Friday, 18 December 2009

Rage Against The Machine

Rage Against The Machine has my vote for Christmas number one. I haven’t heard that song (Killing In The Name Of) for years and I experienced a wave of joyful nostalgia for those grunge years when I listened to the song just now. I’d feel the same if it were Nirvana vying for number one.

Then I listened to The Climb by X-Factor’s Joe McElderry and almost fell asleep.


Wednesday, 16 December 2009


Helping out any aesthetes out there with a link to a piece on Grace Coddington in today's Times 2:

In fact, as I am feeling in a generous aesthetic mood, I thought I would share a link to one of my favourite images this year, which happens to be of Katharine Whitehorn:

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Turner Prize Review

A rose is a rose is a rose.

No no no.

Rachel Campbell-Johnston's Turner prize critique in today's Times is a joy to read:

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks and The Theos Lecture

The Times has taken a bold line on Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks's lecture at the Theos debate last night:

“Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks: Europe is dying from secularism”

I didn’t see Ruth Gledhill there last night (but it doesn’t mean she wasn’t) – she must have downloaded the podcast online. (You can read her piece here:

Chief Rabbi Sacks didn’t say Europe was dying from secularism. What he actually said was: “It may not be religion that is dying. It may be liberal democratic secularism that is in danger.”

He argued that tolerant religiosity needed to be promoted over fundamentalism and that the problem that can occur with liberalism is its inability to defend its own values (i.e. cultural relativism). He also stressed that believers, atheists and agnostics were in this together and that religious people must be prepared to enter into respectful conversation with secular humanists over the nature of society. I didn’t have an argument with any of that. I admired the fact that he laid down some cards rather than holding them back and doing that liberal thing of asking lots of academic questions but never having a stab at the answers.

I also liked the fact that he defined faith as the courage to live with uncertainty. I was less enthused about the reason for his desertion of philosophy: “The search for meaning is in itself meaningless”. Religion is not the only space to discover meaning; love creates meaning, but Rabbi Sacks didn’t touch on that at all.

I also would have liked to have heard some unpacking of why he thought it was that a religious family was more likely to have more children than a secular family. The answer may not have been a pretty one. Also, if Rabbi Sacks was prepared to turn our attention to population decline in Europe and population growth in the world, I think it was a little feeble of him to steer clear of questions concerning immigration.

But, all in all, I liked Jonathan Sacks and enjoyed his lecture.

Lord Tebbit and Thought For The Day

Excellent response by Lord Tebbit this morning on the Today Programme when Sarah Montague asked him about David Cameron’s renegade on a Europe referendum.

He said: “I think we might all take home a transcript of the Thought For The Day this morning. Perhaps we have all got something to learn from that.”

This is what Rhidian Brook said on Thought For The Day this morning: “There's no question that we're creatures wired for communication but it can't just be about speed and immediacy, or even about words. Indeed, the monastic traditions saw self-control, listening and not speaking as essential for the kind of deep communication some believe we were created for. 'Be still and know that I am God', the psalmist wrote, or to paraphrase: switch off, dial down and tune into another kind of communication - the kind that allows the mind the experience of a deeper, uninterrupted level of thought where creativity and complex thinking can happen and where we may even hear a different voice. I once tried an experiment just before starting work of sitting in a chair for half an hour without doing anything, thinking anything or trying to communicate with anyone. It's an exquisitely difficult exercise and one I failed badly. But before I drop my laptop in the bath or ignore my daughter again, I'm going to give it another try and maybe, with God's help, I'll be able to sit there not sending messages - until I get the message.”

What about that for an idea! A Tory Government that sits in silence and meditates until it is time for the next election.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Kristin Scott Thomas

A bizarre angle to the reporting of Kristin Scott Thomas’s role in the film Partir taken by The Telegraph today:

“Kristin Scott Thomas's voice is no barrier in France,” the headline clips, “Received Pronunciation has been increasingly marginalised by Labour during its decade in power with the result that Kristin Scott Thomas, tired of being consigned to endless period dramas in her homeland, has taken her cut-glass accent to France.”

Kristin Scott Thomas has lived in France for years and done French films for ages. She has said before in interviews that she comes to England to do theatre and stays in France to do films. Anyone reading The Telegraph today would think that she only just moved to Paris yesterday. Basically, The Telegraph has dressed Kristin in its politics. We all know that The Telegraph’s top pin-ups are Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren and Joanna Lumley and we all know why The Telegraph loves them (and I am not implying that it shouldn't).

Unfortunately, there is very little info in the article about the film itself:

Friday, 23 October 2009

News Talk (with Alison Ruoff)

Another shot in the dark – for anyone interested:

I am going to be on Premier Radio’s Newstalk tomorrow at 11.30am talking about this week’s news stories: in London digitally on DAB radio, or 1305, 1332, 1413 MW, in the UK on Sky Digital 0123, Freeview 725 and also live online at

I was on with Alison Ruoff: and, although she looked vaguely familiar, (the picture I had seen was this one: I wasn’t aware of her position on anything until we were recording (we recorded this morning). So, when I said, “the sooner the Church of England has women bishops, the better” I wasn’t expecting the outburst it provoked from Alison - her deep radio voice carrying the gravitas of her years. “Absolutely not,” she roared, “I will leave the Church of England if there are women bishops.”

Unfortunately the programme stopped there, so I didn’t get a chance to come back at her. I asked Alison afterwards whether she would become a Roman Catholic if the Church of England had women bishops. “No,” she said, “I will go to a Church that doesn’t have women bishops.” (I should have taken the opportunity here to point out that the Methodist Church in Britain does not have women bishops; its President and Vice-President next year will both be women.) Alison added that she didn’t have a problem with woman headship in the secular world, but not in the Church. Her role model? Margaret Thatcher.

I really do not understand the need to mystify the male position of authority within a spiritual context. It fractions rather than fosters our relationships with one another. It is divisive, deceitful and dishonest to cow-tow to an authority that is distinguished solely by the end in itself. All this does is depersonalise us and cripple our compassion rather than enrich our understanding.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Question Time

There seems to be a growing assumption from the Right ( that it’s only po-faced Liberals who are against the BNP appearing on this Thursday’s Question Time.

So, for those who didn’t spot it: Claire Fox wrote just as compelling a piece in yesterday’s Evening Standard ( as Melanie Phillips did in yesterday's Daily Mail (

Let's hope the BBC Trust doesn't lose its nerve.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Overcoming Violence in India

I am posting a link to a "sound bite" podcast I've put together following India.

It's called "Overcoming Violence in India" and it's dated October 16, 2009 (at the moment it is at the top of the page, but it will drop down the page over time).

The MP3 recorder I took with me was faulty. I didn't realise this until I was back in the UK. This has resulted in the loss of two of the six interviews I recorded (one of them with Bezwada Wilson, national convenor of Safai Karmachari Andolan - a movement for the elimination of manual scavenging). Three of the surviving interviews were only partially recorded and only one came out intact. So, I've just had to work around what was left and salvage all I could. This is why my voice comes in so abruptly at the "end" of three of the interviews (because the machine cut out half way through). Anyhow, maybe you wouldn't have even noticed all these problems if I hadn't pointed them out...

I reckon if I smoked 40 a day I could work up a sexy, deep radio voice. As it is, I am not exactly Charlotte Green...

Manual Scavenging

Here is the forth piece I wrote following the India trip:

I interviewed Bezwada Wilson in the dark on the balcony of a Delhi appartment. He suggested it would be quieter there then the living room where hosts and guests were socialising and tucking into food. I was so eager to interview him that I completely forgot I didn't have any insect repellent on and I was wearing open-toed shoes (er, with no socks). The mosquitoes were digging their fangs into our flesh and I started hopping from one foot to another, trying to ignore them. They got me twice on the same foot.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Free Thinking on Climate Change

A great piece of free thinking by Martin Beckford in yesterday’s Telegraph online:

It's clear Martin would rather like the Church of England to talk about something else other than climate change (which he doesn’t dispute is happening, but which he thinks has become an own goal for the Church). He illustrates this by pointing out that Church of England press releases have mentioned climate change more than they have mentioned God and Jesus this year. What, then, would Martin want God and Jesus to be talking about in 2009 if not climate change?

