Thoughts on living and campaigning

This post has not been written on a blank slate, but is a rejig. The original was sparked by a couple of the things that get my goat, and therefore had energy but was a bit intemperate. So I have done what I probably shouldn’t – edited the post, folded in other related thoughts, and deleted the comments on the original. The thoughts variously come from experience of being a member of grass-roots movements, working for the Met Office and the Diocese of Exeter, and observation of my own response to issues and campaigns.

For the record, some of the things that get my goat are: being misrepresented, for example as being more or less concerned about issues than I really am; not being listened to, not even being able to get a word in edgeways, or otherwise not having a chance to get my actual point of view across; private conversations being published; having my concerns dismissed.

Apologies if I have done any of those things to anyone else – beams and specks in the eye, and all that. I realise I am fortunate that I can have a voice at all. Much of the following is also a reminder to self.

The many already real symptoms of global warming and climate change, and the predictions of future climate change and impacts are terrifying. But it’s impossible and unhealthy to live with heightened anxiety over a long period of time. And scaring people and making them feel guilty are rubbish motivators of behavioural change.

Instead find a starting point for living with hope into the future. First ask yourself “what brings me joy?”. The next question is “what then can I best do?” bearing in mind your skills, time, energy, and Henry Ford*. The answer could be to be rather than do, address the causes through changing your own lifestyle, raise awareness (without scare-mongering), non-violent direct action, build community, invest in or start a green business, and so on.

Further update: This seems like a good place to interject a quote from Mona Siddiqui “If you are not optimistic about change, why be involved in the first place?”

Be clear about what you are trying to achieve in your campaign, and how you are going to achieve it. Are you addressing the effects or the underlying cause? What would mean that your work is done?

Be squeaky clean and do everything above board. Be the change you want to see. Don’t give anyone a stick to beat you with. Even, as far as possible, on direct actions that might involve trespass. No violence, no damage to property or commons, no swinging on the Cenotaph, no rudeness or intimidation, no violation of the right to privacy.

When conducting surveys, respect the word ‘no’. Make it clear up-front how the responses will be used. If they are to be published, where and how. If individual responses are to be published, even anonymously, get agreement. Attribution in a way that identifies the source is generally not a good idea. Ask ask ask for permission. Give the responder enough information and time to provide an informed response and say what they really think. Listen.

Private conversations are private conversations.

Approach people and organisations likely to be on your side constructively. Be creative, professional and understanding. Look for common causes and build partnerships. How can you help them, and help them help you? Show them you understand the issues and know what you are doing. Their people may be willing to help but have limited time. Respect their employment codes and contracts. Badgering and FOI inquiries (except as a last resort when approaching government organisations) are not helpful. Thank them.

Lots of the above also applies to organisations less likely to be on your side.

Listen to any reactions or feedback on your campaign goals or activities.

* Henry Ford quotes:

  • Whether you think that you can, or that you can’t, you are usually right.
  • Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.
  • Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.
  • Don’t find fault, find a remedy.
  • Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.

#turnedoutgreyagain, a Twoem

What is this big shiny ball in the sky? Will it be my friend?
Blackbird perched precariously in pyracantha,
picking at plentiful berries. #ventriloquismforbeginners
I forgot I’d moved the snowdrops last spring. #februaryjoys
Municipal planting of quince flowering strongly.
Leaves on their way.
Two goldfinches breakfasting on the niger seed.
Gonna have to dig out that hot water bottle again. #springfail

Sun shining. In the garden planting potatoes.
Rain spattering against the windows…
Now it’s hailing. #typicalbritishspring
Two herring gulls harrying a buzzard.
Year’s first lawn mow, and sad farewell to celandine and speedwell.
You don’t know what you’ve got till you’re wantonly destroying it.
Grey and dreich outside. Tea and crumpets inside. #slowstartonsaturday

Happy to see shadows when I opened my curtains this mornings. #sunstarved
Two buzzards wheeling in the blue sky directly over my house.
Unusual, not least the blue sky.
Spur of the moment train to Exmouth to catch the evening sunshine. #bigskies
Glorious blues and yellows walking east,
and west with the sun in my eyes listening to the rush of surf…

First hawthorn, blossom and leaves.
Blackthorn blossom about to burst. #springsigns
A day of goldfinch and skylarks, colour and song.
Sunshine and warmth, swallows and unfurling cowslips.
Pussy willow swirling in the wind like enthusiastic orcs at a music and movement class.
Reed mace standing to attention,
bending from the base before the wind like arthritic emaciated Guards.
Peewits crying in the night.

