoint presentation…or what? Someone tell me, because I give up!
Comments from others in the Manx community might also raise eyebrows, as will the government response. For example, it is astonishing that an organisation representing a dozen or so tosspot employers gets more government ‘weighting’ than the views of the Isle of Man Trades Council, which represents the vast majority of Manx working people.
You will also discover fairly quickly why the words ‘honest’, ‘compassionate’ and ‘Manx advocate’ are rarely, if ever, found in the same sentence – apart from this one.
The mind boggles at the astonishing sums which must have changed hands for members of the Isle of Man Law Society to write the responses of the employer and business organisations who, in theory, responded to this one, as well as ghost-writing most of the government department responses too (a quick review of government accounts shows the regularity with which ‘independent legal advice’ is sought on the most trivial matters). Yet the pretence is that the Society simply responded as one party.
Read this report. If you are an off-island reader I won’t blame you if you laugh out loud, but if you are local be very, very ashamed of what we are letting happen on an island which is, at least nominally, democratic and with residents who can walk without dragging their knuckles.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

I'm not eating that!

Anglicanism is one of the last bastions of relative religious sanity. But every time you think at least they won’t get sillier, they manage it anyway.
Yesterday Ruth Gledhill, religious correspondent at the Times, reported that worshippers at Blackburn Cathedral have a two-track Communion service. This is so that fussy gits who won’t touch holy crackers consecrated by a woman can ask for one from the a la carte menu. All this because the most recent of three residentiary canons is a lady vicar, one Dr Sue Penfold.
Gledhill reports:
“Even though she is legitimately ordained and employed, it means that when she is celebrating the eucharist those who dispute the validity of her orders can make sure they receive “untainted” sacrament consecrated earlier by a man.
The special container, known as the “reserved sacrament” after practice in the Roman Catholic Church, is then housed in the cathedral’s aumbry, or tabernacle, and brought out on Sunday mornings when Dr Penfold is celebrating. It is used for those who do not recognise her ministry but many other worshippers also receive these hosts, unaware that they are different.”
You can laugh at the whole farce at .
It seems that Blackburn, apparently notorious for misogynistic ministry, has gone so far over the top this time that even Backwards in Belligerence (or ‘Forward in Faith’ to people who take them seriously) disowned the practice.
Their spokesman (well, unlikely to let a woman get a word in edgeways, are they?) Stephen Parkinson said:
“I’ve never come across this before. It is pretty extraordinary. I can’t understand why the women priests put up with it.”
I can’t understand why anyone with more than two brain cells puts up with it.
(World weary sigh)

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Accidental altruism

Anyone who tried to read Proust knows that what is, I think, the longest novel in the world was caused by a single bite of a chocolate biscuit.
I’ve just had a Proustian moment. Don’t worry, I’ll try to be briefer than he was.
Recently I lunched with a friend. As I had to dash away before him I asked for my bill, paid by card without looking at it (I 100% trust restaurant workers from once having to be one) and ran back to work. Later my friend thanked me for paying his bill without telling him.
As well as being absent minded, I realised this also makes me an accidental altruist. But I also wonder if, like acts of random kindness, accidental altruism might be something to provoke for folk like me who understand and therefore reject ‘proper’ charity.
I was practicing acts of random kindnesss decades before Danny Wallace wrote the book. In the early 1980’s, for example, I was involved in ‘guerilla art’ groups who played games like leaving poems, jokes or short stories for commuters to find at random, and which ended by suggesting they did the same.
It was, as one collaborator said, like throwing a stone into a pond and watching the ripples. The funniest thing was that press reports soon after often quoted incidents and stories we did not create.
Now that is choosing to interact socially and provoke action, but in a manner which allows people to get on with it for themselves, not telling them how to do it or setting yourself up as an ‘expert’ so that if you don’t control it, everything stops.
Accidental altruism would be choosing to go even further, and probably work something in the manner of Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ in free market economic theory. In effect, the best thing you can do for the less fortunate is to mind your own business and stay out of theirs, instead of patronising them to death while creating neo-colonial QUANGOs.
But there’s a difference between this and apathy. My argument would be that ‘traditional’ charity is built on the Christian example of the Good Samaritan and the command to "Love Thy Neighbour". Which is reasonable enough until you ask “What if my neighbour rejects my advances?”
Think about it. Isn’t there an eery similarity between the way evangelical charities in particular ‘help’ people who never asked them to interfere and the office junior trying to ward off the advances of a drunken manager at the Christmas party?
I’m not even going into the cases of fraud, economic opportunism, property speculation, political interference or just plain old rape that I know about where individuals have manipulated ‘charity’ to their own (and distinctly un-Christian) ends. I am talking about the general principles – the balance and abuse of power and the way in which the weaker party in such ‘negotiations’ can hardly be said to consent freely to the arrangement.
If you must start from ‘timeless’ religious ‘wisdom’ (I don’t, but others seem to need Mystic Megs just to get out of bed in the morning), how about the Buddhist “Do no harm”?
Take that as far as you like. If you’re determined to meddle in charity and risk wrecking the developing world faster than it can export heroin here for lack of an open market in any legal product, at least think your action through.
Buying that land to build and control housing for locals sounded good, but did the wealthy Westerner coming in and buying up land put land and property prices out of reach for self-sufficient locals who’ve been saving for years?
And if you insist on deciding the tenants yourself doesn’t that say you don’t trust locals to run their own lives? Sounds like blatent racism to me.
At a simpler level, why are you bowing to emotional blackmail and paying your quid to go with the Christmas basket a nice churchy group send to East Europe. Who distributes the baskets, are they only doing so through local evangelical churches who insist the poor come and sing hymns for them, and why do they need the quid if transportation is free, courtesy of a friendly road haulier?
And when a charity tells you they only act in the developing world after consulting with local’community leaders’, ask “which ones?” Often it will turn out to be ‘faith leaders’, which is passed off as a practical necessity.
Is it?
Can you imagine if Toyota were planning to build their latest hybrid car here, and they set the whole deal up via Churches Together in Mann? It would be a miracle if one car was produced, and if it didn’t have square wheels and a Sat Nav system based on the King James Bible.
I’m not saying don’t get involved in charity.
I am saying that far too much bad charity screws up lives because it isn’t thought through properly, or because the structures we have created for charity encourage, rather than prevent, fraud or the misuse of human good nature by powerful, anti-democratic and often plain nasty organisations.
And I am saying that every person who ever put a coin in a collecting tin without trying to find out exactly how it will be used contributes to that.
Another chocolate biscuit?