Well, he gives a hint: “As I pointed out last time, almost all environmentalists agree on the need to reduce the global population, but while the Roman Catholic Church rejects this solution, the Church of England fails to address it.”

Population control. Hmmm... I wonder what women bishops would want to talk about, if the Church of England had them?

Friday, 9 October 2009

In The Beginning...

Maybe the next thing that will come out of Bible scholarship is that mathematical possibility preceded God:

Thought For The Day

There was a deadlock in the final vote at the LICC debate last night: “This House Believes that Humanist speakers should be included in BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day."

Dr Andrew Copson, British Humanist Association.
Ariane Sherine, Atheist Bus Campaign.

Canon Giles Fraser.
Rt Rev Nick Baines.

Chairing: Radio 4 Today presenter, Edward Stourton.

The closing count was 21 for, 21 against and 10 abstentions. The network manager for Radio 4 was there and, of course, he abstained and kept his real opinion private.

I voted for the motion on the assumption that a humanist thought for the day would be philosophical rather than divisive.

Some members of the audience assumed that a humanist take on Thought For The Day would eventually become a series of platitudes, rather like listening to Imagine being played over and over again on the slot every week. The criticism followed an example of a humanist Thought For The Day by Ariane Sherine (founder of the Atheist Bus Campaign), which was very benign in its promotion of kindness, tolerance, forgiveness and plaurality of beliefs. She also argued that secularists had been marginalised for centuries. Rt Revd Nick Baines, Bishop of Croydon, said: “I was nearly in tears when Ariane was saying how deprived humanists have been.” (This was all the funnier when Ariane rolled her eyes.)

I think that we don’t know what we would hear so it would be interesting to find out.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Monday, 5 October 2009

Living Letters

Here is a link to the first report on a meeting I attended in Delhi:

It has attracted a robust critique by P.N. Benjamin, coordinator for Bangalore Initiative for Religious Dialogue (BIRD). For the record, the Living Letters team did not stay in anything you could call a five star hotel. However, Mr Benjamin appears to agree with the Church leaders’ call: “they must turn their attention the discrimination faced by Dalit converts within the Indian churches.”

(FYI - Before editing, the first paragraph originally read: "Indian Christian leaders have called on the Church to confess that the caste system is still being practised in churches.")

(In fact, here is the report as I orginally wrote it:

Indian Church leaders call for an end to caste discrimination inside and outside the Church

Indian Christian leaders have called on the Church to confess that the caste system is still being practised in churches.

The call came as senior representatives of the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) met to discuss the Church response to poverty and exclusion on the International Day of Prayer for Peace (September 21).

An ecumenical Living Letters team representing the World Council of Churches was also present at the debate held at the YMCA Conference Hall in New Delhi. The ecumenical group expressed its solidarity with the NCCI in overcoming violence in all its forms – from poverty and neglect to discrimination and murder.

Bishop Taranath S. Sagar, President of NCCI, said: “There are millions of people who are subject to poverty and discrimination by the caste system in India. This is equal to racism. The outcast Dalits are being treated as Untouchables, not having access to dignified human lives and subjected to all kinds of humiliation.

“The Church should always be 100 percent sensitive to pain in society. Jesus was always sensitive to people’s suffering. He would go up to people and touch them. How sensitive are we to understanding the tears that the Dalits are shedding every day? Women are being raped, children are under nourished, food is not available to everyone and natural resources are not being distributed equally. Although the Constitution has laws to protect these people, in practise it is not happening.”

The Indian Constitution first outlawed discrimination on the basis of caste in 1955 with the introduction of the Anti-Untouchability Act, later renamed the Civil Right Act in 1979. Further protection for the outcast Dalits and tribal Adivasi people came with the Prevention of Atrocities Act in 1989. However, according to Church leaders and social activists in India, the implementation of these laws has been almost non existent.

Bishop Dr D.K. Sahu, General Secretary of NCCI, said: “People need to look at violence in all its forms. According to statistics, about 300 million people in India are in need of food. What else do you call that if not violence which makes people suffer hunger on a daily basis? India has cultures of a caste system and a culture of patriarchy. There are 2.7 million Christians in India and they are predominantly Dalit and predominantly poor.

“I think the Indian Church has to make a confession first. If you are alienated in society and you become a Christian, you are alienated again. We tell them, ‘if you become Christian then there is no discrimination’, but once they become Christian they are looked down upon by Christians of higher castes. A higher caste Christian will never marry a Dalit Christian, yet we say we are all one.”

Following questions put by the Living Letters team, Church leaders also explained what initiatives they were supporting in order to end caste discrimination. The NCCI is backing public interest litigation in the Supreme Court, making the case that Dalits and tribal people of Christian and Muslim identity are not covered by the Prevention of Atrocities Act. During Lent, the NCCI called on Christians to fast for justice in the name of Dalit liberation. NCCI members are involved in ecumenical dialogue about how the Church can be just and inclusive. A number of non governmental organisational campaigns also have the backing of the NCCI, such as Safai Karmachari Andolan - a campaign to end manual scavenging led by Bezwada Wilson.

Revd Dr P.B.M. Basaiawmoit, Vice President of NCCI, said: “In India, there is apartheid. The Dalit issue is a racist issue. Dalits are not seen as human beings. Tribals are less than Dalits.

“If the Church removes its own exclusiveness then we can begin to talk about inclusion of others. We have to work for inclusion in the Church.”


Here is a link to a few pictures:

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Glorious India

I have been accused of showcasing the poverty of India on my blog and not showing much by way of its glory. This really wasn't my intention.

Also, when I wrote that I believe passionately that social justice falls within the ambit of religion what I really meant was that religion falls within the ambit of social justice. Religion doesn't own social justice.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Kandhamal, Orissa, India

A short video of Kandho tribals and Pano Dalits dancing and singing on the site of their recently, legally demarcated land in Kandhamal, Orissa, India. September 2009. Filmed on a Blackberry.

These people lost their homes in the violence that swept through Orissa last August following the death of the Hindu hardliner, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati. While I was there, a van turned up and a couple of men started unloading asbestos sheets to be used for roofing.... Asbestos! Rama Hansraj from Catholic Relief Services told me that people were aware of the health hazards of asbestos. Apparently, it is slowly being phased out in India. But after this, I started seeing it all over the place. Adverts for asbestos down a high street in Hyderabad, for example!

Anyhow, on a more optimistic note, I can tell you that I was told by community workers that Christian and Hindu children are playing with each other once again in some Kandhamal villages.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Hyderabad, India, September 2009

A snapshot of Hyderabad, India, September 2009:

A woman walks across the road in Hyderabad.

A young man selling vegetables.

The pavement is so busy, it is actually easier to walk on the road!

Shoppers in Hyderabad.

Taking it easy!

Shop window.
Roof top view of the city.
An English Methodist Church in Hyderabad.
Manequins in a shop window modelling long kurtas.

A very blurry picture of women celebrating the festival of Durga, the Hindu Goddess of power. You can't really see in this picture, but they were letting floating candles drift out on to the lake.


Outside the Vivekananda Institute of Human Excellence. I can tell you what I was briefly told about Swami Vivekananda. Swami Vivekananda was a liberal Hindu who revived Hinduism at the end of the 19th century in a way that appealed to the secular mind and to Hindus who felt oppressed by the caste system. He was also a strong advocate of interfaith relations, believing that one faith alone could not lead to the truth. However, his spirtual philosophy was intellectual and so it did not catch on in the mainstream. I bought a couple of his quote books for a few rupees at a store outside the Institute.

