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Good day, Dear Reader

We were recently thrilled, not to say mildly amazed, to have a short story which we wrote almost on the off chance, selected as a finalist for the prestigious Ada Cambridge prize at the well known WillyLitFest.

It was our first time ever submitting a story to anything, so now, of course, we will submit endlessly to prizes all over the world, not to say publishers, and probably get knocked back by every one, but in the meantime we will bask in the misapprehension that all one has to do is write and enter, and all will be well.

Many people have asked if they could read the story, which is published along with all the other shortlisted and winning poetry and stories. But for anyone who can’t get to Williamstown to buy a copy, here is my story. It has been professionally edited, so any mistakes are mine alone.

The Blitz in Swansea

SCARLET NIGHTS

The woman emerged slowly from under­­ the corrugated roof of the Anderson shelter. The dawn light was barely discernible over to the east – a lick of paint along the edge of the clouds that spread across Swansea Bay like a dirty counterpane, towards where she knew the docks would already be rousing themselves.

The sky lowered an ugly black, and she shivered, despite wearing two jumpers under her thick woollen overcoat. It had been threatening to snow for days, and yesterday there had been momentary sleet as well as the endless drizzle and rain.

She looked at the soil banked up on the sides of the shelter.British convoy attacked

He’d done a good job of it, home on leave for those four days at Christmas, though a day of that was lost travelling up and down from Plymouth.

She’d hugged him tightly, chiding him, though, for making the journey, telling him he should have stayed in Plymouth with his mates and had a couple of days in the pub. He just laughed quietly and told her he’d never do that.

All he’d thought about on the convoys across the Atlantic was making it through to see her again, and the boy. She’d expected him to just take it easy and eat whatever she managed to pull together to spoil him for a Christmas lunch, but he’d shared a small celebratory whisky with her and then gone straight to the back garden, and started burying the new shelter in soil, hacking away at the stone-hard ground with a pick-axe.

After a day, the rest of the garden was effectively destroyed, but the shelter had its extra layer of protection.

Then Christmas Day intervened, and she insisted he go to the Prince of Wales for a pint while she prepared a chicken she had near-begged from her distant cousin the butcher, with all her meat coupons for a month, and a none-too-subtle appeal to family loyalty.

anderson shelterOn Boxing Day, he disappeared for an hour and came back with seedlings of cabbage and Brussels sprouts, and showed her how to keep them warm in punnets in the conservatory for a little while, and told her when to transplant them to the roof and sides of the shelter. And then he was gone again, back to the grey waves and hunting U-boats, his shy smile playing on his face in her memory. She had planted the vegetables, and prayed they would take. Food was getting scarce, and the boy was painfully thin. Despite the bite in the wind, it looked as if some of them might make it, at least.

She heard a cry and hurried back to the shelter. The boy had been grizzling; he had been awake most of the night before falling asleep just an hour ago. He definitely had a fever, since the previous morning she thought, and it seemed to be no better despite her giving him doses of aspirin powder mixed in a little milk. Feeling his forehead with the back of her hand, she was now alarmed. It was even more clammy, and hot.

She lifted him from under the blanket with ease, his tiny body belying his seven months, and rocked him gently, but he just cried. She dipped a cloth in a mug of water and wiped his head, but he shook it and turned it away from her. So she opened the door to the shelter a crack with her shoulder, and sat down with him again, willing the cool air to make him feel more comfortable.

She moved back with him into the mock Tudor-timbered semi-detached home. She loved the little circular close with its matching houses, though she never imagined she would live there alone for any length of time. The windows hid their secrets behind the white chintz. She was but a stone’s throw from the lawn tennis club where she had played almost every day as a teenager, and St Paul’s and Holy Trinity Anglican Church within whose dank medieval walls she took solace, but days like this she felt very lonely. She made herself a cup of tea, taking care to warm the pot as her mother had taught her, and stared helplessly at the little lad turning fitfully in his cot, still crying.

When she had finished, and washed and replaced the cup on the tall boy, and leaving him in his cot still crying but near, it seemed, to exhaustion, she went next door and knocked tentatively. She didn’t know Isabella Jones well, but she knew she was a nurse at Singleton Hospital, and so might have a better idea what to do.

‘Coming! Stay there!’ came from within. After a minute, the leadlighted door swung open, and Mrs Jones was there, fastening a nightgown, her hair tied up in a towel.

‘Oh, hello there, sorry, I just got off nights, was having a bath. I thought they were sending to bring me back again. It happens. Gosh, don’t stand there, you’ll catch your death. Or I will. Come in. Come in.’

She explained she couldn’t. The boy. She’d left him. But she didn’t know what to do. Could she come? Have a look?

A few minutes later they were standing over the cot. The nurse felt his forehead as she had, but also picked him up and put her head to his chest. Then she turned him round and listened to his back. She shook her head slightly, seeming confused. Did she have a teaspoon, by any chance?

She passed her the one she had just washed up after her cup of tea, and Isabella Jones, with some difficulty, managed to open the boy’s mouth and depressed his tongue a little with the back of the spoon.

She clucked, and returned him to his cot. After a few more tears for good measure, he quietened slightly and started to fall asleep again. She stroked his growing head of hair away from his eyes, and asked the woman for a block of ice from the little freezer box at the top of the refrigerator. She rubbed his forehead with it gently a couple of times, and then his lips, and worked it between her fingers, causing the ice to melt ever so slightly, and a trickle of cold water to enter the dozing boy’s mouth. It seemed to settle him further.

When he was quiet, the nurse went to the kitchen sink and washed her hands thoroughly with carbolic soap. She turned to the woman, a worried look on her face.

‘Look, cariad, I’m not a doctor, but you know I’ve seen just about everything in my time. We get to know things when we do half the doctor’s work for them nowadays, what with so many of them being off somewhere for the war, now.’

She paused, frowning.

‘There’s no point beating round the bush: I’d bet the King’s pound to a beggar’s penny he’s got Scarlet Fever. His throat looks very sore and his tongue is all white with little red spots. It’s an early sign. It’s called Strawberry tongue.

I’d say by tonight or tomorrow morning the white will have gone and his tongue will all be bright red, and then he might get spots on his body, and you can pretty much guarantee his little cheeks will go a nice shade of bright pink. Can’t miss it.’

The woman looked at each other, concern on the face of one and something close to terror on the face of the other.

The danger, the nurse explained, was the fever. Or that the infection would spread to the organs of the little body. Meningitis. Even rheumatic fever of the heart. It used to happen a lot, less so nowadays, thank goodness. She started ticking things off:

‘You’ve just got to get his fever down, and keep him as cool as possible. His temperature might go up to 102 and stay there for a while, so the aspirin will help, and it will help his poor throat too. There is an anti-toxin but it’s a toss-up whether there’s any around. I’ll walk back to the hospital and ask. And I’ll get Dr Mullaway to come round and look, too.’

The woman was all for simply picking the boy up and walking round there with her, but the nurse firmly said no.

‘They’d lock him and you in a room, dear and you’d be there for days. It’s very infectious, that’s why I washed up so carefully. And they couldn’t possibly risk having him in a place with lots of sick and injured people in it because they’d be dead set to catch it more easily. It could kill people, just taking him there. Dear me, no, that would never do.’

Excusing herself, the nurse bustled next door, and a little while later, with a wave, she headed off down the street. After what seemed like an age, with the woman just sitting at the kitchen table staring at the little boy, and occasionally wetting his forehead, she saw the nurse return and leapt up to have the door open before she got there.

Yes, she had told the Doctor, who had promised to call on his way home that evening. Meanwhile, here was some calamine lotion in case the boy developed a rash that was itchy – ‘Their skin feels like sandpaper, gets very dry, drives them mad. Specially on their back, and they can’t reach that, of course.’ – some more aspirin powder – ‘Give him a little more, it won’t kill him, but the fever might.’ – and she passed her a very light gown made of soft cotton. ‘Put that on him, not that thing he’s got on now. It’s too hot.’ She tapped the front door. ‘And keep this open a bit, and get the temperature in the house down. If he gets even hotter, pop him in the kitchen sink and let him have a cool bath. Pat him dry, but not perfectly dry.’

The woman nodded, taking it all in. Her neighbour excused herself. ‘I have to get some sleep. I’m on again at four. I’ll drop in before that.’

The day dragged by. Outside a light drizzle fell, whipped up by the west wind beating up the Bristol Channel. Mercifully the child slept, from time to time, his rest punctuated by bursts of distress. She slept in the kitchen chair for a few minutes here and there, but found his silences when she slept unnerving. She kept checking him to be sure he was still breathing.

She forgot to eat herself, but managed to get a little warm milk into him, but soon he rejected the bottle and took to crying again. When her neighbour reappeared, the mother’s red eyes were filled with tears with frustration, and gritty from lack of sleep.

The nurse repeated the earlier examination, and this time she had brought with her a thermometer, which she held under the baby’s armpit for as long as he would permit it, and then she examined it carefully. She nodded.

‘It’s just under 102. Bang on for Scarlet Fever. And his tongue is redder. But he seems tougher than he looks, poor little bugger. He’s still strong, going by that set of good Welsh lungs on him. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Mullaway will be along, but I expect he’ll say the same.’

She waited. An hour passed. Then another. It was getting quite dark now, and she couldn’t look out of the window, with the blinds drawn for the blackout. The boy was unchanged. She listened for the swing of the garden gate and a man’s steps on the path. She listened for a very long time.

It started, with no warning, at almost exactly seven thirty.

The ground shook with repeated tremors, each followed the moment after by the unmistakeable crump of a bomb exploding, and then soon after by the boom-boom-boom of anti aircraft guns responding and the distant howl of air raid sirens. She scooped up the boy and rushed to the front door in horror, flinging it open and looking out. It was not the first time Swansea had been bombed, of course, and she knew to grab her coat, a bottle for the boy, and head to the air raid shelter in the back garden immediately. But she paused, for just a few seconds, mesmerised by explosion after explosion from the east, over by the City centre, and the docks, and now and then a blinding series of flashes and resulting fire from Townhill away to the left. Uttering a quick prayer, she rushed to the shelter, pulling it closed behind her, and sat there nursing the screaming child in complete terror.

The barrage continued for hours. Whenever she thought it might have ended, the bombs started falling again. Once she heard an ack-ack gun nearby rattling out its furious tune, and she thought it must be the one sited atop the hospital. Most of the bombs seemed to her to be falling over to the east and north, but once there was an almighty crash from … from where? From what could have been her own home for all she knew, but she was too afraid to open the door to the shelter. It seemed awfully close.

