Tag Archives: politics

dragon-catalonia

Here be Dragons – Meditation on Uncertainty

Yesterday, as we sailed into the uncharted waters of Trumpdom, an artist came into my Catalan class to give a presentation. It was a workshop in emotional intelligence, using the dragon as a symbol of fear, though it might easily have been a signifier for Trump himself.  The artist, who sported a blue beard (for what reason we never knew) led us in a game. We stood in a circle and threw a length of cord between us, stating each our name, where we come from and where we now live. It is an exercise I have led myself, during workshops in film-making. “Em dic Helen. Soc de Gales. Visc en Sant Pere de Ribes.” Simple stuff,  but looking around at my classmates, I see what a multicultural world I live in. People from from Gambia, China and Pakistan, from Morocco and Ecuador, Andalucia, and Portugal. All making an effort to get their tongue around the native language.  I also see how the Catalan people, at least, are embracing those of many different cultures. As Trump closes US borders to Mexicans and Muslims; as Britain winds up the drawbridge to their tiny island and hopes to weather the storm alone; as Australia turns back the boats bringing refugees from Sri Lanka and Indonesia, I look around at these different faces, with different dress codes and different accents and I feel a certain warmth. I, too, am an immigrant here. In a recent exercise discussing whether our eyes are fosc or clar, I was the only member of the group with blue eyes.

The artist talks about maps, and how cartographers used to label uncharted territories with a drac. A dragon. For some, he said, the symbol of a dragon would instill fear and be a sign never to go there. For others, it would be an invitation to explore. In our own uncharted territories, the  outer and inner worlds we inhabit and traverse, there are also times when we encounter fear. Our dragons breathe fire and make loud noises, as if to scare us from ever going to that place. The dragon is both guard and protector. It warns us that it might be painful to go there. That we might need to prepare ourselves for disappointment, failure, or loss. But does that mean that we should not go? Coming face to face with our dragons is what makes us heroes. It helps us develop courage and strength. When our eyes (and hearts) are opened to new experiences, new people, new worlds, new challenges, this is when we tend to grow.
Sant Jordi – Saint George – is an important figure in Catalan culture. He is the dragon-slayer that we know from English stories but he has a special purpose here. El Dia de Sant Jordi is celebrated with two special customs. Men present women with a rose and women make men the gift of a book, bringing together the heart and the head – the organs of feeling and of reason. We can take this symbology as an object of meditation as we travel into unfamiliar waters. Whilst it would be foolish to completely ignore the warnings pointed out to us by the mind, it is unlikely that we will survive, let alone thrive, without the unique tool provided for us by the heart. If the times ahead are to be challenging, let us rely on the intelligence of the mind and the care of the heart, for one without the other will fall short, delivering us headlong into the teeth of the threefold ‘dragons’ of fear, hatred and delusion. The Buddha advised that our main practice is to develop the two ‘wings’ of wisdom and compassion. In times of uncertainty, we need them more than ever.

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frack-free-lancashire

Average, Normal People

The recent revelation that Theresa May’s UK government is set to override the wishes of folk in Lancashire and pave the way for fracking in their county. Locals petitioned their council to bar the practice on the grounds that it is potentially environmentally damaging and dangerous and the council agreed. Now the government have overturned that decision and given the go-ahead for exploratory exploration of coal seam gas in Lancashire. This authoritarian, dismissive act started me thinking about a discussion I was having the other day about “average, normal people”

It was early on a Saturday morning after a wedding party and we were having a fry-up in a seafront cafe. I had picked up a newspaper from the ones available at the cafe and it started there. The paper was one I wouldn’t usually read. Its views are pretty much diametrically opposed to mine, but as it turns out, so were my friend’s.

My habit with a weekend paper is to read out an article which has caught my eye and offer my opinion. “Hey!” I say. “Listen to this!” On this occasion, the exchange began with a journalist who thought that offering a help-line after the Archers’ storyline of domestic abuse was namby-pamby. “Who could possibly be upset by that?” he asked. “Surely there are more noble recipients of our sympathy, like soldiers, for instance?” Well I don’t wish to take anything from soldiers, of course, PTSD is a real thing and they could do with more recognition for it, not less. However…

The latest figures show that seven women a month are killed by their partners in England and Wales. 1.4 million women will suffer domestic abuse in the UK this year, mostly at the hands of their (male) partners. if that were a virus, it would be an epidemic. It follows that there must be a huge number of women affected by trauma, sometimes after years of emotional and physical abuse which too often ends in hospitalisation and in many cases, death. I pointed out that the author of the piece was a white middle aged man. I thought it relevant. White, middle-aged men hold a lot of power in the world. Their collective voice is pretty loud. In contrast, the voices of abused women are small and easy to drown out. Like I say, I thought it relevant.