Religious leaders from different faiths talk about overcoming violence and making peace in the world at the Vivekananda Institute in Hyderabad.

The guy in the orange is Swami Srikanthananda. He expressed some wonderful ideas: "Religion is realisation, it is experience, it is not only theory." He also repeated a Vivekananda quote: "Religion is the manifestation of the Divinity already in man." And some other powerful stuff: "When we try to limit God, we become enemies."

Another one of Swami Srikanthananda's beliefs which resonated with me was this: "It is a sin to say we are all sinners. We are all divine souls." It made me think about Christianity, which has strong ideas about sin. I think one of the helpful things about Christians recognising "sin" (or "wrong doing", as I prefer to say) is that it allows injustice to be recognsied and acted upon. I believe passionately that social justice falls within the ambit of religion and many denominations of Christianity advocate this too (Methodism, for example). Something that can happen within Christianity is the glorification of suffering. I, along with others, had to bite my tongue as I listened to a sermon by a preacher doing just that to Christian Pano Dalits and Kandho tribals in Kandhamal, all of whom had lost their homes and many of whom had lost loved-ones following persecution by Hindu fundamentalists in August last year. Hearing that St Paul became a Saint after his head was chopped off just made me feel exasperated. However, many Christians will tell you that Christianity is not about the glorification of suffering.

I also listened to a stirring speech on peace by a Brahma Kumaris follower called Sister Kanti. She said: " All that I create carries some energy, so if I create a peaceful thought, then I create peaceful energy." The idea is that peace starts with a peaceful thought. So simple and so true. She recommended meditating on peace for 15 minutes every morning. The meditation would go like this: "I am a peaceful soul, happiness is within me, I do not search for anything outside myself."

Sister Kanti also said that long, long ago, there was a world that was 100 per cent peaceful and that we have "come down" from this time and now hope to return there. If this is "devolution", then I am prepared to consider it...

...I asked Swami Srikanthanandra when he believed the time would come to go back to this world of 100 per cent peace. He said that that place was within me, as it was within everyone.

Agra, India, September 2009.

A snapshot of Agra, India, September 2009:

A man with a monkey on a lead on the road to Agra from Delhi. Women preparing and selling vegetables in Agra.

Taj Mahal, Agra. I was surprised that most of the visitors were actually large groups of Indian boys armed with cameras who never tired of asking for a photograph... and another one... and just one more....... The fountains of the Taj Mahal.

We had to walk barefoot around the Taj. High on the heat from the sun and the burning from the marble underfoot, I saw the incarnation of love above the tomb... I traced my hand along the white marble wall and not a trace of dust came off on my palm.

Agra town shop.
Street sellers on the road leading up to the Taj Mahal. If you want to experience the hard sell, this is the place to go!

Delhi, India, September 2009

A snapshot of Delhi, September 2009:

Children play on the street in Delhi.A colourful street store.Street market, Delhi.

Every van was colourful.A cobra with a snake charmer.

A typical auto rickshaw.

Delhi is hosting the Common Wealth Games next year.

A dusty highway in Delhi.

Islamic Centre in Delhi.

"The Price of Freedom is Responsibility" - Discuss!

Social activists from high-profile NGOs in Delhi talk about the situation for women in India.

India - Orissa One Year On

I have just come back from India where I have been reporting on the continuing existence of the caste system (which is legally abolished but still practised) and the situation for people in Orissa whose lives were turned upside down when fundamentalists went on a murderous rampage in August last year. I will post a link to the reports once they are published. For now, here are a few of my photos from Orissa.
The woman wearing glasses and a creamy coloured kurta is Rama Hansraj, a relief worker working with Dalits (the Untouchable, discriminated outcast in India) and Adivasis (tribal people considered even lower on the pecking order than Dalits, according to the caste system). She is standing with displaced villagers from the Kando tribe and Pano Dalits in Kandhamal, Orissa. In the background are the first signs of the infrastructure for a new village, which has recently been legally demarcated. Rama (a Dalit herself) is working for a Catholic relief fund - not because she is a Catholic, but because this is the best way she can help her people. She is truely amazing.

The Kandho and Pano people of Kandhamal, Orissa, perform a traditonal honary welcome with singing and dancing. A man welcomes us at one of the handful of remaining relief camps in Kandhamal, Orissa. All the government-run camps have closed (there were around 17 camps in Kandhamal this time last year). I heard horror stories about the squalor in the State-provided camps. Many people were forced to flee, not only their burning homes, but also the camps. This camp was aided by the Church. A woman at the same relief camp as above.

Kandho and Pano displaced villagers tell of what happened to them at the end of August last year. Many lost loved-ones and 5,000 homes across Orissa were burned. The violence was started after a hard-line, anti-Christian Hindu leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati , was murdered by Maoists, some of them Christian. Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati was the leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad party. Hindu fundamentalists reacted by persecuating Christians.

Children at the Happy Valley Children's Home in Kandhamal, Orissa. Happy Valley Children's Home helped with the relief effort in the area, providing food and clothes to refugees and finding them shelter. A Hindu girl - probably on her way to dance at a wedding - spotted on the road to Berhampur, Orissa. On the back of the auto rickshaw that the beautifully painted Hindu girl was travelling in, a boy clings on for a ride.Traffic on the road from Bhubaneswar to Berhampur, Orissa.

Crab and prawn fishing are an important export from Chilika Lake, the largest lake in Orissa.
The green and hilly landscape of Orissa, a north eastern state of India (there are 28 states in India).

Thursday, 17 September 2009

The Atheist's Guide to Christmas

My colleague, Anna Drew, received a gift copy of comedian and Guardian newspaper columnist Ariane Sherine’s book “The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas” today. This is because Anna and Ariane went for coffee months ago to chat about the Atheist Bus Campaign: (Scroll down to January 6, 2009, to listen to Anna and Ariane.)

(Ariane thanked Anna for being so lovely about the campaign in a message accompanying the book.) Judging from Ariane’s Twitter feed today, lots of others have received her book too (well, the book she has edited).

I have just read the “Welcome to this book” page which includes a classic joke about agnostics: “(In this book there are) an undecided number of jokes about agnostics (we wanted to write some, but we weren’t sure, and then we thought we might, but we weren’t certain.* For the purpose of this Christmas book, they should henceforth be known as ‘eggnostics’.)”

In The God Delusion, Professor Richard Dawkins actually reserves his greatest contempt for agnostics.

Nevermind the atheists - if there is any group that is not piping up and organising itself, it is the agnostics. Someone really should put the backbone back into agnosticism. I am just too busy at the moment.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

The September Issue

If Grace Coddington were the editor of American Vogue (as well as being its creative director) it would be a more interesting and beautiful magazine.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Tori Amos - Sinful Attraction Tour

I’m expecting nothing short of a religious experience at tonight’s Tori Amos gig at Hammersmith Apollo. No, really, I am just expecting something spiritual. Actually, what I am honestly expecting is a cross between enlightenment and a refreshed perspective on sexual politics. In fact, all I am really hoping for is a good time.


Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Elsa Schiaparelli

What a cruel picture of Elsa Schiaparelli wearing a lopsided witch’s hat above copy describing her feud with Coco Chanel in today’s Telegraph:

If they were kinder, they would have used this one:

Wonderful. Let’s have a white, silk turban revival.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Corporate Commitments to Carbon Cuts

Yesterday I was William Donaldson ( and I managed to get The Guardian to publish one of my Henry Root letters, which appears in the paper today :)

Seriously though, here is a letter in The Guardian today by Revd Dr Martyn Atkins: (It is the third letter you come across scrolling down the page.)

While I remember The Henry Root Letters, one of the features I recall about Diplo Magazine (which went bust because the bright young things never did anything about advertising) was its commitment to republishing them.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Damien Hirst and Cartrain

I have a piece of advice for the 17-year-old graffiti artist, Cartrain, who crossed boundaries to take on Damien Hirst.