After the alarms had subsided and it seemed there were no more explosions, she dared to look out. Her hand flew to her mouth as she could see that from one side of the horizon to another there seemed to be a continuous sheet of vivid flame and acrid smoke. And right nearby, in what must be the next street, a house was ablaze, its roof already well alight. She knew that people would already be there, passing buckets of water to douse the flames, and she would have helped, but she could not leave the boy, nor could she take him, so she just stared, mutely, in agony for the people concerned.

When day came, the true nature of what had happened was obvious. A massive pall of smoke hung over everything, seemingly incapable of being disturbed by the wind, such was its thickness. A sickly-sweet smell of burning oil pervaded the air. All her neighbours were gathered in the street, huddled in small groups; the occasional car came and went. As the boy seemed settled for a moment, she left him in his cot again and approached one tight knot of women to listen.

‘It’s all still burning. My Matthew, he’s over there, they’ve called in all the wardens and police, every single fire engine, and the army, too. It’s a right bloody mess. Brynhyfryd, Townhill and Manselton got it the worst. And Matthew says they flattened the Regimental HQ for the Royal Artillery, but even so they kept fighting back with any guns they had. There’s hundreds dead, they say. Hundreds. And God knows where they’re going to put all the people who’ve lost their homes.’ She gestured to her right. ‘They’ve lost everything. Only moved in there six weeks ago. And they’d done a lovely job of the bathroom. Such a shame.’

The woman knocked on Isabella’s door, but there was no reply. She walked her kitchen, back and forth, chewing on a finger, not knowing what to do for the best. At one point she went down on her knees by the little crucifix in the bedroom, and prayed for guidance. The boy seemed no better, but no worse. Although when she took off the little hospital garment and bathed him, she saw that a bright red rash had appeared on his lower legs.

She walked to the end of the road with him, but then walked back. The streets seemed eerily quiet. She picked up the phone in her hallway, but it was dead.

Around five thirty, just as dusk was falling, with the fires still burning in the distance, there came a knock at the door. Dr Mullaway introduced himself, wearily, and apologised for not having come sooner, but …

He simply waved his hand in the direction of the events of the night before.

The words tumbled out of her mouth chaotically, the emotion of the last two days finally breaking, like a dam: his fever, he’d been alright and then suddenly, and the nurse’s advice, his tongue, see? Her husband was away, she didn’t know what to do, but how is he, Doctor? You hear these things, such terrible things, about children dying from Scarlet Fever, and I can’t get out, and I don’t know, and look, look at his legs, now the poor thing, his legs.

She sucked in a great gulp of air and looked at the Doctor, her face a mixture of worry and anger. ‘His legs! Poor little mite! Now look at his legs!’

The Doctor looked at the little nuggety woman, and for the briefest of moments his eyes blazed. But then he caught himself.

‘At least he’s still got his legs,’ he said quietly. Almost in a whisper.

Mullaway looked at her steadily, while she composed herself, then proceeded to examine the boy carefully. She said not another word until he’d finished.

‘Just keep doing what you’re doing,’ he said in the end. ‘Good luck.’ And he left.

And that night, the sirens howled again. And the next night.

In later years – decades later, a lifetime later – when her man was long dead, and the boy had three children of his own, she would repeat Mullaway’s words to herself. Sometimes when she would sit and watch the boy swim, or run, or playing with his kids.

Or she would just look at him when he was standing there.

‘At least he’s still got his legs,’ she would say. To herself, mainly.

And then she would tap the arm of her chair, or clap her hands together, and change the subject.

As if she’d said nothing, and nothing had happened.

 

HISTORICAL NOTE

The worst bombing of Swansea in South Wales occurred over three nights on 19th, 20th, and 21st February 1941. The period known as the Three Nights’ Blitz started at 7.30 pm on 19 February. My mother and brother survived the event in an Anderson Shelter in Brynewydd Gardens, Sketty Green. By the time the ‘all clear’ siren sounded after three days, major parts of the city had been destroyed, and 230 people were dead and 409 injured. 7,000 people lost their homes. The city centre suffered direct hits that started major conflagrations, destroying many commercial premises. It has still not been entirely rebuilt.

A total of nearly 14 hours of enemy activity were recorded. A total of 1,273 High Explosive bombs and 56,000 Incendiary bombs were estimated to have been dropped. An area measuring approximately 41 acres was targeted, with 857 properties destroyed and 11,000 damaged. To raise morale following the blitz, the King and Queen as well as the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, visited Swansea.

As I write this, just two days after the Australian election, the sense of shock in the electorate at the Liberal-National Coalition’s narrow victory over Labor is still causing most citizens to mutter, confused, “What the actual fuck?” I am not being coarse for the sake of effect. That is by far the most common comment.

It’s not just that there was a widespread sense that the Coalition, victim of recent leadership instability, was long overdue a “pull yourselves together” kicking.

It was that a Labor victory had been predicted for so long, with “two party preferred” margins of as high as 53-47 in their favour being forecast in usually reliable opinion polls as late as the morning of election day, that the eventual win by their opponents was … well, flabbergasting. Stupefying. “Shome mishtake, shurely?” (Election night in Australia is universally accompanied by parties and heavy drinking.)

In its way, this result is just as shocking (and therefore interesting) as the Brexit vote and the Presidential win of Donald Trump.

So in the end, what was it that produced a result which looks like ending up as 51-49 outcome in favour of the Coalition and Prime Minister Scott Morrison, now owners of a wafter thin majority that will theoretically allow them to continue to hold the Government benches for another three years?

There are many factors and I will try and unpick them intelligently for any election tragics out there.

Bill Shorten in Parliament

All the natural charisma of a brick.

Firstly and most obviously, the Labor leader, Bill Shorten, was an unpopular figure, in part because he had a history as a dominant and powerful head of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, which is not an organisation which spends much of its time cultivating the affection of the middle class centre of Australia where most Australians sit, but also because in Parliament and on TV he exhibited all the natural charisma of a brick.

Ironically a decent, engaging and friendly character away from the cameras, once they turned on he became over-controlled, lecturing, somewhat superior and just plain boring.

And as he was Labor Leader for six years, that was a long time to bore people.

The recently anointed Leader of the Liberal Party, by contrast, has been a relentlessly cheerful “ordinary bloke”, with an ever-present baseball cap perched on his head, who made no pretence of any great intellectual heft, but insisted he had plenty of empathy for the “battlers” – Aussies who want a “fair go”, or as they picturesquely put it here, “a fair suck of the saveloy”.

As one Liberal insider put it: “When he got the job last year he immediately began building his persona as an ordinary, knockabout bloke who can knock back a beer and roll up his shirt sleeves to have a go. He knew the importance of filling in the picture before his opponents defined him to the public.”

By achieving this, Morrison captured the aspiration of many working people to not actually be working people, thanks very much, but rather to ascend to comfortable middle class status.

Not for nothing was Scott Morrison’s first act after his win to go to his evangelical Church on Sunday morning, and then to go to the football on Sunday night.

Whereas the Labor Party – with a complex and substantial “tax and spend” agenda that required endless explanation – appeared mired in the class-warfare battles of previous decades, stating, in effect, “We’ll tax you what we need and then spend it on you as we see fit”, to which many Australians on Saturday clearly said “Thanks a lot, I’ll just keep me money and spend it myself”.

Whether or not a new Liberal-National Coalition government will actually do anything much to help the people who switched their votes to them remains to be seen – they didn’t expect themselves to win either, so they have a very sketchy plan for government – but painting Labor as the party of higher taxation was certainly a successful part of their pitch. It will be a long cold day in hell till a political party in Australia again goes into an election promising significant tax reform or even tax increases.

This effect was multiplied by the Labor Party’s inability (wary of offending environmentally-aware/Green voters further south) to enthusiastically support the proposed Adani coal mine in regional Queensland.

The Coalition found it simplicity itself to portray Labor as wishy-washy on the mine (which they were) and by implication, therefore, as wishy-washy on jobs for regional people – estimated as maybe as many as 15,000 jobs from Adani alone. This effect was re-doubled by no apparent solution to endlessly rising power prices and problems with water supply to regional areas.

The wash up is that are now no Labour seats left in Queensland anywhere north of the Brisbane river. And the “don’t care about jobs” message hurt Labor in regional New South Wales, too, where the impact of Adani was little more than symbolic of two very different agendas for Government, but where Labor was portrayed as having forgotten their core base (and the extraction industries generally) in favour of chasing a more ideologically-driven pro-environment vote.

The scale of the rout is notable. Across Queensland Coalition candidates in fact polled 57 per cent to Labor’s 43 per cent. Unheard of margins.

Scott Morrison Victory speech

“How good is Queensland?!” If you’re a Liberal, very, very good.

“How good is Queensland?!” roared Scott Morrison when the results were known, and he was cheered to the rafters by an audience in New South Wales. It’s hard to explain to an overseas audience quite how unlikely that is. Maybe Manchester United supporters offering to go over to Anfield and cheer on Liverpool so the Kop can have a day off. Lakers fans cheering for the Celtics. That sort of thing.

By running dead on new coal mines and talking up their climate change credentials, Labor made a bold attempt to speak to inner city Sydney and seats across left-leaning Victoria in particular, which had recently delivered a massive electoral setback to the Liberals in a recent State election.

The attempt failed.

Although the Green vote around the nation stayed roughly the same at 10.5% (approximately, counting continues), blue collar voters were resolutely unimpressed.

It’s not that they don’t care about climate change, it’s just that they want to care about it without paying more tax on a second investment home, (often called a “bricks and mortar pension” in Australia), or their parents having to give up long-established tax breaks on shares in their superannuation portfolio.

Ironically in well-to-do Coalition seats in the centre of cities there were small swings to the Greens and even to high-taxing Labor – the so-called “Doctor’s wives” effect, where comfortably off people dabble in more progressive politics because whatever the outcome it won’t really affect them. But move into the outer suburban ring and the effect was reversed, leading to a clutch of vital Coalition wins in seats in marginal seats in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania where they should, by all expectations, have been swept aside.

So it is worthwhile considering why the Liberal-National scare tactics on tax were so effective.

Australians are not, in a general sense, anti-taxation in the way that some in America are. It’s not that they are selfish. Indeed, Australians donate more per head of population to charity – including to charities overseas – than any other country in the world.

It is rather that they do not trust Government to spend those taxes wisely.

The Bill Australia can't afford.

Simple idea, cleverly expressed, and devastatingly powerful.