My friend disagreed and took offence. Or rather defence. My feminist analysis clearly touched a nerve and he rejected the idea that patriarchy was a force for the oppression of women. “Patriarchy is an historical fact”. I argued, admittedly taking the bait. I treated him to a brief outline of the ways that patriarchy was evident in modern society – in the system of patrilineage that had rubbed out generations of women from the records and robbed millions of their inheritances; in the fact that men sit at the top of a vast majority of global organisations, hold power in the media, in education, in politics. He argued that we have a female prime minister. I countered that in order for women to hold such a role, they had to play a game of politics defined by machismo and strength. He said he’d rather have a leader strong in negotiations than a wimp.

This week, journalist Zoe Williams said it better than I could when commenting on Donald Trump’s boasting about assaulting women. Although loathe to argue that a female point of view exists in politics, Zoe suggests starting with freedom from violence and reproductive autonomy as good “muster points”. She goes on to point out “A constant eye on the future, a calm assurance that not everything of value can be counted, a love of international co-operation and respect for the institutions it has created, a knowledge that some things are too important to be left to the market, an empathy with the dispossessed : there is nothing essentially feminine about these ideas, yet where no women are, you never hear them.” I wished she had been there to put those ideas before my friend.
Our argument, for argument it was by now, lurched on, until my friend came out with the phrase “Average normal people”. That was it. The voice of Nigel Farage and his Brexit crowing ringing in my ears, I got up and left the cafe.
Outside in the early autumn sunshine, locals and tourists wandered up and down the promenade, enjoying their weekend stroll. I all but collapsed into one of the seafront seats. Tears came. If even my friends think like this, what hope is there? I moaned inwardly. I re-ran the discussion in my mind, trying to come to a place of peace and trying to understand what on earth he, and Nigel Farage meant by the phrase “Average normal people”.

This conversation mattered little. It was just a weekend morning chat in a lazy cafe in Wales, but when the words are uttered by a politician, they matter a lot. By uttering these words, a politician is inferring that you and s/he are the same, which, merely by virtue of their privileged position, let alone the opportunities that probably came about to help them get there, is rarely the case. (I acknowledge there are some notable exceptions to this but they are the exceptions that prove the rule). The language of politicians is designed to make us feel that we are all in the same boat, but we’re not. At least, we might be, but it is only they who have access to the first class suite and the life rafts.

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jocox

Brexit? No Thanks

For the past three weeks, I’ve been in the UK. It feels like longer than that, with long sunny days spent on the beach with friends, magnificent hikes along the cliff path near my home and cosy nights in my little wooden chalet. When Summer finally arrives here, there’s no better place in the world to be.
I arrived in Britain from Spain, passing through the passport control as a citizen of the European Union. I’ll travel back that way too, but for how much longer? Throughout these three weeks, whilst I’ve been swimming in the calm blue seas of Wales and listening to the chatter of morning birdsong, the rumble of something sinister has been a constant background noise. Whether it’s from newspapers, radio, or just listening to conversations, it’s been hard to avoid the mutterings of Brexit talk. Brexit. What a simplistic, inane word to describe such an important decision. It sounds like a new chocolate bar or a sugary breakfast cereal. The chatter is just as inane, as major political figures try to scaremonger the public into voting this way or that, based on arguments that are about as substantial as the candy floss in the beachfront kiosk. I’ve seen two other recent referendums in recent years – one to decide whether Britain should switch to proportional representation and one to vote whether Scotland should stay part of the UK. Both failed to budge a recalcitrant public out of their comfort zone. We humans, especially Brits, generally like things to stay the same. The trouble with Brexit is that the argument to leave the EU is like an offer to return to some hazy, nostalgic past that even its proponents can’t be sure ever existed.

When I was growing up, one of the popular slogans was “Nuclear Power? No Thanks”. It was such a polite way to decline a technology that threatened to hover its toxic future over our country for generations. So British! Today, as an activists blockade of a nuclear bomb factory turns into a new peace camp, we’re reminded that these threats don’t go away just because we ask them too. Those in charge will keep pushing for what they want and it’s our job, as busy, preoccupied, struggling-just-to-survive citizens, to try to keep one eye on what they’re doing so we can still try and head them off at the pass. Whilst the lies and deceit peddled from Westminster and via the national papers is not hard to see through, it takes some time to arrive at some clarity as to what the story really is. It’s a constant sleight of hand, where the left hand is dealing arms whilst the right hand is waving poppies, or beating a war drum, or pointing a finger at somebody else to distract us. “Look over here!” they scream, and we do, whilst deals are made to dismantle the National Health Service, privatise the woodlands, or sell all remaining national industry to China.

