A fighting opponent

“A fighting opponent” (8 letters).

I was working on a crossword yesterday before settling down to plan a post as part of Bloggers for peace, and this clue was giving me some trouble. Then I got it (it was the last one to do, that’s how slow I was!). I’m sure cryptic crossword fans will be sighing heavily at how obtuse I am, and those of you not cryptically inclined will be looking blankly at the page and wondering what is EBL on today?

The answer to the clue, in case you want to know, was “pacifist”, ie an opponent of fighting.  Geddit? I know, cryptic crosswords are a bit, er, cryptic…

So that was an interesting piece of synchronicity, or coincidence, and got me nowhere in terms of a blog post. Not unless I wanted to do something on favourite cryptic crossword clues. Such as “What a dog does round trees” (4 letters), or “Bridge is a card game” (7 letters).

So I settled down to watch the wondrous Borgen, as planned, and tried to let go of bloggery.

Wouldn’t you know it though? Not only did those delightful Danes live up to my wildly inflated expectations, and pull off not one, but two, absolutely cracking episodes; not only that, but also the first episode was about the war in Afghanistan.

EBL wears a serious face…

The show encapsulated a dilemma that I face as a pacifist. Once a violent set of actions have commenced, the next conundrum is whether to support further actions to try to reduce and minimise future harm, or whether to withdraw in order to resist collusion with opposing principles and actions. In the Borgen episode, the broadly left-leaning prime minister, who was trying to remove Danish troops from Helmand, had to deal with the fallout of a fresh attack by the Taliban which resulted in the loss of a number of Danish troops.

I am aware at this point that I am about to introduce spoilers for anyone who is planning to watch this episode, but has not yet done so. So if that is you, go watch it first!

In summary, due to public and media responses to the loss of life, she was unable to keep to the plan for a phased and managed troop withdrawal. She had either to withdraw immediately, allow the Taliban to claim a moral and actual victory and face the consequences (difficult but do-able for her), or she could respond by increasing the amount of equipment, resource and troop levels in Helmand (not what she wanted to do at all but an obvious choice for a number of others).

She was put under pressure by Afghani activists who begged her to support their country in promoting democracy. She faced down political opponents who wanted to pursue a more military (and macho) goal. She dealt with her own supporters who wanted to stick to the original plan (political suicide). Then she was faced by the father of one of the dead soldiers, who was himself opposed to the war, but who shared his son’s farewell letter with her. In it his son tried to explain to his anti-war father why he had joined up and served in Afghanistan.

It was a complex, emotional and brilliantly written story. The acting, as always, was superb. God, I love Borgen, even though political dramas generally are absolutely not my thing.

Maybe I won’t tell you what she did in the end. Did she change her approach, or did she stick to her principles and take the consequences? Just watch it already!

Actually what she chose is not important because (a) Borgen is fiction, and (b) the dilemma is always there, regardless of a specific choice at a specific time. What the show did was allow the audience to work out their own solution and agree or not with the way chosen by the character.

This dilemma is familiar to peace activists. It can split groups apart who should be working together. It causes loss of peace in itself, just by existing.

The Friends Ambulance Unit was initially set up in the First World War to provide conscientious objectors with a role in the conflict that did not violate their opposition to fighting, but allowed them to support and help those wounded in it. Again, this was not unilaterally supported by all Friends. Some preferred to go to prison rather than support the war effort in any way. It also operated in the Second World War.

Once we are committed to acts of aggression, it seems inevitable that there are innocent bystanders. In the 1980s I could not bring myself to support the immediate withdrawal of troops from Northern Ireland because I felt the vacuum that would have left would have caused greater harm and violence. It was a difficult decision. I opposed the troops being there in the first place, but given that they were, I felt I had to take that into account.

My dears, EBL is a pragmatist, first and foremost. I manage projects, which means most of my time is spent finding ways around things which don’t go to plan. Life is messy and doesn’t read my critical path, unbelievable though that is. I wash it all up at the end in an evaluation to try and avoid making the same mistakes, but in the heat of project delivery (and it can get heated, and much of that heat may well be generated by yours truly if someone defaults on their commitment, I can tell you! You don’t want to make me angry.) I ignore the why, and focus on the “if … then…” option of sorting it out.

It does not sit easy. Sometimes I feel I have sold my soul, and not just on projects.