As part of a growing trend worldwide, Australians are deeply suspicious of Government at all levels, so when the Coalition festooned all the polling stations in the country in bunting – in stark Labour red – with an unflattering photo of Bill Shorten looking, frankly, confused, with the slogan “Labor: It’s the Bill Australia can’t afford.” it was highly effective. At no stage did Labor ever manage to convey their contrasting priorities with such devastating and effective directness.

And it was this scenario – starkly similarly to Clinton’s shock loss to Trump in America – that led one member of the public writing in to a radio station on Sunday morning to dismiss the Labor effort as having been led by “Hillary Shorten”. You could hear the heads nodding in agreement around the country’s breakfast tables.

Or in the case of those who were yet to get up having drunk themselves to sleep in either distress or celebration just a few hours previously, there was a muttered “Yeah … what she said …” from under a pillow.

Perhaps the most significant thing to say about this election is that it shows, once again, that political parties in the Western world are no longer either mere vehicles for those who traditionally made up their supporter base or even perfectly aligned to those who they seek to lead, and especially on the Left.

Pennsylvania coal miners voted for Trump. On Saturday so did coal miners in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales and those who want to be coal miners in Queensland. Voters in Wales and Northern England and the South West voted against their obvious self-interest for Brexit. On Saturday so did those working in the tourism industry in Queensland who said, in effect, we’d rather have a coal mine than the Barrier Reef.

This time round, Australia’s Conservative parties portrayed themselves as simple-thinking, straight-talking managers, eschewing the internecine struggles that have consumed them in recent years (the Coalition parties have been split between hard right cultural warriors and small-l liberals, much like in Britain) and opted instead for a pitch that they were just a bunch of good old blokes on the side of “ordinary” Aussies – yes, even those who work down coal mines, milk the cows, and for those – by offering vague and very unlikely promises on road building – who are stuck in commuter traffic queues for hours every day.

By contrast the Labor Party was simply too overly intellectual, too long-winded, and they constantly beetled off down obscurantist paths – all very noble in their own right, to be sure – without taking care of their knitting. As one radio commentator explained: “I went to see the mechanic who works on my car, and I asked him who he was going to vote for, and he said Liberal because he didn’t want to lose his tax break on the one investment property his family owned. When I told him there was no chance of that, because any change to the law meant that existing arrangements were grandfathered, he looked at me and said ‘What the fuck does ‘Grandfathered’ mean?’”

Quite.

You couldn’t summarise Labor’s failures to explain their goals any more simply, nor could you sound a better warning to the Left around the world as they seek to come to terms with the appeal of populist right wing heroes.

It’s hard to know exactly what will happen next. The Coalition now have a clean slate and the thrill of a totally unexpected win, and they could take the chance to shift their party back to the centre, (especially as former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, leader of the hard right, lost his seat to an Independent), deliver modest but welcome tax cuts, finally make some progress on climate change – a notable failure for some years – and de-fang Labor for a generation.

Labor will retreat and lick their wounds, but they already show little sign of having learned their lesson, as their next Leader, far from a consensus politician from the centre, will very likely be a dyed-in-the-wool tub-thumping leftie. Which will do wonders for reviving the spirits of their own members, but very little for the electorate at large. Sound familiar?

In the meantime, Australians will move on to arguing about this week’s football, and saying “Thank God that’s over for another three years.” Although with a likely Government majority of just 1, they might be counting those chickens a tad early.

One of the more impossible things to ask an actor to do is to play someone so well-known that everyone has an in-depth opinion of them already. The world of Bio-Pics are riddled with such traumatic tasks.

Gary Oldman’s recent version of Winston Churchill is widely considered the gold standard, as was Claire Foy’s eerie ability to channel Queen Elizabeth II in Series 1 and 2 of the Crown. Foy has now finished her stint, as the Crown rotates its cast as time moves on in the story. But Britain is now agog at the news that Series Four will include a virtual newcomer as Princess Diana, fated to captivate the world both as an iconic beauty who devoted a goodly proportion of her life to good works, as well as having endured the slow-motion train wreck of her marriage to Prince Charles.

Newcomer Erin Corrin will portray Diana, with whom she certainly bears more than a passing similarity. Whether she (and her script writers) will have the ability to make her portrayal of Diana a veritable “suspend disbelief” tour de force or a mere imitation or impersonation awaits our perusal.

Series 3 of this brilliantly made (so far) series airs in late 2019 — which will see Olivia Colman take over Claire Foy’s role as Queen Elizabeth — and will focus on the Harold Wilson era between 1964-1970. As we who lived through that, we are almost as keen to see what they make of Wilson. Lady Di arrives in the Thatcher era, presumably in 2020.

An interesting parlour game is to consider the best ever Bio Pics of all time, whether on TV or in Cinema. It is certainly a rich ouvre. Here’s our Top Ten (well, as at this moment – given a little more thought we might add others) — what are yours? And why?

  1. Gandhi – an ineffable (and apparently very authentic) central performance from Ben Kingsley and sensational mass-scale direction from Dickie Attenborough combine to create a story which bears repeated viewing. Many times. There’s always something more to see.
  2. Lawrence of Arabia – notable not only for David Lean’s sweeping cinematography but also Peter O’Toole’s mesmerising and complex portrayal of a character who didn’t bear easy translation to any medium, let alone film.
  3. The King’s Speech – notable most of all for its astounding performance by Colin Firth as the stammering King George 6th, the film also evokes its era and the stuffiness of the British court perfectly.
  4. Patton – we are not normally huge fans of war movies, but Patton is really a character portrait which happens to be set in the theatre of war. George C Scott channels the gruff American General with great skill, painting a portrait of a man who was as much a prisoner of his character as he was a man of his time who helped to shorten the war. The movie portrays him as both understood but misunderstood simultaneously, and evokes sympathy.
  5. Bernardo Bertolluci’s portrait of The Last Emperor (of China) is as wonderful for its lavish staging and massive set pieces as it is for John Lone’s deeply sympathetic portrayal of, again, an integrally flawed character caught up in events beyond his ken and abilities.
  6. A Beautiful Mind, which stars Russell Crowe in what must be his best ever performance was also notable for a restrained and remarkable performance from Jennifer Connelly as his long suffering and supportive wife, and also makes the list for shining a sympathetic light on mental illness and how people who are ‘different” can nevertheless be intensely and historically valuable.
  7. The Elephant Man suffers from the criticism that it cannot possibly be historically accurate because of our distance from events, but it was certainly utterly compelling cinema, and John Hurt as the central character turns in a performance so heart wrenching it is an example to all in how to portray suffering with dignity.
  8. La Vie en Rose tells the story of Edith Piaf, warts and all. It makes this list because of the astounding performance of Marion Cotillard as Piaf herself, who is

    Marion Cotillard as Piaf

    so realistic that one is instantly transported to her world and her struggles, and informed by both.

  9. Oliver Stone’s Nixon is another that makes our list because of the central performance of Anthony Hopkins as Nixon. Nixon was the ultimate Shakespearian tragedy in action – a man of prodigious talent destroyed by a refusal to be constrained by the rules and infected by galloping paranoia. Hopkins – who has endured more than a few ups and downs in his life himself – manages to make him both understandable and yet utterly creepy. In this context Stone’s JFK should probably also get an honourable mention, although its reliance on conspiracy theory rather than fact means it doesn’t get its own place on the list.
  10. Michael Collins was a movie that tried to make the awful somehow acceptable, in this case the murderous campaign of the IRA to free Ireland from British subjugation, which is portrayed as both heroic and cruel simultaneously, as well as effectively introducing the history of the period to a wider audience, including the short but bloody Irish Civil War, which can be glossed over in discussions of the years concerned. A very strong cast sees graet performances from Liam Neeson as Collins himself, Aidan Quinn and the much-missed Alan Rickman as the scheming but flawed Eamon de Valera. The only duff note is Julia Roberts as Collins’s lover, or the film would be higher up than 10th.

So that’s our list, Dear Reader. Yours? What did we leave off?

 

OK we loved Mamma Mia 2. Yes, yes we’re a year behind the rest of the movie world but, you know. Busy.

Yeah, the songs were from ABBA’s lesser ouvre but they were still charming and we will gladly overlook the creaky hokey artificial plot to watch that collection of stars having fun – I notice Meryl Streep called Lily James “perfect” as young Donna, and Ms Streep knows a bit about acting. And fair dinkum, Andy Garcia looks better today than 30 years ago – what??!!

Anyway, it was simple and life affirming and some nights that just hits the spot …

Screen Shot 2019-04-08 at 4.43.23 pm

I want to write a poem

Just dripping with angst

Jam-packed with pathos

With oodles of empathy

To tear the hearts out of teenage girls

and stir those of tired old men

I want to write a poem

That years later will still sound fresh

Riddled with irony

Spilling meaning everywhere

Entrancing yet confusing

Illuminating but complex.

I want to write a poem

That drags you in,

locks you into contemplation

pesters you to deal with it

like a nagging ringtone

made solely of words.

 

But you got this, instead.

I need a gin.

 

#poetry #writing #poems #creativity

PS the book is still for sale – get one when you next Amazon yourself.
https://www.amazon.com/Read-Me-Poems-One-Story/dp/1409298604

There has been widespread publicity – and volumes of commentary and angst  – about whether young women (and some not so young) who left their home countries to travel to Syria to join the so-called Islamic State should be permitted to return to their original countries.

In one case in the UK, the Home Secretary has revoked Shamima Begum’s UK citizenship, a decision supported by apparently 78% of the British population, and possibly effectively rendering her stateless – which even the Home Secretary acknowledges would be illegal.

In the USA, Donald Trump has instructed that another bride, Hoda Muthana, should not be allowed to return to America.

But perhaps there is a more nuanced reaction that should be considered.

Firstly, both these women, and others, claim they were brainwashed into originally heading to IS, and then for supporting it.

In the case of Muthana, she unquestionably urged violence against her American compatriots. In the case of Begum, she reported seeing “a decapitated head in a waste bin” and not being “fazed” by the experience, and that the terrorist bombing of the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester was “retaliation” for Western bombing.

However, despite these being utterly abhorrent opinions, it may still be that there are arguments in favour of such people being allowed “home”.

The problem is by no means limited to the West.

As the BBC reported in May 2018 more than 2,000 Russian women have disappeared in Iraq and Syria. Some will be dead. Some will be held by the Governments of those countries, (some of the Russian women and others are rumoured to have been taken to prison in Baghdad, where they face execution), or by anti-IS militia such as Hashd al-Shaabi. Some will be in hiding, or in refugee camps. Is some cases, when captured with their husbands, the husbands have been executed.

