Ashes to ashes

A couple of weeks ago we watched the Bowie documentary celebrating his life. When it ended I changed the channel and there was The World at War on. It showed the Warsaw ghettoes, where jews were imprisoned and slowly degraded and all the while lied to about what would come next. There was footage of impoverished, starving people, holding out their last coins to Nazis to pay for train fares out of the ghetto. The trains were to Auschwitz.

It has ever been that people have believed lies over the truth, gratefully giving over meagre coins in the hope of buying salvation, be it a ticket to some less hopeless destination: on a train away from the ghettoes; a raft across the mediterranean; tithes to secure a promised afterlife. The truth is hard to bear. The truth is buried in a mass grave somewhere far from your dinner table. Or beneath it. Or right outside your window. It makes no difference.

It was too long ago, and now you can believe whatever you want and find your own chorus of approval in this electric mirrorland of personal illusions. The American president is lauded by Nazi salutes  – the Vice Chair of Momentum echoes the KKK to make vicious and untrue antisemitic claims and people rally to her defence citing a global jewish conspiracy. Breitbart, the Canary….the hymn sheets to their true believers churn out their lies, the lies that harmonise with a chosen view of the world, lies that absolve the sinner of their sins. Forgetting is sweeter. Lies are sweeter. The ashes are bitter, the ashes of the truth are bitter.

Peer Pressure

It was peer pressure that compelled, allegedly, the UK Prime Minister to post his private sex-parcel through the letterbox of a dead pig’s mouth, in order, again allegedly, to gain approval from the 11 other members of an upper crust sex, drugs and fancy dress loving Oxford University society.

It was also peer pressure, by which I mean pressure from disgruntled billionaire peer Lord Ashcroft, that saw the allegation distributed throughout the media. It came via reporting of the rumours contained in the book he commissioned as revenge for not getting what he wanted from the Tory party after donating millions to them.

Social media users squealed gleefully at their latest sensation, left right and centre, we were – to put it frankly – happy as pigs in excrement. This was my first reaction:

The thing is, there is as yet no real evidence for Cameron’s bacchanalia (baconalia?), someone says someone has a photo but it is all conjecture.

What there is evidence for is that we are doing the bidding of a billionaire with a grudge, but because we dislike Cameron, or just delight in the salacious nature of the allegations, or because they conform to the idea we have of the rituals of humiliation in which the rich indulge, we perpetuate the rumours.

Perhaps swept up in the reactive social media flow, enjoying the swell of shared derision, we relinquish our reason.

It has been demonstrated in psychological experiments that people believe things because they reinforce or confirm their prejudices. The phenomenon is known as confirmation bias [Confirmation bias – a ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises (PDF) – opens in new window]. Once someone has taken a fixed position, their capacity for balanced reason is replaced by selective reinforcement of the position held. In short, the man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest [The Boxer by Simon and Garfunkel – Youtube, opens in new window].

That fixed position can be induced by the society we live in,for instance we might live under a totalitarian ideology, such as that of Stalinist Communism or Authoritarian Theocracy, and then the state allows no other position to exist. Peer pressure then is a means of quelling dissent. People are punished, people are killed, for thought that contradicts the collective identity.

In Saudi Arabia, anyone who questions the religion that supposedly confers the right of the Saud family to own and govern the vast majority of the Arabian peninsula faces being tortured, imprisoned and killed. In Stalinist Russia purges of dissidents, the deaths of millions, were meant to protect the ideology, ‘the truth’, against those who might weaken it.

Weaken it how? By testing it with thought: Thought is questioning, questioning is treacherous. Traitors must be killed.

The fixed position, that authoritarianism, is not just implemented from without. We can impose it upon ourselves, adopting dogmatically an idea because it fits in with our idea of ourselves, or confers upon us an identity we wish to embody or simply quells the nagging existential uncertainty of living in a seemingly confused and chaotic universe.

This self imposed censorship creeps incrementally upon us, we choose our newspaper and thus our opinions, on social media we follow and like only that which we already agree with, we build an ideological fortress around us, into which dissent cannot enter.