I said “No” to sending troops to Afghanistan. They went. I won’t celebrate it, and even though there are examples of good being done, I am not sure I can condone it. While I am not comfortable with asserting that my ethical squeamishness is more important than, say, Malala Yousafzai’s right to an education, nevertheless, in my bones I feel that there is still some moral weight to my viewpoint. If we accept, as I think we must, Malala’s right to an education (and if you don’t, then that is another matter to be discussed elsewhere), then using this agreement as a basis for violent intervention and conflict does not necessarily follow. Trying to link the secondary actions as a necessary outcome of the first (Girls should have education; girls’ education can only be achieved by killing the Taliban; therefore we must kill the Taliban) is both flawed and lazy. There are other ways to ensure the education of girls. Nor am I trying to imply this was the given reason for the war, of course! The given reason was just as muddled.

If we fail to stand firm on this, we contribute to a single-minded, unthinking and inherently dangerous world view that whoever has the biggest gun gets to decide whether girls go to school, or whatever the issue is that is being fought over. There needs to be constant challenge and discussion and reflection on all important ethical issues to ensure that we do not simply fall back lazily on what seems the easiest answer.

And if we should have learned anything by now, it is this: the long-term effects of such “obvious” solutions demonstrate that violent interventions merely result in generations of future conflict even if for a while some girls get to go to school. This is true of the rest of the world as much as Afghanistan. The UK is still trying to deal with the impact of its colonial past. Other examples abound; feel free to <insert your example here>.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it..

My dears, I appreciate your time in reading this rambling and poorly constructed brain dump. I am not agile of word or fleet of keyboard when ruminating seriously. I beg your indulgence.

Other bloggers for peace who are more able and beautiful than I include:

And really, go and watch Borgen!

The light in me salutes the light in you. Namaste.

P.S. “What a dog does round trees” (4 letters). Bark.

P.P.S. “Bridge is a card game” (7 letters). Pontoon.


My dears, I fear this will not be a cheerful post because EBL is not in a cheerful place. I have spent the weekend thinking sad thoughts and cannot be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed on this grey Monday morning. But I can be hopeful.

Last week I was away from work and posting was a step too far after my first attempt. In a way it was because I forsook you all to go out and have fun with colleagues at our Christmas dinner. We went to a new restaurant that has just opened in Leeds and tried their rather expensive cuisine. The results were mixed. If they learn and improve it will be a fantastic place; if not, they will close down soon enough. Nevertheless we had fun in a sedate and civilised way and no one was unable to function back in the office the next morning.

That is not why I am sad. That is why one reason I have joy as well.

Over the last few days I have been reading the usual Christmas appeals in the papers, and learning about things I prefer to avoid during the rest of the year. I read about child soldiers. They are children, but at the same time they are soldiers. Armed and dangerous. Scared. A scared soldier is the most dangerous of all. A scared child needs our love more than any.

On a daily basis it seems, the news reports more and more instances of child abuse scandals, and in a shocking sentence this weekend:

“The alleged presence of household names adds to the intrigue, but in a celeb-obsessed age, there is a danger that, should such names not materialise, Rocks Lane will be seen as “just another” child abuse case.”

I felt quite ill when I read that. Do you usually read about grisly horror in the paper as you munch toast or sip tea, and somehow pass by on the other side of the road? I know I do most of the time, because it is debilitating to take it all in and treat it as seriously as it deserves. That sentence got to me though. We are in a place that says the abuse of children may only be considered sufficiently newsworthy if a celebrity is involved to spice it up.

Really? It’s not about the children, it’s about the perpetrator? Only a sufficiently interesting perp validates the suffering?

I had been thinking that, if nothing else was good about him, Jimmy Saville’s misdeeds had shone a light under a nasty big rock and let us see what people have denied for a long time. Now it seems all he has done is raise the bar for what is reported.

So my week wove into the tapestry of my life. Other things happened, inconsequential to you, but the kind of small mercies that keep me going.

Then our team suffered two bereavements. On Wednesday one person lost a dearly loved grandfather who had been seriously ill for a while and whose loss was tinged with that guilty feeling of relief that he was no longer suffering. Our friend was very upset, of course, and we all shared his pain through our memories of similar experiences.  We had all lost someone close at one time or another.

On Thursday the second person lost a dearly beloved grandchild to a terminal illness. The child had lived long enough to see their 12th birthday but not held out for Christmas. In fact making it to twelve was a miracle in itself. Again there is guilt in feeling relief it is over. This time none of us can understand how our friend must feel. We cannot comprehend losing a child, living as we do in our privileged, comfortable world. We think about the loss of the person, the pain of the family, but also the loss of his potential, his future family, his contribution for years to come.