And so it ends. By turns irritating, digressive, long-winded, scintillating. #lesmis


[Twoem: a poem on Twitter. This isn’t a Twoem. It is a poem crafted from earlier tweets. But what should it be termed?]



Living the Questions at TEDxExeter 2013

On 11 April, the day before TEDxExeter 2013, it was announced that Desmond Tutu was the latest winner of the Templeton Prize. The prize honours a living person who has made exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension. The citation includes the words:

His deep faith and commitment to prayer and worship provides the foundation for his message of love and forgiveness. He has created that message through extensive contemplation of such profound “Big Questions” as “Do we live in a moral universe?” and “What is humanity’s duty to reflect and live God’s purposes?”

There is a misconception that TED avoids or even forbids mention of religion, faith or God. That’s not the case. For example, Tom Honey spoke in 2005 on God and the Tsunami, and Billy Graham and Rick Warren have both spoken. (On the other side of the coin, so have Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Alain de Botton.)

The TEDx guidelines say that “Speakers must tell a story or argue for an idea. They may not use the TED stage to sell products, promote themselves or businesses. … TED is also not the right platform for talks with an inflammatory political or religious agenda, nor polarizing ‘us vs them’ language.” So that doesn’t appear to exclude sharing the Gospel, so long as it is done sensitively of course. In the context of “ideas worth spreading”, to rule that, say, a technological idea is worth spreading, whereas a faith-based idea is not, would be an erroneous value judgement. It is better to say that TED does not want to close down the questions.

There are several possible origins for the word ‘religion’.

One possibility, according to Cicero, is relegere ‘go through again, read again’. Another popular etymology connects it with religare ‘to bind fast’ (compare ‘rely’) or ‘bind together again’. Or there is religiens ‘careful’, the opposite of negligens. Its meaning has evolved over time. The sense of ‘a particular system of faith’ dates from about 1300, and the modern sense of ‘recognition of, obedience to, and worship of a higher, unseen power’ is from the 1530s.

Neither of these modern senses need imply certainty and rule out doubt. This is baggage that has been heaped up high by theists and atheists of a certain persuasion alike. In the spirit of Desmond Tutu, I want to go back to the etymological origins of ‘religion’, and ask a few questions. In the spirit of Living the Questions, I’m not expecting to answer them.

First, what is true freedom? It is not unfettered licence to indulge our every whim. Ask any good parent. Nor is it boundless choice, which only creates paralysis. Freedom to roam safely on Dartmoor requires proper equipment and clothing, and knowledge of the risks from weather and mire. Freedom requires some constraint. In terms of religion, it is not so much that we are ‘bound fast’ to God, but that God is ‘bound fast’ to us. That safety-net frees us to doubt, question and ‘read again’ and again and again.

‘Religion’ and ‘faith’ shouldn’t be used inter-changeably, but I’m going to quote Giles Fraser anyway: “what she [Margaret Thatcher] never appreciated was that faith is fundamentally bound up with doubt. Faith strains to imagine a world so much more expansive than the measure of our own minds and convictions. This is why faith is always a certain sort of loss, the failure to comprehend things in their totality.”

My second etymology-related question is: how can we be ‘bound together again’? My third, by way of answering my second, is: how best can we be ‘careful’ of the other?

A number of the talks at TEDxExeter 2013 were living these questions. Carrie Clarke’s talk about valuing people with dementia was a particular gem. It is difficult to face up to dementia because it means facing our own vulnerability. There is no cure, but we can still bring healing for people with dementia through strengthening their sense of belonging; shifting the focus from what they can’t do on to what they can do; and most importantly listening to them with an open heart – and hoping that when our time comes, someone will listen to us.