It takes effort to entertain perspectives opposed to our own, to question not just that which you are opposed to, but that which you are drawn to, and why should we, when there is delight and relief in surrendering reason to the mob.  The reason why is because such conformity echoes some of the worst moments of human history.

Genocides and purges required the complicity of people like me and you relinquishing their capacity to question for the sake of belonging, the sake of identity, among other motives no doubt, too, including the fear and consequent relief in being the perpetrator rather than the victim that bonds the mob together against another.

Conformity protects us from attack.

Jeremy Corbyn was lambasted by the more jingoistic elements of the press for not singing the national anthem at a memorial service, and has now appeared to bow to peer pressure, agreeing to sing it in future.

You might think this a pragmatic acceptance of the role of leader of the opposition in matters of state ceremony, or you might think it means that peer pressure has forced him to be hypocritical. Singing an anthem in honour of a god he does not believe in and a figurehead of a power and class structure he may well think responsible for causing the deaths the service commemorates.

I sympathise with him, or at least my 8 year old self does, because I was kicked out of the cubs for refusing to pledge allegiance to god or to the Queen.

My then best friend, Denis, wanted me  to join him. We were to learn knots and do good deeds.  I went for several weeks and all was fine. Until the evening of the initiation.

We all gathered in a circle around the leader and the new cubs, one by one, pledged allegiance to god and to the queen.

When it was my turn, in spite of Denis’s eager face, and the expectant glare of the leader, I said timidly that I didn’t want to say it because I did not think I believed in those things.

I was made to leave and walk home alone, pondering my atheist republicanism and coming to terms with a woggleless existence.

As a child, I was able to consider what I thought was right over what I knew was expected of me, and growing up I realised that when one thinks one knows what is right there is the possibility that one has become dogmatic and therefore possibly wrong, so I have always tried to be aware of whenever I have become complacent in my thoughts.

When I have accepted something as true – including my childish atheism and republicanism – I try to seek out the best arguments I can against those adopted positions to see if they withstand such tests.  I do this not because I have some special capacity, but because I am just the same as everyone else, just as prone to self-deception and getting swept up with the mob and I hope somehow to counter the innate disposition we all apparently share.

I laughed and jeered over the pig’s head, but in the Lord of the Flies, a pig’s head is placed on a stick, as a sacrifice to ‘the beast’ the dark, unseen, monstrosity that haunts the stranded boys.  But the truth is that the beast is the darkness that lurks in the heart of them, of us all.

Horror scope

Avijit Roy, atheist and advocate of secularism, was hacked to death by a mob of murderers wielding meat cleavers, in Bangladesh, after threats from Islamist hardliners.

This is a post from his daughter:

Avijit Roy

She talks of not being afraid to say what you think, and that is damn right. So this is what I think: Religion is like star signs – an erroneous folly that people cling to, to make them feel special.

It would be harmless enough if it had not been granted any power over the reality in which we all must exist. But unfortunately there are entire dynasties of wealth and power based entirely on the beliefs of people of the past more ignorant, or more deluded, or more cunning than we, perhaps. These dynasties are mighty and ruthless, they reign over and own notable chunks of the Earth

In these dynasties one of the worst crimes you can commit is to question the lies from which the great power is drawn. People are killed for doing so. But as long as you don’t question the lie, you can be assured that you are special – a member of the true believers, and will be granted a posthumous splendour to make up for the tyranny you must endure in life.

Unfortunately, feeling special is the underpinning concept of all fascistic movements, as well as all psychopathic notions of superiority. This superiority is defined by, and in turn decrees, the belief that others are inferior and therefore no more than meat or animals for exploitation and death(see the Koran for explicit description of the ‘kuffar’ or non-believers as lower than animals), so it is no surprise that inhumane acts like this murder, or the almost endless sickening parade of barbarism, subjugation and mutilation of women and general inhumanity perpetuate while stupid, self-serving ideas go unchallenged or revered.

You aren’t any star-sign. Those stars are illusions, many are long dead, as dead as many of the gods ancient peoples populated the same black and twinkling sky with.