Friday, 24 July 2009

Cat herding for dummies

I was amused by a recent conversation with another Isle of Man Freethinker. Nothing new in that, as we often amuse each other. Unlike other local groups, we also robustly criticise each other’s ideas and nobody takes umbrage, especially if debunked by a good joke or quip. As it happens, I personally have done the same thing with local clergy for decades. Where the belief and person is honest, no offence is taken at a joke.
My amusement was on hearing that apparently this blog has been taken as some sort of Freethinker ‘party line’ – I can only presume by folk who like an organisation to have one in order that they can toe it and never, ever, have to think about morality again.
Oh yawn, here we go again!
Back in the 1980’s and again in the late 1990’s, when I worked for local papers, petty fiddlers and people who took themselves more seriously than I did used to threaten my relatives and friends to stop me pointing out their antics. I was never approached directly, and even my relatives or friends only got the threats via third parties who had, in their turn, been told half a story with the pertinent facts left out by someone else. I honestly thought that even on the Isle of Man that era was over. Maybe not.
But I will assume, for the sake of argument, that there is genuine misunderstanding. I honestly cannot see how, but will now do everything short of double spacing the following clarification to indicate you should read it as if I speak so slowly and clearly that even an MLC in the latter stages of Alzheimers could understand.
My blog cannot be taken as an Isle of Man Freethinkers party line because…..
(1) if it was, some simple indication of that fact, such as actually mentioning the group, would appear in the blog title. As you will see, it does not, and furthermore you will see no link to the Isle of Man Freethinkers website here either. I decided never to put one on, in order that malicious parties could never use my personal views to attack a group I happen to be a member of so that I can talk to the type of people who read newspapers which still have news in them.
(2) a party line would be anathema to a group like the Freethinkers anyway. As one of our number says regularly, trying to organise the Freethinkers is like herding cats, because the simplest instruction to any of us causes the rest to ask why…..or even why not.
In our early days we once tried very hard to thrash out ‘ground rules’, and for a few months got no further than something on the lines of “everyone has the right to disagree with everybody else about absolutely everything at any time without any party to the conversation taking the hump.” To be serious for a minute, we did agree some basic aims and objectives but never committed that one to print because it would be self-evident to anyone who ever attended one of our meetings.
(3) if you look at the blog topics and links on the sidebar, it is immediately obvious that much of the material here has little to do with humanism per se and much more to do with pointing out ludicrous goings on here on this island, that the world is not flat and does not end at Liverpool (for the benefit of Manx people), or that a speck in the middle of the Irish Sea between Liverpool and Belfast has (relatively) intelligent life on it (for the benefit of off-island readers).
By now, the jaws of off-island readers will be bruised after hitting the floor and their ribs will hurt from laughing. If it helps, I know faith healers who will offer to ease the pain by emptying your wallet. I don’t know how that works either, I’m just stating what they do without attempting an objective analysis because apparently that interferes with the chi…or something.
For those locals who know me – you also know that I, like my fellow Freethinkers, work on practical projects with Manx people of all faiths and none to increase interfaith understanding and reduce bigotry of all kinds. If only that were true of the self-styled ‘church leaders’ whose refusal to acknowledge or talk to other faiths caused the bigotry and social breakdown in the first place.
And for anyone who has read this far and STILL isn’t convinced – if you must dabble in evangelical cults don’t hand over your house deeds. They will probably sell your home and place the proceeds in an anonymous account based in the Turks & Caicos islands.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Oh ye of little faith

In today’s Manx Independent Sentamu’s Apprentice says Anglicans have a special dispensation not to sip communion wine during swine flu scares.
Can’t help smiling. Isn’t the whole point of religion that your fictitious friend looks after those who kiss the divine butt, and didn’t this omnipotent know-all decide your fate before you were born?
If so, what is there to worry about? If the bloke with the sickle is coming for you, he’s coming. Might as well have a drink while you’re waiting.
But, of course, SA didn’t come up with this himself. Ruth Gledhill at the Times revealed at that the orders came down from Mumu and Professor Unwin themselves.
Her piece, with links to various C of E diktats, is hilarious reading. And not just for the pretence that ‘government ‘ has only just come up with advice for ‘faith communities’ or the intimation that a bagful of bishops would be closely involved in all that.
Pile of old toot. I was at a DHSS briefing to Manx ‘faith communities’ way back in January 2008 where all this, and more, was explained, and that in turn was based on guidance then floating around all UK regional health authorities.
Actually, it went much further, and in effect told churches to shut up shop on Sunday in a crisis rather than spread a virus. Much the same advice as was given to all holding public gatherings, in fact.
Even funnier, when the one evangelical who could be bothered to turn up without cash being waved grumbled about the ‘impossibility’ of closing an ‘important community resource’ (a cafĂ©) he was bluntly told the court sentence given for knowingly causing harm in a national emergency. Never seen him at meetings since, but that might also be because the others didn’t tell him lunch is provided.
Almost as funny as watching one senior cleric try to make a case for clergy being ‘key workers’ who should be at the top of the list when limited vaccine supplies are being passed out while the masses riot, eat each other or just pop their clogs.
It wasn’t a dignified sight, and he didn’t come across as a caring shepherd. Even his fellows looked embarrassed.
Actually, I should say that the three clergy still attending our meetings are OK when not in full drag and in front of a congregation. Caring, ask pertinent questions and make good points.
The contrast between their down to earth knowledge that science, not prayers, stops disease and their public protestations is ridiculous.
But that’s showbiz for you.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Swells party piece