So can anything be said for allowing such people to return to their countries of birth or citizenship?

Their age

Most people would concede that decision-making at the age of 15, as in the case of Begum and the two friends that went with her (both now dead) would be wildly different from even a few years later.

Or when, as in Muthana’s case, (she left when 19), she was making decisions in a cloistered and very severe background with little or no external input. For example, she says her family in Alabama were deeply conservative and placed restrictions on her movements and interactions, factors she claims contributed to her radicalisation. “You want to go out with your friends and I didn’t get any of that. I turned to my religion and went in too hard. I was self-taught and thought whatever I read, it was right. I look back now and I think I was very arrogant. Now I’m worried about my son’s future. In the end I didn’t have many friends left, because the more I talked about the oppression of Isis the more I lost friends. I was brainwashed once and my friends are still brainwashed.”

Whilst Begum says she does not regret travelling to Syria, which has been widely reported, she also says she came to believe that IS deserved to be defeated because it was corrupt and cruel. That is a much more nuanced attitude. Such an attitude expressed openly in the ‘Caliphate’ would have seen her executed.

In Muthana’s case, she speaks of having made a great mistake in travelling to join IS, of being manipulated, of being ignorant.

Do we believe them? Are they sincere? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Would it make any difference if they were?

The essential question here is should we punish people for life, effectively, because of errors made – even egregious errors – when they were children, or when they say they were misled?

The pressure on them inside IS

There is ample evidence that IS placed such “brides” under huge pressure.

They were rigidly kept under lock and key until they married a fighter, to which they would not have been introduced, simply shown a photograph.

Once released into marriage, their movement was severely restricted, and any attempt to live an independent existence could result in terrible punishment. Soon after Begum’s marriage, (just three weeks after she arrived in the area), her husband was arrested, accused of spying, and was imprisoned and tortured for six and a half months.

It is not impossible to imagine that women such as Muthana would, effectively, have continued being “brainwashed” during their time in IS territory, or become too afraid to change their minds or express any different opinions. Whilst Muthana does not deny sending inflammatory tweets when she first arrived, and after her first husband was killed, she then claims her Twitter account was run by an IS fighter. Why did she stop sending her own tweets? Should we at least ask?

Are they actually guilty of any crime?

There is an argument that the women gave succour and sustenance to a terrorist organisation through their very presence. But other than this somewhat nebulous charge, have they actually broken any laws that would justify them being permanently excluded?

in 2015 Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe said the three girls would not face terror charges or be treated as criminals. And in Begum’s case specifically, Assistant Commissioner, Mark Rowley, head of Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism command, said at the time there was a “difference between the person running around northern Iraq with a Kalishnikov” and three schoolgirls who had been duped into travelling to Syria. However as Ms Begum is now 19, she is legally an adult. If she was under 18, UK authorities could argue they still had a duty of care to her. That might be more complex now. Then again, Security minister Ben Wallace said last week: “As a British citizen she has a right to come home here. We are obliged to make sure our citizens have rights, no matter who they are,” he told Sky News. But he dismissed any suggestion of sending officials to meet Ms Begum, saying: “I’m not putting at risk British people’s lives to go and look for terrorists in a failed state. Actions have consequences.”

Should they be obliged to face prosecution?

Though it might be unclear what they would be charged with, it may well be that the women concerned should be prosecuted in a court of law.

Sir Peter Fahy, a retired senior police chief who was the leader of the Prevent terrorism prevention programme at the time the girls left the UK, told BBC Radio 4 that if Begum was to now return, British authorities would first detain her and investigate whether there was enough evidence to prosecute her.

He said it was understandable why the government was “not particularly interested” in aiding her return. “If the woman was showing complete remorse, it would be completely different,” he said.

However this begs the question, should an individual’s guilt or innocence, whatever their actions, not be judged by a jury of their peers? Is there actually any more basic premise for western societies which support the jury system?

Fighters returning to their countries of origin are routinely taken to court, judged and sentenced. Why is one course of action right, and another wrong?

If it is simply because there are actually no laws under which to charge the women, that is surely not a reason to sentence them to exile in limbo in absentia.

Do we want them just running around anywhere?

Many IS brides are in camps (or areas) controlled by America and/or her allies in the region. European countries show no great enthusiasm to bring captured IS fighters home to face prosecution, nor to go to dangerous areas to interview or assess them.

But President Trump has publicly asserted that if the Europeans don’t steep up he will simply open the gates and let them go. In which case, will the women be released as well? To go … where? With what attitude or future actions?

So much is unclear.

Can they be rehabilitated?

The answer to this question is ‘probably’. De-radicalisation programs around the world actually show high levels of success.

The question is what is actually of more use to our society – de-radicalised people who were given a chance to atone for their behaviour, or permanently locking them out of sight overseas?

It is, of course, impossible to predict what future contribution they might make, but it is equally impossible to argue “None”. They might end us as useful members of society. They may even be part of an effort to help to prevent other young people becoming radicalised. In that sense, bringing them home would start to redress their foolishness.

Last but not least: what about the children?

Both these women – and many others – have very young children. No one would argue the children have done anything wrong, apart from having the misfortune to be born in a war zone.

Do the sins of their parents require them to be punished too? Surely not. And many people have said that their children should be allowed entry. But if we are to then obdurately refuse to take their mothers back, is that morally supportable? There is no evidence that the mothers are abusive towards their children – rather the opposite, in fact. So on what grounds can we or should we separate them?

At least 730 children have been born inside ISIS territory to foreign nationals, including 566 born to Western Europeans. Are they all to stay in refugee camps in Syria or surrounding countries?

Our conclusion?

It is often said that it is easy to forgive those that we agree with, or who are essentially good people. But it’s harder – and perhaps more relevant – to forgive those that we do not like.

Both of these women, and others, have expressed hateful opinions, as well as more complex ones.

But the issues they pose go to the heart of our judicial system. And they also talk to who we are as people, and how our attitudes to them define our societies, and how we wish to behave. Decisions about their future should not be made on the basis of pandering to mob disgust, even if that disgust is perfectly understandable.

Our view is that it is far too simplistic to argue, as social media has done, “Pah! They made their bed, let them lie in it.”

Why? Well, for one reason above all.

If we eschew totally the opportunity for rehabilitation – or even for measured punishment that fits the crime – then there would only be one sentence for all transgressions or crimes. And that sentence would be life in jail, or execution.

Now who does that sound like?

Our regular Reader, and Facebook friends, will know that we are somewhat exercised over the collective insanity that is Brexit. Wandering around the world wide interweb thingy, we saw this: To us, it seems remarkably apposite:

Leavers “We voted for Brexit, now you Remainers need to implement it”

Remainers “But it’s not possible!”

Leavers “The People Have Spoken. Therefore it is possible. You just have to think positively.”

Remainers “And do what exactly?”

Leavers “Come up with a Plan that will leave us all better off outside the EU than in it.”

Remainers “But that’s not possible!”

Leavers “Quit with the negative vibes. The People Have Spoken.”

Remainers “But even you don’t know how!”

Leavers “That’s your problem, we’ve done our bit and voted, we’re going to sit here and eat popcorn and watch as you do it.”

Remainers “Shouldn’t you do it? It was your idea. We were happy.”

Leavers “It’s not up to us to work out the detail, it’s up to you experts.”

Remainers “I thought you’d had enough of experts?”

Leavers “Remain experts.”

Remainers “There are no Leave experts.”

Leavers “Then you’ll have to do it then. Oh, and by the way, no dragging your feet or complaining about it, because if you do a deal we don’t want, we’ll eat you alive.”

Remainers “But you don’t know what you want!”

Leavers “We want massive economic growth, no migration, free trade with the EU and every other country, on our terms, the revival of British industry, re-open the coal mines, tea and vicars on every village green, some nice bunting, and maybe restoration of the empire.”

Remainers “You’re delusional.”

Leavers “We’re a delusional majority. DEMOCRACY! So do the thing that isn’t possible, very quickly, and give all Leavers what they want, even though they don’t know what they want, and ignore the 16 million other voters who disagree. They’re tight trouser latte-sipping hipsters who whine all the time. Who cares?”

This was created by Ishtar Ostaria and kudos to Ish.

We’d like to engage in one more bit of speculation.

The best intelligence at the moment seems to be that May will bring a deal back to the UK Parliament to pass which leaves the situation virtually as it is now, with Britain inside the EU, except Britain will lose all influence over the EU by not having any input in the EU parliament or ministerial conflabs. How that improves Britain’s standing is beyond us, even though it is what we speculated would happen years ago.

OR May will come back to the Parliament and say “This can’t be done, we need to defer Article 50, possibly for quite some time.”

This will create a political furore in Britain, even if it actually makes sense.

May might then go to the country for a renewed mandate, and with Labour languishing because of their leadership’s inability to oppose Brexit, and the Lib Dems seemingly unable to make up significant ground on them, she will probably get it. Which won’t make Brexit any easier, but which will entrench probably the most incompetent Government in recent British history in power for another five years.

British civil discourse is being rent asunder by political toxicity, and the country is led by donkeys. It’d be funny, if it wasn’t so tragic.

screen shot 2019-01-24 at 1.14.17 pm

The world is going through convulsions currently about the just-released new movie Mary Queen of Scots, primarily because of the acting skills of the remarkable Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, both of whom apparently light up the screen, and admiration for the lush staging of the story, both in terms of the gorgeous countryside and the recreation of medieval court life.

You can view the trailer for the movie below:

From Ronan’s powerful screen presence and mastery of a Scots accent to Robbie’s ineffably emotional performance, audiences seem set to love the film. Alex Hudson of Exclaim! wrote, “The real star here isn’t Mary at all, but Elizabeth — brilliantly played by Margot Robbie, who conveys a thin veneer of confidence disguising a deep well of neuroses.”

The danger, though, for all that both leading ladies’ offer masterful performances, is that people will mistake it for history, which it is not.

As Benjamin Lee in the Guardian said:

“Historians have already labelled the film problematic from Mary’s Scottish accent (apparently her real accent was French) to the film’s dramatic in-person confrontation between the two queens (apparently it never happened),” he writes.

But your annoyance with these deviations will depend on how you view the gap between history and historical drama and while there are some embellishments, they’re embellishments that have been added to previous adaptations and the primary facts appear relatively untainted, the truth shocking enough to propel the plot by itself.”