The talks from Jo Berry, Martha Wilkinson and Hazel Stuteley had complementary message. Hazel spoke of the power of listening to struggling communities, for what they say will bring them healing, as a way of connecting them with local agencies. Jo shared her dream that we can learn to see the humanity of everyone, and give dignity to all. Martha asked us to ponder: “What suffering are you walking past? And what are the gifts you would like to give to the world?”

Pulling the lens back to a wider angle, Kester Brewin spoke about turning the agenda away from purely private gain back towards public benefit; we need a new community of pirates committed to defending the commons. Alongside this, Stewart Wallis argued that we need to change and manage markets. Markets make a good servant, a poor master and a disastrous religion. Unfortunately, markets are currently our religions, but they are human creations, and humans can control them. So finally, Peter Owen-Jones believes passionately that the militarised industrialised complexes that we call countries, and religions that do not uphold the dignity of all life on this planet are not fit for purpose. What type of planet and society are we leaving our children?

When I blogged on questions before the event, I mostly avoided explicit mention of religion or faith. But now, on my own blog, I can append two quotations from Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, which say what I really wanted to say.

Appended to Who am I?, an excerpt from New Seeds of Contemplation:

There is an irreducible opposition between the deep, transcendent self that awakens only in contemplation, and the superficial, external self which we commonly identify with the first person singular. We must remember that this superficial ‘I’ is not our real self. It is our ‘individuality’ and our ’empirical self’ but it is not truly the hidden and mysterious person in whom we subsist before the eyes of God. The ‘I’ that works in the world, thinks about itself, observes its own reactions and talks about itself is not the true ‘I’ that has been united to God in Christ. It is at best the vesture, the mask, the disguise of that mysterious and unknown ‘self’ whom most of us never discover until we die.

Appended to What do you want to be when you grow up?, which is really about our attitude to time, an excerpt from Thomas Merton, Monk: A Monastic Tribute:

One of the best things for me when I went to the hermitage was being attentive to the times of the day: when the birds began to sing, and the deer came out of the morning fog, and the sun came up … The reason why we don’t take time is a feeling that we have to keep moving. This is a real sickness. Today time is a commodity, and for each one of us time is mortgaged … We are threatened by a chain reaction: overwork – overstimulation – overcompensation – overkill. And yet … Christ has freed us. We must approach the whole idea of time in a new way. We are free to love. And you must get free from all imaginary claims. We live in the fullness of time. Every moment is God’s own good time, his kairos. The whole thing boils down to giving ourselves in prayer a chance to realize that we have what we seek. We don’t have to rush after it.”


A Guardian reader in the making

Like many, one of my most vivid memories of infant school was the ritual of drinking our morning third-pint of milk. I remember it arriving in the classroom in mini-crates, the distribution and the usual challenge of ingestion via straw in one. One day, I heard some people talking about school milk, fairly certainly my teachers, probably on the radio, and possibly my parents. I grasped from this that my milk would be taken away when I got to the junior end of my primary school, and that someone called Thatcher was responsible.

Sure enough, when I got to the juniors, no more milk. I became politicised when I was seven – conscious of having had something, and of it having been taken away by the government. And for what?

If I earn a salary now, I expect the government to take some of it away as National Insurance and Income Tax. I hope it will spend it on schools, a health service, welfare for those who need it, and moving the economy to a more just and sustainable footing, rather than on beer, fags and Trident. A vain hope admittedly.

But why take away milk from primary school children? I had enjoyed the ritual and regretted its loss, but many children would have really needed the extra nutrition, to help them learn and avoid ill-health later. I wonder what is the cost-benefit of providing school milk over a marginal improvement in learning and avoidance health bills? The costs are easy to calculate, the benefits much harder. Perhaps that is why they are easy to ignore.

Less easy to ignore is the sensitivity of the issue for politicians. How ironic, then, that the current school milk provision is so expensive because intermediaries are creaming off more than the price in the supermarket. Margaret Thatcher’s free market in action!

So that is why I read the Guardian. (Also my parents bought it, and I like Araucaria and the Saturday Review section, but sometimes its cynicism gets on my wick.)