I only discovered yesterday that while I was in hospital recently an old friend was in another one, in a far worse state, and had died.
Steven Wells, possibly the most in-yer-face hack ever to work in the music press, finally popped his clogs in a US hospital on 24th June. Knowing Swells, he was probably more annoyed at dying in America than that he was dying at all.
I first met him way back in 1982, when I tried to bring ‘Seething Wells’ over to Belfast for a gig, along with fellow ranting poets Joolz Denby, Attila the Stockbroker and Wild Willi Beckett. It fell through, but I was so intrigued by this unlikely Bradford skinhead poet that I stayed in touch over the years. A couple of years younger than me but sharing all my background experiences and constraints, he was like the mischievous little brother I never had.
Somewhere I have his recipe for roast police horse from Attack on Bzag ( the fanzine he started with James Brown), his article on raizing the Globe Theatre to the ground to build a skateboard park and many other outrageous delights. As others have said, Swells didn't write just to annoy or disturb the comfortable, but to cut through crap and force fierce argument about things he deeply cared about.
A few years ago, he even contributed to the campaign to abolish the Manx equivalent of Section 28.
Way back in 1992 he was doing PR for Manic Street Preachers and sent an open letter to Pope John Paul, Axl Rose and numerous other homophobes suggesting they dress in sackcloth, wear a sign around the neck reading ‘UNCLEAN’ and ring a bell to atone for their sins if appearing in public. The ridiculous image, and attitude, stayed with me and when a Manx politician (currently responsible for transport though unfit to even direct traffic) suggested the ban shouldn’t be repealed because homosexuality ‘causes diseases’ , I asked Swells if I could re-use his challenge.
Typically he said "Go for it" and I did, in the local paper. After the campaign, I never found out if the politican involved, on resigning as Education Minister, really did receive a school bell as a parting gift from his staff. I do know it was suggested.
What I also didn’t know then was that while e-mailing me Swells was fighting lymphatic cancer. He never bothered to mention it.
Swell later wrote about that experience at He not only countered all the irritating touchy-feely hogwash about disease and charities that leech off the terminally ill he hated as much as I do, but set me up for my own hospital encounters this year.
A few months ago the cancer came back, and Swells topped his previous outrages with and, the last things he wrote.
Damn you Swells! You couldn’t even die politely.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Third World status at last

Well, it’s official. The Isle of Man is now the most backward place in the British Isles.
Today the first civil partnership ceremony was held on the Isle of Lewis. Their local paper reported it here at
Remember, this is the Scottish island where sour-faced calvinism is so prominent that until a week ago they wouldn't run a ferry on Sundays in case it got hit by a thunderbolt.
We are now the last place in the British Isles which doesn’t provide facilities for a legal civil partnership ceremony. Because our politicians are so spineless and our civil servants so incompetent that they will not upset a few vociferous but vacuous lay preachers and sort it out.
All together now (and with no apologies to the authors of the original piece of schmaltz…..)

We are the Third World
We are a Freakshow
We are……

Oh forget it!
Could the last person onto the ferry please turn out the lights?

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Write off

I’ve been involved in other things for a few days so missed the row Philip Pullman has kicked off over writers needing police checks to go into schools (see So when, while driving home, I heard him stoke it up on the radio today (see I almost crashed the car laughing.
The thing is, while I can’t speak to the situation in UK schools, I do know how badly such checks fail in Manx schools, and also have a fair idea why.
Take a child evangelist posing as an ‘author’ who’s been reading his work in some of them, for example.
Over a decade ago a clergyman (and close friend of this so-called author) was witnessed behaving inappropriately towards a young, non-English speaking girl at a charity event in a Manx school and his behaviour reported to police. An interpreter offered her services to help, but the police and the charity involved were strangely unconcerned and the girl was unable to tell her story locally. In fact, very quickly afterwards she and other potential victims of the scuzzbag were rushed off-island and home.
Nothing, so I was assured at the time, to do with the personal friendship of a senior police officer with the perpetrator of the attack, or other links between the Department of Home Affairs and the charity. They were just trying to prevent a ‘misunderstanding’ brewing up into a major incident which might hurt the island or the ‘well-meaning’ clergyman.
A year later the clerical kiddie fiddler was successfully prosecuted anyway for an unrelated offence, despite intimidation of witnesses by evangelical thugs which meant other rumoured incidents never got to court. One curious thing is that a vulnerable relative of his was amongst those ‘persuaded’ not to give testimony, and that at the time she was trying to gain employment with an evangelical outfit which, then and now, sends unwanted missionaries into Manx schools. Even more of a coincidence, that outfit was then being run locally by the guy now pimping his Jesus stories to tiny kids.
I should say the author doesn’t seem to share his fellow godbotherer’s interest in abusing kids – at least not sexually. Still, it does suggest that our kids might be in more danger from the hypocrites responsible for such checks than from decent writers who just want to awaken an interest in literature.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Blasphemy, blast for you, blast for everyone (no prejudice here)

