I don’t do shorts

We seem to be experiencing a rare thing in England. A prolonged spell of hot and sunny weather. Fabulous weather. But the English aren’t very good at heat. We get clammy and sticky and irritable and flop about puffing our overly red cheeks and sweating. A lot. Or is that just me? It’s the sort of weather that calls for summer clothes. But, we live in a body-shaming society. Just today a Playboy model has been sentenced in an LA court for publishing photos of someone she’d seen in her gym and deemed not up to the mark. The problem with this type of behaviour is that it makes very real the fear that anyone with a less-than-perfect physique has. That is the idea that someone is watching you and making judgements about your appearance. Because, it turns out, they are. And not only that they’re filming it and photographing it and putting it online. Not so paranoid now then are we?

But do you know what? Live is short. Sometimes far too so, to be worrying about the shallowness of what other people think. So, I cut down a pair of old jersey trousers and made them into shorts. I don’t do shorts. Ever. Even when I’m cycling. But I love my new creations. And I don’t care about what I look like in them. It’s hot, I’m English and even if I had perfect pins I’d still look hot and sweaty, so what the hell! Come on summer and body shamers – I’m ready for you!

Banging your head against a glass door

The other day I had the patio doors open and was having a lazy hour reading a book. The quiet was disrupted by a rhythmic slapping noise. I looked up from my reading to see a moth repeatedly flying into the window pane of the patio door. It did this endlessly, unable to see that the way to escape to freedom and fresh air was through the open door, not the glassed panel. However, instead of trying an alternative method of escape, it just repeated the same action of flying into the glass. Over. And over. And over again. After assisting with its eviction it struck me that I often get stuck in thought patterns like that. Thinking the same things over and over again and wondering why my life doesn’t change as a consequence. Expending valuable energy and brain power being stuck doing the same things, not realising that a bit of lateral thinking will allow me to escape to freedom. It’s a powerful metaphor.

Labels don’t help at times like this

We like labels in the West. Labels signify our status, our taste, and our income. We wear labels on our clothes, have them on our food and emblazoned on our cars. They become a useful social short-cut to indicate whether you are part of or outside of the in crowd.

But on another level, we label people as well as objects, in the process creating notions of different tribes, those who are ‘other’, those who aren’t ‘us’. This happens on a daily basis in a country still stratified by class like the UK. But at times of national trauma it can comes to the fore as I’ve evidenced today by reading online comments to pieces about Monday’s terrorist bombing in Manchester.

The problem I have with the labels we apply to people is that they further pursue the us and them narrative. We quickly fall into to the black and white, good versus evil language as a short-cut to trying to understand the tragedy, as well as alienating Muslims who live in this country, and who must fear the inevitable backlash whenever an atrocity like this occurs. We don’t apply this one crime condemns them all approach with the Christian religion. Murderers, rapists or terrorists don’t represent their entire race or fellow members of their religion through their appalling actions. A terrorist is a terrorist first and a Muslim, second.

In the UK, the idea of a Muslim otherness goes back to the Crusades and it is not a helpful attitude at times like this when we need to allow families and communities to heal, if they ever can, away from the glare of the media and away from knee-jerk reactionism. Politicians and people need to start asking why this terror attack happened. Not why in a hand-wringing isn’t it dreadful way, but why in a real, not smarting from looking at things in a different perspective way. And that will be hard, because anyone not following the accepted narrative in these circumstances will be accused of not caring about inhumane slaughter. But we do need to find another national narrative and we do need to stop labelling and start questioning.

The 22 adults and children killed in Manchester on Monday night were just out having a good time, they didn’t deserve this any more than any other adults and children are who die as a result of wars not fought in their names.

What we need to avoid at this time are futile gestures, as outrage and anger are ultimately futile. As is changing your Facebook profile picture to say ‘Manchester’ or putting images to show you care on Instagram. Ways to really make a difference are to not allow your life to be ruled by a climate of fear, by not labelling people, by donating money or time to help, by reading, by questioning and by having conversations about what has happened but why it has happened.

I’m sure there are people who will say that these are glib things to say at such a time when I haven’t been directly affected by the events, but that’s all the more reason for those of us who aren’t directly emotionally involved to offer some distance and thought to the situation and also to actually start look into what our governments are actually doing, and not through the prism of the traditional media.

These statistics were taken from a BBC report looking into Theresa May’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia:

“The UK government has signed off £3.3bn of arms exports to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the country’s bombardment of Yemen, which includes £2.2bn-worth of so-called ML10 licences – equipment including drones, helicopters, and other aircraft. A further £1.1bn-worth of ML4 licences were also issued – relating to bombs, missiles, grenades, and countermeasures. The UK additionally signed off £430,000 of licences for armoured vehicles and tanks. By March 2017, at least 4773 civilians had been killed and 8272 others injured, according to the United Nations during the war in the Yemen. With just under half of the population under the age of 18, children constituted a third of all civilian deaths during the first two years of the conflict.”

You see the problem with labels is that we create them based upon the idea that we as a country are benign on the global stage, which we are not. Applying very absolute concepts and labels such as good and evil to events such as these means that we should be asking whether the government and the policies this country executes are, in fact, good. One issue, among many,  I have with this country selling arms to be used in conflicts abroad is that it makes this country seem as though it values less the lives of its fellow men than those on UK shores, which in turn feeds terrorism. But we as the people of a country don’t decide what is done in our name any more than people suffering now at the hands of others, using our weapons, in their countries do. And that includes a terrorist purporting to do what they do in the name of Islam. All of which makes putting who we vote for under scrutiny even more important on June 8th.