(Here is the story in today's Independent:

In a game of David and Goliath, Goliath always wins.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Graffiti Art

Art critic Brian Sewell has made my blood boil, which he might think is a compliment, but it really isn’t meant to be.

Here he is in The Guardian today proclaiming his superiority over everyone else’s idiocy: “The two words ‘graffiti’ and ‘art’ should never be put together,” he scoffs. “The public doesn’t know good from bad. For this city (Bristol) to be guided by the opinion of people who don’t know anything about art is lunacy. It doesn’t matter if they (the public) like it. It will result in the proliferation of entirely random decoration, for want of a better word... Any fool who can put paint on sculpture or turn a cardboard box into a sculpture is lauded. Banksy should have been put down at birth. It’s no good as art, drawing or painting. His work has no virtue. It’s merely the sheer scale of his impudence that has given him so much publicity.”

First of all, not all modern art is lauded. Secondly, spray can art is entirely different to conceptual “art”. Real graffiti art, as opposed to gangs who go round plastering their tags all over estates, is highly skilled. It involves vision, perspective, proportion and a good hand. There is bad graffiti art and good graffiti art. Sewell doesn’t like it because of its cultural associations.

Banksy is good art that Sewell doesn’t like. End of story.

Friday, 21 August 2009

News Talk

A shot in the dark - for anyone interested:

I am going to be on Premier Radio's News Talk tomorrow talking about this week's news stories with Audrey Skervin (MRDF), Paul Nicolson (Z2K) and Premier presenter Victoria Laurence at 11.30am.

In London digitally on DAB radio, or 1305, 1332, 1413 MW. In the UK on Sky Digital 0123, Freeview 725.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The Dawkins Delusion

If you are looking for evidence of the existence of God, you won’t find it in Doctor Alister McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion. You will need to look elsewhere for that. In fact, you would probably spend more time contemplating “the mind of God”, as Professor Stephen Hawking puts it, in A Brief History of Time.

The Dawkins Delusion… (I believe a question mark follows after “Delusion”, but because of the lopsided way it is plastered on the front cover, I am going to treat it as artistic licence. If McGrath intended "The Dawkins Delusion" to be a serious question, he would have put a question mark at the end of the word "Delusion" to avoid ambiguity, so I am going to leave it out in this post)…

…I’ll start again…

The Dawkins Delusion is an intellectual point scoring match played against The God Delusion. McGrath gives himself 65 pages to battle it out against The God Delusion’s 420 pages, and he isn’t going to waste an opportunity to imply that this leaves him with a disadvantage.

“Yet the fact that Dawkins has penned a 400-page book declaring that God is a delusion is itself highly significant,” McGrath writes on the first page of his introduction. “Why is such a book still necessary?” he screams in italics (pg vii). “Every one of Dawkins’ misrepresentations and overstatements can be challenged and corrected. Yet a book that merely offered such a litany of corrections would be catatonically boring,” he adds by way of a get out clause (pg xii). One of the first things Professor Steve Jones said at the mention of Richard Dawkins during the Theos “Did Darwin Kill God?” debate at Westminster Abbey in May was that Dawkins had sold over 1.5 million copies of The God Delusion. Jones admitted, humorously, a twinge of envy in the same breath as acknowledging Dawkins’ achievement. McGrath will do neither.

Instead, McGrath ends the introduction to his book by telling his readers why he thinks they have got round to reading it:

“This book, I suspect, will be read mainly by Christians who want to know what to say to their friends who have read The God Delusion, and are wondering if believers really are as perverted, degenerate and unthinking as the book makes them out to be.” (pg xiii)

If there was ever a sentence McGrath must regret having ever written, it is that one. WHY does he think that Christians will not read The God Delusion?! Does he think they are too lily-livered to make it through the 400 pages? Or does he think the majority of Christians do not have the intelligence to understand Dawkins’ arguments? I would like to ask him. As it is, McGrath begins his 65 pages by insulting the intelligence of his readers; a condescension that is difficult to shake off for the rest of his argument.

But that is not to say that McGrath doesn’t score any points. He does. This one is a classic example:

“I would place Dawkins (and Dennett) in the broad tradition of naturalist explanation of religion which includes Feuerbach, Marx and Freud. Whatever the benefits of religions might be, these writers believe that they arise entirely inside human minds. No spiritual realities exist outside us. Natural explanations may be given of the origins of belief in God. In the end, this is a circular argument, which presupposes its conclusions. It begins from the assumption that there is no God, and then proceeds to show that an explanation of God can be offered which is entirely consistent with this. In fact, it is basically an atheist reworking of Thomas Aquinas’ ‘Five Ways’, arguing that a consistent account of things may be offered without being obliged to propose the existence of God.” (pg 31)

Very good. A nice return, especially as McGrath takes on the mince meat that Dawkins makes of Thomas Aquinas’ ‘Five Ways’:

“For example, Dawkins takes issue with the approaches developed by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, traditionally known as the ‘Five Ways’. The general consensus among philosophers of religion is that, while such arguments cast interesting light on the questions, they settle nothing. Although traditionally referred to as ‘arguments for God’s existence’, this is not an accurate description. All they do is show the inner consistency of belief in God – in much the same way the classic arguments for atheism (such as Ludwig Feuerbach’s famous idea of the ‘projection’ of God: see pp.28-9) demonstrate its inner consistency, but not its evidential foundations.” (pg 7)

I would have liked to have read McGrath exploring the idea of the ‘projection’ of God much more than he does. At best, he offers an ontological response to the idea:

“There is no God.
But lots of people believe in God. Why?
Because they want consolation.
So they project or objectify their longings, and call this ‘God’.
So this non-existent ‘God’ is simply the projection of human longings.

It’s a fascinating argument, and has had a deep impact on western culture. It has problems, however. For a start, wanting something is no demonstration that it does not exist. Human thirst points to the need for water.” (pg 28)

Not so good. A poor return. The ontological argument really is pure armchair ratiocination, as Dawkins terms it, and it is a wonder that Camp Quest uses it to disprove God’s existence in the staple “Unicorn Game”( It’s fun, but that’s all.

A friend of mine recently tried to rib me by saying that I deify Dawkins. Me? Deify Dawkins?! I believe the misunderstanding occurred because I said that Dawkins had successfully challenged the existence of God. But “challenged” is not the same as “disproven”.

The last argument against the existence of God which I read (not from Dawkins) before writing this sentence was that "God cannot exist because He is a contradiction in terms". Right. And the only way to get out of double-think is to double-unthink it.

Note: page references to The Dawkins Delusion are from the 2007 paperback version.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Richard Dawkins "To Become A Christian"

I have just been sent an email promoting this book by Craig Borlase:


RICHARD DAWKINS to become a Christian
According to Craig Borlase, author of a new history of the Christian Church,
Richard Dawkins will join an Orthodox Christian Church, the Anglican
Communion will split, under the leadership of Abp Rowan Williams, over the
homosexuality issue and a new mutant strain of bird flu will kill 11million people
In 2159 AD, a serious study of church history told in an accessible and
lighthearted style, Borlase projects 150 years into the future – by imagining
himself as a writer in 2159AD – to see a hopeful vision of christianity
rediscovering its core values in the damaged and secular world of the future.
I just skimmed through your manuscript during a vacation at the Mars
Colony, and it really does look good!
Brian Maclaren, 2049
Our past, present and future – all Christians should read this book.
Martin Smith, Delirious?
2159AD lays a challenge at our door … the way we live out our faith now is
creating a spiritual legacy for future generations.
From the Foreword by Maggi Dawn.


This is one of the reasons I have never ever had my future told by a mystic. Why does the conversion of Professor Richard Dawkins matter so much to certain people? Would they sleep better at night knowing that a scientist, who has successfully challenged the existence of God, had turned around at the 11th hour and said – “But don’t worry, it was all a load of nonsense. You’re right.”