 

It’s an interesting point. Mary and Elizabeth never met, but a personal meeting between the two of them is pivotal to an understanding of the story. Does that really matter? Perhaps not. As one commenter pointed out in the comments for the trailer: “No one is watching this for educational purposes. Nobody’s gonna pay to watch a movie about (people) passive aggressively writing letters. ”

The same is true of one of the best films we have seen in recent years – certainly the finest leading performance – with Bohemian Rhapsody.

The film plays fast and loose with the chronology of events in Freddie Mercury’s life. For example, it appears to criticise Mercury for attempting solo albums, but ignores the fact his fellow Queen members were doing the same. It places the revelation of Mercury’s HIV infection as just before the seminal Live Aid performance, where band members confirm they knew a lot sooner than that.

See the trailer here – and see the film. We cannot recommend Rami Malek’s performance highly enough. It is utterly mesmerising and well deserves to win the Oscar for Best Actor.

 

Other noted movies to depart from strict historicity include recent efforts like Outlaw King (about Robert the Bruce), and the Darkest Hour (with Oscar-winning Gary Oldman as Churchill), and many others that are great movies, not so great history.

Churchill never rode the London Tube, for example, but the scene where he chats amiably to working class travelers is central to understanding his motivation to keep fighting the war with Hitler. Similarly, Churchill is portrayed as a hero for standing up to the defeatism of Chamberlain and Halifax, which he was, but ignores the vital role played by Labour Leader Clem Attlee, who was vital in bolstering support for Churchill.

The interesting question for all movie goers and critics is whether these mild changes to actual historicity really matter much, or whether compiling a compelling story is the higher priority, a story which contains within it deeper truths about the people and events concerned.

It will be interesting, in particular, to see what people make of Mary’s character in this film. Critics have argued that the film has strong feminist overtones, and it has certainly been promoted as such, portraying both Mary and Elizabeth, to a degree, as victims of the patriarchy in their society.

screen shot 2019-01-24 at 2.27.04 pm

Mary of Scotland in France

But that would surely be a case of too easily dismissing both women. They were both extremely strong-willed, eloquent, extremely well-educated, frequently sure of their personal direction, often capricious, sexually aggressive, charismatic and very often arrogant. Neither were especially merciful to those who opposed them.

Mary in particular undoubtedly endured bad luck. The early death of her first husband, Francis II of France, very possibly robbed her of a peaceful and contented future. (That she was deeply in love with Francis seems undoubted.) His death, and her subsequent return to Scotland, landed her in the middle of a deeply charged and volatile situation, riven with competing forces and religious tension, for which nothing could have adequately prepared her.

But she didn’t help herself. As history would have it, and with one eye on the English throne, she managed to annoy both her Catholic and her Protestant subjects.

Mary’s real downfall – which is often portrayed as due to her scheming (history being written by the victors, in this case Elizabeth’s advisor William Cecil) – was her obvious claim to be the rightful successor to Elizabeth, and as such her inevitable role as the lodestar of hope for English Catholics still smarting after the death of Mary Tudor and the accession of the protestant Elizabeth.

Even though Elizabeth would not name Mary as her heir – fearing being supplanted by her if her legitimacy was too strongly endorsed – she assured the Scottish envoy Maitland that she knew no one with a better claim than Mary. It is questionable, at least, whether Mary could ever have escaped her fate once landed in Scotland. She was simply too important – or too dangerous – for too many people.

What is certain, though, is that Mary’s own choice of male partners was largely the single most obvious factor in her undoing.

Mary made a fatal error in falling in love with and marrying Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, which infuriated Elizabeth who felt the marriage should not have gone ahead without her permission, as Darnley was both her cousin and an English subject.

Elizabeth felt especially threatened by the marriage, because as descendants of her aunt, both Mary and Darnley were claimants to the English throne and their children, if any, would inherit an even stronger, combined claim. In being ruled by her heart rather than her head Mary shows herself as much less circumspect than her cousin, who more than once put away from her men she clearly loved, but who were not suitable as husbands.

The marriage to Darnley, another Catholic, also prompted a Protestant rebellion. Thereafter Darnley’s dubious character and cack-handed meddling in politics led directly to Mary fleeing Scotland and her eventual death.

Similarly, her subsequent dalliance with and marriage to Lord Bothwell was also a disaster. Far from pacifying the Protestants, the marriage shocked Protestants and Catholics alike, with many people believing Mary had conspired with Bothwell to murder Darnley. Whether or not this was actually the case has intrigued historians, who do not agree on her guilt. What is certain is that Mary badly miscalculated the effect of her relationship with Bothwell on her long-term survival as Queen of Scots.

Elizabeth proved by far the more wily of the two Queens.

For many years, with Mary captive in England, she balanced what seems to have been genuine concern for Mary’s well-being with a desire to see her either restored to the Scots throne within a Protestant state, or simply to neuter her threat. But whatever she did, the Catholics of England – encouraged and abetted by Mary herself – simply wouldn’t settle down. Rebellions in her favour in the North of England, the Ridolfi plot, a plan to marry her to the Spaniard Don John of Austria who would then invade England from the Netherlands, (that one was directly down to the then Pope), the Throckmorton Plot, the William Parry plot and finally the Babington plot made it clear that Mary was actively plotting to replace Elizabeth, and her assassination. Indeed, it could be argued that with evidence repeatedly piling up Elizabeth was remarkably patient with her wayward cousin.

Mary’s eventual execution was inevitable. It was required to secure the realm.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that she does not deserve our sympathy, and her courage at her execution undoubtedly plays into the sympathetic view of her held by many people.

It is interesting to speculate what might have happened had she ever become Queen of England. When her son by Darnley, James I of England, succeeded Elizabeth, he came down hard on the English Catholics in a way that Mary probably would not have. James’s severity kept a lid on the ever-bubbling cauldron of religious strife in the country for 22 years, and it is arguable that Mary would not have been as successful, and may even have returned to the violent religiosity of her namesake, “Bloody” Mary Tudor.

But James’s son, Charles, who seems to have shared many emotional characteristics with his grandmother, clearly failed to manage the fault lines in English society, and he, too, paid with his head.

Nothing in Britain would ever be the same again. And the much-mooted union of Scotland and England would not actually occur until 1707.

The “little corporal” Napoleon, standing at about 5 feet 7 inches, was actually taller than most of his compatriots.

According to the National Post, this misconception may have arisen because of the difference between French and British inches at the time. In French measurements, Napoleon was 5 feet 2 inches, but French inches were longer than British ones.

 

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Others believe it all started with a satirical cartoon with Napoleon being held in an British general’s hand. Or is that the King? We’re not sure.

Just another example, we feel, of “history being written by the victors”. If Napoleon had won at Waterloo we suspect Wellington would have become a silly creature of fun with boots up to his arse, and Nelson a bent and hobbled cripple.

This historical oddity, though, raises an interesting question. How many sources for history do we really need if we are to attain a “balanced” view. What weight should be placed on various sources? And what duty do we owe to the living to get it right?

One would suppose very few French people feel especially hard done by because we generally think Napoleon was a short-arse. But let us take, for example, the history of indigenous owners of land since appropriated by Empires various or immigrants: the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, for example. They see the arrival of the British as a murderous, genocidal invasion of lands they had occupied for at least 40,000 years. Our view of the North American first peoples is founded almost entirely on the myth making of 19th century broadsheet writers and comic books, the owners of which had a vested interested in selling the “white man” as a brave and honourable creature, a position gleefully adopted by Hollywood who were selling movies to those white people’s descendants, of course, and not the grandchildren of the noble (and more often ignoble) savages. Blacks in Africa were invariably shown as feckless and ignorant, despite have created civilisations that pre-dated Europe by thousands of years – ditto the Arab world which was apparently entirely composed of wild eyed zealots with flashing knives and not some of the greatest scientists in history, Aztecs and Mayans did little more with their time than cut the hearts out of slaves and toss their bodies down the sides of pyramids despite centuries of learning on astronomy and mathematics that were centuries in advance of the “West”, the Chinese were corrupt satraps despite their progress in civil administration, medicine, art and literature, and so on and so on ad infinitum.

All these civilisations were the victims of “othering”. The process by which we ridicule, marginalise and often slaughter those whom we defeat, and we simply do not concede either honourable or laudable characteristics to the defeated.

So it is perhaps instructional to consider those who are “othered” by the media, politicians, and common opinion in the West today.

The myth-making runs in overtime about, in no particular order, “lazy, venal” South Americans, “disaffected, drug-addled” American people of colour, “dangerous, inhuman, violent” Muslims, (we are sick of pointing out that if Muslims as a group were really violent the West would currently be at war with 1.2 billion of them, and probably losing, but there it is), disorganised and corrupt Italians and Greeks, drunken Irish, endlessly warring Africans, and many more.

Well. It is our birthday, today, Dear Reader. We are getting older. As someone so kindly pointed out in a message to our mobile phone earlier, “your senior years are now really upon you”. Well, yes, they are. So if you will permit me, an observation from the full height of the mountain I have so far climbed.

Whomever we are discussing, and wherever they are in the world, what has struck me most forcefully as I have gone through this life is actually how similar people are. Whoever they are. Wherever they are. No matter what their cultural background.

People everywhere simply want to live in peace. To celebrate family, and have a chance to provide for them. To speak, walk and breathe freely. To live free from fear, and with enough wealth that they don’t fear want, either.

The same things essentially frighten all of us, and the same things usually please us, inspire us, and elevate us.

We are all much more alike than we are unalike.

One of the most educational things today is to observe on social media how a “meme” of something silly, charming, and encouraging can be shared by people of all cultures, all types, all ages, and all sexes, umpteen millions of times. Very often, those memes involve conspicuous acts of kindness. Of gentleness. Every time someone clicks “Share”, they are affirming our common humanity.

If social media has a true purpose, it is perhaps to remind us that what unites us, as a species, is much more than ever divides us.

This is not to argue for a common or enforced blandness. Educator, campaigner and orator Booker T Washington once said, “In all things social we can be as separate as the finger, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress”.

That’ll do me. For my birthday present, I’d really like it if you agreed, Dear Reader. Let’s stop “othering”, and be the hand that creates mutual progress.

 

 

To get uplifting words of wisdom in your Facebook feed every day, free of charge, just go here https://www.facebook.com/thoughtfortoday/ and click the Like button at the top of the page, where the pink arrow is pointing at it …

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Thought for Today, Day 54 – feel with your heart; remember what’s important.

Helen Keller said: The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.