So, it’s at times like this that what we really need to do to show solidarity with our fellow man and drop the labels that create divisions, which is exactly what the people of Manchester did on Monday night. A homeless men went to assist the wounded and dying, Northerners opened up their homes and taxi drivers switched off their meters. Countless other acts of kindness will have been carried out by people brought together through suffering but in a time of crisis recognising that labels are just a social construct. At the end of the day all human lives are precious, and there is always a reason that people do the things they do, however hard it might be, at times, to try to understand.

A test of principles

20160407_065938-1This afternoon I took a bike ride through my local woods. The trees were zinging with fresh life, clouds of cow parsley were nodding in the breeze and my brain was clearing of its accumulated junk. Until, that is, I cycled up to the swings in the middle of the woods. Four teenagers seemed intent on wrecking them. On the opposite path was a male dog-walker and we both launched an attack on them pointing out that the swings were there for children, and not for them to vandalise. Eventually after we threatened them with the police they cycled off, waiting until they thought they were safely out of earshot and then shouting obscenities at us.

My serene mood had vanished in an instant to be replaced with blood-boiling rage. My son plays on those swings. But what made it worse was that these were quite clearly kids on exam leave from doing their GCSEs. Judging from their attire and general demeanour they were from the nearby aspirational housing estate, rather than the, also nearby, council estate.

The one upside was that when I said that the ‘swings were for small children and not morons with small brains’ (I know, hardly Shakespeare, but I was cross) one replied saying: ‘What are you talking about? I don’t have a brain’. Seriously, you couldn’t make it up.

I cycled off, incensed. I’ve taught enough teenagers and read enough social analysis to know that what they were doing was motivated by boredom and self-esteem. I also know that everyone always has a reason for doing things, and that you have to try to see both sides of the story. In their minds they were probably kicking back against ‘authority’, in this instance, manifest in council-provided swings, as a way to rebel in a small way against the school and exam system that had kept them cooped up on a lovely sunny day as they had to write an English essay.

By giving them a flea in their ear, myself and the dog-walker had punctured their aspirations to self-esteem, hence their attempts to regain it by shouting after they’d cycled off. What made me feel uncomfortable was the gulf that can appear between what in theory you know you should do and what your gut instinct tells you to do. My gut instinct was to round on the kids. What would have been more advisable would have been to challenge them calmly while allowing them to retain some element of their self-esteem. Either that or video it on the quiet and share it on Facebook, safe in the knowledge that at some stage, in this small town, their mums would have seen it eventually.

It’s easier in principle to approach a subject from an intellectual distance than it is to actually apply it in practice.

How did I end up with this much stuff?

More than years ago when I was away at university I would travel backwards and forwards from my hometown and where I lived during term time with all my possessions in the the boot of a small hatchback. I would pack everything into three blue plastic boxes at home and unload them an hour and a half later at the other end.

I still have the blue boxes; one currently houses our four-year old’s trainset stuff and the others are in the loft. They’ve stayed the same, but today there’s only a tiny proportion of my belongings that would fit into them. How times have changed.

I recall the excitement when I bought my first house (the one 19 years later I still live in); of equipping the kitchen with blue and yellow crockery to match the sunny kitchen and purchasing my first sofa. It seemed as though I would struggle to fill the house with enough stuff to make it homely.

I look at the rooms, which over the years have played a backdrop to various decorating fads (I once painted the kitchen/diner lime green with silver stars) and furniture styles and think just how much my priorities have changed over the years.

I’ve always considered myself to be fairly non-materialistic; I don’t covet gadgets, handbags, shoes, cars, ornaments or any sorts of bling, but I’ve still managed to end up with a house with far too much stuff in it, and the sad thing is I don’t recall how I came to be here. It’s like old age, the changes are so subtle you don’t realise it’s come over you until you look back at photographs of your youthful earlier self.

But, now I want to free myself, and the house, from the shackles of stuff, and, although I don’t want to admit it, some of the history that’s attached to that stuff.

My parents divorced when I was 19 and four years later my dad died, my house ended up the repository of furniture, books and things that had once belonged to my childhood homes and now they were in mine; a reminder of a pre-parental divorce younger me. Someone who wasn’t quite ready to let go of the past. So the loft ended up full of boxes and boxes of my dad’s books – a literal dead weight. The front room ended up with a mahogany sideboard, which was too big for the house and didn’t really have a useful purpose, but I hung on to it because the sound of the drawers being opened reminded me of home and the smell of the wood inside the cupboards brought back memories of family Christmases. It was as though if I got rid of it I would lose my memories.

I did put the sideboard on Freecycle recently, and I’ve never missed it, it was the idea of what it represented rather than the physical object that I was hanging on to. The sad thing was is also stood for unfinished business, an inability to move on from the past, reconcile myself with my parents’ divorce, the loss of the family home and my dad’s subsequent messy and all-too-young demise.

On the odd occasion I’ve watched programmes about hoarders I’ve noted that they seem to be people whose psyches have got stuck in some way; they can’t move on and the stuff in their houses become a physical manifestation of that mental issue. A psychological flaw rendered flesh in suffocating amounts of stuff.

I’m beginning to wonder whether some of the things I’ve kept in my house from my now quite distant past are keeping me on a thought loop of not being able to detach myself from my history. I’ll keep the three blue boxes as a reminder of how little I once had, but it’s time to face the memories and get rid of some of the things that are keeping me mired in my past.