Things are about to kick off in Ireland, where the Irish Parliament yesterday voted through a new blasphemy law….
I was going to say on a wing and a prayer, but in fact to do it they had to abandon the usual electronic voting system and demand a walk through vote. This gave time for a typically disorientated Green to stop giving Colombian trade unionists a guided tour of somewhere else entirely and another politico to stagger back from the dentist. Even then it only scraped through on the chairman’s casting vote.
Atheist Ireland (see sidebar for links) hold an AGM tomorrow at which a suitably all-encompassing blasphemous statement will be drafted and published to make a nonsense of the new law. Also see to read AE’s Michael Nugent charge in all guns blazing and get things nicely under way.
By the way, you’ve got to like a group which says:
“We are also launching a campaign encouraging people to read the Bible and other sacred books. Objectively reading the Bible is one of the strongest arguments for rejecting the idea of gods as intervening creators or moral guides.”
Check the Irish press if you can in coming days to see the fun, and when the statement does come, let’s see what we can do to spread it around the net and make total nonsense of a law which should not be on the books of any civilised country.

Re-arranging the Titanic’s deckchairs

I’m under strict instructions not to laugh while reading Manx newspapers in case my stitches burst, but most days I can’t help it. Take this week’s Indie and a story (New canons and priests) which, wisely, isn’t deemed fit for the online version. (12/7/09 update - it's there now at
Apparently Sentamu’s Apprentice has appointed three new Manx priests and six honorary canons to the Cathedral. Anglican watchers knew he needed to bring in off-island professionals to balance the conservatism of local hobby vicars. So St. Thomas’s gets a husband and wife team and, next door, St Ninians gets a priest too.
Several funny and interesting things about the appointments. Firstly St. Thomas’s used to be the combined parish of All Saints and St. Thomas’s with (even more confusingly) a priest living in the street behind St. Ninians assisted by a curate who looked after the much smaller but wealthier St. Thomas’s congregation. The All Saints priest was then hospital chaplain to the old Nobles, and as there wasn’t enough for the curate to do he also acted as a general gofer for the bishop. The St. Thomas’s congregation, all very fur coat and no knickers, never liked this practical arrangement and have earbashed the last three bishops to be a ‘stand alone’ parish.
So the new St. Thomas’s guy becomes the ‘official’ priest while his wife is a ‘non-stipendiary priest’ (i.e. unpaid) and, more interestingly, ‘half-time chaplain to Hospice Isle of Man’.
In other words, a parish so small a baby curate could tend it on his day off now has two priests, one to minister to half a dozen folk in a church and be school governor to the primary school next door (which incidentally, even using illegal job advertising, could not find an Anglican head teacher and had to settle for a Broadway bampot) one to charm legacies out of dying Rotarians.
I’m sure the St. Ninian’s guy will be just as busy. Let’s see - he can pop across the road to St Ninian’s School and watch devotees of the Living Hopelessly cult whip up funds to further inconvenience disempowered Africans, and on Sundays stand at the door of his church watching worshippers drive into the fancy car park of the presbyterian church next door.
The honorary canons to the cathedral are even funnier, but equally illuminating. Six canons could outnumber the congregation most weeks, as the core congregation of wealthy, influential conservatives drifted away during the tenure of a previous priest, an amiable old buffer who didn’t hate women enough for their tastes.
The interesting thing is the new canons include Radio Cowshed’s religious correspondent (Catholic, female), the head of the Mothers Union (traditional enemy of the last two misogynists – sorry, bishops), a lady vicar from the South, a Blairite vicar (literally, he was the bass player in Tony Blair’s school band) and a Douglas Methodist.
Tucked away ‘accidentally’ in the last paragraph of the report is another gem. The diocesan warden of readers (i.e. the guy who trains and places clerical hobbyists to help out full time vicars) is moving to Corfu.
For some time, just as the laity members at Anglican Central have struggled with the career clergy to re-establish the homophobia and misogynism of their distant childhoods, lay readers and ‘non stipendiary ministers’ have been doing the same in Manx Anglicanism. For example, they were behind the ‘rationalisation’ which saw vicarages sold as fast as elderly vicars could be retired, especially if occupied by those who championed lady clergy.
In addition, long before the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans moved to make things official, Forward in Faith (which has a strong island contingent and really should rename itself Backwards in Belligerence) discussed trying to align Anglican hatred of women, gays and most other humanity under the leadership of any sympathetic bishop overseeing a diocese nominally comprised of rich ex-pats scattered throughout the world.
So, the poor old bish may be merely re-arranging deckchairs on a sinking ship, but in doing so is demonstrating he favours a broad church and interdenominational dialogue. We should give him that.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Soon to be banned by the wierdly bearded near you..