At 19 months old, Keller contracted an unknown illness which might have been scarlet fever or meningitis. The illness left her both deaf and blind. At that time, she was able to communicate somewhat the six-year-old daughter of the family cook, who understood her signs; by the age of seven, Keller had more than 60 home signs to communicate with her family.

Even though blind and deaf, Helen Keller had passed through many obstacles and she learned to live with her disabilities. She learned how to tell which person was walking from the vibrations of their footsteps.

Later in life Keller became the world’s most famous activist for the disabled and a noted campaigner on many other issues.

One meeting she held was reported thus: “a message that will linger long with those fortunate enough to have received it. The wonderful girl who has so brilliantly triumphed over the triple afflictions of blindness, dumbness and deafness, gave a talk with her own lips on “Happiness,” and it will be remembered always as a piece of inspired teaching by those who heard it.

According to those who attended, Helen Keller spoke of the joy that life gave her. She was thankful for the faculties and abilities that she did possess and stated that the most productive pleasures she had were curiosity and imagination. Keller also spoke of the joy of service and the happiness that came from doing things for others … she imparted that “helping your fellow men were one’s only excuse for being in this world and in the doing of things to help one’s fellows lay the secret of lasting happiness.” She also told of the joys of loving work and accomplishment and the happiness of achievement. Although the entire lecture lasted only a little over an hour, it had a profound impact on the audience.

Now: what were you worrying about again?

#helenkeller #deafness #disability #courage #hope #thoughtfortoday

This girl.

As we all celebrate International Day of the Girl (Child) let’s remember that smashing glass ceilings in Western countries is ALL our job. And all well and good. Bravo. Let’s be in that with bells on.

But let us also remember that many of the girl children born into the world are perpetually hungry, don’t get even the most rudimentary education, are virtual slaves at the hands of their fathers and male relatives, and subject to horrific “honour” violence, too. Let us remember that the laws in their lands protect them inadequately, and that they are marginalised and ignored in decision making.

Painting by Amrita Shergil

So let’s not just make this International Day of the Girl who needs equal pay in her cossetted Western society, or who needs to aspire to be a Board Director like her male sibling. Yes, she does. Yes, those things are very important.

But in other societies – societies we do business with, and visit –  the girls would just appreciate pay. Any pay. Any chance for anything beyond the grinding poverty that locks them into a life of walking miles to collect clean water, scrabbling in the rubbish for food, or spending from pre-dawn to late at night engaged on domestic chores and caring for men.

So let’s make this “day” about them, first.

It’s also “Mental Health Day” today.

An ironic juxtaposition in so many ways.

Whilst we focus on the very real needs of everyone who suffers from mental health problems –  and Lord knows we need to do that – let’s also remember that food, shelter, a job, and dignity are the basic building blocks of a happy life.

And we owe it to the world to ensure everyone gets at least a start. A chance.

Because that’s really good for their mental health.

Here are the top 10 toughest places for girls’ education:

  1. South Sudan: the world’s newest country has faced much violence and war, with the destruction of schools and families forced from their homes. Almost three-quarters of girls do not even make it to primary school
  2. Central African Republic: one teacher for every 80 pupils
  3. Niger: only 17% of women between the ages of 15 and 24 are literate
  4. Afghanistan: wide gender gap, with boys more likely to be in school than girls
  5. Chad: many social and economic barriers to girls and women getting education
  6. Mali: only 38% of girls finish primary school
  7. Guinea: the average time in education among women over the age of 25 is less than one year
  8. Burkina Faso: only 1% of girls complete secondary school
  9. Liberia: almost two-thirds of primary-age pupils out of school
  10. Ethiopia: two in five girls are married before the age of 18

A shortage of teachers is a common problem across poorer countries.

Last year, the UN said another 69 million teachers would need to be recruited worldwide by 2030 if international promises on education were to be kept.

Let’s keep our promises. “Girl child” is asking us to.

#marriageequality #loveislove

Dear Reader, if you have spent any time at all reading our blog, you will be aware of two things. One, I have opinions. (Hence the name of the blog.) Two, I am a Christian.

So when the pro-same sex marriage rally was announced in Melbourne over the weekend, there was never any doubt we would attend.

Firstly, for me, equality for homosexuals has been a lifelong campaign.

My proudest “Button” in my collection of political ephemera is one that reads “Gay Liberation is Our Liberation”. (It is an ample example of how old we are now that no-one today would refer to “Gay Liberation”.)

Whenever I wore the badge, forty plus years ago, sooner or later someone would challenge me on it. I was stronger and fitter then, and ready to “look after myself” if I got a hammering. Typically some liquored-up idiot would prod me in the chest with an accusative finger and breathe “So, you’re a poofter, eh?”

This gave me the opportunity to say “Actually, no I am not. But Gay Liberation is about the heterosexual community freeing itself from our own bigotry.” This would usually result in the knuckle-scraper backing off with a confused look on his face (it was always men) and – now and again – a useful conversation. It was my small contribution to the struggle, because, of course, if a gay person had worn the badge the exchange would often have ended up with a punch in the face.

We also used to run discos when I was at University with the poster headline “Come and Meet a Real Live Queer” a decade or more before the LGBTI+ generally community worked out that they could “own” the word, and thus challenge and even change the negative connotations associated with it. Even if those days, communications was my passion.

Secondly, I have studied Christianity all my life – I have a degree in Theology – and I simply detest the way that the Church is often portrayed (and often behaves) as the home of wowsers and conservatives.

My Christianity is progressive, activist, small-l liberal and dedicated to over-turning shibboleths. I simply cannot abide the way that literal interpretations of Scripture (which are not even based on scholarship, but usually on bias and/or inaccurate translations) are used to support essentially anti-Christian behaviour – of which opposing “same sex” marriage is simply the most recent example.

Fundamentalist Christianity has been used to excuse burning “heretics”, drowning witches, slavery, banning contraception, destroying womens’ health provision, idiotic anti-scientific nonsense like Creationism, and much more. Little wonder the Church in the developed world is rapidly losing adherents.

In its blind opposition to same-sex attracted people having the same rights as everyone else it has caused huge suffering to many, including people who I know and love. The tactics used by the ugly confluence of the far-right and the fundamentalist Churches (epitomised by the often appalling Roman Catholic Church, the conservative Anglican diocese of the Sydney, and the utterly bigoted and so-called Australian Christian Lobby) seeks to portray all Christians as anti-gay.

Well we ain’t. At all. “Not in my name” comes to mind. So when the rally was announced, my attendance was inevitable.

But having decided to attend, what then? I have no standing in the Equal Love movement, so they weren’t going to ask me to speak. No public position to leverage. Was there anything I could do to help, over and above simply wearing out some shoe leather and getting some much-needed exercise?

Because I am in the comms business, I decided my brain should be given a bit of a workout as well as the legs.

I decided to actively take on the nonsense that is written about me and millions of people like me by those who should know better, or who should stop behaving so shamefully as trying to present their opinions as mine.

I decided to say, deliberately, “Hey – I am bulk-standard, standard-issue Middle Australian, and I am voting “Yes”.” With the obvious implied corollary, “You should too.”

I simply wanted to make it clear to everyone else attending the rally that the support for equal rights spreads right across the political and social spectrum. Because that’s one way to ensure that people outside of the core campaign group will be encouraged to stand up too: to come out and vote, and to campaign.

And because – above all – I think the LGBTI+ community deserves to know that the rest of us support them. They’ve been fighting this battle too long and too hard for us to miss this chance to help them get a “Yes” vote across the line. As one placard read at the rally, “I can’t believe we’re still fighting this shit”.

Quite.

Hence the placard.

Agit-Prop? Hell, yes it was.

Was I looking for publicity? Yes, I was. Not in the sense that I wanted ME to become famous. (At all. I’m too old for all that rubbish.) No, I wanted the principle embodied by the placard to become famous. Or at least, to spread out beyond my head.

Maybe a TV camera might snap it, and it could get seen? Or maybe a journo or two? Yes, I was aware of that possibility. Most of all, of course, I simply wanted to stand in solidarity with the other campaigners, and against the nonsense. But I’d be lying if I pretended I didn’t hope the placard might make some difference beyond that. Don’t ask, don’t get, eh? It’s worth trying anything to overcome naked wrongs.

As so often in life, though, what really happened was way beyond my expectations.

The moment Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink and I arrived, and plonked ourselves strategically down on a well-positioned bench, we were deluged with smiling people wanting to photograph the sign. I completely lost track of how many people did. Hundreds, certainly. We had so many ‘thank yous’, so many thumbs up, not a few kisses planted on our cheeks and plenty of “high fives”. It was really quite overwhelming, and beautiful.

At one point I turned to Jenie and said “And this is what people are afraid of? All this love? All these terrible revolutionaries seeking to undermine the very basis of society.? These are the nicest people I have ever met!” Everyone was there – families with kids of all ages, masses of young people of all apparent sexualities, gay couples, and all age groups. It was uplifting in the best possible way.

One journo asked me why I was there. I had to stop and think for a moment, because I hadn’t planned an answer. In the end I said “Freedom’s important.” She smiled and said “That’s the best reason I’ve heard today.” She went down on the list of “Positives”.

One fundo Christian with crazy eyes came up to me and assailed me with every ridiculous argument the “No” lobby have been pushing out. I politely but firmly batted back every faux Biblical quotation with another, or with a more accurate translation. Every time I did, she moved the goalposts. In the end, after quite some time, I put her down as “irretrievably No”, and asked her (nicely) to move on. “There!” she said triumphantly, “when you’re losing the debate you just back out!” I looked at her sadly, and wondered, not for the first time, when and how children turn into adults with this level of stupidity. What happens to people? She wouldn’t leave. In the end I had to say firmly, “Please: leave me alone.” She wanted off, eyes blazing with self-induced fire, muttering.

But in general, we were deluged with kindness and positivity. I will never forget it. And at this stage, let me explicitly acknowledge Jenie’s role. My lovely wife, although she has her own strongly held opinions on just about everything,  is not a natural attender at rallies – she doesn’t like crowds, or public attention for that matter – yet she was utterly supportive of my goals in going to the rally, and she engaged with journos, and our neighbours around us, she helped me hold the sign, pointed out people who wanted a photo and – a million thanks – found us a coffee. “Whaddawewant?” “ Hot coffee!” “When do we want it?” “About ten minutes ago, thanks.” Sharing this life-affirming event with her made it all the more meaningful.

Later, we discovered that the placard had been snapped by a photo journo Tara Watson, and then tweeted and posted on FB by Guardian journo and opinion leader Van Badham, and then re-tweeted by Penny Wong, and essentially, that was that.