It’s not a tit for tat game.

There will be a forthcoming post on this blog on Dr Alister McGrath’s book The Dawkins Delusion. I wouldn’t put McGrath in the same category as Borlase, but some of his arguments did make me cringe.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Wasp Invasion Hits Britain

Zoe Bunter, development manager at insect conservation charity Buglife, sounds a bit like my landlord in today’s Telegraph.

"We have heard reports of lots of wasps about at the moment," Zoe is quoted as saying.
"We have had some rain but it has remained consistently mild throughout the spring and summer so wasps nests have done well.
"Although people see them as a nuisance, the wasps have been working away for months and months eating our garden pests, such as caterpillars and aphids so they do a fantastic job for us."

I tell you - as soon as it starts to get a bit colder, the party will be over for the wasps on the roof of our porch.

Thursday, 6 August 2009


If you are trawling through today’s papers looking for something to warm the soul, check out The Daily Telegraph’s special feature on page 18.

Telegraph photographer Paul Grover has taken a shot of children playing on a street in Salford, Manchester. It helps that the shot has been blown up to fill a double page spread of the last remaining broadsheet, drowning The Guardian’s centre page photo by comparison. But if you look at the picture online (you can see it here: you won’t get the same vivid effect that reaches out beyond the medium. For the discerning eye, this is another reason why we shouldn’t see all our media swallowed up by the web.

Paul writes: “That warren of solid, drab Victoriana is slowly disappearing, as in many other cities, thanks to architectural remodelling and modernisation projects.”

Except the way he has captured Salford in this picture, it looks anything but drab.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Older Women

An article by Hilary Mantel in The Guardian's G2 today demands to know why people aren't noticing older women. "Why have women over 50 become invisible?" storms the headline, "When I was a child they ran the world".

(Here is the article:

Since when did women over 50 become invisible?! That's news to me.

Friday, 31 July 2009

Some depressing news from the U.S...

A couple of weeks ago The Washington Post ran a leader that was critical of the Methodist Church in Britain’s Conference resolution to ban BNP members from becoming members of the Church.

“If the Church is going to make gospel standards a requirement for membership, the BNP soon will be larger than the Church,” the article concluded cynically.

(Here it is in full:

Today I came across a story online featured in the American publication, Christianity Today, bearing the news that United Methodists have defeated amendments which would have made Church membership open to all Christians regardless of sexual orientation.

So, should the observation be: “If the Church is going to make gospel standards a requirement for membership, homosexuality soon will be larger than the Church”?

I don’t think so.

Daniel Burke, the Christianity Today reporter, goes on:
“Delegates at the United Methodist Church's General Conference last year approved the sexual orientation amendment…The amendment followed a controversial case in 2005 in which a Virginia clergyman denied membership to a gay man who would not agree to change his sexuality. The UMC's high court later backed the pastor's decision.”

Asking someone to change their sexuality is the same as asking someone to change their sex or the colour of their skin.

Daniel quotes Mark Tooley whom he calls “a Methodist and president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy” (

“'It is only thanks to the African and other international delegates that United Methodism has upheld biblical standards about homosexuality,' Mark Tooley, a Methodist and president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, warned in April.
"'Liberals increasingly resent the growing African influence in our church and know they cannot win when the African churches are growing and the U.S. church declines, unless they can at least partially separate the U.S. church from the African churches,' he wrote in lobbying against the amendments.”

I should point out that Mark is a United Methodist – which is a different Church to the Methodist Church – in case there was any confusion. That said, I feel for the United Methodists fighting against this mentality.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Fourth Plinth - One and Other

The deep theological question about whether Holy Communion is art was posed in Trafalgar Square this morning when a Methodist minister from Somerset stood on the Fourth Plinth and led a worship celebration of Communion. Ken Chalmers from Castle Cary was one of 2,400 people appearing on the Fourth Plinth between 6 July and 14 October 2009, picked from more than 28,000 applicants for sculptor Antony Gormley’s One and Other project.

It is an art project and the participants are known as the plinthers. So, is Holy Communion art and did Ken’s appearance on the Plinth answer the question? Ken told me he hadn’t:

“No, and I don’t think that can ever be answered,” he said. “I don’t think we ever wanted to show Holy Communion as art. Antony Gormley said that one of his aims was to explore the connection between people and, for me, worship is a connection. So, that is what we were using – the opportunity to connect with each other, with the wider community through our prayers and with God. Is Communion art? No. Is it right to do it in this way? I don’t know, but I feel deeply that it should be.”

Here is Ken on the plinth:

The great thing about the Methodist tradition is that you don’t have to be christened, baptised or confirmed to receive Communion, as you do in some other Christian denominations. This means people like me can receive it with no questions asked and no more commitment made other than commitment to the moment of sharing Communion. You don’t have to give your name or be declared “special”; everyone is equal in receiving Communion.

Here is glimpse of the crowd of onlookers:

Here they are again, lost in reflection:

And another kind of contemplation (spotted by photographer Anna Drew taking pics on behalf of Copyright Trustees for Methodist Church Purposes!):

Check out One and Other website here:

Monday, 27 July 2009

Swimming Championships in Rome

Yes! Well done to Brits Jo Jackson and Rebecca Adlington for taking the silver and bronze at the Swimming Championships in Rome yesterday. And Rebecca did it in a Speedo LZR (50 per cent polyurethane) while everyone around her went for the 100 per cent polyurethane suits (Jo in Adidas and Italian Federica Pellegrini, who took the gold, in Jaked). The swimming governing body, FINA, announced last week that the suits will be banned from January.

Here is what Rebecca had to say about the suits (I have taken this from The Guardian, but she is quoted in all over the place saying the same thing):

“Maybe I could have gone a little bit faster but I wanted to be able to compare my times last year, and I want to be able to come next year and know that I can hopefully go just as quick, so that’s why I chose to wear this. At the end of the day a suit is not going to swim by itself, it’s the person that is in the suit that’s got to do the work.”

What can you say? Rebecca is a true sporting heroine. Everyone from the Daily Mail to The Guardian loves her. It's a shame to hear the BBC reporting tonight that swimming in Britain is on the decrease. Well, build some more decent pools!

Meanwhile - great news that the Stratford Olympics Stadium is ahead of schedule. London Mayor Boris Johnson was all excited about it on Twitter today – and at the launch of the new high speed train traveling from Kings Cross to Stratford in under seven minutes. That’s great! Now, I wonder if the last Tube out of central London on Friday and Saturday nights could leave at 1am…

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Cigarettes and Honey

Spotted: Billboards on the London Underground advertising the release of Coco Avant Chanel have actress Audrey Tautou holding a fountain pen in her right hand and resting a journal on her knees. In the original poster she is holding a cigarette in her right hand and there is no diary to be seen. Stunning that a cigarette held by an actress in a film commercial didn’t make it past The Tube’s advertising regulations, but blown-up nightmarish pictures of preserved dead bodies advertising Gunter von Hagens’ Body Worlds at the O2 were plastered all over the place.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Ecumenical Vision: Catholicism

Catholicism has been given a bit of a rough ride in this blog, so I thought I would give it a break today.

It goes without saying that I am critical of the Catholic Church and that a certain amount of suspending disbelief is just about to occur between the lines, but - that said - there are things I like about the Catholic Church.

One of them is the theatrical display of High Church. Having attended a modest and modern Methodist Church as a youth, I was awestruck the first time I witnessed a High Church service with incense, elaborate robes and long liturgies. Catholic Churches tend to be amazing displays of artwork, so intricate and breathtaking, that they inspire expansive sagas from atheists like Ken Follett. Some of the stories of the saints, whatever you may think about them, can also be seen as exemplifying the yearning of the human soul. Bernini’s Saint Teresa d’Avila in Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome is a cliché, Damien Hirst’s Exquisite Pain sculpture of Saint Bartholomew hasn’t been around long enough yet to become one.