The jailing of fundamentalists for a planned arson attack on the publisher of a book about Aisha, Muhamed’s child bride, is as good as any excuse to look at nutters worldwide who censor the discussion of religion.
Handily, Article 19 sum up the situation rather well in their June Artist Alert bulletin.
In 2005, for example, they published a report (Art, Religion and Hatred; Religious Intolerance in Russia and its Effects on Art ) on the way that the Russian state has sided with religious extremists, often using vague interpretations of law meant to prevent nationalist extremism – which is a sick joke when you watch Russian Orthodox beardy weirdies ‘helping’ the police to bash anyone in sight at Pride events.
Article 19 say, “Police and security services can use vague legislation such as the 2002 law, as well as legal loopholes to instantaneously arrest and detain artists and close down exhibitions.”
The inevitable effect has been that artists now tend to self-censor rather than take risks.
Meanwhile the trial of Yury Samodurov and Andrey Erofeev over their Forbidden Art 2006 exhibition at the Andrei Sakharov Museum has resumed again. It kicked off two years ago because a nationalist religious organisation, Narodnyj Sobor, submitted a formal complaint. Samodurov and Erofeev face five years inside on charges of inciting religious and ethnic hatred under Article 282 of the Russian Penal Code for exhibiting works including a crucified Lenin and Mickey Mouse as Jesus.
If you need an easy comparison, Manx sculptor Michael Sandle exhibited a massive Micky Mouse with a machine gun at the Imperial War Museum at the time of the first Gulf War. He did that with the aid of a substantial grant, at the invitation of the museum management and (if I recall rightly) without even one rabid Tory asking questions in the House.
Elsewhere this year it is also religious conservatism hand in hand with bad government creating legal nonsense.
A Turkish court has allowed a case to be brought against author Nedim Gursel for “insulting religion” and “inciting hatred”. Gursel is on trial for his book The Daughters of Allah against which a case was brought earlier in 2009 on the above charges. Turkey is already infamous for charging many authors, including a Nobel Laureate, under laws that prevent “insulting Turkishness”, but Gursel says that the religious establishment has become the bigger threat against freedom of expression.
But even these cases pale beside the Iranian situation. Here (as if anyone needed it) is reason number one million and, oh, say 99 for not moving to Iran.
Article 19 reports solemnly:
“According to an International Publishers Association investigation, since the election of President Ahmadinejad in 2005, censorship within the Iranian publishing industry is clearly on the rise, with decisions about what gets published becoming more unpredictable, uncertain and arbitrary.
”Although the number of titles is slowly rising, the average print run is now only 3,000 compared to an average of 10,000 in the 1970s. This is entirely due to censorship. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (MCIG) never officially bans books. Rather, if an author does not hear within two years, they understand that their manuscript has been rejected.
”In Iran, an author must obtain permission to print from the MCIG and a licensed publisher must obtain separate permission to distribute. In some cases the author gains permission to print, but the publisher does not gain permission to distribute.”

Monday, 6 July 2009

Tynwald Day for Dummies

Tynwald Day is the Manx National Day, and is celebrated every year on 5th July except on the years when it is celebrated on other days instead. In the years when it is not celebrated on 5th July, then 5th July is a public holiday to celebrate Tynwald Day and nobody has to go to work and Tynwald Day is another public holiday which isn’t on 5th July when nobody has to go to work.
This year it is celebrated on 6th July because 5th July was a Sunday, when, being a Christian country (according to the church) we should all be in church even though (according to the Manx church’s most optimistic figures) over 95% of us never go to church and (according to the census) many of us are not even Christian. In addition, roughly 10% of the 5% who do attend church are off-island tourists recorded entering churches to attend tourist board promotions and the majority of the 5% are relatives and friends there to attend funerals or weddings, or government officials there as a job requirement to attend state events which, being a Christian country, we always hold in churches instead of appropriate venues.
The other reason that the ceremony cannot be on a Sunday is that, again being a Christian country, the ceremony cannot begin until the politicians (many of whom are also not Christian) have attended the church service which precedes it and isn’t legal until they go back into the church after the ceremony for another ceremony. Even though, as various senior church figures keep saying, the ceremony that looks like a church service after the ceremony isn’t actually a church service but a legal sitting of Tynwald. If those church services also had to be on a Sunday, they would clash with all the other church services at least 95% of us would not be attending.
If it wasn’t a legal sitting of Tynwald, though held in a church, there would be no need for the church to be involved in national ceremonies like Tynwald, because there would be no link between church and state (even though the church strenuously insists it has no undue influence in matters of state), although if there was no link between church and state there would also be no excuse for a bishop to participate unelected in Legislative Council. If he wanted a say in politics he would have to stand for election, just as ordinary members of the public do and all the other Members of Legislative Council don’t.
Nevertheless, my family attend the Tynwald Day Fair every year without fail, though neither religiously nor patriotically. It’s a national holiday anyway, so islanders either choose to go and watch a bunch of turnip bashers in bad suits ponce about with whichever Royal inbreed Buck Pally sends over or stay at home and get drunk while watching daytime TV.
It’s a bit like Glastonbury. If you time it right, you can spend the day sniggering at stalls and exhibitions manned by every two-village-idiots-and-a-scabby-mutt wacko ‘good cause’ that can get charitable status without once being inconvenienced by the main freakshow. Homophobes for Africa, Christian Property Developers for East Europe, Pastors for the Rain Forest, Vegetables for Jesus, Kipper Curers for Hitler…..whatever, we have them all.
Out front, the main ceremony is a man in a home-made town criers outfit reading out all the laws passed in the year on a small mound topped by a tent containing the island’s politicians. This happens once in English then again in Manx in case you didn’t fall asleep the first time.
By the way, text books on Manx history solemnly tell us that Tynwald Hill contains a sod from every parish. Curiously, they never mention that most of them are drunk, senile, or both.
Normal people have only woken up long enough to participate in the Tynwald ceremony twice in history.
Once, over a century ago, they threw clods of earth at a particularly unpopular governor. Being idler than our forefathers, these days most people think ‘Sod the Governor’ but we can’t be bothered to actually do it any more.
In 1991 the ceremony was also briefly fun when Outrage dropped in to protest against Tynwald’s continued delay in partially legalising homosexuality. That doesn’t appear in any history books yet, though from time to time one of our oldest hacks grumbles about it in a weekly newspaper column which is constructed from whimsy and old wee in roughly equal proportions.
Curiously, while such hacks and their drinking buddies consider Outrage as, well…..outrageous, they have nothing critical to say about the Chief Constable from that era, a particularly vicious specimen of the breed who, before being banished here, was to James Anderton in Manchester what our current bishop, before his own exile, was to John Sentamu in York. We’ve also had a governor who, before his exile, oversaw RAF carpet bombing of Iraqi civilians in the first Gulf War and played a key part in the Saudi arms deals which never quite got investigated by Blair’s government and, after his exile, used his official residence to play host to fellow arms dealers from the US posing as ‘old military aquaintances’.
Sometimes the English wonder why we’re not grateful for their contributions to Manx culture. I am, thought it is fair to say that Manx culture would still be funny enough without them.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