The picture was suddenly everywhere. Jenie and I were deluged with kind and supportive messages, and when our daughter re-posted the photo and said she was proud of us, then so was she. A more practical example of the essential goodness of folk you couldn’t wish for. It was embarrassing and wonderful in equal measure.

So much, so good. So viral. The world is an interesting place, these days. I am happy so many people got to see the message, and there it is.

But two people we met stand out in my mind, and the real point of this article is to tell you about them.

No names – they didn’t ask for publicity – but their stories deserve to be told.

One guy came up, and told us about his Dad, who had recently died of Alzheimer’s at the age of 90. He had never “had the conversation” with his Dad about his sexuality, and now he never would. But after his Dad’s death, he mentioned this to one of the nurses who used to look after him. “Oh, no,” said the nurse. “He knew.”

She had been walking the old chap in the garden, asking him about his family. He had three sons, he said. One did such and such, one did such and such, and one did such and such. He’s gay, of course.” The old man couldn’t have cared less, and he knew.

As he told us this story, tears started running down his cheeks. “Good thing I’ve got dark glasses on” he said, as he wiped them away. “Thank you so much for the sign. It’s so good to know that people like you understand.”

He made his apologies, and left. It was awhile before I dared to speak again.

A little while later, a middle-aged woman came up, and insisted on shaking hands. Momentarily, after struggling to smile, she started crying too.

“I just want to say thank you. I just want to shake your hand. Our son is gay, and he gets bullied at school. Badly bullied. That’s why I’m here. I’m here with my husband. I’m so excited to see you here, making this point. It makes all the difference to me. Thank you. Thank you. Sorry. Thank you.”

She turned away, too choked to say any more. I just said “You’re welcome.” It seemed totally inadequate, and it was, but what can you do? Here was the ugly side of this debate manifested in a real person’s life, in a real person’s family, raw, and unsanitised and brutal and sad.

I felt – and feel – deeply humbled and grateful for having met these people.

I wish everyone could meet them.

This stupid, unnecessary and divisive government opinion poll would be won by a huge margin, if people could just get past the propaganda of the “No” campaign, and talk to real people who are going to be affected profoundly, for good or ill, by the judgement of their peers.

God bless you, Australia. Please vote “Yes”.

And go to the next rally. With your own sign. It matters.

 

Screen Shot 2017-08-24 at 12.09.51 pm

This is a quotation on the “True Marriage Equality” website – a noisy, and to our eyes offensive and very ridiculous organisation, that has popped up.

This is the Alt-Right/Fake News experience happening right now in Australia. This is the unpleasant, harmful and entirely unnecessary experience – that many warned that Malcolm Turnbull’s weak-kneed inability to stand up to his own right wing as he clings to The Lodge was foisting on us – that has been created by this ludicrous opinion poll.

The quoting of Paul Keating implying clearly that he is against same sex marriage (in an interview from a long time ago, despite the date on the article header being 19th August two days ago, clearly the date the post when up but NOT when Keating said anything) is actually an utterly dishonest taking of quotes out of context and it is promoted as a positive for their biased arguments.

In a desperate attempt to fight back against this crap being promoted by the No campaign – which has included anonymous and deeply offensive posters appearing on Melbourne’s streets, from who-knows-where) here is the actual text from whence the quote was plucked:

RAY MARTIN: John Howard, are you relaxed and comfortable about homosexual marriages in Australia?

JOHN HOWARD: No, I’m not. I don’t believe that homosexuals should be discriminated against. I believe that sexual preference is a private matter. I do not believe that homosexual relationships should be given the same legal status as a marriage. I believe that marriage has a special role in our society. It is a special institution which gives an enormous amount of stability to our community.

RAY MARTIN: So, a gay couple in marriage is not a family unit in Australia?

JOHN HOWARD: I didn’t say that. Look, I am not going to get in to a legalistic definition. I mean, a family is an emotional relationship and it is a commitment of people.

RAY MARTIN: But like Tim Fischer, you are not in favour of homosexual marriages?

JOHN HOWARD: But I do not and I make no bones about it. I am not in favour of homosexual marriages.

RAY MARTIN: Paul.

PAUL KEATING: People live in all sorts of relationship, Ray. You can’t describe a family in any one way. The nuclear family is an important, but nevertheless somewhat ageing concept.

RAY MARTIN: Can you ever be convinced that two men and a cocker spaniel is not a family unit as you once said in Cabinet?

PAUL KEATING: Well, you will never build a society on it. You will not build a nation on it, but it is another thing to discriminate against people. It is another thing to seek to do as the National Party and others have done, is speak in discriminatory terms about people who live in homosexual relationships.

JOHN HOWARD: You really are trying to have two bob each way. I mean, just state your view and get on to the next one.

PAUL KEATING: Oh, excuse me, I can give my own answers, thanks. I don’t need you to interpret them, John.

Presumable he doesn’t need “True Marriage Equality” to interpret them in this way, either. We also refer you to our much-read article explaining why all the arguments posted by Christians in favour of bias against homosexuals is NOT Biblical.

Why is the Church anti-gay if the Bible isn’t?

 

We’ve been meaning to do this for some time, but an email from a friend nudged us into actually doing it. If you’ve read them before, well, enjoy the re-run. If you haven’t read them, then you’ve got a bunch of very popular blogs to go through!

  1. The White Rose. A tragic story of resistance fighter Sophie Scholl and her friends and family, and their horrific execution by the Nazis during the Second World War. http://wp.me/p1LY0z-2Fb
  2. How one pissed off customer can F*** up your brand. https://wellthisiswhatithink.com/2014/04/28/ryanair/
  3. Art. Vaginas: loads of them in a row. Feminism. Womens’ self image. That sort of thing. http://wp.me/p1LY0z-10P
  4. Secret Servicemen and Prostitutes in Columbia. http://wp.me/p1LY0z-vD
  5. It’s official. Adam and Ever, er, weren’t. http://wp.me/p1LY0z-ud
  6. Gratuitously offensive political joke.* http://wp.me/p1LY0z-sJ
  7. On Snooki, the Borgias, and Big Tits http://wp.me/p1LY0z-5D (One of our first ever blogs, and still popular five years on!)
  8. Nicest little winery within an hour of Melbourne. http://wp.me/p1LY0z-2GV
  9. While some people die in an emergency, and some don’t. http://wp.me/p1LY0z-2GV
  10. The Advertising F*** Ups of all time. http://wp.me/p1LY0z-1Dk

 

We do hope you enjoy re-visiting some of these, for a laugh, or a moment’s thoughtfulness.

Over three-quarter of million visits have now been made from all over the world to the blog in five years. We are deeply touched that people enjoy it, and we look forward enormously to the next five years, bringing you the news others ignore, and, of course, plenty of opinions. From us, and you. Thank you.

Abril Gallardo rode 15 hours in a van to Austin to protest new immigration laws, and to urge fellow Hispanics to fight back.

“Fear motivated me to get involved,” said Gallardo, a 26-year-old Mexican native who entered the U.S. illegally at age 12.

Texas cities and immigrant rights’ groups have challenged the legality of the law, hopeful for a legal victory like the one in Arizona, but that could take months to have any effect.

But even as some vowed to fight, others have begun fleeing the state. Their ranks are still too small to quantify, but a larger exodus — similar to what occurred in Arizona — could have a profound effect on the Texas economy.

Texas has more than 1 million immigrants illegally in the country, according to the Migration Policy Institute. No one seems to have considered the effect on Texas’s economy should those people abruptly leave, or get kicked out.

Some are abandoning Texas for more liberal states, where they feel safer — even if it means relinquishing lives they’ve spent years building.

Jose, a 43-year-old Mexican living in the U.S. illegally since 2001, and his wife Holly left Austin for Seattle in January in anticipation of Texas’ immigration crackdown. That meant parting with Jose’s grown son, their community of friends and their beloved home of eight years.

“I felt like we ripped our roots up and threw ourselves across the country,” said Holly, a 40-year-old Kentucky native who wanted to protect her husband.

Holly said as soon as Donald Trump was elected president, she and her husband began preparing to move. They expected Texas would “follow Trump’s agenda trying to force local law enforcement to do immigration’s job.” And when they heard Texas had approved a crackdown on “sanctuary cities” she said they “finalised the decision.”

At Wellthisiswhatithink we think these changes are crazy. Why tear apart families that have lived peacefully and constructively in a country for ten, twenty, thirty years? Productive citizens should be given a simple and non-discriminatory path to citizenship. What the hell ever happened to “send me your poor and huddled masses”?

America has lost its soul, and its way.

Looks like a real peach, doesn’t he? Never mind background checks. He should fail a foreground check.

Deputies: Man Accused Of Shooting At Neighbours Following Dispute Over Noisy Children

From South Carolina:

A Goose Creek man is behind bars and charged with fours counts of attempted murder after deputies say he opened fire on neighbours following a dispute over loud children.

On Monday at approximately 4:50 p.m., deputies with the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office responded to 107 Gator Drive in the Goose Creek area of Berkeley County reference to a report of two victims possibly being shot.

After arriving on the scene, deputies met with George Ernest Merritt, 65, of that address who stated, “the victim would be OK” as he had “only shot him in the shoulder.”

According to the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office, juveniles were playing in the road close to where the suspect lives. At some point, deputies say that Merritt went outside and told the children to be quiet.

After interacting with Merritt, deputies say the children went home and told their grandparents, who had been watching them after school. The grandparents went outside to speak with Merritt and advise him to speak with them and not yell at the children. This interaction took place near the intersection of Guerry Circle and Gator Drive.

At some point, Merritt reportedly got upset and left – returning to his house where he retrieved a 22 caliber pistol. Deputies say he returned to the corner of Guerry Circle and Gator Drive and began to shoot at the grandparents, and by some accounts, the children. Whatever the facts, the entire incident was captured on a video surveillance system, which will make things easier, no doubt.

Deputies say he then returned to his home and waited for deputies to arrive. He was taken into custody without incident.

Merritt was charged with 4 counts of Attempted Murder and one count of “Possession of a weapon during a violent crime”. He was transported to the Hill Finklea Detention Centre to await warrant service and a bond hearing.

Not wanting to pre-judge the case, but one suspects that George Ernest Merritt might be going away for quite some time.

dialogue

 

This blog is a re-purposing of an exchange I just had with a dear friend on Facebook. I know this friend to be a sincere man, who thinks deeply. His identity is irrelevant. The discussion isn’t.