Which is why we need to treasure the few progressive voices in the political area. The ones that challenge the dominant messages defending hatred and war and speak instead of tolerance, compassion and a more egalitarian society. The ones that help us navigate our way through the minefield of shameless politicking and speak from the heart. I was living in Australia when I heard Mhairi Black’s maiden speech in July 2015. I was moved to tears to think that finally, finally, someone was speaking with a reasonable tone about things that mattered. As I hit ‘replay’ to listen again, it crossed my mind that her courage may not be allowed to stand. That her passion may yet be her downfall and that maybe, just maybe, some one would find a way to silence her.

How was I to know just how close that fleeting thought would fly to the truth? The murder of Jo Cox, just a week before the EU referendum, is almost certainly the outcome of her brave stance against racism, her support for Syrian refugees and her campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU. In basing their arguments on immigration and trade, the Brexit campaigners have missed a vital purpose of the EU. Following the horrors of World War Two, it was thought that bringing countries together as trading partners would foster trust and help prevent future wars. It turns out they were right. In 2012, the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its role in promoting reconciliation, democracy and human rights. Since the EU was established, there have been no wars between European member nations. Yes, that’s right. No wars. Throughout a region that has historically been in almost constant conflict, there have been no inter-national wars. That’s seventy years of peace and counting and to me, that’s worth a lot of trade, whether in Euros, Pounds or Drachma. In those seventy years, a lot of tomatoes, cheese and wine has flowed between us, but only because we have been at peace.
In the wake of this tragedy, I would prefer the EU referendum to be postponed, but if it does go ahead, a vote to Remain will serve to honour the maintenance of peace in our region, the tradition of sincere, heartfelt politics and the memory of Jo Cox.

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IMG_2588

Kate Bush

I was twelve when Kate Bush released Wuthering Heights. Such a precious age for a girl child. On the brink of womanhood, I watched the young singer-songwriter on Top of the Pops and knew that women could do stuff. I was forty eight when, learning that Kate was to perform a series of concerts after a thirty five year absence from the stage, I sat at a computer in Melbourne, Australia and resolved to get a ticket. In the time in between these events, Kate has produced 10 albums, each of which I have hungrily devoured. The covers of these albums, first in vinyl and then, re-purchased as CDs, are as familiar to me as my own family.

It was an entirely engrossing experience to finally see her on stage in London. I went on my own, like so many others who had lucked their way to a ticket within the fifteen minutes that they sold out. But you know what? That was fine. For me, Kate was always a solitary activity. As a teenager, my Mum bought me a t-shirt which declared “I want to be alone!”. She was mocking my tendency to lock myself in my room and play records over and over. A lot of the time, I was playing Kate Bush LPs. Kate’s early work carried me through my teenage years but it is not these songs she plays in stage in 2014. I don’t mind at all. Outside the venue, TV camera crews ask fans which tracks they want to hear, but no-one cares. Really. Whatever she does is fine by us.

As is often the way among fans, Kate’s most famous hits are not my favourites. Babooshka and Running up that Hill are amazing, of course, but give me Army Dreamers or Breathing from her second album, Never For Ever, any day. These songs mark the beginning of my political thinking. Ask me about my opinions on war and you will hear these lyrics in the background. It’s a feminine, pragmatic approach. People die in wars. Every soldier is someone’s son. Oh yes, and we need to take care of our environment, or we’ll have no clean air to breathe.

Kate took control of her musical career early on and I have always admired that strong independence. It seemed that, more than any other female artist, she was in control of her own image, her own story. In a world where women are fiercely exploited, Kate engineered her own destiny. And that, to me, is a political statement too. Not only can women do stuff, but they can do it on their own terms.

As the press review that first concert as a “comeback”, I think, “But she never went away!”. The mystery and enigma of the artist that is Kate Bush is a result of the intrusive and sensationalist nature of our media. In order to keep her integrity, she needed to keep to herself. But she never stopped producing. Never stopped working. Never even took a parenting break. The release of her music has been consistent. Life has been her muse.

I like to think of Kate as a companion. Her music has accompanied me on my own rich journey and her consistency has been inspirational. The morals and values which she holds dear are integral to her art and she has never disappointed me. She has never sold out, never sold us short. This concert is simply the next step in her impeccable track record. And yes, it was worth the wait.

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