The national fun deficit

Seeeing reports of various Pride events around the UK yesterday I can’t help but compare things on the Isle of Man.
A public figure even tentatively suggesting the island, say, held a panel discussion on combatting homophobia in workplaces and schools would be beaten to death with rotten kippers, and a full blown Pride parade would be right out. Interestingly though, it is ‘officially’ our national day today, so it seems reasonable to point out that, even for the year’s biggest party, there isn’t a lot of fun on offer.
The Tynwald ceremony itself will be held tomorrow (more here on our annual national disaster on the day itself). This also means a week of plastic patriotism meant primarily to separate ‘homecoming’ Yanks from their wallets.
For example, just streets away as I write Ramsey National Week began yesterday, and what a bundle of laughs that is.
Here you can witness ‘themed decoration of town shops and business premises’ commemorating “100 years Anniversary of the Ellan Vannin Disaster”. That’s a party to celebrate the ferry to Liverpool sinking a century ago, and the fun continued with a concert and talk last night at Ramsey Heritage Trust’s premises, Quayle’s Hall. This was the only cheap and cheerful place to hold birthday parties and community events until it was stolen from the community by a government underwritten project which researches… I don’t think anyone knows really, but witch-burning, sexual offences involving sheep and other pre-industrial traditions probably feature highly on the agenda.
Then we had a Northern Masonic Open Day and the launch of a CD of Maritime Hymns. Elsewhere a bunch of dilapidated wrecks tried to raise interest in the town’s biggest dilapidated wreck, Queens Pier, by wittering on about their childhood in the confused belief that today’s youth would want something similar.
This morning the hedonism continued unchecked with ‘Maritime Songs of Praise and Blessing of the Lifeboat’. There’s a clue to the expected age-range with the note that “Seats will be provided for those unable to stand”. Probably a good job the lifeboat crew are on hand to save any fossils who fall in the harbour then.
But there are bigger crimes against taste and decency to consider elsewhere today too. You can always tell the Radio Cowshed newsroom is shut at weekends and the unpaid religious broadcasting team are running the place. Take the invitation to go and take a look at the Manx Churches Flower Festival (see, officially known as the Manx Heritage Flower Festival but totally run by godbotherers at the Tourist Board who guide a committee of other church people.
To be fair, it’s a pleasant enough event if you need something to entertain a doddering, flower-fancying friend or relative. What IS interesting is the sly way visitor figures are fed into church attendance figures.
Being a Tourist Board event, where the civil servants have to to justify the public money, there’s an obsession with numbers. Folk at the doors of participating churches are issued with little clickers to press every time a visitor enters. As there are 17 venues and most try to visit at least half, the single total figure the Tourist Board rolls out representing all visits to all venues is misleading anway.
It gets even sneakier when, as the only safe attendance figure for a church event, the numbers at each venue are added by clergy to weekly figures which also include, say, scouts and guides, hire of the church hall and numbers at weddings and funerals. These weekly figures for all churches are then totalled each year, then divided by 52 to produce ‘average weekly attendance’, which can be passed off to the casual observer as ‘Sunday attendance’.
I know this from once being conscripted to the festival committee to help broaden the appeal (church leaders blocked secular venues and that was the end of that, by the way), and I got a detailed picture of the way churches change the counting method every few years to hide plummeting Sunday worship figures while subbing a Manx Anglican diocese newspaper for a newspaper chain.
To be fair, a town of 5,000 is never going to book Madonna, and it gets slightly better when local kids provide their own entertainment during the week. Still, the idea that everything from local to national government money (e.g. arts council and heritage grants) gets chucked at this, yet we can’t organise a half decent event for kids or families or manage even basic debunking of racist, sexist and homophobic myth because an evangelical halfwit might object, is, frankly, pathetic.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Spuds, bibles and political red herrings