My dears, I warned you it was not a happy post.

And so on to the end of the week, because time does not wait upon our sorrows. I am sure you are all aware how things turned out. We cannot understand it here in the UK. We cannot.

“This is our first task — caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged. “

I am very sad today, and at the same time thankful for the examples of compassion I see around me every day. Compassion is the foundation of a life well-lived. It is our common, shared divinity, if you will. Buddhism speaks of compassion as our Buddha nature; Quakers similarly, a continent and centuries away from the Buddha, spoke and wrote of the Inner Light. If we cannot show compassion to those around us, we have no purpose.

“When others mourn, let your love embrace them.”

NaNoWriMoDay 10 – looking back in conversation

So here, to use a well-worn Americanism, is the thing. Dialogue. Speech. Conversation.

Yesterday I set myself the challenge of writing some of the descriptive sections of the pieces I had already started, or of producing new pieces which were description heavy. So far most of what I have written is more like a script for a play, with occasional nods to place or weather for stage direction.

I sat and wrote, achingly slowly, a couple of hundred of painful, school essay words about the main character as a child. Then I heard another character suddenly say “I can’t live like that!” And I saw her as clear as anything, in a café, throwing her head back in defiance, then starting to cry. I went with it, and produced about 2500 words without breaking a sweat.

Friends, it turns out my characters are a right gobby lot. They just never shut up. Even when they are deep in thought, they are muttering under their breath or filling a conversation with placeholders, like “Well, right, OK.”

Those who know the human me, friends and colleagues, will at this point roll their eyes to heaven and say something like “Really, EBL?” in that heavy, drawly way. They will indicate, verbally or otherwise, that this fact is hardly worthy of breaking news; they will imply, assert or outright state that they are not in the least amazed to learn that characters I write are a bit chatty.

I suspect they think I could talk the hind leg off a donkey.

They may be right. I would try it as an experiment but apparently there are laws against that. It’s political correctness gone mad, I tell you.

In my head there are voices, and they belong to my characters. I can hear the Cockney (although I can’t write it without coming across like Dick Van Dyke), the Yorkshire, the Home Counties accents. I can hear the turn of phrase and emphasis on certain words. It’s Babel, pure and simple, or possibly Bedlam. Some place that is noisy and begins with B, like Basingstoke or Belgium.

I can see them too, standing in drizzly streets with light reflecting off the pavement, wisps of hair hanging down, soaked and glistening under the street lights. Yes, it is London. But I haven’t got time to tell you that, because keeping up with their conversation is fast and frantic work. If I stop to write about the place or people or artefacts, they give me the eye and tap their feet, or start to whisper and point. Cheeky buggers.

So I may have to remain a slave to their whim until they are all talked out and the story told. If I accept this challenge, then I accept it for all of us, and we have to wrok together to get the final pieces on the page. And only then, perhaps, will I crawl back to my thesaurus and find twenty words for rain.

Do your characters bully you like this?

Moon landing

Yesterday lots of people celebrated the 40th anniversary of the moon landings. And it is a mighty achievement to celebrate.

Some of us, however, were not old enough at the time to stay up and watch it. So for me the real anniversary is today. Forty years ago, as I sat in a sunny classroom, probably pulling faces at Andrew (sorry, Andrew!), Mrs Northcott wheeled in the big television and we all watched the men on the moon. I was seven, and it was incredible. It is hard to describe how incredible it was. It opened up for me all the amazing possibilities of science and technology and imagination.

Firstly it was incredible because we got to watch the telly instead of doing real work, like practising joined-up writing or doing maths. But mainly it was amazing because I got to see the astronauts on the moon!

I knew they were up there of course. Everyone was talking about it, and once they had set off until they came home safe, I waved goodnight to them from the garden before going to bed. Just so they knew I was thinking of them. It was a routine for all the Apollo moon landings. Wave goodnight to the men in the moon.

Until I was seven there was no definitive answer to the question “Is the moon really made of cheese?”. Grandma said “Of course not!”, but she couldn’t prove it because no one had actually been up there to see. Just like no one could tell me how they knew what colour dinosaurs really were. Now we knew about the moon at least! The dinosaurs still give me trouble.

It looked like such fun too, bouncing around like the ground was one big trampoline. Sticking up flags and bouncing – what a life! Plus you got to see the stars without all that inconvenient cloud and atmosphere in the way, and the Earth from outside. I was already reading science fiction about trips around the solar system, and they seemed like true stories, not fiction, as I watched Buzz and Neil cavorting. Of course, they must have been written before the actual moon landings, but it was a long time before I worked that out.