Another thing is the obvious presence of a female figure in the Church. When I was still young enough to delude myself, I thought the exaltation of Mary in the form of chapels within Catholic Churches answered a spiritual need. Protestant Churches don’t tend to dwell on the notion of an impossible earthly figure – a virgin mother – but I never knew anyone who talked about the idea of God being female and, even when I did, it wasn’t clear how that was being imagined. The rosary also makes for the odd line of poetry, i.e. “blessed is the fruit of thy womb”. I will always remember seeing a cut-out picture of Mary stuck in the corner of a bedroom in a beloved friend’s home. She was an atheist and was quite vague about why it was even on her wall... I think she liked its mystical suggestions.

A friend who was brought up a Catholic told me that, while she rejected Catholicism, it did have some good qualities. She argued that confession was cathartic and that guilt could be a good thing. I think that depends on what you do with your guilt. Some personalities may internalise it, some may project it while others may externalise it on to a cast-out object relation (a father figure, for example). I was once made to feel very guilty by a nun who knew I wasn’t a Catholic and saw me receive Holy Communion in a Catholic Church (when I should have folded my arms across my chest instead of accepting the Eucharist). But this same nun also showed me around her convent (I was curious) and told me to “take my time” choosing a book from the library while she sat and waited. (I eventually picked a book called A Theology of Liberation because I liked the title, but I never went on to read it. I don’t think she ever read it either.)

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Coco (Avant) Chanel

Bow down and worship...

Except I don't like the pearls.

And Coco Mademoiselle stinks.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Sexually Progressive Words from a Methodist

Great speeches from the new President and Vice-President of the Methodist Conference at Wolverhampton's Civic Hall today.

Here is a taste from Dr Richard Vautrey, newly elected Vice President:

"Let’s just for a moment focus on sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Sex sells; it also has a habit of waking up a hot congregation. Any mention of sex triggers a Pavlovian response in the media and the related story is sure to get coverage. Mix sex and the church and you’ll hit the headlines.

"Now I don’t know what the after service conversation is like in your church, but talk about sex over the coffee and biscuits after the service is not commonly heard in the churches I’ve attended. Maybe I am going to the wrong churches. And yet according to the media, all churches are obsessed and divided by it. Now clearly we must challenge those that use sex in an exploitative way, in a degrading or dehumanising way. The excellent work done by Network highlighting the appalling situation of sex trafficking is exactly what we should be doing.

"However the Church is stereotyped as being riddled with homophobia. We’re also seen as hostile to sex, yet this is something that is one of the most natural and beautiful of God’s gifts. An image is created of the Church being almost less Christian and charitable than our largely secular society. Where society has made great strides to challenge discrimination and encourage equality and diversity, the Church is stereotyped as being bigoted, backward and blatantly obstructive to change. Yes these issues are important, yes they need to be sensitively and carefully handled, and yes, were the stereotype has evidence of some foundation it should be challenged, but my experience is that when Christians meet and get to know their neighbour, they reach out in love towards them. Their sexuality counts for little. Love breaks down the barriers that may have been there in theory but in the reality of a real relationship they melt away.

"So much for sex, let’s turn to drugs..."(it continues here:

Friday, 3 July 2009

New Delhi Court Decriminalizes Gay Sex

A New Delhi court has ruled that consensual gay sex is not a crime, The Times reports today. The Delhi High Court ruled that applying the 1860 colonial law, which ranked homosexual intercourse alongside bestiality and paedophilia as “sex against nature” and punishable by 10 years in prison, violated the constitution and international human rights conventions.

One small step for the 21st century and a giant leap for humanity:

There was a stirring article by Johan Hari in The Independent yesterday on the history of gay rights in this country ahead of London’s Gay Pride tomorrow:

If only the Church would wake up to the 21st century and sanctify civil partnerships. There is a lot of progressive talk at grass roots levels (in the more sophisticated circles of the Christian world, ie:, but at the decision-making levels there is still much coughing and buck passing. I am not up to speed with what is happening among other faith groups, but I imagine it is very similar. Meanwhile, humanism continues to live up to its name. Long may humanists continue to spread enlightenment.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Powerful Women of Fashion

There has been quite a lot in the press lately about the Devil Wears Prada icon that is Anna Wintour, editor of American Vogue and hailed as the most powerful woman in fashion. Times 2 today sings her accolades – “Nuclear Winter”, “Darth Vader in a frock” – and quotes Barbara Amiel: “Anna happens to be a friend of mine, a fact which is of absolutely no help in coping with the cold panic that grips me whenever we meet.”

One of Anna’s recent revelations is that she wears shades indoors so that she can “sit in a show and if I am bored out of my mind, nobody will notice. At this point, they have become, really, armour.”

I wonder if Anna knows that she actually has a lot in common with the now-forgotten American radical feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson who also wore shades indoors as armour, who was passive-aggressive in the extreme and exhibited the same kind of high maintenance aura she does. (Using the past tense may suggest Ti-Grace is dead. She isn’t.) Maybe the two should meet.

Anyhow, I would much rather talk to Miuccia Prada than Anna Wintour any day of the week.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Camp Quest UK Launch

A very funny comment piece in today's Telegraph by Michael Deacon who is rationally sceptic about the Professor Richard Dawkins-supported launch of Camp Quest UK:

Here is a taste:

“At Camp Quest UK, children aged eight to 17 will be given lessons in evolution and rational scepticism.
“Now, I have no quarrel with Camp Quest's objectives. I am an atheist. And of course children should be taught to think scientifically. No, my worry is simply that the camp's teachings will be too effective. For if there's one thing to make my blood freeze, it's the thought of my child mutating into some kind of pedantic, humourless, eight-year-old mini-Dawkins.
"Imagine trying to celebrate the little beast's birthday: ‘Many happy returns, Darling. Now blow out the candles and make a wish.’
‘Certainly not, Father. This is a futile custom. There is no evidence to support the notion that blowing out the candles on a Marks & Spencer Victoria sponge increases the likelihood of one's desires becoming reality.’
‘Right. I see. Sorry. Well, luckily, we've bought some nice gifts for you.’
‘On the contrary, Father, luck did not influence your purchases. Indeed, there is no such thing. To believe otherwise is flabby thinking.’
‘Oh, God.’
‘Please don't say that, Father. You know perfectly well that the deity whose name you invoke does not exist.’
‘That Camp Quest thing really had an effect on you, hasn't it. I suppose you'll be wanting to go on the course they're organising for Easter…’
‘Most assuredly not. Easter is a spurious festival based on the fallacy that a man came back from the dead, which double-blind experiments have proved impossible. In consequence, I refuse to recognise Easter and shall spend the holiday period at school, whether or not my teachers are in attendance.’"

And here is the whole article:

I have just checked out the Camp Quest UK website and watched a You Tube piece to camera by Religion and Contemporary Society Kings College Masters student and Camp Quest UK Director, Samantha Stein.

One of the highlights for the camp-goers is the “invisible unicorns challenge” which, Samantha says, is “a staple at any Camp Quest across the world”. The kids get introduced to the two invisible unicorns that they can’t see or smell or touch and they have to prove to the camp counselors that they don’t exist. “To be honest, I am not sure how they will manage that because we have faith that these exist, but err, there we go,” says Samantha (in the most see-through bluff ever).

If I was a kid and Samantha delivered the rules of the game to me in the same way she does in the You Tube clip, I wouldn’t want to play – the camp counselors are going to have to put a little bit more heart and soul into it then that. But - get this - the prize is (Samantha says, fluttering her eyelashes), “a £10 Darwin note signed by Richard Dawkins himself, so I am sure that will give the kids some incentive to participate in this activity.” What?! Not the activity itself?! I think the prize should be a unicorn – two of them. Those poor kids.