I usually have time for the Celtic League, and especially Bernard Moffatt, who has put his neck on the line for numerous vital but unpopular causes over the years. His work getting NATO and the MOD to ‘fess up over submarines getting entangled in fishing nets and causing loss of life and small vessels throughout the Irish Sea, for example.
I’m less sure about a recent action, though it is an interesting snapshot of the way Celtic nationalism, in trying to protect or revive national ‘tradition’, often gets tangled up in another ‘tradition’, religious belief.
On behalf of the Celtic League, Bernie has written to Jack Straw asking him to ensure the UK Prison Service provides access to reading materials and internal request forms in the Welsh language. This follows the jailing of Ffred Ffransis, a language campaigner who was not allowed to take his Welsh Bible into prison. Ffransis also claims he lived on spuds after being denied access to the vegetarian diet because he would not complete English-only request forms. Manx will see an in-joke here, but for off-island readers I should explain that locals refer to days of past hardship as the times when everyone lived on 'spuds and herring'.
I’d admit that, though a prisoners rights campaigner myself, this guy’s attitude doesn’t put him top of my list for letters to the governor. As you’ll see at support is very mixed in Wales too. And don’t those comments about Muslims tell you where some Welsh ‘patriots’ and ‘minority rights activists’ are really at?
His faith or politics in themselves are irrelevant, it’s more the way that godbotherering and nationalist lags try to portray themselves as ‘special cases’ who are every bit as likely as a Daily Mail ignoramus to regard other criminals as scum. I notice this Messiah Complex in animal rights and environmental campaigners too, though I find that old school peace campaigners, even when religious, are more humble. When inside they knuckle down and help illiterate prisoners with their reading, once out again they sign up as prison visitors and keeep up the good work.
But the historical relationship between Manx nationalism and the church is every bit as entangled, ugly and confused. It is no accident that the earliest Manx language document is the Bible. When Bishop Wilson had the Bible translated to Manx I’d argue it was a way of getting the rabble (fond of rioting against the enclosure of island land at the time) to knuckle under to English clergy, not to spread sweetness and light.
Similarly the island’s public school, King William’s College, while one of the first specimens of the tradition was set up originally as a training college for clergy. Again, a way of picking off the brightest locals & setting them up as a 19th century mandarin class, which is no different to colonialism elsewhere. While the church is always trumpeting its role in early Manx education, schools here in the 19th century were founded less to educate the poor than as a form of cheap child minding by the church while parents were flogging themselves to death in the fields, mines and model factories.
After spending the late 1980’s scouring local history for magazine articles I’m also amused at the way in which it was the churches who got most local ‘holy days’ and parish knees-ups abolished (officially because they ‘encouraged drunkenness’), and when local employers paid for new churches the clergy colluded to use church attendance as a way to keep workers in line. For example, miners and mill workers whose names weren’t ticked off by the vicar each Sunday morning got no work on Mondays. As most of the Victorian and Edwardian texts on which 21st century whimsy about ‘Manx culture’ is based were written by clergy, it is hardly suprising we don’t hear all that.
Young Manx nationalists (at least serious ones, e.g. Mec Vannin members) are more savvy these days, but even in the late 1980’s I was startled by geriatric ‘if only Hitler had won’ merchants. So the biggest joke may be that the Manx Home Rule campaign was led by a Jewish Scouser, Samuel Norris, who came here as a young reporter in Edwardian times and ended up using the paternalism of Westminster government to overthrow the home-grown colonialism which held the island back until the 1950’s.
Now there was someone who knew how to hoist bigots by their own petards. In Manx Memories and Movements he relates how, using the tradition that every prisoner’s relationship with his chaplain is private, he persuaded the local vicar to ‘adopt’ him as one of his flock, then used him to send correspondence back and forth to those running what was, effectively, an anti-poll tax campaign run by seaside landladies in 1917. In contrast, he hints, families who probably even now consider themselves Manx patriots and models of morality made their fortunes from war profiteering, in particular fiddles involving the local internment camps.
Well, they do say patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. And that’s equally true of religion, so when they’re combined we should dismiss almost anything said as either lunatic ramblings or blatent lies. Blasphemers and satirists – now they’re people we can take seriously!

Friday, 3 July 2009

Angelic image, no earthly uses

It’s not often you see me backing a Manx clergyman, but I had to agree with Rev. Phil Frear’s letter in this week’s Indie (see
For off-island readers, the background to this was a court case to decide if one of those flashing ‘20’ signs outside schools constitutes advice or a legal instruction to motorists. Apparently it cannot be legally enforced.
But Phil’s one of the good guys, as I know from his work as the Nobles Hospital chaplain. It was Phil who, while not budging over the chapel, tried to open up hospital chaplaincy and religious input to the hospital in general to ‘all faiths and none’.
Sadly this offer hasn’t been taken up fully. Is this because NHS clientele are more downmarket than the departure lounge of choice for wealthy Rotarians, the Hospice?
I once took advice from Phil’s predecessor on setting up a hospital visiting scheme for us heathens. Unfortunately it seems our interest in self-determination becomes total disinterest when elderly, infirm atheists are under the weather.
When I tried to raise the matter the feeling was that we should leave ‘that sort of thing’ to the social services. If none of my fellow local heathens noticed that there aren’t any that might be why we’re not picking up new members; perhaps the current ones are too detached from most Manx people.
But this disdain for cash-strapped pensioners or folk from sink estates isn’t peculiar to atheists. The Interfaith Group and all ‘minority faith leaders’ listed on the government’s website or in the phonebook were scrupulously added to the faith community ‘guest list’ by public health officials when they were first advising on flu pandemics. Only the Interfaith lady turned up, and even she drifted off to ‘another appointment’ within 20 minutes and was never seen again. Similarly my offer to liase on health issues in future with minority faiths through the Interfaith Group was never taken up.
Meanwhile it seems every flakey fakir is setting up tent to flog crystals and other mumbo-juice at the Hospice. This, of course, cannot be because any dodgy potion or prayer you flog to a terminally ill person can handily be said to have ‘helped’ whatever happens, but will never be said to have contributed to the death of someone who would die anyway, with or without supplementing the quack’s (sorry ‘alternative therapist’s’) bank account.
A clergyman I know jokes that a parishioner once said to him: “You’re a real angel, but you’re no earthly use to anyone.”
I used to prize that as a description of bumbling vicars; it now occurs to me that it applies equally to many others.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Dead end religion, new rituals