Living more of the Questions

It’s been quiet over the last couple of months as I’ve been blogging as the TEDxExeter Storyteller. We’re in the run up to the 2013 event on the theme of “Living the Questions”, so I’ve been writing about a few questions that interest me. I recently posted links to the first five, and here are the others.

  1. Living the Questions: Fancy a pint?
    OK, actually about climate change: why Doha was so important, how it has been forgotten, and what you can do.
  2. Living the Questions: What if the Hokey Cokey really IS what it’s all about?
    You’ll just have to read it.
  3. Living the Questions: Where am I?
    Throw away your satnav, experiment with deliberate lostness and reconnect with where you are.
  4. Living the Questions: What do you want to be when you grow up?
    “The neurotic is a person who worries about something that did not happen in the past. He’s [sic] not like us normal people who worry about things that will not happen in the future.”
  5. Living the Questions: How’s it going?
    Stop trying to solve negative things, and work with positive things instead.
  6. Living the Questions: If you could ask a stranger any question, what would it be?
    Self-explanatory, really.

I also blogged a few questions that were really pointers elsewhere. Here they are too, for the sake of completeness:


Pilgrim at Wonford Brook

I intended to spend the morning re-reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, but instead spent the morning reading around it. I did find some very interesting articles, such as

An Invitation from Silence: Annie Dillard’s Use of the Mystical Concepts of Via positiva and Via Negativa
Author(s): B. Jill Carroll
Source: Mystics Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 1 (March 1993), pp. 26-33
Published by: Penn State University Press
Stable URL:


Backpacking with the Saints: The Risk Taking Character of Wilderness Reading
Belden C. Lane
Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality, Volume 8, Number 1, Spring 2008, pp. 23-43 (Article)
Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press
DOI: 10.1353/scs.0.0009

but that wasn’t really the point.

So after lunch, I allowed the sun to call me out for a walk down by my very own Tinker Creek that is Wonford Brook. It is the sort of stream that is best heard but not seen, constrained to an aging rectilinear channel where it flows past Wonford Playing Fields by variously concrete, wire baskets of stones and wishful thinking. Some of it is getting decidedly undercut, and the gap between the concrete lip and water-level shows what a difference 12 days (12 days!) without rain makes.

In many places, the wire fence that should be preventing access to the bank has been trodden underfoot, and there are a few tentative paths through the narrow line of straggly trees and scrub. Where the water bubbles over a few stones or a concrete lip in the bed, and there’s a view downstream through overhanging branches sheltering little brown birds flitting from bank to bank, it almost feels like a proper stream. But then it’s difficult not to notice the plastic bags snagged in the scrub and the (preferably unidentifiable) litter in the stream, not to mention the drowned tyre and most of an exhaust system.

The paths in Ludwell Valley Park have dried off just in time for the City Council to spread pristine stone chips in what were the worst spots by the gates. But there are still a couple of pools of water in low-lying fields near the brook. A slow circumambulation turned up no frog spawn, one winged insect, one pied wagtail walking on water, and a fine male mallard turning its head through the blue and violet spectrum to keep me in view before making its escape. I had hoped for at least a little frogspawn as a recompense for the cold weather. Ah well.

Because although it is sunny, there is a stiff-ish breeze from the north east, and there is a chill in the air. The largest deciduous trees have obviously decided that discretion is the better part of valour and aren’t going to come into leaf until spring has made assurances, but it takes only a couple of scraggy scots pines to provide a decent sound effect of wind roaring in the branches overhead.

At the lower levels, some brave pussy willow is out. The cherries are in bud, the hazels in catkin and the hawthorn is grudgingly coming into leaf. The blackthorn remains determinedly black and the young oaks are bare but for last year’s raggety leaves. It is left to the pennywort to provide most of the fresh spring green, and the role of impact colour falls to what I consider unusually profuse galaxies of celandine and a few escapee primroses, primulas and narcissi in the hedgerows.

On my way back through suburbia, the magnolia buds are still wrapped up warm in their furry onesies. I know how they feel.