Only twelve people have ever done it – walking on the  moon. It’s very special.

Will no one think of the adults!

Well, what a busy few weeks we have been having with t’Interweb and censorship.

First, we were treated to a storm in a teacup over ISPs trying to block WIkipedia’s article on a Scorpions album  which resulted in access to the site becoming generally problematic (IP addressing issue; I’m sure anyone who really cares about the detail already knows about it).  I’m not particularly interested in this discussion about whether the image did cross the line – it’s the impact of the ISP actions which I am concerned with here. The point I want to make relates to the prevention of access to uncontroversial information for a number of random people.

Then our ever geeky Home Secretary decided it might be a good idea to set up a system to monitor all emails, telephone calls, texts and browse history. Through a private firm. That bodes well, given our government’s in-depth understanding of IT generally and IT security in particular. Although the European Commissioner for Human Rights remains unconvinced, the old worry wart. Anyone would think that this idea alongside the police DNA database add up to either a sinister world plan, or possibly an opportunity for major wide-scale identity theft – although I could always delete my DNA and get a new set. Oh, wait, no I couldn’t. Now I remember, that’s one reason why it’s a bad idea – along with centralised ID cards.

Then we had Facebook banning pictures of mothers breast feeding. This one just left me completely speechless. Completely.

Now, we have the government trying to control what we look at on the web. There is an excellent article with further discussion here. I was particularly taken with the idea of them approaching Obama’s (IT-literate) new administration. Anyone care to bet on the Americans keeping a straight face in that conversation? It’s ill-conceived, impractical and unnecessary, and clearly the brain-child of someone for whom the Internet is a Foreign Country.

It’s like a time warp. Or have I moved to China and not noticed?

Back in the late 1980s I worked for a charity that communicated with staff behind the Iron Curtain. We used Fidonet, a bulletin-board based system, to send messages and the state authorities were sufficiently unaware of IT at the time not to be able to (a) fully intercept and (b) translate messages. It didn’t stop them trying occasionally, of course, but they were ill-equipped for the task, and messages tended to get through regardless.

Now things have moved on and IT systems can monitor communications for us. That’s how the various pieces of nanny software work. This has coincided with increased Internet usage and the rise of irritants such as viruses, spam, phishing and identity theft.

And I can choose what I allow and don’t allow.

Because I am an adult.

Andy Burnham, the Culture Secretary, appears to know nothing about the Internet, the issues around freedom of expression or the ability of individuals to make decisions for themselves.  If his bright idea comes to reality, and I can only view sites suitable for children, what happens to a whole range of sites that the Moral Crusaders wouldn’t approve? Will I still have access to sex education (because I believe my kids are entitled to know what is what, and which bits cause what, more importantly), to political debate (which might not agree with the government of the day), dodgy humour (and there are plenty of examples of problems around different interpretations of what it means to be funny) and ideas outside the mainstream.

"There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized."
George Orwell

Let us not forget that no matter how well-meaning the current administration is, once this kind of approach is accepted, there is no going back.

And, I am an adult.

For more information, see the Open Rights website – while you still can.

Last minute shopping

Stuck for the perfect gift? Run out of ideas?

Apparently you can now buy a second hand space shuttle from NASA. It’s a snip at only £27.4 million. I know I would like one – after all, who wouldn’t? At last I could refine my death ray and have the earth at my mercy! Bwahahahaha!

NASA are looking for anyone interested in making such a purchase. It occurred to me they should be checking with Dr Doom, and sundry criminal masterminds, as I’m pretty sure one of them would be interested. After all, apart from a white Persian cat, what else could you get the ultimate villain for Christmas?

News that isn’t so amusing

Can’t help worrying about people in Zimbabwe as I read the news. I used to work with someone who had family there, and I really hope they are managing OK.

Don’t you just want to put some of these politicians in a room and lock the door! I can’t imagine what it will take to get the country back on track – it used to be so flourishing. The colonial past has to be recognised for all its wrongs, but really it’s no excuse for what is going on now. Breaking the system just to get back at foreigners (us Brits) is not going to help anyone. I don’t know enough about the history of the country, but I do know it used to be economically strong a few years ago and now is in a mess. Cholera can never have a good side.

So it is good to see Ghana is presenting a better model with their elections, and here’s hoping Zimbabweans can get themselves back on track, with or without the help of their friends.