Seriously, watch the clip yourself:

Monday, 29 June 2009

Women "Happiest at 28"

Women are happiest at 28, a study has claimed. "Everything in life hits its peak at some point, and nearly reaching your thirties isn't so bad now,” a Clairol Perfect 10 spokesman is reported as saying in the Telegraph:

The thing is - how can I know for sure?... I guess if the past 96 hours are anything to go by, then - on a superficial level at least - it can’t be so bad!

Friday, 26 June 2009

The Dawkins Argument

I have been asked to clarify why Professor Richard Dawkins’ views on sexual abuse in The God Delusion are particularly infuriating, so I will:

Presumably in an attempt to argue that mental abuse can be more devastating than physical abuse, Dawkins tries to compare the psychological fallout upon victims of both. He uses testimonies from people with lifelong mental scars following a childhood spent within the confines of a religious order where teachers would torment children with vivid descriptions of hell fires. He also quotes a woman who was sexually assaulted by a priest, but who said the experience paled against the psychological abuse of hell and damnation administered by the nuns. Dawkins then draws on his own childhood, adding, in the space of a sentence, that he too had an experience with a teacher when he was a schoolboy, but it didn’t do him any harm.

I think Dawkins was fortunate that he didn’t suffer long term. I know of people who have had years taken out of their lives because of the long-term effects of sexual abuse. I struggle to understand how Dawkins cannot be aware of people who do suffer for years, decades or even lifetimes, and I think pitting paedophilia against religious psychological abuse where the latter is argued as the winner in terms of lasting devastation is a very poorly chosen method of illustrating the point he was trying to make.

It reminds me of Martin Sherman’s play Bent, which Daniel Kramer produced at Trafalgar Studios in the West End in 2006 starring the fantastic Alan Cumming. The play was about the inhumane brutality inflicted upon homosexuals at the hands of the Nazis. Sherman would have driven his point home more effectively if he hadn’t decided to suggest that the torture suffered by gay men was worse than that of any other prisoner in the Nazi concentration camp. In a review I wrote of the play at the time I asked (rhetorically) how it was possible to measure differing levels of suffering among men, women and children in a Nazi concentration camp.

I have since read a chapter in a book called The Academic Face of Psychoanalysis in which the incredibly thorough Dr Louise Braddock informs readers that determining levels of psychological suffering is something one learns to perceive through training, but I digress.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Geek Alert

The British Library has published an online archive of 49 British national and regional titles from the 19th and early 20th century.

The Guardian reports today that events such as the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815, the bank crisis of 1878 and the first FA cup final in 1872 can be rediscovered among more than two million pages which went online today:

At the bottom of the article (, journalist Maev Kennedy, carried away by the good news, chirps: “Searches are free, but users can pay to download information.”

Shouldn’t that be, “Searches are free, but users must pay to download information”?

Anyone wishing to avoid paying can just pop up (or down) to the British Library Newspapers Reading Room in Colindale and read it all for free on micofiche. And microfiche is more fun.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Hampstead Ladies Pond

When I was leaving Hampstead Heath Ladies Pond this weekend, I saw this gorgeous, tanned and toned guy in his late 20s/early 30s stripped to his shorts with a towel slung over his right shoulder starring devastatingly at the bathing times’ board by the entrance to the pond, which also carries the words NO MEN BEYOND THIS POINT.

Standing next to him was an elegant, sun-kissed and agile-looking woman in her late 50s/early 60s with a sports bag. The guy was looking at the board with such concentration it was as if he was in the middle of translating the English into Greek. The woman was dividing her attention between looking at the young man, looking at the board and looking at anyone looking at them. My smile broadened. I almost said to her: “Why don’t you go in? I am sure no one would mind...” but I was too busy giggling.

When I shot a glance over my shoulder after I had walked past them, they were STILL standing there.

Monday, 15 June 2009

House of Commons Speaker Hustings

On the strength of the six House of Commons speaker candidates who took part in the Newsnight hustings tonight, good luck to Sir Alan Beith (Liberal Democrat), Parmjit Dhanda (Labour) and Ann Widdecombe (Conservative). As for the other three – Michael Lord (Deputy Speaker, Conservative), Richard Shepherd (Conservative) and Sir George Young (Conservative) – your time has been.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

The God Delusion

I want to start by saying I have not read Steve Grand’s Creation: Life and How to Make It from which Professor Richard Dawkins takes the paragraph I am about to share with you. I want to say that because I may be interpreting the paragraph, quoted in The God Delusion, in a way that I might not have if I had read the book. But given that I read this today, I wanted to share it now as it maybe of interest to anyone else thrilled by the possibilities of identity:

Steve Grand, Dawkins writes, invites readers to think:

“… of an experience from your childhood. Something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all, you were really there at the time, weren’t you? How else would you remember it? But here is the bombshell: you weren’t there. Not a single atom that is part of your body today was there when that event took place… Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. If that doesn’t make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does, because it is important.”*

*Here there is a footnote from Dawkins who adds: “Some might dispute the literal truth of Grand’s statement, for example in the case of bone molecules. But the spirit of it is surely valid. You are more like a wave than a static material ‘thing’.” (pg 416)

Isn’t that wonderful to think about?

The final section of the God Delusion, entitled Inspiration, reads almost like a poem to science and I am especially grateful to Dawkins’ for his perspective of quantum mechanics through his quoting on page 409 of Richard Feynman, “If you think you have understood quantum theory…you don’t understand quantum theory” and Niels Bohr, “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.” (I am remembering a particularly frustrating conversation I had with a physicist a while back.) Less helpful, however, is the absence of Feynman and Bohr from Dawkins’ “Books Cited or Recommended” reading list at the end of The God Delusion. That does seem a rather negligent oversight, given the scientific thesis. But he does cite David Deutsch’s The Fabric of Reality in the list, which embraces the ‘many worlds’ theory of quantum mechanics.

Reading the God Delusion is a rich intellectual journey spanning a wave of emotions from amusement to rage. Particularly infuriating, for example, are his views on sexual abuse in chapter nine. Particularly funny, on the other hand, is his rebuttal of the ontological argument for God’s existence by imagining two kids arguing it out in the playground (pg 104). Illuminating was his inclusion (in a footnote, bizarrely) of A.N. Wilson’s claim in a biography of Jesus that the (particularly Catholic) understanding of Mary being a virgin came about via a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for young woman, “almah” into the Greek word for virgin, “parthenos”(pg 122). Baffling was his sci-fi digression at the end of chapter two (the tone here is earnest):

“Science-fiction authors, such as Daniel F. Galouye in Counterfeit World, have even suggested (and I cannot think how to disprove it) that we live in a computer simulation, set up by some vastly superior civilization. But the simulators themselves would have had to come from somewhere. The laws of probability forbid all notions of their spontaneously appearing without simpler antecedents. They probably owe their existence to a (perhaps unfamiliar) version of Darwinian evolution: some sort of cumulatively ratcheting ‘crane’ as opposed to ‘skyhook’, to use Daniel Dennett’s terminology.”
(pg 98)

But by the time we get to chapter four, the inverted commas around ‘crane’ have been dropped and there is no more mention of Daniel Dennett:

“I am not advocating some sort of narrowly scientistic way of thinking. But the very least that any honest quest for the truth must have in setting out to explain such monstrosities of impossibility as a rainforest, a coral reef, or a universe is a crane and not a skyhook. The crane doesn’t have to be natural selection. Admittedly, nobody has ever thought of a better one. But there could be others yet to be discovered. Maybe the ‘inflation’ that physicists postulate as occupying some fraction of the first yoctosecond of the universe’s existence will turn out, when it is better understood, to be a cosmological crane to stand alongside Darwin’s biological one.” (pg 185)

That, to me, is exciting, especially as love can act as a cosmic force. The idea of the multiverse and the anthropic principle excites as well.