Begins:

But what you don’t seem to appreciate, [name], is that all your bile (or rather the bile in the websites and news services you quote) is aimed at Muslims. I would ask you to consider the following:

>We’re pissed off about being branded a racist when we speak out for what we believe in

No, people are branded racists when they categorise an entire people as being one thing – less intelligent, more violent, more hateful, etc – when clearly that cannot be applied to all the people in that group. Calling out “all Muslims” – or “all Anyone” of course – IS racist, because no one group is homogenous.

>we’re pissed off that our kids are being taught crap at school

Well, you’d have to give me an example. The schools I deal with, judging the Ainger Awards, for example, seem to be turning out very aware, balanced and thoughtful kids, chock full of stuff I never knew. And my daughter, who has had to work very hard, has progressed to doing a PhD in neuroscience from a not-especially-academic Christian school, so I am pretty impressed with that.

Maybe your experience is different. I’m all ears.

>we’re pissed off that our kids are being taught that they can go to whatever toilet they like

Unisex toilets are hardly the barbarians at the gate, and if they make life easier for transgender teenagers I have no problem with them. I find kids today much more respectful of each other’s space than we were. I suspect it’s just a change, and change can be scary. I haven’t heard a single case of it causing a problem, here or anywhere – but I have heard plenty of middle aged people going volcanic about it.

>communities are dropping Christmas celebrations

Certainly not in Melbourne. Carols by Candlelight was great this year. Are you sure this is happening, or have you heard of one or two nutjobs going on about it, and beat it up into a “thing”?

PS Muslims think Christ was a holy man, too. Our neighbours gave us a lovely card and a generous gift this year.

>we’re pissed off that Muslim only housing estates are being built in Australia

Why? If people want to live together, let them. We have Chinese retirement homes in Doncaster – the fabric of society seems remarkably unchallenged. We have had Jewish-only schools, homes and – frankly – suburbs for decades. No one cares less. Are you just afraid of something of which you have no real experience?

>we’re pissed off because Anzac Day marches have to be cancelled because RSL clubs can’t afford the extra security due to threat of terror attacks

Here we can agree totally. But you also need to remember that we have had as many terror incidents from bikie gangs and the far right Nazis in Australia as we have had from Muslims. Beating up fear about a virtually unheard of event – a terrorist attack in Australia – only serves to make people anxious. Sure, anything can happen, but the fact is we are a very long way from everywhere, and 99.99999% recurring of our population are law abiding and peaceful. Certainly as regards politics and religion. I know a few bookies who should be inside …

>we’re pissed off because every time we become part of a large crowd we’re looking over our shoulder

Yes, yes, yes – but I have to be frank with you, this has been going on pretty much since the beginning of society. Sadly, there is always someone ready to throw a bomb or lash out with a gun or a sword, and right now most of them are from extremist minority sects of Islam. But it wasn’t long ago, for example, that the world was just as transfixed by the activities of the Baader-Meinhoff and the Red Brigades (some of whose attacks were CIA-led false flag attacks, by the way), the Fenians chucked grenades and bombs around willy nilly for about 150 years in the UK, anarchists started World War 1, etc etc.

“War will continue until men refuse to fight.” Whilst what is happening know is horrible, and deplorable and indefensible, it isn’t actually all that different to centuries of conflict. If you want it to stop, find peaceful solutions, rather than pretending there is some new great conspiracy threatening your tea and toast.

I will say this – the main problem with Islamic extremism at the moment is the conflict between Shia and Sunni, which has been going on for hundreds of years, and the only reason we even know about it is because we have interpolated ourselves into their countries in a most aggressive and colonial way, instead of leaving the Arabs and the Persians to sort it out themselves. We made ourselves sitting ducks by insanities like invading Iraq when we had no clear reason why – except to secure oil supplies, as Alexander Downer admitted – absolutely predictably de-stabilising the entire region – and NOT intervening when the majority of the Syrian population asked us to, to get rid of the brutal Assad regime, because we were so burned by our own idiocy in Iraq.

In Iraq alone, over 500,000 civilians have died, 100% because of the instability caused by OUR actions, if not necessarily by our direct actions.

We let our politicians do that.

22 died in Manchester. Which breaks my heart. And I condemn it utterly. But think about it. Think about the half a million in Iraq alone. Think about the four million displaced from Syria. Can you understand why some people, not me, at all, but some people, don’t understand why we feel so threatened, compared to them?

Saffie, we don’t know what to do to remember you
Saffie, we don’t know what to do to remember
Saffie, we don’t know what to do
Saffie, we don’t know

Saffie.

[                                        ]

Later reporting: MANCHESTER FIRST RESPONDER TELLS OF MOMENT HE FOUND YOUNGEST VICTIM SAFFIE ROUSSOS

A first responder to the Manchester Arena suicide attack has told of how an eight-year-old girl had called out for her mum as she lay in his arms during her dying moments.

Paul Reid, 43, had tried to reassure Saffie Rose Roussos that everything would be OK as he waited with her while help arrived, during the horrific attack aftermath.

Speaking with The Sun, Mr Reid said he tried to look for the terrorist after he heard a bomb at the end of the Ariana Grande concert on Monday.

Paul Reid was a first responder at the scene of the Manchester Arena suicide bombing. Photo: BBC

Mr Reid instead rushed to comfort those who he had found injury, laying on the concert hall floor.

One of those was little Saffie, who he wrapped in his coat, before helping her onto a stretcher. It wasn’t until the next day that Mr Reid learnt the little girl he tried to save had died in hospital from her injuries.

Saffie was the youngest of the 22 killed in the attack.

“She was a dying little girl and she just wanted her mum. It was devastating,” Mr Reid said, in tears.

Mr Reid, also a father, had been at the concert and was one of the first to contact emergency services after Salman Abedi blew himself up.

“The concert was just about to end and I was at the bottom of the stairs at the main exit. Then I just heard a boom. I could see dust, smoke and stuff flying around,” he said. “I ran back up the stairs and I was actually looking for a terrorist. I knew it had been a bomb.

Mr Reid was reduced to tears as he spoke of Saffie, who he found a few feet away.
“She was trembling all over,” he said. “I saw the little girl was conscious and I said, ‘What’s your name?’

“I thought she said Sophie. When I asked her how old she was she said she was eight.

“I wanted to keep her talking and asked her if she had enjoyed the concert but then I realised she was having difficulty breathing.

“She said, ‘Where’s my mum?’ I said to her, ‘I don’t know but we are going to find her in a minute. Don’t worry. We are going to sort it out. You are going to be all right’.

Tributes in the aftermath of the Manchester Arena attack on Monday night. Photo: AAP

“The girl kept trying to fall asleep but I knew I had to keep her awake and conscious. I was stroking her face and saying, ‘Come on Sophie stay awake. You’re going to be all right. They are coming to take you away in a minute.’

“But she kept drifting into unconsciousness. I cannot bear to think about it. Then she started shivering and told me she felt cold. I took my coat off and put it over her but she was still shaking a bit.

“Once we got outside one of the police flags down an ambulance. We gently put her in and she is still alive with her eyes open. That’s the last time I saw her.”

“I only knew her for a few minutes but I will never forget her,” he said of Saffie.

None of us will ever forget you, Saffie.

Chuck a couple of these in tonight’s mutton curry and you’ll know all about it!

 

Hot chilli peppers have the best names. They sound dangerous and vaguely threatening. A warning for those stupid enough to actually try and eat one, if you will. “It’s not like we didn’t warn you,” they seem to say.

The previous record-holder for hottest chilli in the world, the ominous-sounding Carolina Reaper, has had to officially move aside to make way for the aptly monikered Dragon’s Breath chilli – a chilli so hot no one has actually eaten it yet, for fear it could kill you. How? By literally burning your airways, as if you were breathing fire.

Rather charmingly, the creator of this spicy beast didn’t even set out to break records. Mike Smith, a fruit grower and competitive show-gardener from Denbighshire in Wales, was aiming for an aesthetically pleasing chilli tree to enter into the UK’s famous Chelsea Flower Show, where it is now in the running for Plant of the Year.

“It was a complete accident but I’m chuffed to bits – it’s a lovely looking tree,” Mr Smith told the Telegraph.

The chilli was, however, grown in collaboration with scientists from Nottingham Trent University, who are interested in the medicinal use of chilis as an anaesthetic. It was they who verified that the Dragon’s Breath scored the highest rating ever recorded on the Scoville heat scale, 2.48 million, beating the wimpy rival Reaper, which measures just 2.2 million.

The Scoville scale measures the intensity of heat in units. The 2.48 million Scoville heat units (SHU) means that one drop of oil from this chili can be detected in 2.48 million drops of water, making it basically weapons-grade hot. For comparison, pepper spray used by the US Army is 2 million SHU.

The scientists believe that if you tried to actually eat this chilli, your airways would likely close up from the burn and you’d go into anaphylactic shock and die. Nice. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t maybe a force for good, not evil.

The capsaicin oil from it is so potent it numbs the skin, giving it excellent potential as an anesthetic, especially for those allergic to painkillers, or even for use in developing countries where access to and funding for anesthetics is limited.

Chili peppers actually have a long history of medical value, from calming the gut’s immune system to helping you live longer. Just don’t eat this one.

“I’ve tried it on the tip of my tongue and it just burned and burned,” Smith said. “I spat it out in about 10 seconds. The heat intensity just grows.”

Farmer Mike is currently waiting for the Guinness World Records to verify his world champion, but in the meantime, if anyone offers it to you in the pub for a bet, we’d err on the side of caution and just say no.

Dora as Picasso saw her.

Dora Maar – Picasso’s muse.

One of Pablo Picasso’s best-known portraits has been sold at auction in New York for US$45m (£35m).

Femme Assise, Robe Bleu (Seated Woman in Blue Dress) features one of his many lovers, Dora Maar.

During World War Two, the Nazis seized the painting but were intercepted on their way from Paris to Moravia by French Resistance fighters.

In 2015, Picasso’s Women of Algiers sold for $179m at Christie’s – a record for any picture sold at auction.

Seated Woman went to a US collector and six years ago it was sold for $26m. So it is close to doubling in value in six years. 15% or so per annum. Not bad!

Dora Maar and Picasso had an intense relationship for nine years. He painted Seated Woman in 1939, when he was 58 and she was 31.

It is one of the great Picasso portraits of his middle years, inspired – as so often, according to BBC Arts correspondent, Vincent Dowd – by love and by powerful sexual desire.

Or, alternatively, he was taking the piss. What do you think, Dear Reader?