You are not preferred by the creator of the universe, if there is one, simply because you submit to the will of an imagined tyrant and his earthly storm troopers. You are just a human being, equal in worth to all others. You are not superior and it does not matter how many thinking people you hack down with your weapons. You will never be so. Instead be equal with us all, we brothers and sisters in being and in thought, who wish to live in peace. Who don’t claim that we know all there is to know, but love the capacity to think and to question as a means to navigate those mysterious stars. Stars that don’t spell out your destiny, but that illuminate the darkness, as thought does ignorance.


January is a bleak month of dwindling hopes (after a fair start, the jogger stops and wheezes in the crisp air, plump hands on knees, dark frown-lines of defeat griddled onto their red raw mince face) but February carries with it the dancing sound of a distant spring, that encourages the heart and enlivens the step.

With that (whatever that was) in mind, here are a few inspiring things I’ve found about the place:

“People say why don’t you give it up? I don’t think they quite understand. I’m not doing it just for the money, or for you. I’m doing it for me.”

Keith Richards

Light painting created by mobile of multicoloured perspex aeroplanes

And how about this? A gorgeous work by Rashad Alakbarov, ‘Flight to Baku’, using perspex ‘paper aeroplanes’ to cast coloured shadows that paint a scene.

And here’s a pep talk from ‘Kid President’ that made me smile.

If that doesn’t do it for you, that’s fine, here’s a dog in a top hat:

Dog in top hat, from East End of London circa 19th Century


This was my thought as I left for work that morning.

‘If there is not enough good in the world, you can’t bemoan it, or despair, instead you have to try to do something about it. You have to increase the amount of good there is.’

There was a reason that I thought this. But it is not one that I can elaborate upon. The day before I had received some extremely shocking, painful news that left me very concerned for people I care about. I had done what little I could, had got angry, shed a few tears, gone into a type of resourceful shock that is familiar to me. A place from which I can find solutions, actions, before (perhaps instead of) processing the emotional impact of things.

At work, apart from this worry sitting on my shoulders like a pair of remorseless Buzzards, it was a normal day, I was ploughing through my inbox, but then, at about 11.30 a friend tweeted me, it was an aside to say that a man I barely knew at all, a man who only existed on the very fringes of my own existence, had died.

That man was named Horace White, and he was a person whom I saw occasionally pushing his trolley along the streets of East Finchley, where he lived. The only words he ever said to me, that I recall, were ‘best of luck’, the greeting and parting wish he gave to all he met.

He died, aged 54, two days ago. People, young people mainly, would sometimes mock him, taunt him with the name ‘Stanley’, which he hated and which would lead him to erupt into harmless but profane outbursts, I have seen this happen on a bus, and been partly concerned and then politely amused.

He would spend time sitting outside McDonalds and Barclays on Finchley High St, drawing colourful pictures with his crayons and giving them to those who asked for them. I read one story on his tribute Facebook page that he used to keep all of his crayon drawings in his suitcase but then one night left it outside the Post Office, the bomb squad were called and blew it up.

There were some tears in my eyes as I watched a video on youtube of him saying ‘best of luck’ to the camera. He seemed confused, lost, gentle, kind. Childlike. Even in the other unpleasant videos on the site in which he was provoked into shouting, there was no threat to his behaviour, it was childish, a tantrum.

And some of the tears were for The Situation I was worrying about, which – in a way that I couldn’t explain well even if I felt able to write freely about it – correlated with this man’s death.

I don’t mean to be frustratingly enigmatic, but I feel that even without the specifics what I have to write, to put out from within me to here, still holds true, has meaning.

At lunchtime I bought some Monkfish (special offer, for dinner that evening) from a supermarket and then I found myself wandering to Tavistock Square, where I stood before the statue of Gandhi looking at the messages and objects people had left there in the alcove beneath where he sits.

The pain of The Situation was raw, raw and confusing enough to me that I wished I believed in the God’s of man, but I don’t. I looked at the quote from the bible that someone had placed in the shrine, Matthew something or other, I looked at another quote, it was a Hindi quote about the universe coming from the deathless self. I saw a pack of self-help cards that someone had left, seemingly for someone in need to take.