Interesting piece yesterday by Diesel Balaam over on the Pink Triangle Trust blog (see
Diesel uses the mourning we’re seeing after Michael Jackson’s death as a call for the non-religious to get into the debates over these new and ‘amateur’ ways people find to mourn because…..
Well, let’s cut to the chase. Because organised religion can’t get the job done any more but still butts in, begging bowl at the ready, trying to use our need to find better ways to grieve as an excuse for a ‘return to traditional values/family values/Christian values’….(cut and paste where you like, it’s all bollocks anyway).
It’s a topic us ‘sophisticated’ atheists have avoided way too long. Perhaps because the humanist/secularist/atheist establishment teaches us to ‘traditionally’ favour the hard sciences, while the important work on such topics is done by social scientists – semiology, cultural studies, sociology, social anthropology…. In fact, all that stuff I held down two jobs while studying at nights to get a chance to study myself as a mature uni student, then learnt not to talk about around secularists in case a chance reference to Foucault or Barthes caused biologists (or even English Lit types who couldn’t cope with basic post-structuralism) to explode.
Well sod that, because I’m interested too in the 'DIY' nature of new mourning rituals created by folk who have no 'official' means to express their grief. The AIDS quilts would be one example, but also the impromptu shrines after Diana, and those peculiar roadside shrines usually made by teenagers after a mate dies in a road crash. Then there’s Facebook memorial sites, or mourning by text messages because you can’t get to a funeral.
It’s all a long way from dressing in black, drawing your curtains when a neighbour dies, doffing your hat or standing still when a hearse goes past and a black-edged memorial notice in the local paper.
Not that there’s much wrong with bringing some of that back either. Maybe what we need is a move away from ‘funeral lite’ (e.g. running from work to a funeral in your lunch hour or just signing a card for the wreath and working on). Take the day off, mourn or celebrate a life properly and as appropriate to that individual (not just as it fits your employer’s and the local government crematorium’s schedules), then move on.
But Humanism (and Secularism) misses an opportunity to stress the redundance of religious ritual and the emotional and practical need for more appropriate 21st century ritual by not debating this with the general public. Even a friend who conducts perfectly respectful and professional non-religious funerals is still at pains to stress it's a 'proper' funeral, not just some hippy-dippy wierdness.
Diesel also touches on war memorials, which brings me to another example of a case we could use to stir up debate. The alternative is to write off an emotive issue which otherwise quickly becomes either a jingoistic irrelevance or another means for politicians to distract us from their failure to care for the living (including needlessly crippled vets and war widows from recent conflicts, of course).
In 2007, along with a local atheist ex ‘desert rat’, I started berating the government appointed and subsidised organisers of the Manx Veterans Day for actions not far short of treason. The first Veterans Day ‘celebration’ was, in effect, handed over to the churches and featured a full blown church service with five dreary hymns, prayers, a long sermon – not to mention the gilded ‘service sheet’ with the words to all hymns, responses to prayers - and so on. We wrote, quite politely, suggesting firstly that the churches already had an adequate chance to pray in the morning before the afternoon event, but at least in 2008 something more inclusive could be arranged – maybe cut out a couple of hymns, a minute’s silence instead of prayers and make a music show the main event instead.
The 2008 event was even worse. Not only were the hymns (still five) longer and drearier, but the sermon was upgraded to give the new bishop some free publicity. Some vets organisations weren’t even advised of the details, and most vets, too knackered by war crimes in the name of the bishop’s fictitious friend to hang on for the free buns and concert, voted with their zimmer frames and staggered home instead.
So, rather than the dignified but all-inclusive national celebration promised the nation got, as the ex-desert rat put it, ‘another bloody church parade’, or to use blunter squaddie vernacular, a bag of shite. If martial law had been in place on either day, I suspect the organising committee would have been taken out and shot.
In both cases these are events which stir up emotion and engage huge numbers of people, ignored because they are, somehow, ‘beneath’ us as ‘serious thinkers’. Yet the real tragedy is that ordinary people are constantly inventing new ritual because organised religion, even when aided and subsidised by the state, fails miserably to meet their emotional needs.
Isn’t this precisely where those interested in secularism should be working overtime -studying these rituals and in particular the use of new media or the reinvention of ‘outmoded’ ways to mourn – in order to fill the gap and take away all church excuses of ‘relevance’, ‘need’ and markets for new income or public subsidy?

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Child abusers or lunchtime losers?

My daughter moves up to junior school in September, and last night was that school’s open night for new parents.
All seemed fine until we noticed ‘Bible Club’ listed amongst the lunchtime clubs. Most of the others are harmless enough pursuits (penny whistle, choir, folk dancing…) run by interested teachers, so there may just be a biblebasher on the staff helping the spawn of other addicts to regress even faster. Or it could be something more worrying.
A couple of weeks back, on the page in our local free paper where an idle sub pastes uncut copy from dodgy ‘charities’ passed off as ‘community news’, the Southern Rednecks (Port St. Mary’s ‘Living Hope Church’) had their latest plan for world domination. In addition to stealing from the dispossessed in other countries and raising new Manx cathedrals to pig-ignorance, this includes more schools workers for the Scripture Union.
On the one hand, it astonishes me that an island this small can fund so much cretinism, and that local government is so incompetent it isn’t weeded out at the planning or grant application stage. On the other, teenage Manx Baptists lack the numeracy to spot the sell-by date on Tesco tins and are too illiterate to fill out a benefit form, so I suppose their not-so-wise elders need to find something resembling employment for them.
In the past the SU was just wasted wet lunchtimes in secondary schools, where the kids are generally big enough to ignore them unless (as in the recent Castle Rushen case) they get pestered at home on private mobile numbers by a middle aged man too fat and ugly to seek extra-maritals from adult women. If these sad and sorry losers are now allowed to inflict their social inadequacy on eight year olds that is another matter entirely.
If the Education Department was responsible about this they would just add some new characters to the kind of comic strips which help small kids avoid other health risks. Then again, most of the worst health risks to Manx children already work there.