I am also enlightened from having read sentences like these in The God Delusion:

“The late King of the Belgians is a candidate for sainthood, because of his stand on abortion. Earnest investigations are now going on to discover whether any miraculous cures can be attributed to prayers offered up to him since his death. I am not joking. That is the case, and it is typical of the saint stories. I imagine the whole business is an embarrassment to more sophisticated circles within the Church. Why any circles worthy of the name sophisticated remain in the Church is a mystery at least as deep as the ones theologians enjoy.” (pg 83/84)

And this:

“Time and time again my theologian friends returned to the point that there must be a reason why there is something rather than nothing. There must have been a first cause of everything, and we might as well give it the name God. Yes, I said, but it must have been simple and therefore, whatever else we call it, God is not an appropriate name (unless we very explicitly divest it of all the baggage that the word ‘God’ carries in the minds of most religious believers).” (pg 184/5)

I know people, theists and non-theists alike, who admit they haven't read The God Delusion because they fear they will not be able to stomach Dawkins' tone. Really, it is not so bad. I think he would only really upset a fundamentalist.

(Note: page references correspond to the 2007 paperback edition.)

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

The Big Bang

I have just watched the first part of a new three part documentary from a Christian perspective arguing that it is possible to believe in evolution and in God. Because of the bias of the documentary (no atheist or agnostic scientists were featured although they were frequently referred to), the makers had no success networking it in the UK (it may network in the US), but it will be available to purchase as a dvd from July 3 and will eventually be streamed online.

It is very beautifully edited by the Farady Institute (which received funding from the Templeton Foundation) with some wonderful visually poetic shots.

However, I was disheartened to hear Katherine Blundell, Professor of Physics at Oxford University, argue in the documentary that science is not able to go further than one second after the Big Bang. Science can't just give up like that! If it hadn't been for the work Stephen Hawking and his colleagues, science would not have known that it could go up to one second after. Don't give up!

Thursday, 4 June 2009

The Berlin Wall

A couple of weeks ago I uttered the phrase, “it would be like talking to a brick wall”. I meant it to mean exactly what the expression is commonly understood to mean – a communication that has broken down because one person or party has ceased to communicate while another person or party still has a message to convey. But not all walls are silent (stay with me here!)

The longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall – the East Side Gallery stretching 1.3 kilometres – is being given a fresh lick of paint. As part of a 2.5 million euro project funded by the Berlin Senate, the federal government and lottery money, the 118 artists who created murals along the wall following its collapse in November 1989 have been invited back. The old murals covered with graffiti (like the one taken on my mobile phone) are being stripped and then repainted.

The wall has a double-edged magnetism because some of the visitors who stop to admire the murals feel compelled to write on them too. No one stops them. I just hope, when the revamp in preparation for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is finished, that the authorities won’t think it necessary to put a barrier all along the wall to stop people getting close to it. That would be too terrible an irony.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

European Elections

The European elections are only a week away and, in case you haven’t heard yet, it’s really important that we vote. Nick Cohen is wrong when he argues that extremism isn’t on the rise in the UK; it is.

It is tempting to go for a knee-jerk reaction following the expenses’ gravy train and just stay at home, but the European elections are actually a chance influence the way Europe is heading economically, politically and socially. Vote!

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Swimming Backwards Underwater

I have mastered the art of swimming underwater backwards and thought I would pass on tips to anyone interested:

Take time to collect your breath and slow down your breathing, taking a couple of deep breaths before you take the final breath to last you the length underwater. The final deep breath will probably be an audible gasp; don’t be afraid to make it.

Give yourself a good momentum when you push off from the wall; you don’t have oxygen time to waste on gaining speed underwater.

Tip your head right back so that the top of your head is at a 180 degree angle from the surface of the water.

Use a backwards breaststroke motion.

Position yourself close to the surface of the water as it will give you more freedom to manoeuvre your head, should you need/want to. It also means that you will avoid banging your head on the bottom of the pool (I speak from trial and error experience).

Look where you are going (that is part of the fun anyway). Have someone swim a normal breaststroke in front of you if it helps.

Let out your breath very, very slowly at regular intervals from your nose, not your mouth. (I have been advised to try a nose peg, but haven't got around to trying this way yet.)

Set yourself a goal – 10 meters, 15 metres, 20 metres, 25 metres and beyond...

Friday, 22 May 2009

Bee Crisis and Vince Cable

Could it be that coverage of the bee crisis that has led to a surge in interest surrounding bees has paradoxically exacerbated the problem with an increase in beehive thefts?

An article in The Independent today:

There is only one MP I know of who has taken the bee crisis issue seriously and was among the first to raise the issue in Parliament. He is also one of the MPs who has emerged squeaky clean from the expenses fiasco – Vincent Cable.

2012 Olympics "On Track"

Did anybody else feel like jumping in a lake after reading yesterday’s papers?

Well, for anyone who hasn’t spotted it yet, I have found a snippet of good news in a small, right hand corner of The Guardian, not quite buried on page 15:

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Human Rights Victory For Soldiers

Well done to the three senior judges who overruled the Ministry of Defence’s claims that British soldiers can only be protected by the Human Rights Act within the confines of a military base.

The Guardian reported on this ruling today:


This means that it is now a legal human right for every soldier to be equipped with the highest standard of equipment. This will mean an awful lot to soldiers. When I sat down for a meal with soldiers on a training exercise in Macedonia in 2007 and asked them about their profession in general, this was one of the things that came up. The lack of adequate equipment affected the way they viewed themselves through the eyes of those telling them what they have to do – i.e. the Government.

In this case, the Human Rights Act is not being applied in the kind of naive way that Shadow Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, is suggesting, whereby every soldier is ensured the right to life on the battlefield; it is ensuring that soldiers’ lives are valued.

Monday, 18 May 2009

British Bees

Anyone who doubts natural selection should read the Daily Telegraph today – Native Bee May Take Sting Out of Britain’s Hive Crisis.

Ian Johnston reports that a Bibba study has confirmed British bees are better able to survive external threats because they have adapted to the climate. Beekeepers will know this any way. British bees are hardy, bullish types who are more likely to sting than sweeter natured New Zealand bees. And their nature is reflected in the taste of the honey they produce. But the native black honeybee with its thick hair and large body, which helps keep it warm, copes much better with the shorter breading season in Britain.

Not enough people know that bees play an important role in pollinating crops and are estimated to be worth up to £850 million to the British economy. So if there is a bee crisis, which there is, the Government should be listening up.

Just think about this – if we didn’t have bees, we wouldn’t have love.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

London 2012 Olympics

I am feeling very bold today and so I am going to come out and officially declare my support for the 2012 Olympics in Stratford. No more of this cynicism and indifference to it; I am glad we are hosting it. When journalist James Morrison asked a class of trainee NCTJ reporters at Brighton College in 2005 who was in favour of the fact that we were hosting it, I can only recall me and Daniel Murdoch putting up our hands. In another show of hands, a few declared themselves against it, but the large majority didn’t care.

So much of the British attitude towards the Olympics has been like a mirror image of that infamous Evening Standard billboard: “It’s getting worse.” When someone asked me why I spend 50 minutes travelling to a swimming pool all the way across town, I answered that it was because there wasn’t a decent pool in East London. “My God,” was the response. “And that’s where we are hosting the Olympics.” But it’s not just swimming. Commonwealth Games champion Dalton Grant (high jump) has told me on numerous occasions all the reasons why it is fantastic that this will be on our doorstep and why we had better get our act together and seize the opportunity.

The only time comedian Paul Merton ever went down in my estimation was when he made a dig at the Olympics being held in Statford on national TV. Something about East Londoners being able to use the stadium following the Games as a dumping ground for their settees. He delivered the joke in such a way that for a moment he reminded me of Ian Hislop. THAT was what was so worrying. And I have written so many East London fly-tipping stories in my time, that it was all a bit too much.

Besides, I have had the chance to watch the stadium grow from birth because I often make journeys which take me through Stratford Station. It actually gives us commuters something interesting to watch as Stratford used to be a boring station.

So, be prepared! There may be more blog posts in support of the Olympics to come.