None of these objects were of any use to me, but the motive behind them was. That people genuinely want to help others, that matters. That reached me.

I cannot tell you what my expression was as I walked on from Gandhi’s statue. I was absorbed in thoughts of what I could possibly do to help the people involved most directly in The Situation. I was wondering about the phone calls I should make, of what I should say, what I could do…

And then a voice called out to me. Quietly.

It was a man, a homeless man, his trolley and his possessions scattered about him on his bench. He was grimy and his fingernails were horribly long, he had a white and ginger beard, he may have been in his 50s, or his 40s, perhaps even, like me, in his 30s.

He pointed at my supermarket bag.

‘Can I have a sandwich?’

‘I don’t have any sandwiches, this is fish’ I explained.

We looked at each other.

‘Do you want some money for a sandwich?’ I said, reaching into my pocket for some change. I was being dismissive.

‘I can’t walk anywhere’, he said to me, and he lifted up his trouser leg to show the sores on his leg.

‘I’ll get you a sandwich’, I resolved, ‘what do you like?’

‘Anything’, he said.

So I walked back the way I had come, I looked at some options, trying to decide upon what would be the most robust and well balanced option, eventually settling on a large roast beef and salad bloomer on brown bread. It may have been my own hunger dictating the choice.

I walked back to him with the sandwich, and he asked me to open it for him (his hands clumsy and dirty, his extremely long fingernails handicapping him) I did so and he took it gratefully.

‘God bless you’, he said.

I stood in front of him.

‘Do you have anyone looking after you?’

‘No, not really’

‘Do you visit the NHS?’ my question came out clumsily, but he answered it with a ‘no’.

I stood there for a moment longer, wondering what I should do. And in the end I just walked off, leaving him eating the sandwich.

I walked off because I am not a saint, I am not even a good person. I am just a normal, lost person, like all of us, and I was still hungry, and I had phone calls to make, and I did not have the time to spare in my lunch break to do any more than give a man a sandwich.

All of us is lost because not one of us has any idea truly of why we exist, we come into the world full of bright possibility and hope, and then the whittling away at our innocence begins, the strange chaos of events, of other people’s pain and sadness and confusion and love and joy and cruelty touches us in ways we can’t ever know or forget, but underneath the isolation we strive to fashion for ourselves, the ‘I’, to protect us from the confusion of others, we are all connected in ways we can’t even see, by a filament of being.

What was the story that led this man to be homeless on this bench, what cruelty, or love, or chaos had he known? What cruelty or love or chaos has led me to be where I am? What cruelty, love and chaos am I responsible for?

I phoned the person who had contacted me the previous day hoping that I could help them with The Situation. They were far closer to it than me, and more terribly upset. As the phone rang I could see the chap eating the sandwich, he seemed happy enough, and I felt heartened a little by that simple fact.

When I got through and I spoke to them, I tried to offer love and support and whatever practical help I could. I think I may have done some little good.

We, all of us, affect all those around us. We all of us make a difference to people’s lives, even if we aren’t aware of it. This is a platitude, yes, but it is true.

Horace White simply used to say ‘best of luck’ to the people he saw. That is not much, you might think, but it is infinitely more than silence.


Karl Popper

When I was fresh out of university, I worked as a typesetter and proofreader. I was not very good at it because I could not quite stop myself from reading the books, when I should have been meticulously checking them for errors.

One book that was particularly distracting was ‘All life is problem solving’, by Karl Popper.  The full stops, paragraph breaks and em-rules cascaded past my attention like animals escaping a zoo as I turned the pages, transfixed.  I recently found some post it notes upon which I had scrawled this particularly inspiring passage from the book:

“I am anything but an enemy of religion. My religion is the doctrine of the splendours of the world; of the freedom and creativity of wonderful human beings; of the terror and suffering of the despairing people we can help; of the extent of good and evil that has emerged in human history and keeps emerging over and over again; of the joyful message that we can prolong people’s lives, especially those of women and children who have had the toughest life. I know nothing else. And although the scientific quest for truth is part of my religion, the magnificent scientific hypotheses are not religion – that must never be”